Primo Levi: A Centenary Celebration

The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi was born 100 years ago in Turin, Italy. He spent his entire life there, except for the months he spent imprisoned by the Nazis in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Buna-Monowitz, and the year it took him to make his way home. Although Levi’s actual birthday is not until next month (he lived from July 31, 1919 – April 11, 1987), I’ve decided to spend much of June reading and writing about him.

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Levi is a writer close to my heart. It would not be wrong to say that I am in love with him. Which is of course a preposterous thing to say. But from the time I first read Levi, in my second year at university, I was smitten with his secular humanism. I admired the way he bridged the so-called “two cultures” (not an idea, I suspect, he would have had much time for). And mostly I sensed that he was a decent, kind person—a mensch of the first order. Of course, I gleaned that sense from his autobiographical writings, and, like all memoirists, the persona Levi offers us in writing is related to but not the same as his actual person. I have long had Ian Thomson’s biography on my shelves, and this seems the perfect time to read that alongside Levi’s own works.

(Thomson is a great writer, and I’m really looking forward to his book, but I know there are at least two other biographies in English, one by Carole Angier and one by Berel Lang. I won’t have time to read them, but if anyone has read one or both, I’d like to know what you think. I’m dimly aware that Thomson and Angier come to different conclusions about Levi, particularly, I believe, about his mysterious death.)

When I speak to groups about the Holocaust, I am often asked what books I would most recommend for people who want to learn more. It’s a question to which there are so many possible, equally worthy answers. There are so many urgent Holocaust books. But I always list Survival in Auschwitz (as it is frustratingly titled in the US: a much better, and more accurate title would be If This is a Man) first. For me, it is one of the most indispensable books of the twentieth century.

Here’s what I have in mind at the moment for my centenary celebrations:

  • A post on Survival in Auschwitz, specifically how I teach it. [Note: this turned into two long posts: here and here.]
  • A post on his genre-defying The Periodic Table, which I read 25 years ago and look forward to revisiting. [Note: Didn’t do this, but my friend Nat did–he’s thoughtful as always.]
  • A post on If Not Now, When?, a novel in which Levi takes on the Eastern Jewish experience that wasn’t his own (it’s about a band of partisans making their way from Russia to Palestine, perhaps loosely based on the Bielski partisans).
  • A post on some of Levi’s non-Jewish writing: I’m thinking Other People’s Trades and some of the stories
  • A post on some of the things I learned from Thomson’s biography

That’s an ambitious schedule, and who knows how much of it I’ll get to. In the meantime, you could check out a couple of things I’ve already written on Levi. Here at the blog I wrote about how I always begin my introductory Holocaust Lit course with a close reading of a passage from the second of Levi’s memoirs, The Reawakening. And a couple of years ago I reviewed an interesting new book about Levi’s time as a partisan in the Italian Alps in 1943. (It was for this resistance work, rather than his being Jewish, that Levi was first arrested.)

I’d be thrilled if anyone wanted to join me in reading Levi—no need to match my choices, especially since I’m not even sure I know what they’ll be yet. And if you feel compelled to write about your responses to those works, I’ll gladly post your thoughts on the blog.

March 2019 in Review

March is a long time ago now, but I wanted to say a few words about my monthly reading. A better than average set.

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Yiyun Li – Where Reasons End (2019) Sad, funny, wise, painful. I quoted bits here.

Christopher R. Browning – Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992/98) This Holocaust scholar could have won plenty of rounds of Humiliation for not having read Browning’s classic microhistory of the actions of Order Police Battalion 101 near Lublin in 1942. Sometimes books you feel just have to have read disappoint. Not Ordinary Men, which remains as eye-opening now as then. (Browning has written a thoughtful essay for the 25th anniversary edition, bringing the latest research, especially concerning the photograph record of the unit, to bear on his original conclusions.)

The book begins with a sobering statistic: in March 1942, 70—80% of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive, and 20—30% had been murdered; by February 1943, the proportions were reversed. 1942 was the darkest year in Jewish history; Browning examines one example of the men who perpetrated that darkness. The average age of the 500 men in the battalion was in the upper 30s, meaning that they had come of age before the Nazis came to power, and they were working- and lower middle class men from Hamburg, an area and the social classes famously antipathetic to National Socialism—facts which, taken together, suggest these men would have been among the least likely to be drawn to fascism. Yet they readily participated in mass executions, round-ups, and deportations.

Browning notes that 10—20% refused to partake in atrocities (and they had the benefit of a commander who actually asked before the first action if anyone wanted out—rather than a death sentence or a transfer to the front, these dissenters were moved into clerical positions or even sent back home); 20—30% participated avidly in atrocities; while the majority (50—70%), although reluctant, participated anyway. For the men in this last category, it was easier to follow along, and too unpleasant to risk the scorn of their more hateful colleagues. These are sobering numbers, with implications beyond Browning’s specific example. What makes us think we wouldn’t number among the majority in a similar scenario?

