Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Memoir/Biography’ Category

Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.  It was the day the Czech and Slovak people gained their independence after hundreds of years of Hapsburg rule, ushering in a new era of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance.  It was a brief era (twenty years later the Nazis invaded) but a glorious one.  And no one epitomised the spirit of the new nation like its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

Masaryk was 68 years old when he became president.  Born to estate workers in Moravia, he’d followed a long path to the presidency and had been tireless in his quest for reform and freedom.  And he was loved for it.  He served as president for 17 years, until 1935, and in the early years conducted a series of extraordinary interviews with the much-loved author, Karel Čapek.  The result of these interviews – although interview is hardly the right word for it, really it is musings that Čapek was around to capture – were several books that in 1995 were condensed into a single translated volume for English-speakers called simply Talks with T.G. Masaryk by Karel Čapek.  The book is in Masaryk voice, which is a wonderful way of getting a sense of the man himself.

The collection has been laid out to follow the chronology of Masaryk’s life, beginning with his childhood in Moravia.  His father was Slovak and his mother a German-speaking Moravian and those were the languages Masaryk grew up speaking.  German was spoken all through school (as was typical throughout Austria-Hungary), making it easy to progress to university in Vienna, but when Masaryk moved to Prague years later to take up a teaching post he was uncomfortably conscious of his poor Czech.

He had fond memories of his parents and somewhat rural upbringing but also acknowledged the limitations of such a life:

A boy in an out-of-the-way village has few living examples of anything beyond his circle of farmers and artisans: the teacher, the chaplain and dean, the owners of the estate and their servants, and a merchant perhaps.  What a boy becomes is determined not so much by his gifts as by the opportunities closest at hand.

A passion for helping young people runs throughout the interviews.  Masaryk had founded a social democracy that firmly believed in helping people make the most of themselves.  He thought about education and infrastructure and, constantly, health.  He believed deeply that the nation’s systems and institutions had to be crafted in a way that benefited the people.  They are ideas that sound very familiar to political discussions going on in certain supposedly developed countries even today:

…take health.  I can’t understand why we’ve thought so little about playgrounds, swimming pools, and parks for children.  The poorer the district, the more such facilities are needed: poor districts have more children.  With the proper watering we can have the same grassy playgrounds as England.  Here again it’s a question of money, yet putting money into children is the best investment there is.

But perhaps his most modern-seeming views were on the equality of the sexes.  Masaryk was an unapologetic feminist.  He was devoted to his American wife, Charlotte, and took her maiden name (Garrigue) as part of his.  Guided by logic and reason as always, he could see no reason to treat women differently than men:

How can people ask, I wonder, whether woman is man’s equal?  How can the mother who bears a child not be equal to the father?  And if a man truly loves, how can he love someone beneath him?  I see no difference between the endowments of men and women…

He believed firmly in marriage but was progressive as well, recognizing that divorce had its place in the society he envisioned:

The greatest argument for monogamy is love.  True love – love without reservation, the love of one whole being for another – does not pass with the passing years or even death.  One man and one woman for life, fidelity till death – that is how I see it.  Happy is the man or woman who has lived a rigorously monogamous life.  Yes, I am for divorce; I am for divorce because I want marriage to be love and not commerce or convention, not a senseless or thoughtless union.

Always a modest man, Masaryk believed in simple living.  His dictates in aid of this occur throughout the book and make clear that he probably wasn’t a huge amount of fun on a Friday night.  He gave up even modest drinking at 50, did not smoke, ate simply and sparingly (his details his menu at one point), and was devoted to his daily exercise regime (Sokol exercises and horseback riding).  When living in exile in London, he lived cheaply and would travel by bus to meetings with government officials and world leaders and then dine at a Lyons café, where he appreciated that you could “get a decent meal for ten or fifteen pence.”

In the end, his prescription for a long life was simple:

It shouldn’t be a feat to live to a hundred, but no tricks or gimmicks will get us there, that’s for sure.  Fresh air and sunshine; moderate food and drink; a moral life and a job involving muscles, heart, and brain; people to care for and a goal to strive for – that’s the macrobiotic recipe of success.  Oh, and a keen interest in life, because an interest in life is tantamount to life itself, and without it and without love, life ceases to exist.

