Monday, November 21, 2016

27/10/2016 "All that Man is" by David Szalay

The proposer began by referring to two members of the group not present who had sent messages implying that they had found this book boring, perhaps not persevering to the conclusion.  On the other hand, it had reached the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and received glowing reviews in the press.  In fact, the proposer had found the book while browsing a list of recommended new novels for 2016 several months previously. Rather than a set of short stories about different characters, he saw the book development as that of ‘Everyman’, a continuous development of a single and often chastening life experience.

The others who were present had not found the book boring, although one reader expressed the view that it was more like a collection of short stories, and he would have preferred more unified plot development in a novel.  Others liked the way that the book’s structure was more thematic than plot-driven.  The proposer revealed that in an interview published in The Guardian, Szalay had revealed that the book began as a single short story, and he later had the idea of expanding it to be about disparate men at different stages of their lives in different parts of Europe.  One member of the group remarked that having started with expectations of a more conventional novel, he adjusted quickly to what he saw as more a series of portraits than stories.  He felt the social situations of the characters were well delineated, and the drifting nature of the narratives reminded him of Murakami’s writing.  All the men (there are nine principal protagonists in the book, and one re-appears in the last story) were ‘outsiders’, not well-adjusted to society or relationships.  In this respect he was reminded of other European novels such as Camus’ ‘L’Etranger’ and Barbusse’s ‘Hell’.

Some of us were quickly drawn into the book because the first story resonated so strongly with our own experiences of inter-railing as young men.  It was noted that Simon, the protagonist of this first section, was referred to as the grandson of Tony in the final part of the book. However, this seemed only a perfunctory gesture towards the conventional unity of a novel’s narrative. (Another is Murray’s glimpse of what might well be the character Aleksandr’s yacht).  We did see many links between the characters however –  for example the proposer suggested that Aleksandr, with his business empire, could be James twenty years on.  Also most of the men were failures – even the ‘successful’ ones – and the book was strongly tinged with melancholy overall.  As a general observation, we felt that the characters illustrated a predominantly male inclination to focus on ‘things’ (status, career, money, sex) rather than relationships, and so they suffered the consequences.

Some of the characters had redeeming features – for example Balazs begins to interact sympathetically with the prostitute Emma rather than simply lusting for her, and in general one felt sympathy for the characters’ troubles.  An exception was the tabloid journalist Kristian.  It was pointed out that he has no moment of revelation or change or failure to deal with.  He doesn’t come unstuck, unlike the other characters, and instead it is his victim, the government minister, who engages our sympathies.  There was some parallel here with Karel’s story.  We feel sorry for his girlfriend, rather than for Karel.  James, too, is one character who exhibits a faint inkling of what he is missing in not paying attention to his son at the end of his story.  Karel is another who may – it’s not clear – emerge from his selfish bubble.  Others – like Kristian or Aleksandr – seem irredeemable.
The women in the novel were minor characters, but cleverly delineated in such a way that the reader could understand and sympathise with them, even though the male characters with whom they interact generally could not.  This was best demonstrated in Karel’s story, in his brutish response to his girlfriend’s revelation.  

It was also interestingly evident in the exchange between James and Paulette in Part Six:

James: “Love,” he says, “It messes everything up, doesn’t it?
Paulette: “Isn’t love the whole point?
James: “The whole point of what?
Paulette: “Of life.

Many of these men have weak emotional bonds, and this is what is tragic.  Their failure to seek or cherish love means that there is no glue to bind them to society.  One reader pointed out that humans are stronger and better together – that this is even a biological imperative, an aid to survival.

“Carpe Diem” was also a key theme.  It’s introduced in the first story, when Simon is reading Henry  James. (“Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.”)  Throughout the book characters have flashes of intense experience of the present moment.  Even Murray, the most abject of all the losers in the novel, has a moment of euphoria looking at the light on the sea near the end of his story.  The last story, seeing life from the perspective of a man in his seventies experiencing health problems, ties up the threads of this theme.  Tony can now see how short life is, and how essential it is to live in the moment.

We enjoyed the moments of humour in what is predominantly a somewhat depressing book.  Bernard’s sexual encounters in Cyprus, and Murray’s visit to the fortune-teller were particularly funny – although not without pathos.  We also discussed the theme of responsibility – it was pointed out that the earlier characters have no responsibilities, but then things start to pile up on the later characters.

To conclude: ‘All That Man Is’ is not – in spite of its title – all that man is, unless you have a very cynical view.  The absence of love is the common trait of these particular men; they are more focused on their activity in life than on relationships and they suffer accordingly.

25/8/2016 "Berlin at War" by Roger Moorhouse

A small but select group of our membership gathered to discuss this book, which took us back to a recurring theme amongst our reading choices – books dealing with the two world wars of the twentieth century.

