Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava! Borderlands, a Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid

Anna Reid’s history of the Ukraine, Borderland, is a must for anyone visiting this huge and complex country. As the Kiev correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph from 1993 to 1995, Anna Reid was close to the political situation post independence in 1991. But the book contains more than political analysis: it combines this with a more personal appraisal of the country and its history and the result is a work which is wide ranging, considered, informative and deeply empathetic towards the Ukrainian people. It is also beautifully written, at times witty, and very readable. The first edition, published in 1997, has been brought up to date by the addition of a second section in 2015, covering the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan in 2014.

It’s all in the name: Ukraine, we are told, translates literally as ‘borderland’ or ‘on the edge’ and this for Anna Reid means two things: as a borderland it has been much fought over throughout its history by powerful countries to either side of it, and, secondly, this has led to the Ukrainian people having a fragile and weakened sense of national identity. These two ideas work as leitmotifs threading through the book as the author charts the history of Ukraine by visiting individual cities and regions and examining how history has played out in each of them.

We begin with Kiev, and I was immediately drawn in by Anna Reid’s account of Kiev in the winter of 1993:

The staircase to my one-room flat might have stunk of urine and rotten cabbage, but outside raggedy black crows swung about in the poplars, shaking gobbets of frozen snow on the rattling trams below. I liked the cobble streets with their elaborately stuccoed turn-of-the century houses, so dilapidated that the city authorities strung netting under the balconies to prevent chunks of plaster falling onto pedestrians’ heads. I liked the hillside parks with their brick paths and rusty wrought-iron pavilions, where teenagers smooched in summer and children in rabbit-fur bonnets tobogganed in winter.

Quite caught up in this crumbling world, we are taken  back to the 11th century when Kiev was the centre of the country known then as Kievan Rus  and the magnificent cathedral of Santa Sofia, built by Prince Yaroslav the Wise, was testimony to its greatness.  I loved the description of Santa Sofia: Etiolated saints, draped in ochre and pink, march in shadowy fresco round the walls; above them a massive Virgin hangs in vivid glass mosaic, alone on a deep gold ground, reminding me of the delicate beauty of the wall paintings in this atmospheric place, which I visited earlier this summer. In this section on the early history, Anna Reid explores the adoption of Christianity in early Kievan Rus: Yaroslav’s father, Volodymyr, realising he should keep up with his neighbours by adopting an advanced religion, rejected Islam on the grounds he couldn’t do without pork and wine. So he went for Christianity, and Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism, after emissaries reported back on the glory of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.

The theme of Ukraine as a borderland is explored in the second chapter when its relationship with Poland is examined. I was aware through my reading of East West Street and The House with the Stained Glass Window that the area known now as Western Ukraine containing the city of Lviv was part of Poland between the First and Second World Wars-the negotiations at Versailles which led up to this are set out in detail later in this book- but I’d not known about the earlier struggles between Poles, Russians and Cossacks in the 17th century over the country we now call Ukraine. Anna Reid uses this section to give us a lucid account of who these Cossacks actually were. I had a vague, muddled idea based on a dim recollection of Tolstoy’s The Cossacks and the spare description in our guidebook, but actually found Anna Reid’s description very helpful: Outlaws and frontiersmen, fighters and pioneers, the Cossacks are to Ukrainian national consciousness what cowboys are to the American.They did not form anything approaching a nation or a state- they were not so much a people as a way of life. And the most important Cossack of them all was Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who fought the Poles for independence over many years. As this bellicose period ended with the Russians winning all land east of the Dnieper, Ukrainians have been uncertain how far to celebrate the achievements of Khmelnytsky. But, according to Anna Reid, Ukraine is a country short on heroes, so he’s been reclaimed as a hero for being the leader of the first stab at independence.

Anna Reid’s lucid narrative clarifies many other historical events, including the Nazi invasion and the Chernobyl disaster, but one of the most illuminating accounts for me was that of  the appalling Holodomor, or famine, of 1932- 1933 in which an estimated 7 million people died. Several historians characterise this as a genocide rather than a famine, as grain stores full of emergency supplies were kept locked and guarded while people starved- Anna Reid calls it one of the most under-reported atrocities in human history. It was the equivalent in the countryside to the Stalinist purges in the towns. She carefully explains the three stages of this rural terror: food requisition, dekulakisation ( where the kulaks, the local spokespeople and farmers, were arrested and their property requisitioned) and mass starvation. The villages fell to rack and ruin, millions of peasants were deported, people were eating grass, leaves, acorns, snails, ants, earthworms, and there were ghastly reports of cannibalism. She does not shy away either from criticising the complicity of the foreign correspondents at that time: keen to keep favour with the censors in Moscow, foreign journalists did not comment on the starvation and Western intellectuals such as Malcolm Muggeridge and George Bernard Shaw visiting the country claimed not to have seen ‘ a single undernourished person’. Flattered and fêted they were of course steered away from the unsightliness of starved corpses in the streets of Kiev.