Reading these passages felt eerie, in a way.  It was like hearing my great-grandfather speak, a man whose edicts for how to live were passed down from his children to their children to their children and now they are being passed again to the newest generation.  It is no surprise that he was a huge fan of Masaryk.

But, helpful as such guidance is, health tips are not what made Masaryk so beloved.  As staunch as he was in his personal habits, he was stauncher still in his beliefs.  His devotion to democracy was absolute and he was that rare man who did not change with power, whose beliefs held strong and fast for decades and guided first him and then an entire nation forward.  It was something he was rightly very proud of:

Should I be asked what I consider the high point of my life I would not say it was being elected president…It comes from having relinquished nothing as head of state that I believed in and loved as a penniless student, a teacher of youth, a nagging critic, and a political reformer, from having found no need in my position of power for any moral law or relationship to my fellow man, my nation, and the world but those which guided me before…I have not had to change one item of my faith in humanity and democracy, in my search for truth, or in my reliance on the supreme moral and religious commandment to “love they neighbour.”

My great-grandmother’s proudest story was of how Masaryk, whose estate shared a wall with her garden, used to ride past on his morning constitutional and admire her roses.  The roses were already the pride of her life (her four children were modestly appreciated, too) but to have the great man stop and tell her of their beauty made both them and him even more precious to her.  He was that sort of man – he appreciated small things and was thoughtful enough to show that appreciation.

Masaryk served as president until 1935 and died two years later at the age of 87.  He left behind a robust democracy with a thriving economy.  Thank god he did not live to see what came next.  Would things have been different if “the Grand Old Man of Europe” had survived a few years more?  Would Czechoslovakia’s allies have been so quick to desert them in 1938 if he had been there?  Who knows.

Masaryk believed in human progress and that “The future is with us now.  If we choose the best of what we have now, we’ll be on the right road; we’ll have extended our lives with a piece of the future.”  He was an extraordinary politician and statesman then and, sadly, is no less extraordinary today.  He is a reminder of what we all can and should be.  And, thankfully, he has not yet been forgotten.  In fact, a film has just been released dramatizing these conversations between Masaryk and Čapek.  It seems unlikely to make its way into the English-speaking world but one can hope.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

One of the greatest joys of reading is how one book leads to another.  Until I read My History by Antonia Fraser, I had never heard of The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford.  Fraser’s memoir of her youth is great fun but I found myself fascinated by her stories of her mother, who was an enthusiastic if never successful political candidate, popular historian, and mother of eight.  Thankfully, Elizabeth Pakenham, Countess of Longford (also known as Elizabeth Longford), had anticipated my fascination and thoughtfully published this memoir in 1986 when she was an energetic eighty-year old and I was just being born (I shall now think of it as a “Welcome to the World” present intended for me personally).

After opening the book with a little about her parents’ families and courtship, Longford chooses to introduce herself by describing briefly her entry into the world and, at more length, the state of women’s lives at the time.  Born in London in August 1906, she came into a world where one in three working women was employed as a domestic servant but where the professional opportunities for educated women were growing rapidly.  Careers in civil service were recommended as somewhere women could “’rise to the top’ (that is, become clerks)” and there were 378 women on the Medical Register in England.  Among those women was Longford’s own mother, who had qualified as a doctor before her marriage but practiced only briefly.  Longford’s father, also a doctor, had encouraged his wife to continue in their field, suggesting the role of medical inspector for schools and even setting aside a room in the house as a joint workroom, before his wife chose to focus on her family and home.  But all around their Harley Street home (where her father had his practice) other families did have two professional parents so Longford saw from an early age that a combination of career and family was possible.  It is clearly a lesson she took to heart.

After a relatively uneventful youth, Longford went to Oxford.  Arriving at Oxford in the late 1920s, she was swept into a world of Bright Young Things and intellectual dynamism.  She soaked in everything, seems to have known everyone, and has remarkably kind things to say even about awful people.  The New York Times referred to her as  “the Zuleika Dobson of her day, with undergraduates and even dons tumbling over one another to fall in love with her”, and it is not hard to imagine that her fresh good looks, intelligence, and enthusiasm for life would have been an irresistible combination.  But for Longford the greatest passion of her university career seems to have been her introduction to socialism through friends like Hugh Gaitskell (whose encouraging note to her entertained me so much a while back).  As school ends, she sets off full of good intentions to make her contribution to raising the nation’s poor by spending the summer tutoring at a Workers’ Educational Association summer camp.

