The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908–1923 by Sean McMeekin (2015)

This is a very good book, maybe the definitive one-volume account of the subject currently available.

McMeekin’s earlier volume, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918, although full of solid history, was conceived and structured as an entertainment, using the erratic history of the Berlin to Baghdad railway project as a thread on which to hang an account of the German High Command’s attempt to raise a Muslim Holy War against her enemies, Britain and France, across the entire territory of the Ottoman Empire and beyond, into Persia and Afghanistan.

It had a chapter apiece devoted to the quixotic missions which the Germans sent out to try and recruit various Muslim leaders to their side, very much dwelling on the colourful characters who led them and the quirky and sometimes comic details of the missions – which, without exception, failed.

In Berlin to Baghdad book McMeekin had a habit of burying references to key historic events in asides or subordinate clauses, which had a cumulatively frustrating effect. I felt I was learning a lot about Max von Oppenheim, the archaeological expert on the ancient Middle East who was put in charge of Germany’s Middle East Bureau – but a lot less about the key events of the war in Turkey.

Similarly, as McMeekin recounted each different mission, as well as the various aspects of German policy in Turkey, he tended to go back and recap events as they related to this or that mission or development, repeatedly going back as far as the 1870s to explain the origin of each thread. I found this repeated going over the same timeframe a number of times also rather confusing.

This book is the opposite. This is the book to read first. This is the definitive account.

In 500 solid pages, with lots of very good maps and no messing about, following a strict chronological order, McMeekin gives us the political, military and diplomatic background to the Ottoman Empire’s involvement in the First World War, a thorough, authoritative account of those disastrous years, and of their sprawling aftermath through the disastrous Greco-Turkish War (1919-23) ending with the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in July 1923, which established the modern republic of Turkey and brought that troubled country’s decade of tribulations to an end.

McMeekin suggests that the bloody decade which stretched from the first of the two Balkan Wars in 1912/13 through to the final peace of the Greco-Turkish War as, taken together, constituting The War of The Ottoman Succession.

Gallipoli

This is the first detailed account of the Gallipoli disaster I’ve read, which clearly sets it in the wider context of a) the broader Ottoman theatre of war b) the First World War as a whole. I was a little shocked to learn that the entire Gallipoli campaign was in response to a request from Russian High Command to draw Ottoman troops away from the Caucasus, where the Russian High Command thought they were being beaten.

One among many bitter ironies is that the Russians were not, in fact, being defeated in the Caucasus, that in fact the Battle of Sarikamish (December 1914 to January 1915), which the Russian leadership panicked and took to be a rout, eventually turned into the worst Ottoman defeat of the war.

But the Russians’ panicky request to the British at Christmas 1914 was enough to crystallise and jog forward British ideas about opening a second front somewhere in Turkey. From a raft of often more practical options, the idea attacking and opening up the Dardanelles (so British ships could sail up to and take Constantinople, and gain access to the Black Sea) soon acquired an unstoppable momentum of its own.

Armenian genocide

As with Gallipoli, so McMeekin also presents the Armenian Genocide in the context of the bigger picture, showing, for example, how the Christian Armenians did rise up against their Ottoman masters in the eastern city of Van, and did co-operate with the attacking Russians to expel the Ottomans and hand the city over, and so did justify the paranoia of the Ottoman High Command that they had a sizeable population of fifth columnists living in potentially vital strategic areas.

For it was not only in the far East of the Empire, in Armenia, a fair proportion of the Armenian population of Cilicia, over on the Mediterranean coast, was also prepared to rise up against the Ottomans, if provided with guns and leadership from the British (pp.223-245).

So McMeekin’s measured and factual account makes it much more understandable why the Ottoman High Command – under pressure from the ongoing British attack at Gallipoli, and terrified by the swift advances by the Russians through the Caucasus – took the sweeping decision to expel all Armenians from all strategically sensitive locations.

None of this excuses the inefficiency they then demonstrated in rounding up huge numbers of people and sending them into the Syrian desert where hundreds of thousands perished, or the gathering mood of violent paranoia which seized local authorities and commanders who took the opportunity to vent their fear and anxiety about the war on helpless civilians, which led to localised pogroms, execution squads and so on. But it does help to explain the paranoid atmosphere in which such things are allowed to happen.

McMeekin emphasises that, once it saw what was happening on the ground, the Ottoman leadership then tried to moderate the expulsion policy and explicitly forbade the punishment of Armenians, but it was too late: at the local level thousands of administrators and soldiers had absorbed the simple message that all Armenians were ‘traitors’ and should be shown no mercy. The net result was the violent killing, or the starving and exhausting to death, of up to one and a half million people, mostly defenceless civilians, an event which was used by Allied propaganda at the time, and has been held against the Turks ever since.

Siege at Kut

Again, I was vaguely aware of the British army’s catastrophe at Kut, a mud-walled town a few hundred miles (230 miles, to be precise) up the Tigris river, where an entire British army was surrounded and besieged by a Turkish army, in a situation reminiscent of the Boer War sieges of Mafeking and Ladysmith (pp.263-270, 290-293).

But McMeekin’s account helps you see how the Kut disaster was a climax of the up-to-that-point successful campaign to seize the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Shatt al-Harab, and to win towns as far north as Basra, Qurna and Amara.

He takes you into the British thinking strategic thinking behind the ill-advised decision to push on towards Baghdad, and explains why the Turks turned out to be better dug-in and better led around that city than we expected (p.269). There’s a fascinating thread running alongside the slowly building catastrophe, which was the extreme reluctance of the Russian commander in the field, General N.N. Baratov to come to our aid (pp.290-292).

In fact Russian tardiness / perfidy is a recurrent theme. We only mounted the Gallipoli offensive to help the bloody Russians, but when it ran into trouble and British leaders begged Russia to mount a diversionary attack on the Black Sea environs of Constantinople to help us, the Russians said the right thing, made a few desultory naval preparations but – basically – did nothing.

British take Jerusalem

Similarly, I vaguely knew that the British Army ‘took’ Jerusalem, but it makes a big difference to have it set in context so as to see it as the climax of about three years of on-again, off-again conflict in the Suez and Sinai theatre of war.

Early on, this area had seen several attempts by Germans leading Turkish armies, accompanied by Arab tribesmen, to capture or damage parts of the Suez Canal, which McMeekin had described in the earlier book and now tells again, much more thoroughly and factually. The capture of Jerusalem was the result of a new, far more aggressive British policy  of not just defending the canal, but of attacking far beyond it – known as the Southern Palestine Offensive of November to December 1917, carried out by the Egypt Expeditionary Force led by General Edmund Allenby.

Balfour Declaration

Similarly, the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. I knew about this but hadn’t realised how it was related to the Russian Revolution. Apparently, world Jewish opinion was split for the first three years of the war about who to support because:

  1. Zionism, as a movement, was actually an Austro-German invention, the brainchild of Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl
  2. the World Zionist Executive was based throughout the war in Berlin
  3. most powerfully, the Western democracies were allied with Russia which had, from time immemorial, been the traditional enemy of Jews and Judaism

But the overthrow of the Tsarist government, and the transition to what everyone hoped would be more liberal democratic rule, tipped the balance of world Jewish opinion, especially in America, where the money came from (pp.352-3), against the Central Powers. The Balfour Declaration was a pretty cynical attempt to take advantage of this shift in Jewish opinion.

The Russian Revolution

God knows how many histories of the Russian Revolution I’ve read, but it was fascinating to view the whole thing from the point of view of the Ottoman Empire.

1916 was actually a good year for the Russians in the Ottoman theatre of war. They won a series of sweeping victories which saw them storm out of the Caucasus and into Anatolia, seizing Van and then the huge military stronghold at Erzerum.

And McMeekin shows how, even as the central government in faraway Petrograd collapsed in early 1917, the Russian Black Sea navy under Admiral Kolchak, chalked up a series of aggressive victories, climaxing with a sizeable naval attack force which steamed right up to the Bosphorus in June 1917.

But the collapse of the Tsarist regime in February 1917 had led to slowly ramifying chaos throughout the army and administration, and the the arrival of Lenin in the capital in April 1917, with his simple and unequivocal policy of ending the war, sowed the seeds of the complete collapse of Russian forces.

McMeekin leaves you with one of those huge historical what-ifs: What if the Russian revolution hadn’t broken out when it did – maybe the Russians would have taken Constantinople, thus ending the war over a year early and permanently changing the face of the Middle East.

The best history is empowering

As these examples show, this is the very best kind of history, the kind which:

  1. lays out very clearly what happened, in a straightforward chronological way so that you experience the sequence of events just as the participants did, and sympathise with the pressures and constraints they were under
  2. and places events in a thoroughly explained context so that you understand exactly what was at stake and so why the participants behaved as they did

McMeekin is slow to judge but, when he does, he has explained enough of the events and the context that you, the reader, feel empowered to either agree or disagree.

Empowerment – and this is what good history is about. 1. It explains what happened, it puts it in the widest possible context, and it empowers you to understand what happened and why, so you can reach your own assessments and conclusions.

2. And it has another, deeper, empowering affect which is to help you understand why things are the way they are in the modern world, our world.

McMeekin explains that, on one level, the entire history of the later Ottoman Empire is about Russia’s relationship with Turkey and the simple facts that the Russians wanted:

  1. to seize all of European Turkey, most of all Constantinople, to reclaim it as a Christian city to be renamed Tsargrad
  2. to make big inroads into eastern Turkey, creating semi-independent states of Armenia and Kurdistan which would be Russian protectorates
  3. the net affects of 1 and 2 being to give Russia complete dominance of the Black Sea and easy access to the Mediterranean

This is the fundamental geopolitical conflict which underlies the entire region. The intrusion into bits of the Empire by the British (in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq) or the French wish to colonise Lebanon and Syria, are in a sense secondary to the fundamental Russo-Turkish conflict whose roots stretch back centuries.

Competition for the Caucasus

McMeekin covers the ‘scramble for the Caucasus’ in the Berlin-Baghdad book but, as with the rest of the subject, it feels much more clear and comprehensible in this version.

It’s the story of how, following the unilateral declaration of peace by the Bolsheviks, the Germans not only stormed across Eastern Europe, sweeping into the Baltic nations in the north and Ukraine in the south – they also got involved in a competition with the Turks for the Caucasus and Transcaucasus.

In other words the Ottoman Army and the German Army found themselves competing to seize Armenia, Georgia, Kurdistan and, above all, racing to seize Baku on the Caspian Sea, important not only for its strategic position, but because of the extensive oil fields in its hinterland.

The story is fascinatingly complex, involving a British force (led by General Dunster) which at one point held the city for 6 weeks (the British got everywhere!) but was forced to withdraw by boat across the Caspian as the hugely outnumbering Turks moved in – and a great deal of ethnic conflict between rival groups on the spot, specifically the native Azeri Muslims and the Christian Armenians.

Events moved very quickly. Local political leaders across the region declared the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic which included the present-day republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia which existed from just April to May 1918, but the area around Baku was engulfed in ethnic violence – the so-called March Days massacres from March to April 1918 – and then in May 1918, the leading party in Baku declared independence as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Nice for them but irrelevant as the Ottoman Army then routed the British and seized the city in September 1918. And only a few years later, most of these countries were reinvented by the Bolsheviks as Socialist Soviet Republics strongly under the control of Moscow, as they would remain for the next 70 years till the collapse of the Soviet Union (so in this region, the Russians won).

The end of the Great War…

The race for Baku was just one example of the chaos which was unleashed over an enormous area by the collapse of the Russian state.

But for McMeekin, it was also an example of the foolishness of the main military ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the entire Great War, Enver Pasha, who over-extended the (by now) under-manned and under-armed Turkish army, by dragging it all the way to the shores of the Caspian in what McMeekin calls ‘a mad gamble’ (p.400) ‘foolish push’ (p.409).

This left the Anatolian heartland under-defended when it suffered attacks by the British from the north in Thrace, from the south up through Palestine, and in Iraq – not to mention the French landings in Cilicia and Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The Empire was forced to sign the Armistice of Mudros with Great Britain on 30 October and Ottoman troops were obliged to withdraw from the whole region in the Caucasus which they’d spent the summer fighting for.

… was not the end of the fighting

The war between France and Britain and the Ottoman Empire theoretically ended with the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918. But McMeekin’s book is fascinating because it shows how invasions, landings, fighting and massacres continued almost unabated at locations across the Empire.

Specifically, it was a revelation to me that the Allied decision to allow the Greeks to land troops in the city of Smyrna on the Aegean coast turned out to be the flashpoint which triggered the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Disgruntled Ottoman officers had been gathering in central Anatolia, away from Constantinople, now occupied by the Allies, who bitterly resented the way the civilian politicians were handing over huge tranches of the Empire to the Allies. These men rallied in Eastern Anatolia under Mustafa Kemal, who became the leader of the hastily assembled Turkish National Movement.

And thus began, as McMeekin puts it, one of the most remarkable and successful political careers of the twentieth century, the transformation of Mustafa Kemal from successful general into Father of his Nation, who was awarded the honorific Atatürk (‘Father of the Turks’) in 1934.

Big ideas

As always, when reading a history on this scale, some events or issues leap out as new (to me) or particularly striking. Maybe not the ones the author intended, but the ones which made me stop and think.

1. The First World War ended in Bulgaria

Brought up on the story of the trenches, I tend to think of the war ending because the German Spring offensive of 1918 broke the Allied lines and advanced 25 miles or so before running out of steam, at which point the Allies counter-attacked, pushing the Germans back to their original lines and then ever-backwards as more and more German soldiers deserted and their military machine collapsed. That’s how it ended.

I knew that Bulgaria had surrendered to the Allies as early 24 September and that that event had had some impact on German High Command, but it is fascinating to read McMeekin’s account which makes the end of the First World War all about the Balkans and Bulgaria.

The British had had a large force (250,000) defending Macedonia and the approach to Greece from Bulgaria, which was allied with Austria and Germany. But the Bulgarians were fed up. In the peace treaties imposed on the new Bolshevik Russian government in May 1918 the Bulgarians got hardly any territory. When the Germans advanced into Ukraine the Bulgarians received hardly any of the grain which was seized. The Bulgarians are Slavs and so there was widespread sympathy for Russia while many ordinary people wondered why their young men were fighting and dying for Germany. And there was abiding antagonism against the Ottomans, their supposed ally, who Bulgaria had had to fight to free itself from and had fought against in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

All this meant that when an aggressive new French general, Louis Félix Marie François Franchet d’Espèrey, arrived to take command of Allied army in Macedonia, and sent exploratory probes against the Bulgarian line, discovered it was weak, and then unleashed a full frontal assault in the Vardar Offensive of September 1918, that the Bulgarian army and state collapsed.

The Bulgarian army surrendered, mutinied, part even declared an independent mini-republic, and the Bulgarian government was forced to sue for peace on 24 September 1918. When he heard of the Bulgarian surrender, the supreme leader of the German Army, Ludendorff, said they were done for. The Turkish generalissimo, Enver Pasha, said we’re screwed.

The collapse of Bulgaria gave the Allies command of the Balkans, allowing the channeling of armies south-east, the short distance to capture Constantinople, or north against the vulnerable southern flank of Austro-German territory.

In McMeekin’s account, the collapse of Tsarist Russia was certainly a seismic event but it didn’t, of itself, end the war.

The trigger for that event was the surrender of Bulgaria.

2. East and West

Another of the Big Ideas to really dwell on is the difference between the First World War on the Western Front and on the other theatres of war – the Eastern Front in Europe, but also all the warzones in Ottoman territory, namely Gallipoli, the Black Sea, Suez, Mesopotamia, Persia and the Caucasus.

Any English person brought up, like me, on the history and iconography of the Western Front, with its four-year-long stalemate and gruelling trench warfare, will be astonished at the dynamism and tremendously changing fortunes of the combatants on all the other fronts I’ve just listed.

Not only that, but events in the East were intricately interlinked, like a vast clock.

Thus it is one thing to learn that Serbia, the cause of the whole war, which Austria-Hungary had threatened to demolish in the first weeks of the war, was not in fact conquered until over a year later, in November 1915. So far, so vaguely interesting.

But it took my understanding to a whole new level to learn that the fall of Serbia to the Central Powers was the decisive event for Gallipoli. Because, while Serbia was holding out, she had prevented the Germans from shipping men and material easily down through the Balkans to their Ottoman ally. Once Serbia fell, however, the transport routes to Turkey were open, and this was the last straw for strategists in London, who realised the bad situation of the Allied troops stuck on the beaches of the Dardanelles could only deteriorate.

And so the decision to abandon the Gallipoli campaign and remove the troops from the beaches.

This is just one example from the many ways in which McMeekin’s account helps you see how all of these events were not isolated incidents, but how, all across the region from Libya in the West to the Punjab in the East, from the Balkans via Palestine to Suez, across Syria, down into Arabia, or up into the snowy Caucasus mountains, events in one theatre were intricately connected with events in all the others – and how the entire complex machinery was also influenced by events on the immense Eastern Front to their north, which ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Basically, the First World War in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, was vastly more complicated, dynamic and interesting than the war in the West. And also pregnant with all kinds of long-running consequences.

3. The ends of wars are incalculably more complex than the beginnings

Real peace didn’t come to Turkey till 1923. In this regard it was not unlike Germany which saw coups and revolutions through 1919, or the vast Russian Civil War which dragged on till 1922 and included an attempt to invade and conquer Poland in 1920, or the political violence which marred Italy until Mussolini’s black shirts seized power in 1922.

Across huge parts of the world, violence, ethnic cleansing and actual wars continued long after the Armistice of November 1918. In fact McMeekin goes so far as to describe the Battle of Sakarya (23 August to 12 September 1921) as ‘the last real battle of the First World War (p.456).

Thus the book’s final hundred pages describe the long, complex, violent and tortuous transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic, a story which is riveting, not least because of the terrible decisions taken by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, often against the advice of his entire cabinet, namely:

  1. to allow the Greek Army to occupy Smyrna, which led to riots, massacres, and outrage right across Turkey
  2. to occupy Constantinople on March 20 1920 – I had no idea British warships docked in the harbour, and British soldiers backed by armoured cars set up control points at every junction, erecting machine-gun posts in central squares – God, we got everywhere, didn’t we?

And bigger than both of these, the folly of the Allies’ approach of imposing a humiliating peace without providing the means to enforce it.

That said, America also played a key role. Much is always made of the Sykes-Picot Plan to divide the Ottoman Empire up between Britain and France, but McMeekin goes to great pains to emphasise several massive caveats:

1. Sazonov That, when it was drawn up, in June 1916, the Sykes-Picot Plan was largely at the behest of the pre-revolutionary Russian government which had more interest in seizing Ottoman territory than the other two combatants, so the plan ought, in McMeekin’s view, to be called the Sazonov-Sykes-Picto Plan because of the dominant influence of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov.

2. Sèvres I was astonished to see that the Treaty of Sèvres (imposed on the new Turkish government in May 1920, reluctantly signed in August 1920) handed a huge amount of territory, the bottom half of present-day Turkey, to Italy – in fact pretty much all the contents of the Treaty of Sèvres are mind-boggling, it enacted ‘a policy of forcefully dismembering Turkey’ (p.447). As McMeekin brings out, a document better designed to humiliate the Turks and force them into justified rebellion could barely be imagined.

Map showing how the Ottoman Empire was carved up by the Treaty of Sèvres, not only between the French and British, but the Italians, Greeks and Russians as well (Source: Wikipedia, author: Thomas Steiner)

3. States That the key player in the final year of the war and the crucial few years after it, was the United States, with some plans being drawn up for America to hold ‘mandates’ over large parts of the Ottoman Empire, namely Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia. Given a choice the native populations wanted the Americans in charge because they thought they would be genuinely disinterested unlike the colonial powers.

Here, as across Central Europe, it was a great blow when, first of all Woodrow Wilson had a stroke which disabled him (October 1919), and then the American Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations.

As the chaos continued, and as David Lloyd George listened to his influential Greek friends and supported a Greek army invasion of Smyrna on the Turkish coast (with its large Greek population), and then its pushing inland to secure their base, only slowly did I realise McMeekin was describing events which are nowadays, with hindsight, referred to as the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922.

I had no idea the Greeks penetrated so far into Anatolia.

Map of the Greco-Turkish War, blue arrows showing the advance of the Greek Army into undefended Anatolia and coming within 50 miles of the new Turkish capital at Ankara before being halted at the Battle of Sakarya (source: Wikipedia, author: Andrei Nacu)

And no idea that the Greeks were encouraged to the hilt by David Lloyd George right up until it began to look like they would lose after their advance was halted by the vital Battle of Sakarya just 50 miles from Ankara.

Nor that the Greeks then forfeited the backing of the French and British and world opinion generally, by the brutality with which they pursued a scorched earth policy in retreat, torching every town and village and railway and facility in their path, also committing atrocities against Muslim Turkish civilians. It’s gruelling reading the eye-witness descriptions of destroyed villages, raped women, and murdered populations. What bastards.

