Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The White Rose by Inge Scholl

The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943 by Inge Scholl (Wesleyan University Press 1983)

The White Rose was a group of intellectuals in Munich who began an ill-fated campaign of resistance against the Nazi authorities. Led by Hans and Sophie Scholl (brother and sister of the author) the group included fellow medical students Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and their professor of philosophy Kurt Huber. Over a period of nine months between June 1942 and February 1943 they wrote, printed and scattered six leaflets advocating active resistance and sabotage and calling for an end to the mass slaughter of the Jews.

"Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be 'governed' without oppositions by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil  has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes - crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure - reaches the light of day".

Sophie and Hans Scholl, and Crisoph Probst were captured when distributing their sixth and final leaflet. Spotted by the custodian of the university they had targeted, the Gestapo were informed and the trio were quickly apprehended. At first they insisted upon their innocence but they soon, and independently of each other, tried to take the entire ownership of the whole enterprise to try and save as many of their collaborators as possible. Brought before the People's Court before the notorious judge Roland Freisler and charged with high treason they stood little chance. After being lectured by Judge Freisler all three were sentenced to death. Sophie was offered a deal that neither Hans nor Cristoph were, were she to recant her beliefs she would be spared the guillotine but she declined the offer, instead she was to be executed first as an act of kindness, the Gestapo officers knowing that at that stage the waiting was the worst part.

The book was written in 1947 aimed at children from thirteen to eighteen. Aimed at children who had grown up in the Hitler Youth, "children who at that time were asking their parents, 'How was it possible for you to be taken in by the Nazis? It was written also for those of their elders who were ready to face up to their past". As well as a description of the events, the book contains transcripts of all six leaflets, the indictment for the People's Court, court transcripts and the death sentences. The message of the book is that what these kids did was important. Their resistance was short lived and other than a small group in Hamburg who redistributed the materials of the White Rose, their deeds did not inspire the mass popular resistance they desired. What it did do was give people hope. The deeds of the White Rose were heard about in the concentration camps and on the Eastern Front. Thomas Mann on his German language radio station in the States talked about their deeds in 1943 and German prisoners of war held in Russia used their example and wrote leaflets of their own campaigning for a Germany free of Nazi oppression.

Clive James dedicated his book Cultural Amnesia to Sophie Scholl and much of his essay of Sophie goes in to something of a boyish crush on Natalie Portman (whom Clive James believes would be the perfect actress for Sophie were Hollywood ever to be trusted with telling the story). Talking about the bravery of Sophie he remarks "She was probably a saint. Certainly she was noble in her behaviour beyond any standard that we, in normal life, would feel bound to attain or even comfortable to encounter. Yet the world would undoubtedly be a better place if Sophie Scholl were a household name like Anne Frank, another miraculous woman from the same period."

The uncomfortable question the book asks is of us. It ask us whether we would be brave enough to do as Sophie Scholl did in the full knowledge that their efforts would lead their death. Sadly I think for most of us, the best we can do is admire the deeds of the White Rose with the knowledge that we wouldn't be able to equal them.

Very inspiring!


Monday, 21 June 2010

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time by Clive James (Picador 2007)

Growing up in Britain in the Eighties and Nineties I used to watch the Australian presenter interviewing celebrities on ITV in the Clive James show amongst other things. The show featured the bizarre Cuban singer Margarita Pracatan, whom I believe Clive James (CJ) discovered in a New York department shore, and who would give unbelievably tone-deaf and Hispanically inspired renditions of pop songs, not quite high culture. Nothing of that show led me to realise that CJ harboured a secret, that he was and still is an incredibly intelligent polymath.

Cultural Amnesia is the result of many, many years of wide reading and the scribbling of notes in the margins (as well as copious underlinings and end notes). Alphabetically ordered, the book deals with over 100 writers, poets, philosophers, film directors, musicians and talk-show hosts ranging from Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Josef Goebbels, a whole host of Manns (Golo, Heinrich, Michael and Thomas), Beatrix Potter, Ernesto Sabato to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Aleksandr Zinoviev. After an introductory biographic paragraph or two CJ takes a quote of suitably aphoric quality and uses that quote as the basis of an essay.

