Hannibal and Me?

14 Feb

I’m an unlikely reader for a book about history’s greatest military strategist.

When I read War and Peace, I thought about skipping whole chapters.  Life is short, and military history doesn’t interest me.  Even without the war chapters, that novel is long enough.

For example, you might have caught me passing over Book 2, Chapter 14.  It begins:

Prince Bagration, having reached the highest point of our right flank, began riding downhill to where the roll of musketry was heard….

Bagration, flank, and musketry…I might not even finish the sentence.

So, I had a hunch that I was the wrong audience for Andreas Kluth’s book Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us about Success and Failure. 

Mr. Kluth’s book has a natural audience.  I’ve seen it. My son’s face lit up at the mere mention of Hannibal, and the bright orange book in my lap instantly started a conversation with the man sitting next to me on the plane last week.  (There’s a tip for single women in all of this.)

For me, though, Hannibal is just Bagration on an elephant.

But a wonderful thing happened when I read Book 2, Chapter 14 of War and Peace.  (I didn’t skip it; I just thought about it.)  At some point after Bagration famously rides down the hill, a human story replaces History.   Young Nikolai Rostov is knocked off his horse.  He sees French soldiers running toward him and he wonders what they could want from him.  Could they be coming to kill me?, he thinks incredulously.  Me, whom everybody loves?

I like that bit.  At that moment, I understood Nikolai Rostov, or, rather, Tolstoy understood me, and chapter 14 of Book 2 might have been called Nikolai and Me. 

So, maybe there’s a future for Hannibal and me.

About 100 pages into Hannibal and Me, in a chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, Mr. Kluth imagines a conversation between Hannibal and his Greek tutor, Sosylus.  Sosylus is prodding Hannibal to recognize that his winning tactics might not be in the service of a clearly defined strategy.  Hannibal struggles to identify what he wants out of the war with Rome.  We struggle to believe that Hannibal (Hannibal, whom everybody loves?) might have screwed something up.

The next part  got Mr. Crotchety’s attention.   Mine, too.  (I should be any less discerning than Mr. C?) Sosylus suggests that in order to defeat Rome, Hannibal might need to think about where its center of gravity lies:

I have a friend in Syracuse, Archimedes, the best mathematician among the Greeks. He showed me once how to move any object, no matter how large, by identifying its center of gravity and then shifting it by use of a lever.

OK, Mr. Crotchety is right: it’s a cool idea, this center of gravity.  But for me, the idea of an imagined conversation is even cooler.

It’s all made up, this exchange between hero and tutor.  Pure fancy.  And it was the turning point in the book for me.  This is where footnotes stopped distracting me and I settled in to read a story about people.  Hannibal, you might say, having reached the highest point of our right flank…and so on…became human.  He outgrew Bagration and was as real as the fictional Nikolai Rostov.

There’s a lot of talk in Hannibal and Me about how we construct stories about our lives.  We demand stories.  We’ve got to have them.  It’s sort of a reader’s center of gravity.  Writers who recognize it move us and conquer.

14 Responses to “Hannibal and Me?”

  1. Andreas Kluth February 14, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    You do realize that the analogy with Tolstoy, however cheeky and humorous, forces me to shut up completely. So I will. No comments from me beyond this one.

    But I, too, take careful notes — of my readers’s reactions. Two perceptive people have now reacted to the “center of gravity” in that conversation, so clearly this is noteworthy to me. (It’s not a surprise that this may be a turning point in the book. It was my original idea. The chapter before that I had to “fill in”, as it were.)

    • jenny February 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      I’m sorry, Andreas, there was no cheek, no humor. It’s a straight-up analogy with Lev Nikolayevich.

      It’s rotten of me, I know. Sux to be you. Just absorb it as best you can; flow with it.

      • Andreas Kluth February 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

        My way of being modest, perhaps. Even more flattered now.

  2. Lisa Luikart February 14, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    You are the smartest, most well spoken and well written person in my life.
    I am your not so secret admirer!

    • jenny February 15, 2012 at 6:08 am #

      Hi Lisa,

      Such a generous thing for you to say. Thank you.

      It’s so nice to hear from you. I’m hoping to get home for a day or two this summer. Perhaps a trip to Eddie’s? 🙂

  3. Mr. Crotchety February 15, 2012 at 7:31 am #

    I would have immediately responded to this post, but I want to keep the public fawning to a minimum and I couldn’t think of anything in the way of Crotchety harassment. I keep thinking that I am going to think about center of gravity in the face adversity (people, situations), but I still respond like a two-year old. It reminds me of a colleague’s Chinese grandson who was learning English. He got mad at me and called me a porch. I use that one all the time, now. Very disarming.

    • jenny February 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

      “Porch”? Mr. Crotchety, it pains me to hear such coarse language.

      Once (only once), I called you a “veranda,” but no worse than that.

      BTW, about the culture of commenting (and remember: I’m the one who does it to excess): February 13/20th, 2012, New Yorker Magazine, Page 71, lower right hand corner. 🙂

      • Mr. Crotchety February 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

        Always a Lady.

  4. Emerson March 5, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    I adored blog and mainly this text. I do not read, nor I comment very well in English (I am Brazilian). Hannibal is an example of gentility and rude strategy at the same time. Its tactics of war must be studied by all the life.

    And this Mr. Crotchety?

    I wait that it understands the commentary…

    • jenny March 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

      Hi Emerson,

      Thanks for reading. Your English looks fine to me. I can divine just enough Portuguese to recognize “Hierarquia das necessidades de Maslow” when I see it in your latest post. This is another clue that you will like “Hannibal and Me,” where Maslow also makes an appearance.


      • Emerson March 8, 2012 at 5:52 am #

        That good that post saw mine. Maslow is above all a philosopher and any one that desires success wants to know its theories. Together Maslow and Hannibal would be imbatíveis!

        I hug!

      • jenny March 8, 2012 at 6:17 am #


        I’m adopting “I hug!” as my new closing salutation.

        Charm. Charm. Charm.

        I hug! 🙂

  5. Emerson March 5, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    I intend to read the book of the Andreas… Very interesting.

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