Monday, February 23, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ANNIE”S WAR – A New Zealand Woman and her Family in England 1916-19” edited by Susanna Montgomerie Norris with Anna Rogers (Otago University press, $NZ45)
Does anybody still remember the quaint fad from the earlier twentieth century of burying time capsules? In a (supposedly) hermetically sealed container, various items from the present would be buried in the foundations of a new and important building. The idea was that hundreds of years hence, archaeologists would unearth the said capsule, open it and be delighted to find a snapshot of the age in which it was buried, where fads, crazes and trivia were mixed with more important things.
In reading these selections from the wartime diaries of Annie Montgomerie, I feel I am opening a time capsule. Annie was neither a great intellect nor a particularly perceptive person. Many of the opinions she expressed were the commonplaces (or prejudices) of her class and time. Yet it is still fascinating to read what she wrote, as it tells us so much about that time.
Let’s put her into context.
Susanna Montgomerie Norris is the granddaughter of Annie Montgomerie. With the help of the professional editor Anna Rogers, she has brought long sections of her grandmother’s diary to publication. Military historian Glyn Harper provides a brief forward, linking the diary to the war whose centenary we are still commemorating. There are helpful marginal notes throughout explaining topical references, and two selections of photographs. But the text’s the thing.
In 1916, in the third year of the First World War, Annie Montgomerie (aged 49) travelled from New Zealand to England on the Remuera, with her husband Roger (aged 50), their two sons Oswald (20) and Seton (18) and their two daughters Winifred (22) and Alexandra (14). The plan was for Oswald and Seton to enlist for war service, and for their father Roger to find some work related to the war effort.
In the event Seton joined the new RFC (Royal Flying Corps) and saw service on the Western Front while Oswald went off to the Middle East in another branch of the imperial forces. Winifred found work as a nurse, Alexandra was still at school, and Annie’s husband went through a number of positions including work in forestry. The Montgomeries stayed in England until the war was over. Throughout that time Annie, who socialised, shopped and vented her opinions, kept her diary. The first entry in this 240-odd page selection is dated 23 June 1916 and was written as the Remuera left Wellington. The last entry is dated Christmas Day 1919, written as the Ruahine pulled back into Auckland harbour and the Montgomeries resumed their lives as New Zealanders rather than as “colonials” living in England. They had stayed in England for a year after the war ended, and a few letters from Annie’s husband suggest that there were tensions over money and difficulties in arranging their return to New Zealand.
The Montgomeries were clearly an upper-middle-class family. Roger was related to a former Governor of New Zealand. In England, Annie was glad to receive invitations to receptions at the Foreign Office or at other government ministries and she claimed aristocratic connections. In her entry for 22 January 1918 she refers to Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists, as “my friend”. There are references to visiting titled hosts. The Montgomeries were the sort of family who looked up the Tatler to keep up with the news of their society friends.
The daughters are mentioned only sparingly in what we are given of Annie’s diaries, and the older son Oswald is hardly noticed. But the younger son Seton is always on his mother’s protective mind. Seton emerges as the second most important “character” in this diary with his frequent letters to his mother. A macabre one dated 15 March 1917 has him describing the experience of training in a “gas chamber” where the effectiveness of soldiers’ gas helmets is tested. He details his apprenticeship as a pilot in the RFC and his first solo landing. (He crashes into a hedge, of course!)
When one reads some of Seton’s letters from the front, one wonders how much he was presenting a stiff-upper-lip image so that his mother would not be too worried for him. For example on 10 January 1918 he writes nonchalantly: “My personal contribution to the National Day of Prayer was a successful shoot on a Hun battery. At the time Jim was watching the crowd at St Paul’s I was being chased around the heavens by Archie [anti-aircraft fire], and at the same time doing my best – through the battery – to blow a few Huns and their guns out of position. Archie does not worry one all the time; he looks you up when he has nothing better on, and that is usually once an hour with luck.”
Seton gets involved in, but survives, a ferocious dogfight with enemy planes on 11 March 1918. Regrettably, we do not hear about this in Seton’s own words, but only in a summary provided by the editors. Seton finally gets a “Blighty one” (wound that enables him to be invalided back to England) and tries to step back from front-line service and get qualified as a flight instructor. Of course his mother (who at such moments reveals herself to be something of a dragon) believes the examiners who do not immediately accept him in this capacity must be “meddlers”.
So we hear a lot about Seton, who was apparently his mother’s darling.
But it is Annie herself who dominates this selection. Of course she enjoys the attractions of London, taking her daughters and her sons (when they are on leave) to meals at Whitely’s and the Lord Mayor’s Show and on shopping expeditions and to the theatre to see Chu Chin Chow and Gerald du Maurier and H.B.Irving and Gladys Cooper and George Robey as well as being impressed by D.W.Griffith’s film Intoleranc and laughing at Charlie Chaplin’s film Shoulder Arms. She gets angry at the sight of prostitutes openly plying their trade in Piccadilly. She has harsh things to say about the English. But on 7 February 1917, she is delighted to get a good position to see a royal procession, including “Queen Mary’s smile and all”. She goes to War Loan demonstrations like the one on 15 February 1917 in Trafalgar Square (where “our Mr Massey spoke a few words, or rather roared them, but he isn’t an inspired orator.”) She is a mother, a tourist, a socialiser and a staunch supporter of the British Empire.