When I started my first professional job a few years back, on or around my payday I would take the tube over to Eustion Square Station and go down to the academic branch of Waterstones on Gower Street in London. Finally earning a professional salary I was excited that I could now buy interesting books. The boring and drab reading I had to do for work was rewarding me with the chance of becoming a polymath and I started to read voraciously into semiotics; Umberto Eco,  Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Charles Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure and so on. CJ echoes that excitement with a very catching love of and striving towards knowledge.

As I wrote about in my earlier post on polyglossia CJ can read in an astonishing eight different languages and he talks about and references writers of German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian languages that you either could not read in English or whose works would be better to have read in the original. This could be a serious downside of the book with CJ almost taunting you with an ambrosia that was out of reach if his love of languages and their learning was not so infective (an infection I have since caught).

As wise as he is I do take issue with some of the conclusions that CJ draws. For instance in his essay on Sartre (and in quite a few others too) he is rather unjustly grilled for making the most out of his time in the resistance as he only held meetings rather than actively resisted. CJ's persistence on this point feels somewhat tacky to me, a rather poor ploy to try and undermine him. Sartre is also criticised for his failure to critique the Soviet regime and one can't help but feel that CJ is more forgiving to those who stayed silent to the Nazi atrocities. CJ is generally pretty critical of those he describes as 'gauchist', Bertolt Brecht, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw are all, amongst others, judged somewhat harshly. The reason is that, as with George Orwell, Clive James wants to drive home the wrongs of the Communist regimes of Soviet Russia and Maoist China; socialism and liberal democracy do not seem to be able to live side by side in his mind.

There are some problems with the book, some essays are not long enough (the essay on Proust should be a lot longer) and some essays fall into somewhat mindless mental wanderings and asides such as the essay on Arthur Schnitzler which is mostly made up of a discussion of the movie 'Where Eagles Dare' or more specifically, Richard Burton's hair in the movie. However, this book has excited me like none other I have read in a long time. I feel enthused to reading, learning and languages and have an Amazon wishlist a mile long so I shall not be short of inspiration for something to read for a long time to come. Because of this excitement I can only give the book one rating.


Wednesday, 16 June 2010


Today I need to make a confession that will have a large impact on any claim  I could have to my being anything close to being widely read: I have never read Dante. Over the years I have owned two different editions of the Divine Comedy, one a Penguin Classics in three volumes and the other I believe was a Wordsworth Classics in one volume. The reason, having owned two different versions, that I never read either is that one of them rhymed and the other did not so which of the copies should I read? The Italian language, because of the common vowel endings, lends itself to rhyme and in the original Italian the Divine Comedy was in rhyme however how much of the poetic language would be lost by struggling to fit the English translation into an English rhyming scheme? How much would be lost in translation?

There are some authors we are reliably informed who are so intrinsic to their language that they are rendered virtually unintelligible (in terms of their original poetic value) in any translated state. In German it is Goethe, in English it is Shakespeare and we are told that to enjoy Dante we simply must learn Italian first.  This leaves a problem for anyone who, possessing only one language,  wishes to become widely read amongst the greats of European literature.

Clive James's answer to this problem was to become a polyglot, at least in the sense of the written word. The cultural critic is able to read in eight different languages including French, German,  Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. His technique was to take a foreign language book, usually something non-fiction like a work of history or a book of essays and then sit with a dictionary and work his way through it looking up any words he doesn't understand. He is by no means fluent in these languages  and I doubt he could have an in depth conversation with someone from Japan in their language, but he can read in them and once you have that skill you open yourself to that culture. You're not just opened to books which are supposedly intrinsic to their language but to all the rest of the works, both fiction and non-fiction, which remain untranslated (and the proportion of works that remain untranslated even of well known or classic authors is huge).

