I’m sure you have now heard about WWW Wednesday (even I know about it), but to recap, this is what it entails – you must post about three books:
What you most recently finished reading
What you are currently reading
What you will read next
Here are mine!
What I recently finished reading: Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell
This was the second biography of Catherine Howard that I have read this year, and it really was excellent. I am currently planning a blog about this and the other biography (by Josephine Wilkinson).
What I am currently reading: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
This was sent to me by Penguin for review, and I’d wanted to read it for a while. It’s an interesting take on a well-known story and historical figure (Matthew Hopkins) and so far it is very engaging. Review to come!
What I will read next: Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym
Another review copy from Penguin, which also looks intriguing. I love a bit of narrative non-fiction and this looks like the sort of unusual memoir that I will enjoy.
I read a biography of Byron when I was about 17 or 18, having been introduced to him by a teacher. I fell in love with his life story, the drama and romance, the scandal, and of course the poetry. I automatically took his side in the break with his wife Annabella (which happened as a consequence of all his, um, dalliances, one of which was with his half-sister). Cold and repressed, I resented her attitude to his liberal lifestyle. The tragedy was of course the fact that after he left England in 1816 he never saw their daughter, Ada, ever again. She was a year old when he left.
Ada was then molded by her mother Annabella, who was intent on erasing any ‘Byronic’ elements from her daughter. All I knew of the adult Ada was that she was interested in mathematics (inherited from her mother) and worked with Charles Babbage on his difference engine. Given my past love for Byron, I naturally wanted to know more about her, and pounced on this book when I saw it in Waterstones.
I had high hopes for this book, and some of them were fulfilled – I learned a lot about Ada’s life, her personality and attitudes, and more of the details of her work with Babbage. But – this book is ultimately unsuccessful. The long-winded title is the first of many small errors that add up to an unsatisfying experience. For starters the first third of the book is all about Byron and Annabella; while the context of their relationship and history is relevant, Benjamin Wooley chooses to tell the whole story from start to finish, with far too much detail. This may be my opinion because I already knew the story and didn’t learn anything new, but I think to have an interest in this book in the first place you would probably already have some knowledge of Ada’s parents. Either way I think there is too much detail and context at this point, and you begin to wonder when Ada will enter the story.
When she does arrive she is still playing second fiddle in the narrative to her mother Annabella – which is exactly what happened to her in real life. Annabella, the pragmatist, was terrified of her husband’s scandalous and wild behaviour manifesting itself in her daughter; and so she forced upon Ada a rigid life of maths and science, with little time for imagination and creativity. Imagination itself was seen as something dangerous and risky, capable of taking one to untold depths of depravity.
To me, Annabella was an overbearing, insecure, and rather selfish mother that was terrified of letting her daughter just be herself. In the end Ada seems to have been a perfectly normal person with a good balance of intellect and creativity. Unfortunately Wooley takes up pages and pages telling us of the various ways in which Annabella tried to control her daughter’s mind and behaviour, rather than letting us see Ada herself. For most of the book she seems to be a secondary character.
Even when she is an adult, we hear about Ada only in relation to other interesting people of the time that she met or corresponded with. Her initial fame comes from her father and her colleague Babbage – and the way in which Wooley tells her story only compounds the idea that she is only relevant or important because of her associations with other people.
To me, Ada seems remarkable in herself. There is a limited amount of her own writing and work left, and perhaps this is why Wooley chooses to go to so many other sources and people for news of her – but I found this tedious and speculative. I wanted to know the real Ada, and I felt like this book only touched the surface. I wanted more analysis of her personality, and her famous and undoubtedly impressive work with Babbage (just google it and look at the complexity!). I wanted more of her. And this book was more about her time, and the ways in which she was continually pulled between her parents’ personalities, a theme which got tired pretty quickly.
This is one of those books that could have been so great, but just fell down at the simplest hurdles. It was first published in 2000, and if a new biography of Ada is ever released I’d certainly consider it, in order to fill in the gaps left by this one. Ada remains elusive.
First published by Pan in 2000. The edition I read was a 2015 reprint by Pan.
