The Emigrants by WG Sebald

Those who have this in their libraries will know that it is choicely raved about on the cover. Ondaatje leads the pack ‘This deeply moving book shames most writers with its nerve and tact and wonder’. Nicholas Shakespeare, Anita Brookner, Susan Sontag, Karl Miller all have a stab at bettering that. I might add that the women are both of Jewish background.

But how can I read this, when I picked it up to start, and first saw the words of the dead man who left his library for me to pick through?

In his scathing hand he writes: ‘Empty, silly, meant to appeal to German non-Jews, geographically crippled, useless.’

And under, printed on a laser printer, I think, and tipped into the first page:

Phony postcards and vacuous stories of little relevance (when not totally implausible like that of the compulsive gambler with his ‘visions’ of the winning combinations). I may be wrong, but his stories make me suspect that he is writing as a German-non-Jew for an audience of German-non-Jews – the worst types. I am comforted in my negative judgment by the lyrical comments pasted on the bookcovers by my favourite ass, viz. Mme Sontag.

I don’t know who wrote this. Google search turns up nothing. It can’t be my companion as he would never say anything as circumspect as ‘I may be wrong’.

At any rate, you see why I can’t read it and why I must record the opinion of the now deceased M.F-L.

……Much later after writing the above, I did read a Sebald and liked it a lot. I suppose this means I have to give The Emigrants a fair shot.

Heimat by Nora Krug

Started yesterday, finished this morning: this is the first adult picture book I’ve wanted to read, and as anticipated, I couldn’t put it down.

I suppose you could shelve this in some rather specific way. The ‘my grandparents were Nazis’ memoir shelf. Or the ‘ordinary people in the period 1930-1950 in Nazi Germany’ shelf. For me, I’d put it under ‘everybody should read this’. It asks all the questions, without coming up with any answers. But keeping those questions on the tip of our collective tongue is vital to stopping such horror in the future. We need an autistic attitude, we have to feel that these things have just happened, and could happen any moment again. I do believe that the reason we are seeing the resurgence of the extreme right now is at least partly because our memory is slipping, too many feel like it’s a past that isn’t connected to the present. But it is. By blood, by education, by culture, by belief, by greed and by all the bad features of being a human which are after all, the reason why we created society in the first place. To try to hold them in check.

Thank you Nora Krug, for your search for answers. It is your contribution to our never ending discussion about the meaning of life.



Chess by Stephan Zweig

In 2011, I was playing chess by consultation with a young boy against Manny who was blindfolded. It was at a party in London. Along came a chap who put his finger to his lips – ie don’t let Manny  know he was there – and suggested a move on our board. Dan and I were like ‘go away’. Why did we need help? When we lost, I could say yeah, well, with a small boy in tow…and he could say yeah, well, I had to listen to a girl’s advice. Blech. The stranger stuck around and although we continued to ignore his moves, I could see that actually he was a good player…a darn sight better than me, or Dan and certainly better than the two of us together. Dan and I lost. It turned out that the stranger was a strong player – about Manny’s standard – and that if we had taken his advice, I imagine Manny with the disadvantage of being blind-folded, would have been trounced.

Zweig’s consulting amateurs are so much more sensible than Dan and I were. They knew they had no chance on their own and they were all over the moves of the stranger. If only I’d read this book earlier. But….I would have felt like I was cheating. I can’t speak for Dan on this.

Zweig’s one of those writers who was enormously popular in his lifetime – and that still counts against him. Michael Hoffmann, for example, is positively frothing at the mouth whilst accusing him of everything from a boring suicide to the gall to have had 18 books turned into 38 movies. How dare he!

Well, I’m not going to get into the ‘if it’s popular it must be bad’ argument now. I read this story in a couple of hours, and as a once serious player, my verdict is not too bad at all. The guy loves Freud, so obviously that’s big black mark against him. But despite this it reads okay and the chess isn’t irritating, the ways in which it isn’t accurate don’t really matter.

