Tag Archives: WWII

Line of Separation (German miniseries)

German Literature Month 2017

Just as I begin to feel burned out when it comes to books or films about WWII, I come across something new and fresh. In this case, it’s the German three-part miniseries Line of Separation (also known as Tannbach) The series takes place in the fictional village of Tannbach but the situation evokes the very real village of Mödlareuth.  Mödlareuth was partly located in Bavaria and partly in Thuringia. After WWII, the village was divided in half with the northern half of the village falling to East Germany and the southern half belonging to West Germany. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.

As fellow blogger Lisa knows, I am a fan of the series A French Village, a programme which follows the fates of various characters as they adjust to life under German Occupation. The series (which I’ll admit does have a couple of plot holes, but who cares?) shows the slippery slope of choices faced by several of the characters when asked to ‘cooperate’ with German officials. Line of Separation, a three-part miniseries with each part about 90 mins long, depicts life for the villagers as they transition, abruptly, from life under Hitler to life under the Americans, to life under the Soviets. Naturally, there are casualties and plenty of moral dilemmas along the way. Are the opportunistic more morally culpable than the idealogues?  Are those who disbelieve more courageous than those who swallow the Kool-aid to save loved ones? And what about those who accept the propaganda because it’s too frightening to object or is it perhaps just easier? These are all questions you will ask yourself as you work your way through the series.

Part I: The Morning After the War opens at the manor house of the aristocratic Prussian von Striesow family.  Father Georg (Heiner Lauerbach) is AWOL (and in hiding) from the German army after serving on the Eastern Front. That leaves daughter Anna von Striesow (Henriette Confurius) and mother Caroline (Natalia Wörner) at home. German refugees trying to flee the carnage take refuge at the von Striesow estate, but they encounter tragedy as Germans come hunting for Georg von Striesow and run right into American troops.

This first episode introduces nearly all of the main characters that we follow over the course of the series. Taking refuge at the von Striesow estate is seamstress Liesbeth Erler (Nadja Uhl) and her two sons Lothar (who’s actually Jewish and not her son at all) and the very serious Friedrich (Jonas Nay). These three characters are central to the drama that unfolds. Liesbeth is a proactive forward thinking character, and there’s just a small amount of info dropped about her background.  Another main character is Hilde Vöckler (Martina Gedeck), mother of a German soldier.

The Schobers are another important family. Herr Schober, who really is a nasty piece of work, had three sons–one who died in the war, another who is missing on the Eastern Front and Heinrich who is crippled and therefore stayed at home. A local girl, Lisa Prantl, who’s pregnant by a French forced labourer sniffs the way the wind blows and makes a beeline for Heinrich Schober.

Under American Occupation, at one point the villagers are gathered together and shown footage of the liberation of Buchenwald, and many of the villagers, particularly older residents, are in denial and remain secretly loyal to Hitler. One elderly lady mutters that Herr Hitler cannot have known that this was happening, and we’ll see where that thought leads her later. Party membership cards are hidden or destroyed, and being Jewish or Communist may be good or bad depending on who is asking the questions. Fingerpointing begins when local Nazi, the opportunistic Schober, who has kept meticulous details of who did what during the war, begins ingratiating himself with the American forces. Already just what everyone did or didn’t do during the war begins to be muddied. But by the end of episode one, the Soviet army shows up, and all is set for change.

Episode II: The Expropriation sees Soviet politics taking hold of the village. Those safe under the American occupation are at risk under the Soviets. Land is divided into 5 hectare holdings and for many of the villagers, or newcomers who have lost everything, communism offers hope for the future. Not so for Anna von Striesow who stands to lose everything. The Soviets use concentration camps for prison camps so Buchenwald becomes NKVD Special Camp Number 2. Known Nazis or anyone suspected of wrong doing are shipped off, many to disappear into mass graves.

This episode shows life in flux for the villagers. Many adapt quickly–especially the young who haven’t yet learned to be wary of ideology and promises of a golden future. Konrad Werner (Ronald Zehrfeld), a District Commissioner sent to Tannbach by the Soviets oversees land division, and while he doesn’t like or appear to agree with everything that happens, he sees the reform (and sells it this way) as a (fairly) bloodless redistribution of wealth.

Episode III: My Land, Your Land. It’s 1952. The Soviet instituted farms aren’t quite working out for the small farmholders. They can’t make a living on the pieces of land they have. The mantra from local authorities who run the town is that the West is a pervasive negative influence on their goals. Well…. yes, but then people are trying to get out not get in, so do you choose to believe the propaganda and swallow it whole and perhaps be a little happier? Or struggle against a system that allows for so few personal choices?

The village of Tannbach operates with a dividing line–an ad hoc border. One half controlled is by the Soviets, the other half by the Americans, and the border is operated by villagers who know each other well.  At first, passage from one side to another is possible, but smuggling is rife and escape is common. A crackdown is inevitable, but what is unforeseeable is that it’s an event that forces villagers once again to make political choices.

