In This Review

Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present
Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present
By David A. Bell
Oxford University Press, 2016, 456 pp

Bell (who, like me, teaches at Princeton University) has emerged as a leading U.S.-based observer of France, the United States’ oldest ally. This book contains more than 40 of his essays published over the past 25 years, covering everything from the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Vichy government to contemporary politics and culture. Most of these essays are book reviews that engage authors in critical dialogues and that originally appeared in The New Republic, the London Review of Books, and other periodicals. But Bell is not a typical academic turned high-end journalist: he does not simply summarize books or briefly mention them as a springboard for a bit of reportage or op-ed writing. Instead, he seeks to stimulate serious debate about the past. For him, the test of a good argument is its fidelity to contextual details as historical actors actually perceived them. Although Bell writes well, his reviews do not always make for easy reading, given the complexity of his approach. Still, the book offers unusually rewarding insights into the past and the many ways it continues to influence contemporary France.