Helene Schjerfbeck @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition takes you on a strange and mysterious journey through the career of one of Finland’s most eminent artists, Helene Schjerfbeck, from entirely conventional late-Victorian naturalism like this:

Self-portrait by Helene Schjerfbeck (1884-85) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

Via a kind of haughty modernism like this:

Self-portrait with a black background by Helene Schjerfbeck (1915) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Yehia Eweis

To the incredibly bleak, post-Holocaust self-portraits of her last few years.

Self-portrait with Red Spot by Helene Schjerfbeck (1944) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

Synopsis

Helene Schjerfbeck lived from 1862 to 1945. She is one of Finland’s most eminent artists. This is the first ever UK exhibition ever devoted to her work. It contains some 65 portraits, landscapes and still lifes, selected from the estimated 1,000 works that she produced in a career spanning nearly seventy years.

Early career and studies

Helene was the third child of an office manager in the Finnish state railway’s workshop. The family were lower-middle-class Swedish-speaking Finns. At the age of 11 some of her drawings were shown to a successful painter who arranged a free place for her at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. Aged 11! She won a prize every year for the four years she was there.

In 1877 she moved to a private academy in Helsinki, learning to handle oil paints. In 1880 her painting Wounded Soldier in the Snow won a prize from the Finnish Senate which allowed her to go and study in Paris. She made friends and visited Pont-Aven the emerging art colony where Gauguin was later to work.

In 1887 she travelled to St Ives in Cornwall at the invitation of a fellow art student who had married an Englishman. She returned again a year later and made many paintings, enjoying the English coastal light.

The first picture in the show is Two Profiles from 1881, when she was just 18. It took my breath away. The oil paint is laid on in swatches and clearly visible strokes which give a bracing energy and dynamism to what is, on the face of it, a passive image. This reproduction is terrible. In the flesh it is much more bright and airy.

Two Profiles by Helene Schjerfbeck (1881)

All the other early paintings have a tremendous confidence with oil paint, she handles it in the loose expressive way I associate with John Singer Sargent. They all deal with light and sunny Cornish landscapes or healthy looking peasants and workers and family and friends. Chocolate box. The rural settings and confident if (when you look closely) roughly applied paint remind me a bit of the farm paintings of George Clausen.

View of St Ives by Helene Schjerfbeck (1887)

The largest painting from this early phase is The Convalescent from 1888. It is a rich slice of late-Victorian tweeness, complete with a blue-eyed little girl. It was exhibited at the Paris Salon of that year and bought by the Finnish Art Society. It is tremendously proficient. Look at the glass jar on the right of the table. What immense talent she had for this kind of naturalism.

The Convalescent by Helene Schjerfbeck (1888)

Travelling and teaching

There is then a hiatus in the exhibition. The next painting is from 1905. What happened in between? She travelled and got a job as a teacher.

Travel In 1892 the Finnish Art Society commissioned her to travel to St Petersburg and make copies in the Hermitage Museum of Frans Hals, Diego Velasquez and other Old Masters for the Finnish Collection. In 1894 she visited the Austrian national museum to make more copies, then travelled on to Italy to make copies of Renaissance masters.

Teaching Schjerfbeck got a job as a teacher in the Finish Art Society’s drawing school. She was, by all accounts, extremely exacting. Complete silence in the classroom.

Ill Schjerfbeck was always unwell. As a child she had fallen and broken her hip leading to a permanent limp. She fell ill in 1895, took sick leave till 1896, and was again on extended sick leave in 1900. In 1902 she resigned her teaching job and went to live with her mother in the small town of Hyvinkää north of Helsinki. There is a series of portraits of her mother which hint at the psychological tensions between them. Nonetheless her mother’s small state pension meant she didn’t have to work.

Schjerfbeck ended up living in Hyvinkää for fifteen years, corresponding with friends and asking for copies of newspapers and magazines. During this time she used local girls and boys and men and women as models for her painting.

The mature style

All of this goes some way to explaining the radical change which came about in her art. Compare the two women and the little girl in the paintings above with the next one in the exhibition, from 1911.

Schoolgirl by Helene Schjerfbeck (1911)

The idea is that Schjerfbeck no longer needed to compete – to bow to current taste in order to sell things to the Salon or to compete for prizes or sales. Now she could experiment with her vision – and it is completely unlike anything from the 1880s and 90s.

Now the outlines of figures becomes misty and vague. The faces lose the precise features they formerly had. Detailed description disappears in favour of blocks of abstract colour. And the palette becomes deliberately more narrow, so that the compositions seem more aligned, more focused, creating a sense of luminosity.

Many of the paintings are deliberately unfinished, leaving patches of canvas showing through. And in many of them, she either scores the surface of the paint, or lets it dry then scrapes away at it, repaints a new layer, dry, and scrapes it back again – the idea being to mimic the aged and worn affect of the many frescos she had seen on her trip to Italy.

Flappers

The Great War came but didn’t greatly effect her art. Instead this rather misty style continues unabated into the between the wars period. Surprisingly, many of them reflect the fashions of the era. She subscribed to fashion magazines such as Marie Claire and was interested in the slender gender-neutral look of the ‘flapper’, and she also created fictional characters or types. Almost all her models were local working class people but she used them as the basis for novelistic ‘types’ such as The Skiier or The Motorist or, one of the most vivid images, the Circus Girl.

The Circus Girl by Helene Schjerfbeck (1916)

Note the vague unfinishedness of the whole image; the sketchiness of the outline; the sense that it has been scored or marked by charcoal lines; the tonal unity of the yellow background and yellow skin, the pastel top and golden choker. And note the unexpected surprise of the big red lips with their cartoon-style catchlight.

There are 20 or more paintings which are all variations on this theme, and in which the face is more or less stylised. In some it becomes a shield-shaped mask, verging on the abstract and obviously indebted to the experiments the great modernists had made earlier in the century, copying actual tribal masks held in museums of Ethnography.

A handful of other works deliberately reference El Greco who she particularly liked, he was, I suppose, another eccentric or outside-the-mainstream artist.

I love drawing, I love clear defined outlines, but I also love it when they’re not finished, incomplete and hint at a perfection they don’t try to achieve. I love the suggestion of struggle in a work of art. Hence I love lots of sketches and drawings by Degas. And hence I loved lots of Schjerfbeck’s misty, unfinished, gestural works. Is there some Picasso’s harlequin period in this one?

Girl from Eydtkuhne II by Helene Schjerfbeck (1927) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

The self portraits

Schjerfbeck painted her first self-portrait at age 22 and her last at 83. The exhibition has a room devoted to them, with seventeen examples placed in simple chronological order, and they create quite a harrowing effect, as shown at the top of this review, progressing from sweet and gentle young woman, in her naturalistic phase, to the haughty modernist of between the wars and then, in the 1930s and 40s, to an awesomely bleak and unforgiving vision. During the 1930s the familiar lineaments of her face are subjected to distortions, her cheekbones melting, her mouth becoming a dark wound. The only colour is grey, shades of grey, grisaille, the only tones left when all the colours of life have drained away.

Self-portrait with Palette by Helene Schjerfbeck (1937)

But these turn out to be only the build-up for the final half dozen self portraits painted during the Second World War as Schjerfbeck, by now an old woman and ill with the cancer which would kill her, morphs into a gaunt, grey, death-haunted skull-face which foreshadows the era of the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the harrowed writings of Samuel Becket.

Green Self-Portrait – Light and Shadows by Helene Schjerfbeck (1945)

What an extraordinary pilgrimage. And what a distinctive, individual, strange and troubling journey she takes us on. This is a remarkable exhibition.

Promotional video

Curators

Rebecca Bray, Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Sarah Lea


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 (2017)

The Great Man theory…

Catherine Merridale’s book Lenin on the Train describes the journey by sealed train which Lenin and 30 or so of his Bolshevik supporters made across Germany, by boat across the Baltic to Sweden, across the border into Finland and then south to St Petersburg, in April 1917.

The whole thing was laid on and funded by the German High Command in the hope that returning this noted troublemaker to the febrile political atmosphere of wartime Russia, only a few weeks after the Tsar had been toppled in the February revolution, might lead to even worse political disarray, and that this might cause Russia to abandon the war altogether, thus allowing Germany to concentrate her forces in the West.

In the chapter titled ‘Gold’ Merridale speculates on just how extensive German support for the Bolsheviks in fact was. Was laying the train, passports, visas, food and so on just the beginning? Did the Germans also siphon money to the Bolsheviks to fund their party newspaper, Pravda, and their campaigning leaflets, to pay for meetings and venues?

The evidence is murky, but underlying the whole enquiry is a variation on the Great Man theory of history, namely: if only someone had stopped Lenin getting to Russia, if only he had been arrested at the Finland border (which, apparently, he nearly was), or simply executed by British Intelligence (who had more than one opportunity to do so) – then maybe the whole Russian Revolution, with the immense worlds of suffering it produced, would never have happened. Maybe it all came down to one man or, at the least, to one small political party – the Bolsheviks.

… versus the hunger for change

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 is the massive coffee table book published to accompany last year’s enormous Royal Academy exhibition about the radical, world-changing new art and design which was inspired by the Russian Revolution.

I spent an afternoon flicking through it (and dipping into the 16 intense and detailed essays which address every genre and type of art influenced by the Revolution). And it dawned on me that the extraordinary explosion of high and popular art, all across the nation, art for factories and workshops and steelyards and barracks, radical innovations in film and design and posters and graphics – mitigates against the Great Man theory. One man didn’t do all this.

At the very least the sheer scale and scope and dynamism of the new movements, which lasted for at least a decade (until Stalin suppressed them in favour of his bland, conventional ‘Socialist Realism’ in the early 1930s) show the enormous hunger for change and for radical, world-changing experimentation, among all the artists, poets, authors, film-makers, craftsmen and designers of 1910s Russia.

Maybe, possibly, the Bolsheviks might not have seized power in October 1917. But the existing unstable dual government couldn’t have continued – somebody would have seized power.

The fact that these outpourings of propaganda films and wallpaper and textiles and ceramics and architecture and completely new styles of graphics and design were welcomed, watched, read and distributed so widely, suggest the Russia as a whole was a society straining at the leash for an incredibly total transformation.

Maybe Lenin could have been stopped and the Bolsheviks banned. But the evidence of this exhibition and book suggest that whoever took power in Russia in late 1917 would still have been compelled to make wide-ranging and sweeping changes, which would have led to much the same end – a dictator force-marching Russia through agricultural and industrial modernisation, in its bid to catch up with America and Germany.

Given Russia’s long history of secret police and prison camps, any faction which had come to power – on the right or left – would probably have deployed them just as ruthlessly as the Bolsheviks.

In other words – speculation about how much the German High Command funded the Bolsheviks, with its corollary, would the Bolsheviks have come to power without the aid of the German High Command – make for interesting reading, and lead to high-level, alternative history-style speculation – but I don’t think it would have changed the fact that Russia would have undergone some kind of transformative social revolution.


Completely new visual styles

Here is just a tiny sample of the art which featured in the exhibition and which is included in the book. I could add a paragraph or so about each of them, but all of them can be looked up on google. I just want to convey the variety and the energy of the art of the period.

Constructivist art

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) by El Lissitzky

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky (1919)

Figurative art

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

Architecture

Model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Ceramics

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Design

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Fabrics

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Film

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the famous 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Avante-garde photography

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Socialist realist photography

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

Posters

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Even if Lenin had never lived, and the Bolshevik party never existed, the complete and utter collapse of Russian society, with all its traditions, its religion, its class system, king and aristocracy, its system of land ownership and industrial production, would have triggered an immense social and cultural transformation, regardless.

Artists reflecting these changes would have fallen in line with the discoveries of the other European avant-gardes, in France and especially Germany,  themselves responding to the transforming impact of the new technologies of the day which were driving all Western societies – mass production of ceramics and fabrics, the new popularity of film and radio, the excitement of cars and fast trains – and everywhere the transforming impact of electricity with its ability to power lights in streets and public buildings, as well as driving a whole new world of consumer goods.

My argument is that Russia had reached the edge of collapse, and that seismic change would have happened no matter what the precise alignment of political parties in Russia. Or who the German High Command had funded.


Related links

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Lenin on The Train by Catherine Merridale (2016)

Dominic Lieven’s book about the diplomatic build-up to the Great War – Towards The Flame – was very demanding, every page full of analyses and counter-analyses of complex international situations, which took a good deal of concentration to understand.