Leslie Morris, The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture Outside the Margins (2018) I had a realization as I reviewed Morris’s book on the idea of translation in postwar German Jewish culture: academic monographs make me grumpy and I should stop writing about them. Thus, I’ve given up reviewing books for Choice, a publication designed to help libraries decide what to buy. (I wrote for them for 10 years.) Morris, whom I have not met even though the field we work in is small, probably deserves a more charitable reviewer. I did my best to point out the inspiring range of her material—ranging from a defunct Berlin sculpture park to Jewish body art to the poets Raymond Federman and Rose Ausländer. But her insistence, so typically academic, that we think, read, or engage “in new ways,” without explaining how or why, grated on me. As I concluded: “her description of Jewishness as an endlessly deferred cipher, at once spurring and spurning interpretation, is as unexceptional as it is unexceptionable.”

Andrea Camilleri – The Overnight Kidnapper (2015) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) Of course, the crime itself has vanished from my memory, but I recall the latest Montalbano as a decent effort. I didn’t want any surprises, and I didn’t get any.

Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 2] (2016) Trans. Anne Ishii (2018) I read Volume 1 last month; happy to say that the conclusion doesn’t disappoint. It plays a trick on us, but a fair one: leading us to believe in an impossible ending, then gently showing us why the all-too-possible one, however melancholy, is the right choice.

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies (2018) The latest Rebus—once again improved, I suspect, by the audiobook’s excellent narrator—is one of the best in a while, featuring a rich set of storylines, plus better use of Brillo the dog (see my February complaint). The détente between Rebus and Edinburgh crime boss Big Ger Cafferty suggested in the previous installments is gone. This despite the fact that Rebus is coming to terms with a COPD diagnosis. Has anyone written about the pathos of ailing detectives?

H. F. Heard – A Taste for Honey (1941) I admit, I did not do this book justice. I read it on a Friday night when I was exhausted and should have gone to bed. But even in a better frame of mind, I think I would have found this tale of Holmes in retirement thin gruel. You better like Holmes a lot more than suspense if you’re going to enjoy it.

Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex I & II (both 2015) Trans. Frank Wynne (2017 & 2018) Not sure how long they’ll stay with me, but I liked these books a lot. I tried to articulate why—and the issue I take with the conclusion they seem to be coming to—here.

Mihail Sebastian – Women (1933) Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh (2019) More anon.

Solomon Perel – Europa, Europa (1990) Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo (1997) Almost on a whim, I decided to teach Agnieska Holland’s adaptation of Perel’s extraordinary Holocaust memoir this semester. It went well—I’m finding the movie more interesting the longer I spend with it (always a good sign). The film is plenty unusual, but Perel’s memoir even more so. His story is stranger than fiction: after escaping the Nazi advance by fleeing east of the Bug river (the part of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union in the Hitler—Stalin pact) and finding refuge as a Komsomol in an orphanage in Grodno, the Jewish Perel passed himself off as an Ethnic German when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. (He had been born in Germany before moving to Poland with his parents as a child.) Perel found himself honoured for fighting at the Front and then shipped to a boarding school for elite members of the Hitler Youth, where he spent most of his time worrying someone would notice his circumcision. (Tonally, both book and film are crazy: sort of funny, sort of campy, sort of moving.) Remarkably, Perel survived the war surrounded by Nazi true believers, and at war’s end found himself reunited with his elder brother, the only other member of the family to survive. Perel’s story is even more unlikely than most survivor tales. What is most interesting is the way his cognitive dissonance features in odd switches between first and third person. At heart there seems something fundamentally incurious about Perel. An effect of his experiences? Or a predisposition towards surviving them?

Michelle McNamara — I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018) I don’t read much True Crime. But I do read a ton of crime fiction. So, I naively assumed, when I started listening to McNamara’s acclaimed description of her pursuit of the serial rapist she named the Golden State Killer, that I knew what I was in for. Nope. I was shocked by how visceral, graphic, and uncomfortably voyeuristic this book—and, I suspect, its genre—turns out to be. It’s creepy as shit. To her credit, McNamara is aware of these difficulties, and doesn’t shy from highlighting her obsessive interest. Sadly, McNamara couldn’t finish her book: she died about three-quarters of the way through, and the finished version has been pieced together from notes. (The editors clearly describe when and how they’ve reconstructed.) Still, I did find the book repetitive and confusingly structured—perhaps a fitting response to the relentlessness of the crimes, dozens and dozens of them, perpetrated over a decade all over California. (If I had a better sense of California’s geography I might have had an easier time of it.) The tension between what we know—the killer was finally caught (in part thanks to McNamara’s efforts—and what she didn’t gives the book a macabre poignancy. Not for the faint of heart.

Lissa Evans — Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) Read my take, if you like, but be sure to read this novel. There’s a dog that understands Yiddish!

