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Archive for June, 2014

With impeccable timing, Simon has started another meme.  Coming off a weekend when I had every intention of writing reviews and then wrote none, this is very useful.  Basically, Simon randomly generates a letter for you and then you have to name your favourite book, author, etc. beginning with that particular letter.  My letter is…G

Favourite Book…
growing up

I love this wartime novel, which wisely focuses much of its energies on Lydia, my all-time favourite Thirkell character.

Favourite Author…

Georgette Heyer

Lots of possibilities for this one but in the end I had to go with Georgette Heyer. She has entertained me too well for too many years to be dethroned now.

Favourite Song…

“Ghost” by Indigo Girls, an angsty 1990s favourite.

Favourite Film…

Giant

Has to be Giant.  I love this movie and no matter how often I see it, I always cry during the diner fight scene at the end.

Favourite Object…

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My glasses.  Very useful for seeing things, reading things, and generally not walking into things.

Very fun!  If you’d like to give it a try yourself, go harass Simon for a letter!  Or, if you’ve already given this a whirl, share the link to your answers in the comment section below.  I feel like I got off quite easy with G – I’m looking forward to seeing what others do with more challenging letters.

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Welcome Summer!

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This was my view this morning. To celebrate the beautiful weather ON A SATURDAY NO LESS (good weather seems to have an inverse relationship with non-working days, I find), the family headed off on a rather muddy two hour hike in Mount Seymour Provincial Park.  I hadn’t been up Mt Seymour since I was seven or eight and going snowshoeing with Brownies.  This experience was significantly better than that, containing a minimum of snow (but still some, I was bewildered to find) and a maximum of amazing views.  It was a great reminder of just how stunning this province is and how close and accessible the outdoors are.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

I’ve been too busy to visit the library lately so only one book this week for me and an e-book at that: I’m excited to have got my hands on The Vacationers so quickly as it seems to be one of the most in-demand books this summer.

vacationers-emma-straub

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aamilne

I’ve been looking at a lot of photos of A.A. Milne recently (who knew I had so many on my hard drive?) and a startling majority feature Milne’s constant companion: his pipe. I’ve come across several pieces of his writing about smoking (including “Smoking as a fine art“) but was most entertained by a memory his son had of a traumatic instance when Milne found himself without his pipe:

My father smoked a pipe.  In fact he was seldom without a pipe in his mouth.  I remember on one occasion he and I went for a swim together while on one our Dorset holidays.  We had just dressed and were preparing to spend an hour or so reclining on the beach, idly throwing stones into the water, when he felt in his pocket.  ‘My God!’ he cried.  ‘I’ve left my pipe behind.  Quick.  We must go home at once. ‘ And he set off running….

The Path Through the Trees by Christopher Milne

 

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Library Lust

credit unknown

credit unknown

I love the airy, haphazard informality of this room almost as much as I love those pocket doors.

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The Past Is MyselfEver since Slightly Foxed released The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg, a memoir of Anglo-Irish Christabel’s wartime experiences in Germany with her German husband and children, I have been longing to reread it.  I’d read it twice before – one at the end of high school and once again at university – but it is a book I never get tired of.  My carry through this time was not particularly prompt and it took me until a few months ago to finally pick it up but the book was just as wonderful as I’d remembered.

Christabel moved to Hamburg in the early 1930s to study singing.  There she met a law student, Peter Bielenberg, several years younger than herself whom she married in 1934.  They were a happy couple and quickly started a family but the backdrop to these early years of their marriage was the rise and increasing violence of Hitler and his Nazi party.  Even in liberal Hamburg, the awful changes taking place in Germany could not be escaped.

In 1939, the Bielenbergs moved from Hamburg to Berlin.  Already deeply opposed to Nazi ideology and tactics, this move brought them into contact with other dangerously like-minded people – like the conservative dissident Adam von Trott, whose involvement in the July 20 plot in 1944 led to his execution and to Peter Bielenberg’s arrest and imprisonment.  Christabel’s heroic efforts to free Peter provide a tense, thriller-like climax to the book.

