Anthony Powell, A Dance…vol. 3

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time. Collected edition vol. 3

Vol. 7: The Valley of Bones (1964) The title arises from a reading in church from Ezekiel (the famous song ‘Dry Bones’ derives from the same Old Testament source). WWII has started and Nick is a lowly officer at a training unit. There’s a whole lot of new characters: fellow officers are variously pompous, officious or ineffective, or a combination of these. The other ranks are slightly less eccentric, but still full of quirks.

David Pennistone is one of the most interesting of the recurring characters; Nick had met him years earlier at the famous society party thrown by Mrs Andriadis (other characters from this event will pop up later). He’s an intellectual, reading Vigny on the military life when Nick encounters him on a train, and thinking of writing a piece on Descartes. He’ll feature fairly prominently in the next few volumes.

Nick learns more about his former lover Jean and her wayward attitude to the men in her life. More complications arise with his wife’s extended family and other former friends and acquaintances. The dance involving partners changing and dropping out continues, with several surprising developments.

Nick by this time early in the war had written, he says, ‘three or four’ novels (the imprecision is telling). But now, as war becomes ever more overwhelming, he feels too ‘inhibited’ to write. There’s an unsurprising darkness, as well as the usual dazzling satire, in this wartime trilogy.

Humour is wickedly threaded into the more serious aspects of the narrative – and the depiction of characters. One of Nick’s fellow officers remarks that he’s glad he’s married: it means he ‘[doesn’t] have to bother any more about women.’

8. The Soldier’s Art (1966) Widmerpool, as patronising, sinister and creepy as ever, is now Nick’s officious but ineffective superior at their unit in N. Ireland. He’s embroiled in childish, jealous rivalries with his peers, desperate to seem more efficient than everyone else, but succeeding only in appearing ludicrous. He’s a superb creation, probably the most interesting and complex character in the sequence: a comic monster, summed up in this withering comment from Nick –

There was something impressive in his total lack of interest in the fate of all persons except himself. Perhaps it was not the lack of interest in itself – but the fact that he was at no pains to conceal this within some more or less hypocritical integument.

The ‘dance’ of characters brings more of Nick’s former acquaintance into play, still relentlessly changing partners with each other. Former school friend Stringham pops up as a lowly mess waiter, revealing the class system operating as pervasively as it does in the outside world.

There’s a fair amount of rueful reflection on the vagaries of military life in time of war. There are also some shocking revelations; some characters die in the Blitz.

9. The Military Philosophers (1968) Time has moved on; this volume covers a period roughly 1942-45. First a captain, then a major, Nick is at a war office post, working at first in liaison with Polish allies, then with others. The massacre of Polish officers at Katyn forest casts a dark shadow over this final novel in the wartime sequence.

Widmerpool is again his superior officer, as arrogant and selfish as ever. There are more reappearances of usual suspects, but the most striking new arrival is Pamela Flitton (played by Miranda Richardson in the 90s TV version, depicted on the front cover of this volume).

She’s a glamorous ATS driver for Nick’s unit. She emerges as an egregious flirt with a destructive surliness in her treatment of her various conquests. Nick learns that she’s Stringham’s niece (by various complex marital connections).

There are more fatalities among Nick’s circle as the Nazis, losing the war after D-Day, deploy their final lethal onslaught on London: V1 and then V2 rockets. Pamela is revealed to have been involved in a sinister, clandestine plot in Cairo that included others of Nick’s acquaintance.

The tone becomes increasingly Proustian – not just in terms of the meandering prose style, but also in the settings (Nick finds himself on a mission to a northern French resort that turns out to be Proust’s Balbec), and there’s a long quotation from this parallel roman fleuve.

In his military role, Nick learns more painful lessons: after witnessing bad behaviour by a senior commander, he recalls another of philosopher Pennistone’s more cynical insights: that such officers need mollycoddling; they’re like ‘ballerinas’ in another world – Borneo, for example. The fawning obsequiousness Nick had formerly deprecated in some junior soldiers in their dealings with top brass he now realises is essential for survival in this army.

