“I Wish to Do No Harm”: Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul

Yesterday was the best day because yesterday was the day I read Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, the funniest, kindest, and wisest book I’ve read in a long time. Imagine if Anita Brookner had kept her shrewdness and set aside her fascination for cruelty. She might have written something like the opening sentence to Hession’s first novel:

Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.

It’s all here: the prominence of aloneness (to my ears, a slightly strange adjective, I might have expected something like “only,” and its syntactical position gently emphasizes the mother’s effort as opposed to the child’s situation); the reference to cheerfulness, an important value and not simply a way to paper over unhappiness, even though the novel gives the latter its due too; and not least the zany swerve of the final clause into a joke that doesn’t demean a terrible reality. (Unusually among contemporary novelists, Hession knows how to withhold: we never find out how the father died.) I was reminded of that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry’s rabbi notes with sorrow that his brother-in-law died on 9/11, neglecting to mention that the man perished not in the Towers nor on the planes but in fact in a bike accident uptown. But Curb scorns the rabbi’s sanctimonious piggybacking on a tragedy, whereas Leonard and Hungry Paul, well-meaning to its core, treats the moment as gently absurd.

Leonard and Hungry Paul are friends in their mid-30s. At the beginning of the novel, both still live with their parents, with whom they have good relationships. They play board games, drink tea, eat biscuits, and occasionally chat. Strong Frog and Toad vibe, though less gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Leonard writes the texts for children’s encyclopedias that appear under the moniker of a self-aggrandizing academic. Hungry Paul (the nickname is never explained—perhaps it is a family joke about his lack of ambition) works as a substitute postman on Monday mornings when the regulars call in sick with hangovers or ennui. Hungry Paul’s sister Grace, a manager for some kind of American conglomerate, is getting married to Andrew, who gives Power Points in Europe’s financial centers and could seem a little blandly good-looking but who gets Grace and softens her eldest child’s tendency to organize everyone. Hungry Paul and Grace’s mother, Helen, still works a couple of days a week in the school system, ostensibly until she is old enough to get a full pension, but actually because she is a bit scared of what it will be like to be at home with her husband all the time. Peter is a retired economist who makes lame, vaguely risqué jokes sometimes, but actually not all that often, and watches quiz shows at which he shouts out answers in rapid-fire bursts, mostly incorrectly. He is writing a speech for the wedding reception and wants it to be terrific.

Leonard works in a mixed open-plan office; like any right-thinking person, he uses noise-canceling headphones to survive this abomination. One day he is pulled out of his work by a girl in a green sweater and cherry-red hair. Shelley, the floor’s fire marshal, is overseeing a fire drill. She dropped out of art school and has an eight-year-old boy and a bike and curlicue handwriting. It’s a lovely meet cute. Leonard thinks she is breathtaking, and one of the plot lines involves their relationship, which hits all the right notes of bittersweet gentleness. A different book would make Leonard abandon Hungry Paul, but, charmingly, the friends continue to get on, Leonard cheering as Hungry Paul finds his own kind of successes: entering a contest designed by the local Chamber of Commerce to find a new send-off for emails (I’d love to share his entry, it’s so perfect, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise); volunteering at the hospital, first at his mother’s insistence but then for the rewards it brings, namely the chance to sit silently with sleeping patients and maybe later have a cup of tea; and finally, through a series of events that are much less implausible in the novel than in my summary, becoming the head of the national association of mimes, which he revives by starting the Quiet Club, half hour sessions at which participants can sit silently. (To get people in the mood, Hungry Paul puts on Cage’s 4’33, which is perhaps a joke too far, but it made me laugh.)

Hession is also a musician (he records under the name Mumblin’ Deaf Ro) and a social worker. There are plenty of acute musical references beyond the one to Cage—Hession never lards these on too much; at one point, he makes a little joke about it: Leonard, driving with Helen and Hungry Paul, thinks to himself that both have good taste in music for people who are so non-pushy about it—but it’s Hession’s other job that has left the biggest trace on the novel. Leonard and Hungry Paul manifests the best elements of social work—it’s interested not in pigeonholing or classifying people, but in showing people (to themselves and to others) how they are who they are. It is a stunningly non-judgmental book, perhaps most apparent in its use of the motif of speeches.

Speeches stand in for everything tiresome about the world: they are noise incarnate, no matter the volume at which they are given: canned, shrill, bullying, essentially coercive. (The people at the Chamber of Commerce don’t know what to do when Hungry Paul is asked to speak about his email signature and instead stands contentedly silent before the crowd—they rush in to fill the void.) Speeches aren’t always formal: they can take the form of joking clichés that save people from having to think, like the IT guy in the office who calls Leonard “Lenster.” (Shudder.) Yet the novel ends with what could be thought of as speeches—long outbursts in which the heroes explain themselves to others, Leonard to Shelley and Hungry Paul to Grace. These aren’t speeches, though, because they are spontaneous and offered as a therapist might, to inform rather than to score points. Hungry Paul, in particular—who in a different novel might be named autistic or neuroatypical, but here is just Hungry Paul (a name his family members sometimes follow with a little sigh)—is so reasonable, so aware of his inabilities in practical matters, so kind in his gentle insistence that he has to do things his own way, and that the things he does are in fact things, even though to the busy world they might not look like it.

You’ll notice how often I’ve used the word “gentle.” You could call Leonard and Hungry Paul sweet, maybe even twee, though these words often get used disparagingly, wrongly in my opinion. Gentle seems just right, certainly better than happy. Reading the novel made me happy, and I think it is a happy novel, but it doesn’t shy away from unhappiness. Besides, couldn’t we all use more gentleness right now? Leonard and Hungry Paul spoke to my soul but without flattering me: it’s not a book about the triumph of the introvert, it never forgets that we are in the world and do ourselves a disservice if we shut it away, although we should always feel free to meet it on our own terms. Hungry Paul’s early claim—“I have always been modestly Hippocratic in my instincts: I wish to do no harm”—is modestly challenged.

