The Good European: Essays and Arguments

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Thrown into a deep identity crisis by Bismarck's victories against the French in 1870, Alsace's divided loyalties have affected the nature of Europe itself. In this authoritative new discussion, Iain Bamforth reports from 15 years of travel, taking him from Berlin, when the wall fell in 1989, to Strasburg—the heart of aboriginal Europe. With his ear attuned to the complexities of culture and politics, Bamforth attempts to discover Europe through extra-diplomatic channels, offering essays on writers and thinkers who have done much to define the small archipelago on the edge of Asia. Classic writers such as Kleist, Kafka, and WG Sebald, as well as more offbeat characters like Alsatian humorist Tomi Ungerer, are included.

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By Way of a Prologue

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By Way of a Prologue

As this revolution of the Strasburgers affairs is often spoken of, and little understood, I will, in ten words, says Slawkenbergius, give the world an explanation of it, and with it put an end to my tale.

Every body knows of the grand system of Universal

Monarchy, wrote by order of Mons. Colbert, and put in manuscript into the hands of Lewis the fourteenth, in the year .

’Tis as well known, that one branch out of many of that system, was the getting possession of Strasburg, to favour an entrance at all times into Suabia, in order to disturb the quiet of

Germany – and that in consequence of this plan, Strasburg unhappily fell at length into their hands.

It is the lot of a few to trace out the true springs of this and such like revolutions – The vulgar look too high for them –

Statesmen look too low – Truth (for once) lies in the middle.

What a fatal thing is the popular pride of a free city! cries one historian – The Strasburgers deemed it a diminution of their freedom to receive an imperial garrison – so fell a prey to a French one.

 

The Continuing Adventures of Mr Ross Hall, Esq. (& Madam Zell)

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The Continuing Adventures of Mr Ross Hall, Esq.

(& Madam Zell)

W should we make of him? Like William Godwin, father of

Mary Shelley, he was a pedagogue incapable of practising what he preached. He wrote a treatise known to every educated person at the end of the eighteenth century on how to educate a young boy and left his own five children with the Foundling Hospital in Paris.

Edmund Burke observed that his often-expressed ‘love of humanity’ was a charade which excused him from any real concern with the suffering of men and women. Contemporary humanitarianism follows his impulse, allowing the heart and not history to lead it towards causes that can do no wrong: it doesn’t care for human beings too much but it likes to take care of them. As

Flaubert had to remind his mistress Louise Colet half a century later: ‘Don’t imagine that the pen has the same instincts as the heart.’ Rousseau was hopelessly dependent on his gouvernante

Thérèse Levasseur, not to speak of poor Madame de Warens, and yet proclaimed his proud ‘Roman courage’ and his defiant independence: if he had a need it was for a lack of binding attachments.

 

A Critical Consciousness: Heinrich von Kleist

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A Critical Consciousness

H  K

Heinrich von Kleist’s life was ‘rich in incidents of being unlike’.

Born into a military family in , he soldiered in his teens and left the army in  as a second lieutenant. He engaged in a brief, intense period of study, principally of Kant and Rousseau, that was to provide him with much of the intellectual material he would mull over in his writing career – a bare nine years. It was a time of social unrest: Napoleonic levies went from one side of the continent to the other; in their wake went Kleist. A stay in Switzerland produced his early dramas, an event memorialised a hundred years later by Robert Walser in his story about the idyllic summer spent by Kleist on the Delosea Island in the River Aare near Thun where

‘he wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet’. Kleist considered fighting both for and against the French, and travelled to Boulogne in the hope of invading England in ; in the years that followed he was arrested more than once by the

 

Being Nice to Nietzsche

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Being Nice to Nietzsche

In April , after years of stateless wandering across the continent, Friedrich Nietzsche stopped in Turin, a baroque urban planning project set out in its magnificent detail by the architect

