Tag Archives: WWII

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik

“Stefan Zweig–affluent Austrian citizen, restless wandering Jew, stupendously prolific author, tireless advocate for pan-European humanism, relentless networker, impeccable host, domestic hysteric, noble pacifist, cheap populist, squeamish sensualist, dog lover, cat hater, book collector, alligator shoe wearer, dandy depressive, café enthusiast, sympathizer with lonely hearts, casual womanizer, man ogler, suspected flasher, convicted fabulist, fawner over the powerful, champion of the powerless, abject coward before the ravages of old age, unblinking stoic before the mysteries of the grave–Stefan Zweig falls into the category of those who incarnate the enchantments and corruptions of their environment.”

That’s one of my favourite quotes from The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World because it illustrates the complexities and paradoxes of the subject.  Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a best-selling author in his lifetime lived to see “his own plunge from glory to darkness,” but currently his work is in revival. My first encounter with a book by Zweig included a brief intro which mentioned his death by suicide, and my impression from other pieces was that Zweig committed suicide in Brazil due to the continued successes of the Nazis. The New York Review Book’s edition of Confusionincluded an introduction written by George Prochnik which gave a much more complex explanation of Zweig’s suicide, so when I saw that Prochnik had written a non-fiction book concerning Zweig’s exile. I knew I had to read it.

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World is a fascinating title which can be read two ways. Is the exile of the title the many journeys Zweig took all over the globe when he left Austria and attempted to find a new home? Or is the Impossible Exile Zweig himself? 

The Impossible exileThe book’s introduction opens with scenes of Zweig in 1941 living in the Brazilian village of Petropolis. Immediately, there’s a central paradox–a paradox that haunts both the book and Zweig’s life. On one hand, Zweig in a letter “asserted ‘we feel extremely happy here,’ “ and yet simultaneously he “burst out in astonishment: ‘I would not have believed that in my sixtieth year I would sit in a Brazilian village, served by a barefoot black girl and miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends, conversation.’ “  This was, of course, just a few months before Zweig killed himself by poison in February 1942, joined in death by his second wife, Lotte, a woman 27 years his junior. 

Why did Zweig, who successfully fled the Nazis, and who was living in the safety of Brazil chose to kill himself? It’s a haunting question–especially when we try to tally how many other Jews (most did not have Zweig’s privileges–wealth, fame and influence) could not escape and were exterminated. Zweig didn’t flee with only a battered suitcase; he left his home and his much-loved library in Salzburg, going into self-imposed exile in 1933; “the book burnings and the banning of his work in Germany had begun to push him toward” the idea. He was fortunate, famous and wealthy, and yet, in spite of having a distinct advantage over fellow exiles, he did not thrive. This was a man who could have lived anywhere he wanted in North America, South America, Canada or England, but he never fit in, and each restless move seemed to erode a little more of Zweig’s psyche.

The Viennese grandparents of George Prochnik were on a “Gestapo  list” scheduled to be rounded up the following day when they were “tipped off” and managed to escape to Switzerland in 1938. A series of extremely lucky occurrences saved Prochnik’s family, and, after many nearly fatal events, the family sailed to New York. Family stories and experiences gave Prochnik the insight to write this book about Zweig with empathy and with the exception of views of Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, non-judgment. I mention the issue of ‘judgment’ because Zweig was the target of criticism. He continued to work with Richard Strauss “even after Strauss had been officially named the chief musical ambassador for Hitler’s regime,” and Zweig was “accused of cowardice for his continued unwillingness to demand international action to save Germany’s Jews.” At the same time, the author cites “abundant evidence” that Zweig, who loathed and avoided conflict, helped innumerable exiles to the point that he’d become a “one-man welfare office.” Snippets from some of Zweig’s letters reveal a man whose sympathy was vanishing as he bemoaned pleas from  “the latest flood of refugees [as] mostly second-rate beggars who’d delayed their escape too long.”

Discussing his own heritage, Prochnik ruminates on the difficulties of adjustment faced by exiles in a new country, “the sudden, radical disequilibrium in their social worlds,”  and that  exiles “move through their new world, [and] scatter around them the aura of past lives like powder from beating wings–in this case, the splendor and toxins, the black iridescence of pre-Anschluss Vienna.” Prochnik makes this comment about Zweig: “His story is particularly revealing for what it says about the predicaments of exile that aren’t resolved when freedom is regained.”  So for Zweig, escaping the Nazis wasn’t enough to give him the buoyancy to survive, and this reminded me of Anna Seghers’ wonderful novel Transita story about refugees stuck in Marseille desperate to get passage on a ship.  The narrator says that the refugees seem to expect that all their problems will be solved if they can just get to their destination “exchanging one burning city for another burning city, switching from one lifeboat to another in the middle of the bottomless sea.” 

The non-linear book follows Zweig through various periods of his life, his youth, the “honeymoon phase of his exile,” designation as an “enemy alien” in Bath, his move to America, the incongruity of the cosmopolitan Zweig marooned in small town America, and throughout it all, his continuing battle with pessimism and despair.  At one point, Zweig contemplated moving to San Francisco, but then flipped his thoughts to Salt Lake City, but these non-decisions only serve to argue that the destination was superfluous–just another stop on an endless journey. Included are some amazing photographs which underscore Zweig’s diminishment and alienation in the American landscape.  

Gradually through the author’s steady, thoughtful and measured words, a picture emerges of a man who lost his celebrity status, and who felt increasingly out-of-place with the outside world much “less accessible.” While other exiles saw an opportunity for “self re-invention,” Zweig, while materially all options were open to him, mentally he seemed boxed into a corner.  Plagued by his fear of aging (which he attempted to battle with hormone shots), and all-too aware that the Viennese society he’d known and loved had vanished forever, Zweig lost his identity and his world narrowed even as his travels expanded across the globe, fleeing from the ever encroaching arm of Nazi Germany. He “never ceased to be amazed by his own ejection from the Olympus of European artistic celebrity into a miserable, nomadic existence over the course of a handful of years.” The suicide was clearly a measured decision staged and planned, and there’s the sense it was just a final gesture of disappearing from a world in which Zweig had already faded from view

Zweig’s life illuminates abiding questions of the artist’s responsibility in times of crisis: the debt owed one’s fellow sufferers relative to the debt owed one’s muse; the role of politics in the arts; and the place of art in education. His tale also raises questions of how we come to belong anywhere–of responsibility to family and ethnic roots relative to ideals of cosmopolitanism

Review copy.

11 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Prochnik George

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

 A Long Way From Verona, Jane Gardam’s superb first novel, was originally published in 1971, and here’s Gardam at the beginning of her career exhibiting the energy, love of life, and strong narrative voice characteristic of her writing. The engaging heroine of this tale is the unusual, confident, independent, curious and intelligent Jessica Vye; it’s a 13-year old Jessica who narrates the tale, and while I usually pass on novels with adolescent or child narrators, Jane Gardam skillfully avoids all the tired clichés. Instead Jessica Vye’s voice is fresh, witty and bursting with life as she records her rich inner life and observes the adult world around her. There’s the underlying sense that while Jessica will grow to become a remarkable woman, we’d like her to stay like this: unique and unspoiled.

a long way to veronaIt’s WWII, and Gardam fans already know just how well this author has mined this era with her other novels. For the most part, the war is in the background like distant thunder–but it shapes Jessica’s life and a couple of traumatic incidents lead to a quiet maturity. This is how the book begins:

I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets to the point.

That somewhat awkward opening illustrates perfectly Jessica’s personality, and we very soon discover that Jessica wants to be a writer, and while some of this wonderful novel concerns Jessica’s aspirations, the plot follows Jessica in her school life, with her friends and family, and her first tentative romance.  Although WWII is in the background, it clearly impacts Jessica’s life and alters how she sees the world, and Jessica has experiences unique to the time: Air-raids, rationing, and city refugees seeking safety in the country. While sad things occur when the war breaks through into Jessica’s childhood, there’s a delicate, gentle humour here–mostly through Jessica’s voice and the gaps between what she sees and records and her precocious understanding.