Between the Potsdam conference and the first atom bomb, Nick hears that Pamela has become engaged to the last person he’d have expected. At a social event she displays her usual venomous contempt for her new beau: this does not bode well for the embarrassed fiancé.

After attending the victory service at St Paul’s, Nick meets another key figure from his past. This is going to complicate his life in fascinating ways. I’m looking forward to the final three volumes in this brilliantly realised sequence. How will he fare in post-war civilian life? How will he manage to step his way through the next stage of the dance?

 

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (Fig Tree, 2018)

Mrs TD heard this non-fiction book being discussed enthusiastically on the BBC Radio 4 programme A Good Read. Our excellent Cornwall Libraries provided this hardback copy within days of my reserving it.

We recently travelled through the Netherlands, which brought back memories of visiting Amsterdam over the years: the Anne Frank House, the Jewish Museum and quarter. I thought I knew a fair bit about the murderous treatment of Jewish people under the German occupation, and the ways some Dutch residents risked their lives to harbour some of them in their own homes. This book changed this perception.

Bart van Es was born in the Netherlands and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University. The Cut Out Girl is his account of tracing the role played by his Dutch grandparents (and many others) in hiding a young Jewish girl during WWII. She’s only eight years old when her parents make the agonising decision to send her to live with a family of strangers before they are sent to the death camps. Van Es tracks her down – she’s now a woman in her eighties, living in Amsterdam – and gets to know and interview her during several visits to her home.

At first Lien (short for Hesseline) is a little reluctant to divulge the emotional side of her story to her ‘nephew’ (as he’s pleased to be called when she introduces him to a visitor: after all, she isn’t a blood relative, even though she came to call the van Es adults – Bart’s grandparents who sheltered — her as mother and father). He uses his academic research skills to fill out the details in the basic narrative she gives him.

Much of this factual part is reasonably familiar and predictable to those of us brought up on stories like Anne Frank’s. After staying in Dordrecht (which we visited on our recent trip) with the van Es family, Lien was moved several times as her hiding places were compromised. She had to stay for weeks and months on end confined to the house, often in a secret concealed room, not even able to look out of a window for fear of being discovered or betrayed. No school, no friends.

Not surprisingly, deprived of almost all contact with other people, she became anxious, emotionally volatile and vulnerable. And now we come to the part of the book that I hadn’t expected, and this is its most powerful and shocking element. Some of those who risked everything to shelter her did not treat her kindly. In one house she was made to fill the role of a housemaid, and shown little or no affection. She experienced even worse treatment in other houses.

We hear about Lien’s life after the war, until the time the author got to know her and elicit her story. She was clearly psychologically damaged by the terrible times she’d lived through. All of her family were murdered by the Nazis. It was only in the previous few years, just before Bart van Es tracked her down, that she’d managed to achieve some kind of peace.

The other key feature of Lien’s sad life was that she had become estranged from the van Es ‘parents’ who had harboured her – hence one sense of the ambiguous title of the book. Lien was ‘cut out’ from her foster family, as well as from her own. The reason for this rift is only revealed towards the end of the book, and it’s another indication of how much more complicated the situation was in the relations between the persecuted Jewish population in wartime Holland and the rest of the Dutch people – and it’s a poignant indication of how deeply flawed we human beings are – even when we seem to be acting nobly.

This is a deeply moving, often disturbing account of what happened in Holland during the war. I hadn’t realised that the Dutch Jewish population suffered so terribly: their wartime death rate of 80% was more than double that in any other western country, including France, Belgium, Italy, or even Austria and Germany. Of 18,000 Jews who lived in Lien’s home town of the Hague in 1940, only 2,000 survived. I shared van Es’s response to these facts: ‘For me, brought up on the myth of Dutch resistance, this comes as a shock,’ he writes. There were various demographic and social reasons for this, but it was also a result of the ‘active participation of Dutch citizens – who did the work of informing on neighbours, arrest, imprisonment and deportation.’ The Dutch authorities delivered 107,000 ‘full Jews’ to their German masters. These people were then sent to the death camps in the east.