Mostly it made me laugh, like real tears-in-the-eyes-might-have-to-pee laughter, which FELT SO GOOD. In the last few years only Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot have done that. Particularly excellent is a hilarious set piece in which Hungry Paul tries to complain to the supermarket about a tin of expired candy—the scene builds for pages and manages to surprise at the end. Another one finds Leonard, meeting Shelley in town for their first proper date, in dire need of a bathroom and forced into a McDonalds, where he finds himself purchasing a Happy Meal so that he can get the bathroom code and then eating it for lack of anything better to do just as Shelley arrives.

But there are just as many little jokes, slid in as it were unsuspectingly. Here’s Hungry Paul in his new judo get-up:

Hungry Paul emerged from the bathroom wearing a white fluffy bathrobe tied with a white belt, tracksuit bottoms and flip flops with some tissue paper stuck to them. He was shaking his wrists and wore the look of intense concentration that is characteristic of a man with wet hands looking for a towel. The fact that he was in the unlikely position of wearing clothes made from the very material he needed might have tempted a lesser man, but, having already run the risk of doing a sit-down toilet while wearing white, he was not minded to capitulate under a lesser challenge.

(This is Wodehouse-level stuff.)

Here’s Leonard thinking about the man whose name goes on all his work, Mark Baxter, BEd:

Interns from his office just emailed all the changes and feedback, while Mark was away on the conference circuit, presumably sleeping with more interns, the BEd in his title providing a clue as to where he did his best work.

Here’s Hungry Paul trying to get someone to help him in a department store, where he is buying a suit for the wedding:

The shop assistant found a measuring tape from somewhere and started measuring Hungry Paul, using what looked like a self-taught method he had only just invented that second. ‘Eh, I’d say around 36”, short jacket and 38” short for the trousers,’ he guessed, calling out the measurements for E.T.

‘Maybe we’ll just look around. Thanks all the same,’ said Hungry Paul.

The young shop assistant went through some double doors to finish his adolescence.

See what I mean? Gentle. Leonard and Hungry Paul is balm for the soul and smart as a whip too. (Now look who’s using clichés!) It is the most joyful book I have read in this decidedly non-joyful year. Let me know if you would like a copy but can’t afford or find one: I’d like to send you one.

What I Read, August 2020

August. Well, it was better than July. After much hand-wringing over safety and ethics, we took a short vacation to Colorado, to assuage some of our sadness at missing our time in the Canadian Rockies. We were amazed at how different Colorado is from Alberta, alternately enjoyed and suffered the long drive from Missouri (where we’d been staying), got in some good hiking, and marveled at how much cheaper holidays are when you don’t go out to eat or buy any souvenirs. Immediately after returning, though, it was right into a new routine: both my wife and my daughter are attending school remotely (Zoom rules our lives); I’m trying to write a little each day and not be too cruel to myself about the quality or quantity or even the topic. Some days I simmer in rage at the needlessness of this all (we didn’t have to experience this pandemic this way); on others I make the best of it. And I get my reading time in whenever I can.

Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1993)

Possibly the longest single-volume novel I have ever read (almost 1500 pages, sometimes I laughed just at the side of it). I did not read it all in August. In fact, I’ve been working on it since March or April. I could have read faster, no doubt—I set it aside for long stretches—and that might have made me a better reader. But the book lends itself to slowness—its many parts, divided into short chapters, provide plenty of places to pause, even as they also offer a reason to keep going (“I can read ten more pages”).

The setting is India in the early 1950s, mostly in the cities of Brahmpur and Calcutta (only the latter of which is real), but with forays into the countryside. Lata Mehra needs to be married—at least according to her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (as she is typically named by the gently teasing omniscient narrative voice). But which boy will be suitable? Focused on four interlocking families, the novel offers plenty of possible choices. (The resolution surprised me, but after a moment’s reflection I accepted its rightness.) Sensible, intelligent Lata is perhaps the most sympathetic character in a book filled with them. (I did like its kindness.) A few are caricatures, but most are well-rounded and interestingly changeable. Seth’s vision is heavy on the “foibles of human nature”—if this isn’t your thing, this book isn’t for you. It’s old fashioned, dipping occasionally into free indirect discourse, but more often relying on a wise, almost arch omniscience. That retro quality feels a bit stagey—I’m not sure it has the convictions of its 19th century heart—but that could just be because the 90s now feel a little impossible. (To me, they are what the 70s were to the 90s: embarrassing. Since the 70s now seem amazing, the book, like the decade in which it was published, may age well.)

Something A Suitable Boy does share with Victorian triple-deckers is a delight in instruction. I learned so much from this book, from all kinds of Indian vocabulary (mostly Hindi but sometimes Urdu words) to the structure of the Zamindari system, the abolition of which forms one of the important subplots.

If I think about it more, I could probably draw a connection between newly-independent India and self-made men, at least one of which is important to the novel’s plot, but A Suitable Boy is not a book that asks us to think much. It kept me pleasantly diverted through the first months of the pandemic; I felt fondness for it and its characters. I didn’t quite shed a tear at the end, but I definitely let out an almost risibly satisfied sigh on reading the final pages. A month later, though, I rarely think of it (much less than I do Lonesome Dove, the other chunkster I’ve read this year), so I can’t say it’s a book for the ages. Apparently, Seth has been working for decades on a sequel, A Suitable Girl. I’ll read it, if it ever comes to pass.

Jessica Moor, The Keeper (2020)

The title, a nice pun suggesting how little separates the ideal man from Bluebeard, is the best thing about this book. A procedural centered on a domestic abuse shelter is a good idea. The slick trick the book plays at the end is not.

Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (2020)

Ever since I fell in love with Kassabova’s travelogue, Border—you can read my rave here—I’ve been eager for her next book. To the Lake didn’t disappoint. The earlier book was about Thrace, the lands where, today, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet. The new one is about another place that borders both do and do not separate. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa—joined by underground rivers—lie at the intersection of Albania, Greece, and the newly-independent Republic of North Macedonia, where, back when it was Yugoslavia, Kassabova summered as a child. Because it is about the Balkans, the book is about history, specifically, about violence. It is also about the possibility of overcoming that violence (as symbolized by the tentative rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia). To that end, Kassabova considers the lakes as a place of healing—people have taken their waters for centuries, for both physiological and psychological relief.

But as dialed into a century’s worth of political upheavals as Kassabova is, she is even more interested in war and peace, violence and restitution as fundamental human qualities, as competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) The personal parts of To the Lake concern her mother’s family, and certain unhappy psychological traits that seem to have been passed down through it. These might, however, be social rather than genetic. As she writes:

Like many ambitious women in a patriarchy where they don’t have full expression in society but absolute power in the family, [Kassabova’s great-grandmother] Ljubitsa inhabited the destructive shadow archetype of the mother-queen: needing everyone to remain small and needy, looking up to her and infusing her with importance (after all her sacrifices, it’s the least they could do). Like a poisoned mantle, this psychological imprint was taken on by my grandmother and then by my mother, and sometimes I feel it creeping up behind me too, ready to enshroud me and make me mean.

As you can see here, Kassabova is really smart (no one gets off lightly in that passage), which is what I love best about her, even more than descriptions of outings to the lakeshore to pick cherries. (Though I am a sucker for that Chekovian shit too.) I gather Kassabova is working on a book about healing more broadly. I’ll miss the Balkans, but I can’t wait.

Incidentally, To the Lake pairs terrifically with Antigona and Me; interesting, how two of the best books I’ve read this year are about women from the Balkans.

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008) Trans. Alison L. Strayer (2013)

I finally read Annie Ernaux! Even though it is the surest way to jinx myself, I want to write an essay about her, so won’t say too much about either this book or the other three I read this month. (They are very short.) Many readers seem to think this is Ernaux’s masterpiece. That is wrong. In fact, I thought about abandoning this book a couple of times. I didn’t because I sensed Ernaux’s intelligence. And I’m glad I didn’t; her other work is more to my taste.

Ernaux is upfront about her challenge in The Years—she wanted to write about herself as part of a generation. But what voice to use? “I” wasn’t right—first-person legitimates or values the individual in a way she didn’t want. (Intriguing, given her masterly use of it in her other books.) But “she” wasn’t right either: third-person coalesces phrases and descriptions into character (Barthes wrote brilliantly about this in S/Z). She turned to “we” to write the story of French Boomers. (Technically, she is an earlier generation, having been born in 1941, but still.) My decades-long feud with Boomers is surely influencing me here, but I didn’t think Ernaux was as careful as she should have been (and that she is in her other work) to note how her “we” is the story of a particular class. I mean, I get that the upper-middle class of intellectuals or other white-collar worker—the generation that turned conservative after 68 and, having benefitted from the thirty glorious years made possible by the destruction of WWII, proceeded to dismantle all its good things, specifically its attempts to undo inequality—think that their experience simply is experience. But I didn’t sense that Ernaux was critiquing that tendency. I dunno, The Years feels a little smug to me—which her writing otherwise never seems to be. Read Ernaux, but start somewhere else.

Georges Simenon, The Flemish House (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)

Finally, a Maigret that worked for me! (Admittedly, I’ve only read four.) Some Maigret-loving friends suggested many of the best books in the series send the detective out of Paris. Maybe that’s the trick. Here Maigret travels to the border with Belgium, called by a young woman who wants him to save her brother, who is under suspicion when the woman who fathered his child is found dead. Lots of rain, lots of barges, lots of hot toddies, and a damn good ending.

Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Blood and Sugar (2019)

Historical crime fiction centered on the British slave trade, set in one of its hubs, Deptford, in the 1780s. Unexceptionable but forgettable.

Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place (1983) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1992)

Concerns the life and death of Ernaux’s father, a man unsure what to do with his daughter’s life, so different from his own.

Annie Ernaux, Simple Passion (1991) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1993)

Concerns an affair Ernaux carried out with a younger, Eastern European man. Begins with a description that might be familiar to people who remember the 80s, of watching a scrambled porno on TV. As so often, Ernaux is brilliant at creating metaphors for what she wants her writing to do without writing texts that are tediously metafictional.

Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)

Fascinating.

Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)

Incredible, the things that happened to Justus Rosenberg as a young man during the war. Strange, how little he says about what those things mean.

Annie Ernaux, The Possession (2002) Trans. Anna Moschovakis (2008)

Concerns the dual meaning of possession. Does the lover own the beloved? Or is she owned by him?

Bessora, Alpha: Abidjan to the Gare du Nord (2014) Trans. Sarah Ardizzone (2018) Illus. Barroux

I learned so much from this beautiful and sad comic, not least how huge Mali is, to say nothing of Algeria. Alpha Coulibaly, a cabinet maker in Abidjan, the biggest city in the Côte d’Ivoire, has heard nothing from his wife and son since they set off to Europe. They hoped to make it to her sister, who has a hair salon near Paris’s Gare du Nord. In search of them, he sells up and heads north, an epic journey first to Mali, then to Algeria, and then 1800 miles across the desert to the Spanish enclave at Ceuta, where he fails to gain EU entry, forcing him to try a dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands. Along the way, he is guided/abused by smugglers, and even becomes one himself: it’s the only way to make the money he needs. He meets many fellow migrants, all of whom are well aware of the dangers—though some, like an extended family that has pooled all its resources to send a young man to Spain, where they are convinced he will play for FC Barcelona, are more naïve than others. All know, however, that there is nothing for them at home. The desperation is as real as the risks they confront trying to escape it. Alpha and the others are both physically and psychologically damaged: this is not a book with a happy ending. Paradoxically, it’s a beautiful one: Barroux’s illustrations are washes of greys, whites, blacks, and reds.

