Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On "Notes on a Century," The Tale of the Dragoman

    Wednesday, May 16, 2012   No comments


It is all too tempting to describe Bernard Lewis, the distinguished historian of the Islamic world, as venerable. Mr. Lewis, who turns 96 on May 31, seems to possess the aura of the sage. Even his harshest critics have sometimes seen him in this light. After Mr. Lewis published a devastating critique of Edward Said's "Orientalism" in 1982 in the New York Review of Books, the injured author responded with a long, angry letter to the editor that mocked Mr. Lewis's "veneer of omniscient tranquil authority."

An attentive reader of Mr. Lewis's books would never come away thinking that omniscience or tranquillity was on conspicuous display. Whether writing about the early history of the Arabs or the development of the modern Turkish state, Mr. Lewis has always been unusually alert to nuance and ambiguity; he is wary of his sources and tests them against other evidence. In "Notes on a Century," his lively new memoir, he writes that his work in archives instilled in him "a profound mistrust of written documents."

As a historian, Mr. Lewis has evinced not only an unswerving commitment to historical truth and a hatred of what he calls "the falsification of history" but also a passionate, at times obsessive, curiosity about other peoples, other places. He is as interested in the history of foodstuffs as in the fall of dynasties. He is simply too inquisitive to settle for mere omniscience.

"Notes on a Century" is at once an autobiography and a statement of principle. Over the course of his long life, Mr. Lewis has met with everyone from Golda Meir to Moammar Gadhafi—and has bedded down in obscure Syrian villages and desert tents as well as sumptuous palaces. But his description of his beginnings is the most winning part of his account. Like the late man of letters John Gross, whose lovely 2002 memoir, "The Double Thread," describes growing up Jewish and English in London, Mr. Lewis evokes his Jewish-English childhood with great tenderness.



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