Christabel had renounced her British citizenship when she married but a change of passport cannot change your allegiances entirely, especially when you know your adopted homeland is in the wrong.  She eagerly followed whatever news she could get of Britain, devouring issues of The Times that Peter smuggled to her from the Foreign Office and listening to radio broadcasts from England.  Yet as comforting as it was to hear about home, she didn’t necessarily have faith that Britain would triumph.  Her feelings were conflicted.  Having seen how normal people changed under the Nazis, she was not naive enough to believe that the English had any particular moral superiority that would make them immune to the “collaborators, informers, crackpots” who helped the spread of fear so effectively in Germany:

It was on my birthday, June 18th, with my ear right up against it, as Nicky would have said, that I heard Churchill speak of England’s finest hour.  I listened, I knew what he meant, and I burst into tears; not so much because our governess had taught me that if ever a hostile power should occupy the Channel ports England sooner or later would be at their mercy, but simply because I wanted to be there.  Blessed, cockeyed, ignorant England, quite pleased, I would have said, to be rid of those bothersome continentals and to be on her own.

…I would like to think that Churchill’s words, steeped as I felt them to be in the very substance of my country’s history, and inevitably striking a chord somewhere deep down inside me, immediately quietened all my fears and banished forever the hideous vista of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich stretching away beyond the horizon of my lifetime.  But it was not so, because I knew too much.  Fighting in the streets, in the fields, on the hills there would surely be, and heroes, many heroes – but there might be others as well.  Collaborators, informers, crackpots who believe that Jews were Yids, and Negros ‘nigs’, and Italians ‘wogs’, and that only one race could rightfully consider itself to be the salt of the earth.  If such as these were international commodities, I knew there would be no drama about the aftermath.  There would be the tramp of marching boots and the loud knock at the door in the night, the creak and rumble of departing lorries fading into the distance of deserted streets; silence then, no drama, just silence, impenetrable silence.

When the Allies begin bombing Berlin, Christabel takes her three sons and decamps to a small village in the Black Forest where she quickly settles into a way of life almost untouched by the war.  It sounds like a wonderful place to have been a small child but unsettling for Christabel, knowing how much suspicion surrounded her husband and his friends and how closely they were being watched.  Still, the villagers provide a level of warmth and community spirit desperately missing from the other places Christabel lives over the course of the book.  They may have pictures of Hitler in their homes and offices but none of them seem to be particularly wedded to his beliefs.  They are warm and hospitable, to both Christabel’s family and, at one point, an American airman who appears out of the blue towards the end of the war.  I loved this episode.  No one is quite sure what to do or who to notify but they come together to offer the best of wartime hospitality – even to the enemy:

The mayor’s reserved table in the parlour had been spread with a spotless white cloth, and Nick was waiting behind the chair at the end of the table with a table napkin over his arm and a voluminous blue and white service apron covering his leather pants.  Frau Muckle had excelled herself – a splendid joint of roast pork with mashed potatoes and rich red cranberries, with dumplings to follow, feather light and topped with caramelized sugar.  Murmuring ‘zum Wohl’ Nicky kept the glasses filled with wine which was indistinguishable from vinegar, but which had not been served in the parlour for many a long year.

The American was obviously ravenously hungry and we watched a week’s rations disappear at a sitting.  Under the influence of the unaccustomed wine, the atmosphere became more relaxed.  The airman’s morose expression changed to one of slightly bovine puzzlement, and Sepp launched into some rather earthy tales which he insisted I should translate for our guest.

But, even while welcoming him, Christabel finds herself angry with the young man from Colorado, now accepting the hospitality of those he has been sent to kill:

I was suddenly resentful of this tall ignorant boy who had never heard of the Rhine and who flew nose to tail, nose to tail, and did not even know in which town he had left behind a trail of dead and dying.

When Peter is arrested and sent to Ravensbrück on suspicion of being a collaborator in the plot to assassinate Hitler, Christabel girds herself for battle and, using all her skill, charm, cunning, and connections, manages to get her husband released.  It is a fabulously dramatic sequence, written with all the skill of a modern thriller.

