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.
OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era