Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The genius of Roger Lewis

'I nearly died laughing' is an expression one sometimes reads. Well, last night I myself experienced that sensation, which was quite scary. I was laughing so much at Roger Lewis 's new book What Am I Still Doing Here? My Years As Me that I couldn't catch my breath. I commend it to you all. In a passage which is not funny, he says this about the British detective story: The puzzle-solving element aside, the clue to the success of the classic detective story is here I think: the pervasive cosiness, the country house or vicarage setting with the nicely tended rose gardens, and the puffing steam trains; and then the violence and viciousness that lurk underneath the nice formal manners and teatime social rituals, like serpents in Eden' I have asked Bishop Seraphim Sigrist to ponder, and perhaps make the subject of some remarks at our Sept 2012 conference in Moffat, why the British detective novel - in this case the Father Brown stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie, were favourites of the 2oth century Russian priest, martyr and polymath Alexander Men. Perhaps Roger Lewis's choice of biblical comparison gives a clue? Talking of serpents, the doorbell rang this morning and there was Postie with a cardboard box, a packet and a heavy official-looking manilla envelope. In the cardboard box was my 'wolfskin' faux fur hat, which will do very well for the winter. It is extraordinarily lightweight and not too loose round my head, so will not fall continually over my eyes as former winter hats have had a tendency to do. This hat feels like a featherweight teacosy, and no doubt my daughters will tell me looks like one too. The packet from France contained a copy of a Russian collection of letters between Fr Alexander and an icon painter, the 'nun in the world' Ioanna (Julia/Iyulia) Reitlinger. I have visions of this woman's life becoming a major movie, starring Julie Christie or maybe Helen Mirren as her middle to elderly self, and perhaps one of those younger actresses - Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirsten Dunce (or is that Dunst), in her youth. Her life fell into decades: to age 16 she was in an eccentric (her father slept openly with the nanny because after five children her mother opted for her own room and celibacy) upper middle class household in St Petersburg. Then followed the Russian Revolution and Civil War, flight to the Crimea, the death of a sister and her mother from fever, emigration to western Europe (Warsaw, Prague, Paris, London), penury and drudgery in the household of her mentor the theologian Fr Sergei Bulgakov, painting classes with Maurice Denis, one of the 'Nabis' a group of French Catholic artists celebrating quattrocentro simplicity and the pastel palette, World War Two, etc etc. She was exiled to Tashkent with her surviving sister in 1956 when she returned to her homeland following the denunciation of the crimes of Stalin by First Sec Khrushchev, where she painted icons secretly (the Church was severely persecuted throughout this period) and sent to Fr Alexander's converts disguised as boxes of sweets to evade arrest and prison. I started translating the letters before various upheavals and now feel ready to tackle them as a winter task. My dear old Russian-English dictionary is somewhere buried among thousands of my other books in Manse Furnishings warehouse, but I can buy another. Also, I see in the current issue of a Russian journal published in France that a new collection of Sister J's letters (this time with Sergei Bulgakov), has come out so I will be running to catch up with those next. The thick manilla envelope, which had to be delivered as if it were a parcel, contains a small book-sized set of forms and instructions issued under legislation pertaining to public nuisance. I thought when I opened it that someone must have complained about my habit of playing BBCR4 loudly through the night. But no. It is because my family and I let out a cottage, so as private landlords we must register or risk prosecution.

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