Thursday 13 June 2024

A Novel with No Moving Parts

 More bookshop serendipity: in the selfsame charity bookshop where I recently picked up Death in Rome – 'the most devastating novel about the Germans that I have ever read' (Michael Hoffman) – I spotted another novel from the German-speaking world that I had never heard of, by an author I had barely heard of: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard. Reading the notes on the author, I discovered that Bernhard's literary career was one long assault on the 'mindless cultural sewer' of Austria, and that in his will (he died in 1989) he forbade any further publication or performance of his work in Austria.
  How could I resist? It was clearly time to move on from the Germans to the Austrians... However, Old Masters is a very different book from Death in Rome. To begin with, it has no chapters or even paragraph breaks, but consists of one 240-page-long paragraph, in the course of which it would be fair to say that, in terms of action, almost nothing happens. It has, as Michael Hoffman has said of all Bernhard's novels, 'no moving parts'. The funny thing is that it is all ridiculously, mesmerically readable – which is all the more surprising as the body of the novel consists entirely of one long rant (punctuated by 'Reger said' at well judged intervals, like the 'Austerlitz said' in Sebald's Austerlitz). The ranter is one Reger, an 82-year-old music critic, who every other day comes to the Bordone Room in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and sits on a bench staring at a particular painting, Tintoretto's Man with a White Beard. Reporting Reger's endless rant is his friend, Atzbacher, who fills in some background, particularly about the widowed Reger's bereavement (though we are told almost nothing about his late wife). How does Bernhard make a readable novel out of this, you might well ask – as I do myself. And yet, as Reger rails against the Austrian state, Church and politics, human nature, the woeful deficiencies of just about every work of art and literature, however exalted (excluding only Schopenhauer, Goya, and this one painting of Tintoretto's), the weather, the Austrian newspapers, and even the state of Austrian public conveniences, I kept on reading, and in the end, against all the odds, enjoyed it. Old Masters is subtitled A Comedy, and there is certainly a comic element in such comprehensive, all-embracing railing conducted at such a level of ferocious, insistently repetitive hyperbole (nothing is stated without being reiterated half a dozen times in slightly different but equally hyperbolic phrasing) – and there is a kind of music, a strangely calming music, in it. I suspect that what is going on is very cleverly and subtly controlled by an author who knows just what he is doing.  It's not a book I'm likely to read again, or to keep, but I know it will stay with me – as Death in Rome has. Both are memorable reading experiences, even if not ones you'd wish to repeat. 
And now it is definitely time to move on from these German diatribes into calmer seas. English seas probably – I'll see what's on the shelves today... 

Tuesday 11 June 2024

Richard Todd

 With memories of the D-Day eightieth anniversary – and in particular of The Unheard Tapes – still fresh, it is fitting to mark the birthday of the actor and war hero Richard Todd (born on this day in 1919). The square-jawed heart-throb Todd, having survived being blown out of a second-floor room at Sandhurst by an enemy bomb (and narrowly missed being blown up again in the CafĂ© de Paris bombing), had a very good war, serving in the 7th Parachute Battalion that played a key role in the D-Day operation. He and his company, having landed in Normandy, sped on to Pegasus Bridge, where they met up with Major John Howard and set about defending the bridgehead against German counterattacks. They were three months fighting in Normandy, and later returned as reinforcements in the Battle of the Bulge. After VE Day, Todd was sent to Palestine, where, having survived so much, he was seriously injured, breaking both shoulders, when his Jeep overturned. 
  Todd was in a demand as a film actor by the late Forties, and in the course of his career he starred in two D-Day epics – D-Day: The Sixth of June (1956), and The Longest Day (1962), in which he played Major John Howard, while another actor, Patrick Jordan, played young Lieutenant Todd. You can read more about Richard Todd's war, including his own vivid account of his D-Day experiences, here. 

