Dear Mr M, Herman Koch

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I’m not an ignoramus when it comes to contemporary international literature, but just about, so was not aware of Koch nor his “International bestseller The Dinner” before listening to Dear Mr M last week. It’s an impressive work, my library had a hard copy, so here’s a review.

Herman Koch (1953 – ) is Dutch, has written 9 novels and according to Wikipedia he writes and acts in satirical movies and tv shows. The Dinner appears to have been made into separate Dutch, Italian and US movies, none of which I’ve seen. This novel, his eighth, published as Geachte heer M in 2014, was translated by Sam Garrett. Luke Daniels’ reading was excellent though his strong American accent took some getting used to.

Too many authors since postmodernism became fashionable have responded to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1967) by inserting themselves into their works, by writing about themselves writing about …, by conflating the work being read and the work within the work being read, and so on, all the time crying out “Look. Here I am. I’m not dead” [more’s the pity!]. Dear Mr M as you might have guessed, is such a work and all I can say is it’s very well done. And in any case is not as meta as some reviewers make out.

M is an ageing author, a decade older than Koch probably – I didn’t get the impression it’s a self-portrait, though it probably contains some self-mocking elements – whose best work is behind him. Still, he presses on, writing, giving talks and attending functions whose description adds a comedic element and probably earned him some enemies in what must be the relatively small Dutch literary establishment.

The protagonist, Herman, lives in the apartment below M. In a really effective bit of writing, the author uses the first person when Herman is talking or thinking about himself, the second person when Herman addresses his thoughts to M, and an omniscient third person when other characters are being observed. The most important of these are M himself; M’s young wife; Laura who was Herman’s girlfriend at school; and Jan Landzaat, a history teacher who disappears.

This disappearance leads to Dear Mr M being labelled as ‘mystery’ but I think that is a mistake, this is a literary novel whose subject is writing and being written about. M turns out to have been the author some years earlier of a bestselling ‘true crime’ novel based on the disappearance of Landzaat, in which he posits that the history teacher, who had been briefly Laura’s lover, was murdered by Herman and Laura when he called on them at a remote cottage owned by Laura’s parents, to persuade them (or himself) that he was no longer infatuated.

M is unaware that Herman, forty years later, is now his neighbour, in fact is not sufficiently aware of Herman to recognise him in the street, and is certainly not conscious that Herman is stalking him, or as it turns out, successfully stalking M’s wife to get closer to him.

Unlike most postmodern novels the novel which the author in the novel has written doesn’t become a second stream leaking into the first; instead, we return to the originals, Herman and Laura and their friends and teachers, on whom M’s novel was based and so gradually, and in parallel with Herman’s pursuit of M, we build up to and eventually pass beyond Landzaat’s disappearance.

There is a little joke which the author carries on about Landzaat’s name, based on zaat=seed=semen I think, though the Dutch word for seed seems to be not zaat but zaad. Not important I suppose, but having got this far I just had to look it up.

Herman eventually gets close enough to M to ‘interview’ him about his book. M says he believed the murder of the teacher was spontaneous, but that this wasn’t interesting enough for a work of fiction, so he made it premeditated.

But in your book the idea came up beforehand. And not just after the teacher came by the holiday home.
“It was difficult. I struggled with the motive. Or let me put it another way. I simply couldn’t believe that they would have done it just like that. And of course, just like that wasn’t interesting for a book. In dramatic terms. Dramatically speaking, a murder is better if it’s planned beforehand.”

It is an important factor in the denoument that Herman and his friend David get hold of a cheap 8mm movie camera and use it to make short films of pranks they play on others, including a teacher, and of Herman’s parents who are about to separate, which they edit together into a silent ‘movie’ titled ‘Life before Death’. Herman also films a teacher who has died at his desk and, later, Landzaat before he disappears.

This, the relationships of Herman and Laura and their friends, their antics at school and at Laura’s parents’ cottage, Laura’s seducing and soon after, dumping their history teacher to get Herman’s attention, the teacher’s falling apart, would have been an interesting story even without the metafictional elements. Herman’s pursuit of M (to what end I am even now not sure) and M’s day to day travails as an once-esteemed author, culminating in a fist fight between tuxedoed writing rivals at a gala night – shades of Denmark’s Nobel committee – take it up another notch. Highly recommended.

 

Herman Koch, Dear Mr M, first pub. as Geachte heer M, 2014, translated by Sam Garrett, Picador, London, 2016. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio, read by Luke Daniels, 13 hours.

