While this biography of Hitler—published in 1973 it was the first ever by a German writer—fell into my hands as serendipitously as such books always dWhile this biography of Hitler—published in 1973 it was the first ever by a German writer—fell into my hands as serendipitously as such books always do (my reading is planful and curricular only when it comes to New World slavery, and Virginia Woolf), I did open it seeking answers to some definite questions. One of which is: in what milieu, and under what conditions, was Adolf Hitler considered not only a serious statesman, but a National Redeemer, and an inexorable Man of Destiny? And yeah, we so-called educated people can robotically recite the Humiliation of Versailles, the Trauma of Defeat, recall inflationary wheelbarrows of reichsmarks, the mass unemployment of the Depression, and even the discredited yet complacent German ruling classes; but those are clichés from textbooks, and I wanted an idea of a vanished social texture, which is after all why we read histories. How did the ineffectual loner-fantasist of 1912, in thrall to masturbatory Wagnerian visions of white knights and usurious trolls, and the pallid, blear-eyed, drug-addicted bunker-dwelling troglodyte of 1945, achieve a midlife of mass persuasion and practical, not to say total political power, and what did that midlife look like? Joachim Fest’s 800-page answer might be boiled down to a single passage:
The policy of appeasement had been partly based on and sustained by the bourgeois world’s fear of Communist revolution. In the script of English statesmen, Hitler was assigned the role of militant defender of the bourgeois world. That was why they had endured all his slaps in the face, his provocations and outrages. But this was the only reason. By coming to an agreement with the Soviet Union, he indicated that he was not the opponent of revolution that he had pretended to be; he was no protector of the bourgeois order, no “General Wrangel of the world bourgeoisie.” Although the pact with Stalin was a masterpiece of diplomacy, it contained an inconspicuous flaw: it abrogated the premises on which Hitler and West carried on their dealings. Here was something that could not be glossed over, and with rare unanimity the British, including the stoutest spokesmen for appeasement, now showed their resolve to oppose him. Although Hitler had a deserved reputation for psychological acuity, it became clear in this decisive moment that, after all, he was the psychologist only of the exhausted, the resigned, the doomed. And he was far better able to estimate the moves of victims than of adversaries.
I couldn’t quite picture Hitler’s early political and diplomatic ascendancy because I lacked a really vivid sense of the social disarray, the limping frailty, of European societies after World War One. In his To Lose a Battle: France 1940 Alastair Horne takes an epigraph from the letters of Marc Boasson, a French sergeant killed at Verdun in 1916 (one of the 700,000 French and German troops killed in the battle) who shortly before his death wondered: “What kind of nation will they make of us tomorrow, these exhausted creatures, emptied of blood, emptied of thought, crushed by a superhuman fatigue?” Boasson probably knew the answer, just from a glance over the poilus in his dugout: nations of exhausted survivors; societies conscious of their mortality, of the folly of their elites; a postwar order few believed in and few would enforce; the widespread feeling of having been senselessly spared, absurdly, artificially prolonged; nations feeling helpless before history, vaguely doomed, and haunted by the threat of revolution, or should we say dissolution. In short, a situation to which Hitler’s talents—as a demagogue, as a chameleon promising restoration to some and revolution to others, as a jackal upon a dying system—were nightmarishly suited. His was a vacant, lethargic personality that drew energy from social collapse, coherence from moral chaos. He said the happiest periods of his life were his four years in the trenches—from which he took not a day of voluntary leave—and the very worst year of the Depression in Germany, during which he coolly surfed a tsunami of rage and panic to the gates of established power. Fest discusses the strident simplicity of the Nazi party’s propaganda, its mastery of new media, of the technologies of omnipresence (radio, the private plane in which Hitler crisscrossed the nation), Hitler’s celebrity sexual charisma*, and the overwhelming, operatic