Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

There are books that are important and books that are an education in and of themselves and books you never want to end.  And, best of all, there are books that are all those things.  The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich is such a book.

Between 1978 and 1983 Alexievich, the Belarusian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, travelled thousands of miles across the USSR and met with countless women to hear and record their experiences of the Second World War.  And for many people, Soviets included, these were stories they had no idea existed – stories of women who served in active combat, who knew what life was like on the battlefield, who had been shot at alongside their male comrades, and whose contributions had been largely swept aside as the official history of the Great Patriotic War took shape.  Published in 1985, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of their experiences changed that and now, thanks to a new English-language translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (whose previous work made me fall in love with War and Peace), it can change the perspectives of Western readers too.

When Russia went to war against Germany in 1941, women flocked to sign up.  Time and again Alexievich records women who remember leaving their schools to go to the recruiting office or fighting against military bureaucrats who thought they were too young to be put on active duty.  They enlisted as pilots, as snipers, as members of tank squadrons, and, overwhelmingly, as surgeons, doctors, and other medical professionals.  The Soviet Union may never have become the utopia dreamed of but it had trained women to think of themselves as capable, contributing and equal members of society.  They were doctors and lawyers and engineers without the novelty factor still common in the West.  As Vera Danilovsteva, a sniper, recalled “Girls felt equal to boys; we weren’t treated differently.  On the contrary, we had heard since childhood and at school: “Girls – at the wheel of the tractors!,” “Girls – at the controls of a plane!””

But a large focus of the book is on how elusive that equality was.  By the time Alexievich came to speak to them, many had given up hope of ever getting to tell their stories.  They had been swept aside for so long and the relief at finally having someone who cares to listen was immense:

I want to speak…to speak!  To speak it all out!  Finally somebody wants to hear us.  For so many years we said nothing, even at home we said nothing.  For decades.  The first year, when I came back from the war, I talked and talked.  Nobody listened.  So I shut up…It’s good that you’ve come along.  I’ve been waiting all the while for somebody, I knew somebody would come.  Had to come.  (Natalya Ivanovna Sergeeva – Private, Nurse-aide)

Alexievich recounts their stories of life during the war: how they joined up, how they fought, what they missed, how they fell in love (or didn’t), how they longed for their families.  They all had different experiences – understandable enough given their huge numbers (more than one million women joined the military and at least half of those served in active combat roles) – but the universal memory is of how their country and their brothers-in-arms failed them when the war ended:

How did the Motherland meet us?  I can’t speak without sobbing…It was forty years ago, but my cheeks still burn.  The men said nothing, but the women…They shouted to us, “We know what you did there!  You lured our men with your young c—-!  Army whores…Military bitches…”  They insulted us in all possible ways…The Russian vocabulary is rich… (Klavdia S—va – Sniper)

They had come home wanting to be proud of their achievements, to stand next to their male comrades and be recognized for what they had done, but they also wanted to get on with their lives.  And being a soldier, it was made clear to them, was not possible if you were a proper woman:

When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears.  I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.  We had spent four years in trousers.  There was no one I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion.  Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you?  We were silent as fish.  We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front.  (Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva – Sergeant, Commander of Anti-Aircraft Artillery)

Their silence was extreme.  Some women did their best to make their past disappear, hiding their ribbons and medals away, not daring to wear them on parade days even though all the men did.  In extreme cases, women tore up their papers, making it impossible to claim the pension and benefits due to them as veterans, while others, wounded in the war and ashamed of what had happened, moved far away from anyone who knew them and did their best to hide.

But others remained happy and proud.  For those who had fought alongside their husbands it was easier to retain that part of their life with pride – if he knew and was proud, she could be too.  But it was these same husbands who could be found coaching their wives ahead of their interviews with Alexievich, reminding them of the facts of each battle – the dates, the outcomes, the soldiers lost.  This was their vision of how war should be discussed, particularly in an era when talking about your feelings and opinions about your country could get you into serious trouble, but it was not Alexievich’s – or, thankfully, the women’s.

