Sunday, January 28, 2007

TBR Challenge - The Nazi Officer's Wife

The Nazi Officer's Wife - Edith Hahn Beer, with Susan Dworkin.

I read this book because a good friend said she'd been inspired by it. People will do anything to survive. Yes, and it often is astonishing to know about them. Astonishing, inspiring - and terrifying.

This book terrified me. Anything about the Holocaust terrifies me. The very word, Kristallnacht, terrifies me. I am a Jewish woman; I would be foolish if it didn't terrify me, or if I were complacent enough to think it never could happen again.

Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass. When I read about the Holocaust (which I rarely do), my brain experiences Kristallnacht. Thoughts break away and shatter. I lose my ability to speak coherently. To think coherently.


Edith Hahn's memoir is coherent and focused. I read it in one sitting because it was impossible to look away. Her story has been dramatized, and it is remarkable.

The world for Viennese Jews came apart very quickly. One day, she was finishing law school, and the next, she was enslaved and forced to work on a farm and in a carton factory. Rather than submit to being taken to Poland, she went underground in Vienna, where kind Viennese women helped her to get false identification papers and saved her life. She moved to a town outside of Dresden, met a Nazi officer, lived with him, married him, had his child, a daughter. He spent time in Siberia, captured in battle, and returned. They divorced. She and her daughter went to England. Both survived. We know this story because her Pepi, the beloved who could not escape his grotesque and hysterical mother, saved all of her letters and papers, and because her daughter read them.

What a person will do to survive -

I can not put my thoughts together for this. Instead, I offer some of my reading notes, in no particular order. Please read the book.

the Nazi officer who demanded a dust-free home
millions turned to dust. millions.
to be able to hold two beliefs

to be considered subhuman and powerful enough to threaten civilization
those who would scapegoat
1984 - do it to her
to know the lie - the citizens knew full well - THEY MAY NOT ESCAPE INTO DENIAL BECAUSE THEY KNEW-
she refused anesthesia - she endured the pain of childbirth to protect her Jewish child- to protect the daughter of a Nazi
Thomas Mann on the radio - the first time she heard the full truth, piles of children's shoes
"I had often heard Werner's views about the power of Jewish blood"
"She turned her back on me. I could feel her sense of triumph, her genuine satisfaction in destroying my life. It had a smell, I tell you - like sweat, like lust."


Saturday, January 27, 2007

To be read challenge, 2007

to be read I must be crazy. Why do I join all of these challenges? Well, because. Because they force me to focus on things I've meant to read.
This one is the "To Be Read Challenge" - 12 books that you have been meaning to read, in 12 months.

(drumroll, please......)

Jan Marsh - Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood
Lucinda Hawksley - Lizzie Siddal, face of the Pre-Raphaelites
Ann Beattie - Follies
Claire Tomalin - Katherine Mansfield: a secret life
Kara Dalkey - The nightingale
Kazuo Ishiguro - Never let me go
A.S. Byatt - Biographer's tale
Margaret Drabble - Seven Sisters
Francine Prose - Changed man
Virginia Woolf - On being ill
Maureen Corrigan - Leave me alone, I'm reading
Edith Hahn Beer - The Nazi officer's wife


Saturday, January 20, 2007

From the Stacks Winter Challenge: "Marriage à la mode" by Katherine Mansfield

Technically, this is not a "rereading." It's an offshoot of the last book I read for Rereading. That's what I do, as a voracious reader: I follow pathways from one book to something else.

"Marriage à la mode" -- Katherine Mansfield

Imagine Isabel, if you will: a young, married woman who once lived in a pretty London house with her loving husband William and two little children. Picture the house, with lush petunias in a window box: a harmonic convergence of peace and bliss after the First World War.

Now think of the changes perfuming the ancient English air: women's suffrage, feminism, artistic and literary modernism. Each change drew advocates and acolytes, many of them famous (the Bloomsbury group) and colorful (Lady Ottoline's many-hued estate, harboring artists, pacifists, and pugs). These were the glitterati of the new London.