Dire news does come from the front (the Montgomeries arrived in England when the Battle of Somme was being fought). Dangerous things happen in London too. On 3 September 1916, the family experience their first Zeppelin raid: “Roger and the girls saw one Zep focused in a searchlight and later on all saw it blaze up and fall to Earth. And we couldn’t feel sorry for them either. To look out of one’s window on the sleeping city and see those fiends up there dealing out cruel death to helpless men, women and children dries up one’s human feeling.” There are many similar passages in which Annie shakes her fist angrily at the horrible Hun in the sky. Later, Zeppelins are replaced by the more efficient long-range German Gotha bombers and there are so many raids that we are reminded how much Londoners experienced the latter years of the First World War as a foretaste of the Blitz in 1940, even if the First World War raids were on a smaller scale.
I must make it clear that if I were in a mocking mood, I could have great fun deconstructing this diary in terms of Annie’s dated vocabulary and attitudes. Passing through the Panama Canal on 14 July 1916, she writes unselfconsciously: “the darkies, men and women, were a huge interest to us and the scantily clad sometimes naked nigger children amused the family muchly.” She is fully implicated in current prejudices and fully accepting of the wildest rumours that circulated in wartime. The entries for 25-29 September 1916 reveal her participating in “spy mania” as she summons constables to investigate what she thinks are secret signals being flashed by spies. They turn out to be the lights of a lift in a nearby building. She whines about how unfairly and inequitably conscription is being organised in England when her boys are doing their bit and she writes (8 November 1916) “they [the British government] haven’t the pluck to enforce it in Ireland.” Clearly those Irish deserve a jolly good thrashing for rejecting conscription. When Annie hears of the (first) Russian Revolution, she writes on 16 March 1917 “I wish we could strike our Unseen Hand traitors as they have done theirs.” The notion of the “Unseen Hand” was a popular fantasy at the time that German agents were systematically “corrupting” powerful and influential people in England and hence sabotaging the war effort. [Ironically, when Annie refers to the “Red Revolution” on 16 November 1918, she is reacting hysterically to industrial unrest in England, not to the Bolshevik phase of the Russian revolution.] Of course she hates and loathes those Germans who still live in England. On 16 July 1917, she writes: “Went down Moscow Road to hateful German cobblers shop to try to get sprigs for Roger’s boots; can’t get them anywhere else. Managed to get three small parcels. Just hate going to that vile place and speaking to the slimy, creepy-looking creature.” It is her husband Roger who writes on 22 November 1918: “Would like to see someone slate Lord Hugh Cecil in the papers re conscientious objectors, which he rightly deserves.” Hugh Cecil was a politician who fought not to have conscientious objectors disenfranchised. Annie’s husband (and I am sure Annie herself) believed that conscientious objectors should be given no quarter.
So, in their casual obiter dicta, we have a couple who were British Empire-lovers and were as thoughtlessly racist as everybody was else one hundred years ago.
Paradoxically, though, this woman who loves British royalty and the culture of London is also often ready to show how much of a New Zealanders she is. The English are, in her view, vastly inferior physical specimens when compared with the healthier colonials who have come to their rescue in wartime. Annie Montgomerie can do her block when it comes to matters touching New Zealand servicemen. As she interprets it, the whole failed Gallipoli campaign was a matter of bungling British high command sacrificing colonials – and she does not hesitate to write negatively of an English national hero. Following in the newspapers the enquiry that was held into the campaign, she writes on 9 March 1917: “The daily papers are full of the Gallipoli Commission report. So went into smoking room after breakfast to digest them. The report only confirms what I have said from the very beginning about it: I am thankful those muddling blunderers are uncovered at last. They can’t be hung but they should certainly be prevented from ever holding a position of responsibility again, in justice to those poor boys who had to bear the brunt of their ghastly ignorance and ineptitude… After tea had a great argument in the lounge about the Gallipoli business and its muddling instigators. These English people will hold Kitchener up as a little tin god. They won’t look at his feet of clay at all. They won’t look anything in the face, that is the unpleasant fact, and they will never learn. Narrow-minded, stiff-necked, smugly self-satisfied crowd of blind idiots.”
She is often bitter at news of the death of New Zealand soldiers, like her reaction when she hears of the death of a Kiwi her daughter knew. She writes on 20 April 1917: “While in town watching crowds of ‘Tommy Atkins’ coming from Victoria Station – just made me bitter. They all, or nearly all, looked rough uncouth creatures, yet they were back safely and that splendid young life was stilled forever. And those commonplace, middle class-looking English crowds get on my nerves. They don’t look worth dying for, indeed they don’t, smug, ordinary-looking lot. To be truly British you don’t want to see too much of England and the English. They won’t face close inspection.”
In fact in 1918, and especially at the time of the last great German offensive, she is particularly scornful of the English war effort and the quality of English troops. So we have this curious paradox of a woman who is clearly an Anglophile, royalist and social snob – one who would have her sons in English rather than New Zealand regiments – nevertheless constantly speaking of the superiority of ‘colonial’ troops and even praising the Americans as more efficient and less slack than the English.
The urban dirt and sleaze of England, its slums and its brazen prostitutes, appal her. After the Armistice, on 26 December 1918, she joins the crowds going to welcome President Woodrow Wilson on his visit London. She is disgusted to see English slum dwellers: “Some truly awful people – poor, degraded, dirty, wolfish, unwholesome and perfectly horrible. It always makes my blood boil to see these slum people; it is an unthinkable crime to have such conditions.”
She is irritated by those who sought a negotiated peace with Germany. On 16 December 1917 she writes: “After breakfast sat in lounge a while and blew up a mine by telling them that Lord Landsdowne [who wanted a negotiated peace] represented a good number of the English who would face an inconclusive peace rather than give in to the fact that England couldn’t win on her own bat and had to acknowledge that America was going to save civilisation. I don’t care if they were wild. I am too sore and bitter just now to care in the least what they think. The war would be over now if England had gone to work like America is doing.” The efficiency of the United States in its swift mobilisation in 1917 is a thing that should shame the English.
