Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Anthony Holden reviews Conrad Black's Nixon biography at the TLS. I do not think it is really morally good to cultivate one's talent for writing book reviews in this vein, and yet they are unfortunately so delightful to read! This one is an especially good incarnation of the form:
From the outset, Black makes it quite clear whose side he is on. Impartiality may not be a prerequisite of an effective biographer – quite the opposite, in my view – but a sense of balance surely is. As Black rehashes the familiar details of the many crises in Nixon’s long career, he is not merely reinterpreting events with the benign spin of like-minded hindsight; he is saying: this is how I would have handled it myself. He is identifying with his subject – a fellow Machiavel with the same self-righteous hostility to his critics – to the point of indistinguishability.

Is that a word? Are some of Black’s? His exasperating prose style throbs with such phrases as the “boosterish scatology” of Nixon’s school and the “rubesville environment” of his home town. When the Watergate tapes become public, the “shrieks of outrage” that greet the expletives deleted from the President’s tape-recorded conversations amount to “another herniating levitation of pandemic hypocrisy”. The problem with such infelicities transcends mere literary taste; they reek of ugly authorial sneers, as when commentators of whom he disapproves (usually “left-leaning”) are “stentorian in their laudations” of “self-serving claptrap” such as the observance of laws. In his first forty pages alone, like an adolescent reaching beyond his grasp for heightened effect, Black makes questionable use of such words as “collegiate”, “comported”, “canvass”, “proselytizing”, “verdant”, “provenance”, “resistless” and “abrasions”. Later he deploys “exceptionable”, “indefectible”, “integrality” and “disconcertion” (while, I confess, introducing me to such pleasing arcana as “billingsgate”, meaning “foul or profane language”). Musical readers will be as surprised at Nixon’s ability to play “the piano sections of symphonies” as poker-players that this wily cardsharp used to “bid” rather than bet.

And in conclusion:
For all Black’s tireless eye for detail, and his extraordinary authorial energy at a time of such crisis in his own life, his highly personalized agenda cumulatively converts a soi-disant work of history into a prolonged partisan plea on behalf of a man as misunderstood, underestimated and wronged as the author evidently considers himself to be.

At the time of writing, Black has vowed to clear his own name. But he cannot, for all his 1,100 pages of trying, clear Richard Nixon’s. Writing as his own trial loomed, Black must surely have anticipated the irony now attaching to the words he quotes Nixon as saying to Haig at the height of Watergate: “Some of the best writing in history has been done from prison. Think of Lenin and Gandhi”. Not to mention Nixon’s last biographer with a name familiar in Britain for extra-literary reasons, the former Tory Minister Jonathan Aitken, who himself turned born-again author in jail soon after befriending the former President and publishing an apologia pro vita sua. Wherever Conrad Black may rate himself on the scale between Aitken and Gandhi, we can but hope that his prison diaries may be an improvement on Jeffrey Archer’s. It’s a safe bet they’ll be longer.

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