Posts tagged ‘Hitler’

Jun 17, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 5 – Men-Lizards, Serge and Men in Prison and pathetic women

Books on a shelf Week 5

Last time I left you to carry on reading H. G. Wells’ Kipps. Finished it. Life teaches Kipps some hard lessons, as might be expected of an uncultured ‘little person’ finding fortune smiling down on him, if only briefly. Mrs Kipps’ socialist brother and his wife named their child Master Walt Whitman Pornick who is

a cheerful young gentleman of one and a half, who was given a spoon to hammer on the table with to keep him quiet…

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I really don’t know the reason why but so many books on this shelf have some association with the 1940s – the majority are second-hand but that can’t explain it. Possibly there is no explanation beyond coincidence for the house is choc-a-block with books as I repeatedly explain and they surely can’t all fall into this category – I know they don’t.

First published in Prague in 1936 Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts is a satire on the ruthless exploitation of colonies by European imperial powers. As well as historical examples Čapek was living through a time when this was still very much to the fore – European countries pillaging resources of militarily weaker nations and exploiting native populations for cheap labour. Czechoslovakia was threatened by German chauvinistic nationalism and their was not dissimilar behaviour by Britain (England) and France so the author has plenty material to hand to work from. In War with the Newts he exposes and ridicules the crushing ruthlessness of colonialism and needless to say his novel fell foul of Nazi censorship.

Captain van Toch recognises the value in exploiting Sumatra’s giant newts – for they are intelligent and skilful creatures. All goes to plan for a time but the plan has a flaw – the very intelligence that attracted him to exploit the newts means they are capable of out-smarting  their human enslavers. Like all the best exploited creatures – they rise up against their tyrants.

War with the Newts has a complex and innovative structure and is divided into three books. Book one examines the ‘Strange Behaviour of Captain van Toch’ – a man who casts a cynical eye over his fellow humans – or are they human? This Dutch ship’s captain is savagely racist and xenophobic. When informed the native Bataks are devils, Toch retorts –  

Man, there aren’t any devils. And if there were, they would look like Europeans. That thing must have been some kind of fish or something.

Eventually we discover more about the Men-Lizards from the Pacific Ocean through scientific study and reports written about them which, it is claimed, will not be read by many outside the scientific elite. A case is made for exploiting the newt population similar to all justification used by imperial powers. First overpower through armed superiority then denigrate the native population to create an impression of providing benefits instead of taking advantage of them. The pseudo-science used to justify capitalising on the newts makes up the second book within the novel. The final book introduces the war of the title.

A cleverly constructed piece of fiction that is not so far-fetched as the title may suggest for it is really about European powers in the 1920s and 1930s riven by racism, social divisions and ambitious militarism.  

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Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler is short; a novella. Schnitzler died in 1931, five years before War with the Newts was published. Born in Austria in 1862, Schnitzler’s family name was Zimmermann (as in Bob Dylan’s family name.) He was an author-dramatist who gained a reputation for his openly sexual works – which impressed fellow-Austrian, the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. The explicit nature of his writing led to accusations of him being a pornographer – this was certainly the opinion of another fellow-compatriot, Adolf Hitler, who as Germany’s chancellor, dismissed Schnitzler’s books as Jewish filth (not Austrian filth) banned and had them burned.

Dream Story aka Rhapsody was written in 1926. The protagonist, Dr Fridolin, attempts to deal with his wife’s sexual fantasies about another man while he puts himself about a bit. If this sounds familiar it may be because Stanley Kubrick’s film, Eyes Wide Shut, is based on the novella. I haven’t seen the film but understand that Nicole Kidman plays the doctor’s wife as a woman confident of her own sexuality unlike Albertine in the novella who is a bit of an innocent in these matters – impassive as her husband makes love to her – well, has sex with her. You can see how this ties in with Freud’s view of women; women were inferior in all ways to men and men were anatomically superior to women inducing their penis envy. In their dreams.  

At first she gently raised her hand as if to prevent him, but he seized it and held it in his own, both questioning her and pleading with her as he looked up, so she nodded her consent and he began.

