Monday, September 1, 2014

Something New

“COLOURLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Harvill Secker; distributed by Collins-Random House, $NZ45)

You might suspect you know the territory in which you have landed as soon as you read the opening paragraph of Haruki Murakami’s novel Colourless Tsukuri Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It reads thus:
From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying. He turned twenty during this time, but his special watershed – becoming an adult – meant nothing. Taking his own life seemed the most natural solution, and even now he couldn’t say why he hadn’t taken this final step. Crossing that threshold between life and death would have been easier than swallowing a slick, raw egg.” (p.1)
We are, it would seem, about to be plunged into a novel of angst and alienation and potential suicide. And thus it is for much of the novel’s length.
When Tsukuru was at high school, he was close friends with four other students. In Japanese, the names of the other four all
referred to colours. The two boys were Aka (Red) and Ao (Blue). The two girls were Kuro (Black) and Shiro (White). Tsukuru, “colourless” Tsukuru, alone had a name which did not refer to colour. Instead, his name meant “to build” or “to make” – a most appropriate moniker, given that Tsukuru was intent on studying civil engineering and designing the railway stations with which he was obsessed.
At high school the five of them were inseparable.
Then something went badly wrong.
Tsukuru moved to Tokyo to pursue his studies. His four friends all stayed in the provincial city of Nagoya. When he returned there on holiday, none of them would speak to him. They were unavailable on the phone. They would not answer his calls. They consciously cut him off and shunned him. When he tried to ask one why this was so, he was told coldly and seriously that he should surely know why they now wanted nothing more to do with him. He got no further explanation.
Sixteen years later, at the age of 36, and with a sort of girlfriend, called Sara, to confide in, Tsukuru, “colourless” Tsukuru, has a life which seems the paradigm of buttoned-down normality. Late in the novel it is summarised as follows:
At least from the outside, Tsukuru Tazaki’s life was going well, with no particular problems to speak of. He’d graduated from a well-known engineering school, found a job in a railway company, working as a white-collar professional. His reputation in the company was sound, and his boss trusted him. Financially, he had no worries. When his father died, Tsukuru inherited a substantial sum of money and the one-bedroom condo in a convenient location near the centre of Tokyo. He had no loans. He hardly drank and didn’t smoke, and he had no expensive hobbies. He spent very little money. It wasn’t that he was especially trying to economize or live an austere life, but he just couldn’t think of ways to spend money. He had no need for a car, and he got by with a limited wardrobe. He bought books and CDs occasionally, but that didn’t amount to much. He preferred cooking his own meals to eating out, and even washed his own sheets and ironed them.” (p. 187)
But Tsukuru is still eaten up with the thought of how he was ostracised by his former friends. He has difficulty forming strong relationships with anybody. He has an intense friendship with a male student of Physics called Haida. But when Haida begins to invade his erotic dreams, Tsukuru sleeps with a woman just to reassure himself that he isn’t homosexual. He cannot quite fully commit himself to Sara.
Sara takes matters into her own hands. Methodically, she finds out what has become of each of Tsukuru’s former friends, and where each now lives. She urges Tsukuru to visit each and to clear up what is blighting his life. Tsukuru does so. And at this point, a little shy of halfway through the novel, I break off my neat synopsis. I consider it unmannerly to give away vital plot twists in a new novel, and there is one as soon as Tsukuru proceeds to investigate his own past. It is something both shocking and startling, which is the way I prefer to leave it.
How do I judge this curious novel? It begins as a sort of existentialist fable about the solitary individual’s place in a mutable and incomprehensible world. The sudden change in Tsukuru’s status and fortune that happens when his friends, for no clear reason, ostracise him, is almost like the sudden change from man to bug that happens to Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I do not say this without some prompting. The novelist Haruki Murakami is a great fan of Kafka, once wrote a novel called Kafka on the Shore, and won the international Franz Kafka Prize. Yet, to my mild disappointment, this novel slowly transmutes from fable to psychological case study. It ceases to ask how strange and alien the world can be, and proceeds to ask merely what is wrong with Tsukuru Tazaki. Indeed, it becomes more Bildungsroman than fable as it goes through many of the phases of a young male’s mental maturation – expulsion from a comforting social group and loss of friends from schooldays; fears of not matching up to social expectations; performance anxiety in sex; fear of being homosexual; anxiety about the worth of a chosen career; and so on.
Having not a word of Japanese, I am of course dependent upon Philip Gabriel’s translation to gauge the tone and style of the novel. It is a very clean, clear prose, wasting few words. Sometimes I suspect the translator has embellished it. (Were the “gaggles of garrulous geese” on p.204 alliterative in the original?) Sometimes it is mildly portentous, as when a man showing Tsukuru the way is described as being “like the Grim Reaper having shown a dead person the road to Hades” (p.218). It certainly has a strong strain of overt symbolism. Tsukuru is “colourless” because he has yet to develop any distinctive personality and sense of self. There are repeated references to recordings of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” (hence the novel’s subtitle) to remind us that this is a novel with psychological growth as its goal. Tsukuru’s career as a designer of railway stations echoes his desire for an ordered, regular, timetabled life, in compensation for his sense of being an outcast. The most clumsy chapter is Chapter 17, wherein Tsukuru seeks, from a friend living in Finland, an explanation for his life’s woes. Here the author opts to spell out, in very expository dialogue, ideas that would have better been left implicit.
But I would certainly not underrate the novel as a representation of modern Japan and its material culture. One of the friends who have forsaken Tsukuru has made money by training people to become dutiful employees committed to company ethics. Somewhat scornfully, Sara describes his business thus:
‘The name’s new, but it’s not really much different from a personal development seminar,’ Sara said. “Basically a quick impromptu brainwashing course to educate your typical corporate warriors. They use a training manual instead of sacred scriptures, with promotion and a high salary as their equivalent of enlightenment and paradise. A new religion for a pragmatic age. No transcendent elements like in a religion, though, and everything is theorised and digitalized. Very transparent and easy to grasp. And quite a few people get positive encouragement from this. But the fact remain that it’s nothing more than an infusion of the hypnotic into a system of thought that suits their goal, a conglomeration of only those theories and statistics that line up with their ultimate objectives….’ ” (pp.116-117)
Becoming immersed in the commercial crowd is as much a nightmare as being turned away by friends. It looms large in those sections of this novel that approach satire.