One of the most dramatic changes to Jessica’s childhood slips into the narrative without much explanation. Gardam captures the reality of childhood when the adults make decisions behind closed doors with the children witnessing the result. Jessica’s father was a schoolmaster, but the family moves to another part of England, “the vilest part of it” according to Jessica’s mother following the father’s decision “to stop being a schoolmaster and to become a curate.” Jessica, as our narrator, is not privy to the discussions, and presumably the arguments that took place before the Vye family pulled up roots and left behind their lovely home and took a definite step down to a harsher life in Cleveland Sands. How easy it is, for us, the reader to recall similar incidents which occurred in childhood, and then years later when we dredge up memories, we then realize that we saw only the front drama, and somehow missed all that took place backstage between the adults. We can imagine the scenes that took place between her parents, but here’s Jessica recording the final scene at their old home, giving us clues about the family dynamics:

We were in the station taxi and mother was crying and Rowley, my brother, was crying too–he was still extremely young and it was about all he ever did–and my father was talking to the taxi man about whether there was going to be a war or not and trying not to look back at the house which still had all our curtains hanging in the windows,  and the garden seats on the lawn, and even the swing in the pear tree because the house belonged to the school and most of the things had to be left for the next schoolmaster and his family.

Later Jessica notes that while her mother was “marvelous at being a schoolmaster’s wife,” she’s not coping well with being the wife of a curate. Jessica’s mother is now “a bit red in the face … and her clothes are vile.” She’s also angry a lot, unable to cope with the work load and all the church functions. Again, there must be pressures behind the scenes, but these escape Jessica and will no doubt return for her consideration in her adulthood. This puts us, the readers, into a peculiar position as we grasp a few things that Jessica cannot.

Jessica attends the High School at Cleveland Spa and notes that while “people often start by liking me very much,” any initial popularity “faded away.”  Trying to buy popularity with toffees fails, and after some thinking, Jessica realizes that there are several reasons why she’s not popular, and these reasons include her outspokenness. Jessica also falls foul of most of the schoolmistresses who find her honesty, confidence and opinions pert and far too forward. Jessica’s character disallows conformity, and since school is all about conforming to the rules, Jessica falls foul of her teachers upon many occasions. But just as Jessica is at the point of despair  and alienation, she encounters a few adults who challenge conformity, accept her and make an impression on this very special girl. At one point, given a homework assignment of an essay titled “the Best Day of the Summer Holiday,” (and can’t we all remember that one) Jessica writes 47 pages and is asked “what was the meaning of this?’  Jessica’s enthusiasm and oddness is construed as rebellion. On that day,  after receiving no less than three order marks, Jessica makes a significant ally in Miss Philemon, an elderly schoolmistress who finds Jessica refreshing. Gardam captures so perfectly that moment when the adolescent realizes that our misery is overstated, the relative freedom of adulthood is not that far off, and the tyranny of conformity is only as strong as we allow it to be.

One of the most interesting things about Jessica is that while she’s sensitive to punishment and opinion, she’s also impervious to it as seen when she’s finally sent to the headmistress who asks her “to try to behave like a gentlewoman.”

I was silent and then I said, “I’m terribly sorry but I’m afraid I can’t.”

“And why not?”

“Well I’m not one. I’m not a gentlewoman.”

“Oh?”

“I will try to be good, I really will. As a matter of fact I do, I think that’s another reason I’m so unpopular, but you really have to be in our house, it’s part of father’s job. but I can’t be a gentlewoman because father doesn’t believe in it. He’s a member of the Labour Party.”

She said, “I see,” and looked at her fingernails. “Well, never mind. Shall we leave it at that then, that you will try to be good. That is really what I meant. You know it all comes down to goodness in the end, as you will see if you read about Our lord. Now I wonder if you have anything to say?”

I thought for ages and said that I should like to ask please the meaning of ‘decorum’ because it was a word I didn’t know, and for the first time she nearly hit the ceiling. ‘Dignity,’ she thundered, ‘dignity, child, dignity,’ louder, I think, than she had meant …

We accompany the irrepressible Jessica through all aspects of her daily life: her interactions with her peers, her teachers, and her family. We also see Jessica ordering in a café during the deprivations of WWII and then, in probably my favourite sequence in the book, she is made to attend a weekend house party at the home of the Rural Dean & his family, the Fanshawe-Smithes; it’s here Jessica is exposed to snobbery and hypocrisy, and forges a significant relationship which leads to a viewing of the slums at Teesside. While this is a story of Jessica’s childhood, there’s a great deal here to evoke personal memories of wonder, alienation, and the unfairness of being a child in an adult world.

I had just reached the part when Jude’s eldest son had hanged both his little brothers and hitched them up on the back of the bedroom door like dressing gowns when a hand came down on to the book from out of the shadows beyond the reading lamp, and it was Mrs. Baxter. ‘Jessica!’ she said, ‘I’d no idea you were still here. The buzzer went ten minutes ago. Whatever are you reading? It must be very exciting.’ She picked Jude up and held it near her spectacles for a moment, twisting the lamp upwards so that she could see. She gave the most frightful sort of yelp after a minute and nearly dropped it. ‘Jess, dear!’ she cried. ‘Whatever on earth! What is this terrible book?’ I said it was an English Classic. ‘It must be removed from the library,’ she said. ‘It’s a most horrible book. What would your father say? Oh, Jessica, you mustn’t read such a horrible book!’

I said it was by Thomas Hardy.

‘I don’t care if it is by William Shakespeare, you are NOT to read it. I will speak to the librarian to have it taken off the shelves.’ And I think she must have done, because it’s certainly not there now.

While Jessica is a remarkable narrator, witty, observant, frank, and with a voice that’s a joy to read, it’s often the responses of those who underestimate her tenacity that bring the warmest, most amusing moments. During this significant time in Jessica’s life, she is exposed to people, incidents and even books (Thomas Hardy) that various individuals wish to protect her from, yet these are all elements that add to Jessica’s maturation in various ways. Experience–the good and the bad–Gardam seems to say, must be savoured and endured. Delightful and refreshing, A Long Way From Verona makes my best of 2013 list.

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gardam, Jane

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

“We were living men in a dead world.”

Reading Curzio Malaparte’s insidiously explosive book, The Skin is rather like watching the aftermath of some horrific apocalypse; we almost can’t believe the ugliness of what we are seeing and yet there’s a fascination that renders us powerless to turn from the sight.

Malaparte, a play on Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but he ran foul of Mussolini, was arrested multiple times and spent a short time in prison for “publishing a how-to manual entitled Technique of the Coup d’Etat.” Malaparte, as a liaison officer to the American forces, narrates the book, and as a narrator, he’s a tricky character. Slippery and never to be taken at face value, Malaparte’s ironic, often malicious narration examines life in Naples after the arrival of allied troops and mines the gap between reality and the high moral ground seized by the victors. In twelve amazing chapters, Malaparte describes scenes of life as he accompanies Colonel Jack Hamilton and various other officers in and around Naples, and his mostly light tone belies the human tragedy that surrounds them; death, disease, cruelty and starvation are in stark contrast to the high moral ideals and deliberate blindness exhibited by the victors and their idea of ‘liberation,’ and while Malaparte seems intent on exposing hypocrisy, his sympathies are for the broken human race brought to their knees by desperation.

The SkinIt’s Naples 1942, and the narrator of The Skin, Curzio Malaparte bemoans the state of Naples since the “conquerors” arrived. To Malaparte, Naples has become a toxic, moral wasteland with almost every female up for sale to the allied forces–anything is possible for a soldier who has money in his pockets and food to barter for sex.

We were clean, tidy, and well fed, Jack and I, as we made our way through the midst of the dreadful Neapolitan mob–squalid, dirty, starving, ragged, jostled, and insulted in all the languages and dialects of the world by troops of soldiers belonging to the armies of liberation, which were drawn from all the races of the earth. The distinction of being the first among all the peoples of Europe to be liberated had fallen to the people of Naples; and in celebration of the winning of so well-deserved a prize my poor beloved Neapolitans, after three years of hunger, epidemics, and savage air attacks, had accepted gracefully and patriotically the longed-for and coveted honor of playing the part of a conquered people, of singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been the emblems of their foes, and throwing flowers on to the heads of the conquerors.

That quote captures the irony, the hopelessness, and the poignancy of this extraordinary book. It’s a rare and special book that stands as an eyewitness testament to tragic moments of human history, and while Malaparte’s book gives us an eyewitness account, this isn’t a matter of a straight forward narration; rather this is a document that forces the reader to confront some uncomfortable realities of war and the degradation of the human spirit while challenging our notions of ‘victory’ and ‘liberation.’