stagecraft of the rallies—but what mattered most of all, he says, when it came to the hijacking of the German state and the use of its authority and organization to prosecute a genocidal war of continental conquest, was the very simple fact that “no one seemed to grasp who Hitler really was.” No one, at least, among his domestic backers and Western European appeasers (Joseph Roth knew); they all realized too late that Hitler didn’t want their approval—he wanted to destroy and replace them. He didn’t want to don a top hat and tails; he couldn’t be “tamed” or “boxed in”; and he hadn’t regimented the restive masses for them, but for his own nihilistic revolution, one as insanely murderous as the Bolshevik revolution he was credited with having contained or forestalled. During his rise to power Hitler relied upon his private army of brownshirt thugs for street fights with the Communists, and to impress and intimidate the wider public. A year after becoming chancellor, Hitler brutally purged the leaders of the brownshirts—an act that, for all its blatant mayhem (though Hitler was personally involved, for a few minutes I pictured a Godfather-like montage with him brooding in the halls of respectable power while gunmen of the nascent SS shot down incredulous allies) nonetheless reassured the army and the industrialists of Hitler’s moderation to the mainstream, his willingness to accept traditional power structures. In fact, Hitler had simply mutated. They had not co-opted him; he was corrupting them. His perversion of the German state and society had only just begun:
Machiavelli pointed out in a famous aphorism that power is not maintained with the same following that has helped to win it. Mussolini is said to have made this comment to Hitler when they [first] met in Venice. In the course of the conquest of power a limited degree of revolution from below had been permitted. By destroying the top leadership of the SA, Hitler choked off that limited revolution. The Röhm affair concluded the so-called period of struggle and marked the turning point away from the vague, utopian phase of the movement to the sober reality of a disciplined state. The romantic barricade fighter was replaced by the more modern revolutionary types such as the SS produced: those passionless bureaucrats who supervised a revolution whose like had never been known. Thinking not in terms of the mob but in terms of structures, they placed their explosive charges deeper than perhaps any revolutionaries before them.
“Ultimately,” Fest writes, the SS “became a genuine subsidiary government that penetrated all existing institutions, undermined their political power, and gradually began replacing them.” It would also work “to bind the nation to the regime by complicity in an enormous crime, to engender the feeling that all the ships had been burned.” “The annihilation policy in the East, which began almost immediately,” Fest writes, “was one of the ways of making the war irrevocable.” In a telling statement of the fatigue and resignation that always enabled Hitler, a top general refused to participate in an early coup attempt because, he said, “this man is Germany’s fate and this fate will go its way to the end.”
A completely absorbing book, though I was made uneasy by the first few chapters. I got queasy reading Fest’s detailed account of young Hitler’s shitty petit-bourgeois conceit—his embrace of entho-linguistic chauvinism as the only food for his monstrous and undeserved pride—and knowing that he was to be the most influential European of the twentieth century. Young Hitler is like one of Nabokov’s grotesques, an artist manqué who tries to stylize life but only deforms it; someone at once uptight and crazy, stiffly over-correct and a cesspool of manias. Fest on Hitler the painter:
The intellectual ferment, like the artistic experimentation of the period, passed Hitler by in Munich as it had in Vienna. Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee, who also lived in the Schwabing neighborhood and were opening new dimensions in painting, meant nothing to Hitler. Throughout all the months he lived in Munich he remained the modest postcard copyist who had his visions, his nightmares, and his anxieties, but did not know how to translate them into art. The pedantic brushwork with which he rendered every blade of grass, every stone in a wall, and every roofing tile, shows his intimate craving for wholeness and idealized beauty. But the phantom world of his complexes and aggressions remained completely unexpressed.
