Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Roth’

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.

My travels: G for Gdansk

January 19, 2017

Gdansk is probably one of my most favourite cities anywhere. I first went there on my very first visit to Poland at the age of fifteen, so way back in the days of the communist People’s Republic; this was also round about the time when I first came across it as the setting for Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, in its pre-war incarnation as the Free City of Danzig.

It’s a coastal city and major port, on the mouth of the Vistula river, with a beautiful historic centre, featuring many gates, towers, streets of merchants’ houses, mills and of course, churches, including St Mary’s, which counts as one of the largest – if not the largest – brick Gothic churches in the world: it really is colossal, both from the outside and within. One of the things of which I’ve learnt in my travels around northern Poland is the brick Gothic church trail, which stretches all the way from Belgium to Russia: in England there were copious supplies of stone to be quarried for church-building in mediaeval times, but in northern Europe there weren’t, and so bricks had to be used; coming from England one perhaps has the impression that basic brick is a fairly ugly, utilitarian or pedestrian material from which to build a place to the glory of God, but needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and there is actually an incredible wealth of really beautiful churches to be seen…

Gdansk is now also home to its very own Shakespeare Theatre and annual festival: apparently, in Shakespeare’s time, when the London theatres were closed by the plague, as they often were, Shakespeare’s company visited Gdansk and performed there a number of times, although there is no record that the dramatist himself ever went with them. And following in the footsteps of London’s Globe Theatre, the Poles recently succeeded in completing their own tribute to those times.

Why do I like it so much? It’s a walker’s city, with beautiful views along and across its many waterways which give that part of it a very spacious feel; strolling down the streets of merchants’ houses there is so much to see in the architecture and decoration – all the buildings are painted; it’s a city full of history and monuments. There is the famous Polish Post Office, which held out at the start of the Second World War and is immortalised in Grass’ novel, the site at Westerplatte where the Polish garrison withstood German fire for days that September, and of course the famous shipyards that were the site of the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement in the early 1980s. There are also a couple of excellent micro-breweries.

It was Grass’ novel which fed my interest in the city over the years. The Tin Drum, and its sequels Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, are rooted in the past incarnation of the city as much as Joyce’s Ulysses is embedded in Edwardian Dublin. The Free City of Danzig, created by the treaties at the end of the Great War, lay at the mouth of the mighty Vistula river and on the edge of the infamous Polish Corridor, which granted the new nation access to the sea. You can follow the adventures of Oscar Matzerath and his family and acquaintances on a pre-war map; although the city had to be rebuilt post-1945 and all its streets, places and monuments acquired Polish names, these are for the most part the exact counterparts of their pre-war names; the city was both German and Polish, and in some ways Grass’ novels are as much of an elegy to a lost world as are novels like Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Roth’s The Radetzky March. Today’s citizens of Gdansk realise that Grass is an asset for the tourist trail; there is a Tin Drum restaurant, and various places associated with Grass’ childhood are marked out for the visitor.

It is a wonderful place, one to which I hope to return again and to spend more time exploring.

My travels: B for Bartoszyce

January 9, 2017

Once upon a time there was a region of Germany called East Prussia. What I’ve read about it makes it sound like a rural idyll, small towns, well-organised peasantry, prosperous, with a large city – Koenigsberg – as the provincial capital. One of my very favourite novels, Ernst Weichert’s A Simple Life, is set in rural East Prussia; it’s another of those magical books that capture the vanishing of an era, like Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or Josef Roth’s The Radetzky March. The population was mixed German and Polish, proportions varying according to sub-regions, and various bits were plebiscited post-WW1; most chose Germany. The whole area had been mixed nationalities for several hundred years, at least since the times of the Teutonic knights. And all this was to change, irrevocably, in 1945…

My uncle, and his parents, were taken by the Germans as forced farm labourers to East Prussia during the war. His parents – my grandparents – returned home; my uncle didn’t, and ended up living in what had been East Prussia until it was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, and all the Germans forcibly expelled. After the way the Germans had treated the Poles in the war, this ethnic cleansing was inevitable, understandable, and probably justified. But it changed the area forever, as, indeed, so much of Eastern Europe was irrevocably transformed: the people went, the buildings remained; former East Prussia was now populated by Poles moved out of the territories Poland lost to the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania. The town of Bartenstein became Bartoszyce. It’s a medium-sized town now, with a typical gothic town square and brick gothic churches. Almost all trace of Germans has been eradicated. On my first visit there in 1970 I remember being very shocked that the old German area of the town cemetery had been bulldozed; all the broken gravestones were higgledy-piggledy, in vast heaps…

It felt like quite a sleepy little place, partly because the border with the Soviet Union was less than ten miles away. The main railway line that used to link Bartenstein with Koenigsberg had been dynamited; there was a single freight track remaining. So it was the edge of nowhere, really. The roads were appalling. A mound where a castle used to stand, a river, forests, a lake, farmland. And where our family lived. Further east one moves into the beautiful Masurian Lakes region. I’ve been back several times. It’s still a backwater, still right next door to Russia, more prosperous than it was, and visited by hordes of wealthy Russians doing their shopping; unemployment is at least 20%, so it’s not part of the better-off new Poland yet. And for some reason, one of the main streets is still Karl Marx Street, over a quarter of a century after the fall of communism…

Joseph Roth: Croquis de Voyage

November 6, 2016

downloadJoseph Roth wrote two of my favourite novels, The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March, to which I shall be returning shortly, prompted by my reading of this collection of travel pieces. I find the nineteen-twenties fascinating, as a world trying to recover from the trauma of the Great War, and unaware of the morass it is slowly sinking into.

As a traveller and journalist – nearly all of the pieces in this collection were written for various German newspapers and magazines – he is very observant, missing nothing, and also unintrusive: I have the feeling of being with a very intelligent observer and recorder who does not seek to over-interpret.

There is a wide range of pieces in the book; perhaps the most powerful for me was his visit to the Somme region in 1926, so only eight years after the end of the war, and his descriptions of how towns are still struggling to recover their previous ‘normality’ are quite shocking, in a low-key way. I also liked his descriptions of Deauville, and Provence, both places I’m familiar with.

There are a good number of pieces from travels around the Soviet Union in the same years, so before Stalin’s purges and terror: these are fascinating because he shows us the hope and optimism of those early years before the aims and direction of the Revolution were permanently perverted. And yet, with hindsight, it’s also evident how much he doesn’t see, or know to look for…

His picture of Poland in the years of the Second Republic, a nation reborn after more than a century of extinction, is also very enlightening: it’s a naive country in which Roth can quite clearly see the problems inherent in a state with so many national minorities, and which Hitler and Stalin would both take advantage of…

Italy is already Mussolini’s fascist state in embryo and quite scary when he visits; there is no hint of the horrors to come in Germany, however.

I’ve written before about how accounts written at a particular time are capable of being illuminating in ways totally different from history books, and this is a very good example; I fear, however, that it’s too much to hope that this collection will appear in an English translation.

German Literature

July 17, 2014

Yet more of my thoughts on why other countries are producing more interesting literature than we are…

As I thought about this topic, it became more and more complex. For starters, I realised I don’t mean just German, but literature written in the German language, which brought in Austrians and Swiss, and then I realised that writers like Kafka also wrote in German, although they were not German; and then, frontiers have moved about so in the last century…

I also realised that my reading in, in some ways, quite limited. Although I’m working on my German, I read in translation; from the past, some Goethe and Fontane; from earlier this century, Herman Hesse whose spiritual romanticism hooked me in my hippy days but does seem to have dated rather as time has passed. Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life is one of my all-time favourite novels. Thomas Mann I have to admit to failure with. Joseph Roth I think is wonderful: his evocation of those lost times of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is unsurpassed, I think, and I often go back to him.

What marks German literature out for me – and now I do mean literature written by Germans – is, of course, the Second World War, and the Hitler period more generally. It has marked, as it must have done, everything written since then. And the response is a complex one, depending on the age of the writer at the time of the events. Hans Fallada‘s Alone in Berlin is a chilling tale of an ordinary German couple’s quiet acts of resistance – anonymous anti-Hitler postcards dropped around Berlin – which ends in their capture, trial and execution, and I am looking forward to the translation of Iron Gustav which has just been published. Others of his novels capture (for me) very skilfully the crazy atmosphere of the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power. Heinrich Boll addresses the Nazi years well, but for me the most interesting and effective explorer of those times is Gunter Grass.

I’ve never forgotten a graffito I saw on my first visit to Gdansk forty-four years ago, which my father translated for me: ‘We have not forgotten; we shall not forgive.’ It shocked me, and since then, I have sought to understand its implications. Grass explores the Hitler time in his native Danzig in the celebrated Danzig Trilogy (The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years) metaphorically through the child Oscar who deliberately stunts his growth to remain child-sized, but who cannot escape growing adult consciousness. It’s magic realism long before the Latin American writers came up with it; it’s also a magical evocation of a totally lost world, the multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic city, the Free City of Danzig which, having been on the wrong side in the war, was ethnically cleansed by the Soviets, and is now a totally Polish city. In The Call Of  The Toad, Grass twins the tragic story of this city with the equally tragic – and almost unknown,  unless you are familiar with the writings of Czeslaw Milosz – story of the city of Wilno, part of Poland, home of one of its oldest universities, multi-ethnic and the largest Jewish city in the world outside Jerusalem until the war. It is now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

Grass has fallen from favour with some recently, following his admission in his autobiography that he had been a junior member of the SS (at age fourteen) at the very end of the war; some have felt that he ‘concealed’ an awkward detail; I think that’s an uncharitable view; for me it does not diminish his stunning literary achievements, but it does underline even more pointedly the difficulty for Germans of dealing with these times…

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