She lay there quietly, her hands behind her neck, and remained silent a long time after Fridolin had finished.

It makes for uncomfortable reading for today’s women to be confronted by such obvious misogyny. Women now, as then surely, were not the vulnerable submissive creatures Schnitzler and Freud fantasised about – their women docile as a means to an end. Will I read all 98 ½ pages of the book? I doubt it.

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Victor Serge’s Conquered City is one of a trilogy of novels that includes, Men In Prison and Birth of Our Power. George Orwell described Serge’s writing as –

A special class of literature that has arisen out of the European political struggle …

Serge’s biographer, Susan Weissman, Professor Politics at Saint Mary’s College of California wrote of him –

Victor Serge is one of the most compelling figures to have emerged from the history of the Soviet Union. A lucid observer and a great writer, his is the story of a course set on hope, a pursuit of truth, dignity and human justice set against some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.

Forty years before Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the USSR because his writing was critical of the state, Serge was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and deported. He travelled to Brussels (where he was born to Russian émigrés who fled Tsarist Russia) then to France. Forever hounded by the communist state he refused to stop criticising it and was constantly slandered as a result. From one persecution to another he also fled the Nazis and his final years were spent in Mexico where he died in 1947 at the age of just 56.

As Victor Livovich Kibalchich he left Brussels for France where as a youth he joined a French anarchist organisation and edited its magazine. He escaped the guillotine in 1912, unlike three of his comrades, but was jailed for five years for his political activities. Briefly in Spain on his release from jail he arrived in the newly established Soviet Union in 1919 where he became acquainted with the American journalist and communist, John Reed. Reed covered the October Revolution in Petrograd (later Leningrad and now St Petersburg) and wrote the book Ten Days That Shook the World. He died in 1920 of typhus, unable to get medicine because of a blockade against the Bolshevik government. He was thirty-two.

Conquered City is set during the civil war, the Terror that followed the Russian Revolution – terror inflicted by both Reds and Whites in 1919-20. Set in Petrograd in 1919 the story opens on a chilly night with frost clinging to all the familiar statuary and elegant buildings in that city, beautifully described. This is a political novel – how could it not be? – set when and where it is but it is no dour piece of writing. Far from it.  

A little girl in a red beret still went every morning to the ballet school to learn the arts of toe dancing and leaping. The hurricane will pass, no? but the dance will remain; and the child has talent. When the weather permitted, she would read Anderson’s fairy tales on the way, wondering why no magic carpet ever appeared over the bleak house tops. She also read, and carefully repeated when she got home, the penciled notices posted at the Communal Store; “The Third Category will receive two herrings for coupon No. 23 on the ration card …” How sad life is without flying carpets!

There is a lecturer whose monotone voice “fell like a fine rain” and who “was afraid of himself and searched the audience for some enemy face in order to surrender to it.”

I am now reading the entire novel.

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Our copy of Birth of Our Power has the feel of a book never opened, far less read, though my other half assures me he has read all three. Let’s take a peek at book two.

As with Conquered City, Birth of Our Power is set during revolutionary upheaval not only in Russia but also in France and Spain and not during the better-known Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 but the brutal period of the barbarous Great War when revolution broke out in Russia and Spain.

Spain entered the twentieth century, after its stunning defeat by the United States in 1898, as a backward, corrupt, priest – and soldier -ridden monarchy.

Translator, Richard Greeman, New York, 1966.

Recent events in Catalonia have demonstrated Spain continues in that tradition of cruel repression of its citizens which can be traced as far back as the Inquisitions that began in the 15th century. Serge’s hope was that eventually Spaniards might be freed from the iron clad fists of governments that tortured and murdered so many of them, if not in the period in which the novel was set then in the near future. I feel he would be sorely disappointed with how that country has turned out.  

The guardia civilis went forth on horseback, in rectangular formations, black on black horses, shoulders square under their black capes, towering over the crowd with their tricornered hats and their stiff heads, as impassable as painted wooden figures. Their vigilant eyes searched into the corners of alleys, into dark doorways, into tightly pressed groups, into anything that might hide deadly aggression, bullet or bomb, the sudden great stride of death over frightened heads towards the tense horsemen riding towards their fate. Theirs, ours!

