I started my summer reading by finishing the wonderful Transylvanian Trilogy which I started last year. The most beautiful writing and a great saga about a lost generation. The title are wonderful too: We Were Counted, We were Found Wanting, We were Divided.
Having been completely immersed in the first one I continued to be caught up in the second and third books. Each of the characters is vividly brought to life – both physically and psychologically – all distinct personalities that remain true throughout the whole trilogy. Some prosper, some fall. There are three main characters. Two men and the woman one of them is in love with. And I shared their every emotion – it was exhausting! We get lots of other characters – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, enemies. There is a detailed portrayal of family life and relationships – obligations, social constraints, romances, friendships and enmities. Showing all classes and the social mores of each. And educational as well as the descriptions of political maneuvering gives a deeper understanding of the lead up to the First World War. I remained enthralled through each book – right up to the sombre and elegiac ending. Loved them so much I am going in search of hardbacks to buy.
I stayed in middle Europe by reading this re-creation, in the present day of Patrick Fermor’s great walk in the nineteen thirties. I enjoyed it very much. You get a clearer picture of exactly where Patrick went on his travels from reading this – no simple matter given the socio-political changes that the region has experienced. Countries have changed back and forward. Towns and cities have been named and re- named. I was disappointed at the lack of better maps – he includes the same ones that are in Patrick’s books – very minimal. And I thought there could have been some photographs included in an update. In Patrick’s we get his fine pencil drawings. None of that here. But we do get descriptions of a changed landscape and different people. A leveling out – no more aristocrats. Nick goes couch surfing and camping on his journey. You don’t get much about his inner life while walking. It suffers too from a comparison in the writing – this didn’t have the luminous, expansive quality of the original. Still it was interesting hearing what had happened to the great old estates (including the Banffy castle) – tragic really, after years of Soviet rule now mostly turned into institutions of one sort or another, or completely destroyed. Like the Bannfy, this leaves you mourning a past world.
Being wary of the capacity of modern literature to be as compelling as older ones, I approached this novel with caution despite the high praise. But it was wonderful and worthy of all the comments on the cover. Assured certainly, and unforgettable. I find myself thinking about it often. Especially about how we treat, and communicate with, our old family members. A stunning achievement to get inside the head of an elderly woman who is suffering from dementia. She moves backwards and forwards remembering events in her past with clarity and more recent happenings only fitfully. Beautifully described relationships with those around her – dutiful daughter (reminded me of myself with my mother), pre-occupied granddaughter focussed on her iPhone. It all read so ‘true’. It’s not a bit gloomy despite our heroine’s circumstances. Indeed it’s often laugh out loud funny as she tries to remember stuff. Told not to do something she immediately starts doing just that as soon as her daughter or carer is out of sight. Not deliberately – just because that’s what she’s always done. She forgets the names of common items like bicycles and so forth. Something is troubling her. But is it in the past or the present. It reads like a thriller and keeps you guessing until it’s entirely satisfying conclusion.
I moved on to some more non- fiction then, although this wonderful book reads like a gripping spy novel. As indeed the subject matter was – in fact several novels. It proves
the old adage truth is stranger than fiction. As the author himself notes at the outset, so much has been written about Kim Philby you’d think nothing more could possibly be said. But Macintyre has read it all – all the self serving accounts from the players, and the histories, as well as the source documents – and proceeds to give us what he thinks is the truest version of events. All through the prism of Philby’s friends, and in particular, someone called Nicholas Elliott who I’d never heard of, but who’s quite a compelling character. This means you get a devastating critique of Britain’s ‘old boys network and how it nurtured and protected the Cambridge spies. If you’re familiar with Le Carre’s Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy you’ll be familiar with some of the events described here. They really happened. Shocking. Philby’s character is interrogated. We know what he did but the ‘why’ is more elusive. He expressed no regret – ever. Lives lost – no matter. One of the most shocking betrayals revealed here, amongst a lot of shocking betrayals, was of anti-Nazi Germans – a whole resistance network murdered by the Soviets. The story gallops along and is a quite wonderful read. An enormous amount of material has been distilled and put into manageable form here. There’s a lovely Afterword by Le Carre as a bit of a bonus. Not that it’s needed. Macintyre’s work stands on its own. A great achievement.
More non-fiction. This won the Costa Book of the Year Award. And what a worthy winner. I didn’t know when I selected it but there’s quite a lot about T. H. White, author of The Once And Future King in this book. Like Helen Macdonald I loved the early part of that story describing young Arthur being educated by Merlin by being turned into various animals, including a hawk. Sublime writing. T. H. was also into training goshawks and wrote a book about it. So there’s an ongoing conversation between Macdonald’s experience and Mr. White’s. There’s also a link to the Macintyre book as well because White suffered badly in his childhood, both from both mad, upper class parents, and a shockingly cruel school experience. Similar to both Philby (completely bonkers father) and Nicholas Elliot (both harsh father and harsh schooling). My reading intersects on many levels. Helen is mourning her father’s sudden death when she takes on training her goshawk. She doesn’t identify her father and doesn’t say much about him but what she does say is lovely and I wanted to know more. She refers to his job as a Fleet Street photographer. You can google him – Alisdair Macdonald. I’d have liked to see his photos. I have no interest at all in training birds but I still enjoyed this book. It’s about that – training a goshawk – and describes it in detail – but also about much more. There are wonderful descriptions of nature and of the beautiful, magisterial, bird. I would have liked some pictures of said bird but was forced to google away to see pictures of goshawks and the other birds that she mentions. The whole system of training reminded me of a film I saw about the training of horses – called Buck. About the real horse whisperer played in a film of that name by Robert Redford. It showed really clearly that the mental state of the trainer is a critical component of training animals. As it was for T.H. white and for the grief stricken Helen.
My first reaction on finishing this book was to start reading it again. And I’m going to. It is so beautifully written. Quite an easy read. Small chapters. But almost poetic. About a marriage. A relationship. Different phases of that relationship. Observations of others – friends, colleagues, people they interact with. Interspersing first person accounts of events with third person – I and he, then the wife, the husband. Beautifully observed but elliptical. Expectations, dreams unfulfilled, the compromises that are made. It steadily goes deeper and deeper into things. I love her description of what I take to be marriage counseling – The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. She records the advice received there. And advice from friends, advice from books. There cross references to, and quotations from, other writers. Underneath the poetry lies steel. She casts a Yeatsian cold eyeon life. I loved it. And will read it again.