Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Harding’

Emilybooks of the year

December 23, 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at the books I’ve read over the year. And, of course, as I look back over the books, so I remember the circumstances in which they were read: grabbing half an hour on a park bench while Vita snoozed in her pushchair, snatching a few pages in the bath before falling asleep from exhaustion, sitting in a cafe round the corner from the nursery trying to distract myself from thinking about her ‘settling in’ a.k.a. screaming her head off. I suppose these are all rather fraught circumstances for reading, and so it’s to be expected that I’ve read and posted far less than I would have liked. But when I think that the lack of books has been due to an abundance of Vita, I don’t feel quite so sorry about it as I might do otherwise. Besides, at least I’ve got to read such delights as Peepo, The Tiger who Came to Tea, Meg and Mog and Lost and Found again, and again, and again.

The Fishermen by ObiomaWhile I may not have written about books on Emilybooks quite so much, I have at least been writing about them elsewhere. I adored Melissa Harrison’s nature-novel At Hawthorn Time, which I reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement, and I also enjoyed Lucy Beresford’s compelling novel about India, Invisible Threads, which I wrote about for The Spectator. I also read two books by Thomas Harding – Hanns and Rudolf, which I wrote about here, and his recent history of a house outside Berlin, The House by the Lake which I reviewed in the Christmas edition of The TLS here. (Quite a big piece!) I hope to have a review of Helen Simpson’s beautifully observed, funny and life-affirming new collection of short stories, Cockfosters, in The TLS early next year too. The best newly published book I read of the year was Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – an extraordinary debut novel, with such a powerful mythic voice. I wrote about it when it first came out, and then was pleased as punch when it went on to be first longlisted and then shortlisted for The Booker Prize, hurrah!

The Good DoctorEmily’s Walking Book Club has become something of a reading lifeline to me. Knowing that I will read one good book a month and then talk about it with such clever, kind and interesting people while stomping across Hampstead Heath – while all thoughts of nappies and bottles etc. are blown away for an hour or so – has been invaluable. Particular highlights have been Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – a beautiful Persephone Book about a father searching for his missing son after the Second World War in France; Iris Murdoch’s The Bell about a load of endearing oddballs living beside an Abbey; The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – about life in a defunct hospital in the wilds of South Africa, and optimism versus cynicism, lies, race and gosh SO MUCH; and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld –  a horrible book about a very damaged young woman and what she’s running away from, which is also horribly good.

A Christmas Party by Georgette HeyerFor our last walking book club of the year, we discussed Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party (originally published with the title Envious Casca), and it seemed at first to split people into two camps – those who loved it for all its silliness, and those who found it too silly to love. Within about ten minutes, we were comparing it to Downton Abbey, but our discussion then moved on to encompass Shakespeare, acting, family and much more and by the end of the walk we had all grown rather fond of the book and its cast of eccentric characters. It’s a vintage Christmas murder mystery, one of many which have been republished this year – I wrote about this publishing phenomenon and what it tells us about our reading habits (and ourselves!) for Intelligent Life here.

There have been other excellent older books that I discovered this year. Fred Uhlman’s Reunion – which takes about five minutes to read, only that five minutes will be one of the most intense five minutes of your life; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years – sheer bliss for when you need something a little indulgent; Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown – ballsy and loud and inspiring; and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, which was funny and brilliant and clever and actually made me hold my breath for an entire page and a The Uncommon Readerhalf. I also jumped on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon – is there actually anyone who reads, who hasn’t read her? – and read the first book in the Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend. It was brilliant, of course it was. I can’t quite place why though – Was it that the town was so well described, and the characters so recognisable? Was it that we all relate to the pain and the joy of that kind of intense unequal female friendship? I don’t know, I hope to read the rest of them in 2016, then think hard and then write about them altogether, but in the meantime the LRB bookshop has a podcast of a ‘Ferrante fever’ event which looks potentially illuminating – you can download it here. Also, I must urge everyone to read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett over Christmas – it is a true delight, short, funny, life-affirming: all about The Queen discovering a love for reading. It will make you chortle while you sit there on the sofa groaning after too many mince pies, and apparently laughing is basically the same as exercise, so there you go, it’s a certain win.

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtI shall skip through the two real disappointments of the year. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – the first and worst book of the year, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Booker Prize in 2014, which certainly wasn’t terrible, but it just wasn’t as good as all that, certainly not as good as Ali Smith’s How to be Both which was on the shortlist, and I suppose maybe I feel childishly cross about that. (Incidentally, Ali Smith has a fantastic new collection of short stories out this year too – Public Library.) Anyway, plenty of people disagree about both of these, so no doubt they are good books, just not good Emilybooks. Should you get stuck on a similar big long boring book, and find your reading slowing down as you begin to dread picking it up – JUST GIVE IT UP! Life’s too short. There are so many other better books you could be reading, rather than essentially not reading. To get back on track, I would suggest picking up a very addictive and exciting children’s book, such as one by Tonke Dragt: Pushkin published The Secrets of the Wild Wood this year and it is terrific – the husband adored it too.

