Archive for the ‘Non-Fiction’ Category

The Kraus Project

The Kraus ProjectThe Kraus Project Jonathan Franzen

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose might be the overall feeling on reading this latest Franzen foray into the public arena. Though it would be the German equivalent, which I dare not attempt. The word ‘Project’ in the title gives a hint that there might be a mission of some sort in operation here, and indeed there is.  Franzen has taken some pieces written by the Austrian critic/satirist Karl Kraus in the early decades of the twentieth century and translated them, pointing out with a frank lack of modesty that “much of Kraus’s best work has hitherto frightened off English translators”. As it turns out, he can be forgiven this trumpet-blowing for he does a great job; the original German is extremely densely packed, deliberately so; Kraus was writing only for people who were willing to take the time to understand him. And this is where the sense of familiarity begins to creep in. Though his specific theme is the ’Frenchification’ (for which read ornamentation and a tendency towards superficiality) of Austrian/German intellectual life, with the German poet Heine his particular target, much of what Kraus is railing against in his work (and he is a railer), strikes a chord today; for example, his utter distaste for throwaway journalism – tabloidism, as we might now call it. If you’ve ever despaired at the juxtaposition of a report of a major catastrophe with the ‘news’ on some so-called celebrity’s latest diet, then you will find an answering hundred-year-old chime in Kraus.

The book is helpfully laid out. The German text is on the left page, the corresponding English on the right, with relevant footnotes – of which there are many, since this is as much a Franzen treatise as it is a Kraus one.  Franzen appears to antagonise as many people as he attracts, and in this way Kraus is an ideal partner for him. There are off-putting moments of self-absorption scattered throughout the notes (though nothing like the off-putting self-absorption of his tedious The Corrections, which along with Donna Tartt’s equally tedious The Secret History rings alarm bells for the future of the Man Booker – but I digress) – anyway, the moments of self-absorption in this context are forgiveable, given that the overall argument from both authors is fundamentally a personal one.

The tone and the flavour of the whole enterprise is set early on in a nicely thought-provoking and highly relevant observation:

“In Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten.

In cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.

Franzen note: You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it two billion now?) ‘individualized’ Facebook pages may make you want to say them.”

Let the games begin.

Hanns and Rudolf

Hanns and RudolfHanns and Rudolf Thomas Harding

I had a small problem with this book. Or to be more precise, with the marketing strategy employed in its promotion. The book tells the true story of how Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who worked for the British Army during the war, tracked down Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, who was trying to find himself a ratline to freedom after the war ended. Alternate chapters bring us through the lives of each of the two men from their childhoods, until three quarters of the way through the book when the hunt begins and they share chapters, their lives now directly linked by the chase. The problem I have is with the fact that, given that this is a work of non-fiction, dealing with someone who by his own admission was directly responsible for the deaths of two and a half million people, the marketing blurb on the front (it seems we must have them) comes, not from an eminent historian or even biographer, but from that eminent spinner of spy yarns, John le Carré: ‘A gripping thriller’ is his first reaction, though he continues, ‘an unspeakable crime, an essential history’. On the back cover other reviewers have been blurbed using the words ‘thrilling’, ‘electrifying’, and ‘exhilarating’. And ultimately the problem really is that it is all of these things, and I could not help feeling a twinge of guilt for enjoying the book so much for its pure entertainment value.

Thomas Harding, the author, is a grand-nephew of Hanns Alexander. Given that his family suffered at the hands of the Nazis, he has done a laudable job of maintaining a balanced tone throughout. Both Hanns and Rudolf are given equal consideration – though Harding is at pains to point out at the start that he sees no moral equivalence between them – and there seems to be a genuine attempt to understand how Rudolf Höss became what he did. The style in which the book is written is direct and unfussy, possibly the result of the fact that Harding is a journalist, though possibly too in order to maintain that objectivity and balance. Ultimately, however, and through no fault of Harding, there really is no adequate explanation for why someone who wanted to be a farmer ultimately became one of the most prolific murderers of all time.

There are several photographs in the book. The most startling is not, as we might expect, the photographs of selection, or execution, or burial; it is rather the 1943 Höss family group photograph of Rudolf, his wife and their five children, the youngest of which is a two- or three-month-old baby. The mother sits looking at the baby on her lap, the others form a semicircle behind her and have obviously been told to look at the baby likewise. The two girls do so, their heads bowed timidly; the younger son looks directly at the camera from behind his mother’s shoulder, his gaze almost fearful; the older boy, standing beside his father looks warily at him or at something beyond him; Höss himself looks down at his wife and baby but there is nothing of the pride of a paterfamilias in his face; more a sort of discomfort. Here truly is a picture that paints a thousand words. And when we find ourselves slipping into the mode of reading this book as if it was a fiction thriller, this photograph pulls us up and reminds us that, as Harding himself says in the Author’s Note, we are dealing here with human beings. Perhaps not all the victims were inside the fence.

1913: The Year Before The Storm

19131913: The Year before the Storm, Florian Illies

Here at The Company of Books we don’t recommend something until we have read every last line. As the previous recommendation was back in March, it might appear as though we have been slacking off, but no, it’s simply that while many were read, none were chosen. These include at least one tome that made it to the top summer reads list of a respected British Sunday newspaper. However, the despair is at an end. We don’t recommend something until every last line has been read – until now.

In the midst of the current tide of books about the period immediately before the First World War, Florian Illies’ 1913: The Year before the Storm is an informative and highly engaging addition to the flow. Taking the year month by month it offers snippets, from a single line to a couple of pages, with little details about the people or events that made up the tapestry of 1913. The big names from politics and the arts are there, of course. So too are the seeds of future impacts:

“Two national myths are founded: in New York the first edition of Vanity Fair is published. In Essen, Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother opens the prototype of the first Aldi supermarket.”

“The drug ‘ecstasy’ has been synthesised for the first time; the patent application drags on through 1913. Then it’s completely forgotten about for several decades.”

There have been one or two other books in the past couple of years that attempted this type of thing about other pivotal years in European history, but there was something a little lifeless about them. Illies’ book avoids becoming mere catalogue both by his clever mix of details large and lesser, and his infusion of a quirky speculative vein. In January of 1913, for example, according to their separate friends, two young men liked to walk in the park at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. One, we already know from previous references, is Stalin. He

“walks through the park, thinking . . . Another walker comes towards him . . . a failed painter who’s been turned down by the Academy . . . He is waiting, like Stalin, for his big break. His name is Adolf Hitler . . . The two men may have greeted one another politely and tipped their hats as they made their way through the boundless park . . . Even when Hitler and Stalin sealed their fatal ‘pact’ in 1939, they never met. So they were never closer than they were on one of those bitterly cold January afternoons in the park of Schönbrunn Palace.”

A book to dip into, to read from cover to cover, to re-read (since you won’t remember it all the first time around, so fizzy is it with little nuggets), a book for anyone interested in that particular period, or in history generally, a book for people who like collecting bits and pieces of information useful to varying degrees (and, remember, anything might be useful in a pub quiz). In short – and though the last line has not yet been gained – the most diverting book of the year so far.

The Silence Of Animals

The Silence of Animals, John GrayThe Silence Of Animals

“Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion. By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright. Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.”

Gray’s book is subtitled ‘On Progress and Other Modern Myths’. His thesis is that in order to create meaning for our lives, we create fictions. In our own times, the fiction we have created to convince ourselves that life has meaning is the myth of progress, a myth that Gray debunks from any angle you might be sitting comfortably in: Christianity, atheism, humanism – truly nothing is sacred.  In the course of his musings, he draws from works of philosophy, history, memoir, fiction and poetry; writers as varied as Orwell, Freud, Beckett, Schopenhauer, JG Ballard, William Empson and Patrick Leigh Fermor feature. Whether or not you ultimately buy his arguments, there is one thing for which to be thankful to the author. If you are a lover of really fine prose, the extracted passages from J. A. Baker and Llewelyn Powys will have you rushing to discover more about these writers if they were not already familiar to you.

This exhilarating book from John Gray crackles on every page with ideas. Some will resonate, others may infuriate, but all will arrest.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie

Johanna, who loves socialising and gossip is married at 15 to an austere military man more than twice her age. He needs a male heir; she wants a path to the highest society. They have a daughter, Sophia, who is immediately rejected by her mother.  From her governess Sophia gets the affection and attention she so desperately craves. She also learns to cloak herself in meekness and submission. Temporarily.

Though Johanna could not have known what was to happen, the daughter she rejects as a disappointment goes on in time to become Catherine the Great.

If all this sounds like the premise for a novel, it’s because it could well be.  As the subtitle indicates, this is a portrait as much as a ‘life’ or a ‘biography’.  No dry history lesson, the prose moves fluidly and is studded with colourful detail. Yes, the intermingling of the various German, Prussian, Russian and Scandinavian royal houses of the time is occasionally tricky to keep track of unless you’re versed in the period, but that doesn’t matter here where the subject of the book is always the primary focus, and the extracts from her own memoirs dotted throughout bring the portrait psychologically to life.

If you’re on the lookout for something to curl up with on an autumn evening, or are impatiently waiting for Hilary Mantel to finish her trilogy, this might do quite nicely.

River Cottage Veg Every Day

River Cottage Veg Every Day, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

When I think of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (which I rarely do), I always picture him out in the wilds catching and dispatching some harmless creature one would never imagine eating unless in the most extreme cases of need. It was therefore with some scepticism that I picked up his latest River Cottage cookbook , Veg Every Day. I opened it idly at first, but then found myself turning the pages avidly as each recipe looked more tasty than the last.  Not only tasty, but simple.  I’ve now attempted about a dozen of the recipes, and though I’m not particularly talented in the kitchen, everything I tried turned out well and was indeed simplicity itself.  All you need to do is to make sure that you have a reasonable range of the usual herbs and spices in your cupboard; beyond that the ingredients are things you’ll either already have to hand, or will have no trouble finding in your local supermarket. At last a vegetarian cookbook that makes vegetarian cooking look mainstream.  I’m off now to have some leftover roasted roots frittata, which Hugh assured me would make ‘perfect lunchbox fare’ . . .

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