Henry Williamson

If he is remembered now, it is as the author of Tarka the Otter, a fine book that is still in print. But he was more than a nature writer. He’s one of the three really good writers I know of who became Nazis — the others being Céline and Knut Hamsun.

He wrote and rewrote his own life obsessively, in gigantic novel sequences; but he also wrote a couple of short books on his experiences in the first world war. Last night I finally read The Patriots’s Progress, which is the one you would recommend to Victoria Beckham, because it’s quite short and has lots of pictures, even if they are not in colour. It’s a work of astonishing force. It’s crude and self-consciously literary at once — the hero is called John Bullock and the early paragraphs go on for whole chapters. DEATH appears in capital letters, in a most unironic way. No writer could be further from Robert Graves, not in the force of his egoism, but in the artless unashamed desire to bully us into seeing and suffering as he did and to do so on his terms.

But he passes the only test that matters: the nightmare comes through to us with greater force than in anything I have read for a long time on that war, even Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We. Do read it, but not last thing at night, unless you want to wake, as I did, in the middle of the night seeing parts of dead men sticking out of the mud.

I don’t mean that Graves didn’t have a fierce artisitc egosim, in the sense that he, too, wanted everyone to know and care about the reality of war. But he set about it with savage understatement, and employed his every art to seduce the reader, not to bully them. Williamson must be artful in the organisation of his material. Otherwise the climax of the book would not have the effect it has. But you can constantly feel a hectoring and didactic purpose; and the very end, or anti-climax, strikes a clanging false note of fascist mysticism.

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1 Response to Henry Williamson

  1. Rupert says:

    I can’t address his fascism – although I do wonder about parallels with another wilderness writer, Jack London – but I did find myself earlier this year driving a Nissan Micra across Skye on the road that links the Tarka otter sanctuary with the throbbing mainstream of island life.

    I’m afraid I called it the Otterbahn. Further, I sang the Kraftwerk song of the same(ish) name.

    I am truly sorry, and there is no health in me.

    R

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