Saturday, May 31, 2008

Standfast

I have been re-reading the John Buchan thriller from which I took my blogging pseudonym, Mr. Standfast [it was only after I had done so that I recalled Pilgrim's Progress]. It is the third of four "Richard Hannay" adventures written during and just after the First World War and set in that period. I enjoy them all. I was in high school when I read The Thirty-Nine Steps — the first and shortest of the Hannay books — and I have read it every few years since. I hadn't read Mr. Standfast recently. In it, Hannay is up against a very dangerous German spy whose efforts may prolong the war for years, or even lead to German victory in the spring of 1918.

At one point Buchan puts these words in the mouth of one of his characters, a man named Wake, speaking to Hannay:
.... I hate more than I love. All we humanitarians and pacifists have hatred as our mainspring. Odd, isn't it, for people who preach brotherly love? But it's the truth. We're full of hate towards everything that jars our ladylike nerves. Fellows like you are so in love with their cause that they've no time or inclination to detest what thwarts them. We've no cause - only negatives, and that means hatred, and self-torture, and a beastly jaundice of soul. ....
This reminded me of Chesterton's poem in which he wrote of how:
I learned with little labour
The way to love my fellow-man
And hate my next-door neighbour.
Buchan's thrillers are better written than similar efforts from that period, and, although one reads them for the pure enjoyment of the adventure — often a lonely hero being pursued by both villains and the forces of law and order — there is rather more to them than just that, as the quotation from Mr. Standfast may indicate.

Buchan was a good story-teller. One of his fans was C.S. Lewis, who particularly liked Buchan's ability to describe the safe and homely — if only temporary — havens from danger that his heroes would discover. Scotland is a frequent setting for his stories — both the thrillers and various historical novels.

Buchan's protagonists often express the bigotries common then. That can be unsettling to today's reader and may require a certain mental editing if the books are to be enjoyed. Or they can simply be accepted as an artifact of the time when the stories were authored. His characters also often exemplify virtues like loyalty, courage, steadfastness, patriotism — some of which begin to seem like artifacts of a different time, too.

One of my favorite critical appreciations of Buchan is to be found in Gertrude Himmelfarb's Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition, which takes into full account the racism and anti-Semitism which appear, to a greater or lesser extent, in each of the books. She concludes her essay:
Buchan — Calvinist in religion, Tory in politics, and romantic in sensibility — is obviously the antithesis of the liberal. It is no accident that he was addicted to a genre, the romantic tale of adventure, which is itself alien to the liberal temper. For what kind of romance would it be that feared to characterize or categorize, to indulge the sense of evil, violence, and apocalypse? It is no accident, either, that the predominance of liberal values has meant the degeneration of a literary form so congenial to the Tory imagination.
Buchan's first Hannay book, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was, with significant modification, made into a very good film by Alfred Hitchcock.

Note: Substantial revision and renaming early on Sunday, 6/1.

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