Commentary Magazine


Topic: novelist

Morning Commentary

President Obama’s decision to tap former banker William Daley as his next chief of staff is angering all the right people: “This was a real mistake by the White House,” [Adam] Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Bill Daley consistently urges the Democratic Party to pursue a corporate agenda that alienates both Independent and Democratic voters. If President Obama listens to that kind of political advice from Bill Daley, Democrats will suffer a disastrous 2012.” Other liberals grumbling over the president’s choice are Jane Hamsher, Ezra Klein, and MoveOn.org’s executive director, Justin Rubin.

The filibuster rule changes wouldn’t just weaken the minority party by lowering the vote threshold. According to Ramesh Ponnuru, the alterations would also weaken the minority by handing the majority more control over the Senate calendar — a major source of power in the chamber.

Could the anti-Israel delegitimization activities on college campuses have a long-term impact on America’s relationship with Israel? While most students are opposed to the delegitimization campaign, the David Project’s David Bernstein is concerned that it may prompt students to become less supportive of the Jewish state: “While young people and particularly mainstream Democrats exposed to hostility on campus may not now or ever join the movement to boycott Israel, over time they may feel less sympathetic toward the Jewish state and more ambivalent about the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. When these young leaders become the next generation of Democratic Party representatives, it may become much tougher to garner those large bipartisan majorities.”

Michael Moynihan discusses how significantly the fight for free speech has changed since Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses elicited calls for his death from the Ayatollah: “In 1989, when Iran’s theocracy suborned the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie for having written a supposedly blasphemous book, The Satanic Verses, only a handful of intellectuals, habitués of both left and right, attacked the author for being impolite to ‘a billion’ religious adherents. Author Roald Dahl whimpered that ‘In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.’ Twenty years ago this was a shockingly contrarian sentiment, today it’s depressingly de rigueur.

Supporters of the man who assassinated Salman Taseer cheered him as he was transferred inside a courthouse on Thursday. The traitorous bodyguard has been hailed as a hero by many across the Muslim world, including a group of 500 Islamic scholars: “For a second day, sympathizers showed their support for Mumtaz Qadri by chanting slogans, with some throwing rose petals when police finally brought him to the Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi. Authorities had tried to bring Qadri to the court from the nearby capital of Islamabad earlier Thursday, but sympathizers prevented his transfer.”

President Obama’s decision to tap former banker William Daley as his next chief of staff is angering all the right people: “This was a real mistake by the White House,” [Adam] Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Bill Daley consistently urges the Democratic Party to pursue a corporate agenda that alienates both Independent and Democratic voters. If President Obama listens to that kind of political advice from Bill Daley, Democrats will suffer a disastrous 2012.” Other liberals grumbling over the president’s choice are Jane Hamsher, Ezra Klein, and MoveOn.org’s executive director, Justin Rubin.

The filibuster rule changes wouldn’t just weaken the minority party by lowering the vote threshold. According to Ramesh Ponnuru, the alterations would also weaken the minority by handing the majority more control over the Senate calendar — a major source of power in the chamber.

Could the anti-Israel delegitimization activities on college campuses have a long-term impact on America’s relationship with Israel? While most students are opposed to the delegitimization campaign, the David Project’s David Bernstein is concerned that it may prompt students to become less supportive of the Jewish state: “While young people and particularly mainstream Democrats exposed to hostility on campus may not now or ever join the movement to boycott Israel, over time they may feel less sympathetic toward the Jewish state and more ambivalent about the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. When these young leaders become the next generation of Democratic Party representatives, it may become much tougher to garner those large bipartisan majorities.”

Michael Moynihan discusses how significantly the fight for free speech has changed since Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses elicited calls for his death from the Ayatollah: “In 1989, when Iran’s theocracy suborned the murder of novelist Salman Rushdie for having written a supposedly blasphemous book, The Satanic Verses, only a handful of intellectuals, habitués of both left and right, attacked the author for being impolite to ‘a billion’ religious adherents. Author Roald Dahl whimpered that ‘In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.’ Twenty years ago this was a shockingly contrarian sentiment, today it’s depressingly de rigueur.

Supporters of the man who assassinated Salman Taseer cheered him as he was transferred inside a courthouse on Thursday. The traitorous bodyguard has been hailed as a hero by many across the Muslim world, including a group of 500 Islamic scholars: “For a second day, sympathizers showed their support for Mumtaz Qadri by chanting slogans, with some throwing rose petals when police finally brought him to the Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi. Authorities had tried to bring Qadri to the court from the nearby capital of Islamabad earlier Thursday, but sympathizers prevented his transfer.”

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How Not to Be Alone

I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. Franzen is a talented American writer and his works to date are not wanting for brilliant descriptive gems. But as a sermonizer on the topic of America’s derelict soul, he is as ingenious as a disenchanted ninth grader; he’s also as self-important.

Don’t believe me. Ask him. “I feel as if I’m clearly part of a trend among writers who take themselves seriously,” he offered in response to an interviewer’s question having nothing to do with himself, his seriousness, or anyone else’s. “I confess to taking myself as seriously as the next writer.” Perhaps if the next writer were Jonathan Franzen.

According to reviews, Freedom is an ambitious work intended to tell America something new and vitally important about itself. Yet, despite the torrent of ecstatic press, the book didn’t make it onto the short list for this year’s National Book Award in fiction. But Franzen need not take the snub too, um, seriously. He just gave an America-bashing interview to the Guardian’s Sarfraz Manzoor that’s all but guaranteed his Nobel Prize. This exchange provides the best cross-section view of the liberal mind at work that we’ll ever see. Read More

I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. Franzen is a talented American writer and his works to date are not wanting for brilliant descriptive gems. But as a sermonizer on the topic of America’s derelict soul, he is as ingenious as a disenchanted ninth grader; he’s also as self-important.

Don’t believe me. Ask him. “I feel as if I’m clearly part of a trend among writers who take themselves seriously,” he offered in response to an interviewer’s question having nothing to do with himself, his seriousness, or anyone else’s. “I confess to taking myself as seriously as the next writer.” Perhaps if the next writer were Jonathan Franzen.

According to reviews, Freedom is an ambitious work intended to tell America something new and vitally important about itself. Yet, despite the torrent of ecstatic press, the book didn’t make it onto the short list for this year’s National Book Award in fiction. But Franzen need not take the snub too, um, seriously. He just gave an America-bashing interview to the Guardian’s Sarfraz Manzoor that’s all but guaranteed his Nobel Prize. This exchange provides the best cross-section view of the liberal mind at work that we’ll ever see.

Franzen: [In] the last decade America has emerged even in its own estimation as a problem state. That is, there were many criticisms one could make as early as treatment of the Indians; it goes way back; and our long relationship with slavery. There have been some problems with the country at many points. In the Cold War, we were certainly culpable. But the degree to which we are almost a rogue state and causing enormous trouble around the world in our attempt to preserve our freedom to drive SUVs and whatever by…

Manzoor: Operation Enduring Freedom.

Franzen: Operation enduring freedom, good. It does make one wonder: What is it in the national character that is making us such a problem state and I think [it is] a kind of mixed-up childish notion of freedom. And perhaps really, truly, who left Europe to go over there [America]? It was all the malcontents; it was all the people who were not getting along with others.

Manzoor: Are you more comfortable in America now than you were when you started writing the book?

Franzen: (sigh) No. It was possible while I was writing the book to look forward to some possibility of significant change. And now people left of the middle feel puzzled and sort of anguished because we don’t have an object for our anger but the right is still as angry as ever. I mean that’s the worrisome thing about our upcoming elections. [The worrisome thing] is that the right is still just as angrily motivated as ever. And the Democrats are in disarray and feeling, well, we have power but the system itself is so screwed up, and we are relatively the adult party so we’re responsible for trying to make an unworkable system work. It’s just, it’s this kind of (groan) discouragement and dull throbbing anxiety.

Forget the book. The pontifications above constitute Franzen’s true unwitting masterpiece. The whole liberal template is unwound and labeled like cracked genetic code. The wonderful thing about liberals is that their dismissal of competing ideologies strips them of the need to cloak or soften their bizarro theories when speaking publicly.

The first order of business is America’s guilt. Franzen can’t imagine that any sane person would disagree with him about the U.S.’s role in the Cold War being on a moral continuum with the institution of American slavery. And of course, who could possibly deny that the Bush years were even more ghastly than either one?

After the dirty hands comes the condescension. The American conception of freedom is “childish” and the Democrats are the “adult party.”

Next up is the left’s penchant for totalitarian lockstep. Franzen wags his finger at the earliest Americans for being nonconformist “malcontents” who bucked the non-democratic European nation-states. Note the creepiness of the speculation on misfit ancestry and problematic national character.

Last, the subterfuge. The Democrats have done nothing wrong. It’s this stubborn broken thing called “the system” that no amount of liberal wisdom can set right. And so what can the enlightened liberal do but groan in the face of the “dull throbbing anxiety” created by the non-liberal world and its perpetually angry conservatives.

Franzen’s failure is ultimately not political but artistic. His realm is the creative, and in parroting those of the most meager imaginations, he has reversed the artist’s aim. Liberalism doesn’t only encroach upon things like opportunity and standard of living. It’s what it does to the self that’s most dangerous and pernicious. It pushes out the individual imagination and replaces it with wooden convictions. Before that wreaks havoc on a polity, it has its way with a mind. For a novelist, this is fatal. And so Franzen, a writer of copious narrative and descriptive gifts, ends up sounding like a 14-year-old who broke up his usual Daily Kos with his first read through Howard Zinn. The Nobel speech can’t possibly measure up.