Laurie R. King, The Game (2004)

It felt like time for another episode of Mary Russell’s adventures with Holmes, so I pulled this one from the shelf. In The Game Mycroft sends the pair to India, near the border with Afghanistan (this is in the 1920s), where the Russians, newly Soviets, are threatening Britain’s prize colony. I might have enjoyed this more had I read Kim—Kipling’s hero is a minor but important character—but I liked it anyway. As always, King is better at setting up her scenarios than in resolving them. The books always feel both slow and rushed at the same time, it’s weird, but I find enough in the series to keep plugging along.

Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)

Deserving of its current popularity. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grow up in rural Louisiana in a town founded by a freed slave (the girls’ great-great-great grandfather) as an enclave for Blacks as light-skinned as himself. When they turn sixteen, in 1952, the sisters abscond to New Orleans to begin a new life. It’s hard to find work that isn’t badly paying and dangerous, so Desiree convinces Stella to take a secretarial job—which requires her to pass as white. Soon their paths diverge. Stella abruptly disappears, leaving Desiree bereft, her belief that she and her sister shared everything shattered. Stella marries her white boss—who has no idea of her background—which locks her into a life of both material privilege and constant anxiety over her secret. Desiree flees to DC, where she eventually marries the darkest man she can find, but returns to her hometown with her small daughter to escape his domestic abuse.

Years later, that daughter, Jude, moves to Los Angeles to attend college on a track scholarship. On a catering job she sees a woman she knows immediately must be her aunt. She becomes close to Stella’s daughter, an aspiring actress. Family secrets are revealed, to ambiguous ends.

Stories of racial passing often take the form of melodrama—Sirk’s film Imitation of Life is a classic example—and Bennett embraces that quality. In fact, I think she could have made more of it. The Vanishing Half is fascinated by acting-pretending-dissembling: both the many forms they can take and their consequences. For example, there’s a great trans subplot, and another important minor character is enmeshed in the 1970s/80s LA drag scene. But the book is about acting more than itself an example of it. I sometimes wanted Bennet to do more than depict impersonation; I wanted her to perform it through her style. Although, even as I write this, I wonder whether Bennett’s straightforward prose is itself a kind of acting—a way for her novel to pass as “respectable” literary fiction. (Hmm, the novel may be savvier than I credit!)

My favourite novel about racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance masterpiece, a real literary touchstone for me. And for Bennett, too, who references Larsen in shrewd ways (a smashed wine bottle echoes a smashed teacup from an important scene in Passing; the queer subplot gestures to the unavowed love between Larsen’s female protagonists). I loved how lovingly Bennett responded to Larsen’s novel. (If you haven’t read either, I recommend reading Larsen first.) And I admired her portrait of Stella, whose consciousness we often inhabit, in a way we don’t with the analogous figure in Passing. Bennett leaves unanswered whether Stella suffers from false consciousness or whether she simply wants the anonymity that white people can take for granted in a world that sets them as the default. This line haunts me: “She could think of nothing more horrifying than not being able to hide what she wanted.”

Ernaux’s works are an elegant rabbit-hole, and Ohler’s book taught me a lot. But this month’s winner was without question Kassabova’s terrific essay-travelogue. We’re lurching to the middle of September already, but if you had good reading in August, let me know. Lately my reading has taken me to north Germany in the 19th century, among other places. More on that in a few weeks. In the meantime, stay as safe and well as you can, everybody.

Two Books on Resistance (II)

I recently read two books about resistance to fascism:

Norman Ohler, The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)

Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)

I learned from both, but I didn’t learn what I most wanted to, namely, why do some people resist when most do not? Both books privilege historical detail over theoretical analysis. Still, the experiences recounted in these texts are interesting; setting them down, I found I had a lot to say, so I have divided this post into two parts. Notes on Justus Rosenberg’s The Art of Resistance are below; those on Norman Ohler’s The Bohemians are here.

Justus Rosenberg began setting down his memoirs at age ninety-eight. (I do love a late bloomer.) Published on the eve of his centenary, The Art of Resistance emphasizes Rosenberg’s wartime activities—its subtitle is “My Four Years in the French Underground”—but its most interesting sections concern the author’s childhood in the Free City of Danzig. This political anomaly was a compromise reached after WWI that balanced Allied intentions to grant Poland independence with the reality that 75% of the port city’s inhabitants were German. Danzig (today Gdańsk) and surrounding areas were made into a semi-autonomous city state; oversight was provided a high commissioner appointed by the League of Nations who sought to ensure that the rights of Poles (20% of the population) and Jews (5%) were respected in this new parliamentary democracy. In the early 1920s, almost 100,000 Jews from Russia and Poland passed through Danzig on their way to America. Others, though, especially those cultural affinities were with Germany, stayed on.

Among these were Rosenberg’s parents. Bluma Solarski and Jacob Rosenberg grew up in a shtetl only a few miles from the East Prussian border. Danzig was their haven—they eloped there to avoid familial disapproval (the Rosenbergs were rich; the Solarskis were not), and Justus was born soon after, in January 1921. The young couple rejected Zionism, attended a highly reform synagogue (and that irregularly), and hired a German nanny for their only son. (He barely mentions his sister, it is curious, even a little disquieting.) Like most of the rest of the Jews in the Free City, the Rosenbergs prospered. Not that the place was entirely idyllic; it wasn’t immune to developments beyond its borders. The local Nazi party won the most seats in the elections of 1932, yet the city’s international nature (its economy depended on the port) made them much more circumspect than their sister parties in Germany.

