OPINIONSrnBeautiful Afternoonsrnby Chilton Williamson, Jr.rn”None of you has ever seen a gentleman.”rn—Charles Eliot NortonrnA Thread of Yearsrnhy John LukacsrnNew Haven: Yale University Press;rn481 pp., $30.00rnV / o u have been writing,” the au-rnJ. thor’s alter ego tells him at thernconclusion of this book, “about the declinernnot of the West but of the Anglo-rnAmerican upper class.” As A Thread ofrnYears makes plain, however, the two entitiesrnhave been so closely entwined that,rnfor a period of about two centuries anywayrn(roughly 1750 to 1955), the idea ofrnthe second could not be surgically removedrnfrom the fact of the first withoutrnfatal results for them both. And sornLukacs’s book, ostensibly a meditationrnon the decline of the ideal of the Anglo-rnSaxon gentleman, is actually an imaginativernsummation of the great themes ofrnthe author’s 18 previous ones: the end ofrnthe modern age, the passing of bourgeoisrncivilization, historical consciousnessrn(and unconsciousness), and the relationshiprnbehveen ideas and the people whornhold them—and yes, the collapse of thernWest, the nearly complete “erosion ofrnbeliefs and of institutions and of mannersrnand morals and habits that can no longerrnChilton Williamson, ]r., is the seniorrneditor for books at Chronicles.rnbe restored.”rnJohn Lukacs, who for vears has insistedrnon his inabilit}’ to produce a no’el forrnthe reason that he cannot invent a plot,rnhas nevertheless written a novelistic workrnthat by some stretch —not much —ofrncontemporary critical standards mightrnbe called an experimental novel, thoughrnLukacs himself suggests that his effortrnmay represent an attempt at a new genre.rn(“Do not take this too seriously. My attemptrnis imperfect, and I have no interestrnin inventing new and startling forms.”)rnEach of the book’s 69 chapters, one forrnevery year from 1901 to 1969, consists ofrna vignette emblematic of that year, followedrnby a debate about its uncertainrnmeaning between the author and hisrnother self, who frequently undertakes thernrole of challenger. (Lukacs suggests that,rnin these debates, the author representsrnhis European self while the interlocutorrnis his American one; for me, the differencernis more between John Lukacs inrnprint and in private conversation.)rnThese vignettes are impressionistic andrnentirely fictitious (the exception beingrn”1938,” which describes Herbert Hooverrnattending an opulent luncheon given byrnHermann Goering), having to do withrnprivate, rather than historical, figures.rnA Thread of Years, like every goodrnbook, is an escape into trutii. Lukacs beginsrnit by quoting Huizinga on “historicalrnsensation” or “historical contact”:rnIf it takes any form at all this remainsrncomposite and vague; arnsense of streets, houses, fields asrnwell as sounds, colors or peoplernmoving . . . . The historic sensationrnis not the sensation of living in thernpast again but of understanding thernworld, perhaps as one does with listeningrnto music.rnSo effective is A Thread of Years at thernsensate level, evoking even more than itrnsays, that a second reading is useful fullvrnto appreciate the thematic statement andrndevelopment, both of them profoundrnand inclusive, registering symptoms ofrn”the sad decline of a civilization” across arnbroad range of human experience.rnTheodore Dreiser to the contrar-, thernreal American tragedy, Lukacs argues, isrn24/CHRONICLESrnrnrn