Reading 1959: Schooldays, Regency, Cold War

Covers of the three books.

One thing I’m keen to do in exploring novels from 1959 is to read widely – not just the most critically acclaimed books, those reckoned to be in The Canon, but also genre fiction, popular writing and books which have fallen out of fashion. This set, which I read on holiday, contributes to that aim.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles is considered a classic in the US and is, I gather, widely read in schools but I first heard of it in January this year.

It is set in a boys boarding school in New England during World War II and revolves around the intense friendship between the charismatic, athletic Phineas and the academically-minded, sour-witted Gene.

According to some readings, they are in love, though that is never made explicit and was denied by the author. Either way, the closeness of their relationship tips over into hatred for a brief, mad moment and the rest of the book deals with the fallout, against a backdrop of the end of childhood and the threat of conscription.

The landscape, the school, its culture and personalities are beautifully depicted. When Knowles described thawing snow, you feel it; when he writes about the stink of a locker room, your nose curls.

There’s also something startling in the reality of the human relationships the book depicts – of the fine line between affection and animosity, and the constant shifting of allegiance and the balance of power within groups of friends.

On Twitter, I described it as a cross between Brideshead Revisited and Lord of the Flies and, having thought on it for a week, still think that’s about right, flippant as it sounds.

How does it fit into 1959? Well, it’s another example of processing the experience of World War II; and, despite Knowles’s denial of the gay subtext, it also feels like part of an increasing honesty in writing about sex and relationships.

* * *

Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax is a funny thing – Jane Austen fan fiction, essentially, but more broadly-drawn than the model. If I say that if Hammer Films had fancied branching out into romance, they might have done it justice, does that hint at the tone?

The plot is a good one: the irascible Lord Darracott is reluctantly forced to acknowledge an estranged heir after his son and grandson are killed in a boating accident – Major Hugo Darracott, a giant, uncouth Yorkshireman who has been serving in the Napoleonic wars.

He is not made welcome by the family, especially the independent-minded Anthea, who is expected by her grandfather, his lordship, to marry the Major to keep control of the family fortune in trusted hands.

Hugo, of course, wins them over with his good nature and resourcefulness. After much gothic melodrama around smugglers, ghosts and hidden passageways, there is a twist that most readers will have seen coming from about page ten, but is no less satisfying when it arrives.

At times, it feels like being battered with a dictionary of slang. Having taken the trouble to research the speech and dialect of the Regency, Heyer seems determined to use every nugget, so hardly a line of dialogue is without one or two examples: wet-goose, widgeon, mushroom, once-a-week beaux, and so on. She also likes exclamation marks! In imitation of 18th and early 19th century writers, no doubt, but too much for modern readers!

Heyer is regarded as faintly ridiculous these days, although she remains very much in print, and invented a genre. Unfortunately, I can see why – anyone submitting this manuscript to a publisher in 2019 would be told it was lacking subtlety, riddled with cliches and too derivative. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like The Unknown Ajax, though: it is fun, highly digestible and rich in period detail. And I’ve just bought my Mum a copy.

What marks this out as a product of 1959? The camp quality, perhaps, and the fact that Hugo Darracott is yet another war veteran protagonist, albeit from the wrong war.

* * *

Alistair MacLean is one of those writers whose books I recall being everywhere when I was growing up – a whole shelf at the library, on the revolving racks at the Read-and-Return, cluttering the bargain bins in secondhand bookshops, and then overwhelming charity shops in the 1990s.

His most famous novels, thanks to their film adaptations, are probably Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra and The Guns of Navarone. His 1959 effort, The Last Frontier, is less well-known, though it too was adapted for the screen, as The Secret Ways starring Richard Widmark, in 1961.

There’s a certain pleasure in reading even bad thrillers. Between coshings, shootings, chases and bouts of torture, there’s rarely time to catch breath and think about the quality of the writing. Unfortunately, this book comes with long stretches of tedious expository dialogue which leave the mind free to reflect on the terrible prose and creaking plot mechanics.

It is set in Hungary in the years immediately following the 1956 uprising and concerns a British agent, Reynolds, who is sent behind the iron curtain to extract a kidnapped scientist with the help of the anti-communist underground.

Reynolds is at first presented as a machine – as a man so perfectly trained that nothing can sway him from his mission, who doesn’t ask questions, who reacts rather than thinks. A whole novel of that would have been interesting to read but, unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for Reynolds to become careless, sentimental, and lovelorn.

At various points, we are expected to believe in disguises so good that they can fool someone who knows both the person being impersonated and the impersonator in extended conversation at close quarters.

We are supposed to accept that the Hungarian secret service, the AVO, is run by a bunch of sinister oddballs who can be fooled by a bit of unsophisticated fibbing.

And chemical torture, it turns out, can be resisted if you try really hard.

All of this would be bearable if the book wasn’t so earnest – if it accepted itself as a bit of fun rather than a serious exposé of the evils of totalitarianism and a treatise on world peace.

Here’s the thing: Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, for all their problems, are ageing well as literature; and if you want dourness without silliness, Le Carre is your man. I just can’t see what MacLean brings to the party. I’d rather read John Gardner.

The 1959 factor? The Cold War in general, and a fear of brainwashing in particular. (I’ve got The Manchurian Candidate, also from 1959, on my to-read pile.)

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