Tag Archives: Memoirs

Shantytown Kid by Azouz Begag

Shantytown Kid (Le Gone du Chaâba) from Azouz Begag is the final selection Emma made for our virtual Xmas gift exchange. I’m going to begin by saying that this was not a book I would have bought without Emma’s nudge. In fact, I’d never heard of it, and even if I had, I doubt that I would have bought it as I do not usually enjoy books written through the eyes of a child. Lest I seem too inflexible, there are, of course, a few exceptions to that, but experience has taught me to generally avoid books with either a child protagonist or narrator. So that preamble brings me back to Shantytown Kid, an “autobiographical novel” that follows Azouz, who was born in 1957, picking up his story sometime in the early sixties and ending in 1968. So not many years in the life of a child, and of course the story is told by a now adult Begag. Azouz Begag’s parents were illiterate Algerian immigrants who came to France in 1949. They settled in Lyon, and Azouz was born in a Lyon shantytown. These days, the author, who has a doctorate in Economics,  is a politician and a writer.

The story begins, as the title suggests in Le Chaâba, a shantytown in Lyon, a place without electricity and no running water. That also means no toilets, but more of that later. While the shantytown lacks facilities, it doesn’t lack a strong sense of community, and we see this facet of Le Chaâba repeatedly through the book. One example is the way the women squabble over the water pump by day, but bury their arguments when the men come home, and in another instance (which is hilarious, by the way), the women and children combine forces–forming an ad hoc and combative neighbourhood watch assault team to discourage the lively prostitution trade that flourishes right outside of their territory.  

Begag relates the pivotal classroom incidents and friendships which shaped his life and his decision to “prove that I was capable of being like them.” ‘Them‘ in this case being the French schoolchildren who laugh at Azouz’s use of Arabic vocabulary. Of course, mixing with French children who live in houses and not shacks serves to highlight the differences between Azouz’s life and the expectations of French children.

I knew I lived in a shantytown of shacks made of planks of wood and corrugated iron roofs and that it was the poor who lived that way. I had gone several times to Alain’s home in the middle of the Avenue Monin, where his family lived in a real house. I could see it was much nicer than our shacks. And there was so much space. His house alone was as big as the whole of le Chaâba put together. He had his own room, with a desk and books and a wardrobe for his clothes. At each visit my eyes nearly came out of their sockets with astonishment. I was too ashamed to tell him where I lived. That is why Alain had never been to Le Chaâba. He was not the sort to enjoy rummaging in the garbage dumped on the embankment, or hanging onto the sides of the garbage truck, or getting involved in extorting money from the hookers and the homos. Besides, did he even know what homo meant?

On the down side, detailed here is a nighttime excursion to the outhouse and a genital exhibition between children. Minor asides, but what’s so interesting is the clear impact of education on Azouz. At times the lessons seem designed to illuminate differences between the French children and the Arab children–this isn’t true, of course, the lessons are culturally based in subjects such as manners, etiquette, and hygiene. But the result is that the Arabic children are effectively alienated even further–unless they’re like Azouz and set out to impress the teacher–even at the cost of alienating their fellow Arabic classmates.

Rather than a cohesive narrative, the book is basically a series of incidents that take place in the shantytown, in Azouz’s schools and in the home his family later moves to. One of the best scenes takes place when rubbish is dumped next to the shantytown and the residents go hunting for anything of value. Throughout these scenes runs a strong thread examining identity and solidarity, and the  inevitable tug-of-war that occurs between one culture’s values when confronted with an adopted country. Some parents who bring their children to another country (or whose children are born in an adopted country) seem horrified when the children begin to integrate, but isn’t that a healthy development? Ideally two cultures should be meshed equally, but when one  of those cultures is considered to be a so-called prestige culture, while another is not, just how does a child accept or filter out cultural values when subjected to peer pressure, family expectations and the desire to belong? Shantytown Kid sensitively illustrates all these difficulties faced by Azouz as he makes some irrevocable decisions at a crucial early age. In one scene, he’s even held up by the teacher as an example against his own race, and in another a pied-noir teacher condescendingly corrects  Azouz on all matters Algerian.

He was really modest, my teacher. There he was, explaining my origins to me demonstrating how little I knew of Arab culture, and he dared tell me that he spoke Arabic nearly as well as I did!

As crass as the teacher is at times, he still appreciates Algerian culture–a rare thing at the time with anti-Algerian sentiment boiling away and culminating in France in October 17, 1961. As Azouz tries to navigate both worlds, he inevitably and consciously makes a decision to be “french,” and that decision comes at a cost. For me, however, the most touching parts of the book are not the episodes of Azouz’s life, but the struggles of Azouz’s father who despairs when families leave the shantytown and move to flats. While he expresses this despair as disloyalty in the departing families, Azouz’s father distress is founded in the threat to culture and loss of community, and as the families disperse, his anguish seems based in doubt about the future and fear of lost values.

So thanks Emma for pointing me towards a book I’d never heard of and one I enjoyed. Strangely enough I related to it in some ways.

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Filed under Begag Azouz, Fiction

Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters by Robert Maier

Although film is an important part of my life, I’ve never nursed a secret desire to be involved in film-making at any level. I’ve always thought that while films are great to watch, making them would be hard work. That thought was recently endorsed by reading Robert Maier’s entertaining memoir, Low Budget Hell: Making Underground Movies with John Waters. The title is a slight misnomer as while the author did indeed work with John Waters, the so-called Pope of Trash for a number of years, he also worked on other low-budget films, and the book covers Maier’s long involvement with film-making both pre and post John Waters. Robert Maier currently teaches film at Gaston College in North Carolina so that should give a hint about the direction the book takes. 

Maier began working with John Waters in 1973 when he was 23 years old and this was the beginning of a “hair-raising eighteen-year ride through the world of low-budget, underground filmmaking.” He worked on Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, Hairspray and Crybabymoving from soundman to line producer.” He also directed a 30 minute homage to Edith Massey (the egg-lady) called Love Letter to Edie. Maier has a long list of film credits to his name–too many to mention with the exception of the cult classic slasher film, The House on Sorority Row. Just reading the salient facts of Maier’s career was enough to convince me that I wanted to read the memoir.

Robert Maier began working with John Waters for the film Female Trouble (my second favourite John Waters film next to Polyester). Waters had just completed his infamous film Pink Flamingos, and Maier was working at the UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) film department. John Waters was “hungry to find people who would help make his next movie,” and Robert Maier worked in the department with all the equipment. But their relationship went beyond being in the right place at the right time. John Waters, Divine (Glenn Milstead) and Robert Maier all “grew up in the Towson, Maryland area” and “even had a few friends in common.” So it was only natural that Waters and Maier developed both a personal and a working relationship.

The memoir gives the reader some brilliant behind-the-scenes glimpses of the making-of some of John Waters’ films. My personal favourites come from the filming of Female Trouble:

Dealing  with the public on Female Trouble was always exciting. There was no such thing as a film permit in Baltimore. Except for John’s films, no one could remember when a film had shot in Baltimore. Everyone thought it was way too ugly for glamorous movies. Being on the guerilla film crew, watching the shocked, bewildered bystanders was a hoot. One memorable shot was Divine “modeling” on a busy Baltimore street. He was in full drag wearing a shimmering blue sequined gown, with a big hairdo and Van Clarabelle make-up. We filmed him from the window of a slowly-moving car, so bystanders on the street were clueless. Their reactions were as if Divine had been dropped from a flying saucer and was having an epileptic fit. Not a soul would think it was a scene from a movie.

And if you’ve seen the film, that scene of Divine happily tripping along the streets of Baltimore, is one of my all-time favourite film sequences. It really has to be seen to be believed. Half the fun is Divine, and as Maier points out, the other half is watching the reactions of bystanders. 

In another section, Maier describes an earlier scene from Female Trouble:

The Christmas tree scene, where Divine beats up his parents, topples the tree, stomps on his presents, and then runs away because he didn’t get cha-cha heels, was a memorable location shot. The runaway setup required our small crew to perch behind a bush outside the house. We had a very small profile, so the neighbours had no idea a movie was being shot in their quiet neighbourhood on that cool Sunday morning.