And it’s of course galling that Hitler wasn’t killed in World War One. During the first battle of Ypres, in November, 1914, Hitler’s regiment suffered fifty-percent casualties. 50%, really? And not a bullet for Adolf? Really? But like I said, the book soon becomes absorbing. Especially in the “Interpolations,” the book’s almost separable meditations on German history and culture, Fest’s writing is very pungent and personal. His early years were of course lived under the shadow of Hitler. For refusing the join the Nazi party, his father, a Catholic intellectual, was fired from his teaching post and banned from taking any other, or even doing private tutoring, and the family lived in a proud destitution for the next decade. Fest recalls overhearing his parents argue one night, his mother suggesting that “common people” sometimes had to just go with the flow, if only to get their bread—to which Fest’s father replied, “We're not common people, not when it comes to these matters.” In 1944, Fest turned 18 and decided he should enlist in the army to forestall being drafted into the SS—a compromise intolerable to his father, who shouted—or rather hissed, with a glance at the windows—“one doesn’t volunteer for Hitler’s criminal war!” Fortunately, Fest was deployed to the Western front, and surrendered to American forces. Fest Sr. even had a problem with the Nazi focus of his son’s literary career; a serious historian doesn’t write about such trash as the Nazis, he said. That remark may sound odd to us, but does covey the shame the man must have felt, as he realized that the Nazis were now inseparable from Germany and its history, that Adolf Hitler was irrevocable.
* He preferred the Rhineland temperament, and years later happily recalled how when he visited Cologne that crowd had begun to rock back and forth out of sheer enthusiasm. “The greatest ovation of my life.” (p. 521)
The sound recordings of the period clearly convey the peculiarly obscene, copulatory character of mass meetings: the silence at the beginning, as of a whole multitude holding its breath; the short, shrill yappings…The writer René Schickele once spoke of Hitler’s speeches as being “like sex murders.” (p. 337)
Ripellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroiRipellino was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely’s Petersburg into Italian! A transmutation as heroic as any of Ulysses, I hear tell), and a servant of Czech letters whose devotion extended, in one instance, to the patient chaperoning of Věra Linhartová during her cognac-confused dipsomaniacal descent on Rome. Ripellino lived in Prague for some years after WWII, became a student of its various hauntings and urban demonology, its “lugubrious aura of decay…smirk of eternal disillusionment,” and married a Czech woman. Denied visas after the Soviet crackdown in 1968, he joined the émigrés in a sympathetic semi-exile, and under an exilic gloom compounded of ill-health and nostalgia, “despair and second thoughts,” composed Magic Prague—wistful anatomy, elegiac bricolage, “itinerary of the wondrous”:
How then can I write an exhaustive, well-ordered treatise like a detached and haughty scholar, suppressing my uneasiness, my restlessness with a rigor mortis of methodology and the fruitless discussions of disheartened formalists? No, I will weave a capricious book, an agglomeration of wonders, anecdotes, eccentric acts, brief intermezzos and mad encores, and I will be gratified if, in contrast to so much of the printed flotsam and jetsam surrounding us, it is not dominated by boredom…I will fill these pages with scraps of pictures and daguerreotypes, old etchings, prints purloined from the bottoms of chests, réclames, illustrations out of old periodicals, horoscopes, passages from books on alchemy and travel books printed in Gothic script, undated ghost stories, album leaves and keys to dreams: curios of a vanished culture.