Mustafa Kemal’s impact on Britain

It was a revelation to me to learn that, once Kemal’s Turkish army had driven the Greeks back into the sea and forced the evacuation of Smyrna, and with his eastern border protected by a rock-solid treaty he had signed with Soviet Russia, Kemal now turned his attention to the Bosphorus, to Constantinople, and to Thrace (the thin strip of formerly Turkish territory on the northern, European side of the Straits), all occupied by (relatively small) British forces.

It was news to me that Lloyd George, backed by Winston Churchill, was determined that Kemal would not have either Constantinople or the Straits back again, and so a) wrote to the premiers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa asking them to contribute forces to a second defence of Gallipoli – they all said No – and b) the British public were by now so sick of the war in Turkey, and war generally, that they, and all the newspapers, roundly called for an end to British involvement – STOP THIS NEW WAR! shouted the Daily Mail.

And that it was this crisis which caused the collapse of the coalition government which had ruled Britain and the Empire since 1916.

The Conservatives abandoned the coalition, it collapsed, the Liberals split into two factions and the election of October 1922 resulted in not only a Conservative victory (344 seats) but the Labour Party emerging for the first time as the largest opposition party (142 seats), with the two factions of the Liberal party knocked into third and fourth place. The Liberals, even when they finally recombined, were never to regain the power and influence they enjoyed throughout the nineteenth century.

Thus, McMeekin points out with a flourish, Mustafa Kemal had not only divided the wartime Alliance (the French wanted nothing to do with Lloyd George’s foolish support for the Greeks) and atomised the Commonwealth (all those white Commonwealth countries refusing to help the Old Country) but ended the long history of the Liberal Party as a party of power.

Fascinating new perspectives and insights

Conclusion

Nowadays, it is easy to blame the usual imperialist suspects Britain and France for all the wrongs which were to beset the Middle East for the 100 years since the Treaty of Lausanne finally finalised Turkey’s borders and gave the rest of the area as ‘mandates’ to the victorious powers.

But McMeekin, in his final summing up, is at pains to point out the problems already existing in the troubled periphery – there had already been two Balkan Wars, Zionist immigration was set to be a problem in Palestine no matter who took over, Brits, Russians or Germans – Arabia was already restless with the Arab tribes jostling for power – Mesopotamia had been a hornet’s nest even during Ottoman rule, with the Ottoman authorities telling non-Muslims never to visit it. All this before you get to the smouldering cause of Armenian independence.

All these problems already existed under the last years of Ottoman rule, the British and French didn’t invent them, they just managed them really badly.

Ataturk’s achievement was to surgically remove all these problems from Ottoman control and delegate them to the imperial powers. He was clever, they were dumb, inheriting insoluble problems. He created an ethnically homogenous and ‘exclusionary state’ whose borders have endured to this day.

As a very specific example, McMeekin cites Kemal’s readiness to hand over the area around Mosul to British control, even though he was well aware of its huge oil deposits. He made the very wise assessment that the benefit of the oil would be outweighed by the disruptive issues he would inherit around managing the ethnic and religious conflicts in the region (between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunni and Shia Muslims). And indeed, the low-level conflicts of the region are alive and kicking to this day.

The Allies for 25 years struggled to rule Palestine, Arabia, Syria, Iraq and eventually withdrew in various states of failure. McMeekin’s mordant conclusion is that the ‘the War of the Ottoman Succession rages on, with no end in sight’ (p.495, final sentence).

For the clear and authoritative way it lays out its amazing story, and for the measured, deep insights it offers into the period it describes and the consequences of these events right up to the present day, this is a brilliant book.


Related reviews

Other blog posts about the First World War

Books

Histories

Memoirs and fiction

Art & music

The Byzantine Empire

Which describe the first arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the region, their conquest of Anatolia, Byzantine territory and, finally, Constantinople itself.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929)

Who is it standing in Berlin Alexanderplatz, very slowly moving from leg to leg? It’s Franz Biberkopf. What has he done? Well, you know all that. A pimp, a hardened criminal, a poor fool, he’s been beaten, and he’s in for it now. That cursed fist that beat him. That terrible fist that gripped him. The other fists that hammered at him, but he escaped.
A blow fell and the red wound gaped.
But it healed one day.
Franz didn’t change and went on his way.
Now the fist keeps up the fight,
it is terrible in its might,
it ravages him body and soul,
Franz advances with timid steps, he has learned his role:
my life no longer belongs to me, I don’t know what to set about.
Franz Biberkopf is down and out. (p.418)

Alfred Döblin

Bruno Alfred Döblin (1878 – 1957) was a German novelist, essayist, and doctor, best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A prolific writer whose œuvre spans more than half a century and a wide variety of literary movements and styles, Döblin is one of the most important figures of German literary modernism. His complete works comprise over a dozen novels ranging in genre from historical novels to science fiction to novels about the modern metropolis, several dramas, radio plays, and screenplays, a true crime story, a travel account, two book-length philosophical treatises, scores of essays on politics, religion, art, and society, and numerous letters. (Wikipedia)

Berlin Alexanderplatz – ‘modernist’ aspects

Berlin Alexanderplatz is not only considered Döblin’s masterpiece but a central achievement of German Modernism. It is often compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses because it, also, is:

– long (478 packed pages in the Penguin paperback edition I own)

– urban (not just set in Berlin, but rejoicing in the hectic urban bustle of trams and railway stations, and pubs and bars and music halls and tenements, in 1928 Berlin had a population of four million, p.198)

– concerns ordinary people (The ‘hero’ of Ulysses is Leopold Bloom, a hard-up seller of newspaper advertising space, and Joyce’s novel takes place in just one day, following him as he traipses round Dublin, hustling for work, popping into bars or the public library, attending a funeral and going shopping; the hero of Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf, is distinctly lower down on the social scale from Bloom; he is an uneducated huckster, fresh out of prison, and the novel is set not on one day but much more conventionally, over quite a few months. But, just as in Joyce, we follow the hero around the noisy bustling streets of a ‘modern’ city, seeing adverts and shop windows, overhearing popular tunes and drinking songs)

The most obvious similarity is the shared use of modernist techniques like montage, multi-textuality and stream of consciousness.

Multi-textuality or Tatsachenphantasie

The narrative often switches, casually and with no warning, from third-person storytelling to direct quotation of texts such as newspaper adverts, magazine articles, anatomical textbooks, tram timetables, legal documents, an official breakdown of causes of mortality in Berlin 1928 and so on.

This approach was so novel at the time that it was given a name, Tatsachenphantasie. To quote the Wikipedia article about Döblin’s technique:

His writing is characterized by an innovative use of montage and perspectival play, as well as what he dubbed in 1913 a ‘fantasy of fact’ (Tatsachenphantasie) – an interdisciplinary poetics that draws on modern discourses ranging from the psychiatric to the anthropological to the theological, in order to ‘register and articulate sensory experience and to open up his prose to new areas of knowledge’.

This it certainly does, and I found many of the interpolated documents more interesting – certainly more comprehensible – than the main plot.

Montage

At a slightly higher ‘level’, the narrative is ‘bitty’: it often cuts and jumps to completely different scenes or points of view, sometimes in the one paragraph – directly copying the cutting between shots, between shot sizes and different angles which is the basic technique of movies.

Headlines

An obvious example of this multitextuality is the way the text is broken up by headings which are in the style of newspaper headlines, such as ‘LINA STICKS IT TO THE NANCY BOYS’ or ‘VICTORY ALL ALONG THE LINE! FRANZ BIBERKOPF BUYS A VEAL CUTLET’.

This is easy to understand and can be fun: after all, most novels up to the late 19th century included chapter headings which rambled on at length about the upcoming contents. Think of Charles Dickens; as a random example, chapter 14 of The Pickwick Papers is described as ‘Comprising a brief Description of the Company at the Peacock assembled; and a Tale told by a Bagman’, and all the other chapters in this and all his other early novels are given similarly extensive introductory descriptions.

So using newspaper headlines can be thought of, and easily assimilated, as an easily understandable variation on a time-honoured tactic.

Stream of consciousness

Almost continually the narrative of events is interspersed with Franz’s memories of prison, fragments of songs, or short phrases running through his head.

In fact, as the novel progresses, this applies to almost all the other characters as well. We are introduced to them by a third-person narrator, then suddenly gets sentences starting with an ‘I’ and realise we have dropped inside their heads to see things from their point of view. The next sentence might be a quote from a song (we know this because it rhymes). The next sentence is the strapline for an advert ‘I’d walk a mile for Mampe’s brandy, It makes you feel like Jack-a-dandy’ (p.33). The next sentence mashes together ‘thoughts’ the characters had in an earlier scene – the whole thing recombined to depict the way thoughts purl and slide around inside our minds.

So there can be passages, paragraphs, made up of elements like the above, the interesting thing is how quickly you get used to it, and to read it. Occasionally a lot of quick cuts are confusing, but not often. So far, so similar with Joyce, then.

But I’d say Berlin Alexanderplatz differs from Ulysses in one big respect: in the basic attitude to prose.

Joyce was not just a great writer, he was a writer of genius with a Shakespearian ability to command the English (and other languages) to perform almost any trick he wanted. All his works go beyond brilliant experiments in style and diction, beyond amazingly accurate parodies and pastiches, to actively dismantle the English language altogether.

Take the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, which uses baby talk to try to capture the infant thought processes of a baby which can barely speak, or almost any passage once you get into the main body of Ulysses.

What most characterises Ulysses is less the ‘mechanical’ and obvious aspects of modernism listed above (collage, stream of consciousness) but Joyce’s crafting of different prose styles to reflect each of the chapters and episodes in his story, each successive chapter becoming harder to read as it accumulates verbal references to previous events, given in evermore fragmentary form, and as the English language itself starts to break down as words merge and recombine.

As Ulysses progresses, it becomes more involved in a huge range of verbal special effects designed to convey the mood of, say, a Dublin pub full of heavy drinkers, the section in a library in which Joyce performs a tour de force, describing the scene in language which mimics the evolution of the English language from its roots in Anglo-Saxon right through each century’s changing styles up to the present day.

At the novel’s climax, language breaks down completely as it mimics a host of drunken minds caught up in a drunken riot in a brothel. Then the famous final chapter which consists of one vast flowing stream-of-consciousness rendition of the thoughts of a dozing woman, (Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife).

There is nothing at all like this level of verbal ambition in Berlin Alexanderplatz. On the contrary, long stretches of the prose – at least in the 1931 translation by Eugene Jolas which I read – is surprisingly flat, colourless and factual.

Thus Franz Biberkopf, the concrete-worker, and later furniture-mover, that rough, uncouth man of repulsive aspect, returned to Berlin and to the street, the man at whose head a pretty girl from a locksmith’s family had thrown herself, a girl whom he had made into a whore, and at last mortally injured in a scuffle. He has sworn to all the world and to himself to remain respectable. And as long as he had money, he remained respectable. Later, however, his money gave out: and that was the moment he had been waiting for, to show everybody, once and for all, what a real man is like. (p.42 – last words of book one)

See what I mean? The prose, in and of itself, often holds little or no interest. It is routinely as flat and grey as old concrete.

One effect of this prose flatness is to make the multi-textuality, the montage and the modest fragments of stream-of-consciousness much easier to recognise and to assimilate whenever they appear. The transitions may be abrupt, but the prose of each fragment is always complete and definite.

That crook Lüders, the woman’s letter, I’ll land you a knife in the guts. OLORDOLORD, say, leave that alone, we’ll take care of ourselves, you rotters, we won’t do anybody in, we’ve already done time in Tegel. Let’s see: bespoke tailoring, gents’ furnishings, that first, then in the second place, mounting rims on carriage wheels, automobile accessories, important, too, for quick riding, but not too fast. (p.135)

A little tricky, but from the context you know this is Franz walking through the streets, his eyes registering advertising hoardings and shop frontages (bespoke tailoring, automobile accessories), angrily thinking how the crook Lüders betrayed him, which he knows from the letter she sent him, and in his violent fantasy thinks about stabbing him in the guts, but then contradicts this thought using ‘we’ to refer to himself, trying to quell his appetite for violent revenge by telling himself that ‘we’ (i.e. he, Franz) are not about to ‘do anybody in’, because ‘we’ have already done time in Tegel.

And – another crucial difference – even if some passages like this take a bit of effort (though not much) the prose, sooner or later, returns to normal. We return to fairly flat, factual prose and know where we are again.

So Alexanderplatz is a bit confusing, yes, but not impenetrable as a lot of Ulysses quickly becomes (without repeated study). Compared to Joyce’s extraordinary and extended experiments with English prose, reading Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn’t present any real verbal challenge.

By far the hardest thing about reading this book, I found, was nothing to do with its (fairly tame) modernist techniques: it was trying to figure out why the devil the characters behave as they do. At almost every key crux in the plot I didn’t understand what the characters were doing or why (see plot summary, below). The net effects of reading the book were:

  1. enjoyable modernist experimentalism (I liked the insertion of newspaper headlines, official documents etc into the text)
  2. repulsion at the casual lowlife brutalism of almost all the male characters (see below)
  3. complete inability to understand why the characters behaved as they did (for example, the complex sex/love lives of Franz and Mieze and Eva, described from book seven onwards)

Nine books

Berlin Alexanderplatz is divided into nine ‘books’. Each book is prefaced by a couple of paragraphs describing in general terms what will happen in it, reminiscent of 18th century novels. Indeed, the entire text is preceded by a one-page summary anticipating the shape of the action, a little as a Greek tragedy is introduced by a chorus telling us what is going to happen.

The obvious difference is that these half-page introductions have more the quality of a fable or children’s tale, not least because they generally include deliberately trite jingles or doggerel.

Biberkopf has vowed to become respectable and you have seen how he stayed straight for many a week
but it was only a respite, so to speak.
In the end life finds this going too far,
and trips him up with a wily jar.
To him, Franz Biberkopf, however, this doesn’t seem a very sporting trick,
and, for a considerable time, he finds this sordid, draggle-tailed existence, which contradicts his every good intention, a bit too thick.
(Intro to Book Three, p.105)

This fondness for cheap songs, doggerel poetry, advertising jingles, and sometimes just random rhymes, becomes more noticeable as the book progresses and is every bit as prominent as the more obvious NEWSPAPER HEADLINES, insertion of official documents etc.

In Switzerland, on Tyrol’s height,
One feels so well by day and night,
In Tyrol the milk comes warm from the cow,
In Switzerland there’s the tall Jungfrau. (p.358)

The fairy tale feel is emphasised by the way that, in this one-page preface to the whole text, we are told Franz will suffer three blows – three being the canonical number in fairy tales (little pigs, Goldilocks bears, billy goats gruff etc).

Three times this thing crashes against our man, disturbing his scheme of life. It rushes at him with cheating and fraud. The man is able to get up again, he is firm on his feet. It drives and beats him with foul play. He finds it a bit hard to get up, they almost count him out. Finally it torpedoes him with huge and monstrous savagery. (p.7)

Greek and Bible imagery

Joyce’s Ulysses is (although it’s hard to make this out on a first reading) loosely structured on Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, with Leopold Bloom wandering round Dublin rather as Odysseus wanders round the Mediterranean, loosely sought by young Stephen Daedelus, in roughly the way Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, searches for his father – until, at the climax of the book, they are reunited.

Again, Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn’t have anything like the same ambition or scope as the Joyce. Instead it contents itself with occasional references to ancient Greek legends or Bible stories, which pop up as ironic references, sometimes taking up a couple of pages of extended description, and thereafter popping up again as anything from paragraphs interrupting the main narrative, sometimes just one-phrase reminders.

So, for example, the sense that Franz’s story is like a Greek tragedy is made explicit in the numerous references throughout the book to the plot of the Oresteia i.e. while King Agamemnon is away at the Trojan War, his wife Queen Clytemnestra has an affair and, upon his return, murders the king in his bath. Whereupon their son Orestes returns and murders his mother and her lover. Whereupon he is pursued everywhere by the Furies who torment murderers. On a number of occasions Franz’s self-torment over his killing of his girlfriend Ida is compared to Orestes and the Furies.

Towards the end of the book, as Franz’ tribulations build up, there are some extended (two- or three-page-long passages) which quote the Book of Job from the Bible, explicitly comparing Franz to Job (pp.146-149, 399).

There’s an extended comparison with Abraham teetering on the brink of sacrificing his son, Isaac (pp.298-299). And as we see more of the murderous underworld Franz has got involved in, the text interpolates quite a few references to the Whore of Babylon, quoting her description from the Bible’s Book of Revelation (pp.266, 306, 400, 446)

The woman is arrayed in purple and scarlet colour and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand. She laughs. And upon her forehead is a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH (p.266)

These high literary references sort of enrich the text though, to be honest, I found them a bit boring, less interesting than the newspaper reports Döblin interjects about scandalous murder trials being reported in the newspapers or quotes from communist or Nazi articles or even the extended description of the Berlin slaughterhouses in chapter four (pp.138-145).

Collapsing house imagery

Also – sewn in among all the other impressions of the city or of Franz’s scattered consciousness – Franz has a recurrent vision of Berlin’s houses collapsing, their roofs sliding off, cascades of tiles sliding off rooftops and crashing down on him.

Repetition makes this recurring metaphor for Franz’s panic attacks acquire a real charge and ominousness.

Collapsing house imagery pp.13, 120, 240, 265, 314, 471


Plot summary

Book one (pp.11-42)

It is 1927 (p.97).

Franz Biberkopf (the surname translates literally as ‘beaver head’) is released from Tegel prison on the outskirts of Berlin. He is 5 feet 10-and-a-half inches tall (p.176).

He has served four years for the manslaughter of his girlfriend, Ida (‘I knocked that tart’s ribs to pieces, that’s why I had to go in jug’, p.34. A detailed anatomical description of their fight, which quotes Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics, is given on page 98).

Franz had been a cement worker, then a furniture remover, among numerous odd jobs (p.96). He catches a tram into town and wanders, dazed at being a free man, through the hectic streets, terrified of the hustle and bustle.

Terror struck at him as he walked down Rosenthaler Strasse and saw a man and a woman sitting in a little beer shop right at the window: they poured beer down their gullets out of mugs, yes, what about it? They were drinking: they had forks and stuck pieces of meat into their mouths, theyn they pulled the forks out again and they were not bleeding. (p.12)

Crude, isn’t it. In fact it’s almost as crude as language and psychology can get without sinking below the level of human articulation altogether.

Franz retreats into the courtyards of tenements in Dragonerstrasse (p.35), where he is taken in by a couple of Jewish men who (bizarrely) argue fiercely among themselves while they tell him the life story of young Stefan Zannovich the con man who ended up committing suicide in prison, and whose body was taken away by the knacker. It is a strange, offputting start to the book. First time I read it, I gave up at this point.

Having sobered up, as it were, Franz sets off into the streets again, dazed by freedom and the hustle and bustle of the Berlin crowds. A population of four million.

He decides – in the blunt crude German way we got used to in Hermann Broch’s novels – that he needs ‘a woman’ to calm down, but when he picks up and goes home with two successive prostitutes, can’t get an erection with either of them. Cue some multi-textuality when a textbook account of impotence is inserted into the text and, a little later, an advert for an aphrodisiac.

Day three and Fritz finds himself knocking at the door of the sister of the girlfriend he murdered, Minna, who reluctantly lets him in, then he rapes her, rather as August Esch rapes Mother Hentjen in Hermann Broch’s The Anarchist and then Wilhelm Huguenau rapes Mother Hentjen in The Realist.

German rapists, eh, well worth writing novels about. Well, all their wives and girlfriends would be raped to death 16 years later by the invading Russians, so it was good practice.

Finally Fritz feels content, released, free, like a real man again (p.37).

He leaves but comes back in the following days to bring her presents, but Minna rebuffs him every time. She is married and her husband Karl asks her how she got the black eye and bitemarks on her neck, which are the signs of Franz’s assault. Still, they talk quite affably. He comes round with some aprons to replace the ones he tore to shred in the initial rape. She listens, chooses an apron, but is terrified of the neighbours seeing, and keeps crying. The big hearty brute Fritz is quite oblivious to all this.

Book two (pp.45-103)

Opens with the characteristic quoting of official texts which read like small announcements from a newspaper, then a detailed technical description of the weather forecast (‘Weather changing, more agreeable, a degree or two below freezing-point’ [which, incidentally, echoes the opening of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities]) and then a list of the main stops of tram number 68, from which Fritz alights amid a blizzard of ad straplines (‘Eat more fish, the healthy slimming dish!’)

It strikes me this is collage: ‘A collage is a composition of materials and objects pasted over a surface.’ The quoted texts may or may not be related, but in a way their unrelatedness demonstrates quite well the classic modernist impulse to embody or describe the chaotic, overwhelming sensory and mental stimulation of the ‘modern’ city.

And so the main action, if you can call it that, is surrounded by side actions, snippets and vignettes of life in the big city. A couple of old geezers chatting in a billiard hall about one of them losing his job. A young woman gets off a tram, is met by her older lover, who takes her to the flat of a friend, while she worries all the way about what mummy and daddy would say if they found out.

It is a few weeks later and Franz has found somewhere to live, has raised some money from savings and selling off furniture, and so is smartly dressed and going round with a plump new Polish girlfriend, Lina, Lina Przyballa of Czernowitz, the only legitimate daughter of the farmer Stanlislaus Przyballa (p.74), according to Lüders, a ‘little fat thing’ (p.118).