Peking Picnic by Ann BridgeSo, fanfare please, what is my Emilybook of the Year, if I had to pick just one? A difficult choice, but I think I would have to opt for Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge, recently republished by Daunt Books. It is wonderful escapism, but has bite too – a dark edge that stops it being too airy and daft. Set in 1930s Peking, our heroine, the marvellous Laura Leroy suffers from acute ‘inhalfness’ – torn between the glamour of her life in China as a diplomat’s wife, while thinking about her children growing up without her in England. Though she seems wistful at first, she is in fact a dab hand at using a brick as a hammer, surprisingly realistic about love, and expert a cool head in a crisis, even a life-threatening one. Top heroine; top book!

 I wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these books, or indeed your own books of 2015, if you feel like commenting below. So, what will I be reading over Christmas? Alas I won’t be curling up by the fire with a Christmas murder mystery (though to be fair, I have just read half a dozen of them for the Intelligent Life article) … but I will be seeking help in civilising the ahem ‘spirited’ little one from Pamela Druckerman’s life-changing (let’s hope) parenting book French Children Don’t Throw Food. Wish me luck!

French Children Don't Throw Food

Hanns and Rudolf

August 12, 2015

You’ll be pleased to hear that life at Emilybooks has improved since the last post-disastrous-holiday post. Much time has been spent making the most of Britain’s lovely sights and cooler climes. While the husband was away at a stag weekend, Vita and I summoned a few pals for a trip to Eastbourne for fish and chips on the beach and a squizz at the Towner Gallery, where there’s an excellent William Gear exhibition – you can read Rachel Cooke’s intriguing review of it in the Observer here. (We were all ready to fight any menacing seagulls who so much looked at Vita.) Another weekend, Vita resided with her doting grandparents while the husband and I disappeared off to a wedding in Scotland, and nearly reeled ourselves sick (at least I think it was the reeling, I suppose it could have been the whisky), and then, last week, another doting grandparent took us all off to a sunny spot in Gloucestershire, where we had a glorious time, not least when we attempted to inspire Vita to live up to her name by looking around the beautiful gardens at Highgrove. I had to restrain her from tugging the heads off the flowers, which I take to be a sign of great promise.

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas HardingIt was on the train up to Scotland, luxuriating in the heaven of not having to entertain a baby for the four and a half hour journey, that I read most of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding. This book did terribly well when it was published a couple of years ago and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, in part because he has a new book coming out this autumn.

Thomas Harding traces the stories of his great-uncle Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who fled Berlin for London in the 1930s, and Rudolf Höss, who became the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Harding explains why he was so drawn to the story:

In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews – and I am one – were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereotype until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me. This is a Jew-fighting-back story

Although a great deal of the book is taken up with a trajectory with which we are familiar – Aryan German from humble beginnings flourishes under the Nazi regime and acquires a great deal of wealth as he persecutes the Jews versus rich Jew managing to escape to London just in time even though this means losing most of his money and having to start again – Harding continues the story and shows what happens when the tables turn. Hanns Alexander joins the British Army and then works for the War Crimes Investigation Team; Rudolf Höss flees Auschwitz, separates from his family and goes into hiding while his family suffers acute poverty. Before long, Hanns is tasked with finding Rudolf, so we see the hunter become the hunted and vice versa. As Harding says, we see the Jew fighting back … and winning.

Hanns and Rudolf is exciting. Harding tells his story using alternate chapters – one focussing on Hanns, the next on Rudolf – and it is fascinating, sickening and gripping in equal measure to watch their lives spin out in such different directions while being pulled along by the knowledge that they will come together at the climax. It is, as it says in the puffs on the cover, ‘a thriller’.

Except, of course, it isn’t. It’s a true story; the true story of a terrible episode in our history. Hanns and Rudolf is not a novel based on, or inspired by, real events, it is the raw truth itself. Throughout his book, Harding reminds us of his tale’s truth – the prose is thick with facts, heavily illustrated with photographs, and there are many notes detailing his research at the back – but he tells it with a keen eye for the tale itself. He presents the facts in thriller form, and thereby renders history as story.

This certainly makes Hanns and Rudolf a good read. The problem is I think that, morally, this story ought to be a terrible read: a grim heavy book that makes you feel the full horror of the six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. Perhaps Harding has hit on something when he talks about how rare it is to find a ‘Jew-fighting-back’ story rather than a Jew as victim story, and no doubt it is this which lends the narrative this element of a thriller, earning cover puffs from John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. Also quoted on the cover is Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, saying the book ‘deserves a wide readership even among those who think they are bored with the Holocaust’. I think it is not OK to give being ‘bored with the Holocaust’ as an option, but perhaps there is something in this … If people really are bored with the Holocaust as presented in appropriately grim heavy books, then maybe this is why this book – a thriller – did so well. It is a very troubling idea to get one’s head around.

