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SPINOZA: THE OTHER PATH

Blandine Kriegel

(Éditions du Cerf, 504 pages, 2018)

If Spinoza now deserves to be read, studied and understood, it is because he offers an alternative path—alternative to the one that dominated the preceding centuries, a path that can perhaps help us overcome or solve the failures and disasters attributed to modernity.

—Blandine Kriegel

 

In recent decades there has been a remarkable surge of interest in Spinoza. Neurophysiologists, psychologists, philosophers, animal rights advocates, and even botanists are rediscovering his famously dense and opaque treatises. Why is it that, once deemed “archaic and medieval,” Spinoza is now more relevant than ever? This is the question underlying Blandine Kriegel’s latest book.

Kriegel, one of France’s foremost political philosophers, explores Spinoza’s formative years through his exposure to three main cultural influences: the Sephardic Jewish tradition; his freethinking circle of Dutch friends; and the broader intellectual and political history of the Dutch Republic at the dawn of the modern scientific revolution. Throughout the book, Kriegel engages with a rich body of international research, which helped dispel Spinoza’s long-held reputation as a reclusive thinker leading a life of pure reflection in isolation from his contemporaries.

 Kriegel combines historical investigation and text analysis to introduce Spinoza’s politics. She turns to The Theologico-Political Treatise and the lesser-known Political Treatise to demonstrate why Spinoza’s innovative arguments in defense of democratic governance, separation of powers, and the freedom of thought and expression constitute a decisive stage in modern political philosophy. Did his political ideas mark a definitive rupture with classical political philosophy? And did they pave the way to the Revolution? With this in mind, she reviews the dissemination of Spinoza’s political ideas among French and English Enlightenment thinkers, while insisting on the need to distinguish Spinoza, his thought, from Spinozism, the reception of his thought.

 Finally, Kriegel examines The Ethics, Spinoza’s monumental and posthumously published work. She first introduces the historical context, focusing on the paradigm shift brought by the arrival of Newtonian physics, and on Spinoza’s critical engagement with the radical positions of Descartes. Kriegel follows with a comprehensive evaluation of each of The Ethics’s five parts illuminating Spinoza’s views on God, the universe, human nature, knowledge, will and freedom. How, she asks, are we to explain that such a profound philosophy was ignored for extended periods of time? To answer this question, she reappraises the complex reception of Spinoza’s philosophy in Germany—from early rejection, to Goethe’s enthusiasm, to Hegel’s ambivalence.

 Since the beginning of her research, Kriegel has studied early modern thinkers. Her substantial work on the historical and philosophical foundations of the concepts of human rights, republic, and democracy makes her an authority on Spinoza. Kriegel’s vast erudition allows her to address the many ways in which Spinoza’s philosophy has been misinterpreted: from the early adversaries who merely saw him as the destroyer of religion to his later adepts who approach his thought selectively. She masterfully demonstrates the contemporaneity of Spinoza’s philosophy, and why his ethics, “which do not separate knowledge from the belief in the infinitude of God and nature,” may well be the ones we most urgently need in the twenty-first century.

 

Blandine Kriegel, a student of Georges Canguilhem, and research collaborator of Michel Foucault, is one of France’s foremost political theorists and historians. She is Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy in Paris and the author of numerous books and more than four hundred articles. Her critically acclaimed book, The State and the Rule of Law, was translated and published by Princeton University Press in 1995. Kriegel was the editor of the journal Philosophie Politique. She has also had a high public profile in France through her role in a succession of national reform commissions.

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MEMORIES

Marie Rameau

(La Ville Brûle, 242 pages, 2015)

To create, even here, is to resist; it is to hope; it is to want to live.

—Denise Vernay, alias Miarka, 1946

They fought against evil without ever taking themselves for an incarnation of the good.

—Tzvetan Todorov

Marie Rameau is a photographer who has dedicated herself to honoring women who fought against the Nazis in the French Resistance. For years she has met the survivors, shot their portraits, and gathered their testimonies, always searching for the most appropriate and respectful way to preserve the memory of their historical roles in World War II. In Memories she highlights nineteen women arrested for acts of resistance. Caught in France, they were condemned to forced labor in Mauthausen, Neunengamme, and Ravensbrück—Nazi concentration camps located in Germany and Austria. Toward the end of the war, some were transferred to Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. After providing a brief biography for each woman, Rameau lets the objects they secretly crafted in the camps tell their stories.

