Test for a book: do you read it in preference to the other things you could do on your day off? Second test: do you make convenience food so you can read while cooking? Third test: in the course of reading through lunch, does the risotto occasionally miss your face altogether? The answers were yes, yes and yes.
This is an oddity unlike anything else. Set in the late 1930s in the small Dutch town of Veere, the first person narrator and his friends discover that each week they can invite two or three historical personages to dinner in their own home, and the author plans the menu and the music for the evening, writes notes about the life of each guest, and describes the dinner itself. The guests include George Washington, the Bachs and Breughels, Elizabeth I, Leonardo, Montaigne, William the Silent, Emily Dickinson … Some of them get on well together – and some of them don’t. The book is generously illustrated in black-and-white and colour by the author.
This sounds like a premise for a children’s story, but it is no such thing. Van Loon was a Dutch writer/historian with a wide European education, living in the United States, and the apparent purpose of the Lives is to sketch the whole development of European culture through the microcosm of each ‘guest’. Its second purpose is propaganda against Nazism, and fascism in general.
It isn’t perfect. Van Loon can be preachy or patronising, occasionally becomes twee, and sometimes just goes on too long (the Lives weigh in at 640 pages). There is one odd blind spot, as he includes no scientists among the guests, unless you count Leonardo or Benjamin Franklin or Nansen. But he is fascinated by his subject matter, and conveys genuine passion for the value of liberal humanism, embodied in an affectionate portrait of Erasmus. Through it all threads a delight in food, art and company, and a dead-pan Dutch drollery, and below that an aching nostalgia for Veere which is not mere sentiment: this book was published in 1942, when the only news from Holland was very bad indeed.
For the author, the news never really got any better. Van Loon died in March 1944.