Hazel McHaffie

Booker Prize

75 years on

6 June 1944, saw the largest combined land, air and naval operation in history; D-Day. Seventy-five years on to the day, it seems fitting that I should mark it in some way. What better for the purposes of this blog than to write about a book that challenged me in many ways to think again about what has been done in the name of honour, duty and country.

I found The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, (shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2001) in the Christian Aid book sale last month. Every now and then I do try to upgrade my literary antennae by reading something from the higher literary shelves! Besides which, my son is an authority on some of the themes it covers; I think we should try to understand what it felt like ‘on the other side’; and the blurb appealed.

The book tells the stories of three ordinary Germans, the descendants of Nazis/Nazi sympathisers.
Helmut is ‘a young photographer in Berlin in the 1930s who uses his craft to express his patriotic fervour‘. Hmm. Well, I’ve read another debut manuscript recently which does something similar – still to be published, so I can’t add a link yet. Both raise issues for me. How far would I have risked my life to expose the horrors of persecution and discrimination in those circumstances?
Lore is a 12-year-old girl in 1945 who ‘guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany after her Nazi parents are seized by the Allies‘. Hmmm, that same year my parents were doing their best to cope with the vicissitudes of life in this country, altered forever by the same war. They struggled with the tensions of conflicting ideologies and family security and public censure. Would I have held fast to my principles and risked so much?
Michael is ‘a young teacher obsessed with what his loving grandfather did in the war, struggling to deal with the past of his family and his country’. Hmmm, my uncle died at the age of 20 on the battlefields of the Somme, in WW1, fighting for the other side. I regret the senseless waste of his life, but I see him as collateral damage, ‘doing his duty’ as he perceived it. How differently would I feel if he had ordered millions to the gas chambers, or shot children in cold blood, or even stood by condoning such barbarity? Would that be ‘doing his duty’?

So this book resonated in many ways, and challenged me to think again about guilt, and responsibility, and both personal and national culpability. Are any of us completely blameless? How much are we accountable for what is done on our behalf? After all, as the famous quote has it, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.

There are two passages in The Dark Room that highlight the importance of facing squarely what is done in our name. Both come from Michael, the young teacher who’s obsessed with the discrepancy between the two faces of Askan Boell; one the loving grandfather who amused him with drawings, and dandled him on his knee; the other a Waffen SS officer who countenanced and carried out the deaths of an untold number of innocents. Michael’s struggling with the whitewashing of history he sees in the education of German students:

They are being taught that there are no perpetrators, only victims. They are being taught like it just happened, you know, just out of the blue people came along and did it and then disappeared. Not the same people who lived in the same towns and did the same jobs and had children and grandchildren after the war.

I just think they should read about the people who did it, too. The real, everyday people, you know. Not just Hitler and Eichmann and whoever. All the underlings, I mean. The students should learn about their lives, the ones who really did the killing.

Having allowed himself to go there, Michael finds himself consumed with rage and shame. And appalled at the wanton refusal to accept reality that he encounters in his family. Even his own mother denies the possibility that her father was a brutal killer. She was twelve when he returned after the war. Yes, he was a soldier, he killed other soldiers in battle, she accepts that, but not … not murder. Because she ‘knew him‘ – her loving father.  ‘He was my Papa. Always Askan. Just the way he was … he wasn’t capable …’  How would we feel in their shoes? Would we even want to know?

And even those most intimately involved reconstructed the truth. As one of Michael’s informants, Josef Kolesniki, a collaborator, says: those in authority said killing the Jews was the thing to do. They didn’t order anyone to do the killing, so they absolved themselves of the responsibility: they said the men voluntarily chose to pull the trigger. But the men aiming the guns were doing what they’d been told was right, so they weren’t  responsible either. Is it possible for us too to completely delude ourselves and deny all moral responsibility for what we do? Could we too be sucked into an evil system and lose our own moral compass?

And it’s these big challenges underpinning the tales of three young Germans that lift The Dark Room into a different league. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the book, or the writing style. But I did appreciate the bigger messages. It’s only by honestly facing such issues that we can take those vital steps towards learning from the mistakes of the past.

