Tag Archives: WWII

For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens (1998)

“You could be Alice in Wonderland and me the White Rabbit for all you know.”

It’s taken me too long to return to Scottish author Agnes Owens, but sorting through book stacks revealed the novella: For the Love of Willie, the tragi-comic story of a young girl’s infatuation with a creepy shop owner named Willie Roper. The story is narrated by now middle-aged Peggy who lives in a mental hospital and whose major relationship is with a much older resident named the Duchess, a woman who may or may not have had a husband. Peggy, stealing paper from wherever she can find it, is determined to write her life story, and equally determined to make the Duchess, who’d much rather obsess on a Mills and Boon romance, read it. So the story goes back and forth with some scenes between Peggy and the Duchess and other scenes that tell Peggy’s story.  The big question here, in this story of abdicated responsibility, power and conformity, is what happened to land Peggy in a mental hospital.

Peggy’s story begins during WWII,  a gloomy world of air raids and rationing, with her first day delivering papers. She’s eager and proud to have landed the job which pays six shillings a week, and pleased that Willie Roper, the shop owner, makes special concessions for her. Plus there are those caramels which she, the only girl delivering papers, gets daily while the boys go without. Life at the newspaper shop is peculiar, and the reclusive Mrs Roper who lives above the shop with her husband rarely appears, although she arranges for sherry deliveries, against her husband’s wishes, courtesy of the paper boys. There are some ugly rumours about Willie but that doesn’t stop Peggy developing a crush on a man more than twice her age, and when she leaves school, she’s employed as his assistant….

for the love of willieWhile it’s fairly easy to guess where this story is going, it’s the author’s style that makes this story such a delight.  Peggy’s powerful voice combined with Agnes Owens’ dark tart humour make this tragicomic tale a marvelous read.  At sixteen Peggy is innocent and powerless, or so the adults who surround her think until Peggy’s quirkiness erupts in an unexpected way. In a world in which options are controlled and limited, immature Peggy makes her own tragic decision–the only one she thinks she can live with. Now in middle age, Peggy is in the position, once again, of being controlled by those in power, so we see her shouting through the railings desperately trying to catch the attention of a passing male, locked in the ‘punishment room’ and tranquilized for causing trouble. Even though Peggy is in many ways a victim, somehow she transcends that description, remaining uniquely defiant, obstinately independent, and brutally sane.

In the asylum, the Duchess and Peggy are women whose lives have shrunk to a routine of medication and boredom. The Duchess consoles herself with her dreams, saying “I dream a lot myself. It’s like going to the cinema in a way.” It suddenly seems vitally important to Peggy that she tell her story, but the Duchess, theoretically a captive audience, isn’t impressed:

‘I think people might want to read it if you put some romance into it,’ said the Duchess. “I mean if you wrote about falling in love with someone. Women always like to read about things like that.’

‘For God’s sake’ said Peggy, ‘you should know by this time that there’s no such thing as falling in love. It’s only sex with a sugar coating round it. I once thought I was in love, but on looking back I can see it was nature’s way of getting the female pregnant. We’re just like animals, you know. Do you think they fall in love?’

‘How can I tell what they’re thinking?’ said the Duchess haughtily. ‘But I’m quite sure they do in their own way.’

Her mouth closed firmly as she turned her attention to the film on television. Peggy shook her head and went into a reverie which had nothing to do with her present circumstances.

As with Bad Attitudes, there’s something a little off kilter about the characters in the book. Peggy’s mother and Willie are the main adult figures here, and they both act badly with Peggy’s mother abdicating responsibility when it comes to protecting her vulnerable daughter, and Willie taking advantage of an immature mind. Peggy is seen as a bizarre nuisance mainly for her refusal to conform to convenience. This theme is also continued in the mental hospital where the nurses bully and brutalize the patients and harass the poor old Duchess for wetting her bed. When various women in the book react emotionally to the circumstances in their lives, then they’re locked up or if they’re lucky, as Willie says about his wife, it’s all blamed on their hormones:

She’s been acting very funny lately. I’m just hoping that it’s her time of life.

16-year-old Peggy is a quirky character, someone who seems uncomplicated until suddenly she shocks us in a way we didn’t anticipate, and that’s exactly what makes this novella so brilliant. We’re left puzzling over the question of Peggy’s sanity, but certainly the adults in Peggy’s life have a great deal of responsibility here. Agnes Owens is an author who will definitely appeal to fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

122 pages


Filed under Fiction, Owens Agnes

The New Neighbor: Leah Stewart

“I can’t believe in heaven. Even now, as death grows ever harder to unimagine.”

In Leah Stewart’s novel, The New Neighbor, Margaret Riley, a ninety-year-old retired nurse whose only hobby is reading mystery novels lives in a remote area outside of a small town in Tennessee. She is fiercely independent, has no relatives nearby, no friends, and is not exactly the easiest person to get along with. One day, while out reading on her deck, she notices she has a new neighbor. Snooping through the mailboxes, Margaret discovers her new neighbour’s name and curious, she soon creates a way to invite this stranger into her life.

the new neighbourWhile Margaret’s antisocial personality certainly explains her choice of location, just what masseuse Jennifer Young and her 4 year old son are doing living in the middle of nowhere can’t really be explained. In Jennifer, Margaret “recognized a mystery” and encouraged by the reading of crime novels, she is driven to solve the puzzle. Yet “Jennifer is a cave that blocks the entrance,” to the solution. Margaret recognizes that she and Jennifer have much in common: the desire for isolation, the deliberate avoidance of society, and yet Margaret refuses to respect Jennifer’s privacy.

She is so careful, so guarded. There are locked doors in conversation  with her, and no way to tell when you’re approaching one.

The story is told in alternating chapters from Jennifer and Margaret (with a few chapters from a third character right at the end of the book). This format, as I noted in an earlier post, seems to be a popular trend these days. But whereas the format annoyed me in Disclaimer for the way in which the reader is thrown red herrings, here, author Leah Stewart uses the dual chapters to move the story forward but also allows Margaret and Jennifer to speculate about each other. Gradually we learn what Jennifer is running away from, and also through Margaret’s narrative, we see her horrendous WWII experiences.

Without a doubt, Margaret is the marvelous character who claims and dominates this novel. She recognizes that as a ninety-year-old woman, she has a certain invisibility and that she’s marginalized into a stereotype, so she can be grumpy and rude to people and in return they basically pat her on the head, treat her with false gaiety, and chuckle. No one ever calls her to account for her churlish behaviour and any kindness directed her way isn’t personal–it’s a generic act based on:  ‘be nice to the old lady who may croak any day.’ Margaret is drawn in such a way that we see a woman who was shaped by her WWII experiences, trapped inside her body, and yearning to tell someone her story. While Margaret intrudes into Jennifer’s life in order to discover her neighbour’s secrets, instead she finds herself discussing her own.

I picked up The New Neighbor expecting a crime novel, and while crimes take place, this is much more the story of two women at different stages of their lives whose paths cross and connect. Jennifer and Margaret have a great deal in common for they both have secrets, and that’s what Margaret recognizes in Jennifer.

There’s a lot going on in The New Neighbor and it’s a much more complex novel than it at first appears. While I have to tread carefully around the issue of secret pasts and plot spoilers, I will mention Jennifer’s complicated relationship with university lecturer, Megan and her husband Sebastian. Jennifer begins taking her son, Milo to preschool and Milo’s friendship with a boy named Ben places Jennifer in the position of having to befriend Ben’s parents. At first her relationship is with Megan and through her, Jennifer gains a rather negative impression of Sebastian, and yet later, in a very cleverly constructed fashion, Jennifer has reason to reevaluate her impression of Sebastian and Megan’s position in the marriage. It’s one of those moments when we see Jennifer’s maturity, fed by bitter experience, of just how one spouse always generates a surge of sympathy from society while the ‘killjoy’ does not.

The fact that Margaret is a very well drawn character both works for and against the book as Jennifer and her story pale in comparison, and here are a few tart, choice quotes that bring Margaret to life:

What a pleasure it would be to really piss somebody off, just to see my existence fully register on someone else’s face.


You might imagine that being an old lady I like the cozy mysteries, but you’d be wrong. Spare me the cats and the knitting. It was Sue’s idea to start picking out books for me–perhaps she gets bored–and the first stack she presented me, two or three years ago, was full of such nonsense. I don’t need my murders made adorable. Death in a book is still only death in a book, but give me an author who doesn’t flinch. If a mystery doesn’t walk you up to the abyss before it rescues you, it’s a shallow form of comfort.

Here she’s referring to the Wordsworth poem:

The world I can more or less get away from, as I think I’ve proven, and there’s so much of nature around me I’d be hard pressed to long for more. Sometimes I wish the birds would shut the hell up. It’s not the world I can’t escape but my body. Not its demands so much at this stage, but its complaints and limitations. It’s resistance and pain.

The New Neighbor argues that, as outsiders, even living in the same house, we can never fully grasp the inner politics of a marriage, and we can never understand what it’s like to be another human being. In the Acknowledgements, the author notes that she wanted to write a novel based in the WWII experiences of her grandmother. And that’s the feeling I had when I read this novel–that the author had tapped some powerful real life experiences and that ultimately, this is Margaret’s story and not Jennifer’s. While this is not a perfect novel as its ending felt a little forced, I’ll check this author’s backlist.

I thought I had seen some things. I’d never seen anything like this. Our next patient required an amputation. The strangest part was not the cutting through but the moment when the limb actually came off. That first day I carried a whole arm away from the table. I held it by the elbow. The fingers on the hand were still flexed as though reaching for me, saying, Hold on a minute, wait, wait. The arm was surprisingly heavy. You don’t think about what an arm weighs when it’s still a part of the body. And then when it’s cut off, it’s waste. It gets burned with the rest of the waste.

Parts of your body can come off. Jennifer. You can have a hole in your back so big a man can out his fist inside it.

I hadn’t seen anything.

Later I’d see all of this, do all of this, many times, without sparing a thought to the oddity of it all. The time I’d moved into the extraordinary but hadn’t learned to live there. This wasn’t even a hospital as I’d ever known one, with hallways and wards and nurses in white, but a tent full of blood and guts and screaming. There should have been some other name for it, but we didn’t have one and so we applied the old one, and after a while when I thought “hospital” what I pictured was a tent or an abandoned schoolhouse, sawhorses for the stretchers and  patients boys.

review copy


Filed under Fiction, Stewart Leah

Goebbels: Peter Longerich

“We have absolutely no intention of allowing ideas that have been totally eradicated from the new Germany to be reintroduced by film, whether openly or in disguise.”

I came to the new Goebbels biography from Peter Longerich mainly due to my interest in the German film industry during the WWII period. I’ve also seen the film that included excerpts of Goebbels’s diaries (The Goebbels Experiment) and seen various films which depict Goebbels–I’m thinking in particular of Downfall which concentrated on Hitler’s last days in the Bunker and also showed how Goebbels and his wife decided to kill their six children by poisoning before committing suicide themselves.  All this is to say that I had a certain impression of Goebbels rather than solid, intense knowledge. I’m not terribly interested in broad readings of military history, but I am interested in character, and of all the figures in the Third Reich, Goebbels, for his film and propaganda connections, was the one who interested me the most. Now after finishing Peter Longerich’s almost 1000 page biography, I can say that my impression of Goebbels has been altered.

GoebbelsIn this intense, highly readable biography, Goebbels comes across foremost as an empty human being–destined to be a follower of a stronger personality and “given the lack of balance in his personality,” throwing his fate in with Hitler’s “was in a certain sense the logical outcome.” The book certainly presents a solid argument for that. Politics and the Nazi Party gave Goebbels the power and celebrity he craved, and also, equally importantly, gave him a raison d’être. The book charts the unremarkable early life of Goebbels, his first relationships with women, his failed literary ambitions, and his growing anti-Semitism. In 1923, he worked in a bank–a job he loathed and from which he was subsequently fired. He returned home and began keeping those famous diaries. Clearly a “man lacking direction,” he turned to politics and found his niche. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of Goebbels rise to power and his growing anti-Semitism–for that, read the book, but I will say that Longerich, in charting Goebbels’ career, makes it clear that Goebbels had to make some seismic shifts in his opinions in order to mesh with the Nazi party. While Goebbels initially admired Lenin, “called himself a German Communist, and had seen Russia as a natural ally,” he’s quick to drop that admiration on favour of expediency and eventually “fully internalized Hitler’s arguments.”

His enthusiasm for Hitler as a political “führer” corresponded to messianic sentiments common on the right (we shall return to this theme). His political worldview therefore already bore many of the hallmarks of the “New Right” after the Great War. Accordingly, it is highly improbably that if a political leader of the left had happened to cross his path in the spring of 1924, he would have attached himself so enthusiastically to him and to his ideas. In his burgeoning enthusiasm for National Socialism Goebbels was not alone in the middle-class milieu to which he belonged. Referring to the Reichstag elections scheduled for May 4, he remarked, “All the young people I know are going to vote National Socialist.” His maxim of a few months earlier, that it “does not matter what we believe in, as long as we believe,” cannot therefore be read as proof that Goebbels was a throughgoing relativist or opportunist at this time.

I read one professional review that made the book sound as though it’s packed with Goebbels’s love affairs. This gives a false impression, and while the book initially discusses various love affairs, this focus shifts. While Goebbels always seemed to be in love–“often sustaining two or three affairs at a time,” it’s clear that Goebbels with his gigantic ego and immense self-love, primarily had a love affair with himself.

Full of self-pity, in all these complications he once again saw himself in the role of someone who simply loved everybody and was the victim to the end:

“Little Else, when am I going to see you again? Alma, you lovely minx! Anka, I’ll never forget you! And yet now I’m utterly alone!”

At one point “standing before a portrait of Schiller, he thought he could see physical similarities between himself and the writer,” but then after reading Richard Wagner’s autobiography, he “contemplate[d] the similarities between himself and the composer.” Longerich points out that for Goebbels, “his self-loving reflection .. only had value when it was confirmed by a third person.”

But he had finally reached the conclusion that it was for someone else to be the savior-leader and that his destiny was to be the latter’s first disciple.

This transfer of the role of savior to another person, somebody greater, and the desire for the most perfect possible symbiotic fusion with this idol played to Goebbels’s narcissistic disorder. He himself could only feel great if he had constant confirmation from an idol he had chosen. Hitler was this idol

Longerich argues that Goebbels’s underdog devotion to Hitler was slavish and without limits–as evidenced by his decision to pledge his entire family in the joint suicide–despite the fact that even Magda, at the end, attempted to persuade Hitler to flee.

One of the most intriguing elements to the book is its examination of Goebbels’s weird marriage to Magda with its “triangular relationship” which included Hitler. Before the marriage, Goebbels expresses jealousy regarding the relations between Magda and Hitler, and even questions her “faithfulness.” Some of this could certainly be attributed to Goebbels’s love of drama starring himself, but then again, exactly who was he jealous of? There are too many instances of peculiarity between Magda and Hitler to dismiss entirely any possibly of a love affair.

It is also worth investigating a different version of the marriage plan. A devotee of Hitler’s Otto Wagener, wrote that the plan of a Goebbels-Quandt marriage was conceived in Hitler’s entourage as a way of providing the Party leader with a respectable female partner. According to Wagener, Hitler already had his eye on Magda before he learned to his disappointment that the one he adored was already spoken for by Goebbels. Hitler then developed the notion of building an intimate relationship with Magda who he regarded as the ideal “female opposite pole to my purely masculine instincts.” Hitler believed that a precondition for this was that Magda should be married. Wagener claims that he presented this idea to Magda shortly afterward, simultaneously proposing Goebbels as the candidate for marriage; after some time for reflection both accepted the idea.

Longerich presents the evidence, noting that Wagener’s report “contains one or two chronological inconsistencies” and then lets us decide for ourselves. Given the further information on the marriage with Hitler’s intervention on several occasions, Hitler’s refusal to allow an operation on Magda due to the “bad effects on her face,” and that Magda often “spent days, sometimes weeks, alone with Hitler as his guest,” my money is on Wagener’s version of the Goebbels marriage of convenience.

Longerich juxtaposes and balances excerpts from the diaries, sometimes delusional, with the realities of the war. Goebbels is not completely honest with himself in his diaries; he thought he was writing for posterity–and he was–just not with the magnificent role he’d imagined for himself, but nonetheless it’s made clear, repeatedly by the author through diary entries, that Goebbels was not the intimate confidante of Hitler that he thought he was. Throughout his career and growing role in the Third Reich, Goebbels struggled with party in-fighting, had “to fight for control of propaganda, and also repeatedly, we see Hitler parceling it out.” Goebbels was not privy to Hitler’s war plans and constantly had to play catch up in order to align his ideas with those of Hitler. For example, “it was only on April 8, the day before the invasion of Norway and Denmark, that Hitler considered it fit to inform his propaganda minister about the impending invasion.”  As Longerich notes: “these entries demonstrate yet again how cut off Goebbels was from decision-making in central political matters however hard he might try to maintain the impression that he enjoyed Hitler’s full confidence.” Conversely there is an absence of any “concrete plans for an attack on the Soviet Union” in the diaries until Goebbels was made aware of Operation Barbarossa just a few months before it happened. And here’s a quote to remember:

The whole thing poses certain psychological problems. Parallels with Napoleon etc. But we’ll easily get over them with anti-Bolshevism

And here’s another of my favourites–Goebbels illogically arguing for the Russian invasion when it’s obvious that he’s having to talk himself into it:

But Russia would attack us if we became weak and then we would have  a two-front war, which we shall avoid through this preventive action. Only then shall we have our backs free.

Finally, there was another reason for the attack: “we must also attack Russian in order to free up manpower.”


“It’s rather worrying seeing these piles of snow now even in east Prussia: What will it be like on the eastern front?!”

I’ve always considered Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union insane, and presented here, even with the arguments for invasion, we see the Nazi war machine crumbling and yet even as it deteriorates, the propaganda increases and extermination of the jews increases in its desperate ferocity–almost as if while the Third Reich was being beaten, the puppetmasters hastened their plans in an attempt to accomplish some grotesque manifestation of their sick world vision.

The book charts Hitler’s withdrawal from public view as the war began to look hopeless, and how Goebbels took “on the role of being the regime’s main state orator.” My impression of Goebbels as one of the masterminds of the Third Reich has been eviscerated–although Longerich makes it clear that as it became perfectly obvious that Germany was losing the war, Hitler withdrew from public life, and Goebbels stepped up his role, really exulting in the power and the fact that, finally, he had the role with Hitler he’d craved all those years.

When it comes to books written about some of the more monstrous figures in history–Adolf Hitler, Stalin etc, there’s an enormous difficulty to be overcome by any writer. When you write about the monsters of history, there has to be a very strong interest emanating from the author for a project this size to even get off the ground.  While Goebbels committed horrendous crimes against humanity, the author’s job is to steer the book in an honest, evaluative direction and avoid clichés and easy shots, so the common pitfalls of disgust must be avoided. Peter Longerich does a tremendous job here of uncovering the very flawed, very mediocre man who managed to soar in Germany due to extraordinary times. Goebbels had a very good grasp of some aspects of human nature–especially population control. For example, the way he called a one-day boycott of all jewish businesses to curb the “atrocity propaganda abroad” was most effective in its execution. Goebbels’s used thuggery early on for population suppression tactics, and he modelled propaganda on advertising techniques. Longerich paints a portrait of a man who was not Hitler’s most intimate confidant–even though he desperately longed to be: “Hitler, who had quickly recognized Goebbels’s psychological dependence on him, systematically exploited it during the two decades of their relationship.” As others in Hitler’s circle dropped out, fled, were expelled, Goebbels remained, and the dogged devotion he’d always shown to Hitler initially had its twisted reward:

Thus Goebbels had indulged his narcissistic needs to the limit. By following Hitler’s example and committing suicide with his family, he had confirmed for all time the special relationship he believed he had with his idol

This is a marvelous biography, so beautifully in-depth, and it’s recommended to anyone interested in the subject matter. Finally, and here’s something I never knew: “Goebbels simply disliked crime films.”

Translated by Alan Bance, Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe.

Review copy


Filed under Longerich Peter, Non Fiction

The Long Green Shore: John Hepworth

When I read Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, In Certain Circles, there’s a brief mention that one of the characters has returned home damaged from a POW camp. While this aspect of the plot is just a small detail in the overall storyline, I realized how little I knew about Australia’s involvement in WWII, and that brings me to The Long Green Shore, a novel written by John Hepworth.

At just over 200 pages, this is a short, tense novel which concerns a battalion of Australian soldiers as they fight for control of the Northern Coast of New Guinea, and the book’s intensity and heart-breaking feeling of authenticity are derived from the author’s personal experiences during WWII. Post WWII, the novel was rejected and was not published until after the author’s death, and so here is this classic war novel which focuses mostly on camaraderie, moments of incredible heroism, and as the author notes, “war in its classic wastefulness.” As Hepworth explains in his note at the beginning of the book, “from the last Christmas of the Second World War until that war ended, two brigades of the Sixth Australian Infantry fought an obscure but at times bitter and bloody campaign along the savage north coast of New Guinea.” The author adds that the novel “is not, strictly, the story of this campaign,” but a “framework.” It’s not too surprising then that the novel reads like an episodic, gripping memoir.

the long green shoreIn a  third person omniscient narrator which occasionally lands on a collective ‘we,’ there are definitely some main characters here–Janos, from NSW, and his wingman Pez remain constants in the novel with secondary characters including Regan, a young man who’s afraid, Old Whispering John who stinks and has yellow teeth, Cairo Fleming, fatherly Doc, and the Laird. The emphasis is on the relationships between the enlisted men, and while the officers are present, they are remote–a different species living in another zone. The battalion is under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Connell, aka Killer Connell, a man who earned his nickname by killing two stray dogs. The men hate Connell for this, and the immediate repercussions during marching exercises illustrate the enlisted men’s solidarity.

The strange duel went on. A clash between a sullen and savage man with the immense mumbo power of discipline and rank behind him and the vast, silent, stubborn anger of a thousand men who would have forgiven him many worse things but could not forgive him shooting two dogs.

By the time the incidents in the novel occurred, the Australian troops were well aware of the Japanese atrocities taking place, so our soldiers, some hardened by combat and death of mates in earlier campaigns in Greece and Egypt, others fresh young kids, are all too aware of the sort of enemy they are fighting and also the fact that it’s better to die in battle than to be taken prisoner. The Australians are also not going to take prisoners, although at one point, a starving Indian, used as some sort of slave by the Japanese, manages to escape to the Australian side.

The book starts off pre-combat with some down time to play cards, write letters, and the arrival of a touch of back-home:

We had received a comforts parcel the day before–you remember those parcels that a benevolent nation distributed for your cultural relaxation and entertainment on shipboard. There were a great number of inspired novelettes in gaudy paper covers with such titles as The Corpse on Fifth Avenue and the Corpse with the Missing Face and Gunfire at Rustler’s Gulch. And they tried to tell us there was a paper shortage back home.

The contents of the parcels, including toothpaste and a bar of soap,  reveal the ignorance of the situation, and this quote reveals a sense of the novel’s tone:

A grateful country looks after its men when they are going into battle. ‘Nothing,’ as Dick the Barber remarked sourly when we opened the parcels, ‘is too good for the Australian soldier.’

The men land on the Northern coast of New Guinea, and although this battalion is to replace the battle-weary Fourth, things initially move slowly and “the troops are used to this old army habit: run like hell to the start point and then sit on your backside for two hours–move two paces and sit some more.” There are rumours that the enemy–“the Nip” is pinned down and in a bad way. “The young reinforcements are cocky and elated,” while “the old hands are not so complacent” as they know that “a starving man is fierce.” The seasoned troops have developed various philosophical approaches to dealing with their situation; they know to conserve their energy, eat and sleep when given the opportunity and hope that they don’t “go Troppo.”

As the Australians arrive, The American troops are leaving the area and there’s the remains of a bulldozed-over cemetery–the American troop ship is leaving with a mountain of coffins:

The heavy, leaden grey casks of the Yankee dead are stacked over in one corner of the area. There are several hundred of them.

One of the first thing the men do is to “scrounge through” the “Yank camp” as “The Yanks always seem to have too much of everything–compared to us–and they always seem to leave half their gear behind them when they go.”

The Yank rations are so good that even their rubbish dumps have better food than we’ve got in our kitchens. Every tent is crowded now with tins of pineapple and peanut butter and assorted stews and hashes. In some of the field rations there are cigarettes and glucose lollies. At night we drink American coffee and munch American issue chocolate (made in Australia, but not for us) and puff American cigarettes.

All this occurs before the combat begins, and when it begins, it swoops in bringing swift, brutal death. As some men die, the survivors continue to their objective. During down time, there’s discussion of the lives the men left behind which include various women problems–women who haven’t waited for their men, women who’ve been involved in affairs, women who want a divorce and move to America. There’s the strong sense that even if these men survive, the lives they return to will be irrevocably altered.

For foreign readers, some of the dialogue (a relatively small amount) may be difficult to follow for its vocabulary and also for the ‘accents’ that occasionally appear in the text. For example, here’s an American speaking (and I wish writers wouldn’t do this):

‘Say, she’s sharp,’ admired the American. ‘She’s gart class.’

He dug out his own wallet. ‘No, nart that one–that’s muh wife. This other ones–that’s muh Bella.’

As a war novel, The Long Green Shore was the perfect length and conveys the sense of fatigued, sustained combat, hardened moral vision, & intense camaraderie. The moments of dark humour balance the book’s bleaker passages; this is a story that examines how men maintain humanity in a war that heightens the barbarism sparked for necessary survival. The story here feels very real, and although there are beautifully descriptive passages, the plot appears to lack any fictional or literary construct. There’s just one moment of sentimentality, but even that feels as though it’s genuine homage to the men who died. Highly recommended.

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, Hepworth John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy.


Filed under Non Fiction, Prochnik George

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And why not?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

I said it was by Thomas Hardy.

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

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


Filed under Fiction, Gardam, Jane

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

“We were living men in a dead world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, Malaparte.”

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

“Tu me dégoûtes,” said Jack.

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

“Shut up!” cried Jack.

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

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

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

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

Translated by David Moore

Review copy


Filed under Non Fiction

Noose by Bill James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Had to.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Many,’ Ian said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Spread what, dad?” Ian asked.

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

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

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, James Bill

The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us?” I said. “Oh we’ve been lucky.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Leavitt, David

Transit by Anna Seghers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Seghers Anna