When Divine burst out the front door, howling at the top of his lungs, in his sheer neon-green nightie, we saw neighbors peeking out their front windows, wondering what the hell was going on. The next set-up was even better when Dawn’s father flew out the door screaming, “Dawn Davenport come back here! You’re going straight to a home for girls. I’m calling the juvenile authorities right now!”

Well with those sorts of descriptions, it’s easy to imagine what happened on a formerly quiet Baltimore street in the wee morning hours.

Low Budget Hell is full of these sorts of hilarious memories and details, but there are some reminiscences that aren’t so funny. Maier describes John Waters unflatteringly as a harsh taskmaster, driving the non-union film crew all day long with no lunch break and with the mantra “dollar, dollar, dollar.” Maier comments on Waters’ film style and more than once compares him to Ed Wood while acknowledging that he was “fascinated with how John worked.” Maier recounts grueling schedules and the incredible personal sacrifices made along the way. As his career shifted from working with John Waters, he  shares rich memories of Jean-Michel Basquait and the Coen Brothers who slept on the floor of his editing offices while they made Blood Simple

I’ve read almost all of John Waters’ book (I have a few autographed copies) and I’ve also read two books about Divine: Not Simply Divine by Bernard Jay and My Son Divine by his mother Frances Milstead, so I wasn’t too surprised that while John Waters made bigger budget films (through New Line Cinema), Robert Maier didn’t make a smooth transition to the more lucrative big-time. A few sentences have a bitter edge, and that’s perhaps inevitable. After finishing the book, I stopped and asked myself how I’d feel if I’d had the same experiences and I concluded that I’d feel about the same.

This is a lively, unique memoir for fans of low-budget cinema or for those who want a behind-the scenes look. The memoir shows film-making as a hard, sometimes cut-throat field where those willing to step on others or shift the shit to someone else thrive, and while the book doesn’t directly ask: ‘just how much are you willing to sacrifice to join the ranks of the extremely wealthy and fabulously famous?’ the question is there, nonetheless, on every page.

Review copy read on the kindle.

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Filed under Maier Robert, Non Fiction

Witches’ Sabbath by Maurice Sachs

“If the reader grants with me that the whole of our life is nothing more than an attempt to fulfill the dreams of our youth, he will understand that it is possible to search throughout the whole of one’s life for a happiness one has enjoyed as a child.” 

I came across the name Maurice Sachs (Maurice Ettinghausen) while reading a review at Book Around the Corner. Sachs sounded like an intriguing character–one of those almost people. Never really the first rank of anything but always hanging on the fringes of the Paris literati. He was born to a Jewish family in 1906. He later converted to Catholicism, and led a rather colourful bohemian life which included a fair amount of scandal and financial skullduggery. During the German Occupation of France, he was part of the forced enlistment of the STO: Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service). This was conducted under the Vichy government with the result that hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen were shipped to Germany as a labour force.   

There is very little information about Sachs in English on the internet, and some of it is false. According to articles I read, once Sachs was part of the STO he was employed by the Gestapo as a paid informer.  Apparently he ratted people out to the Gestapo but ended up in Fuhlsbuttel prison/concentration camp after refusing to denounce a Jesuit priest. Other articles said that the Gestapo were fed up with Sachs’s false reports. Considering the degree of vilification, it’s all rather vague. The stories of Sachs’ s death are as muddied as some aspects of his life. One version has him lynched by other prisoners he’d informed against, and that after his death he was fed to the dogs, but that version has been debunked. Apparently, in 1945 he was shot while being marched by the SS as they retreated from Fuhlsbuttel; his body was left on the side of the road.

I was intrigued by all this information as it hooks into some of the questions I have about what really went on in France under the Nazi occupation. There are a number of figures whose actions remain murky–were they informers or collaborators or was this a cover for something else? I’ve never lived under an occupation, but this all reminds me of Simenon’s life under German occupation in WWI. Just what is legal and what is illegal shifts according to who makes the rules, and Simenon’s Three Crimes is a wonderful exploration of how some people exploited occupation for their own gains.

But back to Sachs. One of the reasons I read the memoir was because I hoped for clarification on Sachs’s role as an informer. Some sources state that Sachs “made money” by helping Jewish families escape. But then wasn’t it expensive to get the necessary documents? How much did he charge? What was the going rate? How many Jews did he assist to escape? Or did he just take the money and inform against them? There are probably no answers to these questions but at the same time I thought of Dr. Petiot, the mass murderer who in WWI German-occupied France also promised safe passage to S. America, but the Jews who paid his asking price ended up in an incinerator. Was Sachs simply a weak man who sold out his compatriots or did he play a dangerous double game by walking on both sides of the fence? In one sense Sachs doesn’t seem the hero type, but then again, if he played a double game, perhaps it’s difficult to tell just what was in his head. But I can’t erase the fact that he was forced labour for the Nazis, was then stuck in a prison for at least some failure of cooperation only to end up being shot in the head right before the war’s conclusion.

So I came to the memoir expecting some answers. In terms of my expectations I was disappointed. There’s virtually no clarification about exactly what Sachs was up to before his arrest. The book was finished in 1939 with a later (1942) 3 page postscript added. Perhaps if he’d survived he would have modified the memoirs. 

So what is the memoir? It’s a strange hodge-podge of gut-wrenching honesty in which Sachs lays bare his soul while admitting his many flaws and mistakes. But it’s also a study in avoidance. I don’t necessarily blame him for that avoidance; if I had to write a memoir, I’d gloss over some stuff I’d rather not think about or perhaps not even mention it at all. That’s the problem with memoirs. A memoir is a trade-off. We only get one-side, one version in which events may be cherry picked–whereas a well-researched bio will dig into the darkest secrets. Bottom line, I concluded I’d probably have been better off reading a biography of Sachs rather than his memoir.

The book’s strength is in its aphorisms. I could go through the book and select witty and wise sayings galore (along the lines of a minor Oscar Wilde):

Elegance, pleasure, etc., are ruinous tastes which one escapes only by intense specialization or by mediocrity.

I regard myself as a bad example capable of giving good advice.

Theft is as irresistible as physical desire can be on certain nights.

Maurice Sachs’s parents divorced when he was a young child, and this caused some financial hardships. Sachs’s mother sounds feckless and was not much of a money manager, but then again it sounds as though she acted in adulthood exactly as she’d been raised (spend and don’t worry about bills). When Sachs was a teenager, his mother, heavily in debt and facing arrest for writing a rubber cheque for 60,000 francs, swallowed poison (reminds me of Madame Bovary). The poison swallowed was an “insufficient dose” for death; she recovered and Sachs sold his mother’s last piece of jewelry in order to get her out of France before she was arrested. It was, he says:

“The best thing I’ve ever done in my life up to that point, the only human and valuable gesture of my whole existence.”

Yet he was castigated by the rest of the family who “would have prefered” Sachs to take the side of “economic morality.” Sachs adds the details that the cheque was written to “one of the richest men in France,” and that if anything he was the one most wounded by his mother’s fecklessness since he was bankrupted and lost, through his mother’s mismanagement, 700,000 francs “she legally administered.” The incident with Sachs’s mother involving the rubber cheque sets the stage for Sachs’s later attitude towards financial responsibility& debts.  

He recalls being “penniless in the middle of a rich family.” He admits stealing “two sous” as a child from the bag of wealthy visiting relatives in order to buy a tart, but repeat thefts illuminated that the thrill came from  “the anguished delight of the theft” and not the anticipated “craving for an almond tart.” Perhaps being surrounded by those who lacked nothing gave him a taste for luxury while he lacked the necessary means and drive to achieve this lifestyle. Sachs recalls wishing that he had been born a girl, and from this he draws the conclusion that he was predisposed to homosexuality. Sachs, however, did have a few brief adult liaisons with women but found them unfulfilling when compared to his homosexual relationships. Sachs details his childhood, his adolescence, his giddy youth, time in a seminary and his military service, yet he remains deliberately vague when it comes to his relations with some of the great names of the day. When finally unleashed in the salons of Paris and as a frequenter of Le-Boeuf-sur-le-Toit,  Sachs’s charm and fine connections explain why the doors of Paris salons opened to him. Repeatedly.