Something Old

“A REBOURS” by Joris-Karl Huysmans (first published late 1884 – usually translated as “AGAINST THE GRAIN”, but the Penguin edition calls it “AGAINST NATURE”)

On my shelves, I have three separate editions of a famous French novel, Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours. One is in the original French, but I have to admit that I have not read it all the way through. I gave up because the author’s vocabulary contains so many recherché words that I grew tired of having to consult endlessly a French-English dictionary. One, with the title Against the Grain, is an anonymous translation from the 1920s, the first unexpurgated translation in the English language, made nearly forty years
after the original French publication. A somewhat self-consciously “arty” hardback, it is illustrated with line drawings which presumably, in the 1920s, looked both decadent and sexually explicit, but which now look merely quaint and coy. The third is the Penguin paperback translated by Robert Baldick, and with the less interesting title Against Nature. At different times, I have read both the translations, but I cannot remember them as having made notably different impressions on me.
A Rebours is the book that is usually regarded as having set off the Decadent movement at the end of the nineteenth century. It is said to be the French novel that obsessed Oscar Wilde and that, a decade after its first publication, was referred to obliquely as “the yellow book” in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is fair to say at once, however, that A Rebours is a more searching piece of aestheticism than anything dear Oscar dreamt up, and English language attempts to reflect its philosophy are pale imitations indeed.
Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans (1848-1907) was a Frenchman with a Dutch father who chose to write using a Dutch form of his name, Joris-Karl Huysmans. In literature, he had begun as a disciple of Emile Zola, turning out novels in the Naturalist documentary style, which, like Zola’s, focused on the sordid lives of the proletariat and the petite bourgeoisie. But, even though he was a personal friend of Zola’s, he came to see documented Naturalism as a literary dead end. In extreme rebellion from it, he produced A Rebours and in doing so, he chose a completely different path from Zola. By means first of Aestheticism, then of Satanism, it would lead him finally to Catholicism.
This is a novel only in the same way that Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean [look it up on the index at right] is a novel. It has only one main character, which is why Huysmans originally intended to call it Seul (Alone). That one character, Jean des Esseintes, is a wealthy aristocrat, quite different from the middle-class Huysmans who was a man of slender means. The external circumstances of des Esseintes (but not his reflections) are widely believed to be based on those of the aristocratic homosexual dandy and aesthete Robert de Montesquiou, who also inspired Proust. The novel is a series of reflections, highly embroidered, on the slenderest of narrative threads, and to convey what it involves, I can do no better than to reproduce the notes I made in my reading diary the last time I read it. They go like this:
Jean des Esseintes, last vitiated and effete representative of a dying aristocratic family, retires to his country house at Fontenay outside Paris. At first he plays the dandy for invited guests; but he is satiated with pleasure and with the modern world, detesting equally the political inanities of aristocratic legitimists, the money-grubbing bourgeoisie and the filthy proletariat. So he devotes himself to solitude, cultivating everything that is artificial and cutting himself off from the world outside. His servants tread in felt slippers, so as not to disturb him, on the floor above. The maidservant must wear a hood like a Beguine so that her commonplace features will not disturb him as she passes to her duties. Des Esseintes reads his books and looks at his pictures. He is an aesthetic monk, refining sensual pleasures as much as they can be refined.
He detests the classical Latin of Vergil and Ovid and Horace. The Latin he loves is the Latin of Petronius and Apuleius and the Early Middle Ages, where the style is riper and richer and more sonorous and self-reflexive.
In painting he admires the evocative canvases of Gustave Moreau, especially his images of Salome with their overtones of mysterious and pitiless sin.
