Among my Christmas presents was a complete collection of Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories (with one extra Napoleonic story as an appetizer), and I started it recently while sitting in at 71 Irving Place, a coffeehouse right across the street from Pete’s, O. Henry’s tavern, just off Union Square.The book is delicious on all counts, not least because Conan Doyle’s “types” are so socially and politically alien to any “types” in modern fiction: Early-to-mid 19th century French military men filtered through the sensibility of a Victorian English popular fiction writer. We can recognize liberals and conservatives, even bourgeois bohemians and Tories, in (for example) the Isabel Dalhousie or 44 Scotland Street novels of Alexander McCall Smith. We can peg them pretty easily: they are the Edinburgh versions of people we might meet in Zabars. But what can we make of Lacour?
“There are many folk who knew Alphonse Lacour in his old age. From about the time of the Revolution of ’48 until he died in the second year of the Crimean War he was always to be found in the same corner of the Cafe de Provence, at the end of the Rue St. Honore, coming down about nine in the evening, and going when he could find no-one to talk with. It took some self-restraint to listen to the old diplomatist, for his stories were beyond all belief…
“‘You must know, monsieur,’ he would say, ‘that I left Egypt after Kleber’s assassination. I would gladly have stayed on, for I was engaged in a translation of the Koran, and between ourselves I had thoughts at the time of embracing Mahometanism, for I was deeply struck by the wisdom of their thoughts about marriage. They had made an incredible mistake, however, upon the subject of wine, and this was what the Mufti who attempted to convert me could never get over.'”
What’d he be called? Reactionary liberal? Bonapartist conservative? This– I’m serious– this is one thing that non-contemporary fiction can do, if you read it with at least one ear cocked for the politics and philosophy. Even in something as recent as Conan Doyle, we are on such foreign territory that our normal methods of induction fail us. We can’t look at these people, at the pattern of calluses on their hands and the type of mud on their boots, at the opinions they let slip and the assumptions they betray, and place them in our normal political spectrum.
Thumbs up for the Brigadier Gerard stories, thus far. Don’t be put off by the fact that Phillip Pullman gave them a good blurb. That strike against them is balanced out by the fact that Churchill did, as well.