Even more troubling is the extent to which Harding’s storytelling prowess makes the reader empathise with one of his main characters. Rudolf.

Take this, for instance. Rudolf has just met Himmler, who’s told him it is time to implement ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish question’ at Auschwitz and that millions of people will be sent there to be killed:

Rudolf returned to Upper Silesia with mission in hand, but no clear idea how to achieve its objective. He knew he would not be able to kill enough prisoners using Phenol injections, and shooting them would not work either. Not only were bullets expensive but, from his time overseeing the executions in Sachsenhausen, Rudolf learned that executions have an emotional impact on firing squads – resulting in excessive drinking and increased suicide rates – and therefore could not be scaled up to any large degree.

Part of the solution was found two months later when Rudolf’s thirty-nine-year-old deputy, Karl Fritzsch, told him about an experiment which he had recently completed. Fritzsch had thrown some Zyklon B granules – used at the time to exterminate the camp’s vermin – into a small cell in Block II holding a group of Russian prisoners. After waiting only a few minutes, he had observed that all the prisoners had died. There were two problems, he said. First, only a few prisoners could be killed at a time; and second, they had to carry the bodies out by wheelbarrow, which caused shock and anxiety among the other prisoners. Rudolf suggested that if they used the old crematorium on the other side of the block buildings, and adjacent to the villa where he lived, they would be able to kill more prisoners. There would also be an on-site solution to the problem of disposing of the bodies.

Reading this as I type it makes me feel sick. Here is Rudolf coldly discussing the most efficient means of implementing systematic mass murder. It is hard to admit to this, but when I read this terrible passage in the course of reading the book, part of me felt: how is Rudolf going to find a solution to this problem that Himmler’s set him? And, therefore, part of me felt: clever Rudolf for working it out. This is a terrible thing to say; I hasten to add that it is all the more terrible for me to say as a Jew, whose great-grandfather was killed in the camps. But such is the power of Harding’s storytelling, that in following Rudolf’s story, I couldn’t help but see his perspective, and feel partly on his side in spite of myself. I was similarly conflicted when Hanns got closer and closer to finding Rudolf in hiding: part of me instinctively sympathised with the underdog and wanted Rudolf to find a means of escape.

I never thought I would find myself seeing the world through a Nazi’s eyes, certainly not the Kommandant of Auschwitz, and yet I did. As Harding detailed the atrocities Rudolf committed, presenting them in the way that Rudolf would have seen them, it was a real effort to force myself out of Rudolf’s head.

Perhaps this is testament to the power of the book and of Harding’s writing, but I hate to think of other people reading the book and feeling a similar empathy towards Rudolf.

In his author’s note, Harding says:

By calling Hanns and Rudolf by their first names I do not mean to equate them. Indeed, it is important to me that there be no moral equivalence. Yet both of these men were, self-evidently, human beings, and as such, if I am to tell their tales, I should begin with their first names. If this offends, and I understand why it might, I ask for your forgiveness.

Here is the real knot of the book: Rudolf is a human being, and Harding enables us to see this. And this is what is so deeply uncomfortable about the book – in encouraging us to see things from Rudolf’s perspective, you can glimpse how the atrocities happened, how it isn’t completely inconceivable for a human to oversee the genocide of his fellow humans.

There is much more to say about Hanns and Rudolf, but I shall restrict myself to just a couple more points.

Firstly, it was fascinating the way that Harding showed the significance of Rudolf’s capture and testimony. During the Nuremberg Trials, many of the Nazis were on the brink of being found not guilty because in spite of the evidence of the genocide taking place, the men denied their knowledge of it. Soon after Rudolf was arrested, he was called as a witness and confessed that at Auschwitz:

At least two and half million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half-million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about three million.

He admitted that he ‘personally supervised executions’ and gave further details of the deaths. The following day, Hans Frank, head of the government in occupied Poland, took the stand and for the first time confessed to his role in the atrocities. When asked, ‘Did you ever participate in the destruction of the Jews?’, he replied:

I say Yes. And the reason I say yes is because I have been burdened by guilt for the five months of this trial, and particularly burdened by the statement made by Rudolf Höss.

Rudolf’s testimony was key to getting the other Nazi war criminals to admit to their guilt – in capturing him, Hanns captured many others too.

And the final point to note is that Harding informs us that when so many Nazi war criminals were held in Nuremberg for the trials, ‘the Americans had instructed a panel of psychologists to conduct extensive interviews and tests with the defendants.’ Harding tells us who interviewed Rudolf: Gustave Gilbert ‘a New Yorker born to Jewish-Austrian immigrants’, and Major Leon Goldensohn, ‘a Jew who had been born and raised in New York’.

It makes me wonder, who were the other American psychologists, and what proportion of them were Jewish? Isn’t it extraordinary – and quite ironic – to think of a bunch of Jewish New Yorker shrinks interviewing this haul of Nazi war criminals? Please could someone write a book about this!

Hanns and Rudolf