The Spanish revolt of 1917 ran out of steam but in Russia revolution succeeded, though at a terrible price.

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Finally, Men in Prison – it is 1914 – a political activist has been sentenced to a term in prison where brutality mirrors the savagery of outside society.

I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be usefully compared … The truth for Serge was something to be undergone.

John Berger, art critic, poet, painter.

Though he shared many of their aims, Serge was always wary of the Bolsheviks – of their authoritarianism and openly criticised their abuses. He had friends who suffered terribly under the pitiless hand of the Cheka (the Bolsheviks’ political police) while Serge, himself, was imprisoned, deported and constantly slandered by the Soviet state.

Of his novel, Men in Prison, Serge wrote –

Everything in this book is fictional and everything is true.

Chapters come thick and fast: The Lockup —Yet Life Goes On —Capital Punishment —The Will To Live —The Years —Dying — Surviving —More Deaths —About To Be Discharged —

Three gray straw mattresses on crude cots – gray with filth, spattered with all sorts of stains, stinking of dust, old straw, sleeping animality –The mattresses and the drinking cup are apparently never cleaned. After the first hour, I wanted a drink. I was clumsy enough to shake the jug, and a greenish slime rose to the surface where wisps of straw, odd leaves, hair, bits of threat, and a broken match were floating.

Serge used his own prison experiences to paint his vivid descriptions of life in Soviet jails. He writes so well but the material is by its nature harrowing to read.

This blog post should have been up days ago but one or two passages from Serge’s books stuck in my head though unfortunately not sufficiently to quote him and, of course, I didn’t write them down at the time of reading. There was a comment about hope which struck me as the sort of clever statement I fancied pinching to use on social media. Again, I failed and now am doubting the remark was Serge’s at all. Note to self – always write down references and don’t chuck the scrap of paper into the recycling before reading it again.

Finally on Serge a word about his translator, the American Marxist, Richard Greeman, now 81, whose whole life has been spent in left politics as a writer, lecturer and, of course, translator. He was befriended by Serge’s son, the painter Vlady, an encounter that led to him translating Serge’s novels, including this trilogy.

Finally, finally – I’ve become so fascinated with Serge during this preliminary encounter with him and a his writings that once I finish Conquered City I intend reading Susan Weissman’s biography of the man. People who are brave enough to stand up to rotten regimes deserve attention.

Till next time, stay safe.

May 22, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary Week 9

And here we are again. Week 9. Doesn’t seem too unlike week 8 although each week does have subtle and sometimes not so subtle variations mixed in. It struck me I don’t really say much or, indeed anything, about what I actually do through a week – and that’s not about to change. I’m not one of those let it all hang out types but here’s what I am prepared to tell you.

It won’t surprise you to know I’m still mouthing off at the politics of the Covid-19 pandemic. Machiavelli will be spinning in his grave at the sheer audacity of the lies being dished up daily by government which we are expected to take at face value. My main source of information about coronavirus is the Financial Times which has been unerringly informed and informative on the virus.

No 10 has been spinning like the proverbial top. Matt Hancock is as useless as he looks. No you haven’t ever reached 100,000 tests on any single day – my ref is the FT. And Boris Johnson is now in full Trumpian flow promising even more. It is quite, quite extraordinary that anyone retains any regard for Johnson. He is evidently a lazy, rather stupid man who hides behind other people – occasionally popping up for a photo opportunity such as hypocritically clapping NHS staff and carers and making ridiculous inflated promises.

starlings at nest

Another family birthday this week. Mainly virtual but virtual can be good fun. We’re fairly getting into this singing online lark. Presents were actual and delivered as promised by the Aberdeen shop entrusted to do so.

The starlings are still living dangerously, nesting under the eye of jackdaws and rumours of them having given up on the hole in the ash tree have been greatly exaggerated as they are indeed installed there. With the beech next door to them coming into leaf it will become more difficult to see what they’re up to very soon.