But by 1937 the gloves were off. Rosenberg witnessed a frightening attack on Jewish-owned businesses and homes to which the authorities turned a blind eye. After this, Rosenberg’s parents looked for a way to send him abroad, eventually arranging for him to study in Paris. Before leaving Danzig for good, he spent three weeks with his grandfather’s family in Poland, getting a crash course in Jewishness (Rosenberg was amazed to learn that not all Orthodox Jews were Chassidic). Still the sixteen-year-old was more interested in losing his virginity to a friend of his mother’s and reading French novels, which experience, admittedly, served him in good stead in Paris.

His trip to France was broken up by a stay with his paternal uncle in Berlin, a socialist, laryngologist, and composer (who had studied for a time with Schoenberg). Wandering the streets, sixteen-year-old Rosenberg saw posters advertising a rally where Hitler would be addressing the nation. Curious to know what sort of man could elicit such hatred in so many, Rosenberg ignored the signs blaring NO JEWS PERMITTED. His blond hair and blue eyes made him inconspicuous; before he knew it, he was in the middle of a fourteen-thousand strong crowd, watching with queasy fascination as the little man whipped up his audience.

This was the first of many times in his life when Rosenberg found himself in the presence of famous figures of the era. He had a knack for ending up at the centre of things. That Zelig-like quality manifested in full after three unremarkable, if satisfying, years in Paris. In the spring of 1940, his studies at the Sorbonne were interrupted by the invasion of France. By this time, Rosenberg was following events keenly. Already in 1938 most of the Jews of Danzig had left the city, most for Poland, but some, like Rosenberg’s parents, for Palestine. They wrote to say they had made it to Bratislava, and were embarking down the Danube to Romania in the hopes of reaching a ship. Rosenberg would not hear from them again until after the war.

When Paris fell, Rosenberg decided he need to do something. Like so many others, he left the city on foot; his destination, the barracks of the Polish army in exile, in Brittany. But he ended up south of the city instead, and when he finally, weeks later, made his way to Bayonne, near the Spanish border, where the British navy had agreed to take any remaining Poles to England, he found he had missed them by hours. By chance, he ended up in Marseille where, through friends of friends, he was taken on as a courier by an American who had recently arrived in the city with pockets full of money and orders to secure exit visas for prominent refugees. This was Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee; through him, Rosenberg met luminaries like Victor Serge, Andre Breton, and Max Ernst. He procured blank identity cards for forging, delivered sealed messages, laundered money through the Marseilles mafia, and even accompanied Franz Werfel, Alma Mahler, and Heinrich and Golo Mann on a nighttime trek over the Pyrenees. He played Exquisite Cadaver with Breton, took a message to Marc Chagall, and was given $500 by Peggy Guggenheim, “for an emergency.” See what I mean? Crazy stuff.

After Fry was expelled from Vichy France, Rosenberg tried to escape to Spain himself, but was arrested by the authorities. After a number of close shaves, he joined the French Resistance, who sent him to Grenoble to live undercover, but he was arrested again, in the summer of 1942, and interned in a camp near Lyons from which, a sympathetic guard told him, he and the others would be deported to Poland. (The map in this New York Times piece is excellent.) Chance intervened again—“Sometimes chance itself occasions good fortune,” the book’s epigraph explains—in the shape of the sister of a friend from his student days in Paris. Before being arrested she had been a medical student in Lyon, and she counselled Rosenberg on how to fake the symptoms of peritonitis. Before long, the “violently ill” Rosenberg was sent from the camp to hospital in Lyon where he was operated on. (Rosenberg speculates with pleasure about the surprise the surgeons must have felt when they found nothing wrong with his abdomen.)

In recovery from what was a dangerous operation, even if it was fake, Rosenberg befriended a nurse who, it turned out, had studied with the medical student and, putting two and two together, put him in contact with the Resistance. A friendly priest hid a change of clothes in the hospital bathroom and a bicycle near the exit; clutching his stitches, the woozy Rosenberg wobbled his way to a safe house from which, after recovering for good, he was sent into the countryside, where he monitored Swiss radio. Later, he joined a cadre of resistance fighters and laid mines for German truck convoys. In the summer of 1944 he was swept up by an American battalion and became their interpreter. On leave in liberated Paris in late 1944 he learned of a new organization, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), set up to respond to what the Allies knew would be an unprecedented refugee situation after the war. Rosenberg, who as a child had wanted to be a diplomat and spoke several languages, was a natural fit. When mediating between the victorious Americans and the vanquished Germans paled, Rosenberg jumped at the chance to take a US military ship to America, where he began a new life that led him eventually to become a professor of literature at Bard. (He’s been emeritus for almost 20 years but still teaches, or did until recently anyway.)

Rosenberg in Marseilles, 1941

The Art of Resistance is as odd a book as its subject’s life has been eventful. Its tone is strangely cheery, which certainly fits the story of a man who seemed always to have landed on his feet, but which to me only highlights the grief that routinely goes unmentioned. In an epilogue detailing what happened to the various people referenced in the book, Rosenberg offhandedly notes that sixty-four of the sixty-eight members of his extended family alive at the start of the war were murdered in the Holocaust. Rosenberg, it is likely, did not know many of these people well (of the few that he did, his grandfather’s family died, as best he can tell, in the Warsaw Ghetto and the uncle in Berlin was killed at Auschwitz, but not before he organized a clandestine choir in the camp at Sachsenhausen where he was first interned). It is also true that, miraculously enough, his entire immediate family survived. His parents and sister made it to Haifa; his sister, now 92, still lives in Israel. All of which might explain why this is not a book about loss. And why should it be, I suppose? My sense, however, is that despite the fluency of the narrative, there is something blocked about it. I was regularly surprised that Rosenberg was not more forthcoming about his feelings, or reflective about his situation. How does he feel about his survival? He says only:

Time and time again, there was what I call a ‘confluence of circumstances’ that presented me with a window of opportunity, or a moment to be seized. At each juncture, a combination of factors enabled me to seize that moment or slip through the window. That’s my best explanation for how I survived.

