Category Archives: Non Fiction

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

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

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

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Malaparte Curzio

Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Goebbels confides in his diary on 7 August.” Then there will be some shooting.”

Berlin 1936: Sixteeen Days in August from Oliver Hilmes offers a kaleidoscope view of the Olympic games through the stories of a range of people: Nazi leaders, diplomats, socialites, writers, journalists, spies, nightclub owners, and, of course, the athletes. All this is set against the city of Berlin: a city in flux with the glories and decadence of Weimar culture fading fast–although some people were slower than others to catch on to the new reality and the horrific future.

The book, which contains some marvelous photographs from the period, begins on August 1, 1936 with the president of the International Olympic committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, who according to Goebbels’ diary entry is one of “the Olympians [who] look like the directors of a flea circus.” This comment sets the tone for the book: appearance vs reality. For while the Olympics are solemnly held with respect for tradition, to Hitler, the games were a wonderful opportunity for propaganda. Already, on page 16 when the games open, Hitler is presented with a “symbolic Olive branch” which is followed by the athletes, who “represented by the German weightlifter, Rudolf Ismayr–take the Olympic oath.” Then in a break from protocol “after taking the vow, he waves  a Swastika flag instead of the Olympic one.”

Parties and receptions: the Olympics are swathed with glittering events. As journalist Bella Fromm notes, “The propaganda machinery is trying to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.”

But behind the scenes of the Olympics, interesting events are taking place. Interior Minister, Wilhem Frick ordered a “gypsy manhunt day,” and two weeks before the Olympic games opened, around 600 people are rounded up and dumped in a camp on the outskirts of Berlin. The publication of the Nazi hate-rag Der Stürmer is suspended while all these important foreign visitors are in town.

There’s a ‘while Rome burns’ feel to the book. Berlin’s famous nightclubs are still operating, but “the Quartier Latin is a volcano, and patrons dance on its edge.” Similarly, The Ciro Bar and The Sherbini bar are thriving, but time is running out…

Underneath the idea that life in Berlin is ‘normal’ we see glimpses of the seemingly innocuous ‘Travel Union Club’ otherwise known as Legion Condor, well armed, heading to Spain. And then there’s the “free German press in exile” who publish and smuggle into Germany a 16 page pamphlet.

“Get to Know Beautiful Germany: An Indispensable Guide For Every Visitor to the Olympic Games in Berlin.” The cover featured an idyllic German landscape, but inside a map pinpoints almost all of the then-existing concentration camps, penal facilities and court prisons. ‘SA torture chambers have not been included,” a footnote read. “They are too many in number.”

In Berlin, American Author Thomas Wolfe who “doesn’t like Jews” mouths off about how “people are free to speak and write and think some things in Germany that they are not free to speak and write in America. For example, in Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America, you are not free to say this.” But Wolfe expresses this naive opinion to the wrong person: Mildred Harnack, and it’s from her that for the first time, Wolfe hears the term, “concentration camp.

Since arriving in Berlin, Wolfe has never seen any public evidence of the tyranny she described. But what if Germany is putting on a show to fool him and the other Olympic visitors? What if the Games are just a gigantic piece of propaganda? And what if the Germans Wolfe meets every day are just extras in an exceedingly horrible play?

Berlin 1936 is initially a dizzying read, but then the central idea of appearance vs reality takes over. The author’s original approach to a slice of history is compelling and effective. Each chapter is prefaced with the report of the weather (there’s great irony here) and police reports are scattered through the text. At the end of the book, there’s a section ‘what became of.’ and in this chapter, the author traces the lives of some of the characters mentioned.

Review copy

Translated by Jefferson Chase

2 Comments

Filed under Hilmes Oliver, Non Fiction

Children of Nazis: The Sons and Daughters of Himmler, Göring, Höss, Mengele and Others. Living with a Father’s Legacy: Tania Crasnianski

A few years ago I watched Hitler’s Children, a documentary which explored the lives of some of the offspring of the Nazi elite. It was a fascinating film, and so when I saw Tania Crasnianski’s Children of Nazis, I knew I wanted to read it.

Under scrutiny here are:

Gudren Himmler

Edda Göring

Wolf R. Hess

Niklas Frank

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr.