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The Children’s House of Belsen, Hetty E Verolme

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I’ve made known before my ambivalence about Holocaust stories (here) and won’t repeat them, but this one which in any case is not new, was worth listening to and adds to our understanding of the huge variety of places and backgrounds Australians come from.

Hetty Verolme (1930 – ) was born a year or so before my mother and they are both now probably happily and comfortably retired in Melbourne, but their experience of the War was completely different. While mum was attending school in the Mallee and living in relative if frugal post-Depression comfort on the meat, milk, eggs etc of my grandparents’ farm, Hetty Werkendam was confined with her parents, grandparents and two younger brothers, Max and Jack, to the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, her father paying all he could raise to the SS in a vain attempt to have the family sent to neutral Portugal in exchange for German prisoners of war.

Their neighbours being rounded up around for transport to concentration camps, her grandfather mistakenly volunteering to go to a ‘work camp’ (in fact Auschwitz), it was only a matter of time before the Werkendams too were transported, in 1943, to Bergen-Belsen. There – and it is a week or so so since I listened to this – the family were able to stay ‘together’ for a while, mother, Hetty and Jack in a women’s hut, father and Max in a men’s hut, but gathering in the women’s hut until the nighttime curfew. Mother working long hours in the ‘peel room’ attached to the kitchen and bringing back scraps of carrot. Father too having to work and held in a cage for some time for disobedience.

Food is of course inadequate, mostly watery soup and sometimes potatoes. The Germans enforce long daily assemblies in all weathers to maintain their counts of the prisoners but also out of sheer bastardry. This is a ‘solid’ account, told without a lot of emotion, though the facts, like the dead bodies, pile up and have their own force. My initial feeling was that the account was a bit wordy but on reflection I think the word constructions which I found awkward are just reflections of the author’s underlying Dutch language.

Soon father and mother are transported, separately to other camps. The 30 or 40 Dutch children left behind are moved to their own hut under the care of two Polish (and I assume Jewish) women prisoners, in particular ‘Sister’ Luba who, despite Hetty’s initial suspicions, goes to great lengths to secure food and clothing for the children.

Late in the war, the older children are also moved away, but Hetty alone, by then going on 15, secures permission to stay on, in her role as ‘little mother’. She describes the horrors of the other sections of the camp, seen as she walks through it to the kitchen. No gas chambers – though word gets back to them from Auschwitz – but starvation, hard work, sickness and punishments.

She describes a group of women dressed in rags railed in and housed in tents which blow away in a storm. She does not say so but this group includes fellow Amsterdam teenager Anne Frank, soon dead of typhus.

Hetty is herself almost dead of the same disease, which had understandably swept through the camp, when the war ends and the camp is liberated by British troops – the Germans surrender the area around the camp before the end of the war and it is still apparently British territory. The children, clinging to Sister Luba are moved to a comfortable camp where they begin to recover, but are then flown to a school building without facilities in the countryside outside Amsterdam.

The children, and their father are soon reunited. Mother, who has ended up somehow in Sweden is held up for months before she too can return to Holland. Hetty is interviewed for the BBC and elements of her story have been in the public record ever since.

The British on their arrival at the camp found tens of thousands of bodies awaiting burial. Hetty describes them being dumped in great piles visible from her sickbed window. If you have the stomach this Time-Life story includes photos. Pits were dug and SS guards, men and women, were forced into burial details.

Hetty found herself unable to return to school and entered the fashion industry – her father had been a cloth merchant. She migrated to Australia in 1954 and in 1972 was named “Most Successful Migrant”. She was a founder of a trust for the children of Belsen towards which are directed the proceeds from this book. She surprised herself by attending the 50th anniversary of the end of the War at Belsen and found many old friends.

 

Hetty E Verolme, The Children’s House of Belsen, 2000, Audiobook: Bolinda, 2011, read by Deidre Rubenstein

Wikipedia has these as her published works –

  • The Children’s House of Belsen. Published by Werma Pty. Ltd. Perth, Western Australia 2009, 2013 as Trustee for “The Children For Bergen Trust”. ISBN 978-0-9922973-0-5. First published 2000 by Fremantle Press, Western Australia.
  • Hetty: A True Story, Fremantle Press 2010, ISBN 978-19-2136-133-3

see also my ‘Anne Frank’ review: Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic (here)

Treasures from the Attic, Mirjam Pressler

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This is a difficult post to write. Not because I have any problems with the Anne Frank story. I don’t. Her diary is one of the iconic works of western, and Jewish, humanism. But because, as so many works about the Holocaust continue to appear, and to be reviewed in this corner of the blogosphere, I feel that the anodyne comments I have made to date conceal rather than represent what I think about Holocaust fiction in particular and Zionism in general.