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Chabon Swings at Israel — and Hits Peter Beinart!

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.

Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.

Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.

But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.

Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”

Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.

If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).

The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.

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Embrace of Hamas’s Goal of Breaking the Blockade Dooms Peace Efforts

The hypocritical condemnations raining down on Israel from foreign critics in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident from those who oppose the very existence of a Jewish state within any borders have a certain logic, even if it is a perverse logic. For Greta Berlin, the founder of the so-called Free Gaza Movement, the effort to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled region isn’t really humanitarian; it’s political. As she told the New York Times in its story today about the effort to bring aid to the Islamist regime in the strip, she shares Hamas’s goal of eliminating the Jewish state, which in her mind seems to justify any effort to bring succor to its foes.

Her reasoning is repulsive to anyone who believes her goal of reversing the verdict of Israel’s War of Independence is inadmissible. But her opposition to the blockade of Gaza makes more sense than the caterwauling coming from American and Israeli leftists who are berating the Netanyahu government for its willingness to enforce the sanctions that were imposed on the region after Hamas seized power there in a bloody coup in 2007.

Yet for the J Street crowd and writer Peter Beinart, who has assumed the pose of a “more in sorrow than in anger” liberal Zionist critic of Israel, as well as Israeli leftists such as novelist David Grossman and academic Fania Oz-Salzberger, who have joined in the piling on against Israel in the last three days, their belief that the blockade of Hamas in Gaza must be lifted isn’t merely wrong-headed; it is utterly antithetical to their proclaimed goal of a two-state solution in which Israelis and Arabs will share the land in peace.

For Beinart, who sounded his now familiar if tired rant about American Jews being responsible for Israeli beastliness in a piece in the Daily Beast, the “corrupt” embargo is yet another obstacle to peace that if removed might help bring an era of sunshine and light to the region. His blithe dismissal of the verdict of Israeli democracy in which leftists were soundly defeated because of the Palestinians’ consistent refusal to make peace is matched only by his arrogant ignorance of the nature of Palestinian nationalism and politics, which deems recognition of a Jewish state within any borders as beyond the pale.

His denunciation of Netanyahu was matched by Grossman in the Los Angeles Times, who wrote that Israel’s blockade was a sign of the country’s decline. Oz-Salzberger, who proclaimed herself an “Israeli patriot” — no doubt to pre-empt the criticisms of her compatriots who may consider denouncing your own country’s efforts at self-defense in foreign venues to be in questionable taste — deemed the flotilla incident a “sin” and a source of “shame.”

But the problem with these pieces is that if Israel did as they wished, it would effectively doom any chance for peace with the Palestinians. Lifting the blockade and allowing the free flow of goods into the area — which will open the floodgates for not only food and medicine, which are already in plentiful supply in Gaza, but also for Iranian arms and “construction materials” that will strengthen Hamas’s fortifications — would be the final step toward establishing the sovereignty of the Hamas regime in Gaza. After all, the blockade was established by Israel and Egypt with the support of the West, not as an act of “collective punishment,” as the left claims, but rather in a targeted effort to bring down an illegal and violent radical Islamist terror regime that had seized a foothold on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

Granting Hamas such a victory is a blow to Israel, but despite all the crocodile tears being shed for the admittedly miserable lives being led by the Gazans, who suffer under the rule of this terror group, it is a worse blow to the Palestinians. The end of the blockade will strengthen Hamas’s grip on Gaza and make it all the more likely that they will eventually be able to extend it to the West Bank. If international pressure forces Israel to lift the blockade — which never stopped the flow of food or medicine to Gaza despite the false claims that there is a humanitarian crisis there — the biggest loser will be Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, not Benjamin Netanyahu. Actions that lead to Hamas’s winning the struggle for the Palestinian leadership mean that the already dismal chances for peace will be reduced to zero. Such a turn of events will make a two-state solution, even one in which Israel would be forced to surrender every inch of land it won in 1967, utterly impossible.

The temptation to bash Israel’s government and call for an end to the blockade may be irresistible to Jewish leftists, who can always be depended on to see the country’s efforts at self-defense in the worst possible light. Blinded by hatred for Netanyahu, they fail to see that giving Hamas such a victory means an end to the peace process they claim to support.

The hypocritical condemnations raining down on Israel from foreign critics in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident from those who oppose the very existence of a Jewish state within any borders have a certain logic, even if it is a perverse logic. For Greta Berlin, the founder of the so-called Free Gaza Movement, the effort to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled region isn’t really humanitarian; it’s political. As she told the New York Times in its story today about the effort to bring aid to the Islamist regime in the strip, she shares Hamas’s goal of eliminating the Jewish state, which in her mind seems to justify any effort to bring succor to its foes.

Her reasoning is repulsive to anyone who believes her goal of reversing the verdict of Israel’s War of Independence is inadmissible. But her opposition to the blockade of Gaza makes more sense than the caterwauling coming from American and Israeli leftists who are berating the Netanyahu government for its willingness to enforce the sanctions that were imposed on the region after Hamas seized power there in a bloody coup in 2007.

Yet for the J Street crowd and writer Peter Beinart, who has assumed the pose of a “more in sorrow than in anger” liberal Zionist critic of Israel, as well as Israeli leftists such as novelist David Grossman and academic Fania Oz-Salzberger, who have joined in the piling on against Israel in the last three days, their belief that the blockade of Hamas in Gaza must be lifted isn’t merely wrong-headed; it is utterly antithetical to their proclaimed goal of a two-state solution in which Israelis and Arabs will share the land in peace.

For Beinart, who sounded his now familiar if tired rant about American Jews being responsible for Israeli beastliness in a piece in the Daily Beast, the “corrupt” embargo is yet another obstacle to peace that if removed might help bring an era of sunshine and light to the region. His blithe dismissal of the verdict of Israeli democracy in which leftists were soundly defeated because of the Palestinians’ consistent refusal to make peace is matched only by his arrogant ignorance of the nature of Palestinian nationalism and politics, which deems recognition of a Jewish state within any borders as beyond the pale.

His denunciation of Netanyahu was matched by Grossman in the Los Angeles Times, who wrote that Israel’s blockade was a sign of the country’s decline. Oz-Salzberger, who proclaimed herself an “Israeli patriot” — no doubt to pre-empt the criticisms of her compatriots who may consider denouncing your own country’s efforts at self-defense in foreign venues to be in questionable taste — deemed the flotilla incident a “sin” and a source of “shame.”

But the problem with these pieces is that if Israel did as they wished, it would effectively doom any chance for peace with the Palestinians. Lifting the blockade and allowing the free flow of goods into the area — which will open the floodgates for not only food and medicine, which are already in plentiful supply in Gaza, but also for Iranian arms and “construction materials” that will strengthen Hamas’s fortifications — would be the final step toward establishing the sovereignty of the Hamas regime in Gaza. After all, the blockade was established by Israel and Egypt with the support of the West, not as an act of “collective punishment,” as the left claims, but rather in a targeted effort to bring down an illegal and violent radical Islamist terror regime that had seized a foothold on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

Granting Hamas such a victory is a blow to Israel, but despite all the crocodile tears being shed for the admittedly miserable lives being led by the Gazans, who suffer under the rule of this terror group, it is a worse blow to the Palestinians. The end of the blockade will strengthen Hamas’s grip on Gaza and make it all the more likely that they will eventually be able to extend it to the West Bank. If international pressure forces Israel to lift the blockade — which never stopped the flow of food or medicine to Gaza despite the false claims that there is a humanitarian crisis there — the biggest loser will be Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, not Benjamin Netanyahu. Actions that lead to Hamas’s winning the struggle for the Palestinian leadership mean that the already dismal chances for peace will be reduced to zero. Such a turn of events will make a two-state solution, even one in which Israel would be forced to surrender every inch of land it won in 1967, utterly impossible.

The temptation to bash Israel’s government and call for an end to the blockade may be irresistible to Jewish leftists, who can always be depended on to see the country’s efforts at self-defense in the worst possible light. Blinded by hatred for Netanyahu, they fail to see that giving Hamas such a victory means an end to the peace process they claim to support.

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Can Specter Buy Pennsylvanians Enough Drinks to Stay in Office?

Those of us who love the classic novels of Anthony Trollope and his tales of the travails of the stump in the rough-and-tumble world of Victorian British politics could not help but smile at the description in today’s New York Times of a campaign stop by Arlen Specter at a pub in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The article described the ambivalence of voters about the 80-year-old’s braggadocio about using his influence and patronage to buy the voters support. But in case anybody didn’t get the point of his campaign, the piece’s final line summed it up:

But Mr. Specter stayed on message at the pub. As he was departing, an aide called out to the crowd of 70 people: “Senator Specter just bought the next round, so hit the bar.”

Just like Trollope’s would-be parliamentarians who trolled for votes in pubs by buying the affection of publicans who served up the free pints to the voters, so too, apparently, must Pennsylvania’s senior senator.

But far from being merely an amusing sidebar to the real issues, Specter’s pose as the source of all sorts of free stuff for Pennsylvanians really is the whole focus of his re-election effort. At a black-church service yesterday, he boasted of intimidating the secretary of agriculture into coughing up more money for a local program. Later at a union rally at Philadelphia’s Marine Terminal along the Delaware River, Specter and his ally Governor Ed Rendell bragged about the money he has squeezed out of the federal budget for the region as well as his support for the patronage that rained down from President Obama’s stimulus bill, which he supported.

