Book Chat Episode 4

Books included in this video:

  • Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe (2015)
  • To Hell and Back, Ian Kershaw (2015)
  • Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver (2012)
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Book Chat Episode 4

Book review: To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 -1949, Ian Kershaw (2015)

This review by Grant is included here because it is about a book that will be in the next Book Chat.

The centenary of World War One has seen an avalanche of books revisiting the Great War. Seen in isolation it is a somewhat mysterious catastrophe. No one really needed it and its ostensible cause – the assassination of an unpopular crown prince in an obscure province of the Austro Hungarian Empire –  hardly seemed to justify four years of industrialised carnage. But historians such as Eric Hobsbawm have long argued (his The Age of Extremes – the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 was published in 1994) that the “short” twentieth century – the period between 1914 and the collapse of the soviet Union in 1991) needed to be considered as a coherent whole.

In To Hell and Back Ian Kershaw attempts a single volume history of the first half of this period -1914 to 1949. If the reason we read history is to understand and learn from the past then it is essential that the unit of analysis used– what historians call periodisation –  be capable of yielding meaningful conclusions.  In Kershaw’s analysis the reason Europe rebounded from what Hobsbawm calls the Age of Catastrophe and embarked on the Golden Age of prosperity (up until about 1974) lies in the following: the end of Germany’s great power ambitions; the purging of war criminals; the formal division between the West (under American protection) and the Soviet bloc; economic growth; and the threat of nuclear war. Together these factors militated against a revival of the unchecked nationalism of the inter war period and ushered in a period of stability.

In To Hell and Back Kershaw gives what could be described as the liberal version of the first half of the short twentieth history. In contrast to Hobsbawm, (who was a Marxist) he downplays the contest between Capitalism and Soviet Communism and sees a much more contingent series of events driven ultimately by the interaction between Germany’s drive for European dominance and the various structural instabilities arising from the aftermath of the fall of multi–ethnic empires in Eastern Europe.

The book has the problems of any single volume overview of complex multiple subjects. Readers familiar with Richard Evans’ two volume history of the Third Reich for example will not be overly impressed by Kershaw’s necessarily abbreviated treatment of this subject.  In particular, his treatment of the amazingly rapid consolidation of Nazi power following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933 (which, when one thinks about it, is at the root cause of a whole series of consequences which made the 20th century so uniquely terrible) begs more questions than it answers.

Nevertheless, Kershaw’s knowledge of the period is detailed (his two volume biography of Hitler puts that beyond doubt); his command of economic statistics is impressive; and his conclusions are all eminently defensible. Essential reading for those interested in Modern History but follow it up by revisiting Hobsbawm.

Book review: To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 -1949, Ian Kershaw (2015)

Book review: Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe (2015)

This book review by Grant is included here because this book will be reviewed later on Book Chat.

Oe is arguably Japan’s greatest living author. Born in 1935 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1994. Death by Water is said to be his last novel but given the longevity of pre-war Japanese one would be wise not to bet on it.

In Death by Water Oe has gives us another iteration of his alter ego Kogito Choko. Like Oe himself, Kogito Choko is from rural Shikoku, had a father who died in a flood at the end of the war, attended the elite Tokyo University, and has spent his entire career as a novelist. Those who have read The Changeling which was published in 2014 will be familiar with the context. Apparently there are at least another six novels which deal with this same character, most of which are not available in English.

The novel is about Kogito Choko’s attempt to write a novel about his father who drowned in a flooded river towards the end of the Second World War.  The novel is to be a kind of summation of his life’s work.  To this end he revisits his old home in Shikoku where his mother has kept a suitcase full of documents about his father. While there, his sister organises a series of is interviews by a theatre director who wishes to write a play about Kogito Choko’s final novel. The director is accompanied by his theatre collective including his spunky assistant Unaiko and they workshop the play as Choko is interviewed. The interviews and play become a device to interrogate Choko’s and by extension, Oe’s  obsessions and recurrent themes. It’s a bit like Oe, or is it Choko, is getting in first with the ultimate primer to understanding Oe or is it Choko’s oeuvre.

