Public Life

Pat Rogers

  • A Model Childhood by Christa Wolf, translated by Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt
    Virago, 407 pp, £8.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 86068 253 6
  • The Safety Net by Heinrich Böll, translated by Leila Vennewitz
    Secker, 314 pp, £7.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 436 05454 X
  • The Country of her Dreams by Janice Elliott
    Hodder, 186 pp, £6.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 340 27830 7
  • The Soul’s Gymansium and Other Stories by Harold Acton
    Hamish Hamilton, 165 pp, £7.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 241 10740 7

The original title of Christa Wolf’s novel, Kindheitsmuster, could mean something like ‘a pattern of childhood’, but her translators have rightly gone for a more idiomatic expression. In turning the noun into an attributive adjective, they’ve stressed the idea of an exemplary upbringing, and that is wholly apt. The career of Nelly Jordan is normative, within a certain German (though here specifically Nazi) tradition. Furthermore, she stands for a generation, and for part of a race. Whilst there’s no suggestion that the pattern will in any way be replicated under very different political conditions, the book does present the German experience in the Hitler era as something intelligible, even logical. There is play with the notion of Verfall (‘decay’, but also ‘forfeit’, ‘lapse’): ‘No other language knows verfallen in the sense of “irretrievably lost, because enslaved by one’s own, deep-down consent”.’ What this consent amounts to is at the heart of a powerful and finely sustained novel.

There are three strands of narrative. First, Nelly growing up in eastern Brandenburg, from her birth in 1929 to her flight into Mecklenburg before the advancing Russian forces in 1945. Second, a visit which Nelly pays to her birthplace during a hot weekend in 1971. The town is now in Poland: Nelly herself is accompanied by her husband, brother and 14-year-old daughter. Thirdly, the writing of these former narratives between 1972 and 1975. This third strand exists to interweave the first two, but also to pass comment, Fielding-like, on ideas and events at large. Some degree of tricksiness attaches itself to the final narrative, but all that is effaced by the direct and personal intensity of the remainder.

One of Christa Wolf’s obsessive concerns is the nature of memory, and here there are psychological theories, anecdotes, neurological speculations concerning long and short-term memory. Adolf Eichmann, we’re told, had an extremely bad memory. This connects with the wider import of the book in a number of ways. In particular, the role of the past in keeping the imagination charged in the present is conveyed by Nelly’s switches across first, second and third-person report. The child is finally inaccessible to the adult reconstructor: ‘You’re not only separated from her by 40 years; you are hampered by your unreliable memory. You abandoned the child, after all.’ The family can cross the Oder, west to east, as the girl once fled in the other direction: Nelly can look for familiar landmarks in her home town, and recognise the features which defined her early world. She dreams feverishly, ‘in the foreign town with its foreign-language noises’ (she can make nothing of the Polish spoken around her). Street signs in an alien tongue resist the effort of repossession.

This is a richer book than The Quest for Christa T., although Virago’s decision to reprint that book in paperback is opportune.[*] A Model Childhood owes less to special cases, aberrant circumstances, the shaplessness of individual fates. Its reference points are public: Spain, the Moscow trials, the Anschluss, the cavortings of Hitler Youth. But its energies boil up inside a closely described social reality, amid the ‘good clean Brandenburg air’. It is a world of family quarrels, difficult aunts, preposterous concealments. Kept innocent politically, Nelly otherwise grows up fast: later on, her children must ‘enlighten their mother about the foreign word “youth” ’. The scent of charred synagogues lingers in her nostrils as an adult, but her childish incomprehension is borne on the same air.

It is, above all, the flight from an ill-defined enemy which adds dramatic force to the scenes of recollection. Brutal humour augments the physical discomforts: Nelly remains loyal to her assumed ‘cause’ as she encounters the first of the occupying forces, who are by turns bored and patronising towards the refugees – for a moment, Christa Wolf suspends her routine anti-Americanism in a rapid confrontation between occupier and occupied. The onset of TB leaves Nelly to the chillier rigours of a sanatorium: a tiny child dies in the closing sequence, with the pain of her loss unmitigated by novelistic commentary. In Christa Wolf, life and the imagination triumph over ideology. One can take or leave her version of history (the German people have still not faced up to the full truth: ‘in spite of everything, the war is still unexplained’). Her capacity to register the felt experience transcends the programmatic bent of her fiction.

Which is exactly what you can’t say about Heinrich Böll. His journalistic sense of public life has always threatened to circumscribe his rendition of the way people actually live, and The Safety Net confirms the fact. It is organised all too carefully around a ‘theme’, ready made for evening-class dissection. The police guarding the press-chief should have realised ‘that there was no such thing as security, either internal or external’ (‘dass es Sicherheit nicht gab’). The vagueness as to how far the overtones of ‘security’ reach, in existential or psychological terms, is typical of Böll’s handling of words: his tools are blunt at the local level. Technically, he has never been a great innovator, and here the complications chiefly derive from the habit of allotting each chapter to a separate character, not initially named, and identified merely by a personal pronoun.

