Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Mann’

Erika Mann: When the Lights Go Out

May 16, 2017

This novel – a collection of linked stories really – is very grim and depressing, made more so by the fact that we know what came after. It was first published just after the start of the Second World War (though its publishing history is incredibly complicated, as the critical apparatus with this edition made clear), and the author is the daughter of Thomas Mann, the perhaps better-known German writer. She sets her stories in a small town in southern Germany in the years between Hitler’s seizure of power and the start of the war, and bases them on actual events and people she knew.

Although we know about the history of the war, and the debate about how much the average German knew about or participated in various atrocities of the Nazi era, understanding the lives of ordinary people, the choices they made, the silences they kept and the difficulties they faced, is rather harder, partly because of unwillingness to speak or to own up to their own past, and also increasingly because those who lived through those times are dying off. Much has been researched and written in recent years about how the Nazi regime extended its grip throughout society and sustained it for so long, but somehow fiction is able to bring the details and the effects to life and to our understanding in different ways.

Mann uses a small number of characters – perhaps a dozen or so – in the years leading up to the start of the war. Already, then, hindsight suggests how much worse it must have been later on. There are the shortages of food, before the war starts, the gradual prioritisation of re-armament and planning for aggression and its effect on the job market and what consumers could buy; there is the growing craziness of the effects of a tightly planned economy. Smaller shopkeepers are closed down because they are inefficient, workers are increasingly detailed to particular jobs, there are expectations that everyone will take part in extra work at weekends: all of this increasing inefficiency, and the production of inferior goods, may well remind us of what we know about the various problems and eventual failure of the Soviet Union. All of these details, no doubt available in textbooks and history books, (and Mann gives us her sources), are woven into the lives of ordinary people – her characters.

A young couple, planning to marry, overworked and undernourished, are driven to suicide by what a court eventually describes as a ‘regrettable error’ – a careless Nazi doctor accuses the woman of having had an illegal abortion and the concentration camp beckons. A leading doctor who has kept his head down and his nose clean for several years in the vain quest for a quiet life, is appalled by the increasingly poor training and ineptitude of medical staff because of the way the regime has organised their training, prioritising their employability not by their skills but by party loyalty, the number of children they have and their sporting prowess. A factory owner is horrified to discover that his secretary, to whom he has been making advances, is half-Jewish. A local Gestapo leader, unable to stomach the orders for the Kristallnacht pogrom, disobeys orders, enables some Jews to escape, then flees to Switzerland and is returned to his fate in Germany by the Swiss authorities…

I can imagine that in 1940 this book may have shocked many readers; it will probably shock less now, or else in different ways. We often wonder, why did nobody say or do anything, or resist in those early years? The answer is that some did, but it was not enough, the regime’s tentacles spread control very quickly and thoroughly, creating an atmosphere of fear through surveillance and spying. And initially, many did well enough out of the new regime…

At some level, the book remains a warning, to everyone, to be vigilant, and perhaps in our current uncertain times of increasing xenophobia and nationalism, we should heed such warnings.

Note: an English translation of the book exists, but I read the newly-published French paperback.

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Fail!

March 3, 2014

Occasionally I give up on a book. And there are some writers I cannot be bothered with! Time for some confessions, as well as a few reasons…

As a student of English Literature, I had to read a Dickens novel (Hard Times) and a Hardy novel (Tess of the D’Urbervilles); I’ve never bothered with either writer since. Hard Times was short(er) and political and moderately interesting, but I have never once wanted to engage with one of the written-by-the-yard doorstoppers that are sometimes televised as costume dramas. What I’ve read about Dickens suggests he’s over-sentimental and rather maudlin at times. Similarly, Tess was just about OK, but I felt oppressed by the ridiculous sense of fate and doom hanging over the eponymous character all the time, and I have gathered that a lot of Hardy is like that, so I haven’t bothered. It may sound shocking, and surely arrogant, but I don’t have the eyeball time to waste. I’ve managed to get away from the feeling of ‘ought’ and don’t feel guilty.

I tried a Thomas Mann novel once (I think it was Doctor Faustus) and was bored, and gave up. I’ve persisted as best I could, three times now, with Lolita, and failed: as a teenager, in middle age, and more recently, and have given up again; I find the characters so creepy, weird and in the end uninteresting. Sorry.

I’ve read a lot of Soviet fiction, and enjoyed it, challenged by the themes and issues, and the writers’ attempts to write their ways around the censor; the post-Soviet Russian fiction I’ve read (yes, I have finished some novels) I have found tiresome and tedious in the way they revel in gratuitous violence, crime and sex; when they have got this out of their newly-liberated (?) system, then maybe there will be something worthwhile…

Arnold Zweig‘s The Case of Sergeant Grisha – a novel set on the Eastern front in the Great war I began several years ago and then got side-tracked from; I ought to go back to it and probably will. Hermann Broch‘s The Sleepwalkers intrigued me but in the end lost me; Hazlitt‘s essays have been reproaching me from the shelf for over ten years; I want to read Robert Musil‘s epic The Man Without Qualities, but have yet to find myself in the mood; I began Herodotus and then got waylaid by something more gripping, but must go back to it.

I often wonder what is going on. Clearly there is a ‘reading association’ issue here for me: one book may suggest another, so I acquire it with the best intentions, but an association leads me on to something else, and the moment passes, the book remains on the shelf, perhaps never to be opened. Then I do feel guilty, but I know there’s actually very little I can do about it; I cannot programme my reading schedule and stick to it. I have noticed that if it’s a book  I’ve downloaded to my e-reader, I find it easier to give up; owning a physical book makes me feel a bit guiltier.

Why do I give up on a book? And how do I decide? Sometimes the decision is  a deliberate one: I’ll give a book about an hour, or sixty pages or so, to get me really engrossed, and if it doesn’t, then I will give up, usually because I know there’s something else waiting that I will enjoy. Sometimes, as I’ve suggested above, the moment just passes.

When I was planning retirement, I fantasised to myself that I would spend a year reading Shakespeare, and a year reading science fiction, and a year reading travel writing, and somehow deepen my acquaintance with different writers and genres: well, it hasn’t happened, and I don’t see it happening.

Next: growing up? or out of?

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