Malaparte’s personality seeps through these pages. He’s an extraordinary narrator, malicious and crafty, and yet it’s those very characteristics that expose the hypocrisy of both the Neapolitans and the conquering American forces. While some of the scenes of women, starving young men and children who sell themselves on the streets for a crust of bread are heartbreakingly sad, there are also moments of some really nasty humour as Malaparte, as a liaison officer, accompanies his favorite American, Colonel Hamilton, through the ravaged streets of Naples.  Hamilton is the kind of man, Malaparte argues, “that seems to hail from Ivy League America as conceived by Vladimir Nabokov, a world where military men read ancient Greek in university gymnasiums surrounded by wet towels.” 

Malaparte feels “incredibly ridiculous” in his British uniform. “The uniforms of the Italian corps of Liberation were old British khaki uniforms handed over by British command.” These uniforms, and even shoes, have been stripped from the dead of Al Alamein and Tobruk, and Malaparte speculates that they been “dyed dark green, the color of a lizard” in order to hide the bloodstains and the bullet holes. Malaparte seems to be the only one who recognizes the bitter irony of wearing the uniforms of the dead former enemies–a fact which seems as deeply insulting to those who wear these uniforms as it is to those who died wearing them. And yet the very interchangeableness of the wearer of the uniform underscores the absurdity of uniforms in the first place and the anonymous dead: strip the uniforms from the dead, dye them, and recycle them to your former enemy:

There was no gainsaying it: that stupid war had certainly ended well for us. It could not have ended better. Our amore proper as defeated soldiers was undamaged. Now we were fighting at the side of the allies, trying to help them win their war after we had lost our own. Hence it was natural that we should be wearing the uniforms of the allied soldiers whom we had killed.

Malaparte can never be taken at face value, and he’s perhaps at his most delightful, wickedly malicious and most duplicitous self when he’s accompanying Americans through Naples, and at these times Malaparte and whichever American is by his side engage in a mutual baiting game–almost as if the battles between nations continue, at a combative but less violent level. Malaparte seems unable to resist piercing that tight membrane of righteousness to reach the conscious discomfort of the conquering American who’s conveniently blind to his role in the moral corruption brought forth by circumstance. Here’s Malaparte goading Jack on the subject of “this fall in the price of human flesh,” cleverly comparing the price of children against the price of lamb:

Faded women, with livid faces and painted lips, their emaciated cheeks plastered with rouge–a dreadful and piteous sight–loitered at the corners of the alleys, offering to passer-bys their sorry merchandise. This consisted of boys and girls of eight or ten, whom the soldiers–Moroccans, Indians, Algerians, Madagascans–caressed with their fingers, slipping their hands between the buttons of their short trousers or lifting their dresses. “Two dollars the boys, three dollars the girls!” shouted the women.

“Tell me frankly–would you like a little girl at three dollars?” I said to Jack

“Shut up, Malaparte.”

“After all, it’s not much, three dollars for a little girl. Two pounds of lamb cost far more. I’m sure a little girl costs more in London or New York than here–isn’t that so, Jack?”

“Tu me dégoûtes,” said Jack.

“Three dollars is barely three hundred lire. How much can a little girl of eight or ten weigh? Fifty pounds? Remember that on the black market two pounds of lamb cost five hundred and fifty lire , in other words five dollars and fifty cents.”

“Shut up!” cried Jack.

 Malaparte’s conversations with Americans seem to frequently end with him being told to ‘shut up’ as he makes observations about life, sometimes tweaking consciences, sometimes exposing hypocrisy. Malaparte likes Jack “because he alone, among all my American friends felt guilty, ashamed and miserable before the cruel, inhuman beauty of that sky, that that sea, those islands far away on the horizon. He alone realized that this Nature is not Christian, that it lies outside the frontiers of Christianity.” Other Americans “despised” Naples and saw it as a corrupted citynot as a city of people brought to their knees and desperate to survive, no matter the cost.

Captain Jimmy Wren is an American who sees Naples as a polluted city and does not see that degradation or deprivation combined with Yankee dollars has created a market in which everything is for sale, and here’s another comment not to be taken at face value–although part of Malaparte seems to envy the Americans’ simplistic view towards morality:

Jimmy’s conscience was at rest. Like all Americans, by that contradiction which characterizes all materialistic civilizations, he was an idealist. To evil, misery, hunger and physical suffering he ascribed  amoral character. He did not appreciate their remote historical and economic causes, but only the seemingly moral causes reasons for their existence. What could he have done to try and alleviate the appalling physical sufferings of the people of Naples, of the people of Europe? All that Jimmy could do was take upon himself the part of the moral responsibility for their sufferings, not as an American, but as a Christian. Perhaps it would be better to say not only as a  Christian but also as an American. And that is the real reason why I love the Americans, why I am profoundly grateful  to the Americans, and regard them as the most generous, the purest, the best and the most disinterested people on the earth–a wonderful people.  

There’s one great section in which Malaparte goads both Jack and Jimmy on the subject of Neapolitan dwarf women who’ve turned to prostitution and have a brisk trade with American servicemen, and in another section Malaparte describes crafty, desperate Neapolitans engaged in the “purchase and resale of Negroes on the flying market,” –a process in which black servicemen are passed around as a resource through various hands, with each participant shaving off from “the lavishness and recklessness of his expenditure.” Ultimately Naples is seen as a fire sale marketplace in which everything and everybody is degraded and up for bid. Whether Malaparte is commenting on the last virgin in Naples, the epidemic of venereal disease, pubic hairpieces, the piles of bloated corpses in the streets, the brutal execution of young fascists, or friends lost in the chaos, he’s a darkly glittering marvel–duplicitous, dangerously intelligent, always the outsider watching and recording hypocrisy through the roles played by both the conqueror and the defeated in the moral degradation that results from war.

Translated by David Moore

Review copy

20 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

Noose by Bill James

“Quite often narrow squeaks are what shape our days, aren’t they?”

I’ve been meaning to read author Bill James for a while now, so his latest novel, Noose arrived at the right time. In spite of the cover, this is not a crime novel, and instead while a noose  is mentioned in the tale, for the most part, the noose is figurative. It’s a sense of moral obligation on the part of the protagonist, Ian Charteris, who when the novel opens, is a reporter.

NooseIt’s 1956. The novel opens with Ian receiving a call at home from the Mirror news desk to cover a story, the suicide attempt of a young up and coming actress named Daphne West who was found in a gas-filled room. The “customary PR gab” insists this was an accident, but there are some ugly rumours about Daphne’s involvement with “big-deal theatre producer” Milton Skeeth. According to the Mirror, Ian is the perfect man for the job:

That’s one of your flairs, isn’t it–getting folk to confide, blub on your shoulder, reveal all? You sport that kind of sympa face and chummy voice. You could become an agony aunt when age sets in and your career starts to run down. I want to hear the flagging of her gas-strangled heartbeat in your stuff, Ian.

But there are indications that Ian is already involved in this story in some way, and this could partly be explained by Ian’s suspicion that Daphne is his father’s illegitimate child and therefore his half sister.

Noose is a clever, very neatly organized novel, and the story’s trajectory begins to appear following Ian’s somewhat unethical presence at Daphne’s hospital bedside. From this point, the story’s arc extends back more than 20 years to Ian’s childhood with his “amphibious” dad–a very strange fellow. Noose explores the seminal incidents of Ian’s childhood which take him on a very specific path to adulthood, a murder which Ian witnesses, a hanging, and a woman saved from drowning. Seemingly disconnected events weave a safety net of privilege around Ian’s future, even as we see that Ian cannot escape his past, and it all begins with Ian’s father saving a young woman from drowning after she falls from a paddle ship. This story of heroism is a mainstay of Ian’s childhood, and it’s rolled out like an old familiar carpet every so often. Ian is trained to provide his father (who even snaps his fingers as though he can’t remember a crucial detail), with prompts, and of course Ian has the story memorized.

‘But back on that special day, you dived in from the port deck rail, determined to make a rescue.’

‘Had to.’

‘The woman’s coat and other wet clothes tugged her down.’

‘The sea there. Murky. Hard to spot anyone at depth.’

