Marie Vassilitchikov, “Berlin Diaries 1940-1945″

I cast around rather wildly to find background reading for a recent week in Berlin. Friends loaned or gave us novels, guidebooks, recommendations. Beloved Husband settled on a massive history of Prussia called The Iron Kingdom and I spent a lot of time with a biography of the Krupp family (which I may or may not finish). And of course I have read Philip Kerr’s “March Violets” series about Bernie Gunther so I loaded his If the Dead Rise Not onto the Kindle. But when that story lurched to Cuba I lost interest. And once I actually got to Berlin, what I found most gripping was Marie Vassilitchikov’s Berlin Diaries 1940-1945.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, with new spire built in the 1960s.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, with new spire built in the 1960s.

Marie, or “Missie” as everyone calls her, was not a professional author. The book was put together by her brother after her death, using her diaries and letters. But she was a good observer and a clear, vivid writer. Born a Russian princess in 1917, she arrived in Berlin in 1940 to get a job. Her parents and younger siblings were living on their Lithuanian estates but had lost a great deal in the Revolution. Missie and her elder sister Tatiana were the only family members capable of earning money and Berlin was one of the few cities in Europe where, as stateless individuals, they could find employment.

What timing! At first this is a madcap narrative populated with young aristocrats from every corner of central Europe, all of whom seem to be related. Missie works as a secretary for the German Foreign Office but her social life is her real vocation. And then we have a front row seat as the war surges closer. Her family is separated, with a sister in Italy and a brother in Paris. Nazi policies become more and more frightening — and then, in 1943, the bombing starts.

The morning after the first raid I had an appointment to try on a hat at a small neighborhood shop. All around the houses were burning, but I wanted that hat badly and so I now went over and rang the bell and, wonder of wonders, was met by a smiling saleswoman: … ‘Your Highness may try it on.’

That’s her last act before leaving town because the house she was living in had been bombed. And then it keeps going, worse and worse. The light-hearted tone darkens. Missie is involved — to what extent, we never quite know — in the famous “Valkyrie” plot to assassinate Hitler. Many of her friends are arrested and never seen again. And between November 1943 and April 1945 Berlin was bombed 24 times. Some 92% of its buildings were destroyed. Which is why you still see the occasional empty lot on a major street in Berlin, and why some charred ruins still punctuate the skyline. This is not a world I know first-hand, but Missie did, and we’re lucky she shared her memories.

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Sarah Dunant, “Blood and Beauty”

Actually the full title is Blood and Beauty: The Borgias; A Novel. And there’s so much punctuation in that title that I didn’t dare continue the sentence lest we all be terminally confused. Granted, the titles are not the strongest features of Sarah Dunant’s three previous historical novels about Italy, all of which are wonderful. But maybe the name “Borgia” had to be in the title to link to the Showtime series (anybody seen it? care to weigh in?). And then, of course, you’d have to add “The Novel” lest potential buyers think it was a published script?

Pope Alexander VI, by Pinturrichio. The Pope had himself painted as a presence at the Resurrection.

Pope Alexander VI, by Pinturrichio. The Pope had himself painted as a presence at the Resurrection.

Whatever. This is a book. This is a terrific, meaty historical novel that even tops Dunant’s previous Italian novels. And why not, with the great Rodrigo Borgia as the central character? Possibly better known as Pope Alexander VI, and as wily as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell. Only, no, the Holy Father is less steely, more emotional, more, well, Latin in his emotions than Cromwell. He storms, he cries, he hugs and rants. He’s a fool for his beautiful children and his beautiful mistress… up to a point. Lucrezia’s value to the Borgia family is as marriage material so married she must be and children she must produce. Marriages that don’t work politically can be ended, legally or violently.

Lucrezia, also by Pinturicchio.

Lucrezia, also by Pinturicchio.

Oh, am I giving too much away? No, I’m really not. There are almost 550 pages in Blood and Beauty and other central characters include the charismatic, brilliant, fatally charming Cesare Borgia, cardinal at eighteen, military commander thereafter. Which is important, because Italy, as the fifteenth century becomes the sixteenth, is a collection of warring states controlled by powerful families with names like Este and Sforza and, of course, Borgia. The King of France invades, bringing the new and lethal “French disease” with his troops. (That would be syphilis, naturally blamed on the French.)

So the basic story arc is the struggle for power. But Dunant has always had a strong feminist bent and this Lucrezia is no mere marital pawn. She is patient, canny, self-controlled. She grows, over the course of the novel, from a lovely teenager to a powerful matron, possibly a match for her brother Cesare. Possibly in more ways than one. (Dunant hints at sexual tension between them.) She is even capable of besting her father; when he comes to visit her shortly after the death of her second husband, the Pope is appalled by the grief.

