Reading Piers Paul Read

This great contemporary novelist is also a master of history and biography.

Born in England in 1941, Piers Paul Read is one of the great writers of our time. His new novel Scarpia – his 17th, in a writing career now spanning 50 years — is a painstakingly accurate historical reconstruction of events in late-18th-century Italy that formed the basis for the story Puccini put into drama and music in his opera Tosca; but it is also an attempt, at once imaginative and historical, to convey possible dimensions of historical meaning and moral significance not found in the opera.

Piers Paul Read is uniquely fitted to fulfill such an ambition, as he is not only a novelist but also a historian, biographer, and investigator, in the last of which roles he researched and wrote his most famous book, the account of the 1972 Andes plane crash and its aftermath, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974), which in 1993 was made into an enormously successful movie. Also in 1993, Read published another powerful work of reportage, this time on the nuclear accident in Ukraine, Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl. Ten years later, at the request of the widow of the actor Alec Guinness, who had sought Read out and whom he had gotten to know well, Read published an “authorized biography” of the versatile actor, brilliantly and sympathetically revealed as an originally rootless and always divided soul but also as a deeply intelligent and religious man.

Read, who studied history at Cambridge University, has also published distinguished works of history, on both medieval and modern subjects, notably The Templars: The Dramatic History of the Knights Templar, the Most Powerful Military Order of the Crusades (1999) and, more recently, The Dreyfus Affair: The Story of the Most Infamous Miscarriage of Justice in French History (2012). But it is as a novelist that he has excelled most of all, and he is perhaps the finest novelist now writing in our language. Although several of his novels are nominally “thrillers,” and others are powerful satires of modern English and American mores and excellent guides to and through contemporary confusions, follies, and vices, Read’s most powerful works are a series of historical novels about the 20th century, set in and treating of Poland (Polonaise, 1976), Germany (The Junkers, 1968), France (The Free Frenchman, 1988), and Russia (Alice in Exile, 2001). Having studied at Columbia and Harvard on fellowships after graduating from Cambridge, Read has also set novels in the United States (The Professor’s Daughter, 1971).

Since the deaths of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Saul Bellow, both Nobel laureates in literature, it is probably the case that no one now living brings a deeper, more informed moral, philosophical, and historical sensibility to bear in fiction than Read. And the stakes are very high: Despite the brilliance and potency of much contemporary film, film as a medium cannot reach the meditative depths of poetry or prose fiction, cannot stimulate or evoke the reflective “answering style” of human attention and concentration that works of literature have uniquely been able to do since Dante’s Comedy. The stakes are particularly high because of a combination of two unique factors in our time: the unexpectedly nightmarish character of much human history since 1914, and the increasing domination, and dissipation, of human attention by audio-visual means of unprecedented power.

Concerning the velocity, volatility, and plurality of human experience since World War II, the great Nobel Prize–winning Polish-American poet and thinker Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004) wrote:

We are constantly threatened by chaos and nothingness because life as such is an enormous multiplicity. My personal feeling about the twentieth century is that we are submerged. The things that happened in this century in the sense of horror and heroism escape our thinking and formulations. The century is largely untold.

But with non-stop, 7/24 audio-visual information sources, how could the century be untold? A grievous paradox, and one for which Milosz had the authoritative existential experience to make his claim credible, having lived in Poland under the Nazis and the Communists; in Paris (1951–1961) during the Cold War, when pro-Stalin intellectuals and journalists dominated discourse in France and much of the rest of Europe; and then at Berkeley, where he taught for the last decades of his life (1961–1998), living to see the overthrow of Communism in his native Poland.

Piers Paul Read, in his historical novels, has exercised a centripetal moral imagination against the distractions and dissipations of contemporary consciousness.

Piers Paul Read, in his historical novels, has exercised a centripetal moral imagination against the distractions and dissipations of contemporary consciousness – the ironic, pop nihilism that characterizes much culture today. Art since Warhol, the cultural critic Morris Dickstein — no enemy of “modernism” — has written, “is whatever you can get away with.” Neophilia — the uncritical, transgressive love of the new — is with us everywhere now, with very little art providing much ballast — or any rudder — to keep the ship of contemporary culture from being blown wherever appetite, accident, whim, and profit take it.