Faced with the extreme dehumanization of camp life, female prisoners engaged in a different kind of resistance. They pilfered and recycled the materials with which they were forced to manufacture parts for the German war industry—when they were not actively sabotaging them. Electric wire was crafted into a pair of earrings; leather and rubber pieces used for gas masks were repurposed into handbags, belts, and shoes; and the fake fur lining helmets turned into stuffed animals. They spirited away anything they could, from thread and needle to paper and pencil. Some made notebook covers with their bedding’s burlap and embroidered them with cannon wick. Others drew on the unfolded lids of the small boxes intended to contain bullet casings. These objects, made in such perilous circumstances, were often tiny because they had to stay concealed. Yet, Rameau explains, they “were an integral part of the life of the inmates, and participated in networks of solidarity and sociability that structured life in the camp.” They convey better than any word the vital spirit, imagination, ingenuity, and courage of the women who crafted them against all odds.

Some of the women who appear in this book are well known, like the anthropologist Germaine Tillion, who after her release published a seminal eyewitness account of her time at Ravensbrück. Others did not return but live on in the memories of those who did. The stories sometimes overlap; the women find inspiration in the physical presence of cherished mementos infused with the friendships to which many say they owe their survival.

Memories is a touching and powerful expression of Rameau’s enduring commitment to witness, record, and remember. When asked why, she explains that “these women lived in accord with themselves, fought against the worst in humankind, and had the generosity to let us think that we can still continue to hope for the best.” She adds, “listening to them, we understand that no one is immune from becoming a terrifying being . . . we also understand that no one is immune, either, from the possibility of not becoming one!”

 

Marie Rameau is a photographer, and member of the board of directors of the Germaine Tillion Association. She previously published Des Femmes en résistance, 1939–1945 (Editions Autrement, 2008).

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LIFE AT VERSAILLES IN 100 QUESTIONS

Mathieu Da Vinha

(Tallandier, 334 pages, 2018)

 

 In the 1660s, the area surrounding the future Palace of Versailles was an inhospitable swamp, unpleasantly windy and without direct access to spring water. Yet it is in that very place that, in 1682, Louis XIV decided to move the court and the government. So why did he choose Versailles?

 Mathieu Da Vinha, the scientific director of the Palace of Versailles Research Center, deftly answers that question as well as ninety-nine others. Using a playful question-and-answer approach, Da Vinha invites us to understand Versailles from different and complementary perspectives: architecture and garbage disposal; food procurement and sleeping arrangements; transportation and hygiene; entertainment and working conditions for all those who contributed to the realization of the Sun King’s grand vision, one that was not fully completed by the time of his death. Was Versailles a safe place? Was the food good? Who could visit? Did you have to be rich to live there? Could you die there?

 Da Vinha takes pleasure in challenging common misconceptions and legends surrounding the habits and customs of the royal court. Did courtiers live in cramped quarters, no better than “rats’ nests”? Is it true that the Sun King only took one bath in his life? These simply framed questions serve as a point of departure to explore broader themes. Thus the story on Louis XIV’s bathing preference leads to observations on seventeenth-century medical practices, and the co-opting of mirror craftsmen from Venice exemplifies European commercial and artistic rivalry in the Age of Enlightenment. Strict etiquette—the hallmark of Louis XIV’s reign—defined an art of living that became famous throughout Europe.

 Foreign observers were particularly taken by another aspect of the life at Versailles: the wide public access to the palace’s grounds. Just about anyone, they marveled, could stroll around in the gardens and catch a glimpse of the Sun King from afar. He constantly lived in the public eye. To maintain that legacy could be a burden to his successors, and most famously so for the Queen Marie-Antoinette. The chapter entitled, “Did the king and queen appeared naked before the courtiers?” details the intricate rules attached to dressing the queen. The anecdote is amusing, but also perfectly captures the absurd and oppressive quality of court protocol.

 Da Vinha brings his erudition and expertise to answer the questions that someone visiting the palace might ask. The responses he provides offer a vivid and comprehensive portrait of the first two hundred years of Versailles, from its conception up to the French Revolution. Beyond the myths of royal opulence that continue to hold sway over the public imagination, he illuminates the lives of the thousands of people who built, maintained, and populated the palace. With Life at Versailles in 100 Questions, Da Vinha offers the perfect resource to gain an accessible, entertaining, yet knowledgeable understanding of Versailles.

 

Mathieu da Vinha is currently the scientific director of the Palace of Versailles Research Center. He is the author of several studies and biographies relating to life under the reign of Louis XIV, including Versailles: Enquête historique (Tallandier, 2015), Au service du roi. Dans les coulisses de Versailles (Tallandier, 2015), Alexandre Bontemps, Premier valet de chambre de Louis XIV (éd. Perrin, 2011), Le Versailles de Louis XIV: Le fonctionnement d’une résidence royale au XVIIe siècle (Perrin, 2009), Louis XIV et Versailles (éd. Arts Lys/Château de Versailles, 2009), and Les Valets de chambre de Louis XIV (éd. Perrin, 2004.) He is also the co-author of Versailles. Histoire, dictionnaire et anthologie, published by Robert Laffont in 2015.

