March 2012

My March reading was dominated by four books concerning the decade that interests me the most – the 1930s. First was Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station. This item had been on my prescribed reading-list when I went up to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1965, set by my Russian don (a priest at Merton). I never read it, and the Fontana paperback has travelled with me ever since. If I had read it then, it might have helped with my analysis of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and Dostoyevsky’s Devils, but it was hardly essential. Wilson gives a leisurely and insightful account of the development of socialist thought – written before Trotsky’s assassination in 1940 – and it seems that it would be difficult for anyone to be taken in by Marx’s nonsense on reading this work. But many were – including, for a while, such future vigorous opponents as Hugh Trevor-Roper, and, apparently, Pope Benedict XVI, who indicated recently that Marx’s economics indeed had validity at one time. Next was Deadly Illusions, the uncovering of the deceptions and crimes of the KGB spyhandler Alexander Orlov, by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, using the archival sources of the KGB from the 1990s. Orlov, wakening to Stalin’s terror, never deserted his Bolshevist beliefs, and artfully deceived the CIA and FBI after escaping to the West in 1938, and, officially defecting some 14 years later. This is an extraordinary book, and its references to the unnamed members of the Oxford Ring that rivaled Orlov’s famous Cambridge Ring have recently been updated by identifications in the British press. Lord Halifax’s memoirs, Fullness of Days, showed the dying culture of the aristocrat/politician who tried to come to grips with Hitler and Mussolini, and whose view of the good life revolved round the Church and the racing calendar. It was exactly that type of life that J. B. Priestley railed against, as was shown in his second volume of memoirs, Rain at Godshill. I recall my father having a copy of J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment With Time, that so absorbed Priestley. I could make no headway with it, barely in my teens, but I do recall listening to, and being mesmerized by, Priestley’s An Inspector Calls on the radio in the late 1950s. Priestley was the eternal searcher, full of paradoxes and contradictions, with an inquisitive mind and a limpid writing-style that reflected his earnest thoughts. With an evident chip on his shoulder, and rather vaguely identifying the malaise of the 1930s, he never really found the Truth he was looking for, but these memoirs, full of common-sense and accurate observation, summarize the generic puzzlement and confusion that seemed to rule the average intellectual in the 1930s. A rich assortment of quotations from these works appears in my 2012 Commonplace Book. (Extracts from Priestley’s first volume of memoirs, Midnight on the Desert, appear in my 2004 Commonplace Book, under December.)                                    (March 31, 2012)

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