I hope I have given enough evidence here to provide you with the flavour of this interesting diary. Annie Montgomerie was opinionated, but one century on, some of her opinions would either amuse or appal us. Annie was caught in the “colonial condition” of at once loving “Home” or the “Mother Country”, but still thinking her own corner of the Empire was much superior. Assessing fighting men, she is as liable to praise Australians, Canadians and Americans as New Zealanders, and she makes a remarkable number of comments on what cowardly beasts English soldiers are in battle. Doubtless she was filtering here some of the grumbles of her sons. Even so, the diary shows somebody on the cusp of ceasing to be British and becoming a New Zealander, which is essentially where the whole population of New Zealand was one hundred years ago.
I would be unfair if I didn’t note that Annie Montgomerie’s diary is as much concerned with personal, private and family matters as with the big scene and – for all her snobbery and prejudices – Annie was a loving and concerned mother. The photographs show her as she was in London, a woman in her early fifties, but already looking much older than that. As one caption suggests, this may well have been the result of the stresses she was suffering in wartime.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“BORN IN EXILE” by George Gissing (first published 1892)
Self-pity is not usually regarded as a particularly admirable sentiment, but it is at least possible that it has fuelled some worthwhile works of literature. I say this because I regard George Gissing’s novel Born in Exile as a prime work of self-pity, but also as an interesting, if very flawed, novel.
Of the social-realist novelist George Gissing (1857-1903) you have heard before on this blog [look up my comments on his acknowledged masterpiece New Grub Street and on the more obscure title Will Warburton via the index at right]. Dour, not particularly capable of humour, sticking with the grim facts of life as he, an aspiring literary gentleman, had had to endure them in his years as a hack writer, Gissing nevertheless has earned the approval of some discerning readers by his very doggedness. As I remarked once before, Virginia Woolf wrote a sympathetic appreciation of him in her Common Reader series. And then there are all those socialists who have attempted to claim him as their own because of the way his novels record scrupulously the material facts of struggling lower-middle-class and proletarian life – though Gissing himself was no socialist.
One salient fact about Gissing is that, no matter how fictitious his plots, he always drew extensively on his own emotional experience in his novels. This is certainly the case with Born in Exile.
It is essentially the story of a lower-middle-class student from one of England’s “new” provincial universities who, despite his education, cannot make a career or find what he regards as his rightful niche in intellectual life, because he is from the wrong social background. In other words, it is the story of somebody very like George Gissing.
In the 1870s, lower-middle-class Godwin Peak, son of a freethinking father and a pious mother, is a student at “Whitelaw College”. Painfully aware that other students have more social class than he has, he shows academic promise but always tends to collect second prize in the various scientific studies he undertakes. He makes some friends, but he leaves abruptly before taking a degree because he is totally humiliated that his uncle, who has a broad Cockney accent, has set up a canteen opposite the university. Loathing the lower orders with a passion, Godwin Peak cannot face being associated with somebody in “trade”.
His university career thus blocked, he goes to London and toils obscurely for about ten years as a laboratory assistant, living in cheap lodgings and dreaming of making his name, perhaps by writing for rationalist (anti-religious) journals. He eventually does write, and has published (anonymously), an article attacking Christian apologetics.
Meanwhile he has come to the conclusion that he deserves a better life, and he decides that there is one easy avenue open to him, even if he has no religious belief – the church. He becomes acquainted with the Christian apologist Martin Warricombe (father of one of his fellow students, Buckland Warricombe) and impresses him with both his scientific knowledge and his apparent willingness to undertake Christian apologetics in the face of rationalist attacks. He expresses a desire to be ordained, picturing in his mind’s eye the easy life of writing sermons in a book-lined vicarage study while also pursuing his other intellectual interests. He rationalises thus: “A hypocrite was not necessarily a harm-doer; easy to picture the unbelieving priest whose influence was vastly for good, in word and deed.” (Part Two, Chapter Four.)
Yet he also falls in love with Martin Warricombe’s daughter Sidwell Warricombe, who is conventionally pious. Because he hopes to marry into wealth, there is at first an element of calculation in Godwin’s attachment to her, yet his feelings do develop into sincere love. But Buckland Warricombe, as much from social snobbery as from his memories of Godwin’s strident atheism, is intensely suspicious of Godwin’s conversion to Christianity. (Gissing remarks “Buckland’s class-prejudice asserted itself with brutal vigour now that it had moral indignation for an ally.” Part Five, Chapter Three). Buckland eventually exposes the fact that Godwin’s anonymous rationalist article appeared in print as exactly the same time that Godwin was professing a new-found Christian faith.
Cast off by the Warricombe family, and for the second time in his life socially humiliated, Godwin plans for a life of obscurity as an industrial chemist in the north. There is, however, a sting in the tail. Godwin professed Christian orthodoxy partly to woo and win Sidwell Warricombe. But he needn’t have bothered as, partly because of her conversations with Godwin, Sidwell has lost her religious faith anyway. To rub in the irony, a strange coda has Godwin Peak getting a legacy from a minor character in the novel, and gaining the independence to travel abroad – but he dies abruptly anyway, still not having fulfilled his desired intellectual potential.
Gissing didn’t really do happy endings.