 

 

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A glimpse into buried history

Hello …? … Last week a Booker prize winner, this week an Orange Prize winner: When I lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant … Am I converting? Where will it all end?

But I was intrigued by the blurb about this one.

We all know about the terrible things that happened to the Jews at the hands of the Nazis; we probably all know about the creation of the State of Israel. But what happened to this displaced people in between? Where did they go when they had no country to point to as home? Who were they at this in-between time when it required a long explanation as to their identity? What did they do?

Well, ‘Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story.’

When I Lived in Modern Times deals with the immediate post WWII period through the eyes of one such displaced person, a Jewish girl who travels to Palestine to find answers to these questions. It’s a novel. About identity. About accommodating the past while establishing a future. About a kaleidoscope of difference coalescing into a single purpose. It combines the personal and political, idealism and realism, passion and analytical coolness, clever storytelling with rigorously researched historical accuracy.

It probes the conflict in the life and heart of young Evelyn Sert, who is first and foremost Jewish, but feels Britain is where she is most at home, least foreign. ‘It was the British whose taste and idioms, language and dress, cooking and habits I knew and understood.’ Even so it’s conviction rather than necessity that compels her to go to the land of her forefathers, the ‘Holy Land’. She is just 20; ‘a work in progress’, ‘a preliminary sketch for a person’. Part of a shadow family – hidden away by Uncle Joe, the man who kept Evelyn and her mother separate from his legitimate wife and his four legitimate daughters and his legitimate place of worship, the synagogue. But at her core Evelyn is a Jew, part of a proud people.

So, here she is, a single Jewish girl at a time when ‘anti-Semitism was a wolf roaming the world‘. Where, in the Holy Land, ‘alliances are based not on the proper opposition between left and right but blood ties and age-old feuds, pride, shame‘. Where mobs and tribal loyalties not political organisations rule. She’s exploring her history, her people, her roots. As she puts it herself: ‘I was moving through history, I was in it.’ She feels lost in the enormity of expectation and fractured dreams. ‘Why do I, who am one of these people, not know how to be a Jew in a Jewish land?’

In the space of a slim volume Evelyn goes from being a hairdresser’s daughter to ‘dilettante would-be artist‘ to ‘useless immigrant‘ to squirrelled-away girlfriend. She is left with no illusions. This is no utopia. Her fellow citizens of this emerging new race don’t match up to the values of a chosen people: ‘They were sullen or violent or depressed or conniving or lazy or untruthful or greedy. They were a catalogue of the seven deadly sins.

Linda Grant’s evocation of the suspicion, subterfuge and bewilderment prevailing in those times conjures up a kaleidoscope of scenes … arcane hairdressing practices of the 1940s … double standards … communal life in a kibbutz … a bleak landscape where a bomb feels like a ‘cleansing, transforming instrument‘ in the struggle against colonial masters.

Sobering, uncomfortable reading, but a useful glimpse into a time where my own understanding was decidedly hazy.

Oh and just for clarity, no, I have NOT fallen hook, line and sinker for literary writing! I’m just keeping my mind sufficiently open to allow new opinions to creep in occasionally. And making good use of days either imprisoned on trains or when the sun beckons me into the garden.

Now for that massive debut manuscript. I might be gone some time!

 

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The spice of life

Well, life chez nous is certainly not dull …

… what with letters from high places (well, I think palaces and kings-in-waiting are designated high, aren’t they?) plopping through the letter box …

… a  draft novel from a debut writer (587 pages, 230,100 words! – guaranteed to keep me out of mischief for a few days, huh? ) arriving bang on cue …

… snow closing roads on Tuesday; warm enough to sit outside for meals four days later …

… running workshops in London one weekend; helping family move house in the Scottish Borders the next …

… a steady stream of readers signing up for my new novel … then suddenly and inexplicably (to me) a glitch in the system, making it temporarily inaccessible and generating cries for help from out there in the real world (soon rectified by my much more savvy tecchy team thankfully) …

Cover of "Listen"

Yep, no time for boredom. But in spite of competing demands, I have this inner compulsion to keep up the work of writing myself, so in fleeting moments of peace I’m back in my favourite leather chair lost in a world as real to me as all of the above distractions.

