The Invention of the Clash of Civilizations. A review of Nancy Bisaha’s CREATING EAST AND WEST

On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481), also known as Mehmed the Conqueror. Even though the relationship between Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity (today known as Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox Church, respectively) had been complicated since their messy break up in the middle of the 11th century, the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks came as a shock to the rest of Europe. Secure in their conviction that the fortified capital of the Byzantine Empire could withstand a long-term siege, allies had been slow to muster forces and send aid. And now, it was too late. The last bastion of the Roman Empire was no more.

In traditional history writing, the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE marks the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Behind this narrative lies the idea that Rome was the pinnacle of human civilization, and nothing has been the same since. After the light of Rome was extinguished, darkness fell on the world until light was kindled once more with the rebirth of Roman culture in fourteenth-century Italy.

We find evidence of this view of history in the Dark Ages, an outdated name for the time period otherwise known as the Middle Ages, which, incidentally, is also a pejorative name for the time period between the end of Rome and Rome born again. And, we find this view in the name of the time period that in Italy followed the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth.”

This simplistic narrative hides several complicated truths. For one, Rome didn’t suddenly collapse and leave the world in darkness. Nor was it the end of the entire Roman Empire. What happened was that to save the Empire from collapsing, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) divided the massive realm into two halves along a north-south axis, which created a Latin-dominated western half and a Greek-dominated eastern half, ruled by an emperor in the east and a co-emperor in the west. As it turned out, the eastern half dominated over the western half, most notably after Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) founded a new imperial capital where the Mediterranean meets the Black Sea. He named this city after himself–Constantinople.

As the eastern half of the Empire flourished, the western half struggled to stay together. In 476 CE, Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Ostrogothic king Odoacer and the Roman Empire in the west is considered to have come to an end. The debate on why the Roman Empire disintegrated in the west is a lively one, but suffice it to say, that when the Roman Empire went away in the west, it continued to exist in the east. We call that Rome the Byzantine Empire. Its capital remained Constantinople.

Whereas it can be debated whether or not the Renaissance is a time period of its own or if it is a cultural, political, and artistic movement among the elites of a fractured Italian peninsula that spread its influences over Europe for the next three centuries, the fact remains that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, new ideas flourished with inspiration from the Ancient world. These ideas built on their medieval predecessors, but as Nancy Bisaha argues in her excellent book Creating East and West. Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks, they were distinguished enough to warrant the label “new.” And, as Bisaha goes on to prove, one of the main catalysts for these new ideas was the Ottoman Turks taking Constantinople for themselves.

Whereas the relationship between Latin Christendom and the Muslim world at times was contentious during the Middle Ages, it is in the work of the Italian Renaissance humanists that Bisaha traces the invention of a clash of civilizations. People of the medieval world harbored prejudices and cultivated stereotypes about those who were not Christians, but the chauvinism, superiority, and vitriol that can be found in the writings of the Italian Renaissance humanists is of a different kind. The dichotomy between civilizations is more clearly drawn; the Othering of initially the Turks, but later all Muslims, is more marked; and the identity of Europe as something distinct and superior to the rest of the (Muslim) world is in the process of being formed.

By delving deep into a very large corpus of primary sources from Renaissance Italy, Bisaha convincingly demonstrates that these attitudes were not expressed by a chosen few of the Italian Renaissance humanists, but that they were widespread, and that the intellectuals who participated in the debate, which the fall of Constantinople sparked, were many.

Suffice it to say, Creating East and West is an excellent book. The research is extensive and meticulous. The writing craft is exemplary. The historical analysis is on the highest level.

If I were to criticize this book for anything it would be how it positions itself in the existing research at the time of its publication in 2004. As a scholar who has worked in different European countries and in the United States, I am well aware of how difficult it is to obtain books from abroad. I am also well aware that much has changed as to what was available in 2004 compared to today when libraries and book publishing is increasingly digitized.

All that being said, I still need to point out that the majority of the books and articles referenced by Bisaha are Anglo-American publications. A handful are European, even fewer are Italian. Of the Italian publications, two are from 1999 and 2002, respectively. The rest are older, some significantly so.

Moreover, in the book’s otherwise impeccable introduction chapter, the historians whose works that Bisaha discusses as the most relevant research that the book is positioning itself against are all either British or American (and they are all men). Publishing this type of book is an important step in the recruiting process towards tenure at an institution of higher education in the United States. Therefore, positioning yourself within the field where you intend to have your career is crucial.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a book on Italian and European history that does not position itself against the work of Italian and European historians. This would be the same as if an Italian historian would write about the American Revolution and then only position their work against that of other Italians.

