on 21 April 2008
Readers who cannot stomach the idea of a protagonist who does not share current modern sensibilities should be warned; Mr Standfast is quite capable of arousing the same unwarranted controversy as its predecessors. Warning must also be also given of Buchan's habit of periodically inserting a bit of social commentary between the action scenes conducted by the returning Richard Hannay.
That said, Mr Standfast is a fascinating tale with a trademark John Buchan plot that should satisfy those who enjoyed The Thirty-Nine Steps. Hannay's adventures see him return to the Scottish Highlands, as well as wartime France and neutral Switzerland in pursuit of yet another international spy ring, masterminded by an old Hannay enemy - the Graf von Schwabing. Thus we are back on familiar territory indeed with ingredients of world conspiracy, physical challenges and dark suspicions.
However, those seeking a return of characters from previous books such as Blenkiron, Pienaar and Arbuthnot will be disappointed, as these occupy either a peripheral role within the book or simply fail to appear. The progression of the storyline is not always the smoothest or most concise either, and the pace of the book not always consistent.
It could be concluded, then, Mr Standfast epitomises both John Buchan's talents as a writer and his flaws. A potential reader should be willing to interpret the book according to its place in history, while still taking pleasure in the narrative itself which is, at times, an enjoyable example of its type.
"Mr Standfast" is a book written about events around the first world war by a man who was obviously there. It is one of a series of novels written about Richard Hannay of which the best known is "The Thirty Nine Steps". In this book Hannay is an officer in the trenches in France who is asked to do undercover work with concientious objectors to find a German spy. The story ranges from the French trenches to industrial England, rural Scotland and then to Switzerland before returning to the war.
This is a book of its time and therefore certain things are taken for granted including patriotism, the class system and an assumption that all its readers have at least a working knowledge of "Pilgrim's Progress" by John Bunyan. But where you might expect a book of this era to have little good to say about trades unions, communism and other ideologies which caused men not to fight it tries to show all sides of the argument and presents many non-fighters as sympathetic characters. The book also introduces an independent minded female character who is very important to the plot.
I enjoyed reading this novel but I did find some issues with it. I thought that the Scottish bits were a rehash of "The Thirty Nine Steps", the whole courage thing of the injured Peter was a bit overwritten for today's readership and Hannay's romantic interest as a 40 year old man in a woman who it transpires is only 18 was a bit cheesy. I also thought that it did go on a bit too much.
Ignore these niggles though. This is a book of action and adventure, written near the time in which it was set and fast paced and enjoyable.
on 8 June 2012
Nobody hooked on political correctness should read this book. Buchan was a man of his time, who had lost school friends and colleagues to World War one's muddy and bloody trenches. In an Intelligence job, mainly behind the lines, he was fated to observe the chaos and gather far too much information for his peace of mind. 'Mr Standfast' is, to some degree, a tribute to and a memorial for his dead comrades, particularly one, a great flyer.
The plot is picaresque like those of his earlier novels, in that our hero travels widely in search of culprits and solutions... as always, the landscape is a character whose contours and weather are vital to events. Those who have read earlier books will be glad to meet again old friends and encounter new, vividly created enemies. Hannay never fools himself that he alone can save mankind. He is brave, bright most of the time but all too conscious of his failings. Unlike some 'heroes', he does not regard his heart as a failing. He shows compassionate respect for the common people, whatever their nationality, and is not ashamed of his grief for the fallen, not afraid to change his mind. For instance, he comes to respect a pacifist he begins by despising, and learns to accept as a valued comrade the girl he falls in love with, as well as the partner of his dreams. Remember, this book was written during the Great War, a decade before a fearful British government gave its women had the Vote but while the British army was observing their courage as nurses in the field.
Be warned: the writing is powerful and graphic. Buchan did not believe that most people are basically good: he believed that most are too over-worked, uninformed, stupid or lazy-minded to care. He believed that those who plot and order indiscriminate slaughter, ruthlessly lusting after personal power and wealth, are evil, and he has no qualms about killing off such characters.
