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Writers and Missionaries: Lucid and fascinating essays

Adam Shatz examines the work of 15 intellectuals who have shaped his outlook

The American writer Adam Shatz is a regular contributor to prestige literary journals such as the London Review of Books but this is his first book. Playing to his strengths, Shatz has released a collection of essays devoted to the lives of 15 intellectuals whose writings have shaped his philosophical and political outlook.

Among their number we find several heavyweights, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Edward Said, alongside lesser known figures Kamel Daoud, a contemporary Algerian novelist, and Chester Himes, an African American writer who rose to prominence in the 1940s. The collection is organised into four sections that loosely group the writers under themes. The first, Native Sons, features Said and Daoud and is principally concerned with the politics of the Middle East. It also includes essays on Juliano Mer-Khamis, an assassinated Jewish Palestinian who established the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp, and Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born American professor and political commentator who robustly defended the decision to invade Iraq.

The remaining sections tackle African American literature, 1960s French theory and the last, a kind of melange, brings together a handful of philosophical French artists, including filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, to analyse their political commitments in the context of postcolonialism. This analysis is often sharpened with reference to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.

The historical and sociopolitical tensions that Shatz excavates throughout his writing make for fascinating reading. The argument that grounds his endeavour – “that the adventure of writing and criticism is inseparable from the lived experiences of writers” – is compellingly articulated.


As promising as it all sounds, however, there is a flaw: these essays are reproductions of articles from the London Review of Books. As instances of the longform book review, each chapter’s narrative is obliged to touch upon whatever new publication has prompted the review, eg a new biography. This constraint at the level of content is compounded by one of style, acutely felt in chapters devoted to theoretical writers: there’s simply not enough space to scrutinise the big claims of these intellectuals, or to judge the relevance of their most memorable concepts for our present moment.

A lucid and stimulating text that, nonetheless, feels like a missed opportunity.