He tickles his senses with a “mouth organ” of fine liqueurs, taken drop by drop, squeezing out the last juices of taste. These, he reflects, are artificial and man-made as all the most exquisite things are. And when he fills his room with flowers, they are hybrids and products of the horticultural arts that smell sweetest and almost arouse his exhausted sexual sense with their shapes reminiscent of human sexual organs. In his visions, there is a flower between a woman’s legs.
He thinks (Chapter 6) of his past in Paris – the sensuality for which he is too tired now. He once met a beautiful 16-year-old boy on the street and took him to the most expensive brothel, in the hope of corrupting him. He thought how amusing it would be to see the boy acquire a taste for vice and thus have to support himself by turning to crime. “Where is the boy now?”, he wonders wistfully.
He thinks (Chapter 9) of his past mistresses. The strong-limbed American acrobat who made him feel that he himself played the part of “the woman” to her “man”. The ventriloquist who could arouse his passion by creating voices, which commanded him. And a boy he looked at with passion and longing.
Then he has a vision of the pox and syphilis. Don’t all sexual relationships end in disgust and pain?
He becomes ill and dulled by his chateau-bound solitude and briefly returns to the world outside. Pages of the dull, prosaic Charles Dickens give him the desire to visit London. He is about to embark. He dines heartily at a station, with the coarse ruddy faces of English travellers jostling about him. But then he recalls his bitter disappointment when he visited Holland expecting to see the country of Rembrandt and found only prosaic modernity. He has already considered that one can gain all the imaginative and sensual benefits of travel while remaining at home. So he decides to leave inviolate the London of his imagination. He returns to Fontenay.
His stomach is now more upset. His sleep is more broken. Long ago he discovered that opium and laudanum and hashish nervously excited him without creating visions. Illness creeps over him.
He considers the style of modern Catholic literature, and condemns most of it as pietistic and propagandistic trash. Only a few pages of the Catholic controversialists strike the right stylistic fire. And the Satanic vigour of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, a stallion among Catholic geldings. But to be Satanic like that, one must have real faith, for blasphemy means nothing without belief…. What of de Sade?
The squabbling local urchins disturb him when he sits in his garden. Why does the church condemn the means which the rich use to prevent conception? Those means should be used to prevent further disgusting human beings from coming into the world. Abortion should be encouraged. The human race is vile. The Philosophic Pessimism of Schopenhauer used to be a consolation to him, but it has lost the power to console.
He is sick. He cannot digest food. His senses are sharpened, but undiscriminating.
What will survive of modern literature among all the scribblers and drivellers and coarse panderers to bourgeois pretensions? Baudelaire, of course, a true voyager of the soul. And Mallarme. And Verlaine. A few, a very few, others.
The doctor comes. The doctor orders him to return to life. Des Esseintes is filled with horror at having to accept the inevitable. To return to Paris is to return to the vile congress of humanity bowing before Money and Commerce. Where the Church should provide an answer, it too has bowed to Commerce. Perhaps he has a real affinity with monks? The only music he really likes is plainsong.
He will return to Paris and to life.
God help him.
And that is where A Rebours leaves him.
Thus far I have summarised for you as thoroughly as I can the “narrative” of this discursive, reflective essay of a novel. I regret that I have left out the episode where des Esseintes accidentally kills a turtle by loading its shell down with precious stones, but I am sure you are already exhausted by my summary and were beginning to ask when it would end.
But now we come to my own reflective part. What does A Rebours add up to?
In one sense, this is a conscious and deliberate act of intellectual masturbation – for solitariness is the essence of masturbation and this is a book about striving for solitary pleasure and gratification. Yet it is a masturbation of the mind. Frequently in A Rebours sexual exhaustion is hinted at, an over-indulgence in brothels in des Esseintes’ past life is suggested, and there is a great sexual ambiguity in his remembered sensuality (Chapters 6 and 9). There appears to be a passive homosexual strain here. Des Esseintes remembers beautiful boys. And he remembers women who have dominated him. But he lacks the force to act.
It is easy to see The Decadence implicit in this whole book. Oscar Wilde must have picked up his sensual, heartless, sinful image of Salome in his play from the analysis of Moreau’s painting in Chapter 5. Implicit in the whole book, too, is Huysmans’ own future development as both man and novelist. The Satanism of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, leads directly to Huysmans’ later novel on Satanism La-Bas (1891), which I may cover in a later blog. But Huymans’ clear awareness that Satanism itself requires religious belief leads even further to his eventual conversion to Catholicism as outlined in his novels En Route (1895) and L’Oblat (1903). Seen in this perspective, A Rebours is simply a staging post on a journey that the author had already mapped out. Does it in fact show a man simply delaying the day when he will eventually be converted? (“Oh Lord, make me a saint… but not yet.”) Or is he simply looking for a dandyish style in which to express himself After all, Marius the Epicurean eventually ended as a Christian too.
The modern literature that most appeals to Huysmans in A Rebours is that which withdraws from the world or lives in the mind or evokes past worlds. He speaks kindly of the Flaubert of Salammbo, and of a little of Daudet and a little of Zola, while Balzac is clearly remembered with delight. Hanging over all is Baudelaire (and Poe), whose poems adorn des Esseintes’ walls. The prose-poem form is particularly admired and much of A Rebours is itself like a prose poem – or a series of them. Sensual dithyrambs alternating with literary criticism.
But in the end, what does it all say? I think a postmodern reading of the book is perfectly permissible, detaching the author from the narrator whom he has consciously created. Huysmans is NOT des Esseintes.  The tastes and hatreds and contempts of des Esseintes are tendencies in Huysmans, but they are tendencies he is resisting. After all, for all des Esseintes’ aestheticism, the novel leads to a rejection of the attempt to separate oneself from the world and live solitarily. The detestation of humanity, so frequently and so poisonously expressed, is balanced by the novel’s final recognition that we have to accept life, have to be part of society and mingle with our fellow human beings.  HOW we do this is really the big question mark at the end. In this sense, Huysmans explores and then rejects mental masturbation. Living by one’s senses alone is shown to be insufficient – and to underline the point, the novel shows vividly how the senses are also the bearers of intense pain. Four of the novel’s most vivid pages are des Esseintes’ recollection of toothache and a painful tooth extraction. The novel has the effect of clearing the ground for future growth, rather than being an end in itself. Miss Havisham’s draperies are ripped aside and the daylight allowed in. At the very end, des Esseintes is realising, in daylight, the unsatisfactoriness of colours which he had admired in candlelight. Dare one say that Oscar Wilde, and others of Huysmans’ British admirers and imitators, became stuck at the stage of development through which Huysmans had already passed? Perhaps they didn’t realise that Huysmans was diagnosing a disease, not laying out a map for exploration.
There is a very modern application for this eccentric and unique novel. The craving for what is artificial – in art, in literature, in flowers; the rejection of the wild and natural growth  - is this not the point that early 21st century art and literature and cinema have now reached? Every film (highbrow or popular) now makes reference to films that have gone before it, reference to set genre being more ubiquitous than direct reflection of the world. The postmodern novel is more concerned with modes of narration than with the substance of the narrative. Extensive literary borrowing and allusions are compulsory in novels with pretensions. Have we in fact reached our own form of Decadence and will the term Postmodern come to mean much the same thing in another century? But one thing is very different. Nobody would now be drawn into the Catholic Church by the bewitchment of its unique art.

Something Thoughtful


ME: The masses are hungry. They are waiting for you to speak words of wisdom in this ‘Something Thoughtful’ section about matters of moment. Surely you have something to say about the blogger Slugg and his wittily entitled blog Far Queue Awl? Surely you want to join the national conversation. Please you must – you absolutely must – roll in the dung with us, thrust your nose up the fundament of prurience, and remark on politics and e-mails as the general election looms. You MUST have something to say about Prime Minister Clueless, Leader of the Opposition Gormless, Third Party Leader Vacuous and the crumbs and sweepings and hangers-on in the minor parties like Winston First and the Fat German Party??? Awake! Awake! Say something significant. Be a pundit.

MYSELF: Go away. I’m watching old movies on Youtube.

ME: Oh please, don’t pull this one again. It just angers the punters. They know you’re domesticated, sedentary, lazy and passive anyway. You don’t have to tell them about this again.

MYSELF: Go away. I’m watching old movies on Youtube.

ME: Curse you. It’s because you’ve been reading too many books about self-absorbed loners. Like Haruki Murakami’s novel Colourless Tsukuri Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Like that piece of rank and self-absorbed Decadence, Huysmans’ A Rebours. People sitting around analysing themselves and their tastes while the real world hurries past them. Re-connect with the real world, thou sluggard!!

MYSELF: I am. I’m watching old movies on Youtube. In the company of my wife, most often. This is not a solitary, unsocial exercise and what we watch does reflect the world.

ME: Can I not budge you? Can I not persuade you not to take this path once again? Are you determined to talk about old movies on Youtube?

MYSELF: No to each of your first two question and yes to the last.

ME: [retires to corner sobbing loudly from shame and embarrassment]

MYSELF: Anyway, there I was watching on Youtube Burgess Meredith playing a
psychotherapist in the 1947 British film Mine Own Executioner, and thinking how odd that it was once regarded as a serious adult drama, and yet at the same time how it did touch on a couple of things that movies generally didn’t deal with until a few years later. Ah, context, context. You always have to read old movies in their social context. And there we both were watching the  1944 American propaganda film Address Unknown, where young Peter van Eyck dobs in Paul Lukas to the Gestapo because Paul Lukas has gone over to the Nazis, and we were thinking what a singularly inept piece of propaganda it was, especially as it was saying that you have to use Nazi methods to get the bad guys. And there we were both watching the lamentably unfunny 1953 British Technicolor comedy The Million Pound Note, starring a lamentably unfunny Gregory Peck who was cast only so that the film could get the American market. And there I was on my own watching Fritz Lang’s wretchedly bad 1947 thriller The Secret Beyond the Door where Joan Bennet looked her peachiest but Michael Redgrave was totally useless as the sinister romantic lead and there were a few good visuals but a script that was less than B pulp.

ME: [perking up suddenly]. See, see – nearly all the old films you’ve talked about so far were crap. Surely you’re now going to talk about something significant?

MYSELF: Wait one moment, mon semblable, mon frere, I have yet to deal with the good stuff, but I’m coming to it. You see, first I had the solitary pleasure….

ME: [through gritted teeth and sotto voce] : Wanker!

MYSELF: …. of  watching Joe May’s silent movie from 1929 – one of the last silent classics of Weimar Germany – Asphalt. And goodness it was a cracker. Yes, it did wind down to a disappointing “true love conquers all” finale but, in the scenes where the con woman Betty Amann seduces the upright cop Gustav Frohlich who comes to arrest her, it really was ahead of its time. Betty Amann was one of those American women drawn into Weimer movies for her vampy sexiness, like her compatriot Louise Brooks. Actually, I think she was better (and sexier) than Brooks, even if her later film career was just as empty.

ME: Okay, so you found one good movie.

MYSELF: Wait a moment – things didn’t get really interesting until we found on Youtube this large cache of French movies with English subtitles. I asked my wife which we should watch first, and she chose the straightforward Simenon mystery Maigret Voit Rouge (1963)  - very simple fun with Jean Gabin, well past his prime and with his face now looking distinctly lived-in, playing the role of Inspector Maigret as he did in many films in the 1950s and 1960s. Serviceable, no great shakes as a film, but it did the business and we cracked up in scenes where Maigret is supposed to be dealing with a bunch of American gangsters who have hit Paris, but whenever the gangsters spoke in English they all had distinctly French accents. Oh the perils of casting when you think you’re dealing only with the home audience…

ME: Still sounds like mediocrity to me.

MYSELF: Patience, patience. The next thing we watched together was, I verily believe, an unsung cinematic masterpiece, Yves Allegret’s Une Si Jolie Petite Plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach) from 1949. Now I know its plot was just a reworking of those poetic dramas of doomed proletarians – usually ending in suicide – in which young Jean Gabin starred for Julien Duvivier or Marcel Carne back in the 1930s – Pepe Le Moko, Quai des Brumes, Le Jour Se Leve etc etc. Simple human decency crushed by fate and so forth. So here Gerard Philipe, on the run from police, comes to die in the the small seaside resort where he both grew up and was mistreated as a boy. But it was a jewel of a performance by Philipe – I’ve never seen him look so gaunt and haunted and vulnerable while keeping that essential intelligence – and the mise-en-scene was brilliant. The seedy, decaying seaside hotel with its broken stairs and sad, shabby little rooms. The large, desolate, sandy beach, which should have been attractive but which was really the end of the world. Style over substance you say? Possibly – but what style! A great film.

ME: Oh pish! You only say that sort of thing because you’re a snob about old black-and-white French films and you overrate well-known French directors.

MYSELF: Not at all. The next one we watched together was directed by the more illustrious Henri-Georges Clouzot, and yet it came close to being a stinker. This was his La Verite (The Truth) from 1960, starring the 26-year-old Brigitte Bardot. At the time people said it was her breakthrough role to being a serious actress rather than just a sexpot, because she got to play a genuine dramatic role.  She’s a woman accused of murder who gets a hard time in the courtroom not because of the crime, but because of the fact that she has clearly led a sexually promiscuous life. Okay – a reasonable enough theme, but the movie spelled it out in the courtroom orations almost as clumsily as Hollywood does whenever it handles similar themes. And there was the ten-centimes-each-way aspect of it too, because for all its editorialising, the movie still capitalised on Bardot’s wiggling arse and sexiness. So. Not Monsieur Clouzot’s finest hour.

ME: So you gave up on watching old films on Youtube and reconnected with reality?

MYSELF: No. We were already connected to reality anyway, but we simply found some better films. Georges Franju’s Thomas l’Imposteur for example. A very good film. Made in 1964 but set during the First World War. It’s the one about the bright young lad who manages to charm wealthy Parisian ladies, who run ambulances and nursing services for wounded soldiers, by pretending to be an army officer. He plays a role. But then he’s put in the position of having to go to the front, whereupon he continues to play a role – that of a serving soldier – and it kills him. This is one of those deals where the movie is much better than the literary source on which it was based. When I read Jean Cocteau’s novella Thomas l’Imposteur, I really didn’t think it was much. At best, a sourly amusing anecdote. But the film, atmospheric and yet specific about detail, wound up as a kind of anthem for doomed youth. And it gave me the oddest sensation about time. When it was made, the First World War was already ancient history – yet it was only 50 years before the time the film was made. And now the film itself is 50 years before our time.

ME: Oh for goodness’ sake! Trite, trite, trite reflection.

MYSELF: Alright. That’s my fault. Not the very good film’s. Besides, the next film we discovered was far from trite and it really surprised me as it was directed (in 1987) by a director whom I’ve often found to be a sensationalist - Louis Malle. This was his Au revoir, les enfants, set in a Catholic boarding school during the Second World War and about the friendship between one of the Catholic kids and a Jewish boy who, with the connivance of the priest who runs the show, is hiding out there.

ME: [sighs derisively]

MYSELF: No, stop. Stop. I know exactly what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. Believe me, the film avoided all those pitfalls you’re imagining. The kids were neither sentimentalised nor glamourised. The priest was simply a jobbing priest, not a Hollywood saint. There was no scene spelling out themes for you. The settings in time and place were quite convincing. It was brilliant, so pull you’re head in.

ME: Isn’t it still escapism to be watching a foreign film about problems in a distant time and place?

MYSELF: Okay, so by that token it’s escapism to respond to any art that doesn’t speak directly to your own time and place. I think people will still be able to respond to the best films I’ve mentioned here when nobody remember, or cares, who Slugg was and what his blog was. Besides, why should I join all the chatterers, traders of trite one-liners in the blogosphere and semi-literate pundits who are already dissecting Slugg? The field is covered. Now begone – I’ve got to start worrying about how on Earth I will fill up this ‘Something Thoughtful’ spot next week.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“GREECE CRETE STALAG DACHAU – A New Zealand Soldier’s Encounters with Hitler’s Army” by Jack Elworthy (Awa Press, $40); “TO FIGHT ALONGSIDE FRIENDS – The First World War Diaries of Charlie May” Edited by Gerry Harrison (Harper-Collins, $36:99)

I am both pleased and enlightened to read a straightforward first-person narrative by a soldier, who gives an unvarnished and far from glamourized account of his experiences in the Second World War. Jack Elworthy wrote a rough version of what is now called Greece Crete Stalag Dachau some years before his death in 1999. Parts of his narrative were broadcast on Radio New Zealand, but only now has his daughter Jo Elworthy managed to edit her father’s writings into a publishable book.
Jack Elworthy’s war career is quite easily summarised, and fairly signalled by that title Greece Crete Stalag Dachau.
Elworthy was a professional soldier in New Zealand’s small army in the 1930s. When war broke out in 1939 he was sent overseas as a warrant officer. In early 1941, Elworthy was part of the British, Australian and New Zealand force sent to prop up Greece ahead of a possible German invasion. The Germans duly invaded. The Allied force went into full retreat. Most managed to be evacuated to the island of Crete. Again the Germans invaded. Again the Allies retreated. Only a minority were able to get away to Egypt. Elworthy was captured and spent nearly four years surviving various German POW camps, first on Crete then (after arduous forced marches and journeys in box-cars) in Germany. When he was liberated by the Americans in 1945, his professional pride made him want to contribute to the final Allied victory before he was returned home to New Zealand. He managed to talk an American officer into allowing him to join the American “Thunderbird” division, and for the last few months of the war he was, in effect, a uniformed American soldier. It was his American division which liberated Dachau concentration camp. Elworthy had some postwar adventures in Europe, and had to negotiate repatriation committees, before he finally made it back to New Zealand in 1947, seven years after he had last seen his wife and young son. He speaks of the extreme dificulties of readjusting to domestic life in New Zealand. He retired from the army in 1956.
That is a crude summary of a book which is never cluttered with superfluous detail.
Some of the things Elworthy records came as great surprises to me. It had never before occurred to me that when British and Commonwealth troops were sent from England to fight in Egypt, Greece or Crete, they had first of all to sail on troopships all the way around the continent of Africa, reaching Egypt via the Red Sea. Now it seems so obvious – they were avoiding U-Boats and the like in the Mediterranean. I was also amazed to learn that when the Allied forces first landed in Athens, Germany was not yet at war with Greece, a German consulate flying the swastika flag was still operating there, and German consulate staff freely strolled up and down the quays making notes on the equipment, size and strength of the disembarking Allied forces – all of which information was doubtless later of great help to the Nazi forces when they invaded.
Those were two pieces of factual information that struck me, but more than anything, the attitudes and personal observations of the author make this book worthwhile. As a New Zealander who had never been overseas before the war, Elworthy was both surprised and shocked at the class-bound and hierarchical nature of English society when he went through advanced training in England. As a typical anecdote, he notes:
Every so often we would be reminded how different England was from New Zealand. There was a street in Charing, about 200 yards long, running up a hill and serving a lot of new houses. It was signposted as a private road and the people living there had placed a sign at the entrance saying ‘Tradesmen’s vehicles are NOT permitted in this street’. The butcher, baker, milkman and coalman had to park their vans and carry everything up the hill to the houses. Although a German invasion was a real possibility, the people from this street petitioned the War Office and demanded that all troops around Charing stay clear of the vicinity as the noise of the vehicles passing by disturbed them. In one incident one of my drivers who was towing a truck was approached by a resident, who pointed out that he was encroaching on a private road. The resident took extreme exception to the number of times my driver called him a ‘so-and-so bastard’ in the ensuing conversation. He assured us that he had never before in his life been addressed in such a manner and we would hear from his solicitors. We never did, of course, but we felt if this was England it was a pity we hadn’t known before we came over to fight and defend it.” (p.23)
These are not the words of a larrikin soldier with no respect for order or rank, but of an egalitarian Kiwi. Elworthy was a very responsible soldier and knew how necessary rank and order were in warfare. For this very reason, you can sense his rage at the total disorganised messes that the retreat through Greece and (even more) the retreat across the Cretan mountains became. Soldiers panicked.  Soldiers threw away necessary kit when they still had a fighting chance. On Crete, says Elworthy, “As I walked I picked up bits of kit that had been thrown away; soon I had collected all the clothing I needed to replace what I had lost or had thrown away when we were evacuating from Greece.” (p.69)
He is shocked at officers who don’t do their duty or desert their men, soldiers who rapidly turn to looting and theft, men who steal the identity of others in order to be first on the evacuation boats, and so on. Always, there is the anger of the professional at the shambles being made by men who should have known better. He does not dwell on it, but it is clear that he would like to say harsh words about Freyberg and his senior staff who flew off as soon as the Allied surrender on Crete was announced, and thus left the bulk of their men to the Germans.
Elworthy judges the Germans by their soldiership. Once captured, he is surprised at how well he and fellow prisoners are treated by German front-line troops. But the horrors begin once they are in the hands of camp-guards and others in Germany whom Elworthy sees as, at best, second-rate soldiers not fit for combat duty and therefore taking out their aggression and frustration on prisoners. As for the prisoners – they are not a band of brothers loyal to one another. Even allowing for the stool pigeons and spies among them, there are criminal gangs of prisoners who make it their business to intimidate other prisoners, steal their rations, get the lighter work duties and so on.
In both the retreat sections (I won’t call them combat sections – Elworthy never had the chance to shoot at enemy soldiers) and the prison sections, the chief impression made is one of squalor. This is a war of forced marches, exhaustion, low rations, hunger, disease, lice – and the annoyance of a professional soldier who is prevented by circumstances from doing his job properly. Much that appears in this book would not have been acceptable to wartime censors, at a time when a more heroic interpretation of the war was necessary for purposes of public morale.
Elworthy is both alert to, and duly outraged by, violations of the Geneva Convention. But he is apparently not too upset that his American comrades, on liberating Dachau, lined up a number of the SS guards and shot them out of hand. In the circumstances his attitude is understandable.
This paperback is a very good piece of book production from Awa Press. The book’s
three generous sections of photographs have the advantage (not always found in photographic sections) of presenting only images that are relevant to the tone and matter of the author’s narrative. The first image is of young Jack Elworthy with his wife and baby son. The last is of old Jack Elworthy on the day of his retirement in the 1950s. In between, probably the most endearing image is one of Elworthy, in the last months of the war, standing in American uniform at the right end of a line-up of his American buddies. It’s funny how he manages to look both one of them and out of place at the same time.