At times he is mercilessly honest about his character flaws. At one point, he’s barely eating, selling books, when he’s yanked out of poverty and given a job as a secretary which includes room and board. Sachs admits he misused the opportunity, getting into debt and not caring much about his employment. At another point in his varied career, he started a publishing business with Jacques Bonjean. He missed a great opportunity when he failed to publish All Quiet on The Western Front–a book he’d received from Count Kessler via Misia Sert. In typical Sachs style, he admits that the book sat on his desk for four months “during which I had neither the curiosity of the presence of mind to have it read by someone who knew German.”  Later, Sachs gets a job as Chanel’s secretary and claims there was a “misunderstanding.” Other sources state that he stole from her.

There are times when Sachs writes with deep regret and a sense of shame:

The Maurice Sachs who has left irritating memories in the minds of some (and some good impressions in the minds of others, and a mixture of the two elsewhere), the shady, evasive, scheming drunken, prodigal, chaotic curious, affectionate, generous, and impassioned Maurice Sachs  who has always taken shape somewhat in spite of myself, but with my complicity, and who has produced this occasionally repugnant, often attractive personality to which I give so much importance because it is, after all, myself, that Maurice Sachs whom I have since mistreated, humiliated, deprived, then encouraged to do better, whose worse defects I have tried to canalize, whose defects I have tried to develop, this man whose human dignity, along with its attendant virtues, I have never despaired of (since he mattered more to me than anyone else), this man doesn’t bear my true name, but whose circumstances I can no longer change to give him my own because we have come too far together, this Maurice Sachs whose hand along with mine I hope is writing here the confession that closes a cycle of our lives….

While parts of the memoir assume a confessional tone, Sachs is clearly seeking understanding from the reader.

Nothing is this book will be comprehensible if the reader does not admit a constant duality in being, more punctilious, more complicated in its workings than the opposition, in each of us, of good and evil, a doubleness of each of the soul’s impulses:

There’s a self-loathing here that lingers beneath Sachs’s words. He recognised the duality of his nature but seemed unable to control the characteristics that dragged him down, but merged with that self-loathing is no small degree of self-delusion. We see opportunities handed to Sachs squandered, but still he continues on a roller-coaster ride of fortune.

I’ll admit that as an Anglo reader, I missed some aspects of the book. References to René Blum, Jean Couteau, Gide, and Max Jacob had me turning to the internet and some phrases were not translated. Now after reading the book, I have the impression that I saw but a glimpse of Sachs, and this glimpse is distorted–slightly out-of focus.

Book Around the Corner and I decided to read Witches Sabbath and post our reviews at the same time. This is an exercise in alternate reactions to the same material, so check out her response for another opinion

Translated by Richard Howard

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The History of My Life by Casanova Vol. I

“I was all my life the victim of my senses”

Casanova’s memoirs have sat on my shelf for an indecent number of years. I bought the complete set (6 books total–each containing 2 volumes of memoirs) after a strong recommendation, and it didn’t take much arm-twisting as I have a weakness for memoirs. So 2011 was the year I finally picked up the first volume after whetting my appetite with some literary foreplay about The Great Lover.

Casanova (1725-1798) wrote the memoirs  beginning in 1789 while serving as the librarian for Count Waldstein at his castle at Dux in Bohemia. I’ll be honest and say that it’s not really clear how much is true and how much is fabricated. This is a concern with any memoir, of course, but in Casanova’s memoirs the issue of truth raises its head at almost every turn.

Volume I begins aptly with Casanova’s ancestry, his birth in 1725, his claim to nobility, his unremarkable childhood and ends in 1744. The first pages introduce the influence of women on Casanova’s life and also his strange health problems. He suffered from hemorrhages–a matter of no small concern especially since Casanova’s father died quite young from an abscess of the brain. Casanova’s parents were actors, and Casanova spends some time detailing his ancestry.

After his father’s death, the theatre-owning Grimani brothers became the family’s “protectors” or patrons. The plan was that Casanova would have a career in the church and he was sent to the University of Padua with that goal in mind. After three years at the University of Padua, Casanova received “minor orders” and became a “young ecclesiastic.” A further taste of the ecclesiastical life buried any illusions of a career in the church, and by the time the first volume ends, Casanova has literary aspirations.

This first volume shows Casanova in embryo. He still has a lot to learn about women, and for this reader, the most interesting aspects of this volume of the memoirs are to be found in the lessons Casanova learns. He’s a quick study when it comes to women, and a single incident is very easily converted into a lasting attitude towards the female sex.

One important lesson comes in the shape of Angela, a young woman Casanova becomes obsessed with. She plays a game of fast and loose and drives Casanova wild. In the meantime, her two friends, Nanetta and Marta make it perfectly clear that they are willing to comply even if their fickle friend isn’t. The lesson here for Casanova (and it takes him some time to stop panting after Angela) : enjoy the delights of the women who offer themselves and don’t waste time on the ones who tease beyond a reasonable amount of time.

In another significant episode, he’s driven to distraction by Lucia, a young servant girl who visits his room and sprawls on his bed. While they engage in a many a round of foreplay, the relationship is not consummated. This is something that Casanova rues much later when he learns that the girl ran off with a scoundrel, so he reasons that he ‘saved’ her for nothing. This is an important lesson for Casanova: why scruple against having sex with someone as who knows if they will still be there on the morrow? Here’s Casanova after receiving the news that Lucia has run off with another man:

As downcast as these decent people, I buried myself in the woods to ruminate my grief. I spent two hours in the most various reflections, some of them sound, others unsound, but all beginning with if. If I had arrived, as I might easily have done, a week earlier, my loving Lucia would have confided everything to me and I should have prevented this murder. If I had proceeded with her as I did with Nanetta and Marta, I should not have left her in the aroused state which must have been the chief cause of her yielding to the scoundrel’s desires. If she had not known me before she met the courier, her still innocent soul would not have listened to him. I was in despair at being forced to admit that I was the agent of the infamous seducer, that I had worked on his behalf.

While Casanova appears to blame himself for warming up Lucia, he comes to an interesting conclusion:

It is certain that if I had known where to look for her with any likelihood of finding her, I should have set off immediately. Before I knew of the disaster which had overtaken Lucia, I was proud, in my vanity, that I had been virtuous enough to leave her a virgin; and now I repented in shame of my stupid restraint. I promised myself that in future I would behave more wisely as far as restraint was concerned.

It’s impossible to read this volume without being struck that everything in Casanova’s world operates on favours. It’s the original ‘who-you-know’ scenario, and this is a system first seen in Casanova’s childhood and carried through to his old age. In this first volume, we see him passing from patron to patron as he begins to shape into the bon vivant, practiced seducer & the great storyteller.

I’ll admit that I initially found the beginning slow going but the pace picked up after Casanova left his childhood behind. This is not a fast read as the text is so dense with many quotable nuggets I wanted to reread. Some of the sex episodes were tedious–especially the one in which Casanova recounts a certain amount of coercion in a rather distasteful episode with the bride of a tenant-farmer. He recounts seizing the bride in a chaise during a thunderstorm and “clasp[ing] her by the buttocks” he carries  “off the most complete victory that ever a skillful swordsman won.” While Casanova has sneakily rearranged his breeches in order to achieve this, there is no mention of the woman’s undergarments, so it seems that there is some exaggeration here in order to create the illusion of a smoothly seamless and rapid seduction.

There are many wonderful quotes here, and it is difficult to select just a few to give a taste of the memoirs. Here’s one I particularly liked:

 You will laugh when you discover that I often had no scruples about deceiving nitwits and scoundrels and fools when I found it necessary. As for women, this sort of reciprocal deceit cancels itself out, for when love enters in, both parties are usually dupes.

And another quote that captured my imagination:

A quarter of an hour after my arrival, the murmur of water struck by the oars of a gondola coming in to the landing announced the prodigal Marchese.