Sunday 9 June 2024

Cole, Ella, Ernest

 Born on this day in 1891 (in Peru – Peru, Indiana, that is) was one of the 20th century's greatest songwriters, Cole Porter. Let's mark the occasion with perhaps his greatest interpreter, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, singing 'Alway True to You in My Fashion'...

The title and refrain of this song were inspired by a poem by the Decadent 1890s poet Ernest Dowson, 'Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae' (or, more simply, 'Cynara'). The poem also includes the phrases 'gone with the wind', which became the title of an epic novel and film, and 'madder music', which gave its name to a Peter de Vries novel. It is, as you might expect, an altogether different kettle of fish from Cole Porter's song, but is very fine in its way:

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

There's more about Dowson, the ultimate Doomed Poet, here...

Saturday 8 June 2024

The Abstract Election

Needless to say, I didn't watch last night's seven-cornered election debate, having better things to do (like watching some paint dry), but I gather that feisty redhead Angela Rayner and doughty sword-bearer Penny Mordaunt were, in the words of the Daily Mail, 'going at it like fishwives'. In the course of their exchanges, La Rayner had an inspired moment, accusing the Tories of 'fourteen years of abstract failure'. No doubt the prosaic explanation is that she meant 'abject', but 'abstract' is in fact the very word for the past fourteen years, and no doubt for the next fourteen: it might have been 'abstract failure' or 'abstract success' – either way it would look much the same, i.e. very much like nothing. Political discourse now seems to be entirely abstract, bearing little or no relationship to real actions and real outcomes, and still less to the real life of real people. Whatever governments say they are doing, or say they are going to do, in the event it all dissolves into air, and things go on much the same,  as we roll downhill on the hell-bound handcart: only the speed of descent is at issue in the forthcoming election.  The one sure effect of government action/inaction (they are increasingly indistinguishable) is that taxes carry on rising – as they will under whichever government comes next. Taxes seem to be the only concrete reality in all this; the rest is abstract. And of course this is the Abstract Election – Angela Rayner has given it a name. 

Thursday 6 June 2024

The Done War

 Thom Gunn again – 


After the history has been made,
and when Wallace's shaggy head

glares on London from a spike, when
the exiled general is again

gliding into Athens harbour
now an embittered foreigner,

when the lean creatures crawl out of
camps and in silence try to live;

I pass foundations of houses,
walking through the wet spring, my knees

drenched from high grass charged with water,
and am part, still, of the done war.

Although I was born two decades later than Gunn, I also felt, as a boy, part of that 'done war'. It was still recent when I was born, there were still bomb sites aplenty all through my boyhood, and 'the War' (as it was always called) hovered over everything as an event that had changed lives and fortunes and provided the clearest of historical markers: 'Before the War' was another world, the past. Nobody who had served in the armed forces spoke much of their experiences, and when they did it was seldom to lament the suffering, the loss and waste, more often it was to recall the camaraderie, the humour, the sense of all being in it together, doing a job that had to be done. For many, too, it had undoubtedly opened the way to a new and better life, with new skills and wider horizons. ( In D-Day: The Unheard Tapes, Major John Howard, one of its most compelling characters, speaks feelingly of how military service rescued him from an early life of abject poverty.) My father – who served in R.E.M.E. in Egypt and Palestine and, to his regret, saw no real action – would join his comrades to march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, and would enjoy somewhat riotous regimental reunions, but over the years these observances died away. One family friend, a dashing figure who had had a miraculous escape after being left for dead in the Burmese jungle, actually wrote a book about his wartime experiences, but  another, who had survived a string of missions with Bomber Command (death rate 44.4 percent), had little or nothing to say, and that was the norm. English reticence was still a thing back then: if you'd had a bad war you wouldn't want to dwell on it (or even mention it), and if you'd had a good one you wouldn't want to boast about it. The emotional loosening of recent decades has gradually changed all that, and instituted a kind of inverse sentimentality that encourages emotional unburdening, emphasises the waste-and-futility side of war, and labels every veteran a 'hero'. This sentimentality finds expression in the ever more insistent, ever more unreal Remembrance celebrations, which, as the actual events fade from living memory, become more and more detached from reality. Many of my father's generation would be astonished at this development, especially as, by the Seventies, it did look as if Remembrance was becoming less of an event every year, with only a few diehards still marking it with any conviction. Now, as we drift out into unreality, Remembrance is big business, a national wallow in... well, in what? Whatever it is, it seems to me that it has less and less to do with the actuality of that war that hung over my boyhood and changed the lives of my parents' generation. And an unfortunate by-product of this drift into unreality is the growing insistence, stoked by military and political interests, that we must gear up for another world war. Having done so much to hollow out the nation state, weaken the armed forces and undermine patriotism, the technocrats apparently think the populace can still be made to fight a serious war.  Hey ho – 'tis a mad world.

