Christ Stopped at Eboli

April 14, 2014

Christ Stopped at EboliThe Heath could not have been more beautiful yesterday, washed in the spring sunshine, all the green fresh and bright on the trees. Best of all, everyone in the walking book club loved the book! And while I had been a little anxious about how easy it would be to discuss, given that it doesn’t have the plot or characters of a novel, my fears proved happily misplaced as everyone was keener than ever to chat away about their many favourite moments in this wonderful book.

Christ Stopped at Eboli was written by Carlo Levi in 1944 as an account of three years spent as a political exile in the deep south of Italy from 1935. The curious title is explained immediately:

‘We’re not Christians,’ they say. ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.’ ‘Christian’, in their way of speaking, means ‘human being’, and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We’re not Christians, we’re not human beings; we’re not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden, or even less than beasts, mere creatures of the wild.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this could be a depressing book about these peasants, who think of themselves as sub-human ‘beasts of burden’, but while Levi’s tone remains quite cool and detached, he is clearly fascinated by their way of life. Indeed, when he is at last allowed to return home, Levi finds he ‘was sorry to leave and I found a dozen pretexts for lingering on’. We felt the same yesterday, and the discussion of this special place in Italy came to an end rather reluctantly.

The village, Gagliano, is a strange place, entirely of itself. It is so cut off from the rest of Italy, that it has more ties with America than with Rome. Various villagers have emigrated there, and pictures of Roosevelt adorn the walls. There is just one rarely used car, little medicine, and not much food. I was surprised by the minimal presence of religion – the Church is usually empty and baptisms occur only at the point of death. In part this is due to a useless priest, but surely, in the face of such deprivation, people need some system of belief?

Well there is belief, just not in Catholicism. (What would the Marchmains think!?) There is a great belief in magic, which pervades every aspect of village life. As soon as Levi arrives, he is warned of the love potions:

Don’t take anything from a woman. Neither wine nor coffee; nothing to eat or drink. They would be sure to put a philtre or love potion in it.

Levi takes little notice:

Every day I braved the peasants’ coffee and their wine, even if a woman made them ready for me. If there were philtres in it they must have counteracted each other.

These philtres are shown to be potent, however, as in the case of the poor widow with whom Levi stays when he first arrives:

Her husband had come to a bad end three years before. A peasant witch-woman had drawn him into her toils by means of love potions, and he had become her lover. A child was born to them, and because at that point he wished to break off their sinful relationship, she’d given him poison. His illness was long and mysterious; the doctors found no name for it. Gradually his strength melted away; his face grew dark until the skin was the colour of bronze and finally quite black; then, at last, he died. His widow was left with a ten-year-old son and very little money, and so she rented a room to strangers.

A bleak and terrifying tale indeed.

Levi trained as a doctor, and although he is no longer practising when he comes to Gagliano, he is prevailed upon to take it up again in order to help the villagers. He does so, doing what he can to tackle the malaria and other illnesses that are rife, with little medicine or equipment. During his time there he develops an understanding of the village magic to the extent that his cook and cleaner Giulia, who he fondly refers to as a ‘witch’, tells him he should be a sorcerer. Rather than dismissing the villagers’ belief, he respects it:

Magic can cure almost any ill, and usually by the mere pronouncement of a spell or incantation … The most common of all was the abracadabra. When I went to visit the sick I often found hung around their necks a tiny roll of paper or a metal plate bearing the triangular inscription. At first the peasants tried to hide their amulets or apologised for wearing them, because they knew that doctors despise such superstitions and deplore them in the name of reason and science. This is all very well where reason and science can take over the role of magic, but in this remote region they are not yet, and perhaps never may be, deities which enjoy popular worship and adoration. I respected the amulets, paying tribute to their ancient origin and mysterious simplicity, and preferring to be their ally rather than their enemy.

He also makes the point:

The custom of prescribing some medicine for every illness, even when it is not necessary, is equivalent to magic, anyhow, especially when the prescription is written, as it once was, in Latin or in indecipherable handwriting. Most prescriptions would be just as effective if they were to taken to the druggist, but were simply hung on a string around the patient’s neck like an abracadabra.

Magic serves instead of medicine, and isn’t always less effective. The belief in magic is so strong because medicine, or ‘reason and science’, is scarcely available, and, one feels never will be.

At one point, Levi makes various suggestions for preventing against malaria – ‘simple precautions and, according to law, they were compulsory’. He mentions them ‘over and over again’ to the mayor, who does nothing. Then he writes a detailed twenty-page memorandum, which he gives to the mayor. The mayor says he’ll show it to the prefect. The prefect is enthusiastic, but then just a few days later a telegram came from the police saying that Levi is forbidden to practice medicine in Gagliano, under penalty of prison. He notes, ‘as the peasants would have it’:

‘We’re saddled with our malaria and if you try to do anything about it they’ll drive you away.’

So Gagliano is completely resistant to change. It is cursed to have malaria forever, just as the land will always be barren, the peasants poor, food scarce. Levi attempts to bring some reason and science but is halted. Medicine can only go so far, and so it is magic that must prevail. It is much the same with religion.

Perhaps this belief in magic is felt in the magic of the place, the strange hold that it has over the people who live there. Some leave for America, but most return. One young man who has grown up abroad writes to his mother, instructing her to find him a woman who he can return to marry. Levi himself struggles to depart at the end, is tempted by the villagers’ suggestions of marrying one of them and remaining. While it is a poor place, it is a good one, and, evidently, its inhabitants have fallen under its spell.

As you might remember, Emilybooks is off to Italy in just over a week for a two-month sojourn. Perhaps I’ll make a trip to the deep deep south and search out Gagliano. I am curious to see if it remains much as it was nearly a hundred years ago. Who knows … but I will be sure to keep the husband away from any love potions.

Brideshead Revisited

April 7, 2014

Just after a full-on week of the Daunt Books Festival, came another full-on week of preparing to lecture at my old Oxford college about building communities around books, followed by a special Emily’s Walking Book Club discussing Brideshead Revisited in Christ Church Meadow. It turned out to be a fun, if exhausting day, and above all it provided an excuse to re-read Brideshead, which was much better than I remembered.

Brideshead RevisitedI first read Brideshead Revisited at school. We did it as AS Level coursework and I suspect studying a book for a whole term is almost enough to ruin it for anyone. Especially if your English teacher insists it’s all about Catholicism, and you’re a seventeen-year-old with no interest in religion at all.

It is terribly embarrassing re-reading a book from school, with so many bits underlined and one’s adolescent scrawl in the margins. On almost every page were penned dreadful words like ‘desensitised’, ‘ironic’, ‘self-loathing’, and, tellingly often, ‘relig.’ and ‘Cath.’. I cringed as I turned the pages, hoping that no-one was peering over my shoulder on the tube.

As well as being about Catholicism, Brideshead is very much about nostalgia, and re-reading it for this Oxford walk was a strange exercise in triple-nostalgia: its echo of my own halcyon Oxford days; the painful memories of reading it in our sixth-form English lessons, air stiff with newly awakened sexual tension; and, of course, all the nostalgia in the book itself.