This is not to criticize Bisaha or her credentials as a historian; it is merely an observation about a systemic issue within academia.

However, this observation does beg the somewhat uncomfortable question: how relevant are Bisaha’s findings in the larger context of European history and historical research? The Italian Renaissance is not my field of expertise, and because of that I am unable to determine whether something of importance did take place in Italian humanist thought following the fall of Constantinople, or whether the writings of the humanists come across as important because they look important in the primary sources.

Or, perhaps the geriatric publications in Bisaha’s references are evidence of the fact that what Bisaha highlights in her book is under-researched among Italian historians, and her findings are something that shakes life into a research field that has stagnated?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, because the book doesn’t tell me.

These reservations aside, Bisaha’s results do demonstrate that a shift did take place among Italian Renaissance humanists after 1453, and these new thoughts that developed are of significance because of Italy’s cultural influence over the rest of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. They are also of significance because we are still living with them today. The roots of Islamophobia and the Othering of people in what used to be the eastern half of the Roman Empire can be found here, in the impressive amounts of centuries-old texts that Bisaha has dedicated herself to.

If you are curious about the roots of the ideas of the clash of civilizations, Western exceptionalism and chauvinism, Creating East and West is the book for you.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Book Review Round Up Part 3: More from Foreword Reviews

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a round up of some of the books I have reviewed for Foreword Reviews since October 2020. This week, I am posting yet another selection of books I have reviewed for them lately. Here you will find Latinx speculative fiction, travel through Greece in the Age of Covid-19, the absurdities of life in Communist Albania, and the origins of the conspiracy theories of the American far right, among other things.

I had a great time reading and reviewing these books. Hopefully you will be able to find something enjoyable to read among them.

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.

Jan Brokken, David McKay (transl.). The Just. How Six Unlikely Heroes Saved Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust (Scribe Publications, 2021).

“Jan Brokken’s history text The Just documents a rescue operation to save Jews from the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. In telling the life story of Jan Zwartendijk, The Just adds one more piece to the memory of the Holocaust.”

Literature about the Holocaust is a massive genre and it continues to grow as research on this genocide continues. This book was very interesting to read because it focuses on one of the many people who, at great peril for themselves and their loved ones, stood up for humanity and what is right.

Hernandez, García, and Goodwin (eds.), Speculative Fiction for Dreamers. A Latinx Anthology (Mad Creek Books, 2021).

“The anthology Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is an exciting and mind-expanding collection of short stories by contemporary Latinx authors. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers uses as its inspiration the lived experiences of the American Latinx community of today, expressed through speculative fiction. Rooted in the theoretical framework established by Gloria Anzaldúa’s ideas about la frontera, the anthology’s stories grew out of the participating authors’ lives, located at the cultural, political, sexual, and ethnic borderlands of American society. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is a fun, subversive anthology of Latinx short stories.”

Another book I really enjoyed. I would say that SFF is one of the most vibrant and dynamic literary genres today. New voices are being added to the choir at a steady pace, which expands our ideas of what this and other worlds could become, now and in the future.

Margo Reijmer, Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones (translators). Mud Sweeter than Honey. Voices of Communist Albania (Restless Books, 2021).

“Personal testimonials reveal the lived truths of communist Albania in Margo Rejmer’s oral history book Mud Sweeter than Honey. The book is written like a fairy tale. Its introduction sets up the testimonials, which reveal a repressive society based on contradictions bordering on the absurd. From the survivors of the regime, Mud Sweeter than Honey collects important testimonies about life in communist Albania.”

Mud Sweeter than Honey is an important book for two reasons. One, it is an inside view of the least known former Communist state of Eastern Europe, Albania. Two, it demonstrates the importance of literature in translation. Originally written in German, without the work of publishers who believe in translated literature, this book would never have reached us.

Peter Fiennes, A Thing of Beauty. Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece (Oneworld Publications, 2021).

“Musings on the myths of ancient Greece are intertwined with contemplations on climate change and Covid-19 in Peter Fiennes’s travelogue A Thing of Beauty. As climate change set the world on fire and Covid-19 emerged, Fiennes traveled through Greece with ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias and Lord Byron as his guides. The purpose of the trip was to find hope and to search for beauty; these elusive terms are explored in depth, but the book provides no definite answers about them. In the end, it is the journey that matters. A Thing of Beauty is an entertaining, erudite travelogue through Greece, both ancient and modern.”