By contrast, Catherine Merridale’s book is like a series of articles in a travel supplement, or the book version of a TV script – chatty, opinionated, entertaining, lightweight and, in the end, a bit disappointing.

The story

In April 1917 the German High command laid on a sealed train to transport Lenin and 30 or so communist colleagues to war-weary Russia, in the hope that his subversive activities would weaken the Russian war machine. It was a strategy they’d been trying elsewhere. The Germans were arming independence fighters in Ireland and trying to foment rebellion against British rule in India.

This book sets out to recreate Lenin’s fateful journey, describing the broader context of the war, the nexus of German agents and dodgy Russian businessmen who arranged the deal, the journey itself, and the fraught political situation which Lenin found in wartime St Petersburg when he arrived.

Lenin's train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Lenin’s train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Three parts

Merridale’s book isn’t formally divided into three parts, but it felt to me like it fell naturally into three big sections.

Part one – Catherine’s adventures and pukka Brits

For such an important and, in its consequences, tragic subject, the introduction and part one are disconcertingly light, chatty and frivolous.

In the introduction Merridale describes her own attempt to recreate Lenin’s journey on modern-day trains and ferries, with a great deal of travel magazine observations – people smuggling booze on the ferry from Germany to Sweden, it’s very cold in Finland, and so on.

Her observations are often disappointingly trite – in one place she points out that when Lenin took the journey Europe was at war, whereas in 2016 – Europe is at peace! Back then it was a dangerous and uncomfortable journey – but now crossing frontiers is easy, and the seating is nice and comfy! Golly.

So much for the introduction. In the first 80 or so pages of the text proper she plunges us not into the fraught economic, military and political situation of 1917 Europe but… into the world of quirky upper-class characters who populated the British Embassy and diplomatic corps in 1917 St Petersburg.

It was, she tells us gushingly, a simply magical city!

The journey ends in the magical city of St Petersburg, Lenin’s wartime Petrograd, the second Russian capital. (p.17)

She introduces us at very great length to chaps like Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir George William Buchanan, Major-General Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and so on.

Now, when Dominic Lieven introduces diplomatic personnel or political leaders into his narrative, it is always to summarise their ‘line’, their views on geopolitical issues, and to feed them into his intricate portrait of the complex debates about political and diplomatic strategy among the Russian ruling class.

When Merridale introduces key players, it is generally to tell us a funny story about their parrot or their umbrella.

When Lieven introduces Marxist revolutionaries, it is to explain their theories and how they had developed out of the economic and social situation of Russia, the threats they posed to the Tsarist order, and to clarify the complex concatenation of circumstances which made them viable.

When Merridale introduces her revolutionaries, it is to tell us about their love lives and taste in wine.

So, for example, she tells us that in 1905 Trotsky and his wife arrived at the Munich apartment of Alexander Helphand (known as ‘Parvus’), a Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

You might expect Merridale to give us at least a hint of the theoretical discussions and how they influenced the man who went on to be number two in the Russian Revolution, but no. The Trotskies, she tells us:

became unofficial lodgers at the big man’s place, sharing all the news and imbibing Parvus’ theories of revolution along with his strong coffee and delicious late-night wine. The two men talked about the revolutionary potential of the general strike, they honed their idea of a world revolution (for Russia was only ever meant to be a starting point) and they dared each other to get tickets for the next train east. (p.60)

Instead of anything about his theoretical contribution or political strategy, we learn that Parvus was so fat that the children of German Marxist leader, Karl Kautsky, nicknamed him ‘Dr Elephant’.

When Parvus persuades the German High Command to fund his plan to send revolutionaries to Russia, we learn that he used the initial down-payments to set himself up in Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel where he established an entourage of bosomy blondes and ordered champagne for breakfast (p.63).

This may all be true, but these first hundred pages present serious, tragic, even catastrophic history, as jolly japes retold by Bertie Wooster. The British Embassy, we learn, was situated in the impressive Saltykov Palace, although the diplomats had to share it with:

an ancient princess, Anna Sergeyevna Saltykova, who still lived in the back with her servants and a loquacious parrot. (p.31)

The British ambassador to Petersburg was supported by his wife, Georgina, his daughter Meriel, and – a bad-tempered Siamese cat.

The acting head of intelligence at the time was Major Cudbert Thornhill, an old India hand and ‘a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blowpipe.’ (p.33)

It feels a lot like ‘Miss Marple investigates the Russian Revolution’.

Part two – The Russian revolution and the train journey

Around page 100 things pick up. Merridale begins to pay more serious attention to Lenin’s beliefs and theories. We still get a lot about his haircut, his boots and how he was dragged off to a department store in Stockholm to buy new clothes so that he would look more presentable on arriving in Russia (plus some more gushing travelogue from Merridale who has, she assures us, visited as many of these shops and cafes and sites as still remain).

But for the central hundred and fifty pages or so Merridale’s narrative becomes genuinely gripping.

The genesis of the idea to send Lenin to Russia remains a bit murky. Some communist fixers-cum-shady businessmen (hence the portrait of Parvus and others of his type) appear to have volunteered their services as go-betweens with the communist agitators, at just the time that the German secret services were casting around for characters likely to cause the most damage to the Russian state.

Contacts and discussions had been floating in the foggy atmosphere of war more or less since the outbreak of hostilities. What suddenly kick started everything was the February 1917 Revolution – covered in gripping detail by Merridale – when a march of women to celebrate International Women’s Day attracted other protesters, swelled in size and then – crucially – the soldiers sent in to suppress it refused to obey orders, with some turning on their own officers.

After a winter of escalating strikes and unrest, exacerbated by severe food shortages, it was the mutiny of the soldiers in garrisons all across Petersburg which led to the Revolution.

The members of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, were confused by events. The conservatives fled, many resigned, but a hard core of liberals stayed on to set up what they called a Provisional Government, under the benign figurehead of kindly old Prince Lvov.

At the same time, there was unstoppable momentum from politicised workers (especially from the working class Vyborg area of Petersburg) and representatives of the mutinous regiments, to set up their own council or soviet.

Meanwhile, the Tsar had been forced to abdicate, excluding his sickly son from the succession, and passing the throne on to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who himself deferred taking it up until ‘the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic’.

This never happened, and it was Grand Duke Michael’s demurral, his refusal to accept the poisoned chalice of monarchy, which, in effect, brought the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end.

Thus in a few hectic days came about a situation in which Russia had become a republic, but was lumbered with two governing bodies – the Provisional Government and the Petersburg Soviet – who eyed each other with suspicion.

The initial euphoria of the revolution settled down into a pattern of all-night debates and arguments in smoke-filled rooms – while all the while Russia was still fighting a war against an extremely professional opponent, imperial Germany, and the government was trying to motivate a huge army of some seven million men who now wondered what and who they were fighting for.

Merridale explains all this very well, not least because she draws heavily on the eye witness accounts of the British diplomats and writers present in Petersburg. It is only now that the reader understands why we were introduced to all these upper-class twits in the first 80 or so pages – it was because they would turn out to be invaluable source material for describing and interpreting the confusing chaos of events in Petersburg that fateful spring.

It would have helped a lot if Merridale had prefaced her opening chapters by explaining this, by saying: ‘I am now going to introduce you to a florid collection of British upper class eccentrics, incompetents and curiosities which might seem odd but, trust me, they will turn out to be vital eye-witness testimony to one of the most seismic events in history.’

Anyway, Merridale now skillfully intersperses pretty much everything that is known about the eight-day journey of the train – the organisation of the train by German authorities, the gathering up of Lenin’s associates, the setting off, the stops, the delays, the invasions by drunken soldiers, the professional and personal rivalries of many of the figures aboard it, the border passports control (which, I was surprised to read, included humiliating strip searches) – all interspersed with sections describing the fast-moving events in Petersburg.

Above all, for the first time, the narrative starts to sound political. For the first time Merridale descends into the feverish mesh of argument and counter-argument which engulfed every educated person living in Russia, and gives it a sense of urgency:

Should Russia continue fighting? Some socialists thought Russia should offer an immediate ceasefire in what was, after all, a brutal imperialist war. Liberal pacifists agreed. But right-wing traditionalists thought Russia must fight on to defend her honour, the Holy Church etc. And many socialists thought to surrender would be simply to allow imperial Germany to invade and conquer European Russia.

Among socialists there was fierce and bitter debate about whether the ‘revolution’ needed to be continued or whether it had achieved its aim. You have to understand that Marx thought that Western societies would inevitably and unstoppably pass through certain fixed stages of development, and that orthodox Marxists therefore thought that Russia had to pass from a peasant autocracy into a bourgeois democracy, before it could go on to have a workers’ revolution. The Tsarist autocracy had quite clearly been overthrown and the new provisional Government, made up mostly of lawyers, academics and some industrialists, quite clearly represented the triumph of the bourgeoisie. This stage should be given a chance to bed in, to establish Western norms of democracy, a free press and so on, while the socialists continued to educate the workers and peasants in order to prepare for the next stage, the socialist revolution which was just around the corner. Manana. Soon. Probably.

Merridale’s very English, pragmatic, unintellectual approach to the situation brings out some of the more basic, humdrum psychological explanations for delay – namely, that many of the so-called socialists and communists were in fact scared of assuming responsibility in such a perilous situation. Power looked like a poisoned chalice. Russia was losing the war and the people were starving. With the convenient scapegoat of the Tsar removed, whoever took the reins would get all the blame.

This is the fraught backdrop against which Lenin’s train finally steams into the Finland station and he is greeted by a large cheering crowd and dignitaries with bouquets of flowers etc.

Merridale has, by this stage, done such a good job of bringing out Lenin’s spartan, puritan, obsessive personality that we’re not at all surprised that he throws away the bouquets, ignores the pompous welcome speeches, and goes straight out onto the balcony to address the crowd of workers to announce that – ‘The Time Is Here, the time is now for uncompromising revolution. No-one must cooperate with the bourgeois provisional government. It must be stormed and overthrown and all power vested in soviets or communes of workers and peasants.’

Merridale brilliantly conveys the shock Lenin’s unbending zealotry had on absolutely everyone: the bourgeois liberals, the meek-minded socialists, let alone the cowering conservatives and scheming reactionaries. Even the radical Bolshevik faction of the Party, which Lenin had himself founded back in 1903, was surprised by his single-mindedness. Bolsheviks who had only just arrived back from Siberian exile such as Kamenev and Stalin found themselves having to readjust their positions to match Lenin’s extremism.

No-one else was thinking so radically and violently.

Merridale shows how Lenin was in a minority of one even among his own followers, and quotes both socialists and provisional government officials, who were eye-witnesses in the days and weeks that followed to meetings, debates, speeches and presentations in which Lenin was booed and roundly lost the argument.

The acting premier, Kerensky, initially worried by his return, watched Lenin alienate his entire party and confidently concluded that he was ‘finished’.

How to end?

If you think about it, Merridale and her publishers had always faced a problem with this book which is, Where to end it? The train journey lasted just eight days, from 9 to 17 April. How far either side of the actual journey should the book extend?

You can see how you’d need a build-up to the journey, in Merridale’s case using the accounts of British diplomats to paint in the privations and discontents of wartime Petersburg.

You can see how you’d need a middle section describing the shady activities of the immense swamp of spies, middle men, entrepreneurs, smugglers, double agents, conspirators, fanatics, political zealots of all colours and so on who infested wartime Switzerland, in order to give a flavour of the struggle the German High Command had to weed out hundreds of absurd plots from the handful of ideas which might really contribute to their war effort.

And how you’d then drill down to the specific contacts between Russian Bolshevik supporters (often themselves pretty shady businessmen) and try to identify the specific individuals in the German secret service who carried out the negotiations (whatever archive material still exists).

Merridale does all this and summarises what is currently known about the contacts, agreements, payments and practical details fixed up among these men.

Then you’d want a detailed description of the train journey itself, right down to the most trivial detail, right down to the way Lenin hated smoking and so insisted that people use the only toilet in his set of ‘sealed’ carriages to smoke in – which made it uncomfortable for people who actually wanted to use the loo as a loo. So that, in the end, Lenin devised a ticketing system: second class tickets for those who wanted to smoke in the lav, first class tickets for those who needed to use it for its primary function.

Then you’d want to gather all the eye witness accounts that exist, from the memoirs and diaries and letters of survivors, to describe Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station.

And then you’d want to follow the excitement of his arrival and track the stimulus it gave to the left-wing cause, on into the days and weeks afterwards to gauge the impact Lenin had on the political situation (and, incidentally, to assess the value for money which the German High Command got for what, it turns out, was quite a hefty investment in the train plan).

