Britain

Left Behind

When I was an undergraduate at Oxford University my tutor—a deeply eccentric but profoundly decent man who claimed to both “loathe this century” and be surprised by the fact that he had lived to see it—had a map on his wall. The map showed the world. The continents were outlined in black on a white field. Shaded red were all of Britain’s former overseas possessions, from India to swathes of Africa to North America.

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Illuminations By Arthur Rimbaud Translated by John Ashbery (W.W. Norton, 167 pp., $24.95) I. Arthur Rimbaud wrote the texts known as Illuminations between around 1873 and 1875. In those years he lived in London, and in Paris, and at home with his mother and sisters in northern France, and in Stuttgart. In London, George Eliot was writing Daniel Deronda; in Paris, Henry James was writing Roderick Hudson. The majestic Nineteenth Century was everywhere.

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For Bismarck, politics was the art of the possible, while Napoleon would always ask of any general, “But is he lucky?” Put the two together and we can see politics as a game somewhere between chess and poker. Any politician has to gamble and take risks. He needs judgment, he needs nerve, but he also needs luck. Over the first weekend of May last year, Nick Clegg showed considerable skill in playing a poor hand. The voters had just delivered a somewhat oracular verdict in the British general election.

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There are so many things wrong with the Libyan intervention that it is hard to know where to begin. So, a few big things, in no particular order: First, it is radically unclear what the purpose of the intervention is—there is no endgame, as a U.S. official told reporters. Is the goal to rescue a failed rebellion, turn things around, use Western armies to do what the rebels couldn’t do themselves: overthrow Qaddafi? Or is it just to keep the fighting going for as long as possible, in the hope that the rebellion will catch fire, and Libyans will get rid of the Qaddafi regime by themselves?

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Madison and Jefferson By Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg (Random House, 809 pp., $35)   Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were more than good friends. These two Virginians and Founding Fathers participated in what was probably the greatest political collaboration in American history. Indeed, the history of the early republic is incomprehensible without an understanding of this political partnership.

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When Casablanca’s corrupt police captain Louis Renault closes down Rick’s Bar Américain to please Major Strasser, he huffs: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” A second later, the croupier hands him a pile of money: “Your winnings, sir.” It took the West and the Rest 42 years to be shocked by what has been happening in Muammar’s Café Libyien. And it wasn’t gambling. Now, it’s no more U.N. Human Rights Council for Qaddafi. Now, the International Criminal Court is investigating. Now, the E.U. is cutting off arms supplies and freezing bank accounts.

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Beyond Idolatry

Foreign Bodies By Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 255 pp., $26)  I. ‘There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds. ...

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History and the Enlightenment By Hugh Trevor-Roper (Yale University Press, 314 pp., $40) Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson Edited by Richard Davenport-Hines (Orion Publishing, 326 pp., $25) Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography By Adam Sisman (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 598 pp., £25) At the beginning of July 1973, my wife and I arrived in London from Chicago to spend a year doing research in the British Library.

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Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 - 1788 By Pauline Maier (Simon & Schuster, 589 pp., $30) At the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, one of the greatest editorial projects in American history has been under way for nearly thirty-five years. Since 1976, the successive editors of the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution have published twenty-three volumes, and there are at least eight more to come.

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Seventy years ago, in the summer and fall of 1940, Western civilization teetered in the balance as Britain stood alone against Nazi-controlled Europe. Other major world powers did not lend aid; Russia supported Germany, and the United States remained neutral. After Britain resisted the assault of Nazi bombers, in what was dubbed the “Battle of Britain,” the country was saved and German momentum stymied. The whole course of the war then radically shifted.

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