That said, I almost preferred the quieter moments, the ones that illuminate the wider reality of wartime Germany.  Peter and Christabel and their friends we know.  We know they oppose the Nazis and believe in all the “right” things.  But what of everyone else?  What of the millions of other Germans who weren’t risking their lives in acts of rebellion?  While on her way to Berlin, Christabel finds herself encountering exhausted Germans and retreating soldiers.  I think (I know, judging from some of the comments on recent posts) that some people still believe all Germans were Nazis or at least all soldiers were but that is never the way.  Christabel finds men who are tired and completely lacking in political beliefs.  All they want is to stop fighting and get back to their real lives:

They could have been a cross section of any army, anywhere, that little group of soldiers.  Blown about by the whims of higher authority, to the East, to the West, and now back again to the East.  They had no particular hates, no resentments, no particular ambition, except to stay alive and get back to their families – although some of them had no idea where their families were.  Heini, the little Berliner, could easily have been a London cockney, with his Galgenhumour, as the Germans call it; a tough, cynical, chirpy, unabashed sense of humour which seems to thrive only in big cities.

As he left, he squared his small shoulders, clicked his heels, raised his right arm and said: ‘Well, whoever still wants to listen, Heil Hitler, etc., etc.’  In one absurd gesture he somehow managed to caricature the whole rotten business.

More chillingly, she meets another soldier, one whom the war has drained of all cheerfulness, all ambition, and certainly all will to live.  A Latvian by birth, he was a member of the Einsatzkommando, mobile killing squads that were particularly active during the early years of the war, killing unimaginably large numbers of Poles and Jews.  The men who were members of these squads had an outrageously high suicide rate – not shocking given the face-to-face nature of the atrocities they committed daily.  The man Christabel encounters on the train is certainly suicidal but still hoping that he might be killed in war rather than having to do the job himself.  He recounts the sickening details of his role and, even having read this passage several times before, even having read widely on the actions of these groups in other books, his words are as unsettling to read as they must have been for Christabel to hear.

Christabel and Peter had a happy ending.  Once released from the concentration camp, Peter spent the short remainder of the war hiding out in the Black Forest.  Shortly after the war, the family immigrated to Ireland, where they ran a farm and where, in 1968, Christabel wrote down her account of these extraordinary and unsettling years.  After all they had been through, it was a well-deserved peace.

I think it is difficult to read any book about resistance without wondering a) what compelled these people to take such risks and b) what you would do yourself in similar circumstances.  Christabel and Peter, though not actively engaged in any plots themselves, knew what they were risking by being friends with more active conspirators.  Peter almost paid a heavy price for one of those friendships and the number of their acquaintances who were killed or imprisoned for their beliefs during the war is high.  But how do you cut old friends out of your life, especially ones who are acting in accordance with your beliefs when you are too scared to act yourself?  I suppose you hope that by providing them with a little support and friendship they might keep going, might win the battles that need to be won.  I couldn’t have done it though.  And knowing that about myself makes it so much easier to understand and identify with the millions of Germans who were swept along after 1933, as Hitler muscled his way to power and created a country ruled by fear and suspicion.  How much easier – and safer – it is to sit back and disagree silently than to risk confrontation and death.  And how much more convenient for the dictators.

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these-wonderful-rumoursIn this week of wartime diaries, These Wonderful Rumours!: A Young Schoolteachers’ Wartime Diaries by May Smith is certainly the most lighthearted of the books I’m discussing and one of my favourites.  Here, the background anxieties of war are recorded and thoughtfully considered, but not at the expense of a young woman’s still active – and quite wonderfully-observed – social life.

May was twenty-four years old when the war began, an elementary school teacher living with her parents in Derbyshire.  A born diarist (in no small part influenced by the style of E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady), May recorded the events of her daily life with a spritely sense of humour.  Unlike the tiresome Joan from earlier this week, May’s life was clearly impacted by the war.  She follows what is going on and comments on events throughout the war.  However, her main topics are the things that really absorbed her attention: the books she is reading (she has excellent and eclectic tastes), the films she has been to see, the clothes she is spending too much money on, the many unsatisfactory hats she seems to buy while in search of the perfect one, the tennis parties she goes to in the summers, and the many complaints she has about her life as a put-upon elementary school teacher.

