Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, by Paul Johnson. New York: Perennial Library/Harper & Row. 817 pp. $10.95. Beginning in the 1920s, when, much to Einstein's distress, his theory of relativity became ``mistakenly but perhaps inevitably ... confused with relativism'' and ending in the 1980s amid theories of sociobiology, this history of modern times by a distinguished British journalist maintains a remarkably high level of sensitivity to the ideological underpinnings of an increasingly ``man-made'' (all too often, mismade) world. Whether he is debunking Freud's ``gnosticism,'' analyzing the problems confronting third-world governments, examining the United States' involvement in Vietnam, or demonstrating the cross-fertilization by which the despots of the left and right influenced one another, Johnson writes with an intellectual vigor and stylistic assurance that cannot fail to captivate.

This is a work of unusual insight and originality. At every turn, there is something that will challenge, enhance, or change your perceptions. The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, by Jean-Denis Bredin. Translated from the French by Jeffrey Mehlman. New York: Braziller. Illustrated. 628 pp. $12.95.

In 1894, French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was falsely accused of spying for Germany. He was convicted of treason and deported to Devil's Island. As evidence of his innocence mounted, his defenders - most famously Emile Zola - continued to demand justice. Yet the cover-up continued, and the truth was deliberately suppressed, denied, and ignored by the Army and those who supported ``order'' over justice. The Dreyfus Affair dragged on for 12 years, until Dreyfus was finally exonerated completely in 1906. It had become the cause c'el`ebre of its time. As frightening as the individual miscarriage of justice were the storms of controversy unleashed by the affair and the undercurrents of bigotry, xenophobia, and chauvinism that allowed the injustice to happen in the first place and resisted all efforts to right it thereafter. In Bredin's view, the battle between Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard was fought not only between polarized elements of the society, but also within the conscience of many an individual.

Jean-Denis Bredin's is not only the most definitive and comprehensive account available in English, but is also a very well-written, almost novelistic narrative, which unravels the complexities of the case itself and also provides a wide-ranging and vivid portrait of French society at this crucial moment of its history. Modern Poetry of the Arab World, translated and edited by Abdullah al-Udhari. New York: Penguin. 154 pp. $5.95.

``Who stuffed the lark,/ Stitched fear to its wings?/ Who wrapped up that girl in a veil/ Like the slamming of a door?'' The ravages of radical Islam are but one of the many burdens of the lyrics in this anthology. The poets, as the editor explains, may be identified with four distinct movements bridging the years from 1947 to the present.

They come from different backgrounds (Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese), but seem, for the most part, to share an outlook that is pan-Arabian rather than nationalist. They draw on a range of traditions, from pre-Islamic poetry to the influential 20th-century poetry of Kahlil Gibran. Some find inspiration in Islamic sources, others in Christian ones. Some look to scriptural antecedents, some to the examples of modern Europeans like Garc'ia Lorca and Rimbaud. Much of the poetry is political - often in the vein of prophecy, testimony, and lament. Modes range from brief lyrics to elaborate and extended forms of many stanzas. Even in translation, most of these poems survive as artful, elegant, and eloquent. Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics, by Emmanuel Sivan. New Haven: Yale University Press. 218 pp. $9.95.

For a close look at the religious and political phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism, readers can turn to this study by a professor of history at Hebrew University, of all places. It's not all that surprising, for, despite the volatility of Middle Eastern politics, many Israeli academics have continued to maintain a high degree of objectivity in their scholarship. Professor Sivan presents a knowledgeable portrait. His focus is not on Iran's Shi'a fundamentalism (although he devotes some space to considering the impact of the Iranian revolution on fundamentalist thinkers elsewhere), but on the Sunni fundamentalism that is having a major influence in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. He reports on the effects of radical Islam on other political movements: conservatives, leftists, pan-Arabists, and others, and he concludes by attempting to pinpoint the direction that Sunni fundamentalism may take. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces at the Mus'ee d'Orsay. Foreword by Michel Laclotte. Introduction by Edward Lucie-Smith. Commentaries by Genevi`eve Lacambre, et al. New York and London: Thames and Hudson, dist. by Norton. 93 color plates. 200 pp. $14.95. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces: The Courtauld Collection, edited by Dennis Farr, John House, Robert Bruce-Gardner, et al. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 60 color plates, 12 black and white. $13.95 (also available in cloth, $35).

Despite attempts to revise the categories by which we classify the movements - and motivations - of artists and their ``schools,'' the unsatisfactory but perhaps unavoidable labels ``Impressionist'' and ``Post-Impressionist'' still stand. The works grouped under these headings occupy a central place in the Modernist canon and an even firmer place in the hearts of art lovers.

As one collection of these works began to overflow its lovely setting at the Jeu de Paume, the French - with their usual flair - created a new museum at the grand old railway terminus, the Gare d'Orsay, which now houses paintings of the official ``Salon'' taste of the 19th century along with the ``Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces'' handsomely reproduced in this book.

Charmingly, the French commentator attributes Alfred Sisley's sensitivity to the fact that he was English by birth. And, in discussing the instinctive artistic taste of the public-spirited British industrialist Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), founder of the institute that bears his name, editor Dennis Farr mentions the Courtaulds' French Huguenot background. ``Mus'ee d'Orsay'' provides a larger selection: 93 paintings by 23 artists; ``Courtauld'' has 48 paintings from 17 artists, all but one from the collection built up by Samuel Courtauld himself. Commentary in ``Courtauld'' is more detailed: The book is also serving as the catalog to an exhibition touring five US cities. The Birth of Purgatory, by Jacques Le Goff. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 430 pp. Illustrated. $13.95.

By the time that Martin Luther reproached the Roman Catholic Church for fostering a belief in purgatory, a place not mentioned in the Bible, doctrines and beliefs about this ``third place'' had become an important part of the Church's institutional apparatus. The origins and gradual development of this concept are the subject of this intriguing, extensively researched study by a renowned medievalist. The book draws upon a wealth of fascinating materials from poetry, history, and doctrinal literature to examine the significance of this religious concept for the culture that sustained it. Le Goff, conscious that he is writing at a time when doctrinal change is in the air, concludes with some reflections about the future of this concept, which his research has led him - and the reader - the better to understand and appreciate.

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