Line of Separation is a remarkable series which places a very human story into a political context. We see politics and ideology imposed onto a way of life, and how people scramble to meet new demands for conformity. While the series examines the lives of a just a few characters, there are some big ideas here, huge chunks of history and so inevitably some things are not examined. Count von Striesow’s actions on the Eastern Front are hinted at in the third episode, and up to that point, he’s painted as rather decent. A couple of the scenes are overdone. At one point for example, villagers are carted off to an unknown fate, while other villagers object calling out “It’s just like the Jews.” Yes we get it.

Still this is vastly entertaining and the series illuminates a corner of history I, for one, knew nothing about. This miniseries is highly recommended for German Literature Month. Yes I know it’s not a book but you get to read subtitles. According to IMDB there’s another series on the way.

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Hitler, My Neighbour: Edgar Feuchtwanger with Bertil Scali

Edgar Feuchtwanger (b. 1924) had a happy childhood with loving parents. His uncle was author Lion Feuchtwanger, and the Munich-based Jewish Feuchtwanger family mingled with intellectuals of the day. It’s 1929 and 5 year-old Edgar describes an evening with family when the subject of Mein Kampf comes up. Although the talk is light (who wrote the best book, Hitler or Lion Feuchtwanger), the subject matter is not: Lion Feuchtwanger, who was an early, vocal critic of the Nazis, argues that they will all be in trouble if Goebbels and Hitler have their way:

“Hitler’s a thug,” Uncle Lion replies, “a former prisoner, a schemer leading a band of good-for-nothings. They’ll do anything. They’re like the barons in the Middle Ages wanting to add another kingdom to their land. They want castles, gold and serfs. Like the barons, they’ll use the Jews to whip up hatred in the masses, who are just as superstitious as in those days.”

“Which is the gist of your novel,” says my father.
“Which is selling better than Mein Kampf.”

Of course we all know what lies ahead for Germany and the Jews, but these are still early days. As this memoir continues, the years pass, and Hitler comes into power, but before that, in 1929, the Feuchtwangers gain a new neighbour. Hitler moves in across the street. His house has the name of his cleaner “Winter” outside, but everyone knows who really lives there. Even at this point, members of the Feuchtwanger family debate Hitler’s staying power. By 1933 when Hitler is appointed Chancellor, the question of leaving Germany arises, but the family still remains. In 1934, Edgar is woken up by noise in the street outside of Hitler’s house as The Night of the Long Knives takes place.

Hitler my neighbour

In any household there’s the reality of the adults and the world of children. Little Edgar goes off to school, sucking up propaganda, innocently drawing swastikas without realizing their significance, and attends a screening of Triumph of the Will. Edgar is aware of danger and while he worries when his parents leave the house, he seems largely oblivious to the specific danger pointing towards his Jewish household.  By 1936, however, when Edgar loses his beloved nursemaid due to Nuremberg Laws forbidding Jews to employ staff with “German blood” under the age of 45, the realization of his Jewish identity hits hard. Soon Edgar is ostracized by former playmates at school.

The memoir recreates the surreal nature of having Hitler as a neighbour. Edgar can literally see Hitler’s apartment from a window. Here’s a man who controls what is happening to the Feuchtwanger family, and yet he passes Edgar and glances at the child and his nursemaid “quite benevolently.” Edgar notes Hitler’s social life and how he regularly hosts lunches for “a bevy of twenty girls.” The Feuchtwangers even go to the same dentist as Hitler. Hitler remains a distant figure for Edgar, an object of curiosity–in spite of the fact he lives right across the street. His presence is marked by lights behind curtains, noises during the night, and various comings and goings. This is a remarkable story.

I’d intended to read Hitler, My Neighbour for German month, but it was originally written in French.

Review copy

Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Katalin Street: Magda Szabo

“In my dreams I call out to them, but they keep on walking, until finally they disappear from sight.” 

Magda Szabo’s wonderful novel, moves from 1934 to 1968 as it follows the fate of three neighbouring Hungarian families who live in Katalin Street. When the book opens in post WWII, surviving members of the families live, communally, not far from their original homes. These surviviors have been washed through various sweeping events: from normality to fascism and now … “social rehousing” under communism in a depressing Budapest flat “on the sixth floor of a relatively new block.” 

No work of literature, and no doctor, had prepared the former residents of Katalin Street for the fierce light that old age would bring to bear on the shadowy, barely-sensed corridor down which they walked in the earlier decades of their lives, or the way it would rearrange their memories and their fears, overturning their earlier moral judgements and system of values.

[…]

But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.

First seen in the 30s, the families are the widowed noble Major Biró and his son Bálint, whose care is overseen by the housekeeper, Mrs Temes; earnest schoolteacher Elekes, his frivolous wife, and their two daughters, Irén and Blanka. Finally there’s the Jewish family, the Helds, with war hero, dentist Dr. Held hoping his medals bring protection for himself, his wife and their only child, the fey, fragile Henriette. After WWII, the Elekes are the only intact family. The Helds have been exterminated, but the ghost of little Henriette lingers over the families, unable to move on, curious about the fates of the people she knew so well.

