The Personal View: Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself and The Road Ahead


I found this draft post unposted earlier today. I wrote it just before I left home and didn’t put it on line. 

Bielenberg, Christabel. The Past is Myself. Chatto, 1968. Corgi, 1984 and The Road Ahead. Bantam 1992. Corgi, 1993.

A few posts ago, I discussed David Gillham’s City of Women. Reading that novel made me want to revisit Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself, a memoir of her life in Germany during the Second World War, and reading The Past is Myself made me want to revisit her later book about the Bielenbergs’ life after the war.

In her introduction to The Past is Myself, Bielenberg tells us she thinks her effort “will have been worthwhile if it helps to throw new light on what … [she believes] to be for the Germans [in 1968] a still undigested past, and for the English an incomprehensible one” (Forward). Since Bielenberg wrote those words, much has changed in Europe and even more information is available about Hitler’s Germany and the background that made it possible. However, what makes Bielenberg’s work still relevant is the fact that it is a personal record of life lived under the Nazis both before and during the war. It also underscores the fact that there was an opposition to Hitler. Many of the people who enjoyed themselves at the Bielenbergs’ parties in their house in Dahlem, Berlin, did not survive the Gestapo.

Bielenberg’s memories also throw a light on how one learns to survive and raises that moral question faced by all those who live under a tyranny: at what point does surviving evil necessitate collaboration with it?

On one level, I actually found the first part of The Road Ahead more interesting than The Past is Myself because it allows a glimpse into what daily life was like for Germans immediately after the war ended. Then, too, I, in common with some four thousand letter writers (Road 9), wanted to know what happened to the family after the war ended. Bielenberg dedicates The Road Ahead to the villagers of Rohbach in the Black Forest where she and her three sons lived for the latter part of the war and where Peter joined them on his release from Ravensbruck.

Her descriptions of Rohbach and its people and later of Ireland reveal her as an empathetic, warm hearted, humorous person. Some have criticised her (check out both her and Peter’s obituaries in the Guardian) for being wealthy and privileged. Perhaps her connections with both Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere were helpful. It’s true that not everyone would have the connections with David Astor that she did to enable her to return to Germany for The Observer as a journalist, but perhaps it’s best to judge people on how they use whatever their privilege is rather than condemning them merely for an accident of birth. Enough. As I said, her writing suggests a warm-hearted, keenly observant, and morally thoughtful person, whose insights into some of the most troubling times of the twentieth century may not be those of a trained historian but are records of lived experience, and it is sometimes those personal records that bring the reality of the past more immediately into focus than any amount of academic discussion.

I am glad I  reread these two works.

 

 

 

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Traveller’s Tales II

Ten days since my last post. No time for reading other than reading landscape and reconstructing the past. I’ve somehow been unable to find a post office that’s open, and I did promise some people some snail mail. Broadband is not always broad or particularly secure. I have learnt how to make orange olive oil cake and pondered the passing of civilizations.  I have looked at the faces of the past and confronted mortality.

Two thousand years from now, what will a traveller find of us? We build, nostalgic for pasts we don’t always understand and with faith in futures we understand possibly less. What will shards of plastic say about us? Will our current technology render us as inaccessible to the future as Linear A is to us?

I move from broken monument to broken monument, surrounded at times by contemporary graffiti, testament to a discontent rooted firmly in contemporary malaise. The sun shines on the wine dark sea breaking against rocks older even than time. The oracle remains silent.

 

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Traveller’s Tales I

Those of you who follow my posts regularly may have been wondering if I’ve given up reading. Far from it, but I am travelling and will be back reviewing books in November. Meanwhile, here are a few photographs that will give you an idea of where my journeys are taking me .

And then I took a flight.

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Whispers From the Past: Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind

Ruiz Zafón, Carlos. The Shadow of the Wind. 2001. Trans. Lucia Graves. Penguin, 2004.

Ruiz Zafón’s novel is possibly the work I’ve enjoyed most so far this year, though I’m not exactly sure that “enjoy” is quite the appropriate verb. Appreciate might be a better term but has connotations of distance and reserve. The Shadow of the Wind wholly engaged me. I didn’t want to put the book down. It holds the attention in the same way a well plotted thriller refuses to let one go. The Shadow of the Wind is way more than a simple mystery story, however. It’s a multi-layered declaration of faith in the power of the imagination and in the strength of love.

