Your correspondent, being also a novelist, tends to fight shy of statements about what The Novel ought to be and what novelists ought properly to concern themselves with. My general hope (without meaning to imply a Maoist line on the matter) is that a hundred different flowers blossom in the field. But in that spirit I’m happy to own up to a particular admiration (among many) for a certain sort of novelist whose historical-cultural range and taste in subject matter is notably restless, ambitious and diverse. William Palmer is certainly one such novelist.
As David Lodge has put it, ‘Palmer’s fictions are notable for the variety of their subjects and settings, and for the consistency of their craftsmanship.’ You will find no obvious internal linkage between Palmer’s The Good Republic, Leporello, The Contract, The Pardon of Saint Anne, The India House or the story collection Four Last Things except for that craftsmanship and ‘precision’ to which Lodge pays tribute. I am pleased to say that The Good Republic, The Pardon of Saint Anne and Four Last Things are all available in Finds. And The Good Republic has a special pertinence for readers in this year that sees the twentieth anniversary of the independence of the Baltic republics Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. A review of our Finds edition published in the Economist, which hails the novel unreservedly as a ‘classic’, is worth quoting at length:
Mr Palmer’s book set a standard for an east European historical novel that has yet to be matched—an especially impressive feat for an outsider. It is mainly set during the Soviet takeover of the Baltics in 1939-40… Even more vivid than the deportations and executions are the descriptions of the swift decay of statehood and legality: the policeman trampled by pro-Soviet demonstrators, civil servants struggling to uphold the constitution, the sinister placemen issuing instructions, the president a prisoner in his palace. Then comes the Soviet retreat and the Nazi occupation—a sinister non-liberation, bringing a terrible fate to the Jewish population, and a moral abyss for those who directly or indirectly abet it.
All this comes as flashbacks, seen through the eyes of the young Jacob Balthus. At the start of the book he is a Baltic émigré in London, who has spent decades running the pointless and, by the 1980s, almost defunct “Congress of Exiles”. He returns at the invitation of the nascent pro-democracy movement in his homeland, where his father was a senior civil servant in the days of interwar independence.
The fractious and futile-seeming life of east European émigré organisations is well drawn, as is the trembling excitement of the late 1980s when once-forbidden contacts were first permitted and then flourished. But even better is the description of the (composite) pre-war Baltic country in which the young Balthus grows up, so solid from his point of view, so terrifyingly fragile for his wise, well-informed father.
Remarkably, Mr Palmer did not visit the Baltic states before writing the book; his research mainly consisted of reading transcripts of evidence given to congressional hearings by senior Baltic figures who had escaped to the West. It is a tribute to his novelist’s skills that anyone reading the book has the feeling of complete authenticity in both history and geography. Readers are left longing for a sequel.