It’s impossible to read this volume and not comment on the fantastic notion of Casanova serving the Church of Rome. Of course, he would have had plenty of earlier examples set for him–the Medicis and the Borgias leap to mind. He is such unsuitable raw material. Apart from his love of the sensual, he lacks humility and is insulted by the notion that he must humble himself before ‘superiors.’ Casanova seems to slip easily into a life of nimble wit and entertain his patrons, but he balks at the notion of obedience and subjugation. He is horrified at the idea of penury and obscurity, and it’s clear that when he thinks of a career in the church, he imagines an ambitious, meteoric rise to power. He probably would have been very happy if he could have become a cardinal and skip all the necessary steps to get to that point. He notes:

I had only six more months to spend in Venice awaiting the prelate, who was perhaps to set me on the road to the Papacy. Such were my castles in Spain.

Also in this volume, it’s quite clear that Casanova’s weakness for women is for women in general (at one point he waxes on about the beauty of women’s feet), but he does discriminate against ugly women at least at this stage in his life. We also see his ruinous gambling habit and his nose for intrigue. I’m including here a wonderful quote that rings of sincerity:

Having observed that I have all my life acted more from the force of feeling than from my reflections, I have concluded that my conduct has depended more on my character than on my mind, after a long struggle between them in which I have alternately found myself with too little intelligence for my character and too little character for my intelligence.

 Translated by Willard R. Trask

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The Duel by Casanova

I couldn’t decide what to read next and then there on the shelf I discovered Casanova’s The Duel. My copy is from Hesperus Press, and its 100 plus pages includes Casanova’s novella The Duel as well as an excerpt from his memoirs. The excerpt covers the same material Casanova fictionalized for the novella. This ‘duel’ selection is then the same incident viewed from two angles.

Tim Parks  (recently discovered thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal) writes the foreword, and translator J.G. Nichols writes the introduction.  Nichols discusses the functions of dueling and argues that it served multiple purposes–revenge, and a “more or less controlled outlet for violence.” Nichols notes that duels also maintained and reinforced the existing social order as duelling could only take place between equals. Parks’ discussion of duels includes the irresistible elements of absurdity and idealism, so while Parks and Nichols cover the same material, they both see the material from different angles–rather as Casanova did when he fictionalized the episode.

For the reader, Parks’ introduction places the story in the context of Casanova’s adventurous life. He’d been arrested and thrown in a “stifling, rat-infested cell beneath the roof of the Doges’ Palace.” Left to languish, Casanova had no definitive sentence. He escaped and became an “outlaw” about to begin a life of exile. Casanova’s novella, based on a real-life incident describes the main character of The Duel in the third person, The Venetian. Both Parks and Nichols find this significant as it emphasizes Casanova’s sense of exile. For the purposes of the story, it also emphasizes his foreignness. Most of the novella takes place in Poland, and the fact that the protagonist, The Venetian (the thinly veiled Casanova) is foreign plays a large role in the story’s action.

Given the title, it’s clear that the story is centered on a duel. The duel is sparked by the most trivial of causes–in other words it was simply an excuse for a fight. The tale is set in Poland, and the Venetian is initially very well-received there. Soon he’s hanging out with the Polish court sporting his Roman Order of Knighthood which is “rather the worse for wear.”  Trouble appears in the form of a certain Venetian ballerina who’s the mistress of Branicki, the Grand Butler to the Crown, and a “friend to the king.”  The ballerina, who has a coterie of admirers, notes that the Venetian favours another ballerina, and so with no small degree of vexation, she instigates a duel between the Venetian and Branicki.  In order to satisfy his mistress’s demands, Branicki does as he’s told and picks a fight with the Venetian. Then arrangements for the duel take place.

The pre-duel details make fascinating reading. At first there’s the outrage, the insults, and then a duel of words. The Venetian wants to use swords on the following day, but Branicki insists on pistols that afternoon. Once the duel is agreed upon, the participants slide into excessive politeness as they almost try to outdo each other on the issue of consideration.  Here’s the Venetian:

Pistols are too dangerous. It could happen that to my great grief I had the misfortune to kill you, and equally you might, against your will, perhaps without hating me very much, kill me. Therefore no pistols. With a sword in my hand I hope that I shall not chance to wound you mortally, and a few drops of your blood would be ample compensation to me for the affront with which you have sullied me. Similarly, I shall do my best to protect myself, so that you will only manage to prick me lightly, and that small amount of my blood will suffice to cleanse me from the ugly stain with which you have blackened me. In conclusion, remember that you have given me the choice of weapons. I have chosen the sword, and I wish to fight only with the sword, and I have the right to maintain that it is no longer your place to refuse it.

Branicki, who has earlier told the Venetian that he is “aware of the tricks your nation gets up to,” is the sneaky one here. He’s an expert shot and by begging a favour of the Venetian, Branicki manipulates his opponent into the polite selection: pistols.

A large portion of the novella is given to the details of the duel–the arrangements, the duel and its aftermath. The very best parts of the story occur when we are allowed to see the thought processes  & philosophy of the Venetian beneath all the trappings of polite society. He waxes on regarding the trivial yet crucial details of court life– including the rules regarding the discourse of monarchs. It’s clear that while Casanova possesses a finite understanding of the subtleties of court life and is a master of etiquette and protocol, underneath the smiles and the flattery, he’s primarily a sardonic observer who notes the vapid conversations, the hypocrisies of polite behaviour, and the  uses of vain, absurd flattery. At one point, for example, the Venetian weighs his options regarding the duel and extrapolates the consequences of each choice. He is advised to do  “much or nothing.” While he opts to do “much,” he is not driven by passion or outrage–only calculation. The Venetian describes Honour as an “imaginary good,” and yet he realises at the same time that his welcome at the courts of Europe depends upon such nonsense.

The book’s second section, the excerpt from Casanova’s memoirs gives a first person account of the same duel and later details how he is no longer welcome in Poland. This section also describes a period in which Casanova stayed at a Polish inn. He negotiates the purchase of the virginity of a peasant girl for 100 florins:

The matter was concluded the same day after supper. Afterwards, she made off like a thief. I heard her father had been obliged to beat her to make her obey. 

I recently read Stefan Zweig’s Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. While I throughly enjoyed Zweig’s analysis of Casanova, he made some sweeping statements about Casanova’s relationships. Here’s just one section:

He has made a great many women happy, but has made no woman hysterical. From the episode of sensual adventure, they return undamaged to everyday life, to their husbands, or to their lovers, as the case may be. Not one of them commits suicide or falls into a decline. Their internal equilibrium has never been disturbed, for Casanova’s unambiguous and radically healthy passion has never touched the mainspring of their destiny. He has blown athwart them like a tropical hurricane, and after he passed they will bloom in a more ardent sensuality. He has made them glow without singeing them; has conquered them without destroying them; has seduced them without corrupting them. Precisely because his erotic assault has been confined to the resistant tissues of the epidermis, and has never reached the vulnerable depths of the soul, his conquests never lead to catastrophes. Consequently, there is nothing daimonic about Casanova as a lover; he never brings tragedy into a woman’s life. In the drama of love, the world’s stage knows no more brilliant episodist that he, but he is nothing more than an episodist. (from Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig)

Well so much for that. Beautifully written but in light of the girl beaten by her father to force her submission to Casanova, it seems that at least one poor, wretched girl wasn’t thrilled by Casanova’s attentions. He’s hardly the first man of wealth to pay for a peasant girl, but this episode does add another dimension to Casanova’s amorous adventures. Did Zweig miss this section of Casanova’s memoirs?

The excerpt concludes with Casanova up to his old tricks. This time he intercepts an impoverished girl who hopes to get a position as a governess. He makes his offer:

If, instead of becoming a children’s governess, you would like to become governess to a man of honour, come and live with me. I will give you fifty écus, not per year, but per month.

The downpayment seals the deal.