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WHEN ISRAEL DREAMED: THE LIFE OF RACHEL BLUWSTEIN

Martine Gozlan

(Les Éditions du Cerf, 240 pages, 2018)

  

Celebrated as the matriarch of modern Hebrew poetry, Rachel Bluwstein is one of Israel’s most beloved cultural icons. Her portrait graces the new twenty-shekel note, and her most famous poems have been turned into classic songs that are now an integral part of the national heritage. Simply known by her first name, Rachel, her life—and her solitary death at forty-one—took on mythic proportions. She was the muse of a small group of Zionist thinkers and visionaries who, like her, belonged to the Second Aliyah—the second historical wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1909 and 1914. In this lyrical and evocative biography, Martine Gozlan retraces the poet’s poignant personal journey while evoking the cultural, social, and intellectual ferment that gave birth to the state of Israel.

 Born in the Russian town of Saratov, Rachel was nineteen years old when she first visited Palestine on her way to Italy. She intended to study art but, swept into the Zionist pioneering spirit, she decided to stay. She first worked in the orchards of Rehovot and then in an agricultural girls’ school on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. During those early, happier years, she met, and mesmerized, men who left their mark on the nation’s history: Noah Naftulsky, an ecologist avant la lettre; Zalman Shazar, the third president of the future state of Israel; and Aaron David Gordon, the prophet of the first kibbutz to whom she dedicated her first Hebrew poem. Rachel was to leave Palestine one more time, to study agriculture in Toulouse. But the war came and she was forced to return to Russia.

 The tuberculosis she contracted during those harsh years shifted her destiny. Back in Palestine, she joined the kibbutz of Dagania, but was evicted because of fear of contagion. After years of wandering, she eventually settled in Tel Aviv, and it is there, in a simple room facing the sea, that she wrote most of her work between 1925 and 1931. Berl Katznelson, the theorist of Labor Zionism, invited her to contribute to his newly founded newspaper, Davar. The publication of her poems and weekly columns gave her some measure of recognition among the male-dominated intelligentsia of the times. Yet she died alone, admired but also reproved as a woman without a husband or children.

 Martine Gozlan’s eloquent and limpid prose conveys the joys and sorrows of Rachel’s life, her love for the landscape of Galilee, her beauty and fierce intellect, and her solitude. She was fully committed to the Zionist dream yet she remained at a distance, a “free bird landed on the land of Israel.” For the author, who has spent years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rachel remains a much-needed inspiration, the face and voice of an Israel dreamed by “the poets, the lovers and the Just.”

 

Martine Gozlan is the Editor-in-Chief of the weekly Marianne. She has covered the Middle East and the Maghreb as a major reporter since 1988. She has published a dozen of books included Les Rebelles d’Allah (L’Archipel, 2014), Israël contre Israël (L’Archipel, 2012), a series of books on Islamism for Grasset, Le Sexe d’Allah (2004), Le Désir d’Islam (2005), L’Imposture turque (2011), as well as a biography of Hannah Szenes (L’Archipel, 2014.)

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MICHEL LEGRAND: A MEMOIR

Michel Legrand with Stéphane Lerouge

Foreword by Damien Chazelle

(Fayard, 350 pages, 2018)

 

*** TRANSLATION SAMPLE AVAILABLE ***

Michel Legrand has composed the scores for 160 films, winning Oscars and Grammys along the way. Many of his songs have become standards covered by artists as diverse as Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, and Sting. The prolific and highly versatile composer has worked with seemingly every legendary figure in popular music and film since the end of the Second World War, from Maurice Chevalier to Barbra Streisand, to Orson Welles, and to Jean-Luc Godard. Now at the age of eighty-six, he candidly evokes some of the most significant and memorable episodes of his remarkable life.

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Pascale says…

“The dazzling portrait of a life devoted to music.”

 Michel Legrand: A memoir is conceived like a promenade in which past and present loosely intermingle without adhering to a strict chronology. As one memory leans into another, we discover the many facets of a life passionately devoted to music. Legrand shares aspects of his personal life but never strays too far away from the account of his many creative ventures. At every turn, he introduces the numerous artists—jazz musicians, singers and lyricists, film directors and music composers—whose paths have crossed his own on both sides of the Atlantic. More than simply offering an impressive portrait gallery of legendary figures, Legrand also reflects critically on a career that could have gone in many directions. Trained as a pianist, he was destined to pursue a classical music career until the jazz bug bit him in 1948, when he heard the great Dizzy Gillespie live in concert in Paris.