Another important feature emerges. When he first arrives to interview Lien, he’s aware that a group of youngsters of ‘north African appearance’ are eyeing him with suspicion. He’s aware that his presence, and the nature of what he’s investigating, are not received with as positive a response as that of the white European Dutch. He points out that since the seventies the Netherlands has been a ‘country of immigration’. One fifth of its population were born outside its borders, or are descendants of these immigrants. Integration has been only ‘moderately successful’.

These are sobering insights. Van Es refers to the far-right politician Geert Wilders’ party getting 15% of the vote in local elections at the time of this book’s publication in 2018. Just last month his anti-Islam PVV party, with its extreme policies on immigration, and advocacy of banning the Qu’ran and mosques, became the largest party in the national elections. Wilders looks likely to lead the next Dutch government. This in a country often seen as an exemplar of liberal views and tolerance of diversity.

My own government seems intent on going down a similar route of ‘taking back control’ of its borders (as they mendaciously boasted during the Brexit campaign), as it redoubles its inhumane (and probably illegal) efforts to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, which it disingenuously insists is a safe and reasonable place for desperate people, many of them persecuted and endangered in their home countries, to be dumped so that we don’t have to see them in our towns and villages. I’m in despair at the ways in which democratic institutions are being rejected, and the world seems to be headed towards the kind of environment that enabled the Nazis to perpetrate the horrors of WWII on people like Lien.

Occupied San Francisco, atom bombs and lost words

It’s been a while since my last post – busy with work. So this will be a catch-up on recent things.

First crocus

This was the first crocus to appear in a pot in our garden, taken on 28 Jan

 Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. PMC, 2001; first published 1962. I bought this during the presidency of the last incumbent, now just a nightmare memory (or will he return?). It looked for a while like he was going to make this counterfactual story come true. The plot involves a post-WWII America in which the Nazi – Japanese axis powers won the war. The Japanese occupy the ‘Pacific States’ zone, the Germans hold the eastern zone, with a buffer zone in the mid-west.

I’ve read very little sci-fi/fantasy, but I suppose this falls more into the category of speculative fiction – like Len Deighton’s SS GB, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – both of which I found entertaining but not entirely satisfactory. As with most good sci-fi the genre lends itself to some fierce critical insights into the ‘real’ world of our time.

The title refers to a weirdly postmodern novel-within-the novel which tells an alternative counterfactual history of the war: this time the allies defeated the Nazis, but what followed isn’t in line with what ‘really’ happened. I rather liked this head-spinning reflexiveness. The author, rather like the Wizard of Oz, turns out to be much less than his grandiose ‘high castle’ solitude and anonymity would suggest.

I’d seen a couple of episodes of the TV series on Amazon, but gave up on it. It’s similar to but different from the novel, and much less interesting.

Daffodils and blossom

These daffodils and early blossom have appeared in a local park, taken two days ago

 Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows. Bloomsbury, 2009. Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire was one of my favourite books of last year (brief post about it here). This one came even more highly recommended, but I found it slightly less impressive. It still packs a powerful emotional punch.

It begins in Nagasaki, 1945. A young Japanese woman survives the bomb, and the rest of the novel traces her subsequent life. She travels to India, then to Istanbul and post-partition Pakistan. Much of the central plot involves her teenage son’s reckless flirtation with some of the forces of violence in this turbulent part of the world. Oddly enough, given this dramatic subject matter, I found the central part of the novel flagged rather, though it picked up in the last part, and developed a tension almost as unbearable as that in Home Fires.

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words cover Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just returned this to the library, so don’t have publication details to hand. It’s similar in some ways to Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary (brief mention of this one at the same link as above). Both novels involve words that didn’t make it into a major dictionary.