And tucked in my bag for those times when I’m waiting for a bus or for someone I’m meeting in town, a book of some description. This week that was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. A nice slim lightweight volume, then. Maybe some of that Booker prize magic will leak out by a process of osmosis … or not. Of which more anon.

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Literary fiction: profound or sleep-inducing?

An essential part of a writer’s life is reading. Reading voraciously. Reading widely. Reading critically. Reading. Reading. Reading.

OK. No problem there. I love reading. I read every single day. My shelves are permanently stacked with books. And I owe my career to the authors whose books I’ve devoured. But some are indisputably more daunting than others, and so-called literary fiction is one category that I have to approach with determination; as regular visitors to my blog know, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. But maybe I should rapidly mend my ways.

Researchers at Stanford University found that fiction helps readers to empathise more with other people, and the deeper the book delves into the characters the more the reader ‘walks in their shoes.’ So it’s official! Just as we always knew. Reading not only broadens the mind but it makes one a more empathetic human being. Well, but hang on a minute … maybe the conclusion rings true, but see here as to whether or not this claim can really be justified from this particular study.

But I digress. I do actually make concerted efforts periodically to try to get a handle on what’s acknowledged by the literati as meritorious writing. And the summer time seemed like a good time to soak up some healthy rays and dig into an acknowledged high quality piece of writing.

The Photograph

So that’s why Penelope Lively‘s work came under my microscope. Now in her eighties, Lively has yards of prestigious awards to her credit, including the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books. An OBE, CBE and DBE track her recognition from 1989 till she was made a Dame in 2012. So she’s indisputably masterclass level, right? Sit at her feet and learn.

What then of her 2003 novel, The Photograph? It opens with the discovery of an envelope buried in a mountain of papers in a cupboard in widower Glyn’s house. Lightly pencilled on it is an instruction in the unmistakable hand of his deceased wife, Kath: DON’T OPEN – DESTROY. Compelled by curiosity however, he ignores the instruction and finds a photograph of Kath holding hands with another man. And not just any other man; a man whom Glyn knows very well. Glyn becomes obsessed by this revelation and one by one he drags others into his relentless and reckless search for the truth about the wife he thought he knew.

Sounds like a fair enough plot, yes? It was attractive enough to make me buy the book anyway.

But as with most literary fiction the pace is very … very … slow. The characters are revealed very … very … slowly with attention to tiny… tiny … details. What’s more the revelation when it comes is hardly earth-shattering; I guessed from early on how Kath died (not revealed until P208 of 236) and what troubled her. So what kept me reading? Sheer obstinacy – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Plus an appreciation of the mastery of the author’s language. Undisputed. A couple of examples will suffice:

No people here; the insect-crawl of cars. Glyn’s house is lost now, digested into the urban mass, a tiny box in a row of similar boxes. And the mass itself, the inscrutable complex muddle, bleeds away at its edges, getting sparser and sparser until it is lapped entirely by space. Or rather, by spaces – squares and triangles and rectangles ad oblongs and distorted versions of such shapes, edged sometimes with dark ridges. Dark spongy masses, long pale lines slicing away into the distance. Here and there a miniature version of the city density, a little concentration of energy at the confluence of lines. And then eventually space gives way – there’s a spillage, seepage, a burgeoning unrest that condenses once more into city format: the enigmatic fusion of now and then, everything happening at once.’

Aged 4, Kath is ‘a local distraction on the fringes of my [her 10-year old sister’s] vision.

And then there’s the resonance with the essential truths about people which Lively recognises:

Behaviour that is engaging in someone of twenty-five becomes less so at forty, let alone at fifty-eight. Where once she was beguiled, she has for many years been exasperated, though exasperated in the tempered, low-key way of long-standing acceptance.’  … ‘He remained in a time-warp of feckless adolescence.

She is fragmented now. The dead don’t go; they just slip into other people’s heads.’

‘The world smiles on the physically attractive …’

So, a classic example of literary fiction? A work of literary merit that offers deliberate social commentary or political criticism? Or one which focuses in some profound or moving way on the individual in order to explore some part of the human condition? Yee…esss. Or, if you’re a closet-philistine, a work as dull and pointless as reading the dictionary because nothing exciting happens? Which camp do you fall into, I wonder?

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