Guarino Guarini in the late seventeenth century. He took to it like no European city he had come across before. From the cheap lodgings he found with an Italian family in the historic centre of the city ‘opposite the grand Palazzo Carignano of , five paces from the great Portici and the Piazza Castello and the post office!,’ he marvels in almost daily letters to his friends in the north about

Turin’s quiet, stately streets and the bracing wind, the theatre and the soft colours, the Galleria Subalpina orchestra striking up another overture. He can see beyond the city into the world of snow. The streets seem to run straight into the Alps. ‘It is the air that does it – dry, exhilarating, happy.’ He stands in awe of the

Mole Antonelliana which, with its  metres of wrought iron on brick and granite, was the literal pinnacle of the great Piedmontese brick-building tradition: ‘perhaps the most ingenious building ever constructed’ reminded him ‘of nothing so much as [his]

 

Shelf-Life: Varieties of the Aphorism

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Shelf-Life

V   A

It might be called the literary expression of the bright idea. The tradition of the aphorism is the only literary genre I know whose most exceptional endorsers all read not only as if they sat down in the same coffeehouse but if as they shared the same library.

The tradition was inaugurated as a brief condensed statement of a set of facts. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is one of its earlier exponents: he used aphorisms as succinct definitions of diseases and remedies. ‘Life is short, and Art is long; the occasion fleeting; experience fallacious; and judgement difficult.’ Aphorisms were clearly a string of bitter pills to be swallowed, the adages or sententiae which, for a long time, served as a teaching tool in medicine and philosophy. Other ancient sayings, such as those of

Heraclitus, as handed down by Plutarch, and those of the author of the Book of Job, are closer to gnomons than aphorisms. While

Danton insists that life itself is an epigram, in Georg Büchner’s play, aphorisms can be distinguished from epigrams (literally

 

Scheherezade in Vienna: Joseph Roth

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Scheherezade in Vienna

J R’ N

The – war was called a ‘world’ war, wrote Joseph Roth in one of his brilliant journalist forays, ‘not because the entire world had conducted it but because, owing to it, we all lost a world, our world’. The world he was referring to was the Austro-Hungarian

Dual Monarchy, one of the unlikeliest forces ever to hold sway over European politics. It was the Holy Roman Empire reinstated as carnival; a cartographic familiar of stamp-collecting children.

When Joseph Roth was born in  in the small Galician town of Brody, one of the Monarchy’s eastern outposts, it had long been threatening to collapse if given a push.

Austrian policy at the beginning of the twentieth century, as many contemporary visitors noted, was a continual struggle to save face. Such was the logic of its situation in the centre of Europe, and so potentially fissiparous its empire, that it had settled for an easy-going, rather slovenly style of Schlamperei und Schweinerei – a philosophy of putting off decisions and muddling through. Not for nothing was its insignia an ironic, double-headed eagle. The struggle to save face marked many of its institutions and was especially characteristic of the army, which was full of gloriously outfitted aristocrats on little pay and with rusty equipment – until reality finally obtruded on the eastern front in . After the war

 

Berlin Diary

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Berlin Diary

 N 

 a.m. I waken to the reverberations of the first S-Bahn of the day screeching to a halt at the Savignyplatz station a hundred metres from my window. So much for the double-glazing. A dull light dribbles in through the bay windows; the reverberations get louder. The overhead S-Bahn line to Wannsee on the outskirts of the city also happens to be the main line west to Hanover; for years sealed trains have trundled along these tracks from what used to be a bit of the British crown in Germany, passengers clutching the transit visa that permitted them, in best bureaucratic German, to cross the Hoheitsgebiet (sovereign territory) of the GDR. Now the trains are thundering past every ten minutes.