It’s been a while since I finished the book and what has stuck with me the most were the feelings of the women as they swept through into Germany.  Western Allies remember finding a broken country, with millions of people displaced, millions homeless, and seeing some of the most gracious and elegant cities of Europe in ruins.  For the Russians it was a completely different experience.  They had marched from their own broken and ravaged country with no doubt, after Leningrad and Stalingrad, after passing the Polish death camps on their way to Berlin, of how their enemies should be treated.  But what seemed to bewilder and enrage them in equal measure was what they found in Germany.  For the Russians, after years of starvation, of living on almost nothing, sleeping “on straw, on sticks”, the level of civilization still intact in Germany floored them:

Finally, we were on their land…The first thing that struck us was the good roads.  The big farmhouses…Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns.  White tablecloths in the houses.  Expensive tableware.  Porcelain.  There I saw a washing machine for the first time…We didn’t understand why they had to fight if they lived so well.  Our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths.  (Aglaia Borisovna Nesteruk – Sergeant, Liaison)

It is particularly feminine observation and a telling one, showing so clearly the disparity between the two enemies but also between the allies.

This was Alexievich’s first book and if she had ended there her contribution to history would have been considerable.  As it is, she has written about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, the survivors of Chernobyl, and the disintegration of the USSR.  She picks timely, important subjects and creates books that matter both in the present and to posterity.  She has left me better informed, much moved, and feeling like I need to read all of her other words immediately.  It is the best possible feeling I can have when I finish a book.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Back when I was still relatively new to blogging, I used to sign up for reading challenges, partly for the fun of reading in a group setting but mostly for the joy of making ambitious reading lists.  My favourite among those challenges was the Eastern European Reading Challenge and each year that I did it I put together obscenely detailed reading lists (in 2011 and 2012).  One book that made it on to the list both years was How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel – which is really just a rambling way of telling you that I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long, long time.

Pavel was a Czech sports journalist who was diagnosed as bipolar in his mid-thirties (after he set an Austrian barn on fire while in Innsbruck covering the Olympics).  He spent much of the rest of his short life (he died of at heart attack at age 42) going in and out of hospitals but also writing.  And the best of what he wrote was this gentle, meditative, and comforting memoir of his childhood, first published in 1974.

Pavel grew up just outside of Prague in the town of Buštěhrad, the third son of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father.  His mother is a steady presence in his life but it is his father whom Pavel focuses on here – most specifically his love of fishing which he passed down to his youngest son:

Business and fishing were his two great passions.  He excelled unbelievably at both, preferred fishing, and considered it a disaster if he could not combine a sales trip for the Swedish firm of Elektrolux – for which he sold refrigerators and vacuum cleaners – with a fishing adventure.

Pavel was only eight years old when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and still a little boy when, a few years later, his two elder brother and his father were sent away to concentration camps.  Before he leaves, his father tries to teach his young son all the secrets to catching his beloved carp.  They are lessons Pavel needs to remember as the war continues on, as his mother returns home exhausted each day from forced labour, as food supplies run out:

At that time we needed delicious fat carp meat.  We had so little to eat and nothing much to barter.  We could trade carp for flour, bread and Mama’s cigarettes.  Mama and I lived alone at that time, for the rest of the family was in a concentration camp.  It was up to me to catch the carp, but it took me some time getting to know them.  I had to learn to tell the difference between their good and bad moods; I had to learn how to tell when they were hungry, when they were full, and when they felt like playing.  I had to recognize where they were likely to swim, and where I would look for them in vain.

Pavel doesn’t dwell on the tragedies of war and his family was luckier than most.  When he is caught stealing fish from local German-controlled ponds it is by a sympathetic gamekeeper.  His father and brothers all return home from their concentration camps.  And he and his mother survive the lean times.  But the horror of war is certainly there: Buštěhrad is only a few kilometers away from Lidice, the town the German’s chose to massacre in reprisal for the assassination of Himmler in 1942, and Pavel knew people there.

