Yet another banner issue of the TLS this time around (dated 6 August but only now reaching my benighted backwater of a PO box), and one with a couple of Open Letters echoes that involve yours truly.
The bigger of these kicks off the whole issue – someone named Caroline Blythe reviews two books on the great, bat-shit crazy Victorian polymath John Ruskin, and one of those books is Robert Hewison's big, beautifully-produced Yale University Press volume Ruskin on Venice, which I reviewed a little while ago.
I loved the book and consider it a masterpiece of Ruskin studies. Blythe pulls a standard book-reviewing sleight-of-hand, slapping the book's face left, right, left again, right again … and then calling it “important” or “impressive” or some such placid, portmanteau praise. It's hardly illuminating for a reader (to say nothing of gratifying for an author) to so obviously disparage a book and then backhandedly praise it. There's a figure of speech about eating one's cake and having it too …
The smaller of the echoes deals with Shakespeare's play Henry VIII, an odd, muscular little work I love more with every reading (and one I talked about here). Critics for over a century have maintained that one of the main reasons the play is 'odd' is because it's a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. As I mention in my own piece about the play, I'm not convinced – but either way, I get the impression I'd like the new Globe Theatre (Bankside) production a lot more than TLS critic Michael Caines did.
But the highlight of this issue was neither of these (they're just neat because we've touched on them before, and that's always a fun, eerie experience – you see such a piece in the table of contents, you feel a micro-second's irresolution, then you say, “OK, go ahead. I've done my best at rendering this particular book – let's see how you do”) but instead a slam-bang review by Claire Harman of Michael Sherborne's new biography of H.G. Wells.
I've yet to read Sherborne's book (its UK publisher, Michael Owen, may take that as a rhetorical sharp elbow in the ribs), but I could read Harman on Wells until the cows come home. This is exactly the kind of full, flowing, opinionated review that a wag once said makes its own object irrelevant; Harman is even adept at aphorisms. “The idea that he [Wells] owed nothing to anyone, even his own subconscious, was one he nurtured carefully all his life” is very, very good (actual Wells biographers have wasted whole chapters deriving that simple truth), and when Harman comes to Wells' legendary prolific output, she promptly outdoes herself: “At a stroke, Wells had both invented and almost saturated a new genre.” Oh, that's good stuff.
And then there's the little dagger in the letters page – a fierce, intelligent missive from one Tarif Khalidi that gives no quarter whatsoever:
Having just read the review of Jeffrey Herf's Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World by Hans Kundani, I wondered: Do either author or reviewer have any proper knowledge of Arab history, society, culture, or language? How in particular does one “assess” the impact of Nazi propaganda on the Arab world without a knowledge of Arabic, openly admitted in the case of the author (and reviewer)? Sad to say, the Arab/Islamic world is currently the last region on earth where non-experts can freely claim scholarly authority. Sadder still is that the TLS encourages such shoddy scholarship by publishing reviews that merely echo tired and tiresome Israeli propaganda, then go on to claim that the book in question is “important” in the debate (sic) about that tendentious phrase, “Islamofascism”.
That's fairly damning (despite the obvious fact that “Islamofascism” is a term, not a phrase) – we'll see what kind of response it draws from the author or the reviewer. I think it's extremely unlikely both of them will just sit quietly at home in the Cotswolds while they're called frauds. I'll keep you posted.