Monday, 25 November 2013

The Book Thief and the Holocaust

One of the reviews I read about The Book Thief before I saw it said it just rehashed the standard Holocaust ideas and thus was nothing new or special.  I went to see it anyway, not because I particularly enjoy Holocaust movies, but because the trailers portrayed a sympathetic little girl heroine helping hide an endangered Jew in Nazi Germany with the help of a sympathetic foster father (played by Geoffrey Rush, who does a marvellous job).

But this was not a typical Holocaust movie at all.  The protection of the endangered Jew (Max) was almost secondary.  The treatment of the Jews was in general secondary.  The sufferers here were the family and friends of the little girl (Liesel), all Germans, mostly good Germans, ordinary Germans, not heroes, not primarily devoted to saving Jews, but mostly worrying over their own poverty and then, when the war begins, dodging bombs – Allied bombs, bombs dropped by those fighting the Nazis.

History is complex, of course.  People fighting Nazis can do awful things of their own – fire-bombing  Dresden, preparing to drop a nuclear bomb, mistreating German POW’s – and yet, and yet …

I was brought up with the following story: the Germans slaughtered 6 million of us.  You must never forget – or even forgive.  Maybe my children can forgive their children, the iconic Jewish-Canadian writer, Mordecai Richler, once said, and even that seemed dubious.

A few years ago I flew to continental Europe for the first time, on a trip to Greece.  The plane stopped in Frankfurt; we had hours to kill; my girl-friend at the time went into Frankfurt to see the sights.  I pleaded a bad back and stayed on board.  I did have a bad back, but also I felt qualms about truly setting foot on German soil.  My girl-friend came back with tales of some museum dedicated to Goethe or Schiller or the like, and I thought, I have nothing against Goethe or Schiller, but still I stayed on the plane.

Today I have a different girl-friend who is of partial German descent.  The story she learned was different.  The slaughter was done by the Nazis.  Not the Germans as a whole.  The Nazis.  The Nazis were horrible people, or did horrible things, but most Germans were not Nazis.

The Book Thief certainly expresses that view.  There’s an awful Adolf Hitler somewhere who you mustn’t say bad things about.  Occasionally, some Nazi Party men show up.  At one point some nasty German soldiers escort a party of Jews to God knows where.  But for the most part these are ordinary Germans just trying to lead their lives, and they even hide the Jewish Max and nurse him back to health.  Also, Liesel, after a book burning (in which most of the village cheerfully joins in) goes and rescues a book.  And she becomes very close to Max and declares she hates Hitler because he has taken her mother (a Communist) and forced Max to flee.

But it’s all strangely personal.  There’s no sense of opposition to Nazi policies against Jews, freedom, and democracy.  Quite the contrary.  There’s one chilling scene in which a choir of cherubic children sing a song celebrating German freedom and attacking non-Germanic people and Jews and their corruption of freedom.  No one particularly objects.  It was unclear what people in the movie audience thought.

By the end of the film members of the movie audience were crying for poor Liesel and her friends and family.  I didn’t cry, except a bit, almost, when she tried to kiss a dead friend back to life.  Death cannot be defeated that way, no matter how much you try – that was sad.  But in general my response was flattened because about halfway through the movie I realized, This isn’t a Holocaust movie, or even a movie about nasty Nazis.  It’s just about ordinary Germans coping during the war.

I remember another movie along these lines, Das Boot, in which we follow a German submarine crew and identify and sympathize with them even though they’re, well, the enemy.  But there was no mention of the Holocaust in that film.  In The Book Thief there’s an odd scene in which Liesel smuggles a newspaper to Max, the Jew in hiding, who exclaims in disbelief when he reads that Germany is attacking Russia.  “But aren’t we winning the war?” says Liesel.

And I thought, Who is this “we”?  Max just shrugs.  Liesel might want her country to win, but could Max want that?  Can we?  Sometimes you can put your larger beliefs aside and just sympathize with individuals.  I wrote about that sort of sympathy, in me, for the terrorist leader in Captain Phillips, but this felt different.  At least for me.

When the Holocaust got mentioned, but in such a secondary way, it made me feel odd.  It conjured up powerful Us versus Them feelings, only to have those feelings absorbed into more general sympathy for us all.  We all die, as Death the Narrator says.  Which is of course true.  But some died in concentration camps at the hands of others.  Is it all really the same?