But it was more than just high ideals that drew her to the WEA.

Frank Pakenham makes his first memorable appearance in June 1927, the night of a ball at Magdalen College:

About midnight, on my way back from the cloakroom to the dance floor, I was astonished to see a large sleeping figure draped over a garden chair in the middle of a wide canvas corridor.  As I approached the figure on tiptoe I saw that it was wearing a “Bullingdon” uniform, the last word in social glamour: yellow waistcoat and navy blue tailcoat with white facings and brass buttons.  The face was of monumental beauty, as if some Graeco-Roman statue – the Sleeping Student maybe – had been dressed up in modern clothes by some group of jokers.  I stood for a moment admiring but puzzling.  “What sort of girl”, I asked myself, “could have allowed such a magnificent partner to spend the best part of the night alone and asleep?”  Years later I discovered that the girl had been Alice Buchan, daughter of John Buchan, the novelist.  If the Buchan charm could not keep Frank Pakenham awake, it was clear that nothing and nobody ever would.

He drifts out of her life for a while but they are drawn together by their mutual passion for politics, though they were at different ends of the spectrum, and action.  It is he who encourages her to tutor at the WEA camp, where he will also be working.  From there, their courtship progresses naturally but turbulently.  After some struggles to reconcile their political differences, they married in 1931.  Evelyn Waugh, catty and snobbish as usual, referred to them the next year as the “poor Frank Pakenham who married beneath him and the Hon. Mrs P who married above herself” but the couple, like all sensible people, ignored him.  Waugh would view them much more positively decades later once they had both converted to his beloved Catholicism.

With both spouses actively supporting different parties, the tensions that had almost prevented their marriage continued to make life difficult though, remarkably, their marriage remained harmonious.  When Longford was standing for election, Frank decided it was presumably too much for both his work and social life to remain right-leaning.  Longford’s tale of his resignation from the Carlton Club was delightful and one of my favourite passages from the book:

“My wife is a socialist candidate,” he told the club secretary in order to explain his resignation.  The secretary blanched.  At first he was speechless.  Then he clasped Frank’s hand with a look of unutterable sympathy, as if his wife had committed a despicable crime.  “If you are ever abroad and in trouble,” he managed to murmur, “don’t forget that the Carlton Club will never let you down.”  The interview dissolved in a mist of unshed tears.

Frank would eventually change his political allegiances and become a not-terribly successful member of several Labour cabinets.  Longford is a tad defensive of his less popular stances, both as a social reformer and politician, but I can only imagine how much flack they received over the years.  An eccentric hereditary peer/Labour politician is surely the stuff of dreams for British tabloid newspapers.

The book is crammed with details from their very full lives as political candidates, social reformers, and parents to their eight children (an evenly balanced four girls and four boys).  They had the most amazing energy and I felt incredibly lazy reading about all the things they attempted, lamenting my relative lack of ambition.  But how wonderful to know there were such passionate people in the world, trying with every fibre of their being to make the world into a better place.  They had not just passion but optimism, feeling that if they only tried hard enough and long enough they could make a difference.

Longford lived a long and fascinating life, full of ambition and action, and has the writing skills to do justice to it.  Though four of her children would become writers (Antonia Fraser, Thomas Pakenham, Rachel Billington, and Judith Kazantzis), Longford proves more skilled and engaging than any of them, with a wonderfully breezy style and gift for anecdotes.  She ends the book in the 1960s, just as she is embarking on a new career as a biographer and historian (her books on Queen Victoria, Wellington, and Wilfred Scawen Blunt are all still in print) and my only regret is that she never wrote a second volume of memoirs to cover the next phase of her life.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Read Full Post »

A few quick reviews from my less interesting reading encounters:

Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon (1901) – I loved Brewster’s Millions (despite its many quirks and frankly bizarre plot twists) so was determined to read more by McCutcheon.  When I learned he’d written a series of Ruritanian novels, starting with Graustark, it was clear where I would start.  I love a good Ruritanian romance.  However, it turns out this is not good.  It starts well enough, yes, with our young hero meeting a beautiful, mysterious girl on the train as they travel across America.  By the time they reach Washington, DC, he is in love but she must depart for home, a small European principality he has never heard of.  Naturally, it isn’t too long before he finds his way there and ridiculous adventures involving hidden identities, dastardly aristocrats, and national debt ensue.  The saving grace was our hero’s stalwart friend and travel companion, who provided a bit of levity and a merciful dose of common sense when everyone else lost theirs.  A ridiculous book – yet I’m still strangely tempted to try the next book in the series…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923) – this novella by Cather was a lovely reminder of just what a beautiful writer she was.  As usual, her characters are a bit flat (particularly the lady at the center of the tale) but Cather’s passion for her setting – a small Western town of fading importance – and the simple elegance of her writing made this a pleasure to read.  That said, the memory of it is already fading from my mind, unlike her best works which remain vivid even years later.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1972) – This is the first volume of L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals and, as usual, I approached them all out of order.  I read the last one first (Two-Part Invention – still one of my favourite bookish discoveries), then the third (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother), and now jumped back to the start.  The problem with that is that L’Engle rose to such heights with her later books that this first one can’t compare.  Those later books are deeply personal and she shares her memories and emotions in a way she probably hadn’t imagine when she wrote this first book.  This is an interesting look at her life and some of her thoughts, particularly around the communities she belongs to, but it lacks a compelling focus and I missed the sense of L’Engle herself that was so strong in the other books.  I still have An Irrational Season, the second book, left to read and will be interested to see how it compares to the others.

The Doctor’s Sweetheart and Other Stories by L.M. Montgomery (1979) – what a throw back to my childhood.  After I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I spent the next few years obsessively reading anything by or about Montgomery, including all the collections of her short stories.  This was one of many volumes that was put together drawing on pieces she’d had published in magazines (both before and after Anne, her breakthrough novel, was published), most of which had some sort of linking theme – here it is lovers who are parted.   I remembered them as repetitive and melodramatic, and was a bit embarrassed that anyone had wanted to draw attention to them by republishing them.  Twenty-two years later, that is still how I feel about them.  Well done ten-year old Claire for being such an astute literary judge.  From a scholarship point of view, this collection does have some interest – you can see Montgomery playing around with plots she would eventually use in her novels – but on their own they are best forgotten.

Salt-Water Moon by David French (1984) – part of a cycle of plays about the Mercers, a Newfoundland family, this focuses on the parents’ story, looking back to their youth.  It is just one-act, set on a moonlit summer night in 1926 when Jacob Mercer reappears in his small Newfoundland hometown a year after having left for Toronto.  He’s come to see Mary, his girl, and learn why she’s become engaged to the town schoolteacher.  Jacob is a chatty fellow and the two bicker back and forth all evening in enjoyable interplay.  By the end, of course, they have decided to face the future together, even though for Mary it might not be as practical as the future she had talked herself into with the hapless schoolteacher.  This wasn’t particularly special on its own but I’m intrigued enough to want to read more about the Mercers in French’s other plays.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

 

Read Full Post »

I love A Century of Books, I really do.  But I hate the feeling of doom that encroaches as I slack off and my list of books to review grows ever longer.  (On the plus side, this means I am reading from years that are part of my Century and not going entirely off piste again.  Hurrah for me!)  The only way to silence this dread is with action and so I give you three very brief reviews of three very different and not entirely memorable books.  They vary from not at all good to absolutely delightful but all three are guaranteed to disappear from your memory relatively fast.

Let’s start in 1948 with the instantly forgettable Pirouette by Susan Scarlett.  Scarlett was the pen name under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light and extraordinary gentle romances.  They are all formulaic and trite but generally enjoyable.  Unfortunately, this one was just trite and formulaic.  It’s the story of Judith Nell, a young ballerina (and young means very young – only 18), who has just been offered a big professional break.  At the same time, her boyfriend accepts a job in Rhodesia and asks her to marry and go with him.  In the background are discontented ballerinas – one of whom is more than happy to go out dancing and drinking (and who knows what else’ing) with Paul while Judith struggles with her decision – and young men who see no future in England, only in Africa.  As we know, that’s not going to end at all well for anyone.  There are class struggles, career struggles, and familial struggles and yet it all manages to be quite dull.  The only good thing about it is the portrait of Judith’s family and how all its members struggle because of Mrs Nell’s stage mother ways.  It’s a bit overwrought but essentially good, especially the conspiracies that spring up between the other members of the family as they try to out manoeuvre Mrs Nell.