House martins' nest with remains of last years additional nest

The house martins have also being playing games with nest building. Came and seemed to go after a day or two. Then they came back again. We saw them mostly in the evenings for a start and surely they must have been constructing their classy nest under cover of darkness because suddenly it was up. Lots of activity now with them flying back and fore so suspect there are eggs there already or wee ones hatched out. I know why they build under eaves etc – as protection from rain. That probably sounds obvious but it’s a bit strange to build in the open given their nests are made out of regurgitated mud. Last year we had a lot of rain in late summer and the nest collapsed with young dropping to the ground. We tried to save them but couldn’t. The martins then quickly built a second nest, alongside with a late brood being produced. One little one was slow in flying and while the others were champing at the bit to fly away south it couldn’t leave the nest. Fairly sure it did eventually get away but it was late.

carob in greenhouse

Young plants doing well in the greenhouse and the plug gherkins arrived looking in great shape. Those runner beans are now going at a jog. This week we launched our inter-generational radish growing competition. Doesn’t have many rules so far, not even an end date which we’ll have to fix although there seems plenty time since there’s three days after sowing my five seeds there’s no sign of germination. Meant to mention in earlier blogs that our carob tree is looking tip top. It’s kept in the greenhouse, grown from a seed for a bonsai carob, bought by a friend in Aberdeen at least 15 years ago. The carob is also known as the locust tree or St John’s bread and in its natural Mediterranean habitat produces large edible seed pods. Among its uses is as a chocolate substitute. They can grow to up to 50 feet but doubt our little bonsai in a greenhouse in Aberdeenshire will get anywhere near that – or else we’re moving. And I doubt there will ever be a Lenathehyena chocolate. Which is a pity.

Lots of wandering around the garden, in between weeding. Still very dry. The burn is getting lower and lower. Our water supply is, to some extent, reflected by the amount of water flowing downhill. Will be one to watch.

Many of the rhododendrons are passed but several still to come. We have lots of rhododendrons as this is a great area for growing these acid-loving plants. Some are real beauts.

rhodie pic for blog

My marsh marigolds have come on a treat. Can’t tell you how I got them but they’ve taken to their habitat in the old sink. I’ve got a soft spot for marsh marigolds since I was a child in the Black Isle and they grew along the burn at Rosemarkie. Here we’ve grown different varieties on the burn bank but one by one they’ve been washed away downstream during spates.

Got another delivery of all sorts of goodies from a wholefood company in England. Our spare bedroom aka pantry aka food quarantine area smells like an eastern bazaar. We’ve almost finished eating the madjool dates we bought from them last time. There is nothing that can compare with a medjool date from Palestine. Big, fat, soft and bursting with flavour.

Our two hours evening screen watch has moved into suck it and see mode since we finished Breaking Bad. What’s that Walt White like!! We’ve finished Outlander. Good last episode after one or two weak ones. Had to give up on the latest Bosch as it’s far too ‘bitty’ and the fast, clipped accents of some actors are too difficult to make out.

Bedtime reading has moved from fiction to the tragic events of the Bavarian uprising in 1919. Dreamers by Volker Weidermann gives an account of the chaotic attempt to establish a worker’s state in Bavaria on the back of the Great War and its horrific impact on the lives of ordinary people. Dreamers because behind the movement and influential in it were writers and poets whose hearts were in the right place but they lacked the ruthless selfish drive of politicians for their movement to succeed. They had some ideas but no roadmap, as today’s parlance goes. Contrary to the impression always presented in the press and by politicians of most stripes it is the right who tend to be most violent and this was true in Bavaria in 1919 when the extreme right started to shoot anyone suspected of siding with the revolution. The intellectuals and workers who supported a people’s revolution and survived the bullets during the rightwing crackdown were hauled off to concentration camps when the right achieved what the left couldn’t in Bavaria following Hitler’s rise to power. He has a bit part in Dreamers though always denying he was anywhere near there. Wouldn’t recognise truth if it slapped him on the face. A true politician. They’re the real storytellers.

Stay safe.