That Magic Prague is consistently passionate, that Ripellino never succumbs to boredom, is remarkable when one considers that most of the book is devoted not to Kafka or Hašek or Apollinaire—subjects of inherent interest—but to a vast corpus of forgotten crap, an unread library of “mawkish novelettes” harboring “all the lachrymose resources of the nineteenth century,” all “the hackneyed devices and trite horrors of late Romanticism.” (Some titles: Spawn of Satan, The Crucified Woman, The Cremator.) Ripellino boldly gambled that his summaries of “Prague horror-tale kitsch” would be fun to read, and profound. He’s obsessed with the mutation of motifs, the process by which Prague’s traumatic and macabre history, like St. Petersburg’s, gave rise to a demonic mythos—the golem legends, rabbinic esoterica, alchemist cabals, fabled dungeon languishers and eerily ecstatic religious statuary; the brooding, self-sequestered princes, the closed caste of intermarried executioners; the “monsters and infernalia,” storied massacres and famous ghosts that thrilled and nourished the Gothic romancers of middle Europe, as well as their assorted twentieth century progeny: Decadents excited by infamy and decay, Surrealist students of obscenity, a duo of Dadaist clowns. The Romantic agony is just one thematic cluster, one path through Magic Prague, but the morbidity of the nineteenth century occasions, I think, Ripellino’s most compelling insights into the way memory emerges from history, culture from circumstance, writing from life. In a representative passage, Ripellino examines the literary figuration of the Baroque churches and statuary propagandistically imposed on Prague by the forces of Catholic reaction after the Thirty Years’ War:
Lvovic ze Karásek transformed every church into a melancholy Panoptikum, dwelling on the decay of the altar flowers, the languor of the statues outlined by garments of glossy creased silk, the infirm penumbra of the sanctuaries and the White Mountain dirges. When the Decadents used churches to exalt the corruption of the flesh, the ecstasy of martyrdom and the rapture of sainthood, they were simply indulging in a predilection for the Baroque, a Prague constant…Karásek painted the mystery of Prague’s sanctuaries in even bleaker colors in the novel Gothická duše (A Gothic Soul). The hero, the last scion of a noble line with a long history of insanity, is a Rudolf-like hypochondriac. Fearing he too will go mad (he does in the end—and dies in a mental hospital), he retreats into solitude, his greatest delights the smell of incense and wilted flowers, the sight of “glass coffins containing embalmed cadavers atop the altars.” He also feels drawn to the Barnabites or Discalced Carmelites, who live like moles in the darkness of mystical reclusion. Their lugubrious cloister near the Castle was shrouded in wildly imaginative legends. People said that before taking vows each novice had to remove the ring from the shriveled hand of the terrifying mummy of the Blessed Electa at midnight. During mass the faithful heard the chanting voices of those buried alive coming from the bowels of the church and saw the flickering of troubled eyes behind its rusty gratings. “The altars rose like shapeless catafalques.” “Only the main altar, covered with candles beneath the image of St. Theresa, fervent in her devotion to Christ, shone like a great pyramid of liquefied gold, glowed like an immense castrum doloris.” The church deranges the Gothic Soul; it drives him mad. The by-then jejune motif of the haunted basilica acquires new vigor in the myth of a lifeless, funereal Prague.
In 1915, with Europe aflame in what everyone thought would be its worst war, W.E.B. Du Bois published a theory of the belligerents’ motives in the AtlIn 1915, with Europe aflame in what everyone thought would be its worst war, W.E.B. Du Bois published a theory of the belligerents’ motives in the Atlantic Monthly. “The African Roots of War” argued that the proverbial chickens had come home to roost: that imperial competition, especially the “scramble for Africa,” had created the jealousies fueling the war, and had raised the stakes almost to preclude a lasting peace. “The Balkans are convenient for occasions, but the ownership of materials and men in the darker world is the real prize that is setting the nations of Europe at each others’ throats to-day.” Du Bois’ tone is not one of mordant gloating, but rather deep alarm at what the colonizing mindset and respectable, “scientific” racism might do to Europe in the future—and Du Bois knew something of Europe’s ethnic conflicts. David Levering Lewis describes how during vacations of the University of Berlin, in the 1890s, graduate student Du Bois tramped the back roads of the German and Hapsburg dominions, to the gates of Tsardom, once staying in Kraków with a classmate, later a victim of the camps, who had told him that if he really wanted to see a race problem surpassing that of the US, he should come observe German-Polish competition in the borderlands.