This idea excites me a lot. I doubt that this is an easy route into a language and I know it will take a few books before I'm comfortable with a language but I think I'm going to give this a try. The languages I want to learn are French, German and Italian and I'll  keep this blog updated with my progress.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Managed Economy of Books

The Guardian Newspaper carried a rather interesting story last week. There has been a move to protect "part of Paris's intellectual soul". The cause of this move is the worrying decline in numbers of the 'librairies' in the Latin Quarter, a central hub of Paris's cultural and educational heart down from 231 to 127 from 2000 to 2008. The mayor of Paris has set out scouts in its fifth arrondissement to hunt down locations for possible bookshops or publishing houses and then ensuring that the premises are only available for those purposes. The French capital prides itself upon its host of independent retailers and does not wish its high streets to end up resembling those of its anglo-saxon counterparts.

How effective the Parisian measures will be will be told in time but it's an interesting step and something the British should take heed of because it is a country in which the high streets of its towns and cities suffer from a tiresome and boring ubiquity with the same chain stores gracing every city. Take Waterstones for instance who own 303 stores throughout the country many of which are in London and they will, other than in their strictly academic branches, have a stocking policy that is popularist rather than enlightening or niche.

The effect of Waterstones' success can be seen on Charring Cross Road, the historical home of London's independent book stores which are closing down and not being replaced with other book stores. Were the mayor to step in he could be taking steps to ensure that the road retained its place as the cultural and intellectual heart of the city but instead the shops will go and maybe some time down the line Waterstones will open their Charring Cross branch and we'll be thankful that whilst we can't buy any more Brecht or Akhmatova, we might settle for the new Jackie Collins novel.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (John C Winston Company 1925)

First published in 1886 in the magazine Young Folks, Kidnapped is essentially historical fiction loosely telling the story of James Annesley, the presumptive heir to titles in both England and Scotland who, tricked by a wicked uncle and kidnapped into being an indentured servant who somehow escapes many years later and fights his way back to lay claim to his lost fortune.

Set in Scotland and to the background of the Jacobite Rebellion (the attempt to put a Stuart back on the throne following the Glorious Revolution, that pit clan against clan in Scotland) Stevenson's story follows David (Davie) Balfour who, on his father's death is sent on a mysterious errand to his wicked uncle Ebeneezer who, with an eye on the titles of his brother arranges Davie's kidnapping aboard the Brig, the vessel of the malevolent Captain Hoseason.

Violence breaks out aboard the ship when Alan Breck Stewart is brought aboard and he teams up with Davie against the treacherous crew of the Brig. Thereon there is a shipwreck, a murder (the Appin murder, an actual historical event in which the real Alan Breck Stewart was supposedly complicit in) run ins with the British Red Coats and a return to seek just claims to his property.

I chose this book because I was going to the beach and if Treasure Island was anything to go by, kidnapped should have been a good adventure story for some semi-mindless reading however I found myself somewhat bored by the novel. For adventure stories there seems to be an ideal ratio in which events are drip fed to you at such a rate that you have just enough to get a sense of what's going on but little enough to keep you reading further (people like Grisham do this very well, it doesn't make for good books necessarily but it does help build a tempo which is how people read thousands of them a year and still devour more). Kidnapped doesn't seem to achieve this because nothing enough really happens. Where there is action it is exciting and the chapters around how Davie and Alan Breck meet and take on the crew of the Brig had me glued to the pages. Without the tempo you are left to dwell on the clumsy sentences and the painful dialogue and the somewhat indecipherable Scots dialect used intermittently.

Partly why I also read Kidnapped was because it was referenced in the biography I had just read of Gladstone in which he is said to have been so absorbed by the novel that he finished it in one day and was none to pleased with any interference to that reading. Gladstone's praise isn't without prestigious company as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and even Margaret Atwood list the book amongst their favourites which makes me feel as if I've missed something.

The story is interesting, the backdrop even more so I just wish a bit more action happened. Sadly I think you need to look to more renown Stevenson books if you want a good beach holiday book.