December 05, 2020
NEW YORK—I received a letter from a longtime reader, James Hackett, inquiring about books I am reading. It is not often that I get letters that delight me, as this one did, especially when one reads letters from readers to newspapers and magazines in the United States. Lots of them seem sanctimonious, holier-than-thou; others I suspect are written by glossy magazines themselves promoting their own celebrity culture worship.
James Hackett is an American gent whom I’ve never met, and I hope I don’t disappoint with my choices, but the last novels I read were literally some fifty years ago. I actually stopped reading novels after I read the Russians, all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, Shaw, Jones, Mailer, Maugham, Greene, Orwell, and Waugh, among others of the period. Why did I not continue reading fiction? That’s an easy one: because writers began to write very, very, very long books containing millions of words that didn’t exactly ever get to the point, hysterically describing weird objects in improbable situations. The style was even worse than magic realism, which used clear and precise prose, and defeated the purpose of reading with its lack of beautiful and descriptive prose about interesting people. Modernity was gimmicky. I remember Truman Capote’s description of On the Road as “typing, not writing,” but I liked Kerouac, as I liked the writing of a truly horrible man who was Capote. (The maligned Answered Prayers was a gem.)
So, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie are not for me, and I’m rather proud to say I’ve never read more than a chapter of any of their books before giving up. It might not make sense, but I don’t believe a word they write, because fiction has to be believable. I trusted Dick Diver and Nicole, and Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley, and Stephen Rojack and Winston Smith, not to mention Raskolnikov and Prince Andrei and Larry Darrell and Templeton. And what about Christian Diestl in The Young Lions, the perfect Wehrmacht soldier until disillusionment sets in? From what I’ve read Evelyn Waugh was a horror, snobbish and a bully, yet when I read him, even with his satirical overreach, I believed every word because I have met English people just like those he describes in Vile Bodies.
Vladimir Nabokov I met in Gstaad toward the end of his life, and even if he had never written another word I would have bowed low to him for his description of a young woman in a short story. The author notices a drop of sweat slowly running down the beautiful girl’s leg. Old Vlad was a lepidopterist and detail was his forte, but my taste runs to mood, Fitzgerald’s forte.
Once the novel became unreadable, I stuck to biography and history, and it has served me well. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, how I rediscovered fiction. It was a couple of years ago and I was in the Cotswolds for a ball Prince and Princess Pavlos of Greece were giving at their Oxfordshire estate. A friend had asked Lord Bamford, whose house Daylesford is among the most beautiful in England, if he could put the poor little Greek boy up for a night. As it happens I returned around 6 a.m. and my host was up saying goodbye to the Queen of the Netherlands, who was also staying. For reasons that I will not mention I felt awfully chatty and engaged my host—who happens to be among the nicest and most polite people—in a one-sided conversation about the Wehrmacht. His answer to my rudeness was to send me two books by Philip Kerr, Prussian Blue and Metropolis. Bernie Gunther, the hero, is different from the private eyes we’ve read about from other greats like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Not as hard-boiled, I suppose. The only fiction I’ve recently read has been Philip Kerr thrillers. And the only thing to say is thank you, Anthony, and sorry about the Wehrmacht soliloquy. The Crimson Goddess, an unusual novel by Manfred von Pentz, is wonderfully written about a tempestuous courtship set against the Spanish Civil War. The novel was published first in Poland, one of my favorite countries.
As we live in a time where books are out of style while ghastly contraptions are in, what keeps one sane is reading history and biography. I enjoyed Our Man about the horror that was Richard Holbrooke, his terrible personal habits and self-promotion, his treacherous nature but undeniable talents in seeing through the fog of disastrous American foreign policies. The biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling is another one that has kept me happy during lockup. Left Bank and Lost Girls were two books that got me all riled up and reminded me of my youth in Paris and London, and of course the two-volume biography of Clare Booth Luce by Sylvia Morris was unputdownable. (I had withdrawal symptoms after I finished.)
And when I got bored I went to war books. James Holland’s The War in the West is magnificent, as is film man Sam Fuller’s A Third Face. I spent four days in the company of James Holland in Normandy a couple of years ago thanks to my friend Peter Livanos’ invitation to visit the battlefields and learn all there is to know. From the Allied side, that is. I had too much respect for James to argue, but had the Wehrmacht enjoyed the total air cover the Allies did, they would still be fishing them out of the water today.
Keep reading and throw away the machines. And imagine how wonderful the world would be without the internet, Twitter, Google, and the rest of the garbage.