So, it is time that I made my views clear in the hope that you will then forgive me if a) you disagree with me; and b) if I no longer comment on your posts about those two subjects.

My politics after a year or so at uni, from 1969 on, were (and remain) as I have discussed before, left-wing, anarchist and anti-war. But as well, at least partly in response to a strong (loud) right-wing Zionist movement at Melbourne Uni, they quickly became pro-Palestine and anti Israeli expansionism. Today I believe the Settler movement and the support it receives from the Israeli government is indistinguishable from Apartheid.

Like many ‘liberals’ I am torn about whether the British should have plonked the post WWII Jewish refugee problem – which they and all the Europeans were more than happy to deal with ‘off-shore’ – onto the Palestinians. But it was done, and in any case Zionism has a long history, and is now as much a fact as the Viking and Norman invasions of England. My argument is not that it should be reversed but that by behaving immorally (not to mention illegally) with regards to the Palestinians the Israelis are building up a store of trouble which will surely overwhelm them some time in the future.

My problem with Holocaust literature, and fiction in particular, is firstly with Jewish exceptionalism. Yes, we white Europeans are still horrified to discover what we were capable of in Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust is still within living memory. Anne Frank, if she had survived, would be two years younger than my healthy and active mother. But, while the blame for the Holocaust might lie with the Germans  – though they had plenty of willing collaborators throughout Europe who have not been so willing to own their share – Genocide is a world problem, the fallback position of demagogues in every country, however they use weasel words to disguise their intent.

I could mention Turkish Armenians in 1915, Rawanda in 1994, the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the shocking decline in the Indigenous population of Australia in the first century of white settlement. Arundhati Roy in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), which is written around Hindu persecution of Muslims, writes, aptly for my argument:

… there’s that other business that’s become pretty big these days. People – communities, castes, races and even countries – carry their tragic histories and their misfortunes around like trophies, or like stock, to be bought and sold on the open market. [p.195]

The point is not that Germans, or Turks or Serbs or Hutu or Hindu nationalists are bad, but that ordinary people everywhere are easily led, can be persuaded to kill, to look the other way, to fail to prevent others from killing in their name.

So my points about Holocaust fiction are that:

The Holocaust is not an argument in favour of current Israeli government policy towards Palestine – and may even be an argument against it.

More peoples than just the Jews have been the subject of systematic attempts at elimination.

Fictions about ‘good’ Germans, as To Kill a Mockingbird is about a ‘good’ white man in the South, are designed to make us feel better about being ‘upper’ – oh no, we wouldn’t behave like those Germans, those Vichy French, we would all be abolitionists or in the Resistance. The truth is the evidence suggests otherwise.

We do not need ‘historical’ fiction to remind us of the Holocaust. I write this and yet I wonder if it is true. Certainly we do not want the Holocaust used gratuitously as the background for otherwise unremarkable stories, but on the other hand survivors and their descendants are still dealing with the Holocaust every day. You only have to read Lily Brett’s Lola Bensky for this to be clear. Two recent posts – Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Belladonna by Daša Drndić (here) about failure to acknowledge guilt; and Emma at Book Around the Corner’s account of listening to and meeting F-H Désérable, the very young author of Un Certain M. Piekielny (here), put the opposite case.

“As F-H Désérable pointed out, it is only thanks to literature that we were all in this room, talking about people who died during WWII and thus acknowledging their existence and their horrible untimely death. I think that’s why dictators are often afraid of books.”

Are you still with me? I had better get to the book at hand, which I enjoyed but which I must warn you I listened to a few days ago and must review from imperfect memory. Treasures from the Attic (2012) came about when the wife of Anne Frank’s cousin decided to go through all the letters and memorabilia accumulated in the attic of the home in Basel, Switzerland which one branch of the Frank family had moved to, from Munich, in the 1930s.

Mirjam Pressler was selected by the family to write up the letters because she had previously edited the definitive (German) version of Anne Frank’s Diary. This is a story in itself. Anne apparently intended her diary to be published and from her first ‘raw’ version wrote a second, more polished version which differed in a number of respects from the first. Anne’s father Otto on coming into possession of the diaries after his release from Auschwitz, combined the two to produce the version first published and I think he may also have done the first translation from Anne’s Dutch to his native German.

The story – and it is fascinating to have so much background come to light on such an iconic figure – is in three parts, telling the lives of three generations of Anne Frank’s family:

Alice, Anne’s grandmother, married to Michael Frank

Helene (Leni) Elias, Alice’s daughter and younger sister of Robert, Otto and Hector Frank.