But where should the book end? One week after Lenin arrives? One month? A year?

In fact six months were to pass between Lenin’s arrival in April and the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Is Catherine going to describe all six months in the kind of intense detail with which she had described the crucial eight days of Lenin’s journey and the first week or so of his arrival?

No.

It would be too much, it would be too long. Other people have done it better, more comprehensively and thoroughly following the immensely complicated twists and turns of the revolution – and the ongoing fighting – for that six months and beyond.

Even if you took the story up to the October Revolution, you’d still have to stop at some stage – before the peace with Germany, before the Russian civil wars break out.

In the event Merridale continues her account of the fierce arguments among all shades of political opinion which Lenin’s arrival had brought to a head, up until the writing of the ‘April Theses’, the set of ten directives which Lenin hammered out immediately upon his arrival, announced in speeches on 17 April and subsequently published in Pravda.

The core of Merridale’s book is devoted to showing Lenin’s absolute, unwavering insistence that the next stage of the revolution needed to take place now, and required peace with Germany, the complete overthrow not only of the Provisional Government but of all the bourgeois instruments of the state, and the assumption of power by workers’ and soldiers’ soviets.

With the April Theses Lenin established clear blue water between the Bolsheviks and every other party in Russia, and positioned them as more or less the only alternative to the bodged ‘dual government’ situation of Provisional government and Petersburg Soviet. So, from Merridale’s point of view, there is a compelling logic to stopping here and this is where her chronological account of events does, indeed, stop.

Then something odd happens. The book changes tack completely.

Part three – German money and Catherine’s reflections

The historical narrative morphs into a chapter devoted to investigating one specific issue: how much did the German High Command fund the Bolshevik revolution? (‘Gold’, pp.242 to 266)

Quite clearly the German High Command laid on the train to carry Lenin back to Russia. His opponents weren’t blind to the propaganda value of this simple fact, and many of them – both rival socialists and opposition liberals and conservatives – set out to prove that the entire Bolshevik operation was in fact a German front designed to take Russia out of the war and let Germany win. That the Bolsheviks were German agitators, and traitors. But were they right?

Merridale lays out the pros and cons of these claims and shows how, down the years, opponents of Bolshevism continued to make them, on until well into the 1950s and even 60s.

Russians in exile after the Revolution spread the accusations that the Bolshevisks were hired dupes of the Germans and, from time to time, dubious individuals popped up, both in Russia and later in Europe, even including an American (Frank Chester) – all of whom claimed to have been involved and to have proof that the entire Russian Revolution was a German scam.

I found Merridale’s exposition of all this a little confusing. I think in the end she is saying that (apart from the obvious fact of the Germans laying on the train, making all the practical arrangements, arranging all the passports and visas etc) the initial operations of the Bolsheviks in Petersburg – the running of the printing press, distribution of pamphlets and so on – must have cost a lot more money than the party was making simply through membership fees (although membership of the Bolshevik party did rocket from some 13,000 to around 80,000 by the time of the October coup).

Where did this money come from?

Well, there is archive evidence that several of the dubious middle-men who we met earlier, socialist-minded fixers who ran a healthy smuggling trade from Germany through Sweden to Russia – did indeed receive substantial payments from German authorities, which can’t be accounted for solely by their business activities. So, yes, it is quite possible that the Germans continued to fund the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s arrival, via various middle-men.

But this is all very murky. It was wartime. The Germans didn’t keep full accounts of their off-the-record espionage activities and anyway Berlin was bombed to the ground in 1945, destroying most archives. For their part, the smugglers didn’t exactly keep legitimate accounts. The Bolsheviks had no incentive to tell the truth at the time and, under Stalin, became past masters at suppressing any inconvenient truths.

So this whole question is sort of interesting in a gossipy, John le Carré sort of way, but I mentally consigned it to the same place as speculation about who killed JFK or whether an alien UFO landed at Roswell.

Does it really matter? Even if it could be proved that the Germans actively funded the Bolsheviks in the months between Lenin’s arrival and the October Revolution, it is only really icing on the basic fact that they sent Lenin back to Russia in the first place.

Moreover, no-one denies the fact that the Germans were pouring millions of marks into funding all kinds of subversive activity in Russia (in April 1917 alone, the German Foreign Ministry alone authorised five million marks to be used for propaganda, and there were numerous other German agencies doing the same – p.257).

And in any case, once the war in Europe was over, the civil wars in Russia got into full swing, and the sums of money which the Allies poured into Russia to support the White Armies dwarfed anything the Germans might have spent on the Bolsheviks.

The money, important on one level, is only really of interest to obsessives who think that somehow the Russian Revolution could have been averted – exactly like the geeky types who think that, if only JFK hadn’t been assassinated the Americans would never have gone into Vietnam and brought their own country to the brink of civil war. If only, if only, if only.

But, in my opinion, ‘if onlies’ like this, counterfactuals and hopeful speculations, are rendered irrelevant by the sheer scale of the economic and political crisis, the enormity of the vast social collapse Russia found itself in. It was falling to pieces. It was the Titanic sinking.

For me, this and the other accounts I’ve read tend to show that Lenin’s unflinching extremism matched up to the extremism of the situation.

If it hadn’t been Lenin, Russia would still have collapsed into chaos and probable civil war between red and white factions, maybe allowing Germany to have advanced into undefended territory and establishing a Germanic empire in Russia. Other extremists would have been pushed to the surface and into leadership roles, and any of these would have found it very difficult if not impossible to resist the soldiers’ calls for peace and the hundred million peasants’ clamour for land reform.

Extreme circumstances called for extreme solutions, no matter who provided them.

But none of these alternatives took place. Deeper realities prevailed. And even though sending Lenin to Russia did lead to not only political disruption, as the Germans hoped, but to a comprehensive revolution – which must have exceeded their wildest fantasies – and then to a hugely advantageous peace settlement in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, precisely what they wanted in order to free up their eastern armies to take part in the massive Spring 1918 offensive against the West —-

The Germans still lost the war. In the end, the entire policy of the Lenin train and payrolling the Bolsheviks was a failure for the Germans. So what if they funded the Bolsheviks. They still lost.

Aftermath and Catherine’s views

Having brought her historical narrative to an end with the discussion of the funding issue, Merridale then concludes the book with a chapter outlining the fates of the key characters and personalities we have met through the book, before jotting down a few final reflections.

Most of the Bolsheviks who greeted Lenin so enthusiastically, and were either appalled or enthused by the fierce line he took, were murdered in the 1930s during Stalin’s judicial purges. So the final pages turn into a litany of gruesome and ironic deaths.

The shrewdest members of the Provisional Government, such as the egregious Kerensky, managed to escape, living on in exile in Paris or New York. And the British embassy staff, with their Siamese cats and expertise at blowpipes, lived on to claim their knighthoods from a grateful monarch.

Merridale’s concluding thoughts mix reflections on the characters we’ve met in the narrative, and of her own visits to museums enshrining the memory of Lenin – in Zurich, or at his sisters’ flat in Petersburg (where he stayed in the period before the October Revolution) – with reflections about the lasting significance of Lenin in Russian history.

These are, to be polite, disappointing. Having worked hard to attain the level of Dominic Lieven’s intellectually demanding account of prewar Russian and European diplomacy, it was a long plummet back down to the Readers Digest level of many of Merridale’s reflections.

She is, basically, a nice Radio 4-type of white, middle-class professional lady, who often finds herself wondering why the world is such a beastly place. For example:

There is as much instability across the planet now as there once was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working hard to make sure that they stay on top. One technique that they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground, but some of whom must be dropped in exactly as Lenin was. I think of South America in the 1980s, of all the dirty wars in central America since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Middle East. (p.9)

This paragraph contains almost no useful information at all, in fact it blunts understanding. Great powers use regional conflicts to their advantage? This is elementary, GCSE-level knowledge.

The most salient feature of the paragraph is the centrality of Catherine herself to it. The way she ‘thinks’ of South America in the 1980s doesn’t tell us anything at all about South America but is designed to emphasise what a thoughtful and concerned soul she is. And then, whenever she thinks about the current conflicts in the Middle East, Catherine shudders, yes shudders.

In these final pages we learn that Stalin used the cult of Lenin to underpin and validate his own authority, and so Lenin’s reputation was whitewashed as thoroughly as his body was preserved in its mausoleum.

That both Lenin’s memory and his body rotted in the stagnant decades of the 1960s and 70s due to incompetent mummification techniques. That the 1980s period of glasnost under Gorbachev was a period of ‘dangerous’ change. That after a decade of chaos in the 1990s, Russia reverted to the strong man rule of Vladimir Putin.

We learn, in other words, nothing that any fifth former studying history or anybody who reads serious newspapers, doesn’t already know.

Merridale’s book ends with sentimental descriptions of her visits to the fading museums of Leninism and chats with their sad curators.

Shame. There are few if any insights or ideas worth recording or summarising in her final section.

Still, to emphasise the positive – the long central section of the book detailing the personalities and circumstances surrounding the train journey, and Merridale’s description of the incredibly intense political crisis into which Lenin arrived, are thrilling, convey a gripping sense of the chaos and confusion and knife-edge political atmosphere of the time, and are worth reading.

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917 by Nicolai Babasiouk (1960)

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917, painted by Nicolai Babasiouk in 1960

Nowhere man

Maybe the most symptomatic of the various encounters Merridale describes having with railway officials, passport checkers, museum keepers and so on when she undertakes her own version of the Lenin journey, is when she arrives at the swanky Savoy Hotel in Malmö, where Lenin and his entourage stopped for lunch after an unpleasant crossing of the stormy Baltic Sea.

Merridale knows that Lenin ate here. In fact, she later finds a plaque commemorating his visit tucked away in a corridor. But when she asks about him, the concierge looks blank. ‘Lenin? Lenin? Oh, you mean John Lennon?’

Quite. The world moves relentlessly on. People forget their history and are busy with their own day-to-day concerns. And – it could be argued – that’s a blessing.


Credit

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale was published by Allen Lane in 2016. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (1982)

People sensed that Katri Kling did not trust or care about anyone except herself and the brother she had raised and protected since he was six years old. (p.26)

Generations of English-speaking children were brought up on Jansson’s illustrated Moomin books which are immensely charming to look at and, in their narratives, full of consolations and comforts (generally tea and sandwiches provided by the ever-reliable Moominmamma).

Only in the noughties did Jannson’s ten books for adults start to be published into English and to reveal a completely different aspect of Jansson’s character, an unnerving, adult quality.

Some of Jansson’s short stories were still about children’s lives seen from a child’s perspective (The Summer BookThe Sculptor’s Daughter) but even these combine sweet childish perceptions with other, more disturbing, adult themes, with a dis-enchanted view of the difficulty of human relations, even between people who ‘love’ one another. The characters are quite harsh with each other and on themselves.

The True Deceiver

The True Deceiver is her second real novel (The Summer Book really being a collection of themed stories).

We are in the Finnish fishing port of Västerby. It is the coldest winter anyone can remember, with an immense snowfall blanketing everything in white. Katri Kling is 25. She is the unpopular older sister of Mats, 15, who she has looked after since he was a child. Their father left. Then their mother died. She is Mats’s sole carer. She had a job in the village store until she quit abruptly a few months earlier. It is strongly hinted that the shop keeper tried it on with her and she ridiculed him. He was livid. Life became unbearable. She quit. Since Mats and Katri live in the one-room apartment above this same shop, it is a ticklish situation.

Katri walks their dog, which they have given no name, through the village, and the adults mutter about her and the children shout abuse. She needs to do something for her and Mats’s future.

Up on the hill, in the grand house, lives old Anna Aemelin. Long ago her parents died and left her the big house with the thick pine woods behind it, which – with its two chimneys for ears, two bow windows for eyes, and vertical frames of the central doorway – locals have nicknamed the ‘rabbit house’.

A name which is also relevant because of Anna Aemelin’s profession – she draws cartoon rabbits. Miss Anna is a very successful and world-famous cartoonist and book illustrator (as, of course, was Jansson, and several other characters in her short stories). Miss Anna has the success of monomania, she is extraordinarily brilliant at depicting the traditional Finnish forest floor in immense and scintillating detail, at conveying its ‘deep-forest mystique’ (p.33).

