From the French Revolution to World War Two, History Fired Literary Minds

By Massie, Allan | The Scotsman, December 23, 2017 | Go to article overview

From the French Revolution to World War Two, History Fired Literary Minds


Massie, Allan, The Scotsman


There is no league table for Books of the Year - any attempt to draw one up is absurd - so the sensible thing is to note briefly a number of books one hopes readers may enjoy. (I'll omit some of the good Scottish books I've reviewed because these reviews were re-printed in our 24-page Scottish Books 2017 supplement last week, which I daresay many readers will have kept rather than throwing out.) The Horseman by Tim Pears is a remarkable evocation of life on a country estate just before the First World War - a novel that sounds such a note of authenticity that you might suppose that the author was in the hayloft, watching and listening to everything in the stable below. It may not have been the "best" new novel I read this year; there's none I enjoyed more.

It is probably unnecessary to draw attention to Robert Harris now. Everything he writes pleases old admirers and wins new ones. His novel Munich is utterly gripping, his portrayal of the maligned Neville Chamberlain sympathetic and fair. Harris always remembers that events now in the past were once in the future; the world held its breath when Chamberlain flew to Munich and he was cheered as loudly by the Germans afraid of war as he was when he returned home.

Two other books might be read as companion pieces or sequels to Munich, though neither is a novel. Six Minutes in May by Nicholas Shakespeare is an account of the disastrous Norway campaign in the Spring of 1940 and the momentous Commons debate which precipitated the fall of the Chamberlain Government. The narrative is detailed and gripping, the character sketches acute, while Shakespeare is alert to the happy irony that Churchill, the man responsible for the Norway fiasco , was the beneficiary of the perceived need for a new Prime Minister.

Iris Origo, a rich Anglo-American married to an Italian nobleman, kept a diary in 1939-40. Now published for the first time as A Chill in the Air, it is alert to the fears and uncertainties of Italians who disliked the idea of an alliance with Nazi Germany and hoped Mussolini would keep Italy out of the war. …

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