I have synopsised the essential plot of Born in Exile accurately, but perhaps I should add that this is what the plot should have been. The reality is that, writing under those very hack conditions which he chronicled in New Grub Street, Gissing has been compelled to pad this simple story into a three-decker by inserting much extraneous matter. There are uninvolving subplots about one of Godwin’s student friends hopelessly pursuing a married – and then widowed – woman; and about another of Godwin’s student friends toiling away as a journalist. An absurd character called Malkin bounces in and out of the novel (he is so absurd that at one point he emigrates to Auckland in New Zealand). Presumably intended as some sort of Dickensian comic relief, he is painfully unfunny.
So it is in the main plot about Godwin Peak that the whole interest of this novel resides. Born in Exile comes alive only when it deals with Peak or those who are contrasted with him. In the character of Bruno Chilvers, Gissing draws the portrait of an insincere “muscular Christian” on the Charles Kingsley mould. (Martin Warricombe says of Chilvers’ Christianity that it is “like a box in the ear with a perfumed glove”, Part Six, Chapter Four). Chilvers is at heart as sceptical and unbelieving as Peak is, but he has managed to make a comfortable career in the church. The implications appear to be that Godwin Peak’s stumbling block is his imprudence and lack of tact (in having a rationalist article published) rather than his insincerity; and that the church is filled with hypocrites anyway.
One interesting, but purely historical, point about the novel is the way that, true to the simple-minded rationalism of the late nineteenth century, it assumes that religion and science are irreconcilable opposites. Gissing seems sourly amused by attempts to harmonise the two and is apparently most intellectually involved in those conversations where this problem is discussed, as if he himself had frequently had such conversations. Ridiculing late nineteenth century Christian apologetics, Godwin Peak remarks “… to be marketable, you must prove that The Origin of Species was approvingly foreseen in the first chapter of Genesis, and that the Apostles’ Creed conflicts in no single point with the latest results of biblical criticism.” (Part Two, Chapter One).
Yet, reading the novel over a century later, it is hard not to find something far more repugnant than religious hypocrisy in the rigid “social Darwinism” that Godwin Peak espouses and so often expresses. Basically, he regards the working classes, and those who have fewer intellectual attainments than himself, as scum. He declares:
“The masses are not only fools, but are very near to brutes. Yes, they can send forth fine individuals – but remain base. I don’t deny the possibility of social advance; I only say that at present the lower classes are always disagreeable, often repulsive, sometimes hateful.” (Part Two, Chapter Two)
Later his hatred of the “lower classes” takes on an almost Nietszchean Superman tone as he gives a diatribe against the corruptions of popular taste and declares that only the very few have ever achieved anything of any worth:
“One hears men and women of gentle birth using phrases which originate with shopboys; one sees them reading print which is addressed to the coarsest million. They crowd to entertainments which are deliberately adapted to the lowest order of mind. When commercial interest is supreme, how can the taste of the majority fail to lead and control?.... I hate the word majority; It is the few, the very few, that have always kept alive whatever of effectual good we see in the human race. There are individuals who outweigh, in every kind of value, generations of ordinary people.” (Part Three, Chapter Five)
It has to be made clear that these sentiments were very common among social Darwinist nineteenth century rationalists, who saw Christians as “unscientific” and sentimental in assuming that all human beings had souls and were worthy not only of a place in heaven, but also of social consideration.
Now wherein lies the self-pity of which I have accused the novel?
While the specific circumstances of Godwin Peak’s life are fictitious, the arc which his life follows is very much the arc of Gissing’s life. Gissing was a prize student at the new redbrick Owens College (which later became the University of Manchester). But he lost his place there, was expelled, and did time in jail, after he was found guilty of stealing from other students. Apparently this was because he was trying to support a prostitute (whom he later – very unhappily – married). Like Godwin Peak, his promising academic career was ruined and he spent the rest of his life toiling away at novel-writing on commission, while dreaming of one day becoming a literary gentleman of leisure. Always, like Godwin Peak, he saw himself as “born in exile” - forced to live in a social stratum lower than the one he thought he had a right to occupy.
In Born in Exile, he simply dramatizes his own frustrations and yearnings.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
MASTERPIECES IN MY POCKET
Sometimes I have the most philistine notions, and one such came to me two or three months ago when I watched, and greatly admired and enjoyed, Mike Leigh’s excellent film Mr Turner.
This late in the day and after you, as an intelligent and literate reader, have probably either seen the film or read reviews of it, it is not my intention to write a review of Mr Turner here. Suffice it to say that it was a grand exercise in demythologising a very great artist, while at the same time making clear the reasons for his greatness. Mr Turner dramatized the last twenty or so years in the life of J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851). It seemed the intention of Mike Leigh to show us that even the most Romantic of English artists did not behave or live like the stereotypical image of a Romantic. Turner, as played by Timothy Spall, is not a lively and inspired spouter of dazzling aphorisms and profound wisdom on aesthetic matters. In conversation, this fat, commonplace-looking, portly and sunburnt man tends to bumble monosyllabically and his preferred form of communication is a grunt. His tastes are extremely simple and his relationships with the opposite sex entirely functional.
In a televised interview, Timothy Spall said his research told him that when Turner met the great, but more flamboyant, French artist Eugene Delacroix, Delacroix could not believe that the man he was meeting was the artist who had produced such vivid masterpieces as Rain, Steam and Speed, The Shipwreck of the Minotaur, and The Fighting Temeraire. Delacroix thought Turner seemed like a simple farmer.
This, I surmise, was exactly the film’s point. Turner put all of his genius into his work. He did not converse, theorise verbally or play a part. He was an artist who focused on the art itself and was not concerned with social niceties. It helped the film that Timothy Spall learnt how to paint before filming began so that he could wield a brush and palette convincingly while pretending to produce Turner’s great works. (I heard of one fine arts graduate who complained that, after all the film’s publicity about this, we saw very little of the actor actually painting. I disagree. We saw quite enough to be convinced that the actor really was working at art.)
