Jacob Heilbrunn, contributor: I’m a big fan of the 1935 movie “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” which prefigures many of Alfred Hitchcock’s later thrillers, including “North By Northwest.” The author of the original 1915 book was, of course, John Buchan, about whom Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a memorable essay in Encounter magazine in September 1960. So when I saw the novel Greenmantle, which Buchan published in 1917, on sale recently at Second Story Books, I nabbed it. It would be a gross exaggeration to call it a great work. In truth, it’s something of a potboiler, but it evokes the World War I era vividly and is good, clean fun. The novel centers around Richard Hannay who infiltrates Wilhelmine Germany to discover, with a bunch of his pals, what the dark secret is that the German military is planning in Turkey to “madden the remotest Moslem peasant with dreams of paradise.” It also has a cameo of Kaiser Wilhelm, who is portrayed sympathetically, and a hulking German Colonel named Ulric von Stumm, who is not.
A rather more serious work that I’ve been dipping into at leisure is Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays. Of particular interest to me was his essay on “Counsel.” It’s hard to read it without thinking of Donald Trump who relishes berating his advisers. Bacon thinks this is a bad idea: “The wisest princes need not think it any diminution to their greatness, or derogation to their sufficiency, to rely upon counsel. God himself is not without, but hath made it one of the great names of his blessed Son: The Counsellor.” Trump would probably think of breakfast bacon if you mentioned Bacon’s name to him, but I would hazard that it might do him some good to dip into one of the classic texts now and again, presuming that his newfound zeal for religion doesn’t mean that he’s preoccupied with studying the Bible itself.
Another oldie but goodie that I like to consult is Anthony Powell’s 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time. Powell, who leaned right, had a penchant for mixing in political commentary. One of the great passages in his opus occurs when Sir Gavin Walpole-Wilson, a former diplomat, rather inimitably complains about the lack of realism in the British Foreign Office: “All very well to have a fellow a century ago who could do the polite to the local potentate. …Something a bit more realistic required these days.” Kenneth Widmerpool agrees: “Professionalism in diplomacy is bad enough, in all conscience, without restricting the range of the country’s diplomatic representation to a clique of prize pupils from a small group of older public schools.”
Which brings me to an excellent forthcoming book from Roland Phillips called A Spy Named Orphan. It’s about Donald Maclean, a high-ranking Foreign Office official and member of the “Cambridge Five” spies who betrayed England to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Phillips traces Maclean’s betrayal back to his schooldays, noting that he attended at the age of ten Gresham’s School and says that the school had a unique ethos that “made it the perfect psychological training-ground for a nascent spy.” W.H. Auden said that its disciplinary code was a “potent engine” for transforming the students into “remote introverts, for perpetuating those very faults of character which it was intended to cure.” Maclean was not a stout patriot like Richard Hannay, but Phillips shows that he was also alive to the shortcomings of the Soviet Union, rendering him, in some ways, the most interesting and least doctrinaire member of his cohort.
Grayson Quay, contributor: To amuse myself on long car rides and break up the heavy theoretical and canonical texts I read for my Georgetown classes, I tend to indulge in lighter fare when it comes to audiobooks, choosing plot-driven novels that don’t punish me if I lose focus for a second to check that I have the right exit. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge Trilogy—which consists of The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and A Column of Fire.
In his introduction to Pillars, Follett, who generally confines himself to World War II spy novels, explains how despite his lack of religious conviction, his fascination with cathedrals led him to research and write a novel about the decades-long construction of a twelfth-century Gothic cathedral in the fictional English city of Kingsbridge. The first novel, which Starz adapted into an eight-part miniseries in 2010, was followed by two more, set in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively.
Follett occasionally makes a historical or theological misstep, but generally his research is good, and the wide-ranging casts of architects, laborers, priests, nuns, knights, kings, farmers, and burghers gives a good cross-section of medieval society. There’s always building project, some intersection with larger historical events, and a love story in which Follett quickly throws two characters together only to keep them apart for decades with a series of contrived obstacles before ending the book with their joyful wedding.
As an added bonus, these are among the most pro-capitalist books I’ve ever read, a little like Ayn Rand but with fewer seventy-page monologues (none, in fact). Knights, instead of being portrayed as the chivalric figures of legend, are more like frat boys with unrestrained appetites for rape, and senseless violence. Even the good ones are hammers to whom every problem looks like a nail. The true heroes are the innovators and entrepreneurs like Jack Builder, who runs away to France and returns with the designs for ribbed vaults and pointed arches, or Lady Aliena, who becomes a prosperous wool merchant after her noble family is stripped of its lands and titles. The greatest triumphs take place on the building site, not the battlefield.
They may not be the most highbrow novels, but in a moment defined by the angst of “late capitalism,” it’s refreshing to visit a community where providing a needed service, making a quality product, and earning an honest profit is a cause for pride.