But those others who ran the concentration camps are not the ones who are portrayed in this movie.  These are just Germans who go along, or sometimes don’t go along.  But even when they don’t go along, when they hide the threatened Jew or rescue a burning book, it’s because they like books or feel a responsibility for this particular Jew.  There’s no sense of opposition to book burnings or singing songs against Jews.

Does that matter?  I don’t know.  There were no doubt lots of ordinary people just trying to get along in Nazi Germany, like at any other time.  Should we demand more of them than of others in other times?  Is it right to hold a whole nation collectively responsible for the Holocaust?

Probably not.  Isn’t that what the Nazis themselves, and other persecutors of minorities, do?  Hold whole groups responsible.

I suppose.  And yet if I ever land in Frankfurt again, I’m still not sure I’ll be able to get off the plane.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Thackeray Today

Once upon a time there were just two authors: Dickens and Thackeray.  Well, maybe three.  There was also Douglas Jerrold.  The three form a triad, a noted critic of the time once said, the time being mid-Victorian England, the critic David Masson.

Who on earth is Douglas Jerrold, I hear you say?  Indeed.  For that matter who was David Masson?  Sigh.  Where are the Jonas Brothers of yesterday?

Though I specialized in Victorian literature for my PhD, I confess to never having read Douglas Jerrold and not really knowing much about David Masson.  I do know quite a lot about William Makepeace Thackeray, but sometimes I fear he is on his way to becoming the third Jonas brother.  He is certainly no longer ranked up there with Dickens, fighting it out at the top of the tree, as he himself once put it.

Nowadays if I tell someone I specialized in Thackeray, the common reaction is, Who?  And I tend to explain by saying, “The same time as Dickens, another Victorian novelist.”  And they nod sagely, and I talk about the work I did on Thackeray’s Catherine, which we both know they’ll never read.

Maybe they’ll read Vanity Fair.  Or they will at least have heard of it (though there may be some confusion with the magazine of that name).  Thackeray has become, essentially, a one book author.  And it’s a very good book, full of insight into human foibles and with an intriguing, fascinating, frustrating heroine (Becky Sharp), who over the years has sparked much critical debate.

I am not here to sell you on the merits of Thackeray’s other work – well, except maybe Catherine.  I’ve spent a lot of my life working on Catherine, producing an edition of it, hoping to get that edition reissued in paperback (so far a not yet attained goal), and just generally promoting it.  I even wrote a screenplay based on it (not that anyone was interested in turning it into a movie).

Why should we care about Catherine?  Well, I’m not sure we should.  But I do like it; it to me is a bit of a forerunner of Vanity Fair – it’s his first novel (novella, some would say; “story,” its own subtitle calls it), a decade before his masterpiece, and it shares some of its characteristics: the wry commentary on human ways, the roguish heroine (anti-heroine?).  For those not ready to tackle the 900 pages of Vanity Fair, or most other Victorian classics, it’s an easy introduction at 150 pages or so.  Like The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings (not that I’ve ever read The Hobbit … hmm).

Part of the struggle with promoting Catherine is that Thackeray himself thought it wasn’t very good (but what do authors know?).  Too gory, apparently (and it does have a nasty murder and a graphically described execution at the end, lifted almost verbatim from the eighteenth-century sources Thackeray was drawing on).  Later editors tended to cut out the gore, so many of the editions (including those online) are expurgated.

Also he feared he had become too friendly to his heroine, who really was supposed to be an anti-heroine.  Thackeray’s stated aim when he started out was to write a response to the Newgate school of fiction of that time.  You may know the opening line of one of its exemplars: “It was a dark and stormy night” (from Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford).  Thackeray thought Bulwer-Lytton (whom he hated generally), along with Harrison Ainsworth (yes, I know, another Jonas Brother) and even Dickens (for his Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist) were glorifying criminals.

He would set that right, though; he’d find the nastiest crime he could, out of the Newgate Calendar of true life crimes, and write fiction based on that, to show what criminals were like.  But as he told his mother at the end, he developed a “sneaking kindness” for Catherine, his anti-heroine, based on the real-life husband-murderer, Catherine Hayes, from 1726.  He turned her and her companions into charming rogues rather than vicious killers – which is a good thing, actually.  I’d much rather read about charming rogues than vicious killers.  But Thackeray thought he’d made a mess of things, and kept the work out of his Miscellanies, the collection of his works issued in his own lifetime.

