Category Archives: Non Fiction

Uncrowned Queen: Nicola Tallis

A few months ago, I watched The White Princess which I enjoyed in spite of its flaws. It’s a period of history that interests me, but it’s by no means a favourite era: the subtext here is that I’m not an expert when it comes to the details. One character leaped out me: Margaret Beaufort. I saw her tomb years ago, and have always remembered it. While I found her role in the series interesting, I knew the programme was far from historically accurate, and that made me want to learn more. The series portrayed her as a religious fanatic, multiple marriages in her past, that incredibly tight relationship with her son Henry (who became Henry VII), the mother-in-law from hell, in love with her brother in-law Jasper, and even at one point she commits murder. What was up with all that?

So this brings me to the book: Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis. The first section of the book explores Margaret’s origins. With history, there’s always an argument as to how far back one should go. In this case, there are so many people mentioned that I became bogged down with keeping everyone straight. No doubt someone who is well versed in the period would fare better. 

Uncrowned queen

While some things about Margaret’s early life are known, there are also huge gaps in her early history. It’s clear from her history, a young heiress whose father died young, that she was a bargaining chip. I was unaware of the whole ‘wardship’ scam (I may be using the word ‘scam’ out of context but after reading that wealthy lords were granted and/or bought wardships, the word seems to fit–especially when you consider that those guardians got first dibs when it came to marrying off their wards and the doling out of their wealth.)

Margaret was a hot commodity–a “marital pawn since the earliest days of her childhood” as the author points out so well. Engaged then married and unmarried when politically expedient. Married at 12, pregnant and widowed at 13. These are things that make or break a person, and what rings through loud and clear, is that Margaret came through all the marriages, the political intrigue and turmoil of her era, strong, pragmatic and ready to play the long game. 

I found some parts of the book frustrating: so many people mentioned (and this reflects my own deficit not the author’s), plus then there are some speculations that while they were minor, were to this reader, a bit superfluous. We don’t really get down to the nitty gritty of Margaret’s life until about the half way point of the book when her son, Henry, finally becomes king. 

There’s an argument here regarding Margaret Beaufort’s personal lack of involvement in the death of the two princes in the tower. I have no issue with that particular argument but IMO while we can speculate until the end of time, whatever happened is all so murky, we will never know for certain the Tudor involvement. 

Anyway, an interesting read: Margaret emerges as an incredibly strong woman, a survivor who as an heiress saw her lands confiscated for the actions of others. This period is a time when people threw caution to the winds for religion, and courted terrible fates in the pursuit of power. Margaret, intelligent and self-controlled, learned how to survive and fight another day. Particularly interesting is her devotion to education.  

Over time, Margaret pressed against the constraints imposed by her sex and society, slowly demanding more and more control over her life, until the crown on her son’s head allowed her to make the unprecedented move for almost total independence: financially, physically and sexually. This is a woman who learned pragmatism very early on, who knew when to lay aside ego and finer loyalties for the sake of the long game–unlike so many of her male contemporaries. 

Review copy. 

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Diary of a Foreigner in Paris: Curzio Malaparte

“How kind France is when it is noble.”

Malaparte, a play on the name Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but later fell foul of the Mussolini regime and was arrested and imprisoned multiple times. Malaparte certainly got around. In The Skin, Curzio Malaparte, as a liaison officer with the American forces, takes a look at the ugliness of Naples in 1942. In The Kremlin Ball, Malaparte is in 1929 Stalinist Russia.

Both The Skin and The Kremlin Ball echo a thought that rolls in frequently: amazing eye witness accounts cannot be exchanged for history books, and then comes a second thought: while all these things happened in incredible times, I’m glad I didn’t live through them.

diary of a foreigner in paris

Diary of a Foreigner in Paris finds Malaparte in the City of Light, but since it’s 1947, Paris is a changed place. In 1933, Malaparte left Paris and returned to Italy where he was arrested and imprisoned. After a stint in the Regina Coeli prison, he was sent to the island of Lipari. Malaparte recalls that although he had many friends, it was only his French friends who “defended” him. So Malaparte, who enlisted in the French army at age 16, and whose mother was French returns in 1947 to a country he knows well and loves. He considers himself not to be a “foreigner in France,” but France has changed.

There are some famous people in these pages: Rossellini, Jean Cocteau, Camus, Henry Muller, François Mauriac. At a dinner party, Malaparte feels uncomfortable and senses “a hint of animosity, of repulsion, of dislike.”