I think we can all agree that a mythology has grown around Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes. Both her writing and her short life were undoubtedly remarkable, but it is also the fact of Hughes’ control over what was published or not published after her death that has gained notoriety and drawn endless attention to both their names. For decades people have written about them, pried into their lives and invaded their privacy, even when Ted Hughes was still alive. Now that they have both passed away it seems that there are no limits on how much or what can be said about them.
In her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) Janet Malcolm confronts the issue of how much the poets’ live have been dragged through the mud and held up to the public for viewing in all their glory and pain. Malcolm examines the various Plath biographies that have appeared over the years and the people that have both written and contributed to them. She speaks to people who knew Plath and those who have decided to take sides in what some perceive to be a divide between those who support Plath and those who support Hughes. I personally think such a divide, the act of taking sides, is ludicrous and serves only to trivialise the complicated and ultimately personal and private nature of their relationship. Taking sides implies that we have a a right to an opinion about what was right or wrong, who should be praised and who should be criticised. The fact is, we do not.
And yet, what is biography if not dissecting other people’s lives, and, sometimes, passing judgement? The very nature of biography is to sift through the details of a life and expose what was once personal and private. We love to examine the lives of others, and the fact is that this can be done with respect and discretion – but when the life being examined was in living memory, and more is known, the examination can become too detailed, too personal, and can cross from interest and fascination into gawking and speculation. We forget that they were just people. I think sometimes everyone forgets that Sylvia Plath was just a person, another woman like me or anyone else trying to work through life. She was special in that she saw that life with a poet’s eye, and it is, rightly, for this that she is remembered. But she is also remembered for the dark elements of her life, including the breakdown of her marriage – not that that is any of our business frankly. Her poet’s eye was part literary genius and part mental illness, which is what makes her so fascinating. I think it also makes her hard to understand for some people, which leads to the gawking and over-examination. People become obsessed with getting ‘the whole story’ and understanding the truth.
The nature of truth is something that Janet Malcolm explores throughout The Silent Woman. As a journalist and non-fiction writer she is in the business of finding the truth, and as she interviews various people who knew or wrote about Plath she examines how much truth she finds in each person and their recollections. Ultimately she declares that there can be no real truth in non-fiction writing because we cannot ever know ‘what really happened’ between other people. She states that there can only be truth in fiction, where the author is the omniscient power. I’m not sure if I agree – but I didn’t agree with a lot of Malcolm’s assertions. Malcolm is an opinionated writer, which I liked, but I didn’t always warm to her. To me she was cold and humourless, researching and interviewing with a determination that seemed more like a fixation than a passion. She doesn’t seem to gain any pleasure from her research for this book – it is all bleakly matter-of-fact and while I was fascinated and engaged, I realised towards the end that I didn’t really enjoy reading The Silent Woman. It produced no positivity for me and only proved that some things are best left alone, best kept at a respectful distance. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were both extraordinary writers, and I think we would all be better off if the world focussed on that and left their personal lives to rest.
First published by Picador in 1994, then by Granta in 2005 and 2012.
This book came to me entirely by chance when I saw it was up for grabs from the publisher Gallic Books on Twitter. I had heard of Helena Rubinstein at some point, not sure where, but my first memory of hearing her name was in an episode of Sex and the City when the girls visit the Helena Rubinstein spa in New York and Samantha gropes her male masseur. The manager throws them out because “Helena Rubinstein is a civilised place for civilised people”. I reckon the lady herself would have agreed.
Personally I’ve come to care a lot more about beauty and skin care in the last few years, and now find myself reading about it more and more, both in magazines and online (XOVain is particular favourite). Helena Rubinstein is a hugely respected name in the industry but has been a little forgotten of late, with no visible campaigns and their products barely mentioned in the press. But, as Michele Fitoussi’s title states, Helena Rubinstein was a pioneer of the beauty industry and was a key player in the invention of what we now know as ‘beauty’ in the modern sense.