Pretty Isabel goes to Paris with her friend Moira, and returns discontented, a new Isabel who laughs "in the new way." William, baffled by her desire for a new house, new music, and new friends, nonetheless buys her a house in the country. He stays in London and visits on weekends while Isabel lives her new life with new friends. Bohemians and artists surround her, sharing a sunlit idyll with their pretty muse. She thrives, the children thrive, and William continues to work and support the merry band of early flower children that has replaced the traditional family.

Satisfactory, no? It's feminist fairy tale, if the prince and the princess don't mind a long-distance happily-ever-after.

Not so fast.

We meet William as he prepares for a weekend visit. His children expect presents, as children do. Toys, perhaps? No: Isabel has thrown out their old toys because they were "appallingly bad for the babies' sense of form." What else would please the children? William buys a pineapple and a melon, boards the train, and thinks of his lovely, "petal-soft" Isabel and the featherbed they one shared. Worries surface. Will the merry ones be there this weekend? Will they try to steal the fruits (of his labors?) from the children?

They are, and they do.

Mansfield's pen loathes artifice, and it wastes no time peeling each acolyte. (This, one senses, is personal.) Dennis, the wannabe ironist, frames every scene into a precious verbal tableau ("A lady in love with a pineapple"). Bobby, the fey freeloader, wants to don a Nijinsky dress and dance. Moira, Isabel's friend, discovers that "sleep is so wonderful. One simply shuts one's eyes, that's all. It's so delicious." (This, one senses, is very personal.)

They tolerate William because Isabel chides them (and William overhears): "Be nice to him, my children! He's only staying until tomorrow evening." Left alone, he wanders into a sitting room that is littered with the leavings of Isabel's new children -- piles of cigarette ashes, a grotesque mural on a yellow wall, strips of paint-daubed cloth strewn over the furniture ...

What makes a house a home? Mansfield offers a gesture. William, sitting in an armchair, feels the space next to the cushion. In London, in the old house, he would have retrieved his children's toys: a three-legged toy sheep, perhaps, or a little horn. Here, he finds "yet another little paper-covered book of smudged-looking poems." Not even the detritus of Isabel's new life belongs to him. Isabel's new life has both alienated and trivialized him. The reader hears a window slam shut before a clearly-relieved Isabel shoves him into a taxi.

Mansfield's pen loathes artifice. It also loathes sentimentality. Another writer may have pounced on William and reveled in the long love-letter he begins to compose on the train. William's lachrymose letter might have been lampooned with as much savagery as Dennnis' faux irony. But it isn't; she doesn't.

Instead, she follows the letter as it is delivered to Isabel the next day, a sultry Monday that finds the sulky group moping. Only Isabel receives a letter that day, "and mine's only from William." The envelope is thick, and the letter is long. It begins: "My darling, precious Isabel," and it continues, page after heartfelt page.

Isabel, astonished, feels an unexpected, unwanted emotion. A sentimentalist may have led Isabel up to the cool privacy of her bedroom, there to have an epiphany, and to resolve to reunite with her loving husband.

Instead, Mansfield leads Isabel to her bedroom, but not before she shares the letter with her new, feral children. They whoop and jeer when they read the clumsy prose. "God forbid, my darling, that I should be a drag on your happiness." They roll on the ground, weak with hilarity.

Something about the raucous scene catches Isabel's attention. Perhaps, Mansfield seems to suggest, the letter has touched Isabel's disregarded heart. Perhaps the letter shifts Isabel's attention. Indeed, Isabel begins to berate herself, calling herself "shallow, tinkling, vain..."

Is this a liminal moment? Mansfield certainly has given Isabel a chance, but she chooses, with minimal consciousness of error, to rejoin her friends, "laughing in the new way."

Virginia Woolf once characterized Katherine Mansfield as "hard and cheap" (although she recognized Mansfield's potential to equal her own art). Hard and cheap. How else to tell this story? Isabel squanders the opportunities of liberation, congress with serious artists, and a loving husband. She chooses cheap thrills.

This fairytale does not end with Cinderella and her prince, beautiful to the end. Sleeping Beauty does not awaken to the true value of true love. The story holds up a mirror to every frivolous, self-reverential society that is so enthralled with itself that it stagnates. As it was, Mansfield implies, so shall it be.

