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Archive for the ‘Edith Pargeter’ Category

Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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When I found The Coast of Bohemia by Edith Pargeter in a used bookstore in Nelson, BC last summer, I gasped audibly and then spent the rest of my visit with the book clutched firmly to my chest.  No one was going to part me from this book, which I had been longing to add to my Czech collection for years.

Never heard of The Coast of Bohemia before?  Or Edith Pargeter?  Fair enough, though you might have heard of Pargeter under her pen name of Ellis Peters.  As Peters she wrote the best-selling Brother Cadfael mystery series.  Lesser known are her translations of a rather marvellous variety of Czech works, ranging from beloved 19th century tales to political memoirs to post-war classics.

Czech is not a language you pick up easily.  But for Pargeter, who became fascinated by the country after befriending Czech servicemen during WWII, it was a labour of love.  The country, the language, and the people all fascinated her.  In 1947 she made her first visit to Czechoslovakia and then returned for three months in 1948, the trip which she recounts in The Coast of Bohemia.  She would continue to visit the country regularly but it was only this early trip in the hopeful post-war years that she chronicled in this wonderful, enlightening travelogue.

Pargeter arrives in Prague in the midst of the 1948 Sokol slet.  The Sokol movement was based on gymnastic exercises but involved a whole ideology (see Wikipedia for more detail) and the slet was a mass exhibition that drew in people from all over the country, as well as foreign spectators.  For Pargeter, it set just the right festive mood for her stay.

Pargeter roams widely in her travels but Prague is her base and her love for the city flows throughout the book.  I particularly loved this passage about the view towards the castle, perhaps because it is so much how I feel when I am there:

I have many great things still to see, but so far I know of no prospect which lifts up my heart and stops my breath as this does.  Gothic towers have always a quality of tugging one towards heaven as in a rising whirlwind, and here the towers are themselves the culmination of an upward rushing of roofs, palaces, gardens and orchards, all climbing with an equal impetus of flight from the level silver calm of the river, and the counter-balance of bridges.  I can see it twenty times a day, and never without an answering leap of the heart; at the end of a close daily acquaintance with it for three months it is as new as at the beginning, yet coming back to it has every time something of coming home.

Because she has so much time to explore, she also takes delight in discovering Prague’s “subtler serenities” and “less accessible charms” which come only “to those who have time to appreciate them.”

Much of the pleasure of her visit comes from the fact that she is not alone.  She spends most of her time with Czech friends who squire her about to show off their country but are also happy to just spend quiet evenings in discussion.  By slipping so easily into family life, she really gets to know the people and the country in a way that the vast majority of travellers never do.

And she sees places most travellers never see, even today.  She goes on daytrips from Prague into the countryside or along the river, visits nearby historic sights (including Terezin, the former concentration camp), spends some time in a famous spa town, and relaxes in the mountains.  I read this back in June, knowing that I was only weeks away from going to Europe but with no plans to stop in the Czech Republic while there.  It was torture.  As things turned out, I did get to spend almost two weeks there (split between Prague and a Moravian spa town) and so I was able to stop being so jealous of Pargeter.

Because she has close Czech friends, Pargeter gets to ride along on family visits to friends in the countryside outside of Prague.  There she is rather amazed to see the family’s son, the elegant and sophisticated Honza, comfortably helping out – something she can’t imagine British city-dwellers being able to do:

It seemed to us that in Czechoslovakia there was no such gulf between the townsman and the countryman as can often be found in England.  You could take any apparently typical young Praguer […] and find that he had firm roots somewhere in the soil and a very close knowledge of country matters.  The link not only exists, but is close and strong.  We discovered during the war how completely ignorant many town-born English people could be of the most elementary facts of country life.  Jaroslav and his family would go off during the summer holidays to help with the harvest on his brother’s farm in Sumava.  Honza, when he talked about his childhood, often trotted out incidental anecdotes about the hop-fields, and his uncle’s draught oxen.  Shop-gazing in the streets of Prague, or forking manure and casually shepherding animals here, he fitted into the picture equally securely.

Whether this is universally true, I can’t say, but it certainly remains true in my family.  Connecting with the land is important to Czechs – after all, the national anthem is a love song about the country’s beauty.  Combine that with a love of physical activity and you have a nation that can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend the weekend than foraging for mushrooms, building a friend’s cabin, or, joy of joys, getting together a small group to slaughter and process a pig.  I doubt this is uniquely Czech but it is certainly more common in continental Europe than in the UK, both then and now.

Pargeter’s love affair with the Czechs was only beginning when she took this trip and wrote the book (it came out in 1950).  Her Czech was minimal (only around 50 words she estimates) so her ability to grasp all the nuances of the Czech character are limited.  While she is delighted by all the visitors come to Prague for the Sokol slet, dressed in their regional costumes, her Prague friends view them with condescension, explaining to her that “most of these […] were Slovaks.”  Slovaks are never to be admired, even as picturesque peasants.  And when a Czech man she meets on a train very neatly explains the national character to her as “everyone smiles, but has a sorrow in his heart” she is not quite sure how seriously to take him.  In time, I’m sure she learned just what an accurate description that was.  In fact, even by the end of this trip she was well on her way to understanding why the Czechs were different:

The Czechs seem very like us, we say – and indeed I believe they are – why do they not think as we do?  The answer is on the map.  They simply cannot afford to. […] She looks back on a history of unending troubles, wars and wrongs, all because she made the mistake of being the very antithesis of an island, the core and crossroads of a continent.

Pargeter is an excellent and enthusiastic observer of the Czechs and, more than anything, a fond one.  The book reads like a particularly erudite love letter to the country and the people, and is a wonderful reflection on both.  I think any traveller (or armchair traveller) with an interest in the Czech Republic would enjoy this but for Czechophiles it is a true delight.

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