David Bezmozgis — Immigrant City: Stories (2019) Bezmozgis is one of my favourites, the heir to Bernard Malamud. I snapped up his new collection on a recent weekend in Canada (why no US pub date?) and finished it before I was even home. I’m not sure Bezmozgis has ever written anything as rich as his first novel, The Free World (the great novel of the emigration of Soviet Jewry), but most of these stories are the equal of those in his terrific first collection, Natasha and Other Stories. Of course, some stories are stronger than others. “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” for example, is a bit travelogue-y. But “Immigrant City” breaks new ground for Bezmozgis (not sure the attempt to juxtapose earlier generations of Jewish immigrants to newer ones from Syria and Somalia completely works, but it’s thought provoking—I suspect it would hold up to rereading). And “Little Rooster” is a classic that is going straight onto the syllabus of my course on postwar representations of the Holocaust.

More before too long, I hope, about April reading, which is proving decidedly more unavailing.

“A Matter of Authenticity”: Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half

It takes all day to get from Little Rock, Arkansas to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a trip I made last week, and so I had plenty of time for reading. From the teetering stacks on my study floor, I plucked Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) to take with me. I chose well. It’s that rarest and most valuable thing, perfect light reading. I hope that doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise. As in her other books, Evans here is funny, but also poignant. Her prose feels effortless—but the book is about what hard work underlies effortlessness.

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Their Finest Hour and a Half is a Blitz novel. It follows a young woman named Catrin Cole, who escapes her Welsh childhood by running away to London with a painter she has only known for a week or so, takes a job writing advertising copy, and then finds herself conscripted by the Ministry of Information. Her war work will be to write scripts for propaganda/morale boosting films, specifically to write women’s roles, which apparently men can’t do. After doing her best with some tragically lame shorts—warnings against loose talk and encomiums to the delights of carrots, grown in good British soil—Catrin finally gets her big chance, a feature (very) loosely based on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat to help with the Dunkirk evacuation.

The creation of the film brings together a set of wonderful characters: Edith, a seamstress who worked at Madame Tussaud’s until it was bombed; Arthur, a catering specialist who finds himself over his head when he is seconded to the production as its military advisor; Ambrose, an actor who was never as good as he thinks he was but whose career is now definitively on the skids; Parfitt, a writer who almost never speaks and only in short bursts, much of which consists of grunts; and Myrtle, a teenager mad about movies.

Equal parts heartwarming, engaging, and even delightful, Their Finest Hour and a Half is also smart about how historical events get represented, both by those experiencing them and by those who come later. By centering her novel on a film production—in which a complicated, somewhat underwhelming but still inspiring event is transformed into a flattened heroic epic, and in which every decision about how to tell a story passes through multiple people and committees, each with their own agenda—Evans shows us how all events, whether dramatic or not, whether in war or at peace, must be shaped in order to be understood. I appreciated that Evans wasn’t content simply to show up Londoners’ response to the Blitz as mere myth (“London can take it,” etc.). (I’ve been speaking of Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is the UK title; unaccountably, the US publisher has reduced that to the nonsensical Their Finest. By doing so, the book loses at once its allusion to Winston Churchill’s own mythologizing of WWII, the reference to the run time of the film, and that endearingly bathetic, even ramshackle half hour. I’m reminded of the way all programs in Canada are always announced as starting a half hour later in Newfoundland.)

By focusing on the worlds of theatre, advertising, and mass media, Evans shows myths to be more than just lies, ideology, or false consciousness. It’s not that there are no truths in a modern age, but that truths need to be told—they are representations. Every telling is a framing, the result of a series of choices. And Evans, who worked as a radio and television producer before writing full time, knows how hard it is to create those representations. Some of the novel’s best bits emphasize craft, whether it’s Ambrose trying out a series of line readings, Edith replacing old bead work, or Parfitt and his partner Buckley moving around bits of paper as they organize the plot of the film, before spending hours bashing out bits of script to hit just the right note in a scene. Yes, everyone is selling something, some vision of the past, but they’re not just lying.

No wonder, then, that Evans’s own craft—her own language—is so effective. Here are a few bits that caught my eye.

The narrator, here focalized through Catrin, describes the enigmatic Parfitt, who for several months won’t even talk to the new employee: “All communication had been via Buckley, as if the latter were the string between two cocoa tins.”

A character actor bridles at how much will be added to the film in post-production. He’s insulted that a gunshot will be indicated in the take by an offstage fingersnap: “‘I want to react to the sniper out there, and not the finger-snap in here, do you see what I mean? It’s a matter of authenticity. In fact, there’s no chance of actually firing a rifle is there?’”

A cab driver recognizes Ambrose from his 1931 film “A New Leaf.” We get a sublime description of the film and its making:

The angel-faced child who’d played ‘Sonny’ (‘I don’t know whose son I am, mister, so I might as well be yours…’) had not only fleeced the entire cast at poker, but had turned out to be playing with a marked pack, supplied to him by his mother.

That’s practically Wodehouse, with the risible dialogue, and the almost gentle hardboiled story of the hard-bitten child actor. Then we get a second joke, when the puffed-up actor, filled with surprised pride that he has been recognized for a role from ten years ago, learns that the only reason the cabbie remembers him is that it was the last film he ever saw, having found religion right afterwards.

Edith, the seamstress, reflects on her impending marriage: “She would shortly be installed as Mrs Edith Frith, a name unpronounceable to all but professional linguists.”