In any normal political year, these sorts of accomplishments might foreclose the possibility of defeat for Specter. But this isn’t any normal political year. At a time when voters are fed up with out-of-control government spending, some have begun to ask whose money it is that Specter is doling out in small packages to the public and realizing that the answer is … their own. While his opponent Rep. Joe Sestak may not be a disciple of limited government (that choice will be presented to voters in November, when the all-but-certain Republican nominee Pat Toomey will be on the ballot), the Democratic challenger has a point when he notes that the only job Specter is truly interested in saving is his own.

While one should never underestimate the capacity of Pennsylvania’s pro-Specter Democratic machine to turn out compliant voters when they are determined to do so, it would appear that Specter’s desperate last campaign bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the ones described by Trollope. Like the novelist’s protagonists, the senator may discover tomorrow that there are not enough free drinks in the world to buy an election for a candidate that the public won’t stomach.

Those of us who love the classic novels of Anthony Trollope and his tales of the travails of the stump in the rough-and-tumble world of Victorian British politics could not help but smile at the description in today’s New York Times of a campaign stop by Arlen Specter at a pub in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The article described the ambivalence of voters about the 80-year-old’s braggadocio about using his influence and patronage to buy the voters support. But in case anybody didn’t get the point of his campaign, the piece’s final line summed it up:

But Mr. Specter stayed on message at the pub. As he was departing, an aide called out to the crowd of 70 people: “Senator Specter just bought the next round, so hit the bar.”

Just like Trollope’s would-be parliamentarians who trolled for votes in pubs by buying the affection of publicans who served up the free pints to the voters, so too, apparently, must Pennsylvania’s senior senator.

But far from being merely an amusing sidebar to the real issues, Specter’s pose as the source of all sorts of free stuff for Pennsylvanians really is the whole focus of his re-election effort. At a black-church service yesterday, he boasted of intimidating the secretary of agriculture into coughing up more money for a local program. Later at a union rally at Philadelphia’s Marine Terminal along the Delaware River, Specter and his ally Governor Ed Rendell bragged about the money he has squeezed out of the federal budget for the region as well as his support for the patronage that rained down from President Obama’s stimulus bill, which he supported.

In any normal political year, these sorts of accomplishments might foreclose the possibility of defeat for Specter. But this isn’t any normal political year. At a time when voters are fed up with out-of-control government spending, some have begun to ask whose money it is that Specter is doling out in small packages to the public and realizing that the answer is … their own. While his opponent Rep. Joe Sestak may not be a disciple of limited government (that choice will be presented to voters in November, when the all-but-certain Republican nominee Pat Toomey will be on the ballot), the Democratic challenger has a point when he notes that the only job Specter is truly interested in saving is his own.

While one should never underestimate the capacity of Pennsylvania’s pro-Specter Democratic machine to turn out compliant voters when they are determined to do so, it would appear that Specter’s desperate last campaign bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the ones described by Trollope. Like the novelist’s protagonists, the senator may discover tomorrow that there are not enough free drinks in the world to buy an election for a candidate that the public won’t stomach.

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The Difference Between Drefyus and al-Qaeda

I have not read novelist Louis Begley’s new book Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which received a favorable review in today’s New York Times Book Review section. However, there are some things that may be confidently asserted even without having perused that tome.

One is that there is absolutely no analogy to be drawn between Captain Alfred Dreyfus on the one hand, and Khalid Sheik Muhammad and the other al-Qaeda operatives on the other, who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay over the last several years.

A second is that there is no analogy between the machinations of the French Army’s High Command, which covered up the identity of the real German spy in Paris in the 1890s and instead chose to place the blame for a security breach on a loyal French Jew, and the efforts of the Bush administration to defend the United States against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

A third would be to note that if there is any common thread between the actors of 9/11 and those of the Dreyfus affair, it is not between the anti-Dreyfusards and the Bush administration but rather between the former and their fellow Jew haters in al-Qaeda, not to mention the lunatic Left, which has rationalized Islamist terrorism and attacked those who fight it.

One would think that such elemental facts would be known to the editors of the Book Review or to Ruth Scurr, who gave Begley’s book a rave. But apparently in this case political prejudices trump even the barest knowledge of history. Scurr applauds Begley when he asks: “Will some day in the near future the crimes of the Bush administration, like … the crimes against Dreyfus, disappear under the scar tissue of silence and indifference?” She goes on to note approvingly his desire for the emergence of “an American Zola or Proust” to speak up against Bush as those French writers did against the Dreyfus persecutors.

What can one say about such nonsense? Most Americans probably know little of the Dreyfus Affair. So it’s worth pointing out a few facts about the difference between our contemporary war on terror and the political and cultural conflict that turned France upside down over 100 years ago.

Unlike the al-Qaeda murderers who planned and executed 9/11, Dreyfus was innocent. One may criticize the zealousness of the Bush administration in their counter-offensive against al Qaeda. One may even criticize Guantanamo though when compared to the Devil’s Island accommodations offered Dreyfus, it looks more like a stay at the Waldorf than a prison. But in the end, the notion that KSM and other al-Qaeda members are the victims of persecution and, as Scurr put it, of “kangaroo trials,” is beyond absurd.

Unlike Bush’s critics, those who defended Dreyfus were speaking up for a genuine victim of injustice, a patriot wrongly accused and convicted solely because he was a Jew. But it is a telling insight into the depth of the political bias that Bush-haters have descended to observe that some are even prepared to analogize Dreyfus and al-Qaeda. The bizarre notion that virtually everything done by Bush after 9/11 was an attack on American liberty has become so firmly ingrained in the popular imagination that anything can and will be said to besmirch his administration. That it occurs to neither Begley nor Scurr that the anti-Semitism of the anti-Dreyfusards finds its echo in the forces that Bush sought to fight speaks volumes about the tone-deaf nature of their political vendetta.

Of course, the Dreyfus Affair does matter. For those who want to actually learn about the Dreyfus Affair, there is still no better place to turn to than Jean Louis Bredin’s 1986 The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus.

But it matters not just because speaking out against injustice is the duty of all decent persons but also because the forces that sought to delegitimize Jewish identity in the 1890s are once again on the march in Europe. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in our time is due, in no small measure, to the influence of political Islam and the unwillingness of many Westerners to defend their democratic traditions. If any analogy is to be found today for the persecution of Dreyfus, it is in the lies that are hurled by Europeans and their Islamist friends against the State of Israel.

The spectacle of Dreyfus’s degradation in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire in Paris – as Dreyfus’s pitiful cries of his innocence and loyalty to France were drowned out by a mob screaming for the death of the Jews — helped motivate Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” and launch the modern Zionist movement. Today, as then, there are many in Europe and elsewhere who cry out for Jewish blood or attempt to portray Israel’s terrorist foes as innocent victims. Those like Begley and Scurr — who seem to think the fight against Islamist terrorists is the real evil of the day – have the bully pulpit of venues such as the Times from which to vent their spleen against Bush. But there is no resemblance between such jeremiads and a defense of Western values or of the Jews for which Zola is better remembered than his novels.

I have not read novelist Louis Begley’s new book Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which received a favorable review in today’s New York Times Book Review section. However, there are some things that may be confidently asserted even without having perused that tome.

One is that there is absolutely no analogy to be drawn between Captain Alfred Dreyfus on the one hand, and Khalid Sheik Muhammad and the other al-Qaeda operatives on the other, who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay over the last several years.

A second is that there is no analogy between the machinations of the French Army’s High Command, which covered up the identity of the real German spy in Paris in the 1890s and instead chose to place the blame for a security breach on a loyal French Jew, and the efforts of the Bush administration to defend the United States against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

A third would be to note that if there is any common thread between the actors of 9/11 and those of the Dreyfus affair, it is not between the anti-Dreyfusards and the Bush administration but rather between the former and their fellow Jew haters in al-Qaeda, not to mention the lunatic Left, which has rationalized Islamist terrorism and attacked those who fight it.

One would think that such elemental facts would be known to the editors of the Book Review or to Ruth Scurr, who gave Begley’s book a rave. But apparently in this case political prejudices trump even the barest knowledge of history. Scurr applauds Begley when he asks: “Will some day in the near future the crimes of the Bush administration, like … the crimes against Dreyfus, disappear under the scar tissue of silence and indifference?” She goes on to note approvingly his desire for the emergence of “an American Zola or Proust” to speak up against Bush as those French writers did against the Dreyfus persecutors.

What can one say about such nonsense? Most Americans probably know little of the Dreyfus Affair. So it’s worth pointing out a few facts about the difference between our contemporary war on terror and the political and cultural conflict that turned France upside down over 100 years ago.

Unlike the al-Qaeda murderers who planned and executed 9/11, Dreyfus was innocent. One may criticize the zealousness of the Bush administration in their counter-offensive against al Qaeda. One may even criticize Guantanamo though when compared to the Devil’s Island accommodations offered Dreyfus, it looks more like a stay at the Waldorf than a prison. But in the end, the notion that KSM and other al-Qaeda members are the victims of persecution and, as Scurr put it, of “kangaroo trials,” is beyond absurd.

Unlike Bush’s critics, those who defended Dreyfus were speaking up for a genuine victim of injustice, a patriot wrongly accused and convicted solely because he was a Jew. But it is a telling insight into the depth of the political bias that Bush-haters have descended to observe that some are even prepared to analogize Dreyfus and al-Qaeda. The bizarre notion that virtually everything done by Bush after 9/11 was an attack on American liberty has become so firmly ingrained in the popular imagination that anything can and will be said to besmirch his administration. That it occurs to neither Begley nor Scurr that the anti-Semitism of the anti-Dreyfusards finds its echo in the forces that Bush sought to fight speaks volumes about the tone-deaf nature of their political vendetta.

