Dr Faustus (1488-1541) conjuring up Mephistopheles. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Faustian bargains of the review world

Jeremy Black delves into a history book which disappoints and a biography not to be missed

Artillery Row Books

Be under no illusions, being a reviewer is a mixed blessing as you take on a Faustian bargain. You receive a book with high expectations, begin to read it, and then realise that it is a dud, a total dud. How much of your time do you give up? Formerly, while being an editor on an academic journal for sixteen years, I learned that just occasionally the reasons for reporting books lost in the post, or just not bothering to do the reviews, was not the frequent practices of dishonesty and/or indolence, but rather despair.

You can pretend already to be reviewing the book in the first place, but I prefer to say straight out if I do not wish to review a book

As a reviewer, I have always tried to fulfil the task. My cop-out is to refuse in the first place. You can pretend already to be reviewing the book in the first place, but I prefer to say straight out if I do not wish to review a book. I can after all look it up, read the blurb and early reviews, and decide whether the book is sufficiently important to review. And if not, I say no, turning down for example the opportunity chore [chorish opportunity does not work] of reviewing Empireland.

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire by Priya Satia, Allen Lane

Sometimes I just get it wrong. The title and topic of Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster. History Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Allen Lane, 2020) interested me, so, when asked, I said yes. Foolish fellow. I should have been warned by Zareer Masani’s review in the Literary Review (February 2021) and Will Hay’s in Law and Liberty (16 March 2021), but I thought that much of interest could be salvaged. Well I was mistaken. This is a weak book that reflects only a limited knowledge of the most interesting and instructive characteristics of both pro- and anti-imperial arguments, namely their range, variety, capacity for change, and interaction of arguments between both metropole and colonies, and British and foreign systems. Satia, a Professor at Stanford, collapses all this into one, providing uni-dimensional history, in order to offer her account, indeed critique, of the British empire, but, in doing so, removes the opportunity to offer an interesting historical study, not least one tackling the different ‘stakeholders’ in empire, including those overseas, as well as the range of the empire which she largely limits to India. Having written myself a study of eighteenth-century English historians, I found her account of that period somewhat simplistic, which leads me to wonder about the validity of her comments on other periods.

Doubtless this book will not hurt Satia, who is applauded by those we might assume. Possibly what is more interesting is the light thrown on Allen Lane/Penguin, the publisher in Britain. Commercially successful, it is, to put it mildly, eclectic in what it publishes, in part because, as far as I can see, its process of scholarly scrutiny varies. At any rate, with this book following Kehinde Andrew’s problematic The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World (2020), I have to query the publisher’s commitment to what I would understand to be the balanced assessment, contextual awareness, historiographical and conceptual range, and, crucially, source-based arguments and critical scrutiny of evidence, that I regard as necessary to scholarly standards and editorial rigour. To console me about Allen Lane, I have dipped into Adrian Woolridge’s The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, which is far more thoughtful as well as interesting and important. Worth reading.

Philip Roth The Biography by Blake Bailey, Jonathan Cape

So also, if you want a thoughtful account of imperial history, I have been impressed this week by a well-researched and mercifully short book by Andrekos Varnava: Assassination in Colonial Cyprus in 1934 and the Origins of EOKA. Reading the Archives against the Grain (Anthem Press, 2021). The murder of Antonios Triantafyllides, a prominent lawyer and politician, becomes an attempt to understand the nature of interwar Cypriot politics, the development of nationalist violence, the difficulties facing the British, the trend of the archival trace and the counterfactuals of Cypriot history. A fascinating work, although there would be room for more of a comparison with Malta and for a consideration of anti-British Italian subversion.

Much of the literature about empire, however, I can recommend if you are an author worrying about failing powers, which is one of my tropes. You will at once know you can do much better, which hopefully should cheer you up.

Roth clearly had flaws as an individual, and, indeed, his biographer has fulfilled his injunction to make him interesting but not to ‘rehabilitate’ him

At any rate, I turned from Satia to a book sitting on the kitchen table. Sarah ordered Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth. The Biography (Jonathan Cape), and it arrived on Friday. I have read it when not working, and it is really a fine book, a well-written account of a writer, his trajectory, his milieux (notably other writers), and his works. There are uncomfortable moments for a British reader, not least the discussion of English anti-Semitism (Roth at one stage accordingly told a diner at another table that she was a scumbag), but what comes across is a writer driven by his métier. His causes, notably support for Czech dissidents, were far from self-regarding. And so we come to our second Faustian bargain. Roth clearly had flaws as an individual, and, indeed, his biographer has fulfilled his injunction to make him interesting but not to ‘rehabilitate’ him. And then Bailey was cancelled and the book pulped by W.W. Norton because of accusations against Bailey that he has denied and that are unproven.

Let us focus on Roth, as there is a ‘known known.’ How far is this a case of the conundrum about devout mediocrity and the coarseness of genius discussed in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979), which, in turn, was inspired by Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri (1830)? Are we in the territory of needing to make distinctions that do not match the callow convenience of liking those of whom one approves, approving of those who one likes, and saving righteous wrath for the others? Many geniuses of course take waywardness and character beyond societal bounds, let alone pleasantness, but there can also be something akin to a measured madness that is on the spectrum but not off it. Roth emerges as wilful, harshly demanding of himself and others, addictive, and sometimes callous. At the same time, he was no monster. Bailey’s skill is in providing a full account drawing on an impressive range of sources. For those who like biography, this is one to read.

Jeremy Black’s Short History of France is forthcoming from Thames and Hudson.

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