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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The War of the Poor

Éric Vuillard

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The War of the Poor

Title: The War of the Poor
Author: Éric Vuillard
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 79 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The War of the Poor - US
The War of the Poor - UK
The War of the Poor - Canada
La guerre des pauvres - Canada
La guerre des pauvres - France
Der Krieg der Armen - Deutschland
La guerra dei poveri - Italia
La guerra de los pobres - España
  • French title: La guerre des pauvres
  • Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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Our Assessment:

B : compelling history, but arguably too whirlwind and compact in presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 27/6/2020 Niklas Bender
Libération . 18/1/2019 Claire Devarrieux

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ebenso wichtig, wenn nicht entscheidender ist der Einsatz von Kontrasten und Symmetrien (Lästerzungen würden sagen: von Schwarzweißdenken) -- böse Fürsten gegen gute Bauern. Das alles organisiert Vuillard in Szenen von dramatischer, ja theatralischer Beredsamkeit, die bisweilen ins Deklamatorische abrutschen, sicher jedoch einer bewusst und massiv eingesetzten Redekunst verpflichtet sind. Das muss man mögen (.....)Vuillard tut einiges, um ein zeitgenössisches Pendant zu Hugo zu werden, diesmal mit etwas weniger Erfolg, mangels Masse." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "En très peu de pages, l’auteur alterne les focales, détails et panoramiques, il fait entrer plusieurs siècles et des dizaines de milliers de morts, l’invention de l’imprimerie, la Réforme, et la révolution qui consiste à dire la messe dans la langue du peuple." - Claire Devarrieux, Libération

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The War of the Poor is a sliver of a book -- seventy-nine generously printed pages in the US edition (which comes padded with an excerpt from Vuillard's The Order of the Day, to get the book over the 100-page mark) -- telling the story of radical theologian Thomas Müntzer (ca. 1490-1525) and the (failed) revolts of the (poor) masses against the powers that be of his times.
       Vuillard begins dramatically: the novel's opening words and claim are that: "His father had been hanged" -- an experience one imagines to be cripplingly traumatic, especially considering that, as Vuillard soon adds, Thomas Müntzer was only a child at the time of the execution, a mere eleven years old. If this shocking fact and the quick biographical sketch of Müntzer's early years that follows sets the stage here, it does so in more ways than one; little is, in fact, known about Müntzer's youth (and parents) -- including who his father actually was and whether he was actually put to death; a surviving 1521 letter Thomas wrote to his father (but possibly a step-father ...) suggests that dad didn't fare quite so badly. (The historian-consensus seems to be that it was Müntzer's mother who died in his youth -- and that she left him (and his father) a small but not insignificant amount of money; in any case, Müntzer did not grow up in poverty.) Vuillard's work -- though in no small part fact- and document- based -- nevertheless certainly takes liberties, presenting, in very compact form, a specific picture and interpretation of the historical figure (while still acknowledging, in many places, some uncertainty about the facts).
       As Vuillard suggests (late on):

     We want stories; we say they illuminate; and the truer the story, the better we like it. But no one know how to tell true stories.
       Enough of Müntzer's life and influence is known to make for a hell of a story in any form -- and enough is uncertain to allow for a great deal of flexibility in the presentation of it. So also, for example, while Müntzer was strongly motivated in his actions by religion and his faith, he was embraced in the later German Democratic Republic as an ahead-of-his time revolutionary -- to the extent that he was featured on the national currency. Vuillard's compact but charged rendering of Müntzer's life and impact certainly brings the figure and times to life -- but also more as brief, spectacular burst rather than probing, expansive portrait. Of course, much the same could be said about Müntzer himself, and his actions -- more flash than any lasting depth, compounded by the fact that so little biographical information about his has survived.
       Martin Luther certainly had his issues with the Catholic Church, but Müntzer's main claim to fame is in how he found that Luther didn't go anywhere near far enough in reaction. Among the ways this manifested itself was in making religion accessible to the masses: as Vuillard notes:
(W)hile Luther translates the Bible into German, Müntzer speaks to those who cannot read in their own language.
       Literally so -- "In the church of Allstedt, God speaks German. The German Mass causes an uproar". Yes, long before Vatican II: "Müntzer said Mass in German". And while this apparently went over very well with the (lowly) flock, who flocked to his services, the powers that be did not approve.
       From his first postings, Müntzer showed himself to be someone who: "believed he could read the scriptures simply, take them literally. He believed in a pure, authentic Christianity". Then as pretty much always, the Church fathers and especially the local patricians who valued the church for itrs ability to help maintain order among the plebeians (i.e. satisfied with their lowly lot) didn't appreciate this way of seeing things. And Müntzer's career would be one of essentially constantly escalating conflict between the religious purity he espoused and firmly settled power- and social structures that couldn't allow these ideas to spread.
       Vuillard acknowledges that Müntzer was a fanatic, admitting:
     Müntzer is a crackpot, fair enough. Sectarian. Yes. Messianic. Yes. Intolerant. Yes. Bitter. Perhaps. Alone. Sort of.
       In these times, with its great social unrest, Müntzer's convictions, and the unjustness he saw all around him, led to his significant role in the Peasants' War. Of course, the whole rebellion didn't work out particularly well, for him or the peasants .....
       Vuillard's brief, bright look at this attempt at large-scale political change conveys many of the essentials -- and the compact presentation is arguably appropriate for these events which were just a flash of history, a spark that briefly burned brightly but was then practically extinguished for centuries, until roaring back to life with the French Revolution, and then a growing and increasingly effective working class consciousness starting in the mid-nineteenth century.
       It's a curious kind of history-cum-commentary -- certainly making an impression, but only offering so much (or rather, so little) supporting evidence. There's something said for such an approach -- practically the antithesis of plodding textbook history accounts -- but its very thinness, both in foundation and execution, also makes for a treatment that it's hard not consider at least somewhat inadequate.
       Vuillard gives a good impression of this historic figure, and his place in those times and events, and especially the doomed conflict between the powerful and the poor (which is arguably Vuillard's main focus; after all, he did call the book (in the original French, too): The War of the Poor). In reminding readers of these early attempts of the so-called lower classes to assert their rights and what is due them it certainly serves a useful purpose -- and with the use of the fiery Thomas Müntzer, a figure who is presumably not so familiar to most English-speaking readers, he ensures it's a memorable little volume, too.
       All in all, it's a fine and quite interesting read -- but (much) more material would also have been welcome.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 November 2020

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The War of the Poor: Reviews: Thomas Müntzer: Other books by Éric Vuillard under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Author and filmmaker Éric Vuillard was born in 1968.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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