Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘George Mikes’ Category

I first encountered George Mikes back in 2012, when I read his delightful Switzerland for Beginners, and I knew immediately I wanted to read more.  Mikes, Hungarian by birth but English by choice, had a successful career writing humourous guides to various countries, observing the ways of the English, French, Germans, etc for the edification of befuddled outsiders.  And I knew even back in 2012 which of his books I wanted to read next: Über Alles, about his travels in post-war Germany, and Any Souvenirs?, in which he wanders around much of Central Europe – or, as I like to call it, the Best of Europe – spanning both sides of the Iron Curtain.

I just didn’t realise it would take me six years to track them down – five and a half years of which were spent exhausting my options through library loan systems.  They are readily and cheaply available for those who wish to buy them, as I eventually did, so let me save you five and half years: if you want to read them, just buy them.

I started with Any Souvenirs?, published in 1971, because as much as I love Germany, I love it in tandem with the rest of Central Europe more.  Mikes visits Bavaria, Austria, bits of Yugoslavia, and his native Hungary.  Where he doesn’t visit is the one country I am most interested in: Czechoslovakia.  In his defence, he did try to visit; they just wouldn’t let him in.  And he doesn’t even try to make it to Poland and excludes Switzerland because he’s already written a book on.  Such is his prerogative as author.

From my past experience with Mikes, I had been expecting something light but not particularly insightful.  Instead, I discovered a very succinct political and social history of the region peppered with sometimes humorous but always on-the-nose observations of the people.

After taking a quick look at Bavaria, Mikes heads into Austria, a country that may look to outsiders like Germany but which he enjoys for its comparative sloppiness and imperturbable happiness (my favourite chapter title belongs to the Austrians: “How to Lose an Empire and Stay Happy”).  He then journeys south to Yugoslavia.  He is fascinated by Yugoslavia, understandably, as Tito’s experiment was like nothing else and succeeded in a miraculous way.  However, the fear over what would happen when the great man himself was no longer there lurks over the visit:

The relative peace between nationalities – such as it is – is due mostly to [Tito’s] prestige, authority and the respect he commands.  One gathers the strong impression that this is very much the calm before the storm.  Would-be successors are positioning themselves for the battle and long knives are being sharpened.

Peace held longer than Mikes might have thought – Tito died in 1980 and the Yugoslav Wars did not start until 1991 – but I doubt he would have been surprised by what happened.

Finally, he reaches Hungary.  Mikes emigrated before the Second World War when he was still a young man so the country he returns to is more a place of memories than current connections.  It is a good section and by the far the funniest, the best bit of which was his startling realisation that the friends of his youth have now been immortalized by city planners:

Walking along a street in Buda, you remember Hungary’s great humorist, Frederick Karinthy.  Here on the corner used to stand the café he visited every day and where, at frequent intervals, he got into debt with the head-waiter, being unable to pay his bill.  Then you discover, with a start, that the street itself is now called Frederick Karinthy Street.  And somewhere else you see another street named after another friend who used to be unable to pay his bill in another café.  Yet another one reminds you that a third friend still owes you five pengoes, but as he, too, has now been turned into a street, you’ve haven’t much chance of seeing your money.  With a largish square you once had a drunken fight at three a.m. in the City Park and that statue there – so majestic on his pedestal – used to go to bed with one of your girl-friends.  It hurt very much at the time – it was certainly not the behaviour you expect from a statue.

img class=”alignleft size-full wp-image-12205″ src=”https://thecaptivereader.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/uber-alles.jpg” alt=”” width=”175″ height=”288″ />Travelling back in time, I then picked up Über Alles from 1953.  The rebuilding of Germany in the post-war period was miraculous and Mikes was amazed to see what had already been accomplished.  And what was being accomplished daily:

In Bavaria, Berlin and Hesse I saw people work till midnight.  Not only waiters but also bricklayers and decorators.  I saw others working as early as four in the morning.  Yet all these people jibe at the Swabians and make contemptuous remarks about them.  ‘Oh, these Swabians,’ they keep saying.  ‘They work too hard.’  I visited Stuttgart but failed to detect anything to distinguish the way the Swabians work from the way the rest of Germany works.  Perhaps they work twenty-eight hours a day – I could not find out.

In the midst of this rebuilding, Germany was still figuring out how to deal with its recent past and that makes for some interesting conversations – or struggles to have conversations, as Mikes searches for people who are willing to discuss the Nazis.  And making sense of the present is no easier as he wanders through divided but pre-wall Berlin.

It’s a well-done book and far more humorous than Any Souvenirs?  Most importantly, it gives me exactly what I want from Mikes: an extended essay on How to Become a German.  Here are the highlights:

You do not need to be a Teutonic god. You do not need to be six feet tall, broad-shouldered, fair, blue-eyed and divine in any particular way.  If your laugh chimes melodiously like church-bells sunk in the Rhine, that is all right; but if it happens to be an uproarious belly-laugh, do not worry.  If you are brave and vengeful like Siegfried, good for you; but if you are meek and humble that will do as well.  If you are lean and muscular like the warriors of the Nibelungenlied that must be good for your health; but if your girth borders on the miraculous and you have a treble chin as well as a treble neck, you are still eligible.

