Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday Book Blogging

On the day after Francis Sedgemore acknowledged that my perpetual ranting about Britain’s obsession with all things Nazi might not be entirely unwarranted (on that note ...), The Telegraph kindly provides more (unsolicited) evidence to support my point.

In a mere slip of an article we are informed that a pre-war essay by a German schoolboy celebrating Hitler will be auctioned at Ludlow Racecourse next Wednesday (so, if this is your kind of habit - nudge, nudge, wink, wink - and you want to feed it, make sure that you get there in time). Sadly, no information is given as to the owner of the essay, which leaves room for speculation.

And why Ludlow?

The auctioneer’s historical documents expert, Richard Westwood-Brookes, explains the fascination of this item in the following contorted way:

"You never cease to be amazed at [the?] depths the Nazi propaganda machine plunged in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II. Here you have a ten-year-old schoolboy who should be involving himself with childhood things, instead being used as a political pawn in the Nazis' evil game."

Oh please, Mr Westwood-Brookes, don’t you watch the telly? Using people – especially, to quote Miss Jean Brodie, people at an impressionable age – as political pawns is what all dictatorships do. This is why all totalitarian regimes have youth movements that work according to the principle of “get them while they’re young.” Once you have them, you make use of their low adolescent violence threshold, cater to their fascination with uniforms, tap their surging testosterone to fill them with masculinist ideology and turn them against family, friends and any other scapegoat of the day whom they then seemingly voluntarily betray, harrass and violate (for more on the human - especially male - potential for violence see here).

Of course, it’s terrible when children are manipulated in the name of some crazy ideology or other, however only the most naïve follower of Rousseau would find the notion of a child soldier inherently oxymoronic.

What is more, why should this kind of historical document – of which no doubt thousands were composed in schools across Germany between 1933 and 1945 – be sale- and newsworthy? Only because of the latent fascination on the part of potential buyers and Telegraph readers with anything that mildly whiffs of goosestepping jackboots.

The obsession with Nazi Germany echoes gratingly in the labyrinthine corridors of British culture (popular and otherwise, Tory as well as Labour). In the context of pulp fiction, it mainfests itself in offhand Nazi references, such as the one by Bridget Jones’s mother in Helen Fielding’s novel, who comments on her daughter’s eating habits:

Nobody wants a girlfriend looking like someone from Auschwitz, darling.

Now, this is of course serious bad taste, but one guesses that Fielding's taboo-breaking is meant to underline what a total idiot Bridget's mother is. Indeed, the comparison with nasty historical personae, from Mao to Genghis Khan, seems to be Fielding's main means of character portrayal throughout the novel. But that just goes to show how sad and bad her writing really is - just as sad as her protagonist and the thousands of young women who like to see Bridget as a role model and heroine.

A more sustained Hun-hysteria can be found in Tony Parsons' Man and Boy, which contains – if I remember rightly (I couldn’t trace the passage for want of trying) – the narrator-protagonist's description of a particularly bad day with his son as a “parenting Kristallnacht.”

Of course, Parsons once was married to Julie “Bomber Harris” Burchill, which gives us an inkling as to what kind of topics were discussed in their household when it still existed. Today, relations between the two are notoriously strained. Judging by the novel’s second plot strand, which involves the protagonist’s own war-hero father (who dies at the end of the novel, not without having provided the cue for manifold reflections, on the part of the protagonist, on stalwart British unity during WWII, however), one might assume that (Nazi-)Germany might be an issue that Mr Parsons and his former missus would agree on to this day.

However celebrated, Parsons' novel is illustrative of bad popular "literature," whose metaphoric range does not reach beyond the “history according to Rupert Murdoch and his stooges” limit. This is referential realism at its worst – literature condemned to the reflection of facts, and facts that are presented in such undifferentiated black and white terms that it makes one weep.

Even serious ficition is not immune to the temptations of WWII. Toby Litt, a very talented contemporary author whom I admire greatly, oddly enough participates in this fad. His (highly recommended) novel Deadkidsongs concludes on an obscure section set in a Nazi-occupied Britain that seems to be a figment of one the characters' imagination.

In a short story, “Rare Books and Manuscripts” Litt imagines the wooing by a shy and unassuming staff member in the British Library of a young British woman who pines for an aristocratic-looking German academic called Heinz Feldman (faint echoes of Sylvia Plath's hysterical lines in "Daddy" here: "Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you"). Needless to say, thanks to his superior flirtation skills (involving the library's lending system and the little notification lights on the desks) the kind and clever Brit finally wins his lady.

Granted, this story might be a facetious little arabesque, but I still find the use of a German antagonist gratuitous.

I'm not saying that there aren't post WWII authors who don't give a damn and avoid references to the war at all cost - though, come to think of it, that is a rather rare phenomenon. Writing this I had to think of Angela Carter's otherwise complex coming-of-age novel The Magic Toyshop, in which the omnipotent patriarchal figure of Uncle Philip, under whose yoke the protagonist, Melanie, and her family, suffer passively, exudes "the casual brutality of Nazi soldiers moving corpses in films of concentration camps."

At its best, contemporary fiction dealing with WWII deploys history as a McGuffin - as a device that is in itself insignificant, but which speeds the plot along. In this kind of writing - represented for example by McEwan (Atonement), Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and Frayn (Spies), WWII appears to be the central theme; ultimately, however, it should be seen as a backdrop against which other, more general (indeed: universal) human concerns can unfold: topics such as individual guilt and responsibility, the experience of fear and shame, of being haunted by memories and the past. Readers might buy these novels because of their historical feel, but that feel is sophisticated enough to dispel any easy nostalgia for Britain's finest hour.

Well, I must say we've come a long way from a reference to the Telegraph - and I guess that's not a bad place to be. Keep reading!

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