Books by Richard West

Released: Sept. 1, 1998

Charming urbanity and a keen historical imagination characterize this biography of the writer who not only helped invent the novel, but did much to shape the modern newspaper and the modern political campaign. West (Tito, 1995), a well-traveled veteran British journalist, begins his life of Defoe by describing how he became fascinated, 30-odd years ago, by that author's travelogue A Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain. What West offers here is a tour through British history during Defoe's lifetime, a journey that extends from the Great Fire of 1666 through the Glorious Revolution and Hanoverian Succession and thence into the 1720s, when the elderly Defoe, having published Robinson Crusoe in 1719, continued to produce fiction masterpieces. What makes this tour possible is the fact that Defoe was intimately involved in the crucial events of his day. He served Robert Harley and other key ministers as a secret agent, publicist, and all-around factotum, while publishing, in a series of newspapers and tracts, crucial articles on issues of trade, religious rights, foreign affairs, and Anglo-Scots unity. West freely acknowledges that he relies on a few outdated monumental histories of the period (Macaulay, Trevelyan, Churchill) and on Paula Backsheider's recent academic biography of Defoe. More seriously, he does not display an awareness of recent controversies over just how many of the works attributed to him Defoe actually wrote. Yet West is clearly an aficionado of English history, and whatever he lacks in scholarly expertise he makes up for with the empathy that he evinces for his fellow journalist's travails, which included several jailings for bankruptcy and a famous spell in the pillory. West's closing chapters on the novels and the Tour tend towards summary, but contain quite moving passages of imaginative sympathy with the author. Not a definitive biography, but rather an endearingly personal one that opens up a window on the soul of a writer who experienced firsthand much of what was vital in his time. (8 pages illustrations, not seen) Read full book review >
TITO by Richard West
Released: June 1, 1995

An unfocused attempt to combine a biography of Tito, an account of Yugoslavia's rise and demise, and a weak argument about the centrality of religion to the region's conflict. British journalist West (A Hurricane in Nicaragua, 1990, etc.) frames his discussion of the breakup of Yugoslavia with a biography of Tito, ``the very personification of Yugoslavia.'' But his reader frequently loses sight of both Tito and current events amid a ramble through ancient Balkan history and an extended narrative of political events and personalities. The bulk of the book rests on secondary sources, especially biographies written by Tito's former comrades Milovan Djilas and Vladimir Dedijer. West's research is haphazard, though: Standard histories appear alongside obscure works, while other studies are bypassed. Instead of sustained argument, we are offered anecdotes and vignettes—Edward Gibbon on the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, Rebecca West on the town of Pritina in the 1930s, and Richard Burton, of all people, on Tito. The author is also given to making vapid generalizations. ``There was socialism but not much sociology in Yugoslavia,'' he writes, going on to assure readers that the country enjoys ``a good relationship between the sexes'' and is free of racism. (He obviously never spoke with any African students, gypsies, or Yugoslav women.) One of West's more interesting, if dubious, propositions is that Yugoslavia's dissolution has its roots in the religious rather than ethnic divisions among Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians. He offers the Irish/English split as a paradigm and makes much of the Catholic Church's activities in Croatia, giving far less attention to the Orthodox Church and the Muslims. But he never confronts competing theories of the present crisis, especially those arguing for the key role of manipulative politicians and of the media. Unsuccessful, both as original biography and as commentary on current events. (8 pages b&w illustrations, not seen) Read full book review >