Charles Ryder, our narrator who find himself stationed at Brideshead when he’s in the army during the Second World War, tells us ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it.’ So the rest of the novel unfolds as Charles tells of his time spent at Brideshead and with the Marchmains, its family. The first section of the novel is probably the one everyone – myself included – recalls when they think about Brideshead. Charles is new up at Oxford, where he meets eccentric, charming Sebastian Flyte, one of the Marchmains. Sebastian vomits in Charles’s rooms, then apologises by filling them with flowers the next day and inviting Charles to lunch. Charles tells us:

I went there uncertainly, for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which in the tones of Collins told me it was seemly to hold back. But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

It’s a wonderful passage, positively aching with nostalgia. That youthful curiosity, ‘in search of love’, and the inkling that grey old Oxford, up till then reasonably unexciting, had its secrets, would offer so much if only you could discover the low door to its enchanted garden … It captures so perfectly that feeling of excited anticipation, of knowing you’re on the verge of something wonderful, and venturing forth, curious, yet also somewhat timid.

Interesting that Waugh uses this metaphor of doors, wall and gardens. Interesting too that the novel is named after a great house, rather than being given one of his more abstract titles, like A Handful of Dust, or Vile Bodies. Evidently, Brideshead Revisited is a novel in which the presence of architecture is strongly felt. Charles even goes on to become an architectural painter, succeeding largely thanks to the aristos’ declining fortunes:

The financial slump of the period, which left many painters without employment, served to enhance my success, which was, indeed, itself a symptom of the decline. When the water-holes were dry people sought to drink at the mirage. After my first exhibition I was called to all parts of the country to make portraits of houses that were soon to be deserted or debased; indeed, my arrival seemed often to be only a few paces ahead of the auctioneer’s, a presage of doom.

Not unlike Charles’s paintings, Brideshead Revisited captures a great country seat just as it was on the verge of decline. A great many pages are spent describing its rooms and décor, ‘the high and insolent dome … coffered ceilings … arches and broken pediments’ and the fountain, where the young Charles discovered his own artistic sensibility, as he sat:

hour by hour … probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubble among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

The fountain later becomes a scene of love between Charles and Julia:

There Julia sat, in a tight little gold tunic and a white gown, one hand in the water idly turning an emerald ring to catch the fire of the sunset; the carved animals mounted over her dark head in a cumulus of green moss and glowing stone and dense shadow, and the waters round them flashed and bubbled and broke into scattered flames.

When Charles returns with the army, however, an officer shows him around and stops at the fountain, now turned off and squalid, to say:

Looks a bit untidy now; all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there…

Here is a once-mighty house now ‘debased’; its beauty not appreciated by its new inhabitants. Yet Waugh has succeeded, as Charles does in his paintings, in preserving the house in all its glory. When we think of Brideshead Revisited, we scarcely remember the army prologue and epilogue; we don’t see the fountain dry, filled with cigarette ends and sandwich crusts, but we think of the house in all its splendour of before, when it was the scene of so much love.

So Brideshead Revisited is in part about the death of the great country house, and an attempt to preserve its life. It is about nostalgia for a lost youth, for opening that low door in the wall and discovering the enchanted garden within. Just as it succeeds in revisiting it, resurrecting it, letting us re-live those Arcadian days of strawberries and teddy bears and love, so it also points to all the youth that cannot be preserved.

The many lost youths of the soldiers of the First World War haunt the novel. References to the War, and to the lives lost, pepper the text. This time round, it struck me that Waugh gives us examples in which these lost lives are attempted to be preserved in literature: Lady Marchmain commissions the dreaded Samgrass to write a biography of her three brothers all killed in the War, and there is also the moment when Anthony Blanche recites ‘The Waste Land’ through a megaphone. In including these, Waugh invites comparison, holding up Brideshead Revisted as another testament to lost youth. Certainly Christopher Hitchens thought it was ‘all on account of the war’, in his brilliant essay on Brideshead Revisited in the Guardian. Hitchens was of course a renowned atheist, and I can’t help but feel that if he loved the novel even half so much as his article suggests, then it really must be about more than Catholicism.

So rats to you annoying English teacher who nearly ruined this beautiful novel for me … I’m so pleased to have re-read it, and I can only encourage others to do so too. I am also rather tempted to track down the BBC boxset for some rather indulgent viewing when in Italy.

The Daunt Books Festival

March 31, 2014

… has been and gone!

AL Kennedy, Helen Simpson, David Constantine and KJ Orr 'In Praise of Short Stories'

AL Kennedy, Helen Simpson, David Constantine and KJ Orr ‘In Praise of Short Stories’

The two days passed in a whirl of people and books and words. Somehow I’d arrive first thing, start moving books around, cleaning loos, topping up glasses of daffodils and other such essential jobs, then people would start arriving, and then before I’d had time to draw breath, it was three o’clock and time to grab a sandwich and attempt a powernap before embarking on the late afternoon and evening sessions, which would pass in a blur, spurting me out at ten o’clock at night, or indeed nearly midnight once we’d put the shop back to normal at the very end. I could do little other than squeal smilingly at the thrill of it, and rush around trying to keep pace with the non-stop festival escalator. It is only now, after a weekend of solid sleeping that I can begin to look back on it.

Jack gets mobbed as The Blue Kangaroo ... with the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark and Plum.

A definite highlight – Jack gets mobbed as The Blue Kangaroo … with the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark and Plum.


Of course the whole thing was terribly exciting. It was also deeply uncanny to see it actually happen – this thing which had only ever been a dream, existing with woolly outlines in my imagination (and panic-stricken nightmares), or rather more smartly delineated in the festival programmes, was suddenly the here and now. Here were all these writers whose work I love, with whom I’d been in contact, whose photos were printed on the programmes along with a blurb about the talk, suddenly here they were standing in front of me in the flesh! It felt magical – as though they’d stepped off the page and into reality. Here, right now, just for a moment, were all these ideas being debated, these talks actually taking place.

Barbara Taylor and Adam Philips discuss Madness in our Times

Barbara Taylor and Adam Philips discuss Madness in our Times

Susie Boyt, Maggie O'Farrell and Deborah Levy celebrate Virago Modern Classics with Lennie Goodings

Susie Boyt, Maggie O’Farrell and Deborah Levy celebrate Virago Modern Classics with Lennie Goodings

Everything I’d imagined was suddenly there for everyone to see. Perhaps it’s not dissimilar to how an author feels walking on to the film set of their book. Only this was so ephemeral. There was something especially magical about feeling that it would only be real for the two days – a portal into an amazing other world like in Tom’s Midnight Garden or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It felt like I’d stepped through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia, but into my Narnia – much more yellow and without the White Witch. Yes it was the same old beautiful bookshop, but transformed with bunting and daffodils, and filled with people chatting away to each other about the talks, so obviously happy and inspired and together, rather than a mass of quiet, solitary browsers.

The talks themselves were magnificent. Each one was completely different from the last, so just as I’d decided that particular one must be the best, the next one was spectacular in a completely different way making it impossible to pick favourites.

Mahesh Rao, Colin Thubron and Tracy Chevalier talk to the wonderful Barnaby Rogerson about 'capturing a sense of place' - a terrific closing event

Mahesh Rao, Colin Thubron and Tracy Chevalier talk to the wonderful Barnaby Rogerson about ‘capturing a sense of place’ – a terrific closing event

So much was said, so many ideas debated. It’s far too much to digest here, especially while my head is still aspin, so instead I thought I’d show you a few pictures and let you conjure your own Daunt Books Festival with the aid of your imagination.