In this one the central character is Esme. As a little girl she likes to hide and play under the table at which the eminent scholar-lexicographers edit the ‘slips’ – small pieces of paper on which the words and entries about them are written and then filed in the pigeon-holes ready for collation and publication in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are colourful depictions of the famous editor, James Murray, his family, and many of those involved in the making of the dictionary, and of the long struggle to get to the end of the project that took nearly fifty years to finish. In a way it never did. It was first mooted in 1857, work began a few years later, and the last fascicle was published in 1928. Supplements and updates have been appearing since. I use the online edition all the time, and have referred to it often in this blog.

The ‘lost words’ collected by Esme begin (significantly, given its meaning) with the slip for ‘bondmaid’, which she finds under the table, dropped by one of the editors. She hides it away in a secret trunk, and over the following years builds up a large collection of her own. This becomes a sort of feminist alternative to the venerable (and patriarchal) OED. Esme’s words are culled from her visits to the covered market in Oxford: the taboo words, slang and vernacular of the women who were denied a place at high table, even if they did eventually get admitted to the universities.

This feminist angle is the strongest part of the novel. It culminates in the grand dinner held in 1928 to celebrate its completion. Several women, including Esme and two of Murray’s daughters, had been key members of the editorial team; many of the public who contributed words and citations – including Esme’s beloved aunt Ditte – were also women. None of them were allowed to attend this august, all-male event. A few were allowed in the gallery to look down at the men eating and drinking.

Not surprisingly the novel includes forays into the suffragist movement, and shows Esme’s awakening to the cause of rights for women – and the working classes who were also excluded from the privileges of the male elite. There’s a rather tedious romantic sub-plot, and some tragedy.

The research intruded too much into the narrative for my taste. The issues, despite their worthiness, dominated the characterisation. I’d have been better off reading a non-fiction account. I’d recommend Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), about one of the more unusual contributors to the OED, and The Meaning of Everything (2003) by the same author.

Laurel berries

According to my plant identifier app these are Japanese laurel berries. Wonderful colours and texture.

As I write this we’re being battered here in Cornwall by storm Eunice. I had to take down my new bird feeder pole, fearing it would be torn up and become a flying spear. The birds are gathering, confused, in our magnolia tree and keep looking reproachfully and hungrily up at our windows.

I’ll place throughout this post a few pictures taken recently showing the first stirrings of spring in the area.

 

 

 

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Switzerland remained neutral through both world wars of the 20C. Precariously, given that it bordered the countries engaged in invasive, destructive warfare, and was sought as a haven by refugees fleeing the Nazis’ murderous persecution of the Jewish people in particular from the 1930s on.

Rose Tremain The Gustav Sonata coverRose Tremain excels in making the ‘historical’ part of her fiction come to life – the formidable research behind the narrative is never intrusive. Her protagonist in The Gustav Sonata is introduced in the first part of the novel, set in the years shortly after WWII, as a small, sensitive boy being brought up in a sleepy Swiss town by the mother he adores, but who treats him with cold and bitter disdain. Her husband, a policeman, had lost his job in disgrace after falsifying documents to allow a handful of Jewish refugees to find asylum in his country, soon after Switzerland had closed its borders to them. The official line was that it was full and couldn’t handle any more (an all too familiar claim in many places today); more pragmatically, the Swiss authorities were terrified of provoking the Nazis into punitive tactics, even invasion.

Soon after being sacked, a crisis occurs in his marriage and he becomes estranged from his wife and dies – before his son was old enough to remember his father.

The novel is set in a sort of prose form of a musical sonata in three sections. Part one shows how Gustav aged five befriends Anton at kindergarten – he’s instinctively drawn to another vulnerable child. Anton’s Jewish father had moved to the provinces from his city bank after a breakdown caused by another family crisis.

Anton is a gifted pianist – but suffers from terrible stage fright, and this stops his becoming a concert performer.

Tremain traces the development of these two young boys through to late middle age as they struggle to overcome the trauma they have experienced and the deficiencies in their ability to form lasting relationships.

It’s a beautifully told story, with central characters ill equipped to deal with the times they live through, but Tremain confidently shows, without lapsing into sentimentality, the power of love to prevail over all setbacks.

I enjoyed it a lot.

 

 

Kindness in war and peace

Last Friday was VE (Victory in Europe, WWII) day. Britain’s tabloid newspapers and some other media outlets delighted in escaping from the viral gloom of recent months to show images and disseminate stories of revellers in 1945 and today. It’s something to be celebrated – the end of terrible hostilities with a fascist axis (although the war in the Pacific continued for some months more). But I found something distasteful in the jingoistic and triumphalist tone of some reports: victory over Europe seemed to be the subtext. Plucky little Britain gives a V-sign to foreigners and shows we can go it alone.

It was a relief therefore to read a moving post at Bobby Seal’s Psychogeographic Review blog. He told the story of his father’s experiences of cruelty and suffering as a prisoner of war (POW) during the war, but more importantly of the kindness he was shown by a young Polish woman. There’s a link HERE

My dad was also a POW. He was serving as a sergeant in the artillery in the N. African desert when he was taken prisoner by the Germans. His unit had been surrounded by Rommel’s forces. His CO had told him the night before capture that the officers were all retreating to safety, but that he – my dad – as the senior non-commissioned soldier, was to hold his ground as the Germans advanced, to give his officers maximum time to make their escape. What a message to give the troops: you’re expendable, we’re invaluable.

In the morning he was thus left in command of this small unit of artillerymen. They fought as long as they could. My dad saw some terrible things as they were pounded by German tanks and artillery. Finally they destroyed their own guns as surrender became inevitable. The worst thing a gunner can do, dad told me: spike his own guns.

The survivors were marched for days across the scorching desert with little water or food. Many died on the way to the POW camp.

When Italy opted out of the war and their POW camp was about to be deserted by their Italian captors, the British officer responsible for discipline among the prisoners called the prisoners together. His orders were that they were to stay put in the camp until the Germans arrived to take over control of the camp. It later emerged that this was a direct order from Montgomery, commanding the invading Allied troops in Italy. He apparently didn’t want the roads and other lines of communication ‘clogged up’ with escaping British prisoners.

My dad walked out and made for the Apenines. For some months he was sheltered and fed by a variety of mountain farmers and their families. Finally one of them turned him in – but he never forgot the kindness most Italians showed him. (Eric Newby has a fascinating account of his own similar experiences there in Love and War in the Apennines.)

He was sent on to another camp in Italy. He escaped twice. On the second occasion he’d made it almost to the Allied lines; they were just across a river. As he entered the water to swim across he was spotted by a German patrol. They opened fire, and he was forced to surrender – just metres from freedom.

A young German soldier was assigned to take him back to a camp in the sidecar of his motorbike. After some hours of driving, the motorcyclist parked up to enter an inn for food and drink. He shut my dad into an unlocked outhouse, and gave him to understand with facial expressions and gestures that he was trusting him not to try to escape, while he fetched food and drink for them both. This he did. My dad was starving and thirsty: he opted to accept the soldier’s kindness.

He spent something like four years in prison camps, first in Italy, later in Germany. I remember as a child leafing through a book he’d brought home after the war. It contained articles, drawings and cartoons made by the prisoners for their camp’s “newspaper”. I didn’t understand as a child the significance of these pieces. There was little evidence of the horrors they were experiencing.

My dad rarely spoke of these years. It was only when I was in my late teens that he told me these stories. He was clearly scarred psychologically by what he’d gone through. He never found it easy to show affection to us kids. He was often distant, distracted.

I spoke to my sister about all this at the weekend, and asked her if she had anything else I could add here. She reminded me that our dad arrived back in England soon after VE day and was stationed in a sort of rehab camp in Sussex, on the south coast. My mother was living in Hastings – in that county – at that time. She met my dad at a dance in her town that the men were allowed to attend.

It was the classical whirlwind romance. They married a few months later. My brother was born in June 1946, six months later. It took him years to do the maths and realise he was conceived before our parents were married!

He remained in the military until I was six years old. The family followed him around the world to camps where he was stationed – I was born in Germany, lived in Egypt and Cyprus (where I attended my first school), then back to Germany, with brief returns to Britain in between.

My siblings and I attended dozens of different schools between us in our childhood – all very unsettling. Even when he left the army, dad tended to be restless, and we moved house many more times, often for no apparent reason, resulting in more changes of schools for us children.

I’d like to say that he was magnanimous in his later life about his former enemies. He didn’t hate them, but was always one of those who vaunted his own country and berated foreigners in general. I guess it was my teenage rebellion against this little-Englander attitude that made me the Europhile I now am. It took me a long time to understand why he was so xenophobic.

But it’s also why I can’t stand flag-waving ultra-nationalism. It’s what’s led to the catastrophe of Brexit. Probably explains why the UK has made such a mess of responding to the pandemic: we’re so great we don’t need to learn from anyone else, our leaders seem to believe.

I started this post with reference to a psychogeographical blog; I became interested in psychogeography when I taught a unit called Sense of Place in an English degree course. I’ve posted several pieces over the years about this, from DH Lawrence in Cornwall and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to a virtual dérive (link HERE).

On Iain Sinclair, the born-again flâneur, HERE

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries

Uwe Johnson (1934-84), Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. NYRB, 2018. Translated from the German by Damion Searls. First published in German in 4 vols, 1970-83

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Antoni Gaudí took over work on the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona in 1883; when he died in 1926 it was far from finished – and won’t be for another decade. There were times when I was working through this enormous novel, Anniversaries – almost 1700 pages in a handsome two-volume box set from NYRB – that it felt a bit like that seemingly never-ending project. My mixed reactions to the novel were similar to my response to Gaudí’s architectural masterpiece when I first saw it: a weird blend of ugly, bizarre and glorious. Anniversaries is equally radical, experimental and innovative: a polyphonic work of astonishing ambition and beauty, but also of a not entirely harmonious blend of features, at times a bit of a mess (like life?).

It has two main narrative strands (and hundreds of minor ones): foremost is the story of Gesine Cresspahl and her ten-year-old daughter Marie and their life after six years in New York City, told in daily entries, one per day, from Aug. 21, 1967 to Aug. 20, 1968. They’re not diary entries: more like scrambled, collated fragments of texts, conversations, thoughts and urban encounters with random people.Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries. Box set

Interspersed in this fragmentary narrative is a second: that of Gesine’s father, Heinrich, his courtship of and marriage to her mother, followed by the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s, and the second world war and its immediate aftermath.

Gesine was born in 1933, the year that Hitler became Chancellor. This strand of the novel relates, again in highly fragmentary form, the destructive impact of this terrible era in history on her family, friends and fellow inhabitants of the small fictional town of Jerichow, Mecklenburg, near the Baltic coast in northern Germany (not the real town of that name in Saxony-Anhalt). When the war ended, the town was occupied briefly by the British, and then by the Red Army. The punitive, doctrinaire Soviet regime was as brutal as that of the Nazis, with executions, persecution (and suicides to avoid it) and social divisions rife.

Meanwhile the strand set in New York in the sixties involves the effects of the huge social upheavals in America and beyond at that period. Social divisions are the main feature here, too. African Americans are discriminated against by white citizens, with Jews not far behind. It’s simplistic to see this as history repeating itself, but the parallels between Europe in the thirties and the USA in the sixties are striking.

This was also the time of the Vietnam War, assassinations (Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy) and a rising counter-culture. In Europe there were signs of the political change that culminated in the évènements in France and the Prague Spring.

All of this is mediated through the endless conversations in which Marie elicits the story of her mother’s past: how Heinrich worked as a carpenter in Richmond, Surrey, then returned to Jerichow with his homesick wife for the birth of their daughter. Marie has adapted more successfully than her mother to their new culture: her English is better, more idiomatic and American-accented; she’s forgetting her German. She knows the Manhattan subway system ‘by heart’, and loves riding it. She also delights in her regular Saturday outings on the Staten Island Ferry with her mother.

Gesine, for her part, has an uneasy relationship with America and its culture: she’s more comfortable with the guy who runs the cafeteria in the building where she works (in a bank, with a creepy boss) than with her colleagues. Visits to friends often end in social disaster or increased isolation.

