May 05, 2011
The Fear of Barbarians By Tzvetan Todorov translated by Andrew Brown (University of Chicago Press, 233 pp., $27.50) Torture and the War on Terror By Tzvetan Todorov translated by Gila Walker (Seagull Books, 68 pp., $8.50) Duties and Delights: The Life of a Go-Between By Tzvetan Todorov translated by Gila Walker (Seagull Books, 412 pp., $39.95) I. According to French intellectual lore, Tzvetan Todorov, upon alighting in France from Bulgaria in 1963 at the age of twenty-four, headed directly for the Sorbonne.
Absinthe: Was The Famous Drink Really Mind-Altering?
May 04, 2011
Almost a century after banning absinthe, the French government will re-legalize the famous alcoholic drink. Known as "the green fairy" to its many aficionados, the emerald-colored liquor was hugely popular with artists in the late 19th century, especially in Paris. The temperance movement, though, campaigned heavily against absinthe, claiming that absinthe made its drinkers hallucinate and even go insane. Thanks to the temperance movement's political strength, absinthe was banned in many countries in the early 1900s.
A Boy’s Own Story
April 07, 2011
Colonel Roosevelt By Edmund Morris (Random House, 766 pp., $35) I. The reputation of Theodore Roosevelt has become as bloated as the man himself. No one of course can deny his fundamental significance in American history, as a central player in the transitions from republic to empire, laissez-faire to regulated capitalism, congressional government to imperial presidency. It should come as no surprise that professional historians still pay close attention to his career. What is surprising is the cult-like status that Roosevelt enjoys outside the academy, especially in Washington.
March 03, 2011
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. ...
We Need a Revolution in Songs About Egypt
February 18, 2011
The revolution will always be harmonized. If no song in itself can change the world, revolutionary change usually happens to music, as it is today in the Middle East. News feeds from Tahrir Square and now from Tehran have been capturing streets full of young people singing anthems of uprising, just as eighteenth-century revolutionaries sang in Paris and Philadelphia. In Cairo, the song that emerged quickly as the semi-official anthem of the revolution is “Long Live Egypt,” a buoyant, gently hip-hoppish pop tune by the Egyptian group Scarabeuz and Omima.
The New Normal
February 10, 2011
And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris By Alan Riding (Alfred A. Knopf, 399 pp., $28.95) By the ghastly standards of World War II, the history of France from 1939 to 1944 was a sideshow. Poland, with a smaller pre-war population, suffered at least ten times as many wartime deaths. The Soviet Union, four times larger in 1939, had fully forty times more losses. French cities, in comparison with Polish or Soviet or German cities, survived the war relatively unscathed.
February 10, 2011
Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin Selected and edited by Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare (Viking, 554 pp., $35) The expression “to embroider the truth” was already current when Sir Walter Raleigh—no mean embroiderer himself—complained about the exaggerations of Greek travelers such as Herodotus. But it could have been invented for the English writer and self-styled nomad Bruce Chatwin instead.
David Thomson on Films: Remembering Maria Schneider
February 08, 2011
A generation of male movie-goers may have gulped when they saw the obituaries for Maria Schneider and that picture of her from 2003 when she was 50—tense, not quite well, anxious about being looked at. How can we read so much into one picture? Well, how did we assume so much in 1972 when the breathtaking Schneider rolled across the screen in Last Tango in Paris like a bowling ball and took part in all those scenes with such aplomb? In 1972, we told ourselves, we were watching the most candid mainstream film we were ever likely to see.
A Completely Unpredictable Revolution
February 01, 2011
Only fools would predict the unpredictable, and thus with the course of the Egyptian revolution. Imagine yourself as a pundit in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, the mother of them all. In August of 1789, you would have celebrated the “General Declaration of Human Rights,” an ur-document of democracy, as the dawn of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Yet, four years later, the Terreur erupted, claiming anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000 lives. In 1804, one-man despotism was back.
January 27, 2011
Giuseppe Arcimboldo National Gallery Franz Xaver Messerschmidt Neue Galerie When artists of earlier eras become subjects of renewed interest, you can be sure that big changes are in the air. All too often relegated to specialized studies in the history of taste, such shifts in an artist’s fortunes are among our most reliable guides to current attitudes and values, a look into the dark glass of the past that can also function as a mirror in which we see reflected some aspect of ourselves.