Madame (as she came to be known) was born in Krakow, Poland in 1872, the eldest of eight daughters. She refused to follow her parents’ wishes and marry someone just because she should, and so was more than happy to be sent to live with her maternal uncles in Australia in 1902. Her mother Gitte had created a simple face cream that she insisted all her daughters use every day; Helena took twelve jars of it with her and began telling women about it in her uncle’s shop after they asked how she achieved her flawless complexion. She sent for more cream from her mother and after obtaining the formula made it herself, and sold it in her uncle’s shop. This simple face cream, originally called Valaze cream, was the beginning of her beauty empire.
Charismatic and with excellent marketing and sales skills, Rubinstein made her Valaze cream so popular that she was eventually able to set up salons in the biggest Australian cities, after selling it in her uncle’s shop and encouraging word-of-mouth amongst society ladies. She remained a national hero there for the rest of her life. Her empire (an appropriate word once you read her story) spanned Australia, New Zealand, Europe, America, and even Japan in the late 1950s.
From Australia Madame moved to western Europe, conquering Paris and London, before tackling New York. She was always ambitious, and no success was ever enough – work was everything. Even through her troubled first marriage and the births of her two sons, she worked tirelessly, even to the point of neglecting her family. This is where we might not like Madame as much as we did initially. I was certainly thrown by her willingness to leave her children with nannies for such long periods of time, to the point where the boys felt a huge emotional distance between them and their mother. Fitoussi however is sympathetic to both Madame and her sons, and describes their relationships from both sides, examining how their childhood affected their later lives. I think Rubinstein’s approach to motherhood says a great deal about her, as career was everything for most of her life. It was only when bad health forced her to slow down that she began to reflect on her role as a mother and wished she had spent more time with her children when they were young.
She was certainly not without heart, but she was consistently tough with all those around her, demanding more and more from them every time she saw them. Most of her sisters were summoned to work in her salons, as well as nieces and nephews, and even her beloved assistant Patrick O’Higgins, a fixture in her later life, was not immune to her harsh words. It seems to me that Madame greatly appreciated family, but was so incredibly determined to succeed in business that she sometimes forgot just how important they were to her.
Michele Fitoussi documents the life of Madame with obvious affection and admiration, although sometimes the sheer amount of travelling and dramas that happened seem to be too much to fit into the pages, and a list-like structure sometimes appears. Most of the time, however, Fitoussi manages to include all the major life events and key minor moments while still portraying the humanity of the woman at the centre of an enormous business empire. It is glamorous and exciting, but not without the mundanity of everyday life and the struggles of familial relationships.
Despite her shortcomings, I really do admire Helena Rubinstein. She battled through a tough childhood, very uncertain and difficult beginnings in Australia, a constantly changing industry and challenging rivals, not to mention being a woman and a Jew in a world that favoured neither. She was defiant and brave, and unendingly determined to succeed. She was always in charge and never let anyone beat her – even when her home was burgled, she sat in the bed, a defenceless old woman, and hid her diamonds and the key to safe in her nightgown while the thieves tried to find her best jewels. Helena Rubinstein was tough, bold and very intelligent. She is quoted as saying she felt as if she had lived “a dozen normal lives” and after reading Michele Fitoussi’s excellent biography I can see why.
Originally published by in France by Grasset in 2010, and was published in English in 2013 by Gallic Books. My copy was kindly provided by Gallic Books for review.
Deadlines are generally a good thing but when it comes to this book it’s a good thing that I didn’t have one. I bought it of my own volition and read it, and thought about it for a long time, and attended a Q&A with the author, and only now am I about ready to get my thoughts on it down on, well, this blog.
There are many biographies of Sylvia Plath, and rightly so. She is one of the most acclaimed and influential American poets of the 20th century, and an icon of some kind for many an aspiring writer – or indeed, a lost soul. Sylvia Plath was just that – lost.