Incidentally, I should also add that one sequence of malicious humour gave me particular pleasure. In his drawing room, the young art critic John Ruskin (played as a posturing and rather camp young man by Joshua McGuire) tries to curry favour with taciturn Turner by making a disparaging remark about the influential 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. Turner cuts him off by simply grunting “Lorrain was a genius”, and that puts an end to that conversation. As it rightly should have.
By this stage, you are asking what all this has to do with the philistinism of which I accused myself at the beginning of this verbal ramble.
It has to do with another interesting theme in this film. The last couple of decades of Turner’s life coincided with the infancy of photography. Mr Turner has a sequence in which the artist visits, and has his photograph taken by, an early portrait photographer. As a painter, Turner is interested in, but clearly also a little afraid of, this new technology. He asks the photographer if he also does landscapes. The photographer says he does. But Turner is grateful when the photographer further says nobody can yet photograph the colours of the rainbow.
Seen in the context of the whole film, this is only part of a subtle dialectic on the relationship of painting and photography, for the fact is that Mr Turner, by its judicious use of the right film stock, by filters and [naturally] by much computer assistance, often produces stupendous landscapes and seascapes, standing in for those that inspired Turner. I do think there is one sequence where the film tries a little too hard in this respect and ends up looking artificial – it is the sequence where Turner and some associates row out to watch a new-fangled steamship dragging the old sailing warship Temeraire to the place where it will be broken up. The scene is too clearly “posed” after Turner’s painting on the subject. Taking this into account, however, much of the film, by its visual technique, is suggesting something very paradoxical for a film that is celebrating the genius of a painter. What we see on screen tells us that in some areas (portraiture and landscape painting, for example) photography has now overtaken painting.
So at last to my philistinism.
First, I have long believed that the invention of photography was the single most significant event in Western visual arts in the last two centuries. While counterfactual speculation is never verifiable, I believe the drive to “inwardness” and abstraction in Western art would never have happened (or, at least, never have happened in the same way) if the camera hadn’t been there as a rival to painters’ attempts to reproduce objective reality.
Second (and now I am getting really philistine, and you are entitled to hiss and groan), I believe that much which the camera can now capture, even in the hands of rank snapshot-taking amateurs such as I, would once have been considered outstanding landscape or portraiture.
I have a camera-phone (an app. on my cellphone). All I know how to do is to choose a position, point and press a button. I am easily lost with technology and I am certainly no professional photographer. But I feel sure that much which I (and you) routinely capture on digital chip could once have graced the walls of a respectable gallery. I’m not such a philistine as to not realise how much individual vision a great artist like Turner brought to his versions of external reality. But I do feel that if Turner were alive today, he would not even attempt many of the landscape subjects he undertook, because he would know that the camera (and photo-shopping) was there to trump him.
Everybody with a camera- phone in his/her pocket is now an expert landscapist.
Monday, February 16, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“GERMANY – MEMORIES OF A NATION” by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane - Penguin, $NZ60)
“GERMANY – MEMORIES OF A NATION” by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane - Penguin, $NZ60)
I’ll begin by doing what I often do when I don’t know how to open a review with a bang.
I will give you a bibliographic description of this book.
Neil MacGregor’s Germany – Memories of a Nation is a big and very solid hardback, about 600 pages in length. Feel the weight of it and you would imagine that you were holding something of the solidity of the Bible or War and Peace. But you would be deceived. Despite its weight, despite what a lethal object it would be if thrown across a room, Germany – Memories of a Nation is a book with as much photographic illustration and art-work reproduction as text. The text (roughly 300 pages of it, I’d guess) is very easy to read and the book is, in effect, more a browsable bedside book than a serious treatise.
Let’s explain how it came to be produced. Ian MacGregor is Director of the British Museum, and therefore supervisor of its special exhibitions. He made his name known to the wider public by scripting and hosting a BBC TV series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, in which he gave, in a popular way, the historical background and cultural context of artefacts and artworks. Germany – Memories of a Nation was put together to coincide with a British Museum exhibition celebrating for the 25th, anniversary of German reunification in 1989-90. It is also the subject of a BBC radio series by MacGregor. So, in effect, this is the hard-copy version of a radio documentary series – and you can pick this up by the way MacGregor frequently introduces comments from various experts on German art, industry, culture and history. Obviously these are the interview break-in spots from the radio series.
MacGregor’s technique is once again to take artefacts and physical objects which he can relate to general trends in German history – the Brandenburg Gate, say; or the famous portrait of Goethe reclining in Italy; or Durer’s self-portrait; or Cranach’s portrait of Luther; or a first edition of the Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales; of the great and wrenching etchings of Kathe Kollwitz. Some of MacGregor’s choices (like these six) are fairly inevitable in a book about Germany. The real pleasure comes from the unexpected ones. These include MacGregor’s long consideration of the “Valhalla” of eminent German-speakers (including Alfred the Great!), which Ludwig of Bavaria commissioned and had built. Or the wonderful story of how Ernst Barlach’s “flying angel” (a lament for the dead and bereaved in the First World War) was destroyed by the Nazis for its pacifist implications, but has been lovingly reconstructed in two German churches. [The Nazis really disliked the sculptor Barlach. Look up “Unlaid Ghosts” on the index at right, for my comments on the Hamburg war memorial]. Or porcelain from 18th century Dresden and how it became a form of currency enriching a minor kingdom. Or Riemenschneider’s wood sculptures of the four evangelists. Or a stein made of amber, representing a city (Prague) that was once largely of German culture. Or the ironwork motto over the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp, ironically designed by a Bauhaus artist whose work the Nazis regarded as “decadent”. Or a humble cart, used to carry household goods by German refugees fleeing from the east (MacGregor relates it to Mother Courage’s cart).
