In 1974, divorce left Bernard Lewis, the great authority on Islamic history, penniless and in debt. When he moved from Britain to America that summer, he had to depend on an advance from his new employer, Princeton University, to cover daily expenses.
He makes this period sound miserable in Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian. And yet 1974 now seems a breakthrough moment, when his career took a new shape and he began acquiring an almost majestic reputation.
Arriving at Princeton, he was the admired author of only a few books. But over the next two decades, perhaps because of lighter university duties or because of his need to revive his fortunes, he produced a shelf of 13 substantial books, from The Muslim Discovery of Europe to The Political Language of Islam. For readers in the West, he superbly explained Islam's place in the world.
While neither he nor anyone else knew it, this was preparing him for his future role as a public intellectual. The 9/11 atrocity brought him legions of new readers and made him the most eagerly consulted historian in the world.
A disquieting event in the academic world influenced his stature almost as much. In 1978 he acquired a major personal enemy, Edward Said (1935-2003), a Palestinian-American professor of literature at Columbia. Said's book, Orientalism, attacked Western scholars who wrote about the Islamic world, arguing that their depiction of the Arabs was little more than scholarly propaganda for the crimes of European imperialism. Said named Lewis as the principal perpetrator of this outrage.
Lewis says that when reading Said it was hard to decide whether, at any given point, he was ignorant or deceitful. Even so, Said unintentionally enhanced Lewis's status by defining him. People who deplored Said's reckless leftism were curious about his victim. Lewis of course remains ungrateful, particularly since Said's opinions won over many, many professors. Today a generation of tenured Saidians, locked for life in a decaying intellectual fashion, work hard to produce more Saidians. Lewis calls this the Cult of Right Thinking. In private he's been known to refer to the Church of St. Edward.
He denies two other accusations in Notes on a Century.
No, he says, he didn't advise the United States to make war on Iraq, though many Americans will no doubt continue to believe the story that he did. And no, he didn't deny the mass slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks. He merely argued that it should not be called a holocaust, a parallel with the Nazi crimes. He believes there's no convincing evidence the Turks wanted to annihilate the Armenians.
Lewis turned 96 in May. He needs a hearing aid, a cane and serious naps. He shares writing credit for Notes on a Century with Buntzie Ellis Churchill, former president of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, who describes herself as the "lady in Bernard Lewis's life." (He calls her his girlfriend.)
His readers will find in this memoir the same stylistic qualities we have enjoyed before. He writes with easy grace, he skewers his enemies with precision and he never neglects the chance to amuse us.
He enjoys donnish jokes. Training as a British Army intelligence officer during the Second World War, he inspired a senior officer to write in his file: "His sense of humour should not be taken as seditious."
He made a habit of collecting the comic ironies that made life bearable, like an explanation of the difference between Britain's major intelligence services: "The job of MI5 is to stop others from doing to us what MI6 is doing to them." He tells us what sounds like a familiar joke on himself, which he makes into a joke on the reader: During wartime he had only one conversation with Stewart Menzies, the renowned head of British intelligence, known as "M": Lewis says he can't remember what they talked about but adds that, even if he recalled it, the Official Secrets Act would prevent him from telling us what it was.
When Arab countries began refusing visas to Jews, Lewis boycotted them rather than disguise his background; still, he was delighted by a New York colleague who successfully stated her religion on the application as "Seventh Avenue Adventist." He cherishes paradox when used as a punch line, especially if it distills wisdom. Once he heard a Turkish general say that the Americans are poor allies, since you never can know "when they will stab themselves in the back."