This new book focuses on Plath’s life before she met her husband Ted Hughes, and I was instantly intrigued by this fact as it is almost impossible to read anything about Plath without reading about Hughes and their relationship at the same time. Hughes’ position as her widow and her editor meant that he had a huge influence on the way Plath was viewed by the reading public after her death, especially since only one volume of poetry was published during her lifetime. Throughout the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar, and countless other poetry collections (including the seminal Ariel), Hughes was in charge of what was seen and read by the world. He presented his wife as he thought she should be seen. He famously dismissed her early writing and her numerous short stories as ‘juvenilia’ that were part of a ‘false self’ that did not showcase her talent fully. Scholars and readers of Plath’s early work, particularly since Hughes’ death in 1998, have largely disagreed with his opinion. As Andrew Wilson deftly shows in this new biography, Plath’s early years and early work were an integral part of her whole self.
Wilson chose the title Mad Girl’s Love Song after reading an early poem of the same name, written by Plath in 1951 while she was a student at Smith College. It was inspired by a boyfriend at the time and depicts a woman trying to work out if her lover is real or a figment of her imagination. She wonders if their passion is real of if she made him up “inside her head”. I can see why it was chosen – in some ways it is so evocative of Plath’s state of mind throughout her life, conflating what is real and what she has imagined for herself.
This theme comes up again and again throughout the book when it comes to Plath’s friends and boyfriends, and even her family. She sees all of them not quite as they really are, but how she wants them to be, casting them as idealised or exaggerated versions of themselves. Devastated by her father’s death when she was eight, Plath spent the rest of her life looking for a “colossus” that could replace him, seeing all her dates and boyfriends (including Ted Hughes), as well as male friends, as potential father-figures that could protect her and make her happy. Inevitably, none of them lived up to her ideal. “Colossus” was the name of the only poetry collection published in Plath’s lifetime, and the term comes up again and again throughout this book when Plath refers to ideals of men.
At a reading and Q&A on 13th March at Waterstones in Covent Garden, Wilson stated that Plath turned certain people in her life from real people into “spectres” of themselves, projected images of what she wanted them to be. This happened mostly poignantly with Eddie Cohen, a young man who wrote to her after reading one of her short stories in a magazine. They became regular pen pals and discussed almost every facet of their lives, from writing and art to sex and relationships. As an objective and, crucially, detached male voice, Cohen gave Plath his opinion on how she should conduct herself with men, and how he felt she was progressing as a writer. Reading snippets of their letters in Wilson’s book, I did not always like Cohen for his harsh judgements of Plath and his insistence that he was right and she was wrong. Despite his criticisms they continued to correspond and it seems that Plath benefitted from a critical voice that told her when she being an idiot and when she was on the right track. Wilson’s research and carefully chosen quotes suggest that Cohen knew Plath better than most of the people in her life. As someone entirely separate from her everyday life, she was able to share more with him than with those around her, whose judgements could potentially damage her.
When Cohen turned up unexpectedly at Smith College one day, Plath was furious, and he left after only a few hours. She felt as if he had violated her privacy and she could not stand to see him in real life – as a real person. She needed him to remain as a spectre, as a critical and reassuring voice that came to her only in letters and entirely removed from her personal, physical self.
It seems to me that Plath had a tendency to ‘dream away’ what she didn’t like in her life and replace it with fantasy and writing. As her state of mind deteriorated throughout the early 1950s, she seemed less and less real to her friends, and lived more and more in her own head, particularly after her 1953 suicide attempt and hospitalisation.
Ted Hughes looms large in the distance towards the end of Mad Girl’s Love Song. You know she will meet him soon, and indeed their meeting in included in the book. When Plath met Hughes, she was still involved with Richard Sassoon, the man that has come to be called her “great love”. They had a passionate, intense relationship and spent blissful hours in hotels and restaurants, and even a trip around Europe. But when Plath had to go back to Cambridge, Sassoon had to go to Spain – and in his absence she returned to her fledgling romance with Hughes. She later severed all contact with Sassoon and married Hughes, four months after they had met.