Mostly though, this is a memoir of wonder and childhood.  Of learning how to fish, of admiring the great fishermen in young Pavel’s life, and of finding one good thing to hold on to when everything else is turned upside down.  When the war ends, the family has earned its peace and his father chooses to spend it as he has always spent his leisure time – fishing:

Down at the river he slept most of the time, just as many fishermen do.  The water hums, the small waves roll as the clouds float by, and the wife is miles away.  The rods are set so that the fish can almost catch themselves.  Of all the sleep a man can have, the fisherman’s sleep is the sweetest.  It is the greatest of luxuries – sleep and fishing.

I really enjoyed this short, touching book but the one thing that drove me a little crazy about this edition was the complete absence of accents on the Czech words (for example, Pavel’s home of Buštěhrad becomes Bustehrad).  I know this is the lazy way of anglicizing place names but it is distracting and a little odd since the introduction to the book does retain the correct accents.  And since the book is part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series it seems even odder to be so dismissive of the accents.  However, it is a good translation and readily available so, in the grand scheme of things, I can overlook a few missing accents.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Read Full Post »

A long, long time ago, Danielle wrote about Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment and instantly convinced me that I had to read it.  That was five years ago today.  I may not be fast when it comes to reading books off my to-read list but I am tenacious – I get there in the end!

Heidi’s Alp (also published as The Canary-Coloured Cart) is a memoir of a trip Hardyment took with her four young daughters around Europe in a camper van in the early 1980s with an itinerary gently guided by classic children’s stories.  Hardyment isn’t rigid in her itinerary (sensible when travelling with so many children) so they take in scenic spots and child-friendly sites as well as places with literary ties.

Rather than a straightforward account of her travels, Hardyment’s book is part travel memoir but also part literary history.  She looks at the facts behind the stories and explores at some length the life of Hans Christian Anderson, which I found unexpectedly fascinating.  I was also captivated by the chapter on Hamelin and various theories behind the tale of the Pied Piper and the children he led away.  Were they young people who went as colonists to Moravia?  Confused with those killed at the battle of Sedemunde in 1259?  A fiction created to drive 16th century tourism?  Victims of a plague (like St Vitus’ Dance) or hopeful young people who set out on the Children’s Crusade of 1211?  There’s no way of knowing the truth but it’s interesting to contemplate so many possible explanations.

Hardyment also goes into some detail about the logistics of living in their cramped van (christened Bertha) with so many children.  At the start of the trip she is accompanied by a friend with a baby, making for five children and two adults.  It sounds messy and cramped and exhausting.  When her husband joins them (and the friend and baby return home) a little more order is restored but it’s still not a way I’d plan to travel.

But the places they travel to, those I would happily visit – and in some cases I already have.  I loved hearing about Denmark, a country still on my to-visit list, and their experiences in and impressions of East Germany during a brief visit there.  But, predictably, I mostly loved hearing about the places I know: they visit the picturesque Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, relax at a campground within easy boating distance of Venice, find themselves charmed by laid-back Lucca in Tuscany, and are awed by the unbelievably scenic Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland.  Having spent two weeks in Lucca last summer studying Italian and living within the city’s walls, I loved hearing their impressions of it:

We hadn’t meant to come to Lucca at all, let alone stay there for a night and a day, but we did.  We ate a leisurely breakfast in another little square, climbed the bizarre treetopped Guinigi tower, admired the old Roman amphitheatre, and walked halfway round the shady city walls back to Bertha.  Inside the cathedral Tilly found an early Renaissance effigy of silky marble, the young wife of Paolo Guinigi lying in state…We all loved Lucca, both for its beauty and for its down-to-earth quality.  It was a good solid reminder of everyday reality.