One of the books’ strengths is its variety of sources: Anna Reid uses personal stories and interviews, history, memoir and fiction, and, in the second section, TV and film. The encounters with real characters are often powerful and sobering in that they give us sudden insights into what life is like for people in Ukraine. There’s Alexey, the Donetsk miner, who said he and fellow miners had nearly wept on a twinning visit to Cardiff on seeing the ‘special baths, the clothes, the equipment they had’. The employees still working at Chernobyl in 1995 when Anna Reid visited were aghast at the International Atomic Energy Agency report insisting on immediate closure. Despite the high levels of radiation still around they valued being able to work in skilled jobs, unlike the many well trained graduates in Ukraine who were working as taxi drivers. I enjoyed too her use of literary sources- so in the chapter on Kiev, she refers to Bulgakov’s The White Guard, and to the section on the Jews, she quotes from Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories- to name but a few.

A people’s sense of identity is intimately bound up with its language and the development of Ukrainian as a language is referred to throughout the book. In the nineteenth century Ukrainian was regarded by many as a peasant dialogue and when it was more widely encouraged during the Soviet era, this was found to be challenging. Victor Kravchenko in his diaries refers to the difficulties students had in the 1930s, who may have spoken Ukrainian at home but were not used to having their education conducted in Ukrainian or reading text books in Ukrainian-quite apart from the fact that the language was simply lacking the modern, technological vocabulary required in the worlds of electrotechnics, chemistry, aerodynamics and most other sciences. The differing uses of Ukrainian and Russian has always been a feature of a huge country with powerful Russia as its older brother, sometimes breathing down its neck, and it’s true that Russian remains the first language for many in the Crimea and the Donbass region. Anna Reid sees the permissive, liberal attitudes to both languages being spoken as a success of Independence in 1991 and characterises the typical 20 something Kievan as speaking a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian at work and to his children, Russian to his parents and Ukrainian to his grandmother at the dacha on the weekend.

Anna Reid knows how to hook us in: the second section of the book starts with her meeting a Ukrainian friend in 2014 who is sponsoring a twelve-man sniper unit in the Ukrainian army. Obviously we ask ourselves how it has come to this, particularly as her predictions for the future of the country at the end of the first section were cautiously optimistic. There then follow four more chapters outlining political events from 2014 and the Orange Revolution to the invasion of Crimea and the fighting in the Donbass. Again, she narrates the events leading up to both periods of unrest with clarity and unpicks the political fighting and intrigues going on between the oligarchs Kuchma, Yanukovitch, Yuschenko and Tymoshenko with admirable lucidity. The corruption of this period does not make for happy reading and nor does the activity of the Russian backed forces in the Donbass region where 5,800 civilians and 1,500 Ukrainian are thought to have died. But Anna Reid does find some optimism for the future of the country in Lviv on the other side of the country. Here business is thriving, with IT, manufacturing , tourism and food processing important industries. The city has a European feel to it and an honesty about its past. She senses a real change in the feeling of national identity- since the Maidan people, particularly the young,  have felt like real Ukrainians. This is when, according to one middle aged man ‘the Soviet Union inside us died’.

Now it’s not been easy to do justice to this wide ranging book about Ukraine. I’ve just selected a few topics and themes that interest me and there is much more. The only slight niggle I have is that a little more updating could have been done for the second edition. For example I felt somewhat affronted by  the description of the ‘gloriously awful productions of Tosca and Traviata’ at the opera house: this may have been true of productions in the mid 90s but didn’t chime with the world class ballet performance of The Marriage of Figaro’ we saw this summer. But this is a mere bagatelle when compared with the great content and the engaging tone in which it is delivered. One of the last accounts that will stay with me is that of the Maidan: its drama but also how the experience of taking part changed people. Andrei Terekhov: ‘It was a wonderful feeling- almost like going to church though I’m not a believer… It didn’t matter who you were or what language you spoke; you knew that everyone there was a good person. ‘And the cries going up: Slava Ukrayina! Heroyam Slava! Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes !

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Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon, translated by Michael Lucey

This memoir is a powerful account of return. Didier Eribon, now Professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens, and author of many books, left his working class family behind him when he went to study in Paris and had little contact with them since. The return is a profound psychological journey, a rediscovery of that ‘region of myself’- he quotes Genet-from which he’d worked so hard to escape. It is a re-engagement with his former life, a reconciliation with his mother and ultimately an attempt at reconciliation with that part of himself which for many years he’d refused, rejected or denied.

