From the Trojan War to conflict in Ukraine

Rich insights into eras of incessant bloodletting


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The year 2023 has been rich in works composed in tempore belli. The most impressive is Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine (William Collins, £26) by General David Petraeus and the historian Andrew Roberts. This is an ambitious and deeply researched volume which does not shy away from the gritty details of combat, as one might expect from a collaboration between the most distinguished commander of the Iraq War and the tireless chronicler of warriors ranging from Napoleon to Churchill. They show how UN ceasefires have been a tactic used by the losing side in every Arab–Israeli war. As the great Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis put it, “We cease, they fire.”

Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, General David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts (William Collins, £26)

Petraeus and Roberts focus on the outstanding commanders whose stratagems and strategies were not only grand, but actually worked. The contrast they draw between Zelensky’s leadership qualities and Putin’s lack of them is telling. Yet their “existential war” has lessons for the military experts, few of whom predicted either Ukrainian resilience or the Russian “regression” to a struggle reminiscent of 1939–45 or even 1914–18.

Some might indeed characterise the Russo-Ukrainian War as “siege warfare”, which is not a modern but a mediaeval concept. For rich insights into that era of incessant bloodletting one must pay homage to Jonathan Sumption, who this year completed Triumph and Illusion, the fifth and final volume of his history of The Hundred Years War (Faber, £35). After an enviable career as a barrister, Supreme Court Justice and Reith Lecturer, Sumption has probably done more to illuminate late mediaeval English and French society than any living academic.

Many who read the 4,000-plus pages of this historical quintet will do so less for their monumental scholarship than for the sheer pleasure of their prose. Sumption’s forensic investigation is illuminated by a mordant wit. He is as merciless in dissecting the enduring legend of Joan of Arc as he is in debunking her most memorable foe, Sir John Fastolf.

Apart from inspiring Shakespeare’s Falstaff, this “childless, embittered and tight-fisted old man” died intestate. His accumulated loot was devoted to founding Magdalen College, Oxford, where Sumption himself once studied and taught. Like Edward Gibbon, Sumption has left us a work that will live on, not only as history but as literature. Where is the philanthropist to endow a Sumption chair or lecture series at his old college?

Homer and His Iliad, Robin Lane Fox (Allen Lane, £30)

No less pre-eminent, albeit in Classics, is Robin Lane Fox, who also began his academic life at Magdalen before moving permanently to New College. Homer and His Iliad (Allen Lane, £30) has rightly been received with laurels and, I trust, sales to match. Lane Fox enlivens his account with testimony of his lifelong passion for Homer’s epic. Learning from Plutarch that Alexander the Great had once run to the tomb of Achilles at Troy, “naked as was the custom”, Lane Fox “decided to outdo him by running naked round what I took to be the entire city of Troy VI”.

With a nod to the archaeologists, he adds: “It has turned out since that I ran round its citadel only.” Lane Fox argues that the Iliad is the work of a single oral poet, composed between 750 and 740 BC. Alexander, he thinks, took an Urtext “corrected by Aristotle” on his campaigns. The version we know only began to emerge several centuries after Homer.

Lane Fox likes to quote Alexander Pope’s once idolised but now unfashionable translation of 1716. He notices that Pope speaks of Hecuba’s “grey tresses”, rightly intuiting her age from Homer’s clues — perhaps the first time in Western literature that an older woman has a major speaking part. To Hamlet’s question (“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?”), Lane Fox might reply: “Everything!”

A History of the Catholic Church, Piers Paul Read (Meid, £25)

The only surviving institution from the ancient world is the Catholic Church. In A History of the Catholic Church (Meid, £25) the author Piers Paul Read explains how she flourished in adversity, with at least 1.3 billion baptised Catholics. And a very readable book it is too.

Not everyone will warm to Read’s uncompromising orthodoxy, but he shows how unwarranted is the progressive assumption that the Church must necessarily adapt its doctrines to the zeitgeist. He ingeniously avoids the painful subject of Pope Francis by ending the book with the resignation of Benedict XVI: “As history reaches the present day, it becomes journalism.”

Read does not avoid the abuses that loom so large in the public perception of Catholicism. His purpose was to fill the gap in his granddaughter’s knowledge of the faith of her fathers, but this is no uncritical apologia.