Emily's Walking Book Club - ready to set off to discuss The Hours

Emily’s Walking Book Club – ready to set off to discuss The Hours

And here we are in Regent's Park, scoffing delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie

And here we are in Regent’s Park, scoffing delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie

Now I must sit tight and look forward to the next one.

The Hours

March 24, 2014

The Daunt Books Festival is THIS WEEK!

Pages from Daunt Books Festival programme

Thursday and Friday will see the bookshop become a place of jolly daffodiled, buntinged yellowness – the perfect setting for nearly thirty of today’s best writers to join us for twelve inspiring events. Needless to say, as the organiser, I am very excited. I am also more than a little nervous, and more than a bit busy with last minute preparations …. not least putting my mind to the logistics for Emily’s Walking Book Club’s brief sojourn in Regent’s Park.

Regent’s Park is no Hampstead Heath. There isn’t the wildness, the mud, the feeling of out-of-city lost-ness, and yet I feel very fond of this park. Growing up in St John’s Wood, I have walked its tarmacked, neat flower-bed-lined paths more than any other park’s. I’ve also contributed an essay about George Eliot and Regent’s Park to a beautiful book called Park Notes, which will be published in May. Eliot was another resident of St John’s Wood, when it was rather more bohemian than it is today.

Last week, it was a refreshing break from tasks such as ordering 500 yellow napkins and arranging collection times of various edible festival treats, to step out of Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, find the most pleasant route up to the park, and then work out the most picturesque loop manageable in the given time. Alas, we’re too early for the roses, but daffodils were out in their cheerful masses and, as the sun seeped across the lawns and beds, it felt as though the park were stirring itself back to life from its winter slumbers, as, no doubt, are we all.

The Hours by Michael CunninghamI picked Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, as I wanted there to be some link with the location. While The Hours takes place variously in New York, Los Angeles and Richmond (London), it is of course an echoing of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which has some beautiful moments in Regent’s Park. I suppose Mrs Dalloway itself would be the more correct choice, but, while it is one of my very favourite books, I know that Woolf feels like rather hard work for many otherwise keen readers, and I’d hate for Emily’s walking book club to entail tricky homework. Added to which, I always endeavour not to pick the obvious choice, going for the overlooked gems of literature rather than the well-known classics. In any case, I rather hope that some of those who read and enjoy The Hours, might want to read Mrs Dalloway next.

The Hours refracts Mrs Dalloway through three different storylines, each of which – like Woolf’s original – tells of the events of an ordinary day.  First we have ‘Mrs Dalloway’: Clarissa Vaughan, who is given this nickname by Richard, her dear writer friend, who is dying from AIDS. Set in New York City at the end of the twentieth century, Cunningham cleverly echoes the plot of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and if you’ve read this, it’s impossible not to play spot the parallel from the very first line, when we see Clarissa, like her literary antecedent, setting off to buy flowers for her party. Echoes abound, but Cunningham saves it from being purely derivative by rendering his own characters and place so well. It is rather wonderful to see how a favourite novel can be transferred to a new time and place, highlighting how many of Woolf’s preoccupations remain relevant in an entirely new setting.

Next we have ‘Mrs Woolf’ in Richmond in 1923, beginning work on the novel which will become Mrs Dalloway. There is the brilliantly caught power-balance between Woolf and her cook Nellie, her relationship with her sister Vanessa Bell, who comes to tea with her children, and her love for Leonard, who worries about her even more than he does his galley proofs. Finally, there is ‘Mrs Brown’, a newly pregnant wife and mother in 1950s Los Angeles, who take immense pleasure in reading Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped in her world of baking cakes, cooking suppers, and caring for her son and husband, and longs to escape to read her book. Seeking her ‘Room of One’s Own’, she leaves her son with a neighbour, drives to a hotel where she lies down and reads for two and a half hours, returning in time for supper.

All three storylines are interwoven: we get a chapter of one and then another. Humming through it all is Woolf’s original Mrs Dalloway, as though all these refractions are reverberations of its brilliance. The Hours is the ultimate paean to the power of a good book – a novel which is a life-force for its writer, then comfort and inspiration for future generations of readers. It argues for the continued relevance of an old book, how Woolf’s ‘life, London, this moment of June,’ can be felt just as keenly in Los Angeles in the fifties or New York half a century later.

So what is it about Mrs Dalloway that haunts us still?

Two elements that Cunningham pulls out are death and kisses. Preceding his three narrative strands is a powerful Prologue in which he describes Virginia Woolf drowning herself. Death is present in each of his strands – in Clarissa’s Richard, on the brink of dying; in Woolf helping her niece and nephews to lay a dying bird on a bed of roses; in Laura Brown feeling the tug to end her claustrophobic life. Balanced against so much death are kisses – transfigured into moments of pure life. Each illicit kiss in The Hours gives the protagonist something to live for: ‘that potent satisfaction, that blessedness’, which counters the allure of death.

And there’s more than kisses. For the novel is a great argument for the afterlife. Virginia Woolf is dead, and yet she lives on in her work – her Mrs Dalloway is not confined to London in the 1920s, but thrives in Los Angeles, in New York, decades later. While The Hours is poignant and, as Hermione Lee said, ‘extremely moving’, it is ultimately positive and optimistic, arguing for life’s victory against death.

I can’t wait to discuss it with Friday’s walking book clubbers!

Red Love

March 17, 2014

It was the day after my sixth birthday and I was at school, when the lesson was interrupted and we were all ushered into another classroom to watch television. I remember feeling quietly proud: I assumed it was probably thanks to my birthday that we’d been awarded this extraordinary treat. We were all squeezed into the room with several other classes, and I sat cross-legged on the floor, envious of the bigger girls who swung their legs from the tables above. The television was one of those school ones – grey, very big and raised up high on a trolley so it could be wheeled around.

We had been gathered to watch the fall of the Berlin Wall, on 9th November 1989. I remember thinking how colourful the wall was, with so many words brightly painted on it, and I was confused by the mixture of smiling and crying faces that loomed large on the screen. We were told that we were witnessing a really important moment of history. It was the first time anyone had told me that history was still happening, that what happened today – on my second day of being six – would be learned about in the future, just as we were busy learning about how Henry VIII got through so many wives.

Red LoveRed Love by Maxim Leo is a family memoir about growing up behind the Wall. Published in paperback just last week, I noticed it as an uncanny sequel to Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself. Having spent a week in Bielenberg’s vivid conjuring of Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s, it seemed strangely perfect to pick up a book that picked up exactly where she left off. Red Love is every bit as powerful and thought-provoking as Bielenberg’s memoir. Maxim Leo’s true stories also seem like the stuff of fiction. And, like the best fiction, they raise more questions than they answer.

Leo traces his family’s connection with the GDR back to his grandparents. His mother’s father Gerhard fled Germany as a child in the thirties. Gerhard’s father was a Jewish lawyer, who had made an enemy of Goebbels in the 1920s, when he proved that Goebbels’ club foot had been present since birth and was not, as Goebbels claimed, a result of French military torture. Once the War caught up with France, Gerhard became a fighter for the resistance, bravely undertaking secret operations and fighting with communist partisans. There are several lucky escapes, and these passages are as tense and gripping as the best action-packed war films. Leo shows how Gerhard’s fierce fighting for freedom then translated itself into fervent belief in the GDR. When fourteen-year-old Leo challenges his grandfather about the Wall, he is told

He was glad there was a wall to keep criminals like that away from him.

