Images of Displeasure

Nicholas Spice

  • If not now, when? by Primo Levi, translated by William Weaver
    Joseph, 331 pp, £10.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2668 8
  • The Afternoon Sun by David Pryce-Jones
    Weidenfeld, 214 pp, £8.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 297 78822 1
  • August in July by Carlo Gebler
    Hamish Hamilton, 188 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 241 11787 9

Norman Tebbit, Conservative Party Chairman, was displeased by television coverage of the American attack on Libya. British public opinion had swung so decisively against the raid, he said, because of the pictures people had seen on their television sets. Not pictures of bombed-out military installations, which would have been all right, but pictures of dead and wounded civilians. Pictures, in fact, not unlike those pictures of Mr Tebbit which became emblematic of the Brighton bombing two years ago, and which doubtless did a lot to turn the public against the justice of that assault too.

Like all modern statesmen and propagandists, Mr Tebbit understands the importance of keeping the news figurative, especially in time of war. Provided the cameras can be muzzled, this isn’t difficult, since we are slow to grasp the actuality of other people’s suffering, and quick even to forget our own, once it is past. We are also disposed towards angry fantasy, the projecting upon someone or something outside ourselves of all that is bad in the world and in us. In The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil called this process the making of ‘displeasure-images’, and identified it as ‘part of the oldest psychotechnical apparatus mankind possesses’. Together with our tendency to take things figuratively, this is the mechanism which complies with states in the fashioning of enemies (the American imperialist aggressor, Libya, the Soviets, the Argies), larger than life and less than living, for whom no punishment is too dreadful.

‘So it is that the good Christian projects his defects into the good Jew.’ So it was that ‘in the last years before the war’ – the First War – ‘one of the most magnificent and popular means of satisfying this queer need’ for a displeasure-image ‘was Prussian Germany’. Within ten years of the publication of Musil’s words, Jewry and Germany had furnished the world with displeasure-images of monstrous proportions, exploited to justify the near-extermination of a race and the damning of a nation. Forty years later, there are still Germans who will maintain that the Holocaust was an anti-German fabrication. A recent opinion poll in Austria found that only 12 per cent of Austrians would call for the resignation of a politician who made anti-semitic remarks. In Britain children continue to lap up comic strips and TV films portraying the Germans as a nation of monsters.

Oddly enough, the most effective instrument for disabusing us of our displeasure-images, and bringing home to us that things actually do happen, is fiction, because when it is good, it allows us to experience as particular realities that are otherwise theoretical and remote. No one who has watched the war episodes of Heimat, Edgar Reitz’s film chronicle of life in a German village, could honestly continue to explain the rise of Nazism by reference to the categories of British war mythology. Equally, no one could read Primo Levi’s If not now, when? and be in any doubt as to the extent or actuality of the suffering and barbarism for which Germany in those years was primarily, if not solely, responsible.

‘Try to understand, tell, and try and make others understand.’ Edek’s words to Mendel in If not now, when? define the moral project behind this shocking and unforgettable novel. They also define Edgar Reitz’s project in Heimat. Yet the stories these works tell, and the understanding they deepen, baffle us when we place them side by side. From Heimat we understand what life was like for the inhabitants of Schabbach, a quiet village community in the Hunsrück, and that it was humdrum – sometimes sad and sometimes happy, a matter of making do in perplexing and difficult times, a tale of average virtue and vice. From If not now, when? we understand what it was like for the Jewish partisans, men and women of exceptional courage and dignity who fought a forlorn battle in the marshes of White Russia behind the German line, and that it was a struggle for survival, for enough to eat, for warmth and shelter, for escaping the ‘hunters of men’, the Germans. In Heimat we understand what it meant to belong to an old German rural community, supported by tradition and a sense of shared continuities. In If not now, when? we understand what it meant to be Jewish and on the run in hostile country, with nowhere to go to and nowhere to return to, the past wiped out by horror, the future a terrifying unknown. While the Simon family in Heimat go peacefully about their lives, Isidor, one of Primo Levi’s partisans, is watching the SS, ‘boys themselves, only a little older than he, clubbing his father, mother and sister to death’, and apparently ‘having fun’. Heimat and If not now, when? sound a discord together which cannot be resolved by the understanding each of them individually promotes.