The girl Myrtle despairs when, after years of dreaming of visiting London, she finds it entirely underwhelming:

‘Is this really London?’ whispered Myrtle, suddenly, desperately.

‘It’s a suburb of London.’

‘But it’s just houses.’

‘I know.’

‘Just house after house after house. I thought there’d be things to look at. I thought it would be exciting. I told everybody at school I was going to see film-stars. I even brought my autograph book, but it just looks like anywhere.’

‘I know,’ said Edith, ‘I’m sorry.”

And just to show that Evans isn’t just funny (though, really, what’s more important?), here is Catrin escaping the worst night of Blitz in a crowded cinema showing the Jimmy Stewart – Marlene Dietrich vehicle Destry Rides Again:

And the audience erupted again, and Catrin found herself being pulled along by the crowd, caught up in a vast and vocal caravan determinedly heading Westward for the evening, and for an hour or two there was enough applause, there were enough celluloid gunshots and gusts of laughter and galloping music, enough songs and fist-fights, enough glamour and wit and plot and spectacle to blot out the real barrage, and for a short while, the theatre seemed safer than any shelter, and the noise inside was like a shield, keeping the night at bay.

This is a resonant, almost hortatory passage, one of the few unleavened by gentle irony and wit, the one that comes closest to embracing the myth of the Blitz (J. B. Priestley: “It took bombs to deliver us”) without examining that myth. But it feels earned to me, and in keeping with Evans’s belief in spectacle, illusion, and representation as constitutive of rather than merely a second-rate imitation of political reality.

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In its interest in how the story of the Blitz has been told, Their Finest Hour shares concerns with Sarah Waters’s more overtly revisionist The Night Watch (2006). Waters’s register is different, darker, more traumatized. She’s worth reading, too. But the book that Their Finest Hour most reminded me of is Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices (1980), set at the BBC during the same time period. And when I think about the two novels Evans has written since Their Finest Hour—I wrote briefly about them here—I wonder if she might not be becoming our own Fitzgerald. What could be better than that?

 

“So we are both bereaved!” Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy

The most powerful and consequential scene in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy (1977-80) occurs early in the first volume, The Danger Tree. A young Englishwoman, Harriet Pringle, is the primary observer of the scene. Manning detailed Harriet’s experiences in Romania and Greece with her feckless husband, Guy, a teacher attached to the British Council, in three wonderful novels published in the 1960s as the Balkan Trilogy. At the end of those books, Harriet and Guy, on the run from fascism, had been pushed from Bucharest to Athens and, finally, across the Mediterranean in two ancient, creaky, and overcrowded ships to safety in Egypt.

Manning couldn’t let go of her characters (another way to say this is that she couldn’t keep from revisiting her own life, since Harriet and Guy are modeled on Manning herself and her husband, Reggie, and their wartime experiences). In the last years of her life, she took up their story again, adding a new character, Simon Boulderstone, to the mix. In the opening chapter Simon, a twenty-year-old recruit freshly arrived in Egypt to fight Rommel’s army, gets separated from his regiment and falls in with Harriet and her circle of fellow refugees.

Cairo, Manning explains, “had become the clearinghouse of Eastern Europe”:

Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafes were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.

Except it might not. Things in Cairo are tense. The Germans aren’t far away, though no one knows for sure where exactly. The darkest rumours suggest they’ll take the city in a matter of days. Many exiles have chosen to leave for points east. The Egyptians, by contrast, are sanguine, even welcoming the possibility of German takeover, so much resentment is there of the British. The Anglo-Egyptians, by contrast, are incensed. One of them, Sir Clifford, an agent for an oil company, explains, with unpleasant distaste, “The gypo porters are having a high old time at the station. I was there yesterday, saw them chucking the luggage about, roaring with laughter, bawling, “Hitler come.’”

In the midst this turmoil, Clifford leads a group that includes Simon and Harriet on an excursion to the Fayoum, an oasis region about sixty miles from the city. The self-proclaimed Egyptologist leads the motley and mostly listless group through various tombs and a fly-ridden picnic in the heat of the day. Towards evening, they pass the home of Sir Desmond and Angela Hooper, and, despite the group’s protestations, Clifford decides to drop in to see if the couple has heard any news.

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As the group waits awkwardly in a living room “as large as a ballroom” they hear a car shrieking on the drive and a terrible commotion in the hall. A woman runs into the room, calling for Sir Desmond, “her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the torn, paint-covered overalls that protected her dress.” This is Lady Hooper, returned from a sketching session that ends abruptly after a terrible accident.

Behind her, two servants carry in “the inert body of a boy”:

He lay prone and motionless, a thin, small boy of eight or nine with the same delicate features as his mother: only something had happened to them. One eye was missing. There was a hole in the left cheek that extended into the torn wound which had been his mouth. Blood had poured down his chin and was caked on the collar of his open-necked shirt. The other eye, which was open, was lackluster and blind like the eye of a dead rabbit.