 Legrand vividly recalls his most successful collaborations, composing masterpieces for films such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Thomas Crown Affair, Summer of ’42, and Yentl. He also speaks of rejections, fiascos, and missed opportunities, but in each case, he sheds light on the complex negotiations and compromises that take place between a composer and a director. Michel Legrand: A Memoir will be of interest to all Legrand fans, as well as to music lovers and historians, who will gain firsthand insight into the making of a music icon.

 

Michel Legrand has gained worldwide fame as a musical composer, arranger, and conductor. He is also a virtuoso classical and jazz pianist. He found early success with his 1954 best-selling theme album, I Love Paris, and scored films for French New Wave directors, including Jacques Demy’s celebrated film musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Legrand won his first Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind,” from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Most recently, Legrand composed the score for Orson Welles’ posthumously released movie, The Other Side of the Wind (2018).

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HITLER

Johann Chapoutot and Christian Ingrao

(Presses Universitaires de France, 212 pages, 2018)

How could a man lead a whole continent into war and, consequently, into one of the darkest periods of the twentieth century? Adolph Hitler has been the subject of exhaustive biographies. Johann Chapoutot and Christian Ingrao, two well-known specialists in Nazism, take up once more this daunting and often controversial topic. Rather than opting for a personalistic approach, they reconsider Hitler’s life through the prism of half a century of German history. In two hundred pages, the authors offer a concise and masterful overview of the complex workings of politics and history that made Hitler’s rise to power possible.

More than a portrait of one man, this book examines Hitler’s life as a vantage point to revisit the history of Nazism. What can Hitler’s personal journey tell us about the period of momentous change in which he lived? And how did he become the catalyst for the emerging historical forces that so violently reshaped Europe at the turn of the twentieth century? Like men of his generation, Hitler’s war experience marked a turning point in his otherwise unremarkable life as a provincial German-speaking Austrian with failed artistic ambition. The authors devote much space to explaining the formation of Hitler’s worldview, and the crystallization of his political convictions in the aftermath of the German defeat in World War I. In the second part of the book, they broaden their focus to provide a synoptic account of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.

Hitler is an accessible and gripping book, aimed at the general reader. Reconsidering Hitler’s role in the history of Nazism remains a deeply relevant topic. Chapoutot and Ingrao know this all too well as today Europe faces the resurgence of dangerous forms of populism.

Johann Chapoutot teaches Contemporary History at The Sorbonne. He is the author of The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi (Belknap Press, 2018) and Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe's Classical Past (University of California Press, 2016).

Christian Ingrao is the director of the Institut de l’histoire du temps présent, and also teaches at Sciences-Po. He is a specialist in Nazism and war studies. Three of his books have been translated into English: The Promise of the East, Nazi Hopes and Genocide, 1939–43 (Polity, 2019), Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine (Polity, 2015), and The SS Dirlewanger Brigade: The History of the Black Hunters (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013).

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THE ETHICS AND POLITICS OF IMMIGRATION

Benjamin Boudou

(Éditions EHESS, 263 pages, 2018)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes humanity’s fundamental right to move freely within a nation-state. Everyone has the right to emigrate—to leave any country, including one’s own—but the right to immigrate is limited. This fundamental asymmetry can have fatal consequences, as shown by the deaths of thousands of immigrants today. If national borders are meant to protect citizens and safeguard institutions based on values of freedom and equality for all, then the discriminatory and repressive policing at the frontiers betrays those same values.

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Pascale says…

“An invigorating contribution to the debates on the current immigration crisis, and on how it challenges our democratic ideals.”

 Benjamin Boudou addresses this dilemma head on, and the burning theoretical and political questions it raises about the future of Western democracies. Boudou provides us with the tools to reimagine a world without borders—a not-so-ancient or abstract ideal—in order to make it, one day, possible. In The Ethics and Politics of Immigration, he invites us to reconsider the way in which we define borders, even the ones generally accepted as “natural” (for example, the Pyrenees mountains). Drawing on contemporary political philosophy, he reconstructs the conflicting arguments used to legitimize and reinforce the existence of borders, noting when they contradict democratic and liberal principles. Boudou then hypothesizes a world without borders, embracing a radical vision while acknowledging the urgent need for concrete proposals. One starting point, he suggests, would be to apply the “all-affected principle”—the idea that all parties affected by a decision have the right to participate in making that decision—to the issue of immigration. If we are able to establish or abolish existing borders and limitations on immigrant rights, the immigrants’ interests must also be taken into account. Acknowledging that we cannot immediately implement a system for a borderless world, Boudou advocates for more-open political representation for noncitizens by forming a parliament of immigrants.