Of course, the Dreyfus Affair does matter. For those who want to actually learn about the Dreyfus Affair, there is still no better place to turn to than Jean Louis Bredin’s 1986 The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus.

But it matters not just because speaking out against injustice is the duty of all decent persons but also because the forces that sought to delegitimize Jewish identity in the 1890s are once again on the march in Europe. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in our time is due, in no small measure, to the influence of political Islam and the unwillingness of many Westerners to defend their democratic traditions. If any analogy is to be found today for the persecution of Dreyfus, it is in the lies that are hurled by Europeans and their Islamist friends against the State of Israel.

The spectacle of Dreyfus’s degradation in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire in Paris – as Dreyfus’s pitiful cries of his innocence and loyalty to France were drowned out by a mob screaming for the death of the Jews — helped motivate Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” and launch the modern Zionist movement. Today, as then, there are many in Europe and elsewhere who cry out for Jewish blood or attempt to portray Israel’s terrorist foes as innocent victims. Those like Begley and Scurr — who seem to think the fight against Islamist terrorists is the real evil of the day – have the bully pulpit of venues such as the Times from which to vent their spleen against Bush. But there is no resemblance between such jeremiads and a defense of Western values or of the Jews for which Zola is better remembered than his novels.

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Watch Out, A. B. Yehoshua

This one is likely to tick off American Jews. A few months ago, the novelist A.B. Yehoshua set off a firestorm when he told members of the American Jewish Committee that “[Being] Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You are changing jackets . . . you are changing countries like changing jackets. I have my skin, the territory.” As a result, he claimed Jewish life in Israel is far more complete than in America. (Yehoshua issued a semi-apology, in which he did not retract his remarks, but merely insisted that they were no different from what he’s said in the past.)

Now Uri Orbach, the influential Israeli journalist and TV personality, has written a column singing the praises of Israeli secular Jewish life, as opposed to the expressions of non-Orthodox Judaism found in the United States:

Israeli seculars enjoy a Jewish existence that is more intense than that enjoyed by any non-Orthodox American Jew. In America, if you do not observe the mitzvahs and are not connected to your community, your religion has not expression in your daily life. If someone would remind you, there is a chance that you would mark Passover or Hanukah (it takes place around Christmas time.)

If you are a non-religious Jew in America, the probability that your children will marry gentiles is huge, and the likelihood that this won’t bother you too much is also quite high. Based on various estimates, the Jewish people lose about 50,000 Jews annually in the US alone. Even within Reform communities the struggle is no longer against intermarriage, but rather, focuses on guaranteeing minimal Jewish education for the children even if their parents intermarried.

In Israel, on the other hand, it is easy to spot the scope of secular Zionism’s achievement. The Zionism that established the Jewish State managed to create a reasonable Jewish environment for seculars. Israelis enjoy a Jewish atmosphere thanks to Hebrew and political mechanisms: The Hebrew language and culture, Shabbats and holidays, life in the land of the Bible, the Jewish environment and the army.

Only in Israel do seculars have the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays a little bit, to eat kosher a little, to wed, and divorce, be born and die as Jews, and all that without observing the mitzvahs. Only in Israel nobody will tell you: What, you’re Jewish? I would have never thought that… (unless you are a construction worker.)

Zionism’s great achievement is therefore the guarantee of a Jewish existence for secular Jews.

I’m looking forward to the comments on this one. . .

This one is likely to tick off American Jews. A few months ago, the novelist A.B. Yehoshua set off a firestorm when he told members of the American Jewish Committee that “[Being] Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You are changing jackets . . . you are changing countries like changing jackets. I have my skin, the territory.” As a result, he claimed Jewish life in Israel is far more complete than in America. (Yehoshua issued a semi-apology, in which he did not retract his remarks, but merely insisted that they were no different from what he’s said in the past.)

Now Uri Orbach, the influential Israeli journalist and TV personality, has written a column singing the praises of Israeli secular Jewish life, as opposed to the expressions of non-Orthodox Judaism found in the United States:

Israeli seculars enjoy a Jewish existence that is more intense than that enjoyed by any non-Orthodox American Jew. In America, if you do not observe the mitzvahs and are not connected to your community, your religion has not expression in your daily life. If someone would remind you, there is a chance that you would mark Passover or Hanukah (it takes place around Christmas time.)

If you are a non-religious Jew in America, the probability that your children will marry gentiles is huge, and the likelihood that this won’t bother you too much is also quite high. Based on various estimates, the Jewish people lose about 50,000 Jews annually in the US alone. Even within Reform communities the struggle is no longer against intermarriage, but rather, focuses on guaranteeing minimal Jewish education for the children even if their parents intermarried.

In Israel, on the other hand, it is easy to spot the scope of secular Zionism’s achievement. The Zionism that established the Jewish State managed to create a reasonable Jewish environment for seculars. Israelis enjoy a Jewish atmosphere thanks to Hebrew and political mechanisms: The Hebrew language and culture, Shabbats and holidays, life in the land of the Bible, the Jewish environment and the army.

Only in Israel do seculars have the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays a little bit, to eat kosher a little, to wed, and divorce, be born and die as Jews, and all that without observing the mitzvahs. Only in Israel nobody will tell you: What, you’re Jewish? I would have never thought that… (unless you are a construction worker.)

Zionism’s great achievement is therefore the guarantee of a Jewish existence for secular Jews.

I’m looking forward to the comments on this one. . .

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Why WWII Matters

Matthew Yglesias asks “Do we really need a Richard Cohen column about how World War II was, in fact, a good war? Surely there’s some more pressing topic that the precious Washington Post op-ed page real estate could be devoted to.”

It would indeed be nice if, over half a century later, we did not require Washington Post columnists to remind us that “World War II was, in fact, a good war.” But recently a major American novelist undertook a history of World War II aimed at convincing us, in the words of the New York Sun’s Adam Kirsch,

that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler’s response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists, who refused to take up arms no matter how pressing the need.

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which Yglesias does not bother to mention in attacking the decision to publish Cohen’s piece) was not published by the sort of press that puts out tracts by Lyndon LaRouche or Lew Rockwell, but by Simon and Schuster. The book has received favorable notices in both the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine. It enjoyed, in other words, the blessing of American literary culture. Yglesias has an award for political non-conformism named after him. You’d think he’d be more skeptical of thinkers like Baker and the political sophism they practice, whatever sympathies he may share with them.

David Pryce-Jones’s review of Human Smoke, published in COMMENTARY last month, shows why Baker, with his outrageous moral equivalency, is what George Orwell would call “objectively pro-fascist.”Pryce-Jones writes:

For Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt were just as bad then as Bush is now: foolish, small-minded cowards who ordered the bombing of innocent civilians from the air and so participated in a process of reciprocal killing, both blind and, worse, needless.

Leon Wieseltier’s review of Baker’s 2004 novel Checkpoint (about assassinating President Bush), memorably began “This scummy little book . . .” Judgments about Baker’s latest effort should be no more charitable, and should find their way into even Yglesias’s discussions of the Second World War.

Matthew Yglesias asks “Do we really need a Richard Cohen column about how World War II was, in fact, a good war? Surely there’s some more pressing topic that the precious Washington Post op-ed page real estate could be devoted to.”

It would indeed be nice if, over half a century later, we did not require Washington Post columnists to remind us that “World War II was, in fact, a good war.” But recently a major American novelist undertook a history of World War II aimed at convincing us, in the words of the New York Sun’s Adam Kirsch,

that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler’s response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists, who refused to take up arms no matter how pressing the need.

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which Yglesias does not bother to mention in attacking the decision to publish Cohen’s piece) was not published by the sort of press that puts out tracts by Lyndon LaRouche or Lew Rockwell, but by Simon and Schuster. The book has received favorable notices in both the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine. It enjoyed, in other words, the blessing of American literary culture. Yglesias has an award for political non-conformism named after him. You’d think he’d be more skeptical of thinkers like Baker and the political sophism they practice, whatever sympathies he may share with them.

David Pryce-Jones’s review of Human Smoke, published in COMMENTARY last month, shows why Baker, with his outrageous moral equivalency, is what George Orwell would call “objectively pro-fascist.”Pryce-Jones writes:

For Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt were just as bad then as Bush is now: foolish, small-minded cowards who ordered the bombing of innocent civilians from the air and so participated in a process of reciprocal killing, both blind and, worse, needless.

Leon Wieseltier’s review of Baker’s 2004 novel Checkpoint (about assassinating President Bush), memorably began “This scummy little book . . .” Judgments about Baker’s latest effort should be no more charitable, and should find their way into even Yglesias’s discussions of the Second World War.

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Lewis v. Franklin

The trouble with shock-horror revelations is that they can be made only once before they lose a good deal of their shock-horror quotient. For this reason I was surprised when, browsing in the current issue of The New Republic, I came across a piece by Ruth Franklin promising readers the “nasty truth about a new literary heroine.” Just how new? The hardcover edition of Suite Française, translated by Sandra Smith, was released by Knopf in Spring 2006. It was in Autumn of that year that Tess Lewis, writing in The Hudson Review, delivered most of the dirt piled up in Franklin’s essay on Némirovsky. Here’s Lewis:

By now most readers have heard the dramatic story of Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished epic, Suite Française. Against all odds, the manuscript, a leather-bound notebook, survived World War II hidden in a suitcase the author’s adolescent daughter, Denise Epstein, carried faithfully from one hiding place to another in tiny villages, convents, and cellars throughout occupied France. . . . As an adult, Denise had occasionally tried to decipher her mother’s miniscule handwriting—paper was hard to come by in Vichy France . . .

