How’s That for an Opener?

Thus begins the second chapter of the short novel The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon, who is clearly a student of Orwell. It’s a different setting and point-of-view from the first chapter, so it’s a cold start. All we know is this is probably post-war England.

There were so many queer aspects to Sunday dinner at the Panicker table that Mr. Shane, the new arrival, aroused the suspicions of his fellow lodger Mr. Parkins merely by seeming to take no notice of any of them. He strode into the dining room, a grand, rubicund fellow who set the floorboards to creaking mightily when he trod them and who looked as if he keenly felt the lack of a pony between his legs. He wore his penny-red hair cropped close to the scalp and there was something indefinitely colonial, a nasal echo of cantonment or goldfields, in his speech. He nodded in turn to Parkins, to the refugee child, and to Reggie Panicker, and then flung himself into his chair like a boy settling onto the back of a school chum for a ride across the lawn. Immediately he struck up a conversation with the elder Panicker on the subject of American roses, a subject about which, he freely admitted, he knew nothing.

From The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon (published 2004).

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Published in: on October 13, 2016 at 8:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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  
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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  
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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  Comments (1)  
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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  Comments (1)  
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Dangerous Beauty

Gwethalyn Graham, writing in Earth and High Heaven, on the charms of small-town Ontario in the 1940s:

Manchester itself is a tribute to the Canadian talent for choosing a remarkably fine natural setting for a town, and then proceeding to ruin it as far as possible. There is an interminably long, straight main street running parallel with the shore, flanked by the inevitable collection of two- and three-storey office buildings, shops, gas stations, beauty parlors, Chinese laundries, pool rooms, soda fountains, cheap restaurants, movie houses, and the usual Protestant and Catholic churches, apparently dedicated, like most of the buildings in English Canada, to the Puritan proposition that even in architecture, beauty is unnecessary and possibly even dangerous. 

From Earth and High Heaven, by Gwethalyn Graham (Published 1944).

Published in: on October 11, 2013 at 2:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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