#share#The historical novel came to birth at the hands of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and provided a retrospective, imaginative brake on the complacent or messianic hopes of Whig, Positivist-scientistic, and Marxist “progressivism” in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Scott’s novels had an immense influence in Britain, Europe, and America, and encouraged the development of a historical consciousness at precisely the time when anti-traditional, meliorist, and utopian ideologies and religion-replacements were also growing. Read’s Scarpia depicts the effects of Jacobin French Revolutionary ideas on the traditional societies of Rome and the south of Italy in the 1790s, and in this imaginative meditation on the past he follows not only Scott but the Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities and Barnaby Rudge. Read also follows in the wake of Dostoevsky’s novels and Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869).

Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979), inspired by Scott’s historical novels as a poor north-of-England boy and then a Cambridge undergraduate, went on to become one of the greatest modern historians, and one of his great insights, briefly but brilliantly argued in The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), was that there was no guaranteed “progressive” teleology in history, despite confident liberal and Marxist assumptions. War and Peace shows us the murderous brutality of that modern Nimrod, Napoleon, and Dostoevsky’s novels foreshadow the Communist nightmares of the 20th century, brilliantly intimated in Read’s own novel Alice in Exile. But in the century between the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914, a “progressive,” complacent, and secularizing moral consciousness steadily developed that was then utterly unprepared for the nightmarish disconfirmation of its meliorist hopes in the apocalyptic events of two world wars and the advent of Bolshevik Communism, Fascism, Nazism, Red Chinese and Cambodian Communism, megadeath weaponry, environmental devastation, and cultural pollution.

Historians such as Butterfield and the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) meditated on the modern moral-political catastrophe, their work having been foreshadowed by a very few prescient intellectuals in the 19th century such as Dostoevsky, John Henry Newman, Jacob Burckhardt, and some of the popes. Another extended series of meditations on the modern catastrophe was undertaken by T. S. Eliot, not least in the magazine he edited from 1922 to 1939, The Criterion. And among Eliot’s colleagues and friends was the decorated World War I veteran, art critic, and man of letters Herbert Read (1893–1968), like Butterfield a poor north-of-England boy who was later knighted, and the father of Piers Paul Read.

But unlike the Christian convert Eliot, Herbert Read remained an agnostic and put great hope in the Modernist movement in art, especially in painting and sculpture, about which he wrote widely, positively, and influentially (“one of the outstanding aesthetic educators of our day,” wrote The Nation). Piers Paul Read writes of his father — whom he loved and admired — that he developed “an almost idolatrous veneration of art.” But Sir Herbert Read lived to be disillusioned by his hopes for Modernist art. His son writes that “the modern art which in its inception had released the energies of a number of painters and sculptors . . . degenerated [by the 1960s] into a movement of charlatans and mediocrities — something which my father privately recognized, and which filled him with gloom.” Piers Paul Read adds: “His increasing melancholia in his later years confirmed in my eyes the falsity of Keats’s advice that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”

Piers Paul Read’s novels and expository prose show a particular disdain for aestheticism as a dead end, a deadly illusion and a snare. Reviewing Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in 1988, he praised that novelist’s “luxuriant descriptions of life in a provincial city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia” around 1900, but he went on to insist on the limitations of aestheticism: “Beneath a luxuriant growth of exotic affectations, none of Márquez’s characters seem to have souls, or Márquez has no interest in them if they do.” Love in the Time of Cholera “is ‘art for art’s sake’ and so becomes tedious for those who look to art for something more.” The discussions of 20th-century art in Read’s 1995 novel set in late-20th-century Germany and Russia, A Patriot in Berlin, take a similar line.

#share#The “something more” is found in Read’s own historical novels, not least in Scarpia. For its brilliantly, carefully described background, he explicitly praises and expresses gratitude for two authoritative books of research by the American historian Susan Vandiver Nicassio, Imperial City: Rome, Romans, and Napoleon, 1796–1815 (2010), and, especially, Tosca’s Rome: The Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective (2001). What Read succeeds in depicting historically is the power of the “progressive” revolutionary zeitgeist of the philosophes, the Jacobins, Napoleon, and their Italian sympathizers, the “Enlightened” rationalism that starts in legitimate criticism of existing injustices, but then uncritically worships radical, humanistic abstractions and destroys moral habits and conventions, before ending in thrall to the dictatorship of Napoleon and the “glamor of evil.” This revolutionary cycle was also a great theme of Burke, Hamilton, and Tocqueville, and of Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. In the form of the Russian Revolution, it would be a major theme of George Orwell and his friend Malcolm Muggeridge (Winter in Moscow, 1934), and it is also poignantly depicted in Solzhenitsyn, in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and in Read’s own Alice in Exile.

