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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On the Dewey Decimal System

Jeanette Winterson, in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (which is, in some ways, a retelling of her 1990 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) remembers a librarian she was fond of while coming of age in the south of the north of England in the 1970s:

The librarian was explaining the benefits of the Dewey decimal system to her junior – benefits that extended to every area of life. It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.

“Whenever I am troubled,” said the librarian, “I think about the Dewey decimal system.”

“Then what happens?” asked the junior, rather overawed.

“Then I understand that trouble is just something that has been filed in the wrong place.”

And later:

“Who was Gertrude Stein?”

“A modernist. She wrote without regard to meaning.”

“Is that why she is under Humour, like Spike Milligan?”

“Within the Dewey decimal system there is a certain amount of discretion.”

From Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (published 2011).

Published in: on April 8, 2013 at 8:51 am  Comments (1)  
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No Trust

Norman Levine, describing Sundays at a Northern Ontario mining camp in the 1950s:

Sunday was just another day. Those who didn’t work on the day shift had chicken for lunch. There was little talk. No hypocrisy. And there was no trust. Everyone locked his door.

From Canada Made Me, by Norman Levine (published 1958)

Published in: on October 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On the Ruination of Friendships

Writing about Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and how it’s the little things that ruin a friendship.

Whenever I would think of these two men who had been my friends, I would find myself growing fascinated at the way little details, little vanities, little slights, shape all our relationships. It is these little things, not clashes over great principles, that turn people against each other.

From That Summer in Paris, by Moreley Callaghan (published 1963).

Published in: on November 6, 2010 at 11:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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On Paris

Much has been written about “the other Paris” (or, to be realistic, “the other Parises”), but Julian Green (sometimes written as Julien Green) sums it up nicely:

Paris is a city that might well be spoken of in the plural, as the Greeks used to speak of Athens, for there are many Parises, and the tourists’ Paris is only superficially related to the Paris of the Parisians. The foreigner driving through Paris from one museum to another is quite oblivious to the presence of a world he brushes past without seeing. Until you have wasted time in a city, you cannot pretend to know it well. The soul of a big city is not to be grasped so easily; in order to make contact with it, you have to have been bored, you have to have suffered a bit in those places that contain it. Anyone can get hold of a guide and tick off all the monuments, but within the very confines of of Paris there is another city as difficult to access as Timbuktu once was.

From Paris, by Julian Green (published 1991).

Published in: on October 7, 2010 at 10:09 am  Comments (2)  
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On Reviewing Books

Morley Callaghan met Ernest Hemingway while Hemingway was working as a reporter for the Toronto Star in 1920. (Hemingway later referred to that city as a “fistulating asshole.”) A few years later, Callaghan wrote to Hemingway in Paris and informed him that he was writing book reviews for the Star. Hemingway, who felt that writers should not be in the business of reviewing the work of other writers, replied with the following warning (as paraphrased by Callaghan):

Avoid reviewing books. It is alright to talk about a writer if you had to, but always remember that you can’t run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.

From That Summer in Paris, by Morley Callaghan (published 1963).

Published in: on August 30, 2010 at 3:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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