June 8, 2013
Paperback now available
Like any worthwhile biographical subject, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bundle of contradictions. A garrulous, worldly adventurer who secluded himself in French monasteries; an urbane clubman who yearned for the Greek countryside; and a bon vivant and seducer who built his life around one loyal woman. The excitable young Paddy (as everyone called him) might well have been insufferable but his story is one of rare gifts for writing, heroism and comradeship revealed in tumultuous times. An 18-year-old with a chequered schooling, in 1933 he decided to forsake career plans and set off on a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Leigh Fermor wasn’t rich but there were always amiable aristocrats willing to open their doors to a venturesome young man.
He’s been blessed with another amiable aristocrat in Artemis Cooper – the Hon. Alice Clare Antonia Opportune Beevor, to use her full title – who’s written a sympathetic account spiced with the sort of racy details that prompted Somerset Maugham to upbraid Leigh Fermor for being “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”. Cooper diligently reveals the drama and romance that Leigh Fermor found on his life-changing walk, including details he left out of classic memoir A Time of Gifts, published 40 years later.
After witnessing the rise of the Nazis on that walk, Leigh Fermor’s own run-in with the Germans occurred a decade later on Crete, and Cooper captures the detail of the thrilling operation to kidnap a Nazi general, along with the strife of competing resistance movements, with admirable clarity. The later years are just as engrossing, particularly his friendship with Bruce Chatwin, and you have to applaud Leigh Fermor’s disdain for deadlines. His life was a very English adventure that makes for a remarkable biography.
May 27, 2013
Philosopher John Gray has written a sequel to Straw Dogs that is hauntingly beautiful, sometimes bleak and often admonitory. Certainly liberal humanists and Christians alike will feel challenged by Gray’s arguments, particularly the debunking of his opponents’ faith in the “myth” of human progress, which he compares to “cheap music” for its simultaneous spirit-lifting and brain-numbing effect. “There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself,” he writes, rejecting any demarcation between the savage and the civilised. The rational human is, according to Gray, a modern myth; he even questions the notion that humans desire freedom.
There’s a lyrical, discomforting quality to the literary quotations he deploys. J.G. Ballard writes of the sense that “reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment” when he recalled the abandoned casino he tiptoed through as a boy in wartime Shanghai. “Progress in civilisation seems possible only in interludes when history is idling,” notes Gray. The flood of quotations – from Norman Lewis and George Orwell, Joseph Roth and Ford Madox Ford, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Georges Simenon – sometimes makes The Silence of Animals read like the finest footnotes selection you’ll ever encounter. However, Gray’s own voice is just as quotable: he’s scathing about the “post-modern plantation economy” of the US, describes a perpetual search for happiness as like being burdened with a character in a dull story and regrets that “the pursuit of distraction has been embraced as the meaning of life”. The title alludes to the human struggle for silence as an escape from language. Turning outside yourself and contemplating the animals and birds, Gray writes, may finally enable you to “hear something beyond words”.
December 2, 2012
We’ve been trawling the literary pages for the books of 2012 and – after totting up the picks in The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Evening Standard, Spectator and New Statesman – here’s our top 10 poll of polls based on the books with the most nominations from fellow authors (all available at the Riverside, of course).
1. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
“Superb history as well as magnificent literature” – David Marquand, New Statesman
2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
“[A] magisterial mix of scholarship and exploration of landscape” – Penelope Lively, The Spectator
3. NW by Zadie Smith
“Angry, committed, richly humane” – Philip Hensher, Daily Telegraph
4. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley
“A model of how royal biographies should be written” – Philip Ziegler, The Spectator
5. Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan
“The man is astute, funny and wonderful company” – Nick Laird, The Guardian
6. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum
“Comprehensive and compelling” – Amanda Foreman, Daily Telegraph
7. Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo
“Sets a gold standard for exactly what a gifted reporter may still do alone” – David Hare, The Guardian
8. Canada by Richard Ford
“Breathtaking” – Philip Hensher, The Spectator
9. Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper
“The man whose life I think I would most have wished to live… a triumph of tact and sympathy” – Robert Macfarlane, Daily Telegraph
10. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
“A memoir of the fatwa years that showed the human reality behind the headlines” – Louise Doughty, The Observer
It should really be a top 12 as Rushdie has the same number of picks as Skios by Michael Frayn and Alice Munro’s Dear Life. It’s also heartening to see The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway just outside the top 10.