At the Q&A Wilson keenly pointed out that he was not ‘anti-Hughes’ and that he hopes that now we can live in a world where readers and scholars are not divided into two camps, one supporting Hughes and one supporting Plath. Neither one was right or wrong. Yet it is inevitable that, after reading this intense and fascinating book, one might feel some anger towards Hughes for the fateful role that he played in Plath’s life, and the emotional damage that he did to her. However, one might also feel angry (as I admit I do) at Plath for not always addressing her problems directly and her rage and anguish overwhelm her. There were times when I was reading this book that I wanted to shout at Plath for running off with another boy or venting at Eddie Cohen instead of dealing with her issues head on. I wanted her to fight, more than she did. But I think she fought as much as she could, and reached a point where she just could not fight any more. I may not agree with all her life choices, and I may regret certain circumstances (if only Sassoon had been able to stay with her!) but the flow of life cannot be changed. The past is the past.
Sylvia remains captured in it, somewhere between a moment of intense happiness, and one of equally intense despair.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted was published in January 2013 by Simon & Schuster in the UK, and Scribner in the US.
By now I’m sure you’ve all heard of Peirene Press – they are a small publisher bringing European literature to a British audience in translation. They publish their beautiful little books (all are intentionally short) in series of threes, each with a theme. Sea of Ink by Swiss author Richard Weihe is the third book in the ‘Small Epic’ series, which also includes The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul, which I reviewed here.
Sea of Ink tells the imagined life story of a real figure – the painter Bada Shanren, one of the most influential and highly revered Chinese painters of all time. The book comprises 51 short chapters that are intended as snapshots of the man’s life – from before his birth to his death. Bada Shanren was born as the Prince Zhu Da of the Ming dynasty. When it fell, he went into hiding and became an artist. He changed his name regularly to coordinate with the changes and shifts he went through as an artist.
This snapshot method of telling the story meant that, for me, the book almost read more like a poem than a novel. Lots of short sentences and very little dialogue, but with beautiful imagery and plenty of Chinese wisdom and philosophy. In this sense it is not a conventional novel. To me it felt more like an essay or one of a series of life snapshots.
The only problem I had with Sea of Ink was the lack of emotional engagement with the central character. Again like a poem, the writing holds you at a certain distance from the subject, as well as the passage of time. This means that the reader feels a certain amount of detachment and never really connects with Bada Shanren as a person. Photographs of his paintings are included in the book, and these help to bring to life the stages of his journey – many of them serve to express his feelings where words cannot.
This issue of emotional depth and sympathy for the main character was raised in the Q&A section of the Peirene Press Experience with Richard Weihe at Senate House library on Wednesday night. The evening was a mixture of readings from the book (by actor Adam Venus), music from composer Fabian Kuenzli, and a talk from author Weihe. The readings were vivid and lyrical, and the music, played on the clarinet, was composed in response to the novel. There was also an early 20th century jazz composition that suited the text well. Weihe spoke with passion about seeing one of Bada Shanren’s paintings in a museum in Zurich and being fascinated by the process and intentions of it, and of course the man who painted it. This lead him to research what little information there is on the 17th century artist, and to write Sea of Ink. Peirene have uploaded footage of the evening’s performances to their YouTube channel, which can be seen here.
As Marketing Manager Maddy Pickard said to me on the night, it is lovely to have literary events that are a little different – that contain something beyond a reading. The music added another dimension to the text and it was amazing to hear Weihe talk about his book with such passion, almost as if he were delivering a lecture to students rather than an informal talk to a room full of readers.
Peirene Press consistently produce excellent literature and I highly recommend reading any of their books. Sea of Ink is beautiful and sad, and I think it will really appeal to anyone with an interest in art, history, philosophy, and poetry. So, most of you then!
Sea of Ink was published in English in September 2012 by Peirene Press, and is available at peirenepress.com/shop. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
There are countless books on Marilyn Monroe already – so why another? And why did I choose to read this one? The author of Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, Lois Banner, is a prominent American feminist scholar and historian, and teaches history at the University of Southern California. The inside cover of this book, as well as her USC faculty page, calls her ‘a founder of the field of women’s history’; without knowing anything more about her, I was impressed by these credentials. With her focus on the role of women in society and my already being fascinated by Monroe and her life story but never having read a book on her, I looked forward to Banner’s viewpoint, which in the prologue she says will be from a specifically feminist point of view.