Bleibtreustrasse – it cuts between two of the great thoroughfares of Berlin: Kantstrasse and the Kurfürstendamm. I make a mental note to look up Herr Bleibtreu in my father-in-law’s

Brockhaus encyclopaedia when I get back to Munich. Walter

Benjamin describes the area in his memoir of his childhood A Berlin

 

A Jolly Good Show: How the British Saw Their Empire

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A Jolly Good Show

H  B S T E

Well known for his trenchant views on the monarchy in its years of decline, David Cannadine, in his new book Ornamentalism, extends some of his earlier work on class in Britain to the janissary cosmopolis that was once the British Empire. Now that it has ended up as pap for televisual nostalgia, where it is often portrayed as a Retreat for Gracious Living (which it surely was for some: mansions with the Queen’s portrait can still be found perched among the tea plantations of Sri Lanka and may even still straddle the very exclusive crest of Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island),

Cannadine seeks to give us a view from the inside – a view of the

Empire as a social entity rather than a political construct, even though that is pre-eminently what it was. What attitudes kept the

Empire on the stage of world history until the last scene of its last act in , the year the author was born? One influential view holds that it was a ramshackle edifice acquired by men who knew not what they did (and who lost it with similar nonchalance);

 

Overwhelmed by Aura

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Overwhelmed by Aura

A’ P

There is a famous profile portrait of him, gaunt-cheeked, old and slightly gibbous, the face luminously pale above the black coat and trousers, the monumental line of which is broken only by the soft blur of the hand. It is an ash-and-clinker picture, as weighty and dark as Whistler’s famous painting of his mother. It dates from the last year of his life, , when he was known to every selfrespecting surrealist, if not to the public: the picture was taken by the young American photographer Berenice Abbott in her studio on the rue du Bac; her boyfriend, Man Ray, had been neighbour to the photographer in his little trois-pièces at  bis rue CampagnePremière, a spartan, utile studio-apartment which turns up in many of his prints. Atget was in the retail trade. The sign on his door read simply: ‘Documents pour artistes.’

His first biographer had problems finding out anything at all about the earlier life of Eugène Atget. Born in modest circumstances at Libourne in Gascony in , he was brought up in

 

Politics and Aesthetics: Harry Graf Kessler, Eugene Jolas, Wolfgang Koeppen

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Politics and Aesthetics

I consider politics, political action, all forms of politics, as inferior values and inferior activities of the mind.

Paul Valéry

T R C: H G K

It is  December , just over a month since German capitulation and the end of fighting in the Great War. Kaiser Wilhelm II has abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, bringing to an end five hundred years of Prussian domination by the Hohenzollern dynasty. In Kiel the German navy mutinies, and the black, red and gold flag of the republic flutters over the Reichstag. Karl

Liebknecht calls for a socialist revolution. The Berlin Dada Club invents the dada two-step, as a preamble to world revolution.

Western values are collapsing. On the way to lunch, Count Harry

Kessler pays a visit to the Kaiser’s private apartments; there, in the

Imperial Palace, among the shattered glass, looted furniture and broken swagger-sticks, the whole tawdriness of the atmosphere out of which war had come weighs on him. ‘In this rubbishy, trivial, unreal microcosm, furnished with nothing but false values which deceived him and others, he made his judgements, plans, and decisions. Morbid taste and a pathologically excitable character in charge of an all too well-oiled machine of state. Now the symbols of his futile animating spirit lie strewn around here in the shape of doltish odds and ends. I feel no sympathy, only aversion and complicity when I reflect that this world was not done away with long ago…’

 

‘You Must Change Your Life’: A Letter from Kakania

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‘You Must Change Your Life’

A L  K

Does memory have a colour? If it does, it must lie somewhere in the palette between sepia and mahogany. A beautiful word the latter, even if I hear it these days as the spaced-out syllables of

Brecht’s decadent city, Mahagonny. Ma-ha-gon-ny. Mahagonny was the prototypic American city dreamed up in Europe. A city redolent of stiff-backed Biedermeier furniture, sepia daguerreotypes,

Havana cigars, Worcestershire sauce, cocoa and the little lumps of dehydrated meat extract Nietzsche used to live on. When I was a boy they were called Oxo cubes.