At this point the solipsism of the whole exercise could become a bit hard to take.

But Oe is playing a long game and the novel gently drifts away from the writing project to focus on Choko’s relationships with his disabled adult son Akari, his wife Chikashi, her dead brother Goro (in real life – perhaps that should be in inverted commas – this was Juzo Itami, the director of Tampopo) and Unaiko, who has some dark secrets of her own. The narrative drive is provided by a new theatre project Unaiko persuades Choko to assist with; one that opens up old wounds.

The point is that the whole series of these Choko novels repeat and recombine and tinker with  more or less the same constellation of elements. The Changeling was also partly about Choko/Oe’s youth in Shikoku and his father’s untimely death but in that novel his father dies in a farcical right wing uprising against the occupation.

And remember, the protagonist of this novel is a novelist ie a professional liar so be careful whom you believe. In the end the novel is searingly honest about the way in which one man seeks to construct and reconstruct his identity, even as he faces his own mortality.

Book review: Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe (2015)

Book review: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, Michael Pye (2015)

This is a review by Grant and it is included here because it relates to the episode of Book Chat that follows it. This was first published in Good Reading magazine.

In The Edge of the World Michael Pye gives us a brilliant rethinking of the way in which medieval Europe became modern Europe. This is the story of seafaring and trading people – the Frisians, the Norse, the Hanseatic league and all the peoples who engaged in the economy of the North sea.

His method reminds me very much of Inga Clendinnen’s close reading of the primary sources as evinced in Dancing with Strangers, or Philip Jones’ analysis of post contact Aboriginal artefacts in Ochre and Rust. Pye focuses on very specific historical detail – be that a known historical event, a clause in a contract, or a physical artefact – and  by interrogating them for meaning is able to draw plausible wider inferences.

Thus he focuses on the meaning of cash hoards as opposed to hack silver; silk trimming on shoes found in the ruins of an 11th century Norwegian town; the specifics of the construction of Norse buildings at Anse aux Meadows in New Foundland; the details of marriage contracts. Combined with the surviving literary sources this close reading of the sources yields rich insights.

Pye is particularly interested in the way in which the use of money as an abstract measure of value is related to the development of mathematics and science. In the world of the North Sea this dynamic had its most immediate application to trade, navigation and ship building and windmills. There were implications for politics, capital formation and the status of women.

Along the way he manages to recover innumerable fragments of past lives and by relating them to the larger patterns he infers give them a meaning beyond what the physical artefact or contractual clause alone could achieve.  An unusual work and highly recommended.

Book review: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, Michael Pye (2015)

Book review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard (2015)

This is a review by Grant and it is included here because it relates to the episode of Book Chat that follows it. This was first published in Good Reading magazine.

Ever since the mid 18th century when  Edward Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the Roman world has been the subject of  intensive scholarly and popular writing. Mary Beard’s SPQR is the latest in a long line of general histories of the late Republic and early Principate. To mention only a few, Tom Holland’s Rubicon and  Dynasty and Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World cover similar territory as does Adrian Goldsworthy and Christian Meier’s respective books both called Caesar and Alan Everitt’s The First Emperor.

A number of questions arise. Why so many books on this period; what is the fascination? And is Mary Beard’s contribution worth a visit?

To answer the last question first: absolutely. Beard is a classicist with a strong knowledge of cutting edge archaeology as well as an exhaustive knowledge of the surviving classical written sources.  Unlike say Holland who in his recent Dynasty tended to take the ancient sources at face value, Beard is an astute reader of ancient agendas and skilfully interrogates her sources to test the received wisdom while avoiding revisionism for its own sake.  She is able to cut through Cicero’s self serving depiction of Catiline and Augustus’s of Anthony; both of whom suffered the fate that befalls losers in the historical record.

Beyond that Beard is a knowledgeable guide to Roman literature and society. Critically, she understands that the Ancient World is a very strange place not withstanding the frequent moments when it seems strikingly recognisable. As she puts it, it is like “walking on a tightrope, a very careful balancing act”.