The problem with asking whether Monroe was a feminist herself is that the term, Banner asserts, wasn’t in widespread use at the time. Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking and controversial feminist text The Feminine Mystique (which contains its own prejudices, despite extolling equality) was published in 1963, the year after Monroe’s death. Friedan’s book is credited as ‘sparking’ the beginning of the second-wave feminist movement (first-wave having been suffrage and the women’s vote). Monroe died before feminism became a populist movement that influenced society. Given men’s treatment of her throughout her life, I expect that Monroe would have engaged in second-wave feminism in the 1960s, or at least supported it. If nothing else it would have educated her and perhaps made her think differently about her relationships with men.
In the Afterword Banner quotes two of Monroe’s friends, Hedda and Norman Rosten, in relation to whether she could have been called a feminist. Hedda called Monroe ‘the quintessential victim of the male’; while her husband Norman stated that she would have ‘quarrelled with her “sisters” on the issue of sexual liberation.’ Banner asserts that in Norman’s view Monroe sounds like a post-feminist, emphasising ‘the power women possess through their femininity and sexuality.’ Having read Banner’s biography I think that these two opposing view points come not necessarily from the fact that Hedda was a woman and Norman was a man, but the way in which Monroe used her femininity and sexuality.
In her early Hollywood years, Monroe slept with a lot of men, some of whom helped advance her career. Banner states that Monroe had a ‘free love’ attitude and believed that sex could be part of friendship. She certainly had a lot of lovers over the years and her image, partly cultivated by the studios she worked for and partly a natural reaction of her own to her fame, was based around her being blonde, flirty, and sexy. She used her sexiness and the appeal of her body to promote herself and her movies, rather than shun being ‘sexy’ in order to be considered ‘serious’. This is why Norman Rosten/Banner calls her a post-feminist. Hedda Rosten, on the other hand, only sees her as a ‘victim’ of men, partly because of her forward sexuality, negating her ability to be feminist.
And yet Monroe did strive to be considered serious. Banner states throughout the book that Monroe would memorise quotes from poetry and novels to recite at parties, and did genuinely read Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and many other highly respected writers. She was often spotted reading on movie sets. A great source of frustration was her inability to convince the bosses at Twentieth-Century Fox to allow her to play a serious dramatic role. She was a brilliant comic actor, and her movies brought in a lot of money. They weren’t willing to risk a failure if she wasn’t as good at dramatic roles as she said she was.
Monroe was always unstable. Shy, sensitive and with a warped sense of her value to men and her role in relationships with them, she made a lot of bad decisions, and took a lot of pills to contain her nerves and her mood swings. When she entered Hollywood she marketed herself as ‘Marilyn Monroe, sex kitten’; she never shook this image off. Studio bosses, as well as the men she had relationships with, refused to see her as anything else than the sexy blonde bombshell she was on screen, though they often disapproved of her flirtatiousness and skimpy clothes. She was stubborn and defiant, and fought against the men who tried to control her, often and ultimately to her detriment. She was brave and at times reckless, but constantly strove to be successful and happy. Her courage and ambition makes her, in my view, an early version of a feminist – regardless of her own weaknesses that allowed men to dominate her.
Banner’s investigations and research into Monroe’s life are determined and thorough. In a slightly self-satisfied tone she informs the reader of all the information overlooked or purposefully omitted by previous biographers and obviously delights in being able to reveal the truth about things. Monroe took so many risks and got so carried away with her own emotions and impulses that the highest levels of American power hid the truth of her death, and some events in her life. Banner’s work on Monroe has been criticised for various reasons and although I didn’t always agree with some of her bold assertions about this or that, I admired her determination to examine Monroe from a new perspective. In her short and insightful Afterword, Banner states that Monroe praised those who rebelled against social conventions, and liked to place herself among them; in a way, she could – but she also succumbed to the power of men and became the sexy blonde bombshell they wanted her to be. Had she lived past 1962, or been born later in the century, she may have been different. She would have been educated by second-wave feminism and benefitted from the rise in women’s status and power in society and particularly in the professional environment.
This book will not be for everyone, as Banner makes strong assertions and proclaims herself to be not only groundbreaking in her analysis of Monroe but also Always Right. I, however, enjoyed her storytelling (though her chronology sometimes gets a little muddled) and admired her ambition with the project, which in the end took her ten years. She writes a blog on her website about Monroe, and her book, which I think is definitely worth a read. It is fascinating to see Monroe considered from a feminist point of view (Banner constantly defends her and is clearly angered by those who hurt her) and, having never read a book about Monroe before, I found this a great source of information and wonder. I would recommend this detailed and passionate biography to anyone seeking to add an extra dimension or two to the image of the ‘sexy starlet’ of Marilyn Monroe.
Published on 5th August 2012 (the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death) by Bloomsbury in the US and the UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
Last year (2011) I read Fallada’s final novel Alone in Berlin, after reading about it in various magazines – it seemed to be unanimously praised, and thee subject matter seemed interesting, so I gave it a go. I wrote a review of it for a former (and frankly less good) incarnation of this blog, which can be read here. It is a brilliant, brilliant novel. It is based on the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a middle aged couple living in Berlin during the Second World War. The death of Elise’s brother at the front, and the increasingly hard life they and their neighbours were living under Nazi rule led them to write and distribute post cards featuring anti-Hitler and anti-government slogans. They then deposited these in public buildings. This campaign of silent resistance went on for two years before they were caught. The Gestapo had a huge file on them by the time they were brought in for questioning. They were found guilty of treason and eventually executed on April 8, 1943.
It was after the war that this huge Gestapo file made its way into the hands of Hans Fallada via his friend and fellow writer Johannes R. Becher, who had contacts with the new Communist rulers of Northern Germany. Becher recommended the material for Fallada’s next project, and the result was Alone in Berlin. Fallada made certain changes, but the story remains essentially the same. It is a minute and thoughtful portrait of life for ordinary people in wartime Berlin, both those opposed to and in favour of the Nazi regime. It was published in English in 2009, despite having being written in 1947, and Fallada has since become a staple on the literary map once again. Now, Professor Jenny Williams, an expert on the life and works of Hans Fallada, has reissued her 1998 biography to include these latest developments.
Hans Fallada was the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen, inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Williams refers to the writer as Ditzen throughout, and by the middle of the book the reader has become so familiar with the character of Ditzen that ‘Hans Fallada’ can in no way be viewed as a real person. He is the image of the writer, the public persona that Ditzen projected. Ditzen had a dramatic and eventful life, and it seems to me that Fallada is the ‘glamorous’ (or at least outward) alter ego of a man trying to change his own circumstances.
Williams writes in a rather academic style – every last detail is included, backed up and justified. At times this gets a little tiring, but mostly the reader is grateful for it, as it means that the whole context is explained and nothing remains a mystery. At times the amount of detail can feel like a list, but the overall effect is that the reader begins to understand the deeper character of Rudolf Ditzen. Much is made, though perhaps too much, of his miserable teenage years in which he seems to have been an absolute nightmare to have been around. Resentful and unkind, he rejected almost everything around him and became obsessed with death as the only escape route. This lead to a suicide pact with a friend at the age of 18 that resulted in the friend (Hanns Dietrich von Necker) being fatally shot in the chest and Ditzen being shot, also in the chest, but managing to stumble to a local house for help. Given his recent erratic and downright moody behaviour, as well as a spate of suicides of surly young men at his school, Ditzen was sent to a psychiatric facility rather than prison. It would not be the last time.
Once Ditzen moved away from his parents after his stay in psychiatric care, his life became a constant struggle to earn enough money and to find somewhere to live. He stayed with family, friends, had various jobs, but spent most of his twenties working on various estates as land manager, learning farming skills. These years also seem to have taught him a sense of responsibility and commitment to hard work, as well as providing material for his later literary work. Working and living in the country, Ditzen observed ordinary working class people trying to make a living and provide for their families; these were the basis of his idea of the ‘little man’ that features in much of his work. This is the image of the ‘decent’ working class man that Ditzen valued in society. He came to use the word ‘decent’ to describe how people should be that he attached almost philosophical significance to it – the decent man was the everyday German citizen that his readers could relate to. This idea is not examined in depth at any one point by Williams, rather it is highlighted whenever Ditzen mentions it in a letter or a piece of work. As the political situation in Germany becomes increasingly volatile in the 1930s, the image of the ‘decent’ little man becomes more and more important to our understanding of Ditzen’s attitude towards the changes in country. As the National Socialists gained more and more power, Ditzen hoped that the ‘decent’ people would still have a say in national politics. This, as we know, was not what happened.
