Book reviews: In God’s Shadow | Posters of Paris | Lords of the Sea

Michael Kerrigan reviews the latest releases

In God’s Shadow

by Michael Walzer

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

(Yale, £20) ****

Modern history has cast the Jew in the role of the radical questioner, the dissident, the gadfly nipping at the body politic’s unyielding hide. But it wasn’t always so. This searching study of “The Politics of the Hebrew Bible” finds the Bible to be hostile towards anything that smacks of pluralism or debate – or, really, of any man-made institutions or reform. Walzer fails to find anything that could really be called politics at all. Rather, he reveals an “anti-politics” which demands the wholesale suppression of debate. Glib it may have been, but Matthew Arnold’s distinction between a “Hebraism” which saw right to lie in undeviating obedience to God’s will and a “Hellenism” which held up everything to enquiry gets an implicit thumbs-up here, a century and a half after it was proposed. More interestingly, though, Walzer draws out some of the workarounds by which ancient Jewish thinkers managed to create a space for compassion and social justice within the Law’s apparently rigid structures.

Posters of Paris

by Mary Weaver Chapin

(Prestel, £35) *****

the popular posters of the Belle Époque are utterly of their time and – now and for always – utterly Parisian. Mundane developments made them possible: advances in lithography; the emergence of a mass market; the rise of a café culture … oh, and a generation of exhilaratingly audacious and talented young artists: Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Steinlen and Mucha and many more. Jules Chéret’s so-called “cherettes” – ebulliently (and yet innocently) sexual – stole the show. And a “show” it really was. Stuck up in their hundreds, these posters bedecked every wall, every kiosk, every hoarding, shop window and urinal, each one a cheap and cheerful – and yet real – work of art. Chapin’s ambitious survey ventures beyond the obvious artists and images to consider what was truly innovative.

Lords of the Sea

by Alan G Jamieson

(Reaktion, £25)***

The figure of the “Barbary Corsair” is, for most of us, every bit as vague as it is evocative. Invaluable as Alan G Jamieson’s history is in filling what’s been a major gap with clarity and rigour, it could have lightened up a little. The swashbuckling scholar is a contradiction in terms, perhaps, but so too surely is the colourless corsair – seldom can “three centuries of terror” have seemed quite so dull. Muslim privateers, these adventurers harried Christian shipping through the Mediterranean and sallied forth as far as Iceland, setting out from their own little states along the North African coast. Not until the 19th century and the colonial era were they quelled. The dangers of myth-making are real but the Corsairs still deserve a more exciting history.