ASnewly-appointed Literary Editor of the CATHOLIC HERALD, I shall be writing in this column occasionally about some of the books I enjoy. Readers will not find that my taste is very highbrow, but it is certainly catholic, in that I read a wide variety of subjects, fiction and non-fiction, with only two reservations.
One is that I do not get past the first page if the book is not well written. And I seldom bother beyond the end of chapter two if the story or subject matter do not grip. Sometimes, I know, I should be rewarded if I persevered. But my view is that there are so many jewels out in the open, waiting to be picked up, that there is seldom time to open oysters in the hope that there may he pearls inside.
This week I noted with pleasure a reissue, in Puffins, of one of Arthur Ransome's books — Picts and Martyrs. In some strange way I missed these books in my own childhood — "Swallows and Amazons," "We didn't Mean to Go to Sea," and all the others. I was turned 30 when I discovered them, and rend this "kid's stuff" avidly and rather shamefacedly.
But they turned me towards The book would have been greatly enhanced by the inclusion of a few photographs. Autobiographies seem particularly to demand them.
sailing as a sport, and then I discovered that nearly all adult yachtsmen keep a library of Arthur Ransome, and read them over and over again.
The stories are dated now, written in the 'twenties and 'thirties. They tell of the adventures of three families of children, not all of them always in the same books, but all always involved in sailing activities.
"Picts and Martyrs" is one of the best. Buy this Puffin for your children if you are not already an aficionado, and read it yourself before passing it over. Then raid the libraries for the other books. Then go Out and buy a boat.
Jean Latham, a well-known writer on the art of collecting, has just had published a fascinating book called Victoriana (Muller £3.20). The Victorian period covered, as she points out, three quarters of a century, and the variety of things, changing over that period, which can be collected is vast.
The Victorians had an insatiable hunger for living; they laughed loudly and cried immoderately, and were not afraid of their emotions. Somehow Miss Latham has managed to get the whole feeling of the period into her book; her writing, and the many photographs of Victorian china, of toys, of bags, of flowerpieces and so on, are en. joyably nostalgic. What a lot we arc missing in this hard, bright plastic world of ours, in which the only recognisable emotion is that bound up with Sex.
This book is not only for collectors; in fact, it does not pretend to be a standard work. But it is a book which makes reading a pleasure.
The Sardinian Hostage by Antonio Cossu (Bodley Head f1.50) is one of the few examples in literature which go to prove the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Cossu was born in Sardinia, and he is by training a social worker. ,1 The story he tells here is fact; but so compelling that one has to keep reminding oneself that it is not an exciting novel.
It tells the story of a kidnapping in Sardinia — not unusual, "thirty kidnapped in two years," as one line of unattributed dialogue has it. But this is the kidnapping of a student for whom a ransom of £50,000 is demanded — he is eventually released for a fraction of that sum, after long negotiations with the bandits.
The author took part in the negotiations. He evokes the strangeness of a land where kidnapping can he an everyweek occurrence, the starkness, the muted indignation, a man's life and fortune at stake, arc all part of the scenery. ARE, not were. This happened at the end of 1968.
Novels are not really my cup of tea, but I made up my mind long ago that I liked Monica Dickens — when she was writing "One Pair of Feet" and "One Pair of Hands," etc., and find it hard to change my opinion. Some of her purely fictional writing really has not been terribly good; but I still read her with enjoyment for old times' sake.
Her new novel, Sununer at World's End (Heinemann £1.05) is her second book about the Fielding family, and the right note was struck for me in the very first sentence. "Quick, Carrie, come quick. There's a horse in my garden." I once found a horse in my garden, too.
This is, I suppose, really a children's book. It is about children, their adventures and evasion of adults and the adult world. But then, children's books are the only sort of literature, these days, in which one can be fairly sure not to meet four-letter words.
Belles Lettres cannot be read by a glutton, only by a gourmet. I would not recommend that anyone sat down and read Eugene Delacroix, Selected Letters 1813-1863 (Eyre and Spottiswoode £7.50) from beginning to end. But the work of a man like Delacroix, one of the brilliant artists (in the true sense of the word) of the Romantic period, not only helps to explain genius in an age obscured by romanticism. The book is also a lesson in civilisation.
How better could be expressed the despair of a gifted man who sees gifts impaired by sickness, pain, the onset of age, than the paragraph in a letter written in 1858.
" . . when the end of it all is nakedness, the man endowed with imagination needs a certain courage not to forestall the nightmare and embrace the nightmare and embrace the skeleton . . . I feel now that all books speak nothing but but platitudes. What they say repeats half a dozen banal ideas that were expressed a thousand years ago."