The Höss children

The Speer Children

Rolf Mengele

One of the many things I carried away from Hitler’s Children was the range of reactions experienced by the younger relatives of the Nazi elite. Some were in total denial, while others were horrified when they finally learned the truth, and the same is true in the book. Children of Nazis presents each chapter with a brief history of exactly what each father did, followed by a description of the child’s upbringing, what happened after the war, and the child’s opinion of the father’s actions. These children had very different upbringings: Gudren Himmler had a secluded, claustrophobia “provincial bourgeois” upbringing while Edda Göring was treated like a Nazi princess, growing up in a castle with an actress mother and a flamboyant father who wore full make up and was addicted to morphine. Some of the children had excellent loving, relationships with their fathers, while others did not. Some of the children saw Jews from the concentration camps, while others were removed from that aspect of the war. Some children had happy home lives while others did not. Is it more difficult for a child of a leading Nazi to accept the father’s guilt if the child were removed from all signs of the war? If a Nazi father is a cold, remote man, is it easier to accept his responsibility in the genocide? How could the children brought up at Auschwitz deny their father’s responsibility?

Children of Nazis

But there are commonalities in these childhoods. After the war, many of the mothers were arrested and the children were isolated from broader society. As social pariahs, they were barred from schools, housing, and employment. And since, post 1945,  the mothers of the children remained faithful to the ideals of the Third Reich, this often threw the children exclusively into Nazi circles. There are also stories here of kindness shown to the children and this seemed to pay off in a big way. Pastor Lohmann, for example, “who made it his mission to open his doors to the children of the Nazi party, showing them it was possible for people who were not like them to love them.” Or the Jewish owners of Saks Jandel who kept Brigitte Höss’s secret that her father was the commandant of Auschwitz.

All these case studies cause the reader to question how we would have reacted in such cases. If these men were “good” fathers, and by that I mean kind and attentive to their children, how would a child put their father’s monstrous behavior out-of-the-house into any sort of context?

“There must have been two sides to him. The one that I knew and then another…. She also questioned the official number of Jews sent to their deaths: “How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed.” (Birgitte Höss)

I particularly liked the chapters on Niklas Frank, the son of “the Butcher of Poland,” and Martin Adolf Bormann Jr. The chapter on Frank details how, as a child, he would go with his mother to the Warsaw ghetto. They arrived in a chauffeur driven limousine and Frank recalls as how as a young child, he noted corpses on the pavement, thin children dressed in rags staring at the car. Frank says his mother used the ghettos “as if they were discount stores especially designed for the Frank family.”

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr was sent, as a punishment, to a Nazi Party academy at age 10 and when the death of Hitler was announced, the news stunned the students:

For me, that was the end. I remember the moment vividly, but I cannot describe the silence that greeted the news … it must have lasted four hours. No one said a word, but eventually people began to go outside, and almost immediately, there was a gunshot, then another, and another. Inside, no one spoke, there was no sound, only the gunshots outside. We thought we were all going to die…. I saw no future for myself. Suddenly, behind the bodies that covered the courtyard, another boy, who was eighteen, appeared. He invited me to come sit next to him. The air smelled fresh, birds were singing, we were still alive. I know that, if we hadn’t been there for each other in that precise moment, neither of us would still be here. I know it. 

The author mentioned that while she intended to meet all of her subjects, “in the end,” she only interviewed one, Niklas Frank. Many of the subjects were dead, while others did not wish to be interviewed for a range of reasons. The author says something that really stuck “It is also true that some of these sons and daughters feel it is easier to be the ‘child of’ certain of these men rather than others.”

And this brings me to Dr Mengele. I can’t rate the Nazis listed in the book from 1-10 from best to worst. That’s not a job I want, but I can say that there’s something particularly repugnant about Mengele. The chapter on Mengele details the meeting between The Angel of Death and his son.

Children Of Nazis is a sobering read. These children were raised in the cult of the Third Reich, and were indoctrinated in those Aryan philosophies. Some managed to break free, but some did not.

Review copy

translated by Molly Grogan

8 Comments

Filed under Crasnianski Tania, Non Fiction

True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction Helen Garner

“People will always tell you more than you need to know–and more than they want you to know.”