Manning conveys horror through simple repetition, as if her language were shocked by what it had to describe. “Eye,” for example, is repeated three times, twice in a single sentence, which includes a meagre yet highly effective simile (the boy’s open eye is blind like the eye of a dead rabbit’s—an eye is like an eye). The idea of a hole or orifice is similarly repeated. There are the eyes and the mouth, of course, and the terrible opening in what had been the cheek. But there is also a painful contrast between these unnatural openings and the ordinary one of the “open-necked shirt.”

The Hoopers’ child—as best I can tell, he is never named—had picked up an explosive hidden in the sand while playing in the desert. The guests are horrified and fascinated by the scene. Sir Desmond and Angela react with stoic calm, but they are clearly in shock. They decide the boy should have something to eat, “a little nourishment, light and easy to swallow.”

A servant brings a bowl of gruel and Sir Desmond, “bending tenderly over the boy,” attempts to feed him:

The mouth was too clogged with congealed blood to permit entry so the father poured a spoonful of gruel into the hole in the cheek. The gruel poured out again. This happened three times before Sir Desmond gave up and, gathering the child in his arms, said, ‘He wants to sleep. I’ll take him to his room.’

I’d actually read The Danger Tree before, right after I devoured The Balkan Trilogy. Returning to it now, almost ten years later, I’d forgotten most of it, except this utterly indelible scene. The parents’ decision is so insane, so deluded—the boy is clearly dead, obviously beyond any “wants”—and yet so understandable. The matter-of-factness of the telling (that terrible sentence, “The gruel poured out again”) lends dignity to the disbelieving parents.

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In one way, the child’s death is a minor event. It doesn’t involve Harriet, Guy, or Simon directly; it has no direct connection to the war (though that’s presumably why live explosives are lying around). Simon, once he finally makes his way to the Front, has even forgotten all about it until a Signals man warns him about minefields and other booby traps: he broods on the information “until suddenly, like a returning dream, he remembered the dead boy in the Fayoum house.” Everything about the day has become distant, the people “beings of an unreal world.” Yet he muses on the moment; similarly, this minor moment echoes and ricochets across the books’ 500 pages. Like Simon, Manning keeps coming back to the boy’s death. In particular, she develops the character of his mother, Angela Hooper. In the death scene, she is a cipher: partly desperate, partly clueless. Later, she becomes a joke among the Cairo expatriates (Clifford, nasty little snake, dines out on the story for months; soon everyone knows it). Angela moves to Cairo, where, having separated from her husband and abandoned her previous life as an artist, mother, and hostess, she is a Brett Ashley figure who drinks too much and doesn’t seem to care about anything, so traumatized is she by the past.

Yet as the trilogy continues, Angela becomes increasingly complex. Her relationship with an alcoholic poet, Bill Castlebar, reveals itself not to have been the tawdry joke everyone initially took it to be but a sustaining, if not sustained, quasi-marriage of equals. She becomes especially important to Harriet, who gains in her something she has never had before: a friend of her own. Previously Harriet has always had to make do with her husband’s numerous hangers-on. (Guy attracts almost everyone he meets, men anyway, because he seems to take such interest in them, and he does, but only insofar as they are a problem for him to solve or a vessel for him to fill with knowledge or advice; besides, he is chronically over-committed, probably as a way to keep real intimacy, real friendships, at bay, and so he carelessly foists everyone who clamours for a slice of his attention on to his wife. She doesn’t want to look after them and they don’t want to be looked after by her.) When Angela first re-encounters her, Harriet is sure the bereaved woman won’t remember their first meeting. But she does:

‘I brought in my boy and the room was full of people. He was a beautiful boy, wasn’t he? His body was untouched—there was only that wound in his head. A piece of metal had gone into the brain and killed him. He was almost perfect, a small, perfect body, yet he was dead. We couldn’t believe it, but next day of course… We had to bury him.’

Harriet isn’t ready for this confidence, misreading it as some combination of delusion (and what does that ellipsis signify?) and over-sharing: “wishing this would end,” she redirects the conversation. Harriet is our hero, but as we see here she’s not always sympathetic. Her ability to see through other people’s bullshit is refreshing (she sees through Guy’s, but won’t leave him: frustrating!), but she can brusque—sometimes that makes us cheer, as when she admits she is “never unwilling to disquiet” a man who had once left Guy in the lurch, but sometimes that makes us wonder, as when she dismisses a man’s anxiety about whether he will ever be able to take up his career again once the way is over (he is an actor, and fears his moment has passed) by heartlessly replying, “We’re all displaced persons these days.”

Most of the time, though, Harrier is sensitive and perceptive. There’s nothing Proustian about Manning’s style or approach or concerns, but over the course of these novels she does something I’ve only seen in Proust: she reveals characters to each other over an extended period of time, so that by the end they only barely resemble our initial sense of them. Just as Marcel comes to see Charlus entirely differently over the course of the lifetime described by his book, so too Harriet finds entirely unpredictable depths to Angela. The same is true of Castelbar. At first, he seems merely an unpleasant, no longer young man on the make, who has attached himself to Angela because she is rich and will buy all his drinks and even, rather unaccountably, even to himself, wants to screw him. But the relationship is for real. And we learn, with Harriet, how kind he is, and Harriet, at any rate (with luck we already know this, but we can never be reminded too often), learns how important kindness is in the people we love—and how little of it she gets from Guy:

He was kind, and not only to Angela. He carried his kindness over to Harriet so she, an admirer of wit, intelligence, and looks in a man, was beginning to realize that kindness, if you had the luck to find it, was an even more desirable quality.