But from an artistic point of view she spoils the effect by then drawing on top a family of bunny rabbits which – for some reason – have flowers growing out of their fur. Every year a new bunny rabbit story comes out (her publishers supply the actual text, Anna does the illustrations) and sells around the world to excited small children, who then write her countless letters wanting to come and visit, to meet the flowery rabbits, to live with her etc.

The novel describes how the extremely blunt and practical Katri inveigles her way into the household of Miss Aemelin. It’s actually pretty simple, this isn’t a hi-tech espionage thriller. Katri offers to deliver groceries up to the old house. Then the post. Then begins to sort out her fridge, throws away the food she doesn’t like, order food which Miss Anna actually likes… and so on.

Slowly she makes herself invaluable. But again, it isn’t a psycho chiller where the protagonist has wicked plans. She just wants a safe place to live and a future for her and her simple-minded brother. The central ‘event’ which tends to get picked up in the blurb and in reviews is that the villagers hear of a burglary in the next village and Katri has the idea to ‘stage’ a burglary at the rabbit house. This consists of her going up one night in a snowstorm, opening the kitchen door (which isn’t locked; none of the doors are locked), walking around in her snowy shoes on the rug, emptying the silver tea service into a sack and walking out again. Out in the woods she throws the sack away, then goes home. The snow covers her tracks.

Next morning Katri arrives to find a dozy policeman at the house and Miss Anna’s friends gossip that she shouldn’t be alone up in the big house etc. With hardly any nudging she wonders whether Katri and her brother would like to move in. And so they do.

The real heart of the story is the emotional or psychological impact the three characters have on each other once they start living together. Katri, in her harsh, tactless, unrestrained way, had almost immediately started telling Miss Anna that the local shopkeepers were swindling her, just a little, but slowly and routinely. Miss Anna is shocked. Once she’s moved in, Katri takes over all aspects of Miss Anna’s household, tidying from top to bottom. She discovers a vast trove of correspondence with publishers, merchandisers and hundreds of children, which Miss Anna has been too timid or too intimidated to answer.

Katri, in her brisk no-nonsense way, goes through these with a fine tooth comb and discovers that Miss Anna has been ripped off by her publishers and anyone else she’s done business with for decades. Katri forces Miss Anna to face facts and make much tougher deals with all her business partners, which leads to a noticeable chilling of tone in the new letters from them. Without any prompting from Katri, Miss Anna decides that Katri ought to share some of the new, improved profits from her writings. Katri very coldly calculates how much she will acquire and how soon. At night she dreams of money.

By the same token she tells Miss Anna she has to be more blunt and honest with the children some of whom, it turns out, she’s been making all sorts of reckless promises, for example that they can come and live in bunny rabbit country with her. No they can’t. Katri suggests sending them all the identical photostated letter, the only unique bit being Miss Anna’s signature. They bicker about this. Miss Anna slowly comes to distrust absolutely everyone, all the tradesmen in the village, everyone who writes her letters.

Meanwhile there is an important relationship between Miss Anna and Mats. Mats is simple. He is allowed to help out at the boat-builders yard belonging to the four Liljeberg brothers. (God, it is all so Scandinavian – everything feels so folkish and elemental and pure.) In fact, Mats is obsessed with boats, and has been making beautiful sketches of the boats the brothers build, in his own time.

When she sees how much money she is going to make from Miss Anna’s new deals, Katri conceives a grand plan: she will commission a boat for Mats, the boat he’s been dreaming of. It will be the focus of all her effort, it will justify a lot of what she is perfectly well aware could be seen as inveigling her way into an old lady’s confidences and money: the purity of her motives will be seen by everyone once it is known that she did it all for her brother.

Meanwhile, Mats forms a typically Janssonesque relationship with Miss Anna. She is (in case it hasn’t come over already) quite a simple soul, brought up in a protected and sheltered environment by well-off parents, and she transmits a lot of that innocence in her wonderful children’s illustrations. So early on we discover that she loves reading children’s adventure stories and – do does Mats! Thus Katri will be slaving away in the kitchen or come back from a snowy shopping trip and find Miss Anna and Mats sitting in complete silence in the drawing room, both utterly absorbed by some teen adventure book. Miss Anna shows Mats round her vast library of children’s books and then she starts ordering new ones, and every time the same pattern: Mats reads them, Miss Anna reads them, they intently discuss the plots and characters. Otherwise they hardly talk at all.

They rarely talked to each other. They owned a silence together that was peaceful and straightforward. (p.45)

Very Janssonesque.

Oh and there’s the dog, the nameless dog. And the dog becomes a symbol of what goes wrong in all these relationships. Because things don’t turn out as any of them intend.

Miss Anna can’t deny that Katri has been scrupulously honest and has gotten her vastly improved deals with publishers and merchandisers and organised things so that she is replying to children’s letters on time and appropriately. But she is also getting harder, more suspicious. Living in close proximity to Katri’s unsentimental harshness brutalises her.

After one particularly bitter row she takes it out on the dumb dog (a German shepherd). She pushes it out of the house into the snow and chucks a stick, shouting at it to fetch. The dog’s never done this before and it takes quite a few sticks, on that occasion and on others, to make it fetch and carry. Slowly, it becomes more like a traditional dog. The eerie complicity that all the villagers noted between tall gaunt Katri and her nameless dog, begins to disintegrate. The dog leaves the house and roams the woods. They – and the villagers – hear it howling at night. It captures rabbits from the postman’s chicken run. It goes wild. In a strange moment it reappears one day, trailing Katri as she walks out to the (locked) lighthouse on the point and, suddenly, savagely, attacks her, before running off.

It is a symbol of how Katri has upset old relationships. For now, as the spring arrives, Miss Anna discovers a disaster – to her horror, when she goes out to look for the first signs of forest floor appearing through the melting winter snow – she no longer feels any magic; the thrill in her soul and the special spectral way she saw all the luminous details of the pine and moss woodland floor has… gone. She is neutered. Katri has made her practical and hard-headed and… it has destroyed her one great talent.

Something a bit more convoluted happens with Mats. Katri has sworn the boat-builders to secrecy about the new boat they’re making being for Mats, although he obviously notices, in fact watches intently, as it takes shape at the boatyard. But Miss Anna, overhearing the builders talking about it, announces to Mats that she has commissioned it as a present for him. He is confused, but Katri is distraught. The one thing justifying all her behaviour was the thought that she would spring this great surprise on him. Later on she does tell Mats the boat is from him, and Miss Anna realises her mistake and backs down. But poor old Mats (and the reader) are left pretty confused.

At a ceremony at the boat-builders all three are present when the brothers reveal the final finished boat and Mats, called on to name it, christens it Katri. It’s certainly the right decision but it’s been a tortuous route getting here. Katri tries to apologise to Miss Anna, telling her it was all lies, everything she said about the shopkeepers diddling her and the publishers giving her bad deals and so on. Miss Anna listens patiently but knows that, now, Katri is lying to try and fix everything. Mats gives Katri an exquisite model of the boat of his dreams which he has been working on all of this time. Miss Anna takes a newly dominant, commanding tone, and tells Katri to be quiet and go and lie down for a rest.

And then, on the final page, Miss Anna goes out to the forest, now clear of snow, elaborately sets up her drawing equipment, and begins one of her inspired and luminous portrayals of the forest undergrowth.

Anna sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods. The silence she needed was complete. And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow. Cluttering the ground with flowery rabbits would have been unthinkable. (p.201)

So I think what happens, is that Miss Anna has been through a kind of growing experience. At first she was shocked by Katri’s revelation of the brutality and two-facedness of the world around her – the cheating shop-keepers, the gossiping the villagers, the upsetting burglary – into artistic impotence. She had become hard like Katri, too hard to still be open and receptive to the childish vision which allowed her to paint.

But now, here at the very end of the story, after watching Katri abase herself in apology, after watching Mats get his dream boat come true, now… now her gift has returned – but in adult form. I think it means she can draw the forest floor as before, but this time untainted by silly commercial cartoons.

So I think this part, at least, of the novel has turned out to be about artistic growth and rebirth. It’s a happy ending. Sort of…

Simplicity

Paragraph after paragraph opens with clear, simple declarative sentences, building up a sense of tremendous clarity and simplicity.

  • It had been snowing along the coast for a month.
  • The boat builders in Västerby were proud men.
  • Mats came home from the boatyard as dusk came on.
  • A white wrought-ironflower table ran beneath the window in Anna’s bedroom.
  • Katri walked out towards the point.
  • Anna always thought of herself as a painter of the ground.
  • They had come home.

Credit is due to the translator Thomas Teal, since it is his words that we are actually reading. It would be fascinating to get his opinion: did he find Jansson easy or hard to translate. I bet he’d say her vocabulary in the original Swedish is simple, but full of nuances and delicacy which is hard to translate – but that’s a guess.

Jansson’s Nordic appeal

1. Foreign books escape the clutches of the British, or specifically, English class system. English books sooner or later have to categorise, slot, define and contain their characters by their class and location – Northerners are rough, southerners are public school toffs, yummy mummies, London chavs and so, tediously, on.

Foreign books know nothing of all this and so often appear more primal and basic, treating people as people. It has to be pointed out to us that someone is a peasant or poor; the characters come without the infestation of social signifiers we are used to in our own language.

2. Also, Jansson’s books deliberately ignore the modern world. There are hardly any machines, no planes or cars, coaches, buses, noise, air or light pollution in them. The village postman skis into the nearby town to collect the mail and groceries. Instead, her characters live on remote islands close to nature. It’s a shock when they even use the telephone.

3. These qualities of being outside the English class system and the complete absence of 20th century technology, combine with Jansson’s carefully simple style to give her stories the tremendous force of folk or fairy tales. On page two Katri’s father goes off north to buy a load of timber and never comes back. That doesn’t happen in English fiction. That happens in Viking sagas or fantasy fiction.

4. And there’s the snow, the white primal backdrop to all the events in this novel, snow in depth and abundance and permanence unknown to an English audience.

Thus all the characters and situations have this simple, white, primary quality. In the Moomin books she draws cute forest animals onto this backdrop. In the stories about children (The Summer Book) the children’s nightmares, obsessions, fears and safe spaces are all the more vivid for standing out against the (deceptively simple) natural backdrops.

In this book for the first time we encounter a number of adults, each with that terrible adult habit of having their own lives, characters, motivations and feelings. And the primitiveness of their motivations and responses are as starkly drawn as in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman film.

Instability of narrator and time

Several of the short stories in Art in Nature switched narrator in mid-story, or cut between a third-person narrator and the first-person point of view of the main character (The LocomotiveA Sense of Time).

The same happens here (though more in the first half, when we are watching Katri hatch her plan to be taken into Miss Anna’s household). The conventional third person narration will suddenly jump, in the next paragraph, to Katri sharing her thoughts and plans with us. The tense changes too, the third person being in the past tense, the first person in the fraught present tense.

It’s enjoyable. It makes the text modern and dynamic. But it’s also natural. It doesn’t feel forced or show-offy. One moment we’re watching the villagers or Miss Anna from outside, next we’re in Katri’s head, reading her thoughts. Fair enough.

But at my back I always here…

Since noticing it in the final Moomin book, Moominvalley in November, I now see everywhere in Jansson’s fiction the same cluster or ideas and words, namely tiredness and the wish for rest & sleep. The characters are always tired:

  • Somehow the sister was always around, and her brother was behind her. It was unendurable, and it made Edvard Liljeberg very tired. (p.54)
  • ‘You look tired, Lijeberg said, ‘You shouldn’t take life so seriously,’ (p.176)

They long for somewhere calm and peaceful, away from people, away from bother and vexation, somewhere ordered and tranquil: both Miss Anna’s often empty house and the boatyard after work are examples of this divine tranquility.

The wind was making a racket against the metal roof but, but the vast [boatshed] seemed hugely calm and peaceful. The hull of a boat under construction was visible in the half-light, its giant ribcage in silhouette against the far wall of the windows. Broad boards that would soon be planking hung in bundles from the ceiling, and there was a smell of shavings and tar and turpentine. Katri understood why her brother always wanted to come back here to this protected world where everything was correct and clean. (p.145)

The best rest, though, the most perfect peace, is found in sleep, to which the characters resort with great frequency. They are always sleeping or waking. After this or that excitement, the natural reaction is to take a nap, go to bed, curl up in a snug bed and drift off.