Ian’s father’s proudly owns a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the day he saved the young woman from drowning, and he’s jealously protective of his heroic action. Even though Ian’s just a child, he recognizes that his father has to be the centre of attention, and this makes for an awkward moment when Ian and his father attend a memorial service. Here’s Emily Bass, the reckless young woman saved by Ian’s father:

She said: ‘Often I speak to my husband and my friends of the undaunted captain who flung himself into the dark, dark sea in a valiant though doomed effort to save me, while also mentioning your father, Ian, naturally. It’s really fairly unusual to have a distinguished man die for you, isn’t it? Off came his cap with gold braid on it, I believe. Oh, such an occasion then, and such an occasion now.’

‘I got you out, you know,’ Mr Charteris remarked again. ‘Many a newspaper cutting I have at home describing this, haven’t I , Ian?’

‘Many,’ Ian said.

There were a couple of moments when I wondered why the novel began with an attempted suicide and then went back into Ian’s childhood, but the author keeps tight control over the story, all loose ends are neatly addressed, and we come to see that Emily plays a very significant role in Ian’s later life. Take L.P Hartley’s quote, “the past is a foreign country,” and that simply has no relevance to Ian’s adulthood. He may think he’s a man with Free Will but every step of his life is shaped by his past–specifically his father’s past–sometimes he’s aware of that and sometimes he just suspects it.  A sense of moral obligation, of “debt,” is the noose that motivates Ian. According to Ian, it’s his “nicer side,” and he has to do a “bit of reciprocity.” While most of this sense of obligation stems from his father’s past, Ian also feels guilty for his role, as a child, in sending a man to the gallows, and later, he has cause to feel guilty about a fellow RAF officer.

Noose reminded me more than once of an Evelyn Waugh novel–perhaps the Sword of Honour had something to do with it, and that certainly brought Waugh’s name to mind, but no, it’s more the quirky characters–the Bells who own a chip shop, the woman at the hanging who knows all the relevant details and advocates the cat-o’-nine-tails first, and there’s one marvelous, extremely funny scene in which Ian, conscripted for his National Service engages in mock battle with a rival for the Sword of Honour, Bain. Ian senses that Bain is inherently the better candidate for the Sword of Honour, yet does the best man (whatever that means) win or does fate in the shape of his father’s past intervene yet again? Spanning a couple of decades of British history, this is a novel in which Ian seems to be one of the few normal people, and he’s surrounded by eccentrics in an off-kilter world. Noose argues that we pay for the sins of our parents, for it’s in Ian’s adulthood, that he finally understands some of the more mysterious incidents in his childhood.

Here’s Ian’s father angry when newspaper reporters show up to talk to his son:

“I knew it, I knew it,’ Mr Charteris said. He punched the hall dado rail with his fist three times quickly. Ian’s mother hated fist work against walls or furniture. She considered it showing too much excitement, like foreigners, especially in hot countries where people got so steamed they forgot control. She went to the spot on the dado rail and brushed it with her hand, as though to give it comfort or make sure her husband hadn’t contaminated it by getting his skin broken in the blow and leaving blood.

“First down the police station in the middle of the night , and now this,” Mr Charteris said. “They want to know everything and spread it. Don’t tell me they won’t spread it. Why are they called “reporters” if they’re not going to spread it? They’re going to spread it to people who buy the Echo.”

“Spread what, dad?” Ian asked.

“Oh, yes, spread it,” his father replied.

I really didn’t expect this novel to be gently humorous and I was pleasantly surprised. There’ll be more James in my future.

Review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, James Bill

The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

“It’s always the memories you comb through the most avidly that fade the fastest, that are eclipsed  by–what to call it–? a sort of memory-fiction. Like a dream. Whereas the things we forget totally, the things that sneak up on us in the middle of the night, after thirty years–they’re so uncannily fresh.”

Sometimes reading choices are serendipitous, and that is definitely the case with David Leavitt’s excellent novel The Two Hotel Francforts as it turned out to be a perfect companion piece to a novel I read earlier this year: Transit. While Transit (which is highly recommended, by the way) depicts desperate Jewish refugees trying to exit Marseille, The Two Hotel Francforts depicts two affluent couples–one American, the other Anglo-American–in Lisbon in no particular hurry to embark on the SS Manhattan for New York.    

We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça. This was in June 1940, when we were all in Lisbon waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us, I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly, for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one.

The narrator is Pete Winters, a General Motors executive stationed in Paris, who is married to the very high-maintenance, temperamental and neurotic Julia. Being married to Julia is like devoting oneself to a cause, but since Pete acknowledges that “she was never satisfied, my Julia,” it’s a thankless, wearying task. When pursuing Julia, he “disregard[ded] every warning sign” which included Julia’s own mother who told Pete “I beg you to reconsider” when he indicate his desire to marry her daughter. Now, the marriage isn’t about passion, love or even friendship–it’s about one person absorbing the other’s demands, neediness and neuroticism:

All my life, I saw, I had been looking, in the absence of any pressing desire of goal, for a purposefulness outside myself on which I might, as it were, ride piggyback. It could have been a religion, it could have been a political party, it could have been a collection of musical instruments made from shoeshine boxes. Instead it was Julia.

As the background of this couple is teased out, we learn that Julia and Pete have lived in Paris for 15 years now in a mausoleum of a showcase apartment. They moved to Paris at her insistence, and “she had sworn” that she would never return to America. Julia intended to be a writer, but “she could only write first chapters. The middle, the vast middle, defeated her.” Instead, she’s become an empty woman who shops and decorates endlessly and is terrified that her many relatives will swoop into her home. She claims to see various relatives in various places and these sightings cause her to panic & run into hiding. Pete, who is used to dealing with Julia’s hysteria, isn’t convinced that these sightings are legitimate.  It’s with a sense of defeat and a low-grade panic that Julia counts the days until the SS Manhattan arrives. Julia schemes to stay in Portugal, and there’s the hint, from this story that’s narrated about the long-ago past, that something goes terribly wrong:

And how funny to think that when all is said and done, she was right and I was wrong! For we would have been perfectly safe in Portugal. Well it is too late for her to lord that over me now.

With money and the appropriate papers, Lisbon is a decent place to wait for a ship sailing for America. After all, “everything that was scarce in France and Spain was plentiful here: meat, cigarettes, gin. The only trouble was overcrowding.” As the refugees pour in, “hotel rooms were nearly impossible to come by.” As a consequence, there’s a desperate end-of-the-world air to Lisbon, with some people staying up all night long at the casino. The Winters are the lucky ones. They have somewhere to go and the papers to ensure they get there.  They are also lucky enough to secure an excellent room at the Hotel Francfort, but with Julia insisting that she doesn’t want to leave, there’s a great deal of tension between Pete and Julia. Then the Winters meet Iris and Edward Freleng and their elderly dog, Daisy. Meeting the Frelengs is a welcome distraction for Pete Winters, but Julia dislikes them. Iris begins to absorb some of Julia’s demanding fitfulness, and this gives Pete a little respite from Julia’s 24-7 care. The meeting seems fortuitous, and the Frelengs offer Pete, at least, interesting intelligent company for the week or so before their ship arrives. But just what is the Frelengs’ game? ….

the two hotel francfortsStrong on characterization, the novel sets the scene by showing how Pete feeling “almost giddy with relief and gratitude,” leaps at the apparent lifeline thrown to him by the Frelengs. Pete is mentally exhausted by herding the unwilling Julia to Lisbon, and the Frelengs, who are peers in the same socioeconomic status, appear to absorb some of Julia’s neediness. Julia’s impossible personality does not deter the Frelengs who seem determined to ‘buddy up,’ and the very first time the Winters meet the Frelengs, Iris drags an unwilling Julia off to see the vet blatantly ignoring Julia’s protests and disgust with Daisy.

It seems natural, at first, that the Frelengs, who write detective novels under the name Xavier Legrand, should want to spend the next 7-10 days in the company of the Winters, but then again, Julia doesn’t exactly attract friends. Her petulant self-focus is expressed almost the moment she meets the Frelengs and the two couples exchange thoughts about the war that has ripped their life plans apart:

“Us?” I said. “Oh we’ve been lucky.”

“And just how is that, pray tell?” Julia said.

“Well, we’ve made it this far without getting killed, haven’t we? A ship’s coming to rescue us. And when you think what some of these poor devils wouldn’t give to have a ticket on that ship–”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see why their having to leave their homes is any worse than our having to leave our homes,” Julia said.

