Reviews round-up | 11 November

The critics' verdicts on Philip Short on Mitterrand, the last instalment of Tony Benn's diaries and Sebastian Faulks being PG Wodehouse.

Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity by Philip Short

François Mitterrand had an eventful career. It wouldn’t be too extreme to suggest that his political life was a timeline interwoven with scandal. He condoned torture in Algeria, fathered an illegitimate child at the state’s expense, managed to keep his cancer a secret from the press and choreographed an assassination – on himself. Yet he rose above it, and has even been described as "great". Philip Short, a former Parisian correspondent for the BBC, has written a new biography on the man entitled Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity and the critics are intrigued.

Matthew Campbell of the Sunday Times describes Mitterrand as a "double-dealing, Gallic Blackadder" who is "inscrutable, sphinx-like" and in the habit of "rewriting history to cast himself in a more favourable light". Overall, he is impressed with Short’s work as he "guides us through the shadows and mirrors with great authority." The book keeps Campbell fascinated, particularly in an age of greater transparency. He thinks the book is bound to be a "riveting read for anyone interested in political psychology". However, he thinks it could have benefited from delving deeper into the murkier waters of diplomacy.

The Literary Review’s Robert Gildea also describes Mitterrand as "Machiavellian and Sphinx-like". He is impressed that "ambiguity" is used to frame Mitterrand’s life and finds the book to be a "fascinating interweaving of the public and the private", its greatest asset being exactly that combination. Gildea finds Short hinting at the idea that Mitterrand appropriated De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic despite his vocal criticism and is impressed with Short, finds him "adventurous" even, for interviewing Anne Pingeot, Mitterrand’s "other woman".

The women of Mitterrand’s life also interest John Lichfield of The Independent. These are the interviews which "without fanfare" add much new material into the life of this elusive man. Their examination is "scattered throughout the book, bringing alive, without prurience, the sub-plot of Mitterrand's energetic private life." Lichfield commends Short on his archival research too. He leaves the book feeling that times have changed, "partly because Mitterrand changed them."

Look out for Andrew Adonis on Mitterrand in this week's New Statesman (out 14 November).

A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries by Tony Benn

Death looms heavily through reviews of this book – reading them all, it feels as if Benn has already passed away. Indeed because of his seniority, Benn, now 88, finds himself somehow politically muffled - in the uncomfortable position of being embraced by the Right as a harmless "national treasure", when he has spent his whole life trying to be a formidable threat to the establishment. "That’s what they do," he said in conversation with socialist dauphin Owen Jones at the Bishopsgate Institute on Friday, "to sideline you."

At the same event, he said that if he would like anything to be written on his headstone it would be that he "encouraged people", and whatever his other failings, it is impossible to deny that Benn has inspired thousands to cherish their political convictions.

The FT’s Matthew Engel argues that it is not ageism or a conspiratorial "sidelining" that has neutered Benn into being a "national treasure", but rather that he’s brought it upon himself: "most of the causes he espoused are so out-of-fashion as to render him harmless." However, somewhat confusingly, Engel also calls Benn "the embodiment of the British left" in the same review.

For good or for ill, Tony Benn is not really the embodiment of the current British left at all, and indeed, his utter disdain for New Labour and his no longer being an MP are the very reasons these diaries are so different to his past ones. But Engel does hit upon the essence of the book when he writes of how, even in the life of a committed ideologue such as Benn, politics sooner or later has to take a back seat, writing that they offer "a chance to contemplate Enoch Powell’s maxim that all political careers end in failure, and also old age in general. Even for this most political of men, sharp pains, bad nights, a leaking roof and an intractable computer start to loom larger than the news."

Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times captures the charmingly naïve (or faux-naïf) tone of the diaries when he writes "it is a little bit The Diary of Tony Benn Aged 84½, with lots of 'It was fun!' and, after an especially good day, 'It was huge fun!'" Indeed, even Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of the 1964-70 Labour Cabinet Benn served in, said "he immatures with age."

But the rest of Lawson’s review takes a less sympathetic line. For instance, when disagreeing with Benn’s hopes for a resurgence of socialism born from the 2008 financial crisis, Lawson denies they had any sociological import: "The riots in London in 2011 were nothing more than looting: a desire for yet more consumer goods, not a socialist revolt."

On interpreting Benn’s decision to forgo a royal invitation for a street protest, he says: "A cynic might say the difference between the two invitations is that at the latter event Benn would be the speaking star rather than a decorative adjunct: but I take a more charitable view." And yet somehow this manages not to sound particularly charitable at all.

The way in which The Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff effectively describes Tony Benn as being on his "deathbed" in her review is a little hard to stomach, as well as (one hopes) overstating the case somewhat, but she is otherwise full of affection and praise for the book, focusing not so much on politics but on what the diaries have to tell us about mortality itself. If you have bought the book for an insider’s glimpse into the corridors of power, she warns, you’ve made a mistake: "The ideological warfare of the late Blair-Brown years plays second fiddle in this book to a very human struggle against the dying of the light."

In fact, the words "The Last Diaries" appear before the author’s name or even the book’s main title on the dust jacket. The uncanny sense of an ending - the irrefutable fact that these are the last diaries – means that one’s reading cannot help but be coloured. "The real Benn is with us still," Hinsliff says, "but that friendly diarist's voice in one's ear has now fallen silent for good. It is an eerie foretaste of quite how much we will miss him when he's gone."

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks is deft at pastiche. Fans of Radio 4’s The Write Stuff will know this. However, the thin line between pastiche and parody is made even thinner when the author being imitated is PG Wodehouse. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a sequel to the Jeeves and Wooster catalogue. The critics, while commending Faulks for his effort, have found that mirroring Wodehouse is a difficult task perhaps no one is up to.

The Observer’s review is most optimistic. Sam Leith is surprised that the novel is "not half bad." Indeed, "considering the Eiger he has assaulted, considering the soufflé he is attacking with his spade, it’s a pretty remarkable performance." Leith is glad that the "voice of the novel is recognisably and pleasurably Wodehousian." Yet, there are shortcomings. Leith thinks that Faulks employs the use of the Wodehousian definite article too much, that the novel simply isn’t as funny as Wodehouse and that Faulks "can’t resist a shade of pathos that the originals are immune to." It is this injection of the sentimental, references to the Somme and death, which has failed to impress other reviewers.

The Scotsman’s review finds the conjuring of the Warwickshire cricketer who died on the Somme and from whom Jeeves’ name derives as Faulks "eager perhaps to show himself well versed in the lore". Faulks has allowed the real world to enter the novel, something Wodehouse would never do, and has allowed "a nasty whiff of the harsh real world into Arcadia"; it is a "grave error of taste." The plot is also deemed "adequate". This is important as Wodehouse attached great importance to getting the plot right as evidenced by his letters. Ultimately, despite a valiant effort by Faulks, the book "still seems unnecessary."

Cristopher Howse at the Telegraph is least impressed with the novel. He feels the author has put too much effort and intricacy into the plot. The mention of the Somme is also jarring. Worse, Faulks places the novel temporally, which regardless of it differences to Wodehouse, also has inherent problems. The novel is set in 1926 yet there is no mention of the General Strike and Howse fears Faulks steers clear of Wodehousian phraseology as it may be too archaic by today’s standards. Howse is most unconvinced with Faulks’ use of the literary reference. He identifies that "Wooster may be a bit of an idiot, but he quotes poetry, from Keats to Longfellow, that modern readers might not recognise. Faulks sticks largely to Shakespeare." All in all, Sebastian Faulks just isn’t PG Wodehouse.

François Mitterrand: an ambiguous man. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.
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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times