Here’s Franklin:

The writer: a Jew who had fled to the French countryside seeking refuge from occupied Paris, eventually deported to Auschwitz, where she would die in a typhus epidemic soon after her arrival. The book: scribbled in minuscule letters, so as to conserve paper and ink, in a leather-bound journal that would be carried into hiding by the writer’s eldest daughter. She would survive the war and keep it as a memento of her mother, once a well-known novelist, daring to read its contents only sixty years later.

Lewis:

Yet few readers outside of France are aware of a disturbing side to Irène Némirovsky’s story. The English translation of Suite Française . . . includes a shortened version of the scholar Myriam Anissimov’s preface to the French edition with Anissimov’s detailed account of Némirovsky’s tragedy, but not her discussion of the extent to which Némirovsky’s previous novels were riddled with anti-Semitic stereotypes. Jewish characters in her books are marked, with few exceptions, by hooked noses, flaring nostrils, flaccid hands, sallow complexions, dark, oily curls, hysteria, avarice, unscrupulous business practices, and an atavistic ability to trade in commodities and goods. The list goes on.

Franklin:

The real irony of the Suite Francaise sensation is not that a great work of literature was waiting unread in a notebook for sixty years before finally being brought to light. It is that this accomplished but unexceptional novel, having acquired the dark frame of Auschwitz, posthumously capped the career of a writer who made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes.

And so on. Both pieces are well worth reading. There’s no harm in bringing this unpleasant and complicating truth to new readers—I can’t imagine The Hudson Review has half the circulation of The New Republic—but Franklin ought to have acknowledged that Lewis beat her to this earth-shaking discovery by somewhere in the neighborhood of a year and a half.

The trouble with shock-horror revelations is that they can be made only once before they lose a good deal of their shock-horror quotient. For this reason I was surprised when, browsing in the current issue of The New Republic, I came across a piece by Ruth Franklin promising readers the “nasty truth about a new literary heroine.” Just how new? The hardcover edition of Suite Française, translated by Sandra Smith, was released by Knopf in Spring 2006. It was in Autumn of that year that Tess Lewis, writing in The Hudson Review, delivered most of the dirt piled up in Franklin’s essay on Némirovsky. Here’s Lewis:

By now most readers have heard the dramatic story of Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished epic, Suite Française. Against all odds, the manuscript, a leather-bound notebook, survived World War II hidden in a suitcase the author’s adolescent daughter, Denise Epstein, carried faithfully from one hiding place to another in tiny villages, convents, and cellars throughout occupied France. . . . As an adult, Denise had occasionally tried to decipher her mother’s miniscule handwriting—paper was hard to come by in Vichy France . . .

Here’s Franklin:

The writer: a Jew who had fled to the French countryside seeking refuge from occupied Paris, eventually deported to Auschwitz, where she would die in a typhus epidemic soon after her arrival. The book: scribbled in minuscule letters, so as to conserve paper and ink, in a leather-bound journal that would be carried into hiding by the writer’s eldest daughter. She would survive the war and keep it as a memento of her mother, once a well-known novelist, daring to read its contents only sixty years later.

Lewis:

Yet few readers outside of France are aware of a disturbing side to Irène Némirovsky’s story. The English translation of Suite Française . . . includes a shortened version of the scholar Myriam Anissimov’s preface to the French edition with Anissimov’s detailed account of Némirovsky’s tragedy, but not her discussion of the extent to which Némirovsky’s previous novels were riddled with anti-Semitic stereotypes. Jewish characters in her books are marked, with few exceptions, by hooked noses, flaring nostrils, flaccid hands, sallow complexions, dark, oily curls, hysteria, avarice, unscrupulous business practices, and an atavistic ability to trade in commodities and goods. The list goes on.

Franklin:

The real irony of the Suite Francaise sensation is not that a great work of literature was waiting unread in a notebook for sixty years before finally being brought to light. It is that this accomplished but unexceptional novel, having acquired the dark frame of Auschwitz, posthumously capped the career of a writer who made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes.

And so on. Both pieces are well worth reading. There’s no harm in bringing this unpleasant and complicating truth to new readers—I can’t imagine The Hudson Review has half the circulation of The New Republic—but Franklin ought to have acknowledged that Lewis beat her to this earth-shaking discovery by somewhere in the neighborhood of a year and a half.

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To Fraser (And Flashman)!

I would like to join my contentions colleague Sam Munson in hoisting a tumbler of single-malt to salute the passing of George MacDonald Fraser, the crusty old Scot who produced a brilliant dozen of the Flashman novels.

Fraser has never really gotten his due. Another historical novelist of 19th century warfare—Patrick O’Brian—has received far more critical huzzahs. That is because his Aubrey/Maturin novels are more self-consciously literary, with relatively little action and lots of introspection, dialogue, and description. By contrast, Fraser’s books gallop along at the pace of a runaway mustang, with incident piled atop incident to keep the reader’s attention, many of them violent or salacious. There is also a humorous, mocking tone to Fraser’s work, a bit reminiscent of Thackeray, which contrasts with the somewhat dour mood of the Aubrey/Maturin books.

This is by no means meant to be an indictment of O’Brian, who was undoubtedly a novelist of great merit. Probably greater merit, in fact, than Fraser. But Fraser was more fun to read. And he was no less meticulous in his reconstructions of the past. A reader interested in Victorian history could do a lot worse than to pick up the Flashman series, which contain detailed descriptions of conflicts ranging from the U.S. Civil War to the First Afghan War. Flashman was a Victorian Zelig or Forrest Gump who showed up conveniently enough at every important event between 1840 and 1900.

In some ways, Fraser actually outdid most historians (and I say that as a historian myself): He captured the conversation and perspective of various historical characters in a way that is almost impossible to do for a conventional historian, who can’t embellish on the limited sources available. If there is a modern writer with a better ear for Victorian slang, I have yet to read his or her work.

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I would like to join my contentions colleague Sam Munson in hoisting a tumbler of single-malt to salute the passing of George MacDonald Fraser, the crusty old Scot who produced a brilliant dozen of the Flashman novels.

Fraser has never really gotten his due. Another historical novelist of 19th century warfare—Patrick O’Brian—has received far more critical huzzahs. That is because his Aubrey/Maturin novels are more self-consciously literary, with relatively little action and lots of introspection, dialogue, and description. By contrast, Fraser’s books gallop along at the pace of a runaway mustang, with incident piled atop incident to keep the reader’s attention, many of them violent or salacious. There is also a humorous, mocking tone to Fraser’s work, a bit reminiscent of Thackeray, which contrasts with the somewhat dour mood of the Aubrey/Maturin books.

This is by no means meant to be an indictment of O’Brian, who was undoubtedly a novelist of great merit. Probably greater merit, in fact, than Fraser. But Fraser was more fun to read. And he was no less meticulous in his reconstructions of the past. A reader interested in Victorian history could do a lot worse than to pick up the Flashman series, which contain detailed descriptions of conflicts ranging from the U.S. Civil War to the First Afghan War. Flashman was a Victorian Zelig or Forrest Gump who showed up conveniently enough at every important event between 1840 and 1900.

In some ways, Fraser actually outdid most historians (and I say that as a historian myself): He captured the conversation and perspective of various historical characters in a way that is almost impossible to do for a conventional historian, who can’t embellish on the limited sources available. If there is a modern writer with a better ear for Victorian slang, I have yet to read his or her work.

One of the clever things about Fraser’s writing is that, since he started out in the Age of Aquarius (1969 to be exact), he made sure to gird himself against charges of racism, imperialism, and the like by making his protagonist, Harry Flashman, an anti-hero. The conceit of the books is that Flashman is a consummate coward who through a combination of luck and unscrupulous scheming becomes known as a great hero—winner of the Victoria Cross, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and every other honor known to 19th century man. Yet a careful reader of the books, especially the later ones, will see that for all his protestations of buffoonery, Sir Harry often does in fact act the hero.

While Fraser gently pokes fun at the conventions of G.A. Henty and other “boy’s own” authors who glorified the British Empire, it is pretty clear that he in fact shared many of their pro-imperial prejudices. Like great satirists from Swift to Waugh, Fraser, though he was not in their class by any stretch, was essentially a conservative who managed to poke fun at various poltroons while upholding the age-old order of things.

His views were evident in his first-rate memoir of his days serving in the British army in Burma in World War II: Quartered Safe Out Here. Although written decades after the fact, it paints a convincing picture of how a young soldier reacted to his first taste of combat. It also gives his robust, old-fashioned views on a number of questions. I don’t have my copy in front of me, but this Daily Telegraph obit gives a good summary:

He was particularly firm in his conviction that the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima was justified, believing that among the lives it had saved had been his own.

Nor did he have much time for fashionable attitudes about the emotional delicacy of soldiers and their need for counselling. His experience, in what he acknowledged was another age, was that war was a job that needed to be done, one accomplished by his generation without relish but with a common sense and resolve since vanished from the public spirit.

We will not see his like again, and more’s the pity.

