Posts tagged ‘Sparticists’

May 3, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 1 – What Katy did and revolution

Dusting down one of the bookcases in the spare bedroom one day I thought it might be an interesting challenge to read just 5 mins from each of the books along one of the shelves every day. There has to be a start somewhere. Many of our books I have read, some several times over, but many more I haven’t and thought it might be an exercise in discipline to force myself to pick up a volume or several I’d normally walk by.

We’ve had most of our books for a very long time, although our recent flit meant several hundreds were given away to charity shops but our new house was partly chosen on the amount of space available for books, pictures and finally us (who don’t take up much room.) We didn’t quite make it and there are several filled bookcases stored in the garage and a box or three yet unopened. We have books on just about every subject under the sun, or did until the flit clear-out, and apart from history, cooking and mountaineering most of those that have found house-room have been shelved fairly randomly.

It wasn’t more than a few days into my 5-minute reads when it struck me this might make for a blog in the way just about everything is a blog opportunity. Clearly what I pick up in 5 minutes hardly allows for much context and I had no intention of doing book reviews so these blogs will be whatever I dig up on the subjects or authors of the works, and their ideas where I can understand them.

So here we are. Blog 1 on the books on shelf three of the bookcase next to the front bedroom door.

I hadn’t read What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge since I was a child. The copy I have now belonged to my late mother, a school prize won when she was twelve years old, the same age as the novel’s protagonist, Katy Carr.

Katy was a young tomboy as girls who didn’t conform to established mores of what was deemed feminine behaviour in the near past. Nowadays she would probably be encouraged to change gender and become Keith Carr since stereotypical behaviour is again becoming rigorously applied. Katy’s life is turned upside down by an accident that has her re-appraise her behaviour and she transforms and conforms to the idyl of womanhood, obedience. Coolidge’s tale, written in 1872, is set in the American mid-west where Katy’s father, a widower doctor, secures the services of his sister, Izzie, to help bring up his six children.  

The book begins with a poem, To Five (Katy’s siblings)

Six of us once, my darlings, played together,

Beneath green boughs, which faded long ago,

Made merry in the golden summer weather,

Pelted each other with new fallen snow.

The tale proper finds Katy sitting in a meadow when she overhears a conversation between two tiny pale-green creatures wearing black goggles and each with six legs. They seem to be discussing her.

“Katy did.” “Katy didn’t.” “She did.” “She didn’t.” “She did.”  “She didn’t.” “Did.” “Didn’t.”

Walking home Katy reflects on those words and the many wonderful things she planned to do with her life and the little she achieved but in consolation there were other things she did which proved better than those in her first dreams.

While Katy Carr was submitting to the limitations imposed on women by American society actual American women were standing up to oppression and laying their lives on the line in pursuit of women achieving equality with men. In 1872 Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth were both arrested for making the case for women’s right to vote.

Susan Anthony entered the fray when she discovered she and her fellow-female teachers were being paid a tiny fraction of that given to their male colleagues. So began a lifetime commitment to activism and she was instrumental in the creation of the National Woman Suffrage Association in America.

At her birth in 1797 Sojourner Truth was already a slave. Her name was originally Isabella Baumfree but she chose to change it to Sojourner Truth. Right from the start of her life Sojourner learnt how unfair life could be. Born into bondage, Sojourner was bought and sold like a piece of disposable property and was frequently physically attacked and beaten. In 1872 having been denied her promised freedom Sojourner one day walked away from her master,

I did not run away, I walked away by daylight…

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

Sojourner Truth was active in the antislavery movement and campaign for women’s rights. I suspect the young Katy Carr would have admired both Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony. As for the later Katy, she needed to listen to those little green creatures with black goggles to remind her who she really was.

*

Another radical woman is the subject of my second book, The Quiet Revolutionary by Margaret Dewar.