Down on the road, Katri tossed the potato sack into a snowdrift and went home. For the first time in ages, she slept in a cradle of gentle dreams free of desolation and anxiety. (p.81)

When Anna lived alone, she had not noticed how often she let the daylight hours vanish in sleep. Letting sleep come closer, soft as mist, as snow; reading the same sentence again and again until it disappeared in the mist and no longer had any meaning… (p.99)

This cluster of ideas – ‘tiredness-sleep’ – is at one end of the spectrum, so to speak, the polar opposite of the other main cluster of ideas circling round states of psychological unease, disquiet and anxiety. Katri is anxious about money and Mats and the future and the narrative can be read as recording the way she infects Miss Anna with her anxieties. But many of the minor characters – the shopkeeper, the postman, the boatbuilder – at various points are described as anxious.

So, stepping back, it’s possible to see that although the individual narratives and the numerous characters in Tove Jansson’s adult stories may come and go – this polarity between anxiety and rest underlies nearly all the texts.

Of course, most readers and critics react to the characters, the plot and the settings, which are varied, clever and acutely described.

But I think the enduring sense readers of Tove Jansson have of her books’ calm beauty is due to the way, at a subconscious level, each text repeats this transition, moving the reader from scenes of anxiety to repeated and wonderfully evocative scenes of complete rest, calm and comfort. And it is these wonderfully reassuring spaces which are the abiding emotional memory left by her stories.

I wish the whole village could be covered and erased and finally clean… Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases into twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual. (p.28)

They went into the parlour. The same soft lighting, the same sense of emptiness and changelessness and dreamlike, compulsory slow motion. (p.58)

Jansson’s recurrent images of a wonderfully safe space have a kind of cleansing effect on the imagination. I’m tempted to say that they have a similarly cleansing, purifying effect as a Finnish sauna.


Credit

Den ärliga bedragaren by Tove Jansson was published in 1982. It was translated as The True Deceiver by Thomas Teal and first published by Sort of Books in 2009.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland @ The National Gallery

In 1999 the National Gallery bought a painting of Lake Keitele by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. To their surprise the painting has gone on to become one of the most popular in the Gallery’s immense collection of European art. In fact, this is the only painting by Gallen-Kallela in a British public collection.

Now, to celebrate the centenary of Finland’s independence as a nation (Finland’s Independence Day is December 6, today!), the National Gallery has created a one-room exhibition devoted to Lake Keitele and a dozen or so other works by one of Finland’s iconic artists, and it is FREE.

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © The National Gallery, London

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © The National Gallery, London

All the other works in the room are from abroad, from Finland or Sweden, several from private collections, so this is a very rare, probably unique opportunity to see most of these paintings. And indeed this is the first exhibition in the UK ever devoted to Gallen-Kallela.

Lake Keitele

Gallen-Kallela was obsessed with this view and painted it at least four times. All four variations are here, hanging next to each other, allowing a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast them and to see how his vision evolved.

It’s odd the way that, if you stand close up, the grey bars across the lake look utterly abstract, as if part of some modernist painting. But the further back you step, the more it looks like the effect you sometimes really see on water, of great stretches which for some reason (zephyrs of wind? air pressure?) lie completely flat and calm, thus having a different tint from the choppy wavy stretches around them.

Seeing all four in a row also draws attention to the frames of the four versions: they are strikingly different and it’s instructive to realise how much of a difference the frames make to how you perceive the paintings. Version one has a jet black frame and feels austere and cold; whereas the final version is surrounded by a lush and embellished gilt frame, which makes it seem much more open, expansive and sweepingly panoramic.

Landscapes and illustrations

Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) appears to have been mostly a painter of rural scenes in a semi-realistic style. Other paintings in the room have titles like ‘Boats on the shore’, ‘Lake view’, ‘Clouds’, ‘Clouds above a lake’, ‘Lakeside landscape’.

So: he conceived of the Finnish landscape as an expression of Finnish nationalism.

There are three exceptions to this general rule, two of them depictions of women on a lake.

I liked the scene depicted below, it’s from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The old man on the left is a seer or prophet, being rowed by naked maidens. (Nice work if you can get it.) I like it because

a) it’s a bit more complex than just clouds over a lake, however well done
b) I really like the shape of the young woman foreground centre which, on reflection, is because of the clarity of her outline, done in a strong black which itself sets off the immensely skilful deployment of a whole range of skin tones to give light and presence to her torso
c) I have a taste for sketchy unfinished work (cf Degas) and so am also drawn to the way the boat and the women at bottom right are left unfinished.

The whole thing may have been a preparatory sketch but that makes it all the more powerful, for me.

Väinämöinen with Maidens (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Photo courtesy of the owner

Väinämöinen with Maidens (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Photo courtesy of the owner

Modern art

Gallen-Kallela travelled widely and was well aware of contemporary movements in north European art. He was, according to a wall label, briefly a member of the German Expressionist movement, Die Brücke. This flavour in his work, heading towards a really garish expressionism, is epitomised by Oceanides, the human figures deliberately stylised and ungainly and with a purely decorative colour scheme. Isn’t the idea of vertical orange and brown stripes to describe sea water wonderfully bonkers / visionary / beautiful?

Oceanides (1909) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Mäkinen

Oceanides (1909) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Mäkinen

A range of styles

Most of the other works in the room are much more realistic than these two. In fact a glance at the works on Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Wikipedia page show that the mostly landscape images here are only one strand among quite a number of different styles or ‘voices’ which he was equally competent in.

Some of these look like excellent late-Victorian book illustrations (Kullervo cursing), reminding us this is the era of Arthur Rackham in England, and the golden age of fairy tale / nationalist folk collections, all across Europe. The commentary at the exhibition describes this kind of style as ‘vigorous and archaic’ which strikes me as conveying the way this strand in his work seems ultra-modern and yet ancient, at the same time.

Some are rural scenes in the style of George Clausen (Boy and Crow; Old woman with a cat). Others have brutally clear, hard black outlines almost of stained glass (Lemminkäinen’s Mother). Some are Nordic kitsch (Shepherd Boy from Paanajärvi). Only a few convey any sense of being in urban settings in the 20th century (Symposium, Démasquée).

Anyway, back in room 1 at the National Gallery, the overall sense of this small selection is of acutely perceived nature paintings teetering on the edge of abstraction, the silver bars across the lake in the central work, and the clouds in many others ceasing to be cloud-shaped and turning into zoomorphic forms. Evidence that right across Europe, from Italy to the Arctic Circle, artists were feeling a modernist impulse to progress beyond realism into new realms of abstract shapes and vibrant, non-naturalistic colour.

With all this in mind, if you look closely, you can read this movement – the gradual shift from a directly observed, naturalistic landscape to a more stylised and abstracted image – in the four versions of Lake Keitale hanging here side by side.

Finlandia

Since everyone else will be doing it, I might as well join in by including the most famous piece of music by Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, Finlandia, written during the heyday of Gallen-Kallela’s career (1899). This YouTube version features some awesome footage of Finland’s landscape and wildlife.

Gallen-Kallela’s own fiercely patriotic intent is exemplified by a stained glass window on display here, with the stirring title, Rouse Thyself Finland! It’s a decorative schema of Rackhamesque fir trees flanking a classic view of a tree-lined lake which also features a great bar of reflected light across it – presumably to echo the theme of the show, and to demonstrate use of the ‘bar of light’ motif in a different medium.

Rouse Thyself Finland! ( 1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Gallen-Kallela Museum / photo Hannu Aaltonen

Rouse Thyself Finland! ( 1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Gallen-Kallela Museum / photo Hannu Aaltonen

Somewhere like the Dulwich Picture Gallery should organise an entire exhibition about Gallen-Kallela. I’d go just to see more of the fabulous book illustrations.

YouTube gallery

On YouTube there’s a gallery of 207 works by Gallen-Kallela accompanied by a relaxing soundtrack. This montage gives a sense of his rather unnervingly wide range of styles.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson (1978)

Eleven short stories:

  1. Art in Nature
  2. The Monkey
  3. The Cartoonist
  4. White Lady
  5. The Doll’s House
  6. A Sense of Time
  7. A Leading Role
  8. The Locomotive
  9. Flower Child
  10. A Memory from the New World
  11. The Great Journey

After reading The Summer Book and The Winter Book, which are mostly stories about, or told from the point of view of, a small girl, stories set in the autobiographical settings of either the Jannson family’s house in Helsinki or on the island in the Gulf of Finland where the Jansson’s owned a cabin – it was a relief to turn to a set of stories about adults, where each of them is set in a different location with different characters. I.e. this is much more like a traditional short story collection, than her first two collections.

The characters argue, fight, swear, get drunk, make fools of themselves, cheer each other up, seethe with resentment. They are, in other words, people like us.

Except that they almost all possess the same central attribute of people in Jansson’s fiction – which is that they are disquieting. It’s not science fiction or violent, they’re tales of very ordinary people. But all the stories have a consistently disquieting and oblique, unexpected slant on human nature.

Part of the effect stems from the prose. It is very simple. Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Things are described, or reported. But that only makes the sometimes disquieting feelings all the more disturbing. The obsessive-compulsive thinking. The absolute necessity of routine and order. The constant nagging sense of failure or embarrassment, the continual sense that you are making a fool of yourself. These are all the more unnerving for being reported so matter-of-factly, as if everyone was this anxious, as if anxiety is the normal state.

And, on reflection, maybe they haven’t strayed that far away from Jansson’s personal experience.

In Art in Nature the old curator of an art exhibition at a gallery which has outdoor grounds and a jetty onto the sea, first of all chats to an old lady who comes and sits next to him then, on his late night walk round the ground comes across a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they’ve bought. The title couldn’t be plainer. It is about art in an outdoors space, art in nature.

The Monkey seems like a straight portrait of Jansson’s father, the frustrated sculptor, and his guanon monkey, which we had met in a story in her first collection, The Sculptor’s Daughter. So many of her stories rotate around characters going through very humdrum routines, permanently looking for mental peace and rest and never finding it. Her father tidies up the studio then takes the monkey bundled in  his coat to the nearby bar where his arty mates are rude and they get into a bitter argument. On the way home the monkey escapes and flees up a tree, even though it’s bitterly cold and the sculptor reflects, bitterly:

You poor little bastard. It’s freezing but you’ve got to climb. (p.27)

The Cartoonist is a long and mesmerising account of the way a seasoned old cartoonist, Allington, who has created the smash hit ‘Blubby’ cartoon, and written it day in day out for twenty years for a Finnish newspaper which syndicates it around the world, suddenly disappears, no one knows where. The story focuses on his replacement, Samuel Stein, who is buttered up by the paper’s management, eased into the new job, and finds himself effectively abandoned in the cartoonist’s old room, drawers full of his old bric-a-brac. At first he’s too busy in a panic sweat trying to replicate the great man’s style and mapping out storylines which will last for months into the future to care. But slowly he rummages through the drawers, gets poignant hints of the cartoonist’s life and… realises he has to set out to find him. — Well, this is Jansson’s own plight, spectacularly successful creator of the Moomin strip cartoon who found herself shackled to her creation.

White Lady is named after the revolting cocktail and describes an outing of three middle-aged ladies, one of whom is a successful artist, Ellinor, (the Jansson figure) who catch a ferry from the island to a bar on the mainland where they chat about the old times, seem to spend a lot of time in the ladies loo, order strong cocktails, reminisce about some Italian count and then get caught up with a group of young people who are polite enough but are, well, young, dance to their incredibly loud blaring music, until the three ladies stumble back into the night, towards the jetty and the ferry home.

In The Doll’s House two gay men retire, Erik an old-fashioned upholsterer and Alexander a banker, but discover they can’t really bear being stuck at home all day in each other’s company. Then the upholsterer has the bright idea to make a large doll’s house, an exact replica of a house and the project becomes an all-consuming passion, at first on the kitchen table, then taking over half the kitchen but emitting so much glue and paint fumes the banker asks him to build a partition across the kitchen, then spreading into the living room and so on. When the upholsterer stumbles across an electrician who can help with the tiny wiring needed to light the house, the two become close collaborators, excluding the gay banker more and more. Eventually the story explodes in an unusually violent climax but with a typically Janssonesque twist or quirk.

In A Leading Role Maria, a so-so actress, is offered her first leading role and worries about how to become the mousy put-upon character required. Until she remembers a cousin, the mousy little Frida. She invited Frida to come and stay in her big house by the sea and we, the readers, know she’s only done it so she can observe every aspect of Frida’s personality and facial expressions and movements in order to steal them for her performance. Except that even the mousy Frida realises something is up, and it dawns on her that she’s being exploited.

Themes

Allington quit drawing cartoons because he was ‘tired’, simple as that, a phrase which recurs throughout these stories like a bell. In the very last page of White lady Ellinor is ‘tired’. When the sculptor wakes up he feels ‘tired’. When the locomotive obsessive tries to explain his passion to a strange woman he is overcome by tiredness. Flora’s husband, in A Flower Child, looks tired at his own wedding! Johanna, who looks after her sisters after they’ve emigrated to America in A Memory from the New World, is tired by the responsibility.

Tiredness is a leitmotif. Jansson was 64 when these stories were published in 1978, though one can assume they were published over a scattered period before that. Tiredness and its opposite sleep. Sleep is escape from not only fatigue but anxiety and unease. Sleep and just a nip of madeira. Or champagne, as it is in The Flower Child. A nip of booze to help kick start the long day which is characterised by anxiety and tiredness until you can slip gratefully back into your bed.

This is the underlying feel of the stories, a longing for peace and quiet, the characters’ quest for a calm, ordered, safe place without any other people and where routine and regularity keep at bay all the bad thoughts, the incipient panic, which constantly threaten.

Identities

Once we’re well into the book there are two genuinely strange stories in which the narrator’s identity becomes radically unstable, in which the conventions of fiction are mixed up before our eyes.

In A sense of time Lennart is very concerned about his grandmother and her senile loss of time, waking him up at nighttime closing the curtains at dawn. But half way through the story the point of view switches to the grandmother and we realise that it may be Lennart who’s the odd one.

In the long text called The locomotive the possibly deranged narrator – a commercial draughtsman working for a train company who has secret fantasies about taking long train journeys all over the world – keeps changing points of view from narrating as ‘I’ to describing ‘him’. The text keeps breaking down as he describes and notates  his fleeting thoughts and uncertainties: Stop here. Start again. I need to revise. Delete this section. With the text sometimes breaking down in mid-sen

When the story reaches its rather gruesome climax that climax comes in three separate versions. In fact in a mini-welter of versions, and we realise we have no idea how much, if anything, of this fabrication is ‘real’.

These stories are in no way comforting or charming. Jansson practices tough love on herself and on her characters. Deceptively simple,fairy-tale prose conveys a gimlet-eyed perceptiveness, a constant anxiety, a completely dis-enchanted view of the world and people.

Disquieting.


Credit

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal, was published by Sort of Books in 2006.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson (1998)

Contents

This book contains 20 short stories from across Jansson’s career chosen by contemporary Scottish novelist Ali Smith.

The first 13 are from Jansson’s first published collection, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) which was translated into English in 1969. Since The Sculptor’s Daughter can be bought as a stand-alone book, possibly it would be better to buy that and possess the entire set of childhood stories, instead of just the 13 here:

  1. The Stone
  2. Parties
  3. The Dark
  4. Snow
  5. German measles
  6. Flying
  7. Annie
  8. The Iceberg
  9. Albert
  10. Flotsam and jetsam
  11. High Water
  12. Jeremiah
  13. The spinster who had an idea

After these 13 stories, this volume continues with a long story from 1971, one from the 1980s, and the remaining five appear to be from the 1990s, these latter all translated into English and published here for the first time.

Sort Of Books

All Jansson’s books for adults appear to be currently published in a uniform edition by Sort Of Books, based in London. A feature of the books is their stylish design, with foldover end-covers, beautiful cover images and a selection of photographs from Jansson’s own life sprinkled among the texts.

This volume features 19 atmospheric and evocative black and white photos – of the author’s mother and father, herself as a child cutting paper with scissors or standing prim in a child’s striped dress, as a stylish young woman, as a mature woman smoking a fag, along with views of the island where she lived.

A child’s eye view

The stories from The Sculptor’s Daughter are told from the point of view of a really small child, I’d say 4 or 5. Through her eyes we see the sights and sounds and smells of her parents’ studio in Helsinki. Tove’s father, Viktor Jansson, was a Finnish sculptor, her Swedish mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, was an illustrator and graphic designer, so it was a very artistic family, which encouraged music, storytelling and the young Tove to make and paint and draw and decorate.

The narrator remembers parties where her father played the balalaika along with his friend Cavvy playing the guitar. She finds a big stone which she’s convinced is made of silver and rolls it all along the pavement and across the road to their apartment. One day when it starts snowing, she has a fantasy vision of so much snow falling that it tips the whole world up on its side and people go tumbling out of their windows. She listens to her father playing with his pet guenon monkey Poppolino, which routinely swings around the room knocking over busts and chewing pieces of furniture before her father placates it with some liquorice and puts it back in its cage.

It is a world riddled with compulsions and necessities and superstitions and rituals. If people say anything about the iceberg it will go away. She needs to play this game with her mother, now. Her little friend Poyu must step just where she tells him, to avoid the snakes in the carpet (there are no snakes, it’s just a game).

All these rituals are to keep at bay the fear, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the incomprehensible world of grown-ups, which the small narrator is very prone to.

Every story has to begin in the same way, then it’s not so important what happens. A soft, gentle voice in the warm darkness and one gazes into the fire and nothing is dangerous. Everything else is outside and can’t get in. Not now or at any time. (p.40)

Contrasting with these moments of fear are the childhood safe spaces, very often snuggling down in a nice warm bed, but best of all sitting in a parent’s lap. Where in the world is cosier and warmer and safer?

The prose is written with a kind of wide-eyed childish simplicity, punctuated by outbursts of childish dogmatism, the kind of pedantic insistence characteristic of the small. Everyone who reads it responds to the ‘innocence’ and simplicity of the style, but I think sometimes it can verge on the twee. It’s a fine line.

Actually soda water is dangerous. It gives one bubbles in the tummy and it can make one feel sad. One should never mix things. (p.31)

The narrator’s mind jumps all over the place. She’s thinking about the great dark shadow that comes out of the sea and stretches towards the town every night. Then how to pick stones out of your ice skates. Then how to avoid the ‘snakes’ she has conjured up in her friend Poyu’s patterned carpet.

Is this how children think, jumping from one thing to another. Is it a marvellous recreation of childhood? Or is it how we all think that children think? Is it in fact quite a sophisticated (and slightly troubling) act of ventriloquism?

‘Explosion’ is a beautiful word and a very big one. Later I learned others, the kind you whisper only when you’re alone. ‘Inexorable’. ‘Ornamentation’. ‘Profile’. ‘Catastrophe’. ‘Electrical’. ‘District nurse.’ They get bigger and bigger if you say them over and over again. You whisper and whisper and let the world grow until nothing else exists until the word. (p.39)

As the Sculptor stories progress the narrator becomes noticeably older. Her friend Albert invites her out in a rowing boat (from the island where they spend their summer holidays with her family) but they get caught in a thick fog and then, surreally, take on board a dying seagull. She’s older than 5 or 6 by this time.

Flotsam and Jetsam describes her observation of her Daddy and other men from around the islands rowing out to scavenge canisters of goodies (booze, maybe?) which have been washed into the sea, maybe from a wrecked cargo boat. She observes the dainty codes and rules governing what is, and is not, salvageable.

High Water is a short subtle story, also set on the holiday island (the same one, presumably, which features in her classic The Summer Book). Her Daddy the sculptor brings all his sculpting equipment and clay out to the island and converts Old Charlie’s boat-house into a studio – but then gets blocked and can do no work. He gets cross with everyone. Until one night there’s a really awesome storm which floods the island and carries off the jetty and – floods the studio and ruins all the clay. Daddy comes in to tell relate this terrible blow to his wife and she is beaming with pleasure and he is wreathed in smiles. Then he rushes off back out to help people try to save what they can from the storm.

So it is a story about how hard it is to be an artist, or how hard her father found it, and what a relief simple physical action in the outdoors is, compared to all that agonising about creation.

A spinster stays and becomes obsessed with building steps of cement up to the house, but she makes a right horlicks of it. Later she interrupts Daddy and Mummy making a plaster cast, usually a sacred moment, and natters on, poking about, until she accidentally discovers a way to make a small cast around a picture cut out from a magazine. She gets addicted to making scores of these, perfecting her technique, turning into quite a creator. But that doesn’t stop them being tacky, the narrator thinks. Eventually, the spinster leaves but young Tove treasures the picture cast she made for herself.

In The Boat and Me the narrator is 12 and Daddy has become Dad. The prose is quite a lot more mature. She is given a boat and decides to row it round the little archipelago of islets surrounding their island. Her mum helps her set off before her Dad can get up and prevent her going. There follow bucolic details of navigating the boat round little islands in the Gulf of Finland, and of encountering the rich summer tourists who her family despises, in this book as in The Summer Book. But eventually her Dad, having woken and discovered she’s set off, catches up with her in his motorboat, makes her come aboard, ties the rowboat to it and returns to the house. Tut tut.

Sad

The Squirrel represents an alarming, rather shocking break in tone. Now a third-person narrator beadily describes the behaviour of an apparently middle-aged woman living on her own on an island. This woman is consumed with obsessive compulsive disorder. Everything has to be just so: she must get dressed in just the right order; the wood in the fireplace must be arranged just so; each day must start with the same rituals including measuring the height of the sea against rocks.

It is sad to learn that each day also requires a morning tot of madeira, and then a work tot of madeira: ‘It is the only thing that helped’ (p.131).

She began sweeping, painstaking and calm. She liked sweeping. It was a peaceful day, a day without dialogue. There was nothing to defend or accuse anyone of; everything had been cut out, all those words that could have been other words or might simply have been out of place and have led to great change. Now there was nothing but a warm friendly cottage full of morning light, herself sweeping and the friendly sound of coffee beginning to simmer. The room with its four windows simply existed and justified itself; it was safe and had nothing to do with any place where you could shut anything in or leave anything out. (p.131)

Alas, poor Tove, I thought she was an embodiment of carefree happiness, but this story confirms the impression of the final few Moomintroll books that she sadly combated mental illness, an overpowering anxiety and worry that can only be kept at bay with rituals and routines, or else the day becomes ‘soiled with wrong thoughts and pointless actions’ (p.135).

So the story is ostensibly about how Tove feeds and supports the squirrel and it becomes a companion on the island. But the real impact of the text is to quite shock you with the extent of her unhappy, uncontrollable thoughts. She rearranges the log pile to make things easier for the squirrel then is devastated by feelings of guilt that she may have wrecked its home. She panics and goes to fetch lots of things to help a squirrel make a home from the cellar but then chaotically tries to squeeze a box which is too big up through the cellar hole and it bursts and stuff goes flying everywhere.

Next morning she sees a boat heading straight for the island. It is themThey have come to get her. She has a panic attack, first sweeping all her manuscripts into a drawer, then changing her mind and setting them back on her desk, then jumping out the back window and crawling off to hide in an inlet – then realising how silly that will look and sneaking back to spy on the boat. In fact it’s just three blokes on a day trip to any island anywhere who tie up their boat and get their fishing rods out, completely ignorant of the highly strung woman whose utter calm they have shattered.

Sadly, I realise that Jansson is not the great feminine super-mother, the centred, reassuring, calm presence of Moominmamma, as portrayed in the Moomin books. On the basis of this text, she is more like the hysterical Fillyjonk, permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Correspondence

There follow a couple of lovely ‘sections’ based on letters.

Letters from Klara is a selection of letters from the same woman correspondent, but written to all sorts of people, relations, children, officials and so on, so that each one displays a different tone and aspect of the writer’s characters. It’s a clever effective technique.

Messages is a series of brief snippets, the opening phrases, from a very wide range of letters the author has received – fan mail, commercial propositions, letters from school children, parents, lawyers and so on, a cross-section of the non-stop bombardment of mostly rubbish which a writer has to put up with, but also a cross-section of ordinary people who, with greater or lesser subtlety, pour out their hearts to someone they’ve never met but feel they know through her writings.

The last of the three, Correspondence, consists of letters written to her by a Japanese schoolgirl, Tamiko Atsumi, about the Moomins, about her improving English and other schoolgirl concerns. Tamiko sends haikus and wishes Tove good health and a long life.

None of Tove’s replies (if there ever were any) are included here so, again, as with everything Jannson wrote, there is a powerful sense of mystery and absence. Instead, we follow as the Japanese girl gets more proficient at English and her letters more ambitious, and the text encourages us to guess and speculate about the personality behind these brief missives.

What do they mean?

What does anything mean?

