11 July 2013

The Wooden Shepherdess (Richard Hughes)

Oh, gosh. Guys, can get on making literary necromancy a thing? Because Richard Hughes having the bad luck to die before finishing the projected third volume of The Human Predicament, I think, ranks up there with Gogol's burning the second part of Dead Souls (and then dying himself before he thought better of it) in terms of woefully unfinished masterpieces. The two volumes he published in 1961 (The Fox in the Attic) and 1973 (The Wooden Shepherdess) are already a 20th-century War and Peace, sans theory-of-history digressions and plus a wry wit Tolstoy wouldn't know if it bit him in the beard. It's somehow both epic and intimate, gorgeously written, and Hughes has taught me more about the internal machinations of the Nazi Party, and contemporaneous British parliamentary politics, than history class ever did. (Not to knock my European History teacher at all. Dude was awesome.)

The Fox in the Attic ended with the Munich Putsch, and The Wooden Shepherdess somewhat accelerates the pace, climaxing eleven years later with the Night of the Long Knives (memorably and mythically depicted in Visconti's The Damned). I say "somewhat," because while several months or even years may be dispatched in summary, there are small scenes and set pieces along the way that seem to proceed in real time. The book begins in Prohibition-era America, where the 24-year-old quasi-hero of Attic, Augustine, has ended up after being mugged on a Breton dock and unceremoniously dumped down the hatch of a rum-running boat. Hiding out due to his lack of papers and his illicit means of arrival, he soon finds himself the "elderly mascot" of a pack of hard-drinking, promiscuous, utterly baffling teenagers--"self-sufficient as eagles, unarmored as lambs." This setup leads to perhaps the best literary car chase of all time (I mean, can you think of another one?), and Augustine's deflowering, an encounter he feels a "cold-porridge parody" of his pure love for his Bavarian cousin, Mitzi, whose entry into a Carmelite convent forms another, rather less raucous, thread.

The novel also continues the story of Augustine's sister, Mary, her MP husband, Gilbert, and their daughter, Polly, and adds a new backdrop--the slums of Coventry; at one point Hughes segues between the two brilliantly with "Yes, the ways of the rich man are known to be full of trouble; but even the poor have their cares." And while the rich and poor of Great Britain have their troubles and cares, while Augustine has adventures in Morocco and grows ever more aimless, Hitler slowly continues to climb to absolute power. And not in the background, either--Hughes is totally unafraid to hash out history in narrative, to flesh out real people as characters, to try to figure out not just the how but the why of it, with the chilling hindsight that 30s Europe simply didn't have. An ambitious undertaking, to say the least--but one in which he unambiguously succeeds.

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