For a discussion of  the book is a metaphor, with the world champion standing in for National Socialism, you may want to look at A Symbolic Retreat. Apparently this is so obvious it stands out like dogs’ balls, but I didn’t see it. I’m very good at taking things at face value and frankly, I thought it was a story about some dudes playing chess.

The popularity of the book is interesting to compare with the Master of Go. It’s got at least as much chess in it as Kawabata makes of Go, but evidently so many people know a little chess, that this story had (still has?) a huge market.

The other thing is, it’s aged remarkably well. Perhaps that says something about the game.

January 2020 postscript: I saw this dramatised as a one person show recently by somebody who’s been taking it around the world for years, I gather.

And….it didn’t work. I’m not sure whether that’s because the novella itself can’t be done as theatre successfully, or because the actor himself was inadequate. For a start he took liberties with the story, adding a meta layer about the performance, which we found inappropriate and didn’t work. For another thing he was rather insulting to the chess. Imagine having performed this many, many times and yet describing knocking one’s king over as meaning a loss or a draw!!! This really offended the chess player in both my companion and myself.

Legends of Our Time by Elie Wiesel

I discovered after reading this, that Wiesel is a controversial figure. I’m not talking about the anti-Semitic loons or the woman who wanted to join the ‘me too’ campaign. Rather, within the body of work that stands as ‘Lest We Forget’, there is much debate as to what his testament means, whether he has betrayed those he writes of, himself included, how his work fits into what others have done. He was the rockstar of the Holocaust preservation, the first to force non-Jewish people to acknowledge the horror. Yet he only managed to do that by watering down what he had to say, a process that started with The Night, his French and then English version of a much longer work written in Yiddish for an entirely different audience.

As has been noted by scholars in the field, the watering down process wasn’t only about making something that was palatable to the world that was complicit in the murder of millions of Jews. It made sense that a different audience would be presented with a differently written, more culturally accessible work.

However, there is also the issue of memory, what a memoir is, at which point it becomes a lie. Much has been written about this too in reference to Wiesel, and in particular his juxtaposition with James Frey on the Oprah Bookshow (whatever that is).

For my part, I can understand the impossibility of saying the same thing to the people you are accusing as to the people to whom wrong is done.  It is so easy to understand the humiliation as well as the rage. Even the idea of silence, as a major theme. What I find hard to relate to is the mysticism that is fundamental to his interpretations of the world. His rage feels as genuine as his talk of forgiveness feels forced. I can believe whole-heartedly in the one, not at all in the other.

This may be entirely my failing. I’ve never been religiously inclined and the notion of ‘forgive and forget’ does not sit easily with me. Eventually one sort of forgets. With that comes something which isn’t forgiveness, more like a moving on, I suppose, which takes the place of that more noble sentiment.

In any case, can one have it both ways? Forget in some personal way, and never forget in some social way which we believe is vital to the prevention of such events in the future? I had the misfortune to go to Berlin’s memorial for murdered Jews a few years ago. Full of people taking selfies and having fun. It could scarcely have been more offensive to point of the place. Richard Brody wrote of it:

The title doesn’t say “Holocaust” or “Shoah”; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” and the vagueness is disturbing. Of course, the information is familiar, and few visitors would be unaware of it, but the assumption of this familiarity—the failure to mention it at the country’s main memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust—separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe. The reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that “everybody knows” is the first step on the road to forgetting.

Why no names, he asks? The victims are shrouded in abstract concrete anonymity, as are the murderers.

Nothing I read in this book of Wiesel’s shakes my conviction that the process goes on. It may have been hidden for a while, but it was never not there. The idea that it has ‘come back’ like it had disappeared because WWII was lost, for example, by the murderers of the Jews could not be further from the truth. It has never not been there. Not before, and not after WWII. The despising glee Wiesel describes on the faces of his Transylvanian neighbours as the town’s Jews were sent off to the camps has never changed. It only goes underground now and again when that is the right strategic thing to do.

Right now around the world anti-Semitism is going public in a million different ways. What happens when we permit ourselves to forget, to think that things are different now, is that they become the same. The Guardian reported a story a few days ago about a National Trust event in which Nazi uniforms were worn and displayed. The organiser denied this, but in fact a plethora of photos from the event showing them being worn gives the lie to that.