Williams’ list-like details are in full force as she notes every piece of writing that Ditzen had published, and the many struggles that accompanied his work, mostly concerning payment. He worked with one publisher, Ernst Rowohlt, until the Nazis closed Rowolht’s business during the war, and though the two men fell out several times, Rowohlt seems to have been a source of stability for Ditzen. He was a friend as well as a source of income, and always encouraged Ditzen to write and work hard. It was not an easy life. Once he was an adult, Ditzen did not see his parents or his beloved Aunt Ada for almost twenty years, during which he was imprisoned for embezzlement, endured a constant struggle for money, married and eventually managed to buy a smallholding in the village of Carwitz. He and his wife Suse were to have three children there, and remained in Carwitz until the war ended; but health and money troubles were a constant battle, and their marriage broke down as the war ended. The strains of life on the smallholding as well as Ditzen’s numerous affairs were too much for Suse, and she asked for a divorce.
Suse (real name Anna) is an interesting character. A ‘simple’ girl from a country family, she was the kind of ‘decent’ person that Ditzen valued and married him despite familial objections. She agreed to have more children despite various ongoing complications from having the first one, and tolerated her husband’s sometimes difficult behaviour. She suffered through his morphine addiction, alcoholism, insomnia and money worries, as well as looking after things at home during his spells in various clinics to treat one or more of his ailments. As the children grew older, Suse left them in the care of nannies and housekeepers and made frequent trips to visit family and friends, which seem to have helped her to cope. However, one is not at all surprised when she asks Ditzen for a divorce in 1944. After they separated, she was able to make decent money from the smallholding by selling produce (they had always done this, but the war limited their ability to grow and sell) and taking in paying guests. It seems her life was made significantly easier with the departure of her husband. The only bump in the road came several months after they had divorced, when Ditzen was already involved with another woman, when he and Suse got into an argument in the kitchen at Carwitz. Drunk, Ditzen fired a shot past Suse. Unhurt, she grabbed the gun and threw it out the window. Ditzen was charged with attempted manslaughter and spent the last months of 1944 in prison, during which he produced a densely packed manuscript containing his novel The Drinker, several short stories, and a very frank account of life under National Socialist rule in the 1930s. This came to be known as some his greatest work, and signalled a return to literary output worthy of his previous status after years of average publications.
Alone in Berlin, despite Ditzen being reluctant to even take on the material at first, is surely his greatest triumph. The reader wades through this biography waiting for mention of it, but the fact is that Ditzen wrote it rather hurriedly at the end of his life. However it contains all his anti-Nazi feelings and his anger towards the injustices meted out to ordinary Germans that chose to stay in Germany during the war. Ditzen faced great criticism for failing to emigrate when war was imminent, and the futility of the Quangels’ resistance must have echoed some of his feelings of helplessness during the war. He wished to resist, but was forced to censor his work and make changes in order to earn money and please Goebbels’ Ministry for Enlightenment and Propaganda. Staying in Germany put a huge strain on his career and his family, but Ditzen had to live with his choice. It is Williams’ opinion that staying in Germany lead to his ‘downfall’, but no doubt it also lead to his best works.
This is an intense book, short and packed with detail, and often tragic. Ditzen’s life was just like this biography in that respect. His second wife, Ulla, was already a morphine addict when they met and she lead him back to his old addiction. They were hospitalised several times during their short relationship and in 1947 Ditzen was defeated by the drug, and died in hospital. Williams points out that not all of his work is worth the effort of the reader, but the novels in which he succeeds are some of the greatest of twentieth-century German literature. A troubled, difficult, and brilliant man.
Originally published by Libris in 1998, and reissued by Penguin in 2012 with updated material.