Lovely Lucca

What I also loved – because I have thought it every single time I’ve crossed the border myself – is their observations of the changes you see coming down into inexplicably slovenly Italy from neat, orderly Austria:

Well, it looked like Italy.  The countryside was picturesque enough.  Sad cypresses flanked robber strongholds in the Dolomite gorges.  The immaculate wooden chalets of the Austrian Alps had changed to dilapidated farmhouses with crumbing terracotta roofs and peeling plaster walls.  Olive groves and vineyards replaced the flowery alpine pastures.

‘It’s funny,’ said Tilly.  ‘The houses here are shabby again, like they were in East Germany, but it doesn’t look as if the Italians mind, somehow.  It looked as if the East Germans couldn’t afford to do anything up.  But it looks as if the Italians can’t be bothered.’

Northern Italy

But Hardyment is more comfortable with the more lax Italian (and French) approach to life.  After a stay in Switzerland, she finds herself frustrated by national obsession with order and longs for a bit of chaos:

Switzerland had delighted us in many ways…And yet we felt strangely displaced there.  The premium the Swiss lay on good behaviour and orderly living is something of a strain to those of the casual gipsy persuasion…The minute we crossed the border and met the casual insouciance of French manners, I felt a load tumble off my shoulders.  We stopped in an untidy lay-by around seven in the evening to change drivers.  I sat at a bitumen-covered trestle table, glass in hand, and considered the unlovely public conveniences, the overfull wastebins, the lorry-drivers drawing on their Gauloises, with perverse satisfaction.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way myself but I’ve certainly felt the reverse!  I was so delighted to leave Italy after an extended stay there this summer and head back to the Germanic and Slavic worlds where things are clean, people are cheerful, and everything runs on time.  (It should also be noted that I come from Canada, a country based on “Peace, Order, and Good Government”, which primed me from birth to like such things.)

All in all, a very interesting concept for a family trip and a wonderfully compiled account of it.  I hope Hardyment’s daughters (ages five to twelve when the trip was taken) retained their love of both stories and travel as they grew up.

Read Full Post »

When I first heard about Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd I was delighted.  A book about foreigners in Germany from the end of WWI to the end of WWII?  Yes, please.  I didn’t manage to get my hands on a copy last year (which is why it made my list of The Ones That Got Away) and the book won’t even be published in North America until August but, thankfully, the university library was as eager as me to read it and ordered the British edition.

Boyd wisely begins her story with the start of the problem: a Germany crippled by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.  One of Boyd’s strengths is highlighting how awful these post-war years were for Germans: how much they struggled, how shamed they felt, and how much they longed for something better:

For Violet [Bonham-Carter], as for so many other observers of inflation-ridden Germany, it was the plight of the middle classes that aroused her greatest sympathy.  As no one could any longer afford their professional services, and as inflation destroyed their capital, many were reduced to total penury…When hyper-inflation reached its peak in November 1923, even the sceptical Lady D’Abernon was moved at the “distressing spectacle of gentlefolk half hidden behind the trees in the Tiergarten, timidly stretching out their hands for help.

But there were advantages among the chaos.  The extreme liberalism of Weimar-era Berlin, with its cabarets and cross-dressing, attracted many, as did the liberal attitudes towards sex and nudity.  Women were active in politics (they had more female parliamentarians than any other country) and in the workforce.  But outside Berlin, it drew a very different, more traditionally-inclined type of traveller, ones in search of “quaint houses, cobbled streets, brass bands, and beer.”

The book is full of familiar figures observing these scenes and unfortunately Boyd never quite delivers on her subtitle’s promise of “The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People”, unless you count (largely British and American) journalists, diplomats, and socialites as everyday people.  We hear from the fascist members of the Mitford clan (Tom, Diana, and Unity), Violet Bonham-Carter, Robert Byron, Chips Channon, Knut Hamsun, Brian Howard, Christopher Isherwood, the Lindberghs, the Windors, Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Eddy Sackville-West, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.  It’s an interesting variety of perspectives – everything from Bloomsbury to passionate Nazis – but class-wise it’s rather homogenous.