The book starts with a frank account of the state of Eribon’s relationship with his family: he hasn’t visited his parents for years and his only contact is an occasional phone call or postcard. His relationship with his father in particular is so broken that he can only face visiting his parents’ home once his father becomes so ill with Alzheimer’s that he goes into a care home. When he does start visiting his mother, she shows him photographs and talks eagerly about her life, her marriage, her husband, she had so much to tell me that her words tumbled out rapidly in an endless stream. During this period, his father dies in the home. The writer had made no effort to see him and seems unmoved by his death, saying he didn’t love him and never had. He doesn’t go to the funeral, having no wish to see his three brothers and their families. Yet there’s an awareness already that this stance is only half the truth: There was nothing between us, nothing that held us together. At least that is what I believed, or struggled to believe; it had been my idea that one could live one’s life separate from one’s family, reinventing oneself and turning one’s back on the past and the people in it.

The account of his family life and upbringing in Reims pulls no punches. His parents both came from very poor working class families and born as they were, his father in 1929 and his mother in 1930, their poverty was compounded by the disruption of the Second World War. As the eldest of 12 children, his father was sent off on his bike to scavenge for potatoes in the freezing Champagne countryside during the Occupation. He left school before his 14th birthday to work in the factory as an unskilled worker and, according to Eribon, there was never going to be any other choice for him. Eribon’s mother was a bright girl who’d hoped to stay on at school, but her hopes were dashed by a family life we’d now describe as chaotic, including spending time in an orphanage after her mother abandoned her. She married young, had her first two children in rapid succession, worked as a cleaner and then later on the factory floor- in order that Didier, her second child, could go to the lycée and read Sartre.

When his mother shows him a photograph of his father after his death, Didier hardly recognises the enfeebled, shrunken man. He was nothing like the man I had known, the man who shouted at the slightest provocation, stupid and violent, the man who had inspired so much contempt in me. He says he doesn’t remember having a single conversation with him, and was amazed to learn that a few years before, this homophobic man had broken down in tears, overcome with emotion on seeing Didier, his son, on TV, talking about his book Insult and the Making of the Gay Self.

Eribon describes his parents’ lives, their marriage, the family’s poverty, in a cool and dispassionate, almost documentary tone, which sits well with the analytical commentary running alongside his account. He sees his parents as products of social determinism, shaped by the particular social and historical circumstances they grew up in. And yet, describing certain incidents from childhood with the reflection of age, some empathy creeps in. On one occasion his father returns after a couple of days’ absence and, drunk, smashes every bottle in the house against the wall. Didier and his brother are terrified. Yet now, Eribon is aware that this is a man who went from looking after his brothers and sisters as the eldest, to being married with two small children by his mid twenties, all the time in poverty, burdened with responsibility and no chance to enjoy the freedoms of youth.

Though his parents’ relationship is characterised as conflictual, with constant arguments and fights, there are some happy memories too: he describes his parents learning to drive in the 60s and buying a car which enabled the family to go on outings, including fishing. These were happy occasions, with other families involved, the men fishing, the women preparing the feast and looking after the children. But he describes, how after a while, he became bored with these occasions and disengaged from them, preferring to go off by himself and read a book. They represented the working class culture he became increasingly keen to distance himself from. And Eribon doesn’t shy away from poking fun at this aloof adolescent. Eager to set himself apart from his father, he showed no interest in DIY or making things and was rather surprised as an adult to come across intellectuals who were also good with their hands !

This is a personal memoir, but threaded through with references and some theory. I enjoyed the literary references (James Baldwin, Annie Ernaux, Raymond Williams) but found some of the references to philosophers and theorists a little over my head-however, they don’t detract from the book as a whole. There’s also an interesting section analysing the change in French working class political allegiances alongside the change in his parents’ voting patterns from Communist to National Front. (His brothers, on the other hand, have always voted National Front). Their opposing different political views and in particular his family’s racism is part of the reason he’s stayed away from them- yet this section is also interesting more generally for what it tells us about French working class voters now.

However, the most powerful aspect of Didier Eribon’s book is the account of this honest and brave attempt to revisit a past which he’d left behind many years ago. To interrogate this past and to acknowledge that this is where he comes from, despite the intervening years and the difference between his life now and that of his family. This book will be of interest to anyone who has made such a class shift but is also more generally a sobering account of working class French life in the post war period.

