Sunday, April 21, 2019


From a review of a new biography by John Buchan's granddaughter, Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, "Was there no end to John Buchan’s talents?":
John Buchan was a novelist, historian, poet, biographer and journalist (assistant editor of The Spectator indeed); a barrister and publisher; one of Lord Milner’s ‘young men’, charged with the reconstruction of South Africa after the second Boer war; director of propaganda 1917–18, a Member of Parliament; lord high commissioner (i.e. the king’s representative) to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland; governor-general of Canada. Yet the title of this excellent biography by his granddaughter is to the point. He is best known today as the author of a thriller he wrote in a few weeks in 1914 which, more than 20 years later, was made into a film by Hitchcock.

The book is still read; the film, which Buchan thought better than the book, still watched. ....

...[W]hy did this intrepid mountaineer, a man of so many and such varied talents, never quite scale the topmost heights except — arguably — as a writer of the kind of novels he himself dismissed as ‘shockers’. These certainly survive. They are read as the novels of writers more admired in their time — Wells and Bennett, for example — no longer are. ....

.... As for the charge of anti-Semitism, still sometimes leveled, Ursula Buchan demonstrates that it is ridiculous. A novelist, as she says, should not be saddled with opinions expressed by his characters. In any case, Presbyterian Scots since the 17th century had identified themselves as a Covenanted nation like the Israelites, and Buchan was a Zionist.

Ursula never knew her grandfather, but she was close to his widow, Susie. Her book is not hagiography, but if it isn’t ‘warts and all’, that is because there were, in truth, very few warts, only small, scarcely discernible ones. She gives us a strong sense of both the man and his milieu. In short, she has written a good book about a good and extraordinary man who touched life at so many different points and adorned most of what he touched.
Gertrude Himmelfarb's very good essay on Buchan in which, among much else, she addresses the antisemitism question, can be downloaded here as a pdf (pp. 46-53).

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