Interspersing my reading of If not now, when? with episodes of Heimat proved in other respects to be a startling way of bringing Primo Levi’s book into focus. I was especially struck by the difference between these works in their attitudes towards the past, and by the coarseness of Primo Levi’s narrative technique in comparison with Reitz’s. Heimat is filmed by a man walking backwards into the future. Its energy seeps away as it approaches its resting-place in a disturbed and fragmented present. It is an elegy for a world we have lost. Reitz’s love for his characters, which in a quite remarkable way he makes us come to share, expresses itself in a lingering attention to detail and a spaciousness of conception which gives them depth and room to develop. Reitz’s perspective is long, his pace slow. Primo Levi loves his characters differently – fiercely and proudly, protecting them from our disapproval by idealising them: ‘He had a square face, steady eyes, honest features, worn and vigorous; he was slow of speech’; ‘his teeth were strong and spaced, and he had a hypnotist’s eyes. With those eyes and with his stubby, heavy hands, he could make the aches disappear from your joints and back, and sometimes, for a few hours, he could dispel even hunger and fear’; ‘in him, Mendel recognised ... the logic and the bold imagination of the Talmudists, the sensitivity of musicians and children, the comic power of strolling players, the vitality absorbed from the Russian earth’; ‘there was Piotr, innocent as a baby and awesome in battle.’ If Levi’s characters seem at times crudely Biblical, this is in a sense appropriate, since they are engaged in a struggle of Biblical proportions. Their wanderings in the wilderness, the journey that takes them from the heartland of Belorussiya to Milan, the single and undivided subject of Levi’s book, is a journey through a frightful zone, thick with dangers and ruled by terror. Moreover, each of Levi’s Jewish characters has had a long hard look at hell. It could be argued that in such a story there is no place for the leisure of character development or of the subtleties and refinements of reminiscence.

As its title conveys, If not now, when? is a book about defiant action, and it reads with the immediacy of an adventure comic. It does not seem to take place in the past at all, but in a present too agonising to be lingered in. With the desperate energy of people battling their way out of a thicket, the characters crash forward in search of any clearing. Willy nilly, memories endure in them. But reminiscence is something that has become painfully irrelevant. As the survivors of the band approach the Brenner Pass, Mendel, who acts as the book’s conscience, reflects: ‘they come out of the water, and they shake themselves like dogs, and they dry away their memories.’ ‘We had a homeland,’ says another character, ‘and it’s not our fault if we don’t have one any more; and we’ll build ourselves another one. It lies before us, not behind.’

The Afternoon Sun is a novel about Central European Jews which contrives to be nostalgic. Its potency is not invigorating and it treads dangerously near to the line crossed, to my mind, by films like The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, which suggest that the Holocaust was a tragedy of the interior life and invite outsiders to share in what cannot be shared, thereby trivialising it.

The Afternoon Sun pretends to piece together the history of the Ellingen family, possessors at one time of one of Austria’s largest fortunes, built around the Gustav-Ellingen-Metallwerke, generally known as Concordia. The original Gustav Ellingen began life abandoned in a crib by the side of the road near the small German town of Ellingen. The carter who retrieved him was called Gustav. This was in 1839 or 1840. By the time Gustav is 30, he has become a partner in a firm of Viennese bankers, but it is the Stock-Exchange crash of 1873 that gives him his big break. ‘Select sound stocks and buy at rock-bottom prices’ – acting on his own maxim, Gustav becomes a magnate overnight. He marries Else Dreinach, daughter of a Viennese scholar, and in 1889 completes the building of a vast and vulgar schloss in a suburb of Vienna called Pernsdorf. Else dies giving birth to their only child, Henriette, whom in due course Gustav comes to dote on, and to whom he eventually makes over the controlling share of Concordia. In 1914, Henriette marries Rudolf Hechter, a banker, and they have a son called Jules. Jules is a musical genius, a pianist prodigy on the model of a Horowitz or Rubinstein. To complete his education, Jules is sent to school in England. At this point in the story, the Hechters’ life undergoes a radical change. Rex Smail-Turner, one of High Hampton’s bachelor masters, accompanies young Jules home one Christmas, and quickly sets about ingratiating himself with the family. His success is complete. Henriette falls in love with him, and since he is already her husband’s lover, they establish a ménage à trois. With Rudolf’s death, the ménage returns to a respectable doubleness: Henriette marries Rex.

Meanwhile, war has broken out once more, splitting up the family and spelling the end of Concordia as an Ellingen concern. At the time of the Anschluss, Rex and Henriette are in England, but Jules is on the family estate at Sagodvar in Hungary. There Jules falls in love with Litzi Seideler and they have a baby, Julius. Defying the gathering gloom, Jules and Litzi stay on at Sagodvar. And then:

     Jules neither waited on events nor tried to escape. On the contrary, towards the end of March or early in April 1941, he chose instead to return to Austria. Whatever his motives were, he kept them to himself. Arrested at the frontier, he was taken to Vienna and held in the Gestapo headquarters on the Morzinplatz. Deported, at some unknown date between his 25th and 26th birthdays, he became one of the victims of mass-murder.

It’s only a matter of time before the Nazis come to get Litzi too, but she manages to leave little Julius behind.