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The Memoirs of Lacenaire by Philip John Stead (part II)

Considering all the excitement generated by Lacenaire’s memoirs, I expected more. The acerbic wit Lacenaire ably demonstrated in the courtroom is, unfortunately, absent for large chunks of the text. Instead Lacenaire’s memoirs, which are chronological, take a mostly banal expository approach to life, and the best bits occur when Lacenaire opens up with his philosophy and moves away from chronology and the blame game.  He seems to want his future readers to understand his actions and so he doesn’t risk alienating his audience. Instead of defiance, he portrays himself largely as a victim of circumstance. The memoirs were, not too surprisingly, censored before publication. This was something that Lacenaire expected, and before his death he expressed his doubts about the memoirs ever being published:

These are my memoirs–I do not know what will be done with them. I do not know whether Monsieur Allard, to whose generosity I am much indebted, will publish them one day; I do not know whether the police will tear pages out or add chapters… Ah well!

There are, according to Stead, rumours of “another manuscript” and then there’s speculation that part was added by the publisher or invented by Lacenaire. Stead argues that the style change in the last few pages indicates that the conclusion was ghosted. Throughout the memoirs, Stead painstakingly notes the number of lines censored and missing from the text–about forty gouges in all, and he includes in-page notations indicating missing lines. Stead states:

Over half the deletions concern Lacenaire’s materialistic views on religion. Then come his criticisms of the existing social order.

Well no wonder they had to go. Stead, vigilant in his attempts to package the memoirs together as faithfully as possible, also “restored” one of Lacenaire’s poems to the text.

 Both the first and second preface to the memoirs exhibit the sort of wit Lacenaire proved he was capable of during the trial, and to be fair to the author, it must be remembered that the memoirs were written in haste, under pressure and interrupted by the guillotine before they could be completed. A large portion of the memoirs is spent on Lacenaire’s childhood–a miserable one by all accounts. Throughout these pages Lacenaire sprinkles the tantalizing idea of ‘if only’ . If only he’d been more loved…if only his parents had been this or that…if only he’d been given a chance…and I suspect readers will have a range of reactions to Lacenaire’s life and claims that he could have been a contender if fate (and circumstance) had been a little kinder

Lacenaire states that his father, a “rich bachelor” and a successful businessman was 47 when he met and married an eighteen year-old-girl. They had no children in the first six years of their marriage, and then followed 13 little Lacenaires. Six survived: the first son (Lacenaire’s brother), Lacenaire and four sisters. Lacenaire continually expresses the belief that he was unloved and unwanted while his elder brother was a favourite with his parents. He was, he states, “a victim of injustice since infancy.”

Lacenaire’s education was composed of various schools from which he was expelled for a range of infractions. Sometimes he presents himself as the victim of wrong-doing and at another time he argues that he was trying to protect another boy. Of course it’s impossible to know the truth of these stories, but by the time he was an adult, he needed to earn a living, and this was problematic.

Lacenaire had been raised and educated as a gentleman, and yet he found himself trying to make his way in the world. Ordinarily, perhaps he would have joined his family’s business concerns or perhaps become a lawyer. Indeed Lacenaire mentions that he was intended for either the Bar or medicine, but that those plans fell apart when his father’s business interests failed. This left Lacenaire in the position of having to earn his living, but at the same time having expensive tastes for a lifestyle he could not support. Lacenaire tried a brief stint (well, two in the army) and he also tried various lines of work.  He “nearly always spent above his means” plus he had a gambling habit. He worked as a public scribe, for a lawyer, in a bank, became a commercial traveler  “in wines and spirits”  and even tried to launch a literary career (“I had a vaudeville produced, which was not entirely mine, but I wrote the couplets for it“).  His fortunes waxed and waned. On the rare occasions that he had a sizeable amount of money (usually borrowed from relatives), he rapidly lost it at the gaming tables. Lacenaire admits that he wasn’t troubled by:

leading such a vagabond existence [because] I sincerely believed that one day I should inherit more money than I needed to live in peace and devote myself to my beloved literature.

Lacenaire’s only relatives with money to spare were aunts, and he eventually wore out his welcome by continually hitting them up for money which was rapidly lost gambling. By this time the Lacenaire family moved (ran off), and when he deserted from the army, Lacenaire discovered that his family had absconded to Belgium leaving a trail of debts behind. He’d already dabbled in forgery and now found himself “dying of hunger.”

According to Stead “whenever Lacenaire found things difficult, he instinctively turned to crime.” Lacenaire, who was a great admirer of Vidocq, by the way, eventually decided to become “a thief and an assassin,”  and he deliberately got himself incarcerated in order to find a likely accomplice to help him with his life of crime:

I determined to be the scourge of Society, but I could do nothing alone. I needed partners; where should I find them? I had long been ignorant of what a professional thief was really like. But I had just been reading the Memoirs of Vidocq and had formed some idea of the criminal class in its state of continual hostility against Society. In its ranks, I told myself, I must find the men to second me; only there shall I find them. But how to set about it? I gave it long consideration, and consideration convinced me that to attain my end and make the acquaintances I needed it was absolutely necessary to spend some time among such people.

Stead makes a great deal out of Lacenaire’s death-wish. Apparently, Lacenaire’s father, despairing of his son, had at one time pointed out the guillotine and predicted that Lacenaire would end up having his head chopped off. After reading the memoirs, Lacenaire’s drive to commit murder struck me as a significant factor, and his desire to kill comes up more than once.

When Lacenaire went on trial in Paris, he was charged with the murder of the Chardons, but  in fact, he had committed murder before. He shot a man in the face and then left the scene of the crime to look like a case of suicide. At another point in the memoirs, he gives frustratingly few details about his attempts to murder a former mistress (he failed). He also fought a duel with the nephew of Benjamin Constant. Some sources state that Constant’s nephew was not killed in the duel, and so I’m including this statement from Lacenaire concerning the event:

In 1829, I fought a duel with Benjamin Constant’s nephew. The scene of the combat was one of the dry moats of the Champs-de-Mars. I did all I could to avoid the affair; I tried to enter into some arrangement, for it troubled me to fight him. He refused and fired first. The direction of his pistol and the assistance of the two banks of the moat gave his aim told me I was a dead man. However, he missed me. I fired in my turn; he fell immediately. The sight of his death-agony caused me no emotion.

François, Lacenaire’s accomplice for the botched robbery and attempted murder of the bank employee was ready to murder someone for twenty francs, and this seems to be a ‘selling point’ as far as Lacenaire was concerned. Here’s Lacenaire on the subject of murder, and while he argues that a murderer, if caught, is guaranteed the scaffold for his crimes rather than a sentence to the galleys, somehow that rings false when he lets slip a sentence such as this:

Throughout this period I never remitted my search for someone prepared to assist me in a murder.

In his memoirs, Lacenaire emphasizes the idea that he was a victim of circumstance, and there’s some substance to that argument. He’d been raised as a gentleman but did not have the means to sustain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. He enjoyed dressing elegantly, dining in fine restaurants, and attending the theatre. He also loved to gamble.  All these things are hardly entitlements, of course, but he found them hard to give up. Lacenaire’s life was without prospects, and he had no wealthy relatives ready to pull strings to advance his employment. He tried various avenues of employment but found himself cast out time after time. But was he a really a victim of circumstance? Lacenaire seems to giving us just a version of events, and some significant events are passed over with triviality. He mentions, as an aside, fighting 8 duels for example (and killing 2 men) and there’s also mention of a vice-squad scam involving wealthy men–again Lacenaire gives frustratingly few details. Lacenaire seems to be one of those people destined to self-destruct quickly in life, and this is manifested by his desperate crime and gambling sprees. Here’s a quote from Stead on the veracity of Lacenaire’s memoirs:

 Can we accept the version of his life which he offers us? Is he telling the truth? He told the truth as far as he could. Hostile critics of the Memoirs will refuse to see more than the frenzied vanity of a failure, making a last hysterical attempt at self-justification. But there is more than that. There is the history of a lost and baffled spirit, and a feverish attempt at finding the truth. If we feel that Lacenaire sometimes places a construction upon events which they would not have borne at the time, we can still recognize the inescapable characteristic drift of his nature in everything he tells us. When he twists the interpretation of a fact, we are not deceived, because he has first told us that fact. As his quill races on, the story darkens into truth. The impression of savage, swift hate, of inflamed sensibility and inverted pride, of fatal blindness grows deeper. We catch glimpses of the incomplete virtuoso, the unrealized artist, the damaged, defensive sceptic. The psychologist and the moralist will judge him according to their respective fashions; he offers them both every facility. The Memoirs stand, unique, grotesque, a murderer’s cast into his own darkness for the secret of his fate.