Which brings us to the fascination. Partly it is that Roman politics is comprehensible albeit brutal. The motivations of  Caesar, Brutus and Octavian are quite explicable. The contest between libertas and dictatorship and between the “people” and the optimates has been played out innumerable times and, given that this history has been studied by European elites since the Renaissance, there is a real sense in which the fall of the Roman Republic operates as a template for all of the innumerable subsequent transitions from some kind of popular rule to authoritarianism. And then the Romans invented constitutional monarchy, although they never quite perfected the succession problem.

But the fascination also derives from the alien nature of the Roman world. A lot of it is shocking: exposure of unwanted children; the routine sexual exploitation of slaves (and the radically different conception of sexual orientation); the gladiatorial games; the endemic disease and violence.

Either way, we find it hard to look away. One does not have to posit that the study of the Roman World provides lessons directly applicable to our current dilemmas to recognise that even so there is something to be learnt about our human potential and experience.

Book review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard (2015)

Middle East and Europe Books Reviewed from the Crusades to recent times

This is a review by Grant and it is included here because it relates to the episode of Book Chat that follows it. This was first published in Good Reading magazine.

What we call the ‘Middle East’ today used to be the “Near East” and essentially comprehends the lands that used to be part of the Ottoman Empire and Iran. The term expresses a Western European perspective of “the other”; but the other who is next door. Its inhabitants are not like us but they have always been around.

The late Edward Said in his famous Orientalism devoted a lot of effort to demonstrating how “the Orient” (meaning the Near East) as he described it was the source of endless juicy fantasies which helped European intellectuals work out who they were by reference to who they were not. Now Said is a heavyweight intellectual and one of those dreaded post modernists to boot so don’t expect an easy read but the basic point he makes is important to grasp: when we talk about difference we are also talking about ourselves.

Until the seventh century CE of course, the Middle East was politically and economically integrated into Europe. Anatolia, Egypt and the Levant was the core of the Eastern Roman Empire. All that changed with the eruption of Islam from the Arabian peninsular in the mid seventh century so any attempt to understand writing about the Middle East must begin with Islam.

A good place to start is Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad which is a sympathetic and well researched biography of the founder of Islam. Originally a kind of response to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, it manages to paint a convincing portrait of “one of the most remarkable human beings who ever lived”. For the nearest contemporary Arabic historical source about the life of the Prophet see Ibn Shaq’s The Life of Muhammad Apostle of Allah. Shaq wrote about a century after the death of Muhammad so his work is a bit like having Tacitus write a biography of Christ. For those wishing to gain a more detailed understanding of the religion Muhammad founded be aware that many of the works available in English reflect particular schools of Islamic thought. For an insight into the orthodox Sunni worldview Islam History Faith and Politics: the Complete Introduction by Paul Grieve is a workmanlike but unimaginative example. For a balanced Christian view, try Islam for the Western Mind by Richard Drummond. Drummond is an American Presbyterian Minister but his writing is in the best traditions of western secular history. To put it in context try Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History.

What these works tend not to display is any real insight into the struggles within contemporary Islam to free it from what some might call the shackles of its literalist traditions. Indeed, both Greve and Drummond would see it as defined by that literalism. In the Koran, to the believer, there is an intact revelation of God’s word; this severely limits the wriggle room afforded to Christians by the ramshackle textual history of the Old Testament when facing some of the bleaker injunctions in say, the Book of Leviticus. But there are many believing Muslims who adopt a more nuanced interpretation of the Koran – distinguishing for example between ‘law’ (the injunctions issued by Muhammad in his capacity as a secular ruler and intended only for that time) and ‘prophesy’ which is immutable. In particular the status of the authority of the Hadith, the thousands of stories about the life of the Prophet collected following his death and on which Shariah law is largely based, is a matter of some debate. Mind you this is all rather controversial and not recommended for dinner party conversation. Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar brings a perspective which one seldom hears of in this context; by analogy it is like a tour of the world’s evangelical protestant churches by a well educated Uniting Church lay person with a postgraduate degree in Biblical textual criticism. He is not quite the Bishop Sponge of Islam but heading in that direction. For example he argues convincingly that Sharia law is not integral to Islamic faith or practice – but rather a construct of Abbasid jurists of the 8th century. For a more academic perspective, which illuminates some creative attempts to rethink Islam, see Rethinking tradition in Modern Islamic Thought edited by Daniel Brown.