He names some of those circumstances—he didn’t look stereotypically Jewish; he appeared younger than he was (people often took him for a 14-year-old), which inclined them to look kindly on him; he knew five languages and had had parents who arranged for a wonderful education—but the awkward, passive syntax of the passage tells a truth. Survival wasn’t only—wasn’t even primarily—a function of ability, but of chance. Rosenberg was plenty clever and resourceful, don’t get me wrong. But The Art of Resistance shows more clearly than many memoirs of Jewish WWII experience that the Bildungsroman imperative of the memoir as a genre sits uneasily with the realities of the period.

It’s fascinating to read an excerpt from a letter Rosenberg received, decades after the war, from a woman who had also worked with Varian Fry, a woman who “shrieked with joy” to learn of his survival. Rosenberg, she writes, was “just another kid, a Jew, a ‘nice boy, but there’s nothing we can do’ (as Fry said to me when I pressed him to help you).” (Fry is someone I need to learn more about; Rosenberg’s portrayal is ambivalent at best.) The woman says she and Rosenberg and the others who worked on the team are “a people apart,” but Rosenberg doesn’t seem to think of himself that way. He is a competent writer, but not an especially good one (he explains in plodding detail what it means to be a flaneur; gives a capsule definition of the Folies Bergère; writes of his student days, “I came to be of the opinion that eating is culture on a plate!”). He even gets a little sententious when, describing the sad fate of Walter Benjamin, who died attempting to cross the Pyrenees, on one of those missions of the sort Rosenberg himself helped lead (though not that one), he notes that gifted people have their weaknesses too, like anyone, before lauding his own habit of “thinking seriously about what was happening along the way,” as if others who died didn’t think seriously, too. And he can be a little boring: the last part of the book reads like a series of testimonials—he quotes from various commanders who extolled his work with them.

But the man’s had a hell of a life, and who cares if he’s a little complaisant. You won’t learn what the art of resistance is from this book, or even if it has an art—Rosenberg’s claim about chance seems to suggest no—but you’ll hear an amazing story. That might be enough to compensate for book’s inability to be clear about what it means to have such a story.

Maybe the lesson of books like The Art of Resistance and The Bohemians is that if we’re looking for a lesson, something like a manual for resistance we won’t find one. We just have to do it.

Two Books on Resistance (I)

I recently read two books about resistance to fascism:

Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)

Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)

I learned from both, but I didn’t learn what I most wanted to, namely, why do some people resist when most do not? Both books privilege historical detail over theoretical analysis. Still, the experiences recounted in these texts are interesting; setting them down, I found I had a lot to say, so I have divided this post into two parts. Notes on Norman Ohler’s Bohemians are below; those on Justus Rosenberg’s The Art of Resistance will follow.

The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis is better than its grandiose title—which contains at least two errors. First, and most importantly, Germany didn’t resist the Nazis. Second, yes Harro Schulze-Boysen and Libertas Haas-Heye—the lovers of the title—were remarkable people, and it’s weird how little has been written about them so far. But they didn’t lead in any established or organized way. The inside flap is a bit more circumspect, calling them the leaders of “Germany’s largest anti-Nazi resistance group,” but this too obscures what Ohler is at pains to show: the resistance in question succeeded (if it even did, definitely an open question) because it never cohered. The “movement” Schulze-Boysen and Haas-Heye “led” was shaped like a rhizome, not a root or branch, that is, it was an association of more or less like-minded individuals many of whom never knew each other.

For that reason, Ohler references a lot of people in the book—I couldn’t always keep track of the minor players. The book works best as a two-handed biography of Schulze-Boysen and Haas-Heye. They definitely merit the attention.

Harro Schulze-Boysen was born in 1909 in Kiel, where his father served as a naval officer. The family’s most famous relative was Harro’s great-uncle Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who built Kaiser Wilhelm’s navy. (I’ll follow Ohler’s direction and call Harro and Libertas by their first names: much easier!) Harro’s father, Erich-Edgar, was an old-school conservative, “almost otherworldly in his rigor.” He would tell his son not that he could cry but that he should (to show feelings), but that he should never shed more than a single tear (to demonstrate composure). Erich-Edgar wanted to raise “free-thinking conservatives”; Harro, his eldest son, was certainly the former, though increasingly less the latter. Yet his father’s teachings remained engrained: Harro would be tortured several times in his life, leading, in the beginning, to chronic pain and, at the end, to his death, but he forbore it with shocking stoicism.

Harro was a serious person. He moved to Berlin as a young man and began to study law and political science. Before long, though, he drifted from his studies, preferring to spend his time writing and editing a publication called Der Gegner (the opponent, the adversary). In 1932 he became its publisher and transformed the journal into a social movement highlighted by Gegner evenings in cafes and bars across Germany. At these public debates people of different political beliefs were encouraged to air their beliefs, listen to arguments, and move beyond party lines. Like many others, Harro saw Weimar Germany on the verge of splintering; unlike many, quoting Abraham Lincoln (“A house divided cannot stand”), he sought to keep it together through independent thinking.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Harro was excited, not because he supported the Nazis (he had read Mein Kampf in the late 20s and dismissed it as nonsense) but because he assumed the coalition would soon fall, allowing the energy unleased by the Nazis to be harnessed to create “a genuine social revolution.” If only he had been right. As the Nazis consolidate power and suppress dissent, the Gegner came under scrutiny. On April 26, Harro and his number two, Henry Erlanger, were arrested by the newly-empowered SS. The friends were beaten and tortured, forced to run lap after lap around a prison yard. Erlanger, whose father was Jewish, died from the beatings; Harro had a swastika carved into his thigh by an SS thug, a reminder he would carry with him for the rest of his life. (Along with lifelong kidney problems; Ohler is grimly eloquent on the consequences for Harro’s ruined body.) By the time Harro was eventually released—thanks to the heroic efforts of his mother, who came to Berlin and, trading on her family’s military connections, browbeat the SS into giving Harro up—he had given up on the idea of common ground and different viewpoints. Instead he nurtured hatred for the Nazis and vowed revenge for Henry’s death.

