Published February 27th, 2017
In his entertaining new history, Stephen O’Shea drives 500 miles through the Alps, crossing six countries while musing on the historic personalities who braved the forbidding range, including Napoleon, Hitler and James Bond. His account, The Alps, begins with the idea of the sublime and the Romantics who championed it–artists and writers whose works evoked the beauty and terror of the Alps. O’Shea himself admits to a fear of heights and carefully chronicles each hairpin turn as he snakes his way from Geneva to Trieste through dizzying high passes in his shiny muscle car.
As he zooms up and down passes, O’Shea pays close attention to the way the topography has shaped the culture of the towns and villages he visits. With each border crossing he documents the shift in language, cuisine (preferring the Italian side of what he calls the “lard line” over the Germanic) and culture he encounters. Beyond the Romantics, O’Shea weaves in stories of other well-known figures who took to the heights, describing Hannibal’s legendary crossing and Heidi’s frolics among the edelweiss.
While he deftly describes the physical beauty of the Alps, from the terror-evoking heights to the magic of alpenglow, “the roseate blush that suffuses summits just before sunrise and just after sunset,” O’Shea is especially interested in the human history of the mountain range. “The Alps,” he observes, “so magnificent in their rocky majesty, are also subversive, almost underground agents…in creating and crafting human geography.”
The heights and depths of the peaks and valleys O’Shea crosses are mirrored in history’s highs and lows, from Nazi hideouts to the cultural delights of Mozart’s Salzburg. “These are the human stories of the Alps,” he writes, “the communities living in the Alps are not geologists, they are observers of their surroundings and creators of their languages and of their worlds.” Ultimately, however, O’Shea’s subject is always the mountains themselves. Though he documents various ways the human imagination has reckoned with their majestic heights and sheer rock faces, he concludes his journey with the humble admission that “the Alps cannot be encompassed, tamed, understood—they surpass our powers and always will.”