The purpose of the extremity of the Far Right and on-going Nazi groups is that its very existence makes this event acceptable. It’s okay, it’s just part of ‘living history’. It’s not like we actually bashed Jews or something. And before you know it, none of it means anything anymore. Anti-Semitism will simply be upfront  normal again instead of hidden where it should be in sewers with rats.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that when I wrote to the National Trust to complain about the very idea of this ‘Living History’ display of Nazis, to receive back a reply which barely contained its irritation with me. In particular I note that is said:

Historical re-enactments can help raise awareness of important and difficult moments from the past and bring stories to life in an engaging way. We don’t therefore have an issue with re-enactments in themselves but do believe they should be done sensitively.

My eyes are stuck still on the words ‘engaging’ and ‘sensitively’. How could these words ever be used to talk of such things? The answer is, because the events don’t really matter because they never did. Except to Jewish people, of course. And they will never stop paying the price.

Update 28/8/18 update 28/8/18 And even as we write and read, Naziism continues to come out of its hiding place to take its preferred place on the stage. And no great surprise to see that even (or especially?) Hitler salutes are ignored by the police, despite being illegal. The reason? Appeasement. ‘…a desire not to escalate an already tense situation had forced them to hold back.’ The police are the grand-children of Nazis too.

Dürrenmatt: an anecdote by Feyerabend

Feyerabend was referring to a seminar series he ran while teaching at Zurich university. One of the invited speakers was Freidrich Dürrenmatt. He

…came to speak on Platonic entities, and used a chair instead of a bed as an example. His conclusion: the Platonic chair is nothing but the idealised hind end of the sitters. Dürrenmatt had been warned that there would be other talks and that he had to restrict himself to twenty minutes. ‘Oooch’, he replied. ‘I won’t know what to say anyway, I won’t talk for more than ten minutes.’ He was late, and we started without him; when he arrived, he produced a huge manuscript and would have gone on forever if he hadn’t been stopped after twenty-five minutes. (Mrs Huber, who was chairing the meeting, hestitated to interrupt, but I, sitting next to her, egged her on: ‘No exceptions for big shots!’) Dürrenmatt didn’t say a word. He came to dinner with us afterward, tried to get me drunk, told me he had read Against Method, and entertained us with stories about himself and Hohler. But he refused to come again. ‘You don’t let a person finish!’ he yelled at the organiser when he next rang him – and hung up.

The Silent Angel by Heinrich Boll

I must make a few notes here before I forget all about this book, read soon after finishing After Romulus and then Romulus, My Father. These books are written about life after escaping from Europe after WWII. The Silent Angel is about the first days in Cologne after Germany gave in. The town was particularly devastated by the Allied bombings.

It was Boll’s first novel and he couldn’t find a publisher. It is easy to point at the subject matter for that. I gather he is known as Germany’s post-war conscience and it isn’t clear that Germany wanted to have one. As a huge number of Nazis, as well as sympathisers must have done well politically and economically in the reconstruction, one can see that the market for such a book would be uncertain at best. And yet, one can’t exactly say he gets stuck into his compatriots either. He portrays one wealthy bad man, bad before, during and after the war. But that’s it. Everybody else is okay. As if the odd bad man were enough to explain the whole appalling rise and spread of the Nazis. I hope his conscience took stronger hold at some point in his work.

I found it easy to read, but I skipped chunks of description and I am left feeling it reads like a first novel. He really struggles to communicate to the reader the horrors which are his subject. He wants to be poetic, he wants to be spiritual and he wants to be matter-of-fact: all the things that Gaita manages to perfection in his books. Both writers are talking of people who have nothing. Cologne was devastated by the Allied bombing, which meant uncertain or no electricity, most buildings in a state of ruin, food so short in supply that people are perpetually hungry, money that means nothing. Romulus and his son Raimond live in a raw shack with no electricity and a diet which reflects their poverty. But somehow the spiritual in Gaita is leaden in Boll and the matter-of-fact has a tedium that I imagine doesn’t have to be there. As for the poetic failing, given it’s in translation, maybe that’s the most forgivable failing.