Everyone looks at me as if I were not only a foreigner but an uninvited guest.

An icebreaker comes from Henry Muller who tries to smooth things over:

recalling my years in Paris, my time in prison. François Mauriac interrupts him to say that many people in France suffered a great deal in prison as well, that it’s rare to find a Frenchman who hasn’t been in prison, etc.

Malaparte thinks “it’s not my fault if Mussolini declared war on France, if he behaved badly toward France. I think that certain foreigners who came to Rome before the war to pay homage to Mussolini are rather more responsible than the Italians who had no choice.” So hardly a warm welcome for Malaparte.

Malaparte is, at least for this reader, somewhat disingenuous since he supported Italian fascism, fought as a fascist soldier and praised the Wehrmacht at least initially–even if he fell foul of Mussolini later. Yes he was exiled and imprisoned, but the introduction from Edmund White explains that Malaparte is a “mythomane” and that he was “under house arrest in his luxurious villa in Capri and several times imprisoned for short stays in Regina Coeli in Rome, he claimed  for his assiduous anti fascism.” (In reality, he “siphoned off public funds” and remained an avid supporter of Italian fascism.) Mussolini’s son in law personally intervened for Malaparte’s freedom from exile to Lipari.

With WWII still close in the rear view mirror, other intellectuals find it hard to mingle with Malaparte, and it’s easy to see why.

Time passes, to be sure. Oh, does time pass. No one is still Catholic in 1947 the way one was in 1933. Then one was Catholic in a freer, more personal way. Today it’s more political. 

This is an interesting, somewhat fragmentary read. It’s more impressionistic than The Kremlin Ball and The Skin, and more philosophical (even if his sometimes twisted thinking is bizarre).  For example, at one point, he outrageously argues that “Gide is the high priest of a religion whose sacrificial altars are at Dachau.” Malaparte tries to make sense of what he interprets as general, wide changes in France and in the French. Of course, there’s never any personal responsibility here, any acknowledgement. At one point he’s asked why he didn’t desert, and decides that the criticism directed towards him is “amusing.” According to Malaparte “there’s no longer any sense of humour in Europe.” So WWII and the Nazis sucked a lot of ‘fun’ out of the world; Malaparte’s comment is tactless at best. 

Collaboration was born from the sense of feeling like a winner alongside the Germans. And I wonder why those in the Resistance, why I myself, don’t feel like winners alongside the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians. What is so indigestible for us Europeans about the Russian and Anglo-Saxon victory?

Mythomane and fabulist–this is a study in a very particular personality with Malaparte revealing more about himself than he ever imagined.  For this reader, while this book is my least favourite of the three I’ve read, Malaparte, who obviously feels rather aggrieved by his lack of welcome, by is, above all, a wonderful stylist, and the very scene in which he throws up his hands and asks “what do they want of me?” shows, rather queasily, how slippery people argue their way out of anything. 

Review copy

Translated by Stephen Twilley

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Paris Spleen: Baudelaire (1869)

“Wickedness can never be excused, but there is merit in knowing we are wicked; the one vice beyond redemption is to do bad things out of stupidity.”

Paris Spleen had sat on my shelf for some years, and while it’s ostensibly Baudelaire writing about Paris and various aspects of all levels of French life, it’s also a look inside Baudelaire’s head. This was published posthumously in 1869 and it includes prose pieces on a wide range of topics from being drunk to an observation of two children playing.

Paris spleen

On the first page, Baudelaire had my attention; he addressed Arsène Houssaye, arguing for the merit of the prose pieces, that  “each survives on its own.”

We can break off where we choose, I my reverie, you the manuscript, the reader his reading; for I have not tied his reluctant  will to the interminable thread of some pointless plot.

Some of the pieces are very short–less than a page; some are observations of human behaviour while others are centered on nature.

In The Double Room, just over two pages long, Baudelaire describes a bedroom, and the languid, sensual description begins with the bedroom as a pleasant place, but that soon changes:

And that fragrance of another world, which sent my seasoned sensibility reeling, has been displaced, alas, by the rank odour of tobacco mixed with god knows what stomach-turning damp. Now lungs breathe rancid desolation.

In this reduced world, so full of disgust, just one familiar object consoles me: the phial of laudanum, old and frightful mistress–and like all lovers, alas abundant with caresses and betrayals.

