He’ll show them a thing or two…

Frau Nowak has a bad lung and a chaotic impoverished life. She and her family live in an attic flat in Berlin, in the early 1930s, where she spends her days meticulously cleaning after her lout of a husband, her grown children Otto and Grete, and the occasional boarder. She complains to anyone who will listen as well as those who won’t. Like many discontent Germans in the last days of the Weimar Republic, she’s inclined to shoot at the easy targets. Her convictions seem to lack depth but as history shows, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to keep rolling when the inertia is growing all around you. Christopher Isherwood, a temporary boarder in the Nowak household, is witness to this and reports on it in his semi-fictional, sort-of autobiography, The Berlin Stories.

Another regular visitor was the Jewish tailor and outfitter, who sold clothes of all kinds on the instalment plan. He was small and gentle and very persuasive. All day long he made his rounds of the tenements in the district, collecting fifty pfennings here, a mark there, scratching up his precarious livelihood, like a hen, from this apparently barren soil. He never pressed hard for money, preferring to urge his debtors to take more of his goods and embark upon a fresh series of payments. Two years ago Frau Nowak had bought a suit and an overcoat for Otto for three hundred marks. The suit and the overcoat had been worn out long ago, but the money was not nearly repaid. Shortly after my arrival Frau Nowak invested in clothes for Grete to the value of seventy five marks. The tailer made no objection at all.

The whole neighbourhood owed him money. Yet he was not unpopular: he enjoyed the status of a public character, whom people curse without real malice. “Perhaps Lothar’s right,” Frau Nowak would sometimes say: “When Hitler comes, he’ll show these Jews a thing or two. They won’t be so cheeky then.” But when I suggested that Hitler, if he got his own way, would remove the tailor altogether, then Frau Nowak would immediately change her tone: “Oh, I shouldn’t like that to happen. After all, he makes very good clothes. Besides, a Jew will always let you have time if you’re in difficulties. You wouldn’t catch a Christian giving credit like he does… You ask the people round here Herr Christoph: they’d never turn out the Jews.”

From The Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood (published 1939).

Published in: on September 19, 2015 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Ragù

Bill Buford explores the intricacies of traditional Italian ragù:

Fundamentally, a ragù is an equation involving a solid (meat) and a liquid (broth or wine), plus a slow heat, until you reach a result that is neither solid nor liquid. The most famous ragù is Bolognese, although there is not one Bolognese but many. Gianni Valdiserri confessed to me when I was in Porretta that when he and Betta married – Betta pregnant, sixteen years old, and still in school – he was concerned that he hadn’t tasted her ragù. This ragù, which she’d learned from an aunt, had been passed down through many generations of her family and would be different from the ragù that Gianni had grown up eating, his mother’s, which was profound and complex and touched something deep in his soul. He also knew that he’d never be able to teach Betta to make someone else’s. A ragù, he said, was a very personal thing. So imagine his happiness when he first ate a ragù made by Betta and discovered that yes, it was different from his mother’s – and better.

From Heat, by Bill Buford (published 2006)

Published in: on December 20, 2014 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Heavy Efforts

Primo Levy referred to Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada, as “The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis.”  Published in 1947, it is a grim carnival of fools with a black comedic sensibility. Fallada (real name Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) died a few weeks before publication, at age 53.

The scene: wartime Berlin. Detective Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo is charged with finding the source of a series of anti-Hitler postcards being dropped around town by persons unknown. He’s not a particularly fervent Nazi; he just wants to maintain law and order. But his superiors are bullies and they put constant pressure on him to resolve the case immediately.

Back at Prinz Albrecht Strasse, he had himself announced immediately to his direct supervisor, SS Obergruppenführer Prall. He had to wait almost an hour; not that Herr Prall was very busy, or rather, because he was particularly busy in a particular way. Escherich heard the tinkle of glasses, and the popping of corks, he heard laughter and shouting: one of the regular meetings of the higher echelons, then. Conviviality, booze, cheerful relaxation after the heavy effort of torturing and putting to death their fellow men.

From Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada (originally published 1947; English translation by Geoff Wilkes published 2009).

Published in: on November 7, 2014 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment  

On Whaling and Dogme 95

Herman Melville, like many writers before and since, was somewhat bonkers. In setting the scene for his description of Melville’s maladies, Dr. John Ross describes the world of nineteenth-century Yankee whaling, including life on the whaling ships.

Desertion rates in whaleships were high. Whaling consisted of long periods of tedium, punctuated by bouts of terror, rather like firefighting or watching the films of Lars von Trier.

From Sharespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, by John Ross, M.D. (published 2012)

Published in: on November 3, 2014 at 10:39 am  Leave a Comment  

The First Great Winnowing

Madeleine McCarthy is now in her early thirties. She’s a comedian and actress, and passes her days and nights amid a coterie of showy show business folks. One night at an after-show party she starts to see things differently.

Early thirty-something existential moment of truth, when you first realize that not everyone you worked with in your twenties is a genius, that some people are “wild and crazy” and others simply have a substance problem, that the alluring sexy-sad people are just depressive, that depression is rage slowed down, that mania is grief speeded up. That first great winnowing.

From The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (published 2003).

Published in: on February 1, 2014 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  

Imaginary Crippled Mother

One of the joys of The Way the Crow Flies is the way the author, Ann-Marie MacDonald, totally nails the voice and the stream-of-conciousness thoughts of a nine-year old girl in 1962. Madeleine McCarthy is a half-Acadian tomboy living with her family on an Air Force base in Ontario.

“Nancy Drew and the Case of the Mysterious Wheelchair.” Maybe they have a crippled mother. Imagine if your mother were crippled. “Come here dear, so I can dress you.” You would always have to obey her and answer nicely because how cruel to talk back to a crippled mother or to run away out of her reach. Imagine her making your sandwiches with her weak hands, wheeling over to the fridge for the mayonnaise. It makes Madeleine appreciate her own mother. It’s good to appreciate your mother. She imagines her mother dead in order to appreciate her better: imagine if it were just me and Mike and Dad. Eating fried chicken every night and going to air shows. I’d wear Mike’s hand-me-downs and people would think I was a boy. She reminds herself that the prerequisite for this all-boy Shangri-La is the death of her mother, and cuts the fantasy short. It’s just not worth it if your mother has to die.

From The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (published 2003)

Published in: on November 27, 2013 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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