The proposer had made four recent visits to Berlin and has a fascination with the city.  He mentioned that more attention is paid there to the fall of the Berlin Wall than to the darker history of the war years.  (In this context we discussed the perpetuation of German guilt, and the relish of UK and USA media for World War Two stories and films.)  He considered Roger Moorhouse’s book to be well-researched, and successful in capturing what it must have been like to live through the war years in Berlin.  We agreed with this, finding Moorhouse’s writing style fluent and engaging, and enjoying the tapestry of subjective viewpoints quoted from his primary sources.  The fact that Moorhouse used letters and comments from ordinary individuals rather than resorting to academic or secondary sources made the book very readable and accessible.

We did find that the organization of the book was a little confusing.  Because Moorhouse chose to deal with broad themes – for example chapters on radio broadcasting and on air raids – we sometimes felt a little adrift chronologically.  It was suggested that a list of significant dates and events at the start of the book would have been a useful reference point.

Many fascinating aspects of life in Berlin during the war years were unearthed by Moorhouse, several of which had not occurred to us.  We were surprised by the evidence that much of the population was far from keen on Hitler’s war, and that attitudes to Hitler became considerably more critical (albeit not openly) as the war began to go badly for Germany.

It was interesting that the Gestapo were not as universally feared as is commonly assumed, and that only those with something to hide – Communists, Jews, and anti-Nazis – had to be careful.  However, the extent of malicious false denunciations that the Gestapo and police forces had to deal with revealed a civic population ill at ease with itself.

When the fall of Berlin was imminent, another surprising fact was the high incidence of suicides.  This was partly due to the terror of the Bolsheviks that propaganda had produced, and indeed when Russian troops occupied the city there was a rampage of raping and looting.  When Berlin was largely smashed to rubble, people resorted to chalk messages on the ruins of their houses to communicate with friends, family and neighbours where they were to be found.

Moorhouse backed up his anecdotal accounts with an array of facts and figures – for example about the nature of the artillery in use, and the numbers and types of aircraft involved in raids.  He also gave a detailed account of the various types of camps set up by the Nazis – for imported foreign slave labourers, for criminals, and of course for the elimination of the large Jewish population.  It was interesting to discover how large was the number of foreigners in Berlin during the war years, keeping the economy running while German men were away serving in the armed forces.

We discussed more general points about Nazism and the war.  We speculated that the law-abiding and well-structured nature of German society made the people more susceptible to Nazi organisation and militarism, and more open to Nazi propaganda relating to racial superiority.  The call to restore national pride after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles was also a powerful weapon in Hitler’s appeal.  Our own satisfaction at the current (2016) achievements of UK athletes at the Olympic Games testified to the universality of nationalistic pride.

We commented on ‘what a bunch of oddballs’ the Nazi leadership were.  We discussed the funding of the war – on Germany’s part through the looting of France and the Jewish population, on the UK’s part through loans from the USA, which left the UK a much poorer country than after World War One.  The film ‘Downfall’ about the last days of Hitler was recommended by the proposer, and we wondered – without coming up with an answer – whether there was a book that dealt with London during the Blitz in as thorough and interesting a way as Moorhouse had written about Berlin.

28/7/2016 "The Zone of Interest" by Martin Amis

What is the book about? The title gives no clue. Cursory reading of the first page suggests there’s a love story coming. Only later is the real subject matter unveiled, and then only gradually: this book contains the everyday story of Auschwitz folk and the deeds they carried out in the name of the Third Reich. Auschwitz takes the fictional name Kat Zek.

The tale is told by three narrators, each taking his turn in successive chapters. The first is Angelus Thomsen. He’s the nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s  private secretary, and he’s responsible for managing the smooth running of the concentration camp; the second is Major Doll, the camp commandant (but only loosely based on the real commander, who was Rudolf H√∂ss); the third is Szmul, one of the Sonderkommando, the special squad made up of Jewish prisoners recruited to do the dirty work among the Jewish corpses, laboring with heavy scissors, pliers and mallets, removing gold fillings. In his own words:
We are in fact the saddest men in the history of the world. And of all these very sad men I am the saddest.

But looking on the bright side, there is indeed a love story. In brief: Thomsen loves the commander’s wife Hannah, but whilst she finds her own husband totally disgusting and refuses to receive him in bed, she is unable fully to express her feelings for Thomsen.

Some of us were confused at the start of the book, not realizing the author’s ruse of rotating the narrators, and even after the penny had dropped, we felt the need to revise the real history of Auschwitz. Wikipedia was busy. Certainly the author assumes too much about his readers’ knowledge. Granted, he has done his own research very thoroughly (he boasts of this at the end), but should it be necessary for us to read the book twice as some of us did? One of our group (himself an established author) considered twice-reading to be a compliment to the author. Well, err, yes: I did read Hamlet twice but that’s different.