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Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar-The Memoirs of Five Young Anarchist Women of the 1870s

“I left by the back door.” Praskovia Ivanovskaia-a quote chosen for its simplicity and also for its symbolism

I have a soft spot for memoirs. While we may lose the intricacies of professional writing, a memoir more than makes up for it by its eye-witness accounts. This idea echoes throughout Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar–The Memoirs of Five Young Anarchist Women of the 1870s. The five women are Vera Figner, Vera Zasulich, Olga Liubatovich, Praskovia Ivanovskaia, and Elizaveta Kovalskaia. All five women left their homes and their families and became revolutionaries. These memoirs chart the lives of the women, why they became revolutionaries and how some of them turned to violence. The foreword, by Alix Kates Shulman explains that the women and their memoirs are largely forgotten and were “rescued from the Siberia of dusty library shelves where for years they have languished untranslated in obscure collections.” Translated by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, these memoirs are “selections” (with the exception of the Liubatovich memoir), and the materials are “composites…assembled from autobiographical fragments written and published at various times.”  

The introduction sets forth the background to the atmosphere of the times, explaining Russian Populism (the ideology of agrarian revolution), the schools of thought created by Lavrov and Bakunin: both thinkers who had very different approaches to the idea of how exactly how to involve the peasantry in social change, the development of the Pan-Russian Social Revolutionary Movement, and the Land and Liberty Movement. The introduction also explains the importance of The Trial of the Fifty (1877) and the Trial of the Hundred and Ninety Three (1877), trials in which the defendants’ crime was “preaching socialism to the peasants.” In the latter trial:

“They had suffered as much as four years of pretrial imprisonment under the harshest conditions; dozens were lost to illness, death (sometimes by suicide), or madness. At the trial, many of the accused expressed their contempt for the tribunal by refusing to present any defense, and when one man did attempt to describe the conditions in prison and make a political statement, he was repeatedly silenced by the judges and finally dragged from the courtroom.”

Most of the defendants were acquitted or the length of their pre-trial imprisonment was taken into consideration for sentencing and they were released, tougher, bitter and “with the determination not to make the naive errors that made them easy targets for government repression.” Before this point, the revolutionaries could perhaps be more accurately described as reformers who had fairly transparent motives and goals. This transparency is largely due to the negative influence of Sergei Nechaev in the 1860s, and by the time the 1870s rolled around:

“In radical circles, the aversion to his [Nechaev's] dictatorial, dishonest methods was so strong that for years to come, any attempt to create a centralized, hierarchical organization met with great suspicion.”

Nechaev is a curious and poisonous figure in Russian revolutionary history, and for those who’d like to read more, seek out a copy of Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich. (Nechaev’s story and behaviour poses questions of revolutionary morality–he murdered a fellow revolutionary and this crime formed the basis of Dostoevsky’s The Demons).

But these are preliminary issues that set the stage for the explosive 1870s, and it is during this period that revolutionaries shifted from the idea of social reform through peasant involvement to the assassination of the Tsar.

 The book’s introduction details the spilt within Land and Liberty–an extremely important event “in the history of the revolutionary populist movement” with two factions emerging: The People’s Will (advocates of regicide) and Black Repartition (committed to agrarian revolution and economic terror). The women whose memoirs make up the substance of Five Sisters found themselves on different sides of the fence when it came to the issue of violence and the assassination of the Tsar.

The stories of these women are remarkable, and if you’ve got any interest in either the subject matter or the times, then grab a copy of this book. As each of the 5 memoirs unfolds, the women make their choices and take definite irrevocable steps in their revolutionary lives, and while there are some underlying commonalities to each of the stories, they are all, at the same time, quite different.

Vera Figner describes how she was a student in Zürich, very much interested in the ideas of social revolution. At the time, women were not allowed to attend university in Russia and single women could not travel without permission, so Vera Figner married and travelled to Zürich in order to achieve her goal of becoming a doctor. In 1873, the Russian government “forbade women students to remain in Zürich any longer. If they proved obstinate, the government threatened to bar them from licensing examinations in Russia.” So in essence, if women tried to circumvent the Russian government’s refusal to allow them a Zürich education, then their attempts would be annihilated when and if they returned to Russian soil. While this only applied to Zürich, there was another problem. In order to apply pressure through the women students’ families, the government claimed that the Russian female students were engaging in “free love” and using “their medical knowledge to destroy the fruits of this love.”  This reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s speech in the 60s regarding the behaviour of Berkeley students, and in this speech, Reagan read a letter about the scandalous goings-on taking place at a party. Different century, different continent, same tactic.

But I digress….

Vera Figner did later abandon her medical studies to take up the revolutionary cause, and as part of Land and Liberty’s  plan to infiltrate and educate the peasantry, Figner became a paramedic, but quickly discovered that it was impossible to work freely amongst the peasants. At this point, Figner joined The People’s Will:

“My past experience had convinced me that the only way to change the existing order was by force. If any group had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it; at the very least, I would have tried it out. But, as you know, we don’t have a free press in our country, and so ideas cannot be spread by the written word. I saw no signs of protest–neither in the zemstovs, nor in the courts, nor in any of the other organized groups of our society; nor was literature producing changes in our social life. And so I concluded that violence was the only solution. I could not follow the peaceful path.”

Vera Figner went on to help make the bombs that killed Tsar Alexander II in March 1881. Part of her memoir describes carrying dynamite, revolutionaries setting up at various safe houses, and frustration at failed assassination attempts.

The second memoir is from Vera Zasulich, an intriguing and significant figure. The day after the conclusion of the Trial of the One Hundred and Ninety Three, “the populist movement entered its terrorist stage” when on January 24, 1878, Vera Zasulich shot General Trepov in retaliation for his severe beating of a political prisoner who had refused to remove his hat. Rather miraculously, and this is a sign of the sympathies of the time, Vera Zasulich was later acquitted. But her action announced a wave of violence: assassinations, assassination attempts, and bombings. Interestingly enough, Vera Zusulich did not embrace propaganda of the deed wholeheartedly, and as the book describes, she spent the rest of her days feeling somehow responsible for the violent turn of events. One of the most interesting sections in her memoir recalls her meeting with the enigmatic Nechaev, and Vera Zusulich, very cannily smelled a rat about Nechaev’s approach.

The third memoir in the book is that of Praskovia Ivanovskaia, a revolutionary who along with Vera Figner, chose to follow the path of The People’s Will. Praskovia Ivanovskaia first worked in a rope factory and later on a farm as a sheepshearer in the Ukraine. The details of these experiences show the underlying problems members of the intelligensia/gentry encountered when they attempted to mingle with the peasantry, and also why this contact essentially failed as a revolutionary strategy.  After failing with the peasantry,  Praskovia Ivanovskaia returned to St. Petersburg. As a member of The People’s Will, she was later accused, tried and convicted for involvement in the assassination of the Tsar. Condemned to death, her sentence was commuted to “life at hard labour,” and some of her memoir describes the hellish conditions endured in prison.

The fourth memoir is from Olga Liubatovich (nicknamed ‘the shark’ for her appetite). Olga Liubatovich too had her early attempts to blend in with the workers–this time in a factory in Moscow where she was denounced and arrested. It took almost two years for the case to come to trial and then Liubatovich received a nine-year sentence. The sentence of hard labour was commuted to exile in Siberia, and she was shipped off. Amazingly, she faked her own suicide and managed to get back to St. Petersburg. This is Liubatovich on the failure to roust the peasantry:

“Yes, we had hoped to find a people conscious of the ‘rights of man’–that was to be the higher moral sanction of our politics. Instead, we found an amorphous mass, a slave-people who occasionally produced some powerful individuals, but on the whole were immersed in a deep, lethargic sleep. And so, to avenge that distortion of human nature, we revolutionaries had drawn our swords against the state. First idealism, then pained outrage–that is the entire psychology of the classical or heroic period of our revolutionary history.”