All in all, I think Boll did the right thing by incorporating many bits of this novel into other works. One for the die-hard Boll fans and no doubt interesting for anybody reading about that immediately after the ceasefire period. But I hope others have done it better.

The ending is splendid. Carry on just to get there.

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

When I read Goodbye to Berlin, I innocently thought that the anti-semitism in it belonged to the characters. Now, reading Mr Norris Changes Trains, I see that isn’t so. The anti-semitic comments are gratuitously those of the author. Still, I wondered. If he were living in Germany, was it that he felt it made him safe throwing in just a few words in a few places to prove his credentials?

But now I see that his private words have always been littered with this abhorrent attitude, the more so since he lived in Berlin and must have known what was happening.

For me that’s a game-changer. Mr Norris Changes Trains was not a special book and now it’s a repugnant one. Uggh, Mr Isherwood. I say Goodbye to you. Should you get on my train I will change to another one.

On the other hand, perhaps one can learn something from such a book. Perhaps it explains an entire class of English with their armour of scornful prejudices protecting them from the real world as they engaged in their wasteful frivolity.

The fact is that it is easy to read and tells a story of the period and place which is worth reading if you can stomach knowing where Isherwood’s feelings lay.


Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Whilst in Berlin recently we went to see Cabaret in German in a spiegeltent. Splendid. Naturally I was looking forward to reading about the very same Sally Bowles in this book, but it turns out that Sally Bowles is a complete English Arse. Utterly unbearable. I think it would be fair to say she’s been thoroughly fixed up for the musical and bravo for that decision. Certainly this book improves on the pages in which she is not to be found.

There is much to separate this book from Kästner’s Going to the Dogs. Partly it is a matter of style – Isherwood’s humour, when it arises, is entirely ordinary, whilst Kästner’s is odd to say the least. Then again there is the care Kästner has for his subject, the ruination of his country and his continent. One can equally feel, as Isherwood himself acknowledges, that he, in contrast, is an outsider, floating in a flotsam sort of way through his German period, knowing he can and will leave when it gets too tough. Probably, as others have said, Kästner’s book is the better written of the two, but this is not to damn it with faint praise.

If there are points of departure, there are, of course, similarities. Not least, that they are slim volumes, episodic in nature. Both authors intended to write something grandiose about Germany, something as spralling as their actual works are spare. I wonder if it reflects on the men themselves, or on the utter horror of the period, that neither did so.

For this is another something the books share. They are story books about Berlin in the late twenties/early thirties. And an integral detail of the day-to-day humdrum is Nazis. When you read a history book of this period, the fact that it is looking back and knows what it is looking at and knows what it is looking for, will give Nazism a predominant position. But the horror here is that it isn’t predominant, it is just a fact of life, not really any different from any crazy group now clashing on the fringes of normal social life. I don’t really know what that means, but after a while this crazy group wasn’t a crazy fringe collective any more. It was Germany. The same people who had looked at these despicable people and expected them to fade away, became them. That makes me think that actually, in the first place, they weren’t crazy outsiders either. They were just people who had families and jobs and histories and gardens who did some sort of Avon Calling on all of Germany and don’t people just love that Avon ring at the door?

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner

My booty on a recent trip to Berlin was more yarn than print, but this was one of the books that made it into my bag for the trip home.

I bought it from St George’s English bookshop and if you would like more detail about the wonderful bookshops in Berlin, I wrote something about them here.

It has a quote on the back from The Times Literary Supplement

Damned for its improper subject matter, Going to the Dogs showed the crumbling Berlin of Christopher Isherwood’s stories with something of Isherwood’s sharp intelligence, but a far more tragic sense of implication.