Buddy Elias, Leni’s son and Anne’s cousin who had played with her when she was 9, who continued to correspond with her until the progress of the war made that impossible, and who gradually became the principal advocate of Anne Frank’s Diary as Otto grew older.

In the early part of the twentieth century Michael Frank had become a prosperous merchant banker in Munich with his three sons serving in the German army during WWI. Even during the hyper-inflation of the 1920s I think the family did ok, but with the rise of Nazism it was felt prudent to emigrate. Robert became an art dealer in London; Otto, the head of the family business after his father’s death, moved the bank to Amsterdam; Hector never settled down but eventually spent the war attached to the Elias’s in Basel.

Leni and her husband Eric(?) moved to Basel where Eric was the director of a German firm, but increasingly the Elias family’s income came from Leni’s business buying and selling the unwanted possessions of Jews fleeing Europe. They were joined in Basel by Alice and by Leni’s mother in law.

Pressler tells these stories, which are interesting in themselves, without ever losing her focus on Anne. Holland, despite declaring its neutrality on the outbreak of war, was occupied by the Germans in May 1940. Otto made increasingly desperate pleas to be allowed to emigrate, to the US, to England, to Cuba, but they were all refused. And as is well known, eventually went in to hiding with his family in the ‘secret annexe’.  By the end of the war 70% of the Jewish population of Holland had been deported and murdered (wiki).

Betrayed and shipped to Auschwitz, of the Otto Franks only Otto survived. On his release he was returned to Holland, although even there his citizenship was uncertain. His letters to Leni tell of Anne and her older sister Margot being taken away and of Anne’s mother dying of illness and starvation in the last few weeks before liberation.

Eventually the family is given a heart-rending account of the girls dying together in Bergen-Belsen by the last women to be with them.

Leni’s and then Buddy’s story pick up Otto’s life after the war and the rise and rise of Anne Frank’s Diary, the book, the play, the movie.

 

Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic, Penguin, 2012 (No English translator acknowledged). Audio version BrillianceAudio, read by Sherry Adams Foster

 

The Dream Lover, Elizabeth Berg

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The Dream Lover (2015) is a fictionalized life, written in the first person, of celebrated French novelist George Sand (1804-1876) who was of course a woman, born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. I’ve been listening to it over the past couple of days and have constructed this review from my memory of the story, relying on Wikipedia for dates and names.

Ironically, in her memoir Histoire de ma Vie (1855), Sand writes, “I would not want to tell my life like a novel. The content would be overwhelmed by the form.”

Sand was the author of 60 or so novels and two memoirs. As well as I can gather, her themes were adultery, sexual satisfaction for women, and the unfairness of marriage laws which vested all of a woman’s property in the husband. She went about publicly in men’s clothes, lived separately from her husband, conducted a number of ‘scandalous’ affairs, and hinted at being bi-sexual, particularly in her relations with the actress Marie Duval.

I am always looking out for antecedents for the strong anti-marriage theme in the writing of C19th Australian women novelists and feminists like Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Gaunt and Rosa Praed, and Sand interests me in this regard. I’m not sure how much of her work was translated into English, though I’m sure she was well known. Berg quotes passages from Sand’s work and what I presume are genuine letters, particularly in relation to her views on sexual politics, but again does not suggest any influences.

The novel begins in 1831 with Aurore leaving her husband Casimir Dudevant and their two children at their country home Nohant – which she had inherited from her grandmother along with a substantial fortune, but which he controls – to join her lover in Paris and to set out on her career as a writer. We move ahead in two parallel streams – her career as an independent adult going on from that point, and her childhood and young womanhood leading up to the separation. The writing is good, but not excellent, and the story itself is fascinating. As we switch back and forth between the timelines each episode is dated but still with the potential to be confusing, especially listening and not paying full attention, for instance Aurore dealing inexpertly with a suitor in one timeline and dragging a lover into bed in the other.

As briefly as I can, the story is that her well-born father Maurice Dupin was an officer in Napoleon’s army. While serving in Italy he falls in love with Sophie, a courtesan, whom he marries secretly against his mother’s wishes. They have a daughter, Aurore and subsequently a son who is born when Sophie joins Maurice in Spain (I guess at the beginning of the Peninsular War) but who is sickly, particularly after the long trek back to Nohant in central France (about 300 km south of Paris) and soon dies. Maurice dies not long after, in a riding accident. Sophie does not get on with her mother in law and accepts an allowance to go and live in Paris while Aurore is brought up as a lady by her grandmother, and is educated by Maurice’s old tutor.