For a long time Catherine languished in the pages of Fraser’s Magazine, where it had appeared in serial installments, until after Thackeray’s death it finally made it into one of the last volumes of his collected works put out by Smith, Elder, his publishers at the end.  It languished there too (in expurgated form, as I have mentioned).  It languishes still.  But I do think it’s worth a read, though I agree that the gory plagiarized ending is rather a mess (and maybe deserved to be expurgated: it’s there in all its glory in my edition, though).

Perhaps it is a cautionary tale, and not in the way Thackeray intended.  The leading figures of one age can vanish almost completely in the next (or the next after that).  Dickens alone remains, as he has been from the start, at the top of the tree of Victorian novelists – maybe of the tree of all novelists.  And why should that be?

I have no good answer, and perhaps am the wrong person to ask.  It would be a bit like asking fans of some almost forgotten mystery writer why Sherlock Holmes is still at the top of his tree.  Dickens was in some ways the mirror image of Thackeray.  Nowadays, as is the fashion, you can read biographical studies of Dickens revealing that he wasn’t very nice to his children or his wife.  In real life the man whose novels exuded kindness and compassion really wasn’t so kind and compassionate, it seems.

Thackeray, on the other hand, was a writer whose works exude cynicism and satire, mocking everyone and everything (most of the time, at least, and especially in his early works), but in real life he was the generous one, devoted to his daughters and his mad wife – though of course, as is the style, you can find negative portrayals of him too in modern biography.

And of course I oversimplify, but it’s almost as if you have a certain amount of kindness and compassion, and it either goes into your works or into your life.  There’s not enough for both.  And does this mean we’d rather read kind and compassionate literature (and then find out that their creator didn’t live up to his fictional image) rather than indulge in the slings and arrows of a satirist hurling Greek fire (I paraphrase Charlotte BrontĂ«)?  Even if the hurler of Greek fire turns out to be a big teddy bear?

(Thackeray was a big man, 6 foot 3; he sprouted in his youth after an illness, and when asked if others were astonished to see how tall he had become, answered, “I don’t know.  My coats looked astonished.”  Carlyle called him a “big, fierce, weeping, hungry man; not a strong one.”)

There were other differences.  Dickens came from the lower middle class; Thackeray from the upper.  Their milieus were different; you don’t get lords and ladies in Dickens.  Not that Thackeray wrote “silver fork novels” (he satirized those, of course); he wrote as a sort of oppositional figure from within the upper middle class, reflecting the point of view of someone excluded from the best circles, as he felt he had been, in part because he’d lost his fortune and had to “write for his life,” descending into journalism, costing himself status.

But who can say why one writer lasts and another doesn’t?  Perhaps Dickens is simply better than Thackeray?  Thackeray would sometimes say so, at least in public.  “There’s no writing against [that],” he said after reading the depiction of the death of little Paul Dombey.  But this was when Thackeray’s own Vanity Fair was just appearing and winning him vast acclaim.  And aren’t there some who would prefer to read clever satires about the aristocracy rather than gritty, tearful depictions of the unfortunate?

Or maybe not.  Maybe there’s something more serious and more timeless about gritty misfortune.  Maybe Thackeray is too much of his age, and Dickens somehow passes beyond it.  And yet Thackeray’s commentary about human foibles is not really just about Victorian aristocrats; it lays bare human hypocrisy, selfishness, greed …  But again, perhaps that is less appealing in the long run than generous-minded support for the downtrodden, complete with more or less happy endings.  You don’t get a happy ending in Vanity Fair or Catherine.

Oddly, though, when Thackeray begins to go in for happier endings, in his later works, in his mellower later years after success had eased the pain of exclusion, he ends up often with something much too syrupy or just somehow odd.  Who cares about Henry Esmond finding happiness with the mother of the girl he thought he was in love with?  And isn’t it rather odd?  Maybe Dickens had just the right touch for that sort of thing, and Thackeray should have stuck to his satire.

Still, if you’re in the mood for satirical barbs (at you the reader, among others) you can do worse than sit down with Vanity Fair.  And if you want a bite-sized introduction to Thackeray (and Victorian fiction generally) you can have a go at Catherine.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Audience Stockholm Syndrome

So I went to see Captain Phillips last night, with Tom Hanks, whom I quite like, and the movie’s quite good, and all that, maybe not his best, like, say, Beethoven’s 8th.  What I was most enjoying about it was the strange bond that seemed to develop between his character and the character of the pirate captain/kidnapper.