Go and have a haircut. Most people have an ordinary European haircut but a large minority – I always felt that only they were the true Germans – have their hair shorn off completely, except for a fetching little mane just above the forehead.  Then dress up.  Dress like a hunter but never go hunting.  OR as a golfer but never play golf…

Whatever you do, be stiff and formal like a foreign ambassador performing his official duty. I have always believed that ‘charm’ often conceals a streak of weakness.  The majority of Germans are completely free from this weakness…

Be decent, well-meaning and clean. And believe that cleanliness is one of the greatest of human virtues.  Look down upon the French because some – in fact many – of their lavatories are dirty…

Be highly cultured, quote Greek authors in the original, be interested in everything and amass a huge volume of factual information. If you have a chance – and you will often find one if you are on your guard – air your vast knowledge just to show that you possess it.  Be paternal to everybody and teach everybody his own business.  Do this benevolently, full of the noblest intentions and with the tact of a baby elephant…

Ah yes, that is what I had been looking forward to.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Switzerland for BeginnersIn just over a month, I will be back in Switzerland.  I’m only going to Europe for two weeks this year – fair enough after last year’s month-long vacation – but am spending the bulk of that in Switzerland and, more specifically, in the mountains.

I remember looking for books about Switzerland before I visited for the first time in 2012.  Aside from Heidi and travel guides, pickings were slim.  But I did hear about a book called, perfectly, Switzerland for Beginners by George Mikes.  I wasn’t able to track it down then but, thanks to the wonders of the inter-library loan system, I got my hands on it earlier this year and had fun giggling my way through this all too brief book.

Mikes, Hungarian by birth but English by choice, had a successful career writing humourous guides to various countries, observing the ways of the English, French, Germans, etc for the edification of befuddled outsiders.  An early Bill Bryson, if you will.  His books are much quoted, especially his How to Be an Alien, which seeks to explain the English to foreigners: who hasn’t heard (and laughed at) “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles”?  But, until now, I had never read even one of his books.  Switzerland for Beginners was the perfect place to start.

The Swiss are not a race that excite much interest from the rest of the world.  They are not sexy or dangerous, they are not cruel or fascinating.  They are adorably, endearingly boring.  This is perhaps why there are so few books about them.  A few years ago, I read The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, a chronicle of the author’s travels to the happiest places on earth.  One of the happy places he visited was Switzerland, where the steady predictability of life was at the root of the population’s general happiness: “happiness,” Weiner concluded, “is boring.”  I kept thinking about that as I read this book.  Mikes’ book was published in 1962 and Weiner’s in 2007 but their observations are consistent.

Mikes has fun with his book.  His writings are based on his entirely subjective observations and the real charm of the book comes from how much of his personality is injected into it.  It is very much about how he feels , what he thinks, and how he experiences the country:

Whenever I go to Switzerland in the winter, my chief problem is how to avoid winter sports.  It is not an easy task.  Dangers lurk in every corner.  In November or so, the whole country is transformed into one vast – well, not so terribly vast – ski-run, and few of your kind and hospitable Swiss friends seem able to grasp that your main purpose in life is not to run down a mountain slope at fifty miles an hour as if you were a sixty-horse-power motor-car with faulty breaks.

He does not pretend any scientific approach to his observations.  Instead, he is just a man dropped into a foreign society, observing it with all the attendant prejudices (some put on for comedic effect) of the foreigner.  And one can’t argue with the amusing results:

The Swiss, indeed, are hard-working people and this devotion to work is one of their most repulsive virtues.  Altogether, it is the virtues of the Swiss which I find a bit hard to bear.  Coming from England, I regard work as some sort of nuisance you must pretend to be engaged in between cups of tea.  But the Swiss take work seriously: start early, finish late, and are even proud of it.  They are paid for it handsomely – more handsomely than the English – and their old-fashioned idea is that they ought to play fair.  The employer is not simply the chap you organize strikes against: he must pay, to be sure, and pay a lot, but he must also receive value for his money.  This attitude is, of course, quite outmoded in the second half of the twentieth century.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Mikes speaks fondly of the Swiss: of their deeply ingrained but benignly-expressed regional prejudices, of their devotion to hospitality, of their careful money habits and insistence on quality…in short, of all the wonderfully undramatic things that make the Swiss so endearing.  And, as a bonus, there is a final, perfect essay – one that proved, to the author’s delight, to be controversial for a brief period after its publication – about the too-often neglected principality of Liechtenstein.  The book is all too brief – not even a hundred pages with illustrations included – but there is something to amuse on every one of those pages.  And I certainly feel more prepared for my trip back next month!

Read Full Post »