Katalin street

The novel opens in the 50s with the straggling members of the two surviving families, now three generations deep, living together in the tiny flat with just a few pieces of furniture from their former homes. Mr Elekes, whose belief system has been completely destroyed is taken out for a walk twice daily “as you would a dog.” Blanka, who clearly is disturbed, lives far away on a Greek island, and her strange disconnection isn’t seen as a cause for alarm by her mother-in-law, but the signs of a good “biddable” daughter-in-law. The plot goes back in time to 1934 with some of the story told by Irén and with the narrative also slipping into third person. These characters discover that their morality clashes with ever-changing politics; it’s “no longer safe” to mention friendships or beliefs. A man can be a war hero one day and an enemy of the people the next. A woman can be a good party member one year and a Stalinist informer the next.

If the idea of a ghost as a character puts you off, as it did me, then be reassured. Somehow, in this quiet, melancholic novel, Magda Szabo creates a ghost as a believable character. The surviving characters, haunted, literally and figuratively, cannot move away from their shared pasts, and so it seems perfectly natural that Henriette should remain locked in connection with those she knew in life. She can visit the past and the present, yet unable to help the people she observes, she serves as a witness of the terrible cost these living characters have paid for survival.

In spite of its serious subject matter, there’s a glorious lightness to the novel. Yes, surviving characters are irrevocably destroyed by events that took place, but there’s a playfulness here which pulls the story from depression, and the playfulness is mostly manifested in the ghost of Henriette who is able to visit the home of her past and drop in to visit her loving parents as they go about their daily tasks. Henriette rubs elbows with their ghostly forms but they have the tendency to become disturbingly immature in the presence of their parents.

When they spoke to her they did so as the parents she had known, but if their own parents came looking for them, or if they wanted to be with their parents, they would instantly change and become noisy and boisterous. Mr Held. once so quiet and reserved in his speech, would begin to fret, or shriek with laughter and gabble nonsense;upon which her grandfather whom Henriette would in normal circumstances have been delighted to see, would seize him by the wrists and swing him around until he squealed with joy. Whenever Mrs. Held saw her own parents approaching she would immediately push Henriette away and start to yell, “Mummy, Mummy!” clapping her hands and spinning around.

Henriette shows us an alternate version of time in which the trials of the present are a mere phase. Henriette, who longs to see the people she loved as they once were–happy and optimistic–is perhaps, ultimately, the luckiest character of the lot. The living “ached with longing for the dead,” but at least she can visit the past that the others dream of.

review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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The Revolt: Nina Berberova

“But reality in the past and present is all twisted and smashed.”

Nina Berberova’s novella The Revolt is a well crafted gem–the story of how WWII intervenes between two lovers. The story opens in Paris with two lovers, facing an unknown future, about to be parted. Olga, a Russian émigrée, who lives with an uncle, a famous writer, is about to say goodbye to the Swedish Einar. It’s September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland. Einar talks of Olga coming to Stockholm, of them travelling to Brazil, of a trip to Russia. They don’t know yet how bad things will become–how travel will become much more difficult and fraught with danger. Many promises are made–promises which prove impossible to keep.

the revolt

The German occupation is marked by four very different visits made to Olga and her uncle: each visit reflects the ever shifting times. The emphasis here is in time passing with an almost dreamlike quality. Olga writes to Einar but the letters are returned unopened and marked “address unknown.” Olga never forgets Einar, and then seven years after they parted, Olga travels to Stockholm to collect an inheritance….

To say more would be to spoil this slim, subtle understated novella, but I will say that Olga who has, as we say these days, no closure, is given an opportunity for love once again. But this time the price is too high.  Sometimes second chances are not the gift they appear to be.

In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed and we ourselves are filled, transfused, with hopes. 

For Olga, love comes at a price, and the question becomes: is she willing to pay it or not? There’s a lot of talk in our society about ‘unconditional love’–a term, frankly, I’ve never understood. This book explores the price we are willing to pay for love–a topic that goes hand-in-hand with that twisty term: unconditional love. And while unconditional love asks how far a person can go before we stop loving them, Berberova asks how much Olga is willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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Repent in Haste: John P. Marquand (1945)

“You can’t help what life makes you, can you?”

Although John Marquand (1893-1960) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for The Late George Apley, he seems to be out-of-fashion and little read these days. I came across his name when watching a film version of one of his books: H.M Pulham esq. I’ve picked up a few dusty copies of his books over the years and decided to start with Repent in Haste, mainly because I couldn’t find much information about the book online. This is possibly because it’s one of the few books he wrote that wasn’t turned into a film.