Harriet even comes to see the actor, a man named Aidan Pratt, the one whose worries about his career she had dismissed, in a completely other light, such that he demands her sympathy. He tells her the story of his war, which consists of two traumas: one, referenced only obliquely and never developed, concerns the death of a lover; the other concerns his experiences as a conchie, a conscientious objector, early in the war. He was put to work on a liner transporting orphans to Canada, but the boat was torpedoed by the Germans and he the only survivor, having spent days adrift in the ocean in a life-raft full of children he was unable to save, an experience that did away with his pacifism.

Over and over, Manning gives us glimpses into the extraordinary yet commonplace terrors faced by people at war. Flipping again through Deirdre David’s workmanlike but comprehensive recent biography of Manning, I’m reminded that many of the Levant Trilogy’s first readers liked the Simon sections of the book best. They were impressed with Manning’s ability to describe the confusion and terror of desert tank warfare. I suspect sexism played a part in this response—the books were most valued when Manning proved able to move past her own experiences to depict the male experience of fighting. I think these scenes are good, too, but, as I’ve suggested, they’re not what most interests me. Besides, I think the distinction between what happens at and behind the Front misses Manning’s point. These worlds are connected by a shared experience of loss and trauma, as Simon himself recognizes when, having learned that his brother has died, he is given a week’s leave in Cairo, where he meets Angela again. She remembers him immediately, even apologizing for what the scene with her son must have looked like to an observer:

‘We didn’t know he was dead, you know: or perhaps we couldn’t bear to know. It must have been upsetting for you. I’m sorry.’

In what could be a motto for the books, Angela observes that she and Simon now share the most profound and inescapable experience, of loss: “So we are both bereaved!”

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Olivia Manning, self-portrait c. 1930

I could say a lot more about these books, but this post is long enough. I’ll end by listing a few other favourite moments. Harriet is given the chance at a new life when, having almost died from amoebic dysentery, she finds a place on a ship taking women and children back to England. At the last moment, though, she decides not to get on the boat, a lucky thing too, since it is sunk shortly after entering the Indian ocean. Guy and everyone in Cairo think she is dead (some sections of the last volume are focalized through Guy; it is interesting that this doesn’t make us sympathize with him any more), whereas Harriet has no idea what has happened to the boat. Blissfully unaware, she sets out on an adventure, first to Damascus and then Palestine. These sections are fascinating, but underdeveloped. (Perhaps Manning thought she had mined her experiences in Jerusalem sufficiently in my favourite of her novels, School for Love.) More than the novel’s travelogue of the Levant, what stays with me are its arresting observations (watching a porter manage piles of luggage, Harriet “saw that from bearing so much eight, his feet had become almost circular and appeared to have toes all round”), vivid characterization, even of minor roles (who can forget Lister, who in his cups always returns to memories of his childhood nurse, who used to pull down his underwear and beat him with a hairbrush: “Bristle side. Used to pull down little kickers and beat little bum. Poor little bum!”), and striking, often violent scenes, whether of a bar in Tiberias destroyed by violent, maudlin, drunken Australian soldiers on leave, of a collapsed house after an air-raid in Cairo, where, for days afterward, survivors can be heard wailing to be released, though no one will do anything about it, or of a miserable polar bear in the sweltering Cairo zoo, with which Harriet tries to bond “through the medium of her intense pity.” She tells the bear, “’If I could do anything for you, I would do it with my whole heart. But the world is against us. All I can do, is go away.’”

Harriet’s rather despairing conclusion isn’t quite the book’s. People do care for each other, though it almost always ends badly (they get blown up, they take another lover, they get sick and die). (Maybe the only exceptions are a pair of lesbian ambulance drivers–I wanted a whole book about them–though it’s unclear whether their relationship can survive the war.) Nor is it clear that going away is as practicable a solution as Harriet here seems to think. After all, she is returned to Guy, and, in a way to life, having been presumed dead. Fittingly, this reunion is more moving to the people watching it than to the novel itself. Harriet and Guy are delighted to be together again, but Harriet, at least, now has no illusions that she will ever come first with her husband. Her tart observation that marriage is “knowing too much about each other” is fitting for novels in which the most profound togetherness comes only through loss.

I read these books alongside Scott of the blog seraillon. Please read his excellent essay.

“The Life We Knew Here Is Gone”: Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House

In the years after the fall of communism, Zofia Illinska, an elegant, erudite Polish woman, an émigré who at that point had lived in England for fifty years, returned to the estate she and her mother fled in 1939 when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland. Zofia was accompanied by an Englishman half her age, the author of this remarkable book; having befriended him when, as a boy he stayed with his family in her hotel in Cornwall, the two stayed in contact ever since. The Bronski House A Return to the Borderlands (1995) is a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.