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A Wonderful Essay…

…by James Wood, writing in the New Yorker about the new translation of War and Peace, which captures with gorgeous urgency the extraordinary contradictions of Tolstoy’s vision and finds the friction they generate one of the causes of the book’s unsurpassed evocation and replication of life itself in fictional prose:

The irony is that this novel about great egotists and solipsists (Pierre and Andrei are just the chief representatives), written by perhaps the greatest egotist ever to put pen to paper, is a cannon aimed directly at the egotism of Napoleon. As a result, Tolstoy the novelist, whenever he describes Napoleon dramatically, cannot help crediting the very vitality that Tolstoy the Russian patriot hates.

This is one of Wood’s finest pieces, which is saying a lot.

…by James Wood, writing in the New Yorker about the new translation of War and Peace, which captures with gorgeous urgency the extraordinary contradictions of Tolstoy’s vision and finds the friction they generate one of the causes of the book’s unsurpassed evocation and replication of life itself in fictional prose:

The irony is that this novel about great egotists and solipsists (Pierre and Andrei are just the chief representatives), written by perhaps the greatest egotist ever to put pen to paper, is a cannon aimed directly at the egotism of Napoleon. As a result, Tolstoy the novelist, whenever he describes Napoleon dramatically, cannot help crediting the very vitality that Tolstoy the Russian patriot hates.

This is one of Wood’s finest pieces, which is saying a lot.

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Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

Norman Mailer died early this morning. Mailer had a six-decade career as a novelist, opening with his best-selling debut The Naked and the Dead and closing with The Castle in the Forest, his meditation on the life of Adolph Hitler, and producing influential works in the emergent genre of “New Journalism”—The Executioner’s Song, Miami and the Siege of Chicago—along the way. Whatever his faults as an artist may have been, he remained an enduringly provocative figure throughout his lifetime. Below, you can read a free selection of writings on Mailer’s work, along with pieces from his own hand, from the pages of COMMENTARY.

John Gross on The Castle in the Forest (March 2007)

Thomas L. Jeffers on The Spooky Art (April 2003)

Peter Shaw on Miami and the Siege of Chicago (December 1968)

Richard Poirier on An American Dream (June 1965)

Midge Decter on The Presidential Papers (February 1964)

William Barrett on Barbary Shore (June 1951)

Raymond Rosenthal on The Naked and the Dead (July 1948)

By Mailer:

The Battle of the Pentagon” (April 1968)

Modes and Mutations: Quick Comments on the Modern American Novel” (March 1966)

Norman Mailer died early this morning. Mailer had a six-decade career as a novelist, opening with his best-selling debut The Naked and the Dead and closing with The Castle in the Forest, his meditation on the life of Adolph Hitler, and producing influential works in the emergent genre of “New Journalism”—The Executioner’s Song, Miami and the Siege of Chicago—along the way. Whatever his faults as an artist may have been, he remained an enduringly provocative figure throughout his lifetime. Below, you can read a free selection of writings on Mailer’s work, along with pieces from his own hand, from the pages of COMMENTARY.

John Gross on The Castle in the Forest (March 2007)

Thomas L. Jeffers on The Spooky Art (April 2003)

Peter Shaw on Miami and the Siege of Chicago (December 1968)

Richard Poirier on An American Dream (June 1965)

Midge Decter on The Presidential Papers (February 1964)

William Barrett on Barbary Shore (June 1951)

Raymond Rosenthal on The Naked and the Dead (July 1948)

By Mailer:

The Battle of the Pentagon” (April 1968)

Modes and Mutations: Quick Comments on the Modern American Novel” (March 1966)

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Really Terrible Music

The whimsical Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, author of the popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of mysteries, as well as academic works on his research specialty of medical law, has an unexpected new hit on his hands. As McCall Smith told the Daily Telegraph, he and his wife founded the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) for self-confessedly poor amateur players, as a fun form of musical therapy. A mainstay since 1995 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the RTO sold out its London debut on November 3, and doubtless will soon make its New York debut.

Manhattan audiences are always eager to witness a musical car wreck, and the RTO guarantees just that, as McCall Smith, the orchestra’s bassoonist, explains: “Various sections of the orchestra stop playing if the music becomes a little bit too complex. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and occasionally our conductor has to stop us and take us back to the beginning again and the audience absolutely loves that.” The subject of a 2005 short documentary, the RTO has even released CD’s, featuring mangled versions of pop songs like King of the Road and Yellow Submarine.

Although crowds will flock to see ineptitude on display, as fans of the 1962 New York Mets proved, the RTO’s stance of proudly self-proclaimed incapacity is an innovation. A detailed new documentary from VAI, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own tells everything one would ever want to know about the excruciatingly bad coloratura soprano, who drew crowds to recital in the 1940’s.

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The whimsical Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, author of the popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of mysteries, as well as academic works on his research specialty of medical law, has an unexpected new hit on his hands. As McCall Smith told the Daily Telegraph, he and his wife founded the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) for self-confessedly poor amateur players, as a fun form of musical therapy. A mainstay since 1995 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the RTO sold out its London debut on November 3, and doubtless will soon make its New York debut.

Manhattan audiences are always eager to witness a musical car wreck, and the RTO guarantees just that, as McCall Smith, the orchestra’s bassoonist, explains: “Various sections of the orchestra stop playing if the music becomes a little bit too complex. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and occasionally our conductor has to stop us and take us back to the beginning again and the audience absolutely loves that.” The subject of a 2005 short documentary, the RTO has even released CD’s, featuring mangled versions of pop songs like King of the Road and Yellow Submarine.

Although crowds will flock to see ineptitude on display, as fans of the 1962 New York Mets proved, the RTO’s stance of proudly self-proclaimed incapacity is an innovation. A detailed new documentary from VAI, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own tells everything one would ever want to know about the excruciatingly bad coloratura soprano, who drew crowds to recital in the 1940’s.

The self-delusion of Jenkins (1868–1944) inspired a number of recent plays, like Stephen Temperley’s 2005 Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, as well as a ballet choreographed by Ohad Naharin of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company to Jenkins’s caterwauling of an aria from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. These works mix the pathos of failed aspirations with laughs at punctured pretensions. Yet many who laugh at Jenkins’s recordings are motivated by plain old cattiness, as the arch notes to VAI’s The Muse Surmounted—Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven Rivals show, ridiculing elderly women who were unfortunate enough to preserve their singing on tape for derision by later generations. This mean-spiritedness happily is absent from McCall Smith’s venture, yet the RTO on display is still uncomfortably close to audience fascination with past spectacles, like the Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose life inspired the 1996 film Shine. Helfgott’s celebrity led for a time to a spate of unlistenable Helfgott concerts and even CD’s.

Classical music may not be in its death throes, as some critics adamantly claim, but it surely does not need concerts and CD’s from the orchestral equivalent of the American Idol auditioner William Hung, who himself has launched a performing and recording career. Performers should not be encouraged to believe that the more objectionable they sound, the more the world will approve of them.

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Hello, Arrabal!

I recently sat down for a chat with the Spanish playwright and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal, who was in town to give an October 31 lecture at St. John’s University and introduce his 1992 film Goodbye, Babylon! at a downtown arts foundation on November 2. A diminutive, bubbly 75-year-old, Arrabal is prone to sudden enthusiasms, whether for mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck and Benoît Mandelbrot; chess-players like Gata Kamsky; or toreadors like Diego Bardon. He is currently reading Saint Isidore of Seville, a 7th century etymologist whose Etymologiae, Arrabal announces with delight, recently has appeared in English from Cambridge University Press.

A confirmed bookworm, Arrabal has lived with his wife and children in Paris since 1955, but is defiantly unfashionable among French intellectuals for his staunch opposition to Communism and support for Israel. In 1999 his play Love Letter had its world premiere at Israel’s Habimah Theatre, performed by the acclaimed actress Orna Porat. Love Letter, so far unperformed in New York (although Liv Ullmann has been rumored to be considering the play for Broadway), is a monologue by a mother who may have denounced her husband to tyrannical authorities. Arrabal’s own father disappeared in 1941, after being jailed by Franco’s regime in Spain. Arrabal himself was imprisoned during a 1967 visit to Spain (he was born in Spanish Morocco in 1932), allegedly for “blasphemy.” After protests by famous writers including Samuel Beckett, François Mauriac, and Eugène Ionesco, Arrabal soon was freed.

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I recently sat down for a chat with the Spanish playwright and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal, who was in town to give an October 31 lecture at St. John’s University and introduce his 1992 film Goodbye, Babylon! at a downtown arts foundation on November 2. A diminutive, bubbly 75-year-old, Arrabal is prone to sudden enthusiasms, whether for mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck and Benoît Mandelbrot; chess-players like Gata Kamsky; or toreadors like Diego Bardon. He is currently reading Saint Isidore of Seville, a 7th century etymologist whose Etymologiae, Arrabal announces with delight, recently has appeared in English from Cambridge University Press.

A confirmed bookworm, Arrabal has lived with his wife and children in Paris since 1955, but is defiantly unfashionable among French intellectuals for his staunch opposition to Communism and support for Israel. In 1999 his play Love Letter had its world premiere at Israel’s Habimah Theatre, performed by the acclaimed actress Orna Porat. Love Letter, so far unperformed in New York (although Liv Ullmann has been rumored to be considering the play for Broadway), is a monologue by a mother who may have denounced her husband to tyrannical authorities. Arrabal’s own father disappeared in 1941, after being jailed by Franco’s regime in Spain. Arrabal himself was imprisoned during a 1967 visit to Spain (he was born in Spanish Morocco in 1932), allegedly for “blasphemy.” After protests by famous writers including Samuel Beckett, François Mauriac, and Eugène Ionesco, Arrabal soon was freed.