 

 

 

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Late in the Day- Tessa Hadley

Late in the Day is Tessa Hadley’s most recent novel. Its protagonists are four white Londoners, middle aged (but in their 50s, so more 5 o’clock than 8) who’ve been friends since childhood. The novel starts with the sudden death of one of them, Zachary, from a heart attack, and then goes on to explore the impact this has on them, their families, and most importantly, the relationship of the four main characters. I’ve been saying for a while now that I’m not going to read any more books with relationships as their main theme, especially not if they’re about the privileged middle classes, but I’m a great fan of Tessa Hadley and, idly leafing through my friend’s copy, I found myself drawn in by her elegant sentences and pitch perfect conveying of emotion to read the book in a couple of sittings.

So the milieu of the four main characters is confident arty middle class, with a social conscience. Christine is an artist and academically clever, having abandoned a PhD to take up art. Her husband, Alex, is a primary school head-he trained as a teacher later on when realising he was not going to make a living by writing. Lydia is Christine’s best friend from their posh girls’ school and student days- she doesn’t work now but her role is to be an enduring beauty and Zachary’s wife. Zachary himself ran a successful London art gallery, which offers classes and internships to the less privileged as well as showing the works of up and coming and established artists.

The death of Zachary hits them all hard and the first part of the book is taken up with this. We meet the younger generation and see their devastation too: Grace, daughter of Zachary and Lydia, is fetched from Glasgow by Alex and consoled by Isobel, daughter of Christine and Alex, and Sandy, Alex’ son by his first marriage. There are mealtimes with tears and plates pushed away, and Lydia, who simply can’t manage being alone at this time, moves in with Christine and Alex.

A death of course invites reflection on that person’s life and their place in the lives and hearts of others. It seems fitting then that the narrative should proceed by way of alternating between past and present to tell us more about the lives of these four and how their relationships developed and changed over the years. We learn about Christine and Lydia’s rebelliousness at school and their first encounter with Alex whom they met when he taught them French as undergraduates. We learn that it was Lydia who had a crush on Alex at that time and inveigled her way into his household, ostensibly to babysit, but really to indulge in some distasteful snooping about the state of his marriage. We learn of Zachary and Alex’s friendship, also starting at school, drawn together because of their Central European refugee background, perhaps not quite fitting in to the English public school mould.

Spoiler coming up now- Lydia eventually screws up the courage to leave Christine and Alex’s place and returns to her own home next to the gallery. When Alex drops in the studio on his way home to check all is well in the workplace of his old friend, Lydia comes on to him. Their indiscretion is discovered immediately by Christine, when phoning Lydia to ask if she’s seen Alex- only to be told ‘he’s fine, he’s here with me’. So far, so devastating for the long standing friendship between these two women. But for me, this is where the novel gets really interesting because of the questions it raises about this indiscretion. When and how does a one off indiscretion become an affair? What would have happened if Christine hadn’t phoned at that moment? Would she ever have found out? What if she hadn’t bolted her front door, preventing Alex coming back that night?  And then in another flashback we readers learn that Christine and Zachary’s friendship and fondness tipped into something else one night some time before- but with no consequence and hurt because no one else ever knew.

It is Tessa Hadley’s skilled plotting, pace and timing which renders us surprised and has us reevaluating events and characters as we read. It is as Christine’s marriage is unravelling that her daughter Isobel, long single, becomes involved with Blaise, a coupling with an uncertain future. And any anger on the reader’s part about the end of Christine’s marriage must be tempered by the accounts of furious rows in the early days and wearisome public bickering later on. In the end, Christine says it is her love for her daughter which is the overwhelming passion in her life. And the powerful final scene in which she is able to walk into her art studio, locked since Zachary’s death, to reclaim her work and her creative self is surely a promise of a rich future beyond and outside her marriage and relationships: here among all these substantial tokens of her working life, she felt such promise of relief and happiness that it frightened her. 

I found many pleasures in the reading of this novel. Its ostensibly middle class milieu is of course rendered with Tessa Hadley’s fine feeling for the nuances of the British class system: while Christine comes from a solidly educated middle class background, Lydia is an arriviste with her pub landlord parents, Pam and Tibs, and there’s a great scene where they host a children’s party for Grace, all little girls dancing to the Spice Girls and the temptations of the fruit machines. I loved the scenes of student squalor, the smell of dope, unwashed sheets and sex. But most of all I love the lightness and subtlety of her touch, the way in which she invites us to see characters and events from different perspectives, to shift our vision and so to see human beings and their interactions in all their complexity.Thanks to Tessa Hadley for another hugely enjoyable novel.