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Few of the places that mattered in Zofia’s life exist anymore. She was born in 1921 in Polish Wilno, today Vilnius in Lithuania, and grew up at a house called Mantuski, in modern-day Belarus. Her story, like that of so many people in the past century (and in our own), is one of enforced change, driven by the violent dreams of others. The results of those dreams, more often than not, are sickness, death, and misery. As Marsden puts it, describing Minsk in the fall of 1917:

Stooped figures shuffled about, collecting water from puddles. Illness hung over that place like the thunder-clouds. Everyone was ill—ill from dysentery, ill from typhus, ill and widowed from other people’s war, other people’s ideas, other people’s revolutions.

Although the words are Marsden’s, it’s unclear whose sentiments these are. I’ve been speaking of Zofia, but the book is not only or even primarily hers; it’s at least as much the story of her mother, Helena. Helena is the one who experienced Minsk at the end of the First World War; Zofia, undreamed of by her mother, wasn’t yet born. The bulk of the book is based on diaries, letters, and notebooks Helena kept over the years, but for the most part Marsden is telling the story. (We are given excerpts from the diaries, allowing us to see that Helena was a gifted, if somewhat exuberant writer; little surprise that her daughter became a poet.) Marsden hews closely to Helena’s viewpoint—he tells us what she experienced and what she felt—but at times we sense his perspective.

In the Minsk passage, for example, the terrible, indelible image of the stooped figures and the puddles must come from Helena. The simile of illness hanging over the city like thunder-clouds is likely hers as well. (It fits with the language we find in her diaries.) But the final sentence, with its anaphora and its ringing condemnation of the harm done to blameless victims by ideologies and governments, feels like Marsden’s.

Indeed, if Marsden has a philosophy, a take on the material he is describing, this is probably it. There is nothing as damaging as an idea: ideologies are experienced by those who live under them primarily as violence and deprivation. To be sure, the 20th century gave us more than enough evidence to support this idea. I’m reminded of Primo Levi, who, describing Hans Biebow, the Nazi in control of the Lodz ghetto—“a small jackal too cynical to take seriously the demonizing of the race”—concluded that a pragmatist is always preferable to a theorist.

Marsden’s humanism has a lot to recommend it, though it skirts sententiousness. As I read the book—utter catnip to me; I swallowed it in a single day, and loved every minute of it—I wondered a little uneasily what is at stake when we read about vanished worlds, and about the suffering of others. It’s easy to romanticize lost worlds. They have a pathos and a dignity that our own seems to lack. (Here’s hoping someone eventually says that about us—though God only knows what that will mean for the present they are feeling bludgeoned and degraded by.) But we oughtn’t to forget that these lost worlds weren’t just the victims of history. They contained, even perpetrated, suffering too. (Zofia’s parents’ families were landowners on both sides, not tremendously wealthy, but privileged. On her mother’s side, she was an O’Breifne, descended from an Irish Catholic who came to fight for the Czars in the 17th century.) The Bronski House gives us a few indications of that inequality. One such moment is a brief standoff in 1926, when the local peasants refuse to allow the Bronskis’ timber carts to pass through the village, claiming that the wood belongs to them. The situation almost turns violent, before Zofia’s father exerts his landowning privilege and the villagers back down, for the moment anyway. In general, though, the book hews to the landowners’ perspective, which doesn’t so much disdain or disparage the peasantry as ignore them.

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Marsden, however, is too smart a writer not to have thought about these questions. Early on, he describes two photographs of Helena, one a studio portrait from 1919, taken in Warsaw, showing an almost twenty-year-old young woman in “a white high-collared dress,” and the other a candid from 1936, taken on the estate of Mantuski. (Curiously, there are no photos or other images in this book, other than a helpful map on the endpapers. Unlikely that would be true in a book released today. I’m puzzled by the omission; likely Zofia wanted them kept out. Whatever the reason, the absence of images increases the mystery of the lives retold here.)

Marsden wonders why these photos cast such a hold on him:

It was the way this woman, Helena O’Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated—exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering—lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena’s was a bigger world, a crueler world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

This is beautifully—but also slyly—put: as the sentence amasses its clauses it veers into cliché (the half-mad nobles, the noble peasants), and knowingly so. For as Marsden goes on to admit, the truth is simpler: Helena is beautiful and he has fallen a little in love with her, as so many men will do in this book. (Helena’s lack of interest in men, until she wanders haphazardly into a marriage that to her own surprise brings her much joy, is interesting, and more might have been made of Helena as a desiring (or, often, non-desiring) being, though that would have meant speculating in a way Marsden typically refrains from. This is no psycho-biography.)