Ah indeed, Time is back, and reigns supreme now; and that hideous old personage has brought all his fiendish retinue of Memories, Regrets, Fits, Phobias. Anguish, Nightmares, Rage and Neuroses.

I could quote a lot from this book. There are times I liked Baudelaire and I agreed with him and there were times I thought it was hard being Baudelaire. Ultimately however, this is a thinker who analyses his feelings for us, his fortunate audience. Anyway, there’s a lot to chew over here; a friend who died insane, the beauty of nature, whether or not humans possess “innate goodness,”  why people do horrible things, and the sadness and tortures of life. Yes, it’s Paris and Parisian life, but it’s also a glimpse into the mind of Baudelaire. This is best dipped into rather than read at one sitting. I read at night and Baudelaire gave me a lot to think about as I drifted off to sleep.

Vauvenargues says that in public gardens there are walks haunted mainly by failed ambition, ill-starred inventors, unachieved fame, broken hearts, all those wild, barricaded souls in the last throes of a storm and who retreat far from the insolent gaze of laughing wasters. 

Translated by Martin Sorell

 

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The Scholl Case: The Deadly End of a Marriage: Anja Reich-Osang

“Jutta Abromeit says, he caught her eye and then turned away quickly. ‘He realised that I’d seen through him.’ Scholl, she says, could manipulate people, win them over to his side and implicate them in arguments like key witnesses.”

I read my fair share of crime books–all sorts, non fiction and fiction. Murder is a frequent topic, and of course, the murder of a spouse pops up uncomfortably frequently. In these instances, I always find myself wondering ‘what was wrong with divorce as an option?’ At what point is divorce dismissed and at what point does the plan to, instead, murder a spouse emerge and begin to seem like a good idea? But then this niggling thought occurs to me: years of hatred and loathing (not to mention the financial benefits) must outweigh the risks and fuel the calculations. Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case is a non fiction book which takes a look at the murder of Brigitte (Gitte/Gitti) Scholl. She was 67 years old, a beautician who lived in Ludwigsfelde, a small and peaceful town south of Berlin. Brigitte’s husband of over 47 years, Ludwigsfelde’s former mayor Heinrich Scholl, was very soon accused and then convicted of the crime. The big question becomes WHY??

The scholl case

After Heinrich Scholl’s conviction, the author, who attended the trial, examined the evidence, accumulated interviews with friends and relatives of the couple, and amassed considerable input from interviews with Heinrich Scholl who also “wrote down and sent [me] memories of his life.” The book goes into some detail into the history of the Scholls and how they slotted into the history of East Germany. Brigitte Knorrek met Heinrich Scholl in  childhood. Scholl had a hard-scrabble childhood while Brigitte’s upbringing was much better. Much to the surprise of their friends, they married in 1964. Brigitte had a child from a boyfriend who drifted away, and Heinrich had fathered a child by another woman. It was a practical decision which seemed to work.

To all outside measurements this was a highly successful marriage. Heinrich Scholl had an amazing political career. He was elected and reelected as mayor repeatedly: “he was everywhere–down in a sewage drain and up on stage with the heir to the British throne.” His wife Brigitte ran a hair salon in their home. They raised her son Frank together, and, rather touchingly I thought, Brigitte had a series of brown spaniels–the first given to her by a boyfriend when she was a young woman.

About half way through the book, I was deep into the history of the Scholls’ lives and still couldn’t anticipate a motive for murder. Yet there were some very troubling signs: affairs, biting the head off a live mouse…

As with many married couples, life changes post retirement. Heinrich retired in 2008, and that meant he spent more time at home. According to the interviews, Brigitte was controlling, humiliated Heinrich and made him live in the cellar. Wait.. wait… Scholl actually had a flat, post retirement in Berlin, self-published an erotic novel, kept a Thai mistress,a sex worker,”  “with high standards” on the side, and depleted his bank account. True, he did return on Friday nights when “he handed Gitti his bag of dirty laundry and worked through her list of chores. If Gitte was controlling, then Scholl had slipped the leash.

At one point, Heinrich was advised by a therapist to write “what bothers” him about his  wife:
Nannies me.

Doesn’t let me hang up my pictures.

Has a cleaning mania.

Treats me like a small child.

No love any more!

Well boo fucking hoo.