I don’t know what Du Bois thought of the Nazis, but given the prophecy of “The African Roots of War,” I doubt he was surprised that the defeated imperial power, stripped of its colonies and shut out of the race for more, tried to colonize Europe itself. Du Bois may have even thought what Mazower quotes the Martinican poet and theorist of Négritude Aimé Césaire as thinking—that Europeans had tolerated “Nazism before it was inflicted on them…they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.” The Nazis certainly ruled Eastern Europe confident in colonial precedent. Hitler frequently referred to the peoples in the way of Lebensraum as “redskins,” “Red Indians.” In 1942 one official wrote that the methods being used by Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel in his round-ups of slave labor for the Reich’s war plants “probably have their origin in the blackest periods of the slave trade.” Reichskommissar Ukraine Ernst Koch referred to his subjects as “niggers,” and “that nigger people.” Koch’s deputy, Generalkommissar Frauenfeld, said his chief’s policies comprised “points of view and methods used in past centuries against colored slave peoples.” When the army high command recognized the need to cultivate Ukrainian nationalists as allies against the Soviets, the generals agreed “to take ‘no nigger attitude’ [Nicht Negerstandpunkt] towards the Ukrainians.” On the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Mussolini complained to the tiremaker Pirelli: “It is not possible to treat European countries like colonies.” “But this is just what the Germans intended to do.”
Hitler’s Empire is the perfect book to have read on the heels of Lieven’s Empire, in which Hitler’s regime is called “a product of modern pathology, not of traditional imperial thinking”—a regime that “combined all the worst aspects of European colonial empire since its inception, turned them into a policy, and carried them to their logical extreme.” Mazower’s book fleshes out Hitler’s imperial thinking—first and last “a violent fantasy of racial mastery.” Hitler was only half-right. The successful empires he envied had more to teach than “whites up, browns down.” Hitler always dismissed warnings of overreach by invoking British rule of India. That the British were able to control a subcontinent with a modest outlay of men and resources indicated to Hitler that their handful of colonial administrators were of such resplendent whiteness that the mottled masses of Asia could do naught but bow and obey. And so the Slavic Untermensch before the German Herrenvolk or Master Race. Hitler ignored or never learned about India’s co-opted princes, or the native civil service, English-speaking and assimilated, that ran the country day-to-day. The conquest of the American West was another misread precedent. Hitler pointed his generals to Karl May’s Wild West pulp novels for strategic wisdom, referred to the Slavs as “Red Indians,” and rode around Europe in an armored train christened “Amerika”. He mistakenly believed that the US had totally exterminated the Native Americans, and never seems to have seriously considered if any Germans actually wanted to leave their homes and go as pioneers to Ukrainian farmsteads, or to have ever wondered if conquering and ruling the Polish, Czech and Russian nation-states might pose more complex, or even simply different, challenges than those America faced in subduing nomadic tribes of hunger-gatherers. Hitler emerges from Mazower’s pages as the quintessential crackpot pseudointellectual—proud in the discovery of seeming parallels, oblivious to subtle distinctions, and engaged in an alchemiac quest to divine immutable historical laws.
Hitler seems to have read just enough to apply real place-names to his apocalyptic futurology; his comic book grandeurs date from when America was Land of the Future. He thought his empire would rewind history, drawing back to Germany the descendants of those who had immigrated to North and South America in the previous century. He wanted Berlin’s new railway station to be larger than Grand Central Station, the new Elbe bridge modeled on San Francisco’s Golden Gate, but totally, like, bigger and stuff. Hamburg’s regional party headquarters would be housed in a skyscraper—expressly dwarfing the Empire State Building—“that would be visible for miles, with a huge neon swastika to guide shipping.” And with the Allies bombing from above and battering the gates, Hitler continued to mumble about the “wonder weapons” whose deployment would shatter his foes. Hitler is MF Doom’s “Lego-megalomaniac,” giddy over scale models of his sci-fi Berlin, his monumental metropolis, and crouching to gaze a bleary eye down its small triumphal avenues. Bolaño makes science fiction one of the major genres of Nazi Literature in the Americas:
Gustavo Borda was just over five feet tall; he had a swarthy complexion, thick black hair, and enormous very white teeth. His characters, by contrast, are tall, fair-haired and blue-eyed. The spaceships that appear in his novels have German names. Their crews are German too. The colonies in space are called New Berlin, New Hamburg, New Frankfurt, and New Koenigsberg. His cosmic police dress like SS officers who have somehow managed to survive into the twenty-second century.