What is sadly lacking are the views of other Europeans (aside from a couple of French and the odd Nordic Nazi), other foreigners, and the everyman.  Boyd mentions the Nazi push for foreign tourism by offering cheap holiday tours for the working classes but we hear from no one who actually went on them.  Instead we only see them observed:

[Sibyl Crowe, the daughter of a British diplomat] had travelled out from England by train and had been much struck with a group of her fellow passengers, bound for a small town on the Mosel.  ‘They were a party of thirty from Manchester, mostly shopkeepers, shop assistants, typists, and factory-hands – quite simple and poor persons’ […] To her surprise, she discovered that most of them had already travelled many times to Germany.  ‘One man, a draper, told me he had been there seven years running; he sang the praises of the Germans, said what nice people they were.’  A young shop assistant from a Manchester department store had hiked all over the Bavarian Alps, staying in youth hostels.

These are the voices that are missing.  Boyd quotes the gushings of teenage girls but ignores the equally unsophisticated but better-informed views of these return visitors.

The greatest variety of sources comes during the infamous Olympics, particularly from the American athletes.  American journalists were keen to report back on the discrimination faced by their black and Jewish athletes.  With overt signs of anti-Semitism tightly locked down while Germany played host, both groups reported that the only discrimination they faced came from their American coaches, not the Germans.  Many of them left the country with only good memories of the German people who had chanted and cheered for them.

The best outsider – true outsider – accounts come from W.E.B. Du Bois and Ji Xianlin.  Du Bois was an African-American scholar, a professor at Atlanta University who chose to spend a six-month sabbatical in Germany in 1936 to seek inspiration on educational methods, revisit a country he loved from his graduate student days at Berlin University in the 1890s, and take in the Bayreuth Festival with fellow opera lovers.  Ji Xianlin had come to Heidelberg from China to study Sanskrit (he obtained his PhD in 1941) but found himself trapped in the country until 1946 due to the war.  Both offer fascinating observations and well-informed ones given that both men had lived in the country for years (albeit at very different times) and had a more nuanced understanding of both the culture and the politics than many of Boyd’s other sources.

Another Chinese student, Shi Min, was studying in Paris but came on holiday to much cheaper Germany with a group of fellow Chinese students in 1935.  His group marveled at the clean streets and athletic, inelegant women (very unlike both the French and Chinese ideal), and, embarrassed, corrected policemen who asked if they were Japanese: ‘They dislike the Japanese but respect them.  They are sympathetic to Chinese but look down on them.’

It is through all these eyes that Boyd guides the reader through the 1930s as Germany turns from a depressed and downtrodden country to a nation brimming with energy and optimism – and deeply, deeply troubling politics.

What rankled me most was Boyd’s overt judgement that it was morally wrong for people to be travelling in Hitler’s Germany, especially post-Olympics.  She criticizes American schools for sending exchange students, British mothers for sending their daughters to be finished by impoverished German noblewomen, and, despite having significant written evidence to the contrary, insists ‘to any non-believer visiting Germany in the late 1930s, it must have seemed as if National Socialism had permeated every last nook and cranny of human existence.’  She is incredulous that any visitors or foreign students managed to contrive to ‘ignore the Nazis while at the same time extracting the best out of Germany.’

Her conclusion drives home everything that irritated me about this book:

Perhaps the most chilling fact to emerge from these travellers’ tales is that so many perfectly decent people could return home from Hitler’s Germany singing its praises.  Nazi evil permeated every aspect of German society yet, when blended with the seductive pleasures still available to the foreign visitor, the hideous reality was too often and for too long ignored.

I hate that she doesn’t try to explain how it came about that ‘perfectly decent people’ felt this way when she is making such sweeping criticisms.  Either let the letters speak for themselves or try to draw a conclusion but don’t damn without making the effort to understand.