This is tough reading that may upset 21st C liberals, but the good news is that a century on, it is still re-printed, still widely read. It may upset tyrants too, if they weren't all convinced they were God.
on 21 December 2009
Not the most politically-correct novel you might read this year but so evocative of time and place. Reading the descriptions of the Cotswolds made me think of the excellent H.V. Morton biography - a vanished world. The Wordsworth Editions version has a short introduction which sets the scene - invaluable.
on 12 September 2011
Mr Standfast is the third of the five Richard Hannay novels and is very much a First World War book. It is 1917 and Hannay has by now become a General, and is at the Front. The War is grinding on and the Allies fear a last, massive, German push. With the war very much in the balance Hannay is summoned back to London to be told of a German spy ring, headed by a superspy, that threatens to tip that balance in Germany's favour. The superspy is a man so intelligent, so cunning and so deeply undercover that Allied Intelligence has been running at least several steps behind him. Hannay is entrusted with the task of infiltrating and breaking the ring, which Intelligence believes is rooted in the anti-war movement, consisting of conscentious objectors, Communists and Trades Unionists. Hannay joins the anti-war ranks and finds himself in a highly dangerous and, to him, alien world. The action takes place all over Europe, but includes the West Coast and Highlands of Scotland, Switzerland, and the Front itself. The book was published in 1919, and it helps to have more than a passing knowledge of the First World War to really get the most from the story and the sentiments behind it. Likewise, as the book contains characters such as the American, Blenkiron, and the South African, Pienaar, from previous Hannay adventures, it helps to have read them. I found "Mr Standfast" to be an excellent read. Belief does have to be suspended at times, but the pace of the narrative and its insights into the late World War I period make it a cracking read. Oh, and there's time for a love interest too.
on 10 August 2013
In my opinion the best of the Hannay novels, sweeping through Europe from small town middle England to Glasgow, Skye, London, northern France, Switzerland, Italy and a denouement back in northern France with a heart-renching ending, this text is made all the more enthralling by Fredrick Davidson's superlative rendition. It seems he was born to read this book, his every nuance fitting perfectly with Hannay's rainbow palette of moods.
One not to miss.
on 28 April 2016
In ‘The Interpreter’s House’ – David Daniell’s seminal assessment of Buchan’s writing – Professor Daniell describes ‘Mr Standfast’ as ‘possibly the best thing [Buchan] wrote’.
I disagree. ‘Mr Standfast’ is Buchan at his best and worst.
Buchan’s descriptions of historical events are invariably vivid. In ‘Mr Standfast’, Buchan captures the grim reality of war in his graphic reportage of the Second Battle of the Somme. There’s nothing jingoistic and little vainglorious here, only fortitude (on both sides) and, inevitably, death.
Buchan can be brilliant in his portrayal of high adventure, conveying action in a style that is as economical as it is lucid. Amongst other thrills, ‘Mr Standfast’ has a breathtakingly exciting section describing Hannay crossing the Alps in a blizzard.
Buchan’s villains are almost always ‘villainous’. In ‘Mr Standfast’, Richard Hannay’s foe is frighteningly shape-shifting and, hence, terrifically hard to combat.
Daniell is particularly impressed by the narrative patterning in ‘Mr Standfast’. He maintains that each of the novel’s two books is a mirror image of the other. I find that far-fetched. Structurally, readers are more likely to be aware of how insufferably slow and drawn-out parts of Book 1 are.
Buchan is a novelist who can rely overmuch on coincidence. The amount of coincidence in ‘Mr Standfast’ beggars belief.
Daniell admires Buchan’s portrayal of Mary Lamington, the novel’s heroine. It’s true that Mary isn’t as vapid as many of Buchan’s women. The issue in ‘Mr Standfast’ is that Buchan fails miserably to convince us that Mary and Hannay could ever be lovers, not least because Hannay is 40 years old whilst Mary is a teenager.
‘Mr Standfast’ is a Buchan novel to divide its readers. Daniell finds its ending ‘moving’. Some Amazon reviewers find it sentimentally sickening. For once, in the matter of ‘Mr Standfast’, I agree with Professor Daniell.
on 19 July 2015
Buchan has only plot device which he uses again and again till it wears so thin the holes become great rents. Happy coincidences of meeting beset all of his books that I've read. No matter how unlikely, you can be sure that exactly the right old friend will turn up when sufficiently needed. I'm amazed he got away with it for so long. The language used throughout is jingoistic to the point of comic effect, as though written self -parody. When referred to later a fight or a battle is usually a "show" and the Boy's Own script lines flow thick and fast in Mr Standfast - as they tend to do in his other books too. It's pointless to criticise the racially-based terms used, as those were the common usage of the day - but won't sit well with younger readers (does he have any younger readers?) who don't have the backsight to see why it's there. This particular book has a wandering plot that frequently stalls while Buchan tries to decide what should happen next - and his repertoire of possibles is unimaginative to say the least. The unrealistic speech grates thoroughly from start to finish - I can only imagine that the public of his time must have been easily satisfied with stories where the hero can be relied on despite repeated self-confessions of "blue funk" to win through against all the odds of numerous and apparently superior foes.
