Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mr Standfast by John Buchan

This, the third book of the Hannay quintet, deals with the final year of the War and comes to an unforgettable climax with the Spring Offensive of 1918 and the final turn of the tide against Germany. The one thing that never ceases to amaze me about this particular book is that it was written before the War even ended; and in fact when JB first began writing it, the climactic events of its final chapters hadn't even begun to happen! That the plot hangs together so well is a testament to the author's skill.

This is my favourite of the Hannay books, and my second-favourite book after The Lord of the Rings. On his latest secret mission, Brigadier Hannay is sent to a place that might well cause the stoutest man to blench: the artsy village of Biggleswick, where conscientious objectors go to waffle about Art and modern literature. One of these, however, has plans more dastardly than merely to cause Tommies to blow their heads off after an overdose of Leprous Souls, that critically-acclaimed Russian novel. If you hide a letter on a letter-rack, you hide a German spy among egg-head German sympathisers. And the Graf von Schwabing isn't just any German spy: he's a master of disguise, a virtuoso of murder and betrayal. On the run from the Cotswold hills to the Scots Highlands, from the Flanders trenches to the Swiss Alps, Hannay finds himself locked in a war of wits with his once and future nemesis. Along the way he's helped out by old friends Blenkiron and Peter Pienaar, and new friends like Archie Roylance (who is later to play a part in Huntingtower) and the smart and fearless Mary Lamington.

Mr Standfast is about as long as the previous two books put together, but the plot isn't quite as tight and some people might find the first couple of chapters boring instead of delightfully witty (fortunately I am among the latter). The philosophical tone and heightened sense of danger more than makes up for this. Once more, the characters have become a little more mature, and Mr Standfast finds our beloved Peter Pienaar, after his glorious hour as a hero of the RAF, hobbling around a German prison camp with only a copy of Pilgrim's Progress to keep him sane. Peter's letters, full of musings on the nature of courage, form the heart and soul of the book.

But the big courage is the cold-blooded kind, the kind that never lets go even when you're feeling empty inside, and your blood's thin, and there's no kind of fun or profit to be had, and the trouble's not over in an hour or two but lasts for months and years. One of the men here was speaking about that kind, and he called it 'Fortitude'. I reckon fortitude's the biggest thing a man can have--just to go on enduring when there's no guts or heart left in you.

Although Mr Standfast is a war story, it is also about peace. Early on, Hannay has an epiphany:

I had a vision of what I had been fighting for, what we all were fighting for. It was peace, deep and holy and ancient, peace older than the oldest wars, peace which would endure when all our swords were hammered into ploughshares.

England fought for many reasons—partly because of diplomatic wheels, turning for the last five centuries; partly because they were forced to defend their homes (and London was bombed in the first war, too). In Mr Standfast, Hannay finds a home worth fighting for—in the Cotswolds, with Mary—and his perspective broadens. At the climax he holds the thin line before Amiens for England and for her, because he is fighting for something more than a few feet of ground: he is fighting for their future life, home, and children and for the futures of everyone else behind him. Peace is the point, not war. And Peter's kind of fortitude is needed for peace too.

Despite the philosophising, Mr Standfast like its forerunners moves at a cracking pace, with plenty of wit--

[He was] the type that makes dashing regimental officers, and earns V.C.s, and gets done in wholesale. I was never that kind. I belonged to the school of the cunning cowards.

--to say nothing of edge-of-your-seat adventure as Hannay tries to foil the villain. In with the high-flown musings and shoot-outs in deserted chateaus (“Were you ever a cinema actor, Dick? The last two minutes have been a really high-class performance”) Mr Standfast also shows the atmosphere of wartime Britain, with death, shell-shock, and a sense of inescapable fate everywhere. We often forget that to that generation, the War was every bit as horrifying (or more) as the Second War.

As an operatic, bittersweet ode to the spirit of that war, the last chapters of Mr Standfast remain unsurpassed. I often wonder if I am maybe a little misguided in my love of Buchan. Was he really such a great writer? And then I re-read one of his books, and come away convinced. Perhaps you may not be as impressed by Mr Standfast as I am. But I defy you to get through the end of it dry-eyed.

Arthur's Classic Novels etext

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