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The Aerodrome : A Love Story ()

Anthony Burgess : 99 Best Modern Novels (1934-84)

Much as I hate to admit it now, I'd never heard of this book nor of Rex Warner until stumbling upon a list Anthony Burgess did for the New York Times Book Review of his Top 99 Modern Novels.  The copy of the book I have just happens to include a forward by Burgess, so it seems safe to say that he did his part to maintain the reputation and readership of this fine book.  And it was heartening to see that it is still in print.  Heartening because this is a novel that deserves to be read and should have made many more "Best of" lists.

One strange deficiency in the literature of the 20th Century is the relative paucity of novels about fascism, its attractions and its awful consequences for those who believed.  Sure, there are plenty of books about the Holocaust, but almost all are written from the victims' perspective.  But while we have a rich literature depicting the mindset of Communists (Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, etc.), there aren't many similar books describing how someone, a young idealist perhaps, might have been drawn to fascism, even Nazism, but then been disillusioned, or even eaten by the revolution they helped to foment.

In at least this regard, Rex Warner's Aerodrome may well be the best novel ever written about fascism.  The book is a pretty simple allegory--which though the critics I was able to find say was influenced mainly by Kafka, seemed to me to owe much more to Orwell's Coming Up for Air.  The narrator, Roy, has grown up in The Village, a bucolic country town with more than its share of drunkenness, adultery, and incest.  Bordering on the Village is the Aerodrome, clean, orderly, modern, technological, it represents everything that the Village is not.

Amidst a burgeoning mystery over who his real parents are, Roy joins the Air Force, drawn by its orderliness, attempting to please his girlfriend, and deeply impressed by the rigid but charismatic Air Vice-Marshal.  The Vice-Marshal is determined to expand the Aerodrome and bring the Village under his control, remaking it in the same sterile image as the Aerodrome.

Roy meanwhile comes to realize that for all the disorder and human frailty on display in his home town, it is at least alive with possibilities :

    I began to see that this life, in spite of its drunkenness and its inefficiency, was wider and deeper
    than the activity in which we were constricted by the iron compulsion of the Air Vice-Marshal's
    ambition.  It was a life whose very vagueness concealed a wealth of opportunity, whose uncertainty
    called for adventure, whose aspects were innumerable and varied as the changes of light and colour
    throughout the year.  It was a life whose unwieldiness was the consequence of its immensity.  No
    skill could precisely calculate the effects of any action, and all action was dangerous.

There, in a nutshell, is the human dilemma : on the one hand we long for a world that would be safe and predictable and would yield to calculation, but, on the other, such calculations are beyond our meager mortal powers, so that whenever folks seek to impose order, they succeed merely in eliminating freedom and stifling progress.  The appeal of fascism--or communism, or Nazism, or all the other -isms--is precisely that it holds out the promise of having finally invented the human calculus which will provide security, without any of the nasty side effects.  That this appeal has always proven false does not seem to dampen the human need for, nor the responsiveness to, such promises.

Perhaps the best aspect of this novel is its timelessness.  Though it is clearly a comment upon the 1930s and 40s, the Village, with its verdant fields, its convoluted genealogies, its interfamilial murders, and lurking just across the way the orderly utopia of the Aerodrome, suggests Man after the Fall as much as it does Britain just before WWII.  The themes that Warner is dealing with are eternal.  That he manages to present them in such a natural and readable way makes the book one that everyone should read.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Warner, Rex (Ernest)
    -Rex Warner (Oxford Poetry)
    -xrefer - Warner, Rex (1905 - 1986)
    -ARCHIVES : "rex warner" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "rex warner" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of  David Cartwright, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides. A Companion to Rex Warner's Penguin Translation (Martha C. Taylor, Loyola College in Maryland, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.03)
    -REVIEW : of FIERCER THAN TIGERS: THE LIFE AND WORKS OF REX WARNER by Stephen E. Tabachnick (Francis King, The Spectator)
    -BOOK LIST : MODERN NOVELS; THE 99 BEST (Anthony Burgess, February 5, 1984, NY Times Book Review)