Despite this frustration, it is still a fascinating book – just not a definitive one.  It’s simplistic and needlessly judgemental but it does compliment other books on the subject.  I’d hate to think of people reading it in isolation from other books about Germany at the time but if read alongside more nuanced works (like the novel Manja, the oral history Frauen, and The Germans, the unsurpassed guide to the national identity) I think the reader can properly appreciate its strengths and weaknesses.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Read Full Post »

While reading The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, I decided I wanted to get a little more insight into Rupert Hart-Davis so I borrowed A Beggar in Purple from the library.  Published in 1983, it is a selection of pieces from his commonplace book.  A commonplace book, which I suspect many of us keep – or else use our blogs for as a substitute – is a place for readers to copy out passages and quotes that they like for one reason or another.  Every reader takes something different from what they read so looking through commonplace books is a fascinating way to get to know their compiler.

What I learned from Hart-Davis’ reinforced what I’d taken from his letters: he was sentimentally-inclined, enjoyed middlebrow fiction, and read far too much middling poetry (particularly in French).  But the good thing about commonplace books is that they are short and even when your tastes don’t entirely align with the compiler’s there is always something interesting to be found in them.  Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

Harold Nicolson’s advice to duty-bound readers:

It is better to read trash with enjoyment than masterpieces with yawning groans.

Goethe marvelling at the ways of the English:

It is surprising to remark how large a portion of the life of a rich Englishman of rank is passed in duels and elopements.  Lord  Byron himself says that his father carried off three ladies.  And let any man be a steady son after that.

And a poem by V. de Sola Pinto that I (being as sentimental as Hart-Davis) immediately fell in love with:

As I sat at my old desk, writing
in golden evening sunshine,
my wife came in suddenly
and, standing beside me,
said ‘I love you’
(this year she will be sixty-three and I shall be sixty-eight).
Then I looked at her and saw
not the grey-haired woman but the girl I married in 1922:
poetry shining through the faithful prose,
a fresh flower in bloom.
I said ‘You are a rose’
(thinking how awful it would have been if I had missed her)
and I kissed her.

Read Full Post »

I’ve lost track of the number of times I have seen The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters recommended.  If you enjoy literary correspondence, it is invariably on your to-read list.  So, after being reminded of it once again in Browsings by Michael Dirda, I picked up volume one (published in 1978) to make the acquaintance of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis.

In the autumn of 1955, Hart-Davis, a publisher and editor, met his old Eton schoolmaster Lyttleton at a dinner party.  When Lyttelton, retired and in his early 70s, complained no one wrote to him anymore Hart-Davis took up the challenge.  Their correspondence continued until Lyttleton’s death in the early 1960s and filled six volumes (edited and published by Hart-Davis, naturally).  While they discuss their families and other interests (cricket.  So, so much cricket), the focus of their letters is literature which suits me perfectly.

The letters in this first volume are from 1955 and 1956 but little modern literature is discussed.  Both men had middlebrow and rather sentimental tastes: Hart-Davis was Hugh Walpole’s literary executor and biographer, there is much praise of Kipling, and the contemporary distaste for Galsworthy is lamented, particularly by Lyttelton:

Is Angus Wilson a good man?  I see he reduces The Forsyte Saga to dust and ashes in last week’s New Statesman.  How jealous they all were, and still are, of Galsworthy’s immense vogue.  And the line they take is always so lofty that they miss the main point – that so many of his characters do strike the ordinary reader as being live men and women, and one reads on wanting to know how they got out of their difficulties, and usually satisfied with the way they do it, and with G’s comments, and elucidations, and undertones throughout.  And I’ll eat my hat if “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” is not a beautiful and moving bit of writing.  But what frightful contempt our highbrow critics pour on that view.  (8 March 1956)

Through his publishing work, Hart-Davis was well-connected to the literary world while Lyttelton remained resolutely outside but deeply fascinated by it.  He often asked Hart-Davis’ opinions of certain literary figures, like the question above about Angus Wilson or his query after A.A. Milne’s death.  The correspondence must have been an exciting addition to his relatively quiet life.  However, Hart-Davis tried to make it clear from the earliest letters that he too had something to gain from the letter-based friendship with a man he said had the gifts of “a mixture of psychiatrist and father-confessor”:

