NOTES ON A CENTURY: REFLECTIONS OF A MIDDLE EAST HISTORIAN
By Bernard Lewis
Viking, $28.95, 388 pages, illustrated
Few can manage to write a memoir when they are as close to achieving the century mark as Bernard Lewis, who was born in London in 1916 and has made his home in this country for nearly 40 years. Still fewer, whatever their age, could produce a book as witty, erudite and humorous as this engaging autobiography, which, alongside these lighter characteristics, is also packed with learning and wisdom. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the distillation of a long, attentive and productive life as a scholar and engaged intellectual.
That Mr. Lewis‘ writing is as interesting as it is informative will come as no surprise to anyone who has read his many articles and books. What this memoir also has iswhat has drawn so many to this particular author, whether they have been fortunate enough to meet him or hear him speak in person or encountered him on television, where he has sparkled as he has made countless viewers so much more informed than they previously were.
We did not need this book to tell us how impressive an intellect Mr. Lewis has or what a superbly informed historian he is, but it reminds us nonetheless of all this. As it does of what a charming and attractive personality he has been graced with, enabling him to draw attention so easily to what he has to impart.
Although it was apparent to readers and viewers alike that he had a strong and distinctive personality, “Notes on a Century” reveals more than we knew before of what shaped this remarkable person. He writes movingly about friends and family, of his upbringing, of how the world nearly gained one more barrister but instead got a peerless scholar of the Middle East. He reveals just enough about his personal life, never embarrassing with too much information but leaving no doubt that he has been as passionate in his private life as in his scholarly and other public ones.
It is fascinating to read of Mr. Lewis‘ work in British intelligence during World War II, and, not surprisingly, he has a fund of especially delicious stories from that time. As he does about life in academe and about his many trips in the region to which he has devoted his life. From the Shah of Iran to Pope John Paul II, from Moammar Gadhafi to Golda Meir - Mr. Lewis can give you an up-close and personal glimpse guaranteed to be as incisive as it is telling.
But it’s not all good times and jokes. When it comes to adversaries like the late Edward Said, Mr. Lewis rightly pulls no punches and gives no quarter about his pernichcious influence on the academy:
“Although I personally was not affected in my career by these insults, many people in the earlier stages of their careers have suffered serious damage. They find themselves in a position where they either have to conform or get out. The Saidians now control appointments, promotions, publications and even book reviews with a degree of enforcement unknown in the Western Universities since the eighteenth century. The situation in Near East studies is a great detriment to the state of scholarship in the field.”
Just in case you are skeptical enough not to accept his assessment of Said’s “ignorance, not only of the Middle East but also of Europe” or to take his description of how Orientalism’sGresham’s Law effect has impoverished his chosen field, Mr. Lewis provides the judgment of “Robert Irwin, a self-described Orientalist and the Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement [who] called Said’s book ‘A work of malignant charlatanry in which it is difficult to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misinterpretions.’ “
Summing up at the very end of this book, Mr. Lewis writes:
“I have loved my life. I have had a rewarding career. Thirty-two books translated into twenty-nine languages isn’t bad. I have explored places and cultures and been able to play with fifteen languages. Even those who dislike me or with whom I have heartily disagreed are usually interesting and sometimes stimulating. I have been, and am, very fortunate.”
So are we, his grateful readers.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.