Marsden’s love for Helena is of course connected to his love for Zofia. It is refreshing to see how much respect he has for this much older woman. Zofia can occasionally be eccentric—she loves to sail, though she doesn’t know how, and often needs to be rescued—but primarily she is characterized by intelligence, mildness, and remarkable good sense. The trip she and Marsden undertake is quite fraught, especially given what she finds in a newly-independent and terribly impoverished Belarus: Mantuski, her childhood home is gone, burned to ground in the early days of the war; Klepawicze, her husband’s childhood home, has become a communal farm, complete with an alarming Geiger counter that continually tests the air for radiation (Chernobyl happened not long before and not far away); worst of all, the Bronski chapel, containing her father’s grave (Adam died of complications of scarlet fever in 1936), has been ransacked and looted.

But Zofia is never bitter; she never displays rancor to those who chased her family away. (Yes, the past is past, but some of the people she meets were alive at that time, making her forbearance all the more impressive.) After returning to England, Zofia begins raising money to repair and reconsecrate the chapel. Two years later she and Philip return to dedicate it. At the ceremony, Zofia makes a speech extolling her father’s love of the land he spent working and fighting for. Then she adds:

‘But there is one thing you must understand. For more than half a century now, no Bronski has lived here. Once this was our home, but not any more. The family is scattered around the world and the life we knew here is gone. The restoration of the chapel is not for us; it is not for my family, but for you, for all of you—Belorussian and Pole, Orthodox and Catholic. You must look after it as your own home. You must use it. Come here and pray whenever you want, whenever you can—even if there is no priest to officiate; you must say the rosary and in the spring cut back the forest around the building.

‘And be warned,’ she smiled, ‘that if the chapel again falls into disrepair, it will be my ghost that comes back to haunt you.’

It’s a generous gesture, a superb acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and all that is lost. It doesn’t dig up old grudges or wounds. Yet it also ends with a sting—a gentle one, but a sting nonetheless. The past never does fully go away; it always threatens to haunt us.

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Before I end, a few scattered observations:

Marsden makes himself scarce in the book, and it’s all the better for his restraint. He is a translator, a Sherpa, sometimes a dogsbody; he is not the main attraction. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Zofia visit an old woman, Pani Wala Dobralowicz, Zofia and her mother’s former dressmaker, who lives with her chickens in a small cabin near the place where the great house once stood. The three have lunch—there are plates of potatoes and kielbasa and herring, and a bottle of vodka. Afterwards, the three sleep off the lunch “in the close heat of the afternoon—the two widows on beds behind a screen, me on an old sofa next to the stove.” Later he “hears the two women talking behind their screen long into the night.” A sweet moment, from which we, like Marsden, are quite properly barred. Their conversation is private.

So sweetness and gentleness, yes, but that isn’t the whole tone of the book. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how dramatic, even exciting it is. The family’s escape from Poland at the beginning of the war, across the border into Lithuania and eventually to England, is the stuff of a spy novel. And the book is shrewd enough to admit that traumatic upheaval can be the making of a person. Here is Marsden’s description of Helena’s escape eastwards to Minsk and eventually Saint Petersburg with her mother and their servants and livestock during the First World War:

The forest banished all thoughts of war. Helena felt happy, exhilarated. Each day was different. Her mother withdrew the barbed constraints that normally surrounded her. She relaxed; the progress of the convoy imposed its own loose authority and, in years to come, Helena looked back on those weeks in the forest, seeing the horses’ twitching ears, the arc of the wooden hames, hearing the creak of carts, and knew that this was the closest she ever came to any sort of freedom.

It’s a melancholy conclusion (which is belied by the contentment she finds later in life at Mantuski—though of course contentment isn’t the same as freedom), which captures just how confined life could be for a gifted young woman in that time and place.

I noted earlier that Marsden helps us consider the risks of romanticizing the past. His point well taken, but I am a sucker for this particular past, and The Bronski House is filled with swoony period details, like this one that seems super Slavic and wintry and almost nineteenth century novelistic: in defiance of everything that has just happened, Helena’s aunt holds a ball on a December evening in Wilno at the end of the war. There are no horses in the city; they have all died in the war. So there are no sledges, no carriages; the guests arrive on foot. Marsden gives us this grace note: “In the portico of Aunt Marynia’s home, a great puddle spread out around the rows of felt boots.” (It’s the kind of detail you’d find in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. No accident that hers is the only blurb on my edition.)

One last thing—and quite a different note: I found it extraordinary to read a book about this time & place that has almost nothing to say about Jews. (They are referred to once or twice, but only in passing, it’s really minimal.) I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s a relief to have a break from those particular terrors, especially given my academic work on the Holocaust. On the other hand, it feels like a huge effacement. Notice that Zofia doesn’t mention Jews in her speech at the chapel. Even she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not because they couldn’t pray there, but because there aren’t any of them around to address. Even in a story filled with loss, then, there are even further layers of despair, even more ghosts who don’t get their due. In the end, I prefer to think of this as a sign of the book’s modesty on the part of the book (Jews simply didn’t factor much into Zofia’s daily life—but could this be true?—and of course the worst atrocities against Jews happened after she and her family fled) rather than a sign of its values.

Too bad The Bronski House is out of print. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it. It would pair terrifically well with the NYRB Classics edition of Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost (hint, hint). I’ll even volunteer to write the introduction. In the meantime, search your library or AbeBooks. This one’s a keeper.