“Oh, but it is,” Iris said. “Because we’ve got somewhere to flee to, haven’t we? Whereas all they have to look forward to is exile–that is, if they find a country willing to accept them.”

“But it’s exile for us, too,” Julia said. “France was our home, too.”

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between The Two Hotel Francforts and Ford Madox Ford’s excellent novel The Good Soldier, for while the setting is different, both novels examine two marriages and the problematic relationships sparked between the two couples years after the events take place. Leavitt’s intriguing title, The Two Hotel Francforts hints at the duplicity at play in the novel, and that duplicity exists on several levels. No one is quite what they seem and everyone reveals what they want people to see–no more than that.

For Edward, his broad shoulders notwithstanding, was mercurial. You could reach for him, and sometimes you would grab hold of him. But sometimes all you would grab hold of was a reflection of a reflection in a revolving door.

The ‘rules’ and dynamics of any marriage are impenetrable to outsiders, and both the Winters and the Freleng’s marriages are pathological, but in very different ways. While we know almost immediately how toxic the Winters’ marriage is, just what keeps the Freleng’s marriage together isn’t apparent at first–although the dog Daisy is arguably part of the visible gel that bonds Iris and Edward. Their lives appear to coalesce around Daisy, and it’s because of her they declined to take a ship to England. As these two couples wait for the ship that will take them to New York, the foundation of European civilization is in a state of upheaval; people are running for their lives, and here, just as the Winters and the Frelengs appear to have reached safety, their lives are ripped apart by duplicity and will never be the same. The four main characters, whose actions are clouded with desire, desperation and selfishness, are thrown together by circumstance as the world spins from unbridled fascism. They all lie to each other and to themselves, and as Iris tells Pete:

Poor thing, you’re such an innocent in some ways. Such a novice. You think there’s a protocol to all this … But there are no rules here. We’re beyond rules.

While the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, is classically unreliable, the narrator of The Two Hotel Francforts appears to be reliable. But after I put the book down, I chewed that decision over, and concluded that Pete Winters, in the depths of the lies he contrives, could possibly be unreliable in his version of events. Was his marriage to Julia quite how he portrayed it with him as the unhappy factotum for his wife’s neurotic demands? After all, we only have his version of things decades later. If you can’t already tell, I loved this novel for the way in which Leavitt depicted the complexities of these two toxic, brittle marriages–both kept together by a set of unspoken rules.

Review copy

16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Leavitt, David

Transit by Anna Seghers

“A tireless pack of officials was on the move night and day, like dogcatchers, intent on fishing suspicious people out of the crowds as they passed through, so as to put them into city jails from which they’d be dragged off to a concentration camp if they didn’t have the money to pay the ransom or to hire a crafty lawyer who would later split the outsize reward for freeing the prisoner with the dogcatcher himself. As a result, everyone, especially the foreigners, guarded their passports and identification papers as if they were their very salvation. I was amazed to see the authorities, in the midst of this chaos, inventing ever more intricate drawn-out procedures for sorting, classifying, registering, and stamping these people over whose emotions they had lost all power. It was like trying to register every Vandal, goth, hun, and langobard during the “Barbarian invasion.”  

Earlier this year, I read Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck, and Transit from German author Anna Seghers is the perfect companion read. While Diary of a Man in Despair is non-fiction, diary entries kept by Reck during the 30s and 40s, Transit is the fictional story of a German, a former prisoner who first escapes from a Nazi concentration camp, and then escapes from a camp in Rouen. He makes it to Paris, and there, while performing a favour for a friend, he becomes caught up by fate in a life that belongs to someone else.

TransitTransit is a novel that deserves a bit of grounding. Author Anna Seghers (1900-1983) came from an upper-middle-class Jewish family. She was a communist living in France when the Nazis invaded, and she was fortunate enough to escape from Marseille to Mexico in 1941 “on a ship that included among its passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.” This cliff-hanging experience of desperate exile found its way into Transit–a novel that could only have been written by someone who experienced trying to escape from the Nazis. According to the introduction written by Peter Conrad, Seghers was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, and taking the hint, after her release, she moved on to Paris. After the Germans invaded France, she went to Marseille where most of the action of Transit is set. Conrad tell us that “Marseille was one of the few ports that offered an exit from a continent that was closing down. Here Seghers joined the harried strays she describes in her novel, scuttling from one consulate to the next in an attempt to assemble the visas and permits required for their onward journey. Not for the last time, modern life had turned into the enactment of a Kafka novel.” The introduction also explains the death, by suicide, of the author’s friend, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, one of a group of Jewish refugees, was in Portbou, a Spanish border town, trying to get a transit visa that would allow him to pass through Lisbon and eventually sail to America. The Franco government cancelled all transit visas and announced that all refugees would be returned to France. Benjamin took an overdose of morphine rather than face the alternative. There is some speculation about a missing manuscript that Benjamin kept in a briefcase. It’s impossible to read Transit and not make connections between Benjamin and the character of the writer, Weidel–a dead man whose very absence  is seminal to the plot of Transit.

Transit is narrated by a young German man who goes by the name of Siedler, currently stuck in Marseille. He escaped a German concentration camp in 1937 only to end up in a work camp in Rouen. News trickles down that the Germans will shortly arrive in the region, and this sparks panic amongst the prisoners who anticipate a grisly end when the Nazis arrive. A second escape and flight to Paris ensues with a handful of other men, including Heinz, who lost a leg in Spain. It seems as though the entire country is on the road:

a silent stream of refugees was still pouring south from the northern villages. Hay wagons piled high as farmhouses with furniture and poultry cages, with children and ancient grandparents, goats and calves, trucks carrying a convent of nuns, a little girl pulling her mother in a cart, cars with pretty women wearing the furs they had salvaged, the cars pulled by cows because there were no gas stations anymore; and women carrying their dying children, even dead ones.

This early scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It’s chaos– “the dissolution of our world order;” People are uprooted, “a silent stream of refugees” on the road and looking for an escape from the Nazis, and there’s a sense of futility here in the very disorganization of the displaced refugees when compared to the thorough mechanized progress of the German units. Luck is with Seidler who makes it to Paris and here the Nazi presence is both jarring and a little surreal:

I walked into Paris. A swastika flag was actually flying before the Hotel de Ville. And they were actually playing the Hohenfriedberg March in front of Notre Dame. I couldn’t believe it. I walked diagonally across Paris. And everywhere there were fleets of German cars and swastikas. I felt quite hollow, as if emptied of all emotion.

Seidler runs into Paul Strobel, a writer and an old acquaintance from the work camp who is the first character to introduce the topic of visas. Strobel is heading for Marseille as he has a “danger visa” which is a “special emergency visa for especially endangered people.” Strobel argues that he wrote a “book and countless articles against Hitler” and that has left him particularly vulnerable.

I thought of Heinz who had been beaten half to death by the Nazis in 1935, who was then put in a German concentration camp, escaping to Paris, only to end up in Spain with the International Brigade where he then lost a leg, and who, one-legged was then dragged through all of France’s concentration camps, ending up in ours. Where was he now? I also thought of flocks of birds being able to fly away. The whole earth was uncomfortable, and still I quite liked this kind of life; I didn’t envy Paul for that thing he had–what was it called?

This is an interesting scene, fully of irony that is only fully understood as the novel progresses, for Seidler is saying a couple of things here–1) he doesn’t yet grasp the importance of visas, and yet his life is shortly to become consumed by them and the inability to acquire all the necessary documentation to leave France, and 2) while Strobel sees himself as “especially endangered” Seidler clearly sees Heinz as physically a much more heroic type–a man of action rather than a man of ideas. This is ironic for Seidler soon finds himself donning the identity of a dead writer.

Strobel rather shiftily asks Seidler to go to a small hotel and deliver a letter to a writer, Wiedel, who’s registered there, and through a chain of events Seidler comes into possession of Weidel’s suitcase, a “forensic object,” and an unfinished manuscript. This incident marks the shift in Seidler’s life and also the emergence of meaningless bureaucracy. Learning that Weidel has a visa and travel funds waiting at the Mexican Embassy in Marseille, Seidler, who has no papers whatsoever, decides to don Weidel’s identity.