Having one failed romance in her past (a clerical ex-fiancé whose comings and goings are scornfully remarked on for most of the book), she has two central admirers for most of the book: Fred and Dougie.  Having flipped through the book earlier on and seen the photo of May and her husband in 1978, I knew from the start which man won but that did not impact my enjoyment of her offhanded treatment of them both.  Dougie spends the war plying her with food to bulk up her rations while Fred squires her around to tennis parties and films.  For years, neither makes much visible progress but their attempts at courtship (and May’s deft scheduling to make room for two suitors) provide May with the perfect comic material for her diaries.  In the early years particularly, she doesn’t take either man’s attentions very seriously – all the better for us.  Here is a typical example of her treatment of the Faithful Freddie:

Amy descended liked a locust upon us for tea, but left early to go to Wuthering Heights.  She had just gone when, oh dear! – palpitations and heart-throbs – the Voice of My Beloved came floating over the telephone.  No, it was only Dear Freddie, so my heart remained untouched.  He invited me to the flicks, so having nothing to do, and making use of him, his pocket and his car again, I went.  Saw a mediocre programme and promised to go to the dance with him next Wed.  He smoked a pipe, but he puffed furiously at it as though he wanted to get it over quickly, so I’m sure he only did it to appear the Strong Silent Type and not because he really enjoyed it.  His faults seem to strike me more readily than his virtues.  I must be more forbearing.  (Tuesday, December 5th, 1939)

Poor Fred also comes in for much criticism whenever he reveals a trait not to May’s liking – whether it be a liking for beer or comely WAAFs.  Dougie rarely rouses as much passion, but then he was living in the Fens most of the time and was not close enough at hand to advertise his flaws as Fred did.  Dougie, unlike most of May’s mild-mannered friends, was quite bloodthirsty when it came to the war.  In his letters to May he spoke often of his hate for the Germans, Conchies, and anyone else whom he felt was standing in the way of Germany getting the whooping it deserved:

Letter from Dougie stating with ghoulish importance that he has already picked up one case that refused to take cover in a raid [Dougie was a volunteer ambulance driver] – he will see no more raids, says Dougie grimly.  He also goes on to relate morbidly the deaths of (a) his aunt, (b) a fellow next door and (c) his old school pal, but adds viciously that We Shall Make Those Blighters Pay For It, and he’ll kill everyone he sees if he has the chance, which he hopes he will.  (He gets rather involved and ungrammatical at the end.)  He ends by stating simply that this is not a very cheerful letter – which sentiment I heartily endorse – and the usual solicitous admonition to me to take care of myself.  (Wednesday, July 3rd, 1940)

The reader gets a better sense of the violence and destruction of the German bombing of Britain from May’s summaries of Dougie’s letters than from any commentary she provides.  The raids certainly intrude on her life, but more as a bothersome way of stealing her sleep rather than a source of real terror or destruction.  For the early raids, May and her parents would retreat to the shelter at her grandmother’s house nearby.  Eventually though, they would rarely even rouse from their beds when the sirens went.  What does absorb May’s attention are the little inconveniences brought about by the war: the inability to get either the amount or quality of chocolate she wants, the chaos wrought on her teaching schedule, and, time and again, the incredible difficulty of getting any place:

Travelling in this here war is just about the last word in Refined Torture.  To get to Burton, once so simple, is now a Herculean task, and one must combine the patience of Job with the frame of a prize fighter and the tenacity of a bulldog.  To be timid, polite and unselfish is fatal.  One must either park oneself in front of the hardest and most savage-looking pusher, or else assume the tactics of the rest and jostle, elbow, poke, manoeuvre and otherwise propel oneself forcibly forward until the goal is reached, viz the first step of the bus.  This done, one can reassume one’s better nature, eye the jostling throng with surprise and horror, and proceed with dignity down the bus, aloof and detached from the pushers. (Saturday, December 2nd, 1939)

