For a bibliophile (me) reading an exceptional book is satisfying, if for no other reason than because outstanding books are so uncommon. But to finish one superb book and begin another in the same night—to go back-to-back—is quite a rush, quite a blessing, quite a rarity. Yet that’s what happened recently when I read the final page and closed the cover to The Killer Angels and picked up and began page 1 of Evening in the Palace of Reason.
For his historical novel of the battle at Gettysburg—The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War (Modern Library, 2004)—Michael Shaara was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. This book left me with munition dust in my hair and dirt on my face and a cold downpouring thunderstorm washing over the final quieted battle scene. Shaara’s concluding words were the perfect capstone to his literary feat, a work filmmaker Ken Burns would later write, “changed my life.” It was very good.
Quoteworthy 1: In the final paragraph of The Killer Angels, the bloody closing day of battle has finished and all is quiet. Shaara writes—
The light rain went on falling on the hills above Gettysburg, but it was only the overture to the great storm to come. Out of the black night it came at last, cold and wild and flooded with lightning. The true rain came in a monster wind, and the storm broke in blackness over the hills and the bloody valley; the sky opened along the ridge and the vast water thundered down, drowning the fires, flooding the red creeks, washing the rocks and the grass and the white bones of the dead, cleansing the earth and soaking it thick and rich with water and wet again with clean cold rainwater, driving the blood deep into the earth, to grow again with the roots toward Heaven. It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July. [p. 330]
With the rain still falling in my imagination, I grabbed Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (HarperCollins, 2005) by James R. Gains, the former managing editor of People, Life, and Time magazines. He sets the stage for a clash of worldviews: a Lutheran, theologically-minded musician (Bach) against one enraptured with the enlightenment (Frederick the Great) for a single meeting one evening in 1757 where “belief collided with the cold certainty of reason.” The story is masterfully retold.
Quoteworthy 2: For a little taste (or smell), here are a few of Gains’ words from an early chapter in Evening in the Palace of Reason—
For all its spires and watchtowers and red-roofed houses, its cobblestoned market square bordered by church, town hall, and castle, the residents of Eisenach would not have called their hometown charming. To get a sense of Eisenach as it was when Sebastian Bach was a boy, one must conjure up the scent of animal dung from the livestock that shared its streets and walkways, the putrid breeze that wafted from the fish market and slaughterhouse in the square, and, under those red-tiled roofs, a general atmosphere strongly redolent of life before plumbing. The homes of all but Eisenach’s wealthiest residents were small—close and hot in the summer, frigid and smoky in winter—and crowded. … What Eisenach had in great abundance, the solace and balm of its six thousand souls, was music. … [pp. 39–40]
Two excellent excerpts from two books written by masters who paint through their prose.