Photos


Credit

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson was published by Sort of Books in 2006.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972)

When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind. Papa worked at his desk. The nets were set out and taken in. They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace. (p.41)

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is famous for writing the Moomin comic strips, picture books and stories which are still phenomenally popular 70 years after the first book was published (1945), and have been turned into cartoons, animations, TV series, movies, plays and even an opera, as well as a world of merchandise.

The last Moomin book is the sad and melancholy Moominvalley in November, published in 1970. It’s around this time that she made the transition to writing fiction for adults. The semi-autobiographical Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir came out in 1968 (her father and mother were both artists). But her big breakthrough came with The Summer Book, published in 1972, which has come to be regarded as a classic across Scandinavia.

The Summer Book

It’s short, at just 150 pages of text. It’s divided into 22 ‘chapters’ or sections i.e. the average length is just under seven pages.

The shortest is Moonlight at just two pages. Little Sophia wakes in the middle of the night to see the fire in the stove reflected several times in the windows. She tugs her Grandmother’s plait and Grandmother wakes up and reassures her that all is well. Slowly little Sophia drifts off to sleep again. Her father gets up and puts more wood in the stove.

As this chapter/story/anecdote suggests, the tales are all set on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland (very like the ones Jansson spent her childhood on and, specifically, like the one where she built a cabin and lived with her partner for most of adult life).

They focus on the relationship between an unnamed Grandmother and little Sophia. Grandmother is 85 (p.108). Her husband is long dead and referred to only once. The only other member of the household is Sophia’s father – Papa – who occasionally appears but never speaks. He is in his room writing, tending the house, fixing things around the island or – in the one story he dominates, The Enormous Plastic Sausage – buying loads of bulbs and saplings to plant across the island.

We learn that Sophia’s mother is dead (p.25), not least in the story where they make a little model ‘Venice’ out of stones and twigs on a mossy bog near the house and Sophia imagines her mother living inside a splendid palace on the Grand Canal.

The family has lived on the island for 47 years (p.101). They know every inch, they know the impact of the seasons, they know the feel of all the winds and every type of sunrise or storm.

It’s not really a novel. Certainly the same characters recur in every ‘chapter’ but there is no continuous narrative and no attempt to explore the ‘development’ of character, two attributes of your traditional novel.

It’s more like a collection of epiphanies or insights, what reading the American Beat writers taught me to think of as moments of satori, a Buddhist term for enlightenment.

The cat

Their point is their apparent inconsequentiality, an elliptical quality which is, nonetheless, charged with meaning. In The Cat Sophia is given a fisherman’s kitten which quickly grows out of being fluffy and cuddly and turns into a lean killer. Sophia grows to hate the way it brings bird corpses into the house. She shouts at it but the indifferent cat stalks out to do more hunting. Neighbours arrive by boat with a fluffy cat which they thought would catch mice but doesn’t, so they agree to swap fluffy for Sophia’s killer. Sure enough fluffy is lovely and cuddly and docile to stroke, and snuggles on Sophia’s pillow at night. After a few days she wants her killer cat back.

What you make of that, what conclusions you draw about human nature, about love, about the relationship between humans and animals or their pets – well, it’s all entirely up to you.

Unsentimental

So the anecdotes are not sentimental, they are not ‘nice’. The blurb around the book suggests it’s about one summer when a grandmother and her grand-daughter grow close but that’s very misleading. Grandmother is not a nice old lady. She smokes (though she’s struggling to cut down), fumbles with her false teeth, feels dizzy, and needs regular rests – an accurate depiction of old age.

The old woman stood up too quickly. Her walking stick rolled down into the pool, and the whole rock became an uncertain, hostile surface, arching and twisting in front of her. (p.64)

And, strikingly, she’s not even that fond of the child.

‘Bloody nitwit,’ Grandmother muttered to herself. (p.63)

Quite regularly she just wants to get away from the needy, whining, little girl to have a nap or be by herself. She gets angry. She has another crafty fag. She swears.

‘The fishing’s bloody awful,’ Grandmother said. (p.62)

She creeps off into the little pine forest by herself or lies on the moss watching the leaves or looks down at the tadpoles in a pool. She is very ungrandmotherly. She is, in other words, entirely human and wonderful.

Sophia is persistent but capricious. She’s probably what middle-class English mums I know would call rude. Certainly blunt.

‘When are you going to die?’ the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’
‘Why?’ her grandchild asked.
She didn’t answer. She walked out on the rock and on towards the ravine. (p.22)

Their lack of English good manners and hesitancy are a big part of the appeal. Quite routinely, they get pettish, fretsome and plain angry – very angry – with each other.

Both of them tend to obsess about little things and then forget them and walk away. Jannson magically conveys the strange, intense but shallow passions of childhood. ‘Oh well, it’s broken, let’s play a different game now.’

Many of these involve making and creating. Grandmother is always carving shapes out of driftwood or building a little Venetian palace out of balsa wood and she inspires her grand-daughter to follow suit.

Satori is a term from Zen Buddhism and the stories’ elliptical quality keeps prompting comparison with haikus or Chinese painting, with traditions of art which are a) set in an unspoilt natural world b) spare and minimal in style, with the minimum amount of brushstrokes or description c) hint and suggest some deeper meaning or purpose but are never vulgar enough to spell it out.

Nature notes

Sophia and Grandmother’s little adventures play out against the massive unchanging landscape of this isolated Nordic island and, like a painting, between the moving human figures, you see all kinds of glimpses of the natural world – the trees, the rocks, the moss, the lichens, the seaweed and driftwood, sometimes described plainly and factually, sometimes charged with Jansson’s special tone, a kind of matter-of-fact marvelling, or a matter-of-fact prose style in which the marvelling is implicit, immanent.

It’s a funny thing about bogs. You can fill them with rocks and sand and old logs and make a little fenced-in yard on top with a woodpile and a chopping block – but bogs go right on behaving like bogs. Early in the spring they breathe ice and make their own mist, in remembrance of the time when they had black water and their own sedge blossoming untouched. (p.32)

The poetry is in the simple knowledgeability which, because it is conveyed in such spare prose, reads like wisdom.

Moss is terribly frail. Step on it once and it rises the next time it rains. The second time, it doesn’t rise back up. And the third time you step on it, it dies. Eider ducks are the same – the third time you frighten them up from their nests, they never come back. (p.29)

Since most of us live in towns and cities and spend all our work time and most of our leisure staring at screens (as you are right now), anyone with real in-depth knowledge of the natural world now appears to us like a shaman from a distant tribe, bearing wisdom most of us have long lost. So there’s a basic nature nostalgia running through the book. This was, after all, 1972, 45 years ago. We’ve destroyed a lot of the natural world since then. Anyone who comes with reports of the world beyond our air-conditioned offices is treated like a messenger from exotic worlds.

She heard the cry of the long-tailed ducks. They are called scolders, because their cry is a steady, chiding chatter, farther and farther away, farther and farther out. People rarely see them. They are as secretive as corncrakes. But a corncrake hides in a meadow all alone, while the long-tails are out beyond the farthest islands in enormous wedding flocks, singing all through the spring night. (p. 33)

Some of the decorating and arts and crafts playing with bits and bobs from the natural world morph seamlessly from childreny crafts into the beginnings of pagan ritual.

Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk, and listen to the movements of the birds in the thicket. (p.31)

And some of the stories reference Nordic traditions which are novel to us Anglo-Saxons, like the big celebrations on Midsummer’s Eve which, however, are treated to Jansson’s anti-romantic, dis-illusioned approach. The Midsummer Eve described in Midsummer is a total washout, with torrential rain preventing almost any fires being lit, and all but one of the fireworks bought for the occasion being too wet to light.

Setting the tone

All these elements are very well announced in the opening paragraphs of the first story, which set the natural scene, the irritating inquisitiveness of the little girl and the short-tempered character of Grandmother.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Sophia.
‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’ (p.21)

Anthony Burgess suggested that all novels should be read twice, once to find out what happens, and once to see how it was done. But this is a book to read multiple times, in order to savour the sharp tang of the dry, astringent prose, and to let the brisk unsentimental depiction of people and the natural world sink really deep into your soul.


Credit

Sommarboken by Tove Jansson was published in Finland in 1972. This translation by Thomas Teal was published by Random House in 1974. Page references are to the Sort of Books paperback edition published in 2003.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

‘Everywhere counter-revolutionaries run about and swagger; beat them down! Beat their heads where you find them! If counter-revolutionaries were to gain the upper hand for even a single hour, there will be no mercy for any proletarian. Before they stifle the revolution, suffocate them in their own blood!’
(Hungarian communist Tibor Szamuely, quoted page 134)

The sub-title sums it up – Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923. We Brits, like the French, date the end of the Great War to Armistice Day 11 November 1918, and the two-minute silence every year confirms our happy sense of finality and completion.

But across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, from Finland, through the Baltic states, all of Russia, Poland, down through the Balkans, across Anatolia and into the Middle East, the violence didn’t end. In many places it intensified, and dragged on for a further four or five years.

Individual studies have long been available on the plight of individual nations – revolutionary Russia, post-Ottoman Turkey and so on. But Gerwarth claims his book is the first one to bring together the tumult in all these places and deal with them as symptoms of one deep cause: losing the war not only led to the break-up of Europe’s defeated empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire – it undermined the very idea of traditional governments and plunged huge areas into appalling violence.

Gerwarth categorises the violence into a number of types:

  1. Wars between countries (of the traditional type) – thus war between Greece and Turkey carried on until 1923 (200,000 military casualties), Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1920 (250,000 dead or missing), Romania’s invasion of Hungary in 1919-1920.
  2. Nationalist wars of independence i.e. wars to assert the independence of ethnic groups claiming a new autonomy – the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Ukrainians.
  3. Revolutionary violence i.e. the attempt to overthrow existing governments in the name of socialist or other political causes. There were communist putsches in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. Hungary became a communist state under Bela Kun for 115 days in 1919.
  4. Civil wars – the Russian civil war was the biggest, with some 3 million dead in its three year duration, but Gerwarth also describes the Finnish Civil War, which I’d never heard of, in which over 1% of the population died and whose ramifications, apparently, continue to this day.

The lesson is best summarised in a blurb on the back of the book by the ever-incisive Max Hastings. For many nations and peoples, violent conflict had started even before 1914 and continued for another three, four or five after 1918 — until, exhausted by conflict, for these people, order became more important than freedom. As the right-wing Waldemar Pabst, murderer of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht and organiser of Austria’s paramilitary Heimwehr put it, the populations of these chaotic regions needed:

the replacement of the old trinity of the French Revolution [liberté, egalité, fraternité]… with a new trinity: authority, order and justice.’ (quoted on p.141)

The communist coups in all these countries were defeated because:

  1. the majority of the population didn’t want it
  2. the actual ‘class enemies’, the landowners, urban bourgeoisie, conservative politicians, were able to call on large reserves of battle-hardened officer class to lead militias and paramilitaries into battle against the ‘reds’

No wonder T.S. Eliot, in 1923, referred to James Joyce’s use of myth in Ulysses as the only way to make sense of ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

Gerwarth’s book gives the detail of this panorama, especially in the relatively unknown regions of central and eastern Europe – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania – and with special attention to the catastrophic Greek invasion of Turkey and ensuing war.

Turkey

Turkey experienced the Young Turk revolution against the old rule of the Sultan in 1908. During the ensuing confusion across the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary annexed the Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then in 1911, across the Mediterranean, Italy invaded and seized modern-day Libya from the Turks. The Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 led to the loss of almost all of the Empire’s European territories, and was followed by a series of coups and counter coups in Istanbul.

All this upheaval was before Turkey even entered the Great War, which it did with an attack on the Russian Black Sea coast in October 1914. Skipping over the Great War itself – which featured, for Turkey, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Arab Revolt of 1916 – defeat in the war led the Allies to dismember the remainder of the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.

Opposition to this treaty led to the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname ‘Atatürk’) and the final abolition of the sultanate and the old Ottoman forms of government in 1922.

At which point the Greeks invaded, hoping to take advantage of Turkey’s weakness and seize the Aegean coast and islands. But the Greek attack ran out of steam, the tide turned and Turkish forces under Atatürk swept the Greek forces back down to the sea. Greek atrocities against Turkish villagers was followed by counter-reprisals by the Turks against the Greek population of the coast, which escalated into the mass exchange of populations. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced to flee the Turkish mainland.

The point is that by 1923 Turkey had been in violent political turmoil for some 15 years. You can see why the majority of the population will have opted, in Max Hasting’s words, for Order over Freedom, for any party which could guarantee peace and stability.