Repent in Haste is set in WWII after Pearl Harbor. It’s a short book, a very focused story running at just over 150 pages. This is the tale of an unlikely relationship formed between Briggs, an older journalist and a young Lieutenant, Boyden nicknamed Boysie. Boysie was in a torpedo carrier plane that was shot down, and he along with two other crew members survived in the ocean for two days on a rubber raft. Boysie and Briggs meet at a press conference in Hawaii, and at first Briggs isn’t impressed by Boysie, a “typical American boy, and the same sort of dull normality,” but they meet again months later when Boysie is assigned to the support carrier, Rogue River. The war has changed and this time Briggs gets to know Boysie better. This time Boyden leaves a different impression:

The only trouble, Briggs was thinking, was that if you knew too much about anyone, even someone like Lieutenant Boyden, there began to be lights and shadows.

Briggs is returning stateside and Boysie asks him to go and talk to his family and his wife, Daisy in New York. Boysie met Daisy in Pensacola and after one of those whirlwind wartime courtships they married. There’s a bond between the two men; Boysie calls Briggs ‘Pops,’ and Briggs, underestimating the younger man, assumes a protective fatherly role. Boysie, who at first appears to be naive, a rather dull hero, has survival reserves. At times, it’s fair to say that the war, and the things he’s seen, have not appeared to alter Boysie, but that’s not true. Briggs meets Boysie three times over the course of the novel, and by its conclusion, he’s finding it not so easy to bounce back–in spite of his philosophy to not let anything ‘bother him’ and not to get too attached to fellow soldiers.

“There are a lot of new kids here,” Boyden said. “It makes me kind of tired looking at all these new kids–all full of the old wham-wham. It’s a very funny thing. I keep thinking I’m back on the Rogue. It seems more real than here. It’s taking longer to snap back.”

As Boyden tried inexpertly to express himself, his words had a clumsy eloquence. He talked of the Rogue River as he ate. There had been a swell crowd of kids aboard and Boyden had been “in.” He knew he had been in, as soon as that blast had landed him on the deck. When he got up and found he was all right, he knew he did not have to bother about himself. It was the other kids that bothered him.

“Seeing them shot down,” he said, “is different from seeing a whole lot of kids catch it on the deck; and kids shut in up forward, burning up-oh boy.”

You had your mind on other things when the ready ammunition magazines began exploding, but cleaning up afterwards-oh boy! Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. “Let’s get squared away,” he said, “and get back and polish off that Scotch.”

There’s something about this book that I liked a great deal. It feels very real, very plausible and quite poignant in its portrayal of how people behave during war, the personal choices they make, and whether or not they will be indelibly altered by their experiences.  It’s a deceptively simple book, and by that I mean, there are no scenes of war and fighting–all the action takes place off the page, so we see soldiers trying to relax and wind down after combat missions. Marquand shows us a humble hero, a young man who lacks the eloquence and wisdom to articulate his survival philosophies.  In spite of all that has happened to Boyden, he’s still essentially who he was before combat, although after each battle, he finds it harder to snap back to normalcy and with his natural optimism, he’s destined to make the same mistakes.

And here’s a marvellous quote I’m adding since there’s so little about this book online:

The black sand of the beach lay just in front, with wrecks of landing craft washed against it and with new ships pushing in. He could see the colored markers, and the tanks and jeeps crawling inland. He could see the bursts of mortar shells dropping near a supply dump, and the greenish figures of a reserve Marine battalion moving through the dust. Further inland there was a line of tanks, and he could see the flash from their guns and the sudden spurt of flame thrower. He had thought it was a great show once and now it was commonplace–only another part of the Pacific war and so much a part of ordinary living that it became puzzling to think of home. You could accept an environment of violence and sudden death but, once you faced it, it was hard to understand the attitude of those who had not.

The novel was published in 1945 and at the moment of writing this post, it’s listed as a crime novel on Wikipedia. Given the date of its publication, there are some wince worthy moments: “slant-eyed Joes,” and the capturing of Japanese trophies. Some of the language is archaic. My old copy is a rejected library book and from the looks of the stamps inside the cover, this book was checked out A LOT in 1946 and 47 and then … nothing…

Boyden was right-war was nothing but a repetition, a series of the same anecdotes that grew monotonous with the telling. 

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The Road to Ithaca: Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor’s novel, The Road to Ithaca, from Bitter Lemon Press is the 5th novel in the Martin Bora series (Goodreads lists it as number 10). This book finds Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora in Moscow in June 1941 (the period of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact is about to dissolve), hobnobbing (somewhat nervously) with the likes of Stalin, Beria and Erskine Caldwell, when he is ordered to Crete to pick up 60 bottles of “choice Cretan wine” for the monstrous Beria. It seems like a fool’s errand–a lot of bother just to curry favour with a Russian ally  but once Bora arrives in Crete, he’s diverted to the investigation of the murder of a Red Cross representative who was a friend of Himmler’s. With the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau fearing the “potential repercussions,” Bora is assigned to investigate and solve the “grave incident involving the illustrious citizen of a neutral country.” 

On one hand, it looks like an open-and-shut case. During the recent German invasion of Crete, German paratroopers apparently approached the home of Swiss national Dr Professor Alois Villiger and murdered everyone inside–the professor, his housekeeper and other employees. This was observed and photographed by British Sgt Major Powell whose whereabouts are currently unknown as he’s hiding in the mountains. POW Lt Patrick Sinclair is in possession of the camera. Sinclair subsequently reported the incident to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

the road to ithaca

Accompanied by a coerced American woman as a guide and a local police inspector, Bora approaches the crime knowing that “the conquest of the island had been a bloodbath,” with the German paratroopers hostile to the combative Greek civilians. Bora is under pressure to close the case “before the International Red Cross intervenes or Reichskommisar Himmler sends someone,” and he’s given just one week to come up with answers. …

Martin Bora is a morally complex character who is shown to be caught in a knotty labyrinth of treacherous shifting political allegiances, and unbeknownst to Bora, the war is about to take a dramatic turn. Bora is torn between duty, honour, integrity and loyalty, and in order to survive “the habit of hiding his thoughts had become second nature.” This explains why Bora’s ruminations are not vocalised, so we read this character’s internal dialogue. Bora possesses a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as the title suggests, many of Bora’s thoughts centre on Greek mythology. Part of the interest I felt was in knowing that the things Bora struggles with will shortly overwhelm him. To paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘he has miles to go….’

This is a crime novel, and one that captures a tragic moment in human history:

More and more, the street resembled a funnel of liquid sunlight; its narrowness crowded with litter and vehicles dissolved, human shapes malted into it. Purgatory must be something like this, Bora thought, a cramped pass that is we only slide through it leads to the Throne of God. But there’ll be no stench of death there. 

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a problem feeling sympathy for Bora, but I did feel interest. On another note, Wikipedia has an interesting page on the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

Note: Although this is Book 5, other translated books in the series take Bora farther ahead in the war. Tin Sky is set in 1943, Liar Moon is set in 1943, A Dark Song of Blood is set in 1944. At some point, I’d like to go back and read these books in order. (Lumen is set in 1939)

Review copy

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Back: Henry Green (1946)

“Have women gotten hold of you, Summers? Is that it?”

In Henry Green’s novel, Back, Charley Summers returns to England after years in a POW camp. It’s a rough homecoming as Charley is minus a leg and Rose, the woman he loved, died in his absence. Rose gave birth to a son while Charley was gone, and he’s half convinced the boy is his. One of the first things Charley, who is damaged and lost, does is visit the cemetery where Rose is buried, but there he bumps into her husband James, and this is the first of many unexpected twists in this ultimately optimistic gentle comedy of errors.

back

Charley seeks out Rose’s parents, the Grants, but it’s a strange welcome as Mrs. Grant, who appears to suffer from Alzheimer’s initially thinks Charley is her long-dead brother John, but then she realises the visitor isn’t John:

“What are you doing here?” Mrs. Grant demanded, looking at Charley between her fingers and cringing.

“He’s here to take a cup of tea with us, dear,” the husband said. This time he glared. She did not notice because she never took her eyes off Charley.

“I don’t like it,” she muttered.

“I’m very sorry,” Charley Summers said to Mr. Grant.

“Just pay no attention,” this man replied. But it was not as easy as all that. for Mrs. Grant took control by throwing herself back into the sofa to thrust her head into one of its soft corners, from which she began to shriek, muffled by upholstery.

In confidence, Mr. Grant tells Charley he has a “surprise” for him and gives him a London address, telling him to visit the woman who lives there, Nancy Whitmore, a young war widow. Charley isn’t interested in what he suspects to be a matchmaking attempt but circumstances lead him to the woman’s address and there he finds the widow who appears to be Rose’s “living image.” While Nancy denies she’s Rose, Charley isn’t convinced and he decides instead that Nancy/Rose is a prostitute, the ‘widow’ handle is a fiction, that she’s possibly a bigamist who’s run away from her husband and her child, and that it’s his job to ‘save’ her. In reality, it’s Charley who needs to be ‘saved.’

Gradually, the great love story that we first think existed between Rose and Charley vaporizes. What’s left is an image of Rose, full of life, and having a fling with Charley even as she wrapped him around her finger.

Throughout the story, Charley, one of those marvellously unworldy characters, floats through his life either clueless or labouring under misunderstandings. He thinks Rose was the love of his life, he thinks the child she had might be his, he invites his secretary, a woman he’s not attracted to, to the country for a weekend without really meaning to. In contrast, he’s surrounded by people who are savvy and even conniving. Take Rose’s husband, the widowed fat James who runs rings around Charley. Then there’s Charley’s landlady Mrs Frazier, what is she really after? And then there’s  the ubiquitous Middlewitch, an indefatigable Lothario whose “love life defied description,”  in spite of (or even aided by) a”chromium plated arm.” Middlewitch is turning tales of his war experiences into amorous opportunities, and here he is discoursing about women:

“Extraordinary meeting you like this,” Mr. Middlewitch replied. “No, it’s curiosity,” he went on, “they’re the same as cats, when you scratch with your finger under the newspaper, which have to come and see what you’re about. They’re like this. They know you’ve lived the most unnatural damned life through no fault of your own for years, so want to get under your skin. Because it wasn’t only Yvonne. Practically every girl I know had a go at me. Turned it to very good advantage, too, I did, on more than once occasion, I can tell you.”

The greatness of this novel can be found in its comic timing which mostly resides in Charley’s innocence. Conversations take place without Charley really understanding what is going on, sometimes he’s talking at cross-purposes or else he’s missing a beat. Many of the characters have vague, fuzzy connections (Mrs’ Frazier’s relationship to Mr. Grant, for example) and in Charley’s mind, a great conspiracy emerges, and at one point, he wonders if it’s a case of “white slave trading.”

This is my first, but it won’t be my last, Henry Green novel; I’m currently reading Loving. Back is highly recommended especially if you enjoyed  A Month in the CountryWhile in Back the war is still waging, it’s mostly in the background here (there’s one wonderful scene where the sky is full of planes “drone after drone” flying to Germany) and the emphasis instead is on optimism: healing, surviving and moving on.

“Yes,” he said, “we all of us came back to what we didn’t expect. There’s a number of people dropped out in everyone’s lives. I’m not sure but they do seem a long time over our soup.”

review copy

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A Scream in Soho: John G. Brandon (1940)

“But the unfortunate thing about murder, Sergeant,” McCarthy pursued in that whimsical tone of his, “is that it is never committed according to any rules.”

John G. Brandon’s novel A Scream in Soho is set in wartime London, and while this is an entertaining entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, the book, with its emphasis on espionage, is also part thriller. This wasn’t an entirely successful blend in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham, but Brandon makes his novel work. We never forget that there are crimes afoot, but the energetic Detective Inspector McCarthy of Scotland Yard is not on the hunt for ordinary killers, but for spies!

A scream in soho

The book opens in Soho on a dark grim night with Detective Inspector McCarthy waiting for an informant inside an Italian cafe. These first scenes set the tone for the novel with its atmosphere of wartime tension, the cosmopolitan population of refugees, and criminal enterprises which thrive in the Blackout. Early scenes establish the unique state of the country, emphasizing the mish mash of the Soho populace. There are plenty of Italians here–including members of the Mafia, the Camorrista, and also a flood of refugees.We see the crowds of people through McCarthy’s eyes as he notes the Austrian and German refugees:

Harmless people who had suffered miseries almost beyond belief for the greater part, and who were filled with nothing but an immense and overflowing gratitude towards the land which had given them shelter in their hour of direst need. Still objects of pity to the soft-hearted McCarthy, notwithstanding the obvious improvement in their condition since arrival here.

But-and it was a very large “but”-there were others; those ugly little black sheep who creep into every flock and, indeed, are there only for their own ulterior purposes. 

Later that night, a constable hears a scream; the scream is also heard by our intrepid main character Detective Inspector McCarthy, who’s about to go to bed. McCarthy, clad in his pajamas, leaves his house and goes to the location of the scream. But there’s no body, just a woman’s hankerchief, a blood stained dagger and McCarthy’s hunch that a murder has taken place. …

The scream heralds the beginning of a series of crimes and murders, and of course, McCarthy investigates. I can’t even say that he heads the investigation as he operates outside of any sort of institution. He doesn’t use policemen to help–but instead employs “Danny the Dip,” a sneaky underworld figure and also enlists the services of a stalwart London cab driver.

This is a well-paced story with practically no down time. As a crime/thriller it works well. McCarthy, although at a loss for how to proceed at several points in the book, never really breaks a sweat or loses his sense of humour. As the book continues it becomes evident, from plot twists, that McCarthy is a lone wolf who prefers to hunt his prey with very little outside assistance.

I laughed when the sex of a murder victim is up for discussion and the coroner suggests that McCarthy establish the victim’s sex by feeling the stubble on the dead man’s chin–how much simpler to just have a look at the naked corpse, but this is, after all, 1940. Anyway, this was a very entertaining, enjoyable read which reflects the concerns and fears of the times. Regarding the crime/thriller blend here, Martin Edwards, in his introduction notes that Brandon aimed to produce a thriller and was “writing at a time when there was a sharp divide between the two styles of popular fiction. Sayers was prominent in the Detection Club, which excluded thriller writers from membership.”

Review copy

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The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot: Thomas Maeder

There’s a scene in Gone with the Wind in which Rhett Butler gives Scarlett some advice:

I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the up-building of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the up-building, fast money in the crack-up. Remember my words. Perhaps they may be of use to you some day. 

That quote came to mind as I read the non-fiction book The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot from Thomas Maeder. Marcel Petiot (1897-1946) certainly knew how to cash in on the realities of the German Occupation of France. Of course, he’s not alone in this, but there’s something particularly horrific about this opportunistic, sadistic serial killer who fed off the terror of the Gestapo by promising safe passage to South America to those who could pay his fee. It’s impossible to create a spectrum of cruelty when it comes to murderers, but Dr. Petiot is right up there with the worst–not just for the numbers involved but for the way he capitalized on fear, preying on the most vulnerable people.

unspeakable crimes

The book opens on March 6, 1944 at 21 rue La Sueur in Paris, a three-story nineteenth-century building in the affluent sixteenth arrondissement owned by Dr. Marcel Petiot. A “greasy, foul-smelling smoke began pouring from the chimney,” and by March 11, one of the residents, who could stand it no longer, telephoned the police. Firemen broke into the building, and the police made a macabre discovery next to two coal-burning stoves. A pile of body parts and chunks of flesh,  a large pile of quicklime, rooms “crammed with an incredible assortment of furniture, art objects, chandeliers, and gadgets stored in chaotic piles,” but also a bizarrely constructed triangular room with a fake door and iron rings on the wall. The police on the scene knew that they had stumbled onto a mind-boggling crime scene, but before the case was solved, many questions (not all of which were ever answered) were raised.

This was the beginning of the infamous Dr Petiot case, and although this book could easily be categorized as ‘true crime,’ it’s also a look into the historical realities of the time, for it shows how a diabolically intelligent serial killer could operate by preying on those who were willing to take enormous risks to escape the Gestapo. Jews disappeared every day, and if dozens disappeared after making contact with Petiot, was there anything to report? And who would you report the disappearances to?

One of the fascinating aspects of the Petiot case is the glimpse into the heavily fragmented society which was pieced together under German occupation. Many government officials had heard rumours of an escape network run by a doctor, and while some turned a blind eye, in 1943, the Gestapo investigated an organization that “arranges clandestine crossings of the Spanish border by means of falsified Argentinian passports. ” Yvan Dreyfus, a wealthy Jew in prison awaiting deportation was unknowingly set up as part of the trap to snare Petiot’s escape network–a network which in reality did not exist–unless death is an acceptable escape route. Dreyfus disappeared after meeting Petiot, and a witness later claimed that someone else had seen Dreyfus dead at 21 rue La Sueur.

Ironically the mystery of the disappearance of Yvan Dreyfus led to Petiot’s arrest, torture and incarceration by the Gestapo–all things that unfortunately fed Petiot’s claim that he was a resistance hero, ran a group known as Fly-Tox and that he should be lauded for executing French traitors. Petiot argued that he’d ‘disappeared’ several French criminals who had collaborated with the Germans and then decided to take Petiot’s escape route. These people were just a few of Petiot’s victims, but most of his victims remained unidentified as they were Jews who’d kept their desperate flight secret.

The book covers Petiot’s childhood and his early adult life before this chameleon hoofed it to Paris and formed a niche for himself embezzling the state and eventually turned to murder. There are some very relevant details to be found in the Gestapo files and also in the backgrounds of the non-Jewish victims who took a one way trip to Petiot’s house. Then of course there’s the spectacular trial…But overriding the entire story is the question of just how this man, with multiple scandals in his past, a stay in a mental hospital after being declared insane and the instigator of various criminal acts was able to continually operate freely within society with all the privileges of being a physician.

Throughout the investigation, despite all the facts gathered, the question of just who Petiot was remained unanswered. No image of a human personality emerged, no motive surfaced; one could scarcely even imagine greed or sadism in a person who seemed to exist only as an incredibly dexterous performance. Petiot had fooled the French, the Germans, the Resistants, the courts, the psychiatrists, his friends and his own wife. He had acted as a solitary enigmatic force amidst a world in which he did not participate, and which he regarded only with scorn.

This is the second book I’ve read about Petiot. I’ve also seen the fantastic film Dr. Petiot, and I’ll be watching a documentary soon. For this reading I saw his resistance to Gestapo torture as just more evidence of the man’s arrogance and narcissism.  The most poignant aspect to the story has to be the mountains of suitcases found amongst the loot of the mostly unidentified victims.

Review copy.

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War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen

“White blouse and a pink skirt, I’m wearing with a roll-on underneath and my best undies just in case I do turn out to be loose”

I came across Liz Jensen’s book: War Crimes for the Home by pure chance, and attracted to the cover, perversely reminiscent of J. Howard Miller’s WWII war poster,  I bought a copy.

we can do it

And here’s the cover of Jensen’s book:

war crimes

While the ‘We Can Do It’ poster implies female strength and determination geared towards the war effort, War Crimes for the Home shows a WWII era female factory worker applying makeup. It’s a subversive image, and it’s a portent of what’s inside the covers.

The story is narrated by the elderly, demented wheelchair bound Gloria, who finds herself, following an unspecified operation on her duodenum, parked at an “old folk’s home” called Sea View. You can’t really blame Gloria’s family for leaving her there. Her only son, Hank, works on oil rigs and is gone half the time, and there’s a long standing feud between Gloria and her daughter-in-law, Karen. According to foul-mouthed Gloria, who refuses to call Karen by her name, her daughter in law is a “crap mum,” and has a lover, who “comes and gives it to her every Thursday.”  To make her point, Gloria periodically demands a DNA test to prove the paternity of her grandson, Calum.

Gloria claims her memory is ‘like a sieve,’ and she uses her old age and her various infirmities as a refuge from accountability and her son’s probes into her past. Gloria is a tough old bird, but she’s definitely fading, and after the death of fellow resident, “half-dead old drooler,” Doris, Gloria lingers in a place between the dead and the living, memories of a murky past and a present in which she protects herself by vulgarity, dementia (which Gloria uses as a weapon) and uncouth jokes.

Gloria’s mind jumps from the past to the present, and WWII finds Gloria and her older sister Marje working in a Bristol munitions factory. They were originally a cockney family who moved to Bristol, but “things got buggered,” and now the two sisters live alone and are running wild following the death of their mother from cancer and with their father missing in Singapore. Marje has a fiancé, British airman Bobby, and then Gloria meets Ron, an American GI from Chicago.

Several big questions loom over Gloria’s spotty version of the past. What is the significance of The Great Zedorro and the Slut Fairy? Why is she haunted by images of a little girl, “dripping water and pond-weed” ? Did Gloria ever go to America? Here’s a conversation Gloria has with Doris:

-Hank?

-My son. American connections. Chicago. The windy city. I always said to Hank, if you shut your eyes, you’ll remember it. Skyscrapers and blueberry muffins and all that. I call him Hank from those days, it’s what his dad would have called him, it’s what Americans call their children.

-How long were you there? she goes.

-What, Bristol?

-America.

-Never been there.

-What?

-Seen it on TV, Chicago and that. I had a GI boyfriend once. He fought in Tunisia and then he bombed Germany. Had a big scar on his thigh from shrapnel.

Doris looks at me.

-One Yank, she says. -Remember that? One Yank and they’re off.

Gloria is a fascinating character–fascinating because she uses her old age and dementia as both a shield and a weapon. She can be as rude and as crude as she wants, and then when her son Hank tries to pin her on her past, Gloria submerges herself in her various diagnoses. Here’s Gloria’s daughter-in-law Karen visiting with a present:

-Are you going to have a look then, Gloria?

The bag’s made of fake silk which is red and Chinesey. There’s stones in it.

-Semi-precious, she says.-Healing stones, they’re the latest thing. I’ve ordered some for the shop. You hold them in your palm and they calm your mind. Re-energise you. I’m so glad you settled in. It’s a lovely home, isn’t it? Nice carers, lovely view–

-Do I look like I need bloody sodding stuffing blinking re-energizing? It comes out loud, louder than I thought I could shout, because the blood’s rushing about now. No stopping it. -Handful of bloody pebbles is all they are, look! Load of old rubbish!

I’ve chucked the lot at the window, and it splits across with a big crack. Then all the air from the outside is whoosing in, it smells of frankfurters from the harbor, there’s a van does them.

-Healing my arse. Healing, my flaming arse.

Next thing the little pregnant nurse is on the scene saying

-Calm down, please Gloria, all she do, she come give you nice present, you go break window! I tell Mrs M!

Calum starts screaming the place down like a spoilt brat. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a baby.

On some level, Gloria as sharp as ever; she knows how to wound people and always scores a direct hit, but then occasionally she bumps into a disturbing memory and verves off. Gloria’s family members want her to give them the truth about the past before she dies, but she fights her memories of life during WWII,  a time when the men are out there fighting the war, but at the home, the enemy takes a very different shape, and the women are left to fight their own battles for survival.

While War Crimes for the Home is a story about memory, on another level entirely, this is a story about aging. We are expected to engage in age-appropriate behaviour and Gloria who is, above all, a non-comformist is fighting against being scripted as the ‘little old lady.’ No wonder she strikes up a relationship with fellow resident “dirty old monkey,” Ed who gropes the nurses and plays with himself in public.

-That old boy she’s seeing to, I tell him, name of Ed Mayberley, he’s pushing ninety, he was a POW in Japan like Dad. He can’t keep his hands to himself, he can’t. Yesterday I saw him grabbing one of the foreign girls. She nearly screams the place down and slaps him. It’s abuse that. Someone should report her.

We all inhabit roles in this life, but as we age the roles narrow, and yet people’s characters don’t fundamentally change.  How often do we see our parents as individuals who have loved and lusted? Parents are advised to let their children be individuals and find their own paths in life, but does this advice trickle up the generations? Gloria refuses to be pigeonholed by her relatives and that’s part of the problem here. The elderly residents of Sea View who are frequently treated like children are fighting back against these rigidly prescribed roles with bad behaviour that’s cloaked by “Mad Cow,” dementia and age.

War Crimes for the Home will make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, touching, and original. This book comes recommended for fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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Filed under Fiction, Jensen Liz