While May’s voice is reason enough to love and enjoy this book, I was quite fascinated to see through her eyes how the war affected schools and teachers.  Some of the things I knew about – teachers acting as billeting officers to organize evacuees, chaotic classroom schedules meant to share space with evacuated teachers and students but really organized to create the utmost inconvenience for everyone involved – but others were news to me, like the cutting back of holidays and the changes to pay.  No wonder May did not always greet her work with delight:

Back to school with many a moan and sorrowful sigh.  Make my way to the cheerless place with the greatest reluctance.  We now have no heating by order of the Government – and it is not to be put on until November 1st.  The children return to school full of beans as usual and amiably disposed to chatter all day long.  Unfortunately I fail to see eye to eye with them over this.  (Monday, October 19th, 1942)

I was delighted with this book and with May’s addictively dry sense of humour.  The war really is a background element here and I mean that in the best possible way: I’d much rather have a book by a writer who can write well and interestingly about the most commonplace topics than a book by a dull writer on what should be an interesting topic.  May never kept diaries in quite this detailed form after the war.  By then her life was busy with a husband, children, and work.  Still, what a treat for us that she put such time and effort into them when she was younger and unencumbered!

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on-the-other-sideToday, continuing our week of World War Two diaries, we come to one of the most exciting and original offerings in the Persephone catalogue: On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.

Born into a prosperous Hamburg family in 1879, Tilly (as Mathilde was known) had an upbringing suitable for the daughter of a prominent lawyer: she mastered “the gentle arts of music and painting, deportment and elocution, dancing and general social graces.”  She was sent to finishing school and in due time made her debut in Hamburg society as an accomplished and marriageable young lady.  So far, this sounds pretty standard for the daughter of the professional class and in fact identical to the upbringings of my great-grandmother and all my great-great-aunts.  But rather than settle down, Tilly convinced her parents to let her go to Italy to study singing and Italian.  There, she met and fell in love with a Dutch art historian and linguist, whom she married and had six children with (though one died in infancy).  It was an unhappy marriage (he sounds like the least-attractive Dutch person I’ve ever heard of) and the two separated during the First World War.  This history has little bearing on the book itself (aside from explaining the origins of the children to whom Tilly is writing) but I had to share it anyway.  Already her life would have made a good novel and she was just getting started.

By 1940 when these letters begin, Tilly was living in Hamburg with her second (and decidedly more stable) husband, Emil Wolff, a professor of English Language and Literature at Hamburg University.  Of her five children, only one was living in Germany.  Tightened censorship meant that she knew she could not write honestly to her children about her day-to-day life so she began these letters with the hope of sharing the truth with them once the war was over:

My beloved far-away children, everything I was not able to tell you in my letters during the first year of the war; was not allowed to say, because the censor waited only for an incautious word in order to stop a message from getting through to you, all this I will now put down on paper under the title “Letters that never reached them”; so that much later perhaps you will know what really happened, what we really felt like and why I had to reassure you repeatedly that the “organisation” was marvellous, that we were in the best of health and full of confidence. (10 October 1940)

There are hundreds of English diaries and memoirs about life during the war, countless entries and excerpts about normal life being disturbed by the Blitz and inconvenienced by rationing.  But, generally, life went on.  In fact, if you were really self-absorbed, you could pretty much act like there wasn’t even a war on.  When you start reading about life in Germany and its occupied neighbours, things get a lot more bleak.  Germans had been suffering under Hitler since 1933 but now, in addition to the fear and paranoia that had become commonplace for most citizens under the Nazis, there was the added horror of Allied bombings.  As sympathetic as I found Tilly, as much as I enjoyed her personality, it was her descriptions of these bombings and the resulting chaos that made this book so unique and memorable.

