In the extent of her learning, Warner could be compared to the mid-twentieth-century literary scholar Erich Auerbach; pioneering Renaissance occult expert Frances Yates; and art historian Ernst Gombrich. But only the last comes close to the suppleness and piquancy of his prose. To show what I mean, let me quote a long paragraph from his latest book, “Esmond and Ilia”, a dual portrait of his parents during the early years of their marriage. At the beginning of this so-called “unreliable memory” – it is largely constructed from documents, family histories and imaginative projections – Warner evokes the dashing young women his father usually encountered when he was a student. undergraduate at Oxford in the 1930s. They were invariably the sisters of his fellow college students.
“The sisters appeared when you left for the weekend during term to stay with a friend at his family, they were carrying golf clubs and cigarettes, driving fast and throwing their equipment – tennis rackets in stern presses with wing nuts and screws at the corners, long cartons embossed with seamstresses’ crests in azure and gold, in which the ball gown and stole and evening dress lay between sheets of cloth waiting to leap up and wrap their mistress in encrusted ruffles, slippery, rustling fabrics, while the little safe for Mama’s tiara which she lent for the night, so kind of her, was also thrown on the back seat. Then go down the alleys to the country house.
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At first, “Esmond and Ilia” might be a fairytale romance.
Son of Pelham “Plum” Warner, nicknamed the “Big Old Man of Cricket”, Esmond led a thoughtless life in Brideshead when the Second World War broke out. While serving in Italy, the bespectacled Major Warner – already bald in his mid-30s – fell in love with the completely penniless 21-year-old Emilia Terzulli, who then spoke almost no English. They got married and Ilia, as she was known, found herself quickly learning the ways of a very traditional upper-class English family.
As almost the first order of the day, Esmond takes his bride to get fitted for handmade brown leather brogues from the famous Peal & Company. As Warner writes, this shoe heralded Ilia’s “future life in the English countryside, her official entry into the world of squirearchy… The brogues carried her safely over turf and moor and through the woods and along the banks where the trout glistened on the surface for the boatmen and the water flies, and stalk it through the winter fields where the pheasants roar, a flurry of magnificent feathers against the gray relentless; would the brogues plant her transplant her on British soil.
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However, there is a very small problem: Esmond really does not have the means to maintain this grandiose lifestyle. At least he doesn’t in England. However, using his charm and connections to Eton, he persuaded WH Smith and Company, Booksellers, to open an outlet in Cairo, a city he had known well from his war service. As manager of this cultural outpost of the empire, Esmond soon frequented King Farouk’s Egyptian high society, played golf at the Gezira Sporting Club, and sipped pink gins at Shepheard’s Hotel. The affluent Cairo of the late 1940s practically defined urban sophistication – everyone spoke French, everyone smoked:
“No one then seemed to care about smoking – the smell of the cigarettes delicious, the involved gestures elegant, the paraphernalia fascinating and sophisticated – while the cigarette boxes, onto which the cigarettes were transferred, were monogrammed, lined with cedar and silver.”
In this worldly and decadent atmosphere, the young and beautiful Mrs. Warner immediately attracted a myriad of admirers. Normally, flirting just added spice to the social interaction, but some of Ilia’s “suiters” – French for one who sighs for a loved one – aimed for more than a kiss on the cheek. “I will never know,” writes Warner, “how many po to effect. Because in her late twenties, Ilia knew that her husband was not her type at all.
By then, however, the family’s years in Cairo had reached their flamboyant end: on January 26, 1952, “virtually all British businesses and most other foreign interests, particularly French, were burnt down”. The flames of revolution would eventually send King Farouk into exile and bring Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Warner tells us that the sight of his father’s bookstore as a blackened ruin is practically his earliest memory. At this point, she puts an end to her “unreliable memories”: she is 5 years old and her sister Laura has just been born.
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As well as evoking yesterday’s missing pumps, “Esmond and Ilia” periodically broadens its perspective to include chapters about Victorian adventurers in the Middle East, a half-forgotten singer named Hildegard, and even the appropriate use of the word Arabic “malesh”, the verbal equivalent of a fatalistic shrug. Above all, Warner is never sentimental about her parents, although she clearly loves her anxious and snobby father, just as she sympathizes deeply with her sensitive, novel-reading mother. Not that Ilia couldn’t be unwittingly cruel. She once told Marina, a plump teenager, that “simple girls are much more likely to be happy.”
Needless to say, ‘Esmond and Ilia’ doesn’t have a fairy tale ending – after all, it’s about real life – but it’s still wonderfully entertaining, an ideal book for a summer long and hot.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
Esmond and Ilia: an unreliable memoir
New York Review Books. 432 pages. Paperback, $19.95
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