Patrick Leigh Fermor relied on a Rhine barge, the odd lorry lift and his own two legs to carry him through Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia aPatrick Leigh Fermor relied on a Rhine barge, the odd lorry lift and his own two legs to carry him through Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Northern Hungary. Now, he’s crossing the Great Hungarian Plain on horseback:
Whenever he got the chance, Malek broke into a canter, and one of these bursts turned into a long twilight gallop...
Back in Budapest, Leigh Fermor had fallen in with a “noctambulistic” smart set (cellar nightclubs, scotch-and-soda, American jazz) whose country-housed, horse-lending cousinage extended deep into Hungary and Romania, along the still-twitching nerves of the old empire. With these connections, much of the eight months of 1934 recollected in Between the Woods and the Water (1986) pass in summery sojourn among the old Hapsburg nobility, our erudite wanderer pausing for weeks at a time to sample the “learning, munificence, and douceur de vivre” of that soon-to-be-swept-away class. Suddenly, the crushing hike described in this book and its predecessor, A Time of Gifts, seems doable when each stretch is recouped with picnics, tournaments of bicycle polo, and undisturbed hours in manorial libraries in which the lore and languages of the dominions just crossed can be learned from the lord’s own incunables and troves of ancient parchment.
Leigh Fermor makes all kinds of friends (gold-panning Gypsies, bawdy village crones, sun-brown reapers, a Transylvanian shepherd, even an impenetrably reserved Orthodox rabbi), but it’s his reports from within the “manor houses harbouring over-civilised boyars up to their ears in Proust and Mallarmé” that define this book. Marooned on reduced estates, strapped for cash, the Hapsburg grandees regale Leigh Fermor with memories of the Parisian belle époque, of Edwardian regattas out of Portsmouth, and bemoan the provinciality of the new nations in which they find themselves—all in “fluent and marvelously antiquated English.” Leigh Fermor is not an explicit imperial nostalgist like Joseph Roth, but encountering his long view of the movements of people and customs across geography, of the migrations, exiles, conversions and conquests that compose Middle Europe—“[Turkish:] victories long eclipsed, but commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possessions like a spear stuck in the ground”—one cannot help but feel the ridiculous imposture of nationalism, and the futility and pettiness of tribal purity as a pretension of statehood.
This rapport with the displaced was also a feature of A Time of Gifts. He carries into the marches of Transylvania a “beautiful little seventeenth-century duodecimo Horace from Amsterdam,” the gift of a Baltic grandee exiled to Germany:
It was bound in stiff, grass-green leather; the text had long s’s, mezzotint vignettes of Tibur, Lucretilis and the Bandusian spring, a scarlet silk marker, the giver’s bookplate and a skeleton-leaf from his Estonian woods.
Closing out the decade of the 1930s as the lover of a Moldavian princess, and residing with her “old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning” family, Leigh Fermor was one of the rare Western Europeans appreciative of the Nabokovian political position—that is, he had equal contempt for the frank murderousness of Fascism and for the humanitarian pretentions of the Soviet Union:
From the end of these travels to the War, I lived, with a year’s interruption, in Eastern Europe, among friends I must call old-fashioned liberals. They hated Nazi Germany; but it was impossible to look eastwards for inspiration and hope, as their Western equivalents—peering from afar, and with the nightmare of only one kind of totalitarianism to vex them—felt able to do.
“Old fashioned liberals” is exactly the phrase Nabokov used to describe his family.
Leigh Fermor’s wartime exploits include parachuting into Nazi-occupied Crete dressed as a shepherd. He hid out in the mountains, organized the resistance and, famously, coordinated the moonlight ambush, kidnapping and speedboat removal to Egypt of the island’s German commander.
He’s 95 now, living in Greece, in a house he designed and built (that casual English omni-competence! A brilliant prose stylist and daring commando, I bet he’s a great cook, too), and working busily on the third volume, which will take him through Bulgaria, Greece, and on to the goal of it all, Istanbul.