“Irish,” the pirate called him, and they were clearly at odds, but sort of in the way that lead characters are at odds at the beginning of some buddy movie (the by-the-book cop and the rebel, that sort of thing), and by the end they’re close.  East is East, and West is West, but they do meet …

Or like in Catch Me If You Can, where the Hanks character in effect bonds with Leonardo di Caprio, even though one is the cop and one is the criminal.

But okay in this case it’s a nefarious pirate; you shouldn’t sympathize with him, I suppose, and if I did, then I suppose that’s the Stockholm Syndrome at work.  Or maybe the film set things up that way, only at the end to … [Spoiler Alert] pull the plug on the poor pirate.  They should have just sailed their separate ways, tipping their caps, but no …

Maybe I’m just too suggestible or susceptible.  I always take the side of whoever’s story I’m reading.  I remember reading The Johnny Unitas Story as a kid and wanting Baltimore to win that game, though when I put the book down I thought, I don’t cheer for Baltimore.

It’s possible, of course, for an author to write from a certain character’s point of view and make you distrust or even dislike that character.  It even became popular in critical circles a few decades back to see this everywhere.  The Unreliable Narrator was all the rage, and there are certainly examples: the Duke in My Last Duchess and so forth.  But really I think it’s a bit rare.  If you’re with a character, then you’re with a character.  It’s hard to be against the one you’re with: maybe that is the Stockholm Syndrome in a nutshell.  In confined space with your captor, even if he is your captor, well, you’re close to him, you identify with him, you become his Patty Hearst.

So I liked the pirate leader in Captain Phillips and was sad to see what happened to him and his buddies, even though of course piracy is wrong, blah blah blah.  The movie itself seemed to me to go downhill at the end when deprived of the interesting Hanks-Pirate Chief chemistry.

Just before the end there’s an interesting bonding scene when, in explaining why he can’t just let Hanks go or take the small amount being offered, the Pirate Chief (his name is Muse) says, “I’ve got bosses.”  To which Hanks replies, “We’ve all got bosses.”  “In America it’s different,” says Muse.

It’s touching, but then it is snatched away.  Is there something especially touching about connecting with an enemy?  Maybe that’s the appeal of the whole John Le Carre Tinker, Tailor series.

In any case it all seems to connect to the notion that if you can’t be with the one you love, you’ll love the one you’re with.  Even if it’s your enemy.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

On Being Lost

I was just getting into the train on the Canada Line, the line I take all the time to get around town, taking my usual Sunday morning route into east Vancouver, when for some reason I felt far away.  A person talking on a cellphone caught my attention, and as I glanced over at them, maybe it was the angle of observation, maybe they reminded me of something – whatever the reason, I thought, This is like Chicago, or no, maybe Washington, taking the train there, in a strange city unknown to me.

When you know your route, your routine, there’s a certain feeling that comes over you.  Familiarity?  Something.  It’s different from being in a strange city, not being sure where you’re going.

On my familiar route the last thing I need is the calling out of stops and the intrusive announcements from the transit company.  In a strange city, though, they can be a lifeline.  Even I suppose in your own city if you are going somewhere different.

I remember in Athens once trying to get to the airport.  I was going in a hurry.  I was under stress.  I was going without the person who’d usually guided me around, and I felt near to panic.  Not only was this a strange city to me, but I couldn’t even read the language.  Never mind the language, the very alphabet.  And the people didn’t speak my language either.  I was in despair.  “Airport,” I said helplessly, hopelessly, or maybe hopefully.  And somebody did understand and pointed me in the right direction, and I got to the airport after all, despite the foreignness of it all (not to mention my general lack of a sense of direction).

Such a bad sense of direction I have that when, the next day, having decided not to flee the country after all, I tried to make my way to my hotel, I decided to walk from the station – and walked and walked and walked – in the direction I thought my hotel was in, only to find after half an hour that I was back where I’d started, at the station.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Was it a Kafkaesque horror story or a cartoon?  But I took a cab and got to the hotel.

The night before, at the airport, deciding whether to stay or leave, and stuck either way overnight, the airport began to become familiar to me.  I got used to the regular announcements about not leaving my bags unattended.  I found the McDonald’s and the Internet cafĂ©.  I was beginning to settle into a routine.  It doesn’t take very long after all, but until it happens you’re lost at sea – and even after you get your sea legs and generally feel comfortable where you are, sometimes, inexplicably, you can feel the horror of being lost.