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The cynicism of the cover drew my attention to this book on the Waterstones table. We have
seen this cover before: it normally targets the person walking into W H Smith to buy the
Rothermere paper and a bar of Toblerone and who wants the past – not the
distant past, but anywhere between the 1930s and the 1950s (before Suez) when
England was posh and glorious and Toblerone was a very special treat. It could
have been more cynical: the novel features a dog but we are spared Tatters on
the cover. Maybe Faber and Faber drew the line; it cannot be very many years
ago that they would have committed suicide rather than commit to a cover like
this. It's gold-embossed, in case that's not clear from my scan.
All’s fair in
publishing nowadays and, indeed, I bought the book. I looked around for the
Toblerone but Waterstones doesn’t stock it yet.
I read the novel and
felt ambivalent. I don’t often feel ambivalent – the last time was when I read
a copper’s autobiography (Clive Driscoll’s The Pursuit of the Truth) and felt I was being led by an
unreliable narrator. With this novel, the cover had primed me to look for
cynicism and it is there all over the text if you want to find it, the tropes
we are familiar with wheeled on to the page one after another: posh country
house England, young chap up at Cambridge, ambivalent sexuality, unwise
flirtations with fascism, the woman who reminds him what decency is. For the
first hundred pages I was inclined to give up. It all seemed lifeless, the prose even or flat, no
anguish and remarkably untroubled passion which I suppose goes with the privilege of being posh.
When Preston kills off his first heroine Fiamma at page 110, it doesn’t matter
The novel then becomes
more stylistically inventive and gets better but there are relapses. Thus
Preston’s leading man, Esmond, recording privately on disc for posterity after
the outbreak of War finds a new love and delivers himself of the following
it strikes you as strange, after Philip, after Gerald, that I should love Ada,
it shouldn’t. It is not only that Fiamma, dear dead Fiamma, served as a copula,
a springboard, a bridge. I have always loved beauty and the gender of those I
love matters to me as little as their shoe size. It seems odd to me that so
many humans limit themselves, slavishly. For now, it is Ada. (page
It’s true that Esmond
does grow up a lot after recording this drivel, but what he records does rather
suggest he has done a tick-box degree in Queer Studies where you learn that sex is not acceptable in polite society
and must be replaced by gender. But
this point of social etiquette dates from the 1980s not the 1930s. I now felt sorry for Fiamma.
By page 241 Esmond is
reading The Communist Manifesto but
by this point the dog has entered the story so the reader can feel Esmond must
be on the right path notwithstanding. Dogs enter novels at the author’s peril.
Milan Kundera does it extremely well in The
Unbearable Lightness of Being so it can’t be absolutely wrong.
Thanks to his new love, Ada, Esmond finds himself a fighter in the Italian Resistance and it is the
exploits of the resistance which make up much of the text in the latter part of
I made it to the end
(page 340) by which time Esmond is horribly but courageously dead and Ada in Auschwitz. I
didn’t shed any tears and that may explain why one of the jacket reviews, quoted from GQ, tells us that it’s a book for
the beach, “The perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”. Those who signed off the cover at Faber and Faber presumably had no qualms about that product endorsement. Gin and Auschwitz, anyone?
The late Stuart Hood’s Pebbles From My Skull, later reworked as
Carlino, is an impressive memoir of escape from a Prisoner of War camp
and a year spent in the Italian Resistance in Tuscany. This seems a good place
to recommend it. Hood (1915 – 2011) was what used to be called “a man of the Left”
but in the 1940s he was a British military intelligence officer - though one
should say, British as in Scottish. Sometime in the 1980s, I discovered he
lived in Brighton and got him appointed as a Visiting Fellow at the University
of Sussex to contribute to the MA programme I directed. The University was
too stupid to recognise his many distinctions and refused to give him an honorary doctorate
for his lifetime work, preferring local notables. Hood’s wartime experience was
clearly an ever-present fact of his life, not only in the form of reunions with
old comrades (a Piazza is named after him somewhere in Tuscany) but also in doubts and
anxieties. I recall walking across the Sussex campus one evening and asking him if
his experience still affected his everyday, ordinary life. Yes, he replied, in the evenings
I get anxious about where I am going to sleep – his own house and home a couple of miles from where we were walking.