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CHRISTOPHER OTHEN, author of 'KATANGA 1960-63: MERCENARIES, SPIES AND THE AFRICAN NATION THAT WAGED WAR ON THE WORLD' and 'FRANCO'S INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES: ADVENTURERS, FASCISTS, AND CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR' (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com) looks at another three non-fiction greats.



After you've read this check out my new blog for all kinds of cultural and military weirdness.

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Don't Bury Me Alone


Three More Classic Non-Fiction Books

Check out the first part of this article here.



Five minutes ago a clown on stilts handed me a card advertising a craft fair. I gave it back and kept walking.

Now I'm in the cafe overlooking Plac Zbawiciela. Out one of the picture windows I can see the Plac, grey and damp. The rainbow on the Plac roundabout (wire frame, paper flowers) has been removed. It went up to symbolise unity in some vaguely Biblical sense but got identified as a symbol of homosexuality by Warszawa's ultras. They burned it down three or four times until whoever is in charge of art installations on roundabouts gave up and took it away until a sprinkler systen could be installed.

Inside, the cafe is full of media types, some rich teenage girls who like salad, and me killing time. The upstairs room here doubles as an art space and this week the walls are hung with mediocre pen and ink caricatures of Polish celebrities I don't recognise.

It's a week after Valentine's Day. Love is a dog from hell, said Charles Bukowski, patron saint of unemployable drunks. He wasn't kidding. Here are three more non-fiction classics.


'Hemingway: The Paris Years' Book Cover Hemingway: The Paris Years (Norton, 1989)

Ernest Hemingway arrived in the French capital during the winter of 1921 with a plump wife, a limp from an Austrian trench mortar, and a mission to mix experimental Modernism with all-American populism. He left at the end of the decade with a new, slim wife, a reputation as a sporty bruiser, and a literary talent that impressed important people.

In the post-war years Paris was a magnet for avant-garde artists, rich wasters, and foreigners after a good time. Hemingway was one of the artists. He sat at the feet of literary giants like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, read cutting edge and classic texts at Sylvia Beach's place, and drank too much. He learned how to write. The minimalism of his spare, bleak style seemed to sum up the stoic masculinity of the time.

Michael Reynolds' book is the best on Hemingway's formative artistic years. US academic Reynolds drilled deep into the archives and brings 1920s Paris to life with well chosen detail: cafe locations, shop fronts, daily menus, newspaper headlines, weather reports. Along the way he disassembles the myths Hemingway peddled in his memoir 'A Moveable Feast' (and a new version recreated from the original manuscript), to paint a vivid picture of a boyish, often cruel man who became the most influential writer of his generation.

Reynolds died in 2000. He devoted his life to Hemingway. The old man should be grateful. Not many biographers would be this understanding. Not many academics would write this well.


'Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453' Book Cover Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453 (Faber, 2005)

The monolith at which all narrative non-fiction writers should worship. Roger Crowley came out of nowhere with this vivid recreation of Byzantium's last days. The Turks are at the gates, Christianity's divided, and the walls are crumbling.

Narrative non-fiction is the art of making real events read something like a novel. You deduce psychology from action, recreate environment from records and photographs, and keep the narrative drive humming like a high-performance engine deep beneath the words. Most non-fictioners twitch at the wheel and reveal the moments they extrapolated too far from too little. Crowley doesn't. In 'Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453' he turns dusty Arabic, Latin, and Greek into the colourful, living story of a city falling.

Crowley's talent is for the narrative of inevitable defeat. A more recent book with a happier ending ('Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580') is less gripping, although a description of the siege of Malta works well. His account of Christianity's fall in the east will remain his best work until he finds another self-contained downward spiral to document.


'What Am I Doing Here' Book Cover What Am I Doing Here (Jonathan Cape, 1988)

Bruce Chatwin was a British novelist, travel writer, and journalist. He combined the clean lines of Hemingway's prose with flashes of jewelled aestheticism, which sparkle all the brighter for being rare.

What Am I Doing Here is a collection of journalism and new pieces assembled on Chatwin's deathbed. Reviews, articles, memories. It is hard to find a weak piece or bad sentence. The worst you can say about his carved, icy prose is that it occasionally crosses into archness or effect for its own sake. But you don't have to say that often.

Chatwin's review of Ernst Jünger's wartime diaries (see here for my look at 'The Devil's Captain: Ernst Jünger in Nazi Paris, 1941-1944') is still the best English language introduction to this controversial German writer. Chatwin, firmly on the left, liked the work rather than the man or his politics. Here's his summary of Jünger's 'On the Marble Cliffs':

[It] is an allegorical tale, written in a frozen, humourless, yet brilliantly coloured style that owes something to the nineteenth-century Decadents and something to the Scandinavian sagas. The result is a prose equivalent of an art nouveau object in glass.

Nicely put. Chatwin wrote three novels himself ('The Viceroy of Ouidah' from 1980, 'On the Black Hill' from 1982, and 1988's 'Utz'), along with 1977 travel book 'In Patagonia', and 'The Songlines' from 1987, a half-fictionalised account of Aboriginal Australian culture. All are worth picking up. 'Utz' is the neatest; 'On the Black Hill' the best; 'The Viceroy of Ouidah' a failed attempt to update Flaubert; 'In Patagonia' the starkest travelbook ever written; and 'The Songlines' alternately excellent and lazy. No-one ever regrets reading Chatwin's crystalline, detached prose.


It's getting dark. Time to leave. A table of teenage girls are showing each other pictures on their phones, still young enough to be able to love without bitterness or fear. Enjoy it while it lasts. Another Friday evening on the Plac Zbawiciela. I have to go meet a woman in Foksal, a stubby little street that punches above its weight in bar prices.

Let's go.



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All website material Christopher Othen 2009-2014. Something to say? E-mail brightreview@aol.com.