Criminals like what? Criminals like the Nazis Gerhard fought against during the War. Nazis like Leo’s other grandfather, Werner.

When Werner was newly married and had found a first flat, he is determined to put a swastika flag in the window. He comes back with the biggest flag he can find, and wants to fly one from his parent-in-law’s apartment too, for which he buys flagpoles. And yet twenty years later, he was fervently flying red flags for the GDR.

My two grandfathers never met. I don’t know if they’d have had anything to say to each other if they had met. Still, they built the same state, they were in the same Party, perhaps they even believed in the same things at some point. And yet they would probably have remained strange to one another because their careers were so different, because fate had guided them in very different directions very early on.

How is it that two men who had such different stories could end up in the same place, both believing so strongly in the same thing?

I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again … From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream.

Through his compelling and fascinating family memoir, Leo offers some answers, and asks many more questions. He explores how the GDR came into being, why its founding fathers – from such diverse backgrounds – believed so strongly in it, how the dream soured, and the intimate, complicated relationship everyone had with it. As his father Wolf says, ‘The GDR was always there in bed with us.’

Both Maxim Leo and his father have moments when they contemplate crossing the border, fleeing to the West, but both turn away from ‘alien freedom’ to return to ‘the prison that is my home’. Images of borders and barriers return again and again in the book, as though the Wall is reflected in each person’s psyche. Leo writes of how Wolf, an artist, liked to brush against the state, push them to see how far he could go in his work. The Stasi, however, saw that Wolf wasn’t really dangerous, saw that he was in fact a potential asset. There is an eerie passage in the book when they try to recruit him:

Plainly they had seen something in Wolf that he himself did not want to see … He had that need to do something, to commit himself, not always just to be against, but also to be for something.

This complicated push-pull relationship in which you are both for and against something which both supports and restrains you is echoed in a passage when Leo was in hospital as a child. He remembers being in a room with barred windows; his parents were only allowed to visit once a week:

Wolf came more often, he climbed up the bars and waved at me from outside …

The bars are a means of separation but they are also something to climb up, to cling on to. So the Wall and its echoes – the many barriers which populate the book -  act as supports, holding up the GDR and its inhabitants, as well as fencing them in.

No wonder that when the Wall came down, and freedom flooded in, something was also lost. There was no longer something to define yourself for or against, no barrier and no support.

Red Love is a fascinating study of home and family, showing the strength of these bonds, and how they push as well as pull. While Leo keeps enough cool distance to yield a historian’s insight on the past, the pages remain astir with a nostalgic love for the communist state and what it set out to achieve. It’s a unique balance, leaving one aware of the many faults and travesties of the Stasi state, and yet feeling a sadness that the dream turned into such a nightmare. It can certainly see now why those faces I stared at on the television as a six-year-old were crying as well as smiling.

The Past is Myself

March 10, 2014

The Past is Myself is such an astonishing, thought-provoking, light-shedding, vitally important memoir that I feel I ought to have read it years ago. Why aren’t we given it at school? The Second World War is taught to death, and here is a book which gives a unique, fascinating and nuanced viewpoint. It ought to be a classic that we have all read, can all talk about, and yet it has only just found its way into my life.

Well, better late than never.

Christabel Bielenberg

Christabel Bielenberg was a bright young Anglo-Irish aristocrat, niece of press barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who won a scholarship to Oxford, but went to Hamburg to train as a soprano. There, she fell in love with Peter Bielenberg, a handsome young German lawyer, who cut a fine figure on the dancefloor. They married in 1934 and settled in Germany, where they remained during the Second World War. What a time to be British, living in Germany! The Past is Myself is her account of these years.

Although, of course, Christabel Bielenberg was no longer British. On marrying Peter, she had swapped her British passport, ‘with its jovial lion and unicorn’, for a German one, ‘a nondescript brown booklet with a disdainful-looking eagle’. She can’t possibly write as a gung-ho patriotic Brit, because she has married a German, has become one and raises her sons in Germany. She has as many German friends, as she does British. She can hardly cheer on the Allies, when sheltering from an air raid on Berlin, which wreaks destruction on the city and destroys the homes of her friends.

Yet there are aspects of Bielenberg that are unmistakably British. She reflects, on the way to visiting her husband, who has been arrested and is in a concentration camp, that she doesn’t have a plan:

Although I had lived so long in Germany, where everything from a picnic to a coup d’etat had to be planned down to the smallest detail, I knew that I had remained an incurable compromiser, inclined to plunge into a situation, flap around, see what was cooking, hope for the best and, as often as not, with God’s help, come up smiling.

Bielenberg is caught between two warring nationalities; it gives her a rare perspective and yields a brilliant memoir.

On her excellent Desert Island Discs (which you can listen to here), Bielenberg says she wrote the book out of a feeling of duty, because she felt that very few people in England knew there was another Germany, that not everyone went mad for Hitler. It is fascinating – and of course very important – to learn about this other Germany, which opposed the regime.

She shows the many shades of resistance, and of Naziism. There are outright revolutionaries like Adam Von Trott, a great friend of the Bielenbergs’, who was hanged after trying to assassinate Hitler. Then there are also the quiet inhabitants of the Black Forest village, where she spends the later war years with her children. Kerner Sepp is the village clerk and cobbler, who types dilligently away under a portrait of Hitler, but when the secret police order him to put Bielenberg under house arrest, he informs her exactly what they said:

Anyway he told us that if we told you anything except that bit about house arrest we would be shot. The poor Lower Baker got a bad fright when he said that, but we talked it over after he left and decided it was none of his business who we told. Stupid lowlander! Anyway, that’s the way it is, and just don’t tell anyone we have told you, and if you want to go to Furtwangen or any place to do some shopping, just let us know.

Bielenberg is sympathetic towards the Germans; she understands how difficult it is to live under such an oppressive regime while maintaining any feeling of integrity. She also has an outsider’s curiosity about them. An old friend of her husband’s is a Nazi, but when her husband is arrested, this Nazi does what he can to protect him. Bielenberg wonders:

How was it though that Hitler had succeeded with some of the more intelligent ones, with those who still possessed personal integrity, unless he had provided something more, something which had made them long for his leadership to succeed, in spite of the ever more obvious viciousness of his regime? Would it have been that sense of national identity which he could conjure up with such mastery? That awareness of belonging somewhere, which in England just came naturally, but I believed among Germans to be a rare, almost unique phenomenon?

Bielenberg is often on the verge of discovering a penetrating truth, but then declines to pursue it. She suffixes these thoughts above with:

Never mind, I gave up. I was suddenly very tired.

There is a perennial feeling of exhaustion, which prevents her from probing too far. One particularly harrowing moment is in a train carriage, empty other than for an SS officer. She finds herself unable to avoid having a conversation with him, in which he confesses the horrors of his work:

Do you know what it means – to kill Jews, men, women and children as they stand in a semi-circle around the machine-guns? I belonged to what is called an Einsatzkommando, an extermination squad – so I know. What do you say when I tell you that a little boy, no older than my younger brother, before such a killing, stood there to attention and asked me “Do I stand straight enough, Uncle?”

The SS officer continues, but Bielenberg confesses:

During his story I had found it increasingly difficult to listen. I had eaten practically nothing all day and the cold in the carriage was intense. As I fought wave after wave of exhaustion, my head kept falling forward and only the most startling points of his story penetrated the fog of sleep.

