Magazine article The Spectator

War but Not Quite Waugh

Magazine article The Spectator

War but Not Quite Waugh

Article excerpt

PRIVATE ANGELO

by Eric Linklater

Canongate Classics, L5.99, pp. 262

THE DARK OF SUMMER

by Eric Linklater

Canongate Classics, L5.99, pp. 238

Some may consider it brave of Canongate to reprint these two novels to mark the 100th anniversary of Eric Linklater's birth. They contain no graphic scenes of either sex or violence. They could not be made into blockbuster films. They belong to the old-fashioned, solid, straightforwardly decent world of Boys' Own comics rather than the self-obsessed and glossily indecent world of Hello! magazine. In short, they seem, in the nicest possible way, rather dated. Allan Massie is quoted as saying that the later, blacker novel, The Dark of Summer, is comparable in genius to Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour. I disagree. Linklater is a superlative craftsman but does not quite have that spark of genius. But if his books charm rather than overwhelm, make you smile but not laugh, sigh but not weep, this is not to belittle them in any way. For nobody could dispute the poet and fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir's assertion that Linklater was a writer 'who in any country would be acknowledged to possess original gifts@.

Linklater's greatest gift is his linguistic and cultural perfect pitch. Private Angelo reads like a book written first in Italian then beautifully translated. Sent to Italy in 1944 as the War Office's official historian, Linklater clearly went native. He fully deserves - and receives - the admiration of the Italians themselves for the sureness of touch with which he draws the eponymous hero and brings wartime Italy to life. The parallel between the violation of individuals and the destruction of the country, which could so easily become ploddingly obvious is, in Linklater's hands, light and sharp. When, for example, Angelo's beloved, Lucrezia, is raped by a Marocchini and a child results, Linklater neatly captures both the individual and wider tragedy. But far from being gloomy, he elicits a bittersweet smile:

I should be very happy if he looked like you [says Lucrezia in response to Angelo's horror at the blackness of the baby's skin]. But during the war there were very few of us who had the chance to order our lives as we would have liked them to be ... If mv baby is too dark for your liking . . .

Linklater's ability to caricature never fails him. Captain Telfer with his handlebar moustache and British stiff upper lip, the Countess of Pontefiore who speaks Italian with the accent of her native Bradford, and the Count who turns logic on its head in order to justify his rapidly changing allegiances are small masterpieces. …

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