“A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know.” (Lord Byron)

This week I thought I’d look at book recommendations from my celebrity friends.  That’s a total lie of course, I don’t have any friends.

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Stylist magazine is given out free on public transport, and a couple of weeks ago it featured an interview with Hayley Atwell, where she recommended The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

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As we are all in thrall to celebrities these days and do whatever they suggest (is there any woman left alive who doesn’t regularly steam her vagina, as recommended by our favourite emotionally labile conscious uncoupler, Gwyneth Paltrow?) I thought I would follow Hayley’s suit.

The History of Love is Nicole Krauss’ second novel, a multi-layered story set predominantly in modern-day New York, but with frequent reminiscences back to pre-war Eastern Europe. Leo Gursky is an elderly man who lives alone and has a chronic fear of not being noticed, leading him to small acts of flamboyance: deliberately knocking over things in stores, nude modelling for an art class. Many years ago, the Nazi invasion of Poland separated him and the woman he’d loved since he was 10 years old.  He follows her to the US, but they cannot be together:

“The truth was I’d given up waiting long ago.  The moment had passed, the door between the lives we could have led and the lives we had led shut in our faces.  Or better to say, in my face.  Grammar of my life: as a rule of thumb, wherever there appears a plural, correct for singular.  Should I ever let slip a royal We, put me out of my misery with a swift blow to the head.”

Meanwhile, across the city, teenage Alma’s grieving mother is translating The History of Love, a book Leo wrote but is unaware was ever published.  As Alma becomes drawn into the history of the manuscript and the real people fictionalised therein, the stories interweave, expanded by the surrealism present in the translated manuscript:

There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations […] Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said.  In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence.”

There is also a great deal of gentle humour, such as Leo’s description of his aged best friend:

“the soft down of your white hair lightly playing about your scalp like a half-blown dandelion. Many times, Bruno, I have been tempted to blow on your head and make a wish. Only a last scrap of decorum keeps me from it.”

The History of Love crams a lot into a short space (less than 260 pages in my edition). It is a warm, humane contemplation of love, loss, the ties that bind, memory and identity.  Krauss does all this with a light touch which keeps the novel highly readable, and truly moving.  Nice recommendation, Hayley Atwell.

As I was thinking about books and Hayley Atwell, this reminded me of the TV adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, in which she starred with Matthew MacFadyen.

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A quick google of “Matthew MacFadyen favourite novel” and I have my second recommendation, A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre.  A Perfect Spy is Le Carre’s most autobiographical novel, telling the story of Magnus Pym, the eponymous agent:

“In build he was powerful but stately, a representative of something. His stride was agile, his body forward-sloping in the best tradition of the Anglo-Saxon administrative class.  In the same attitude, whether static or in motion, Englishmen have hoisted flags over distant colonies, discovered the sources of great rivers, stood on the deck of sinking ships.”

Following the death of his shyster father Rick, Pym retreats to the Devonshire coast to write the story of his life. Meanwhile, his controllers try to piece together the same story. What emerges through his damaged childhood, private school, Oxford and the secret service is a man with a permanently shifting sense of self, a tenuous identity that makes him so perfect for duplicity:

“Never able to resist an opportunity to portray himself on a fresh page, Pym went to work. And though, as was his wont, he took care to improve upon the reality, rearranging the facts to fit the prevailing image of himself , an instinctive caution nevertheless counselling him restraint.”

A perfect spy indeed. But A Perfect Spy is not an espionage thriller.  Instead it is a detailed portrait of a man who struggles within the forces that surround him: his dodgy father, his spymasters, his country, and tries to find intimacy and meaning whilst utterly defeating himself at every turn.  Pym’s feelings towards his spymasters are those of fear, contempt, hero-worship and love:

“a handsome English warlord who served sherry on Boxing Day and never had a doubt in his life” who summarises Pyms life as “concentric fantasies…defining the truth at the centre”

and across the Iron Curtain “Axel was his keeper and his virtue, he was the altar on which Pym had laid his secrets and his life.  He had become the part of Pym that was not owned by anybody else” who says of Pym “sometimes I think he is entirely put together from bits of other people”

What Pym is left with is a life built on so many versions of the truth that he’s forgotten which hold true meaning for him.  A Perfect Spy is bleakly funny and sad, a deeply felt study of what it means to be a man at a certain time in British history. Its elegiac quality is not only for Pym, but for a nation, and the damage inflicted both by people on each other and by governments on citizens, at home and abroad.

“Putting down his pen, Pym stared at what he had written, first in fear, then gradually in relief. Finally he laughed. ‘I didn’t break,’ he whispered. ‘I stayed above the fray.’”

You can listen to John Le Carre discussing A Perfect Spy by downloading the podcast from BBC World Book Club here.

To end then, something that captures my own conflicted feelings about being British.  On the one hand I’m glad I live in a country where this is a thing, on the other hand I think every last participant is completely insane:

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