Good Things

Michael Hofmann

  • Heart’s Journey in Winter by James Buchan
    Harvill, 201 pp, £14.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 00 273009 X

I don’t believe this country has a better writer to offer than James Buchan. I can’t think of anyone who concedes so much of his own intelligence to his protagonists – doesn’t mock or belittle them – and gives them so much world to do battle with. I see no particular limitation to his scope or style: his stunningly curt dialogues and ravishing recitatives are equally persuasive. No one writes better short sentences; he has a strong grasp of form; an Occam-ish economy (this is his first book over two hundred pages); and is utterly without the factitiousness – the I’ll-pretend-to-write-a-novel-and-you-pretend-to-read-it – that seems so current in England. In the end – though this is bizarre – he is probably a religious novelist, whose theme is salvation, though I’d be surprised if he’s actually used the word anywhere. Most tantalisingly, he is still better than any of his books.

Two things set Buchan apart: first, his understanding of the factual world – I remember his magisterial reportages for the Sunday Indy on Thorp and on high-street banks – such things as politics, money and abroad; not forgetting how little such understanding counts for with others:

Adam was often drunk at this time. He had been abroad a year but nobody much wanted to hear about it, least of all Mary, who did not like abroad and could manage only a smile of puzzled sympathy.

A Parish of Rich Women

Buchan studied Persian and Arabic; he has worked in the Middle East, Europe and America; the German in the new book is demanding and faultless. Novelists tend to be amateurs of information, believing a little to go a long way; Buchan is a pro. Nor is this just another way of saying that he was for ten years a foreign correspondent of the FT; his authority (like Joseph Roth’s, say) is altogether deeper, more committed, more structural, than that of journalism. He reminds me of Washington DC in Lowell’s distich: ‘The stiff spokes of this wheel / touch the sore spots of the earth.’ It is a complex, macro-historical, moral-aesthetic authority:

The Osteria Ischiana is an Italian restaurant in the Remigiusstrasse in Bonn. Its wonder years were the late Forties, when Christian Democrat politicians, de-Nazified and with certificates in their waistcoat-pockets to prove it, spun webs of intrigue between the padded booths; when the Bundestag still convened among the stuffed animals at the Museum König a hundred yards away; and the political city had not yet marched south into the villa gardens, fields and allotments between the railway lines and the river; before the journalist-hutches and diplomat-silos had sprouted at the Tulpenfeld.

  By 1983, the restaurant had fattened in the yeasty Rhineland air. Women in hats and fur collars worked their way through extended midday meals. Flour and cream glutted the sauces. The pasta burst with egg yolk. But you could still sense, under the Rhenish phlegm, the warmth and genius of Italy.

Heart’s Journey in Winter

How animated history is here, by costume and cuisine and clientèle: the calorific content of democracy, peace and self-confidence translated into avoirdupois, a Caesar-like contempt as vision, an audible sigh for risk! Energy turns to mass, ‘webs’ to ‘padded’ to ‘stuffed’, minceur to Bonn femme. At the same time, though, there is a sinister military rumble under the contentment – the book is about the bringing of Cruise and Pershing missiles to Europe to counter the Soviet SS 20s – in ‘marched’ and ‘silos’ and ‘burst’. The second thing, incidentally, about James Buchan is how extraordinarily well he writes: compared to his, how unthinking, unsupple and uninteresting most prose is.

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