Two more books checked off the list, and they couldn’t have been more different. Because I like ending on a happy note, let’s start with the one that’s a solid example of literary mediocrity.
Nicholas Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles “Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961,” according to the subtitle. Basically, Reynolds (who is the Museum Historian of the Central Intelligence Agency and has a military background) found some interesting papers that may connect Hemingway to Soviet spying. Being a fan of espionage and Lost Gen writers, I had to read it. While Reynolds presents a basic thesis that the papers he (and some other scholars) discovered suggest Hemingway may have been a Soviet spy, I’m beyond skeptical. Much of the paperwork, when detailed, is based on Russian information curated by Russian individuals who then passed the information on to “the West.”
I’m no espionage expert, but I don’t trust any paperwork that describes a connection of a famous American with the Soviets when that paperwork is a summary of Soviet paperwork created by Soviets. (And I’m not actually anti-Russian, but if you look at Cold War politics, it seems ridiculous to assume that the information is completely reliable.)
One of my main issues with the book is that the Soviet espionage Hemingway allegedly committed has no real evidence. Sure, Hemingway met with Soviets, but he was also of a generation that is coming out of WWI and living during a dangerous rise of fascism that culminates in WWII and then develops into the Cold War. Hemingway knew lots of people, and just because you communicate with someone does not mean you share their ideology. Being anti-fascist does not immediately make you pro-communist. Being anti-fascist makes you anti-fascist, and it’s completely understandable when you look at the historical context.
There are some interesting moments in the book about Hemingway’s career through three decades. His return to Europe, for example, being influenced by the one and only spymaster-writer-inventor-Englishman extraordinaire Roald Dahl — that’s awesome. Unfortunately, Reynolds limits the Dahl story to one page. And I understand, the book is about Hemingway, not Dahl, but that’s the difference between this book and other military espionage books I’ve read. Often, in other books, the author spends time incorporating more of the human story, whether it’s the spies involved themselves or just aspects of their lives that may or may not have influenced what happens now. Spying is, at its core, a personal thing — especially during the 20th century, spies aren’t just machines with algorithms, but humans who place themselves in dangerous positions to gain information and in order to achieve that goal, they must form connections with other people. Expand on the connections between people and I’m in. That doesn’t happen here.
If I’m just looking at the history of Hemingway during this time, Reynolds does a pretty good job at relaying what’s happened. The writing isn’t stellar, but it’s good enough. Trying to make the connection with the Soviet spying, though, that’s where it collapses. The Soviets only pop up on occasion and there’s just not enough there to convince me that he had any significant communication with Soviet spies. After good chapters on Hemingway’s adventures, having really roughly established connections to the thesis about spying just brings the piece down. Overall, if you’re interested in Hemingway during this period, you could still enjoy it. I just think the repeated stretch to making Hemingway a sympathizer to Castro and company is less than convincing.
Now, on the other side, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry — it’s been a big hit in the UK and is coming to the US in June 2017. And it is so worth it. Basic plot: during late Victorian period, a newly widowed woman moves from London to small town in Essex where there have been mysterious incidents that make the inhabitants think the legendary Essex Serpent may be reappearing. Of course, there are several characters whose lives are tangled together, and there may or may not be some romance…
The great joy of reading this novel is the writing. Perry develops her characters beautifully, and evokes the feel of Victorian writers in her style. I just don’t know what I can say about it other than, as a fan of Victorian lit, I loved it. The reviews compare it to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens (bleurgh) and Emily Brontë, and I have to agree. There’s just something in the writing that you don’t find often in contemporary fiction, and when I can sit with a mug of tea and a book during a foggy day and feel like I’m on the Victorian moors, that’s a pretty great job.
[Just in case, this next paragraph might get a little spoiler-y, although I’m trying to avoid it, so SPOILER ALERT (?)! … Still with me? … Okay, here we go.]
The plot is also just gothic enough to make it enjoyable, and not so supernatural to make me feel like I’m being forced to believe the truth is out there. There’s death and darkness and London streets, but there’s no witchcraft or truly inexplicable monster in the story. One review put it really well, that it’s the same feeling about reading a book in which the Loch Ness monster is part of the plot — you already know it doesn’t exist, so it’s about what you do with it after that. This book becomes more about the hysteria that comes about when something is a mystery, and there’s a bit about the darkness of what humans can be capable of. More importantly (as a reader of the incredible Elizabeth Gaskell), there’s a lot of the book that reminds me of the “condition of England” novels of the time, focusing characters and chapters on how poverty affects families and what options are available to make life better. Gaskell, who I consider a champion of the “social novel,” did a lot of the same things Perry does now, namely giving characters in low social positions names and voices and stories for other characters to interact with. By giving the lower classes names and backgrounds, the reader is connected to their crises (because all characters should face crises) and sympathizes. It’s brilliant, and Perry does it if not subtly, then skillfully.
[End of the potentially spoilery (?) bits.]
The only bit of The Essex Serpent that I’m not in love with is the ending. The last 20 pages were the weakest bit of the book, mainly because I expected a neater ending, but it’s not that the conclusion was bad. The writing stayed strong, the characters were still good, the bits of storyline that I wanted to end a certain way were satisfactory. I’m more than willing to compromise with a novel’s okay ending if the rest of the book has been exemplary — and that was the case here. I put the book down with utter satisfaction and have already passed it on to a coworker to take on during the next rainstorm (probably sometime in the next month). If you like Victorian novels, or gothic-y stories, or social novels, or good writing, it’s worth the read.
There’s the update – now on to waiting for Scott’s story collection next Tuesday so I can binge-read! Until then, happy reading!