Though a more orthodox Christian than Tolstoy, Read, a Catholic, is at one with the great Russian not only in his contempt for Napoleon and all Machiavellian power-worshippers, but also in his disapproval and critique of aestheticism. In his novels, Read holds “the mirror up to nature” in the sense of realistically depicting the folly, vice, and iniquity of much human life, and of all of us some of the time; but this realistic mirror is not his highest aim. The patient historical reconstructions — accurate depictions of actual people and events insofar as we can know them — are the scaffolding from which a penetration of the motives and beliefs of his characters — whether historical or invented — is attempted. The depiction of actions and their motives and effects, and the ethical evaluation of them, brings us into the realm of moral philosophy and the moral imagination, a world that the greatest moralists, writers, and statesmen assert and make real, from Aquinas, Shakespeare, Burke, Dickens, and Lincoln to Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, and Solzhenitsyn.

When Piers Paul Read went to Cambridge University in 1958, he began by studying “moral sciences.” The works of A. J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein were dominant in philosophy then, with Ayer’s remarkably nihilistic Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) representing perhaps the nadir of the history of serious philosophy, “learned foolishness” at its most feckless. This is the trendy, reductionist world represented satirically in the play Jumpers (1972) by Read’s longtime friend Tom Stoppard. Read switched to the study of history, and over the subsequent half-century has distinguished himself as both a historian and a novelist, and especially as a historical novelist.

Personal and collective narratives are the means by which we know ourselves and other humans, present and past. As the philosopher R. G. Collingwood wrote in 1936, in the midst of an ominous decade on its way to tragedy, the historian’s “work may begin by discovering the outside of an event, but it can never end there: he must always remember that the event was an action, and that his main task is to think himself into this action, to discern the thought of its agent.” This is also the world of the novelist.

There have been other profound insights in historiography since Jacob Burckhardt’s prescient perception in his 1868–1871 public lectures in Basel about the illusion of inevitable progress and the reality of the barbarism to come in the 20th century. (These lectures were prophetically published in English in the middle of World War II as Force and Freedom.) Yet despite the works of Collingwood, Lord Acton, C. S. Lewis, Sir Herbert Butterfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacques Maritain, Jacques Barzun, Fritz Stern, John Lukacs, and Paul Johnson, waves of relativism and skepticism have swept over Western university faculties, including historians, to the extent that many humanistic scholars will no longer try to explain or defend the ideal of objectivity, the great charter of all decent intellectuals since Socrates. Nietzschean epistemological anarchism has triumphed over Aristotelian rationality: fads, glamor, and intoxication over the sobriety and stability of truth. Objectivity as a commitment to accuracy and fairness — the correlative in the intellectual sphere of Divine, Natural Law in the ethical, political, and legal sphere — is the very life-blood of freedom, sanity, and civilization. To deny objectivity is not only rationally self-contradictory but culturally suicidal, as our rich but morally inverted elite educational institutions dismally demonstrate.

Piers Paul Read’s novels never lose sight of the vision of the true and the good that the classical and Judaeo-Christian traditions have always nourished.

Piers Paul Read’s novels never underestimate such human arrogance, ignorance, foolishness, and evil — they often depict them viscerally — but they never lose sight of the vision of the true and the good that the classical and Judaeo-Christian traditions, the Catholic Church, and the schools and universities they founded and supported have always  nourished in their long trajectory across the centuries. Read’s novels never deny contingency and irony, vigorously depicting egotism, violence, deceit, snobbery, and promiscuous sexuality. But they never succumb to the self-indulgent anarchy or “bleak chic” of so much modern fiction. Over a half-century, his novels have given us one of the finest examples in our time of extended cultural creativity, ethical seriousness, and literary genius governed by a profound metaphysical vision.  There can be no greater novelist now writing.

— M. D. Aeschliman first read Piers Paul Read in 1970 and first wrote about him in 1989. He has written a book on C. S. Lewis and edited paperback editions of historical novels by Charles Dickens and Malcolm Muggeridge. Professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, he has also taught at other universities in French-speaking and Italian-speaking Europe, as well as at Columbia and the University of Virginia.



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