 While he is aware that political theory may seem abstract, Boudou demonstrates its relevance by reminding us that thought and action are not opposed, especially in an increasingly polarized political climate. The challenging questions he asks in this stimulating and clearly argued book, and the tentative solutions he offers, are a great point of departure for addressing one of the pressing issues of our time.

 

Benjamin Boudou holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) in Paris. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Germany in the Department of Ethics, Law and Politics.His work focuses on questions of ethics and politics of migration, hospitality, citizenship, and theory of democracy.In 2017, C.N.R.S. Éditionspublished his first book, Politique de l’hospitalité: Une généalogie conceptuelle. He is also the editor-in-chief of Raisons Politiques, a French peer-reviewed journal of political theory.

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ANTONIO GRAMSCI: TO LIVE IS TO RESIST

Jean-Yves Frétigné

(Armand Colin, 320 pages, 2017)


Today, Antonio Gramsci is widely celebrated as one of the greatest social thinkers and Marxist political theorists of the 20th century. First published in the 1950s, his Prison Notebooks continue to exert a strikingly diverse and lasting influence. Jean-Yves Frétigné, a specialist in Italian history, believes that too often Gramsci’s legacy has been reduced to a series of key words. How do we to restore the richness and depth of Gramsci’s intellectual journey beyond the routine invocation of a few of his most well known concepts? Frétigné’s answer is to comb through the events of Gramsci’s life, and to scrupulously retrace the evolution of his thought and political engagements within the context of his times.

 Frétigné retraces the successive phases in Gramsci’s life: from his impoverished youth in Sardinia, to his student years in the political and social ferment of Turin, to his departure to Moscow in 1922, and ultimately to his death in 1937. We first discover Gramsci as a brilliant young man who endured years of extreme poverty, solitude, and physical suffering. Frétigné pays a particularly close attention to Gramsci’s early intellectual influences, and shows how his knowledge of marxism came relatively late, in the wake of  Russian revolution. While Gramsci did not have any oratory talent, he was a prolific writer, and first made a name for himself as a ‘marginal and original’ socialist journalist.  In the wake of the Russian revolution, Gramsci threw himself wholeheartedly into political activism, a path that would eventually lead him to become one of the co-founders of the Italian Communist Party.

Frétigné offers a comprehensive account of the complex relationships Gramsci had with both the official Moscow line and his supporters in Italy and abroad. With remarkable precision, Jean-Yves Frétigné reconstructs the material and intellectual conditions in which Gramsci composed his famous Prison Notebooks. He includes a detailed study of the correspondence and network that Gramsci maintained from the ten interminable years of his incarceration in Mussolini’s jails, up until his death, a mere few days after his release.

Antonio Gramsci: To Live is to Resist is the meticulously researched biography of a man committed to translating the Russian experience into a project of political renewal adapted to his homeland, Italy. In doing so, and under harsh and tragic circumstances, Gramsci left behind an intellectual heritage still relevant to this day.

 

Jean-Yves Frétigné is a French historian and associate researcher at The Center for History at Sciences Po.  He specializes in nineteenth and twentieth centuries Italian history. His most recent book is Histoire de la Sicile: des origines à nos jours (Fayard, 2018). His other publications include a critically acclaimed biography of Giuseppe Mazzini (Fayard, 2006) and Les Conceptions éducatives de Giovanni Gentile: Entre élitisme et fascisme (L'Harmattan, 2007).

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RELEASE YOUR MENTAL WORKLOAD!

Marie-Laure Monneret

(Éditions First, 160 pages, 2018)

Women have a strong sense of responsibility when it comes to their home and family. And it is said that men still rely on their wives for the planning of these tasks… Women should let go! Men have never been so invested in the cleaning of their homes and the education of their children. Yet, a lot of women feel like it is their own responsibility. Doing things together seems fine, but thinking of what needs to be done together seems more difficult! You’ll find a 7-stage plan to let go completely and start a realistic and healthy division of tasks in your couple.

Oftentimes domestic balance is left up to the woman to maintain. It is her responsibility to care for the children and complete the housework while her husband works to provide for the family. While many mothers work outside of the home now, many women still feel the overwhelming pressures of balancing their professional work life with maintaining familial peace.

In her introspective new book, Release Your Mental Workload!, Marie-Laure Monneret defines la charge mentale (the mental workload) as the mental exhaustion women feel by working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in the workplace and at home. This exhaustion originates from an unequal distribution of responsibility between men and women, a reinforcement of patriarchal family structure and male/female stereotypes, the need to fulfill the role of the modern renaissance woman, and a lack of trust in one’s partner. Collectively these external and internal conflicts cause stress, tensions within the couple, difficulty concentrating, and a loss of self-confidence, which also reinforce the “glass ceiling.” Monneret aims to remedy these symptoms, but believes that fixing the problem should not rest on women alone. The mental workload affects men and women both, so it is up to both parties to work toward a solution.

Release Your Mental Workload! asks us to evaluate ourselves and our relationships to create a more equal family dynamic. In seven key, concrete points, Monneret helps us communicate better, redistribute domestic responsibilities, and reduce the stress of balancing the personal and professional aspects of our lives.

 

Marie-Laure Monneret is a certified professional coach and the founder of Bloom Coaching. Wanting to align her professional life with her personal values, she became an individual professional coach to help others, after fifteen years of working in marketing and project management. Release Your Mental Workload! is her second book.

The Second life of Mohamed: The Prophet in Literature

Nedim Gürsel

(C.N.R.S. Editions, 256 pages, 2018)

 

Legendary or not, historical or sacred, it is the narrative that, above all, feeds the imagination, and contributes to the dissemination of the image of the Prophet through time and space.

—Nedim Gürsel

 

The profusion of stories and myths surrounding the life of the prophet Mohamed make it difficult for historians and biographers to determine historical facts. Their task is made harder because it is often considered a religious offense to question his life except in the ways considered traditional. Stepping outside this fraught context, Nedim Gürsel, a Turkish writer, has turned to literature, retracing changing perceptions of Mohamed and of Islam over the centuries. He carves a space beyond devotion and vilification; a place where we can appreciate the life of Mohamed as depicted and imagined through a rich variety of written perspectives.

 

The second life of the Prophet of Islam begins with his death in 632 in the arms of Aïcha, his young wife. Mohamed’s life exemplifies, in the eyes of the faithful, the highest ideal for human conduct. By contrast, at the height of the Muslim conquest, Christian Europe saw in Mohamed an Antichrist and in Islam a heresy and a scourge sent by God. Gürsel shows how medieval literature, and its deeply prejudiced representation of Mohamed, would set the tone for centuries to come. Dante, for example, in his influential Divine Comedy, condemned Mohamed to the eighth circle of Hell. But by the twelfth century, the first translation of the Koran into Latin appeared in the monastic libraries of Europe. Western authors could turn directly to the source. Enlightenment-era writers like Voltaire and Goethe took a closer interest in Mohamed as a historical figure. They, and the Romantic poets who followed, recognized Islam as a universal religion, one that offered an alternative viewpoint from which they could reflect and reimagine their own world. In the twentieth century, Mohamed became a fictionalized character in the works of North African writers such as the Moroccan Driss Chraïbi, or the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar. Each evolution in the representation of Mohamed shows a broader, less restrictive view of the man and his life, and demonstrates the changing history of the relationships between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Gürsel, once the subject of a blasphemy trial in Turkey, hopes that the knowledge of Mohamed through the prism of literature can brighten a horizon clouded by fanaticisms. He shares with Salman Rushdie the conviction that the power to determine the grand narrative of Islam must and should be shared by all. This courageous book is a celebration of the power of literature and imagination.

 

Nedim Gürsel is a Turkish writer. In 1976, he published A Summer Without End, a collection of stories for which he received Turkey’s highest literary honor, the Prize of the Turkish Language Academy. In 2008, Gürsel published The Daughters of Allah. This book prompted the Turkish authorities to charge Gürsel with blasphemy, but he was eventually acquitted. Gürsel is a founding member of the International Parliament of Writers and a recipient of the Freedom of Expression and Publishing Award. Today, a citizen of France, he teaches contemporary Turkish literature at the Sorbonne and works as research director in Turkish literature at C.N.R.S. He is the author of some forty novels, short stories, essays, and travel stories, including The Last Tram (Comma Press, 2012) and The Conqueror (Talisman House, 2010), which have been translated into English.

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70 Days That Made Israel

Salomon Malka

(Armand Colin, 320 pages, 2018)

 

In May 2018, Israel celebrated its seventieth anniversary. To mark the occasion, Salomon Malka has chosen seventy significant days in the history of the country: key milestones, consequential actions of historical figures, and decisive events. But the dates are also significant because they resonate with the life of the author, a Jewish French writer of Moroccan descent born just a year after the founding of Israel. Malka touches upon a wide range of topics, from politics and international relations to archeology, culture, and technology. In 70 Days That Made Israel, he presents a multifaceted biography of Israel that allows us to better understand the journey of a state and its people, from the death of King David to the present

 

Malka’s approach is deeply personal and subjective. He imagines each of the seventy entries as impressionistic touches, each drawn from memories, testimonials, readings, and conversations. In one, he shares his favorite page in the Talmud, which relates the death of King David. In another, he evokes the strikingly premonitory book written by the Belgian Prince de Ligne in 1801—decades before the word Zionist was even coined—precognizing the return of Judea to the Jews. He relates the meaning of the commonly used expression, “Who killed Arlosoroff?” and explains why Tel Aviv may well be the Promised Land of Vegans, as it has recently been ranked as one of the best vegan cities in the world.

 

The book journeys from the creation of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to Golda Meir’s 1949 visit to the great Moscow synagogue, and then from Albert Einstein, who, in 1952, was offered the presidency of the State of Israel, to the funeral of the beloved actress Ronit Elkabetz, and finally to the recent recognition of Jerusalem as the nation’s capital. Well known and seldom recounted, contentious and benign topics are included in this account, which aims to “attest to the mistakes and successes” of the great adventure of Israel. Compelling, entertaining, and informative, 70 Days That Made Israel is a sweeping yet nuanced portrait of “a people that has not shown itself unworthy of the challenges it has been forced to face.”

 

A journalist and a writer, Salomon Malka is the author of more than a dozen books, most notably biographies on Emmanuel Levinas (Emmanuel Lévinas, la vie et la trace, Jean-Claude Lattès, 2002, and Duquesne UP 2006), Franz Rosenzweig, and Vasily Grossman. His books have been translated into many languages.

Lucretius: The Archeology of an European Classic

Pierre Vesperini

(Fayard, 400 pages, 2017)

*** Translation sample available upon request ***

 

This is an explosive book, a bombshell in its field . . . [demystifying] inherited stories and [shaking] up habits of thought.

Le Monde des Livres

 

By the end of this book, I hope to have convinced the reader that the people who preceded us in Europe so many centuries ago deserve more than to be seen merely as our precursors. We must learn to know and love them for what that they were in and for themselves, that is to say, for what made them different from us. This is how they can help us better understand who we are.

—Pierre Vesperini

Alice says

"A brilliant and passionate book which re-contextualizes Lucretius in his times and retraces the afterlife of his masterpiece... a spirited refutation of Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve.”

 

Little is known about the life of Lucretius, the first century b.c. Roman poet and philosopher, beyond his only known work, De rerum natura, usually translated as On the Nature of Things or On the Nature of the Universe. Yet this poetic masterpiece remains one of the primary sources of information on Epicurean physics. Thus, it has been naturally assumed that Lucretius himself was a proponent of Epicurean philosophy and De rerum natura a didactic poem. Pierre Vesperini challenges this assumption and other received ideas that have, since the mid-nineteenth century, coalesced into what he calls “the myth of Lucretius.” He reconstructs with virtuosity the world in which, and for which, these classic verses were produced, resituates the place of Lucretius in that world, and retraces the poem’s afterlife through the centuries.

 

In the first part of the book, Vesperini, an ethnologist as much as a historian, firmly contextualizes De rerum natura within the times and place of its production. And he never ceases to ask questions: Did the Romans have philosophical convictions? What was the place of Greece in the imagination of ancient Roman aristocratic society? What is a poeta at a time when many wrote verses? Who was Memmius, Lucretius’ patron for whom the poem was composed? From Roman cultural practices of reading and writing to poetic aesthetics, Vesperini leaves no stone unturned. He argues that the De rerum natura is above all, if not exclusively, a work of art, which can be no more reduced to a philosophical treatise than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel can be reduced to a Church doctrine on the Last Judgment.

 

The second part of the book is devoted to the reception of the poem throughout the Middle Ages and up to modern times. Vesperini paves the ground for a spirited rebuttal of the myth of a hypermodern Lucretius popularized by Stephen Greenblatt in his bestseller, The Swerve—and the notion that the rediscovery of De rerum natura during the Renaissance, after centuries of near oblivion, sparked the modern age by reintroducing Europe to the theories of Epicurus.

 

Vesperini’s Lucretius is a scholarly book that does not assume specialist knowledge on the part of the reader. With verve, passion, and brilliant erudition, it invigorates the ongoing debate on the posterity of one of the Roman world’s great classics.

 

Pierre Vesperini is a historian of ancient philosophy. He is the author of La philosophia et ses pratiques d’Ennius à Cicéron (École française de Rome, 2012) and Droiture et mélancolie: Sur les écrits de Marc Aurèle (Verdier, 2016), which received the La Bruyère Prize awarded by l’Académie française.