This book aspires to be some sort of cultural history of Germany, and as such MacGregor has some major themes. Of course one is the long fragmentation of German-speakers into the many states of the old Holy Roman Empire. For MacGregor, this was as much a blessing as a curse, as it developed among Germans the federal instinct, which allowed local and particular cultures to flourish. (MacGregor analyses this with reference to the many and diverse currencies that were legal tender in the Holy Roman Empire, just as he later illustrates the hyperinflation of the 1920s with a host of regional currencies.) Another theme is the ongoing clash of German and French military might, and the competing historical claims made by French and German cultures (Charlemagne or Karl der Grosse?). Then there is the North-and-South division (Protestant or Catholic? Prussia or Austria?). Above all, though, there is the difficulty in defining who or what exactly the Germans are. Is their nationhood a product of language and culture, or of defined states? And if the latter, then how successful have they been in retaining a sense of nationhood with all the many changes in borders and in types of state over the last 200 years?
Read as a history book, there is much here that will be very familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of German history. Who will be surprised to read of the Reformation, the Peasants’ War and the drastic effects of the 30 Years’ War in the seventeenth century, which killed a larger proportion of the German population than the two World Wars of the twentieth century did? Is there anybody who does not know of the mixed Enlightenment and Militarization of the Prussian State under Frederick the Great? Or of Bismarck’s successful campaign to trump liberalism by uniting Germany on Prussian lines? The collapse of the old empire at the end of the First World War, the shaky democracy of the Weimar Republic, with its bout of hyperinflation, the Nazis, the Holocaust, the post-war division of Germany, the “economic miracle” of West Germany, the Stasi surveillance state of Communist East Germany and eventual reunification – are not these all part of our collective memory and knowledge?
But there is also much that will be relatively unfamiliar. MacGregor is quite right, for example, to spend much space telling us of the humiliation Germans felt at Napoleon’s early victories over them, and how this was itself a great stimulus to German nationalism in the nineteenth century. Similarly, in a way that few English-language history books do, he relates the huge forced exodus of Germans from East and Central Europe after the Second World War – in effect a massive exercise in “ethnic cleansing” which involved some 14 million refugees – and how this placed great strains on post-war Germany as its borders were radically redrawn. And – most surprising of all – he gives an account of Germany’s long tolerance of, and accommodation with, Jews; for despite well-documented outbursts of anti-Semitism, and despite notorious diatribes such as Luther’s tirade against Jews, Germany was traditionally much more open to Jewish settlers than many other Western European countries. Therefore, in MacGregor’s reading, the Nazis and the Holocaust were in no way “inevitable” outcomes of German history. No wonder this whole bulky, but readable, volume closes with a reflection on Walter Benjamin’s concept of History as an angel flying backwards into the future – the point being that the future cannot be read or easily foretold from past circumstances.
As a compendium of diverse knowledge, as a reflection on specific artefacts, and especially as a collection of (literally) hundreds of illustrations, I greatly enjoyed this book and recommend it as a very accessible primer on German culture.
But I wouldn’t be me if I did not express some misgivings.
First (and I’m taking my cue here from a good review of this book that appeared in the English Literary Review in January this year), I think MacGregor skews his survey somewhat by his concentration on material objects. As the Literary Review noted, there is amazingly little on music in German culture. Many commentators would see music as the German art form, and the repertoire of so-called “classical” music would be drastically diminished if German composers were excluded. Similarly, aside from Goethe and one or two others, there is little on German literature (and absolutely nothing on German cinema).
Second, I do wonder about many of MacGregor’s exclusions, just as I did when I watched his A History of the World in 100 Objects. He tends to have a bias towards the culture of the north – the industrialised culture of Saxony and Hamburg and old Prussia and all those industrious and ingenious Germans who invented internal combustion engines and made modernity. The equally German culture of Bavarian (and Austrian) baroque and rococo art gets nary a look-in. In the process, and as he tells us what a wonderful thing German culture is, MacGregor often appears to soft-pedal the militarist nature of the north, even pre-Nazi, so that in his version Prussia is more Enlightenment than Blood-and-Iron, although the latter does get mentioned.
Third, I’m surprised he never invokes the term Sonderweg (“special path”) when describing the odd and tortuous way in which German democracy developed. The wretched term used to turn up all the time when I tutored a German history paper at the University of Auckland a decade ago.
I won’t leave my comment there, though. I wallowed happily in this book – in its images as much as its text – and recommend it as the skewed but highly informative and very entertaining primer that it is.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON” by Georges Simenon (first published 1940; usually translated into English as “STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE”); “L’ETOILE MYSTERIEUSE” by “Herge” (Georges Remi) (“THE SHOOTING STAR”, 1941-42)
I am sure that one day on this blog I will get around to talking about my taste for George Simenon’s Maigret novels – or novellas if you will, as they are all very short. Over about fifty years, Georges Simenon (1903-1989) produced 75 of them – but they are in fact only a minor part of his total production. Beginning as a teenager, the Belgian novelist cranked out over one hundred pulp novels under various pseudonyms in the 1920s. He later disowned them, and they were never republished. But once he took to writing under his own name, the 75 Maigret books were fewer than Simenon’s “romans durs” – “serious novels” which do not feature Maigret and yet which are played out largely in the same sort of seedy and depressing milieu as the detective stories.
