The Autumn of the Ace begins in 1945, as the second world war ends, but both Louis de Bernières and his protagonist Daniel Pitt appear reluctant to leave warfare behind. Pitt is a flying ace, but so nervous about returning to civilian life that he argues against handing back his service weapon. Eventually he capitulates. During the war, he lost two toes after being tortured by the Gestapo but he nonetheless appears to prefer physical peril to the prosaic dysfunctionality of his family life. His mother and one of his daughters are dead, his marriage has disintegrated and he has fathered two children by his wife’s bohemian sister. His son Bertie (by his wife) refuses to speak to him, and this conflict forms one of the central dramas of the book.
There are, however, many moving passages. As in his previous novels, De Bernières is an exceptional letter writer. One of the most successful strands is the epistolary reconciliation, or at least erosion of bitterness, between Rosie and Daniel. The chapters detailing Daniel’s final years with his grandchildren, and his coming to terms with old age, are memorably precise too. At his best, Daniel can be fine company; it’s just a shame we never see him in action.
This criss-crossing, almost incestuous map of family relationships is easier to follow than it sounds – de Bernières’s 30 years of experience with puppet-mastering a narrative show. At times, though, it feels strangely off-balance: one important figure who dies horribly within the first 50 pages is barely mentioned again, while several of the more peripheral siblings occupy a chapter before vanishing. But the real problem with The Autumn of the Ace is that it does not feel like a truthful depiction of its central preoccupation: how the survivors of the Lost and Greatest generations could possibly live with all they had seen and done and sacrificed.
De Bernières is a writer of great charm, not free from self-indulgence. He has the great gift of readability, something that many greater novelists are denied. The sentences run as easily as a river in flat country and, though you may find yourself skipping some long descriptive or speculative passages, it’s more likely that you will go contentedly with the flow. I doubt if it is necessary to have read the two novels that cover the first half of Daniel’s long life to enjoy this one. It reminds me of once-popular writers of family-history novels like Hugh Walpole and Mazo de la Roche, and is none the worse for that. Just the novel for a spell in lockdown.
There’s also a great deal of anger against women who don’t have sex with their husbands enough and become cross and fat, which is written with a gleeful feverishness. However, Daniel’s late-life musings are insightful and lovely. If you wish to mark the drawing in of winter evenings with something romantic, adventurous, well researched and engrossing — a story full of life and warmth and also a robust philosophy of love and redemption — then de Bernières is, as ever, your man.