Wednesday 5 June 2024

'Falling toward history'

 As is only right, there have been many programmes on television and radio to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the subsequent operation that eventually brought about Victory in Europe – all of which will soon have passed from living memory. One three-part TV series stood out head and shoulders above everything else – D-Day: The Unheard Tapes, which ended last night. This showcased audio tapes of D-Day reminiscences made, not long after the event, by survivors from the British, US, Canadian – and German – armies, as well as French civilians and resistance fighters. The tapes had been digitally remastered, and sounded as fresh as if they'd been recorded yesterday, and – a risky technique, but one that paid off brilliantly – they were lip-synched, perfectly, by young actors who bore some resemblance to their real-life originals. With only minimal and useful interruptions from historians, the result was an extraordinary level of intensity and intimacy, which grew as the series progressed and the individual stories deepened. This was a remarkable, and deeply moving, piece of television. If you didn't catch it, do seek it out on the BBC iPlayer. 
   A matter of weeks after D-Day came the 21st July Plot, one of many failed plots to assassinate Hitler (Wikipedia lists no fewer than 42) and the one that came closest to achieving its object. The leader of the plot, Claus von Stauffenberg, took a briefcase full of explosives to a conference at the Wolf's Lair, and placed it next to Hitler, but someone unwittingly moved it behind a table leg at the last moment and Hitler escaped with singed trousers and a perforated eardrum. Four people died, but none of them was Lucky Adolf. In a fine poem collected in My Sad Captains (1961), Thom Gunn commemorates the failed plot...

Claus Von Stauffenberg
of the bomb-plot on Hitler, 1944

What made the place a landscape of despair,
History stunned beneath, the emblems cracked?
Smell of approaching snow hangs on the air;
The frost meanwhile can be the only fact.

They chose the unknown, and the bounded terror,
As a corrective, who corrected live
Surveying without choice the bounding error:
An unsanctioned present must be primitive. 

A few still have the vigour to deny
Fear is a natural state; their motives neither
Of doctrinaire, of turncoat, nor of spy.
Lucidity of thought draws them together.

The maimed young Colonel who can calculate
On two remaining fingers and a will,
Takes lessons from the past, to detonate 
A bomb that Brutus rendered possible.

Over the maps a moment, face to face:
Across from Hitler, whose grey eyes have filled
A nation with the illogic of their gaze,
The rational man is poised, to break, to build.

And though he fails, honour personified
In a cold time where honour cannot grow,
He stiffens, like a statue, in mid-stride
– Falling toward history, and under snow.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Winifred, Patience and Hutch

 Born on this day in 1907 was Winifred Emma May, who, under the adopted name Patience Strong (taken from a book by the American writer Adeline Train Whitney),  became a very successful writer of sentimental verse of an uplifting, soothing kind, which sustained readers of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Pictorial and Woman's Own for many years. Before she embarked on this line of work, young Winifred had been a prolific lyricist, with more than 100 published songs to her name by the time she was 21. Her greatest achievement in that field was writing the English lyrics for the tango 'Jealousy' by Jacob Gade – a job she polished off in a quarter of an hour, having had the tune played to her over the phone. Here is that very uncharacteristic Patience Strong product, sung by society darling Leslie 'Hutch' Hutchinson...