- - - - -
- - - - -

Mansfield died of tuberculosis, at the estate of a charismatic, esoteric teacher, Gurdjieff. The wizard could not heal her - another fairy tale gone awry. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield knew that the mage would fail, but she chose to reach for the fantasy after hard reality had failed her.

posted by melanie

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Rereadings - "From the Stacks Winter Challenge"

Rereadings, edited by Anne Fadiman.

"One of the strongest motivations for rereading is purely selfish," says Fadiman in the introduction to this collection of essays. "It helps you remember what you used to be like." This may not always be pleasant: "Rereading forces you to spend time, at claustrophobically close range, with your earnest, anxious, pretentious, embarassing former self."

Patricia Hampl, in "Relics of Saint Katherine," was introduced first to Katherine Mansfield's personal writings, the journal and letters, instead of the crisp and illuminating short stories. Hampl's guide was Doris, her boyfriend's mother, who plucked these volumes from her ceiling-high bookshelves and said, "You must have these."

Doris was as unfulfilled in the dull St. Paul neighborhood as Mansfield had been in Wellington, New Zealand. Doris was rumored to have
written, and had been a teenager when Mansfield died. Since then, she had maintained a personal attachment to the life and work of the dead "tantalizing bohemian big sister," a connection she passed on to the young Patricia.

She was astonished to
learn that diaries and journals could be published and admired as literature. (After all, she wrote diaries as well!) These books "opened the door to memoir and the essay, forms I came to prize and practice."

Doris loved the short stories and knew the arc of Mansfield's life, including her sexual freedom, relationships with such literati as D. H. Lawrence, and her desperate, final grab at life through the mysticism of Gurdjieff. She also believed and rejoiced in the last words of Mansfield's published journal: "All was well."

"She was so happy," said Doris. "She forgot to be careful."

"It was as if she were there," writes Hampl. But Doris died before she could reread the journal after modern scholars discovered that Mansfield's odious husband had edited it to blunt the agony, loneliness, and despair with a triumphant narrative arc. (Says one of Hampl's friends: he was "boiling Katherine's bones to make soup.")

(One is grateful that Doris was able to enjoy and cherish her Katherine to the end of her life.)

When Hampl visits Bandol, where Mansfield wrote "Prelude" and "Bliss," she ascends to Mansfield's room in the "great peachy Belle Epoque" hotel, delapitated now, "left to pickle in its unhealthy browns and beiges, its sickets greens."
(One thinks of Mansfield's lungs, disintegrating in the bacillus brine of tuberculosis.) Hampl looks out to the same brilliant, blue sea that Mansfield would see after three hours of "happiness in the writing" - the only happiness that remained to the doomed writer.

As Hampl compares Mansfield to Sylvia Plath - two talented women doomed to be more famous for their lives than for their art - one realizes that the same is true of Doris, whose life we see through Hampl's brief narrative, but whose writing we never will know.

"Relics of Saint Katherine," in Hampl's first infatuation, were "the moist devotion of a cultist, not the frank pleasure of a reader." The cultist tracked down Mansfield's favorite brand of soap (Cuticura), wore the soft, velvet clothing Mansfield loved, and pinned up pictures of Mansfield as a personal shrine.

Fadiman's warning that rereading may mean encountering an "embarrassing former self" may describe this early devotion, but we also see that a writer's growth can transform that shallow, self-oriented, early experience into a deep and compassionate understanding.


Hampl's essay is but one of seventeen that examine works from Colette's fiction to the Sue Barton books. Consider yourself warned: come to these essays without pen and paper, else you will want to read almost everything that these writers - those who are read and those who have written - have ever published.


Monday, January 01, 2007

The perfect month for us!

Think you not of dull and drear days of winter. Instead, brew a cup of your favorite camellia sinensis and drink a toast to January, National Hot-Tea Month! It matters not whether you sip Lipton's, Earl Grey lavender, or a rare and precious cup of liquid gold so long as it leaves you with a catlike, satisfied smile of contentment.
(Moon Rani)