At 800 pages, True Stories is a massive collection of Helen Garner’s non fiction work. A few years ago, I read this Australian author’s fantastic non-fiction  This House of Grief, and it made my best-of-year list. The book was emotionally wrenching, so I wasn’t ready for Joe Cinque’s Consolation. A compilation of the author’s work was enticing and promised, perhaps, a wide range of topics. I was right. In this book, Helen Garner gets everywhere: from a Russian ship that sails to the Antarctica, to the delivery room, the morgue, a gun show, the trial for the murder of Daniel Valerio, a bridal dressmaker’s shop, and a crematorium. She reminisces about an abandoned teaching career, makes observations of familial relationships, a mother sinking into dementia, moving, learning how to play the ukulele and the delights of being a grandmother.

True stories

Helen Garner is a writer who uses her writing to explore herself–something I noticed in  This House of Grief. So in one section of this collection, she describes how delighted she was with her appearance right before a glass of wine lands on her dress. This sort of personal anecdote may seem uninteresting for some readers, and while it’s true that I found some essays more interesting than others, I was also interested in how Garner seeks to understand herself through her writing. For anyone interested in Helen Garner (and even if you’re never read anything by her), this is an impressive collection.

Just as when I read This House of Grief, I didn’t always agree with the author, but I always enjoyed her view on life & living. Garner’s honesty adds a great deal of delight. In Regions of the Thick-Ribbed Ice (a favourite) for example, she admits how she dislikes penguins and wanted to take an orange pebble so badly from the beach in Antarctica, but managed suppressed her desire. At another point, she admits being ambushed by her love for her new granddaugher, and in yet another section, she talks about her love for the ukulele but her lack of expertise in spite of the passage of years. At one point she chronicles the search for a round table and then how a friend’s positive attitude propped up her negative feelings about the table when a craftsman derided its quality.

There are too many chapters to talk about them all, and anyway, whoever reads this is going to have their favourites. Parts are extremely personal, and yet at the same time, there are no rants about her spouses (ex-spouses) or a litany of their failings. But I’m going to talk about the things I take away from this collection:  Helen Garner’s innate curiosity about human behaviour (and that includes herself). The murder trial of little Daniel Valerio is a case in point. What on earth possessed the boy’s stepfather (the man who beat the boy to death) to “make mocking gestures, leering and waving,” to the dead child’s father? When the stepfather bragged of the beatings to coworkers, why did no one report him?

I circle round the dark area of life (mine or someone else’s) to which my curiosity is attracted, and I search for a way in. 

There are a couple of wonderful essays about the author Patrick White. Patrick White: The Artist as Holy Monster is written after Helen Garner reads Marr’s biography of White. She notes “White’s periodic cullings of even his closet friends, using tiny slights or hesitations as pretexts for a ferocious slashing away of their links with him.” Garner had the good and bad fortune to meet Patrick White on two occasions, and while she remembers his kindness the first time they met, she then recalls how badly he behaved with “random, bitchy swipes” on their second meeting. Even this meeting, though, which could end in some nasty observations about White includes Garner’s realization that she allowed White to rant about people and offered no defense–“This is something worth knowing,” she admits. She also speculates about White’s companion, Manoly Lascaris, and how he managed to endure White’s temperament.

Good manners, or great art? Are the two mutually exclusive? Women and men who serve as creators, as Lascaris did, gamble their whole lives on their instincts about their partners’ abilities: a tremendous, dizzying bet.

In Sing For Your Supper, Garner writes about writers’ festivals, and the disappointment she felt when talking to a writer whose story she admired. This is magnified as Garner attends more festivals and observes that the performances of writers at festivals may not necessarily reflect the true quality of their work.

The trouble is that the attractiveness or apparent honesty of the writer is no guarantee of the quality of the work. Plenty of good writers are jerks in person, while others who are charming and generous in the flesh are boring, phoney or feeble n the page.

Finally, Garner’s pure enjoyment of Jolley planted the urge to pick up an Elizabeth Jolley novel.

‘In the middle of the journey of our life’, when we begin to start to feel the weight of the crimes we are hauling behind us, we might turn to literature for wisdom. It is not readily available, but I have always found it in Elizabeth Jolley, even before I knew what I was looking for.

This book review is a contribution for the Australian Women Writers challenge of 2018

AWWBadge

Review copy

16 Comments

Filed under Garner Helen, Non Fiction

Painfully Rich:John Pearson

“A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you’re a business failure.”

