A Tolstoyan novel of Englishness and a tale of the death of Trotsky

Written By: Denis MacShane
Published: February 6, 2015 Last modified: October 25, 2016

Ella Morris is little short of a masterpiece by an English novelist, John David Morley, who has been based in Munich for four decades and, as a result, is not linked to the narrow, self-referring London world of writers and critics. This Tolstoyan work takes us into the heart of what means to be both English and European in the 20th century.

Ella Morris, daughter of a German woman and a Pole, arrives in London as a refugee from war-destroyed Germany in 1945. There she marries an FCO official involved in le Carré-style activities against communist East Europe. She falls in love with a younger Frenchman and sets up a ménage à trois. After years in Hampstead and Richmond they end up in Tenerife.

Following the death of the first husband, Ella and her French lover decide to commit suicide rather than descend  further into an old age of decrepitude, pain and immobility.

The characters are richly portrayed as they move through European history from Red Army rape in Silesia to Serb army rape in Kosovo. Morley leads us through a sequence of gripping life stories of richly observed characters holding our attention with detail and lots of praise of older-woman sex. He even makes lunch in the Athenaeum interesting.

In the 1980s, earnest Labour students travelled from NUS conference to conference with an ice pick attached to the radiator grill of their cars or coaches. This was meant to show their determination in seeing off the Trotskyism that did so much damage to 80s Labour.

The Catalan communist, Ramon Mercader, who was groomed by Soviet agents and plunged his ice-pick into Trotsky’s head in a suburb of Mexico City in 1940 is an unlikely hero for New Labourites, but now Labour has been safely purged of deviation is it any closer to power?

Leonardo Paduro is Cuba’s greatest writer – what does he think of Obama burying not the ice pick but something more lethal for communism, the hatchet? The Man Who Loved Dogs is a mag­nificent political novel, a wonderful read. Bitter Lemon, a small publisher focusing on translations, are to be congratulated on spotting a truly great book.

There is mistranslation on page 445: Canciller in Spanish means Foreign Minister, not Chancellor. But I defy anyone interested in 20th century po­l­itics, in Stalin, in the Spanish Civil War, in why men and women do politics and writing not to be mesmerised by this com­pelling novel about the human condition and about history changing politics.

Both Paduro and Morley show the big novel is alive and well. The hours with either is worth more than most movies, plays and what is on offer in the papers.

About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former Europe Minister