Review: The Ways of the World

The Ways of the World
The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The truth, it struck him, was like that, revealing itself, if at all, only by its effect on something else.”

How good is this book? Let me count the ways…etc.

Beautifully written, a wonderful evocation of a much maligned and partially forgotten time – apart from those who lived through it, I guess – and tense and thrilling and intriguing and all that and more.

The period between the two great Wars (in Europe I should perhaps hasten to add) has interested me for a number of years now and is reflected in many of the books I read. I’m talking the period from, say, 1919, to 1940 (I know WWII started in 1939, but there was at least a feeling of it ‘all being over by Christmas’, for at least a year). I think it began when I read a book called ‘Forgotten Voices of The Holocaust’ (by Lyn Smith) about Jewish people’s recollections of their lives before and of course during, the Second World War. I was maybe somewhat strangely, most affected by their descriptions of how their lives were in Europe, that is to say Germany and Eastern Europe, before and in the early years of the rise of Nazism and Hitler. A quite – for me – overwhelming sense of loss of promise and innocence, described by the people themselves in a matter of fact way. They describe their lives and you, the reader, get this overwhelming feeling of sadness at what was lost, the potential their lives held and all that they, and we, lost. Of course, we now know what happened after the incidents and memories they describe and the feeling is almost physical, the coming of Nazism and the war is a huge black cloud on the horizon. Unstoppable and moving towards us as we read their words. But the sunlight before the storm, the quiet and the innocence of the lives and times described, is what really intrigued me. I knew (as much as I can ‘know’ without having been there) about what happened in WWI and more about what happened in WWII, but the period I between, away from the events surrounding the Nazi party and its rise to power, were a mystery to me. And still are. I guess I’m trying to pin down and experience the ordinary person’s feelings Was it a ‘thank god that’s over, thank god we’ll never have to go through that again. It’s all alright, it’s going to be better now.’ Seems like it should have been. That must have been the feeling that existed in many parts of Europe, for Jews and non-Jews. For how long? On the face of it and taking the stock market crash into consideration, the best part of 10 to 15 years. It’s a feeling I’m after, a mood and an atmosphere, nothing physical, I don’t want to collect artifacts. I want to get the mood absorbed. Luckily there are many great books dealing with this period. To that list, I’m adding The Ways of the World.

The quote at the top, describes how the book works, I think. On the face of it, a simple problem. The father of a couple of landed gentry gentlemen has died in Paris in 1919 and the two brothers have to go over, complete the paperwork and bring their father’s body back for burial. But how did he die? Was he killed. If so, why? One brother feels the need to find out, the other doesn’t see why. Better for the family and the smooth hand-over of family power (to him) if there’s a quick resolution to the French Police’s investigation,with no awkward questions asked. So life can go on in its time-honoured, thoroughly stiff upper lipped, British way. Luckily for us, with the brothers’ arrival in Paris, the story starts unfolding, like unravelling a piece of origami. from what it is, to what it was. That’s my go at describing how the story happens. New avenues and ideas appear as the logic is followed. He died. How? he fell? Where? He jumped? But how could he have got in a position to just jump? So, was he pushed? Slowly unfolding and unfurling and revealing its plot, the book takes us forwards, sometimes a little backwards in the timeline of the family. We’re constantly moving, but almost without seeming to. It is written with such elegance and poise, teasing out the facts necessary to understand – even solve – the plot, that you read it almost mesmerised, but never alienated, by the subtle cleverness. Read it yourself, see if I’m right.

What it’s also about, I dare say, is the start of the modern spy industry. The change-over from being a great game, played by well-off aristocratic gentlemen with largely nothing else to do but indulge themselves in games they could afford, to the modern nitty-gritty, down and dirty selling of state secrets, ruthless spy masters and the ideologic espionage world we know from the second world- and cold- wars.

I wasn’t familiar with Robert Goddard’s work before this book and I think, from looking at his website, this is the first of his to be not set in the here and now. The Ways of the World was a stunningly good read and an absolutely wonderful way to start my 2014 book reading.

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