Monday, 13 February 2012

Max and Monique Nemni, "Trudeau Transformed: The Shaping of a Statesman 1944-1965" (2011)

The second-volume of this Trudeau biography series came as a bit of a surprise to me. I read the first volume (Young Trudeau, 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada (2006) - sheesh, what a title!), but frankly, have forgotten it almost completely. The approach in this second volume, however, strikes me as a departure from the previous one. It is, in many respects, an intellectual history; a record of the development of Trudeau's philosophy, arrived at through close analysis of his published, and some unpublished, writing. The Nemni's make a good attempt to place the material within the context of the political events within (and beyond) Quebec, as well as showing how Trudeau's ideas fit within or contrasted with philosophic trends, once again, particularly within Quebec.

The first few chapters are rather surprising. They offer a very close analysis of Trudeau's notes and letters from the late 1940s, when he was studying at Harvard, Paris' "Sciences Po", and the London School of Economics. What might be quite boring offers intriguing insights into the evolution of Trudeau's thinking has he is exposed to a variety of challenging thinkers and texts. The Nemnis suggest that popular characterizations of Trudeau's influences during this period (such as Keynes and Schumpeter) are inaccurate. While their explanations of each thinkers' ideas is a little off-putting, it is more or less required to help tie the concepts advanced by the thinkers to Trudeau's responses to them.

The most significant weakness of the book is that in an attempt to trace the development of Trudeau's changing (or consistent) position on issues such as Quebec nationalism, justice, and democracy, the authors have opted (and in a sense are required) to jump from period to period, from event to event, from article to article, and then, to jump back and forth again to trace development of some other idea. In a following chapter, they'll return to an event discussed previously, to touch on another aspect of Trudeau's thinking, or refer back to it to clarify how it relates to some other event from the period that they didn't discuss. This form of historical hopscotch is a little frustrating.

Additionally, the authors will engage in a few unnecessary asides that seem more suitable to an undergraduate essay rather than an opus on one of our most contentious Prime Ministers. These quips are not particularly stinging, however, and rare enough that they can be forgiven.

In conclusion, this volume is a particularly useful record of the development of Trudeau's thoughts. It places many of the essays in long-available compilation volumes such as Federalism and the French Canadians (1968) in their philosophic and political context, and is an enjoyable read. While the structure is awkward, this is an admirable effort.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Andrew Hussey, "The game of war: the life and death of Guy Debord" (2001)

I'm torn about this book. While reading it I was distracted by Hussey's interjection of personal anecdotes regarding his drinking interviews with Debord associates. These smacked of insecurity, as if Hussey was desperate to assure us that he was 'cool' enough to wander Paris' Left Bank, to share cognac with Alice Becker-Ho, and to mix comfortably and confidently with these notoriously catty theoreticians and revolutionaries.

On the other hand, his explication of Debord's theories at times was rather simplistic. For the common reader, this would be helpful, though I can't help but wonder how many 'common' readers were likely to pick such a book up?

In short, Game of War was akin to an extended Rolling Stone biography. Pithy, loaded with personal insights, and light on philosophical and political insights. I can say, however, that I had never known that Debord once opened a bar in Paris, and designed advertising for the bar before he became involved as a co-manager.

As an addendum, particularly given the title of this book I was disappointed to find that Hussey did not offer a translation (or really even a mention) of Debord's 1987 text that outlined the rules for the kriegspiel he invented (the only version of the text that I have found was the translation in Len Bracken's Guy Debord: Revolutionary, and frankly, the editing quality of that volume was so bad that I can't help but regard anything in the book as being a bit dodgy). As Hussey discusses Debord and Becker-Ho wiling away many days playing this game, and suggests the game was a metaphor in some ways for Debord's later thinking about politics and revolution, this oversight feels significant.