Posts Tagged ‘Alone in Berlin’

On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

Hans Fallada: A Small Circus

March 3, 2016

41Yw4NA2ZJL._AA160_ 51XRh+98YIL._AA160_51Yw6uWt7nL._AA160_One of the problems, when a long-lost novel is rediscovered and re-published, is that publishers then want to cash in. This happened when Hans Fallada’s brilliant novel of protest in wartime Berlin, Alone in Berlin, was rediscovered. It has recently been filmed, to not very scintillating reviews. The novel portrays the tribulations faced by an ordinary Berlin couple whose son is killed on the Eastern Front and who decide to protest against the war, by leaving anonymous postcards in public places: eventually they are tracked down, tried and executed. What works well in this novel is the suffocating atmosphere of the wartime city, and the characterisation not only of the hero and heroine, but also of the detective in charge of the investigation.

So publishers have duly dredged through the archives and found all Fallada’s novel and published them. Wolf Among Wolves I found quite interesting, but I really think that A Small Circus could have been left undiscovered, and I have been thinking about why.

It’s set in the late twenties in a small Pommeranian town, and deals with small-town politics, corruption, the sleaziness of the local press and the utterly chaotic times leading up to the rise of the Nazis – for 550 pages. There are one or two interesting characters who are developed in a little detail, but there are so many characters that the book needs a listing and explanation of their roles – like War and Peace! – and the majority are cardboard cut-outs.

You get – perhaps for the first time in my case, and this is to Fallada’s credit – a clear and detailed picture of the total chaos of those times, and the struggles of the Weimar Republic to achieve any sense of legitimacy or loyalty from many of its citizens. Everyone seems corrupt and out for themselves and it seems like cats fighting in a sack. And yet, the sheer length of it, the minute details, the petty squabbles, which perhaps might have seemed illuminating to readers in the forties when it was written, are ultimately rather dull… it wasn’t that I didn’t actually dislike this novel, but that it was such an effort to read it; it didn’t grip me, but I persevered to the end. I don’t see myself re-reading it, yet I’ve already read Alone in Berlin twice and will be going back to it.

What’s the problem? I think that it’s dated in the detail, and although I learned a couple of things about those times through being immersed in the details, it wasn’t really worth it. I was also irritated by the translation at times – it’s a new one, presumably the only one into English – because it used too many anachronistic words and phrases, that are of our day and times and could not have been said then…

Digressing a little, I do read about and reflect on those times a good deal. I have always subscribed to the idea that if the Allies hadn’t been so brutal and revengeful towards the defeated Germany, we might have been spared Hitler and the consequent evils. But more recently, having spent time in those parts of France devastated and occupied during the Great War, I have more understanding of why the French were so vengeful…

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