Wonder what Gitte’s list would have looked like. …

The author had many face to face interviews with Heinrich Scholl and so we get a lot of his version of events. Sometimes this is just bizarre when placed, without question, in the context of the events. So for example, apparently Heinrich Scholl finds women “hard to gauge. […] He didn’t notice that his wife humiliated him for decades or that his Thai girlfriend, a sex worker, exploited him.” Now think about that. …  Hardly the first man to think that “his relationship” with a sex worker “had been something special.”  At one point, the author asks: “And who was actually the victim here? The women in the gallery were for the most part on Brigitte Scholl’s side: the men on Heinrich Scholl’s.” 

The book seems stunningly hard on Gitte since, after all, she was the one who ended up strangled with a shoelace and buried in a shallow grave right next to the grave of her, also strangled, murdered dog. Scholl comes through loud and clear–although perhaps not always in the way he intended. As usual the victim is silent (and the portrayal somewhat vague in its stereotyping), and yet through the pages I saw glimpses of someone admirable: as a child she “almost always brought hungry children with her” to eat, became a hard working business woman, made floral arrangements for friends, planted flowers for an old friend whose husband was dying, was the only person to send parcels of food for a friend in prison, and wouldn’t increase her prices as she felt her customers had very little money.

And the suicide theory? I’m not even going to address that

review copy

translated by Imogen Taylor

Marina’s review:

Kim’s review

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More Anatomy of Murder: Sayers, Iles,Crofts (1936)

“As for the academic question of whether the association of a young man with a woman considerably older than himself is to be regarded always as harmful to the young man, that is debatable.”

In More Anatomy of Murder, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, respected authors of detective fiction, each discuss an infamous murder case. Sayers, Iles and Crofts were all members of the Detection Club (Sayers and Crofts were founders). Sayers considers The Murder of Julia Wallace, while Iles examines The Rattenbury Case, and finally Crofts, in a much shorter piece, discusses A New Zealand Tragedy.

More anatomy of murder

The biggest issue for readers of More Anatomy of Murder is that these three cases (or at least the first two) were headlines in 1933 and 1935, and so some prior knowledge of these murders is assumed. Fortunately for this reader, I was familiar with the Rattenbury case through the film Cause Célèbre. But back to the first section: The Murder of Julia Wallace. (The bones of this case reminded me of Celia Dale’s Helping with Inquiries. ) Julia Wallace’s husband, who claimed to have been lured from his home at the time of his wife’s bludgeoning murder, was arrested and tried for the crime. In the second case, the Rattenbury murder, Francis Rattenbury was murdered by his much younger wife’s lover (the wife initally confessed), and the third case, The Lakey murder, involved the murder of a married couple by a neighbor. So three very different types of murders.

Each of the authors takes a different approach to the case under examination. Sayers, for example, states that the law is interested in “one question only,” … “Did the prisoner do it?” while the crime novelist asks “if the prisoner did not do it, who did.” Sayers’ approach is heavily psychological as she peels away the layers and complications of the case. At each step of the evidence, she presents the possibility of Wallace being the murderer, or whether or not the murderer was another individual.

In The Rattenbury Case, Iles references the hanging of Edith Thompson and compares Alma Rattenbury to Edith Thompson, and the two cases appear similar on the surface. Iles argues that while husbands were murdered by their wives’ lovers in both instances, there are differences. Since married women seeking sex with young lovers loomed large in both cases, Edith Thompson and Alma Rattenbury’s behaviour scandalized the public, and Mrs. Rattenbury’s temperament is much discussed along with that of her 18-year-old lover/chauffeur, Stoner. Iles makes a good argument for the case that Mrs. Rattenbury and Stoner fed off each other’s unstable temperaments.

Iles also discusses Miss F. Tennyson Jesse’s transcript and commentary of the trial, and Iles argues that while Jesse “finds it difficult to account for Stoner’s crime,” and calls the crime “a gesture conceived in an unreal world,” he disagrees:

Where personal advantage looms so large if a certain person can only be knocked out of the path, the consequent knocking out bears a very solid relation to real life. 

The final case follows the standard police procedural as Freeman Wills Crofts tackles the evidence in the Lakey Murder Case.

I liked the way each author took a different approach, and Sayer’s wit bolstered the tame drabness of married life between Julia and William Wallace. She notes that while the couple’s married life seemed superficially happy, there are hints that life was not what it seemed:

Nothing will ever bring her back, and however much I want her or however much I miss her loving smiles and aimless chatter …

After reading this section, I had my own theory. The Rattenbury Case with its unstable, erratic household, morphia, lashings of alcohol and cocaine was a good contrast. Iles even spends some passages explaining why he is fascinated by the case.