The story thus far takes up two-thirds of The Afternoon Sun, and is telescoped into a mere 131 pages: 28 chapters, each roughly five pages long. The narrative takes the form of a reconstruction of characters and events from personal recollections, letters, photographs, newspaper reports and other contemporary documents. David Pryce-Jones has gone to immense trouble to sustain this pretence, and he is clearly a connoisseur of the times and the culture he has set out to portray. The end effect has a certain virtuosity, but it is also irritatingly mannered and artificial. The book comes to seem like a cramped museum cluttered with the miscellaneous cultural bric-à-brac of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, and at the same time a showcase for the diversity of David Pryce-Jones’s erudition. It makes a curious contrast with Primo Levi’s book, the integrity of which derives from the conviction it gives that everything it describes actually happened.

The third and final section of The Afternoon Sun complicates the artifice further. The narrative now switches to the first person. It is Julius Hechter who speaks: ‘I am Julius, the child of Litzi Seideler and Jules Hechter. At times my picture of them is so clear that we might be in the room together ...’ And so on. A second reconstruction seems to be about to begin. But it turns out that young Julius has written the first part of the book as well. We are asked to believe that it is the fruit of his fervent researches into the family past, the outcome specifically of a journey which takes him to the sites where its key scenes were staged, and to the few survivors who took part in the enactment. We accompany him on this trip, but he is a dislikeable travelling companion. His scorn for the world he discovers is not edifying, and many of his observations are distasteful: ‘Those who grew up under the Hitler regime can be recognised at a glance. Even in civilian clothes, they wear their experience as distinctly as a uniform.’ Their square shoulders proclaim: Dienst ist Dienst. Worse still:

  On the German autobahn, a green road-sign points to Dachau. The name is proclaimed in the largest lettering, as though it were quite normal. Carpenters had recently restored the concentration camp, and surrounding wire and watch-towers, the huts. More than authentic, the place was in working order. On that late afternoon, under lowering snow-clouds, men and women were stepping out of a number of buses. Condensation steamed over the bus windows. Drinks had been served on board. The men were stout in lined winter jackets and lace-up boots or snow-shoes, they rubbed their hands, they bellowed at one another and lit cigars, they escorted broad-hipped women. Pensioners, they were on a seasonable outing to a place where all or any of them might have served as licensed murderers.

As part of an attempt to ‘reach the mystery of German behaviour in the Hitler period’ this doesn’t promise well.

Julius Hechter’s obsession with his parents’ past contrasts sharply with the attitude of his grandmother, Henriette. Like Primo Levi’s Jews, like Gustav Ellingen, who turned his back on the afternoon sun, Henriette looks to the future. She condemns Julius as ‘a sentimentalist’ and ‘a worshipper of false gods’. Whether Pryce-Jones intends us to agree with her is unclear. But if he does, he presumably intends us to condemn Julius’s book along the same lines.

Carlo Gebler, like David Pryce-Jones, enlists one of his own characters to write his book. But in August in July the ploy works naturally, neither straining our credulity nor upsetting the balance of the novel’s structure. It wouldn’t have seemed inappropriate if August in July had been subtitled ‘The Confessions of August Slemic’, whereas the only sense in which The Afternoon Sun is Julius Hechter’s book is that David Pryce-Jones’s intricate novelistic design requires it. Gebler’s technique is assured without being pretentious. Like Marvell’s birds and beasts, his novel measures out its place with a precisely proportionate economy.

The life of August Slemic is told through two sorts of material: entries in August’s notebooks, which August starts on the afternoon of Boxing Day 1980, ‘instead of watching the musical with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire’; and August’s account, written like a novel, of the events leading up to the death of his wife on 29 July 1981, the day of the Royal Wedding. August writes this ‘novel’ as a form of therapy for his grief, and to affirm his discovery, made on the afternoon of Boxing Day 1981, which is when the novel closes, that suicide is not an option he is free to take.

The action of August’s ‘novel’ is confined to 28 July and the early hours of the following day. It is written in the third person, as a direct consequence of August’s realisation that ‘I am not only “I” – I am August.’ The notebook entries, on the other hand, are written in the first person. They are August’s escape route out of the depression and boredom of a family Christmas, and he uses them mainly to review his life, from his childhood in Warsaw to the present. The scenes from August’s Polish childhood are crucial to the success of August in July. They make up a sort of novella, complete and sufficient in itself, within the proper novel. Gebler has been wise to restrict them to a single setting – the house of August’s uncle Peter, where August spent the summer Sundays of his childhood – and skilful in shaping them towards a single, dramatic climax: August’s inadvertent trespass upon the scene of his mother’s adultery with her brother-in-law. The contrast between the distant, beautiful, slightly threatening world of the child, and the genial drabness of August’s adult life in modern London, gives August in July its depth, and makes it more than simply a competent and pleasing second novel.