Jonathan Mirsky

The making of modern myths

Jonathan Mirsky on the new book by Tony Judt

Who are the big intellectuals today? There are academics, to be sure, each with their speciality, and journalists, ditto. When something comes up the BBC will call on them to pontificate, to explain, but only on their speciality. Off their own piste they are no more valuable than a saloon-bar or dinner-party bore, eager to tell you ‘what I always say’. I don’t exempt myself.

Tony Judt, now a professor at New York University, is the rare real thing, the author of 11 books on Marxism and French intellectuals, European resistance and revolution, language in a multi-state world; he is to consider what has happened in post-war Britain, the US, Israel and France.

In this book, a collection of previously published essays grouped by themes, he looks closely at some of the big minds of the 20th century — Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Primo Levi and Edward Said (who reads them now?) and weighs up their values. I found his chapter on Koestler, whose great novel Darkness at Noon is especially insightful, critical and measured. He dismisses a critic who disparaged Koestler for having a rackety sex-life, but says, too, that while Darkness at Noon blackens the way the Soviets treated Communists, Koestler is

silent on the famines, the expropriations, the wholesale deportations of peoples authorised by Stalin. The skeletons are those of Communists, mostly of Communist intellectuals.

Judt is the master of ‘but’. He begins his chapter on Eric Hobsbawm by calling him ‘the best known historian in the world’. He hails Hobsbawm’s brilliance and style, noting that he was an Apostle at Cambridge, where his contemporary (and later my supervisor) Noel Annan recalled him as being ‘armed cap-à-pied with the Party’s interpretation of current politics’. But — this is the but — Judt zeros in on Hobsbawm’s ultimate weakness: ‘Eric Hobsbawm was not just a Communist — there have been quite a lot of those, even in Britain.

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