(F. Tennyson Jesse wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow which is a fictionalised account of Edith Thompson and the Ilford Murder Case.)

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Honour & Other People’s Children: Helen Garner

Honour & Other People’s Children from Australian author Helen Garner presents two novellas about break ups.  Of the two stories, I much preferred Honour. Other People’s Children seemed to lack the focus of Honour, and while on the surface it sounded interesting (relationships between people in a shared house) the story lacked a sharp focus, and I couldn’t quite grasp a sense of the characters. 

Honour, on the other hand, is an good, albeit painful read. Kathleen and Frank are married, and have a child, Flo, together. They are amicably separated for years when one day, Frank abruptly asks for a divorce. He tells Kathleen that “it won’t be any different between us. Just on paper.” For her part, Kathleen asks “what’s put this into your head?” It’s not really a ‘what’ as much as a ‘who,’ and Frank rather weakly admits that it’s his girlfriend Jenny’s idea which rather sneakily puts this decision between the two women in Frank’s life while he shrugs off responsibility.

Frank’s decision to ask for a divorce … no, it’s Jenny’s idea right and Frank is just going with the flow, puts new tensions into the relationships between Kathleen, Frank and Jenny. This soon becomes apparent when Kathleen goes to Jenny’s home to pick up Flo and runs into Jenny. This is a first meeting.

They did not perceive their striking similarity; they both made emphatic gestures and grimaces in speech, stressed certain words ironically, cast their eyes aside in mid-sentence as if a sustained gaze might burn the listener. Around each of them quivered an aura of terrific restraint. If they both let go at once, they might blow each other out of the room. 

Trouble follows when Flo announces that she wants to live with Frank and Jenny. There’s one wonderful scene when Kathleen and Frank, with Jenny as the awkward third party, take a trip down memory lane with shared reminiscences. What follows is purely territorial with Frank and Kathleen excluding Jenny. I don’t know Jenny put up with it, but then payback comes later.

Divorce… I always laugh when people tell me they are going through an amicable divorce. They just haven’t got to the bad bit yet. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’ve just NEVER seen an amicable divorce. Perhaps they exist between reasonable people, and here in Honour, we see how these two women, forget Frank because he’s largely clueless, or at least pretends to be clueless, carve out their territory. Honour seems very real. Long term separated spouses are shaken up when a third person enters the equation and wants more. All the characters have to reconfigure their roles and some of the moves are petty, some are poignant and all are sad.

Review copy.

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A German Officer in Occupied Paris: Ernst Jünger (The War Journals 1941-1945)

“Who will stand by us after these spectacles have finished?”

It wasn’t easy to read Ernst Jünger’s A German Officer in Occupied Paris. There’s the entire: “they were the bad side” aspect of things of course, but my difficulties … no my discomfort … from reading this book came from a different source. More of that later.

The lengthy, informative introduction from Elliot Neaman offers a summary of Jünger’s life and views. Ernst Jünger fought in WWI and was wounded 14 times. Following WWI, he wrote Storm of Steel (which I’ve never read and probably wouldn’t like), and was “one of Germany’s foremost authors of the war generation.” When WWII arrived, Jünger, in his mid 40s, joined his old company,  and in 1941, he served as a military censor in Paris. Not only did he read the letters home written by German soldiers, but he read “French newspapers and other publications for signs of insubordination.”  While performing that job, Jünger kept a journal, and it’s a rather peculiar read.  The book contains two journals “from his tour of duty in Paris, his sojourn in the Caucasus, and his visits and then homecoming to the house in Kirchorts.”

A German Officer

As I read the Paris entries, the title of Richard Attenborough’s film “Oh What a Lovely War,” kept coming into my head. Yes I suppose someone had to serve in Paris, the lucky buggers, while others were on the Eastern Front.  Jünger’s office was in the Hotel Majestic and he socialized with “intellectuals and artists across the political spectrum.” Jünger carried on several affairs and waxes on about beauty. We read about his dreams and what he was reading. Where was the war?? It was all a bit horrifying, and yes I read about how he sympathized with various people and knew about the plot to kill Hitler, but honestly, the journal left a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I expected Jünger to bitch about Hitler (mention is made in the intro of how Jünger burned many personal papers), and Jünger seems too intelligent to be caught venting spleen on the pages of his diaries, and yet …. there’s something also repugnant here.