Gesine’s slowly-accreting, tangled historical account covers events in her family’s life before, during and after WWII. Even more gradually revealed is the story of Marie’s father; Gesine is very reluctant to give too much detail about him, and the full picture is never entirely clear in focus, and its unfolding only ends in the very final pages of this huge novel. This is a key feature of the novel: it withholds or occludes as much as it reveals.

Uwe Johnson, AnniversariesOften the narrative is taken up with scraps of unidentified voices in dialogue with others, sometimes in italics, and it can be confusing to try to figure out whose they are. At p. 1343 Gesine’s voice sort of explains:

I hear voices…don’t know when it started. I assume in my thirty-second year but I don’t remember a particular reason it would have started. I don’t want to. But it takes me back (sometimes almost completely) into past situations and I talk to the people from back then as I did back then. It takes place in my head without my directing it. Dead people, too, talk to me as if they’re in the present…in these imagined conversations… I hear myself speaking not only from the subjectively real (past) position but also from the position of a thirty-five-year-old subject today.[First ellipsis in the text; others mine]

Many of these voices, she goes on, are from before she was born, yet she hears them as clearly as the others; it’s a ‘special ability’ of hers, and she can respond to them in her mind, too, as she can with Marie’s unspoken thoughts. Even with strangers ‘the unsaid becomes perceptible, I mean what the other person doesn’t say or just thinks’. This second, ‘imagined strand’ of discourse sometimes displaces what’s “really” taking place, without quite paralysing it. Like a novelist’s mind, in fact.

Another main narrative component is the stories printed in the New York Times each day, and given in often exhaustive detail – after a while I tended to skip these interruptions to focus on the characters I was more interested in. Gesine is an avid reader of this paper. This aspect of the novel is magnified enormously compared with, say, Döblin’s Alexanderplatz or Dos Passos’ USA, both of which also incorporate such mini-narratives in their collage approach. OK, so they add context and often ironic commentary on American life seen through Gesine’s sceptical, seen-it-all European eyes, but I didn’t need several hundred of these long, repetitive texts.

Gesine had fled the communist regime of the GDR, but has an ambivalent view of the divisive politics and culture of her adopted country. She deplores the casual racism and isolationism she perceives there, and how her daughter is adopting some of these views (there’s a fraught relationship, for example, between Marie and one of her black classmates; with their German Jewish neighbours they’re a little more at ease – within limitations). She also collaborates with a friend back in divided Germany to assist dissidents or the persecuted in escaping from the communist East, while disapproving of Marie’s adherence to the prevailing anti-communist feeling in an America still engaged in the Cold War.

I also found myself skimming many of the sections in vol. 2 which dealt with the Soviet occupation of Jerichow. We’re given interminable accounts of seemingly every child in Gesine’s school and their attitude to the oppressive new order. This too I found (like the newspaper stories) tediously repetitive – an admission I’m not proud of, given the serious subject matter. But I think a novel shouldn’t bore me, and at times this one did.

These tedious sections are worth toiling through, however: the novel as a whole offers a fascinating insight into the collision of a damaged European sensibility with a decadent, stimulating American world. The parts that deal with the rise of Nazism and then communism are a refreshing change from other literary accounts that tend to be located in the big cities. Johnson explores in minute detail the lives of ordinary rural people who take pride in their provincial lives, and are suspicious of people from the regional capital; Berlin is another world.

I must praise the translation by Damion Searls. It’s a monumental effort, to render such an enormous novel into highly readable, idiomatic and fluent English. His task is made extra difficult by the obsession of Johnson with linguistic matters. Mecklenburgers often speak in Plattdeutsch, which is conveyed with a sort of eye-dialect technique that works pretty well. Main characters are sensitive to the nuances of their mother tongue and its difference from the “standard” forms, or the American English they are required to master. This aspect of the novel is an important and illuminating feature, given its preoccupation with social and cultural divisions. Language is explored as a means of connection and separation; a medium for social coherence, and for establishing identity as social outsiders.