They come across a newspaper seller located in a doorway and – this is very obscurely described – he appears to also sell illicit gay magazines and persuades Franz to take some. Franz presents them to Lina in a café but she is disgusted and insists they go back to the shabby old seller and Franz watches from across the road as she yells at the seller then throws the magazines on the floor.

It is typical of the book’s technique that this ‘story’ is interrupted by an imaginary vignette of a respectably married old chap (a ‘greypate’) who one day picks up a pretty boy in the park and calls him his sunshine and takes him to a hotel room. It’s not even suggested that they have sex, but the hotel room has peepholes and the owner and his wife spy on the pair and then report them to the police. He is hauled up in court but persuades the judge nothing happened; but a letter detailing his court appearance and aquittal is posted to his home where, away on business, his wife opens it and the poor man returns home to weeping and lamentation from his wife (pp.72-3)

Meanwhile, Franz rejoices over his girlfriend’s victory over the magazine seller by forking her on the sofa, then they stroll along to the Neue Welt pub in the Hasenheide Park – musicians in Tyrolese costume, beer drinking songs – ‘Shun all trouble and shun all pain, Then life’s a happy refrain’ (p.76) a Charlie Chaplin impersonator on stage, you can buy tickling sticks. Döblin, like a camera, roams among the crowd, alighting briefly on the second fitter of an engineering firm in Neuköln, two couples necking, soldiers with their floozies, there’s weight-lifting competitions and see-your-future-wife stalls. Franz gets plastered and ends up at the bar with a fellow drunk complaining about having fought the French, being a patriotic German, but no job, down on his luck, he’s going to join the Reds.

It’s a deliberately whirligig chaotic depiction of a set of connected, loud, smoky, drunken music halls, yet it’s worth noting that the prose never ceases to be correct. It’s just broken up into short sentences, with frequent quotes from the cheap songs. But the sentences themselves don’t collapse, neither do the word themselves break up and intermingle, as they do in Joyce.

Franz now peddles Nordic Nationalist papers. He’s not against the Jews but he’s for law and order. The narrative immediately includes block quotes from said Nationalist papers, well conveying the wheedling tone of aggrieved Fascist propaganda. Franz is down the pub with mates, some of whom reminisce about their service in the war, then the trouble afterwards i.e. the communist uprisings in Berlin and elsewhere. Then the inflation and the hunger.

Franz’s drinking buddies (Georgie Dreske and Richard Werner, the unemployed locksmith, p.80) down at Henschke’s bar take exception to the Fascist armband Franz has taken to wearing. They argue about their war records.

Next night, when Fritz goes there, there are a few strangers with his mates, they all look at him surlily, the sing the Internationale. Franz recites a poem written by a fellow inmate, Drohms, then overcome with sentiment goes on to sing The Watch On The Rhine. This doesn’t stop one of the new boys starting a fight, a table is overturned, a plate and glass smashed, but then they back off and Franz walks out to bump into Lina who’d come to meet him there. She shows him a Peace newspaper with a sweet poem about love. She snuggles up to him and quietly suggests it’s time they got engaged.

Franz is prone to bad dreams, pangs of conscience. It is partly to quell this psychological eruptions that he longs for Order and Discipline which means escape from his personal demons. This leads to an extended passage about the fate of Agamemnon home from the Trojan War who is murdered by his wife Clyemnestra, who is then murdered by her son Orestes, who is pursued by the Furies – as Franz is by his bad dreams. The section includes a clinical description of how Franz murdered his wife – in fact, in the heat of a row, he hit her twice in the guts with a whisk, but the blows were enough to break a few ribs, rupture a lung, prompt several infections from which she died miserably in hospital five weeks later. And a characteristically ironic modernist juxtaposition of the hilltop flares which signalled the arrival of Agamemon home, with a technical description of the activity of modern radio waves.

Book three (pp.107-121)

In this fairly short book, Franz is embroiled with Otto Lüders, a more than usually disreputable prole who’s been out of work for a couple of years (a factual interlude in the previous book detailed the rise in unemployment at the end of 1927). Franz is now selling bootlaces on the street or hawking them door to door. He arrives in the pub for a drink with Otto and swankily tells him he’s made 10 marks (apparently a tidy sum) out of a woman, a skinny widow women who invited him in for a cup of coffee and he left his whole stock there. I wasn’t sure, but I think the implication is that Franz gave her one, as the saying goes. He also seems to have left his entire stock there, though whether as a gift or an oversight I couldn’t work out.

Anyway, next day Lüders sneaks along to the building, finds the same widow woman, forces his way in under pretence of being a door to door salesman, extorts a coffee out of her and terrifies her so much, he is able to nick a whole load of stuff, her table cover, sofa cushions etc, and legs it.

With the result that, next day when Franz goes round to see her with a bouquet of flowers, the widow woman slams her door in his face. Franz tries a few times more then leaves her a note telling her to bring his stuff to a pub. But she doesn’t. Otto enters said pub, spots Franz looking hacked off, turns and legs it. Franz puts two and two together.

Interlude of a war veteran whose four-year-old son has just died because the doctor was too busy to come and see him. He’s loitering outside their apartment house then goes to see the doctor to give him a piece of his mind, then goes upstairs to where his wife is weeping.

Franz is so distraught at Otto’s betrayal that he ups and leaves. Pays off his landlady, packs his things and leaves his flat. Doesn’t even tell Lina. Lina asks their friend (‘little’) Gottlieb Meck to find him. Meck goes for a beer with Lüders and then, in one of those scenes I find so disconcerting about this German fiction, walking down a dark street pounces on him, knocks him to the floor, beats the crap out of him and threatens him with a knife, telling him to locate Franz.

Next day Lüders reports back. He’s found Franz in a boarding house just three numbers down from his former place. Like Meck, Lüders keeps his hands on an open knife in his pocket as he goes into Franz’s room, finds him on the bed with his boots on, depressed. Frane yells at him to get out, then throws the bowl of washing water at him, Lüders insists he’s not right in the head.

Book four (pp.125-167)

It is February 1928 (p.151)

Lengthy description of all the inhabitants of the tenement in Linienstrasse which Franz has moved to, with intertextuality e.g. the description of lawyer Herr Löwenhund is interrupted by direct quotes from legal documents he’s dealing with or letters he’s written. Tatsachenphantasie.

Franz is lying around in the squalid room he’s renting, drinking all day. I still can’t figure out why Lüders going behind his back to threaten the skinny widow woman has affected him like this.

A lengthy description of the abattoir and slaughterhouse district of North Berlin, giving facts and figures as in a government report, then moving on to a precise and stomach-churning description of precisely how they slaughtered pigs and cattle.

With a weird interlude about the story of Job from the Bible.

Which then goes on to an extended yarn about the caretaker of a warehouse, a Herr Gerner, who is persuaded to fall in with a bunch of burglars who want to break into it, to the extent that after the break-in he allows them to stash all the stolen goods in his house. In some obscure way which is hedged around, I think he allows his wife to sleep with the youngest, tallest and handsomest of the thieves. I think. I couldn’t make it out. Anyway, the next morning the police call round and arrest him. Franz saw some of this happening i.e. an initial attempt of the burglars to climb over the wall and pinch some stuff, but he refuses to squeal to the cops.

It is freezing cold February morning and on a whim, Franz decides to go and visit Minna who he hasn’t seen for a while. But the door is opened by Minna’s husband, Karl, who sends him packing with a flea in his ear.

Book five (pp.171-223)

A very enjoyable panoramic overview of Alexanderplatz with its roadworks, shops, trams and hustling crowds. It is the evening of 9 February 1928, and little Meck bumps into Franz selling newspapers again. They go to a bar and have inconsequential chat with other working class men. All the antagonism Franz prompted by selling nationalist papers and wearing a swastika armband seems to have disappeared.

Franz gets into a some kind of ‘scheme’ with a slim stuttering man who wears a shabby army greatcoat named Reinhold (‘that quite insignificant figure, a mouse-grey lad in mouse-grey’, p.203). This Reinhold is a serial womaniser and takes a new girlfriend each month and shifts his previous one onto Franz. I really didn’t understand what anybody has to gain from this or why they’d do it, but a certain Fränzl comes to be Franz’s grilfriend for a month or so, and then she’s replaced by silly Cilly, and I think Franz then passes them onto little Ede the hunchback. I think that’s what happens.

As I mentioned above, I find the passages where the character’s walking through the streets, and the text cuts from his thoughts to advertising straplines, song jingles, a Berlin tram timetable, a leader from that day’s newspaper – the familiar technique and content of ‘modernist’ literature – easy to understand and enjoyable to read. In fact the passages where Döblin just inserts highlights and stories from the day’s newspaper are interesting social history.

But I find many passages of the apparent plot inexplicable: how exactly did the thieves persuade the nightwatchman Gerner to join them and what went on between the handsome one and Gerner’s wife? Why did Lüders going round to see the skinny widow woman upset Franz so much that he dumped Lina and moved apartment? What had Lina done wrong?

The modernism stuff is easy-peasy to process and, as the book progressed, I enjoyed the cumulative collage of Berlin life circa 1928 which it built up. Whereas the bones of the plot – what the characters were doing and why – I frequently found incomprehensible.

Franz gets fed up of getting Reinhold’s hand-me-downs every month. Cilly puts up a fight and Franz decides to stick with her and tells Reinhold, who storms off in a huff. Characteristically, that night Reinhold dreams of murdering his current squeeze, Trude.

Disaster strikes It is the second week of April 1928. Easter. Franz pops out from his 4th floor apartment, leaving Cilly. It’s snowing. He bumps into an asthmatic man who tells him about a scam he carries out, which is to offer to buy old junk off people, he turns up, removes the junk, then slips a mimeographed card through their doors saying that ‘due to unforeseen circumstances’ he can’t pay, and legs it, Franz thinks he’s a bit bonkers.

They come across a brawl, a crowd has gathered round it. Franz pushes to the front and is enjoying the fight when he realises one of the fighters is Emil, a mate of Reinhold’s he’s seen around. Just then the cops arrive to break up the fight and Franz charitably helps Emil away to shelter in a doorway.

Here Emil tells Franz he’s going to stagger home – he got fairly beaten in the fight – but asks Franz to do him a favour: can he pop round and tell a man named Pums (who we’ve met knocking about the bars) that he, Emil, won’t be able to help with a spot of removal they’re planning to do. Franz pleads that he ought to go home & see Cilly, but Emil persuades him to go and see Pums, the house is just nearby. So he does. And Pums offers Franz money to help out with the removal, say five marks an hour for a few hours.

Franz is still reluctant and wants to go tell Cilly where he is, but Pums says there’s no time, they’ll be leaving soon, they give Franz a pen and paper and he scribbles a note to Cilly saying he’s unexpectedly on a little job. Pums’s girlfriend takes it – takes it next door and burns it in the fire…

To cut a long grim story short, Franz is piled into one of two cars with Pums and a few other guys including Reinhold, who we discover is one of ‘Pums’s men’. They drive for a long time to the outskirts of Berlin. And here he suddenly finds himself tasked with acting as lookout while the men comprehensively loot a warehouse, filling the cars with booty. Franz is basically an honest man and gets cold feet, makes to protest but Reinhold hits him very hard on the arm, while the men shuttle past him in the dark, their arms full of loot. Franz makes a second bid to leave, but they’ve finished anyway and drag him into the car, as both accelerate off.

But they see that someone’s spotted them and another car is in pursuit. Then something strange happens in the second of the two escaping crim cars. When Franz hears that another car is in pursuit, Franz stupidly grins. He was very anxious about being the lookout and resented being hit and threatened by the others and now, like an idiot, grins. Reinhold, squashed in next to him, asks him why he’s grinning, the damn idiot and then Reinhold’s resentment at Franz bubbles up. I found this – as I found all the motivation and psychology in the book – hard to understand, but it seems that although Reinhold persuaded Franz to join his scheme of taking his cast-off women, now – obscurely – in the stress of this tense moment – he resents it, comes to think Franz exploited him somehow, knows dangerous things about him. Franz’s idiotic grinning in the flickering light of the streetlamps which whizz by triggers a sudden surge of hatred in Reinhold and…

Reinhold signals to one of the other guys to fling the car door open… someone punches Franz in the face… Reinhold pushes Franz away from him and over the pile of stolen goods… Franz slips out the car but clinging onto the running board but the others hit him on the arm and thigh and then a crashing blow on the head.

Franz falls into the road and the car following close behind runs over him.

Book six (pp.227-315)

Is Franz dead? The narrative cuts to Reinhold the next day, drunk as a skunk before noon, his girlfriend, Trude, who he’s tired off, whines a little, so he beats her face to a pulp, smashing up her mouth and ruining her looks for ever, she runs away taking her stuff. Still drunk, Reinhold swanks around, remembering the job they did last night and feeling mighty proud of himself.

Poor Cilly waiting in his apartment for him to return, then going out into the snowy streets to find him. She bumps into Reinhold dressed up to the nines and very confident. She had brought a kitchen knife with her to tab him with (!). He doesn’t know this, but blames everything on Franz, says Franz has run off with Reinhold’s last girl, Trude, and promises Cilly they’ll get back together soon, and somehow casts his magic over her so she goes off mooning over him.

Now we learn that some other motorists find Franz in the road, load him into their car. Half conscious he asks to be driven to a bar in Elsasser Strasse and request an old friend of his, Herbert Wischow. Herbert is found and he and his girlfriend Eva taken Franz to their flat and change and dress him. Only then do they drive him to a private hospital in Magdeberg.

Why? I don’t know. This, as so much of the actual plot, seems incomprehensible to me. Why didn’t Franz just ask to be rushed to the nearest hospital?

In the hospital at Magdeburg the doctors amputate his right arm (!) and fix other broken bones. Then Wischow and Eva take Franz home to recuperate with them. Old friends from before Tegel drop by. Wischow is upset because Franz didn’t come to see them when he got out of prison and, now, that he’s gotten involved with a crook like Pums. Slowly it comes out that Franz didn’t want to go on the job, didn’t know what they were up to, is a victim in every way. Wischow asks questions about Pums and the gang and spreads the word about how they ill-treated Franz. The mood of the underworld turns against Pums’s mob. Some of them suggest having a whip round to give Franz compensation, and they raise several hundred marks but when Schreiber goes round to deliver it and puts his hand in his pocket, Eva has a hysterical fit thinking he’s going to pull a gun and shoot Franz, Franz staggers back, chairs fall over, panic, Schreiber runs off down the stairs, later claiming he gave the money to Eva, and which he keeps for himself.

It’s June 1928 (p.246). Franz determines 1. not to squeal 2. to live independently. He goes to the Charity Commission, he gets a job calling out circus attractions. He bumps into his buddy Meck and, realising the Pums gang have told him one story, tells him a far more heroic version where he, Franz, fired a gun at detectives stumbling over the burglary and the tecs shot back injuring his arm. The aim is to let the Pums gang know he’s not peaching.

Franz determines to resume normal life, to get a job. He picks up a pretty little thing named Emmi who’s been stood up in a bar. Franz is entertaining, they go to a crowded bar. A man with no legs pushes himself along in a kind of trolley. The younger men say anyone who fought and was injured in the war is a fool. When they ask Franz’s other arm is he says his girlfriend is very possessive, so he left it at home with her as a pledge that he’d come home. Laughter.

Franz buys a smart suit, wears a stolen Cross of Iron, looks like a respectable butcher, uses a set of false papers belonging to one Franz Räcker, which have done the rounds of the criminal world. Herbert & Eva have been away at a spa. She is the part-time fancy woman of a rich banker. He takes her to the spa, dresses her, dines her and ****s her. One evening, just after he’s withdrawn 10,000 marks from the bank, they go down for dinner and it is burgled. The implication is it was stolen by Herbert, her lover, who’s followed the couple out there and is tipped off about the money.

Back they come to Berlin, Eva having to live in the fancy apartment the banker puts her up in, hoping he soon tires of her. She can get away fairly often, and she and Herbert introduce Fritz to a pretty young girl they’ve picked up tarting at the Stettin station. Franz is bowled over by this pretty little thing, fresh as a schoolgirl – initially she’s called Sonia, but Franz prefers to call her Mieze (her real name is in fact Emilie Parsunke, p.269).

Franz becomes a pimp There’s a hiccup in their relationship when Franz discovers she’s getting letters from admirers. Upset, he goes round to Herbert and Eva’s, Eva pushes Herbert out the door and then falls on Franz, ravishing him. She has been in lust with him for ages and seeing him all upset triggered her off. After they’ve had sex, Eva gets dressed and rushes off to find Mieze. Then returns, all straightened out. Mieze loves Franz but has been meeting during the day with ‘admirers’ and extorting money out of them. Franz is relieved, overcome with love, and hastens off to find Mieze, they return to his flat and are more in love than ever.

See what I mean about being confused by the behaviour of the characters. So Franz can have sex with the wife of one of his best friends, all the time upset about her being unfaithful to him, then the best friend’s wife goes to interpose on his behalf, and when it comes out that Mieze has other male admirers who (I think) she has sex with in order to generate income for Franz, everyone is relieved!

And so, in a way which I once again didn’t understand, Franz acknowledges that he has become a pimp (pp.278, 286, 313). Has he? Alright, if the narrator says so, but I found the events & behaviour of the characters hard to follow and almost impossible to understand.

Eva invites Mieze round to their nice apartment but when she admits that she’d like to have a child by Franz, Miese is overjoyed and kisses her and makes a lesbian pass at her (?)

Mieze soon gets set up with a rich admirer, married, who sets her up in a nice flat, though she carries on adoring Franz. Eva comes round and ravishes Franz again, although he’s in love with little Mieze. What if she gets pregnant, worries Franz. Oh she’d love to, replies Eva.

Franz attends political meetings with a mate, Willy, in fact a lowlife pickpocket but who enjoys getting chatting to politically minded workers at communist or anarchist meetings. Both Eva and Mieze want Franz to stop attending the meetings and/or hanging out with Willy.

Extended passage where an old anarchist explains to a sceptical Franz how the ruling class of every nation exploits the workers, but how a communist regime would just substitute a new exploiting class (pp.281-286). Willy, by contrast, is a devotee of Nietzsche and Stirner, and believes a man should do as he pleases.

August 1928. Mieze is settled into being her married man’s mistress, meanwhile remitting the money to Franz, who is thus living off immoral earnings, while Eva continues to love him. Franz pays a visit to Reinhold, who is terrified he’s going to do something. Franz does noting, goes away, feels restless and so returns to Reinhold’s apartment.

What is incomprehensible to me is Franz’s fatalism, the way he seems to bear no grudge against Reinhold for making him a cripple, he says he knew some kind of change had to happen in his life.

Somehow having confronted Reinhold and got it off his chest makes him happy. That night he dances the night away with Eva, while all the time imagining the two he loves, little Mieze (fair enough) and Reinhold. As I keep saying, it’s difficult to follow or understand the psychology. (Though, to be fair, Herbert and Eva are puzzled as to why Franz keeps going round to see the man who was responsible for him losing his arm, p.325).

Book seven (pp.319-372)

Opens with pages devoted to some Tatsachenphantasie with an account of one-time air ace Beese-Arnim who is convicted of murdering his girlfriend. And we are given a list of notable America officials who are visiting the German capital. And brief factual accounts of some of the cases passing through the Labour Law Courts. And then a working class girl Anna posts a letter to her boyfriend suggesting they split up. And a young woman of 26 writes in her diary how miserable and weak her periods make her feel, and how she often wants to kill herself.

August moves into September. Franz has unashamedly joined Pums’s gang. They’re as puzzled as Herbert and Eva but when Franz stands there in front of them saying let bygones be bygones, and they all know he hasn’t snitched to the cops, they have to admit he’s right. So they let him in.

Then we learn some of the challenges of selling on stolen goods. Pums’s fence is playing up. Eventually they carefully plan and pull off a job which requires teamwork, one duo lying low in offices above a place where valuables are kept, waiting till the early hours then drilling down through the ceiling, lowering a rope, while they open the door to this upstairs apartment to let other members get in and pass up the swag, pile it, take it down to the car, clear up after themselves with the smoothest member of the gang, elegant Waldemar Heller, taking a dump on the floor as a calling card (p.335).

Reinhold decides to pay Franz’s woman a visit, when he’s not there. He climbs the stairs to ominous accompaniment by the narrator, and slicks his ways past Mieze at the door, and lolls on her sofa and calmly describes the way he and Franz used to pass on women between each other. I was scared he was going to murder her, why? Because he’s German and this is a German novel, but in fact he just heavily implies that Franz might be considering swapping her – all the time openly eyeing her up, before slipperily seeing himself out. Which leaves Mieze with her heart pounding and her thoughts all mixed up with the lyrics of a sentimental love song being played by an organ grinder outside the house (‘In Heidelberg Town I lost my heart…’)

Anyway, a few days later another peculiar scene unfolds. Knowing Mieze is out, Franz takes Reinhold back to his apartment and hides him in the bedroom. Reinhold has been pestering Franz about Miese, what’s she like, remember when they used to swap girls etc, so Franz hides Reinhold with the intention of showing him what a Lady is like, what a pure good girl is like. But unfortunately Mieze comes in and clings to Franz really closely. She’s been away for a few days with her middle-aged gentleman lover. But now she tearfully confesses to Franz that the man brought his young son, a dashing handsome man who made advances to Mieze and so Franz asks whether she loves him and Mieze makes the bad mistake of saying Yes.