And the more I look around, the more my observation receives official imprimatur. Memory is brown. Drive down the superefficient tollways after the Channel Tunnel, those long concrete snakes cut around the contoured hills and ideological carcases of la bonne vieille France, and you can hardly miss them, deep ochre panels pointing out one architectural marvel after another, one battlefield after the next, the great arks bearing a generation’s collective undertakings and understanding into the next. Cut off from the landscape by your car’s metal cocoon the brown signs whiz past, pointers to what you almost slid through, at high speed, unawares. These are your didactic lessons for the day, visual lozenges of the continent’s history. And by the time you turn east of Paris to travel the four hundred odd kilometres to the flatland of the Rhine Valley – Verdun, le grès rose des Vosges, Strasbourg et sa cathédrale – and Germany takes over – schwäbische Alb, Ulmer Dom,

 

Bile with Style

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Bile with Style

‘How do you tell a true patriot?’ asked the cabarettist Helmut

Qualtinger a few years ago. ‘He’s ashamed of his countrymen.’ The remark goes further than Austria, but Thomas Bernhard’s writings, slabs of lyophilised bile from his first mature work Verstörung

() through the numerous novels and plays and six volumes of autobiography, are characteristic of a pronounced strain in

Austrian literature: the writer as malcontent and whinger. It is a love-hate relationship which precedes this century, it can be found simmering away in Grillparzer and Nestroy, for example; the age of the great coffee houses and newspapers refined it to exquisite parody, and Austria’s ignominious collapse in the First War envenomed it. Karl Kraus, something of a scold himself, even inserted a grumbling character called ‘Der Nörgler’ in his docudrama, The Last Days of Mankind. After the terrible disclosures of the

Second War, it was left to Bernhard to add his own withering definitions of ‘Austrian brainlessness, in all its subtle shades’.

 

The Future of the Walk

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The Future of the Walk

‘I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la

Sainte Terre” – to the holy land, till the children exclaimed,

“There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a saunterer – a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering.’

The jaunty opening of Henry David Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking’

() confects two spurious but compelling etymologies for the word ‘sauntering’ (the OED entry simply says ‘origin obscure’). A saunter is the best way to walk, a slow stately progress in the manner of the camel which, Thoreau observes, is the only beast able at the same time to ruminate and ambulate.

 

Cinema Verities

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Cinema Verities

T HE F ILM E XPLAINER : A N  G H

After a long career as a writer of radio plays Gert Hofmann came late to the novel, just a few years short of his fiftieth birthday.

Widely respected, but never a literary lion or trend-setter, he turned out almost a novel a year in the fifteen years before his death from a cerebral haemorrhage in . Such a furious rate of production is belied by the brilliant surface of his fiction, which is limpid, neutral, hyperrealist, and often strikingly indifferent to psychology. He has often been compared to the more pugnacious

Thomas Bernhard in his modernist insistence on ironic multiple perspectives, and dismantling fictive pieties, but Bernhard’s books seem a long gripe compared to Hofmann’s rapid-fire humour, which upends conventional props and hangs the narrative, as in the present book, on the speech of his characters. It is a skill presumably acquired from the years of radio work, and it gives his work a lightness of tone which is captivating, heady, and sometimes devastating.

 

Candour and Hygiene: Louis-Ferdinand Céline

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Candour and Hygiene

L-F C

M. Céline scandalise. A ceci, rien à dire, puisque

Dieu l’a visiblement fait pour ça.