Simenon was a difficult and sometimes controversial person. The creator of the most famous fictional character in French popular culture in the twentieth century, he worked at high speed and never took longer than a week to write a novel, pounding away at the rateof 60 or 70 typed pages a day. He was a prickly and unpleasant human being. Apart from the wives and the mistresses, there was the fact that (as he recorded in his memoirs, and as one of his wives affirmed) he was addicted to sex. He frequently visited prostitutes and boasted of having slept with thousands of women. Indeed, the disorderliness of his sex life stands in contrast with the methodical, workmanlike production of his novels, not to mention the sober and chaste home life of Inspector Maigret. Perhaps Maigret was in some sense Simenon’s dream-figure of the man he would have liked to be if he had had more self-control.
The conciseness and precision of both the Maigret novels and the “romans durs” are things of joy.
Which brings me at last to this week’s “Something Old”, a Simenon “roman dur” from his middle period.
Les Inconnus Dans La Maison (Strangers in the House) is one of Simenon’s best-known works. Literally dozens of his novels have been filmed (not to mention the long-running Maigret TV series in many languages). Les Inconnus Dans La Maison, however, has been filmed three times. Sorry to sound a wally, but I bought my Gallimard “Folio Policier” paperback copy of it off a bookstall on the left bank of the Seine when I was in Paris last year, and recently got around to reading it.
An intriguing premise. In the central French town of Moulins, Hector Loursat is an embittered, misanthropic lawyer who gave up practising eighteen years previously when his wife ran away with another man and he was left to bring up their infant daughter. Loursat and his daughter Nicole live in the huge, rambling house that Loursat has inherited. There are upper storeys in the building which Loursat has not visited for years. Loursat lives his own life and leaves his daughter to live her’s. A couple of grumpy women servants feed them, then Loursat goes back to his study and spends his evenings reading and drinking. He is both a recluse and an alcoholic, downing at least four bottles of red wine a day.
One night, Loursat hears a gunshot from somewhere upstairs. He goes to investigate, and finds, newly killed in a disused bedroom, the corpse of a man he doesn’t know.
How does this play out? Despite the novel’s venerable age, I won’t spoil the plot because it is a mystery after all, and you might wish to read it for yourself. Sufficient to say that Loursat rapidly discovers that his daughter has been leading a life he knew nothing about. She has been running around with a bunch of young people of her own age who have got involved in foolish pranks, then have graduated to stealing cars and petty theft and passing on stolen goods. The corpse belongs to “Le Gros Louis”, a real criminal with whom they have become involved. After lawyers and police interview all of Nicole’s young male friends about what happened on the night of the shooting, a timid mummy’s boy called Emile Manu is accused of “Le Gros Louis’s” murder. Galvanised into action, Loursat decides to resume his former occupation and takes the case for the defence. He is in the unusual position of appearing in the courtroom to defend a young man charged with a murder which took place in his own home and in which his own daughter is implicated.
As in so many of the Maigret books, detective work in this “roman dur” is of secondary importance to the novel’s exposition of motives, of the social scene in which it takes place, and of the central unhappiness of most of the characters. (I am reminded of a very early Maigret book I read some years back, Monsieur Gallet, Decede, published in 1931, in which a whole murder mystery is really a peg on which to hang a scathing account of the drab and pointless existence of the eponymous clerk.) We may be deceived for a while into thinking that taking the case will “redeem” Loursat and make a new man of him by giving him a purpose which he has lost in all those years of self-pity and solitary drinking. Once in court, he acts most efficiently. But if you think any such permanent redemption will take place, you simply do not know the pessimistic universe Simenon inhabited.
The novel is bitterly satirical about the petty nature of the middle-class society of Moulins, where most respectable people follow their self-interest and ignore whatever their children are getting up to. As Loursat reflects at one stage:”Personne dans la ville, lui moins que les autres, ne soupconnait qu’une bande de gamins vivait une vie en marge de la vie des autres” (Part One, Chapter Five) [“Nobody in the town, he least of all, suspected that a gang of kids lived a life on the margins of the lives of others”.] In his private thoughts, Loursat feels contempt for the respectable people who stand in judgment on the kids: “Rien que des imbeciles! Une ville d’imbeciles, de pauvres humains qui ne savaient pas ce qu’ils faisaient sur terre et qui marchaient droit devant comme des boeufs sous le joug, avec parfois un grelot ou une clochette au cou!” (Part Two, Chapter Two) [“Nothing but imbeciles! A town of imbeciles, poor human beings who didn’t know what they were doing on Earth and who plodded straight ahead like yoked oxen with clapper or bell around their necks!”]
Written in the early 1940s, this is very much like a foretaste of all the novels and films that appeared in the 1950s, bewailing the existence of juvenile delinquents and blaming the negligent homes that formed them.
But note how devious I’ve been in using the evasive term “the early 1940s”. The fact is that Les Inconnus Dans La Maison was first published in France in 1940, in the first year of Nazi occupation. Simenon’s role during the occupation (like that of many French intellectuals and writers) was to come in for much post-war criticism. His novels were never overtly political and never moved far from the genre of psychological mysteries which he had established before the war. Nevertheless, Simenon lived very comfortably under German occupation and negotiated profitably for some of his works to be filmed by German-controlled production companies. Les Inconnus Dans La Maison makes no reference to the war or to occupation and could be set in France any time in the earlier 20th century. But it does have a fleeting element of anti-Semitism. One of the gang with which Nicole runs is a sinister Jewish kid called Ephraim Luska who is presented very negatively.
