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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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