Author John Pearson’s non fiction account of the Getty family begins with the death of J. Paul Getty. J (Jean) Paul Getty (1892-1976) was worth billions, yet, in life and in death, he was notoriously stingy. There’s the incident of how he installed a pay phone in his mansion and then his long-time faithful servants and employees who had served him faithfully for years “received scant crumbs from America’s richest table.” For all the wealth this man had, it certainly didn’t seem to make him happier, and as the stories of his children and grandchildren unfold, we can see that money didn’t make his life less complicated. J. Paul Getty comes across as an isolated, idiosyncratic man.

Painfully rich

Great wealth is, IMO, a burden, and while we see some wealthy people such as Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos and Bill & Melinda Gates creating foundations with millions of dollars, we get the sense almost immediately that Getty was definitely all about himself.  He had a large number of love affairs and he was married five times. He had five children from four of those marriages. Perhaps you’d think that you’d hit the jackpot if you met and married J. Paul Getty, but after reading this book, I had the sense that for each of Getty’s wives, it just wasn’t their day when they met J. Paul Getty.

His real love was not for women, who were incidental, but for money, which was not. And he had proved himself a faithful and romantic partner during his lifelong love affair with wealth, jealously acquiring it, and making it increase, in massive quantities, across a period of more than sixty years.

His avarice was an incidental aspect of this love. How can one bear to waste the object of one’s adoration?

Author John Pearson takes us back into Getty’s childhood. J. Paul Getty’s parents, Sarah and George, were deeply religious, George had intended to be a schoolmaster, but Sarah, three years his senior, made him promise that he’d go to law school, using her dowry to pay the fees. It’s through J.Paul Getty’s parents that we see the drive and ambition for social improvement, but in their case it was tempered and harnessed by their strict religious beliefs. When J. Paul Getty arrived, his parents had lost a ten year old child to typhoid, and so this late-life son was born to a 40-year-old indulgent mother. Yet even this wasn’t simple:

Paul, though cosseted and protected, had a lonely and loveless childhood. His mother actively discouraged contact with other children from fear of fresh contagion. And while over protective with her son, she was careful not to show him too much love in case she lost him as she had lost his sister.

Years later, Paul told his wife that as a child he was never cuddled-nor did he have a birthday party of a Christmas tree. 

As the Gettys’ wealth grew from oil, the family relocated to Los Angeles. J. Paul Getty showed an early predilection for amorous adventures and could not apply himself to formal higher education. I loved the story of how he set sail to attend Oxford in August 1912 and arrived in November, armed with a letter of introduction from the President of the United States. Exactly what Getty achieved academically is muddied (he says he got a diploma). This period was the root of Getty’s love affair with England–a love affair second only to his love affair with money, and a love affair that lasted far longer than any relationship with a woman.

It took J. Paul Getty’s father putting the squeeze on his dilettante son to turn his son from a man who spent money to a man who made money. And when J. Paul Getty’s mother got a whiff of her son’s misbehaviour (“marital fever,”) and as she saw it, his risky business tactics, she set up the “irrevocable spendthrift trust” in order to protect the “interests of his children against the possible results of his business speculation.” 

The trust sounds like a good idea, and it certainly had its tax advantages. (At one point the author states that J.Paul Getty bragged he never pay more than $500 a year in taxes.) But the trust treated the children from Paul’s various marriages unfairly with unequal division and also stated that the grandchildren would not inherit their share until the last of J. Paul’s sons were dead.

The book details the way J. Paul Getty basically ignored his children as he moved on from marriage to marriage, love affair to love affair, and how then when they were grown, he slotted them into various positions within his empire, creating rivalry and division amongst his sons.

Of course, there’s also space given to the scandals. The eldest son, George, stabbed himself  with a barbecue fork and died of a drug overdose. There’s there’s the hippie period of Eugene and the mysterious death of his second wife. And then of course, there’s the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson, John Paul Getty III. His kidnappers underestimated his grandfather’s stinginess

I have fourteen grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have fourteen kidnapped grandchildren.

The kidnappers sent Paul’s ear to his mother, and negotiations for a $3 million ransom gelled with Paul’s grandfather kicking in a loan of $800,000 to his son to be repaid at 4% interest.

