Sometimes the good die old

Working the Graveyard Shift as I do, I thought I should mention for the record the passing of two of the all-time great authors. The first is Bernard Lewis, and this is from Roger Franklin at Quadrant Online:

Vale Bernard Lewis

bernard lewis

To reach the age of 101 is by any reckoning a pretty fair innings, but mere longevity was the least of Bernard Lewis’ achievements. The author of some 30 books and hundreds of articles passed away on Saturday (May 19) at an assisted-living home in New Jersey, where he spent his final years. As the Jerusalem Post puts it

Lewis was a leading scholar on Oriental and Middle Eastern studies. His study of antisemitism, Semites and Anti-Semites was a cry against Soviet and Arab attempts to delegitimize Israel … he argued Arab rage against Israel was disproportionate to other tragedies or injustices in the Muslim world.

Quadrant‘s Daryl McCann addressed Lewis’ work and his critics on the Left, not least the late and unlamented Edward Said, in our October, 2012, edition. His essay, Bernard Lewis and the Dangerous Creed of Freedom, can be read via this link.

The other is Tom Wolfe who passed away last week at 88. I had been scouting for someone who sees him as I do, but having begun with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968 – and you cannot imagine what a blast it was at the time – and then eventually ended up with his The Kingdom of Speech, his last book, for which I did a rave review* also at Quadrant [November 2016 but, alas, not online], it has been not easy to find someone who covers the terrain. It was not his fiction I truly enjoyed, but “the new journalism”, if you will pardon the expression, since we are talking about something that began fifty years ago. So let me snatch these bits from John Derbyshire’s 2004 review of I am Charlotte Simmons, which fiction though it is, where the right sort of sentiments are struck.

• The political incorrectness. Well, not exactly that. Tom Wolfe takes no point of view, has no bill of goods to sell. He just calmly, coolly records the way things are, the way people look and talk, the commonplace, mostly harmless, prejudices and solidarities that have survived 30 years of relentless media and educational indoctrination against them.

• The class angle. Modern U.S. society is addled with class snobbery. Poor and rural Americans are coarse-looking, ill-dressed, speak in dialect, and have lousy dietary habits. Rich suburban and high-urban Americans would much rather have nothing to do with them. When confrontations do occur, the rustics are insecure but defensive, the rich patronizing but impatient, with a frisson of guilt. Again, these are things known to everyone, but we are not supposed to notice them. Wolfe does notice them, and draws them to a “t.”

• The cold eye. I don’t know how the future will rank Tom Wolfe as a novelist, but he is a simply terrific journalist. Oh, sure, he exaggerates some when writing fiction to get the effects he wants; but you could put a Wolfe novel under a steel-mill press and not squeeze a single drop of sentimentality out of it. Wolfe’s authorial tone to the reader is: You don’t have to like this, and I’m not too crazy about it myself, but this is the way it is, and we both know it. Our society is awash with the grossest kind of sentimentality — in movies and TV, saturating the sappy nostrums of the Sunday magazine-supplements and corporate mission statements, pouring in from self-help cranks, victim-industry moaners and weepers, love-the-world useful-idiot politicians and Oprah-fied pain-feelers. Wolfe is the antidote to all this sugary glop. There isn’t enough of him to have much effect, unfortunately; but when you’re drowning in treacle, the merest squirt of lemon juice is refreshing. Wolfe worships the God Kipling worshipped, The God of Things As They Are.

• Typographical vitality. A copy editor once sent back a manuscript of mine with all the italics, semicolons, dashes, parentheses, and exclamation marks stripped out. She was, I learned later, a disciple of some dogmatic imbecile — was it Strunk? — who had pronounced that the barest text was the best text. Well, the hell with her, and him. Our Tom shares my opinion that every key on the keyboard is there to be used, including the shift key. In I Am Charlotte Simmons he has even ventured a typographic innovation (I think — it is new to me, at any rate): using strings of colons for ellipses in interrupted or disconnected thought. Like this:

::::::trying not to look at him::::::the condom, the ball-peen hammer::::::the undertow again::::::the Doubts::::::more time::::::can’t think spinning like this!::::::Look, Hoyt::::::just wait a second, okay?::::::

• Neat plotting. Wolfe isn’t one of the great plotters — not a Wodehouse, not even a Trollope — but he understands the principles of moral balance and equity that make a novel satisfying to the reader. Virtue need not triumph, but ought at least survive; evil need not be routed, but ought at least be chastened; and there must be a sufficient number of secondary characters we are sufficiently interested in that the author’s giving us some hint of their subsequent fate at the book’s end adds minor satisfactions to the major ones.

* The last para of that review:

In the meantime, I hope there are many who find their way to The Kingdom of Speech which is an amazing read on so many levels, not least of which being how revealing it is about how ideas are formed and sustained across time.


I was sorry to hear of the death of the great scholar (and, indeed, psychoanalyst) of Islam Bernard Lewis, a few weeks shy of his 102nd birthday. Nobody is terribly sad when a chap has enjoyed a 50 per cent bonus on his three-score-and-ten – “he had a good innings”, etc – but Bernard was trenchant and vigorous into his late nineties, and there was no one like him, and thus no one to replace him when it comes to a thoroughly informed perspective on the peculiar psychoses of the Islamic world. He was pretty solid on the west’s psychoses, too, because he was old enough to remember what we had been. I quote him toward the end of my book America Alone:

Bernard Lewis, the west’s preeminent scholar of Islam, worked for British intelligence through the grimmest hours of the Second World War. ‘In 1940, we knew who we were, we knew who the enemy was, we knew the dangers and the issues,’ he told The Wall Street Journal. ‘In our island, we knew we would prevail, that the Americans would be drawn into the fight. It is different today. We don’t know who we are, we don’t know the issues, and we still do not understand the nature of the enemy.’

All true.

As to his aforementioned vigor, at the embarkation of a National Review cruise, I once followed him down the corridor to our adjoining cabins. Bernard was then a mere whippersnapper of 93 or so, and I was startled to see, as his crushed linen jacket shrank into the distance, that he was opening up the gap between us with every confident stride.

At a convivial smoker, either on that cruise or another, Bernard and I were engaged in a long conversation à deux – and, out of the corner of my eye, I became vaguely aware of a National Review reader hovering, circling around and then re-hovering. About half-an-hour later, Bernard went off to work the room or whatever, and the hoverer came up to me. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I wanted to come and join you, but the two of you were so animated going back and forth that I didn’t want to interrupt. You looked as if you were hashing out the future of the world. What were you talking about? Iraq? Wahhabi reforms in Saudi? Erdoğan’s dismantling of Turkey?”

“Actually,” I replied, “we were talking about favorite Noël Coward lyrics, with a lengthy digression into Jack Buchanan” – including “And Her Mother Came Too” (which you can hear on our Mother’s Day audio special). These were the songs he knew from his days as a young student at the School of Oriental Studies in the mid-Thirties, and the memory of them warmed him three-quarters of a century later – a small but vital part of “knowing who we are”. No one saw the big picture more clearly, but he had room for the small pleasures, too: A man in full, and marvelous company almost to the end. Rest in peace.

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