For decades the Spanish playwright has been admirably industrious, creating seven full-length films, five books on his obsessive pastime of chess, and numerous polemics. These include his admonitory Letters to Franco (1972); Castro (1984); and Stalin (2003). This lively anti-Communist invective has not been translated into English, nor have Arrabal’s amusing biographical fantasias of El Greco and Cervantes. Of course, most American publishers are appalling slaves to fashion, and Arrabal may be seen as a 1960’s figure, since he first won fame in that decade, especially by those who have not bothered to read anything he has published since.

Beyond new books, which continue to appear in France, Spain, and elsewhere, Arrabal has shown rare courage in speaking his mind publicly. In 2002 he testified in Paris on behalf of the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who told an interviewer the previous year that Islam is the “most stupid religion. When you read the Koran, it’s appalling, appalling!” France’s Human Rights League, the Mecca-based World Islamic League, and others accused Houellebecq of hate speech, a crime in France that is punishable by a fine and jail time. Houellebecq was acquitted, at least in part due to Arrabal’s remarkable court appearance; the elderly Spaniard replied to a judge who asked his profession: “I am a pedestrian.” Then Arrabal pulled out a miniature bottle of cognac from his pocket and offered it to the same judge, who declined politely. This was one of the most drolly convincing theatrical moments of an author who has published over one hundred plays.

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Campus Progress, Regressing

According to its website, the mission of Campus Progress, an outfit affiliated with left-of-center think tank the Center for American Progress, is “to see that the next generation of progressive leaders is better trained, better informed, more diverse, and more united than any generation before.” Irrespective of one’s political affiliation, one can appreciate the organization’s idealistic approach to getting young people involved in public life.

But a piece by Kay Steiger on the legacy of Ernesto “Che” Guevara demonstrates the jejune approach that many on the Left still take when it comes to discussing left-wing totalitarians. An earnestness afflicts the entire piece, the purpose of which is to inform liberal readers that the man they lionize on t-shirts and lighters is not exactly a progressive hero, as he’s been portrayed. Steiger writes that “[Guevara] was a man of principles, to a fault.” The same, of course, can be (and still is) said about Joseph Stalin or Robert Mugabe; in the minds of many liberals, it is not the ideas of these men that were toxic from the start, just the way they were executed.

Steiger writes of Guevara’s “impatience with governing,” which is a nice euphemism for a belief in the virtues of violent revolution over the comparatively less sexy devotion to the rule of law and individual rights. Steiger is not the first writer to employ such rhetorical sleights-of-hand aimed at whitewashing the brutality of this particular left-wing thug.

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According to its website, the mission of Campus Progress, an outfit affiliated with left-of-center think tank the Center for American Progress, is “to see that the next generation of progressive leaders is better trained, better informed, more diverse, and more united than any generation before.” Irrespective of one’s political affiliation, one can appreciate the organization’s idealistic approach to getting young people involved in public life.

But a piece by Kay Steiger on the legacy of Ernesto “Che” Guevara demonstrates the jejune approach that many on the Left still take when it comes to discussing left-wing totalitarians. An earnestness afflicts the entire piece, the purpose of which is to inform liberal readers that the man they lionize on t-shirts and lighters is not exactly a progressive hero, as he’s been portrayed. Steiger writes that “[Guevara] was a man of principles, to a fault.” The same, of course, can be (and still is) said about Joseph Stalin or Robert Mugabe; in the minds of many liberals, it is not the ideas of these men that were toxic from the start, just the way they were executed.

Steiger writes of Guevara’s “impatience with governing,” which is a nice euphemism for a belief in the virtues of violent revolution over the comparatively less sexy devotion to the rule of law and individual rights. Steiger is not the first writer to employ such rhetorical sleights-of-hand aimed at whitewashing the brutality of this particular left-wing thug.

Perhaps knowing that she will not be able to convince her left-leaning audience that Che was bad by virtue of his politics, Steiger pinpoints the man’s reactionary views towards women and homosexuals, who rank highly among the intended beneficiaries of 20th century liberalism. (She does, though, make a key factual error in her assertion that the gay Cuban novelist Reynaldo Arenas “was killed as the result of the government’s prosecution of gays.” He died in Miami, where he had fled, of complications due to AIDS. This, of course, is not to discount the Cuban regime’s incarceration of gays, along with other undesirables, in prison labor camps.) Steiger helpfully informs us that

At best, Guevara’s politics advocated for a mindless devotion of the working man (with an emphasis on “man”) to socialism, but left out other causes many progressives have worked long and hard for: equality for gender and sexual orientation. In fact, gays were persecuted following the Cuban revolution.

The precious, explanatory manner in which this is written (“Hey guys, Che wasn’t exactly a great dude”) characterizes Steiger’s entire article, seen here in the surprise she evinces towards her own discovery that Guevara was violently hostile towards homosexuals (“In fact”). But the hostility of left-wing regimes towards homosexuality is hardly a secret. The Soviet Union and its satellite states around the world viewed homosexuality as a deficiency that would be cured with the perfection of Socialist Man.

It’s nice to see a liberal website like Campus Progress explain to its readers why Che Guevara was “cruel and militantly dogmatic in ways that should make the Left squirm.” But Steiger nevertheless qualifies this already tepid condemnation with an assertion that “[t]he discussion of Guevara is still divisive and complicated, years after his death, and it should be.” There is nothing “complicated” about the moral character of Che Guevara; he was an evil man. And the only thing “divisive” about “the discussion” surrounding him is that so many on the Left persist in claiming otherwise. That an ostensibly mainstream liberal organization like Campus Progress feels the need to explain to its readers that Guevara was not the hero of their imaginations, 40 years after the man’s death, says a lot about the “next generation of progressive leaders.”

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Thabo Mbeki, Fellow Traveler

Reading Thabo Mbeki’s weekly letters is alternately a mind-numbing and revelatory experience. Mind-numbing because of their length and monotony; revelatory because they really do give the reader an insight into the paranoid and aggrieved mind of the South African President.

The lead item in this week’s missive—”Che Guevara—a fond farewell forty years later!”—sounds exactly like what it is: Stalinist propaganda. Mbeki calls Guevara “our beloved hero,” remarking that he died soon after former ANC president Albert Luthuli. This is an absurd juxtaposition: Luthuli was a man of unimpeachable reputation who preached reconciliation with whites and multiracial democracy. He was also an ally of the novelist Alan Paton and his anti-Communist Liberal Party. Luthuli himself was a strong anti-Communist who feared that Communists would tarnish the reputation of the anti-apartheid movement (which they later did). Nor did Luthuli ever call for his political enemies to be executed.

In today’s South Africa, it is considered gauche to bring up the ANC’s historic ties to the Soviet Union, just as it was considered pro-apartheid to write about these ties during the years of the nation’s struggle for freedom. To do so apparently reveals one’s anachronistic anti-Communism. Contemporary South Africa, after all, is hardly going Red, in spite of the continued influence of its domestic Communist Party.

But just because the Soviet Union is dead does not mean that its admirers are, or that they have significantly altered their ideologies of governance. As the South African blogger Michael Kransdorff explains, effusions of the above kind are par for the course when it comes to the missives of Mbeki and his top associates. It is far too soon to conclude, as so many are wont to do, that post-apartheid South Africa is on stable, democratic, liberal footing. It says something ominous about the political temperament and ideology of South Africa’s leading politician when he praises Che Guevara and denounces the United States.

Reading Thabo Mbeki’s weekly letters is alternately a mind-numbing and revelatory experience. Mind-numbing because of their length and monotony; revelatory because they really do give the reader an insight into the paranoid and aggrieved mind of the South African President.

The lead item in this week’s missive—”Che Guevara—a fond farewell forty years later!”—sounds exactly like what it is: Stalinist propaganda. Mbeki calls Guevara “our beloved hero,” remarking that he died soon after former ANC president Albert Luthuli. This is an absurd juxtaposition: Luthuli was a man of unimpeachable reputation who preached reconciliation with whites and multiracial democracy. He was also an ally of the novelist Alan Paton and his anti-Communist Liberal Party. Luthuli himself was a strong anti-Communist who feared that Communists would tarnish the reputation of the anti-apartheid movement (which they later did). Nor did Luthuli ever call for his political enemies to be executed.

In today’s South Africa, it is considered gauche to bring up the ANC’s historic ties to the Soviet Union, just as it was considered pro-apartheid to write about these ties during the years of the nation’s struggle for freedom. To do so apparently reveals one’s anachronistic anti-Communism. Contemporary South Africa, after all, is hardly going Red, in spite of the continued influence of its domestic Communist Party.

But just because the Soviet Union is dead does not mean that its admirers are, or that they have significantly altered their ideologies of governance. As the South African blogger Michael Kransdorff explains, effusions of the above kind are par for the course when it comes to the missives of Mbeki and his top associates. It is far too soon to conclude, as so many are wont to do, that post-apartheid South Africa is on stable, democratic, liberal footing. It says something ominous about the political temperament and ideology of South Africa’s leading politician when he praises Che Guevara and denounces the United States.

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Bookshelf

• Time was when the writer who published his own book was by definition an amateur and, more often than not, a crank. Vanity-publishing outfits like Vantage Press existed to divert the life savings of literary innocents into the printing of unreadable, amateurishly designed volumes that promptly vanished without trace, leaving their hapless authors thousands of dollars poorer. A visit to Vantage’s website is guaranteed to make the hardest of hearts sink (“We believe that you and all other authors have the right to express your ideas in print . . . if funds are needed for basic living expenses, this program may not be for you”).