When Seidler/Weidel arrives in Marseille, he thinks it’ll be a fairly simple matter to collected Weidel’s papers and leave, but he discovers that he’s entered a bureaucratic labyrinth of almost insurmountable complexity. You need a “safe conduct” pass to travel to Marseille, a residence permit once there (only granted if you prove that you are actually planning on not staying,) an exit visa to leave,  and a transit visa to pass through various countries. It’s a puzzle, a sort of desperate scavenger hunt in bottle-necked Marseille with those desperate to leave required to pick up various visas to fulfill bureaucratic demands, and all this to be achieved in chaos as the borders of civilization melt down. Meanwhile rumours fly about ships that may or may not be arriving or leaving.

Throughout the novel, Seidler is submerged into Weidel, and Seidler is an intriguingly opaque character who should appeal to fans of Nabokov. We know that Seidler was sent to a concentration camp, but we don’t know why–although he states that he belongs to no political parties, it’s clear that he understands the Nazis and their “dirty tricks.” He’s a displaced German who doesn’t particularly want to leave France, and even the name he uses, Seidler, belongs to someone else. His total lack of identity makes becoming Weidel the natural choice, and yet it’s a choice, a trick of fate, that leads to a great deal of trouble. Once in Marseille, Seidler merges easily with all the other dispossessed refugees, flotsam and jetsam washed up in an unfriendly Marseille by the German invasion. Identity–any identity that can be claimed–suddenly becomes of paramount importance, and the drama that ensues as various characters struggle to claim their identity (and this includes Seidler/Weidel) would be a comedy of errors if those involved weren’t facing dreadful options. One man with Polish identity papers learns that the town he was born in is now considered Lithuania, and he is required to return to his place of birth, now under Nazi occupation, in order to gather papers certifying his birth from a town that no longer exists.

Naturally since Marseille has become refugee central, it’s full of desperate people who will do anything to get a ticket on an outward bound ship. One woman who cannot escape, eats her way through whatever time and money she has left; others give up in various ways. Another woman cossets and grooms two enormous Great Danes who are her visa “guarantors“–given to her for safekeeping by two Americans in exchange for an “incontestable affidavit” of her spotless morality. A group of Legionnaires of German extraction are travelling back to Germany for repatriation–only the healthy are accepted back, and those rejected are prosecuted by the French and sent to “work in the mines in Africa.” The refugees’ pitiful fate is decided by “bureaucratic goblins” who base their decisions on an endless stream of perfectly stamped papers. There’s a Kafkaesque sense to the circular bureaucracy placed on these desperate people, but there’s also a sense that the refugees almost seem to expect that all their problems will be solved if they can just get to their destination “exchanging one burning city for another burning city, switching from one lifeboat to another in the middle of the bottomless sea.” 

Transit is going to make my read-of-2013 list. This really is an incredible book with its cast of hopeless, desperate refugees, mostly anonymous who melt into the masses who simply disappeared during WWII. Author Anna Seghers has a unique perspective on events, events that shaped her life, and which in turn she shapes by being the author. The various bureaucratic personnel seem almost sadistic in their demands that these refugees produce impossible slips of documentation, but that is, of course, just the perspective of those on the other side of the desk. The bureaucratic institutions  in Transit aren’t malicious; they’re simply indifferent. This NYRB issue also includes a marvelous afterword by Heinrich Böll–not to be missed.

Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Review copy

21 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Seghers Anna

The Child’s Child by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

The remarkable Ruth Rendell at 82 is still writing, and here’s her latest, The Child’s Child, a book written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, which examines prejudices against homosexuality and illegitimacy. This metafiction story, a novel within a novel, begins with the narration by a 28 year-old PhD student, Grace, who is given a privately published manuscript by a friend who wants her to evaluate whether or not it’s worth publishing. The manuscript was written in the 1950s by an author who had published a respectable number of books, but hesitated to publish The Child’s Child for two reasons: its controversial themes (homosexuality which was still illegal at the time) and the fact that the story was based on real events which concerned individuals who were still alive. Now it’s 2011, the author of The Child’s Child is dead, and his son asks Grace to evaluate the novel and give her opinion. Since the book’s themes are illegitimacy and homosexuality, Grace agrees to take the book–after all her PhD thesis is on illegitimacy in English Literature.

the childs childGrace lives in a huge house in Hampstead which she and her gay 30-year-old brother, Andrew co-inherited from their grandmother. They were expected to “do the sensible thing, the practical thing: sell it and divide the proceeds.” But Grace and Andrew, who are very close, take the unexpected option and decide to live in Dinmont House  together, dividing up the rooms and sharing the kitchen. It’s a wonderful arrangement until Andrew brings home his lover, novelist James Derain, and it’s at this point that things begin to sour….

James has rather strong feelings about the unpublished book The Child’s Child. Although the names of the characters have been changed, the story concerns his “uncle or great uncle,” and one night a rather ugly and pointless argument erupts over who was treated worse by 19th century society:  women or homosexuals. Since Grace PhD’s thesis is concerned with illegitimacy, she argues: “if gay men killed themselves from fear of discovery, so did [pregnant] young women dreading disgrace.” Rendell is particularly good at creating toxic crucibles of personality, and that is true here. Tension builds in the house, but soon all of that is swept aside when events show that in some sectors of society, attitudes towards homosexuality are still hateful, archaic and a throw-back to the early 20th century.

At page 69 of my review copy, Grace finally picks up and starts reading the novel The Child’s Child. It’s the story beginning in 1929 of John, a young homosexual man who shields his sister, Maud, and her illegitimate baby from society at terrible cost to himself. John’s choices are to live a homosexual life in secret or to become celibate, and he tries both with tragic results. The story of the lengths John goes to in an attempt to protect himself and his sister offer a glimpse into an intolerant cruel world of 1920s-1950s Britain. Back in the present, James argues that historically, unmarried women need “only to put on a wedding ring and they’d be alright,” whereas homosexuals were “ostracized, attacked, killed.” John and Maud’s story shows that putting a wedding ring on a woman’s finger didn’t solve the social problems faced by a woman with an illegitimate child, and while in 2011  illegitimacy no longer carries a such a stigma, there are dark, violent recesses of society that still instill fear in the homosexual community. As a result Ruth Rendell’s novel, a call for tolerance and acceptance, shows that the placing of social stigmas for illegitimacy and the discrimination of homosexuality leaves people vulnerable to criminals–this was true in the 1920s Britain depicted in the novel and unfortunately it’s still true today.

Grace’s ruminations of the treatment of illegitimacy in 19th century British literature are a delight for anyone interested in the period. There are literary allusions galore of the novels of Trollope, Hardy, Gaskell, George Eliot, Austen, Dickens, and Wilkie Collins, so if you don’t have at least some familiarity with the plots of these novels, readers may be a bit lost for a few pages. On the other hand, lovers of Victorian literature will positively wallow at the mention of some of the great titles:

Ruth isn’t a slow read, it’s an almost compulsive read, and I raced through the early chapters. What struck me was that while those other novels are about other things as well, have subplots and  interwoven stories, Ruth is concerned entirely with seduction and illegitimacy. Hardy’s Tess has the courtship of Angel Clare and marriage to him; Wilkie Collins’s No Name and The Woman in White are much more involved with the legal aspects; Hetty Sorrell’s history is important but still subservient to Dinah’s work and religion and to the Bede family’s way of life. So here I was in Verity’s study learning exactly what it was really like to know one is pregnant by a faithless lover, to put on a wedding ring and call oneself “Mrs.,” yet ultimately deceiving no one. Every character in Ruth believes she has committed a terrible sin, even the sympathetic ones, the kindly ones who take her in and share what little they have with her, even they speak in hushed tones of her sin and her “crime.”

review copy

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Rendell, Ruth

The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine

“When you expect nothing more, life opens up to what is really important …”

Old and new Russia meet in the superb, elegiac novel The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine. The story begins with fifty-year-old Russian exile, Shutov alone in his Paris flat remembering moments from his failed two-year-long relationship with his young lover, Léa. They met accidentally–she was a budding writer from the provinces with no place to live and was easily impressed with the cachet of living with a much-older published Russian émigré author. Shutov “is the absolute prototype of a man ditched by a woman young enough to be his daughter,” so he wallows in self-pity even as he performs a post-mortem of a relationship doomed to failure.

In spite of the fact that Shutov has published a few books in France, he remains a lonely émigré–still completely Russian–even though he left that country during the final years of the Soviet Union twenty years earlier.