In 1945 Barcelona, the narrator Daniel Sempere is taken by his father, an antiquarian bookseller, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There, he chooses a book The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax; it’s a choice that will change his life forever, for he discovers that all of Carax’s other books have disappeared. In fact, it appears that someone is actually systematically attempting to destroy all of Carax’s work. Daniel’s attempts to discover Carax’s history lead him into danger and into discoveries about his city’s past.

Barcelona itself is almost a character in this novel. Ruiz Zafón does for the city what Emily Brontë does for the Yorkshire moors or Dickens for parts of London. His evocation of Barcelona with its majestic buildings and its narrow alleys reveals a place of shadows both literal and metaphorical. This is the heart of Catalonia in the years immediately subsequent to the Spanish Civil War. In Franco’s Spain, speech may be dangerous; the truth may be dangerous. Barcelona is a city of closed doors and shuttered windows: a city of hidden, untold stories, a labyrinth of dead ends and deception. Against this background of unspoken fears and closely guarded secrets, Daniel moves from late childhood to early adulthood, finding as time passes that his own life bears parallels with Julian Carax’s.

It is in this parallel that the reader first notices just how beautifully intricate the plot lines of the story are in their interweaving and correspondence. Nothing is actually co-incidence. Everything fits, as well designed and inherently coherent as the Gaudi mosaics for which the city is famed. I might further argue that Ruiz Zafón carries this motif even into the variations in his own prose, sometimes lyrical and sometimes almost pedestrian in rhythm and tone. Some of this variety also has its roots in the fact that at Daniel must at times rely on the narrations of others to tell him of the past. He must listen to others record their memories. As the voice changes, so does the tone, and so does the typeface of the novel.

What is evident throughout this book is its meticulous craftsmanship. Perhaps some of the characters are a little flat, but then I’m not so sure. They resemble more the archetypes of epic and fairy tale, for we find here the mentor, the evil villain, the cruel parents, young lovers, the confidant, the buffoon, and so on, and there are certainly times when I am tempted to classify the novel as epic, for surely it begins in medias res. Daniel’s journey takes him back to the past and into a future. There is even the suggestion of the hero’s magic talisman in the pen reputed to have belonged to Victor Hugo.

For me, the most compelling aspect of the novel is the metafictive. The Shadow of the Wind is a novel about a novel; it begins with Daniel’s discovery of Carfax’s novel hidden in the cemetery of other forgotten books. It’s a story about people who live with books and appreciate their power. Ruiz Zafón is on record for referring to this novel as one of “a cycle of novels about the written word and what it means to live among books” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/writer-carlos-ruiz-zafon-says-technophile-society-will-stunt-young-minds-9774957.html). The Shadow of the Wind is a story about a story, and it is a story that depends upon other stories to tell its own tale. I found myself making connections with Cervantes, Apuleius, and Potocki, let alone Borges, Murakami, Eco, and Calvino, especially when I thought about Daniel’s search for the truth about Carfax. However, the macabre elements in The Shadow of the Wind are fantastic only in the sense that any fiction is the result of imagination. What Ruiz Zafón captures is that brooding atmosphere of a place where there is fear, where one is unsure of whom one can trust.

More important, even as it highlights the horrors of repression whether familial or societal and underscores Ruiz Zafón’s mastery of form, The Shadow of the Wind also affirms his belief in the power of fiction to illuminate and liberate.

 

It seems appropriate to take a moment here to commend the continuing resilience of the people of Barcelona and to remember those injured and gone because of the recent terror attack. 

 

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Representing Himself: John Mortimer’s Clinging to the Wreckage

Mortimer, John. Clinging to the Wreckage. 1982. Penguin, 1983.

I found this book on my bookshelf a couple of weeks ago and realized that it must be several years since I last read it. Certainly, when I began reading, nothing seemed particularly familiar. Perhaps I never actually read this book at all before now. The biography section of my book collection lives in the guest bedroom; perhaps this was a book left behind. Whether I came to this book completely fresh or whether I was rereading it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. Whichever was the case, I can say it afforded me a couple of days or so spent in the time of a witty, lively intelligence.

