Friday 30 June 2023

Two Slim Volumes

 Well, I have finished Helena, and an interesting reading experience it was. It felt to me like a novel of two halves, the earlier chapters, in which Waugh was pretty much free to make it up as he went along (the facts being so few), seeming much more like fully realised fiction, while the later chapters, as the more nearly historical Helena comes into focus, are more synoptic, seen, as it were, from a greater distance and in a broader perspective. Compared to the first half of the book, they also proceed at a much faster pace, telling the big story briskly and effectively – but in a very different manner from the presentation of Helena's early years. Helena remains a convincing portrait of the Roman world at the time of Constantine's conversion (if that is what it was) and confirmed what I have often thought about the astonishing success of Christianity in so easily overturning classical paganism – that it was little short of miraculous. 
  And now I've moved on to another slim volume, purchased from the same excellent charity bookshop – The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (of whom I have only read The Fountain Overflows, which I greatly enjoyed). The Return of the Soldier has an intriguing premise: a soldier returns from the (Great War) front with a form of shell shock that has obliterated his memory of the previous 15 years. He has entirely forgotten his beautiful, if somewhat chilly wife Kitty, and he remembers his devoted cousin Jenny, who lives with Kitty, only as a childhood playmate. The love he does remember and yearns for is one of which neither wife nor cousin had an inkling – an inn-keeper's daughter, now a dowdy lower-class housewife, with whom he was briefly but idyllically in love as a young man. And now, thanks to his strange fugue, he still is.  What will happen when they meet? What will the women who love him do about it? Cleverly, West tells the story through the eyes of the cousin who adores our shellshocked hero, which gives an extra dimension to the narrative. It has certainly been a gripping read so far.

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