Monday 13 August 2007

Holiday reading 2

As I've mentioned before, I seem to have gone off taking 'light' reading with me on holiday, but for some reason I chose some particularly heavy, not to say downright gloomy books this time.

I started with the Italian writer Bruno Arpaia's gripping novel The Angel of History, which describes Walter Benjamin's flight from Nazism, first to Paris and then to Spain, where he committed suicide in disputed circumstances. Arpaia intercuts his fictionalised but convincing account of Benjamin's journey with the invented narrative of an exiled Spanish Republican soldier whom he imagines meeting the philosopher in the Pyrenees. I'll perhaps have more to say about this book another time, as I'm planning to read Jay Parini's novel on the same theme, Benjamin's Crossing - and there's a new short memoir by Carina Birman on the same events - obviously a continuing source of fascination for writers.

A few years after Benjamin's abortive crossing, a very different exile made his way over the Pyrenees to safety in Franco's Spain. Louis Darquier, the subject of Carmen Callil's Bad Faith: A Story of Family and Fatherland, was a French anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. Anne, his daughter by his marriage to the Australian Myrtle Jones, another deluded fantasist, was abandoned as a child in England, and grew up to become Callil's psychiatrist. After Anne's premature death, Callil pieced together her family history and produced this immensely detailed and powerful book: both a sad personal story and a devastating account of French anti-Semitism and its tragic consequences. For the most part Callil holds her disparate threads together - Anne's childhood in Oxfordshire providing a pastoral counterpoint to the intensifying horror on the other side of the Channel - but occasionally the accumulation of detail, whether of family history or collaborationist intrigue, overwhelms. And there's an unnecessarily tendentious attempt at contemporary relevance right at the end, when Callil compares the French forgetting of Vichy with more recent 'forgettings'. She writes:

What caused me anguish as I tracked down Louis Darquier was to live so closely to the helpless terror of the Jews of France, and to see what the Jews of Israel were passing on to the Palestinian people. Like the rest of humanity, the Jews of Israel 'forget' the Palestinians.

I'm not Jewish, but if I were I imagine I would find this attempt to psychologise Israel's policy towards the Palestinians and to 'explain' it with reference to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, both simplistic and offensive. Given the long and deep-rooted history of anti-Jewish prejudice that Callil uncovers in the book, surely a more logical contemporary link would be with the persistence of anti-Semitism and its capacity to resurface even in the twentieth-first century, in France as elsewhere.

There were World War Two, and Jewish, connexions with another book I read while on holiday: David Edmonds' and John Eidinow's Wittgenstein's Poker, an account of the notorious clash between Wittgenstein and fellow exiled Austrian Jewish philosopher Karl Popper in Cambridge in 1946. Using this encounter as a lens, the authors explore the philosophical differences (and commonalities) between the two, as well as the Viennese intellectual milieu from which they emerged. Although no philosopher myself, I've always had an instinctive sympathy for what I understood of Wittgenstein's later ideas, but my recent reading (including this book) has made me wonder whether there might be some connexion between his emphasis on language games and 'forms of life' - and the po-mo cultural relativism that I've come to dislike so much.

Conversely, Popper's reputation as Mrs. Thatcher's favourite philosopher has always made him an object of suspicion for the Left, but I suspect that recent events might have renewed interest in his pioneering analysis of totalitarianism. I note that Wittgenstein's Poker was published in 2001: I'd lay a bet that it was before September 11th of that year, otherwise the authors would surely not have made this comment to explain the lapse in popularity of Popper's ideas:

Many of the political ideas which in 1946 seemed so radical and were so important have become received wisdom. The attacks on dogma and historical inevitability, the stress on tolerance and humility - these today are beyond challenge and so beyond debate.

The events of 9/11, and the rise of political Islam, have re-opened that debate, so that the authors' next sentence is perhaps prophetic:

If a resurgence of communism, fascism, aggressive nationalism or religious fundamentalism once again threatened the international order based on the open society, then Popper's works would have to be reopened and their arguments relearned.

On which note: I also read Occupational Hazards, Rory Stewart's account of his time as a civilian administrator in post-liberation Iraq. Stewart comes across as a sympathetic character, and I came away from the book with a more nuanced and less condemnatory view of the Coalition's attempts to build democracy in the wake of Saddam's defeat. It's difficult to be critical when you haven't faced the day-to-day pressures experienced by Stewart and his colleagues, but I was still left with doubts about his attempts to bring so-called 'moderate' Islamists inside the political tent. Under instructions from Baghdad to build a secular, liberal democracy, Stewart despaired of finding local leaders who endorsed these principles. The Iraqi Communist Party hovers in the margins of his narrative, and at one stage he reflects that he might have allotted them a greater role in his provincial council, but concludes that this would have been an ideological compromise too far. But would it have been any worse than including, as he did, the Sadr movement with its conservative, patriarchal and authoritarian politics?

For light relief, I read Rupert Everett's memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. It's a rare treat to come across an actor who can write as well as Everett, and the early chapters in particular are a hilarious and outrageous account of how an upper-middle-class boy swapped boarding school and hunting trips for the demi-mondes of sex, drugs and the theatre. Just occasionally the endless parade of celebrities and the continuous pursuit of self-indulgent pleasure becomes wearisome, but the book is an entertaining insight into the continuing interdependence of the louche worlds of celebrity and the upper classes.

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