Why do we read autobiography and why do people write it? It’s easier perhaps to answer that question when we are thinking only of biography. We read about people’s lives because we are interested in that particular person or in the particular time and milieu about which he or she writes. Biographers produce biography for much the same reason, no doubt. But autobiography is different. Surely writing one’s own life and publishing it must include at least a soupçon of narcissism. One might write a record of one’s life for oneself as a way of coming to terms with one’s life, as a kind of therapy, but to publish it: that’s another thing entirely. Either way, autobiography must needs be somewhat confessional, an explanation. Or perhaps it is indeed simply a record that the writer thinks may interest others and from which he or she might actually make a little cash. Am I sounding a little cynical, a little envious given that I know that there’s no-one out there remotely interested in what my six decades or so on this planet have to show for themselves? Perhaps. Suffice it to say, I decided I would re/read Clinging to the Wreckage.

The title comes from a remark made to Mortimer by a sailor who couldn’t swim: “‘If you ever find yourself in trouble, cling to the wreckage!’” (npag). Mortimer comments, “I thought I’d been taking [that advice] for most of my life. That kind of understated humour is what we associate with Mortimer. Born just a little too early to be an angry young man but who, according to Emlyn Williams, “‘just got into the New Wave as the Tube doors were closing’” (173), Mortimer had a career as both a writer and a barrister. Clinging to the Wreckage traces his life from childhood to his then present in the early 1980s. His style is, as I said, self-deprecating and anecdotal. I’m tempted to argue that it’s very British in the kind of understatement that actually suggests a certain pride. That meiosis, too, is inherent in his description of his father who although blind continued his practice at the Bar having his wife read all his briefs and supporting evidence to him.

A similar somewhat tactful restraint is also evident in the way Mortimer treats his divorce from his first wife Penelope. He talks of “the cracks [that] spread across the ceiling” and turns his discussion to the various therapists he consulted in the “constant and increasingly hopeless search for a cure” (201). He says nothing specifically negative about his first wife, but here and there are subtle comments such as when he points out how “In her stories Penelope kept her log of these years with wry precision” (149). Penelope isn’t the only Mortimer who handles things with “wry precision.”

She isn’t the only Mortimer either whose fiction is drawn from experience. Actually, could there be fiction if writers had no experience? Could Rumpole have existed if Mortimer hadn’t been a barrister? What I found very interesting was the correlation between Mortimer’s own life and the people and events of Paradise Postponed, his novel and television series, written a few years after Clinging to the Wreckage was published, particularly in his observations of his early dealings with Hollywood.
I was also interested in what he left out. He makes no mention of his adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (1981), which was a major success. Perhaps the timelines of writing, publication, and screening dates did not sufficiently align, or perhaps it’s another example of that reserve that isn’t quite reserve.

So why did I read this book? Because I have enjoyed much of what John Mortimer has written, because I tended to agree with his publicly stated view of the world—I can forgive him for being champagne socialist—because he captures things I remember about the place where I grew up, and even though “the Tube doors” had closed by the time I was in my teens, that “New Wave” was still important to those of us teenagers who considered ourselves intellectual;  because I sometimes share with him the feeling that “‘Make Love Not War’ seems as dusty an apophthegm as some saying of the Early Father of the Church” (11). Because he can use the word apophthegm, a word that spell check is resolutely underlining even as I type.

 

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Making Repairs: Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove

Backman, Fredrik. A Man Called Ove. 2012. Trans. Henning Koch. Washington Square P, 2014.

A few years ago, A Man Called Ove topped the New York Times best seller list. I’m not surprised. This is what I can only call a “feel-good” book. The Ove of the title is planning his own suicide but is interrupted when the new neighbours’ trailer backs up into his flower bed.

A childless widower still grieving his recently deceased wife and a dedicated driver of Saabs; estranged from his friend and neighbour Rune, who was dedicated to Volvos but now has dementia; Ove lives in a town house complex of which, until he was manipulated out of office, he was once head of the residents’ association. He still conducts daily inspections of the complex.

The novel is devoted to interweaving Ove’s developing relationship with his new neighbours and remembering his past.

Don’t be misled by the book’s apparent light-heartedness; this is not a light-weight novel. Backman sets the novel in Sweden, but the world of sub-divisions, bureaucrats, unruly neighbours, rental trucks, changing technologies, and shopping at IKEA is instantly recognisable. As is the world cross-generational incomprehension and of cultural misunderstanding and acceptance. And then there is the cat. Enough said.

Backman’s use of chapters with descriptive summary titles recalls traditional novels such as Fielding’s Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones. Ove may be fifty-nine when first we meet him, but, in many ways, he is almost as naïve as Joseph Andrews. Further, Backman’s handling of free indirect discourse is masterly in allowing us to see things through Ove’s eyes while also invoking a subtle, understanding irony. We understand more than he does. We, like Ove’s new neighbour Parveneh, understand him a little better than he understands himself. This is a book that celebrates the good that is in us all, reminds us of the many faces of love, and argues that life is worth living.