Painfully Rich conveys the idea that Getty’s fortune served as a curse on the family. Who wouldn’t want billions, and yet with the Gettys, it came with a price. But one final thing… J. Paul Getty can’t have been all bad. Mention is made of the Getty Museum, and I’ve been there. It’s fantastic and if you’ve never been and you get a chance, go.

Review copy

 

15 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Pearson John

Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (1768-1800): Chateaubriand

I’d intended for a long time to read Chateaubriand’s (1768-1848) memoirs, and a new translation from New York Review Books sealed my resolve. But wait… at over 500 pages, this is only a section of his memoirs–the first of four parts, and there I was feeling all proud of myself.

The memoirs start with a 77 year old Chateaubriand writing a preface as he looks over his long life. He talks about being “forced” to sell his memoirs for financial reasons, and he even expresses the idea that he wishes they could be “suppressed.” I’m not an expert on French history, or Chateaubriand, so I can’t tell if his wish for his life to remain private is sincere. But whatever the truth is, these memoirs are a gift to the world. I’m not sure that I would have liked Chateaubriand if we’d met (he mentions at one point that he is “not much interested in wit; it is almost repugnant to me,”) but this man had an incredible life and fortunately kept detailed records of incredible events and journeys.

memoirs from beyond the grave

The memoirs begin somewhat heavily with a history of the aristocratic Chateaubriand family and their family estate at Combourg, Brittany. François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand was the last of ten children, and there’s the sensation as you read the memoirs that he fell into the cracks of family life. While Chateaubriand loved his mother dearly, his strongest relationship was with his sister Lucile. Chateaubriand’s father was a distant, morose figure, but Chateaubriand was a good son and loved his family very much.

Chateaubriand notes his sisters being married off, and loving long solitary walks in the countryside, he begins to feel the first inklings of wanderlust as the family disperses. But the Chateaubriand family have other plans for this tenth child, and he’s intended for a life in the church. Fortunately, his mother offers him a moment to reflect on his future, and instead of the church, Chateaubriand comes up with a “harebrained scheme” to travel to Canada or India. Chateaubriand’s father announces he’s dying, gives him a hundred louis, and basically tells him to get his act together.

The memoirs reach a turning point at this stage. Chateaubriand leaves Combourg and nothing is ever the same again. Of course, we know that the French revolution is on the horizon…

Chateaubriand recalls travels to America, the beginnings of the French revolution, the Reign of Terror, and finally exile in England. While Chateaubriand was a Royalist, he was also a realist and understood the political scene well:

Aristocracy has three successive stages: the age of superiority, the age of privilege, and the age of vanity. Once through with the first, it degenerates into the second, and dies out in the third.

At times the memoirs are not easy reading. Chateaubriand assumes he has an audience who knows what he is talking about. The sections are dated for the time he wrote them, and that adds to some of the confusion. He also mentions many people I’d never heard of (my fault not his) but when I tried to find out more information, there was very little available. The memoirs take flight, however, when Chateaubriand begins his amazing travels.

These memoirs really are an incredible read, so I’m glad that I finally got to them. There’s too much to detail, but the highlights for this reader are Chateaubriand’s brilliant observed moments such as when he visits the castle of Potsdam, the home of King Frederick the Great:

Only one thing held my attention: the hands of a clock stopped at the minute that Frederick expired. I was deceived by the stillness of the image. The hours never suspend their flight; it is not man who stops time, but time who stops man. In the end it matters little what part we have played in life. The brilliance or obscurity of our doctrines, our wealth or poverty, our joy or pain: these things have no effect on the measure of our days. Whether the hand moves around a golden face or a wooden one, whether the dial fills the bezel of a ring or the rose window of a cathedral, the length of the hour is still the same. 

That’s a brilliant quote.

Chateaubriand’s travels in North America are incredible. He lived with various tribes, and slept with various Indian women. He often solicits sympathy from his audience–for example he’s married off to an heiress for her fortune only to discover that she’s not that wealthy after all. Throughout the memoirs, Chateaubriand hears the call of duty to his class–even though, at times, he realises that his class is guilty of folly. I’d never heard of the hearth tax before, but Chateaubriand explains it well.