Brutalisation and extermination

Gerwarth questions the ‘brutalisation thesis’, an idea I had broadly subscribed to.

This theory is that the Great War, with its four long years of grindingly brutal bloodshed, dehumanised enormous numbers of fighting men, who returned to their respective societies hardened to violence, desensitised, and that this permanently brutalised European society. It introduced a new note of total war, of the killing of civilian populations, the complete destruction of towns and cities, which hadn’t existed before. Up till now I had found this thesis persuasive.

Gerwarth says modern scholarship questions the brutalisation thesis because it can be shown that the vast majority of troops on all sides simply returned to their societies, were demobbed and got on with civilian lives in peace. The percentage who went into paramilitaries and Freikorps units, the numbers which indulged in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, was very small.

But he partly contradicts himself by going on to say that the violence immediately after the war was new in nature: all the parties in the Great War were fighting, ultimately, to wring concessions from opposing regimes which they envisaged staying in place and legitimacy. This is how war had been fought in Europe for centuries. You defeat your enemy; he cedes you this or that bit of territory or foreign colony, and things continue as before.

But in the post-war period a completely new ideology appeared – something unprecedented in history – the wish not just to defeat but to exterminate your enemy, whether they be class enemies (hated by communists) or ethnic enemies (hated by all brands of nationalists) or ‘reds’ (hated by conservatives and the new fascist parties alike).

This extermination ideology, mixed with the unprecedented collapse of empires which had given rise to a host of new small nations, created a new idea – that these new small nations emerging in and after the war needed to feel ‘cleansed’ and ‘pure’. Everyone not genuinely German or Czech or Hungarian or Ukrainian or whatever, must be expelled.

This new doctrine led to the vast relocations of peoples in the name of what a later generation would call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but that name doesn’t really capture the extraordinary scale of the movements and the depths of the hatreds and bitternesses which it unleashed.

For example, the final peace in the Turko-Greek war resulted in the relocation of some 2 million civilians (1.2 million Greeks expelled from Turkey, 400,000 Muslims expelled from Greece). Huge numbers of other ethnic groups were moved around between the new post-war nations e.g. Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc.

And of course Britain experienced none of this. Between the wars we found Europe east of Germany a dangerous and exotic place (see the pre-war thrillers of Eric Ambler for the noir feel of spies and secret police they convey) but also left us incapable of really imagining what it felt like to live in such completely fractured and damaged societies.


The ‘only now…’ school of history

Although the facts, figures, atrocities, murders, rapes and violence which plagued this period are hard to read about, one of the most striking things in the whole book comes in Gerwarth’s introduction where he discusses the ebb and flow of fashion, or waves of historical interpretation regarding this period.

He dismisses traditional French and especially British attitudes towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans as a form of ‘orientalism’ i.e. the racist belief that there is something intrinsically violent and brutal about the people of those regions. Part of this attitude no doubt stemmed from Great War-era propaganda which portrayed the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as somehow intrinsically despotic and repressive. Part from the political violence which plagued these countries in the post war era, and which generally ended up with them being ruled by ultra-conservative or fascist regimes.

Modern scholarship, Gerwarth says, has switched to the opposite view, with many modern historians claiming those regimes were more liberal than is often claimed, more stable and more open to reform than the wartime allies claimed. As he puts it:

This reassessment has been an emphatic one for both Imperial Germany and the Hapsburg Empire, which appear in a much more benign (or at least more ambivalent) light to historians today than they did in the first eight decades after 1918. (p.7)

That last phrase leapt out at me. He seems to be saying that modern historians, working solely from written documents, claim to know more about these empires than people alive at the time, than contemporaries who travelled through and experienced them and encountered and spoke with their rulers or populations and fought against them.

Quite casually, it seems to me, he is making a sweeping and quite unnerving statement about the control which historians exert over ‘reality’. Gerwarth’s remark echoes similar sentiments I’ve recently read by historians like Rana Mitter (China’s War with Japan 1937–1945) and Chris Wickham (The Inheritance of Rome) to the effect that only now are we getting to properly understand period A or B of history because of reasons x, y or z (the most common reason for reassessments of 20th century history being the new access historians have to newly-opened archives in the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China).

I am a sceptic. I don’t believe we can know anything with much certainty. And a fan of later Wittgenstein who theorised that almost all communication – talking, texts, movies, you name it – are best understood as games, games with rules and regulations but games nonetheless, which change and evolve as the players do, and are interpreted differently by different players, at different times.

Currently there are some seven and a half billion humans alive on the planet – so there’s the potential for at least seven billion or so interpretations of anything.

If academic historians produce narratives which broadly agree it is because they’re playing the same academic game according to the same rules – they share agreed definitions of what history actually is, of how you define ‘evidence’, of what historical scholarship is, agreement about appropriate formats to present it in, about style and voice and rhetorics (dispassionate, objective, factual etc).

But the fact that the same set of evidence – the nature of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can give rise to such wildly divergent interpretations, even among the professionals, only fuels my profound scepticism about our ability to know anything. For decades historians have thought the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a repressive autocracy which was too encrusted and conservative to cope with changes in technology and society and so was doomed to collapse. Now, Gerwarth informs me, modern scholarship claims that, on the contrary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was more flexible and adaptive than its contemporaries or anyone writing in the last 80 years has thought.

For contemporary historians to claim that only now can the truth revealed strikes me as, to put it politely, optimistic.

  1. Unless you are a religious zealot, there is no absolute truth
  2. There are plenty of dissenting voices to any historical interpretation
  3. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that future historians will in turn disagree and reinterpret everything all over again a) because fashions change b) because they’ll be able to do so in the light of events which haven’t happened yet and trends which aren’t clear to us c) because they have to come up with new theories and interpretations in order to keep their jobs.

When I was a young man ‘we’ i.e. all the students I knew and most of the liberal media and political commentators, all thought Ronald Reagan was a doddery imbecile. Now I read books about the Cold War which claim he was among the all-time greatest American Presidents for playing the key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism.

Which story is true ? Or are they both true and will more ‘truths’ be revealed in the future? If Vladimir Putin unleashes a nuclear war, will the collapse of communism – which 20 years later has given rise to a new aggressive Russian nationalism – come, in time, to be seen as a bad thing, as the prelude to some disastrous world war?

History is, in the end, a matter of opinion, a clash of opinions. Historians may well use evidence scrupulously to support thoroughly researched points of view – but they can only access a subset of the evidence (no historian can read everything, no historian can read every human language, no book can reference every text ever written during a period) and will tend to use that evidence selectively to support the thesis or idea they have developed.

Therefore, I don’t believe that any of the history books I’m currently reading reveal the only-now-can-it-be-told truth.

But I do understand that academics are under more pressure than ever before to justify their salaries by churning out articles and books. It follows that historians, like literary critics and other humanities scholars, must come up with new interpretations, or apply their interpretations to new subjects, simply in order to keep their jobs. It’s in this context that I read the pronouncements of only now historians – as the kind of rhetoric which gets articles published and books commissioned, which can be proclaimed in lecture theatres, at international conferences and – if you’re lucky and manage to wangle a lucrative TV deal – spoken to camera (as done by Mary Beard, Niall Ferguson, Ruth Goodman, Bettany Hughes, Dan Jones, David Reynolds, Simon Schama, Dan Snow, David Starkey, Lucy Worsley, Michael Wood).

In other words, I read statements like this as reflections of the economic and cultural climate, or discourse, of our times – heavily embedded in the economic necessity of historians to revise and review their predecessors’ findings and assumptions in order to keep their jobs. Maybe these new interpretations are bolstered by more data, more information and more research than ever before. Maybe they are closer to some kind of historical ‘truth’. But sure as eggs is eggs, in a generation’s time, they in their turn will be outmoded and outdated, fading in the sunlight outside second-hand bookshops.

For now the new historical consensus is a new twist, a new wrinkle, which appeals by its novelty and its exciting ability to generate new ideas and insights. It spawns new discourse. It creates new vistas of text. It continues the never-ending game of hide-and-seek which is ‘the humanities’.

History is a cousin of literature with delusions of grandeur – at least literature knows that it is made up. And both genres, anyway, come under the broader rubric of rhetoric i.e. the systematic attempt to persuade the reader of something.

Notes and bibliography

One of the blurbs on the back says Gerwarth’s achievement has been to synthesise an unprecedented amount of primary and secondary material into his new narrative and this is certainly supported by the elephantine size of the book’s appendices. The book has 446 numbered pages but no fewer than 161 of these are made up of the acknowledgements (5 pages), index (22 pages), bibliography (62 pages) and endnotes (72 pages). If you subtract the Introduction (15 pages), Epilogue (19 pages) and the three blank pages at the start of each of the three parts, then there’s only 446-198 = 248 pages of main text. Only 55% of the book’s total pages are actual text.

But it’s the length of the bibliography and endnotes which impresses – 134 pages! I think it’s the only set of endnotes I know which is so long that it has 8 pages of glossy illustrations embedded within it, rather than in the actual text.


Conclusion

As with so many histories of the 20th century I am left thinking that humanity is fundamentally incapable of governing itself.

Bumbling fools I can see why so many people believe in a God — because they just can’t face the terrible thought that this is it – Donald Trump and Theresa May, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, these are as good as you’re going to get, humanity! These are the people in charge and people like this will always be in charge: not the terrifyingly efficient totalitarian monsters of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but bumbling fools, incompetents and paranoid bullies.

The most ill-fated bumblers in this book must be the rulers of post-war Greece who decided (egged on by the foolish David Lloyd-George) to invade the western coast of Turkey in 1921. The book ends with a comprehensive account of their miserable failure, which resulted not only in appalling massacres and bloodshed as the humiliated Greek army retreated to the coast and was shipped back to Greece, but led to the expulsion of all Greek communities from Turkey – some 1.2 million people – vastly swelling the Greek population and leaving the country almost bankrupt for decades to come.

Hats off to the Greek Prime Minister who supervised all this, Eleftherios Venizelos. Well done, sir.

Intractable But half the reasons politicians appear idiots, especially in retrospect, is because they are dealing with impossible problems. The current British government which is bumbling its way through Brexit cannot succeed because they have been set an impossible task.

Similarly, the Western politicians and their civil servants who met at Versailles after the Great War were faced with the impossible challenge of completely redrawing the map of all Europe as well as the Middle East, following the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, with a view to giving the peoples of Europe their own ‘nation states’.

Quite simply, this proved too complicated a task to achieve, and their multiple failures to achieve it not only led to the Second World War but linger on to this day.

To this day ethnic tensions continue to exist in Hungary and Bulgaria about unfair borders, not to mention among the statelets of former Yugoslavia whose borders are very much still not settled.

And what about the violent can of worms which are the borders of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Jordan – or the claims for statehood of the Kurds, still the cause of terrorism and counter-terrorism in eastern Turkey, still fighting to maintain their independence in northern Iraq.

If the diplomats of Versailles failed to solve many of these problems, have we in our times done so very much better? How are Afghanistan and Iraq looking after 15 years of intervention from the West? Are they the peace-loving democracies which George W. Bush promised?

Not easy, is it? It’s so simple-minded to ridicule diplomats and civil servants of the Versailles settlements for making a pig’s ear of so much of their task. But have we done much better? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Reading this book makes you begin to wonder whether managing modern large human societies peacefully and fairly may simply be impossible.

Rainbow nation or pogroms? Reading page after page after page describing how people who were essentially the same flesh and blood but happened to speak different languages or have different religious beliefs or wear funny hats or the wrong design of jacket, proved not only incapable of living together, but all too often turned on each other in homicidal frenzy — reading these 250 pages of mayhem, pogroms, genocide, mass rape and massacres makes me worry, as ever, about the viability of modern multicultural societies.

People from different races, ethnic groups, languages, religions and traditions living alongside each other all sounds fine so long as the society they inhabit is relatively peaceful and stable. But put it under pressure, submit it to economic collapse, poverty and hardship, and the history is right here to prove that time and again people will use the pettiest differences as excuses to start picking on each other. And that once the violence starts, it again and again spirals out of control until no one can stop it.

And sometimes the knowledge that we have created for ourselves just such a multicultural society, which is going to come under an increasing number of economic, social and environmental stresses in the years ahead, fills me with fear.

Petersburg. Belgrade. Budapest. Berlin. Vienna. Constantinople. The same scenes of social collapse, class war and ethnic cleansing took place across Europe and beyond between 1918 and 1923


Related links

Great War-related blog posts

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