It’s a book about industrialized evil and its human impact. It raises important questions about the how, the why and the when of genocide. Perhaps each one of us may be capable of causing pain and suffering to a fellow human when authorized to do so by a higher power, as shown in the famous experiment using young males to inflict pain on others (Milgram, 1963).  Did the perpetrators at Auschwitz carry out their deeds just because they were told to (and were scared of the consequences of refusing) or did they share the Fuhrer’s vision of the 1000 Year Reich and how to achieve it by means of the Final Solution? Were they ‘just doing their job’ or were they fanatics, akin to the religious fundamentalists throughout history from the Crusades to the suicide bombers of today? And how did the Germans, the ordinary Germans who are now our friends, ever let this dreadful thing happen? We expected that some of the answers would be given in next month’s blog of Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse.

Yes, humans are a tribal species – but tribalism alone does not explain how any man can trick hundreds of fellow humans to walk into a room before sealing the doors and filling the room with the deadly Zyklon-B. Yes, many parts of the book made grim reading. It’s not for the faint hearted. It prompted us to discuss other ways in which people kill. The clever physicists at Los Alamos inventing the atomic bomb probably saw it as an intellectual challenge. They will never be charged with war crimes. The pilots who dropped the atom bomb, or razed German cities to the ground were far removed from the consequences of their actions, and hailed as heroes. They were carrying out orders and had been trained to hunt and kill. But the staff of Auschwitz were intimately involved in selecting, tricking, killing and cleaning up the mess – all of which was to be done on schedule so that targets could be met. Perhaps the first time they murdered was hard, but successive Aktions became progressively easier, a process of brutalization.

There is humour, more subtle than the familiar war humour of Dad’s ArmyAllo, Allo or Blackadder) but ribald nonetheless. A slight knowledge of German is necessary to appreciate some of it, but that wasn’t a problem. We laughed often, for example: German slang names for the parts of the female anatomy, the nicknames of Goebbels and Goring, anything that Doll has to say about sex. Oh yes, sex and depravity are there too. In fact the Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer David Herman found the book ‘pornographic’, and reminds us that Susan Sontag and Saul Friedl√§nder warned readers about the growing eroticisation of Nazism. Really?

The humour is overshadowed by the bigger picture and the frequent statements of both Doll and Thomsen. As he descends into drunken insanity, Doll says:
In any case, as we’ve always made it clear, the Christian system of right and wrong, of good and bad, is one we categorically reject. Such values – relics of medieval barbarism – no longer apply. There are only positive outcomes and negative outcomes.

 There is plenty of history in this book. The gradual realization that Germany is on the brink of defeat comes on page 164 in my edition, and with it, the realization that the whole project was doomed:
Let me give you a little lesson in war, Golo. Rule number one: never invade Russia. All right, we kill five million and take five million prisoner, and starve another thirty million. That still leaves a hundred and twenty-five million.

There are expressions of humanity, the most profound coming from Szmul. His chapters are always brief and his sentences short and powerful. He imagines what he himself will do if ever sent to the gas chamber. He’d tell the boy in the sailor suit to breath deeply, and the old man to stand close to the meshed shaft where the gas comes in. He is proud that ‘we save a life, or prolong a life’. He is referring to the 0.01 per cent who are young men with a trade. They go to the factory instead of the gas chamber, at least at first.

The story, and the love-story within it, did not end well. How could they?

One of Szmul’s longer speeches is reproduced on the back cover:
There was an old story about a king who asked his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. Instead it showed you your soul. It showed who you really were. But the king couldn’t look into the mirror without turning away…no-one could.

What does it mean? The mirror, like the one in Snow White, reveals the truth. If we look deep inside ourselves we may find dark elements of our psyche that we can’t face. Some people deny them, others come to terms with them, still others can’t control them.

At this, I put my notebook down, nearly spilling my pomegranate juice all over the host’s carpet. It would be blood on my hands, albeit a small quantity. None of us can ever know what it is like to kill thousands, to have hands so bloody as that; and if we were to do so, would we need to commit suicide like some of the characters did when the war was over.

Our discussion tailed off into the parallels between Hitler’s Youth and our own Boy Scouts/Boys’ Brigade. Encouraging nationalism in young people and supporting ‘my country right or wrong’ were popular forms of brainwashing in the 1930s.  And it’s easy to forget that Adolf Hitler, and all he stood for, had significant support in Britain. Is there a causal link: economic stress > blame foreigners > support nationalism > social unrest and ultimately war?

Those thoughts, in turn, led us to contemplate Brexit, the state of politics in USA and Europe, and the upsurge in racism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Then it was time to go home. I won’t be looking in the mirror tonight.  

 Reference
Milgram S (1963) Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 371–8. For those unable to download the original, you can read about it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experime