Georges Bernanos, 

Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches was born in , the year of the Dreyfus affair, in Courbevoie, an old working class area on the fringes of the Seine which has been wrenched out of recognition by Mitterrand’s city-planners’ grandiose schemes for the mini-Manhattan that now blocks the western skyline of Paris intramuros. His parents were hard-working petits commerçants who aspired to middle-class respectability but lived in fear of poverty. Theirs was the tormented sense of place in the economic pecking order that has always afflicted the petty bourgeoisie, deprived of the consolations of working-class solidarity and driven to aspire to a style of leisured living that, in truth, is alien to them. The family stares into the camera in a rare photo: father plump, bombastic moustache, a hail-fellow-well-met air about him; mother severe and thin-lipped, her right hand keeping her son in place. The older the son became the more he acquired of his mother’s animosities and dislikes: he must have caught something from her, the pinchfaced woman whom he remembered sitting in her little lacemaker’s shop in the Passage Choiseul facing ‘a mountain of work that would bring in only a few francs. It never ended. She had to do it so we could eat. It gave me nightmares, and her too. I’ve never forgotten it. Like her, I come to my desk and see a huge pile waiting for me – a pile of Horror that I have to mend before being done with everything.’ His writing is, above all, a laden monument to the class resentment that ate her away, and perhaps even to the injustice she felt at being born a woman. It was the maternal name,

 

Third Person to Herself: Marguerite Duras

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Third Person to Herself

M D

Her life was her best novel, and M.D. – or ‘La Duras’ as even she referred to herself in old age – knew it. She kept ransacking it, covering her tracks, refining her ability to confuse the issue, ‘for having us believe lies she then ended up believing herself’. So says

Laure Adler – historian, French television pundit and acquaintance of the older Duras – in her scrupulous biographical reconstruction not just of M.D.’s life but of the many other visible and not so visible lives subsumed in  books and nearly  films.

One of the last sacred monsters of French cultural life, award of the  Goncourt Prize for her most conventional novel The Lover

– it sold more than a million copies and ended up as a film she detested – brought M.D. fame. So much, in fact, that a writer who believed writing was the opposite of telling a story had to resign herself to the maddening way a personal truth tends to reveal itself

– in the breach: The Lover was read as her life story.

 

Believing in Architecture: Berlin since

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Believing in Architecture

B  

Rubble Berlin. People keep mislaying things in Berlin, even the city itself. While every European city offers the historian a biography

(the history of Europe is, in large part, the history of its cities),

Berlin, since , has acquired an archaeology, too. Some of its layers are made of compressed nightmare, deposits of sordid misery and not just the eerie atmospheres of the ‘weird tales’ that made E.T.A. Hoffmann famous in the days when Berlin was a most respectably enlightened regional capital. A couple of weeks ago I stood with my son flying a kite on the top of a large sandy hill in the Grünewald area, between Berlin and Potsdam. The hill is called Teufelsberg. The only incline for miles, it offers a superb vantage point across the city from Spandau and Reinickendorf in the north to Tempelhof and Kopenick in the south. In winter it becomes a ski resort. But Devil’s Mountain is no ordinary hill: pipes, bricks, tiles and other detritus can be seen poking out from beneath its sand and scrub. This -metre-high heap is the derelict body of prewar Berlin; this is the city carted away brick by brick at war’s end by the famous ‘rubble women’.

 

The Last Culture Broth: Bernard Pivot’s Bookshow

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The Last Culture Broth

B P’ B

How does the Brassens’ charity song go? – ‘Quand le croqu’-mort t’emportera…’

The undertaker’s mute came on  June for the th transmission of Bernard Pivot’s famous Friday night programme,

Bouillon de culture. For the past eleven years, for an hour and a half around  p.m. on France’s second public channel, France Deux,

Bouillon de culture offered little more than the prospect of an affable middle-aged man with sartorially suspect ties talking to guests about books they had written. For his last outing on air before retiring, ‘Stock-taking before final closure,’ a panel of twelve guests commented on highlights from a decade of Pivot’s being passionate about books. He had even invited the American talkshow host James Lipton, who does a good funeral, to talk in

English. Lipton was apparently doing public penance for having purloined for his own show Pivot’s questionnaire, a series of trite questions tossed to guests at the end of proceedings. ‘If heaven exists what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?’ (Answer: ‘Get off my show.’)

 

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