Much better but still forgettable was Meet Mr Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse from 1927.  Mr Mulliner is a slight variation on The Oldest Member, here to regale unwilling listeners with stories of his family’s comic exploits (rather than The Oldest Member’s golf-focused yarns).  While I was delighted by the career of Mr Mulliner’s nephew Augustine, a once meek curate whose entire life is changed thanks to an extraordinarily effective potion created by his relative Wilfred Mulliner (whose tale is also told), the rest of the stories were a bit too repetitive and never truly caught my attention.  That said, a little Wodehouse is better than none.

And in the entirely satisfactory category of “frothy and forgettable but enjoyable” we have Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland.  First published in 1961 and recently reissued, this is a very amusing little book of de Havilland’s observations as an American among the French.  Shortly after divorcing her first husband, de Havilland met a charming Frenchman while attending the Cannes film festival.  Soon enough she was moving to France with her small son and marrying her Frenchman, taking on both a new spouse, a new country, and an entirely new culture.  Her stumbles as she finds her way are recounted with an impressively light touch and it’s delightful to see her enjoyment of the country.  And it’s one an enjoyment that hasn’t faded – she moved there in the mid-1950s and is there still at age 102.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Read Full Post »

I seem to make a habit of reading memoirs by famous authors before I ever read any of the books that made them famous.  And you know what?  I like it.  It’s an interesting way to approach a new author, learning first about them and then their works.  And it can make you so, so much more eager to read their other books than you would otherwise have been.  At least, that was the case for me when I read When I Was a Little Boy by Erich Kästner.  Kästner won fame for his many successful children’s novels (most notably, Emil and the Detectives and Lottie and Lisa, the inspiration for The Parent Trap) and it is for children that he wrote this beautiful memoir of his own childhood in Dresden.  Recently reissued as a beautiful Slightly Foxed edition, it is now readily available in English for the first time since the 1950s.

Kästner was born in 1899 into a humble family.  His father, Emil, was trained as a saddlemaker but worked for a luggage maker in Dresden while his mother, Ida, had worked as a maid but retrained as a hairdresser when Erich was small so she could work independently.  It was not an affectionate marriage but nor was it a hostile one; it was simply a mismatch.  Ida had never been in love with her husband but had agreed to the match on the urging of her sisters, whose logic seemed pretty solid:

What did a young girl know about love, anyway?  Moreover, love came with marriage.  And even if it did not come, it didn’t matter all that much; for married life really consisted in working, saving, cooking and bearing children.  Love was no more important than a Sunday hat.

In this case, love didn’t come but, as the sisters had advised, it didn’t really matter.  Because there was Erich, her one child, and Ida loved him totally and completely.  Amid the darkness of her internal life (Erich came home to suicide notes several times, which would send him frantic out into the streets to search for her, terrified he might be too late this time), she had a son who lit up her world.  Emil is fondly mentioned but it was Ida who dominated young Erich’s childhood.  He was her life and it was a responsibility he took seriously, trying to live up to all her hopes and dreams for him:

Ida Kästner wanted to be a perfect mother to her boy.  And because she so much wanted to be that, she had no consideration for anyone, not even for herself, and she became the perfect mother.  All her love and imagination, all her industry, every moment of her time, her every thought – in fact her whole existence she staked, like a frenzied gambler, on one single card – on me!  Her stake was her whole life to its last breath.

I was the card, so I simply had to win.  I dared not disappoint her.  That was why I became the best pupil in the school and the best-behaved son possible at home.  I could not have borne it if she had lost her great game.  Since she wanted to be and was the perfect mother, for me, her trump card, there seemed no choice but to become the perfect son.  Did I become this?  I certainly tried to.  I had inherited her talents – her energy, her ambition and her intelligence.  That was at least something to begin with.  And when I, her sole capital and stake, sometimes felt really tired of always winning and of only winning, one thing and one things only kept me going: I truly loved that perfect mother.  I loved her very much indeed.