 

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Geisterbahn- Ghost train- by Ursula Krechel

Ghost train- what a great title for this, Ursula Krechel’s third novel about the Nazi period in Germany and its legacy. The novel takes the story of a Sinti fairground family, the Dorns, following them during the thirties as they suffer from increasing persecution under the Nazis. The lives of other families living in Trier also feature and the second half of the book has the next generation sitting together on the same school bench post war as the ghosts of their parents’ experiences and suffering hover over them, shaping them as individuals and the society they grow up in. The city of Trier is at the heart of the novel, a city occupied by the Romans, strategically placed on the border with Luxembourg and part of the French zone in the post war period.The sense of the city’s history and location roots the novel and binds the different strands more tightly together : as in Landgericht and Shanghai fern von wo the novel combines fiction with reportage which can sometimes feel digressive, so Trier serves at times as a kind of unifying theme.

Ursula Krechel weaves real events through the Dorns’ story, painting a picture of increasing discrimination against the Sinti, legitimised by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. We see Alfons and his brother in law travelling to Berlin for a trade fair and getting caught up in the round up of 600 Sinti and Romani people on 16th July 1936, on the eve of the Olympic Games. They were taken with their caravans to the Berlin Marzahn Rastplatz which then functioned as a concentration camp where prisoners deemed unfit to work were executed and others detained in appalling conditions. At the same time, the family in Trier are targeted by the authorities’ forced sterilisation programme and there is a harrowing section where the young Kathi suffers this assault while her mother begs them to sterilise her instead.

One of the policemen involved in the forced sterilisation round ups is a character referred to as MEINVATER throughout the novel, his story alternating with that of the Dorns in the first part of the book. These sections are narrated in the first person by his son who slowly emerges through this narrative as a character in his own right, and in the later post war sections turns out to be the protagonist Bernhard. The MEINVATER sections, depicting the rise of an ordinary policeman to a position of power, authority and abuse under the Nazi regime, act as a kind of counterpoint to the Dorns’ story, showing us how the regime empowered the little man, elevating him to a position where he could exercise authority over vulnerable groups. But that capitalised name resonates powerfully beyond this, reminding me both of the generic names in Anna Burns’ Milkman and the VATERUNSER  of the Lord’s Prayer: this character is representative of a whole group of people who carried out the Nazis’ orders and who represent authority. Yet he is also Bernhard’s father and it is as if fatherhood itself is called into question by those capitals and what they represent.

The second family group which interested me were the Torgaus, a Communist family, and as with the Dorns, we see through their story the history of Communist activity during the thirties and beyond. One key character is Aurelia, an extraordinarily brave and committed activist who smuggles Resistance leaflets across the border into Luxembourg. She is eventually denounced by her husband and imprisoned first in Ziegenhain, then Ravensbrück and eventually Auschwitz. Both Aurelia and her brother Willi survive the camps and the war and there is much detail in the latter part of the book about the choices they both make about continuing political activity after the war in a new political landscape. On a more emotional level there is a heart rending account of Aurelia’s broken health: she has TB post Auschwitz and suffers horribly from the brutal treatments of the time as well as from her own inability to have children.

Sometimes the suffering of characters like the Dorns and Aurelia Torgau felt almost too much to bear, and it was with huge relief that I reached the section entitled Kleine Körper. This takes us on to the post war section where the children of these families, and the others I haven’t mentioned, are sitting on the same primary school bench, 7 year olds in the 2nd class. Here the narrator is Bernhard again, one of the children in the class, and we see the post war classroom through his eyes: lots and lots of lusty patriotic singing, the daughter of communist Willi Torgau being punished for her father withdrawing her from RE, Anchen, whose mother Lucie Dorn, broken by anxiety, collects her from school when the other children are allowed to walk home alone. The picture of post war Trier extends beyond the children’s classroom world. Housing is going up quickly and women are supposed to be fulfilled by their domestic role. Younger brothers and sisters arrive unexpectedly- this is not yet the 60s with the pill and the freedom that meant for women.

The post war period is also one in which compensation claims, a reckoning for injustice suffered during the war, takes place. The search for post war justice is of utmost importance to this writer,as can be seen from Landgericht and Shanghai fern von wo, and, as in those books, falls short. In one of the books’ digressions from its characters, we learn that the process of denazification was carried out differently in the different zones and so there was a fair amount of Zonenwanderung, travelling between the zones, by people under investigation, seeking more lenient treatment in a different zone. In the French zone where Trier lay, all teachers, as Beamte, civil servants, were sacked at the end of the war and had to be interviewed about their allegiances to the NSDAP, the Nazi party, before being reinstated. On realising they had no teachers for the school return in 1945, these interviews gathered speed and were perfunctory at best. In contrast, those who had suffered irredeemable losses during the war received minimal compensation: the Dorn family returned from the camps and received 100 marks each in compensation, and Lucie received nothing in compensation for her childrens’ clothes.

The final section of the book takes us through the 60s and beyond. We see Bernhard and his left wing student friends protesting about the Vietnam War and visiting Willi Torgau to understand what Communism meant to him. Another character returns to Trier after becoming a film director, to a showing of her arty film. Gerwin has pulled his father’s vinegar factory down and replaced it with a vineyard. This seems a million miles away from the 30s and the lives described then. Yet the Dorns, Ignaz and Anna, who have now given up the fairground and opened a restaurant, have not escaped the prejudice and discrimination of those times so easily: the attacks on the restaurant and the casual attitudes of police and insurers suggest at best an indifference, at worst a continuing racism which continues to beset the Sinti community. An appropriate ending for our unstable times where racism and xenophobia are being seen again all over Europe.

Now this is a very long book ( 638 pages) with a panoramic view in the historical period it covers and the reach of the historical events, ideologies and personalities who appear- I haven’t even begun to mention the real people who appear but they include Adenauer, Furtwängler, Victor Bodson, Franz Seldte, many of whom I was looking up in Wikipedia as I read. Some readers might not take to the mixture of fiction and reportage which Ursula Krechel uses in this book as in her other two novels, and the reportage does sometimes entail digressions which take you away from the main characters and their story. Still, there is a lot of interesting material here and the mix of genres sat easily with me-you just do need to keep tabs on the characters at times as there are enough to remember in the fictional sections alone. And the additional interest for me was learning more about the Sinti community and their experiences during the Nazi period. This is a powerful read but with its length, scope and subject matter, not an easy one.

 

 

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The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells- Life is not a zero sum game.

This aphorism, which recurs through Benedict Wells’ novel, relates to one theme of this sad and nostalgic book: just because a load of bad stuff happens to you as a child, doesn’t mean that you’ll be spared more bad stuff as a grown-up. The novel deals with the lives of three children, Liz, Marty, and the narrator, Jules, whose parents are killed in a road accident. They are sent to live in a rather grim state boarding school, separated from each other from the beginning, and grow up in a haphazard and anarchic fashion without the nurturing care, guidance and unconditional love of their parents. The novel recounts very well how each of them deals with this and the damage they are left with: Liz gets into sex and drugs and drops out of school, Marty becomes a geek with a touch of OCD and the narrator, Jules, is a lonely teenager,happy with his camera but removed from the maelstrom of romantic and sexual relationships which seems the main focus of attention at the school. He does, however, develop a close friendship with Alva, who also has some trauma in her background, hinted at in slow reveal: we are waiting for their friendship to blossom into something else- but that doesn’t happen- yet.

This novel is one of those that follows the lives of its characters over a long period of time (which I often find problematic-see my review of The Lowland), and so we then see the ups and downs of the siblings’ lives as young adults. The portrayal of Marty’s successful career in the early days of computing and the internet gives these sections a pleasing Zeitgefühl, while Liz’s continued risk taking and subsequent disappearance for a few years is entirely plausible. Jules starts a law course, drops out, tries photography-this interest is also a nod at some unfinished business with his father- before meeting Alva again, starting an affair with her and, rather too easily, taking up writing. The narrative then jumps some years, we see Jules and Alva as a happy established couple with young children, before tragedy hits yet again-to say more would be to spoil.

It didn’t surprise me to learn in the Guardian interview with Benedict Wells that he wrote this book over several years as it felt an uneven read to me. I thought the characterisation of the siblings was excellent:their dropping out and drifting was entirely plausible, as well as their support for one another in later years characterised by the teasing bantering dialogue and in-jokes. I liked the fact that there was no easy resolution of Liz’s relationship with Marty’s friend, Toni. Hopelessly in love with her, she likes him as a friend, but then asks him to father her child. But there were aspects of the plot which didn’t ring true, the main one being Alva’s marriage to the Russian novelist Romanov: this seemed an unlikely coupling-I wondered if it had been inserted at a later date-and the occasion for several platitudinous words of wisdom from the older man Romanov to the younger Jules. And this is a novel which does not stint on nostalgia. From the first chapter, where Jules as a young man is looking back at his early life with his parents, a thick layer of nostalgia lies over memories, descriptions and events, perhaps understandable given the tragedy about to happen, but nevertheless tiresome in the excess of it. Which just goes to show how hard it is to write a novel involving looking back, retrieving memories, without going overboard on nostalgia.

Now, I read this book in German, as a friend had chosen it for our regular German book group slot. I have no doubt that Charlotte Collins has done an excellent job on the English translation, given the elegance of her translation of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. The novel has been very successful world wide and won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2018. So don’t be put off by my mealy mouthed comments. Despite the unevenness there are some good things here and some excellent writing in the poignant and achingly sad ending.

