2017-05-18

sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
The astonishing Holocaust novel I mentioned earlier was Emeric Pressburger's The Glass Pearls (1966), which I read last night on either side of seeing To Be or Not to Be (1942). I cannot possibly do justice to it, but I'm trying not to let everything slip past just because I feel like someone replaced my sinuses with damp cheesecloth.

The Glass Pearls was Pressburger's second published novel. His first was the critically and commercially acclaimed Killing a Mouse on Sunday (1961), probably better known nowadays in its Gregory Peck-starring film incarnation, Fred Zinneman's Behold a Pale Horse (1964). Its follow-up was not acclaimed. Hollywood did not come calling. It garnered one brutally dismissive review and no second printing—critically, commercially, it disappeared without a trace. Caitlin McDonald, who writes the second of this edition's two useful introductions, not unjustly likens it to Michael Powell's career-killing Peeping Tom (1960), with which it shares an uncomfortably sympathetic protagonist and an effortless inhabitation of mindsets and behaviors a "normal" person is not supposed to be able to get inside of. Powell put himself literally into Peeping Tom, drawing a disquieting link between the work of a film director and a serial killer. When Pressburger performs a similar trick with The Glass Pearls, it is especially striking because his protagonist is a Nazi.

In the spring of 1965, Karl Braun is a slight, solitary, middle-aged piano tuner who lives and works in West London. For recreation, he attends classical concerts on the discount tickets he gets from one of his fellow-lodgers and sometimes has dinner with another, both of them immigrants like himself; he thinks often of his wife and child who died more than twenty years ago in the air-raids of Hamburg, but has recently found himself pursuing a not quite romantic relationship with a young woman he met at the estate agency. She takes him to her favorite Chinese restaurant. He introduces her to Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Strauss. (She introduces him to a screamingly crowded beatnik dance club and he has a panic attack and passes out.) She finds him charming in an old-world sort of way, with his discreetly rakish stories of affairs and narrow escapes in Paris before the war. What she does not know, what no one in this scenario knows except the reader and the man who has for the last twenty years gone by the name of Karl Braun: he is a wanted war criminal, keeping an increasingly anxious weather eye on the news coming out of Ludwigsberg. It was bad enough when a former comrade actually made contact with him in England—now any time a stranger asks after him at the piano factory or one of his places of work, he gets so paranoid that he has to remind himself that "the natural function of a logical mind was to reduce mountains to molehills, not the other way round." His relationship with Helen Taylor progresses; so does his conviction that he is being followed, spied upon, elaborately set up to give himself away. Both plots come to a head during a trip to France, where Braun has promised to show Helen the real-life sites of every one of his Parisian adventures and, while she visits friends in the south of France, nip over the border to Zürich where he has business of an unspecified nature. Three, two, one, nothing in life ends as simply as it does in the movies, but there are things that are real and that no amount of retelling can magic away.

The one extant review of The Glass Pearls devotes way too much of its short wordcount to criticizing the author's choice of a Nazi as the main character and his failure to treat this fact as a shocking plot twist, when in reality the book would not work at all if the audience were not clued in from the outset. (The reviewer also calls the character of Helen "boring and stupid," which is the kind of book report I would expect from a last-minute sixth-grader, not the TLS.) For much of its runtime, it functions as a study in the banality of evil—still a new concept when Pressburger was writing—and the efficacy of compartmentalization, neither romanticizing nor demonizing Braun past the judgment of his own actions. He deeply misses his wife and child, with whom he knows he would have died in the British bombing raid if his work hadn't called him away on the night; he forms a friendship with a Jewish neighbor and listens seriously and sympathetically to the man's story of escaping occupied Prague by doctoring his name from "Kohn" to "Kolm." The stories he relates to an always interested Helen show him in a variety of lights from prankish lover to terrified exile, sometimes jaunty, sometimes petty, sometimes just getting along. It is not special pleading, however Braun's tight third-person perspective justifies itself. With the Eichmann trial in recent memory, Pressburger seems to have felt confident assuming his audience would take it as read that National Socialism was not a good thing, therefore he could push the terrible, relatable ordinariness of his protagonist further than the purely circumstantial sympathy of 49th Parallel (1941). In the first introduction to this edition, Kevin Macdonald notes that his grandfather "bizarrely . . . went so far as to imbue the Braun character with certain traits of his own; such that, to some degree, Braun is a self-portrait." This statement is true enough, but also conceals the novel's most resonant and devastating twist, which I am afraid I have to talk about if I want to explain why it affected me as strongly as it did.

It was the first party in the new flat in the Rue Quentin-Bochart. )

There are other reasons to take it seriously as a Holocaust novel—the differing perspectives offered by Braun's flatmates Leslie Strohmayer and Jaroslav Kolm, the evidence that people were already worrying about the failure of historical memory barely twenty years after the war. "Perhaps nowadays they treated such cases as routine. The war, the Nazis, the camps, War Criminals were old hat. To everybody under thirty, the whole period must appear as mythical as the Boer War." (Did I mention we had neo-Nazis in Boston over the weekend? They held a rally on the Common. It was apparently a fairly pathetic rally, which I am not sorry to hear, but they brought their Kriegsmarine cosplay and their internet memes and trust me, this stuff is not old hat to me right now. To be honest, it wasn't even before we had quite so many homegrown fascists in the news.) It is also simply a very good novel, in terms of character study and in terms of prose. English may have been Pressburger's fifth or sixth language, but he puts it together beautifully, plain-spoken and poetic by the turns it needs. I haven't re-read it with an eye to his scripts, but I am sure it would reward consideration in that direction. At the moment, I am going to shower and see what I can do about getting over this cold. I can't do anything about getting over the haunting, except remember, and make sure it's tribute, not theft.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Overnight the weather has gone subtropical: I fell asleep after it was light out and even then we lay sweating on top of the covers while the air came in like heat-shimmer through the window fan and the cats tried to melt themselves into the hardwood. I have the blinds drawn; I'm drinking cold water even though it makes my teeth hurt. We need to get our air conditioner out of the storage unit and fast.

The twenty-four-hour news cycle has become more like twenty-four frames per second. Yesterday 45 claimed that "no politician in history has been treated more unfairly" (to which I found myself responding on Facebook, "Definitely not any of the asssassinated Presidents of the United States") while today he invokes witch hunts, of which again there has never been a greater victim than himself. I saw a macro of Joan of Arc last night: "Bitch, please." [edit] Points to the representative from Salem.

Here's what I hope: that Robert Mueller is honest, and good at his job, and has security who are the same.
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