Wednesday reading – Memoirs

Lord Hervey’s Memoir, by Lord John Hervey. Hervey is one of the most interesting figures of English history of the mid 1700s. About him it was said that there are three sexes–men, women, and Herveys. Not only was he flagrantly bisexual, but he thoroughly ignored gender lines in his dress and demeanor, at a time when gender roles were sharply defined. (Except, of course, when they weren’t, i.e. the mignons over in France, and the macaronis in England.)

Anyhow, this memoir is his tell-all book about the inside dealings of the second George’s reign. Hervey had a brilliant mind (he was one of the secret writers of the Spectator–think of it as an early daily blog–alongside Addison, Pope, and Mary Wortley Montagu), he was extremely observant, demonstrating incisive psychological insight. He never published this memoir during his lifetime, and unfortunately his heirs saw fit to cut bits that they felt reflected badly on royal figures. This is a truncated version, which came out a few decades ago. I hope someday a full version is published.

Pack My Bag, by Henry Green. Green was actually Henry Yorke, a well-born sympathizer with the common man, sometimes called a writer’s writer. He was one of the few writing peers of Evelyn Waugh whom the latter took seriously; his prose is so distinctive (and elegant) that when I first read a few pages of one of his books, I thought, ahah, now I know who Nancy Mitford and a couple others were trying to emulate, but failing.

This is a memoir written by a guy in his early thirties. Usually when people write memoirs that early in their lives, they are either famous for some specific incident, narcissists, or undergoing major change. In his case, he sensed the looming threat of World War II, and convinced that he would not survive another horror like WW I, he did his best to evoke a world he knew was already disintegrating fast.

There are a number of English writers who dealt with the end of their world in various ways: Tolkien being one. Patrick O’Brian another. Poets like Siegfried Sassoon, and here is Henry Green with his version.

A Time of Gifts. By Patrick Leigh Fermor. It took me a long time to comprehend history as a palimpsest.

Fermor seems to have understood it viscerally, if not yet intellectually, as a teenager dropping out of school in order to walk from Ostend to Constantinople. He set out in December of 1933, though he didn’t write up his experiences until the seventies. He did keep a travel diary (though he lost the first one, when he left his backpack at a youth hostel in Munich for a day, after having met a pair of schoolgirls who took him in) so the book is liminal in so many ways: the observations of a young man interpreted through the experience of himself much older; the fascinating layers of history encountered in villages, cathedrals, castles, and towns across Germany; the shadow of what was to come as Hitler had just taken over within the past year, and had his eye on Austria.

I wasn’t much older than he when I lived for a year in Austria as a student. And I kept going back to that stretch of the Danube just to see if it was really as amazing as I thought the first time, though hitch hiking was scary. If you were lucky, it was also a way to meet people, something he talks about as he wanders cross country and encounters people who take him in, give him a place to sleep and share their food, from counts in castles to the poorest farm folk.

What was incomprehensible back then is gloriously rich to me now–but that’s after years of accumulating context, from Huizinga’s thoughts on the German Renaissance (and those who disagree with him) to the language itself, to having hitch hiked along the exact section of the Danube, roughly between Melk and Dürnstein, which Fermor considers one of the most beautiful river valleys in all of Europe.

He also blends his travels with reflections on the layers of history, through the art and architecture, and evokes the old ghosts of cultures smashed by war. It’s a brilliant book, elegantly written: it repays regular rereads.

I followed his steps on a map of Europe dated 1815. Most of the villages and towns are on it.




Wednesday reading – Memoirs — 4 Comments

  1. I also find memoirs fascinating–as long as they are sufficiently old. Fellow Boomers rehashing at length are less engaging to me. Fermor’s account in the Early Twentieth Century is remarkably evocative of a lost world largely swept away by the war. He has a point about the Danube between Melk and Durnstein. I climbed up to the castle ruins at the latter and the view was magnificent.