Books of the Year: The poet, the dissident and the bigamist

‘The 21’ is witness to the ancient, persecuted and yet still vibrant Coptic Church

The Great Discovery (by Ulf and Birgitta Ekman, Ignatius Press, 280pp, £13.89/$17.95) is an engrossing book written jointly by a Swedish couple, formerly prominent Lutherans, who read and prayed their way into the Church over many years. They cite many signposts on their journey, not least the discovery of the role of Our Lady and the part played in the Church’s history by the saints. They remind cradle Catholics of the treasures of the faith that they often take for granted.

Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, is always a delight to read: humorous, straight-talking, erudite. In Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He’s Ever Been Asked (Sophia Institute Press, 320pp, £15/$18.95), he’s compiled some of the questions thrown at him over the years in lecture halls and given his inimitable responses to them. This is a book worth giving to a solemn-faced agnostic friend who thinks believing in angels is preposterous.

Edited by their older son, Helmuth Caspar, and two grandchildren, Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence 1944-1945 of Freya and Helmuth James Von Moltke (New York Review of Books, 380pp, £14.99/$18.95) demonstrates the high cost of refusing to compromise during the Third Reich. Helmuth James was hanged in January 1945 for his opposition to Hitler. His letters (and those of his wife) during the final three months of his life should be part of any anthology of great letters – for their mutual and unwavering love for each other, acceptance of their fate and deep trust in God.

Martin Mosebach has done a great deal of research into the history of the Copts in Egypt in The 21: A Journey in the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Plough Publishing, 272pp, £18.99/$26). He does this in order to explain the compelling, humbling witness shown by these 21 young Coptic labourers when they were beheaded on a Libyan beach in 2015 by ISIS terrorists. The Copts, like the early Christian martyrs of ancient Rome, have a reverential attitude towards their most recent saints, whose memorials and shrines are a vivid testimony to an ancient, yet still vibrant faith.

I am delighted that Ignatius Press, having published The Wife of Pilate and Other Stories a few years ago, has now made available The Innocents and Other Stories (by Gertrud von Le Fort, Ignatius Press, 150pp, £14.89/$14.95). A fine and subtle writer, von Le Fort is not well known in the English-speaking world, though she was once nominated for the Nobel Prize by Herman Hesse. Her stories all concern the moment when the main character has to make a moral choice that will change their life forever.

The strangest autobiography I have read this year, Before & After (by Alison Wilson, Constable, 192pp, £16.99/$19.71) is a true story that should be read for its painful description of the author’s problematic marriage to a serial bigamist and her subsequent conversion – an account that is as inspiring and grace-filled as her previous married life was afflicted by doubts and emotional torment.

Alexandra Popoff’s revealing biography, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (Yale University Press, 424pp, £25/$32.50), introduces Western readers to this superb 20th-century Russian novelist and short story writer. Those who have already come across his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate will discover more about the life of the man who wrote them. Popoff details the constant censorship under which Grossman was forced to write, and the triumphant survival of his work, mainly published after his death in 1964.

Readers in search of literature which is occasionally off the beaten track will much enjoy 50 Books for Life (by Roy Peachey, Angelico Press, 134pp, £13.50/$16) – a book written with gusto and knowledge by a serious reader of world literature. However, seeking a broad chronological and geographical range within his self-imposed tight limit has forced Peachey to make desperate decisions, for example choosing Waugh rather than Graham Greene for inclusion.

Dana Greene, an American academic, has done a great service to all who love Elizabeth Jennings’s poetry in The Inward War (OUP, 288pp, £25/$35) – a sympathetic account of the poet’s difficult life. Plagued by intermittent mental health problems, loneliness and lack of money, Jennings placed huge demands on her small group of loyal friends and her editor, Michael Schmidt of Carcanet. However dire her circumstances, she always contrived to make memorable poetry out of them.

My final choice of book was first published in 1926. But having read it for the first time in 2019, I want to include Georges Bernanos’s Under Satan’s Sun (Cluny Media, 334pp, £15/$18.95). It was published when the author was 38 and struggling to make a living as an insurance inspector. It is impossible to summarise either the story (a highly imaginative reworking of the life of the Cure of Ars) or Bernanos’s style. He is one of those authors whose idiosyncratic inner world is already so confident and complete at the start of his career that he took the literary world by force as soon as he put pen to paper.