In 1942, Les Inconnus Dans La Maison was filmed (directed by Henri Decoin, scripted by Henri-Georges Clouzot). The great French actor Jules Raimu played the leading role of Hector Loursat. It was apparently both a very good film and very popular. (On Youtube, you can access a five minute clip in which Raimu-Loursat delivers an impassioned oration to the court, condemning bourgeois society for neglecting its own children – there is no such oration in the novel, but it is a legitimate gathering-together of many of the reflections Loursat makes in the course of the novel). The trouble was, that soupcon of anti-Semitism is also in the film in the form of the distinctively Jewish name Ephraim Luska for an unsympathetic character. And the film was funded by a German company.
Simenon was rebuked (very mildly) by the French government after the war for his deals during the occupation. The film of Les Inconnus Dans La Maison was for a brief time banned after the war – but it was released again to considerable success once its soundtrack had been doctored to substitute a “neutral” name for the Jewish name of a villainous character.
I think it is a very good novel, but when and if you read it, you might consider how damaging such casual and passing anti-Semitism was in the context in which it was written.
Footnote: For the record, the two other film versions of this novel departed greatly from Simenon’s story. There was a 1992 French remake [which I haven’t seen] retitled L’Inconnu [singular] Dans La Maison and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as Loursat. Before that there had been a truly appalling 1967 British version [which I have seen] variously called Stranger in the House and Cop-Out. With its setting switched to 1960s England and the names of all the characters changed, it stars James Mason as the old lawyer, a young Geraldine Chaplin as his daughter and Bobby Darin as one of her boyfriends. It is now painful to watch this inept specimen of 1960s “swinging London” film-making.
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I can’t resist making a comment on another passing piece of anti-Semitism that was later expunged from the work of a popular French-language writer. It has always amused me that the creators of France’s two greatest 20th century pop-culture icons were both Walloons – French-speaking Belgians. There was Georges Simenon with Maigret; and there was “Herge” (pen-name of Georges Remi) with the intrepid boy reporter Tintin.
Because my father was a Francophile, my siblings and I got into the Tintin books some time before the (English-speaking) crowd did. In the late 1950s, when they first began to be translated into English, we would regularly get Tintin books stuffed in our Christmas pillow-cases. But our interest (and our father’s) ran ahead of the translators, so Dad also bought as-yet-untranslated French-language versions, which he would read and translate for us in regular evening episodes. Maybe this is why I am still inclined to pronounce Tintin’s name French-style, and find the English pronunciation of it something of an impertinence.
It is well-known that nearly all Tintin’s adventures originally appeared as black-and-white comic strips in a Belgian kids newspaper. Later they would be gathered into books with the images now coloured. It is also well-known that Herge would regularly update his work – for new editions, he would redraw cars and trains and other pieces of technology to make them look more “modern”, so that there exist two or three separate editions of some of the earlier Tintin books, where the puffing-billy trains are transformed into sleek diesels and so forth.
What is less often noticed is that Herge would sometimes alter – of have to alter – the political overtones and racial aspects of some of the Tintin books once they hit the post-war international market. English translators were very reluctant to bring out one of the earliest, Tintin in the Congo (the original version dates from the early 1930s), because of its caricatures of simple child-like Africans living under benign European rule. Likewise The Blue Lotus, also from the early 1930s, was one of the very last to be translated, because it is very specifically set in the Sino-Japanese war of the early 1930s, there is no way it could be updated, and the Japanese are presented in terms of racial caricature. (The Chinese are noble and forbearing and there is a sequence where Tintin and a Chinese friend laugh over the way their cultures misunderstand each other). For its international release, The Land of Black Gold, dating from the late 1940s, had removed two pages showing rival Arab and Jewish terrorism in Palestine.
Which brings me at last to a more creepy case.
When I was a child and young teenager, the one I loved most was The Shooting Star (L’Etoile Mysterieuse). It’s the one in which a huge meteor grazes the Earth, causing earthquakes but also dumping part of itself in the Atlantic Ocean. When Tintin reaches this floating fragment, it turns out to have mysterious qualities, which cause plants and insects to grow to monstrous size. That was the part that most amused me – images of Tintin being assailed by a giant spider or seeing monstrous apples fall from monstrous trees. A delightful piece of kiddie science-fiction.
Alas, adults have to contextualise things.
Part of the plot of L’Etoile Mysterieuse concerns a race between two rival expeditions to reach the meteor fragment. On the one hand there are the goodies, including Tintin and a respectable group of European scientists who wish to study the meteor for purely scientific reasons. On the other hand, there is the expedition led by the sinister international financier Bohlwinkel, who wishes to exploit the mineral properties of the meteor for profit.
L’Etoile Mysterieuse first appeared as a black-and-white serial in the German-controlled Belgian newspaper Le Soir early in the Second World War, when Belgium was under German occupation. In its original incarnation, the sinister cigar-chomping international financier has the distinctly Jewish name Blumenstein and is clearly drawn as an anti-Semitic caricature (which, by the way, he remains even in later versions where his name is changed to something non-Jewish). Also in this original version, there is a frame in which devious Jewish traders, with foreign accents, rejoice because the prospect of the immanent destruction of the Earth by the comet means that they will not have to pay their debts. And, in the original newspaper version, the financier’s expedition sails under the American flag (altered to the flag of a non-existent country in later versions). So – just as an incidental subtext – L’Etoile Mysterieuse told its wartime Belgian readers that the United States was an alien land manipulated by sinister Jewish financiers. Not hard to see whose world-view this concept would most support.
With names altered and some frames redrawn, the story was rendered into the perfectly harmless and enjoyable yarn I enjoyed as a child. But, while I continue to salute the genius of both Simenon and Herge, I am reminded how much talented popular writers can succumb to the popular prejudices of their age.