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The Radetzky March German Lit Readalong- Part Three

I finished the novel yesterday and here are my responses to the Part Three questions:

  1. There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel- the friendship between district administrator von Trotta and doctor Skowronnek. Would  you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

The relationship between these two men is certainly heartwarming. They meet every afternoon to play chess and a sympathy between the two quickly develops. Von Trotta feels he can ask the doctor for advice on whether to allow his son to leave the army and Skowronnek generously offers all his savings to pay off Carl Joseph’s debts and so save the family honour. When von Trotta tells him Carl Joseph is dead, Skowronnek simply takes the hand of this distraught old man and holds it for a long time, for several minutes. The relationship is one between equals, not characterised by the power dynamic of class or family, nor the destructive drinking and gambling companionship Carl Joseph experiences in the barracks.

2. Do you think the novel would have taken another turn, had Carl Joseph opened his father’s letter?

The unopened letter certainly creates some tension for the reader-it lies there, unopened, while Carl Joseph goes off to Vienna for another fling with Frau Taussig, ratcheting up yet more debts. Still, he was already indebted and on a path of self destruction when the letter from his father arrives, so I don’t think the plot turns on this.

3. What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

This is a magnificent piece of theatre. The extravagant party, taking place beneath storm threatening skies , is broken up by a telegram announcing the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, at Sarajevo. Everyone present knows war will be inevitable and the assembled soldiers revert to their national groups- Hungarians, Slavs, Slovenes- as they discuss the implications in their national languages, often incomprehensible to the others. It’s as if we’re witnessing the break up of the Hapsburg empire and the ascendance of nationalities, that concept dreaded by the district captain, before our very eyes.

5. Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front. What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict?How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s death?

Roth shows us the contrast between the outward display of Hapsburg power and the reality of war at the very beginning of this chapter when the impeccable uniforms…the splendid long-fringed tassels of their black-and-gold sashes become soaked, snarled, and spotted with a thousand tiny clots of mud. He pulls no punches about the likely outcome of war for these individual soldiers who are marching to their death in regulation regalia.There are periods of waiting, while shots are heard elsewhere, as if the war is happening elsewhere, and then scenes of over hasty court-martials and summary executions following rumours of espionage and treachery. The corpses hanging from trees seem to be peasants from their own side- it’s as if reason and justice have broken down. This is far from the idea of war as an arena for heroic deeds embodied in the myth of the Hero of Solferino, and it’s ironic then that Carl Joseph dies fetching water from a well for his thirsty men, holding not a weapon but two pails. Was this a suicidal act, walking into gunfire to fetch the water? It’s a scene described in detail, we’re told that he was not afraid, that it didn’t occur to him that he’d be hit, while the notes of the Radetzky March and his recollections of hearing the band playing the march from his father’s balcony, run through his mind. Yet he was hit- the Radetzky March and the military world it represents will not save him.

6. Did you find the ending satisfying?

Yes. The First World War brought an end to the Hapsburg Empire and ushered in enormous political and social change. It seems fitting that the district captain should also die with the Kaiser and the empire.

7. Did anything surprise you in this section?

I was surprised at my own reaction to the district captain’s grief at losing his son, which I found intensely moving. It was as if the novel suddenly lurched over into my world: like many people of my generation, I first learned about the First World War and the terrible loss of young life through First World War poetry (in an anthology called Voices). Thereafter I visited this topic over and over again, as a linguist, as a teacher and as a reader of, for example, the Pat Barker trilogy and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.As I’ve grown older I’ve realised I’m now identifying with the parents who lost their sons in that war but also more generally my rage is for the loss of a whole generation of youth wiped out in a senseless conflict. The district captain’s grief brought all this out for me.

8. The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire. Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

The novel is showing us a world in decline, on the brink of extinction, but the tone is far from nostalgic. Though there are characters who represent the values of that old world, and regret its passing, we are also shown the constraints and rigidity of that world.We see this in the lot of individual characters like Carl Joseph, but also in the fate of groups, like the bristle makers, who dare to demand better treatment and are shot down for doing so. I feel Roth is simply observing this moment, not feeling nostalgic for it.

10. Would you reread The Radetzky March?

No, because I’ve read it three times now and there are lots of other books to read. But I am interested in reading The Emperor’s Tomb, about another branch of the von Trotta family in post war Vienna-possibly in translation by Michael Hoffmann.

Thank you so much Lizzie and Caroline for organising this ReadAlong. I’ve enjoyed it hugely.

