Few things are harder to write than a sincere treatment in the style of 'more sorrow than anger'. The sincerity is bound to get in the way of both the sorrow and the anger, and vice versa. One will be suspected, perhaps, of masking (beneath the regret) a covert relish. The ful-some style of the obituarist may creep in, causing one to be sanctimonious about the virtues in order to appear generous about the backslidings. Hypocrisy waits at every intersection. But it remains the fact that Conor Cruise O'Brien has been one of the great stylists of our time, whether writing about France, Britain, Ireland or Africa. It further remains a fact that his has been a voice attuned to the discourse of reason, and that when he has been 'mobbish' (his own preferred term for a bit of polemical exaggeration; no harm in it; no malice; the fellow needed a bit of a start anyway) then even this mobbishness has been generous, and a pleasure to read. O'Brien has been an internationalist, a wit, a polymath and a provocateur. I can still remember the excitement with which I discovered a copy of Writers and Politics, in a provincial library in Devonshire thirty years ago. Nobody who tries to write about either of those subjects, or about 'the bloody crossroads' where they have so often met, can disown a debt to the Cruiser. I hope that this is enough by way of sorrow and sincerity, though I could certainly have amplified it. Because the plain fact is that his latest book is a disgrace. Even if it doesn't make one angry, it is a cause for disgust and depression. It fouls his reputation both for writing and for reasoning.
LRB 22 February 1996 | PDF Download