At one point he sees Marie Antoinette and remarks how pretty she is, but even as he writes this, there’s the shadow of death across the page. There’s a tremendous sense of loss running through the memoirs–loss for the world he knew which disappeared, loss of the family members executed during the revolution, and loss of the past.

Since that day, I have seen Combourg three times. After my father’s death, the family met there in mourning, to divide our inheritance and say our goodbyes. Another time I accompanied my mother to Combourg, when she was busy furnishing the castle for my brother, who was to bring my sister-in-law to live in Brittany. My brother never arrived. Beside his young wife, at the executioner’s hands, he was to receive a very different place to lay his head than the pillow that my mother prepared for him. Finally, I passed through Combourg a third time, on my way to Saint-Malo, before I embarked for America. The castle was abandoned, and I had to spend the night in the steward’s house. When, wandering on the Grand Mall, I looked down a dark alley of trees and saw the empty staircase and the closed windows and doors, I felt faint. I dragged myself back to the village and sent for my horses. I left in the middle of the night.

The sections of his adventures in North America are wonderfully contrasted with scenes of the Revolution. Is it possible to get two more dissimilar worlds?  These were two worlds that were both disappearing. At times this reads like an adventure story as he sees a bloodthirsty mob looking for aristocrats or when he flees to England. The memoirs end with Chateaubriand returning from exile. He’s lost everything and arrives “in France with the century.”

I brought back nothing from the land of exile but regrets and dreams. 

Translated by Alex Andriesse

6 Comments

Filed under Chateaubriand, Non Fiction

Genius and Discovery: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017Genius and Discovery is another nifty little collection of Stefan Zweig gems from Pushkin Press. Triumph and Discovery contained select moments in history, and this collection contains the following five sections:

Flight into Immortality

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel

The Genius of a Night

The Discovery of El Dorado

The First Word to Cross the Ocean. 

In the preface, Zweig talks about “genius

Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky. 

Genius is pushing it a bit with a few of the people mentioned here.

Flight into Immortality is the incredible story of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Gold fever grips Spain after Columbus “who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time” tells tales of “gold mines of immeasurable extent,” in the Americas.  Gold seekers, adventurers, ruffians, you name it, arrive in Española (“later San Domingo and Haiti”).

But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honorable nobleman arrive, wishing to gild their coat of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cadiz.

While lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso readies a ship to sail to the San Sebastián colony “near the straits of Panama and the coast of Venezuela,” many of the Spanish adventurers are stranded on Española and hope to avoid debt by taking a ship out. The governor orders that no man may leave without his permission, but that doesn’t stop Vasco Núñez de Balboa who boldly smuggles himself aboard Enciso’s ship on a crate.

Genius and Discovery

And so begins Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s incredible adventures as he seeks gold and becomes the first European to see the Pacific ocean. This is a story of the highs and lows of human nature; mention is made of how he used hungry dogs to tear apart prisoners.

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel is the story of how Handel recovered from a stroke and eventually wrote the Messiah.

The Genius of a Night is the story of how The Marseillaise was created, and this section wasn’t that interesting for this reader. The First Word to Cross the Ocean is the story of Cyrus Field and the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean

And now The Discovery of El Dorado. This is the story of John Augustus Sutter, born in Switzerland, who traveled to California, and becomes the luckiest and unluckiest of men when gold is discovered on his property. The Zweig version differs wildly in several aspects from the Wikipedia version, and while some of this can, perhaps, be ascribed to our modern sensibilities, some of it cannot. Zweig paints Sutter as a more tragic figure, and tells us that Sutter’s wife died after shortly arriving in California. Zweig says Sutter had three children while Wikipedia says five. Zweig portrays Sutter as a man stripped of everything: attacked by a mob, his “eldest son, threatened by these bandits, shoots himself.  The second son is murdered; the third runs for it but is drowned on the way home.”  Zweig creates a portrait of a widower, a demented beggar whose children are all dead. Wikipedia has Sutter’s wife living to a ripe old age, and one of his sons became the founder and planner of Sacramento.

Zweig didn’t have Goggle.

Apparently Zweig wrote 12 of these vignettes, so between this collection and Triumph and Disaster, we can read ten. Sadly omitted: Cicero and the (mock) Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Review copy

Translated by Andrea Bell

 

2 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan