"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Please see the postings for 4, 11 and 18 March 2018 and 4, 11, 18 and 26 February 2018 for the previously released parts. Once a week a new part is released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
In February 1945, as you left the smouldering ruins of Berlin for your parent’s rural estate that had survived the war, you looked out the window of the packed train, full of widows with bloodshot eyes and unnaturally silent children, and asked yourself: “Why?” Beside you were your four children, all under the age of ten. The fifth was on the way. Your husband, who remained in the SS bunker, would soon head south to fight in “The Final Victory,” and you never expected to see him again.
The exigencies of life would soon wash over that question, like the tide that takes back what it has washed onto the shore. Years later, when your nation’s fate had been settled, and you had established your own home back in the farmlands outside of Hamburg, it washed up once again.
“War and Peace” was over one thousand pages long, and had been published in six parts during 1865-9, sixty years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in the journal, “Russian Messenger.” You read it repeatedly, as though somewhere in its rich tapestry you would find the answer to your question of why men went to war. Although, as an adolescent, you had tried to escape it in the books at your attic window and had hoped for prosperity, war overtook your life like a tsunami, and now you wanted a simple answer.
At first, Tolstoy gave you one that you could distance yourself from, in the tale of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, and the urge of their men to battle. The smallest taste of the ecstasy, freedom and camaraderie of war was worth the stench of disease and death. In between battles, there was no need to think of purpose – one could even idle - loyalties were straight forward and life seemed simple. In contrast, peace was a devilishly complicated existence; something you saw in your husband, who clung to war long after it was over by sleeping with his revolver. This explanation allowed you to avoid feeling any responsibility. War was the realm of men and had nothing to do with you, because, according to Tolstoy’s tale, all that women could do was to wait, long and grieve.
As you read on, you realized that Tolstoy wouldn’t let you off so easily, which is the reason that you read this thousand-page novel repeatedly. In the detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the Battle of Borodino - Napeoleon’s defeat by the Russian army and the battle that Hitler did not take sufficient note of in his decision to invade Russia – Tolstoy advanced a theory that you would wrestle with for the rest of your life.
One could not attribute the will to war solely to leaders, he said. Rather, it was the product of a power relationship between the leader and the people; men and women, who would not hesitate to murder or depose their leaders if their “passion for destruction,” once ignited, was not fulfilled. This went to the heart of your fears: Underneath your passion for the highly civilized, did you too possess a passion for destruction? Your leaders had committed suicide, been sentenced and hung, but there remained a deafening silence about the past that masked your inner turmoil. The question of why men went to war evolved into the question of who was responsible. It dangled in your thoughts without a home, like one of the roots in those medicinal plant books.
"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Please see the postings for 4 and 11 March 2018 and 4, 11, 18 and 26 February 2018 for the previously released parts. Once a week a new part is released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
I wondered whether on the estates your husband and his comrades stole in the name of the Reich in Poland, you listened to Mann’s BBC radio broadcasts, imploring the German people to awaken from their fateful sleep. To do so was illegal, but as the senseless war turned against Germany, increasing numbers listened in private to this literary giant, who lived in exile with his Jewish wife in America. Did you dismiss his revelation that people were being gassed down the road from you as the influence of ‘decadent’ America on his mind, or did your nightmares begin then? Did you wonder about the ill-smelling haze from the chimneys that drifted overhead, or did you dismiss it as greasy smoke?
“The Holocaust was a conspiracy by the international media to keep Germany down,” you once told me, offering what you regarded as an appealing alternative truth.
As you said these words, you will have recalled Toni’s reference to “the secret scandal, that feeds on oneself in the quiet and that devours self-respect.” Her call for “uprightness and openness” would have grated on you, as you delivered this explanation to me that you knew was false. In that moment, it must have been terrible to be so well read.
It was easy to blame the males for everything, but inwardly you must have contemplated your role in the fall of the family, and in the ill-fated Brazilian adventure. Despite the security you and your husband had built up through your business and home outside of Hamburg after the war, the renewal of war crimes trials in the late fifties put both of you under pressure. The argument that one had simply followed orders, and therefore could not be regarded as responsible, fell on deaf ears. There was no knowing where this might end, and so you both took the extended hand offered by a former SS-comrade who seemed to be living the good life far away under the sun.
Toni followed you in every move you made, with her encouragement of ill-fated transactions between men that she thought would benefit her, but that eventually resulted in the sale of the grand family home, and the scattering of the remaining members in different directions. Despite this, Toni never let go of her aspirations, as impossible as they had become. Neither did you, and while I can rail at you for your apparent lack of remorse, this is what kept you alive, so that I too could gain a glimpse into what had preceded me: the golden age of Hamburg merchants and the thousand-year Reich, which in their preoccupation with infinity were destined to end.
"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Please see the postings for 4 March 2018 and 4, 11, 18 and 26 February 2018 for the previously released parts. Once a week a new part is released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
It was a pocket-sized hard cover with a mauve-colored flap that you gave to me for my sixteenth birthday. On the front was a sketch of a woman in a bonnet on the arm of a man in a top hat making their way through the narrow streets of old Hamburg. This was the city as it looked before you left it for Poland in the spring of 1940, and as it had been for centuries, before Allied bombs flattened it three years later. Above the sketch was the subtitle, “The Decline of a Family,” which didn’t strike me until many years later. At the time, you proclaimed that Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” was the best crafted novel you had ever read, and that Mann was without question Germany’s most gifted novelist.
“But strange about his private life,” you muttered with distaste, and didn’t elaborate.
None of these comments could entice an impatient sixteen-year-old to endure the unending sentences in German. The book went out of the wrapping paper straight into the book shelf, only to be removed twenty-seven years later when the subtitle began to haunt me.
You’d left your husband in the interior of Brazil, your marriage long broken, your eldest gone, with your remaining children scattered across the continents. The dreams of living space and abundant resources had been dashed by the self-defeating nature of greed, and you lived in your small apartment, like a lady of the manor in parody, staring at a grand painting in a heavy, baroque frame of men in a golden field.
It was in your very last years that the shoe-horning of old dreams into present realities became most apparent. One of your children, who had no family of her own, cared for you day and night, and often you’d scold her about the quality of her service. I preferred to think that this was just your frustration with the growing confines of age, but one couldn’t help the feeling that in your attitude were the last traces of overlordship from a bygone era. Increasingly, when I visited and watched you from across the dining table, I saw one of Picasso’s women, whose face, with its many angles, could never be ascertained.
In the lives of the Buddenbrooks family I caught a glimpse of one of those facades. It revealed your young woman’s aspiration to live the life of the elegant Hamburg merchanting class, and to stroke your hand across the light yellow upholstered sofa - a color reserved for the privileged - in Toni Buddenbrooks’ childhood home. In the beginning, your husband seemed to offer you a comparable possibility, as he managed his father’s successful chocolate business, and drove through town in a Wanderer, a luxurious German brand car. That was until the Depression struck, and your angry spouse signed up for the Party just a few days before the bewildering Christmas of 1931.
I wondered whether you had been able to keep a copy of “Buddenbrooks” in your home under the Third Reich. This wasn’t because no one had one. On the contrary, like all other books that were banned and burned during the thirties, everyone had copies. In fact, there had never been as thriving a business for books in Germany, legal and illegal, as during that time when people sought a temporary escape from the impending new war.
Yet, in your household it may not have been possible. You and your husband had cast your fates with the Party and its elite from the beginning, and the daily demonstration of loyalty demanded the rejection of the intelligentsia, particularly Jews or those who had married them. Blood and Land became your mantra, so that your husband could realize his dream of leaving the ‘decadent’ city and the chocolate business, and becoming an influential landowner.
"What You Read" is a short story I am releasing in ten parts in this blog. Please see the postings for 4, 11 and 18 and 26 February 2018 for the previously released parts. Once a week a new part is released. It is inspired by the work I did for my upcoming book, the expanded version of "The Pendulum.
Yet this small victory hadn’t saved you from harder things to come.
“You cannot describe depression,” you said, and then went on to describe it. “It is a terrible thing; you don’t want to see anyone, or do anything. The day has no beginning and no end. One cannot wish it upon anyone.”
Our conversation prompted me to read Effi Briest, and to learn of her world of paranoia and superstition that grew out of her confinement in a relationship and in a place she didn’t want to be in. Her fear that she was being haunted by the unrequited spirit of a Chinaman, who had come to the North Sea shores on a trading ship and died in her husband’s house, nearly drove her mad. You knew what it was like to stand on the brink of madness, and could take Effi’s predicament to yourself. What had begun as a titillating novel about someone else when you were a youngster, became a terrifying mirror.
You kept to your superstitions, such as spending considerable periods of time holding a pendulum, a tiny magnet tied to the end of a piece of silk string, over the image of your son whom you were certain had died in the Brazilian wilderness. You insisted he was dead because the pendulum had told you so, and again I furled my eyebrows at the ferocity of your pain. I didn’t like superstition, but something in me couldn’t reject the possibility that the dead Chinaman and the tiny magnet might just have some power over us.
The part you didn’t tell me about yourself was the part I learned from reading about Effi’s life, and what surrounded us in your apartment. Your sterling silver, the gold-rimmed plates and your blue satin bathrobe that hung in your oak closet, struck me as much as anything else each time that I visited. From the beginning, like you, Effi only wanted the best or nothing. Her desire was your desire, and it was this that attracted you to your husband and his ideology, which became the nemesis of your soul. It made you question whether you really were a victim, and wonder whether, like Effi’s critics, you had deserved what you had got.
It was a mystery to me that an independent thinker like you, who saw the injustice of Effi’s fate, could marry a man whose ideology dictated that you and other women could only become heroes if you became slaves. Yet the answer lay in the story of Effi Briest itself. He had offered you the best, “only the best”- you said, he'd said - and you followed him in pursuit of this as he and his comrades grabbed land and murdered its owners in Poland, and eventually drove the family to ruin pursuing megalomaniac dreams in exile in Latin America. You didn’t tell me all of these things. Instead, I found them out myself in archives and among eyewitnesses.
At over one hundred years of age, when death faced you each day, you asked the same question as Effi had on her death bed: “Will God take me?” For both of you it was a rhetorical question. Neither of you believed that he would, because you saw yourselves as justifiably guilty, not as innocent victims. Suddenly, I thought I understood why you said that the Pope should be shot. He was the anointed keeper of the entrance to God's house, from which you believed you had been expelled forever.
Through Effi Briest I was able to distil the source of our guilt, which had trickled down from you, to the generation between us, and eventually to me. Was this just or unjust, and must the sins be paid for by the suffering of the generations? If I had been deeply superstitious, I would have said that we had no choice but to accept it. Yet I am only mildly so, and continue to seek another way of framing the question.