Olga Liubatovich goes on to discuss the split in Land and Liberty into Black Repartition and The People’s Will which she describes as “less the result of differences in principle than of differences in temperament.”

The fifth and final memoir, Elizaveta Kovalskaia is unique. She was born a serf (serf mother, landowner father), and as a child persuaded her father to make her and her mother into free citizens. Kovalskaia eventually inherited the estate and no doubt because of her early experiences maintained a sensitivity to the roles of the serfs and the peasantry. Politically conscious as a young girl, she makes this statement in her memoir:

Toward this time, a new judicial institution was introduced to Kharkov: the public trial. After we finished our schoolwork, our group would race to the court sessions, where we sometimes stayed until midnight. We saw social issues unfold before us, in scenes from real life. Among other things, we saw peasants who had been cheated of their land by the emancipation process being tried for rebellion; and we saw  women, who unable to bear their legally sanctioned slavery, had murdered their husbands.”

Elizaveta Kovalskaia worked primarily organising factory workers, and although she briefly joined Black Repartition, her involvement lasted just a few months. Thereafter she “shunned” revolutionary groups, and in one section of her memoirs, she very thoughtfully lays out her reasoning:

“You would have to try to make your actions conform to the organization’s statute–which in many cases had been developed in the libraries of people who were out of touch with real life. Then too, in revolutionary practice there were frequent conflicts between your own inner morality and the theoretical morality of the group, and you sometimes had to steer a course between them.”

This extract does go on to list the advantages of being part of an organization, but clearly Kovalskaia leaned towards following her own beliefs and working independently of a group construct.

Sometimes the stories of these women cross over and connect as they traverse the often lonely disconnected lives devoted to social and political change, sacrificing any notion of family life, home and even the self to the ultimate cause. The memoirs of these remarkable women should be read by anyone interested in trying to understand the atmosphere of the times and to place and make sense of, for example, Vera Zasulich’s acquittal for shooting General Trepov in those otherwise oppressive years. Zasulich’s acquittal–which reflects the sympathies of the times–reminds me, oddly enough, about the history of the animal liberation movement–a movement that enjoyed widespread public support in the 80s but rapidly degenerated into a dirty word after the Unilever Trial.

Since the translators of Five Sisters let the memoirs speak for themselves, I’m going to follow suit with a quote from Vera Figner. The quote is made early in her revolutionary career while she was still in Zürich and alight with the possibilities of change fermenting beneath the surface of Russian society. This is a naive question that she seems to ask rhetorically, but for which the answer appeared, suddenly in the violence and upheaval of 1917:

“But how would it be possible to do away with private property, or to abolish the rights of inheritance, when everyone wanted to keep what he had? Everyone would defend his property, and those who feasted at life’s table would never voluntarily agree to relinquish their privileges.” 

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With Fates Conspire by John Taylor Caldwell

“Mr. Aldred called the Labour Party a crowd of crooks and the Tories a bag of tricksters. He said he had spent his life trying to sweep away the rubbish of capitalism.”

With Fates Conspire: Memoirs of a Glasgow Seafarer and Anarchist is the second volume in John Taylor Caldwell’s 2-part memoir, and this volume picks up where the first left off. John Taylor Caldwell is sixteen years old, poverty-stricken and living in Glasgow. In With Fates Conspire, Caldwell describes his life on the cruise ships, and the appalling work conditions he suffered. Employed as a bellboy, Caldwell worked incredibly long days, mostly on an empty stomach, and was subject to the rigorous hierarchal system established by the cruise line employees. Not even given utensils with which to eat meals, Caldwell and his fellow bellboys were the lowest beings in the ship’s pecking order. Working an average of 16 hours or more a day, seven days a week, Caldwell spent years on various cruise ships, ever mindful of the fate of the bellboys on the Titanic. His voyages took him far away from home, to New York, Barbados and Havana. And on some of his trips, he haunted the bookshops, even spending a little of his paltry wages on books.

Caldwell’s time between voyages was problematic. His family’s unstable home life was horrific, and his irresponsible father had a tendency to sell his son’s belongings the minute he left on another sea voyage. Caldwell is, then, rather rootless and solitary when he finally meets anarchist Guy Aldred. In 1934, Caldwell joined the United Socialist Movement and soon he became part of the circle surrounding Aldred.

Apart from the odd sea voyage, between 1936 and Aldred’s death in 1963, Caldwell worked consistently in Glasgow assisting Aldred. After reading With Fates Conspire, it’s clear that Caldwell admired Aldred, and it’s also quite clear that this was not reciprocated. Caldwell doesn’t complain about how he was treated by Guy Aldred, Guy’s companion Jenny Patrick and Guy’s close friend Ethel MacDonald, but after reading the book, my impression is that in the Aldred circle, Caldwell was not treated as an equal. While Ethel MacDonald apparently treated Caldwell quite well (he lived in her home for some time when she went to Spain as a journalist to cover the Civil War), the same cannot be said of Jenny Patrick. There’s one rather distressing episode in the book when Caldwell finally has a public speaking engagement and Jenny Patrick is horribly rude (she makes noises and picks at her teeth while Caldwell speaks). Now since this is one of the few visions of Jenny Patrick we have, it certainly doesn’t give a good impression.

Personal details about Caldwell are startling absent from this volume. At the conclusion of With Fates Conspire, we have no idea if Caldwell had any sort of relationships outside of the Aldred circle, or if he ever loved. After the details of life on the cruise ships, the book concentrates squarely on Caldwell’s life with Aldred. Caldwell describes Aldred’s troubled relations with Emma Goldman, division within the Glasgow anarchist scene, and Aldred’s problematic relationships with Walter Strickland and the Duke of Bedford.

Caldwell also describes Aldred as an “avid anti parliamentarian” who “took part in postwar parliamentary elections six times.” Now no self-respecting anarchist would be seen near a ballot box, let alone run for election. According to Caldwell, Aldred used the ballot box to “expose the farcical and false nature of parliamentarism,” and on the slim chance that Aldred was elected, he promised that he would not take his seat. Although it’s obvious that Caldwell did not approve of Aldred’s political activities, for this section of the book, Caldwell acts as an apologist of sorts for Aldred’s political involvement as he attempts to explain and justify it for the reader. For this reader, at least, Aldred’s political activity remains problematic. The Aldred group, in my opinion, spent too much energy and too much money (and let’s face it, they didn’t have it to waste) on this so-called “propaganda device.”

Caldwell died in January 2007, and with his death, we see the passing of an age. We should not judge Aldred too harshly; so much has changed since Aldred’s time. We should read Caldwell to remind ourselves of a vital episode in anarchist history and also to remember that we are best served by forging bonds between anarchist groups rather than severing connections due to ideological differences.

Finally, my copy of With Fates Conspire has a copyright date of 1999, but its content stops in the early 70s (although the final chapter does describe working on Come Dungeons Dark, the biography of Aldred in the 80s and 90s).  Aldred died in 1963, but With Fates Conspire, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly Caldwell’s memoirs, doesn’t explore the post Aldred years. I know, no let me rephrase that, I’d like to think that Caldwell led an interesting, rich and full life post-Aldred. But if he did, there’s no trace of it here. This modest author instead hardly even mentions the final 4 decades of his life.

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Severely Dealt With–Growing Up in Belfast and Glasgow by John Taylor Caldwell

“Dissidents would be severely dealt with.” 

 Severely Dealt With is the first volume in Glasgow anarchist John Taylor Caldwell’s two-part memoir. Perhaps best known for his biography of Guy Aldred, Come Dungeons Dark Caldwell was, at first, reluctant to write his memoirs as he claimed,  “he had no story to tell.” Far from it. Caldwell’s death on January 12, 2007 signifies the passing of an age, and as such his memoirs are an integral part and vital episode of anarchist history.  