Ida wasn’t as overwhelming as that may make her sound.  She and Erich were also the best of friends, taking hiking holidays together throughout the country, and Erich had his freedom, indeed a shocking amount of freedom compared to children these days.  At seven, he was extraordinarily proud to be allowed to walk to school all alone.  Except he wasn’t entirely alone.  Years later, Ida admitted that she would see Erich off from home and then surreptitiously trail him all the way to school, ducking behind other pedestrians if it looked at all like Erich might turn around and spot her.  He had his freedom and she had her reassurance.  Everyone was happy.

With a mother like Ida, it is no surprise that Erich had a carefully planned life: he studied hard and was to become a teacher, inspired by the teachers who had boarded with the Kästner family.  But when he actually stood in front of a class for the first time in his mid-teens, he (and they) realised he had no aptitude for it.  And so a new and rather extraordinary plan was hatched: he, the son of a saddlemaker and a maid, would go to the university.  And, after serving in the First World War, he did.  To his mother’s extreme pride, naturally.

But a memoir of childhood is not really about planning and career plotting.  It is snapshots of nostalgia-tinged moments: of walks through the beautiful city with his father, of visits to his rich but mean maternal uncle, of hiking holidays with his mother, of the sad demise of his zuckertüten (sugar cone – a traditional gift for students on their first day of school), in short, of all the really important but insignificant moments that make up a childhood, the memory of which never seems to dull:

‘More than fifty years have passed since then,’ declares the calendar, that horny old bookkepper in the office of history, who controls chronology and with ink and ruler marks the leap years in blue and draws a red line at the beginning of each century. ‘No!’ cries memory, shaking her curly locks. ‘It was only yesterday.  Or at most the day before,’ she adds softly with a little laugh.  Which of them is wrong?

They are both right, for there are two kinds of time.  The one kind can be measured with instruments and calculations, just like streets or plots of ground.  But the other chronology, our memory, has nothing to do with metres and months, decades or acres.  What we have forgotten is old.  The unforgettable was yesterday.  The measure here is not the time but the value.  And the most precious of all things, whether happy or sad, is our childhood.  Do not forget the unforgettable.  I believe that this advice cannot be given early enough.

Isn’t that nicely put?  I loved the writing in this book.  I loved Kästner’s optimistic view of the world, despite the difficult elements of life (which he does not shy away from discussing), and his frequent asides to his readers, his earnest desire to pass on what he knows.  He is writing for you, whoever you are.  This story is meant to be shared with you.

By the time Kästner was writing in 1957, he was living in Munich.  He’d gone to university in Leipzig, spent almost twenty years in Berlin, and had settled in Munich after his Berlin home was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid.  And yet the city that retained all his love and affection was the Dresden of his childhood, a city of beauty and history and one he knew intimately from years of wanderings – a city whose death he was still mourning:

Dresden was a wonderful city, full of art and history, yet with none of the atmosphere of a museum which happened to house, along with its treasures, six hundred and fifty thousand Dresdeners.  Past and present lived in perfect unity, or rather duality, and blended and harmonized with the landscape – the Elbe, the bridges, the slopes of the surrounding hills, the woods, the mountains which fringed the horizon – to form a perfect trinity.  From Meissen Cathedral to the Castle Park of Groszsedlitz, history, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord which seemed as though bewitched by its own perfect harmony.

[…]

Yes, Dresden was a wonderful city.  You may take my word for it.  And you have to take my word for it, because none of you, however rich your father may be, can go there to see if I am right.  For the city of Dresden is no more.  It has vanished, except for a few fragments.  In one single night and with a single movement of its hand the Second World War wiped it off the map.  It had taken centuries to create its incomparable beauty.  A few hours sufficed to spirit it off the face of the earth.

The Frauenkirche today, rebuilt and much brighter than the pollution-stained black church Kästner was used to from his childhood

I wonder what Kästner would make of Dresden today, with the Old Town skyline now restored to its pre-war image.  Would he find the Frauenkirche, with its painted “marble” columns, unbearably tacky or reassuringly familiar?  What would he make of the modern additions?  I suspect he would find it disconcerting – elements of the familiar in juxtaposed with the new.  And even if it looks the same, you can’t get rid of the memory that it wasn’t just buildings that were destroyed in those few days but also 25,000 people.  In all the ways that mattered, the city of his childhood was gone.