Armed with at least some information about the region’s dominant religion one can begin to appreciate the history and literature.

Following the Islamic conquests the Middle East disappeared from the mental world of most Western European for about four centuries, until the First Crusade in the late eleventh century. In Arab historiography, the glory days were already over. See Bernard Lewis’s The Arabs in History for a concise overview. Beginning in the pre-Muslim period he traces the development of the early Islamic Arab state through its period of expansion, consolidation under the Arab Caliphate of the Ummayads and its transformation into an international non-ethnic empire during the Abbasid Caliphate. He is particularly good at disentangling the strands of ethnic economic and religious influence and in analyzing the internal stresses that ultimately led to the eclipse of an ethnically Arab dominated state and the succession of various Turkish and Iranian polities.

What awaited the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century CE was a fragmented albeit sophisticated and prosperous collection of small kingdoms. Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade: A New History places the extraordinary movement firmly in the context of the reassertion of Papal authority, the revanchist ambitions of a reinvigorated Byzantine Empire and the underemployed warrior castes of Western Europe. Asbridge points out that by this time the Islamic conquests were 400 years in the past and that Christian, Jew and Muslim coexisted fairly harmoniously throughout the Middle East. As so often in the subsequent history of the Middle East, religion was used as a pretext for the violent acquisition of real estate. The Oxford History of the Crusades provides a convenient single volume overview of the Crusader period from the 12th to the 13th centuries.

For the invadees’ perspective The Crusades through Arab Eyes by Amin Malouf is a useful survey of mainly 12th century Arab historical writing on the Crusades. To see yourself as others see you is always a healthy corrective and the Franks do not come out of it well. The sack of Jerusalem in 1099 set a new standard in brutality; according to one contemporary source up to 70,000 Jewish and Muslim civilians were murdered.  The hiding place of the true cross was extracted from Orthodox priests under torture. One contemporary compared the Crusaders to wild beasts, inferior to the Muslims in everything except brute force.

Modern scholarship sees the Crusades as a far more sophisticated phenomenon than the unfortunate targets, understandably, allowed. The Arab perspective is one of initial defeats due to disunity, horrific atrocities perpetrated by savage barbarians and then a slow but inexorable recovery, particularly under Saladin which resulted, two hundred years after the First Crusade, in the ejection of the last crusader state in Acre in 1291. In this narrative, the Muslim counter attack was then taken up by the Seljuk and then Ottoman Turks, with its apogee in the capture of Constantinople in 1452.

The power of this narrative and its relevance to the contemporary Middle East should not be underestimated. For a certain tendency within the Middle East the West remain crusaders and Israel is a neo-crusader state. To this way of thinking it is now only about 1150 CE and Saladin is still about thirty years in the future. For those interested in historical parallels, Saladin though a Kurd was based in Egypt and it was the revitalization of Egyptian power that underpinned his success.

The Crusades had a massive impact on both cultures involved. In the House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization Jonathon Lyons makes a convincing case for the centrality of Arab learning (both indigenous and preserved classical knowledge) to the changes which in due course would lead to the Renaissance and the emergence of Europe as the dominant world power. Lyons surveys Arab achievements in preserving and building on classical Greek learning in mathematics, medicine, geography and astronomy. The Arabs developed algebra and the use of zero; gave us Arabic numbers, and were impelled by the requirements of religious observance to become adept at measuring time and geographical position.

All of which has generated its fair share of historical fiction. Jan Guillou’s Crusades Trilogy:  The Road to Jerusalem, Birth of a Kingdom, and The Templar Knight bring a laconic Scandinavian perspective to a story of carnage and religious fanaticism. The first volume in particular has touches of the Icelandic saga style – that inimitable deadpan narration that adopts an even tone to describe both acts of saintly goodness and barbaric evil while never ever affording a glimpse of anyone’s internal thought processes.

Stephen Rivelle’s A Booke of Days adopts the first person perspective of a French nobleman on the First Crusade and reads like the diary of particularly dangerous rugby tour. Lionheart is Sharon Penman’s attempt to humanize her eponymous hero (but she has a track record here: if you can humanize Richard III his Plantagenet forbear should be a snack) but it is a fairly demanding read because, due to Penman’s commitment to historical accuracy, it can suffer from a lack of narrative momentum. By the end, you really feel as if you actually walked the Second Crusade.

Ultimately, it was the Turks who saw off the Franks from the Middle East. Which brings us to the Ottomans. The Ottomans were the great rivals of Europe in its formative stage and much of our image of what it means not to be “Western” is derived from centuries of intense competition, trade, warfare, and even coexistence. “The Sick Man of Europe” as described by European Imperialists of the 19th century tends to get a kinder press these days. But by the time Richard Burton traveled to Mecca and Medina disguised as a Pathan doctor in the mid 19th century the European sense of superiority was pretty well out of control. Burton’s A Secret Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medinah is a fascinating but profoundly annoying book; at times simply offensive but nevertheless a valuable document. For a clever reversal of this perspective try the 1001 Nights of Drummer Donald McLeod by Harry Hopkins about a Scottish Highland soldier who goes native in the modernizing Egypt of Muhammad Ali (an Albanian by the way, which tells you something about what an equal opportunity place the Ottoman Empire could be).

A very conventional but readable narrative history is provided by Kinross in his The Ottoman Empire.  Kinross is good on the early centuries but his sources and prejudices let him down by the late 19th century. He minimizes the Armenian genocide in a way which would not happen today. M.E. Yapp’s The Making of the Modern Near East and William L Cleveland’s A History of the Modern Middle East are both sound and scholarly introductions to the Ottoman period and emphasize the massive change that was underway during the 19th century as the Ottomans struggled manfully to come to terms with modernity.

A sophisticated but somewhat tendentious analysis of the ultimate decline of the Ottoman Empire can be found in Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong. Lewis essentially attributes the failure of the Ottoman political economy to a lack of separation of religion and State and the consequences that follow when the dominant mode of religion is a reactionary literalism. Lewis however acknowledges that in earlier times the Islamic world in fact led Europe in science, prosperity and military power. So the answer is by no means obvious and Yapp and Cleveland’s works give a much more nuanced view of the mixed success of the Ottoman state in adapting to western influence and technology.

Certainly the inter communal relationships in the Ottoman Empire (at least until the First World War) bear favourable comparison with the current catastrophe in Syria, or the internecine Sunni Shia rivalry in Iraq. Of course if you really want to get depressed try the intractable Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Charles D. Smith’s Palestine and the Arab Israeli Conflict takes this sorry tale up to about 2004 and is reputed to be a balanced survey. Likud supporters will not however be happy with it.

By contrast, William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain documents the surprising degree of syncretism and mutual respect that existed between faiths in large parts of Turkey, Syria Palestine and Egypt until relatively recent times and is a compelling caution against sweeping generalizations about the inevitability of inter communal conflict.

Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation is an ambitious work, which takes up these themes. Fisk, a leading journalist on the region, seeks to combine a memoir, attempts at serious history (particularly the chapter on the Armenian genocide), and large tracts of political analysis and advocacy. Fisk is at pains to avoid ever apologising for or making light of abuses of human rights. An atrocity is an atrocity, be it Iraqi, Palestinian or Israeli. This is as well because the one thing that comes clearly through the mind boggling detail is how fifty years of repression, reprisals and preemption have left every player in the Middle East diminished even as they relentlessly press the justice of their respective causes.

But now there is the Arab Spring. In the Arab Spring edited by Toby Manhire you can read various blogs and twitters by participants and published by the Guardian. It has the merit of immediacy if not objectivity. How that will turn out (to paraphrase Chaou En Lai to Kissenger on the French Revolution), is too early to say.

Middle East and Europe Books Reviewed from the Crusades to recent times