Severely Dealt With covers Caldwell’s birth in 1911 until his sixteenth year in 1927. Born in Glasgow, the third of six children, his childhood was plagued with crushing poverty. Caldwell’s father, a tailor, moved to Belfast in 1914, and the rest of the family joined him there in 1915. The family remained in Belfast until 1925, when the explosive political situation between catholics and protestants led to a severe decline in fortunes and eventually forced the family’s relocation back to Scotland.  

The growing Caldwell family had a rocky start when they first arrived in Belfast. Then followed a ten-year period of relative prosperity, continued employment, and a house with an inside toilet. The children were ritually dragged off to church on Sundays, and Caldwell tries to make sense of his changing world, exhibiting curiosity and a sunny disposition. Caldwell relates many instances of children beaten by sadistic schoolmasters who abused their ‘authority.’ These descriptions of undeserved beatings remind us that not everything in this world has changed for the worse. And it’s in this environment that Caldwell’s loathing of violence gels. To him, school is a training ground for the acceptance of authority: 

“These social outcasts were herded into classroom, not just to be educated, but to be disciplined; to be tamed. Hence order, silence, unquestioned obedience, were powerful ingredients in their instruction. They should be made to fear authority. To “know your place”, and not to “talk back to your betters” were common expressions on the lips of adults when I was young. All respectable people approved on this prescription, and the dictum went forth that dissidents would be “severely dealt with.”

Caldwell describes his family’s tenuous, yet desperate hold on middle-class status (his mother reluctantly admits “lower middle class”). This is a highly stratified society, so much so, that Caldwell was quite aware of even the subtlest of class distinctions at an incredibly early age.  At one point he describes Belfast: 

“Immediately outside the city were the mansions of the gentry, at the end of long drives guarded by iron gates, beside which stood the lodge-keeper’s cottage. Nearer the town were fine villas and semi-detached houses. Down the social scale, but still with the middle-class, were spacious Victorian terraces. Then we come to the lesser terraces in the city itself, cheek by jowl with the cobbled side streets of the labouring classes. We lived in a lesser terrace because our father was a master tailor, with his own little factory of six treadle machines and a fitting room, high above Royal Avenue…. We were especially careful of our respectability in the lower terraces because only the tramlines and a sliver of good fortune separated us from the cobbled domains of the lower orders.”

Caldwell lived through some remarkable times. He recalls WWI, the Armistice, men who refused to fight, and soldiers who never returned. There’s also a good summary of the unrest in Ireland included here. Caldwell notes that there was no conscription in Ireland during WWI, and that the Irish had been promised Home Rule “before the war, but suspended till six months after the war.” He notes that the call for Home Rule became “obsolete” and instead it became a cry for “Independence and Republicanism.” And he describes the division of Ireland as a situation that pleased neither side. The Troubles altered the Caldwell family’s life, and certainly hampered Caldwell’s father’s ability to earn a living. Then began the family’s rapid slide into extreme poverty and squalor.  

As the family’s fortunes declined, Caldwell’s childhood disappeared.  He describes his bleak home life with the occasional bright, joyful moment of play. They lived in a series of crude structures, and at age 11, Caldwell began working 36 hours a week. But the little money the children were able to scrape together through their various jobs was not enough to pull the family from its dire straits. Caldwell’s father, always a problematic figure at the best of times, sinks to some of his worst behaviour during this period, and when forced to endure the harshness of unrelenting poverty, his brutal, selfish nature explodes, beating his children, and abusing his wife to the point of contributing to her death.

After the death of his beloved mother, Caldwell’s home life worsened considerably, and it becomes glaringly obvious that his mother both shielded the children from their father and absorbed a great deal of his nastiness. The family’s return to Scotland allows optimism to reign briefly, but it soon becomes obvious that Caldwell has few prospects in his impending adulthood. Yet the book manages to end on an optimistic note. Severely Dealt With really is a remarkable account, and a solid, good read. I was a little perturbed at first by the references to god, and then I realised that Caldwell’s wry humour is at play here. His character shines through the pages, and in spite of the tremendous hardships Caldwell suffered, in true anarchist fashion, he never whines or complains; he deals with it.

One of the things I find fascinating is what causes people to become anarchists. Is it a single event? Is a slow dawning process? Or to quote from Stuart Christie’s book Granny Made Me an Anarchist: “the only way you can become an anarchist is to wake up one morning and find you are one.” Although this first volume concludes before Caldwell ‘finds’ anarchism, these pages leave clues to Caldwell’s decision; his feet are solidly on the path to discovery. In the last few pages of the book, Caldwell exhibits a growing curiosity about the corrupt state of political affairs, and, in spite of a childhood seeped in conditioning to accept authority administered (of course) by his “betters,” he’s set to question his fate in life. The second volume reveals Caldwell’s introduction to anarchism and his lifelong involvement in the Glasgow scene (amongst other things). 

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Memoirs of a Revolutionist by Kropotkin

“This was the first spark of anarchism.”

Peter Kropotkin was an extraordinary individual whose life spanned a remarkable period of history. Born in 1842 to an aristocratic Russian family, he carved a career as a scientist and a geographer, but above all else, Kropotkin was an anarchist. Like many young people of his time, he rejected the inequities of Russian society and sought alternatives.

Memoirs of a Revolutionist begins with Kropotkin’s childhood, his mother’s early death and his father’s subsequent remarriage. After Tsar Nicholas I decreed that all sons of the aristocracy must have a military career, Kropotkin was a student in the Corps of Pages and eventually a page in the Winter Palace. Kropotkin was slated for a brilliant military career enjoyed by only the highest echelons of Russian society. Why then did the young Kropotkin turn his back on St. Petersburg and the favours of the Tsar in order to purse his military career in Siberia? The idealistic Kropotkin saw Siberia as an “immense field for the application of the great reforms” and yet after joining a mounted Cossack unit, he saw his suggested reforms fall victim to the Reactionary wave that swept through Russia.

Kropotkin charts his interest in radical and forbidden books, the brutality of the Corps of Pages, his initial faith in Tsar Alexander II’s reforms, exactly how and why the Emancipation of the Serfs failed, and the subsequent turbulent Reactionary Period. His vivid detailed descriptions of serfdom go far beyond anything I’ve ever read on the subject, and it’s clear that in spite of the fact that Kropotkin was Russian nobility, his empathy for the serfs began in early childhood. A considerable part of the book is spent detailing exactly how the serfs or “souls” were treated–in essence they were seen as rather like farm animals–except for the tributes they were supposed to conjure up for their ‘masters.’ The medieval system of serfdom, and the nobility’s lifestyle dependency on free labour paints Russian society as tragically doomed to self-destruct. Kropotkin was quite aware of Russian society’s path towards imminent self-destruction, and he hoped–futilely–that reforms would circumvent Russia’s doom.

Kropotkin’s Winter Palace years provide an intimate look at Alexander II and explain the ruler’s dichotomy of actions–on one hand a desire for reform, but on the other hand a blind acceptance of Reactionary decisions. Kropotkin describes his “great admiration for Alexander II, the liberator of Serfs,” but then his attitude shifts as Alexander enacts the suppression of insurrections, and delivers crushing, brutal and unjust punishments towards any shred of defiance to his dictates. Finally, Kropotkin accepts and acknowledges that Alexander is a “despot.”

Memoirs of a Revolutionist charts Kropotkin’s development as one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries, and details exactly why he turned his back on own privileged aristocratic class. It’s quite evident that while the aristocracy controlled the serfs–and later the peasant class–even the uppermost levels of Russian society were subject to the Tsar’s brutal, unjust dictates and whims. The seeds of Kropotkin’s independent thought processes are found in his earliest childhood, but it was when Kropotkin attended the Corps of Pages that he realised the “power of collective action.” He notes that he attended the school as it entered a “transition period” and that shortly before he arrived a “revolution had taken place” in the school, which had begun to subvert the brutal, established hierarchy. The memoir also details Kroptokin’s imprisonment, his daring escape from Russia, his European exile, his involvement with the anarchists of the Jura Federation and the influence of Bakunin. Kropotkin’s gentle, intelligent style flows remarkably clearly through these well-written pages, and ultimately he emerges as a reasonable, thoughtful man who hoped to stave off a global disaster.

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