There is an excellent afterword by Christopher Beauman than summarizes the ongoing debate about the morality of the devastating Allied bombing strikes on German cities but it is Tilly’s powerful descriptions of living through the bombing raids that made the most impact on me:

I doubt whether there is a single undamaged city in the whole of Germany and most of them are sad ruins.  If one had a bird’s-eye view, one would see nothing but devastation, destroyed railway-lines, fields torn open by craters, burning factories and hordes of fleeing human beings.  A never-ending stream of fugitives is rolling from the east towards Berlin and Hamburg.  When they arrive, after days of toil in open farm carts through ice and snow, babies frozen to death at their mothers’ breasts, more bombs are showered on top of them.  It is unbelievably wretched and frightful.  (4 February 1945)

The July 1943 bombing of Hamburg was one of the largest raids of the entire war.  Over the course of several days, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed.  (To put that in perspective, about 30,000 Londoners were killed during the Blitz – but those casualties were spread out over the ten months.)  With tens of thousands more injured and buildings and infrastructure destroyed, imagine the chaos of trying to live among that:

For days on end we have had a harmlessly blue and translucent sky above us, bringing out the colour of my gloxinias, red and white, growing in superb stillness on the balcony and hiding the ruins opposite, to the right and to the left.  But in all directions death and destruction are knotted together, ready to explode.  Can anyone fathom this?  I cannot.  There is hardly a town still left intact and yet one becomes indifferent even to these atrocious ravages, which must be beyond your powers of imagination.  For days we have had no water; everything is chipped and broken and frayed; travelling is out of the question; nothing can be bought; one simply vegetates.  Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings one loves, whose fate one worries about day and night. (7 August 1944)

Tilly and her husband were never members of the Nazi party (though Tilly’s ex-husband, the shifty Dutch fellow, was).  Hamburg, for centuries a free city, had a history of free-thinkers and opposition to the Nazi party, something that we’ll return to later this week when I talk about Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself.  But hating the Nazis, loathing all they stand for and all they do, is a far different thing from hating Germany.  Tilly struggled with the knowledge that the defeat of Hitler would also mean a crushing blow to her homeland:

…however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being “chosen by God”. (1 May 1945)

What was almost harder for Tilly than seeing Germany’s collapse – at least with that there was some hope of a better future – was seeing how completely her Anglophile husband’s affection for the English was erased.  She too cannot hold back her anger at times:

I do understand that W [Wolff, her husband] is deeply depressed, has little hope for his own particular world.  He was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence. (17 May 1945)

Other reviewers (like Simon and Jane) have mentioned how this book gave them a new perspective on the war.  I find that intriguing since I certainly remember reading about life in the Reich and German-occupied lands during my school days.  I wonder if this is a cultural difference; it doesn’t seem likely to be a generational one since Simon and I are the same age.  Growing up in Canada, you are just as likely to have had relatives fighting for the Germans as for the Canadians or British.  At university, I used all of my electives (a pathetically small number spread between four years of finance, accounting, and marketing courses) to studying German and history – ideally, when possible, German history.  I started this way because I wanted to understand more what my grandparents’ lives must have been like under German occupation; I continued reading because I was fascinated.  I read dozens of diaries by women like Tilly, women who hated Hitler but loved Germany, who loved the English until they saw their families and cities destroyed by bombs, who, finally, exhaustedly, just dreamed of an end and a chance to start anew.  But so many of those diaries are not in print or translated so to have one like this – written with such poise by such a sympathetic  and articulate woman – so readily available is truly a gift.

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LoveLessonsCan you ever have too many diaries from the Second World War?  I think not and this week I’m out to prove it.  I have four reviews coming up over the next week, all of diaries written by women during WWII.  Two of them chronicle what was going on in England (Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham and These Wonderful Rumours! by May Smith) while the other two look at what was happening in Germany (On the Other Side byMathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg and The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg).  Today I’ll be starting with the weakest of the four: Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham.

Now, the delightful Jenny of Reading the End is the best PR person I think this book has probably had since its original publication in 1985.  I’m certainly not going to be.  She read it back in 2009 and since I started blogging in early 2010 I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen her recommend it to others, including myself.  And, in many ways, I can understand why she loves it: Wyndham’s frank diaries feel very much like those of a normal, self-absorbed sixteen or seventeen year old, obsessed with relationships and sex and not much carrying about the greater implications of the major world events playing out around her.  But the shallowness of Wyndham and her social circle, the artificiality of their lives, the callous way they managed their relationships drove me completely around the bend.

