Alex Preston at The Books That Built Me

I write this sitting, not in the kitchen sink, but in 9F of a British Airways flight back from a business trip to Italy, trying to not to let the passengers either side of me see that the last pages of Alex Preston’s ‘In Love and War’ are making me cry.

Quite by chance, an appointment with Salvatore Ferragamo took me down the Via Tornabuoni in Florence, where so much of the first part of the book is set, I walked past St Gaetano, ‘ugliest church in Florence’ and longed to have the time to pop into Procacci, where raffish Gerald promises to take Esmond, In Love and War’s protagonist, for ‘milk rolls and jam‘. There’s something magical about a literary itinerary, particularly an unintended one: it gives you a sense of complicity with the text, of seeing what it has seen.
In Love and War is the moving, exactingly researched, exquisitely written story of Esmond Lowndes, son of a leading light in Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Caught in flagrante, he is sent down from Cambridge and despatched to Florence to set up a commercial wireless station for the British Union of Facists, to raise money from advertising and to promote the relationship between Italian and British Black Shirts. His first days in Florence, living at the British Institute on Via Tornabuoni, are idyllic, all very Brideshead-in-Italy, but when a party to celebrate the coronation of George VI is violently broken up by fascists, the brutal realities of Mussolini’s Italy start to make themselves felt. As war comes, Esmond is drawn into the resistance, and falls for Ada, his aide de camp at Radio Firenze; their love becomes a courageous counterpoint to the terrifying weight of war.

I don’t want to talk too much about plot, it’s there, and it’s gripping and marvellous and has all the right kind of narrative arc and drive and so on. It’s more than plot that marks this book out as the work of a stunningly accomplished writer: In Love and War is about ideas and ideologies and how both are compromised by the realities of love and war. It’s also a novel that’s deeply engaged in the business of writing: all of its characters with the exception of Esmond and Ada are real people, which brings its own challenges, and it uses letters, telegrams, and transcripts of recordings alongside more conventional narrative techniques as an original and effective story-telling devices.

Preston has been compared to Hollinghurst and to Forster, and I think, with In Love and War, the comparisons are justified. He is a writer whose literary skill builds with each book he publishes, and we have yet to see the best.

In Love and War is published by Faber, price £7.99

 

THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ALEX PRESTON

Tim to the Lighthouse, Edward Ardizzoni

Riders, Jilly Cooper

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, Evelyn Waugh

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

HHhH, Laurent Binet

The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst

 

Guests drank delicious Champagne Bollinger and took home with them a copy of In Love and War, a six month subscription to Tatler, and a bar of Prestat’s Classic Earl Grey with a twist of lemon in their Teatime Frolics range, which I chose because someone told me Alex is related to the original Earl Grey…

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Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

I first read Brideshead Revisited when quite a young teenager, in love with Waugh’s floppy haired bright young things, up at Oxford seemingly for nothing more arduous than to be sick through each other’s windows, or recite The Waste Land from balconies,  or carry around bears called Aloysius. The television programme was on ITV but I was away at school so was only ever allowed to stay up for half of each programme, so had to read the book to find out what was going on.

Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.

Anyway, my Pollyanna-ish teenage self, combined with watching half of the dramatisation gave me quite the wrong impression of Waugh’s novel.

 I’ve read it several times since, and each time I read it it’s a different book: it wasn’t until I read it at around the same age Charles Ryder is at the beginning of the novel that its melancholy genius really hit me.

Anyway, Brideshead Revisited was only thirty seven years old when I first read it. This year it celebrates its seventieth birthday, and I think it truly is Waugh’s triumph. Don’t be distracted by the dreaming spires and the decadent beautiful aristos, it’s an innocence and experience novel; it’s about lost innocence and loss, disappointment and not fulfilling one’s potential. Forget all that stuff I always write about the good ending happily and the bad unhappily, I think Brideshead is alluringly tragic. But I’ve just been mending my copy with sellotape (I’m a terrible breaker of spines and once the glue goes brittle, pages fly out like moths when you open them) ready to start re-reading it in preparation for Alex Preston’s Books That Built Me on 2nd June, and perhaps I’ll discover it has transformed itself yet again into quite a different book from the one I think it is.