While Bielenberg edges close to the full dark horror of what was going on in Germany at the time, the full extent of it is too much. She is too exhausted to investigate, discover or really understand. This is certainly frustrating, especially given our subsequent knowledge of the horrors. It shows the limitations of such a personal account, written without hindsight, but also points to some answers. How could the Germans claim not have known what was going on? Perhaps the answer is here: The horror was too much to bear.

Bielenberg shows how much strength and guile it took to survive under the Nazis, so what could she possibly do when told about how awful it was to exterminate Jews? It isn’t so much a case of turning a blind eye, as being physically incapable of seeing it without going mad.

There are moments that break through the exhaustion. She gives shelter to two Jews for a short while, even though a good friend warns her not to, given that she is already under suspicion. She feels acute hatred for a Nazi officer who slaps a prisoner:

I was shaking again, but this was different, this was cold deadly hatred such as I never hope to have for any human being in my life again. I hated her, every living bit of her, and the fact that she was a woman made this hatred if possible more intense, for I think it was mixed with impotent rage and deepest humiliation that I belonged to her sex.

But these small gestures of defiance are useless, and worse still is the knowledge that they are useless.

The Past is Myself is a memoir of survival, and suggests that it would have been impossible to survive without seeking refuge in the oblivion of exhaustion. It would have been too much to see that those Jews who left her house after sheltering there for a few days were then not only caught, but exterminated. Bielenberg shows why it was not just tempting, but essential to turn away from such awful truths.

Instead, she relishes the tiny moments which make life more bearable: a rare cup of real coffee, a feast of eggs and bacon, the relief and solidarity of discovering her neighbours aren’t Nazis, the lifeline of listening to the BBC – an offence punishable by death. Tiny pleasures which are blown out of all proportion, for they are all there is to weigh against the horrors of informers, and of friends being hanged. The knowledge of the Holocaust would have tipped the scales too far.

I urge everyone to read this book. It is available either as a rather ugly giant paperback, in which it is paired with her second volume of memoir, second-hand as an out-of-print paperback, or as this very beautiful purple, pocket-sized Slightly Foxed hardback. The latter is little dear, but this is one of those books you will want to re-read and pass on to others, so worth investing in a smart edition.

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg


March 3, 2014

How I love Penelope Fitzgerald!

I have Hermione Lee’s – apparently glorious – biography of her sitting here, which I look forward to undertaking, though I have to admit to being a little daunted by its immense size. Rather uselessly, whenever I reach for it, I find myself picking up one of her slim, genius novels instead. I have re-read Offshore several times now, and am forever going back to the perfect opening to The Blue Flower and the beautiful ending of The Beginning of Spring.

Innocence by Penelope FitzgeraldLast week, I picked up Innocence. The more astute readers among you might have noticed something of an Italian theme in my reading of recent weeks. Innocence, which takes place in and around Florence, comes after The Leopard and Journey by Moonlight. It hasn’t so much been an intention, as an inescapable tug, for at the end of April, Emilybooks plus husband will be moving to Lucca for two months! So how can I resist these literary inklings of what is to come? I even made the husband watch the very old film of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April – one of my favourite novels. (You see, I pointed out emphatically as the credits rolled, we will be having our very own enchanted April! This is what you’ve been making everyone read? he asked. Everyone must think you’re mad.)

Well, I’m certainly not as mad as the wittily named ‘Aunt Mad’ in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Italian novel Innocence. Her eccentricities extend to setting up the ‘Refuge for the Unwanted’ – a place where lonely old women look after homeless infants. Sweet idea, but in reality it’s a run-down hovel, where the old women have sold the brass taps to buy presents for the babies, many of whom they’ve hidden away to try to avoid handing them back to the authorities.

One of the great pleasures of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are the wealth of endearing, eccentric characters, such as Maurice in Offshore, or Selwyn in The Beginning of Spring. Innocence offers especially rich pickings. As well as Aunt Mad, there is reclusive cousin Cesare who manages the family vineyard, brilliantly forthright British boarding-school friend Barney, nobly impoverished Count Giancarlo Ridolfi, and die-hard old Communist Sannazzaro – ‘thought to have only one idea in his head, not just one idea at a time, but the same idea for many years’, and many more. At the heart of the novel are Chiara Ridolfi, an Italian aristocrat who has just left her convent school in England, and Dr Salvatore Rossi, an older neurologist from the South, son of a Gramsci-worshipping communist. They meet at a concert and fall violently in love with each other, but being rather hopeless in effectively acting on their feelings, there follows something of a rocky, if short, road to their marriage.

With this ‘marriage plot’, Fitzgerald weaves many stories which show failed love affairs. Chiara’s father, the Count, married an American heiress, who disappeared back to America, leaving him with Chiara. Aunt Mad married an Englishman, who returned to England. Barney’s English romantic ‘He’ becomes her ‘Disaster’, whom she resorts to stabbing in the leg with her fork at dinner. Then she declares her love to silent Cesare but to no avail. Even the seemingly happy marriage of Gentilini – Salvatore Rossi’s great friend – is shown to be far from perfect when his wife faints at Chiara’s wedding, revealing herself to be so ‘downtrodden’ (in Barney’s words) that she is never allowed out and so is overwhelmed by the social exertion.

Most affecting, and most subtly written, is Cesare’s unspoken love for Chiara. It brings a painful angle to his enduring silence. Our real clue to this love is when he buys four sheets of paper and an envelope from a tobacconist. Fitzgerald tells us all the things he doesn’t write, but, teasingly, not what he does. Then:

However, he went on writing with increasing speed and concentration, until all the paper was used up … When he had finished he read the letter through. Then he took the four sheets of paper, tore them into a number of pieces, and threw them away.

‘At least that’s something I haven’t done,’ he said aloud. It was irritating, though, to be left with the unused envelope.

Nothing is spelled out; we are asked to read between the lines. It would be easy to miss this torn-up love letter, and to think of Cesare as no more than a strange silent recluse, rather than a heartbroken proud man. It makes the moment at Chiara’s wedding, when Aunt Mad asks him to say a few words about the groom, almost unbearable:

‘But I don’t speak,’ said Cesare. ‘You know that, aunt.’

‘You could say something pleasant about Salvatore, a kind of introduction.’

‘I don’t know anything about him,’ said Cesare mildly.

‘I certainly don’t want to be described,’ said Salvatore. ‘That’s one thing I hope to be spared, to know exactly what kind of a man I am.’

‘Well, I should be glad to know what kind of man you are,’ said Aunt Mad.

‘The kind that loves your niece Chiara, and would give his life for her.’

In the atmosphere of wine and winter sunshine, it sounded not at all absurd, in fact it was not absurd and no-one thought it was. Aunt Mad seemed moved, others sitting nearby also seemed moved and began to clap their hands in frank admiration. Mad looked up again at Cesare, who said calmly, ‘You see how much better he speaks than I do.’

It’s only unbearable if you’ve twigged that Cesare is love with Chiara, otherwise he just seems obtuse. With this knowledge, those adverbs – ‘mildly’, ‘calmly’ – become weighted with heartbreaking, painful restraint.

In asking us to read between the lines like this, rather than laying it on thick, Fitzgerald fosters a spirit of empathy in her readers. She warns us off quickly dismissing people, asking instead for our sympathy, for our understanding that there are reasons for people’s seemingly odd behaviour that deserve respect.