Wyndham was sixteen when the war began, the only daughter of highly dramatic and thankfully divorced parents.  Wyndham lived with her mother – a devout Catholic after her conversion when Joan was small – and her mother’s companion in west London.  One gathers that her father was off being generally useless most of the time.  At sixteen, Wyndham has some vague idea of studying art but mostly she is very busy have passionate crushes on pretty much everyone she comes into contact with.  Fair enough.

Where things took, for me, a calamitous turn was when Wyndham started moving in more artistic circles.  When she begins to study art, her mother sets her up with a small studio of her own.  Wyndham still lives at home, technically (she is only seventeen), but the bulk of her time is spent in her studio, generally surrounded by useless older men who talk about how much they want to seduce her but then do nothing about it, being scared off by her virginity.

My tolerance for artistic circles is low at the best of times but the so-called artists that Wyndham finds herself keeping company with are the absolute worst.  They seem to spend all their time posing as artists rather than producing any art.  For Wyndham certainly, art lessons and her studio are whims her mother is indulging her in.  She notes several times that she is not really an artist and doesn’t take what she is doing seriously.  Neither apparently do her new thirty-something friends.  I suppose if you’re bone lazy it is easier to go around seducing teenagers and mooching all of their paint and food.  I will say that these studio seduction scenes perfectly match the clichéd vision of what bohemian “artists” get up to and there is always some value in remembering that clichés are founded in truth.  Still, it is a world away from the commercially-minded art students and studio days described by E.H. Shepard in Drawn from Life.  But there again you have the difference between people who play at being artists and those who actually work at it.  I suspect Wyndham and her set would have had nothing but contempt for the middle-class Shepard and his work ethic.

Still, shiftlessness and a little immorality among friends can all be excused.  The whole world would be very boring if it were peopled only by monogamous, responsible capitalists (I am picturing a world composed entirely of the Swiss which sounds delightfully efficient, if dull).  What pushed me over the edge was the universally awful natures of the people Wyndham chose to surround herself with.  I can understand why all the unrepentant adulterers and camp homosexuals would have seemed exotic to a girl just out of school but I cannot understand why she willingly put up with their pettiness, their cruelty, and their self-absorption.  Not a single one of them seems to have any real kindness or compassion in them and the worst of the bunch is the man that Wyndham falls in love with and loses (or rather cheerfully unloads) her virginity to: Rupert.  Rupert is vile.  Whenever he appeared and Wyndham went weak kneed, I felt ill.  When Wyndham says:

Rupert and I sat on his roof in the sun.  It was perfect – he was wearing a blue and white striped shirt and sackcloth trousers and playing Spanish music on his guitar, with one bare foot resting on a brick. (Sunday, 3rd August)

All I could think was how little I could possibly have in common with a woman who defines perfection as a man wearing sackcloth trousers and, worse, a blue and white striped shirt.  Still, that is by far the least of Rupert’s sins.  He talks down to Wyndham, continues sleeping with other women while he’s seeing and sleeping with her, is unspeakably awful when one of their friends – and one of Joan’s old admirers – is killed during the war, and hits her.  Wyndham makes very little protest about any of this treatment or, if she does, she doesn’t mean it.  Even after receiving a heavy blow in public, she notes that “the extraordinary thing is, I bore him no malice although I pretended to.”  The “pretending to” might be what pushed me completely over the edge with this book.  So much of Wyndham’s life feels artificial but acting on top of that, pretending at things, just adds a whole new level of good riddance as far as I’m concerned.  I almost wished Joan and her friends were fictional characters, so my hatred of them and desire to see them bombed to smithereens in all their smugness would seem a little less callous.  Eventually, Rupert is called up (yay!) and then Wyndham joins the WAAFs.  I can’t say I wasn’t pleased to see everyone finally usefully employed and forced to confront the real world – and the war, which until then had only been a minor inconvenience, what with the Blitz and all – for once.

The writing throughout is good, though I suspect the diaries were heavily edited/rewritten for publication.  There is too much dialogue to seem natural in a diary format and every so often the older author obviously inserts herself to provide hindsight commentary (such as “this was the night that such-and-such famous event occurred”. Why this wasn’t done in a footnote I have no idea).  Frustratingly, the entries aren’t properly dated – they have the day of the week and the day of the month but generally not the month itself or the year.  This got rather disorienting.  But, as should be obvious by now, my issue really wasn’t with the writing but with the writer.  It is hard to feel fascinated by someone who you think is living a shallow and artificial life, more concerned with appearances and posturing than substance.