When Covid-19 shut down the world in early 2020, tourism ground to a halt and communities whose survival depend on money coming from outside suffered. Greece was one of them. Slowly as we learn how to live with the virus, tourism and travel in general is returning, but for those months when the world stood still, those who dared venture out walked in solitude.

Edward H. Miller, A Conspiratorial Life. Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism (University of Chicago Press, 2021)

“The origins of the conspiracy theories that permeate modern American politics are revealed in Edward H. Miller’s biography of Robert Welch, A Conspiratorial Life. Born into a family of North Carolina farmers who fought in the American Revolution, owned slaves, believed in white supremacy, supported the confederacy, disliked Yankees, and distrusted the federal government, Robert Welch made his fortune as a candy manufacturer with the purpose of supporting himself as a political writer. Hypervigilant to conspiracy theories, he found a personal outlet in the death of John Birch, an American military intelligence officer who died during World War II. He founded an anticommunist organization, The John Birch Society, to peddle his theories among American conservatives. A Conspiratorial Life is the first comprehensive biography of Robert Welch. It is revelatory about his role in the development of modern American conservatism.”

This book is quite the chilling read because it shows the origins of some of the conspiracy theories that we are living with on a daily basis, how they developed, and were allowed to spread and sprout very deep roots.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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THE BRIGHT AGES by Gabriele & Perry, or What It Means to Be New.

It’s rare that there’s a buzz surrounding a book on medieval history written by two academic historians. It’s also rare that I get swept up in a book’s pre-publication hype. But The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry is the exception to both of those rules.

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval history at Virginia Tech and David M. Perry is an academic adviser at University of Minnesota with a PhD in history and several freelance publications under his belt. Active on social media, Gabriele and Perry each have a substantial number of followers who are happy to participate in a major book launch, hence the buzz and the hype.

The Bright Ages is Gabriele and Perry’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about what the Middle Ages were really like. The Middle Ages was a time of violence, persecution, misogyny, and bigotry that we like to point at as a deterrent to make ourselves feel better about the violent, persecution-ridden, misogynistic, and bigoted times we live in. Or, we use the Middle Ages as inspiration for how to create an intolerant society in the present. But, as Gabriele and Perry demonstrate in their book, the Middle Ages are so much more than that.

The purpose of The Bright Ages is to wrest the Middle Ages out of the hands of political pundits and other unsavory characters and show that the Middle Ages were a time of sophistication, light, colors, complexity, and diversity, a purpose I agree with wholeheartedly.

Still, once I finished the book, it left me with a strange aftertaste. On the one hand, The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read. On the other hand, I am flabbergasted by the liberties taken by the authors in order to make their point.

The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read because of its beautiful prose, its clever storytelling, and for turning your expectations on their head at every twist and turn. The book opens beautifully with a description of Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, built c. 430 CE in Ravenna, Italy, and then seamlessly transitions into a discussion on the arbitrary nature of historical periodization. The life of Maimonides cleverly opens with Rambam’s brother David, a Jewish merchant from Spain living in exile in Egypt who sets sail for India to trade but never makes it there because his ship founders. By starting the story with David, Gabriele and Perry quickly establish the global inter-connectivity of the medieval world, where for the duration of the Middle Ages the center of the world economy was the Indian Ocean, not the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean, which we tend to assume.

The term The Bright Ages serves three purposes in the book. First, it’s the book’s attention grabbing title, placed at the center of a gorgeous dust jacket wrapped around a beautifully bound book complete with a blind stamp on the front cover. Second, it’s the rhetorical device around which the entire argument revolves as the antonym of the Dark Ages. Third, the authors introduce it as a time period of its own.

According to Gabriele and Perry, the Bright Ages can be said to have lasted from the year 430, when Galla Placidia’s mausoleum is estimated to have been built, to 1321 when Dante Alighieri, of The Divine Comedy fame, died. During this time period, the authors argue, the Middle Ages were particularly bright, complex, diverse, and sophisticated. There are a couple of problems with this. First, the beginning and end of the Bright Ages are based on the Middle Ages in Italy, and apply only to the developments there. This in contrast to the book’s full title (The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe) which claims to be a new history for all of medieval Europe. Second, the time period from the fifth century to the fourteenth century is also known as the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages, respectively, two subperiods of the Middle Ages that in traditional history writing are considered as, you guessed it, brighter, more complex, and more sophisticated than what came after, namely the late Middle Ages, in this book represented by the Black Death.