Innocence begins with a disturbing story about the Ridolfi family in the sixteenth century, when they were a family of midgets. They went to great pains to ensure that their midget daughter thought she was normal-sized, so the garden steps were miniature, the statues too, and they only employed midgets and dwarfs. Catastrophe strikes when Gemma, the daughter’s midget companion, has a growth spurt. The daughter ‘was not in the least concerned about herself, only about her friend’, thinking she’ll be treated as a monster in the outside world, where she thinks everyone is midget-sized. She thoughtfully ‘took to walking a few steps ahead of Gemma, so that their shadows would be seen to be the same length’.  She prays to be shown a solution for her friend’s plight, reflects that ‘it was worth suffering to a certain extent if it led to something more appropriate or more beautiful’, and then:

Since Gemma must never know the increasing difference between herself and the rest of the world, she would be better off if she was blind – happier, that is, if her eyes were put out. And since there seemed no other way to stop her going up and down the wrong staircases, it would be better for her, surely, in the long run, if her legs were cut off at the knee.

So we see the terrible violence that can spring from innocence.

This story, almost a parable really, echoes through the rest of the narrative; we keep an eye out for examples of pain unwittingly caused. I’m not sure if it isn’t a bit too obvious for so subtle and understated an author. Could we not have seen all the unknowing violence wreaked by innocent Chiara without such an obvious pointer? Could the pointer at least have been worked into the main body of the text, rather than standing out so sharply at the beginning? As it is, this opening, powerful though it may be, somewhat undermines the deft brilliance of the rest of the novel.

This is but a quibble. Innocence is a wonderful novel, revealing much about naivete and love, and about Italy, and the English in Italy. I loved its cast of dotty characters, all rendered so perfectly that they have stepped off the page and into my life. When we go to Tuscany, I shall keep my eyes peeled for them all, and try not to be too like good old blustering Barney, or, for that matter, Aunt Mad.

Penelope Fitzgerald with her reassuringly messy bookshelves

And you – are you a Penelope Fitzgerald fan? Of course I would love to know your thoughts on any of her wonderful novels, or indeed of the biography.

Wise Children

February 24, 2014

wise children‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’

Indeed! Angela Carter’s invocation of Jane Austen at the start of chapter four couldn’t be more appropriate; Wise Children is a wonderful, ebullient, rich, bawdy, optimistic carnival of a novel.

So we all thought at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. (All, except for one lady who thought it ‘too clever by half’.) We longed to go round chez Chance for a gin and a natter with winning narrator Dora toot sweet! Indeed, we felt a touch guilty for walk-talking the novel in North London, not far from Melchior Hazard’s swish Primrose Hill residence, rather than on ‘the bastard side of Old Father Thames’.

There was something about yesterday’s walk which was particularly wonderful. Perhaps it was because, in an attempt to avoid muddy patches and wind-exposed hill-tops, I led us on an unusually long loop. Perhaps it was thanks to the enormous tree that had blown dramatically across the path, which felt symbolic, in a Carteresque way, of an uprooted family tree. Or perhaps it was simply because Wise Children is an especially good book and we felt so exceptionally fond of Dora that it was almost as though she (and Nora, of course) were high-kicking alongside us on the Heath.

Dora Chance is the forceful narrator of the novel. We meet her on her seventy-fifth birthday, which is also the birthday of her twin sister Nora, the hundredth birthday of their father (though they are illegitimate and unacknowledged) – grand thesp Melchior Hazard, and it is Shakespeare’s birthday too. The novel takes place over the course of one day, from breakfast that morning to wandering home from Melchior’s centenary party that night, with Dora’s final exclamation:

What a joy it is to dance and sing!

In a feat of storytelling, Carter manages to contain over a century’s history of dancing and singing in this single day. We begin with Dora’s paternal grandmother Estella, born in 1870, a child actor on the provincial circuits, who came to London to be a Cordelia who married her Lear – Ranulph Hazard. They went to America, then all over the Empire: acting in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, America again – with everything from an ice-cream sundae to a township named after them in their wake.

Then we come to their (possibly illegitimate) offspring, twins Peregrine and Melchior Hazard. Melchior wound up in a Brixton boarding house, where, so Dora likes to think, her mother, who ‘emptied the slops, filled the washstand jugs, raked out the grates, built up the fires…’ and was only ‘a slip of a thing but she was bold as brass’, locked his door behind her and:

“Now I’ve got you where I want you!” she said. What else could a gentleman do but succumb?

And so Dora and Nora Chance were conceived.

One of the things I love most in Wise Children, is how time and again Carter rejects the role of wispy delicate woman, overpowered and badly treated by man. Their servant girl mother wasn’t raped by tough young Melchior, but took advantage of him! (I feel Rachel Cooke in her excellent column in yesterday’s Observer would approve.)

Elsewhere Carter rewrites the role of Ophelia. Beautiful young Tiffany – strewn with flowers, driven mad with grief at being impregnated and then  seriously, serially cheated on by her awful boyfriend Tristram (Melchior’s son) – is thought to have drowned herself in the Thames. So far, so Ophelia … but no, at the end of the novel she reappears, ‘as fresh as paint … sound in mind and body almost to a fault … our heart’s delight.’ Tristram begs her forgiveness, to which she replies, bluntly, “Fat chance,”:

“Pull yourself together and be a man, or try to,” said Tiffany sharply. “You’ve not got what it takes to be a father. There’s more to fathering than fucking you know.”

Then she strides off. Brilliant!

Grandma Chance is the owner of the boarding house and she brings up Nora and Dora, as their mother died in childbirth and Melchior disowned them. Rather being raised in a stifling patriarchy, they grow up in a carnivalesque family, surrounded by singing and dancing from the moment they’re born, in a house where people are either naked, in a nighty, or dressed up as pirates, and stray souls are made very welcome. Again, rather than suffering at the hands of the badly behaving man, the women flourish.

Dora and Nora have dancing lessons and soon become high-kicking chorus girls, a career that eventually takes them to Hollywood, where they are Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in Melchior’s doomed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The descriptions of the Hollywood set of the Wood near Athens are spellbinding:

Daisies big as your head and white as spooks, foxgloves as tall as the tower of Pisa that chimed like bells if shook. Gnarled, fissured tree-trunks; sprays of enormous leaves – oak, ash, thorn, like parasols, or glider planes, or awnings … And rolling around at random underfoot, or stuck on buds, or hanging in mid-air as if they’d just rolled off a wild rose or out of a cowslip, imitation dewdrops, that is big faux pearls, suspended on threads.

Everything has been scaled up so that the actors look the size of fairies on screen. It is extremely surreal in reality in order to look real on screen. And yet, what on earth is reality in this context? It is The Dream, after all, and made in Hollywood, the ‘major public dreaming facility in the whole world’. It is a dreamlike landscape, for this dream of a dream, and like dreams, it is uncanny, beautiful and disturbing at the same time. Then, in a genius stroke of irony, it proves to be all too real, when Nora trips up and spikes her bottom on a giant conker and the wound goes septic.

The film flops; Shakespeare’s and Melchior’s Dream doesn’t work in Hollywood. Neither does the intriguing, sad character of Gorgeous George. He is first seen doing a bawdy show on Brighton Pier with great success. Next, he is imported to Hollywood to be Bottom in The Dream, where he fails rather unspectacularly. Finally, he is in the gutter outside Melchior’s hundredth birthday party, ‘some old cove in rags, begging’.

