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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).  

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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.

 

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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).  

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There are books that are important and books that are an education in and of themselves and books you never want to end.  And, best of all, there are books that are all those things.  The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich is such a book.

Between 1978 and 1983 Alexievich, the Belarusian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, travelled thousands of miles across the USSR and met with countless women to hear and record their experiences of the Second World War.  And for many people, Soviets included, these were stories they had no idea existed – stories of women who served in active combat, who knew what life was like on the battlefield, who had been shot at alongside their male comrades, and whose contributions had been largely swept aside as the official history of the Great Patriotic War took shape.  Published in 1985, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of their experiences changed that and now, thanks to a new English-language translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (whose previous work made me fall in love with War and Peace), it can change the perspectives of Western readers too.

When Russia went to war against Germany in 1941, women flocked to sign up.  Time and again Alexievich records women who remember leaving their schools to go to the recruiting office or fighting against military bureaucrats who thought they were too young to be put on active duty.  They enlisted as pilots, as snipers, as members of tank squadrons, and, overwhelmingly, as surgeons, doctors, and other medical professionals.  The Soviet Union may never have become the utopia dreamed of but it had trained women to think of themselves as capable, contributing and equal members of society.  They were doctors and lawyers and engineers without the novelty factor still common in the West.  As Vera Danilovsteva, a sniper, recalled “Girls felt equal to boys; we weren’t treated differently.  On the contrary, we had heard since childhood and at school: “Girls – at the wheel of the tractors!,” “Girls – at the controls of a plane!””

But a large focus of the book is on how elusive that equality was.  By the time Alexievich came to speak to them, many had given up hope of ever getting to tell their stories.  They had been swept aside for so long and the relief at finally having someone who cares to listen was immense:

I want to speak…to speak!  To speak it all out!  Finally somebody wants to hear us.  For so many years we said nothing, even at home we said nothing.  For decades.  The first year, when I came back from the war, I talked and talked.  Nobody listened.  So I shut up…It’s good that you’ve come along.  I’ve been waiting all the while for somebody, I knew somebody would come.  Had to come.  (Natalya Ivanovna Sergeeva – Private, Nurse-aide)

Alexievich recounts their stories of life during the war: how they joined up, how they fought, what they missed, how they fell in love (or didn’t), how they longed for their families.  They all had different experiences – understandable enough given their huge numbers (more than one million women joined the military and at least half of those served in active combat roles) – but the universal memory is of how their country and their brothers-in-arms failed them when the war ended:

How did the Motherland meet us?  I can’t speak without sobbing…It was forty years ago, but my cheeks still burn.  The men said nothing, but the women…They shouted to us, “We know what you did there!  You lured our men with your young c—-!  Army whores…Military bitches…”  They insulted us in all possible ways…The Russian vocabulary is rich… (Klavdia S—va – Sniper)

They had come home wanting to be proud of their achievements, to stand next to their male comrades and be recognized for what they had done, but they also wanted to get on with their lives.  And being a soldier, it was made clear to them, was not possible if you were a proper woman:

When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears.  I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.  We had spent four years in trousers.  There was no one I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion.  Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you?  We were silent as fish.  We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front.  (Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva – Sergeant, Commander of Anti-Aircraft Artillery)

Their silence was extreme.  Some women did their best to make their past disappear, hiding their ribbons and medals away, not daring to wear them on parade days even though all the men did.  In extreme cases, women tore up their papers, making it impossible to claim the pension and benefits due to them as veterans, while others, wounded in the war and ashamed of what had happened, moved far away from anyone who knew them and did their best to hide.

But others remained happy and proud.  For those who had fought alongside their husbands it was easier to retain that part of their life with pride – if he knew and was proud, she could be too.  But it was these same husbands who could be found coaching their wives ahead of their interviews with Alexievich, reminding them of the facts of each battle – the dates, the outcomes, the soldiers lost.  This was their vision of how war should be discussed, particularly in an era when talking about your feelings and opinions about your country could get you into serious trouble, but it was not Alexievich’s – or, thankfully, the women’s.

It’s been a while since I finished the book and what has stuck with me the most were the feelings of the women as they swept through into Germany.  Western Allies remember finding a broken country, with millions of people displaced, millions homeless, and seeing some of the most gracious and elegant cities of Europe in ruins.  For the Russians it was a completely different experience.  They had marched from their own broken and ravaged country with no doubt, after Leningrad and Stalingrad, after passing the Polish death camps on their way to Berlin, of how their enemies should be treated.  But what seemed to bewilder and enrage them in equal measure was what they found in Germany.  For the Russians, after years of starvation, of living on almost nothing, sleeping “on straw, on sticks”, the level of civilization still intact in Germany floored them:

Finally, we were on their land…The first thing that struck us was the good roads.  The big farmhouses…Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns.  White tablecloths in the houses.  Expensive tableware.  Porcelain.  There I saw a washing machine for the first time…We didn’t understand why they had to fight if they lived so well.  Our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths.  (Aglaia Borisovna Nesteruk – Sergeant, Liaison)

It is particularly feminine observation and a telling one, showing so clearly the disparity between the two enemies but also between the allies.

This was Alexievich’s first book and if she had ended there her contribution to history would have been considerable.  As it is, she has written about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, the survivors of Chernobyl, and the disintegration of the USSR.  She picks timely, important subjects and creates books that matter both in the present and to posterity.  She has left me better informed, much moved, and feeling like I need to read all of her other words immediately.  It is the best possible feeling I can have when I finish a book.

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).  

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