But times have changed, and so has the book business. Nowadays most major publishers are less and less willing to take a chance on promising manuscripts that are deemed unlikely to sell in reasonably large numbers. At the same time, the simultaneous emergence of online booksellers and computerized print-on-demand technology (which allows books to be printed, bound, and shipped to buyers one copy at a time) has made self-publishing economically feasible for professional authors who know how to market their own books.

This new style of self-publishing is already having an effect on the availability of out-of-print titles. Two weeks ago, I wrote about a paperback edition of Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles published by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, the biggest and most influential print-on-demand service in America. Will living authors be equally quick to embrace self-publishing—or is it destined to remain as marginal and disreputable as vanity publishing? For what it’s worth, I suspect that in the short run, we’re more likely to see the adoption of print-on-demand technology by new, independent publishing houses that will use it to slash their overhead, thus making it possible for them to gamble on worthy but hard-to-market manuscripts that the major houses are no longer willing to consider.

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• Time was when the writer who published his own book was by definition an amateur and, more often than not, a crank. Vanity-publishing outfits like Vantage Press existed to divert the life savings of literary innocents into the printing of unreadable, amateurishly designed volumes that promptly vanished without trace, leaving their hapless authors thousands of dollars poorer. A visit to Vantage’s website is guaranteed to make the hardest of hearts sink (“We believe that you and all other authors have the right to express your ideas in print . . . if funds are needed for basic living expenses, this program may not be for you”).

But times have changed, and so has the book business. Nowadays most major publishers are less and less willing to take a chance on promising manuscripts that are deemed unlikely to sell in reasonably large numbers. At the same time, the simultaneous emergence of online booksellers and computerized print-on-demand technology (which allows books to be printed, bound, and shipped to buyers one copy at a time) has made self-publishing economically feasible for professional authors who know how to market their own books.

This new style of self-publishing is already having an effect on the availability of out-of-print titles. Two weeks ago, I wrote about a paperback edition of Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles published by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, the biggest and most influential print-on-demand service in America. Will living authors be equally quick to embrace self-publishing—or is it destined to remain as marginal and disreputable as vanity publishing? For what it’s worth, I suspect that in the short run, we’re more likely to see the adoption of print-on-demand technology by new, independent publishing houses that will use it to slash their overhead, thus making it possible for them to gamble on worthy but hard-to-market manuscripts that the major houses are no longer willing to consider.

In the meantime, though, there are still a few smaller-than-small houses that are continuing to take chances on off-center books. A case in point is Doug Ramsey’s Poodie James (Libros Libertad, 151 pp., $19.95 paper). Jazz aficionados know Ramsey as a distinguished critic, whose previous books include Take Five, the definitive biography of Paul Desmond. In recent years, though, Ramsey has also embraced the possibilities of new media, launching a blog called “Rifftides” that lets him write as he pleases, instead of being restricted to the fast-shrinking roster of print publications whose editors care about jazz. Now Ramsey has written his first novel, which was brought out not by a mainstream house but by a new, independent Canadian publisher who puts out serious, well-designed books, whose authors were unable to place them elsewhere. You probably won’t find Poodie James at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, but you can order it easily from Amazon or directly from Libros Libertad. You’ll find that the cover and typography are as elegant-looking as anything published by Knopf in its salad days.

Why did Ramsey go to Libros Libertad? Undoubtedly because no major publisher would take a chance on a Gatsby-length novella by a first-time novelist who is no longer young. Worse yet, Poodie James is about a small-town deaf-mute, and it’s written in an old-fashioned, determinedly non-experimental style not unlike that of Jon Hassler. What could be less sexy?

No doubt you already know where I’m going, so I’ll cut to the chase: Poodie James is a very good book. Not only is it handsomely and lyrically written, but Ramsey’s snapshots of small-town life circa 1948 are altogether convincing, and he has even brought off the immensely difficult trick of worming his way into the consciousness of a deaf person without betraying the slightest sense of strain. I especially like the scene in which he tells us how it feels for the title character to “listen” to Woody Herman’s big band at a local dance:

A man with a big smile walked out holding a clarinet. The musicians sat up and brought their horns to their mouths. The man raised his hand and brought it down. The force of the sound hit Poodie and traveled through his chest as a tingle…. Poodie wondered if the dancers got the same sensation from hearing the music that he did from feeling it, radiance in the belly, warmth around the heart.

I wish I’d written that.

Ramsey is no less adept at sketching the constant tension between tolerance and suspicion that is part and parcel of the communal life of every small town. I grew up in a place not unlike the Washington town where Poodie James is set, and so can testify to the knowing skill with which it is portrayed here.

A quarter-century ago, Poodie James would have had no trouble finding an East Coast publisher, and it might even have made its way into the hands of a Hollywood producer, since it could easily be turned into a very nice little movie along the lines of The Spitfire Grill. That Ramsey had to travel another route to get his first novel into print says more about the postmodern culture of publishing than it does about his gifts as a writer of fiction. I commend it to your attention, and I hope its author has another novel or two—or three—up his sleeve.

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The Poet and the Nazi

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

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Bookshelf

• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.

The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.

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• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.

The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.

Summed up so baldly, The Great Man sounds like a feminist tract, but in fact it is a well-managed piece of plot-juggling in which Christensen detonates genuinely unexpected surprises at satisfyingly regular intervals, in between writing with impressive intelligence about the art world and its inhabitants (“Maxine’s paintings were intended to punish the viewer for failing to see what they were about”). She is, like Angus Wilson, the sort of novelist who is at pains to let you know that she has everybody’s number, but such knowingness is a venial sin in so smart a writer, especially when it is mixed, as it is here, with real sympathy.

Christensen has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the author of sharp-witted novels in which she frequently tries her hand at literary impersonation. In Jeremy Thrane (2001), for instance, she pulls off the tricky feat of writing in the voice of a gay man. In The Great Man, by contrast, most of the principal characters are women in their seventies and eighties, a difficult age for a youngish author to comprehend, and one that Christensen portrays with what looks to a middle-aged reader like complete understanding:

“Listen, Henry,” she said. “Oscar was my beloved mate. I never had any other or wanted one. But after forty-odd years, the word beloved takes on some fairly perverse complexities. You’re probably too young still to know. To be truly loved is to be . . . known, of course, which also implies despised and even hated.”

Less successful are the bookends of pastiche that frame The Great Man, a New York Times obituary of Oscar Feldman and a Times review of the two biographies of Feldman, whose writing sets the novel in motion. Christensen has no gift for parody, and neither piece sounds remotely believable. (Among other implausible things, the real-life Hilton Kramer would never have described any painter as “ballsy almost to the point of testicular obnoxiousness.”) A good editor would have encouraged Christensen to lop off these superfluous excrescences, and might also have nudged her to pare away some of the excesses in her rich prose style. Still, these are surface flaws in a novel good enough that I was forced by dint of sheer excitement to read it from cover to cover in two lengthy sittings. I don’t follow the work of very many younger novelists, but from now on I plan to keep up with Kate Christensen.

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Bookshelf

• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

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• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

That a considerable number of German artists approved of Hitler, or at least cooperated more or less willingly with the Nazi regime, is incontestable. As I wrote four years ago in COMMENTARY:

The list of distinguished non-Jewish artists who left the country after Hitler came to power is brief to the point of invisibility when placed next to the rogues’ gallery of those who stayed behind, in many cases not merely accepting the inevitability of Nazi rule but actively collaborating with the regime. The composers Carl Orff and Richard Strauss, the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the actor Emil Jannings, the stage designer Caspar Neher—all these and many more were perfectly prepared to make their peace with Nazism.

Gottfried Keller, the central character of The Savior, is a small fish in this big sewer, a good-but-not-great violinist who in the last weeks of World War II is forced to take part in a a grotesque “experiment” devised by the music-loving commandant of a forced-labor camp. The purpose of the experiment is to find out whether exposure to classical music will raise the spirits of the camp’s demoralized Jewish inmates high enough to increase their efficiency. Later on in the novel, we learn that Keller was once engaged to a Jewish musician who gave him the opportunity to emigrate to Palestine, but that he chose to remain in Germany instead, and by book’s end we come to realize that this fateful decision has made him an “accomplice” (Drucker’s word) to the Holocaust.

This is Drucker’s first novel, but he has written many program notes for the Emerson Quartet’s concerts, and from time to time he disgorges undigested chunks of technical language that betray his inexperience as a writer of fiction (“An accelerando leads to a Presto that plummets from the highest to the lowest registers, where the music briefly regains its repose”). For the most part, though, he tells his terrible tale with an appropriate plainness. Moreover, Drucker is well aware of the difficulty of saying anything meaningful about the Holocaust through the medium of fiction, going so far as to put the following words into the mouth of one of the inmates of the unnamed camp portrayed in The Savior:

I can’t tell anyone here what I’ve seen. It would be a useless repetition of their story, of what they’ve seen; it would be self-indulgent, a way of asking for sympathy. There’s no place for sympathy here. Only an outsider, who understands maybe one-millionth of it, could feel an emotion like sympathy.

Does The Savior add to our understanding of the camps? Not really. But what I did find striking was its author’s willingness to engage directly with the implications of Hitler’s homicidal dream of purifying German art and culture through mass murder. The commandant is made to speak for all the artists and intellectuals who allowed themselves to share that dream, whether in whole or in part: “You’re surprised to find a cultivated man in charge of such a place. But then you have no idea how closely these camps are related to the core of our culture.” And were they? That we should still be asking that question is a measure of Adolf Hitler’s dark victory over the German soul.

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