Don’t think for a moment that this delightful correspondence is solely for your benefit: it is pure self-indulgence.  You are the diary I have never kept, the excuse I have so long wanted for forming words on paper unconnected with duty or business. (6 November 1955)

They are at their best when discussing certain books or just describing their love of books.  Lyttelton was particularly delighted whenever Hart-Davis sent him parcels of well-selected books from London – one of the definite benefits of having a friend in publishing:

The breakfast table this morning had that best of all objects – far better even than a dish of salmon kedgeree, or a headline in The Times saying the atom bomb had been abolished, or that the price of coal was down – viz a fat little parcel of books.  And the content of those books!  Exactly the sort of literature I love – comments wide and deep on men and things and books by a wise man who knows how to write.  Life has, at all events at 73, no greater pleasure than that.  (9 May 1956)

And it is up to Lyttelton, as the elder, to provide his opinions on the foolishness of youth.  He complains about a young writer’s idiotic but absolute confidence (“Why has he not learnt that a little real humility sharpens the perceptions wonderfully and has other good effects too.  What a strong tendency there is today to lay down the law about what one may or must, and may not and must not, admire.”)  and chastises those who don’t know how to properly spend their holidays:

It is all to the good that you are having a good laze.  Curiously few people are sensible about holidays; if not walking, they go sightseeing and to picture-gallery after p.g. of all fatiguing activities.  Many play golf, and the odd effect of that pursuit is that they return to work manifestly stupider than they were.  (18 May 1956)

Hart-Davis remains a little less opinionated and a little less interesting because of it.  He seems to have had a fascinating family life, though it is not discussed deeply.  His adored mother had died when he was young (he later wrote a book about her), his uncle was Duff Cooper (he goes to visit the widowed Diana Cooper in France and meets a predictably cosmopolitan array of visitors at her home), and he took holidays with his long-time companion (whom he later married) while he and his wife remained on good terms and stayed married until the children grew up.

In the end, it’s not a spectacular correspondence.  Neither man was a brilliant writer and neither offered much of themselves in their letters.  And there is too much talk of cricket (any cricket is too much).  But it remains mildly interesting and I could see myself picking up the next volume.

Read Full Post »

The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh edited by Charlotte Mosley is a doorstopper of a book.  And the five-hundred plus pages (first published in 1996 but since reissued as a Penguin Classic) become even more daunting when you realise they cover less than thirty years of correspondence between the two novelists.  But rarely are any of the pages wasted.  Mitford and Waugh write to entertain one another and, it must be said, show off.  They want to share the best gossip, make the cleverest comment, and score points in the ongoing competition that is their friendship.  The results are fabulous.

Approximately the same age (Waugh was born in 1903, Mitford in 1904), the collection begins during the Second World War.  They had become friends during the 1920s when both were dashing about London as “Bright Young Things” and the friendship had endured.  It flourished though at a distance.  As Charlotte Mosley, the book’s editor (and Mitford’s niece by marriage), states:

Concealing their feelings behind a barrage of banter, they found it easier to conduct a friendship on paper rather than in person.  When they did meet, Evelyn’s bad temper and Nancy’s sharp tongue – qualities which enhance their correspondence – often led to quarrels.

It is easy to imagine.