The year was 1904. We were travelling in a kibitka through the snow. Sitting snugly on straw in the depth of the sleigh, wrapped up to the tips of our noses in rugs, our nanny, my sister Helga and I were following the kibitka carrying my parents, on our way from the port of Arkhangelsk to Ust-Tsylma, some 300 miles further north-east, less than a hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. Suddenly our kibitka turned over and we all tumbled into the deep snow. No harm was done except for the shock to our parents. My sister was just over a year old, I was three. These are my very first memories.

This is a biography of Margarete (Rita) Watz born in Latvia into a Latvian-Russian-German family. Her childhood was spent in Riga, Siberia, St Petersburg and Moscow during the period before the Russian revolution. Descriptions of her early life in Russia are a joy to read for they are filled with all sorts of magical details about places, children’s toys, foods eaten and the sorts of clothes people wore but this was no fairy tale.

Young Margaret lived through the terrible Tsarist period with all the uncertainties that brought and then there was the upheaval and violence of the revolution and reaction. Margaret’s family left Russia for Germany in the early 1920s and between her life in Latvia and Russia and experiences in in post-war Germany it is little wonder she became politicised. The rise of fascism in Germany was a real threat to her survival and so once more she fled, eventually reaching Britain hence her British-sounding name, Margarete anglicised to Margaret and Dewar from her Trotskyist husband, Hugo.  

*

Book three is about yet another strong woman. Unlike Margaret Dewar one whose life became dedicated to revolutionary activism from an early age. Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871, around the time What Katy Did was being written, a daughter of a timber trader and his wife she was encouraged to read widely, a passion shared by Margaret Dewar. By the age of fifteen Rosa was involved with the left-wing Proletariat Party and soon active organising a general strike. Her political activities drew her to the attention of the state and she came under constant surveillance and intimidation. Dangerous times and four of Rosa’s comrades were executed for their activities.

The book Comrade and Lover, Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to Leo Jogiches, translated by Elizbieta Ettinger, concentrates on personal aspects of Rosa’s life as suggested by the title.

In much the same way as Margaret Dewar, Rosa sought safety by fleeing her home. Initially she went to Switzerland where she attended the university of Zurich and left it with a Doctor of Law degree, a rare achievement for women back then.

The Leo Jogiches referred to was a fellow-Marxist and Rosa’s lover to whom Rosa wrote nearly a thousand letters. She was always an inveterate letter-writer and the  book features a small selection of them.

Here’s a flavour from my five minute read –

Rosa Luxemburg was born on March 5, 1870, in Zamość, a small town in Poland under Russian rule. The youngest child of Elias Luxemburg and Lina Löwenstein, she had a sister, Anna, and three brothers, Mikolaj, Maksymilian, and Józef. Polish and German culture permeated the family’s life. The Luxemburgs had no connections with the Jewish community of Zamość, which was one of the most cultured in Poland. When they moved to Warsaw in 1873, they left nothing behind – not ties, no regrets. Elias Luxemburg, a well-educated merchant, identified himself with the Polish patriots who, in two unsuccessful insurrections (1830 and 1863) sought to overthrow the hated czarist regime. Lina Luxemburg, a cultivated descendant of a long line of rabbis, was enamored of German poetry and music. Each parent leaned toward a different way of shedding Jewishness, although neither way was mutually exclusive.

Rosa Luxemburg’s relationship with Jogiches, a Latvian (Latvia was then part of the Russian empire), lasted many years but was largely secret even from her family for a long time because while they often lived together they were not formally married. Rosa and Jogiches were often apart, hence the letters, with him largely in Switzerland while Rosa lived and worked in France and Germany. Both were involved in the Spartacus League, a German Marxist organisation aimed at an international proletarian revolution (it changed its name to the German Communist Party [KPD].)

