Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Private Angelo - Eric Linklater


Is Angelo Linklater's masterpiece?  It may well be.  Arguments can be made for the two Don Juan novels, and some of his books for children are classics in their own right, but I suspect Angelo is the one that will count.

Written in 1945 and published in 1946, Angelo was Linklater's first novel since immediately before the outbreak of war.  This was not because of block but because Linklater was a genuine war hero.  Shot in the head in World War 1, by the time Chamberlain made the war broadcast on September 3 1939 Linklater was already on active duty guarding Scapa Flow.

Within a few months the famous novelist had been seconded to the Ministry of Information, for whom he produced the official history of significant battles, all of them glorious defeats.  This led him to collaborate on radio versions with the BBC which in turn led to his famous series of dramatic 'conversations' which were tremendously popular and upon which I appear to be the world expert.

The last conversation was Rabelais Replies in 1943.  Linklater then returned to active service, based in Italy between the Italian surrender and the Allied clearance of the Germans from Italy.  This is the period in which the bulk of Angelo is set.

Angelo is the soldierly everyman, good-hearted and dutiful enough but lacking the dono di corragio.  As with all moralities, from Everyman itself to Pilgrim's Progress, his adventures lead to him finding that which he started out lacking.  All of it is done with Linklater's characteristic humour - he is a comic novelist in the tradition of Dickens and Compton Mackenzie.  But much as Linklater admired the fighting man, he absolutely loathed the political nincompoops who led the world into war.  And he says so, several times.  Passages here reflect the tone of his first and best radio conversation The Cornerstones (1941).

I can't pretend I like The Cornerstones when I skimmed through it nine or ten years ago.  Since then I have discovered and anatomised Linklater's radio work, learned about his impressive life, measured his considerable literary achievement and come to love some of his novels.  That absolutely includes Private Angelo, which should be on every school syllabus instead of puffed-up guff from writers who weren't there and didn't understand.

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