Like a God in France, Jünger operated on the edge of politics in Paris, rather like a butterfly fluttering among the resistors and collaborators. He didn’t trust the generals, who had taken a personal oath to Hitler, to be able to carry out a coup. Jean Cocteau later quipped: “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”

More than anything, the diary raised, for me at least, the question of moral culpability. Jünger “saw himself as part of the resistance to Hitler even though he believed that active opposition was pointless.” He refused many official posts under Hitler, and the intro goes into depth regarding Jünger’s involvement/knowledge of plots against Hitler.

I thought about The White Rose. Most of the members of White Rose were very young. Their courageous acts did not have the desired political results, so did they die for nothing? And yet when I read about Jünger, living in luxury, doing well and rubbing elbows with all sorts even as he did not approve of Hitler, well it sort of turned my stomach. At one point, Jünger references “charnel houses” and writes about “the monstrous atrocities perpetrated by the Security Service after entering Kiev. Trains were again mentioned that carried Jews into poison gas tunnels. Those are rumors, and I note them as such but extermination is certainly occurring on a huge scale.” And yet then Jünger immediately moves, bizarrely, into this WTF moment, denying individual mandate and responsibility, mourning how war has lost its  elegance and turned grubby.

I am overcome by a loathing for the uniforms, the epaulettes, the medals, the weapons, all the glamour I have loved so much. Ancient chivalry is dead; wars are waged by technicians. 

A new dark reality, a darker mood that can’t escape the scenes he faces, enters Jünger’s entries as he experiences life in Russia:

The deluge of sludge even penetrates the interiors of the buildings. In the morning, I was in a field hospital that rose from the center of a yellowish-brown morass. As I entered, the casket of a first lieutenant was being carried toward me.

Yesterday he succumbed to his sixth wound of the war. Back in Poland, he had sacrificed an eye.

The journals contain interesting sections, but Jünger’s self-censoring damages the read. If I read an eyewitness account from someone who lived through some horrific/incredible moment in history, I want details. But it’s impossible to tell what Jünger was really thinking, and so perhaps one tantalizing aspect of the book is psychological more than anything else. All this stuff is swirling around his life but we hear about the harmless social fluff for the most part. For example, he notes “In Charleville, I was a witness at a military tribunal. I used the opportunity to buy books, like novels by Gide and various works by Rimbaud.” I wanted to hear about the tribunal, but alas, it vanished into Jünger’s book buying.

Review copy

Translated by Thomas Hansen

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A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940):Iris Origo

Some books serve as incredible mirrors of history. These books have the power to create a range of emotions in the reader: disturbed, sad, horror.  I felt uncomfortable and disturbed by Curio Malaparte’s books The Skin and The Kremlin Ball. Teffi’s Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea was poignant rather than uncomfortable–a haunting read, and when I finished the book,  I found myself thinking about the many people she encountered on her epic journey.

Iris Origo’s A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940), also from New York Review Books, another mirror of a particular time, doesn’t have that uncomfortable feeling, and neither is it haunting. Instead imagine an Anglo-American woman of considerable privilege, brought up in Italy, married to an Italian, living on a grand estate in Tuscany, who records events with intelligent, cool detachment and a growing sense of unease, as they occur in 1939-1940.

A chill in the air

The book opens with Iris Origo on a train “packed” full of squadristi–“the fascists della prima ora, those who belonged to the first squads of 1919.” The men are headed to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Fasci and also to hear a speech from the Duce. It’s a brilliant opening which shows fascism deeply embedded in society, ‘respectable’ fascists who look “good-natured, friendly and peace-loving. About 80% of them belong unmistakably to the working-class; the others look like small tradesmen or employees. Impossible not to like them; impossible too not to feel that Fascism was, in its beginning, a genuine revolutionary movement of the people.” 

The rumors of war are just that. Yes, there’s unrest in the world, and as events unfold, Origo takes particular note of the newspapers, again with that cool detachment she recognises shifts in attitudes. There’s a “sympathetic tone now adopted towards Russia,” which she intelligently realises “suggests that there may be some foundations in the persistent rumours of a German-Russian rapprochement.”

