Friday, April 18, 2008

Book Review

Tony Judt

Appraiser appraised

Apr 17th 2008

From The Economist print edition

TONY JUDT is a polymath. He was born in Britain into a family of Jewish refugees and now lives in America, where he teaches at New York University. He has an enviable grasp of European cultural history and a sharp and sometimes savage turn of phrase, both of which are well displayed in this collection of long essays and book reviews.

Mr Judt is at his best attacking those he believes mischaracterise or misunderstand intellectual giants like Arthur Koestler and Primo Levi. Myriam Anissimov's book on Levi, he says, is “uninspired and mechanical”; her narrative “a choppy mix of long excerpts” mixed up with “clunky and inadequate summaries of ‘context’.” Mr Judt sees Ms Anissimov's misunderstanding of Levi's significance as akin to describing Ulysses (Levi's literary hero) as being nothing more than “an old soldier on the way back from the wars who encounters a few problems en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.”

Yet these demolition jobs just clear the stage for the main performance, which is Mr Judt's own shrewd and revealing thoughts on the subject in question. At the end, long after you have forgotten Koestler's “Darkness at Noon” and only dimly remember that Levi made chemistry interesting, you feel you have been eavesdropping on a sparkling conversation.

Mr Judt skewers two revered figures: Louis Althusser (a Marxist theorist and narcissist, madman and murderer) and Eric Hobsbawm, the grand old man of English left-wing history. He carefully dissects Mr Hobsbawm's evasions and euphemisms on the subject of the millions of murders committed in the name of the communist cause he still espouses: “Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.” It is a performance worthy of George Orwell.

Mr Judt's sorties on religion, politics and economics are less judicious and drip with contempt for modern politicians. In the introduction he laments that the period between the collapse of communism and the Iraq war were locust years, a “decade and a half of wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic.” Perhaps. But it is hard to find any age in recorded history in which politicians covered themselves in glory.

The authoritative tone which is so convincing when he is talking about the continental intellectuals of the last century works less well when it is peddling the conventional wisdom of the left. Mr Judt's attempt to explain Britain by discussing the decline of its trains, for example, verges on the ludicrous: Britain's privatised railways may have their problems but in 2007 they recorded the highest number of passenger-miles since 1946.

More controversial are his attacks on Israel and what he regards as the all-powerful Israel lobby in America, which, he says, squelches debate and is pulling both countries towards disaster. Mr Judt's opinions are well-known and widely debated, which undermines his argument that they are rarely heard. Many will find both judgments and facts awry. Does Israel really have “no” friends apart from America? He echoes, with apparent approval, the notion that the Jewish state “is widely regarded as a—/the/—leading threat to world peace”. The italics are his.

Mr Judt also often adds a pompous-sounding endnote to his essays, preening himself over the controversy while dismissing other voices. Energetic readers may enjoy looking up the references, but it would serve the cause of truth better if he had printed his assailants' remarks alongside his own. Mr Judt, it would seem, enjoys dishing out criticism, but is less willing to take it on the chin himself.

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