Magazine article The Spectator

Books of the Year

Magazine article The Spectator

Books of the Year

Article excerpt

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Peter Hopkirk's Quest for Kim (John Murray, L15.99) is vital for someone like me who reads Kim every two years: a brilliant jigsaw with few pieces missing. Peter Levi's A Bottle in the Shade (Sinclair-Stevenson, 17.99): a marvellous and poetical evocation of the Western Peloponnese. James Lees-Milne's Fourteen Friends (John Murray, 19.99). Some of the people in this acutely observed picture gallery are famous, some well known, some rescued from oblivion, but all fascinating, and here and there they overlap with the huge cast of The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (Hodder and Stoughton, 25), brilliantly edited by Charlotte Mosley. Impossible to put down. Jock Murray's A Gentleman Publisher's Commonplace Book (9.99) is a captivating, discursive ramble to be picked up again and again. No need to cite the publishing house. In Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe (Viking, 18) Nicholas Crane describes an almost incredible journey from St James of Compostela to the Golden Horn on foot every inch and seldom out of the clouds.

Gavin Stamp

Architectural history produces little that is really new, just revisions of standard interpretations. But exciting new material is now coming out of post-Soviet Russia, particularly concerning that enigmatic architect of Pavlovsk and at Tsarskoe Selo, Charles Cameron. 'I am captivated by Cameron the architect, by birth a Jacobite, educated at Rome. . . ' wrote Catherine the Great to Voltaire. We know-alls in London used to snigger that Cameron was in fact a fraud: he may have told the Tsarina that he was one of the Camerons of Lochiel in exile for his beliefs - and what could be more romantic in 18th- century Europe? but we knew he was a bounder, born in London, who put his builder father in prison for debt.

Now Dmitry Shvidkovsky comes along and in his book The Empress and the Architect (Yale, 29.95) shows that the truth is more complex, that Cameron may well have had real Jacobite connections. After all, when he needed craftsmen in St Petersburg to work on his projects, he advertised not in London but in Edinburgh. This is a most beautiful and enthralling book by a brilliant Russian historian that makes a strong case for the true greatness of Cameron. It also tells a largely unknown story of Russia's debt to Scotland and it should appeal not just to those haunted by the tragic beauty of that extraordinary country.

The worst? Surely In This Dark House (Viking, 17), Louise Kehoe's shrinkwrapped character assassination of her father, the emigre Russian architect Berthhold Lubetkin, because it mixes self-indulgent fiction with some truth.

Anne McElvoy

The best book of 1996 was without doubt the first volume of Viktor Klemperer's memoirs covering the period 1933-45. Written as a secret diary by a Jewish historian, it follows the fate of the author, his wife and friends as the Third Reich transforms them from members of an esteemed intellectual elite in Dresden to inhabitants of the designated Judenhaus the last step before transportation to the camps. Klemperer -- whose writings were suppressed in East Germany -- emerges as the Pepys of Hitler's Germany, observing its gigantic horrors and petty grotesqueries with pathos and wit. It is due for publication by Weidenfeld next year as The Diaries of Viktor Klemperer.

By chance, the book I liked least this year tackles exactly the same period. …

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