Although Mussolini makes speeches about arming the country, Origo expresses the thought that people are “entirely right in saying that Mussolini intends to avoid war,” and yet she speculates about “Mussolini’s capacity to act as a moderating influence on Hitler.” Meanwhile foreigners are expelled, foreign papers are not available, while “voluntary exodus” requires German subjects to move back to Germany and Italian subjects of Austrian origin to “move either to Germany or to other Italian provinces.”

Other restrictions kick in, there’s the last day that cars can be used, and on this day, the author visits old friends. The sale of coffee and tea is forbidden, and the English leave the country “except for a few very old ladies, who can’t move.” Still the general mood is that “it won’t come to a real war: the Duce will get is out of it somehow.” The diary notes how people manage, or fail to manage, the depression of anti-fascist neighbours, the mothers who worry that sons will be hauled off to fight. The war creeps closer and the mood darkens…

Iris Origo initially admired the Duce; her husband was, at one point, the president of the local fascist consorzi (landowners’ association). As the diary continues, we see the author’s attitude shift until she is galvanised into action, and that’s the story that continues in her book: War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary 1943-44. Sometimes book introductions are spoilers, and while the introduction, written by Lucy Hughes-Hallet, explains some of what happens in the book, it also explains who Iris Origo was, her connections, and her politics. I’d recommend reading it prior to starting the book.

Review copy

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The House by the Lake: Thomas Harding

In 2013, Thomas Harding traveled from London to Berlin in order to visit the weekend house in Groβ Glienicke built by his great-grandfather, Dr Alfred Alexander, a house which, by necessity was abandoned by Harding’s Jewish family in the harsh year of 1936.  The house “was on the front lines of history–the lives of its inhabitants ripped up and remade again and again, simply because of where they lived.” That statement is true for many of the holiday home’s inhabitants. Harding’s relatives were lucky enough to escape to London after his great-grandfather, who had long held the opinion that “his countrymen would see sense, that they would finally understand the madness of Hitler and his cronies,” finally agreed that the family must flee.

The Alexanders’ lake house was an idyllic holiday home for the well-to-do Jewish family. In the 1890s, a wealthy businessman, Otto Wollank with an eye for a bargain, bought a large estate near the Groβ Glienicke lake, fifteen kilometres outside of the city of Berlin.  Under Wollank, a former member of the Danzig Death’s Head Hussars, initially the estate prospered, but by the mid 20s it faced ruin. Wollank decided to lease out lakeside land which could tempt wealthy city dwellers to establish second homes in the country. Consequently, in 1927 Dr Alexander leased the land for 15 years and built a modest lakeside home for his children.

The location of the lakeside home turned out to have an impressive historic significance. Post WWII, the Berlin wall ran (inconveniently) between the lake and the land, so it’s easy to imagine the difficulties residents faced. But even before that, extreme political views arrived in Groβ Glienicke, marking the village out as an early area of turmoil.

The house by the lake

Wollank’s son-in-law, Robert von Schultz, was a rabid anti-Semite, “a product of the street battles of the 1920s, believing in the violent overthrow of the government, the supremacy of the German people and the importance of race.” Von Schultz was the regional leader of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and with the company von Schultz kept at the Wollank estate, soon there were “rumours of abductions, midnight interrogations and even torture.” Yet in spite of this, many of the leasehold tenants who had holiday homes on the Wollank land were Jewish.

The Night of the Long Knives saw von Schultz imprisoned, questioned, and placed on trial. In the meantime, his wife was approached by a representative of Herman Göring who asked her to sell a large part of the estate–a section which was later to used as an airfield– the airfield Hitler used “for his personal journeys, including to his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, providing a degree of privacy that he could not find at Berlin’s other airfields.

Once the Alexanders fled to England, the occupancy of the lakeside house fell into freefall. Residents lived there as they fell in and out of political favour, and during the Soviet occupation post WWII, the village became the site of a series of horrendous unsolved murders. Later, the house, under communal living, was at one time occupied by a somewhat lackadaisical Stasi informant known as “Ignition Key.”

When the author arrived to inspect the home (for the second time) in 2013 he found a wreck of a house that was “now owned by the city of Potsdam,” scheduled for demolition, and the author was told that in order to save the building, he would need to prove “it was culturally and historically significant.” That’s where all the research comes in.

It’s impossible to write the history of this house without writing a mini history of Germany–such was the impact of politics on the residents of this house. Readers may find themselves familiar with some of the historic information included here, but nonetheless, this is a remarkable story.