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Childhood During the Times of Pericles

Danielle Jouanna

(Les Belles Lettres, 288 pages, 2017)

 

Greek myths and epics abound in memorable depictions of parent-child relationships, legendary good parents, and also murderous ones. Less is written about ordinary fathers and mothers in the classical age, their roles, their expectations, and their emotional investments in their children. To what extent did they have to comply with the educational norms and the duty of raising the future ideal citizen of Athens? And what was it like to be a child? Drawing on multiple sources from literature, art, and archeology, Danielle Jouanna vividly portrays childhood in Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. While doing so, she debunks a couple of myths along the way.

 

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Pascale says

"Clear and enjoyable...a concise synthesis of recent research on a long-neglected topic."

After numerous studies on the Greek (male) citizen—and, much later on, the Greek woman—interest has risen in the last two decades about the Greek child. Iconographic studies of headstones and archeological excavations of children’s cemeteries have shed new light on this long-neglected topic. Jouanna presents a clear synthesis of these recent contributions. An accomplished Hellenist, she weaves in her own careful analysis of Aristophanes’ plays, Platonic dialogues, legal treatises, and Hippocratic texts to depict the various stages of a Greek child’s life, from birth to early adulthood. Her areas of interest include topics as far ranging as ancient gynecology and obstetrics, gender roles, adoption, children’s tales, rites of passage, games and toys, pederasty, and the Ephebic Oath sworn by eighteen-year-old males on their way to becoming citizens of Athens.

 

Jouanna writes in the wake of the many who, since Philippe Ariès’ preeminent book on the history of childhood, have focused their research on this important but too often overlooked phase of human life. The newer research she includes adds greatly to our understanding. Scholars and lovers of Greek antiquity have, for generations, been enthralled by the famous kalos kaghatos ideal of the good and beautiful man. This ideal, as Jouanna observes in her conclusion, is remaining evidence of the greatness of Athens. But, in this clear and concise book, she depicts how real children and parents lived in those ancient times.

 

Danielle Jouanna is a historian specializing in Ancient Greece. She has published a number of well-received books, such as Aspasie de Milet, égérie de Périclès (Fayard, 2005—Prix Diane Potier-Boès 2006 de l’Académie Française), L’Europe est née en Grèce (L’Harmattan, 2009), as well as more recently, Les Grecs aux Enfers (2015) and Rire avec les Anciens (2016), both published by les Belles Lettres.

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The Syriac World: On the Roads of an Unknown Christianity

Françoise Briquel Chatonnet and Muriel Debié

(Les Belle Lettres, 270 pages, 2017)

 

*** Translation sample available upon request ***

*** Winner of the Grand Prix des Rendez-vous de l’Histoire du Monde arabe 2018 ***

 A seminal work. —Codex

 The introductory monograph that will render the Syriac world accessible to all readers. The first book of its kind.

 Syriac Christianity is the third point in the triangle of ancient Christianity alongside the Greek and Latin traditions. The authors of this short historical monograph set out, as the title indicates, to throw light on this egregiously understudied area in the history of Christianity. Beginning with Syriac Christianity’s Mesopotamian and Aramaean origins of the pre-Christian era, Briquel Chatonnet and Debié chart the tradition’s development all the way through the twentieth century and the little-known 1915 Assyrian Genocide, known within the community as Sayfo.

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Marine says

"A prize-winning comprehensive history of the Syriac world."

The authors insist on Syriac as a “culture of contact” and thus eschew any concern with exact origins or purity of development. Rather, they emphasize the influences of various empires, other Christian traditions, Asiatic religions, and, of course, Islam. In explaining Syriac’s seeming universality, Briquel Chatonnet and Debié make the important observation that Syriac was never the official language of a state nor of a particular people. This feature of Syriac gives coherence to a work of great temporal scope. Rather than treat Syriac as simply another variant of Christianity, the authors consider it variously as a religion, a written culture, and a historical tradition. This alternation conveys the complexity of a historical subject that appears to defy categorization.

 The first attempt to lay a coherent narrative on the entirety of Syriac history, the book connects, for instance, Ottoman and modern Syriac history to the earlier classical period. Briquel Chatonnet and Debié move seamlessly between different topics such as the place of women, ecclesiastical conflict, and scientific production.

 With over one hundred illustrations, eleven color maps, a chronology, and numerous excerpts from original texts in boxed inserts, this unprecedented work invites us to discover over two thousand years of Syriac history and culture.

 

Françoise Briquel Chatonnet has a Ph.D. in history and is a research director at the CNRS, where she directs the collection “Semitic Worlds.” In addition she is deputy director of the Laboratory for Oriental and Mediterranean Studies. She is the recipient of the 2016 Irène Joliot-Curie prize for scientific woman of the year.

Muriel Debié is a professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where she is chair of Oriental Christianity studies.