Waugh is plagued by a hatred for mankind but is generally sort-of kind to Mitford.  There are very few people he admits to loving and even those, like Mitford’s sister Debo, future Duchess of Devonshire, are not immune from his criticisms:

I saw Debo at the ball & took up a great deal of her time.  She was in fine looks but lacking in elegance.  The same dress she wore at her own party last year and all her friends look like recently demobilized G.I.s.  Should not a girl with her beauty, wit and high position make a bit more of herself?  (6 August 1947)

And if he really didn’t like you, watch out.  He bullied Cecil Beaton all through their school days and continued loathing him all his life.  Hamish Hamilton, poor man, was also the target of Waugh’s ire – but for absolutely no reason, as Waugh admits: “Why do I dislike him?  I don’t know him at all & he has done me no injury, but I wish him boiled in oil” (25 May 1950).  Randolph Churchill is continually derided but, to be honest, Randolph always deserves at least a bit of it.  He was quite a mess of a human being.  However, he also provides some excellent comic highlights for Waugh’s wartime letters, when the two men worked closely together:

In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph £20 that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight.  It would have been worth it at the price.  Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped.  He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud ‘I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”’ or merely slapping his side & chortling ‘God, isn’t God a shit!’ (12 November 1944)

And, speaking of a book he’d been reading:

The last [book] I had was an attempt to whitewash Bryan Guinness called Belchamber which I enjoyed enormously.  I lent it to Randolph who was so much moved that he said he could never commit adultery again – at any rate not with the same innocent delight. (25 December 1944)

Oh Randolph.

Waugh is also not terribly keen on his children (of which he had six living – a danger of Catholicism) and constantly complained about them in his letters to Mitford.  Mitford, having suffered several miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that necessitated a hysterectomy, would have loved children of her own but generally cloaked her sadness in her letters to Waugh with blithe dismissals:

Don’t be depressed about your children.  Childhood is a hateful age – no trailing clouds of glory – & children are generally either prigs or gangsters & always dull & generally ugly. (7 January 1946)

The letters cover the most productive years of both authors careers and cover their great successes:  both Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were released in 1945.  And it is around this time that they pick very different paths.  Mitford, long estranged from her husband and in love with a French colonel, moves to France and begins to make a delightful life for herself:

I wish you were here.  The food is utterly delicious, all cooked in butter, & such meat that has never seen a Frigidaire, I’d forgotten the taste.  I go for huge walks, see beautiful dream houses to buy & have seldom been more contented.  Only I must write another book, to support life, & can’t think of one.  Trollope’s Autobiography is too much to bear – how could he write all those hours every day?  (21 August 1946)

Waugh, on the other hand, remains in bleak post-war England becoming more and more cantankerous as the years go by:

I’m bored here by lack of company.  If only country neighbours would talk like Jane Austen’s characters about gossip & hobbies.  Instead they all want to know about Molotov & de Gaulle. (16 October 1946)

The geographical separation was probably a very good thing for their relationship.  They are able to gossip continually about mutual friends (especially Diana and Duff Cooper and the extended members of Mitford’s family) and, in Waugh’s case at least, provide critical feedback on the other’s writings.  What they don’t do much of is share their souls or even updates on the meaningful things going on in their own lives.  Mitford keeps her hurt over her French colonel’s disinterest in commitment to herself and Waugh just becomes a misanthrope who wants to complain about everything:

Jolly decent of you to write.  No, I am not at all busy – just senile.  Since we last met (when?) I have become an old man, not diseased but enfeebled.  I read my letters & work at The Times crossword & never set foot out of doors.  I was mildly ill in Menton in February & so spoiled Laura’s hols.  I am making up for it by taking her to Spain in October.  I don’t like the food & can’t speak the lingo & don’t much look forward to it, especially as I must write an article at the end. (6 August 1964)

Yes, he’s a funny misanthrope but such a contrast from Mitford.  She manages to remain optimistic, to find happiness in a new dress she can’t afford or something terribly Parisian she’s just encountered or a ridiculous thing a member of her family has just done (so many to choose from).  She manages to continue living and taking pleasure in that long after Waugh has given up.  It does not come as much of a surprise then when the letters end with his death in 1966, age 62.

This was my first encounter with Waugh and I can’t say it did anything to make me warm to him.  But Mitford, on the other hand, her I love even more than before.  She could write devastatingly cruel things with incredible wit but these letters show what lay on the other side of that: the warmth and optimism that sustained her.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »