Tag Archives: WWII

A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising: Miron Bialoszewski

“Then-the sun was just going down-the partisans undressed at a command. Then it became fairly dark and we were sent down the road to our new quarters. We saw them standing there and standing here, stripped down to their underwear for the time being. There was nothing ominous-despite this-in the warm breeze. And yet, as we know, after dark they had to strip naked and wait. What happened later-is hard to determine. Some were taken elsewhere. Some came back. Survived. But the others-no one knows what happened. They vanished. Were they silently taken off somewhere to the side that night? Or later? It’s never been completely explained.”

A certain synchronicity brought me to A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising on the tail of Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz. The latter book, a fictional account of a brief segment in the life of the Polish author shows Bruno Schultz, in 1938, desperately trying to communicate with the outside world via Thomas Mann. The Germans have yet to arrive in Schultz’s hometown of Drohobycz. The novel makes reference to the horrific slaughter committed by the Nazis yet to come, and in Miron Bialoszewski’s A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, the slaughter is well underway.

memoir of the warsaw uprisingThe memoir begins on August 1 1944. Author Bialoszewski was a civilian during the uprising so this is not a military overview of the event but rather the book concentrates on memories which recall the chaotic period. Almost immediately, we know that the author survives:

I shall be frank recollecting my distant self in small facts, perhaps excessively precise, but there will be only the truth. I am forty-five years old now, twenty-three years have gone by, I am lying here on my couch safe and sound, free, in good health and spirits, it is October, night 1967, Warsaw once again has 1,300,00 inhabitants. I was seventeen years old when I went to bed one day and for the first time in my life heard artillery fire. It was the front. And that was probably September 2, 1939. I was right to be terrified. Five years later the all too familiar Germans were still walking along the streets in their uniforms.

Bialoszewski tells his story rather as though we are sitting in the same room with him listening to his account. His memories are subject to revision–almost as though he tries to pull the scenes out of the fog and present them to his audience. Sometimes his style is abrupt–staccato, and there’s breathlessness to the action.

August 1 starts inauspiciously enough with the author being sent, by his mother, to collect bread. People are gathering on the streets and he hears that “they killed two Germans in Ogrodowa Street.” Tanks are “cruising around,” the author hears shooting, “heavier weapons” including cannons, and then people begin cheering: “The uprising,” we told each other immediately like everyone else in Warsaw.

In spite of the sounds of machine guns and rocket flares, the general mood is definitely excitement. Civilians join in; barricades are erected. The author, now at a friend’s house, has a meal, nonchalantly plays a game and goes to sleep.

It was raining. Drizzling. It was cold. We could hear machine guns, that rat-a-tat. Nearer burst, then farther off. And rocket flares. Every so often. In the sky. We fell asleep to their noise, I think.

That short quote is a good example of the author’s style as memories flood back. There’s a sense that every detail is important. Every incident witnessed must be recorded.

The holiday mood of the uprising continues with intense organization. Partisans “showed up,” and “several fronts” are established on the streets. Tanks ride right over the barricades, and the author remembers people “throwing down tables, chairs, wardrobes onto the street” to fortify the barricades. But when furniture proves futile against tanks, concrete is removed from the pavement. Still, in spite of dire signs, the excitement continues. But by the fourth of August, the atmosphere begins to change.

We ran out into Choldna Street. The street was covered with clouds. Rust colored and dark brown. From bricks, from smoke. When it settled we saw a terrifying transformation. A reddish-gray dust was covering everything. Trees. Leaves. A centimeter thick, I think. And that devastation. One Wache less. But at what a cost. Anyway. Things were already beginning to change. To anxiety. And always for the worse. Visually too. From Zelazna Bram Square, from Bank Square, from Elektoralna Street along our side of Choldna against the wall, people were running and running–women, children, all hnched over, gray, covered with some kind of powder. I remember the sun was setting. Fires were burning. The people ran on and on. A flood of people. From the bombed-out houses. They were fleeing to Wola.

The atrocities begin….Water and food become critical issues, and at one point in the book an exciting escape via the sewers takes place, yet grim realities set in as the author asks if the Polish will receive help from the outside world: “perhaps it was worthwhile to defend, to rescue whatever and whomever could be rescued. Maybe at this point someone would smile pityingly.”

The Warsaw Uprising: August 1, 1944-October 2, 1944 –an important event in the history of WWII for several reasons–is recounted here by someone who lived through it, and this remarkable memoir grants the reader a sense of this event. Miron Bialoszewski (1922-1983), who was just 22 years old when the uprising took place, wrote the memoir more than twenty years after it occurred. The book’s introduction explains the background of the uprising: the Red Army was “encamped in the working-class suburb of Praga, directly across the river from Warsaw,” and how the Polish resistance Home Army “encouraged and directed by the London government in exile […] initiated the uprising in the capital.” But as the introduction, by translator Madeline G. Levine, tells us “the people of Warsaw were left to fight and die by themselves.” By the time the uprising ended, over 200,000 Poles were dead.

Originally published in 1970. Maps are included at the end of the book.

Translated by Madeline G. Levine

Review copy


Filed under Bialoszewski Miron, Non Fiction

Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz: Maxim Biller

German 2015

Back to German Literature Month, and this time it’s a modern German novella inspired by the life of Bruno Schultz: Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz by Maxim Biller.  Bruno Schultz, a polish writer, critic, teacher and illustrator was murdered in 1942 in the Drohobycz Ghetto. He had been commissioned by Nazi officer Felix Landau to paint a mural and in exchange Landau promised protection. Schultz was shot, according to many sources, by another Nazi officer, Karl Günther  in revenge for Landau killing Günther’s “personal Jew,” a dentist. So yet again another brilliant talent wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis.  In spite of the fact that very little of his work survived (his final novel The Messiah is lost,) there’s a mythic quality to Bruno Schultz. Just check out the Wikipedia page to see how authors have integrated Schultz into their fiction. Biller’s novella is an imagined glimpse into Schultz’s life.

The book begins with Schultz frantically writing a letter to Thomas Mann:

“My highly esteemed, greatly respected, dear Herr Thomas Mann” wrote a small, thin, serious man slowly and carefully in his notebook, on a surprisingly warm autumn day in November 1938–

The letter, subject to multiple edits, is intended to warn Thomas Mann, currently in Switzerland, about an imposter who’s arrived in Drohobycz. In the letter Schultz admits to Mann that  “I cannot say with complete certainty that he is not you, but the stories he tells alone-not to mention his shabby clothes and his strong body odor-arouse my suspicions.” Right away there’s a sense of the absurd, of playfulness, but behind this there’s also a frantic plea and a fearful, neurotic quality to the letter writer. The imposter Thomas Mann is making a spectacle of himself at a local restaurant, seizing food in his hands and stuffing it into his mouth.  The imposter Thomas Mann is a sinister demonic character who plans to write a novella in which Jews are murdered by Christians:

“Well my friends, ” said the false stranger to us when he had finished, and was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, “how do you like this story? How would you reply to the question of guilt that I am about to ask? I would say: if the Hebrews had never come to Drohobycz, that pointless and utterly destructive pogram would never have taken place, would it?” Then he beat a short but vigorous drum roll on the manager’s head with the palms of both hands.

In his letter, Schultz bemoans the fact he must teach “drawing to my beloved but totally untalented boys” at a high school, and it’s at this high school that Schultz is terrorized by a sturdy sports mistress, Helena, “small and athletic and with a hairy face like a clever female bonobo chimpanzee,” who aggressively harasses him about his next novel.

Bruno had really been hoping that no one in school would notice his absence particularly not pretty Helena, whose thick, blonde and often badly combed hair unfortunately gave off the pungent smell of an animal cage, a mixture of urine and damp hay that had been left lying around. Yesterday she had shut him up, for almost a whole hour’s lesson and without any light on, in the little room containing broken gymnastics equipment next to the sports hall. He didn’t know why, but probably because he had trembled even more than usual during their last conversation in a break period, and couldn’t be soothed even by the pressure of her short, but sharp and unfiled fingernails. So what? She shouldn’t have asked him to let her see at least a few pages of his novel, and he had been cold as well, in spite of the summery days that came like a gift in mid-November, and in spite of the fact that he was wearing his heavy jacket. When she finally let him out he was feeling much better, or so he told her at least, for fear of making her even angrier, and she promised to shut him up again sometime soon. Maybe, she added, she’d come into the little room with him herself for a while if he liked. She could go to one of the chaotic shops beyond the market place that opened only late in the evening for a few hours, sometimes not even that, and buy things she’d been wanting to try out with him for a long time he could guess what she meant! No, he had replied, he’d rather she didn’t, although he immediately felt very safe and well at the thought of those things–black leather Venetian Columbine masks stuffed with sawdust; penis-sized Pierrot made of willow rods, and Easter whips interwoven with thin steel chains; silver nipple clamps, and Japanese shunga candles (their dripping wax left no blisters on the skin).

Schultz lives with his sister, Hania, who’s in denial that her husband committed suicide by slitting his own throat ten years earlier. While Schultz writes in the basement, Hania, a Cassandra-like figure, tells him gossip about a man who “looked remarkably” like Bruno visiting a brothel and there he “examined the half-naked girls like a horse dealer, drank a lot of wine, and told dirty jokes.”

Inside the head of Bruno SchulzMaxim Biller’s Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz, in its blurring of reality and fantasy, mirrors Schultz’s own work, so it’s cleverly executed. Biller’s story itself blends fact with fiction, and it is a bit frustrating not to be able to peel the two apart, yet this dilemma is partially bolstered by Schultz’s life itself; even the story of Schultz’s death is subject to some debate.  What of the fictional imposter Schultz who manhandles women at a brothel? Is he real or imagined by Schultz’s sister? Is the imposter Thomas Mann just a figment of the fictional Bruno Schultz’s imagination? We cannot tell the ‘real’ or the imagined apart on so many levels in this novella.

Evidently Schultz did admire Thomas Mann and gave him the manuscript of his novella The Homecoming (1937), a work that is referred to in this story. The Homecoming is lost, and taking that loss into consideration, the letter Schultz writes in the book acquires a much deeper poignancy, and again a mythical quality. While Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz shows Schultz reaching, frantically, desperately, to the outside world represented by Thomas Mann, tragically while Mann did acquire Schultz’s sole work written in German, it is now lost. And that gives a sinister, surreal significance to the whole idea that a Thomas Mann imposter has taken up residence in Drohobycz, popping up a year after Schultz finished The Homecoming. Biller’s novella is set in 1938, and the Germans had yet to arrive in Drohobycz. The “alleged” demonic Thomas Mann appears to be a harbinger of the Nazis:

“You must write your novel. What is it to be called? The Messiah, am I right? To work, get down to work, and when you have finished those bandits will come from Berlin to your little town and burn you along with your wonderful manuscript. Too bad–it’s your own fault!’ He laughed, “terrific, what a subject! But who will write a novel about it where you are dead, Jew Schultz?”

This is another gorgeous little book from Pushkin Press, and it includes two stories from Bruno Schultz: Birds and Cinnamon Shops (translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska.) Reading these stories and looking at Schultz’s art add a great deal to Biller’s novella.

The murals Schultz created for Landau were discovered in 2001. Here’s a link for those interested.

Review copy/own a copy.

Translated by Anthea Bell


Filed under Biller Maxim, Fiction

Trouble on the Thames: Victor Bridges (1945)

“Wait till Hitler’s in Buckingham Palace and these darned Britishers are crawling around on their bellies.”

Trouble on the Thames, a short, thoroughly engaging spy thriller published in 1945 by Victor Bridges finds Naval Lieutenant-Commander Owen Bradwell in a funk. After receiving the news that he’s become colour blind, Bradwell, a young man, with a brilliant career in front of him, consults a Harley Street specialist. The bad news is that “chances of recovery were about one in a thousand.”  This means that Bradwell’s naval career is over, but then he’s recruited by the British Secret Service for a recon mission. With Britain very likely to plunge into war with Hitler, it seems that the country is awash with spies.

According to the Secret Service official who recruits Bradwell, a Lieutenant Medlicot recently committed suicide rather than face charges of treason. Medlicot was “conducting experimental work on some new gadget in connection with submarines,” when he became entangled with the owner of the Mayflower, a nightclub in the West End. Medlicot most likely had extensive gambling debts which were then leveraged to persuade Medlicot to hand over a “complete copy of the plans.” The sleazy owner of the Mayflower club, a certain Mark Craig, is suspected of being a spy for the Germans.

These are delicate times. German diplomats reside in England, and with a government that “still believes in the possibility of appeasement,” the Secret Service wants a “cast-iron” case against the spy network suspected of operating within the Mayflower Club before moving to make arrests or expulsions from the country. This is where Bradwell comes in. He’s given ten pounds for expenses and told to travel to the countryside where Craig owns a private island. There under the guise of a fisherman, he’s to collect information about Craig’s visitors.

trouble on the thamesTrouble on the Thames is an adventure story, and since we have our dashing hero, of course we have to have our heroine. Romance appears in the form of a plucky young woman, Sally Deane, an interior decorator who, on a mission to save her sister from blackmail, stumbles into the nest of Nazis.

This is the sort of book that races along with very little down time. Spies, blackmail, an escaped prisoner, amnesia and murder all roll in to this short novel. With the action moving from the hubbub of London to the quiet beauty of the countryside, there’s the strong sense that the British way of life is under threat. This is an ultra patriotic novel, but that’s by no means a fault–rather it’s an indicator of the times. Against the backdrop of an ever-encroaching war, the characters are either black or white with those “in the pay of the Huns,” portrayed as opportunistic, morally weak, societal outsiders. At one point for example, German sympathizer Olga Brandon tells Craig, “I’m all for the Germans. I’d love to see them smash the hell out of these stuck-up swine.” German diplomat,  Count Conrad von Manstein is an “unpleasant mixture, a cross between a Prussian junker and a genuinely fanatical Nazi, about the worst abortion that nature has yet produced.” And at one point there’s a reference made to an “epileptic house-painter.” It took me a minute to absorb that this was a reference to Hitler.

The respective roles of the sexes and the ethnocentrism are problematic. Bradwell is the dashing hero, and of course there must be a scene where he saves the female romantic interest. While Sally Deane is a plucky character, an independent businesswoman breaking the mold for her sex, nonetheless, she gushes at the appropriate moments. Bradwell makes a great new recruit for the Secret Service–although perhaps a trifle loose-lipped. At one point the issue of whether or not women can keep secrets emerges, so that grates–especially since Bradwell didn’t hesitate to tell Sally and her partner who he was working for. And here’s a quote about Olga which is supposed to explain a lot about her character

Having a dash of the dago in her, however–we have discovered since that her mother was a Romanian dancer–she was already beginning to panic.

The book, which really is great fun, is an entry from the British Library Spy Classics series, and includes another wonderful introduction from Martin Edwards. Prolific author Victor Bridges (1878-1972)–real name Victor George de Freyne Bridges set his novels “among the tidal estuaries and rivers of Kent, Essex and Suffolk.” (Harald Curjel, Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers.) Trouble on the Thames is a very cinematic novel, so it came as no surprise to read that several of Bridges’ novels made it to film. It did come as a surprise, however, that this author, once so popular in his day, has almost completely faded from view.

Review copy


Filed under Bridges Victor, Fiction

Murder by Matchlight: E.C.R. Lorac (1945)

Murder by Matchlight from E.C.R. Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett 1884-1959) takes place during the London Blitz and features the author’s series detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald. For both setting and plot development, the author capitalises on the Blitz–not only for the bombing but also for the massive human displacement which occurred. At 160 pages, this is a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that starts with a murder which occurs almost immediately. Although marred by coincidence, it’s clear from the cast of characters that the author had a lively sense of humour and a strong interest in human nature.

The novel begins on a dark night in London. It’s during the blackout and thirty-year-old Bruce Mallaig, suffering a disappointment, lingers in Regents Park. It’s a “moonless night,” but Mallaig is very familiar with the park and deep in thought, he sits on a park bench when he suddenly hears footsteps close by. The newcomer has a torch, and when Mallaig sees the man climb over and then hide under a bridge, he’s aware that something peculiar is afoot. Then another man arrives  & calls out “anyone about?”:

Next he struck a match and lighted a cigarette. Bruce had a momentary glimpse of a thin pale face, rather whimsical, under the shadow of a trilby hat. “That chap’s an Irishman,” said Bruce to himself, remembering the voice he had heard–even those two words gave the brogue away. […] The Irishman finished his cigarette and flung the end away, so that the lighted tip made a tiny glowing arc before it fell into the damp grass beyond. A moment later he lighted another match, and Bruce rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were dazed by the bright splutter of light in the intense darkness. It seemed to him that beyond the small bright circle of matchlight there was another face in the darkness–no body, just a sullen dark face. The Irishman had bent his head, his cupped hands were shielding the match flame, and then he shook it to and fro and the light went out.

A murder occurs and initially, innocent bystander, Mallaig is a suspect. Once Chief Inspector Macdonald is on the scene, however, Mallaig is an observant witness who, handled delicately by Macdonald, proves to be invaluable. The murdered man is indeed Irish but in time Macdonald discovers that the victim was using an assumed name and had a troubled past with Sinn Fein. Since no one seemed to know the victim other than his fellow residents at a third rate boarding house, Macdonald decides to pursue the case there, among the theatrical residents.

murder by matchlightThere’s humour to be found in the characterizations of the various residents: “conjurors and illusionists” Mr and Mrs Ramses, variety actress Rosie Willing, Carringford, an advisor to a film company, hard-as-nails actress Odette Grey, and gregarious housekeeper Mrs Maloney. Through interviews with the residents, Macdonald begins to piece together a picture of the dead man’s life. Initially identified as John Ward, the victim was a shady character, unemployed with possible connections to the black market, a man who believed in “living easy and letting other folks foot the bill.” He relied on his charm and lived by his wits until apparently someone was motivated to commit murder. Mr Ramses is a particularly colourful character as he’s also a ventriloquist. The residents to the police seem to be “Bohemians,” and we see how Macdonald adjusts his interview techniques and encourages people to talk as he wades though the class structure.

the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce coloured, wadded silk dressing gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements. for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

The author capitalizes on war displacement to illustrate how the murder victim could so easily switch identities and apply for a new ration card:

A man turns up from nowhere, possessing nothing: he says he has been bombed out and has lost his home, his family and his entire possessions. It’s happened in so many cases. How many people bother to substantiate the story?

There’s a certain glibness about the crime itself which expands into a complaint about the “Irish problem” in general, so the book reflects the prejudices of the times. The world is not worse off for the death of the victim, and the emphasis is on the various people who knew the dead man–an “able mind gone to seed.” For its tight plot and well-used setting,  Murder by Matchlight is an enjoyable little mystery for those interested in detective fiction from this era.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Lorac E.C.R.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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