Aurore is probably a bit wild. She gets her first taste of men’s clothing riding around the countryside in trousers and a loose shirt. Her grandmother reacts by putting her into a convent school run by English catholic nuns in Paris where she spends a relatively happy couple of years until she is 16 and it is time to put her on the marriage market. Her grandmother dies and Aurore becomes mistress of the estate until at 19, she marries Dudevant and he begins to run it down.

Berg pictures her as inexperienced (of course) in bed but also unresponsive. Nevertheless they have a son, Maurice, and then a daughter, Solange, though by then Aurore has been experimenting with lovers, so Solange’s paternity is uncertain.

Dudevant offers Aurore no comfort intellectually and she is frustrated by his stewardship of her estate. After eight years they separate and Dudevant gives her an allowance (out of her own money!) to live in Paris. Initially the children stay with their father and the parents take turns living at Nohant.

Aurore and her lover Jules Sandeau jointly write Rose et Blanche (1831) which is published under the pen name Jules Sand. The following year she writes Indiana, using the pen name George Sand, which name she adopts for herself from then on (that is, people now call her George). She has a job as a theatre critic and starts wearing men’s clothes because only men are allowed to sit in the cheap seats down the front.

The problem of women achieving satisfaction is a running theme in her early novels, and Berg has her spending one never repeated weekend of sensual delights with Marie Duval at Nohant where Duval teaches her the uses of all her ladybits. This seems to make life more pleasant both for her and for the many subsequent men in her life.

Divorce was abolished in France by Napoleon, but after four or five years of independence Sand and Dudevant negotiate a legal separation in which she regains control of Nohant and custody of the children. Sand is in any case already a prolific and commercially successful author and so though her stated sympathies are with the poor, her upbringing and lifestyle put her firmly with the rich and famous.

We go on. Maurice is a good boy, Solange is a handful. George is friends with Franz Liszt and stays with him in Switzerland in time to meet baby Cosima (The Young Cosima, Henry Handel Richardson). Liszt introduces her to Frederic Chopin, and Sand and Chopin live together for the decade 1837-47, eventually separating when Chopin sides with Solange over Solange’s impetuous marriage to August Clésinger.

In 1848 Sand is an enthusiastic supporter of the February Revolution marking the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the (short-lived) Second Republic. I think though that with the return of Empire under Napoleon III she finds it politic to retire to the country. She continues to entertain and in later years becomes friends with the reclusive Flaubert, twenty years her junior. She dies at Nohant in 1876.

 

Elizabeth Berg, The Dream Lover, Random House, 2015. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 2015, read by Emily Sutton-Smith

Google Books has some interesting critical studies of George Sand (here) including modern introductions to Story of my Life and Indiana.

Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers has set up a collaborative blog for George Sand (here) to which this post has been added.

Cave of Silence, Kostas Krommydas

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I didn’t buy many books while I was away, because I was carrying a few with me, plus a kindle, because I didn’t see that many English language books for sale in the second-hand bookstalls, because you know, well, weight. Still, I kept looking. On Santorini I browsed an apparently famous but ruinously expensive bookshop in Oia without being tempted, and then in an ‘ordinary’ bookshop back near our hotel the nice lady recommended I try this book by one of Greece’s more popular authors (She said. I can’t find anything about him).

Krommydas presumably wrote Cave of Silence in Greek as there is a very small credit “Translation-Editing: Maria Christou”, with the publishing info, although there is no Greek publication date. Some of the English constructions are a little clumsy, and some of the proof-reading leaves a bit to be desired (but that is true everywhere, these days) – as in horse’s reigns, for instance – but it reads well enough. The style is a little florid, though that is a function of it being a romance and not of the language.

Finally, as it is “based on a true story”, presumably the massacre by Germans of locals on a Greek island towards the end of the Second World War, I have looked up a bit of the background. The unnamed island* which is the focus of the novel was one of a group (the Dodecanese), with Greek speaking inhabitants, off the coast of Turkey, seized from the Ottoman Empire by Italy in 1912.

In 1939, Italy under the dictator Mussolini invaded Albania and threatened northern Greece. Greek forces resisted successfully until they were overrun by the German Army in 1941. The Dodecanese islands remained under Italian rule until 1943, when Mussolini was deposed. He formed a puppet government in German-controlled northern Italy and the Germans assumed control of the islands, withdrawing only towards the end of the war, when the islands finally reverted to Greece.

The novel takes place in two time-frames. ‘Today’, the narrator, Dimitri, is the male lead in a feature movie being made on another unnamed island in the Dodecanese group. The female lead, Anita, is German of Greek descent. They are in love.

Untamed passion set the rhythm of our movements, while the first rays of sunlight peeked through the thin curtains fluttering in the gentle breeze. We stayed there kissing, breathless, waiting for the intensity of our feelings to subside, letting our selves wallow in them.

“Good morning “, I said, brushing away the long brown locks that fell softly in her eyes. Her smile lit up the room. “Good morning”, she replied softly.

Dimitri has undertaken to spread his uncle’s ashes on the island, from which his mother and his uncle, her older brother, had fled as children, ahead of a German massacre in which their parents had died, at the end of the War. There is a mystery around Dimitri’s mother’s refusal to ever return to the island.

Back in Berlin, Anita’s mother is nursing her dying mother, Eleni, who came to Germany from Greece as a war-bride, also at the end of the war.

‘Before’ is the years up to and during the War. In 1938 Elini is a young woman on the island being brought up by her widower father. She wishes to marry Manolis, a young man who, with his brother operates a flour mill, but first she must spend two years at the University of Pisa where she has a government scholarship to study Italian (the Italians suppressed the use of Greek in island schools). A photograph is taken of her departure for Italy in which she is pictured being held by Manolis. By the time she returns Manolis is about to depart for Greece to fight the Italians. He is captured and for a number of years his whereabouts are unknown.

‘Today’ Dimitri takes a few days off filming and goes to the island, putting up in a b&b, meeting some locals, spreading the ashes. In Berlin, Eleni is about to die and wishes to get some stuff off her chest. There are strange coincidences about Elini’s drawings of a Greek island which Anita’s mother has not seen before and photos Anita has sent from the island neighbouring the one where she is filming. And of course there is the old photo of her mother in the arms of a strange man.

In 1945 Elini has been befriended by one of the occupiers, a German officer in a film-making unit. She rejects his advances. Manolis returns to the island to lead the resistance. Eleni and Manolis finally get to spend one night together. Manolis is betrayed by an informant. The Germans round up the islanders and threaten to kill them if Manolis doesn’t give himself up. He does, but many of them are murdered anyway. A few escape into the mountains and two children escape by boat. Eleni is taken, unwillingly, to Berlin by the German film-maker, who is killed in the last days of the war by Russian bombs.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is joined on the island by Anita, and from one of the escaped villagers they hear the story of the massacre, in which Eleni features as informant and traitor. Dimitri realises that his mother and uncle were the two children who escaped, and that they had apparently been betrayed by Anita’s grandmother. The breach between the lovers is immediate and unbridgeable.

There are of course a few more twists which it would be un-reviewerly of me to reveal, as the novel draws to a satisfactory conclusion.

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Kostas Krommydas, Cave of Silence, Dioptra, Athens, 2016. Translation-Editing: Maria Christou


*Early on, the author refers to the island as Krifó or Kryfó which appears to have the meaning ‘secret’. Googling ‘Krifos’ brings up “an isolated small cove that is located under rocks full of caper and it has a cave. Sweet water streams out of the cave’s bottom” on Leros in the Dodecanese Islands – this pretty much matches “the cave of silence” of the title, though Leros is probably more settled, has more towns, than the island in the novel.

Kalymnos, where George Johnson and Charmian Clift spent a year (here) is also one of the Dodecanese Islands.

Existentialism, Sartre

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Sartre, Iris Murdoch
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, Thomas R Flynn

Existentialism is commonly associated with Left-Bank Parisian cafes and the ‘family’ of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) who gathered there in the years immediately following the liberation of Paris at end of World War II… The mood is one of enthusiasm, creativity, anguished self-analysis, and freedom – always freedom. (Flynn)

These two books are only short, not taking up much room in my backpack, and I thought, rightly as it turned out, that I might at last have the leisure to both read and think about them as I was training and boating around southern Europe. To say that I understood them however, and particularly Iris Murdoch’s dense 1953 account of Sartre’s early writing, would be an overstatement.

I first came to Existentialism when I lost my licence (for speeding in a heavy vehicle) and returned to uni for a year of Arts in 1971, and it subsequently became an important part of my opposition to conscription and the Viet Nam War.

I was impressed by Sartre’s credo – Existence precedes Essence, by his work as a novelist, and by his commitment to Revolution. For a number of years I carried a battered copy of his opus, Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943) with me in the truck, a copy which went missing with many of my ‘political’ books when my son was a teenager, and which I saw maybe ten years ago, on the shelves of one of his friends. When I chipped him about this he said, “Oh yeah, there’s a few of your books in a box out the back.” But that’s as close as I ever got to recovering them.

English philosopher and author Iris Murdoch’s book was the first monograph on Sartre in English (Wiki). Sartre’s writing is notoriously difficult but a beginning to comprehending it might lie in Murdoch’s description of his discursive method of argument. Sartre believes (you can take as read in all that follows, “in my limited understanding”) that you can never know yourself fully through self-reflection, but that, if you are honest with yourself, then each iteration of reflection results in improvement.

According to Murdoch, Sartre is an unwilling solipsist. He wishes to believe in the Other, indeed he imagines himself the unwilling object of the Other’s gaze, but is unable to determine what, or even if, the Other is thinking. And this leads us to ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Good Faith involves constant reflection, to refine our understanding and therefore, our behaviour. Bad Faith consequently, involves a lack of reflection, an acceptance of ourselves as we imagine we are seen by others.

Being and Nothingness is apparently just a (very) extensive rendition of Sartre’s reflections, psychoanalysis as metaphysics according to Murdoch, in which successive iterations progress his arguments (and our understanding, to the extent that we can follow him). Likewise, Flynn’s much later ‘Very Short Introduction’ describes how Sartre’s political thinking was progressed both by reflection and by his better understanding of the external, “real” world, as he got older.

Sartre comes to politics from two points of view. Partly he approaches it as a philosophical solution to a solipsistic dilemma. Partly he meets it as the practical concern of a Western democrat. Sartre has in himself both the intense egocentric conception of personal life and the pragmatic utilitarian view of politics which most western people keep as two separate notions in their head… (Murdoch)

Sartre’s writings were initially concerned with his theories of self, and were very much derived from intense and continuous self analysis. However the War, and in particular of course, the fall of Paris to the Nazis in 1940, brought home to him the need to engage with politics. The pivotal position of the Communists in the Resistance, and his own distaste for the bourgeoisie, made them first port-of-call, but he soon found both their totalitarianism and their insistence on historical determinism at odds with his insistence on freedom, and so moved on.

As Sartre’s politics moved increasingly towards the Left, he separated himself from former friends whose political development moved in the opposite direction [referring to Camus and Merleau-Ponty]. By the time of the student revolt of 1968, Sartre was associating with the so-called French ‘Maoists’, who had little to do with China but a great deal to do with such classical anarchist ideals as ‘direct democracy’. (Flynn)

I recommend Flynn as a very clear account of existentialism and its grounding in European philosophy from the ancient Greeks onwards, whereas Murdoch’s book is more one of one philosopher engaging with another, contemporaneously, only a few years after the War, which is to say, at a time when Sartre’s politics and European philosophy were going through some big changes. Flynn goes on to discuss Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism which movements seem to me, to the very limited extent I understand them at all, to both involve a great deal of sloppy thinking, and to have been appropriated by the Right to justify their aversion to truth speaking.

Murdoch and Flynn both see as important Sartre’s What is Literature? (1948) in which he writes, “Though literature is one thing and morality another, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative.” Sartre attempts, unconvincingly, to demonstrate that it is the writer’s intrinsic duty to advance the cause of freedom, and proposes a distinction between Poetry and Prose in which the latter is ‘instrumental’, committed to the alleviation of suffering, whereas Poetry, like Music, is non-instrumental, art-for-art’s-sake. A distinction which I think even he was forced subsequently to disown.

You will have to read Flynn for yourself if you are interested in other authors, first amongst them Camus, who advanced existentialism in their writing, but I will say a little about de Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner for life both personally and intellectually. De Beauvoir, a prolific writer, was probably ahead of Sartre in her understanding of the individual as a member of society. Her seminal The Second Sex (1949) contains the line, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” meaning, I gather, that a woman begins with certain sexual apparatus, but that society imposes on her the condition of ‘being a woman’.

This leads us back to the famous “Existence precedes Essence”, which comes from a 1945 lecture, ‘Is Existentialism a Humanism?’. Sartre and his philosophy were atheist, so there was no obvious basis for acting morally. Sartre claimed that this freedom from doctrine was itself the basis for moral action, ‘in choosing anything at all, I first of all choose freedom’, not just for himself, but for every member of society. And by “Existence precedes Essence” he meant that every moment of every day we must choose, that our ‘essence’ is what we make of our ‘existence’, and that further, almost the worst choice we can make is to not choose, to be ‘in bad faith’, to abrogate our freedom, to allow our existence to be what others choose it to be.

And that is the basis of my objection to conscription in the Viet Nam War years: that my fellow 20 year olds failed to choose freedom; that they allowed society to choose for them to be soldiers; that they allowed themselves to be used to kill Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians, who were fighting for nothing more than their own right to make their own choices.

Paola (19)

Iris Murdoch, Sartre, first pub. 1953, my edition (not pictured above) Fontana, 1967
Thomas R Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, Oxford, 2006


I’ve been reading Charmian Clift’s Travels in Greece, a combo of Mermaid Singing and Peel Me a Lotus, but have spent too many lotus-eating days myself on Greek islands and so am behind with my review. Luckily I had Sartre ready, and, touch wood, I’ll put up Clift this time next week.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

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Translated by Ann Goldstein

My Brilliant Friend, Book 1 of Ferrante’s four volume Neapolitan Novels, is both deservedly famous and outside the range of my usual reading, so I hesitate to attempt a review. But geology daughter requested it as a present last Christmas and here on the train from Milan to Naples is an obvious time to read it and to at least record some of my observations.

The story concerns two girls, born about 1945, growing up in one of the poorer sections of Naples. Much of the background – the War, Mussolini, gangsterism – is assumed, but left unsaid, so that our intertextual reading necessarily forms part of the work.

The girls, Lena, the narrator, and her ‘brilliant friend’ Lila, find that they excel at school work, though Lila when she puts her mind to it is often way ahead in reading, in languages, in mathematics, and in writing and constructing arguments. Lena works hard to keep up but still often finds that a few words from Lila show more insight than she has been able to extract from hours of study. We might assume from the narrator and the author having the same name, Elena, that My Brilliant Friend is autobiographical – I haven’t read any reviews or interviews to check – but I hope that it is at least authentic, written out of the author’s lived experience.

Surprisingly in such a ‘popular’ work, the central concerns are literary – the efficient use of words; the efficacy of ‘facts’ laid out as argument over facts presented as fiction – though, in the end, Ferrante has chosen fiction; and the baggage of ‘before’, of history, being carried into the present.

They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend their money both at Don Achille’s son’s and at the Solaras’, and sent us too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us too.

But of course there are also personal stories – the girls and their friends growing up from childhood, through puberty, to young womanhood; the violence to which the girls are routinely subjected by their fathers, their brothers, and sometimes their mothers; Lila’s brilliance in elementary school on which she seemingly turns her back, to fall back into the life of their community, while Lena works her way up and out through high school. And there are the secondary stories which, as in any tightly knit community, wind their way in and out of the lives of the main protagonists.

Two of these stories indicate ways out of the cycle of poor education, manual labour, early marriage, and constant violence. The first is of the railway conductor (and serial womaniser) Sarratorre who writes poetry and articles for magazines. He and his family leave the neighbourhood to escape the consequences of his relationship with the disturbed widow, Melina. Later, the girls are astonished to find a book of poetry bearing his name and fantasise that he must be rich ‘like Louisa May Alcott’. Lena is attracted to his intellectual son, Nino, who is ahead of her at high school, though when she begins experimenting sexually, it is with Melina’s auto mechanic son, Antonio.

The second is of Stefano, a few years older than the girls, whose father, Don Achille, a minor gangster or loan shark, is murdered by the father of another of their friends. Stefano makes a conscious decision to break with the past, to be both a good citizen and to break the cycle of feuds which underlies all their relationships. The final scene though, a wedding breakfast involving all the neighbourhood families, leaves us hanging – has there has been any progress after all? Maybe.

The prologue, brief, set ‘now’ when Lena and Lila are in their sixties, suggests that Lena has escaped – escaped Naples, yes; escaped the working poor, probably – and that Lila has not escaped, but has diverted her considerable intellect into mastering computers, as far back as the 1960s when she was in her twenties.

Ultimately though for Elena the author and Lena the narrator, it is the writing which is important. While on Ischia, on a summer holiday job, Lena receives a (rare) letter from Lila.

From the first lines I thought of The Blue Fairy [a story written by Lila in elementary school], the only text of hers that I had read, apart from our elementary school homework, and I understood what, at the time, I had liked so much. There was, in The Blue Fairy, the same quality that struck me now: Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Santorre in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well-constructed and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her.

Later, Lena persuades Lila to read an article she has written for publication which, with a few, quick edits Lila completely transforms. Ferrante I’m sure is setting out here her ambitions for herself as a writer – to write directly, precisely and well – and in this acclaimed novel she achieves them.

 

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, translation by Ann Goldstein, first pub. 2012. This edition, Text, Melbourne, 2015