The problems with the Bright Ages as a time period and how it connects to the book’s full title is further underlined by the geographical scope of the book. The Bright Ages claims to speak for all of medieval Europe, when, in fact, it is mainly focused on the Roman Empire in the west and its descendants. For example, on the only map in the book, Kiev is the only included “key location” east of the river Rhine and north of the rive Danube (in Ancient history known as limes, that is the border region of the Roman Empire in the northeast). On this map, the area between Aachen in the west (where Charlemagne was based) and Kiev in the east is a place where nothing happened.

Yes, the book does mention what is there, namely the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, and Hungary, but they do not give the Holy Roman Empire its own chapter, even though the Holy Roman Empire played a crucial part in the development of European society of the Middle Ages and served as a nexus in the connections between east and west. Instead, this part of medieval Europe is included in the book so that points can be made about other things, e.g., the controversial person of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the city states of northern Italy, and the Mongols. What is more, Bohemia is conspicuously absent from the account of the Mongolian presence on the European peninsula even though Bohemia was one of the very few who defeated the Mongols in battle.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

Any history of medieval Europe needs to include the Vikings, and The Bright Ages dedicates an entire chapter to them. To the authors credit, in addition to the more famous raids on England and France, the focus is here broadened to include the Scandinavians who traveled through Central Asia (this is why Kiev is included on the map, while, interestingly, the home region of the Rus who traveled there is not; the map cuts off north of Denmark).

There are several problems with the chapter on the Vikings. First, the authors date the Viking Age to 793–1066, a period that only carries significance in British history and is not related to the developments in medieval Scandinavia. Second, the authors oscillate between mentioning medieval Scandinavia as an afterthought and using the terms “Viking Age” and “medieval Scandinavia” as if they are interchangeable. They are not. (In Scandinavia, the Viking Age is a subperiod of the Iron Age, i.e., neither part of history nor the Middle Ages.) When the authors claim that “the Vikings seem to be a quintessential medieval phenomenon,” they are bending history to fit their narrative, something that becomes even more apparent when they also state that the Icelanders of the Icelandic Free State “loved democracy.” The Icelandic Free State was many things, but democracy it was not.

Which brings us to the Italian city states.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the city states of northern Italy, some of Ancient origin some of medieval, were economic, cultural, and political powerhouses. You can’t discuss the Middle Ages without also discussing the veritable explosion in urban life, and you can’t discuss medieval urban life without talking about the city states of northern Italy. Just as with the Vikings, the book dedicates an entire chapter to them. And just like the Vikings, the city states (Florence in particular) are credited with creating a society based on democracy. The authors do admit that this democracy was more similar to the democracy of Ancient Athens and Rome, that is based on an “elected oligarchy” rather than one-person-one-vote. But, medieval merchant and artisan guilds were not democratic organizations and they did not run their cities based on democratic principles. These were organizations with closely guarded memberships. Yes, their members were of what we today would call the middle class, and the middle class, according to how we explain the development of modern society, is the carrier of representative democracy. That does not mean you can apply this causality to the Middle Ages.

As The Bright Ages wraps up, it becomes clear that the claim to be a “new” history of medieval Europe has little bearing. Here, the authors place Dante in Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, which works as a narrative device but is ultimately fiction. To get there, the authors weave a tight tapestry where time is linear with a determined direction while exulting the importance of Dante in relation to the stars and the universe in the mausoleum’s ceiling. All of this put together creates an evocative blend of history as fiction within a Christian view of time and the male genius of the West at the center of the universe. It can’t get anymore old fashioned than that.

But in the end, this entire discussion on the merits and demerits of The Bright Ages is, as the saying goes, academic. The intended audience for this book is not Gabriele and Perry’s fellow historians such as myself. They wrote this book for the general public to combat the appropriation of the Middle Ages by those who wish to use it for their own nefarious purposes. For that, I applaud them, and I hope that as many people as possible get to read The Bright Ages.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Sarah Maza, THINKING ABOUT HISTORY, or History as Slime Toy.

Consider the slime toy. It is obviously an entity, a thing, right in front of you there it is. But as soon as you try and grab it, it slips out of your hand. Try and describe it–or worse, explain it–and you quickly run out of words. Or perhaps you find yourself forced to use too many words, and in the end you stop talking out of exasperation with yourself and the thing you are trying to define.

History is like a slime toy. They are both functioning contradictions. A slime toy is solid and liquid. It is slippery and dry. It is pleasant and unpleasant. Meanwhile, history is the past and the study of that past. It is a story and the creation of that story. It is a science and a liberal art. It is an artifact and a text. It is concrete and abstract. It is physical and ephemeral. It is popular and esoteric. It is the pursuit of the amateur and the expert.

Because of its amorphous nature, everyone has an opinion on history, and everyone thinks they can teach and write history. However, if we take a closer look at what history is–if we try and investigate that slime toy before it slips out of our hand–we will soon discover that history is a complicated thing with a long and complicated history of its own.

In her excellent book Thinking about History (The Chicago University Press, 2017), Sarah Maza, professor of history at Northwestern University, addresses the issues of the amorphousness of history and how that came to be. Divided into six chapters, Thinking about History discusses the who, what, where, and how of history production, as well as the-chicken-and-the-egg debate of historical causes and meanings, and the rise and fall of historical objectivity. The book is a fresh take on the history of history (historiography) that successfully breaks down the inherent Eurocentrism of the field. In doing so, it demonstrates how the parameters set up for what history is and should be are inherently northern European, Protestant, patriarchal, and imperialist, which still to this day actively disqualifies the histories of societies considered outside of the so-called “West” and groups considered not part of the mainstream.

Historiography might seem like a niche subject, but it is at the core of the polarization that we see in society today. At the heart of the so-called culture wars is a fight over history: who gets to write history; who should be included in that history; and what should that history be about.

As Maza demonstrates in her book, historians themselves have a lot to answer for in this mess. It is because of the biases, prejudices, and performative objectivity of historians in the past that we have ended up where we are. But, at the same time, it is also made clear that the key to solving the problem of polarization lies with the culprits.

In her conclusion, Maza states that for “the past to serve its best purpose we must not freeze it in place, we must argue about it” because history “becomes useless or boring at best, and dangerous at worst, when it jells into consensual orthodoxy of any sort.” Even though history studies the past, it does so in response to the needs of the present-day, and as such, history is one of the most important subjects we can study.

For history to be able to address the issues of today, we historians need to learn about our own sordid history. A very good place to start is with Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Judith Krantz’s MISTRAL’S DAUGHTER Revisited, Or If Judith Krantz Were a Man She’d Be Declared a Genius

After being prevented from traveling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was finally able to visit my family for the holidays. Rummaging through old closets, drawers, and bookshelves, in the attic, among a set of books that used to be in my old room, I stumbled upon Mistral’s Daughter by Judith Krantz.

My copy of Judith Krantz’s Mistral’s Daughter (Swedish translation). Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I didn’t expect Mistral’s Daughter to be my holiday read, but I adored that book in my early teens, and so I decided to revisit its pages. Rereading this book all these years later, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I was struck by how different this book would have been received had it been written by a man.

Mistral’s Daughter is the story of three generations of women–Maggie Lunel, her daughter Theodora (or “Teddy” for short), and her granddaughter Fauve–and their relationship to the genius artist and painter Julien Mistral. The story starts in the artists quarters of Montmartre in Paris in the 1920s and then branches out to New York City and Provence in the south of France where it ends sometime in the 1970s. It is a story of love, women’s empowerment, male narcissism, and art. The main characters are all women. Except for Julien Mistral, the men are side characters.

First published in 1982, Mistral’s Daughter was Judith Krantz’s third novel after Scruples and Princess Daisy. In 1984, it became a star-studded miniseries, starring Stephanie Powers as Maggie and Stacy Keach as Mistral.

Krantz began writing novels at the age of 50, after a long career in the magazine publishing business. She would go on to write ten novels and one autobiography and sell 85 million copies of her books, which were translated into 50 languages and spawned three TV mini series, despite the fact that the literary establishment immediately and for the duration of her publication career labled her work as schlocky.

When Krantz passed away in 2019, she was remembered as an author of women’s fiction who reveled in the glitz, glamour, and superficiality of high fashion and high-end magazine publishing, and who peppered her novels with explicit and gratuitous sex scenes. In their obituary of Krantz, The New York Times wrote that Krantz’s success came from “a formula that she honed to glittering perfection: fevered horizontal activities combined with fevered vertical ones — the former taking place in sumptuously appointed bedrooms and five-star hotels, the latter anywhere with a cash register and astronomical price tags,” while The Guardian stated that the “shopping in the novels of Judith Krantz had an intensity the sex could never match.” These are assessments that can be traced back to the original reviews of Krantz’s books. In her review of Mistral’s Daughter from 1983, New York Times’ art critic Grace Glueck states that the prose of Judith Krantz is so over-laden that she feels as if she is digesting 1,000 calories every time she turns the page, and that the book is filled with earth-shattering sex scenes with “multiple orgasms every dozen pages.”

What I find interesting is that when Krantz’s work is discussed, the focus is either on Scruples or Princess Daisy, never Mistral’s Daughter. Probably because, even though Mistral’s Daughter clearly is a Judith Krantz novel, it doesn’t fit the critic’s formula.

Yes, Mistral’s Daughter takes place in the world of high fashion and glossy magazine publishing. (But only partially.)

Yes, there is a headstrong female protagonist. (In fact, Mistral’s Daughter has three of them, but ultimately, this is Maggie’s story.)

Yes, there is sex.

Yes, there is shopping.

Yes, the story is told in “modifier-laden detail.”

But. The novel only contains four sex scenes. They are all at the beginning of the book (which should tell you how much of the novel Glueck actually read back in 1983), they are all important to the plot, and all of them take place at lower-class locations, such as Mistral’s Montmartre studio, Maggie’s scruffy Paris apartment, and a room above a countryside inn in Provence. It is notable that the relationship between Maggie and her life-partner Jason Darcy, which begins when both of them already belong to the elite of New York City, is never given its own sex scene. They hardly even kiss. Fauve, who clearly has an active sex life, is never given her own sex scene. The closest the book comes to giving her one is when she wakes up naked in a bed that is not hers.

Nobody goes shopping. Maggie agrees to be taken shopping by others, but only reluctantly because her clothes are worn out and because she is moving up in society. What eventually will be of consequence to the story are items that initially are mentioned only in passing. Teddy wears the clothes her stylist gives her without any input of her own. Fauve treats fashion as an after thought. Kate Browning, the woman Mistral eventually marries, doesn’t go shopping either; she’s too busy controlling her husband’s career. Daughter of Kate Browning and Julien Mistral, Nadine Mistral goes to a showing at Yves Saint Laurent where she jots down the numbers of all the clothes she wants to buy. However, the scene is written in anger, and in the end, she leaves without buying a single thing.

Krantz’s text is peppered with adjectives, which understandably comes across as subpar writing to a publishing world where “show-don’t-tell” reigns supreme. But what this prolific use of adjectives does is to draw the reader in and place them in the scene. It is direct, cuts to the quick of what is important, and paints a vivid picture using only a couple of brush strokes instead of a whole paragraph. This becomes particularly important in a novel such as Mistral’s Daughter where the artistic talent of Julien Mistral is at the center of the plot. To be able to convey someone’s visceral reaction when they see a painting by Mistral only adjectives will do.

What is completely overlooked when it comes to Mistral’s Daughter is that it is a book steeped in Jewish spirituality. The story builds towards its climax by having Fauve research the persecution of the Jews of France during World War II as it played out in Provence, and as part of her quest visit a centuries-old synagogue and learn about Mistral’s behaviour towards his old Jewish friends. The climax of the novel takes place after the death of Mistral with the unveiling of his final paintings, which turn out to be a series based on the Jewish holidays. And the coup-de-grace: as Fauve exits her father’s studio after seeing the paintings, there is a small piece of paper nailed to his easel, and she bends over to take a closer look. By having Fauve read the note out loud, part of the last sentence of the novel’s climax is the Shema.

What is also overlooked, is that behind the glitz, glamour, and the idolizing of Mistral as the alpha male that affects the lives of three generations of women is an indictment of the veneration of the male genius. Mistral is a genuinely unpleasant person who puts his work before everyone, including his family and friends running for their lives. Where everyone else would be held accountable for their actions, Mistral gets a free pass because he is a Genius.

The reception of Judith Krantz’s work as an author is a typical example of how fiction centered on women is villified by literary critics and society in general. Krantz was a good writer, she knew her craft, she created compelling stories propelled by the actions of well-rounded characters, and Mistral’s Daughter is one of the best books I have read. Had she been a man writing about Julien Mistral and the women he seduced, rather than a woman writing about Maggie Lunel and her descendants, she would have been declared a genius. Because as Krantz herself makes clear for those who are open-minded enough to see, the man who is declared a genius can get away with anything.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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