Menachem Begin: A Life
by Avi Shilon
translated by Danielle Zilberberg
and Yoram Sharett
Yale, 584 pages, $40
The early decades of Israeli politics were dominated by Labor Zionists, mainly secular Ashkenazis (Jews from central and eastern Europe) whose goal was to create a New Jew based upon a pioneering socialist ethos and rooted in the Bible and the love of the homeland. Menachem Begin (1913–92), a military and political leader who became prime minister of Israel, was in many ways the Labor Zionists’ polar opposite.
As the leader of the small Revisionist underground Etzel, he led a revolt against British forces in the 1940s. An excellent strategist, he played a vital role in driving out the British, though you would not guess this from Avi Shilon’s biography. The author seems to adhere to a center-left Zionism, though he does try to be fair to Begin and recognizes many of his strengths.
While not ignoring Begin’s strategic skills, Shilon, an Israeli journalist, does not, I think, give them as much credit as they deserve in this book, an English translation of a Hebrew biography published in 2007. He argues that Begin, while a principled, truthful, and moral politician, was governed almost totally by emotion and intuition, shortchanging his analytical abilities.
In his later service as prime minister, Begin is best known for ceding the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty, a widely praised accomplishment, though its wisdom (which not a few far-sighted people questioned at the time) seems less evident now with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I think he was also blind to the probability that the world would see Sinai rather as a precedent for surrendering Judea, Samaria, and Gaza as well.
Yet what was arguably more important for Israel in the long run—though little recognized outside the country—was Begin’s consistent, authentic religious-nationalist attitude and discourse, a point Shilon makes strongly and well. Begin was a dramatic orator and, for many, an inspirational figure. He was, for example, the first newly elected prime minster to go to the Western Wall to pray.
His electoral victory in 1977 broke not only the Labor party’s electoral but its spiritual dominance. As a result, religious nationalist discourse is much more evident in Israeli society today than it was before Begin’s premiership.
—Shmuel Ben-Gad is a librarian at George Washington University.
P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
by P. G. Wodehouse
edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
W. W. Norton, 640 pages, $35
Asked by an interviewer in 1975 what he did with his time before he began writing at the age of five, P. G. Wodehouse responded, “Just loafed, I suppose.” Sophie Ratcliffe’s new collection of his letters shows us that he not only wrote to live but lived to write, and did so with consummate skill from an early age.
His letters give the impression of having been composed not with an eye arched toward posterity but rather with an irrepressible instinct for good humor and gaiety, and his life seems to have been a happy one, befitting his unflagging, almost elemental decency. For decades he went to ridiculous lengths to send money discreetly to a fellow writer who was, as Bertie Wooster said of Francis Bickersteth, a “frightful chump.”
The death of his beloved stepdaughter Leonora in 1944 (“What a horrible, bleak feeling it gives one, to think that we shall never see her again”) is one of perhaps three genuinely distressing incidents in this otherwise sunshine-filled volume. The others were his two-year stint at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and his internment in a Nazi prison camp (“If this is Upper Silesia, one wonders what Lower Silesia must be like”).
Wodehouse emerges in these letters as a surprisingly shrewd critic of other writers, pooh-poohing Hemingway’s much-touted theory of omission, for example, as “a darned easy way of writing—just short, breathless sentences.” Fellow workaday scribblers like Agatha Christie and Rex Stout tend to earn much higher marks.
Ratcliffe, a lecturer at Oxford, provides brief but informative expository chapters and detailed notes that fill the few gaps in this more or less complete epistolary autobiography. Younger readers especially would be well advised to skip the biographies by Frances Donaldson and Robert McCrum and direct their attention to the letters straightaway.
This volume should secure Wodehouse a place among the company of writers like Flaubert, Henry James, and Santayana, whose letters are properly called literature in their own right.
—Matthew Walther is an editorial intern at the American Spectator.
My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir
by Colleen Carroll Campbell
Random House, 224 pages, $22.99
In My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, Catholic journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell interweaves her own life story with the stories of six holy women: Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina Kowalska, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), and the Blessed Mother. Treating them as exemplars and guides, she meditates upon their lives, words, and work while confronting an array of difficulties in her own life, be it learning of her father’s early-onset Alzheimer’s (Thérèse of Lisieux), struggling to balance the demands of her personal and professional lives (Faustina), dealing with infertility (Edith Stein), or accepting the potential loss of her long-awaited and as yet unborn children (Mary the Mother of God).
The biographies, basic and concise, provide lesser-known and engaging elements of each saint’s life, though they serve primarily as narrative devices that possess greater value for Campbell than for her readers. Until, that is, she turns to the Blessed Mother herself; contemplating her as an exemplar of womanhood, she is able to revise the offerings of both modern feminism and its critics.
Here Campbell critiques the “white-knuckled perfectionism that masquerades as maternal competence in our culture today.” Mary’s surrender at the foot of the cross to a plan that could in no way have been part of her own for herself or for her child figures as the centerpiece of her proposal of a Catholic feminism, which locates the foremost value of women not in forms of service to others (marriage, motherhood) but in service to God, in the decision to surrender to his plan.
Although she seems to presume that her readers wouldn’t find a spiritual memoir sans Augustinian turns gripping, her story of the gradual strengthening of a lukewarm faith is precisely what many will find compelling. She never failed to fulfill her Sunday obligation, but she has still had to work and pray for a deepening of faith, as was the case with her sister saints, and as is, presumably, the case for her readers.
—Anna Boyagoda is a writer and a mother of four living in Toronto.