In this one it's a kind of shapeshifting "Boche" master-spy who's deeply embedded into British Society. Note please the capital S on the latter word - this isn't society in its general term, it's Society where every chap went to Eton and talks like he's unable to phrase things in non-Boy's Own-ese. But get away with it he did, time and again. Publishers these days would laugh an author out the door if he turned up stuff like this; it's very much of its time and must be read as such, if indeed it's to be read at all. Nobody would be one iota the worse for having missed it out.
England - not nearly so much the rest of the UK - was in those days very sure of its superiority over the world's less-fortunate countries and races. It schooled its youth to be arrogantly convinced they were Top Dog, and the Empire was still the biggest the world had ever seen. That Buchan was a Scot is far from clear, except perhaps that his books do ramble into Scotland from time to time - usually only to provide a backdrop of contrast to the generality of Greater England. This book does so - as did what's maybe his best known work, The 39 Steps. His Scottishness is most evident in Prester John, where "his" persona is a Scot sent abroad to make good for himself and, of course, eventually does so. Plenty of racial comments in this one too, with its main plot line being the suppression of "the Blacks" who must remain subjugated to the master-class of Colonial Government. Try writing a story along those lines now!
on 28 June 2015
This book in no way matches the pace of the 39 Steps, but it does retain facets of the tension and derring-do of the first book. Mr Standfast does drag in places, and Buchan lays on the propaganda element (which is outlined in the foreward/introduction) that quite heavy for the American audiences, Blenkiron being the main driver of this. Overall its a good but slogging affair with sprouts of action here and there, and as one reviewer noted plenty of 'happy coincidences' - such as arriving at a remote train station in the middle of the night to find a chum who you haven't met in 2 years, who just happens to have a spare plane to aid your journey.....'. It's up to you to decide if you like it or not.
Courageous, dedicated, stoic and loyal, Richard Hannay has all the attributes of a perfect spy; He does, however, have a potentially fatal flaw in the role : wherever he goes, in Germany, Scandanavia, occupied France, a deserted cave in the Scottish Highlands, in whatever disguise or role he is in, Hannay is guaranteed to meet someone he knows. So, in this book, Hannay, in the guise of a book salesman, is travelling by train through rural Scotland. He tells us "just after dawn...we halted at a little junction...in that clean, bare, chilly place there was only one traveller....to my amazement I recognised him..."Archie" I cried..." (p142) This kind of thing happens to our hero at every turn, we must conclude he has the widest circle of friends ever.
These narrative short cuts are typical of John Buchan, who is happy to skip over tedious explanatory passages to reach the mano a mano clashes and struggles against Nature that he finds interesting. And, to be fair, no one is better at these sporting challenge style adventures.
World War One, aka the War to End Wars, has a rich literary tradition, both contemporary authors and writers working after the War have left a contemplative and generally pacifist or Anti-War legacy. Owen, Sassoon and the other War Poets paint a defiantly anti-heroic picture of the conflict, even the arch-establishment figure of Kipling, suffered personal loss and was moved to write "If any question why we died, tell them that our fathers lied." In more modern times, "Oh What A Lovely War", "Goodbye To All That", "Gallipoli", "Warhorse", "Blackadder Goes Forth" and many more works feature The Great War as an example of the futility of War itself.
The opposite view, supportive of the War, seems to have left much less of a legacy. Biggles, Bulldog Drummond and other patriotic heroes seem to have little relevant to say to modern ears. And so, what of Richard Hannay, war hero, and full-blooded supporter of the War effort? In this book, (and in "Greenmantle" the preceding volume of Hannay's adventures) we see Hannay working as an espionage agent and, more briefly, a high ranking officer during a period of fighting. To a modern reader Buchan's casual acceptance of the rightness of the British position is jarring; We are used to a more nuanced treatment of political situations today, shades of grey not simple black and white. It is, perhaps, worth remembering that John Buchan was a professional propogandist, it was, in a way, his job to present the war as just.
Given Buchan's job, it is unsurprising to see such characters as Launcelot Wake (the least-likely name imaginable for a conscientious objector)a pacifist who manages to be a useful part of the War effort without compromising his principles. Less forgiveable is the character of Mary, Hannay's love interest, who, despite having a genuine and valuable role as a spy, is rather underused and becomes little more than a hostage. Continually described as being like a child or a boy, Mary is not a feminist icon.
Always a master storyteller, Buchan ends this sometimes meandering yarn with a cracking description of an aerial dual between Peter Pienaar , Hannay's old comrade in arms, and the German air ace Lensch. This dog-fight is given a mythic dimension as well as a great practical importance but most of all is moving, the reader is allowed to share Hannay's emotions as he watches his best friend risk all for the cause. All this proves that it is quite possible for great writing to be created supporting any viewpoint, as long as it is a view the author believes in.