To do so, Harro was willing to play the long game. He now believed that only a Trojan horse mentality would defeat the regime. He would “appear outwardly unsuspicious in order to change the system from within.” He abandoned journalism and signed up for the German Air Traffic School. (As part of the Versailles Treaty, Germany wasn’t allowed to have an air force; the school was a thinly disguised way to flout international law.) Harro was a good pilot—he said that only in the air did he feel free of rage—but he gave it up when the Gestapo, who had been hectoring him to sign a false report saying Henry committed suicide, told him point-blank that plane crashes are easy to arrange. In a sign of his newfound tactical prudence, he signed on as a lowly clerk at the newly-reconstituted Air Ministry in 1934 with the hope of being promoted to a position in which he might learn state secrets.

In the meantime, something much more consequential happened to him that summer. Sailing with some friends (Berlin is surrounded by lakes and waterways), he met a girl sunbathing in a two-piece suit—an outfit that had been banned since 1932. This, of course, was Libertas; for both, it was love—and lust—at first sight. The latter is important to their story: the injuries he’d suffered at the hands of the SS made sex difficult for Harro; later in their marriage, Libertas would look elsewhere for sexual satisfaction, with Harro’s reluctant approval. He eventually had an affair as well. These relationships mattered, Ohler argues, because the couple valued sexual fulfillment without regard to procreation. (Totally at odds with Nazi ideology, obviously.) Harro and Libertas and their bohemian friends were for free love, creativity, expressiveness, openness. As Ohler puts it, their resistance


proceeds from life itself; [it is] the natural impulse, unstoppable in some people, to profess unconventionality, to be unconventional.

An interesting way of putting it—professing isn’t the same as being, and Ohler’s clear implication is that his subjects walked a walk that others could only talk. But if the impulse is so natural, why wouldn’t everyone have been like them? Are others just “better” at stopping natural impulses? (More self-control, more highly repressed, take your pick.) This would be a very Freudian/Lawrentian, and thus fittingly early 20th-century, way of thinking about repression. But whose sentiments are we getting in this passage? Ohler’s? Harro and Libertas’s? I was sometimes frustrated with the book’s uncertain voice. (There is no note to this page, for example.) Tellingly, this is one of only a handful of times when Ohler offers anything close to an analysis of his material. He almost never tells us anything about the nature of resistance, or, perhaps more appropriately, of this resistance. And when he does, it’s hard to tell if he’s making his own argument, or if he’s simply transcribing their beliefs.

But back to the girl on the boat. Born in Paris in 1913, Libertas Haas-Heye grew up on her family’s estate, Schloss Liebenberg, fifty kilometers north of Berlin. Her family was even more well-connected than Harro’s. Kaiser Wilhelm had been her maternal grandfather’s closest friend—in fact, had been his lover, a fact eventually revealed in all the newspapers of Europe. The Fürst, as her grandfather was titled, was made to stand trial, rather like Oscar Wilde, but unlike the writer the Fürst was eventually declared unfit to stand trial for health reasons and the trial was adjourned. The stain, however, never quite left the family, a state exacerbated when Libertas’s parents, rather unusually for the time, divorced in the early 1920s.

Her father, a fashion designer and art professor, made the rounds of glamorous cities and resorts. Her mother holed up at the Schloss, isolating herself from the world. Libertas, uprooted many times as a child, had been educated at boarding schools across Europe, which, Ohler speculates, turned her into a person always ready to charm, always seeking to fit in. That tendency, plus the family’s desire to put scandals behind them, might explain their turn to fascism. The head of the family and manager of the estate, Libertas’s uncle, had supported Hitler even before his ascent to power. Libertas herself joined the party in March 1933, though professed herself uninterested in politics. Later that year she moved to Berlin and got a job with MGM’s press department (the film companies needed lots of workers, because they had just fired their Jewish employees). But she wanted to make films, not publicize them. Before long she realized her job wouldn’t lead her to the director’s chair. And she found herself unable to attend university because the Nazis had passed a law lowering the number of students. On the day she accompanied a friend—who happened to know Harro as well—for a day’s sailing on the Wannsee she was, Ohler concludes, at loose ends.

Harro and Libertas were young, good looking, unconventional. (They were, for example, completely uninterested in the gender norms of the time. Neither wanted kids; Harro liked that she worked.) In the months that followed, they bought a car, weekended at Liebenberg, lived communally with friends. But such carefree unconventionality was hard to sustain. Their families put pressure on them to marry. Besides, being together for so long without marrying attracted the wrong kind of attention at Harro’s work. They were married in the summer of 1936, went away on honeymoon, seemed the perfect rising Aryan couple. Libertas even sweettalked Göring into giving her husband a promotion when the Reich Aviation Minister attended a stag hunt at Liebenberg. All this time, though, Harro was collecting information—in 1936, he learned about plans to send German fighter planes to support Franco in Spain, but the English journalist he passed the secret on to didn’t want to know about it—and biding his time. After Harro’s promotion, the couple rented a big apartment that would become a gathering place for artists and intellectuals. The held raucous parties every other Thursday, at which they would cautiously sound people out on their feelings about the regime.

Gradually, they organized a series of resistance actions: some were more minor than others, but even the most innocuous was risky. Harro, Libertas, and their friends sang French songs, took photos of battleships (Libertas got caught and was picked up by the Gestapo; it almost ended badly), and wrote pamphlets they mailed anonymously to likeminded souls (one was titled Concern for Germany’s Future is Spreading Among the People). In an especially audacious plan, they covered the advertisements for a big propaganda exhibit with stickers reading “War Hunger Lies Gestapo” (Harro had the bright idea of asking men and women to work together, so the graffiti artists could disguise the stickering by making out). Most seriously, they got in touch with the Allies and passed on information to them. Harro managed to contact a Soviet agent based in Brussels, who provided him with a radio transmitter. But most of their messages failed to get through, because the machines were notoriously hard to work. Which was too bad, because Harro and Libertas knew a lot.