 

 

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Remembering: Lynn Barber’s An Education

Barber, Lynn. An Education. Penguin, 2009.

I thought I had posted about this book when I first read it a few years ago. I was mistaken. Some of you may have seen the film of the same name starring Carey Mulligan, scripted by Nick Hornby, and directed by Lone Scherfig. The source for that film was one section of the book which had its beginnings as a short piece for Granta in 2003. As an aside, I might comment again on how well short pieces as opposed to novels adapt well to full length movies. I still think John Huston’s 1987 movie of The Dead starring his daughter Angelica is one of the most satisfying adaptations I’ve seen. But to return to An Education.

 “An Education” is just one piece in the whole collection of nine essays that together comprise a memoir focussing on highlights of Barber’s life from her childhood to the death of her husband David in 2003. Barber reveals herself as a person able to look at herself in the mirror and be honest about herself, even admitting  at the very beginning that her “memory is not to be trusted” (6). Such candour is refreshing.

Perhaps for most people, the period of her relationship with Simon Goldman (not his real name) may well be the most fascinating because it certainly wasn’t usual for “a conventional Twickenham schoolgirl” to run “around London nightclubs with a conman” (2). I suspect it still isn’t a very common occurrence. Barber’s summation of the effect that relationship had on her is succinct. Simon Goldman taught her “that other people—even when you think you know them well are ultimately unknowable.” While admitting that such knowledge made her a good interviewer, it also made her “too wary, too cautious, too ungiving . . . . and damaged” (55-56).

Barber survived her experience with the married conman, went to Oxford, married David Maurice Cloudesley Cardiff, worked for Penthouse, had two daughters and went on to become an award-winning journalist. She is still working.

What I found most interesting about this book was Barber’s descriptions of her early life, of England in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. How her memories of the copy-typing room at the Prudential Insurance office, High Holborn” (70) resonated with my own memories of a similar place also in Holborn but a few years later. I suppose copy-typists have been replaced by data entry clerks, but I’m sure there are still young people who dread being “swallowed [by mind-numbingly boring jobs]. . . and never seen again” (70).

Barber’s mother taught elocution, and Barber includes many of the tongue twisting exercises she and her mother’s students had to master. Talking well was indeed something highly cherished in fifties Britain. My own school demanded two years of weekly elocution lessons with the result that I can still recite

To sit in solemn silence                                                                                                                                    In a dull dark dock                                                                                                                          Awaiting the sensation                                                                                                                        Of a short sharp shock                                                                                                                            Of a cheap and chippy chopper                                                                                                              On a big black block

with a certain verve; the ragged rascals can still run round the ragged rocks while Peter Piper picks his peck of pickled pepper, and she [who was she?] sells her sea shells on the sea shore. These lessons ended when the speech teacher emigrated to Australia and was replaced by a drama teacher. As Barber points out, for a certain segment of English society when she and I were growing up, the risk of being thought “Common” was one to be avoided at all costs. Therefore, one was expected to avoid drawing attention to oneself and to take every step possible to avoid one’s accent revealing/betraying one’s origins.

Barber’s roots are in that anxiously aspirational background, a milieu that placed “a strong emphasis on caution, isolationism, ‘not interfering,’ thrift, prudery, moral condemnation and deep fear of the unknown which included everything from foreigners to unfamiliar vegetables” (58). Some things have changed. A walk down the aisle of any English supermarket will reveal that the English are becoming familiar with a much larger range of vegetables than the cabbage and potatoes that provided the staple for months on end in the fifties. Some things don’t change, however. Love and loss are still felt as strongly as in the past, and Barber’s essay dealing with her husband’s leukaemia is heart-rending. What also doesn’t change, I suspect, is the effect of our youth on how we view the world. Barber’s background and her relationship with Simon Goldman could have deprived her of the opportunities she actually was able to enjoy. It didn’t,  but as she reiterates at the very end of An Education, it did leave her “a deep unbeliever in the unknowability of other people” (183).

Her tone suggests that she rather regrets that. If so, I’m not sure that she should. Surely, it’s when one realises the unknowability of others that one has to begin the task of knowing oneself, and An Education certainly reveals a woman who knows herself,

 

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