The Magazine

Houses of Cards

One shot, and Europe descends into catastrophe.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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France was embroiled in the very French Caillaux Affair, in which the wife of Joseph Caillaux, a former premier about to make a comeback, shot and killed the editor of Le Figaro, a political and amorous rival of her husband who possessed intimate secrets about her. Guilty of a mere crime of passion, she was acquitted, albeit too late for her husband, who favored reconciliation with Germany, to recover politically before war broke out. Germany and Russia had their own scandals and looming changes of direction. 

As it turned out, all the European powers resolved their problems by replacing them with a catastrophe. This book isn’t primarily meant to arouse nostalgia for La Belle Époque, since the stupidity of so many prominent people and the obsolescence of so many governing arrangements are on display. But it arouses it anyway. Beatty has a fine passage on the French devotion to civilized pleasure—to food, drink, love, leisure, and light—and the same could be said for Habsburg Vienna. Austria was, as Beatty puts it, “a memory of a Great Power, spending three times as much on beer, wine, and tobacco as it did on defense.” But the beer was good, the cafés superb, and the psychotherapeutic resources extensive. 

The period itself is fascinating, as are its might-have-beens. If you liked Stefan Zweig’s poignant memoir, The World of Yesterday, or Frederic Morton’s Thunder at Twilight, this is a book to be read alongside them.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.