Already in the fall 1940, the German command was making plans to invade the Soviet Union. In January 1941, Harro saw photographic evidence of reconnaissance flights over Leningrad. A few weeks earlier, he had noticed that all Russian books (including Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) had been withdrawn from the Air Ministry library. (I am amazed not that the regime decided the books were propaganda, but that the Air Ministry had a library containing Tolstoy.)

Harro had the more prominent position, but Libertas learned the more terrible things. In the summer of 1940, the Ministry of Propaganda formed the Germany Documentary Film Institute, aimed at producing 10-minute shorts extolling the war effort to be screened before feature films. Impressively for someone who had taken the unusual and dangerous step of renouncing her party membership, Libertas got the job of approving or denying these projects. She was a censor—but an unusual one, sidelining projects that she deemed too close to the party line (always using finances as an excuse) and encouraging any she thought had even the slightest subversive potential. But soon she was reviewing more than propaganda films. For reasons neither Ohler nor other researchers can explain, her office began to receive photos sent willingly by soldiers on the Eastern front which clearly showed atrocities against Jews. Libertas pilfered many of the photos and assembled them into scrapbooks which she hid in the apartment. (They were later destroyed by the SS.)

Then their luck ran out, done in by the carelessness of others. The radio assistant of the Russian agent in Brussels was arrested and, under torture, revealed their codes. Among the messages the Gestapo were able to decipher, one, which the agent had foolishly not destroyed, included Harro and Libertas’s address. A formal (secret) investigation was launched into First Lieutenant Harro Schulze-Boysen, that rising star in the Luftwaffe. A friend of Harro’s—a co-conspirator—worked in the encryption office and frantically sought to warn Harro the minute he learned of the investigation. What followed was a deadly game of telephone tag. The man left a message for Harro, but happened to be away from his desk when Harro returned the call. Worse luck, the leader of the investigation happened to answer the phone. Worst of all, Harro happened to give his own name. After that, things happened fast—first Harro was arrested, then a few days later Libertas, and finally other members of the “organization” the Nazis had come to call “The Red Orchestra” (under the mistaken impression the participants were all communists; in fact, pretty much none of them were).

The resisters were tortured, mentally and physically. They held out through terrible suffering, at least for a time. It didn’t help that Libertas had unknowingly spilled secrets to a secretary who pretended to be sympathetic. Ohler describes an amazing scene, during the ensuing trial, when the conspirators are able to be together for the first time since their arrest—during a lunch break when the guards connive to give them some time together—and they collectively decide together to forgive Libertas, even though her indiscretions have hurt their cause.

Harro and Libertas in happier times

In the end, the bohemians of Ohler’s title are convicted and sentenced to be executed. They write moving letters to their parents; Libertas one to Harro. Harro writes a poem that he arranges to have the kapo of his cellblock, a former bricklayer, hide in the wall, asking him to recover it after the war and send it to his parents. Which actually happens. The poem concludes:

The world will be our judges/Not the judges of today. (Harro’s italics)

That judgment has been mixed, though. After the war, the “Red Orchestra” was celebrated by the East German government as a home-grown ring of spies working under the leadership of Moscow to destroy fascism from within. (This ignores the reality that the carelessness of Moscow’s agent basically got them killed.) The West Germans were uninterested. Harro’s brother, who became a diplomat, even asked Helmut Kohl to acknowledge the dead man’s actions, but he received nothing more than a dismissal: the real legacy of resistance, the brother was sententiously told, was a state devoted to the rule of law. (Ohler points out that Harro would have agreed.) West German reticence stemmed from a belief that the group were in fact in league with the Soviets, but surely also was connected to the fact that many of the people who persecuted Harro, Libertas, and the others were rehabilitated, avoided trial, or traded between east and west. Many of them ended up working for secret services in the US, UK, and Germany. In sum, the legacy of the “gang” was nothing but misrepresentation all around—a typical irony.

Ohler has done fine work in telling this exciting, tragic story in a compelling way. I’m impressed how elegantly he has organized the book: it is as tightly structured as the thriller it could have been. Readers of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin will find a similar inexorable, terrible narrative here. Ohler has a light touch with his own writerly persona—almost too much so, as I’ve suggested in my complaint about the uncertainty regarding his own point of view—but the book’s impetus was clearly personal. The summer he was twelve, newly shaken by what he had recently learned in school, Ohler asked his grandfather what he had done during the war. The man, who had worked for the Reichsbahn, the state railway, reluctantly tells a story about a train he once saw, on a tour of duty in northern Bohemia. The long freight train was shunted to the side outside a little station. He felt uneasy about the train. He walked alongside its silent cars; suddenly a tin cup was lowered on a strong from an opening near the roof of one of the cars into a nearby snow bank. Just as suddenly, the cup, now filled with snow, was pulled up until a small hand reached out to grab it. There were people in there! The train, grandfather learned, was going somewhere called Theresienstadt; he’d never heard of it. His bad feeling only grew when some SS men came and ran the grandfather off. He told himself the people must have been prisoners of war and willed himself to forget what he’d seen. I was scared, he tells Ohler. After a while the man goes into his house and returns with an envelope, which he wordlessly hands to his grandson. Inside is his party membership. Please. Take it. I can’t have it in the house anymore.

The envelope turned into this book: a man lying to himself in Bohemia begat a story resurrecting rebellious bohemians. Ohler has the good sense not to claim this is a fair trade, or that restitution has been achieved. But he’s written a valuable book. I’m unconvinced his grandfather was the kind of person to have been proud of that—nor was he in a position to be, in my opinion. But it’s a good thing Ohler has done. After Harro and the others were hanged, Hitler vowed the Nazis would wipe even the memory of their names from the earth; for many years they effectively did so. The Bohemians begins to right that wrong.