"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Notes on the London Review of Books 41/8 (18 April 2019)

I began last month a new series on here: annotations from my reading of the London Review of Books, which comes every two weeks and is savoured for many hours afterwards. Herewith a few notes on books discussed in the above-referenced issue.

I have had a growing interest in interwar and postwar politics of the British left, and previously noted on here, e.g., biographies of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan. But that interest has been expanding to the nineteenth century, and lately I've been reading about the celebrated Gladstone-Disraeli rivalry. So I read with keen interest Jonathan Parry's long review of The Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History 1800-2000, eds. D. Brown et al (OUP, 2018), 626pp. Parry notes that there are a few areas the collection short-changes, but overall it sounds like a worthwhile endeavor.

British historians are often themselves fascinating characters--from what I've read of the lives of, e.g., Toynbee, Hugh Trevor Roper, Martin Gilbert, and a few others. So I paid special attention to Susan Pedersen's very conflicted review (titled "I want to love it") of Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (Little, Brown, 2019), 800pp. I've only read smatterings of and about Hobsbawm, and Pedersen brings out some fascinating details of his rather charmed life. So I'll look forward to reading this biography at some point. About it the publisher tells us this:
Eric Hobsbawm's works have had a nearly incalculable effect across generations of readers and students, influencing more than the practice of history but also the perception of it. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, of second-generation British parents, Hobsbawm was orphaned at age fourteen in 1931. Living with an uncle in Berlin, he experienced the full force of world economic depression, and in the charged reaction to it in Germany was forced to choose between Nazism and Communism, which was no choice at all. Hobsbawm's lifelong allegiance to Communism inspired his pioneering work in social history, particularly the trilogy for which he is most famous--The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire--covering what he termed "the long nineteenth century" in Europe. Selling in the millions of copies, these held sway among generations of readers, some of whom went on to have prominent careers in politics and business. 
In this comprehensive biography of Hobsbawm, acclaimed historian Richard Evans (author of The Third Reich Trilogy, among other works) offers both a living portrait and vital insight into one of the most influential intellectual figures of the twentieth century. Using exclusive and unrestricted access to the unpublished material, Evans places Hobsbawm's writings within their historical and political context. Hobsbawm's Marxism made him a controversial figure but also, uniquely and universally, someone who commanded respect even among those who did not share-or who even outright rejected-his political beliefs. Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History gives us one of the 20th century's most colorful and intellectually compelling figures. It is an intellectual life of the century itself.
The review of this biography was followed by Christina Riggs reviewing Jonathan Conlin's biography, Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World's Richest Man (Profile, 2019), 402.

Gulbenkian seems to have been one of those characters who probably could only have lived, and prospered, in the era he did using the methods he did. Among other things he shows the power of money to insulate an Armenian in the last days of the Ottoman Empire from its many attacks on his compatriots. As the publisher tells us:
When Calouste Gulbenkian died in 1955 at the age of 86, he was the richest man in the world, known as 'Mr Five Per Cent' for his personal share of Middle East oil. The son of a wealthy Armenian merchant in Istanbul, for half a century he brokered top-level oil deals, concealing his mysterious web of business interests and contacts within a labyrinth of Asian and European cartels, and convincing governments and oil barons alike of his impartiality as an 'honest broker'. Today his name is known principally through the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, to which his spectacular art collection and most of his vast wealth were bequeathed. Gulbenkian's private life was as labyrinthine as his business dealings. He insisted on the highest 'moral values', yet ruthlessly used his wife's charm as a hostess to further his career, and demanded complete obedience from his family, whom he monitored obsessively. As a young man he lived a champagne lifestyle, escorting actresses and showgirls, and in later life - on doctor's orders - he slept with a succession of discreetly provided young women. Meanwhile he built up a superb art collection which included Rembrandts and other treasures sold to him by Stalin from the Hermitage Museum.Published to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, Mr Five Per Cent reveals Gulbenkian's complex and many-sided existence. Written with full access to the Gulbenkian Foundation's archives, this is the fascinating story of the man who more than anyone else helped shape the modern oil industry.
When it first came out at the start of our decade, I read Eric Kaufman's Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century with great interest, though without being entirely persuaded by his thesis. So when I saw he has a new book out, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities I read Daniel Trilling's review of it with particular interest. Trilling notes that Kaufman has some interesting arguments in places and data, but overlooks a number of factors, too. Here is the publisher's blurb about the book:
This is the century of whiteshift. As Western societies are becoming increasingly mixed-race, demographic change is transforming politics. Over half of American babies are non-white, and by the end of the century, minorities and those of mixed race are projected to form the majority in the UK and other countries. The early stages of this transformation have led to a populist disruption, tearing a path through the usual politics of left and right. Ethnic transformation will continue, but conservative whites are unlikely to exit quietly; their feelings of alienation are already redrawing political lines and convulsing societies across the West. One of the most crucial challenges of our time is to enable conservatives as well as cosmopolitans to view whiteshift as a positive development.
In this groundbreaking book, political scientist Eric Kaufmann examines the evidence to explore ethnic change in North American and Western Europe. Tracing four ways of dealing with this transformation—fight, repress, flight, and join—he charts different scenarios and calls for us to move beyond empty talk about national identity. If we want to avoid more radical political divisions, he argues, we have to open up debate about the future of white majorities.
Deeply thought provoking, enriched with illustrative stories, and drawing on detailed and extraordinary survey, demographic, and electoral data, Whiteshift will redefine the way we discuss race in the twenty-first century.
My ignorance of modern poetry is lamentably vast, but one of the very few poets I have long read and admired is the subject of the next review by Robert Crawford of the seemingly endless volumes to be published of The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume VIII: 1936-38, eds. V. Eliot and J. Haffenden (Faber, 2019), 1100pp. For such a brief period, this is a massive volume, indicating just how loquacious a correspondent Eliot was, perhaps all the more astonishing in view of his vast literary output. 

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