Review 1512: Classics Club Spin! Challenge

I’ve been hearing about Vita Sackville-West for years, so when I made up my latest Classics Club list, I chose this book from a list of Virago titles. It was then chosen for me in the lastest Spin.

Challenge is the fictionalized story of Sackville-West’s affair with Violet Trefusis, which she disguised in the book by turning it into a heterosexual love affair. She wrote the novel as a romantic adventure, and apparently Trefusis sat with her to make sure it was accurate (which doesn’t surprise me, having read the book).

This history is interesting, but I have to say, this is one silly book. First of all, the adventure plot is just plain ridiculous. During a time when the island of Crete is an independent state, it rules an archipelago of islands whose inhabitants want to be independent of it. They are of Italian descent and have been mistreated by the Greek government in Herakleion. (I’m spelling it the way Sackville-West does.) Julian Devanant, whose wealthy family owns property on the islands, returns from England at 19 to have the islanders turn to him for help. Yeah, right. He promises his help but does exactly nothing except go back to England on his father’s command. Two years later, he returns and gets actively involved in rebellion.

That’s the adventure part. An introduction to my version of the novel states that modern readers will probably be more interested in the romance, but I found it unconvincing. Julian has a long-standing friendship with his cousin Eve, but when he returns from England the second time, he notices she has become very seductive and toys with the affections of men. She is hidng the secret that she is madly in love with Julian by pretending indifference.

That may make sense, but I felt that everything about Eve, as well about other parts of the novel, was murky. By this, I mean that many assertions are made about how special Eve is, how intelligent, and so on, but the novel doesn’t actually show any of these qualities, or contain, for example, any conversations showing her intelligence. An awful lot of this novel takes place out of sight. For example, the first scene where Julian goes in to see Eve, he just goes in. Their reunion is left out. When you finally meet Eve, she seems selfish and uncaring as well as possibly bipolar, she changes so quickly from one extreme to another. (Of course, she’s also described as selfish and uncaring, so what’s to love?) She is described as mature and then acts immaturely. Then, as Julian’s lover, she is insanely unreasonable and sees his involvement in the rebellion as just something that takes his attention away from her. There is really nothing except her looks to make anyone love her.

Similarly, Julian gets involved with the islanders without even seeming to understand their difficulties, and the difficulties are never really explained. He is tutored about the situation by a priest named Paul and by Kato, a famous singer. But we never hear any of these conversations, we just hear that he is tutored. In addition, most of the action at the end of the novel takes place off stage. I personally have a problem in fiction that makes statements about things without showing or explaining them. The author comes off as someone who either hasn’t fully imagined these things or cannot.

Sackville-West is a good writer, and her descriptions are very good, but there is too much in this novel that is just stated, leaving me feeling that Sackville-West herself didn’t feel up to either fully examining the political situation or really conveying what her lover was like.

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Day 776: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

Cover for Patrick Leigh FermorWhile reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s retrospective trilogy about the journey he made in his teens, walking from Holland to Istanbul and then Greece, I was struck by the references to what seemed to be an exciting and unusual subsequent life. So, I soon looked for a biography and found this one, by British writer Artemis Cooper, the granddaughter of Leigh Fermor’s good friends and a woman who knew him from when she was a child.

Cooper goes into a little more detail than Leigh Fermor (known by his friends as Paddy) about his childhood, making clear there was a split between his parents and a good deal of neglect from both. Still, he had a happy childhood growing up in a rural setting, and his problems only began with the regimentation of school. Having failed in an academic setting and with the army, Paddy got the idea to go on his fabled walk.

Cooper summarizes the route of this walk, only she reveals the true names of the people he met (he used pseudonyms) and tells us when the stories are invented or conflated. When I read the trilogy I wasn’t aware that any events were invented or conflated, but I should have known that the level of scholarship reflected in the writing was not that of an eighteen-year-old. (Well, I did know, but he wrote the books much later in his life.)

picture of Princess Balasha
Princess Balasha

After his journey, Paddy settled in Athens and then Rumania with Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, a fascinating older woman separated from her husband. However, after World War II broke out, he hurried back to England, not realizing how long it would be until he saw her again.

Paddy spent most of the war in Crete working with the resistance. He is famous for kidnapping a German general and removing him to Egypt, an act meant to improve Cretan morale. (A movie, Ill Met by Moonlight starring Dirk Bogarde as Paddy, was made about this feat, but Paddy was unhappy with how far it drifted from the facts.) For the rest of his life, despite the unfortunate political differences that evolved between England and Greece after the war, Paddy was beloved in Crete.

picture of Joan Fermor
Joan

After the war, Paddy lived a gadabout life with many famous friends, only settling down in Greece with his wife Joan in his late middle age. He and Joan had been together 27 years before they married and for many of those years, had an open relationship.

Paddy chose the profession of writer and wrote several books about his travels and adventures. He was a raconteur who demonstrated an impressive range of knowledge and was interested in everything. Apparently very charming and loved by many people, he was not always sensitive to the feelings of others.

This biography is a well written, fascinating, and occasionally funny portrait of a remarkable man. At times, the sheer number of people mentioned made me unsure of who they all were, and there was certainly an assumption that readers would know who was meant. I didn’t always, which made the book a little more difficult to follow, but that was only on occasion.

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