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Wednesday’s WiP: Book Reviewing on the Brain (Again)

18166873Book reviews were something of a big topic among the Twitterati this past week. I’m thinking mainly of the reaction to a review published (and subsequently withdrawn) by The Economist. But I saw some lively, if not especially incisive, commentary about another review, of a novel, in another well-known publication (summary: some people seemed to think the reviewer was too harsh).

But the book review that most caught my attention over the last week was one included in The New Yorker‘s “Briefly Noted” section. I’ll give you a moment to click over and read it (it’s the second one, on Frederick Brown’s The Embrace of Unreason).

You’ll see why I’m so dissatisfied by the anonymous New Yorker reviewer’s take when you read my own review of the same book, commissioned for a publication-that-shall-not-be-named, but eventually “killed.” I’ve been told that the review’s “death” resulted not from any specific problem with the piece; in fact, what you’re seeing here is the “final” version that incorporates revisions requested and approved by my editor.

Without further ado–my review:


Frederick Brown’s excellent reputation is grounded mainly in acclaimed volumes devoted to the lives of Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that a biographical mode suffuses Brown’s new book, a history of intellectual currents in France recounted largely through profiles of major ideological and literary figures: Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (known as Drieu), André Breton and others.

Add to this sensibility Brown’s demonstrated disposition toward cultural history, and the underlying logic of “The Embrace of Unreason” seems evident. But the technique may confuse and even frustrate readers who approach a book that bears the subtitle “France, 1914-1940” expecting to discover a survey of French history from the outbreak of the cataclysmic First World War to France’s devastating surrender to Germany 26 years later.

Generally, it is commendable for authors to provide context and background. But in the case of “The Embrace of Unreason,” readers may find too much of a good thing. After an initial chapter on “The Coming of War” in the summer of 1914, the book devotes an astonishing page count to earlier history. If some of this material, such as chronicles of the late-nineteenth-century rise and fall of General Georges Boulanger and the episode known as the Panama Scandal, seems unsettlingly familiar, that may be because “The Embrace of Unreason” repeatedly duplicates text from Brown’s earlier “For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus” (2010). Also noticeable: Nearly half of the 18-page chronology appended to the new book’s text is devoted to the 1870-1914 period.

In fact, many of the same essential questions about French national identity and tensions between particularist and universalist principles that animated the earlier book pervade this one; ideological conflicts repeatedly take precedence over those in military, diplomatic, economic or political spheres, too many of which are relegated to footnotes or all-too-brief mentions: “On September 1 [1939], a week after signing a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, the Nazis invaded Poland. On September 3, France and England declared war against Germany.”

Admittedly, as Brown shows, several in his cast of intellectual characters also occupied elective office; they exerted influence far beyond that which is ordinarily ascribed to novelists and poet-philosophers. Nor were these individuals spared their compatriots’ sufferings. It is quite true, for instance, that those whom Brown describes as “the future standard-bearers of Surrealism” survived the First World War “with wounds that never ceased to fester.” Unfortunately, what isn’t treated clearly or comprehensively enough is how dramatically these “scars of the trenches” affected the rest of France’s population. Nor will readers gain much insight into life between the two wars beyond the Parisian epicenter.

To its credit, the book argues convincingly for continuities in French history. Rather than portraying the nascent Vichy regime that emerged in 1940 as a complete aberration or historical parenthesis, “The Embrace of Unreason” demonstrates how certain of its elements—such as a weakness for authoritarian figures and a virulent strain of anti-Semitism—evolved from France’s own cultural past. Also praiseworthy is Brown’s commitment to showing that “Unreason had its apostles on the far left as well as the far right” and his emphasis throughout the book on how definitions of and borders between “left” and “right” might shift within a movement and even within individuals.

In the end, however, specialists will discover little that is new here, and newcomers to the ostensible subject may find themselves floundering in the philosophical and political quarrels between (and within) intellectual luminaries. C’est dommage.

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3 Responses »

  1. I often struggle with how to review a less-than-satisfactory book, and I’ve had my own reviews rejected for similar reasons (see an earlier blog post of mine on that topic: http://cpatlarge.blogspot.com/2012/04/sticks-and-stones.html).

    The only (eminently unsatisfactory) solution I’ve found? Don’t write the review – which shortchanges discerning readers everywhere.

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