Year of a Hundred Books – #34 The Valley Under the Cross

The Valley Under the CrossThe Valley Under the Cross, by David Bruce


I’m not entirely sure why I decided to read this book. Or rather, I am sure, but in hindsight I don’t know why it seemed like a good idea. Every year or so, my secondary school sends out a newsletter to all of its alumnus. Mostly full of obituaries, old photos of the school, and updates on what various graduates are doing now, in the most recent issue there was an excerpt from an edition of the school magazine from 1950, celebrating the publication of one of the Old Boys’ début novel. The book is described as being the story of what would have happened in the Oberammergau Passion Play had been performed during the Second World War, rather than being postponed as it was in real life. Having a passing interest in the story, I decided, on a whim to buy it for cheap online.

There are a lot of flaws in the book; the plot is appalling clichéd and formulaic all the positive characters are practically sanctified already, all the antagonists are evil (apart from the one morally ambiguous character the protagonist falls in love with), women are not Nazis, even when they are, and most of all the writing is abrupt and lacking in subtlety.

That said, is it right to criticise this book for that? There is a historiographical debate known as “Presentism“, which basically states that you can’t necessarily judge people in the past according to today’s morality. Usually it’s applied to atrocities like Slavery, but I think it’s actually applicable for this book. As much as I’d like to condemn this book for the faults listed above, am I really justified in criticising a book written in the 1940s for an unbalanced portrayal of Nazis? I should be thankful that it does actually depict any Germans in a positive light. As for the quality of the prose? Well, it was hardly high class literature in the first place, and just because it’s dated, that shouldn’t draw further criticism.

But somehow, I can’t help myself. I suppose I might have enjoyed it better if it had been written today and thus was more in line with today’s literary techniques, (oh, and if my copy hadn’t been missing 20 pages in the middle! The fact I was able to finish the book does say something about the formula I suppose)  but I might not have done.

However, one thing does strike me, which is the fact that (unless anyone reading this inexplicably feels inspired to seek out this book), I’ll probably be one of the last person ever to read it, which feels quite odd really…

Year of a Hundred books – #27 HHhH

HHhHHHhH, by Laurent Binet


Wow. I absolutely loved this book. It’s also caused me to fundamentally rethink a number of key philosophies about historical novels.

Because HHhH is most emphatically not historical fiction. In fact, it’s not fiction at all. Binet explicitly states that he finds the concept of creating fictional characters, dialogue and situations excessively vulgar (Here taking a cue from another author whose work I’ve loved; Milan Kundera), and thus in his depiction of the assasination of the SS second in command Reinhard Heydrich, Binet includes nothing that isn’t historically verifiable. (That said, the historian in me notices he rarely cites his sources academically!)

This leads to an interesting novel that is at times more concerned with the authorial process of research, editing, and at times, obsession over the topic, than it is with the topic itself.

It’ll be interesting to see how Binet follows this up, and indeed whether the book is sincere, or if the ‘author’ we read about in the book, is actually a constructed persona instead of reflecting Binet’s actual beliefs.

Either way, I cannot recommend this enough!

Year of a Hundred Books – #16 Return to Akenfield

Return to AkenfieldReturn to Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village in the 21st Century,

by Craig Taylor


Okay, so I know I said that I wouldn’t write about any more history books, and technically I’m sticking to that. Return to Akenfield is in essence a journalistic look at life in 21st Century rural suffolk, and only becomes a piece of historical interest when compared to its parent book, Akenfield.
Written in 1969, the author Ronald Blythe (who features in Return to Akenfield conducted a series of interviews with people in a couple of farming villages (Akenfield itself is a fictional amalgamation), to create a picture of what life was like and had been like in this little corner of the world, one of the first pieces of Oral History to reach the mainstream consciousness (Predating the more famous work of Studs Turkel by about a year).
Much has changed in “Akenfield” since the 60s, almost beyond all recognition. I’m not one to mourn the passing of “the good old days”, but hearing farmers talking about the changes in their industry and their side of the debate on farming standards has made me think more about the role of supermarkets in society, and the problems they raise for the future.
I think, perhaps, Return to Akenfield isn’t as interesting as Akenfield, but that might just be my personal bias coming into it. Either way, they’re both fascinating reads for what they are.

Year of a Hundred books – #13 Macbeth: A True Story

Macbeth: A True StoryMacbeth: A True History, by Fiona Watson


This something a little different for me. Not only is Macbeth: A True History, not fiction, but it’s also not entirely history.

Writing medieval history in a way that is accessible to a wide audience is notoriously difficult, especially in somewhere as scant in the sources as Scotland. There is all too often a tendency to clutch at straws, or to make one too many assumptions about the subject to create a coherent narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as a trained historian it does make me cringe when Fiona Watson glosses over what she identifies as the key points of Macbeths’ reign with fictionalised prose.

This, and a few historiographic issues I disagree with, Macbeth: A True History is actually a good read. It gives a really clear run down of the unification of the Scottish kingdoms and explains a lot of things much more clearly than some of my lecturers did (one of whom is even cited as a source in the book). Of course, the narrative is always conscious of the Shakespearean take on Macbeth, and there are frequent references throughout the texts to Jacobean society or the sources Shakespeare used. This is only to be expected, but it does seem as though Watson has gone too far into revisionism, veering almost into hagiography for the king.

Five years of university education have conditioned me to be inherently sceptical of anything that tries to portray itself as a “True History”, and I’d hesitate to cite this in an academic context, but as a good popular history book, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read.