The translation is prefaced by a list of characters (not present in the original), with each person grouped under headings, such as ‘The Newspaper People’ or ‘Friends and Neighbours’ or ‘They’ (political activists). This touch might remind one of certain J. B. Priestley procedures, and that wouldn’t be misleading. It’s also something like the way Dickens novels used to be treated when their amiably comprehensive bagginess was found endearing. Böll encourages this way of looking at the book with some unguarded phrases: two characters tot up six ‘worlds’ inhabited by their acquaintances, and then strike a difficult case: ‘And Eva Klensch – a world of its own. I can’t make up my mind where one should place her.’ A betraying phrase.

It’s the more irritating in that the central character (or the one who should be) has some reality: an elderly newspaper proprietor, elected president of an employers’ organisation, and surrounded by security precautions made necessary by political groups in which his own family have been involved. Tolm is a frustrated museum curator, appalled by the pollution of a loved landscape (‘the emissions from the power station, already turned to clouds, moved across the sky, the effect was idyllic, as evocative of nature as in...early Gainsboroughs and Constables’). His former home has been overtaken by open-cast mining, his new retreat is equally under threat: a manor-house where some of his first emotional attachments were formed. Always, he’s under siege (the key idea in the original title Füirsorgliche Belagerung, and rather lost in the translation). If Böll had concentrated on this figure, and his slightly less sharply imagined wife, all would have been well. But the panoramic urge obliges him to devote chapters to more and more secondary characters, whose life-histories contribute less and less to the human issues centrally at stake.

Unlike Christa Wolf, Böll processes fictional life according to pre-packaged dogma. Unlike some writers of the Left, he is seemingly unable properly to imagine what moulds character in his political opponents. The terrorists are spoilt but charming, the ecology freaks glum but worthy. On the other hand, the industrialists are proto-Nazis at the least; Tolm’s businessman son-in-law is almost impotent, and at the same time held in thrall by a shadowy ‘porn’ which implausibly pullulates through all the bourgeois circles of the novel. One character speaks of the CDU as ‘beyond discussion’ (‘indiskutabel’), and Böll likewise can only see people in reach-me-down categories, with all human warmth and insight meted out to the approved groups. The vision of processes can be acute, as in the picture of gigantic dredges on the march, with mechanical shovels devouring the forest and exhuming the dead. But the people involved live up to their assigned roles with the docility of a trained sit-com performer.

Janice Elliott also moves within pretty narrow limits, as regards character and motive, but at least the clichés are endogenous – they belong to the sort of novel she writes. Both the setting and the moral tone of The Country of her Dreams relate to well-traversed country. The heroine writes children’s books: with her academic husband, she attends a congress in a coyly unnamed Yugoslavia in post-Tito days. The violent Balkan politics, the mysterious Byzantine churches, the stuffy but intriguing British Council types – all irresistibly recall Olivia Manning. A coup and a kidnapping put some strain on Janice Elliott’s talents, which lie more obviously in the social comedy of international bureaucrats and culture vultures, or in the private intensities of unplanned, even undesired adultery. Still, the observation is often sharp: there is some genuine suspense, and a tidy structure that doesn’t quite fall into symmetry for the sake of it. The blurred outlines of Hugo Cross, ‘in his British Council pale linen suit and blandness to match’, finally achieve definition, after a short game of asking: ‘Is he one of those?’ (No, one of those.) The worst you could say of the novel is that it’s modest and conventional: the best, that it displays some capacity for analysis and description, with evident enjoyment of the human spectacle.

The stories by Sir Harold Acton are pervaded by something nearer resignation: oddity is exposed, and not really put down, but celebrated only in back-handed ways. They concern expatriates in Florence, and take a good old-fashioned chunk of a lifetime (up to thirty years or so) for their subject-matter. Prefaced by an ill-judged, not to say inept, prologue, they display life’s little ironies without apparent rancour or compassion. Even in the more modern stories, invaded by blue jeans and T-shirts, people still talk about ‘the varsity’, a word which cannot have passed human lips since 1932. There is some frantic sexual description (‘she saw him as the incarnation of a pagan satyr, and he made her feel pagan too, with his musky smell and his primitive cries of ecstasy’); some uninventive verbs (‘he spat at her...he hissed’), but some innovatory spellings (‘exhuberant’). Some of the writing is gracefully mannered, some astoundingly careless (‘Lawrence has caricatured a characteristic group of cronies...’) The fictions may not go very deep, but memory inscribes its potency on every page.

[*] The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf, translated by Christopher Middleton. Virago, 185 pp., £2.95, 15 April, 0 86068 221 8