Review copy.

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The Kremlin Ball: Curzio Malaparte

“It rather appears that Stalin doesn’t like certain worldly behaviors of the Soviet nobility, nor does he like scandals involving women. Stalin, at heart, is a puritan.”

Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball grants a look at 1929 Stalinist Russia which is terrifying, delirious and hypnotic: this is a freshly transformed society, post revolution, post civil war, post NEP and post Lenin’s death that is already teetering on its decaying legs. Trotsky is in exile, and Kamenev has been arrested: “The great purge had begun,” but in these early days, no one quite grasps what is happening.  Think of the Titanic as it hits the iceberg and that’s the feeling which seeps through these pages.

The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte is shocked by what he finds in Moscow; a new social elite has risen on the corpses of those they’ve replaced. There’s still an obsession with “Western behaviours,” and some people, always trying to keep ahead of fashion, have clothes delivered from London:

I had arrived in Moscow believing I would find a tough, intransigent, puritan class in power who had risen from the working class and who abided by a Marxist puritanism.

Malaparte moves through society, mingling with those who appear to be in control, and he watches the doomed–those who have power which is so soon to slip from their grasp:

They had very suddenly risen up to sleep in the beds of the great women of the tsarist nobility, to sit in the gilded chairs of the tsarist officials, carrying out the same functions that until the day before had been carried out by the tsarist nobility. 

Malaparte mingles with the highest echelons of Soviet society; he rubs shoulders with politicians, their wives, listens to gossip about ballerinas, attends balls and dinners, recording all he sees, even as Stalin’s brooding, malevolent presence lingers over every society event. Malaparte recalls the French revolution and draws comparisons:

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity or bad manners, nor is it the complacency of wealth, luxury, and power: it is the suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence. All of us in Moscow were united in our praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways: but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire. 

Some of the characters Malaparte meets are ‘ghosts’ of the past regime–they’ve survived, and yet they may as well not exist–even as they hang onto life by a fingertip. One of the book’s greatest scenes takes place at the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard. Malaparte goes there with Bulgakov and runs into “ghosts of the tsarist aristocracy” who are selling their “meager treasures.” A surreal meeting takes place between Malaparte and Prince Lvov who is trying to sell an armchair. There’s also an incredible meeting between Malaparte and Florinsky, the Chief of Protocol of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic who rides around Moscow in a carriage:

All rouged and powdered, his little yellow eyes rimmed with black, his eyelashes hardened with mascara.

On another occasion, Malaparte meets Trotsky’s sister, Olga Kamenev. She’s waiting for death to arrive, even as she continues her work in the face of her doom. Others will soon die, and there’s a motif of rot and death throughout the book. Malaparte visits Lenin’s Tomb,  the morgue (or what passes for a morgue) and a glue factory where a “mountain of dead animals” emits a stench of rot even as the animals are converted into usable objects. People are being arrested, others commit suicide: Death awaits nearly everyone Malaparte meets, and of course there’s a subtle comparison to be drawn between the piles of animal corpses and the soon-to be dead:

What did Trotsky think would happen if he lost? The hateful thing, in my opinion, about Trotsky wasn’t that he killed thousands upon thousands of the bourgeoisie, of counterrevolutionaries, of  tsarist officers, nor that he killed them with bad feelings–good feelings do not make for a good revolution–but I reproached him for having placed himself at the head of a political faction that identified itself with the corrupt Soviet ruling class of the years 1929-1930. Behind his rhetoric lurked the pederast, the prostitute, the enriched bourgeoisie, the petty officers, all those who exploited the October Revolution. Trotsky’s sin was not that he had placed himself at the head of a proletarian faction, but at the head of the most corrupt faction comprised of the revolutionary proletarian exploiters.

The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Purges, but this is a time in-between: 1929. So many people had been slaughtered, but many many more were to die. There’s a sense of unease, a troubled sleep in between the past violence and the violence yet to come, and Malaparte’s amazing, perverse intellect, devoid of moral judgement, captures this moment in time. Malaparte ruminates about Russian literature and how the characters in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov “were alive in a world inhabited by death.” He discusses religion, death and the nature of revolutions while evoking Proust, Balzac, and Russia’s greatest authors. This is a brilliant work which will make my best-of year list.

Review copy

Translated by Jenny McPhee

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Filed under Fiction, Malaparte Curzio