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The Radetzky March Spring Readalong- Part 2

Well, I’ve marched through Part Two this weekend and enjoyed much of the novel. I’m going to ramble on a bit in general and then answer some of the questions.

This section covers the period when Carl Josef has been transferred to the rifle regiment stationed on the far eastern border of the Hapsburg empire, bordering Russia. I think Roth does a great job of evoking how far away this land is from Vienna and the heart of the empire, and how alien and abandoned it feels with its swamps and croaking frogs. Its exoticism is conveyed in the description of the Cossack show of horsemanship- I think Roth excels at this kind of detailed description of prowess and showmanship, just as he does at the pageantry of the Corpus Christi procession.

Are there characters you like or dislike particularly so far?

I like Demant because he seems like a decent sensitive man trapped in the army and a difficult marriage. As for the others, I don’t identify with them, I feel I’m just observing their activities in the last throes of the empire. Chojnicki is of course detestable, as a wealthy arch conservative landowner, though his anti parlamentarian views are not surprising. Roth gives us a nice twist when he sends Carl Josef away with Frau Taussig to give him a break, having noticed  that his alcohol problems are taking a toll on his health. For a minute I thought ‘oh well at least he cares about his friend’. But then he pulls rank and displays his power when he himself later goes south with Frau T, as if rubbing Carl Josef’s nose in the fact that he’s controlling everyone. The scene with Jacques dying is poignant to a degree and I guess represents the decline of the era of rigid class distinctions as embodied in the master and servant relationship. It’s quite a long drawn out scene and its interest lies in the district captain’s reaction- he is moved and upset by Jacques’ death more than anything else it seems, and these new emotions prompt him to visit Carl Josef.

Do you have favourite quotes?

Which brings me onto my favourite quote- it’s a long one and is the description of the ‘little snack’ Chojnicki has prepared for Carl Josef and his father:

The brown liver pâté, studded with pitch-black truffles, lay in a glittering wreath of fresh ice cystals. The tender breast of pheasant loomed lonesome on the snowy platter, surrounded by a gaudy retinue of green, red, white and yellow vegetables, each in a bowl with a blue- gold rim and a coat of arms. In a spacious crystal vase,  millions of pearls of black- gray caviar teemed within a circle of golden lemon slices. And the round pink wheels of ham, guarded by a large three-pronged silver form, lined up obediently in an oval bowl, surrounded by red-cheeked radishes that reminded one of small crisp country girls. Boiled, roasted, and marinated with sweet-and-sour onions, the fat, broad pieces of carp and the narrow slippery pike lay on glass, silver and porcelain. Round loaves of bread, brown and white, rested in simply, rustically pleated straw baskets, like babies in cradles, almost invisibly sliced, and with the slices so artfully rejoined that the bread looks hale and undivided. Among the dishes stood fat-bellied bottles and tall narrow crystal carafes with four or six sides and smooth round ones, some with long and others with short necks, with or without labels; and all followed by a regiment of glasses in various shapes and sizes.

This wonderfully detailed and sensual description of the heaving table constitutes a kind of pageantry of food to complement the description of the Corpus Christi procession. But the imagery it uses reinforces the themes of the novel so far: death in the wreath of pâté, emotional coldness in the ice crystals, erotic female breasts in the tender breast of pheasant and the snowy platter, the military in the verbs- guarded, lined up, surrounded, as well as the uniforms echoed in the gaudy retinue and the blue-gold rims. Then the lure of the country girls in the red- cheeked radishes and the bread rolls looking hale and undivided representing the apparent unity of the empire but belying the divisions within in its invisible slices. I think it’s brilliant!

How do you feel about the description of alcoholism in this section?

I admired and was chilled by the account of alcoholism. Firstly the way the 180 proof became part of Carl Josef’s daily routine in this far flung post, and a way of coping. The tone of urgency written into this account conveyed the drinker’s need. Then the effects of alcohol on Carl Josef in the casino- causing rapid mood swings, recklessness, self pity and maudlin thoughts.

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef?How effective did you find it?

I wasn’t surprised as there’s more than one narrator in previous sections- Carl Josef, the district captain, the Hero of Solferino, Doctor Demant. I enjoyed the beginning of this section in which the Kaiser ruminates on how he has to pretend to be more stupid than he actually is in order to please those around him- this arouses our sympathy, and makes us feel he’s playing a role in a system he has limited control over. But then he is a man who loves the military life and can’t see beyond it: it’s a nice touch when he promotes the barber to sergeant, not knowing as we the readers do that the barber is desperate to get out of the army- in the heat of the moment he daren’t admit this to the Kaiser and so is lumbered with his promotion and has messed up his entire life.

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