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swisssonataI had been looking forward to reading Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham ever since reading Earth and High Heaven, Graham’s extraordinary 1944 novel about love and anti-Semitism in wartime Montreal.  Published in 1938, when Graham was just 25 years old, Swiss Sonata won Graham her first Governor General’s Award – the second came only a few years later for Earth and High Heaven.  Now, I can completely understand why they awarded it to her for Earth and High Heaven – it is wonderful and richly deserves to be back in print and widely read – but I have no idea what they were thinking in giving it to her in 1938 for Swiss Sonata.

The setting, at least, is good: a finishing school on the Swiss Riviera, nestled in the hills above Lausanne.  The school is full of young women from around the world, ranging in age from their mid-teens to early twenties.  The school’s intent is to foster a League-of-Nations-esque environment, to produce insightful young women fluent in multiple languages and armed with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Or, at least that is what the current headmistress, Amélie Tourain, believes the school’s purpose should be.  The parents of her pupils might think differently:

The existing Swiss schools were in a curious position since, so far as the parents of their pupils were concerned, their chief function was to provide instruction in French and winter sports; the international idea was purely incidental.  Yet, she supposed, they must have some vague idea of giving their children a chance to see through the eyes of other countries, or they would send them elsewhere.  If you have a “my country right or wrong” point of view, surely you don’t send your children to a school where they will be forced to speak French, share rooms with a Norwegian or a Pole, and eat their meals with Armenians, Hungarians, Greeks, Danes, Germans?

The story is set in January 1935, when the kind of pluralism and tolerance Mlle Tourain believes in are more important than ever – and more elusive than ever.  Tensions between the students at the small school are high as Europe waits to hear the results of the plebiscite in the Saar.  Hitler’s homogenized dream Reich is the exact opposite of what the school aspires to be, which unsurprisingly leads to conflict among the German students – between those who admire him and those who are already experiencing the brute force of his totalitarian regime.  Elsewhere, money is being stolen by an unknown thief, a teacher is determined to catch out the school’s most seemingly perfect pupil, and a girl lies wasting away in her room.  What a mess.

The story is messy and unengaging and the characters poorly drawn.  When Graham chooses a single focus, she is interesting and articulate.  Sadly, most of the novel is spent bouncing between characters, trying to address all of their concerns.  This leaves us with a shallow understanding of both the issues at play and the women who work at or attend the school.  Some of these women are sketched semi-successfully – one student, an American millionaireness named Theodora Cohen is loud and brash and fun enough to offer relief from the unrelenting stodginess of everyone else – but Graham fails with almost everyone else, spectacularly in the case of Vicky Morrison.  Vicky is a mysterious and almost universally admired student from Toronto.  The students adore her, she is best buddies with some of the teachers, and she is probably one of the most poorly written characters I’ve come across in a long time.

What does go some way to redeeming this book and the discussions of serious matters that the students get into; specifically, of racism and feminism.  These discussions don’t necessarily contribute to the structure or the flow of the story but in and of themselves they are interesting.

“I wonder why it is that women are not supposed to be capable of friendship and loyalty to such an extent as men?  They’re always pictured like Kipling’s cat, walking alone, when it comes right down to it, and when they change their environment…I mean after they get married, or fall in love with an unusual man or something, then their friendships alter.”

“Shakespeare knew better,” said Vicky.

“I know, but he lived four hundred years ago and since then people have forgotten.  I guess it’s because no one ever takes the trouble to find out about us.  It’s so much easier to talk about men as people, and women as women…lumping us altogether, and referring to the female sex as though it were an enigmatic and too, too baffling object.  We’re supposed to be all alike underneath…men aren’t, they’re permitted individuality, when we’re not.  We differ in degree, but not in kind, apparently.

I’m glad I finally read this but I would not recommend it to others.  In its themes, it is recognizably related to Earth and High Heaven but certainly not in its below-average execution.

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