I loved this book.  I loved reading about Dresden, a city I dearly love, as it was more than a hundred years ago; I loved reading about how young Erich spent his days, learning about the norms of boyhood in a time and place long gone; I loved the simple sketches throughout, illustrating Erich’s various adventures; and I truly loved old Erich’s fondness for it all.  Another really wonderful choice from Slightly Foxed.

 

Read Full Post »

You know what book you probably didn’t realise you needed in your life?  An ungossipy, undramatic collection of musings from an octogenarian movie star, that’s what.  And, more specifically, one with excellent tastes in books.  Does such a thing even exist?  Thankfully, it does in the form of A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness.

Published in 1999 and covering the period from 1996 to 1998, this was Guinness’ third collection of his diaries but the first I’ve read.  And how happy I am that I did!  Guinness is never an actor I’ve been particularly interested in, despite him being the star of my very favourite film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.  I’ve seen much of his work – he stared in David Lean’s most iconic films, before, of course, taking on the two roles he is best remembered for: Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and George Smiley in the television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – without ever feeling much interest in him personally.  Which, I get the impression reading this, is very much as he would have liked it.  But then Michael Dirda mentioned this in Browsings (which is the book that keeps on giving thanks to all the wonderful recommendations I got from it) and I had to give it a try.

The book is focused on Guinness’ observations as he moves through the years.  It is not a celebrity memoir where the focus is anecdotes about the famous and infamous (go to David Niven if that’s what you’re looking for); instead, we hear mostly about Guinness’ family (wife, son, grandchildren, and great-grandchild), his thoughts on current events (the 1997 election and Princess Diana’s death are both remarked on), and, best of all, his reading.  Because it turns out that Guinness was a reader and a proper one who formed attachments to authors, read widely and eclectically, and, if he had still be around by the time it was published, would almost certainly have loved Slightly Foxed and probably wanted to write for it.

And what does he read?  He loves Shakespeare, suitable enough for an actor who got his start on the stage, and has a particular fondness for Trollope, calling him “the most English of great Englishmen” and admiring his ability to capture men and women as they are and always will be in his books:

The pleasure lies in recognizing, today, habits which were to be found among us a hundred and twenty years ago however much the mores and manners have changed; and a hundred years before that, and before that as well.  The sense of continuity, going both backwards and forwards, I find entirely rewarding.

From there his reading wanders.  He mentions James Lee-Milne’s diaries, Dickens, Patrick O’Brien, Iris Origo, Henry James, and, much to my delight, From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple – the book I’d bought just before I started reading this.  I always take it as a good sign when my reading aligns like that.

Unlike the average aged celebrity diary, Guinness focuses on his life at the time, not on past glories.  He relishes visits from his family and close friends, and enjoys spending time with his wife, Merula.  I particularly loved hearing how he commemorated their 60th wedding anniversary: rather than buying jewellery, he bought his wife a painting and masses of gardenias, the flower he used to bring her every Friday evening when they were engaged.

I also, it must be said, loved hearing his views on the 1997 election, which feel especially poignant these days:

If only one party had a bold, enthusiastic pro-European line I would be genuinely behind it.  Without Europe I have a gut feeling we are lost.

But every life involves reminiscing too and Guinness chooses anecdotes from his career wisely.  I enjoyed this one from an ill-fated run as Romeo in 1939:

The first night was memorable.  I lept the garden wall for the balcony scene – ‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound’ – whereupon the wall fell flat.  With professional sang-froid I ignored the whole thing and struck a romantic pose of extreme yearning.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun.

At which moment the balcony fell off, to reveal, gasping with astonishment, Miss Stanley in her nightie.  Another foot forward and she would have tumbled to her eternal rest.  The curtain was lowered.  After ten minutes of hammering we started again, to tumultuous applause.  The audience was thoroughly enjoying the mishaps, as they always do, but they also wanted, I think, to show their admiration for Miss Stanley not succumbing to the vapours.

But the most horrifyingly memorable story comes not from the world of stage or film but from a society party where he was seated with Cyril Connolly, Frederick Ashton, Hugh Trevor-Roper, a young Princess Margaret, and an intoxicated and uninhibited Lady Diana Cooper:

‘Can’t go out unless I take a little fortification,’ [Lady Diana] said to me.  ‘Too nervous.  Stage fright.  Tonight I fortified myself twice, which was foolish.’

She eyed her fellow diners.  ‘Who’s that little man?’ she asked me in a loud whisper.