Gorgeous George is not just any old character. As Carter tells us:

For George was not a comic at all but an enormous statement … Displayed across his torso there was … a complete map of the entire world.

When they see him in Brighton, he strips almost naked (the vital bits are covered by a ‘gee-string of very respectable dimensions … made out of the Union Jack’) and sings God Save the King and Rule Britannia. ‘Most of his global tattoo was filled in a brilliant pink’ – the colour of Empire. So George’s downward spiral is that of Great Britain: it once ruled the world, lost to America, and now is reduced to begging.

Gorgeous George’s tragic trajectory mirrors that of the Hazards – from the paternal grandmother who acts in all corners of the Empire, through Shakespearean success Melchior, to his son Tristram who presents a third-rate television game show. It echoes the fate of the music halls and chorus lines.

‘Lo how the mighty are fallen,’ thinks Dora when she sees George in the gutter. Much has fallen, much dwindles, and yet, don’t forget, ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ Carter tells us throughout that there is no place for tragedy in this book.

The British Empire has crumbled, but if it is represented by Gorgeous George – at his best a stripper-comedian – was it really so wonderful? Who cares about him, when we have Dora and Nora, who remain ‘The Lucky Chances’, happy, joyful, making-the-best of things, singing and dancing to the very last line.

It is a profoundly optimistic novel, made all the more so by these lines of downfall that run through it. Wise Children encourages you to laugh and make merry, not cry when disaster inevitably strikes. Fate deals a cruel hand, the trick is not to take it lying down. (Or, at least lie down and enjoy it!) Perhaps it sounds rather naf and daft when put like this, rather than guised in Carter’s rich, raucous prose. No doubt it’s best to read it for yourself. Do – and I’d love to know what you make of it.

PS. For those of you who want to venture beyond EmilyBooks, here is a humblingly brilliant article on Wise Children by Kate Webb, here are my latest crop of reviews for The Spectator, and here‘s a little something I wrote on the Daunt Books Festival for The Bookseller.

Angela Carter

Journey by Moonlight

February 17, 2014

And while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen …

Journey by MoonlightThis is the brilliant final line of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Beginning with ‘And’, ending with ellipses (Szerb’s not mine), the novel doesn’t so much finish as keep on going. It leaves you asking what will be the next coincidence in this wonderful novel of chance, wandering and possibility.

Nicholas Lezard begins his excellent Guardian review saying that once he got to the end of Journey by Moonlight, he went straight back to the beginning. I found myself doing the same. It wasn’t that I wanted to re-read it all, but just to remind myself how it began, to try to join those dots.

The opening is nearly as good as the ending:

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

Immediately we know that the book will be about travel – train journeys, wandering through alleys – and about trouble. Szerb explains that his protagonist Mihály is in Italy because:

He was now married and they had decided on the conventional Italian holiday for their start to married life. Mihály had now come, not to Italy as such, but on his honeymoon, a different matter entirely.

So we are introduced to Szerb’s unique lightly ironic tone. He points out the flaws and shortcomings of his characters, but their marvellous eccentricities make it impossible to lose your sense of humour and feel too cross with them. He invites you to laugh at his characters rather than criticise. (One of my favourites is the Hungarian academic, who sleeps all day, has the messiest study imaginable and eats only cold meat so thoughtfully provides a banana as some variation for Mihály when he comes to dinner.) Throughout the novel, however fed up we get with Mihály, we still forgive and indulge him, just as Szerb here points out and forgives his conventional honeymoon.

Mihály finds himself wandering through the Venetian back-alleys all night. He returns to his hotel and finds that he cannot explain himself to his wife:

‘So this is marriage,’ he thought. ‘What does it amount to, when every attempt to explain is so hopeless? Mind you, I don’t fully understand all this myself.’

These wry asides are another feature of the book, which made me want to jot down line after line as the perfect comment on something or another. A real gem is:

November in London is a state of mind.

The scene is set: a new marriage, foundering even during its honeymoon, and a man who doesn’t understand himself. His attempt to understand himself – a great deal of self-reflexive wondering – is translated into his wandering feet, through the back-alleys of Venice and then further afield.

The opening is a metonym for what will happen in the rest of the novel, not only in the way it captures so many elements of Szerb’s brilliant style, but also in terms of plot. Before long, Mihály accidentally gets on a different train to his wife and instead of trying to find her again, continues his Italian wanderings alone. (His wife, meanwhile, goes to Paris, stays with a girlfriend, and becomes involved with a friend of Mihály’s and an enigmatic, tigerish, Persian.)

As Mihály wanders, he is running away from his ‘bourgeois’ present – his conventional honeymoon, his job in the family firm, his whole middle-class life – and trying to return to a period of adolescence when he was friends with a bohemian brother and sister. They used to spend their time role-playing, stealing, pretending to kill themselves and being rather too close to each other. He is haunted by his relationship with them, and the novel is a testament to the power of this nostalgia.

Mihály feels lost as to his future. His wanderings are driven by his desire for this period of his youth. He doesn’t know what to do now or next, wanting only to reconnect with his past. Perhaps this is why we feel the need to go back to the beginning of the book, once we’ve reached its end – its whole drive is pushing back into the past.

You’d have thought this might be problematic in terms of plot and pace – for surely you want to be thinking about the future, what happens next, rather than revisiting past events, but Szerb is very good at keeping us on our toes. It’s a bit like Murdoch’s Under the Net: you’re forever guessing where the protagonist will go next, who’s knocking at the door, or lurking down the alley. Somehow the elaborate chain of coincidences doesn’t feel excessively, annoyingly staged, rather it heightens the eerie dreamy feeling that pervades the book.

Szerb sets up one situation especially self-consciously, pointing out its unlikeliness:

Erzsi’s sense of unreality grew and grew … It was as if everything had been prepared in advance. Of this Erzsi no longer had any doubt.

Erszi realises she’s been manipulated and set-up by her lover. At the heart of this scene, she has an intense moment of self-realisation:

She was sobbing, and horribly tired. This was the moment of truth, when a person sees the whole pattern of their life.

Szerb draws attention to people’s vulnerability to being manipulated into situations, while suggesting that they depend on this manipulation in order to realise a truth about themselves.

It is symptomatic of the whole novel – through a series of remarkable coincidences, Mihály comes to learn about himself. Reality has to become unreal in order to grasp the greater reality. In dreams you encounter more profound truths than in waking life. Szerb uses all his coincidences to give a dreamlike feeling to the book, thereby making it a means to tackle many big truths about the human condition, such as the urge to escape mundane life, the link between sex and death, and the power of nostalgia.

Journey by Moonlight was written in 1937, at a time when Europe’s future looked increasingly bleak. (It certainly proved to be so for Szerb, who died in a forced labour camp in 1945.) It is not so surprising then that it is preoccupied with the past. In many ways it is a love letter to ancient Italian cities, with their rich Roman, Etruscan and folk history (there’s a particularly intriguing bit about Gubbio’s doors of the dead). It is also a celebration of a time when people moved freely through Europe – Hungarians coming to Italy, going on to Paris, meeting Englishmen, Persians, Americans … Szerb catches the experience of travelling through Italy just before everything changed. Incidentally, Pushkin are just about to publish Szerb’s notes on his own travels through Italy, The Third Tower.