Anniversaries has such a vast panorama, social, political and historical, and a massive cast of characters, most with lengthy and meticulously detailed back stories, it’s difficult to discuss it meaningfully here in brief. Instead I’ll focus on just one entry, for the date I started drafting this post: November 22 (1967, in Gesine’s world). That’s for tomorrow.

For useful insight into the translation (and Searls’ take on the novel) I’d recommend three essays by him in The Paris Review; link HERE to the third part, which has links to the first two.

Also check out the “readalong” hosted by Trevor at his Mookse and Gripes site (he calls the novel ‘a masterpiece in world literature’; I’m slightly less enthusiastic); readers are commenting on weekly entries in Anniversaries on the corresponding dates in 2019-20 (I’ve submitted a few myself).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart (Black Swan paperback. First published 2014)

After a rather slow start this novel becomes a highly enjoyable, touching comedy-drama. Mrs TD, who normally finds my taste in fiction too depressing, also liked it.

I first heard about it on the Radio 4 book programme, A Good Read – I posted on this with a bit of background on the author here.

What’s so heartwarming about the novel, as the contributors to the programme said, was the developing relationship between the mismatched central characters: scrawny ten-year-old orphan Noel, a vulnerable and lonely evacuee from Blitz-torn London (this is early WWII), and Vera Sedge, 36, who takes him into her scruffy home in St Albans, some twenty miles north of the metropolis, only because of the allowances he’ll generate from the state. At first she has no interest in him as a person, and even less intention of passing on to him the rations she’ll claim on his behalf.

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart coverInstead she indulges and dotes on her no-good, overweight sponger son, Donald, who has scams of his own going on, while tolerating her dotty, aged mother-in-law – both of these housemates are a burden to her, contributing nothing financially. Much of her time is spent, when not devising hare-brained and illegal schemes to raise funds, evading the rent collector. She’s always broke and in debt – so Noel is for her an economic godsend.

He is a nerdy, reclusive child, made even more introspective by the recent death of his surrogate mother, the ex-suffragette Mattie, an eccentric, educated and seemingly quite wealthy middle-class woman who finally succumbed to the dementia from which she’d been increasingly suffering – a tragic Prologue shows the terrible disintegration of this formidably intelligent, independent woman. She’d raised Noel in her rambling Hampstead home as if he were another adult and radical free-thinker. As a result his naturally precocity has matured him well beyond his years – but it takes Vee a long time to recognise this.

When he first arrives she can’t make him out at all, but slowly starts to perceive his deeper qualities, as here when he’s unexpectedly revealed his extensive vocabulary (including some impressively adult slang) – Mattie used to pay him a penny a synonym for random words she selected from the thesaurus:

Vee shook her head. She was beginning to relish Noel’s oddness; it was like talking to someone who’d been raised on the moon.

Like Donald’s, her own illegal, ill-conceived money-making schemes fail – everyone around her, it seems, is a spiv, gangster or thief. The evocation of this seedy side of wartime Britain is entertainingly and colourfully done. Then Noel teams up with her and this odd couple, from such different worlds, starts to thrive – he tweaks Vee’s scams using his superior insight, intellect and research skills. Vee is shrewd enough to let him.

The plot moves along at a lively pace, with plenty of unexpected twists and developments that arise as much out of the characters and their relationships as from the wartime events and exigencies.

Lissa Evans’ background in TV drama serves her well in this respect: Noel and Vee in particular come across as warm-blooded, three-dimensional human beings, flawed but destined to find a kind of redemption and fulfilment in each other, but there are some vividly drawn secondary characters, too.

Unscrupulous Vee, for all her superficially worldly cunning, comes to realise she has far more to learn about humanity, morality and the social system with all its inequities (there’s some deeply moving and sympathetic stuff about the suffragette struggle) than the gifted, unprepossessing, ill-mannered and damaged little boy she’s ostensibly caring for. Their need for each other, meanwhile, deepens into something closer to love than either of them had known previously, and which neither could have foreseen.