Sunday, February 12, 2012

An Author with a Head on His Shoulders

Where is Robert K. Massie’s head at?
Well, fortunately it’s still on his shoulders, unlike some of the folks he describes in his biography of Russia’s famous empress, Catherine the Great.
Off with Their Heads

In a bizarre twist to a great book, Massie interrupts the fascinating story of Catherine to give the reader a chilling mini-history of the guillotine. The guillotine came into use during Catherine’s time (late 1700s) and became famous during the French Revolution.
Massie notes that it was invented by Dr. Joseph Guillotin as an instrument for delivering instant, painless death. However, Massie questions whether the guillotine really did kill instantly. He cites cases in which the eyelids on severed heads blinked.
One respected French medical doctor experimented with a severed head. He called the victim’s name after the head dropped from its body. The eyelids slowly lifted up and stared at him. The eyelids closed but opened again when the doctor again called the name, and focussed on him.
After the diversion of severed heads, we get back on track with Catherine’s story. There is a valid connection between Catherine, the guillotine and the French revolution. Catherine worried about revolutions like the ones in America and France erupting in Russia, which happened a little more than a century after her death.
Massie’s diversion to the guillotine is bizarre but interesting. For instance, I didn’t know it was used in Germany between 1933 and 1945.  Also, anyone who researches and writes as well as Massie has the right to take us off on tangents occasionally.
Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman is an excellent read that provides insights into Russian history and culture. Massie is the author the Pulitzer-prize winning Peter the Great and the book about the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra.
Massie is 82 and plans another book. He says he has to continue writing because he keeps having children. The youngest is 11.

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