“An exile’s only country is his country’s literature.” Who said that? Shutov cannot place the name in his confused thoughts. Some anonymous expatriate, no doubt, waking in the night and trying to recall the last line of a rhyme learned in childhood.

For a long time he had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers. Shadowy figures, certainly, but in his Parisian exile he got on well with them. On a fine summer’s day in Moscow Tolstoy saw the figure of a woman through an open window, a bare shoulder, an arm with very white skin. All of Anna Karenina was born, if we are to believe him, from that woman’s arm.

As the story plays out, it becomes clear that as an émigré, Shutov is essentially lost in time and place. He doesn’t fit into his newly adopted country, and when it comes to his homeland, he is stuck in the Soviet past that no longer exists. Nabokov knew that he could never go home again as that ‘home,’ as he knew it, no longer existed. Shutov thinks otherwise. Faced with Léa’s arrival to pick up the last of her belongings, Shutov impulsively decides to return to Russia–ostensibly to seek out Yana, a woman he knew thirty years before in Leningrad.

Leningrad has, of course, reverted back into being St. Petersburg, and Shutov arrives  in the middle of the St Petersburg tercentenary celebrations and a “confusion of styles, the disappearance of a way of life and barely the first babblings of a new manner of being.” Street celebrations yield surreal exhibitions. Actors dressed as executioners and figures of terror have now become figures of fun:

“Three days of this burlesque May Revolution to undo decades of terror, to wash away the blood of real revolutions. To deafen themselves with the noise of firecrackers so as to forget the sound of bombs. To unleash these merry executioners into the streets so as to blot out the shadowy figures that came knocking at doors in the night not so long ago, dragging men out, still half asleep, throwing them into black cars.”

Behind the Winter Palace a placard announces a “family portrait.” Seated on folding chairs, a Peter the Great, a Lenin, a Stalin, and, beyond an untoward gap, a Gorbachev, complete with birthmark painted on the middle of his bald head. Stalin, pipe in mouth, talks on his cellphone. A Nicholas II and a Brezhnev (the missing links) rejoin the group, laden with packs of beer. Laughter, camera flashes. The barker, a young woman in a miniskirt, moves among the crowd: “Now then, ladies and gentlemen, spare a coin for the losers of history. We accept dollars too …”

“They’ve managed to turn the page at last,” Shutov says to himself. And the thought of being left behind, like a dried flower, between the preceding pages, gives him the desire to hurry, to catch up on lost time.

There was a time when a visitor from Europe to the Soviet Union had a certain air of privilege, but now Shutov is shabby in comparison with his affluent Russian friends.

Having come as a nostalgic pilgrim, he finds himself surrounded by modernity gone mad, a mixture of American razzle-dazzle and Russian clowning.

 Almost as though he’s been locked in a time warp, Shutov cannot align his past with the excesses of New Russia, and instead of becoming soothed and reassured by his visit, he’s increasingly disturbed and alienated by what he sees. Shutov watches Russian television–that touchstone of culture:

On the screen is a thoroughbred dog, with a long, haughty, nervous muzzle. Hands with varnished nails fastening a glittering collar about the animal’s neck. A figure appears: 14,500. Fourteen thousand five hundred dollars, the presenter confirms, and specifies the precious stones that decorate this accoutrement. A sequence of other models: rubies, topazes, diamonds… The numbers lengthen to match the rarity of the gems. The next scene features a dog with clipped hair, whose body, sensitive to the cold, is to benefit from a distinctive garment. Fox fur, beaver, or sable capes … The same range of furs for its ankle boots … the program now moves on to a more difficult species to domesticate. A lynx, which must undergo a pedicure if you care about carpets and furniture. A vet is seen filing down the animal’s claws … For a dwarf hippopotamus, whose well-being depends on a good level of humidity, the installation of a hygrometer is essential. The brightness of the colors on your python’s skin can be enhanced by a wide range of food supplements …

Shutov is confused by New Russia and its “frenzied materialism.” With a growing sense of displacement he meets Volsky, an elderly man, survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s Purges, and years spent in a labour camp. Listening to the man telling his poignant story which begins in 1941, Shutov learns the value of a moment of compassion, hears how the human spirit soars over brutality, and how love endures despite monumental adversity….

The Life of an Unknown Man is split into roughly two parts–Shutov’s broken love affair and his visit to St Petersburg followed by Volsky’s story. Volsky is a living relic of Russian history, and it’s through Shutov’s meeting with this remarkable ‘unknown man’ that Shutov finally is able to come to terms with his own life. I cannot praise this extraordinarily moving novel enough, and it’s destined to make my ‘best of 2012′ list.   

The Life of an Unknown Man was originally published in French as La Vie d’Homme Inconnu. The author was born in Siberia in 1957 and has lived in France for over 20 years. My copy came courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

26 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Makine Andreï

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

Although the murder that takes place at Heron’s Park Hospital could, in theory, offer any number of suspects, the crime novel,  Green for Danger, set in WWII, qualifies as a classic ‘closed-circle of suspects’ mystery. The book begins by lining up the main characters and exactly how they find themselves at Heron’s Park in Kent. Heron’s Park, a former children’s sanitorium, now serves as a military hospital, and our motley cast of characters are posted there for the war. 

One of the main characters, Gervase Eden has a lucrative practice in Harley Street where his patients are mostly lonely, wealthy women. He’s a bit of a playboy and is not averse to injecting a patient with water and charging steeply for it.  Eden is married, but this relationship has faded into the background–only to be conveniently recalled when a recently-ditched inamorata becomes too pushy. Dr. Moon is an older well-loved local surgeon. A long-time widower whose only child died, Moon doesn’t mind being wrenched away from his lonely home and sent to Heron’s Park. Mr Barnes is the local anesthesiologist who attended a child who subsequently died during a surgery. He’s received anonymous letters that blame him for the death, and he looks forward to his time in the army as a chance to escape the scandal and the parents’ accusations.

Three of the other possible suspects are V.A.Ds. (Volunteer Aid Detachment–civilian women who volunteered for the war effort.) In this case, the V.A.Ds are given a little nursing training and set loose in Heron’s Park Hospital. These young women are: Jane Woods, known as Woody, Esther Sanson, who becomes a V.A.D. partly to escape from her overbearing parent, and Frederica Linley, who volunteered to be a V.A.D to escape from her new stepmother. There’s also a Sister Marion Bates, a civilian nurse who looks forward to working in a military hospital as a way to possibly meet “some nice officers.”

Britain is at war, and there may be bombs hailing down from the skies, but still regular life goes on, and the hospital–a place where a diverse set of characters are cast together–is a hotbed of passion and jealousy. Marion Bates had a fling with Gervase, and she’s still besotted with him even though he ended the relationship and is now chasing after Woody. Barnes and Frederica Linley are planning to marry, but recently Frederica’s eyes have been wandering off towards Gervase, and the attraction is mutual. Strange little emotional encounters between doctors and nurses take place next to sedated, injured patients. There’s a lot going on at Heron’s Park….

One night, after a particularly bad air-raid, local postman, Joseph Higgins, who was part of a rescue squad, is brought in with a fractured femur.  He’s scheduled the next day for what should be a fairly routine operation, but inside the operating room something goes horribly wrong. What at first appears to be an anesthetic death inquiry turns into a murder case. Inspector Cockrill, wearing a “disreputable old mackintosh,” is summoned to Heron’s Park and so begins his investigation.  Cockrill, an easy man to underestimate, knows that another murder will soon follow the first….

Green for Danger which hails from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction should appeal to fans of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Although murders are committed, the violence, such as it is, is rather clinical, and the novel rests on Cockrill’s detection skills. It’s impossible to read the book without joining in with the investigation, and I’ll admit I didn’t guess the identity of the murderer. While the characters are drawn nicely, they are mostly types–and for this reason, in spite of the fact that this is WWII with bombs dropping from the sky, the plot has the flavour of a British country house mystery–and perhaps this is partly because the characters are largely from the upper classes with a slightly condescending peek towards the working classes. 

Although the characters are types rather than fully-fleshed characters, Green for Danger reflects the times. At one point, Dr Moon makes a poignant observation to Barnes about his son who was killed in an accident years earlier:

Well, well–I can find it in my heart now to be grateful, I suppose; now that the war’s come, I mean. He’d have been of age, you know; I’d have had to send him off, to see him go off to France or the East or somewhere… I’d have had to wait and hunger for news of him; he might have been posted missing, perhaps or killed, and without any news of what had really happened. It’s that telegram business…. I don’t think I could have borne it, if she’d been alive. The gods act in their own mysterious ways, don’t they, Barney? Who would have thought in all these years that I could ever have found it in my heart to say that I was glad that my boy had been killed?