‘Is she still crying?’ he says one morning, though the question is surely rhetorical.

‘Either the duchess or some of her ladies.’ His chamberlain is anxious. He has seen the Pope buried under a ton of rubble, but never have his master’s nerves been quite so frayed. A house of men besieged by women’s tears: it is a novel form of warfare.

‘Don’t they ever sleep?’

‘I think not all at the same time, Your Holiness.’

What is a man to do?

Blood and Beauty ends with Lucrezia about to depart for her third marriage. Dunant finishes her Epilogue with these words: “Fate — a capricious goddess, as we know — permitting, there will be a concluding novel in a few years’ time. It may not surprise you to learn that the story of the Borgias does not get any less exciting.”

I’m waiting.

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Anne de Courcy, “The Fishing Fleet”

Do you know what “The Fishing Fleet” was? We’re not talking about sou’westers and cod here. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, young Englishwomen who had trouble finding husbands at home often traveled to India in search of an eligible mate. And because of their enormous numerical advantage, girls who were overlooked on London dance floors could have their pick of suitors in Delhi or Calcutta or Simla.

Anne de Courcy has written several solid biographies or group biographies, focusing on England’s upper classes in the last 150 years. She was, for example, Lord Snowdon’s official biographer. The Fishing Fleet is something of a departure in that it looks further back in time than most of her previous books but the hallmarks of her work are present here: thorough research, sympathetic narration, and a gift for explaining social context.

For instance, I’ve always taken for granted the English presence in India, but de Courcy spells out precisely what the various services did, how they were staffed, and what life was like during the near-century of the British Raj. In 1861, the British population of India was around 125,000, about a third civilian and two-thirds attached to the armed forces. Of course India was crucial for British prosperity during this time, so the investment of manpower made sense.

Stereoscopic view of Victoria Terminus, completed in 1888 in what was then Bombay.

Stereoscopic view of Victoria Terminus, completed in 1888 in what was then Bombay.

I’ve known about “the Fishing Fleet” for years; Joanna Trollope wrote a couple of good historical novels as Caroline Harvey that focus on Fishing Fleet characters. So I was thrilled to receive the paperback of this book from England, where it was a best seller.

Figuring out how to organize the book must have been a challenge, because de Courcy uses material from diaries, memoirs, journals and letters, published and not. Dozens of women are mentioned and indeed come briefly to life. Cleverly, de Courcy takes a rough chronological approach following the career of an average fishing-fleet girl. Chapters cover the voyage, arrival, the climate, the characters, the interplay between the British and the Indians, engagements and marriages. She highlights the careers of several women for whom, presumably, she had especially good material. (These women also appear in the inserts of photographs, especially fascinating.)

And what an adventure it was! One girl was met at dockside by “a tall fierce-looking Indian” who had been dispatched by her hostess with a letter that said, ‘”My personal bearer, Dost Mahommed, will escort you on the journey. He speaks adequate English and you can trust him with your life.’… in no time my status was transformed from buffeted nonentity to veritable princess.’”

Everything was bigger and brighter in India, from the crowds to the natural settings to the colors of the clothes, the size of the insects, the maharajahs’ jewels, the houses, the distances, the military uniforms. The dangers, especially of illness, were greater, too. For women who married planters or men whose work took them “up country,” life was as harsh as for any American pioneer. And as de Courcy points out, the great grief at the heart of these marriages was that children were always sent back to England to be educated. Thousands of mothers put their five- to ten-year-old children on board ship, knowing they would not see them again for years. Some “Raj orphans” went to extended family but some were treated very badly indeed. Yet many returned to India, to perpetuate the cycle — and de Courcy helps us see why.

Posted in anglophilia, nonfiction | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Anthony Trollope, “The Duke’s Children”

The Duke’s Children wraps up the Palliser series of Trollope’s novels and, though I doubt Trollope planned it this way, unites the emotional and political story lines. We meet some of our old friends like Madame Max Goesler, now Mrs. Phineas Finn. We are treated, if that’s the word, to Parliamentary infighting. Even hot-headed Lord Chiltern makes an appearance — yet on this reading, the novel somehow lacked energy.

For one thing, Cora is gone. Her absence from the Palliser family shakes up the dynamics, of course, but her missing energy and sparkle leave a gap on the page as in the relationships. Much of the narration comes now from “Planty Pal” — as no one now calls the Duke of Omnium. In fact I doubt there’s anyone left to call him “Plantagenet” which is  sad. But Trollope isn’t one to wring pity from us. He just methodically informs us how things look from the Duke’s viewpoint.

Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, the prototypical American heiress in England, mother of Winston Churchill.

Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, the prototypical American heiress in England, mother of Winston Churchill.

There’s something true about this. It’s almost as if Trollope himself were in the Duke’s shoes, dutifully moving through monotonous days of activity, unable to find comfort. The Duke, as a character, has always been interesting yet unsympathetic. His is the tragedy of great reserve. He loves his children but has merely formal relationships with them. Of his daughter Mary, we’re told, “… as to her actual disposition, he had never taken any trouble to inform himself. She had been left to her mother, — as girls are left. And his sons had been left to their tutors. And now he had no control over any of them.”

So that’s the plot. Lord Silverbridge, the elder son and heir, is a handsome, appealing sprig of the nobility who gets into various scrapes including semi-engaging himself to an aristocratic girl, then changing his mind and falling hard for an American heiress, Isabel Boncassen. What’s more he has agreed to stand for Parliament, but as a Conservative rather than a Liberal, his father’s party. Lady Mary (and by the way, does anybody else think Julian Fellowes must be a Trollope reader?) for her part has fallen in love with Frank Tregear, a clever, ambitious friend of Silverbridge’s, who has no way to earn a living. (It’s Tregear’s influence that made Silverbridge switch parties. The boy is malleable. That’s part of the problem.) I’m glad I didn’t know that in the 1974 TV series, Silverbridge was played by Anthony Andrews and Tregear by a dewy Jeremy Irons.

Anyway, the Duke is aghast. These matches run counter to everything he believes in. He is not  proud, personally. But he does hold that the position of Duke of Omnium requires maintenance. Silverbridge should not marry Isabel, he should marry Lady Mabel Grex, from one of the oldest families in England. Mary certainly should not engage herself to a poor man, even though the Duke is immensely rich. And Lord Gerald, the younger brother, should not lose money gambling and get himself kicked out of his Oxford college. (Or was it Cambridge? Too lazy to search through 500 pp. to check.)

The difficulty is that Trollope’s loyalty to his chief protagonist drains the drama from this novel. Internal struggle is fiendishly hard to portray without boring your reader. So while we sympathize with the Duke, it’s at a distance. What’s more, because we know that he’s fundamentally kind-hearted, we understand that he’ll eventually relent and make his children happy. And while the stolid, going-through-the-motions quality of the storytelling may indeed mimic the drudgery of grief, I doubt Trollope intended to get that meta. He is simply more fun to read when he’s writing about characters on the edge of sanity or morality or outright disaster. Which is why The Way We Live Now might be a good follow-up.

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Robert Harris, “An Officer and a Spy”

You know those historical events you should understand but don’t? The ones you try to read about but abandon when your mind kind of slides away from the confusing facts (too many names, too many shifting stories, too long a time span)? So often I encounter these incidents and think, “If only there were a novel about that, I might be able to get a grip on it.”

The Dreyfus Affair has always been one of these. Caring as much as I do about 19th century France, I’ve naturally absorbed some facts: it was a spying scandal in the 1890s. A Jewish Army officer was accused, convicted, sent away to a lonely rock in the middle of an ocean. Emile Zola became outraged and made public accusations of a military cover-up. Some other guy was proven to be the spy. The true shocker was the exposure of the anti-Semitism in French culture. What I remembered best was an image of Dreyfus’ formal “degradation” — the public military ceremony in which his uniform was stripped of every mark of rank including the buttons, and his sword was removed from him and broken. There’s visual drama for you!

Dreyfus' degradation, from a contemporary newspaper illustration.

Dreyfus’ degradation, from a contemporary newspaper illustration.

And wisely, Robert Harris opens An Officer and a Spy with that very scene. What a pro he is! Let me tell you, this is one complicated story: lots of characters, lots of names, many years elapsed. Nobody is a particularly attractive personality: not Dreyfus, certainly not the Army brass that condemns him, not even our narrator, Major Georges Picquart, who is a detached careerist. His tenacity and his occasional moments of self-doubt (and the reader’s automatic investment in the first-person voice) are enough to keep us on his side, though.

I think what impressed me most was the sheer skill with which Harris tells his story. He builds scene after scene around documents (forged, translated, found in locked cases) and individuals. He gives each character enough personal quirks so we can remember Mercier with his face like a mask and the overbearing Henry and the desperately ill Sandherr. The female characters with whom Picquart has dalliances — 19th century France, after all — are less distinctive.

This is kind of middle-brow entertainment. It’s not as fast-paced as Lee Child, for instance. It’s absolutely rooted in its period and though there is a duel, the thrilling moments are courtroom power struggles. It’s also not entirely escapist. In 1895 France was only 25 years past a humiliating defeat by Germany in which two border provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, were ceded to the victors. Matters of national security were taken extremely seriously. Rules were bent. The press found out. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? 

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Dorothy Whipple, “The Priory”

The problem with giving people books for Christmas is the “one for you, one for me” principle.  As I was doing a little gift-wrapping back in December I found myself flipping through several alluring volumes, this among them, and beetling over to the computer to secure them for myself. Second-hand, of course. Because The Priory is one of those beautiful Persephones and they tend to be expensive. But worth while.

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, courtesy English Heritage

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, courtesy English Heritage

Truthfully, I’ve been saving up Dorothy Whipple much as I’m saving up Elizabeth Taylor. There are moments in life when a few hours spent in prosperous between-the-wars-England feels totally restorative, and I’d reached one of those. I enjoy the gentility, not only of the setting but also of the narration. Whipple isn’t going to take me places I don’t want to go, though The Priory has its share of tragedy and even a glum and unsuccessful suicide attempt. Some characters make you want to shake them ’til their teeth rattle and some turn out to be more annoying or more tolerable than you’d at first understood.

The star of the show, though, is Saunby Priory, the home of the Marwood family. Saunby remains the same; the characters relate to it as much as to each other. It forms them and forces actions. A big estate on the grounds of a former monastery, it has been drifting into neglect at the hands of owner Major Marwood, a colossally selfish man who cares only about his own comfort — and cricket. Saunby is an outpost of the nineteenth century, a rural estate still supported by tenant farming, with 19th-century practices and habits lingering in the house. When the book opens, Marwood’s twenty-something daughters Claire and Penelope, minimally educated, still live separately up on the nursery floor of the house, contented but isolated. Marwood’s sister Victoria nominally runs the house but cares only about her dreadful paintings. The servants cluster comfortably behind the green baize door, resentfully performing the bare minimum of work. This fragile stasis crumbles when Marwood proposes marriage to Anthea, a middle-aged spinster, hoping that she will somehow, magically, be able to run his house economically, manage the servants, and concoct appropriate futures for Claire and Penelope. That is to say, marriage, because these barely literate girls are unfit to work. And in the world of this book “… it was only marriage that moved women about… Women moved to men, but otherwise they mostly stayed where they were born.”

Which would mean at The Priory, which Whipple describes in all seasons, with passionate lyricism. The estate — not so much the uncomfortable and disorganized house — is an antidote to the modern urban world. Well, don’t we all need that sometimes?

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Benjamin Black, “Holy Orders”

I’m a little suspicious about Benjamin Black/John Banville’s rate of production here. Holy Orders is his most recent Quirke mystery, apparently released in August, a year after Vengeance. Yet in March we’ll see The Black-Eyed Blonde, in which Black follows in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler. Leaving aside my skepticism about the current publishing fad for retooling old franchises, is it possible that Black has taken on too much work? Did he neglect Quirke to explore Marlowe? Holy Orders seems to suggest so.

Irish "travelers" in a caravan, 1954. Prettier than in the book.

Irish “travelers” in a caravan, 1954. Prettier than in the book.

We’re back in smoky complicated 1950s Dublin. Pathologist Quirke is once again stumbling through an investigation fueled by cigarettes and a shocking amount of liquor. I’ve always enjoyed Black’s leisurely pace and virtuoso writing but this installment in the series feels somewhat pro forma. A body is fished up from a canal. It turns out to be Jimmy Minor, a friend of Quirke’s daughter Phoebe. The assumption is that Jimmy, a newspaper reporter, was killed to prevent him from pursuing an investigation. Priests are involved, of course. So are gypsies, providing a shot of exoticism and a glossary of foreign terms tucked into the dialogue like plums in a fruit cake.

It struck me as odd that the gypsy characters used their language only for nouns in Quirke’s presence, but by then I was disenchanted. I mean that literally;  the spell of the fiction had dissipated. The puzzle part of the mystery was disappointingly thin and predictable. Quirke’s peculiar perception of the world — which has always been one of the strengths of these books — is distorted in Holy Orders by strange sensations, languidly described. He has hallucinations, vivid and multi-sensory. The book ends with Quirke in a neurologist’s office, about to hear the verdict on a brain scan. Tumor? I’m betting on florid migraines. I hope the doc can prescribe something to straighten Quirke out, but I suspect fatigue is really the issue.

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