Ah, these English travellers and their amazing prose--prose equal, fitted to their feats. Virginia Woolf on Hakluyt's Early Voyages:
Ah, these English travellers and their amazing prose--prose equal, fitted to their feats. Virginia Woolf on Hakluyt's Early Voyages:
These magnificent volumes are not often, perhaps, read through. Part of their charm consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds. One is for ever untying this packet here, sampling that heap over there, wiping the dust off some vast map of the world, and sitting down in semi-darkness to snuff the strange smells of silks and leathers and ambergris, while outside tumble the huge waves of the uncharted Elizabethan sea.
During 1933-35, the eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor, recently expelled from school after an innocent, unconsummated townie flirtation, walked, barge-floated, rode horseback, hitckhiked (lorries, Bugattis, woodcutter sledges), but mostly walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople. A Time of Gifts (1977) gets Leigh Fermor as far as the verge of Hungary, and his lumber room is packed with the loot of Central Europe.
There's his passport, "crammed with the visas of vanished kingdoms." And a peasant table, with "raw knuckles of enormous hands" amid "the cut onions and the chipped pitchers and a brown loaf broken open." Heavy steins, a chandelier of interlocked antlers, a cask of Rhine wine. Horace and Hölderlin in scholar gypsy-size, pocket portable editions plucked from baronal libraries and bestowed in parting on the hobnail-booted, putteed, greatcoated Leigh Fermor as he prepared to step off into the snows once more. An Augusburg choir stall, specimen of Germany's blunt realism in woodcarving, showing "highly polished free-standing scenes of Biblical bloodshed,"
On the first Jael, with hanging sleeves and hatted like a margravine, gripped a coal hammer and steadied an iron spike among the sleeping Sisera's curls.
Leigh Fermor is really into the Thirty Years War, so the curio emporium must include a composite warlord portrait:
The polyglot captains of the multi-lingual hosts hold our gaze nilly-willy with their grave eyes and Valesquez moustaches and populate half the picture galleries of Europe. Caracoling in full feather against a background of tents and colliding squadrons, how serenely they point their batons; or, magnanimously bare-headed and on foot in a grove of lances, accept surrendered keys, or a sword! Curls flow and lace or starched collars break over the black armour and the gold inlay; they glance from their frames with an aloof and high-souled melenacholy which is both haunting and enigmatic.
And to stand for the strange political ruin of the lands in which Fermor wandered, there's the symbolic gold key once worn on the uniform of a Hapsburg court chamberlain--
But now the Empire and the kingdom had been dismembered and their thrones are empty; no doors opened to the gold keys, the heralds were dispersed, the regiments disbanded and the horses dead long ago.
With one book, Leigh Fermor makes an easy leap into my "favorites." A Time of Gifts is magical, Pale Fire-, Speak, Memory-magical, richly responsive to nature, art, people and history, and with a style so perfectly evocative that you think of sorcery. On to its sequel, Between The Woods and The Water! He's on a borrowed horse, cantering across the great Hungarian plain, thinking of the Magyar and other migrations.
One of many endorsements that lured me to this, Brodsky's remark that "there is a poem on every page of Roth's" has the ironic effect of making Roth sOne of many endorsements that lured me to this, Brodsky's remark that "there is a poem on every page of Roth's" has the ironic effect of making Roth sound like a prose writer prone to elaborate poetic digressions, though, at least in this novel, he's relentlessly focused and economical. By 'poems' Brodsky means imagery whose sharp cut and compression, whose organic and abrupt strangeness ideally fits the swiftness of Roth's narration:
The officers went about like incomprehensible worshippers of some remote and pitiless deity, but also like its gaudily clad and splendidly adorned sacrificial animals.
Further riders vaulted across a line of twenty beer kegs placed bottom to bottom. The horse always neighed as it prepared to jump. The rider came bounding from infinitely faraway; at first a tiny dot, he grew at breakneck speed into a stroke, a body, a rider, became a gigantic mythical bird, half man, half horse, a winged centaur who then, after a successful leap, halted, stock-still, a hundred yards beyond the kegs--a statue, a monument of lifeless matter.