Leo Jogiches

The early letters are mainly love letters typical of any young people but Rosa and Leo Jogiches lived under constant strain of state surveillance. Germany in the early years of the twentieth century was a hostile environment for anyone daring to question the direction being taken by the state, the left being singled out for particular scrutiny and intimidation. For Marxists like them life was positively perilous, as they along with many of their comrades discovered to their cost. Later letters lack the intimacy of the early ones and tend to concentrate on aspects of the couple’s activities and Rosa’s dependency on the wealthy Jogiches for money.

Here’s a flavour of a letter sent from Rosa to Jogiches when she was in Berlin in June 1899.

You horrid monkey!

   Again you’re furious! And why? Because I must wait a few days for a letter from my father. You seem to forget that my father hasn’t seen me for 10 (ten) year. And from what I hear about his health, it’s clear that this is going to be our last meeting… As I wrote to you, I’m leaving on Wednesday, and will meet my father in July. He is very ill and I’ll have to put him up in a sanatorium. I’m on my way to K [autsky].

   Kisses, though you aren’t worth it.

Katy Carr’s fictional spinal injury that led to the transformation of her character from rebel to obedient young woman has resonance in the life of Rosa Luxemburg who really did suffer from bone disease that was badly handled by doctors and left her with a permanent limp. But Katy’s life lacked the adversities faced by Rosa for whom interrogation and prison became increasingly her reality. During one interrogation in 1919 she was very brutally beaten by the extremists from the  rightwing freikorps (German paramilitaries – the sort of people who created the fascist state in Germany within a few short years.) On 15 January 1919 Dr Rosa Luxemburg, philosopher, economist, anti-war campaigner and revolutionary socialist was beaten while held in prison, her skull smashed with a rifle butt and she was shot through the head before her frail body was dumped into Berlin’s Landwehr canal (a fate shared by her fellow-KPD comrade Karl Liebknecht.) Leo Jogiches, too, was murdered while in prison in Berlin a few weeks after Rosa.

*

The Germany Rosa Luxemburg fought to alter descended through years of terror and oppression into fascism and Nazism. Eventually Europe then the world was once more at war.

My final book for now just happens to be on the subject of the Second World War. Poems of this War by Younger Poets, edited by Patricia Ledward and Colin Strong.

Published in 1942 this anthology features verses written during the first three years of the war. As the poet, Edmund Blunden, writes in his introduction the 1914-18 war was reflected in some very great poetry and this second world war inspired a fresh set of young poets to express their feelings having to endure the fear and unknown future of the then current war.  

The first poem is by Emmanuel Litvinoff, We saw doom patterned in the ordinary sky

The Conscripts

We go to war in various ways

From farms and factories, the usual ways

Of life suddenly distorted to terrible

Experience. This fear becomes the visible

Coffin at the funeral.

Litvinoff’s recurring theme is the sky – from doom patterned in the ordinary sky to birth patterned in the deathly sky. Hope? I imagine so yet we know the killing would continue for another three years.

Litvinoff was from a Russian Jewish family that had fled pogroms in Tsarist Russia in 1914. Within three years his father would return to Russia to fight alongside the Bolsheviks in the revolution – and so he vanished from young Litvinoff’s life.

Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, Emanuel Litvinoff celebrated his Jewishness which was integrated into his writings. From an inauspicious start in life, brought up in a working class Jewish community in London’s east end, Livinoff went on to become an significant poet and novelist portraying Jewish struggles in Europe. He died in 2011.

The works of several women poets are also featured in the volume, including Margery Smith. My efforts to discover something, anything, about the life of Margery Smith have fallen on fallow ground. Her name crops up in some poetry reference books with examples of her verses but of her life, I’ve drawn a blank.

This is a fragment of her poem, Peace from Poems of this War

World-peace goes leaden-footed between the wars,

Limps wearily between the roars

Of iron days

But in among the murder-rays,

A brighter flame,

Peace, enters singly as she always came

When she desired Eternal rest:

It is her singleness impressed

Upon a soul, a soul, a soul,

That shall in time give wisdom to the whole.

One can hope. There is that word again. We all need that.

Till next time when I open up what comes next on the shelf.