I suppose I’ve made Journey by Moonlight sound rather heavy-going, European and serious. It is, but it is also very very funny. It is a brilliant novel – dreamy, witty, picaresque, intelligent, wry … and impossible to sum up.

Nicholas Lezard and Paul Bailey will be talking about Antal Szerb to his translator Len Rix at the Daunt Books Festival (programme here) at 12 noon on Friday 28th March. It’s going to be amazing – unmissable for anyone who is a Szerb fan, and an inspiring introduction for those new to his work. You can book here, if you scroll down a bit.

For more on Szerb, here’s my post on his first novel, The Pendragon Legend.

Antal Szerb

The Leopard

February 10, 2014

The Leopard by Tomasi di LampedusaThis is, put simply, one of the greatest novels of all time.

It’s hard to pin it to a particular century, as it was written in the mid-twentieth, yet takes place primarily in the late-nineteenth, and holds glimpses of both past and future. Perhaps it soars above the boundaries of time; somewhat ironic for a novel which is so preoccupied with time’s passage and the changing order of things.

Famously, Tancredi says:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand?

Do we understand? This novel is a sensuous, skilful unpacking of this paradox which must make any writer at once green with envy and incredibly proud to see words used so powerfully. As David Mitchell puts it in a fervent piece in the Telegraph:

The Leopard is truly exceptional. ‘Give it up, you poor hack,’ the novel advises me. ‘Retrain as a plumber and earn some real money, or you’ll waste your life and still not produce a book a tenth as good as me.’ But the novel can’t help adding, ‘Look at all this beauty, truth and emotion, created from nothing but words. Just words. How can you possibly spend your life not trying to do the same?’

The novel opens in May 1860, just as Garibaldi conquers Sicily as part of the ‘Risogimento’, the unification of Italy. ‘The Leopard’ of the title is Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina – a huge figure, intimidating, a womanizer, and something of an eccentric who applies his mathematical capability to astronomy rather than accounting for his family’s expenditure and debts. He is married with three daughters and two sons, but the novel’s key relationship is avuncular. Don Fabrizio’s nephew is Tancredi Falconieri, an orphan the Prince has taken under his wing. They are both fond of each other – Tancredi affectionately calls him ‘Nuncle’ and teases him that he’s too old to be going to brothels, while Don Fabrizo finds his youthful insolence endearing and admires his political flexibility.

‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Don Fabrizio sees that Tancredi understands this and so is bound to succeed. Aristocratic but penniless, Tancredi chooses to marry the beautiful, decidedly middle-class but very wealthy Angelica, whose father wears ill-fitting suits and whose mother is completley illiterate. He chooses her over refined, noble Concetta, the Prince’s daughter, seeing that while he cares for her, she hasn’t the upwardly mobile social ambition, nor the money required for a suitable match.

Some of my favourite scenes are of Tancredi and Angelica’s courtship, as they explore the dusty forgotten rooms of Donnafugata, one of the Prince’s palaces. The house throbs with the sensuality of their desire, as they explore the ‘mysterious and intricate labyrinth’ of various apartments which had been uninhabited for many years:

The two lovers embarked for Cythera on a ship made of dark and sunny rooms, of apartments sumptuous or squalid, empty or crammed with remains of heterogeneous furniture … It was not difficult to mislead anyone wanting to follow, this just meant slipping into one of the very long, narrow and tortuous passages, with grilled windows which could not be passed without a sense of anguish, turning through a gallery, up some handy stair, and the two young people were far away, invisible, alone as if on a desert island.

These dreamy passages are a beautiful double metaphor for first love. The winding geography of the palace becomes a voyage to a distant island, a journey of discovery, as well as perfectly reflecting the newly discovered labyrinthine feelings of falling in love.

Lampedusa contrasts this match between aristocratic yet financially poor Tancredi and socially ambitious, wealthy Angelica – indicative of an acceptance that change is necessary to remain in power – with the Prince’s inflexibility. When he is asked to be a Senator of the newly unified Kingdom, a chance to represent Sicily in the country’s political affairs which is a great honour, the Prince declines. He says he supports the new regime but will not ‘participate’. He conjures an image of Sicilians who are old, ‘worn out and exhausted’, looking on the wonders of the modern world as:

A centenarian being dragged in a bath-chair round the Great Exhibition in London, understanding nothing and caring about nothing … thinking of nothing but drowsing off again on beslobbered pillows with a pot under the bed.

He continues:

All Sicilian sensuality is a hankering for oblivion … that is the cause of the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life; novelties attract us only when they are dead.

The Prince is old, and will not participate in change. Twenty years on, we see him sitting not in a bath-chair but in an ‘arm-chair, his long legs wrapped in a blanket’ taken out on to a hotel balcony, as he looks over the Sicilian landscape and feels ‘life flowing from him in great pressing waves with a spiritual roar’. He realises that he is the last true Salina, the last who understands traditions and refuses to bow to the changing times.

Throughout the novel there is the tension of the Prince’s heavy journey towards death – his ‘hankering for oblivion’, unchanging, doomed yet noble – against the nimble, practical, youthful energy of Tancredi, who will make the aristocracy’s traditions pliant in order to remain on top.

Interesting, this comment on ‘the well-known time lag of a century in our artistic and intellectual life’. For The Leopard begins in 1860 and was written nearly a hundred years later. Evidently Lampedusa himself was subject to this time lag, attracted to such ‘novelties’ as the decaying aristocracy only once it was well-and-truly dead.

The Prince feels himself to be a generation caught in-between generations – still alive in spite of his outmoded way of living and unable to adapt in the way that Tancredi can. It strikes me that this feeling of in-betweeness is surely felt by all generations. I know little of Lampedusa’s life, but perhaps he felt oppressed by the change brought by modern warfare – the Allied bomb of 1943 which fell on his Palermo palazzo, which is prophetically glimpsed in the novel:

From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling as inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.

Surely every generation suffers this neurosis of being at once ahead and left behind. For instance, my generation is endlessly bemoaning the fact that we are in-between in terms of the internet – too old to have been taught coding, yet not so old that we can get away with our ignorance. There is a feeling that if only we were older it wouldn’t matter if we knew no more than how to add an attachment to an email, but as it is we’re expected to be able to build a website, certainly to know basic html, and the fact that we don’t, whereas those just ten years younger than us have it all as second nature, is terrifying.

Perhaps that is in part why The Leopard is such a timeless novel, capturing the old order on the brink of collapse, while the new rises up – portraying how much is lost as well as gained in this evolution, while maintaining enough optimism not to be overwhelmed by the weight of such nostalgia. In each generation there is another old order giving way to a new, and surely everyone feels themselves caught between the annihilistic ‘hankering for oblivion’ and a naïve hopefulness. We are all faced with the statement: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ It’s less a question of ‘D’you understand?’ than how one chooses to respond.

Oh and there is so much more to discuss. The power of the Sicilian landscape – perhaps this is what Forster so admired about it, as it reminded me of the brilliant end to A Passage to India; Catholicism – no doubt much here about death being ever present a la Brideshead Revisited; and all the food – including that infamous macaroni pie … The Leopard is a magnificent and enduring classic, even better on this rereading than when I first encountered it ten years ago. As ever, I’d love to know what you made of it. Daphne, alas, was rather startled by its leonine character:

Daphne and The Leopard


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