...a reddish stubble stood out on his chin, a small lavish field of tiny lances.
Trotta watches Kapturak pull out a virgin deck of glossy cards from his pocket and place it on the table gingerly, as if to avoid hurting the colorful face of the bottom card.
The oath he had perfunctorily sworn a few times came alive. It rose up, word for word, each word a banner..
The huge golden sun of the Hapsburgs was setting for him, shattered on the ultimate bottom of the universe, splintering into several tiny solar balls that had to shine as independent stars on independent nations.
Being so swift and focused means that Roth could produce a three-generation family novel that clocks in at only 331 pages. A less elegant or disciplined a writer could not have kept a handle on a subject that presents so many opportunities for prolixity. I think Roth could offer an excellent model for contemporary writers who are attracted to the big 19th century saga-subjects--the fate of families, as they change over time and mirror or defy an historical environment--but are pledged to a leaner, more oblique ideal of novelistic form.
Roth's economy obviously leaves out alot: the three generations of the Trotta men are seen principally through the prism of their military careers, and the vicissitudes of morale and patriotic commitment, rather than through, say, that of their sexual or religious disposition. Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje accidentally founds the dynasty by saving the Kaiser's life in battle, and is knighted into a world he never quite understands for feels at ease in; his son Franz is the short dynasty's apex, a high official who lives and breathes imperial service, whose entire cosmology is the Hapsburg imperial edifice; and then his son, Carl Joseph, a bored young officer whose torpid garrison postings in the long peacetime before WWI make his life nothing but a depressed and disillusioned round of adultery, drinking, and gambling, not to mention romantic nostalgia for the unknown peasants from which his grandfather sprang. There is more to these characters than I've sketched here--but not much more; they are not intricately conflicted people. Fortunately the narrow set of themes that Roth threads through their lives happen to be richly suggestive ones: the sudden mutations of ambition and expectation a family undergoes when its status is raised (or lowered); the persistence, nonetheless, of certain vestigial manners and traits into the new social sphere; and state service as an assimilative engine, a leveller and neutralizer, of contrasting ethnicities. Each Trotta is heavily symbolic, but symbolic of very intersting things.
Oh, and the translation: Carl Joseph's fellow officers often speak with a twangy, folksy belligerence that reminded me of old gunslinger movies, and his orderly, written by Roth as a Ukrainian peasant, occasionally breaks his servile silence with pure Cockney expressions.
One of my favorite works of criticism--though 'criticism' may be too narrow a category. Maybe: aesthetic theorizing informed by a practitioner's ardorOne of my favorite works of criticism--though 'criticism' may be too narrow a category. Maybe: aesthetic theorizing informed by a practitioner's ardor. A spirited essay on Kafka's sense of humor; the keenest appreciation of Janacek's operas I've ever read; a provocative private history of the novel (we gotta get back to Cervantes and Rabelais and Sterne, that fun, free-wheeling crew, Milan sez, cause 19th century realism is a con job); insightful defenses of Hemingway and Stravinsky from various hack detractors; and a delineation of Central European modernism (Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz). Kundera opens up so many vistas, spurs so much further reading; though he's probably choked off any desire to read Adorno for the near future: the drubbing he gives the musical writings is just too devastating. Adorno's Marxist advocacy of serialism as some sort of historically inevitable dispensation from which only irrelevant reactionaries (Stravinsky) dissent comes off as a terrible specimen of humorless, philistine lockstep. Who doesn't like Stravinsky? I mean, come on! ...more
In one of the more inane projects of library school, I had to prepare an index for an index-less book. For some reason I didn't do Nabokov's Strong OpIn one of the more inane projects of library school, I had to prepare an index for an index-less book. For some reason I didn't do Nabokov's Strong Opinions, an index to which I actually need. I was reading this at the time and figured why not. After starting the assignment I found myself in the very deep waters of cental european historical geography, drowning in Polish and Lithuanian place names. The assignment didn't blight my budding affection for the book. Milosz, like Brodsky, has become a companionate presence. ...more