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The power of words…

May 25th, 2010 by Peter

The Observer | Books | Hans Fallada’s anti-Nazi classic becomes surprise UK bestseller

There is an interesting article on the Guardian website from Sunday’s observer about the high sales of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. It’s great to see a classic book like this selling so well but what makes it an important work is not sales figures, it’s not it’s recent translation into English after sixty years of relative unknownness in the English world, it’s the fact that this book packs such power.

Hans Fallada did not have the benefit of hindsight, of dozens of history books to pore over and find out exactly what went on in the third Reich; Hans Fallada lived through it first hand. The books power is in the fact that it proves the truth of history, it makes it so real and immediate. This is harder than it may sound – the historical novelist has the advantage of looking back from a safe distance and knowing how history has settled upon things, being able to research many different views and look at facts that were obscured at the time. The writer who tackles the events of their day does not have that luxury, they must right what they know and what they saw and what they felt. This book forms a testimony to the evil of the Reich, it stands as damning evidence in support of later historical assessments.

It would be a liar who said this book was pretty; it would be a liar who said Nazi Germany was pretty. But what this book represented for me was something else – it was human dignity in appalling circumstances. The story is of Otto and Anna Quangel who respond to the death of their son at war by writing propaganda postcards and distributing them around Berlin. It is their act of rebellion against the state. This small act envelopes many other characters as the book explores the nature of the security state; we see people showing both dignity and humanity and also those who choose the other path and behave in an evil way. The book raises the question of whether this act of defiance achieved anything in real terms but beyond that it raises the question of whether it’s a duty as a human being to defy evil even when your act of defiance is not changing things. This brought to mind a quote by Major-General Henning von Tresckow, one of the plotters in the von Stauffenberg coup attempt:

“What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.”

We remember von Stauffenberg, von Tresckow, Martin Niemoller, etc, because they in one way or another had the courage and conviction to stand up to evil. Alone in Berlin shows us that evil but in those characters who are willing to stand up to it it shows the redemptive power of those who refuse to lie down and accept evil but will stand up and be counted whatever the cost.  The Quangels, in this book, take a small step and resist in the only way they know how. The book is a well paced and very well written. It’s well written, it’s horrifying, it’s inspiring; I’m glad to see that it is also popular.

Pushkin: With him, we dream.

March 13th, 2010 by Peter

Pushkin. I’d heard of him, of course. You can’t read about Russia without knowing of Pushkin. He seems to bestride their cultural self image like a colossus, the father of Russian literature and their greatest poet. I hadn’t, however, actually read him; it strikes me that in the west he’s somewhat overshadowed by the reputation of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I knew that he had penned that novel in verse that I had always meant to read and yet never quite did. Then it was that tragic time last winter when Borders was closing down. Prices crashing, the forgotten corner of a dusty shelf, the copy of The Complete Prose Tales crying out for a home. I think it is clear where this is going.

I was surprised to find that Pushkin proved to be one of the easiest reads I’ve had in a long time. His prose is lucid and brilliant and his plots keep the pages turning. There is something smooth and seemingly effortless about the way he writes and it just takes you there. There are some words Jacques Chirac said at Alexandre Dumas’ internment; “With you, we were D’Artagnan, Monte Cristo or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles — with you, we dream.” It is the same with Pushkin only with him we are Dubrovsky, Ibrahim, Grinyov, riding through Russia, besieged in fortresses and dining with royalty — with him, we dream.

What adds to the mystery and romance of Pushkin is his own life story. Great-grandson of Peter the Great’s African Major General, Abram Gannibal, Pushkin’s brief life saw him exiled for his political radicalism before later returning to St. Petersburg where he died in a duel at the age of thirty-seven, defending his wife’s honour. When you read of his heroes defending their honour you know that he did so himself to the point of his own life. Upon hearing of his death a friend who was away at that time is said to have written to others asking:  “How could you let this happen? If I had been there I would have thrown myself in front of the bullet.” Would that the friend had been there, it’s hard to imagine what Pushkin could have achieved with so much of life still ahead of him. Reading this book you enjoy what is there but are left with a sense of wonderment at the fact that this, while brilliant, is a poet just finding his way with prose. What would he have done with more time?

At times in this collection you come across the sentence “(Pushkin never finished this story.)” Many of these are from several years before his death so it is possible that he had either abandoned them entirely or was going to return to them later. It’s sad that some brilliant stories such as Dubrovsky and The Moor of Peter the Great were unfinished, they give you a taste of brilliance and you want more.

I was left with the paradoxical feeling of wishing that someone would finish them and the feeling that no one else really could. I get to thinking that perhaps they should take Pushkin’s pen and set it in the base of his statue like a latter day excalibur. Whenever a writer was in Saint Petersburg they would pass the statue and try to withdraw the pen. Eventually some young fellow, seemingly too inexperienced, would approach the statue and grasp the quill and out it would slide and to him would fall the task of completing what Pushkin started.

Then I realise that life is not a historical romance. C’est la vie, we shall simply never know.


The Complete Prose Tales by Alexandr Pushkin is published by Vintage Classics.

Huntingtower by John Buchan

December 31st, 2009 by Peter

Huntingtower by John Buchan“Civilization is a conspiracy,” said John Buchan. “Modern life is the silent compact of comfortable folk to keep up pretences.” This statement could be applied to many of his novels in which characters who are ordinary and human are drawn from their pretences into all kinds of adventure. He gave us characters like Richard Hannay, the Scots mining engineer, and Edward Leithen, the barrister and MP. Less well known, however, is Dickson McCunn, the protagonist from his 1922 novel Huntingtower. Dickson is everything you least expect of a hero in an adventure story: he is fifty-five years old and a recently retired grocer. He is the logical antithesis of the James Bond type of hero and, while successful, is drawn very much from the ranks of the common man. He is dependable, not flashy.

Huntingtower is a rip-roaring adventure story that reads with all the fun and enjoyment that, as a child, could be derived from Enid Blyton. (Actually I saw a lady reading the famous five a little while back in the park – it seems the enjoyment does not diminish with age!) It tells of Dickson McCunn going for a walking holiday and soon finding himself up to his ears in adventure; the story is centred around a Russian Princess who, having escaped the revolution, is being held against her will in the house of the title. As with stories such as The thirty-nine steps there is a back drop of historical relevancy and it very much reflects attitudes and thoughts of the time. What makes Huntingtower different is the light hearted and amusing touches throughout. Helping with this are a group of street urchins from Glasgow called the Gorbals Die-Hards who are camping near-by and turn out to have a spirit at once adventurous and militant. Their exploits are constantly referenced, by the narrator, in comparison to those of great figures from history and the show resourcefulness and hardy courage whenever called upon; while Dickson is the central figure and the narrator is telling his story the Gorbals Die-Hards could arguably be said to steal the show.

I really enjoyed this book and think that it shows Buchan on top-form throughout. It’s not about deep emotional insights, it’s just a good fun read. There were some characters who speak mainly in the Scots’ dialect but it’s usually understandable (just!) and where it isn’t there is a glossary of terms at the back. The story combines light hearted romanticism and adventure with some allusions to the failings and evils of the new social order emerging in Russia at the time. What I find most endearing about Buchan’s work is the way he can write so well – his descriptions of places are particularly excellent – but keep it entertaining and enjoyable throughout and, for me, this is up there with the best of his books.

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