In the Introduction Marion Babson explains that Green for Danger was one of the “foremost” books of the period which depicted “ordinary life under the blitz.” The Introduction includes some biographical information about the author along with some wonderful quotes about life working and living during the blitz. Christianna Brand’s first novel, Death in High Heels was a best seller in its time after which she was “informed by the authorities” (sounds ominous) that the most valuable war effort she could contribute was to keep writing books as she was “bringing desperately needed foreign currency into the country.”  For those interested, Green for Danger was made into a film starring Alastair Sim as the imitable Inspector Cockrill.

My copy courtesy of the publisher, Mysterious Press and Open Road Media.

10 Comments

Filed under Brand Christianna, Fiction

The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin

“In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time. It would be alright for a bit, and then any one of about fifty things would start it off and it would give me hell.”

So begins Nigel Balchin’s novel, The Small Back Room, published in 1943. The filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, working as their production team, The Archers made an exquisite film version of the novel. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s well-worth catching. I discovered Balchin’s fiction, finally, in 2011, and The Small Back Room is my third Balchin novel. That should give you an idea as to how much I like this writer. Mine Own Executioner and A Way Through the Wood aka Separate Lies both feature a troubled male protagonist who wrestles with various moral issues. The protagonist of The Small Back Room also struggles with a number of issues: pain, alcoholism, and office politics. The latter, while fundamentally petty, could ultimately cost lives.

It’s WWII and Sammy Rice is a weapons scientist who works in Professor Mair’s obscure research department under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence. While the work of the department is vital to the war effort, the research is also bogged down by trivialities and petty office politics. There’s also no real organisation to the work, and one huge time-waster is the so-called “Keystone Komics.” This is the term given to “bright ideas” for weaponry and various military/defence equipment (“poisoned barbed wire,”  a “retractable bayonet,” and migrating birds carrying “plant diseases” ). These ideas come in the form of letters sent in, mainly from the public, to Professor Mair. Some of these ideas have promise and others are ludicrous, but Mair seems unable to distinguish between the promising and the ridiculous. When the book begins, Sammy is quite sick of it all. He’s just attended a weapons trial with grumpy General Holland for the Reeves gun. As far as the army is concerned, the gun has problems, and as far as Sammy is concerned “the thing was pretty but darned complicated.” Sammy knows that the gun’s disappointing performance will cause more arguments at work as both Professor Mair and R.B. Waring favour the gun. Waring is a political game player who fancies himself as the number 2 man in the department. He’s a big, good-looking fellow– “rather like a film star playing a successful business man.”

There’s one positive to Sammy’s life and that’s his secret relationship with Susan, a secretary in the research department. Sammy and Susan live together, and rather like Felix’s wife, Patricia in Mine Own Executioner, Susan deserves some sort of award for tolerance, patience and understanding. Both Felix and Sammy take advantage of the women in their lives, but in The Small Back Room at times Susan’s patience is stretched to breaking point. Sammy is rather emotionally dependent on Susan, and he tends to treat her badly when other areas of his life aren’t going well.

When Sammy returns to work, he discovers that Waring has bagged a large office, and this is a sign of things to come :

I glanced around the room. Waring had done himself very well. He had a whacking great partner’s desk about six feet square, with a leather top. There were three telephones on it, with a filter extension to Susan. One was a green Secret phone. He had a big swivel desk-chair and an arm-chair for visitors. The whole thing made our rabbit-hutch upstairs look pretty poverty-stricken.

That night, Sammy gets a call from Pinker, a civil servant who claims to be a “harmless Assistant Secretary” and yet at the same time appears to have an incredible amount of inside knowledge about the Ministry of Defence:

Pinker was in the pub looking as dapper as ever. He always looked as though he’d just had a hair-cut. I was never quite sure whether Pinker was one of my closest friends or just a bloke I knew, until we started to talk. Then it was all fixed for you in the first two  minutes. He insisted on buying me a drink and said it was a long time since we’d met, so I thought this must be one of the times when we were blood brothers.

An exchange of information takes place which would initially seem to be the normal sort of complaining about one’s workmates, but there’s an undercurrent to the conversation that indicates that Pinker is a power-monger:

“Look,” I said. “Just what is your job? I’ve never really known.”

Pinker grinned. “I’m a harmless Assistant secretary in Gower’s outfit,” he said. “But don’t let it worry you. Dion O’Banion kept a flower shop in Chicago.” He looked at me and said suddenly, “why do you stick with your job?”

Considering Dion O’Banion was a gangster who operated a legit flower shop as a cover for his criminal activities, we can speculate about Pinker’s comment especially when he hints at a shake up within Sammy’s department.

A large portion of the novel concerns a new secret explosive that is responsible for the deaths of a number of civilians, namely children. Captain Stuart contacts Sammy and asks for his help:

Stuart lit a cigarette. “It’s the fourth this week,” he said abruptly. “Always the same sort of circumstances, and always after Jerry planes have been over.”

I said, “You mean they’re dropping booby traps?”

“Yes. It looks like it.”

“Always kids?”

“No. Three kids and one man.”

“No survivors, of course?”

“The people who’ve touched the things have been blown to glory. Frightful mess. This time we’ve got a survivor–the kid’s little brother. By some miracle he wasn’t touched. But as he’s only three he isn’t a lot of help.”

And so Sammy agrees to help Stuart with the defusion of the mystery explosive device when and if they find one intact. Stuart draws up notes for a disposal:

I read through the notes. He was quite right. They were a very careful and intelligent analysis of what we did know, but we knew darned little. The most interesting thing was his conclusion.

“As you said, there are three main possibilities over fusing

(a) Time fuse

(b) Magnetic (metal response)

(c) Trembler (movement response)

Photo-electric seems fundamentally improbable. One assumes that the thing will be designed so that there is the least possible chance of it being found unexploded and examined. This seems to put a time fuse out of court. Moreover, all the evidence suggests that the things explode only when they are approached or touched. On the other hand, it isn’t easy to see how a simple trembler fuse could be made to stand up to being dropped from a plane.”

It’s clear, of course, that before the novel has concluded Sammy is going to face one of those unexploded devices and wrestle all of his demons as he dismantles it…

At 192 pages this is a very tightly written story, an excellent character study of a man who suffers from a range of problems and who isn’t exactly what you’d term stable. He battles pain and alcoholism, wrestles with self-pity, and tries desperately to avoid conflict at work. Ultimately his greatest battle will be with an unexploded device. Obviously Sammy is the novel’s hero, but he’s a flawed hero–someone who’s just trying to do his job with the least conflict and for someone whose nerves are shot, he does remarkably well–especially when you consider that Sammy is tempted to crawl into a corner with a whiskey bottle and forget the rest of the world. It’s mainly thanks to Susan that he doesn’t do this. While this story of dark despair contains a number of damaged people–stuttering Cpl Taylor for example, there are others who appear to sail through life with no permanent scars, and these two sets of people rub shoulders and mingle with discordant results. Sammy struggles with self-doubt and self-loathing while people like Waring commit unconscionable acts and still sleep well at night. But in the final evaluation, Sammy like most people, is his own worst enemy. Here he is waiting for Susan to come back late from work:

I suddenly found myself hating Susan and telling myself it was her fault. She knew it would happen, and yet she hadn’t even taken the trouble to ring up about it. I thought, “She’ll come in with her worried expression on, and she’ll say, “Darling, I’m so sorry” in that way I hate, and fuss about, and it doesn’t mean a damned thing.” I remembered her dancing with Iles, and Dick kissing her. I knew she’d liked it. Why shouldn’t she? I thought, “She tries, but she’s just a bitch really, like any other woman. I’m a damned fool not to face up to it, and to make her.” I began to see what a fool I’d been to let myself get used to relying on her so much. There was something bloody humiliating in sitting there sweating and shaking because some damn woman was half an hour late. Anyhow, it was Susan who’d always made the fuss about it. If she couldn’t take more trouble about it, the quickest way seemed to be just to have a drink and be done with it.

16 Comments

Filed under Balchin Nigel, Fiction