It’s a comparison I’m looking forward to making for myself, having acquired the relevant Isherwood volume, also a slim affair, at the same time. One can certainly agree that Kästner has an eerie feel for what is happening in Germany and what the outcome will be, an outcome he knows will be far more widespread. In 1931 he is well aware that he is watching the downfall, the disintegration, the degeneration of Europe. It’s horrifying to be aware, reading it now, and seeing the ways in which it compares with Europe now, that there was no hindsight on the author’s. He was calling it as he saw it day by day.

We have here the displacement of workers by machine, public sex with no restraint, Nazi bullies in the street. The sex, which has been reinstated in the modern edition, is sordid and unrewarding. Kästner clearly had some pretty messed up attitudes towards women. As an adult living on his own with money to spare and a laundry around the corner, he nonetheless sent his washing to his mother. I had assumed, observing other men who have such relationships with their mothers, that it was about the sons’ power. The introduction to this book explains it otherwise, as a symbol ‘perpetuating the illusion of dependence.’ He wrote to her every day. At the same time he was a womaniser who, as such creatures do, took care to try to make sure this didn’t turn to trouble, though I gather in the end it did. Whether he was yet an alcoholic I don’t know.

In fact ‘Fabian’ could be autobiographical. The reason his stories of the low life in Berlin read like they are true is because he was there, part of it. Fabian is curious. Kästner was curious. When he insisted on staying in Germany during the Nazi period, I think that is the bottom line. Straightforward curiosity. He was, after all, at his own book burning and not because he was invited or forced to be there. He fled during it when a member of the crowd recognised him, but it is evident he is curious in that way good writers always are. Was he a moralist too? Maybe he lost that over the years of living with Nazis and trying to work legitimately in Germany even though the Nazis despised him. Maybe we should see the end of Going to the Dogs as having profound meaning for Kästner. Maybe that’s why what might have been his greater work, his chronicles of the horror to come after this book was written, never happened. Maybe Europe itself in the end recovered, whereas Kästner went to the dogs and stayed there.

The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer

To set the scene: Klemperer was one of the Jews to survive WWII in Germany because he was married to an Aryan. Prior to Hitler, he was an academic in the field of literature and, having been forced out of his job, he kept detailed diary notes on how language was used under the Nazis in Germany. It was his way of trying to deal with the situation he was in, utilising his linguistic talents for a far greater cause than his academic work would ever be able to do.

This volume is only part of his published diaries of the period and, as will be evident from the name, is concerned with a specific aspect. I can only imagine how horrifying the others must be. As is always the case, reading small details of one person’s life can be moving in a way large statistics fail to be. We see him being hit on the head over and over with a book because he dares to have one. Being spat at, abused in the street by fellow beings, because they can. Being forced to kill their cat because the Nazis decided that Jews couldn’t have pets. His angry bewilderment as he watches nice non-Jewish Germans explaining that Hitler is for the best. His even angrier perplexity that he has Jewish friends saying the same thing.

One cannot read this and not be reminded of the part of the movie Sunshine set in WWII where Nazis are trying to force a man of Jewish descent to say he is Jewish and he refuses. Klemperer must also have been rather astonished to find that he had become Jewish, despite being Protestant since before WW1. This is a man whose life was his obscure academic work, who ignored the developing flames around him until he was forced to see that he was in the middle of them. In the same way as Klemperer finds his friends so hard to understand – their support of Hitler – as one reading his thoughts much later, it is equally hard to understand how this man could have been so emotionally German. At every moment of the most horrific things happening to him, he never once lost or wanted to reject the idea of being German. After the war, he stayed in Germany.

I guess for us now, from the point of view of a linguistic study, this book has no particular surprises. But it is intertwined with this other thing, the way in which humans behave and this is something important we must keep in our sights. Maybe the way out of the dire situation we are in at the moment in terms of religious and cultural conflict throughout the world is to go back to this period and see how ordinary people behaved. Remind ourselves that we all have to keep our worst side at bay. Remind ourselves that the bad things happening aren’t about governments, they are about people. The bad thing that happened in Germany wasn’t Hitler, it was that ordinary nice people were willing to accept Hitler. There will always be somebody wanting to be Hitler. It is up to people to let him. It is up to people to stop him.