In this respect he differs from literary predecessors, such as G.K. Chesterton or Evelyn Waugh: “Two friends who read this history in manuscript — one a Catholic, the other an agnostic — agreed that no one after reading it could possibly want to become a Catholic.”

One legacy of the Church that even its harshest critics cannot belittle is the role of Christianity in Western art and civilisation, though recent attacks on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and the Rokeby Venus suggest a new woke iconoclasm is emerging. No less peerless in art history than Lane Fox in Classics is David Ekserdjian, whose magnum opus on The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece I reviewed in these pages.

Albrecht Dürer: Art and Autobiography, David Ekserdjian (Reaktion, £17.95)

He has now confirmed his reputation as a Renaissance man by producing a superb new monograph on an old master from north of the Alps. Albrecht Dürer: Art and Autobiography (Reaktion, £17.95) is the perfect introduction to the great pioneer of self-portraiture.

Dürer’s compulsion to immortalise himself extended to his family and friends, so we know a huge amount about his milieu. Nobody embodies better Ernst Cassirer’s idea of the Renaissance as “individual and cosmos”.

As part of this celebration of creative individualism, Ekserdjian focuses on Dürer’s achievements in watercolours, drawing and printmaking. He single-handedly elevated these art forms to a level still unsurpassed, extending their range of subject to include the detailed study of nature (e.g. the Hare) and the symbolism of mortality or psychology (e.g. Knight, Death and the Devil, or Melencolia).

Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit, Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)

Ekserdjian traces Dürer’s influence from Caravaggio and Velasquez to Otto Dix and Lucian Freud. Such personal, introspective art as that of Rembrandt or Goya would be inconceivable without Dürer.

A very different but equally rewarding study in art history is Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists (Cape, £30). The author, Laura Freeman, is now art critic of The Times, and her highly original new book speaks of a deep love of the objects and creators she describes. She has constructed her book around the works displayed at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the living legacy of its impresario Jim Ede and his eclectic vision of Modernism. Admirers of that secular sanctuary will adore this book.

Biography of the year, surely, is Antonia Fraser’s Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). Our greatest living biographer bids a provisional farewell to her art, with a portrait of a woman trapped in a political marriage who falls deeply in love with a writer. Lady Antonia is sympathetic towards Lady Caroline, whose life and loves turned out so much more unhappily than her own. She refuses to blame Byron for abandoning her, though. In the bright, mercurial, possibly bipolar Lamb, the poet had met his match. Her revenge was to ruin his reputation: her line “mad, bad and dangerous to know” has outlived any of his.

Amongst Others: Friendships and Encounters, Michael Frayn (Faber, £26)

If biography often reflects the author no less than the subject, how much more so does the memoir. Two contrasting volumes, each with an autobiographical element, stand out: Michael Frayn’s Amongst Others: Friendships and Encounters (Faber, £26) and Timothy Garton Ash’s Homelands: A Personal History of Europe (Bodley Head, £22).

The comic genius of Noises Off has little in common with the intrepid reporter, analyst and champion of the Wild East. What connects these adventurous Englishmen of different generations (Frayn is 90, Garton Ash 68) is their love of Europe, especially Cold War Europe. Their paths might easily have crossed in the Berlin studio of the Anglo-German-Jewish artist Sarah Haffner.

In 1972 Frayn had what he calls his “midlife crisis” with her, which matured into a friendship that helped him to write two of his best plays, Copenhagen and Democracy. A few years later, when Garton Ash and I briefly shared a flat, Sarah Haffner was our mildly eccentric neighbour.

Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, Timothy Garton Ash (Bodley Head, £22)

For anyone who wants to know more about the two rival capitals of ideas, ideology and inhumanity, both divided by the Allies in 1945, I also recommend John Kampfner’s In Search of Berlin (Atlantic, £22) and Richard Cockett’s Vienna (Yale, £25).

Garton Ash concludes his “personal history” of the post-war era on a hopeful note: “Today’s Europe, for all its faults, limits and hypocrisies, for all the setbacks of recent years, is still far better than the one I set out to explore in the early 1970s, let alone the hell my father encountered as a young man.” We can only hope that the communal chasms revealed here in Britain by war in Israel and Ukraine can indeed be bridged.

Matthew Goodwin’s terrifying Values, Voice and Virtue (Penguin, £12.99) has already proved prescient. He predicts an imminent revolt against the elites. We who care about Western civilisation will need to hold onto our hats in 2024.

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