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To Fight Alongside Friends, a handsome hardback, is a very different first-person document of war.
These are the diaries of a British officer in the First World War. Charlie May was born in Dunedin in New Zealand, but having lived in England for some time, he joined an English “Pals” battalion. “Pals” battalions were one means of making volunteering more attractive as England built up its “New” Army to add to its very small professional army. Friends from a certain locality were allowed to volunteer together and serve in the same units – hence the book’s title To Fight Alongside Friends. The downside (not dealt with in this book) is that if “Pals” units were hit hard in battle, a specific locality back in Blighty could find itself deprived of most of its young manhood. Charlie May was a captain in the 22nd Manchester Service battalion.
Front line officers were forbidden, by King’s Regulations, to keep diaries for the obvious reason that, if they were captured or killed, such diaries could fall into the hands of the enemy and be gleaned for military information. Charlie May, however, ignored regulations. He had spent some time as a journalist before enlisting and had a compulsion to write and record things.  He kept his diary in seven small notebooks which survived his death and were sent back to his family.
The first entry is in November 1915 before he had embarked for France. The last is early on the morning of 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This day has become iconic as the day when the British Army suffered more casualties (dead or wounded) than on any other day in its history. Among common soldiers, with a less fastidious vocabulary than Charlie May, it became known as “the big f**k-up”. Charlie May was killed on that day. In his last entry, before going over the top, he writes in a spirit of exultation, as if he is about to be part of a great military achievement.
Of course there is a cruel irony in this ending and, for this reader at least, there is unintended irony throughout the book. May’s attitudes are, by and large, conventionally patriotic ones, very much in tune with the times. He hates the enemy and sees Germany as being entirely responsible for the war, writing on 13 January 1916: “Curse the Kaiser, say I, and all similar tyrants who bring war and misery and devastation upon the world?” (p.69). He is mildly amused by those near the front, such as the padre, who do not have a military spirit and who are not like the common soldiery. “Parson Wood came in to tea,” he writes on 13 April 1916, “He is a somewhat dolorous person but means well, works harder and is I fully believe a most Christian man. He thinks us a sad lot of rogues and I have no doubt is justified according to his lights.” (p.153)
When he looks in the face of horror, he still sees it in the light of enemy barbarity and the gallantry of his fellow English soldiers. Consider his vocabulary in the following entry, from 3 June 1916. May has just returned to the front line from leave, and sees the bodies of dead comrades hanging over German barbed wire on the other side of No Man’s Land. The German is a very devil, whereas the dead English soldiers have made the “Supreme Sacrifice”. The entry reads thus:
We are in the line again, but it is a sad incoming. Poor Street, Cansino and one other unidentified can be plainly seen tangled in a heap among the German wire, right under their parapet. A Boche sentry is mounted over them and keeps popping his head up every now and then to have a look at them. I saw him first through the telescope and the sudden apparition of his great face caused me to think him a fiend of hell gloating over his victims. The poor fellows are quite dead. It is evident now that Cansino, hearing Street was in difficulties, went to help him and was killed in the attempt. It is one more case of the Supreme Sacrifice. The boy did well.” (p.190)
Where is the irony in this? Simply in subsequent history, which has made Charlie May’s sincere convictions and worldview seem woefully antique. We simply cannot look at war now as he did.
I do not think that To Fight Alongside Friends is a book to give startling new insights into the First World War, nor even to give us a vivid sense of what happened to one soldier. But as the expression of attitudes that once powered millions of men, it is an interesting historical document.