‘Cyril Connolly.’

‘I can’t bear him,’ she said, full voice, and picked up a roll and flung it at him.  It was a good shot and struck him on the forehead.  Connolly flushed but otherwise didn’t react.

Not quite the polished society matron that evening!  I can’t imagine what that would have been like to witness.  It does remind me that I want to read Lady Diana’s memoirs though (all three volumes of which – The Rainbow Comes and Goes, The Light of Common Day, and Trumpets from the Steep – are being reissued next month by Vintage).

In the end, I was left with the impression of Guinness as a kind, thoughtful person, a loving friend and husband, and an interested reader.  And that is the kind of epitaph we should all aim for.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Read Full Post »

Back when I was still relatively new to blogging, I used to sign up for reading challenges, partly for the fun of reading in a group setting but mostly for the joy of making ambitious reading lists.  My favourite among those challenges was the Eastern European Reading Challenge and each year that I did it I put together obscenely detailed reading lists (in 2011 and 2012).  One book that made it on to the list both years was How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel – which is really just a rambling way of telling you that I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long, long time.

Pavel was a Czech sports journalist who was diagnosed as bipolar in his mid-thirties (after he set an Austrian barn on fire while in Innsbruck covering the Olympics).  He spent much of the rest of his short life (he died of at heart attack at age 42) going in and out of hospitals but also writing.  And the best of what he wrote was this gentle, meditative, and comforting memoir of his childhood, first published in 1974.

Pavel grew up just outside of Prague in the town of Buštěhrad, the third son of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father.  His mother is a steady presence in his life but it is his father whom Pavel focuses on here – most specifically his love of fishing which he passed down to his youngest son:

Business and fishing were his two great passions.  He excelled unbelievably at both, preferred fishing, and considered it a disaster if he could not combine a sales trip for the Swedish firm of Elektrolux – for which he sold refrigerators and vacuum cleaners – with a fishing adventure.

Pavel was only eight years old when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and still a little boy when, a few years later, his two elder brother and his father were sent away to concentration camps.  Before he leaves, his father tries to teach his young son all the secrets to catching his beloved carp.  They are lessons Pavel needs to remember as the war continues on, as his mother returns home exhausted each day from forced labour, as food supplies run out:

At that time we needed delicious fat carp meat.  We had so little to eat and nothing much to barter.  We could trade carp for flour, bread and Mama’s cigarettes.  Mama and I lived alone at that time, for the rest of the family was in a concentration camp.  It was up to me to catch the carp, but it took me some time getting to know them.  I had to learn to tell the difference between their good and bad moods; I had to learn how to tell when they were hungry, when they were full, and when they felt like playing.  I had to recognize where they were likely to swim, and where I would look for them in vain.

Pavel doesn’t dwell on the tragedies of war and his family was luckier than most.  When he is caught stealing fish from local German-controlled ponds it is by a sympathetic gamekeeper.  His father and brothers all return home from their concentration camps.  And he and his mother survive the lean times.  But the horror of war is certainly there: Buštěhrad is only a few kilometers away from Lidice, the town the German’s chose to massacre in reprisal for the assassination of Himmler in 1942, and Pavel knew people there.

Mostly though, this is a memoir of wonder and childhood.  Of learning how to fish, of admiring the great fishermen in young Pavel’s life, and of finding one good thing to hold on to when everything else is turned upside down.  When the war ends, the family has earned its peace and his father chooses to spend it as he has always spent his leisure time – fishing:

Down at the river he slept most of the time, just as many fishermen do.  The water hums, the small waves roll as the clouds float by, and the wife is miles away.  The rods are set so that the fish can almost catch themselves.  Of all the sleep a man can have, the fisherman’s sleep is the sweetest.  It is the greatest of luxuries – sleep and fishing.

I really enjoyed this short, touching book but the one thing that drove me a little crazy about this edition was the complete absence of accents on the Czech words (for example, Pavel’s home of Buštěhrad becomes Bustehrad).  I know this is the lazy way of anglicizing place names but it is distracting and a little odd since the introduction to the book does retain the correct accents.  And since the book is part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series it seems even odder to be so dismissive of the accents.  However, it is a good translation and readily available so, in the grand scheme of things, I can overlook a few missing accents.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »