Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Quick Read

A Quick Read

These summer days I enjoy a quick read.  It does not matter what genre it is – be it novel, short stories, autobiography, prose, say a book on philosophy, psychology or one of the myriads on self-help.  As long as it is written well, and with grace and style, then I am happy.  In the last few days I have been lucky to read a little gem by Laurie Lee called A Moment of War.  And what a gem it is – every word leaps from the page and sings a heartfelt song, to mix metaphors rather clumsily.

The blurb on the back cover informs us that this is the third and magnificent conclusion to Laurie Lee’s autobiographical trilogy.  The other two in this sequence are:  Cider With Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.  Needless to say, I have not read these two, but I certainly will.  Laurie Lee was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire in 1914.  At the age of 19 he walked to London and then travelled on foot through Spain, where he was trapped by the outbreak of the Civil War.  A Moment of War recounts his experiences of this sad internecine war.

What captivates me about this little book is its objectivity, total lack of self-pity, its delightful humour even in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the lack of fear shown by the author, his authenticity, and to borrow a word from psychotherapy (from Carl R. Rogers, to be precise), his sheer congruence with his own feelings when encountering others along the way, and indeed, when encountering us, his readers.  We feel that the writer is recounting his story to his best friend.  This is what makes this book a little gem.

Next his style is pure and inevitable.  There is not a spare word lying about.  They are all weighed out with great deliberateness.  There is a haunting scene early in the book where Laurie and another prisoner, a deserter from the Republican army are locked in a veritable hole in the ground.  They are both awaiting their probable execution.  The other man, Dino, was the only one of the two who was executed.  Notice in the following words the sheer objectivity and sensitivity and sheer lyricism of this description:

“Strange being huddled so close and for so long to another human being whose face one was unable to see.  I knew him to be young by his voice and breath and the chance touch of his hand when sharing food or wine.  He also had a fresh wild smell about him, a mixture of pine and olives.  I remember we slept a good deal, prey to an extraordinary lassitude, and in the intervals we talked.  He was a deserter, he said; and seemed quite cheerful about it, laughing at the looking-glass differences between us.  I was trying to get into the war, and he was trying to get out of it, and here we were, stuffed into the same black hole.”   (Penguin edition, 1992, pp 14-15)

The above quotation reminds me of a similar episode described in All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, though in the latter the hero or antihero, finds himself in a shell crater with a dead French soldier -  a similar, though somewhat different experience.  All Quiet is another one of my all time favourite books.  I shall be posting a review of it here also in these posts at a later time.

I cannot finish this post without recounting how Laurie’s companion was eventually executed.  Relish with pity and sympathy these marvellously lyrical words:

When it came, it came suddenly, with us both half-asleep, the iron trap-door above raised with a swift muted action, and a low voice calling the young deserter’s name, giving us just time enough for a quick fumbling handshake.  As they raised Dino towards the opening he lifted his arms, and I saw his face in a brief glimmer of moonlight.  It was thin and hollow, his eyes huge and glowing, his long pointed countenance like an El Greco saint ascending.  Finally two dark shapes pulled him through the narrow entrance, and the manhole was lowered again.  I heard the clink of glasses, some moments of casual chatter, Dino’s short laugh, then a pistol shot…” (Penguin edition, 1992, pp 15-16)

One could almost pray these beautiful words.  In fact they are prayer-like or mantra-like or like a spiritual and objective reflection which though objective is still so sensitive and moving.   How beautiful are these moving words, especially those several: “like an El Greco saint ascending”.

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