My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book, originally published in France in 2017, has been out in America in its English translation (by Trista Selous and Ros Schwartz) for about three months. Yet there are no reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, and no reviews that I can find in major English-language literary or leftist publications (New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New Republic, etc.). We can conclude, therefore, that the marketing plan was a mistake.
Verso has dryly advertised this volume as a literary study, an intellectual “portrait” by a friend of Said. This appealed to me when I ran across the book in the library, particularly the title: His Thought as a Novel. Said is often considered a sociological critic, either by champions who praise his ruthless unmasking of ideology in literary texts or detractors who find his work tendentious. And these aspects of his sensibility, these inheritances of Marxist reductionism, are there, when he praises writers as much as when he blames them; his anti-colonial Yeats and his imperialist Austen can both seem like cases of misplaced emphasis.
But there is also a tremendous cultivation and subtlety to his work that, combined with his perhaps belated left-liberal nationalist activism on behalf of the Palestinians, makes him a glamorous and even romantic figure, like a character out of Stendhal or Pushkin. Furious pamphlet-writing all day, nights spent in raptures at the piano! (And since he was a male intellectual rather than a female one, I feel I may observe that his dashing appearance didn’t hurt this impression.)
I was prepared, therefore, for a study taking an aesthetic approach to his avowedly “contrapuntal” work, charting its inner debate between the intransigence of literary language in authors he loved, like Conrad and James, and the much more brutal and decisive intractability of political conflict, especially quarrels over such irreplaceables as territory and resources. Something like Tom Paulin’s appreciation, but at book length. I would, in short, have been happy with the book Verso advertised.
Edward Said: His Thought as Novel is in part that book: Lebanese author Dominique Eddé explores the literary and musical thought of Said, including his divergent responses to Conrad and Dostoevsky, his perhaps surprising dislike of prior engaged intellectuals Orwell and Camus, and his long dialogue about culture and performance with his great friend Daniel Barenboim. She is also candid about her own disputes with his thinking, though these are fairly boilerplate critiques, what everyone has already objected to in Said: he was too soft on Islamic fundamentalism, too hard on literature, and more or less intellectually indifferent to women. She also contributes narrative to analysis, as only an intimate could; perhaps most striking is her account of Said’s leading his and Barenboim’s company of Israeli and Arab musicians to Buchenwald.
But, though I hate prurience, or at least know I am supposed to hate it, I have to say the following. What the jacket copy doesn’t tell us, and what only comes out slowly, is that this book is not entirely an analysis of novelistic qualities in Said’s thought. It is also an at-times breathlessly romantic memoir of their relationship by Said’s on-again, off-again paramour:
The first period of our relationship began when the French translation of Orientalism was first published in France, the second with the publication of Culture and Imperialism in 1993. This was a time when his desire to live, create and love was at its height, despite the leukaemia that had him repeating that he was ‘a dying man,’ as though to bounce back all the better. It is only now, rereading these two books, that I see the relationship between them and us. Edward came back to me, as he came back to the first of these two books in writing the second. Repeating or returning to a theme in a new movement was a striking characteristic of his life and work. At both the emotional and intellectual levels, all his departures—he hated departures—were instinctively accompanied by a promise to start again. We sometimes played a modified game of consequences. One of us would write a question, fold down the paper, and the other would write a reply without knowing the question. Not long ago I found a paper napkin on which I had written, ‘What is love?’ and he had replied, ‘The best is return and recapitulation.’
Given the book’s narrative charms, then, its original French subtitle is more accurate: Le roman de sa pensée, or “the novel of his thought.” Eddé’s Said can therefore be paid the back-handed compliment merited by all the best nonfiction: it reads like a novel. Not so much the kind of Conradian novel Said preferred; more like, say, if you can imagine, Marguerite Duras crossed with Thomas Mann—but a novel in any case.
Like an old novel, The Novel of His Thought certainly made me nostalgic for a certain vision of adulthood that seems unavailable, for a time when even suffering was glamorous, as if shot on black-and-white film, redolent of dry wine and sharp cologne. When men and women had devoted families and faithful lovers, and paralyzing erotic crises on the way to the Louvre and in the Roman Forum, and a library of great books and sublime operas in their agonized cancer-stricken heads, and quixotic political commitments that left them ethically compromised and in which they only half-believed anyway.
This vulgar aestheticized pseudo-nostalgia of mine is no less symptomatic of the present general puerility than anything it would presume to judge (Marvel movies, etc.) and so is completely worthless in itself. But still, I am certain an attempt to appeal to it would have helped Verso to sell more copies! There’s anti-capitalism, and then again there’s a wasted opportunity. Eddé, anyway, ruefully acknowledges that she and Said weren’t very good leftists, were hardly going to lead or like a revolution—they were, she says, just “bourgeois rebels.” Bourgeois rebels would, I am sure, love this book.