At which point Franz goes mental and I thought was going to batter her to death, he slaps her, beats her to the floor, throws himself on her I thought he was going to crush her, one of her eyes is closed, blood is running from her broken lips. Ironically, this is the night Franz chose to bring a witness home to their love and Reinhold watches in amazement, then tries to pull Franz off the cowering whimpering girl. Franz pulls on his coat and storms out and the girl staggers to the staircase shouting after that she still loves him.

Reinhold hesitates to make sure she’s alright, then stumbles down the stairs and out, wiping the blood from his hands.

It is barely believable that the passage ends a few hours later with Franz back in his apartment and Mieze making up to him, billing and cooing, them both in love, and her besotted more than ever with him, the wife-beater.

OK, I can grant that some women become in thrall to their beating partners. But the next scene is a ball given by the Pums gang which Mieze attends in a ball mask as the guest of Karl the tinsmith, dances with all of them, even Franz who doesn’t recognise her (?really) then allows herself to be driven home in a cab with Karl who heavily seduces her, if not has sex with her, in the back of the cab, for some reason having sex with another member of the gang is not being unfaithful, because she’s doing it for Franz, in order to find out more about the gang and help him.

She goes out with Karl a couple of times (telling Franz she’s with the rich gentleman friend). Then Reinhold gets wind of this liaison and muscles in. On a couple of odd occasions he persuades Karl to let him come along when they go on outings to the Freienwalde and its pretty Kurgarten, they stroll past the bandstand, through the woods, back to a hotel where Mieze stays the night, locking her door, the two men sit on the terrace smoking their cigars. That’s Wednesday 29 August 1928.

On Saturday 1 September, they repeat the experience, Karl making himself scarce while Reinhold goes into seduction mode, chatting sweetly to Mieze, while she is happy to go along with his sweet-talk. In an odd moment he undoes his shirt to show her the tattoo on his chest – an anvil – and harshly grabs her head and tells her to kiss it. She recoils, shouting at him, he’s mussed her hair. Nonetheless they move on. He guides her towards a bowl, a hollow in the grass by the woods. by now it’s dark. This entire sequence is very long, some 20 pages and 11 pages are devoted to just this evening walk, which changes in mood as Reinhold is now aggressive, now sweet, Mieze is frightened, then seduced back to walking hand in hand. But when he manhandles her down into the hollow, she starts screaming and fighting back and – in a horrible scene – he pushes her to the ground, kneels on her spine and strangles her from behind (p.370). Murders her. Buries her body under brush, goes fetches Karl who’s waiting at the car, they return and bury her properly, really deep in the soil, then sand, then scatter underbrush over the tomb. Poor Mieze’s smashed and broken body.

Reinhold gives Karl money to get out of Berlin and lie low for while, and keep his mouth shut.

Book eight (pp.375-431)

Mieze’s murder turns out to be the motor for the climax of the book. Franz becomes slowly more distraught as Mieze’s disappearance persists, Eva tries the cheer him up and announces she’s pregnant. Franz doesn’t tell many people because it’s shameful to admit his girl has abandoned him.

Weeks pass. It is early October (p.382) The criminals are restless at Pums’s leadership; they want to steal money, he prefers to steal goods and fence them, but they claim he keeps too much of the money. They pull a job on Stralauer Strasse, breaking into a bandage factory at night where there’s meant to be money in the safe. But Karl the tinsmith burns himself on his acetylene torch, none of the others can use it properly, in frustration and anger they pour petrol over the office and set it on fire but throw the match a bit too early and Pums himself gets burned on h is back. They all blame Karl the tinsmith for the fiasco and Karl grumbles, and also resents the way he was used by Reinhold to bury the dead girl.

Karl meets a wheelwright in a bar and they go in together, with two others, on the burglary of a clothing store in Elsasser Strasse. They get chatting to the nightwatchman, get invited in to share a coffee, then break it to him that they’re going to burgle the place, they’ll tie him up, give him some of the proceeds – although when they have tied him up they amuse themselves by beating him a bit round the face and nearly smothering him with a coat over his head. They are not cartoon thieves, they are thoughtless brutes, almost all the male characters in this book.

Next time the Pums gang invite Karl to join a job he is high and mighty and words are exchanged, between Karl and Reinhold especially. Which makes them suspicious of him. Then Karl and the wheelwright are arrested by the police. Their fingerprints match the ones found all over the clothing store watchman’s office and he identifies them. Karl is convinced that Reinhold snitched on him as revenge for him not joining that last job.

Karl asks a respectable in-law to find a lawyer for him and then runs past the lawyer where he would stand if he reveals he was involved in burying a dead body. The lawyer cautiously asks if he had any part in the body’s death. No. Lawyer leaves. Karl stews all night. Next day, hauled up in front of the judge, he snitches on Reinhold, telling the judge and police in great detail how he helped Reinhold bury the body of the young woman he, Reinhold, had murdered.

Karl leads the police to the burial site, they dig, there’s no body in the hole but some scraps of clothing and the hole has obviously recently been dug up i.e. Reinhold got wind of what was happening and moved it. When police publicise the case two garden labourers (p.395) come forward who saw Reinhold lugging a heavy case to another part of the woods. Digging here, the police finally find Mieze’s corpse.

This narrative – in itself not unlike a basic murder thriller plot – is given a light dusting of ‘modernism’ with the insertion of some Tatsachenphantasie – newspaper reports about a tenement block collapsing in Prague, an ambitious early flight of the new Graf Zeppelin over Berlin, and so on (p.397).

Meanwhile, Reinhold gets wind of all this & tries to diffuse the blame by getting Franz involved. He comes round to tell Franz they’re arresting people for the last Pums gang job, telling him to do a runner. Franz goes into hiding in a villa in Wilmersdorfer Strasse (p.401) owned by a woman called Fat Toni. Franz takes to wearing a wig.

Days go by then with a great fuss Eva arrives with a newspaper with big front-page photos of Reinhold and Franz next to each other, both equally Wanted by police for Mieze’s murder!! Initially Fat Toni and Eva are horrified at the thought that Franz might actually have done it, but when he dissolves into helpless tears and sobbing they realise he didn’t.

It is autumn 1928. Franz wanders the streets in a stupor, devastated by Mieze’s murder. For obscure reasons he finds himself drawn back to the Tegel prison, then goes to the cemetery to see her grave, he hallucinates conversation with other dead people.

It is November (p.410). The Graf Zeppelin makes a low flight over Berlin, Weather conditions are given. Herbert is incensed at Mieze’s murder and scours Berlin to find Reinhold and take revenge. Franz slowly joins him. Franz takes a can of petrol to Reinhold’s house. The house speaks. the house has a conversation with Franz (pp.412-13), but Franz sets fire to it anyway, and it burns down.

Two angels, Terah and Sarug, follow Franz everywhere. They discuss his sad fate (pp.414-15). Eva calls Doctor Klemens to come assess Franz who is sunk into a deep depression, and recommends a break, a rest cure. Franz hangs round in bars. We meet other drinkers, overhear their conversations and even songs.

Hush-a-bye
Don’t you cry
When you wake
You’ll have a little cake.

As the text becomes evermore full of rhymes and jingles.

All his crying, all his protests, all his rage was idle prating,
Evidence was dead against him, and the chains for him were waiting. (p.421)

There is a big police raid on a bar in Rückerstrasse. I can’t make out whether it’s because the bar was a brothel or unlicensed or a criminal hangout or what, but some fifty cops in lots of cars raid it and round up all the customers who file out. All except for some guy who persists in sitting at his table sipping his beer. When several cops approach shouting at him to gt up and come along Franz (for it is indeed Franz Biberkopf) takes a revolver out of his pocket and shoots one. He falls but the other cops rush Franz, hitting his arm to make him drop the gun, beating him to the floor, he takes a rubber baton to the eye (p.430), and handcuffing him.

Some Tatsachenphantasie as Döblin quotes police arrest forms (Christian Name, Surname, Place of residence etc). Franz is brought in and taken to an office for interrogation.

Book nine (pp.435-478)

At the police station they quickly identify Franz as one of the two men wanted for the murder of Mieze. Meanwhile Reinhold, seeing the way things were going, uses the old crook’s method of getting arrested for a minor offence, using false papers. He mugs an old lady, is convicted with papers which identify him as Polish (a certain Moroskiewicz, p.435) and locked up in Brandenberg prison as a mugger, thus evading the death penalty for murder. Or so he thinks.

Threats come from two quarters. First, as luck would have it, there’s another petty criminal, Dluga, in the prison who knew the real Moroskiewicz and quickly susses out that Reinhold is neither Moroskiewicz nor a Pole. Reinhold has to bribe him with tobacco then accuses him of snitching, which gets him beaten up.

But worse is to come. Reinhold falls in love with a pretty boy, a petty criminal named Konrad, spends all his time billing and cooing with him. But Konrad is soon to be released, so Reinhold spends a last evening with him getting drunk on illicit alcohol and, oops, telling Konrad the whole story, about Franz and Mieze and burying her and his false name etc.

Konrad is soon released, looks up Reinhold’s most recent girlfriend, gets money out of her, meets another young lad and makes the mistake of boasting about his criminal mates inside, telling stories and before he knows it has told the full story about Reinhold, the murder, and his fake identity. The mate he’s told this swears to keep it a secret, but the next day goes to the police station and discovers the stuff about Reinhold is true and there’s a reward of 1,000 marks for anyone who turns him in. So he turns him in, tells the cops Reinhold is in Brandenberg prison under a false name. Cops investigate and arrest Reinhold, who is so beside himself with rage and frustration that they nearly take him to an asylum.

Meanwhile, Franz has gone into a catatonic trance so is taken by the cops to Buch Insane Asylum. He refuses to wear clothes, refuses to eat, loses weight, can be easily carried to the bath where he plays like a child. They force feed him through tubes but Franz vomits it all up.

Cut to a learned discussion between the physicians, with the young doctors enthusiastically prescribing either electro-shock therapy, or talking therapy copied from Freud in order to address the patient’s unresolved psychic conflicts.

As he loses weight his soul escapes his body, he has reached deeper strata of consciousness, his soul wants to be an animal or wind or seed blowing across the fields outside the asylum.

Franz hears Death singing (I couldn’t help thinking that Joyce’s epic ends on a wonderful note of life affirmation while this book, characteristically German, is obsessed with Death). Death tells Franz to start climbing the ladder towards him, illuminating the way with a barrage of hatchets which, as they fall and strike, let out light. Death lectures Franz, telling him that he insisted on being strong – after he was thrown under the car he resolved to rise again; when he had pretty little Mieze all he wanted to do was brag about her to Reinhold. He has insisted on being strong, seeing life on his terms and swanking, self-centred, instead of being meek and realising life is mixed.

Franz screams, screams all day and all night. But silently. To outward appearance he is catatonic and unmoving. Inside his head Death torments him with his stupidity and then a procession comes of all the crims he took up with, Lüders and Reinhold, why did I like them or hang out with them or try to impress them, Franz asks himself.

Ida appears before him, repeatedly buckling and bending, he asks her what is wrong, she turns and says ‘You are hitting me, Franz, you are killing me’, no no no no he cries. Mieze appears to him at noon, asking his forgiveness, Franz begs her to stay with him, but she can’t, she’s dead.

Crushed, Franz realises what a miserable worm he is. He sinks into a world of psychological pain, is burnt up, annihilated and, after much suffering, reborn.

Somehow his recovery is connected with a historic panorama of Napoleon’s army invading across the Rhine, of marching armies which have marched in the Russian Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, the Peasants Wars and so back into time, Death drawing his vast clock across the ravaged landscape and smiling, oh yes oh yes oh yes.

The old Franz Biberkopf is dead. A new man is reborn, call him Biberkopf. He starts talking. He answers all the police’s questions, though reluctantly. He doesn’t want to go back. But his alibis stand up and he is cleared of Mieze’s murder. And even (hard to believe) shooting a police officer appears to be only a cautionable offence. So after some weeks of slow physical and mental recovery, Biberkopf is released.

DEAR FATHERLAND, DON’T WORRY
I SHAN’T SLIP AGAIN IN A HURRY

Biberkopf returns to Berlin a changed man. Döblin gives us some Tatsachenphantasie, some facts and figures about Berlin’s train and subway and tram systems, about current building works and the latest advertising campaigns (‘Everybody admires the shoe / That’s brightly polished with Egu’).

Biberkopf meets up with Eva. Herbert’s been arrested by the cops and sent to prison for two years. Eva had been excited about carrying Franz’s baby but she had a miscarriage. Just as well. She is still supported by her sugardaddy ‘admirer’. They go out to visit Mieze’s grave and Eva is struck by how sober and sensible Franz is. Lays a wreath but then walks Eva across the road to a coffee shop where they enjoy some honey cake.

Franz is a witness at the trial of Reinhold. He tells all that he knows but isn’t malicious. He still has feelings of friendship for Reinhold. Reinhold, for his part, is puzzled by the new strange blank look on Biberkopf’s face. Reinhold is sentenced to ten years in prison.

Immediately afterwards Biberkopf is offered the job of doorman at a medium-sized factory. He has learned that one man alone is overwhelmed by fate. But a hundred or a thousand are stronger. The novel ends with military imagery, of drums rolling and soldiers marching, ‘we march to war with iron tread’.

It is a powerful image of determination and unity, of a mass of people united so that it’s difficult to tell whether it’s a communist or a fascist image, of people determined to look fate in the face, grab it, make it. And at the same time an odd way to end the novel.

Is that the most positive image Döblin can conceive, of free people marching to war with iron tread. Well, ten years later his people did march to war with iron tread and much good it did them.


I find reading these German books hard not because of their ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ ‘modernism’; as described at length, above, all of Döblin’s techniques are child’s play compared with Joyce.

No, I found Berlin Alexanderplatz hard to read for the much more basic reasons that 1. I found the character’s behaviour at key moments and in general throughout the book, incomprehensible, and 2. I was deeply repelled by the characters casual violence in their thoughts and deeds.

1. Incomprehensibility

So I got to the end of the book and I still didn’t understand:

  • the entire opening scene with Franz blundering into the home of some Jews who proceed to tell him a long-winded story about some Polish con artist (?)
  • why Lüders going behind Franz’s back to threaten the skinny widow woman was so devastating to Franz (major plot crux 1)
  • what the thinking was behind the scheme whereby Reinhold handed his discarded women over to Franz every month or so
  • what made Reinhold suddenly snap and decide to chuck Franz out of the speeding getaway car (major plot crux 2)
  • why Franz not only forgives Reinhold for trying to kill him, but ends up liking him and wanting to impress him
  • the psychology whereby both Herbert and Franz were perfectly content to let their girlfriends (Eva and Mieze) go off and spend nights and weekends having sex with rich sugardaddies
  • the psychology of Eva ‘finding’ young and beautiful Mieze ‘for’ Franz and making her his mistress while, at the same time, being hopelessly in love with Franz and wanting to have his baby
  • why, in the end, Reinhold had to murder Mieze (major plot crux 3)
  • why the devil Franz decides to start firing a revolver at the police during the raid of the club instead of going quietly?

So all the modernist techniques were easy and fun, but the basic psychology of the characters escaped me at almost every important turn of the plot.

2. Casual brutality

What horribly brutal people they are.

The reader searches high and low in vain for a touch of humour or gentleness. Kicking and stabbing, beating and raping appear to be the only way Germans can communicate with each other.

  • Franz assaulted his wife violently enough to rupture her lung leading to her death.
  • Walking through the Berlin streets, Franz fantasises about smashing all the shiny shop windows.
  • On his first day out of prison, Franz rapes his wife’s sister, giving her a black eye in the process.
  • Franz gets into a fight with commies at Hentchke’s pub.
  • Franz enjoys watching his girlfriend fling the gay magazines at the newsvendor and yell at him in the street.
  • When Meck tries to find out from Lüders where Franz has disappeared to, he doesn’t ask him firmly, he knocks him to the ground, beats him badly and threatens him with a knife.
  • When Lüders goes to Franz’s flat, he keeps hold of an open knife in his pocket in case Franz turns nasty.
  • In a casually brutal aside, Döblin makes a simile comparing Franz emerging into the slushy slippery Berlin streets, ‘just like an old horse that has slid on the wet pavement and gets a kick in the belly with a boot’ (p.164), yes that’s how Germans treat their animals
  • The brutal way Pums’s gang treat Franz, even before they throw him out of the speeding car.
  • The brutal way Reinhold beats his girlfriend’s face to a pulp without even thinking about it, permanently disfiguring her (p.228).
  • The horrible way Franz beats Mieze when she tells him she’s in love with the young gentleman, knocking her to the floor and smashing her mouth.
  • The horrible way Pums’s back gets burned during the bungled break-in at the factory and the rest of the gang laugh at him.
  • The really horrible way Reinhold tries to rape and then murders Mieze.

Yuk.

I know the casual brutality reflects the working class, and criminal, characters Döblin has set out to depict but a) surely there were a few working class people who weren’t thieves and rapists b) surely even the roughest thugs have a few moments of charity and affection, c) Joyce was not only far more avant-garde and experimental in his form, but his selection of fairly ordinary characters to describe at such length are loveable and humane.

3. German humour

In fact there are a few moments of comedy in this 480-page-long book, but a close examination suggests how German comedy doesn’t seem to be verbal, to involve wit or word play, puns or irony. It consists mostly in laughing at others’ misfortune or stupidity.

  • Lūders laughs at Lina’s anxiety about Franz when the latter goes missing (p.118)
  • Cilly humorously suggests to Franz a headline story in the newspaper such as, a paper-seller had to change some money and gave the right amount by mistake! (p, 208)
  • Eva has a hysterical panic attack when she thinks Schreiber is about to pull a gun on Franz, leaping to her feet, screaming, making the two men themselves panic, knock over furniture, Schreiber hares off down the stairs, two men from the café come up to find out what one earth the noise is about, the landlady eventually comes in and throws a bucket of water over Eva to calm her down and now, finally calm and quiet, the soaking Eva softly says: ‘I want a roll’, and the two men from the café laugh (p. 246)
  • Franz amuses a young woman named Emmi. When she asks where his other arm is, he says his girlfriend is so jealous, he leaves it back home with her as a pledge that he’ll return. And goes on to say he’s taught it tricks: it can stand on the table and give political speeches: ‘Only he who works shall eat!’ (p.258)
  • Franz is joshing with some younger blokes down the pub. ‘As the Prussians used to say: hands on the seams of your trousers! And so say we, only not on your own!’ (p.261)
  • Franz is in a getaway car with the Pums gang after pulling a job. The driver accidentally runs over a dog and is really upset. Reinhold and Franz roar with laughter at the bloke being so soft-headed. The man says: ‘A thing like that brings you bad luck’. Franz nudges the bloke next to him and says: ‘He means cats’ and everybody ‘roars with laughter’ (p.336)
  • Reinhold pays Mieze a visit when Franz is out and flirts with her, rather intimidatingly. She asks him if he hasn’t got any work to do rather than lounging round with her. he replies: ‘Even the Lord sometimes takes a holiday, Fräulein, so we plain mortals should take at least two.’ She replies: ‘Well, I should say you’re taking three,’ and they both laugh (p.344)
  • Reinhold keeps pestering Franz to tell him about his new girl (Mieze), saying it does no harm to describe her, does it? Franz admits, ‘No, it doesn’t harm me, Reinhold, but you’re such a swine,’ and they both laugh. (p.347)
  • In a bar, three companions are drinking and joking. One says: An aviator walks onto a field, and there’s a girl sitting there. Says he: ‘Hey, Miss Lindbergh, how about some trick-flying together?’ Says she: ‘My name isn’t Lindbergh, It’s Fokker,’ and the three ‘roar with laughter’ (p.381)
  • Some detectives come snooping the Alexander Quelle club. Two boys who’ve recently escaped from a reformatory are sitting chatting with the tinsmith. He has papers but they don’t, all three are ordered to the local police station where the boys immediately blab about what they’ve been up to. Ten the sops reveal they had no idea who they were and weren’t particularly looking for them. Damn, says the boys. ‘In that case we wouldn’t have told you how we hooked it’, and they all laugh together, boys and cops (p.385)
  • The chief doctor in charge of Franz’s treatment in the mental institution listens to his two juniors squabbling about theories and ways to treat their catatonic patient, then gets up, laughs heartily and slaps their shoulders (p.450)

Setting them down like this I can appreciate that some of them are funny, I suppose. My negative perception is coloured by the often brutal or cruel remarks which jostle around them.

And in any case, old jokes are difficult to recapture even in English novels from the 1920s and 30s, let alone jokes in a foreign language, from the vanished world of 1920s Berlin.

And at least there is some humour in Alexanderplatz, unlike the solemn, philosophico-hysteria of the Hermann Broch trilogy I just completed.

Summary

All that said, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a quite brilliant novel which gives you a vivid panoramic impression of 1920s Berlin and more insight into Germany and German-ness than anything else I’ve ever read.

It is full of Weimar touches (the crippled war veterans, the legless man moving around on a wheeled trolley, the immense amount of prostitution, the pretty young things entertaining rich old sugardaddies, the casual sexual partners and the casual bisexuality of Reinhold, the threat of violence in the street from either the communists or the swastika-men, the hectic sense of things being hustled along given by the inclusion of newspaper headlines and events) which really do make it read like a verbal equivalent of classic Weimar Republic artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix.

Twilight by George Grosz (1922)

Credit

Berlin Alexanderplatz was published in Germany in 1929. This translation by Eugene Jolas was published as Alexanderplatz by Martin Secker in 1931. All references are to the 1979 Penguin paperback translation.





Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2nd edition, 2013)

Westerners bore some blame for China’s plight, but the prime cause lay in the empire itself and its rulers. (p.94)

The bloodshed! The murders! The killings! The massacres! The public beheadings! The drownings! The executions! The torture! The mass rapes! The famines! The cannibalism! It’s a miracle China exists after so much death and destruction.

This is a huge book with 682 pages of text and on every page there are killings, murders, massacres, pogroms, famines, floods, executions, purges and liquidations. 150 years of murder, massacre and mayhem. It is a shattering and gruelling book to read.

An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion which dragged on from 1850 to 1871. 20 million! Maybe 14 million died in the 8-year-war against Japan 1937-45. And then maybe as many as 45 million died during the chaotic thirty-year misrule of Chairman Mao!!!!

Throw in the miscellaneous other rebellions of the Taiping era (the Nian Rebellion, 100,000+ killed and vast loss of property), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (about 100,000 civilians and soldiers dead), the chaos of the Warlord Era (1916-28), immense losses during the long civil war between Nationalists and Communists (1927-49), and Fenby comes up with the commonly accepted figure that between 1850 and 1980 around 100 million Chinese died unnatural or unnecessary deaths.

100 million! The sheer scale of the killing, the torture and executions and butchery and burnings and beheadings and starving to death and burying alive is difficult to comprehend, and also difficult to cope with. Several times I lay the book down because I was so sickened by the butchery. Contemporary China is soaked in the blood of its forefathers as no other country on earth.

Here’s a few examples from just the opening pages:

  • In 1850 Han officials massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in remote Yunnan (p.18)
  • When the Taiping army reached the Wuhan cities in 1851, it massacred the inhabitants. When it took Nanjing it ‘systematically butchered’ all the Manchu inhabitants (p.20)
  • The mandarin in charge of putting down the revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded over 100,000 rebels and only lamented he couldn’t exterminate the entire class (p.22)
  • When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861 he left the throne to a minor. A regency council was formed by a senior censor, Sushun. He was outwitted by the former emperor’s concubine Cixi, and was beheaded (the original plan had been to skin him alive) and two allied princes allowed to hang themselves. (p.24) Can you imagine anything remotely similar happening at the court of Queen Victoria? Skinning alive?
  • 13 days after the death of the emperor, a gentry army took the river port of Anqing. The river was full of the headless bodies of rebels (p.26)
  • The silk city of Suzhou was held by 40,000 Taiping rebels. General Li Hongzhang besieged it and the rebel leaders surrendered. Li had all the leaders executed and half the defenders massacred, then the city was comprehensively looted (p.28)
  • When the poet and Taiping rebel leader Shi Dakai surrendered to save his troops from imperial forces, he himself was slowly sliced to death in the process sometimes translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts‘ (a form of punishment and torture commonly used in China until it was officially banned in 1905), and 2,000 of his troops were massacred (p.28)
  • The last engagement of the Taiping Rebellion was the imperial reconquest of the rebels’ capital at Nanjing in 1864. At least 100,000 rebels were killed in the three-day battle and the imperial army went on to massacre the entire population of Nanjing (p.29)
  • While the Taiping devastated the south, northern China was rocked by the Nian Rebellion with its snappy motto: ‘kill the rich and aid the poor’. (The more you learn, the more the disasters of Mao’s communism reveal their deep roots in Chinese tradition i.e. he was invoking and repeating well-established cultural practices.)
  • Having finally conquered the Taiping rebels, Qing imperial forces went north to exterminate the Nians, at first by surrounding and starving them. In one canton the population was reduced to eating the crushed bones of the dead and then to cannibalism. Then they were massacred (p.30).
  • In 1872 the leader of the rebellious Hui Muslims in Yunnan, surrounded in his capital Dali by imperial armies, swallowed an overdose of opium and had his corpse carried in a sedan chair to the imperial camp, where it was ceremonially decapitated. Then the imperial army launched a ferocious attack on Dali, an eye-witness claiming that not a single Muslim man, woman or child was left living, while the streets ran ankle deep in blood. The ears of the dead were cut off and more than 20,000 ears were sent in baskets to the court in Beijing. Any surviving women and children were sold as sex slaves (p.30)
  • Imperial general Zuo Zongtang besieged the leader of the anti-Qing rebellion in Gansu province, Ma Hualong, in his capital at Jinjipu. Having reduced the population to cannibalism, Zuo accepted the surrender of Ma before having him sliced alive, executing his son and officials, then massacring the town’s inhabitants, and burning it to the ground (p.31).

That’s just 13 pages out of 680. On and on it goes, the mind-boggling violence and cruelty – with murders, massacres, battles and pogroms, torture and beheadings, floods and famine on nearly every page.

The complete absence of democracy or debate

If the accumulated disasters ram home one bitter lesson, it is that Chinese politics and culture entirely lacked the ability to cope with dissenting voices and differing opinions. The Imperial system was based on total obedience. It was backed up by the phenomenally hierarchical philosophy of Confucius, in which everyone is subordinate to superiors and must obey (sons obey fathers, wives obey husbands etc).

From the court down, through the gentry class, the army, intellectuals and students – it was either Total Obedience or Total Rebellion, no middle way was possible because no middle way was conceivable, was – literally – capable of being thought.

This top-down mindset was inherited by the Nationalist Party which imposed a sort of government over most of China between the wars – and then was repeated once again in the terrifying dictatorship of Mao Zedong from 1949 till his death in 1976.

The messy polyphony of Western democracies, with its satire, criticism, proliferating parties, all sorts of newspapers, magazines and outlets for opposition and dissent – with its free speech – was just one of the many things the Chinese despised about the West, and considered themselves loftily superior to.

Whether it was imperial China or Nationalist China or communist China: all Chinese disdained and mocked the uncultured buffoonery of western democracy.

And the result was war upon war upon war – your opponents weren’t guys you could just invite round for a smoke and a chat about their demands and do deals with: they were ‘impious rebels’, ‘imperial running dogs’, ‘idolatrous demons’, ‘surrenderists’, ‘mountaintopists’ and so on.

China doesn’t appear to have much political theory. Instead it has a rich vocabulary of abuse based on one fundamental idea – he who is not with me is against me. Hence a litany of dehumanising insults designed to turn your opponents into non-human vermin who must simply be exterminated. And exterminated they were, on an industrial scale.

None of this changed when the empire fell in 1911: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek carried on using the same language both about all their enemies (‘foreign devils’, ‘communist dogs’), while the communists developed their own special language of abuse and dehumanisation.

As Fenby shows in excruciating detail, both Nationalists and communists not only massacred each other, but were riven by internal splits which led to pogroms and mass liquidations of their own side.

People couldn’t just agree to disagree (and what a beautiful achievement of English civilisation that phrase seems in this context): they felt compelled to exterminate the ‘capitalist roaders’ or ‘communist dogs’ on their own side.

For, as Fenby shows, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to this day, the Chinese communist party leadership, despite having transformed their country into a peculiar type of state capitalism, is still incapable of managing dissenting voices and opinions. From mass movements like the Falun Gong, to the wishes of the Tibetan people kindly not to have their culture destroyed, to the Muslim separatists of Xinjiang, through to individual dissidents like the high-profile artist Ai Weiwei – there are no mechanisms for dialogue, there never have been: there is only the language of demonisation and total repression.

This utter inflexibility buried deep in the Chinese psyche, this inability of its leaders to tolerate any form of free speechers, combined with an unbending sense of their own superiority and rectitude, is the enduring characteristic of Chinese leaders and one which has plunged their country again and again and again into bloodshed and terror on an unimaginable scale.

This book covers the 170 years from 1850 to the present. It feels like it skimps a bit on the earlier years – not telling me much more about the vast, calamitous Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that I hadn’t learned from John Keay’s history of China – in fact I wonder if there’s a good up-to-date history devoted to just the Taiping…

It’s really in the 1870s and 80s that the text becomes increasingly detailed, that you feel you are beginning to get to grips with the minutiae of the period, and to get a feel for the enormous cast of characters. The later 19th century in China rotates around the cunning dowager empress Cixi and the constellation of young emperors and courtiers who circle round her.

As with Keay’s book, there is no point trying to summarise such a vast and complex history. Instead, I’ll give a basic timeline and then highlight a few of the thoughts and issues that arose.

China timeline

  • 1644-1912 Qing Dynasty Although the Qing rulers adapted quickly to traditional Chinese rule they were ethnically different from the majority of the native, Han Chinese, hailing from Manchuria in the north. This provided a pretext for all sorts of nationalist rebellions against their rule from the 1850s onwards. The later Qing emperors are:
    • Emperor Xianfeng (1850 – 1861)
    • Emperor Tongzhi (1861 – 1875)
    • Emperor Guangxu (1875 – 1908)
    • Emperor Xuantong (1908 – 1911)
  • 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion – led by a religious zealot, Hong Xiuquan. Convinced he was Jesus’s younger brother, Hong whipped up his followers to expel all foreigners, which included not only westerners but the ‘alien’ Manchu dynasty. Wherever they triumphed, they massacred Manchus, and established a reign of terror based on countless public beheadings. The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, one of the bloodiest wars in human history, with estimate of deaths ranging as high as 70 million – more reasonably set at 20 million.
  • 1894-95 First Sino-Japanese War Fought over possession of Korea, until then a Chinese vassal, to secure its coal and iron and agricultural products for Japan. The Japanese seized not only Korea but the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur, within marching distance of Beijing, as well as the island of Taiwan.

Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others, illustration by Utagawa Kokunimasa

  • 1898 The Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform is stopped in its tracks and reversed by the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi, maybe the central figure of the last 50 years of the Chinese empire

Empress Dowager Cixi, the central figure of the last 40 years of the Chinese empire

  • 1899-1901 The Boxer Rebellion – Han Chinese rose up against foreigners, the highlight being the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing.
  • 1911 Anti-Qing rebellions break out accidentally and spread sporadically across China with no single unifying force, just a wave of local strongmen who reject Qing rule.
  • 1912 The last Qing emperor abdicates Temporary presidency of republican hero Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • 1912-1915 presidency of General Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who works through a network of allies and placemen around the provinces. Power goes to his head and he has himself declared emperor of a new dynasty, before dying of blood poisoning.
  • 1916-1928 The Warlord Era – China disintegrates into a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords, creating a ‘meritocracy of violence’.
  • 1919 May 4th – Student protests against the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace Treaty (China, who sent over 100,000 coolies to help the Allies, was given nothing, while Japan, who did nothing, was given all the territory previously held by the defeated Germany, including territory in the province of Shandong, birthplace of Confucius, creating the so-called Shandong Problem).
  • 1919 October – foundation of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China, a right-wing reaction against the pro-democracy 4th of May movement, which emphasised traditional Chinese values and, led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1920s and 30s, went on to form the nearest thing to a government China had, until defeated by the communists in 1949.
  • 1921 Inspired by the Fourth of May protests against imperialism and national humiliation the Communist Party of China is formed with help from Russian Bolsheviks
  • 1937-45 Second Sino-Japanese War (see the book about it by Rana Mitter)

Themes & thoughts

Mass killing

Wow, the sheer scale, the numbers who were killed. In the hundred and ten years from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, maybe 100 million Chinese died unnatural deaths, actively killed or dying from avoidable starvation or drowning. The Taiping Rebellion itself was responsible for maybe 20 million deaths. The war with Japan caused another 14 million or so. Mao’s famine and general mismanagement maybe 45 million. 45 million.

Even what sound like fairly minor revolts in cities and towns, rural disturbances, seem to result in thousands of deaths almost every year. Every dozen or so pages Fenby quotes another western journalist arriving at the scene of another massacre by the Taiping rebels or Boxer rebels or warlord rebels, by the imperial forces or Muslim rebels, by the Nian or the nationalists or the communists – and finding the city razed to the ground and the river choked with corpses

  • In 1895 James Creelman of the New York World finds Port Arthur devastated and the unarmed civilians butchered in their houses, the streets lined with corpses and heads stuck on pikes by the rampaging Japanese army (p.51)
  • In 1900 Richard Steel witnessed the aftermath of Boxer rebels’ attempt to take the foreign section of Tianjin, where they were mown down by Japanese and Russian soldiers, leaving the city in ruins and the river choked with Chinese corpses (p.90)

Brutality

Being made to kneel and have your head sliced off with a scimitar was a standard punishment for all sorts of crimes. As the empire crumbled and was subject to countless rebellions small and large across its vast territory, their suppression and punishment required an astonishing number of Chinese to chop each others’ heads off.

The Mandarin in charge of suppressing the Taiping Revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded 100,000 rebels (p.22). During the 1911 revolution the new governor of Sichuan had his predecessor decapitated and rode through the streets brandishing his head (p.121).

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, then head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Resistance to change

I was staggered by the absolute, dead-set determination from top to bottom of Chinese society to set its face against modernisation, industrialisation, liberalisation, democracy and all the other new-fangled ideas from the West, which it so despised. From 1850 to about 1980, all Chinese governments were determined to reject, deny, censor and prevent any incorporation of corrupt, decadent, capitalist Western ideas and techniques.

As John Keay remarked, a central characteristic of the Chinese is an ingrained superiority complex – their leaders, from the emperor to Chaing Kai-shek to Mao, just know that China is the centre of the world and is superior to the rest of the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fenby describes the late-imperial world as ‘a system which was not designed to accommodate, let alone encourage, change’ (p.38.) As the late 19th century reformer Li Hongzhang admitted in 1884,

‘Affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.’ (p.41)

The first railway in China, built by the British in Shanghai, was bought by the local council who had the rails torn up and the station turned into a temple. Railways interfered with feng shui and local customs. They brought in foreign devils. Like every other western innovation i.e. like every single aspect of the modern world, they were resisted hammer and tong by Chinese at all levels. As an edict from the Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform put it, China was afflicted by:

‘the bane of the deeply-rooted system of inertness and a clinging to obsolete customs.’ (p.67)

Reformers were always in a minority, within the court itself, let alone in a country overwhelmingly populated by illiterate peasants. Which explains why it took China about 100 years – from the 1880s when it began to grasp some of the implications of capitalism – until well into the 1980s, to even begin to implement it.

Fenby’s immensely detailed picture takes account of the endless war, violence and conflict China was caught up in. But what comes over most is that Chinese of all ranks and levels of education didn’t want it – western ‘democracy’, ‘free speech’, competition, egalitarianism, innovation, entrepreneurism, disruptive technologies.

没有! Méiyǒu! NO!

Foreign devils

Rana Mitter’s book about the China-Japanese war contains a surprising amount of anti-western and anti-British feeling and he frequently refers to the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century between European powers and a weakened China, but since his book is about the war of the 1930s, he doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Fenby’s book by contrast covers exactly the period of ‘unequal treaties’ (where European countries took advantage of China’s weakness to get her to sign away rights to trade, legal coverage of foreigners, entire treaty ports like Hong Kong), gives a lot more detail, and really drills home why the century from 1840 to 1940 was a period of sustained national humiliation for the Chinese – it is in fact known as ‘the century of humiliation’ or ‘the hundred years of national humiliation’.

Basically, Westerners imposed an unceasing stream of treaties designed, initially, to create special trading cantonments on the coast, but which one by one encroached further inland, ensured Westerners were exempt from Chinese law (in effect, free to do what they wanted) and could force trade with the Chinese on unfavourable and biased terms.

Moreover, there were so many foreign nations each scrambling to get a piece of the action in China – most obviously trading basic commodities but also competing for the broader opportunities which opened up later in the 19th century, for example building railways or setting up banks. I hadn’t realised how many western countries queued up to get their slice of the action.

I knew about the usual suspects – Britain with its powerful navy, and France encroaching up from its colony down in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam-Laos. But Bismarck’s unification of Germany by the 1870s announced the arrival of a new, more brutal competitor who was determined not to miss out in either Africa or China.

And Fenby makes clear that the Chinese feared neighbouring Russia more than all the others, because of its steady expansion into the north of the country and Manchuria (‘The British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China.’ p.31). And above all, the Chinese should, of course, really have been most scared of Japan, another ‘divine empire’, which turned out to be by far its worst destroyer.

I was startled when Fenby gives the process the overall title ‘the Scramble for China’, since this is a term usually reserved for the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ – but as he piled example on example of the countless unequal trading deals, the intimidation of Chinese authorities with gunships and punitive armed raids by European armies, I came to realise how true it was, how carved up, humiliated and exploited China became – and so why getting rid of foreigners and foreign influence came to be such a dominating strand in the mindset of 20th century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries.

'China - the cake of kings and emperors' French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

‘China – the cake of kings and emperors’ French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

Ratcheting A key element of the unequal treaties was the way each of the European nations was able to out-trump the others… and then all the others demanded parity. Some German missionaries were harmed in a remote province? Germany demanded reparations and increased trading rights. At which the British, French, Russians and Americans all demanded a similar ratcheting up of their rights and accessibility. Some British merchants were attacked in Canton? The British sent in gunboats, demanded reparations and the rights to entire industries – and all the other European nations then demanded parity or they’d send in their gunboats.

So it went on with an apparently endless ratcheting up of the legal and commercial privileges and the sums demanded by the rapacious Europeans.

Unequal treaties

  • 1839–42 The First Opium War leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing – granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island
  • 1844 The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, which was signed by Théodore de Lagrené and Qiying on October 24, 1844, extended the same privileged trading terms to France as already exacted by Britain
  • 1845 The Treaty of Wanghia between China and the United States, signed on July 3, 1844 in the Kun Iam Temple.
  • 1856-60 The Second Opium War pitting the British Empire and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China.
  • 1858 – British attack on Canton after Chinese sailors were arrested aboard a ship carrying the British flag. British houses were burned and a price put on the heads of foreigners. British forces secured Canton. British and French forces attacked Tienjin, the coastal area east of Beijing. The westerners marched on Beijing and burned down the emperor’s Summer Palace (1860), among the looters being Charles Gordon, later to make his name at Khartoum. In the final peace treaty the allies were paid a large indemnity, trading concessions and Russia was given 300,000 square miles of territory in the far north!
  • 1884-5 The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, in which the French seized control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the first Sino-Japanese war cedes to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores islands and the Liaodong Peninsula, along with an indemnity of 16.5 million pounds of silver as well as opening five coastal ports to Japanese trade.

Fenby’s account makes vividly and appallingly clear the kind of treadmill of endless humiliation and dismemberment which educated Chinese felt their country was being remorselessly subject to. And the hypocrisy of the Western nations who went on about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while all the time lining their pockets and showing no morality whatsoever.

Western advantages

All that said, the Chinese needed the West and Fenby (thankfully) paints a nuanced and complex picture. Just as not all Chinese were pigtailed ignoramuses, so not all Westerners were hypocritical exploiters. A shining example is Robert Hart, an Ulsterman from a poor family, who rose to become the head of the China’s Customs Service, just one of many Westerners employed by the imperial court for their (Western) knowledge and expertise. Hart ran the service from 1863 to 1911 and transformed it from a corrupt, antiquated and inefficient sinecure into a well-run organisation which ended up being one of the main contributors to imperial finances. He became a byword for honesty and dependability, and was awarded a number of China’s highest honours.

Hart’s story reminds us that it is a complicated world, then as now, and that many Westerners made significant contributions to China, establishing a range of businesses, banks, building railways, developing areas of the economy. If there was a lot of shameful gunboat diplomacy, there was also a lot of genuine collaboration and contribution.

Fleeing to the West

It is also notable the number of times that native Chinese reformers, dissidents, disgraced court officials and so on fled to the European ports to find sanctuary. Here they found law and order, cleanliness and hygiene which, if not perfect, were vastly superior to the dirt, zero plumbing and violence of their native China.

In 1912, as revolutionary violence swept China, many members of the Imperial court took refuge in the foreign compounds.

After the Tiananmen Square ‘Massacre’ of June 1989, as many of the student leaders as could manage it fled abroad, most ending up in America, for example prominent student leader Chai Ling who went on to head up a successful internet company.

The Japanese

‘As we entered the town of Port Arthur, we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; by and large, there wasn’t a single house without from three to six dead. Blood was flowing and the smell was awful. We sent out search parties. We shot some, hacked at others. The Chinese troops just dropped their arms and fled. Firing and slashing, it was unbounded joy. At this time, our artillery troops were at the rear, giving three cheers [banzai] for the emperor.’
– Diary of Japanese soldier, Makio Okabe, describing the capture of Port Arthur, November 1894

Multiply this several million times to get the full impact of what it meant to be a neighbour of Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: Korea, Manchuria, mainland China all benefited from Japan’s goal of building a glorious Asian empire. This is described at great length in Rana Mitter’s history of the China-Japanese war.

Maoist madness

The madness of the Mao Zedong era is described in my reviews of Frank Dikotter’s book:

But Fenby dwells at length on the paranoia and crazed whims of the Great Helmsman, with results that eclipse the horrors of the late Qing Empire. The famine which resulted from his Great Leap Forward policy (1958 to 1962) resulted in anything from 30 to 55 million deaths. And that’s before the separate category of deaths actively caused by the security forces implementing their brutal policy of forced collectivisation.

Plus ça change…

Countries are like people, they rarely change. The modern history of Chinese history is a fascinating case study. Again and again Fenby points out that certain patterns of behaviour recur and recur, the most notorious being the attempt to impose reform of Chinese society from the top, reform which threatens to get out of hand, and then is harshly repressed. As predictable as a, b, c.

Thus his description of a) the attempted reforms of the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, which b) began to get out of hand c) were brought to an abrupt halt by the power behind the throne, the Dowager empress Cixi, eerily pre-echo a) Mao’s unleashing of revolutionary change from above in the Cultural Revolution b) which even he realises is getting out of hand and c) represses.

Or the way the a) very mild liberal reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to b) the unpredictable outburst of student protests in Tiananmen Square which the party hierarchy tolerated for a few weeks before c) brutally suppressing.

To this day the rulers of China daren’t institute anything like real democracy because they know the chaos they would unleash, they remember the history of the Warlord Era, indeed the terrifyingly violent history this book describes. Maybe such a vast and varied terrain, containing so many ethnicities and levels of economic development, can still only be managed by a strong central authority?

And the more you read and learn about the Chinese history of the past century – the more you sympathise with them. Fenby’s long and gruelling narrative ends with the repeated conclusion that China’s rulers are as repressive as ever – indeed, given the arrival of the internet, they are able to practice surveillance and social control of their populations which previous dictators could only have dreamed of.

And yet they are all too aware that they are sitting astride a bubbling cauldron of vast social inequality, political corruption, popular resentment, ethnic division (most obvious in Tibet and Xinjiang but present among a hundred other ethnic minorities), and the pressures and strains caused by creating a dynamic go-head 21st century economy controlled by a fossilised, top-down, 20th century Leninist political structure.

This is an extraordinarily insightful and horrifying book. Anybody who reads it will have their knowledge of China hugely increased and their opinion of China and the Chinese irreparably damaged.


Related links

Other reviews about China

Buddhism @ the British Library

Buddhism is a major exhibition at the British Library, bringing together objects and artefacts, folding books and scrolls and manuscripts, paintings and pictures, wall hangings early printed works, along with not one but two displays of the tools which have been used to make precious Buddhist scriptures for centuries, interspersed with half a dozen films (interviews with practicing Buddhists, demonstrations of chanting and praying, how the ancient texts are preserved nowadays), plus an enchanting video installation of a contemporary Buddhist artist painting holy texts on pavements and walls.

It’s a lot of information to take in at once. My review is in four parts:

  1. The life of the Buddha and Buddhism
  2. Myths and legends, preachings and practices
  3. The importance of numbers in Buddhism
  4. The exhibition itself

The life of Buddha and Buddhism

A copy of the Lotus Sūtra in a lavishly decorated scroll from Japan, written in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper in 1636, one of the most popular and most influential Buddhist texts of Mahayana Buddhism © British Library Board

A brief outline of the Buddha and his teachings is relatively simple. Born into a royal family in what is now Nepal 2,500 years ago, young Prince Siddhārtha Gautama lived a coddled protected wife, which included undergoing an arranged marriage, and living entirely within the palace walls. However, he grew restless and managed to make several journeys into the big wide world where he was shocked for the first time to encounter poverty, hunger, decrepit old age and squalor.

He finally broke free from his gilded life and spent years wandering India, pondering the human condition and one day, seated under a bodhi tree, he achieved enlightenment.

‘Buddha’ is a title, which means ‘one who is awake’ in the sense of ‘having woken up to reality’.

He realised that the world is a bubble of transient appearances. Nothing lasts. All of us die and are reincarnated (here he was basing himself on far more ancient Hindu beliefs) back into this world of woe.

What causes all the pain and suffering? It is attachment to things of this world, it is desire, want, letting our physiological urges drive us to try and own or achieve things which are themselves only passing and delusory, which most of the time we fail to attain anyway.

Therefore, the secret of enlightenment, is to strive for a condition of complete detachment from the things of this world. One should begin by observing The Middle Way, not going to extremes of self-deprivation or sensual indulgence. But the techniques of the Middle Way will lead, ultimately, to complete detachment from the things of the world.

Only then will the enlightened one break free of the endless cycle of Samsara – of rebirth, suffering, death, and more rebirth – and their soul achieve nirvana.

Myths and legends surrounding the Buddha

The most comprehensive woodblock-printed work depicting and describing scenes from the life of the Buddha, including 208 beautiful hand-coloured illustrations from China, created in 1808 © British Library Board

If this is all there were to it, Buddhism really would be a simple belief system. But one of the most fascinating things about it is not its teachings per se, it is that so many teachings can be generated from such a simple premise.

An enormous number of legends grew up about Prince Gautama:

  • stretching back in time (for it turns out that he had been reincarnated many times before, hundreds of times before and each of those previous incarnations had had numerous adventures which are described in the Birth Stories or Jatakas
  • that he would be reincarnated in the future, in the figure called the Maitreya, to bring us all back to the True Way
  • and, moving away from the Prince himself, it turns out that the world has contained other holy ones, boddhisatvas, people are able to reach nirvana but delay doing so through compassion for suffering beings

Many texts were written about the Buddha’s sayings and teachings. These included a steadily growing number of his wonderful deeds and miracles. Monuments were built, stupas, where the relics of the Buddha himself or the lesser enlightened ones – effectively Buddhist saints – are buried, chief among the holy sites being the very Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha achieved enlightenment (where a vast temple complex was built in the third century BC, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site).

There are four first-order holy sites related to the life of the Buddha (as there are a defined number of sites holy to the life of Mohamed and the life of Jesus) but countless others where various legendary events took place, as well as important events for the boddhisatvas, take the annual Procession of Buddha’s Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka.

The Hyakumantō darani or ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani,’ the oldest extant examples of printing in Japan and some of the earliest in the world, dating 764-770 CE © British Library Board

Monasteries were established, communal buildings for Buddhist monks. Elaborate ceremonies grew up to celebrate key dates in the Buddha’s life, and the monasteries required texts to guide and define the rituals as well as texts of teachings and doctrine for students to be taught and masters to meditate on (for example a long list of the Buddha’s many names which could be used for meditation). The monasteries also preserved and expanded on earlier written accounts of the Buddha’s life.

The exhibition includes a wall-sized animated map which shows the spread of Buddhism up into Afghanistan, east into China and then into south-east Asia. At the same time it developed into three major traditions which took flavour from the local cultures, and used the languages of the regions of Asia which they spread into:

  1. Theravada
  2. Mahayana
  3. Vajrayan

And by about this stage of the exhibition I had come a long way from the simple insight at the core of Buddhism and was beginning to feel overwhelmed by numbers.

The importance of numbers in Buddhism

A 7.6 metre-long 19th century Burmese illustrated manuscript detailing the early life of the Buddha, on display at the Library for the first time © British Library Board

The Buddha is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the others being his teachings (Dharma) and the monastic order (Sangha).

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:

  • life is unsatisfactory and there is suffering
  • the cause of suffering is desire
  • suffering can be overcome
  • this liberation is effected by following the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight practices:

  • right view
  • right resolve
  • right speech
  • right conduct
  • right livelihood
  • right effort
  • right mindfulness
  • and right samadhi (meditative absorption)

The Noble Eightfold path is represented by the dharma wheel (dharmachakra) whose eight spokes represent the eight elements of the path (although a dharmachakra can also have 12, 24 or 31 spokes, representing other sets of holy values).

The Buddha’s first discourse was given in a deer park to five disciples who become the basis of the huge monastic orders which followed.

The Buddha had 547 previous lives all described in the Jataka tales.

The last ten Jatakas or Birth Stories about Buddha are popular in South-East Asia because they illustrate the ten perfections of a Buddha.

The Buddha’s footprint features 108 auspicious symbols such as royal insignia, mythical creatures, rivers, mountains and even continents.

Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be is characterised by a set of paramita or perfections. The Pāli Canon, the Buddhavaṃsa of the Khuddaka Nikāya, lists ten perfections. Two of these virtues, mettā and upekkhā, also are brahmavihāras.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Prajñapāramitā sūtras, the Lotus Sutra and a large number of other texts list a different list of six perfections.

The ‘pure illusory body’ is said to be endowed with six perfections (Sanskrit: ṣatpāramitā). The first four of these perfections are ‘skillful means’ practice while the last two are ‘wisdom’ practice.

In the Theravada tradition 28 Buddhas are believed to have appeared in the past and attained Nirvana. The Buddha we know about is the fourth Buddha of the present aeon.

Twenty four of these previous Buddhas gave advice to the Buddha we know about, and they are listed, quoted and depicted in countless manuscripts, illustrations and books.

Rebirths occur in the six realms of existence, three good realms (heavenly, demi-god, human) and three evil realms (animal, ghosts, hellish).

The six realms of rebirth are part of the 31 realms of existence. After death the soul passes through ten stages as described in the Sutra of the Ten Kings before entering the six realms of rebirth.

The mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ has six syllables, symbolising the six realms of rebirth.

There is a heavenly realm named Trayastrimsa with palaces, gardens and parks for the 33 gods who live there. Trayastrimsa is only one of the six heavens or celestial realms.

On Buddhist monasteries, of the Theravada tradition, a bhikkhu (male monk) is expected to follow all 227 rules of monastic disciple, while a bikkhuni (female monk) has to follow 311 rules.

The four dignities are ancient symbols that represent qualities of the windhorse, and are: Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion, Tiger. Many prayer flags show the four dignities with a windhorse in the center.

The Pancharaksa identifies five female deities and includes spells and rituals to appease them. they are sometimes paired with the Five Wisdom Buddhas.

A monastic is allowed eight personal requisites: three robes in saffron or yellow, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Tibetan Buddhists make use of a particular set of eight auspicious symbols, ashtamangala, in household and public art, including the conch shell, the endless knot, a pair of fish, the lotus, the parasol, the vase, the Dharmachakra and the banner of victory.

Maybe you can appreciate why, by this point, I had begun to feel very confused. The basic idea of Buddhism, which I outlined at the top, had long gotten buried in a litter of legends and a bewildering variety of important numbers.

The exhibition itself

You have to like red. The high-ceilinged basement rooms of the Library’s gallery space have all been painted a deep blood red. It is like going down into a torture chamber or maybe a brothel in some red light district.

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library. Very red

Except that the space is packed with display cases showing a very wide range of types of object – concertina books made of mulberry leaves and manuscripts and paintings and sculptures, bells and drinking bowls, manuscript writing tools and materials, a full calligraphy set, amulet boxes, offering bowls, manuscript cabinets, sacred scriptures written on tree bark, palm leaves, gold plates, illuminated texts and silk scrolls of the major sutras, a Buddhist protective jacket, a rare copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead – it’s a feast of Buddhist texts and textures.

A rare Buddhist manuscript in the shape of a bar of gold from Thailand dated 1917, known as Sankhara bhajani kyam, going on display for the first time © British Library Board

TV monitors dot the exhibition showing interviews with current practicing Buddhists, techniques of manuscript conservation and a contemporary artist painting Buddhist texts in what I took to be Japanese letters.

At one point hidden loudspeakers are playing a loop which includes traditional Buddhist monk chanting interspersed with the sound of streams and birdsong.

I didn’t realise that the lotus is the symbol of the Buddha because lotus flowers often grow in pretty muddy, dirty ponds. So they symbolise a state of complete purity and calm which can be achieved despite the mind’s origins in the messy realities of the physical body.

The section on the physical technique of creating, writing, preserving and storing monastic texts was fascinating and set above or apart from the rather oppressive barrage of sacred numbers, a specialist sub-set of the overall subject which gave you interest and respect for the ancient craftspeople who dedicated their lives to preserving and beautifying the holy scriptures.

The display of materials and tools used to make the earliest Buddhist texts, at Buddhism at the British Library

Conclusion

I went intending to like this exhibition but, if I’m honest, I found it a bit difficult.

a) There’s so much factual content to it, from the outline of the core story, to the incredible profusion of legendary events which have accrued to it; the actual history of its spread and development throughout Asia, to over 20 countries.

b) A long and complicated history which is reflected in the sheer variety of items on display, from paintings, manuscripts and scrolls, through to the displays showing the tools used to make manuscript chests and so on.

But c) I think the thing which overwhelmed me was the sheer profusion of Holy Numbers and Perfections and Jatakas and the Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path, and so on. I quickly got lost and confused in the mathematical maze of Buddhist doctrine.

I felt overwhelmed by stuff when, ironically, I thought the whole point of Buddhism is to clear your head of clutter, and focus on your own existence, cleared of all distractions.

Still, if you’re at all interested in the subject, it is beautifully laid out, with its biography and legends and explanation of the teachings, its maps of Buddhism’s spread, its history, the techniques used to make its manuscripts, as well as beautiful objects like the metal statues of bodhisattvas, a monastery bell, and some exquisite carved chests.

As long as you like red!

Installation view of Buddhism at the British Library

The promo video


Related links

  • Buddhism continues at the British Library until 23 February 2020

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives @ the House of Illustration

W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a sociologist and historian. He helped co-found the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and was author of the seminal book, The Souls of Black Folk. He was one of the most important black activists and intellectuals of the 20th century.

The commission

His status was confirmed when, in 1900, Du Bois was invited to create an exhibition for the world fair in Paris – the Exposition Universelle – about the condition of black people in contemporary America.

Du Bois and his sociology students from the University of Alabama were well aware that black people were going to be overwhelmingly portrayed at the world fair as primitives and savages, living in mud huts in Africa and photographed wearing picturesque tribal costumes, with long descriptions of their customs and rites which were all written to underpin and justify continued colonial rule over all of Africa.

So Du Bois and the team set out to refute all the racist stereotypes and slurs of the day by emphasising the solid achievements of Afro-Americans in the forty years since Emancipation.

In less than four months he and his sociology students assembled a display of 63 hand-drawn charts designed to convey solid data and information about the role and position of blacks in 1900 America.

They developed highly inventive visual techniques for conveying a wide variety of information about the experience of black Americans, many of them anticipating the kind of infographics we use now by over a century.

Assessed Valuation of All Taxable Property Owned by Georgia Negroes © WEB Du Bois

The aim of Du Bois and his team was to combat racist stereotypes about black poverty, laziness, lack of initiative, lack of ability in business, disinterest in education and so on, by supplying a wealth of solid statistical evidence to prove the exact contrary.

The charts show how turn-of-the-century Afro-Americans were flourishing in education, buying land, starting businesses and becoming economically independent, despite the full might of institutionalised racism and segregation designed to hold them back.

The charts were divided into two categories – a set about the USA in general, and another set about the situation in the state of Georgia.

Part 1. Black lives in Georgia

In 1900 the state with the largest black population was Georgia, 44% of whose population were African-Americans, making it a statistical test bed for Du Bois and his team. The 36 charts show Georgia’s black population growth, density and age distribution, compared with other states.

They show how wealth, literacy and land ownership had increased since Emancipation and compared how occupations compared with the white population.

Income and Expenditure of 150 Negro Families in Atlanta, Georgia, USA © WEB Du Bois

Part 2. Black lives in the USA

The second set of charts examined aspects of Afro-American life across the USA.

In 1900 there were around nine million blacks in America, 12% of the population. The charts show achievements by Africa-Americans, but also highlight the ways the community as a whole was being held back by the Jim Crow segregation laws which were to remain in place until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

City and Rural Population, 1890 © WEB Du Bois

Infographics

Cool, aren’t they? Part of their appeal is in their variety. As far as I could see, no two of the charts uses the same design and layout.

Each one is attached to a big board attached to the wall and hinged so you can work your way steadily through them. Each one is numbered and has a label which contains the background information about the chart and comments on the design, for example snippets such as the Georgia town of Darien had a large African American population due to its shipping or lumber trades, or the percentage of religious faiths among the black population.

Installation view of W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives: Pioneering infographics from turn-of-the-century America at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Mona Chalabi

There’s another thread to the exhibition: House of Illustration invited Mona Chalabi who is a New York-based journalist and producer and data editor at The Guardian USA to review Du Bois’s charts and update them.

The result was just four charts in which Chalabi reprises the original designs but with current data, thus showing what has changed in the past 120 years. It’s a mixed story. Her updating of Du Bois’ population chart reveals that the percentage of the US population which is African American has, surprisingly, stayed static – it was 12% in 1900, it is 12% now.

Her update of the literacy chart shows that black illiteracy has fallen to just 1.6%, but current research suggests there is still a gap between white and black literacy because of differences in quality of education.

Her update of the occupations chart shows the most evenness: grouping jobs into five categories shows that black and white Americans now work in similar sectors.

Occupations © W. E. B. Du Bois and Mona Chalabi

Less hopeful is her update of the chart showing the net worth of US households, which suggests that for every dollar in net assets which a black household has, a white household has $16.50 more.

Photos of black folks

So much for the information, then – but there’s yet another strand to the exhibition which, if I’m honest, I found by far the most attractive — and this was a set of contemporary photographs of African Americans from the year 1900.

The original exhibition in Paris contained no fewer than three bound volumes of photographs most of which were taken by photographer Thomas E. Askew, and including some 500 photos. The one public statement Du Bois made concerning these photographs was that visitors to the American Negro exhibit would find ‘several volumes of photographs of typical Negro faces, which hardly square with conventional American ideas.’

The aim, once again, was to utterly refute the racist stereotypes about the poverty, broken homes, alcoholism and shiftlessness of African Americans, and to show them as smartly dressed, well educated, professional people – in other words, as good Edwardian bourgeois.

Intriguing and creative and innovative as the data charts are, it was the little display of nine contemporary photographs which really did it for me – which brought to life the families and communities and real people behind the graphs and spirals and pie charts and statistics. The face of the young woman sitting at the front centre, in particular, has haunted me for days.

Roger Williams University, Nashville, Tennessee, Normal class 1899


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Genghis Khan by James Chambers (1999)

The greatest fortune a man can have is to conquer his enemy, steal his riches, ride his horses, and enjoy his women. (Genghis Khan)

Genghis Khan was born sometime in the 1160s into a small clan of Steppe Mongols. From obscure origins he rose, through the power of his charisma, courage and canny alliances, to unite the disparate Mongol tribes into one huge, well-organised, ferocious and world-beating army.

By the time of his death in 1227 Genghis had subjugated more lands and more people in twenty-five years than the Romans did in four hundred. His successors built on his conquests until the empire he bequeathed stretched from Hungary in the west to the Pacific in the East, forming the largest continuous land empire the world has ever known.

James Chambers’s biography is a small, zippy book, part of the Sutton Pocket Biography series, designed, in their words, to be ‘highly readable brief lives of those who have played a significant part in history, and whose contributions still influence contemporary culture.’

At 100 small pages it’s a quick read – it only took me two hours to wing through it. But what makes this book different from most of the other biographies of Genghis is its distinctive approach: it starts out in the fairy tale tones of Mongol myth and legend, and never really quite transitions to the dry, factual approach most of us associate with normal ‘history’. Which makes it rather marvellous.

Thus Chambers starts his text without any introduction or explanation but by going straight into a retelling of the creation myth of the steppe Mongols. He tells us how the god of Eternal Heaven, Mongke Tengri, made all things, but humans didn’t appear until the grey wolf, the grey hunter, wandered down from his mountain and mated with a deer.

Detail of a Totem from Northern Mongolia showing a grey wolf and a white doe (Hun tomb, 3rd-1st century BC). Born according to the will of the Sky, Borte Chino (Blue Wolf) is the ancestor of the Mongolians and his partner/wife is Gua Maral (Red Deer)

The story then skips forward ten generations to when the Mongols have bred and multiplied, and a direct descendant of the grey wolf’s firstborn, Dobun the Sagacious, marries a woman named Alan the Fair, who came from a tribe of hunters in the forest.

We learn how Alan had five sons and taught them to stick together but, after her death, the four eldest divided her herd between them and left the youngest, Bodunchar the Simple, to ride off alone on an ugly pony. When they repented of their meanness and went to find him, they discovered Bodunchar living in a hut on the banks of the river Onon and surviving by hunting duck with a trained hawk and begging mare’s milk from a clan camped nearby.

Once they’d taken Bodunchar back into the family, he tells them more about the nearby clan who’d helped him out, namely that they lack central organisation or a strong leader. And so the five sons of Alan the Fair proceed to attack the clan, stealing all their cattle and their women.

By the standard of the steppes there was nothing wrong in what Bodunchar and his brothers had done. In truth, as well as in legend, it was the way in which Turko-Mongol nomads had always lived, and the way in which they were to continue to live for several more generations. These nomads measured each other’s wealth by the numbers of their sheep and horses, and when the size of a clan’s herds increased, it was usually as a result of audacious raiding rather than patient husbandry. Ruthless opportunists like Bodunchar were regarded as heroes, and their success bred success. Warriors often moved from clan to clan, swearing new allegiances to the men most likely to protect their families and make them rich. Although the tribes and clans into which they were divided must have begun as extended families, their blood lines were soon diluted, not only because those with the best leaders attracted warriors from elsewhere, but also because it was the custom to marry outside the clan. Since bride prices were high, women were often acquired like horses on raiding parties. In such a society life was simple, selfish and precarious. (p.5)

Why are we being told all these stories about Alan the Fair and Bodunchar the Simple? Because shamans, the Mongol holy men, had prophesied that a descendant of Bonduchar would unite all the Mongol tribes and lead them to world conquest.

And so it is that, several generations later, a boy is born of Bonduchar’s line, a boy named Temüjin, one of the five children of Yesügei. In preparation, Chambers has described the confused and war-torn world Temüjin grew up in:

  • how the great city of Zhongdu (early Beijing) had been captured by Khitan horsemen from the steppes
  • how the Chinese Song empire had been weakened when the Tangut inhabitants of north-west China seceded to establish their own kingdom of Xi Xia
  • how the north had been wrested from the Khitan by a new wave of conquerors, the Jurchen who came from Manchuria and established a new dynasty they called the Jin
  • how the Jin feared invasion by other Mongol tribes and so allied with Tatar tribes who they paid to attack and break up the remaining Mongol forces
  • how one of the Mongol commanders who survived these attacks was Yesügei, of the Kiyat clan, who claimed descent from Bonduchar
  • and how Yesügei,  after kidnapping himself a wife – Ho’elun of the Onggirats – from a prince of the Merkits, had five children by her, one of whom was Temüjin – Mongol for ‘man of iron’
  • and how, aged just nine, Temüjin, lost his father Yesügei, poisoned by the tribe whose woman he stole to make his wife and Temüjin’s mother

And it was this Temüjin who would grow up to become Genghis Khan, one of the greatest, most successful but also most bloodthirsty conquerors of all time.

(NB Genghis Khan is an honorary name Temüjin was given after he had united the Mongol tribes, at the ripe age of 39. He was awarded it at a great assembly of all the Mongol tribes and clans, the Great Khuriltai held beneath the sacred mountain at the source of the river Onon in 1206 – Khan being the generic name for king or leader, and Genghis (probably) stemming from tengiz meaning ocean and so suggesting ‘King of Everything within the great ocean’ or ‘Oceanic King’, p.50).

The actual story of his rise to power is long and complex, mainly revolving around a sequence of alliances, at first with individuals who help or rescue young Temüjin from perilous situations (like Sorkun who helped Temüjin escape after he’d been captured and tied to a wooden yoke by the vengeful relatives of the first husband of Ho’elun, his mother, the woman kidnapped by his father Yesugei), then with more powerful clan leaders, slowly cultivating powerful men and drawing freelance warriors to his side.

Map of the Mongol Empire during Genghis’s lifetime, showing the complexity of the Mongol tribes and kingdoms he set out to unify, and the peoples living outside it e.g. the Chinese Jin Dynasty in the south-east (Source: Wikipedia)

And then the thing which set him apart from all his rival leaders and rival powers – his phenomenal gift for organisation, for imposing new laws on the Mongol tribes, for introducing a census and mass conscription, for organising his army into light and heavy cavalry with, later on, divisions devoted to siege equipment, provisioned with scaling ladders and sacks that could be turned into sandbags (p.72).

His army was systematically organised and rigorously disciplined. A division was known as a tumen and contained 10,000 men. Each tumen was divided into ten regiments of a thousand called a minghan. Each minghan contained ten squadrons of a hundred called a jagun and each jagunwas divided into ten troops called arbans. A large Mongol camp was called an ordu which is the origin of the English word ‘horde’.

Chambers goes on to describe the thorough training regime Genghis established for the army, along with the ‘staff college’ of his personal guard, which supplied the generals and senior commanders to each division. He explains the Mongols’ battle tactics and the transmission of information by a cohort of trained messengers using the fastest horses. Genghis set up staging posts every 25 miles in the territory he conquered, which were permanently manned with provisions and fresh horses, so that messengers could ride in relay in any direction across his empire bringing vital information. The messengers were wrapped up warm and wore a belt of small bells to alert the managers of the post that a rider was arriving, so the new horse could be saddled and ready.

The essence of Genghis Khan’s genius lay in his ability to recognise and develop a good idea, and above all in his instinctive capacity for meticulous planning and detailed organisation, a capacity which was all the more extraordinary in a man who had received no education. (p.65)

Map showing the campaigns of the Mongols from their heartland out across Asia. Note that China was divided under three rulers, the Jurchen Jin in the North, the Song dynasty in the south, and the Western Xia in the space between Tibet and Mongolia (source: Wikipedia)

Now a glance at Amazon shows you that there are quite a few books about Genghis Khan, some running to four or five hundred pages, and there is, of course, a lengthy Wikipedia article about him.

But most of these are westernised, factual accounts, which start in the way you’d expect, with factual accounts of the steppe, its peoples, their history, before moving on to give factual accounts based on a judicial analysis of the sources and the (scant) archaeological evidence.

In some of these more academic respects Chambers’ account is a bit lacking; I certainly found his description of the campaigns of the mature Genghis rather quick and difficult to follow.

But it matters not. I bet this is the only account which starts and then continues within the Mongol mindset. It takes the reader inside the world of mare’s milk and hawking, surviving off berries and raw fish, a world where an extended family possesses just nine horses and a tent set amid the vast limitless blankness of the steppe. A world where the wolf god mates with human women, and shamans correctly predict the future.

Admittedly, as Chambers’ account proceeds and actually gets onto the campaigning and battles, it becomes more and more factual, more like Wikipedia, and my interest waned a bit. It also describes the military massacres which occurred on a growing scale and made Genghis’s name a terror to future generations.

Notable among these were the rape of Zhongdu, an early name for what is now Beijing. It was already an enormous city, with a population of maybe a million, protected by a huge wall. After a prolonged siege, the Mongols finally breached the wall in 1215. Genghis ordered total annihilation and for one month the conquerors burned, murdered and raped. A year later visiting ambassadors described the streets as slippery with human fat. And they were shown a white hill outside the ruined city walls which was made out of human skulls. (This forced the Jin ruler, Emperor Xuanzong, to move his capital south to Kaifeng and abandon the northern half of his empire to the Mongols. Further Mongol campaigns were to lead to the collapse of the Jin dynasty in 1234.) It was the same year that the Magna Carta was signed in England.

Even worse was the prolonged campaign against Ala ad-Din Muhammad II, Shah of the Khwarezmian Empire from 1200 to 1220. Muhammad made the very unwise move of arresting and executing the envoys that Genghis had sent to him. This prompted the Mongol invasion of Khwarezmia, which resulted in its utter destruction. The Mongols razed every city they came to and massacred every single inhabitant: the lowest contemporary estimates were 700,000 dead for each of the cities of Merv and Balkh, and a million and a half each for Herat and Nishapur, where the heads of men, women and children were gathered into separate piles. These are widely considered the bloodiest massacres the world had seen until the 20th century.

‘I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.’ (Genghis Khan)

All this may well be true, but it’s another reason for finding the later part of the book less enjoyable.

Because my imagination had been so fired up by the opening, mythical chapters, and the way they wonderfully transport the reader into a genuinely remote and different other-world. These passages engrossed me like a children’s book does. It made me feel it was me fighting alongside Jebe the Arrow and Toghril the mighty, in a heroic alliance with the Naimans and the Tayichi’uts against enemy tribes like the Keraits and the Tatars, taking part in legendary conflicts like the wonderfully named Battle of the Seventy Felt Cloaks.

Reviews suggest that this short books leaves out a lot of the facts about Genghis, as known by modern historians. No doubt it does. But what it leaves in is the romance and fairy-tale feel of the wonderfully evocative names, the distant lifestyles, and the legendary stories about strange peoples and faraway places which for a happy couple of hours really caught my imagination.

The statue of Genghis Khan outside the parliament building in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.


Related links

The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1867-1918 by John W. Mason (1985)

This is another very short book, one of the popular Seminar Studies in History series. These all follow the same layout: 100 or so pages of text divided up into brisk, logical chapters, followed by a short Assessment section, and then a small selection of original source documents from the period.  It’s a very useful format for school or college students to give you a quick, punchy overview of a historical issue.

This one opens by summarising the central challenge faced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it entered the twentieth century: how to take forward a fragmented, multi-cultural empire based on traditional dynastic and semi-feudal personal ties into the age of nationalism and democracy where every individual was, in theory at least, a citizen, equal before the law.

On page one Mason locates four key failures of late imperial governance:

  1. the failure to solve the Czech-German conflict in the 1880s and 1890s
  2. the failure to develop a genuine parliamentary government in the late 1890s
  3. failure to solve the Austro-Hungarian conflict in the early 1900s
  4. failure to solve the South Slav conflict in the decade before World War One

PART ONE The background

1. The Hapsburg Monarchy in European History

The Hapsburg monarchy lasted 640 years from 1278 to 1918. It was a dynastic creation, never attached to a specific country. In 1867 (following Hungary’s defeat to Prussia in the war of 1866) the state was organised into the so-called Dual Monarchy, with the Hapsburg ruler titled the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary. This gave Hungary more autonomy and respect than it had previously had.

The name ‘Hapsburg’ derives from Habichtsburg meaning ‘Castle of the Hawks’, located in what is now the Swiss canton of Aargau. During the eleventh century the knights from this castle extended their power to build up a position of growing influence in south Germany.

Meanwhile, the eastern March – the Oster Reich – of Charlemagne’s massive empire was granted to the Babenberg family in the tenth century and they held it for the next 300 years.

In 1273 the electors of the Holy Roman Empire elected Rudolf of Hapsburg to the office of Holy Roman Emperor. In the 14th century the Hapsburgs acquired Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Istria and Trieste to their domain. In the 15th another Hapsburg was elected emperor and from 1438 till the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806 the Crown remained almost continuously in their house.

When King Louis II of Bohemia and Hungary died without issue in 1526, both his crowns passed to the Hapsburgs. This marked a turning point because up till then all Hapsburg land had been German-speaking. Now the Hapsburg administration had to take account of various non-German nations with their own independent histories.

This leads to a Big Historical Idea: just as the countries of the West were beginning to develop the idea of the nation state, central Europe was going down a different path, towards a multi-national empire.

Even more decisive was the role the Hapsburgs played in defending Europe from the Turks. Twice, in 1529 and 1683, the Turks laid siege to Vienna, a very under-reported and under-appreciated part of European history.

The Turkish threat had effectively been repulsed by the start of the 18th century and the Hapsburgs embarked on their new role in Europe which was to act as a counterweight to ambitious France, starting with the War of Spanish Succession (1702-14).

The long rule of the Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) saw her undertake reform and centralisation of the administration. But her power in central Europe was challenged by Hohenzollern Prussia under Frederick the Great (1740-86). During this period, Poland was partitioned and Austria was given from it the southern province of Galicia, which she retained right up till the end of the Great War.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) unleashed the ideas of nationalism and democracy across Europe, both of which struck at the heart of the multi-ethnic and hierarchical structure of the Empire.

Under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, Austria had arguably been part of the continent-wide movement of reform associated with the Enlightenment, take for example their legislation to remove many of the restrictions placed on the Jewish population.

But the twin forces of nationalism and democracy were such a threat to a multinational polity that from this point onwards the Hapsburgs and the empire they led, became a reactionary force, embodied in the machinations of their legendary Foreign Minister, Klemens von Metternich (foreign minister from 1809 to 1848).

In 1848 revolutions took place all across Europe, with no fewer than five in capitals controlled by the dynasty – in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Croatia and in northern Italy (territory which the Hapsburgs had seized after the defeat of Napoleon). Hapsburg forces put down the revolutions in four of the locations, but it required the intervention of the Russian army to defeat the revolutionary Hungarian forces. The Magyars never forgot this bitter defeat.

In the Crimean War (1853-6) Austria kept neutral from both sides (Britain & France versus Russia) which weakened her role in Europe. In 1859 France supported the desire for independence of Piedmont, the north Italian state ruled by the Hapsburgs since the defeat of Napoleon, and hammered the Austrians at the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. In response the Hapsburgs introduced some administrative reforms, but in 1866 lost another war, this time against Prussia under Bismarck, decided at the Battle of Sadowa.

Seriously weakened, and now definitely deprived of all influence in a Germany unified under Prussian rule, the Emperor’s politicians were compelled to bolster the Empire’s authority be devising a new agreement with the large Kingdom of Hungary to the East.

2. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise

Hence the Compromise or Ausgleich of 1867 which recognised the sovereign equality of two states, Austria and Hungary, bringing them under the rule of one man, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. The dual monarchy wasn’t the same as a federation, constitutionally it was unique. But it bolstered the Hapsburgs a) territory b) manpower. Crucially it provided a bulwark against the Slavs in the Balkans, quelling pan-Slavic sentiment.

The drawback of the Compromise was that it was essentially a personal agreement between the Emperor Franz Josef and the Magyar ruling class. Even liberal and progressive German-speaking Austrians felt left out, and that’s before you consider the numerous other nationalities contained within the empire.

PART TWO Domestic affairs

3. The Nationality Questions

The Treaty of Versailles entrenched the idea of national self-determination preached by American President Woodrow Wilson, and resulted in the break-up of the empire into a host of new nation states based on ethnicity. Viewed from this angle, it looks as though the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foredoomed to collapse. But all the histories I’ve read there was no such inevitability. This one wants to scotch two assumptions –

  1. that all the nationalities thought they’d be better off outside the empire (many realised they wouldn’t)
  2. that all the nationalities were ‘at war’ with imperial authorities; many weren’t, they were in much sharper conflict with each other

In the West the state and the nation were closely aligned; but in the East you can see how they are in fact distinct ideas. The state is an administrative unit and in Central and Eastern Europe was based on ancient rights and privileges of rulers, often going back to medieval origins.

From the mid-nineteenth century these traditional ideas were challenged by a concept of ‘nation’ based on ethnicity, culture and language. Otto Bauer the Austrian Marxist made a famous categorisation of the peoples of the empire into ‘historic’ nations, those which had an aristocracy and bourgeoisie and an independent national history;

  • Germans
  • Magyars
  • Poles
  • Italians
  • Croats

and those who don’t:

  • Czechs
  • Serbs
  • Slovaks
  • Slovenes
  • Ruthenians
  • Romanians

Most modern commentators include the Czechs in the list of ‘historic’ nations.

The Germans

In the western half of the empire the Germans made up 10 million or 35% of the population of 28 million. Nonetheless the administration was thoroughly German in character. The official language of the empire was German. The great majority of the civil servants were German, 78% of the officers in the army were German. The cultural life of Vienna, the capitalist class and the press were overwhelmingly German. Three political parties dominated from 1880 onwards, which adopted the three logical policies:

  1. The Pan-Germans looked beyond Austria to a nationalist union of all German peoples under Bismarcks Prussia
  2. The Christian Socialist Party under Karl Lueger aimed to unite all the nationalities under the dynasty
  3. The left-wing Social Democrats aimed to unite the working class of all the nationalities, thus dissolving the nationalities problem

The Czechs

Third largest ethnic group (after the Germans and Hungarians) with 6.5 million or 12% of the population. In Bohemia roughly two fifths of the people were German, three fifths Czech.The Czechs were the only one of the minorities which lived entirely within the borders of the empire, and some they were bitterly disappointed by the Compromise of 1867, which they thought should have recognised their identity and importance. Czech nationalists thought the deal left them at the mercy of German Austrians in the West and Hungarians in the East.

From the 1880s the struggle between Czech and German expressed itself in the issue of the official language taught in schools and used in the bureaucracy. The Czech population increased dramatically: Prague was an overwhelmingly German city in 1850 but 90% Czech by 1910. Germans found it harder to dismiss the Czechs as peasants Slavs, as Bohemia rapidly industrialised and became the economic powerhouse of the empire.

The Poles

The Poles were the fourth largest group, in 1910 4.9 million or 17.8% of the western part of the empire, most of them living in Galicia. Galicia was a) a province of Poland which had been obliterated from the map when it was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 18th century b) at the north-east fringe of the empire, beyond the Carpathian mountain range.

The Austrians needed the support of the Poles to make up a majority in the parliament in Vienna, and so made so many concessions to the Polish Conservative Party in Galicia that it enjoyed almost complete autonomy, with Polish recognised as the official  language, Polish universities and so on.

The Ruthenians

Only three fifths of the population of Galicia was Polish; the other two-fifths were Ruthenians. The Ruthenians belonged to the same ethnic group as the Ukrainians but were distinguished by adherence to the Latin/Greek Uniat church. The Ruthenians were the most socially backward group in the empire and very much under the thumb of the politically advanced Poles, responding by setting up a peasants’ party.

Conservative ‘Old Ruthenians’ gave way to ‘Young Ruthenians’ in the 1880s, who sought union with the 30 million Ukrainians living to their East. The more concessions the central government made to the Poles, the more it alienated the Ruthenians. After 1900 Ruthenians and Poles clashed over electoral or educational issues, sometimes violently.

The Slovenes

1.25 million or 4.4 per cent of the population of the Austrian half of the empire, the Slovenes were scattered over half a dozen Crownlands, and lacked even a written literature in their own land. Even mild efforts at nationalism, such as setting up a Slovene-speaking school, were fiercely opposed by the German majorities in their regions.

The Italians

770,000, the smallest national group in the empire, with Italian-speaking areas in the Tyrol and along the Adriatic coast, which had quite different concerns. In the Tyrol the Italians fought against the dominance of the Germans. Along the Adriatic they were a privileged minority among a Slav majority.

In May 1915 Italy betrayed its treaty promises to Germany and Austria-Hungary and joined the Allies because Britain and France promised Italy possession of the Tyrol and the Adriatic Littoral (and money).

The Magyars

10 million Magyars formed 48% of the population of Hungary. The Magyars dominated the country, owning, for example 97% of joint stock companies. It was dominated by ‘Magyarisation’ meaning fierce determination of the magyar ruling class to impose uniformity of language across the territory. If minorities like Romanians or Slovenes agreed to teach their children Hungarian and support Magyar rule, they could become citizens; otherwise they were subject to fierce discrimination. The Magyars didn’t want to exterminate the minorities, but assimilate them into oblivion.

Budapest was three quarters German in 1848 and three quarters German in 1910. Mason tells us that all attempts to reform the Dual Monarchy ultimately foundered on Hungary’s refusal to abandon its unbending policy of Magyarisation.

The Romanians

The largest non-Magyar group in Hungary, about 3 million, their aspirations were ignored in the 1867 Compromise, and the Hungarians’ intransigent policy of Magyarisation drove more and more to think about joining the independent Kingdom of Romania, just across the border from Hungarian Transylvania, and the forming of a National Party in 1881, which slowly poisoned Austria’s relations with Romania.

The Slovaks

The Slovaks were the weakest and least privileged group in the Hapsburg Monarchy, 9% of the population, a peasant people who had lived under Magyar domination for a thousand years. The 1867 Compromise made the Czechs and Croats second class citizens but condemned the Slovaks to cultural eradication. From the 1890s they started co-operating with the Czechs and slowly the idea of a combined Czech and Slovak nation evolved.

The Croats

9% of the population of Hungary. They had a national history and a strong aristocracy and considered themselves in direct touch with the Hapsburg monarchy. By an 1868 compromise Croatia received autonomy within the Hungarian state, but the head of the Croat state was imposed by the Hungarian government and the rule of Count Khuen-Héderváry was so repressive that Croatia became the seat of a movement to unite all the empire’s South Slavs.

The Serbs

About 2 million Serbs lived in the empire, divided between Dalmatia, Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They didn’t have an independent national history until 1878 when the Congress of Berlin created a small state of Serbia independent of the Ottoman Empire, from which point every perceived injustice against the Serbs prompted calls for a pan-Slave movement, and/or for a Greater Serbia. The biggest incident on the road to collapse was the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the majority of whose population were Serbs.

The Jews

The Jews made up about 5% of the population in both Austria and Hungary. From 1850 Jews moved in large numbers into Lower Austria, overwhelmingly from poor rural Galicia (Poland), a large number of them migrating to Vienna, where they came to dominate cultural activity out of proportion to their numbers.

The Jews became so prominent in the Hungarian capital that some called it Judapest. The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus joked that ‘the Jews control the press, they control the stock market, and now [with the advent of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis] they control the unconscious’.

The success of Jews in business and the stock market and banking created an association between ‘Jew’ and ‘capitalist’ which complicated class conflict and led to an easy demonisation of the Jews as responsible for much of the exploitation, low wages and fat profits of capitalism.

4. The economy

The Hapsburg Empire was behind Germany, France and Britain in industrialisation. It didn’t have large stocks of coal, it had no large ports, parts of it (like Galicia) were split off from the empire by high mountains; the great Hungarian Plain was designed for agriculture not industry.

It was a predominantly agricultural economy: in 1910 agriculture made up 50% of the Austrian economy, two-thirds of the Hungarian. Most of the trade was between Hapsburg regions and nations; the 1867 Compromise established a free trade area throughout the empire.  Only a small percentage of GDP came from exports.

In Hungary serfdom was only abolished in 1848. For most of the period, Hungary was characterised by Magyar landlords, sometimes with very extensive holdings, lording it over illiterate peasants of the various nationalities. That’s one reason why nationalist grievances became mixed up in economic ones. Only in the decade before the war did Hungary begin to industrialise.

Industrialisation was funded by banks which remained firmly in German and Hungarian hands. The industrial heartland of the empire was the Czech Crownlands (Bohemia and Moravia) which developed a strong textiles industry and then iron and steel, metallurgy and engineering. This became another source of tension between Czechs and Germans, because many of the industries remained in the hands of German managers, backed by German hands.

(Remember the passage in Ernst Pawel’s biography describing the end of the Great War, the declaration of independence, and the way the new Czech government immediately a) renamed all its businesses and industries in Czech and b) undertook a wholesale replacement of all German bureaucrats and business men with Czech replacements.)

The late 1860s saw a mounting fever of speculation which led to a stock market crash in 1873 and a prolonged depression afterwards. This led to low growth, and poverty among the urban proletariat and among rural peasants, which led to the rise of nationalist and populist parties.

5. The politics of Dualism

The Austrian (i.e. German-speaking) Liberal Party ruled after the 1867 Compromise. But that compromise had alienated the Czechs whose MPs didn’t even attend the parliament. But it was the massive financial crash of 1873 which ruined the Liberal Party, associated as it was with business and the banks.

In 1871 there was an attempt by the conservative aristocrat Count Hohenwart to reform the monarchy and turn it into a federation, who drafted some ‘Fundamental Articles’ which were intended to give the Czechs parity with the Hungarians, but this was fiercely opposed by the Hungarian prime minister, Count Andrássy. The Czechs never trusted the dynasty after that, and boycotted the Vienna parliament.

In 1879 Franz Joseph asked his boyhood friend Count Taaffe to form a new government and Taaffe went on to govern till 1893, passing a series of reforms which echoed those of Bismarck in Germany, such as extending the franchise, workers health and accident insurance, limiting the working day to 11 hours etc.

But when he tried to tackle the German-Czech issue by breaking up Czech provinces into smaller units based along ethnic lines, his plans were scuppered by the Poles, the Clericals and the Feudals, and the German Liberals and he was forced to resign. Over the next twenty years three parties emerged:

The Social Democrats

This left-wing party emerged from the trade union movement in 1889 and its soft Marxist outlook focused on economic and social reform cut across ethnic lines and so was a force for keeping the empire together. At the Brünner Conference of 1899 they called for the transformation of the empire into a democratic federation of nationalities.

The Christian Socials

Founded in 1890 by the phenomenally popular Karl Lueger who became mayor of Vienna 1897-1910, based around a devout Catholicism which linked democratic concern for ‘the small man’, responsible social reform, anti-semitism and loyalty to the dynasty. Turning artisans and small shopkeepers into a strong anti-socialist, anti-capitalist, pro-Hapsburg bloc.

The Pan-Germans

The extreme anti-semitic Pan-German Party founded by Georg von Schönerer. Starting as a liberal he grew disenchanted and wanted a) to separate out the German-speaking areas from their Slav populations and b) unite with the Reich. In 1884 he led a battle to nationalise the Nordbahm railway which had been financed by the Rothschilds. He failed, but gained wide support for presenting the plan as a battle of the Jews versus the people. Although small in numbers, the Pan-Germans spread vicious racist ideas and their supporters were prone to violence.

The end of parliamentary governance

The next government of Alfred III, Prince of Windisch-Grätz, was brought down after two years because it agreed to allow a German secondary school in southern Styria to have parallel lessons in Slovene at which point the German National Party rejected it, voted against it, and brought down the government.

The next government was led by a Pole, Count Kasimir Felix Badeni. In 1897 he tried to settle the perpetual conflict between Czechs and Germans by moving a law that said that from 1901 no official should be employed in Bohemia or Moravia who wasn’t fluent in German and Czech. Since most Czechs spoke German, this was no problem for them, but hardly any Germans spoke Czech and there was uproar in parliament, with all kinds of tactics used to stall the passage of the bill, riots broke out on the streets of Vienna and then Prague. Franz Joseph was forced to accept Badeni’s resignation, and the Vienna parliament never had the same prestige or power again.

It couldn’t function properly and legislation was from 1897 passed only by emergency decree via Article 14 of the constitution. Government was no longer carried out by politicians and ministers but by civil servants. The Germans and the Czechs continued to obstruct parliament

Several more ministries tried and failed to solve the nationalities problem, while the emperor accepted advice that extending the franchise to the working class might help create a mood of social solidarity. So a bill was passed in 1907 giving the vote to all men over 24. But it was irrelevant. By this stage parliament didn’t govern the empire, bureaucrats did. Extending the franchise brought in a new wave of socialist parties, which combined with the nationality parties, to make governing impossible. During the parliament of 1911 no fewer than 30 parties blocked the passage of all constructive measures in parliament.

6. Vienna – Cultural centre of the Empire

Traditional liberal culture was based on the premise of rational man existing within as stable, civic social order. By the 1890s this society was beginning to disintegrate…

The political crisis in late nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary was caused by the bankruptcy of liberalism. The result was the sudden growth of a number of anti-liberal mass movements. In the cultural sphere the consequence of the breakdown of liberalism were no less dramatic…

Mason distinguishes three phases or artistic eras in this period:

1. The 1870s

In the 1870s students formed the Pernerstorfer Circle, seeking an alternative to liberalism, which they rejected and found inspiration in early Nietzsche, his writings about the imagination and the Dionysian spirit, leading to veneration of the music dramas of Wagner. The most famous member was the composer Gustav Mahler.

2. The 1890s – Young Vienna

Aestheticism and impressionism, focus on the fleeting moment, in-depth analysis of subjective psychology. A moment’s reflection shows how this is a rejection of rational citizens living in a stable social order, and instead prioritises the non-stop swirl of sense impressions. The leading writers of the Young Vienna literary movement were Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Arthur Schnitzler, with his frank depictions of the sex lives and moral hypocrisy of the Viennese bourgeoisie.

3. After 1900 – Kraus, Loos and Schoenberg

The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus published a fortnightly magazine, Die Fackel, in which he flayed all political parties and most of the writers of the day. He carried out a one-man crusade against loose writing, sentimentality and pomposity. Mason doesn’t mention something Ernst Pawl emphasises in his biography of Kafka, which is that plenty of Kraus’s journalism railed against the Jewish influence on German prose, criticising its importation of Yiddishisms and other impurities. It was this attitude which led Pawl to diagnose Kraus as a leading example of the ‘Jewish self-hatred’ of the period.

Adolf Loos was a radical architect who despised any ornament whatsoever. He designed a starkly modernist house which was built in 1910 opposite the imperial palace and was a harsh modernist critique of the wedding cake baroque style of the empire.

Arnold Schoenberg thought Western music had reached the end of the road, and devised an entirely new way of composing music based on giving each note in the scale an equal value i.e. leaving behind traditional notions of a home key or key tones, i.e. 500 years of tradition that a piece of music is composed in a certain key and will develop through a fairly predictable set of chords and other keys closely related to it. Schoenberg demolished all that. In his system all notes are equal and their deployment is based on mathematical principles. Hence his theory came to be known as ‘atonality’ or the ‘twelve tone’ system.

And looming behind these three was one of the most influential minds of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, the conservative and urbane Jew who did more than almost anyone else to undermine the idea of the rational, citizen or the rational human being. In Freud’s theory most of the activity of the human mind is unconscious and consists of a seething mass of primitive drives and urges. For the early period, from his first formulation of psychoanalysis in 1895 through to the outbreak of the First World War, Freud concentrated on the sexual nature of many or most of these urges, and the psychic mechanisms by which human beings try to repress or control them (via psychological techniques such as displacement or repression).

But the experience of the Great War made Freud change his theory in recognition of the vast role he now thought was played by violence and a Death Drive, which matched and sometimes overcame the sex urge.

Whatever the changing details, Freud’s theory can be seen as just the most radical and drastic attack on the notion of the sensible, rational citizen which were widespread in this time, and at this place.

Leading not only Mason but countless other critics and commentators to speculate that there was something about the complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and something about the thoroughness with which it collapsed, which led to the creation of so many anti-liberal and radical ideologies.

All the art exhibitions I’ve ever been to tend to praise and adulate 1900s Vienna as a breeding ground of amazing experiments in the arts and sciences. Many of them praise the artistic radicalism of a Loos or Schoenberg or Egon Schiele as a slap in the face to boring old bourgeois morality and aesthetics.

Not so many dwell on the really big picture which is that all these artistic innovations were the result of a massive collapse of the idea of a liberal society inhabited by rational citizens and that, in the political sphere, this collapse gave rise to new types of political movement, anti-liberal movements of the extreme left and extreme right, to the Communism and Fascism which were to tear Europe apart, lead to tens of millions of deaths and murder and torture, and the partition of Europe for most of the twentieth century.

PART THREE Foreign affairs

7. The Dual Alliance

In international affairs the thirty-six years between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the start of the Great War in 1914 were dominated by the Balkan Problem or the South Slav Question.

In the 1600s the Muslim Ottoman Empire had extended its reach right up to the walls of Vienna. The Ottomans were held off and pushed back so the border between Christendom and Islam hovered around south Hungary and Bulgaria. But the Balkans contained many ethnic groups and nationalities. Slowly, during the 19th century, Ottoman rule decayed causing two things to happen:

  1. individual ethnic groups or nations tried to assert their independence from the Ottoman Empire
  2. each time they did so tension flared up between Russia, who saw herself as protector of all the Slavs in the Balkans, and Austria-Hungary, who feared that the creation of a gaggle of independent states in the Balkans under Russian control would inflame her own minorities and undermine the empire

The Congress of Berlin was held in 1878 to try and adjudicate between the conflicting claims of Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the host of little countries who wanted independence from the Ottomans.

This section details the long history of the complex diplomatic policies adopted by successive foreign ministers of the empire, which all had more or less the same goal – to preserve the integrity and security of the empire – but changed in the light of changing events, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, and so on through to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Young Turk revolution of 1908 which led to the Bosnian Crisis of the same year, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

What’s striking or piquant is that the three autocracies – Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia – had a really profound interest in maintaining their semi-feudal reactionary regimes, and this was highlighted by the fact that they periodically signed variations on a Three Emperors Alliance (1881) – but that they kept allowing this fundamental interest to be decoyed by the festering sore of countless little conflicts and eruptions in the Balkans.

So that by 1907 Germany came to see its interests as tied to a strong Austria-Hungary which would prevent Russian expansion southwards; while Russia came to see itself as faced by a Germanic bloc and so sought alliance with France to counterweight the German threat. And so Europe was divided into two armed camps, an impression cemented when Italy joined a pact with Germany and Austria-Hungary, despite historic antagonism to Austria, with whom she had had to fight wars to regain territory in the north.

8. The Drift to war

One way of thinking about the First World War was that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the crown, was without doubt a scandalous event but that it gave the Austro-Hungarian Empire a golden opportunity to smack down cocky little Serbia and thus re-establish the empire’s authority in the Balkans, which had been steadily slipping for a generation as a) more Balkan states became independent or b) fell under the influence of Russia.

After all, the empire had intervened in 1908 to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina with a view to creating a South Slav bloc of nations under her protection. Seen from her angle, this was one more step of the same type. Although, admittedly, a risky one. Her annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 led to a six-month-long diplomatic crisis which nearly sparked a European war, and there had been further, limited, Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. Most people thought this was more of the same.

So Austria issued a fierce ultimatum which was impossible to fulfil and prepared for a quick brutal suppression of Serbia. But she hadn’t anticipated that Russia would mobilise in favour of what was, after all, a small nation, with the result that the German military weighed in giving Austria-Hungary a promise of unconditional support; and when both of them saw Russia proceeding with its war mobilisation, the Germans mechanically and unthinkingly adopted the dusty old plan which had been perfected decades earlier, a plan to knock France out of any coming conflict with a quick surgical strike, just as they had back in 1870, before turning to the East to deal with a Russia they were sure was enfeebled after its humiliating defeat against Japan in 1905.

But the quick surgical strike against France failed because a) the French were supported by just enough of a British Expeditionary Force to stall the German advance and b) the Russians mobilised, attacked and advanced into East Prussia quicker than the Germans anticipated so that c) the German Chief of Staff Moltke made one of the most fateful decisions of the 20th century and decided to transfer some infantry corps from the Belgian wing of the German attack across Germany to staunch the Russian advance. Thus contributing to the German sweep across northern France coming to a grinding halt, to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, and to four years of grinding stalemate.

All the parties to the war miscalculated, but it was arguably the Germans – with their bright idea of a quick strike to knock France out of the war – who did most to amplify it from yet another in a long line of Balkan Wars to an international conflagration.

What comes over from this section is the hopeless inability of historians to come to a clear decision. Some historians, apparently, think Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy in the decade leading up to war was aggressive; others think it was impeccably defensive.

There is no doubt that the emperor was devoted to peace. Franz Joseph ruled the empire from 1848, when he was 18, to 1916, when he was 86, and if there was one thing he’d learned it was that whenever Austria went to war, she lost. And he was proved right.

9. War Guilt and the South Slav Question

On one level the problem was simple: about twice as many Slavs lived inside the empire (7.3 million) as outside (3.3 million). In the age of nationalism it was unlikely that the ultimate unification of these Slavs could be prevented. The question was: would this unification take place within the empire’s border i.e. at Serbia’s expense; or outside the empire’s borders, under Serbian leadership a) at the cost of the empire losing land (including most of its coastline in Dalmatia) and Slav population to Serbia b) the new Serbian state itself coming under the strong influence of Russia.

Mason discusses how this threat could possibly have been averted if the empire had made any sort of overtures to the Serbs, had courted the South Slavs. All Serbia wanted was better terms of trade and access to the sea. Refusal to countenance even this much resulted from the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy’s internal tensions, above all from the entrenched but anxious rule of the Germans and Magyars, nearly but not quite majorities in their own domains. Their inflexibility brought those domains crashing down around their ears.

10. World War One and the Collapse of the Empire

The book goes on to emphasise that, just because the empire collapsed suddenly at the end of the Great War, doesn’t mean it was doomed to. In fact for most of the four year war onlookers expected it to last, and spent their time speculating about the territorial gains or losses it would have made, but not that it would disappear.

He gives a military account of the war which emphasises the simple fact that the much-vaunted Austro-Hungarian army was simply not up to the task its politicians had set it. Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf intended at the outbreak to take out Serbia with a lightning strike, then move his corps north to Galicia to face the Russians who it was expected would mobilise slowly. But the Austro-Hungarians were repelled by ‘plucky Serbia’ and Conrad moved his forces north too slowly to prevent disastrous defeats to the Russians, who seized Galicia and Bukovina before Christmas.

In the first few months the empire lost 750,000 fighting men and a high percentage of their best officers. It’s a miracle they were able to carry on which they did, but at the cost of taking injections of better trained, better-armed German troops (remember the proud, tall, well dressed, well-fed Reich German soldiers lording it over their starving Austrian allies in the final chapters of The Good Soldier Svejk) and coming more or less under German military command.

Amazingly, in spring the following year, 1915, combined Austrian-Germany forces drove the Russians out of Galicia and seized most of Poland, defeated the numerically stronger Italian army along the Isonzo River. By 1916 the Alliance powers controlled a substantial slice of foreign territory (Poland, Russia, parts of the Balkans) and seemed to be sitting pretty.

The Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer wrote a book about the collapse of the empire, The Austrian Revolution, in 1925 which argued that the empire defined itself by its opposition to Tsarist Russia and dependency on Hohenzollern Germany. Certainly when the Bolsheviks seized power in St Petersburg and sued for peace, half the reason for fighting – and even be scared of the Slav menace – disappeared at a stroke.

Internal collapse

As we’ve seen, the Austrian parliament ceased to function properly before 1910 and government was run by civil servants and made by decree (the background to the novels of Franz Kafka with their infinitely complex and incomprehensible bureaucracies). Parliament was suspended from March 1914 to May 1917 because the ruling classes feared it would simply become a forum for criticism of the Crown. In 1916 the prime minister Count Stürgkh was assassinated. On November 1916 the Emperor Franz Joseph died and the crown passed to his great-nephew Archduke Charles, aged 29. The change in leadership gave an opportunity for the central powers to approach the Entente with suggestions for peace in December 1916, which, however, foundered on Germany’s refusal to cede territory back to France.

When Charles was crowned in Hungary he missed the opportunity to force the Hungarian prime minister to consider reforms, to extend the franchise, to give more rights to the non-Magyar minorities, and generally to compromise. On one level, the failure to effect any reform at all in the basic structure of the Dual Monarchy, led to its collapse.

But the most important event was the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. If the Romanovs, why not the Hapsburgs? When Charles allowed parliament to sit again in summer 1917 initially the calls weren’t for dissolution, but for reform which gave the nationalities autonomy and rights. But during the summer Czech radicals published a manifesto calling for an independent Czech-Slovak state.

The winter of 1917-18 was harsh with widespread food shortages. There were widespread strikes. In the spring Czech prisoners of war began returning from Russian camps bearing revolutionary ideas. But the Hapsburgs were not overthrown. Mason suggests this is because what in Russia were clear, class-based animosities and movements, in Austria-Hungary were diverted into nationalist channels.

Even when America joined the war in April 1917, the Allies still didn’t call for the overthrow of the empire but its reform to give the nationalities more say. According to Mason what finally changed the Allies mind was the German offensive in Spring 1918. It became clear Austria-Hungary wouldn’t or couldn’t detach itself from Germany, and so the Allies now threw themselves behind plans to undermine the empire from within i.e. supporting Czech, Polish and Slav politicians in their calls for the abolition of the monarchy. In the summer they supported the Czechs. In September 1918 they recognised a Czech-Slovak state. Unlike the other minorities the Czechs existed entirely inside the empire, to recognising their independent state was effectively recognising the dismemberment of the empire.

The failure of the German spring offensive in the West, and the Austrian summer offensive against Italy spelled the end. In September Bulgaria sued for peace. In October Austria and Germany asked President Wilson to intervene. At the end of October the Czechs and Yugoslavs proclaimed their independence, followed by the Magyars and the Poles. On 11 November 1918 Emperor Charles abdicated. The Hapsburg Monarchy ceased to exist.

PART FOUR Assessments

Mason recaps some of the arguments about the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which, by now, I feel I have heard hundreds of times. For example, that right up to the end most commentators did not expect the empire to collapse but for the strongest minorities, such as the Czechs, to successfully argue for parity with the Magyars, for more rights and privileges. Karl Marx thought the nations without history needed to be tutored and guided by the more advanced ones i.e. the Germans.

One school sees the collapse as due to the internal contradictions i.e failure to address the nationality question i.e. failure for any serious politician at the top, even Franz Ferdinand, even Charles, to do anything to palliate the nationalities demands which would have meant diluting the stranglehold of the German-Magyar ruling elites. The elites never accepted the nationalities question as a fundamental issue, but always as a problem which could be temporarily dealt with by clever tactics.

A completely opposite view holds that it was the First World War and the First World War alone which led to the collapse of the empire. Supporting this view is the fact that even radical critics and keen slavophiles like the Englishmen Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed as late as 1913 thought the empire was growing, and simply needed to be converted into a federal arrangement of more autonomous states, maybe like Switzerland.

PART FIVE Documents

Nineteen documents kicking off with hardcore economic tables showing, for example, populations of the various nationalities, index of Austrian industrial production, Austria’s share of world trade, steel production, harvest yields.

More interesting to the average reader are:

  • Mark Twain’s eye witness account of the army marching into parliament to suspend the sitting discussing  the 1897 legislation to make Czech equal with German in Bohemia and Moravia, which spilled out into riots in Vienna and Prague
  • Leon Trotsky’s impressions of the Austrian socialist leaders i.e they are smug and self satisfied and the extreme opposite of revolutionary
  • an extract from the memoir of George Clare who was a Jew raised in Vienna and gives a vivid sense of the frailty of Jewish identity, the assimiliated Jews’ shame about his caftaned, ringleted Yiddish cousin but also his sneaking envy for their authenticity – this is exactly the sentiment expressed by Kafka in his reflections on the Jews
  • the impact of Vienna on the young Adolf Hitler, who lived in Vienna from 1908 to 1913 and a) hugely respected the anti-semitic mayor Karl Lueger and b) loathed the multi-ethnic culture and especially the ubiquity of Jews
  • memoirs of the Jewish socialist leader Julius Braunthal, who emphasises the peculiarly powerful fermenting role played by Jews in all aspects of Austrian life, society and culture
  • a society hostess describing the meeting in 1902 between Rodin and Gustav Klimt

And then excerpts from more official documents, being a letter from the leader of the 1848 revolution, the key articles from the Dual Alliance of 1879, prime minister Aehrenthal’s proposed solution to the South Slav problem, census figures about Slavs inside the empire, a report on relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary,


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music

Books

Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)
1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)
1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


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Dates are dates of composition.

Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, the Communist Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired and and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has

‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to the relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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