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7 December 2022

From Marguerite Duras to Anthony Seldon: recent titles reviewed in short

Also featuring Bandit Country by James Conor Patterson and Looking To Sea by Lily Le Brun.

By Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger, Zoë Grünewald and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The Path of Peace: Walking the Western Front Way by Anthony Seldon
Atlantic Books, 368pp, £20

On 14 June 1915 Alexander Douglas Gillespie, 26, wrote to his former headmaster at Winchester College from the Western Front, envisioning a “Via Sacra” – a memorial walk through no man’s land, from the Vosges mountains to the sea. In peacetime people might walk its length “so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side”, he wrote. Gillespie was killed a few months later, and his letter buried in the archives at the school, until it was found by the historian Anthony Seldon nearly a century later.

Feeling lost following the death of his wife and after leaving his job, Seldon set out in August 2021 to walk the 1,000km route of Gillespie’s Via Sacra, from Switzerland to the Channel. The resulting book, The Path of Peace, is part diary (aches and blisters), part memoir (tortured and internal) and part history, as along the way he brings to life stories from the front. Though it is unclear by the end of the book whether Seldon found the sense of personal peace he set out for, his is a noble endeavour, and his account of it will hopefully help to formalise the walk as a pilgrimage for future generations.
By Pippa Bailey

[See also: The best children’s books of 2022]

Looking to Sea: Britain Through the Eyes of its Artists by Lily Le Brun
Hodder & Stoughton, 320pp, £25

The sea, says the art writer Lily Le Brun, is for some people “a borderland, barrier, a demarcation of difference” and for others “a connecter, a facilitator, a symbol of togetherness”. In her subtle and often surprising study of the sea in 20th- and 21st-century British art she looks at how artists and photographers have treated this most traditional of subjects. In ten works, from Vanessa Bell’s painting Studland Beach of 1912 to John Akomfrah’s 2015 video installation Vertigo Sea, she finds the water acting as a proxy for expressions of modernism, class, colonialism and environmentalism.

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In the oceans, she writes, her artists – Bridget Riley, Alfred Wallis and Stanley Spencer among them – found “a stimulus to new ways of thinking” about, for example: painterly concerns (why was the sea somehow compatible with abstraction?), their personal feelings (Paul Nash overcoming war trauma at Dymchurch), and the nature of British society (Martin Parr’s often uncomfortable photographs of holidaymakers at the seaside). Le Brun is no dry analyst and her changing perceptions emerge from the waves painted by others. 
By Michael Prodger

The Easy Life by Marguerite Duras, translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan
Bloomsbury, 208pp, £12.99

The ironically titled La Vie Tranquille – or The Easy Life, translated here into English for the first time – is Marguerite Duras’s second novel, originally published in 1944. Written while Duras was experiencing the loss of a baby and her brother, the book is full of desolation and longing. It came pouring out of her, says Kate Zambreno’s foreword, “as if in one breath”. The story’s narrator is Francine, who, aged 25, is offered a break, alone, on the French coast after the death of her uncle and brother. The novel becomes a reflective diary as, disappointed with adulthood, she grapples with grief and existentialism.

The translation retains the poetry and reflective aloofness that is characteristic of Duras’s writing style. Often she describes the human condition in a way that feels novel but familiar: “I would like for the summer to be as perfect in me as it is outside, I would like to forget to be always waiting.” At times the writing can feel cold: it evokes the boredom of the narrator, her claustrophobia on the farm and the loneliness of womanhood. Occasionally it is soporific, even boring, but this is the point. Sit with the ennui and you may find moments of intense clarity.
By Zoë Grünewald

[See also: The dark heart of Roald Dahl]

Bandit Country by James Conor Patterson
Picador, 96pp, £10.99

In Bandit Country, James Conor Patterson’s debut poetry collection, places are as alive as people. The book details the knotty experience of crossing borders – between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and across the Irish Sea to England. Together these poems ask: if home looks a little different every time I go back, should I still consider it home?

Patterson, who won the Eric Gregory Award in 2019, comes from Newry, Northern Ireland, and writes in the dialect of the people of South Down, South Armagh and North Louth: “me & you anol this cockamamie poetry i claim t enjoy so much”. His is a wonderfully lively register that lends itself easily to wit – the poem entitled “on meeting an influence at a book signing” is a particular highlight – as well as poignancy. An earlier, standard English version of “Bar Story” was published in this magazine in 2015. Patterson’s decision to write the whole book in dialect is a political choice. It dignifies the language, insisting the reader adapt to what’s on the page. It also makes for an exuberant and memorable reading experience.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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[See also: Books of the year 2022]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special