Trilby by George du Maurier (1895)

‘Y a pas d’quoi!’ said Trilby, divesting herself of her basket and putting it, with the pick and lantern, in a corner. ‘Et maintenant, le temps d’absorber une fine de fin sec et je m’la brise. On m’attend à l’Ambassade d’Autriche. Et puis zut! Allez toujours, mes enfants. En avant la boxe!’

Trilby was a publishing and cultural phenomenon. It was the best-selling book of 1894, selling 300,000 copies by the end of the year. Soap, songs, dances, toothpaste, and even the city of Trilby in Florida were all named after the heroine. Trilby boots, shoes, silver scarf pins, parodies, and even sausages flooded the market, and the type of soft felt hat with an indented crown that was worn in the London stage dramatization of the novel, is known to this day as a trilby hat. The plot inspired Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Phantom of the Opera and innumerable other works derived from it.

The plot in brief

In outline the plot is simple. We are in the bohemian artistic circles of Paris a generation or so before the book’s publication, so sometime in the late 1850s. An uneducated but strikingly beautiful young woman, Trilby, who works as an artists’ model and also does sewing, charring and other odd jobs, is ‘discovered’, by the tall, creepy Jewish musician, Svengali. He discovers that as a consequence of her sweet innocent nature, Trilby is very easy to hypnotise. So he does, and turns her into a concert-level singer and performer. In the right clothes, tall and statuesque and under his rigid control, Trilby is transformed into a singer of classical music who electrifies audiences all across Europe, making Svengali rich and famous.

The Paris background

Du Maurier was himself an art student in 1850s Paris. He attended the atelier of painter Charles Gleyre where he met talented young artists such as the American James Whistler, Thomas Armstrong (later Director of Art at the South Kensington Museum) and Edward Poynter (later, President of the Royal Academy).

In fact Whistler recognised a blatant portrait of himself in the character named Jim Silbey when the story was published in magazine instalments, and threatened to sue, forcing Du Maurier and his publishers to remove the character, and an illustration of him, from the published book.

There were obviously lots of hi-jinks in that high-spirited setting, boisterous students in the 1850s, and a big part of the book’s appeal for 1890s readers was its nostalgia for what was, by then, a bygone era of simpler times.

The fin de siècle reader, disgusted at the thought of such an orgy [of drunkenness] as I have been trying to describe, must remember that it happened in the fifties, when men calling themselves gentlemen, and being called so, still wrenched off door-knockers and came back drunk from the Derby, and even drank too much after dinner before joining the ladies, as is all duly chronicled and set down in John Leech’s immortal pictures of life and character out of Punch.

It seems, from the text, that people (well, men) could get away with a lot more back then.

And it is the most surprising and unexpected thing about the book that this bohemian setting is the dominant theme of the book. It comes as a great surprise to discover that Trilby and Svengali are only really – in terms of time on screen – relatively minor characters in the story.

The first 200 pages (of the 300-page edition I read) are overwhelmingly about, and told from the point of view of, three happy-go-lucky British art students having the time of their lives in Paris.

The setting is the studio rented by these three – nicknamed Taffy, the Laird and Little Billee. They paint away during the week, and host Sunday ‘afternoons’ where all sorts of other artists and musicians come round. They own a variety of exercise equipment, notably several sets of fencing gear, so the Sundays generally involve someone playing the piano, someone singing, a couple of chaps fencing, and a host of others milling among the half-finished paintings, chatting, smoking pipes and cigarettes.

Svengali and his sidekick, Gecko, are initially just two of a gallery of characters who appear at these parties, while Trilby is to start with simply the girl who brings the milk up to the studio every morning. They invite her to take a break and smoke a cigarette while she watches them work, and then she offers to do a bit of cleaning, and then they ask her to model for them and, before you know it, she’s one of the gang, spending many day with the chaps, cooking and cleaning or smoking and relaxing with them.

There’s a wonderful passage in part one which describes a typical day in the life of a bohemian artist in Paris in the 1850s, which involves strolling round Paris enjoying the sights and stopping at cafés to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, going to a cabaret, drinking and smoking some more, and generally having a wonderful time. It is all described with high-spirited humour and conviction. Du Maurier lived this life. Lots of it comes over as simple autobiography and memoir, which is what gives it such verisimilitude.

There’s no sex in the book. In terms of release and escapism, I think it was the happy, uplifting portrayal of youthful high spirits in Paris which contributed greatly to its popularity. Some of it reads like a holiday brochure.

England versus France

The opposition or thematic polarity in the book which is most often discussed is that between the pure, virginal, white Trilby and dark, swarthy, Jewish Svengali. White Western virgin women threatened by dark, Eastern, wicked men, a theme expanded in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published the following year – and in hundreds of thousands of pulp novels and sensational movies from then right up to the present day (the movie Taken was on TV last night in which hard-man Liam Neeson rescues his white virginal daughter from Albanian sex traffickers who are planning to sell her to a rich Arab. Nothing changes.)

Except that for the first 200 pages or so the book isn’t like that at all. We really don’t see Svengali and Trilby together that much. The polarity which dominates the majority of the text is between Britain and France, specifically Paris. Between good, solid, Anglo-Saxon purity and the magic, mystery and ‘immorality’ of legendary, mythical Paris. Innocent Little Billee can’t believe he is here, in Paris, city of poets and artists.

Paris! Paris!! Paris!!!
The very name had always been one to conjure with, whether he thought of it as a mere sound on the lips and in the ear, or as a magical written or printed word for the eye.

Poetic Paris is contrasted throughout with businesslike London – as the humorous, dainty, witty Parisian artists are continually contrasted with ‘Taffy’, a six-foot, former British Army officer, taller and stronger (of course) than any mere Continental and who, in the course of numerous anecdotes, knocks them down, breaks up fights, picks up puny Frenchmen and swings them round his head.

Paris is poetry and art and exquisite cuisine. Britain is roast beef, business and the finest army in the world.

And the Frenchness of the story – and du Maurier’s tremendous confidence in this milieu which he knew so well – extends to the language, because a good deal of the book is actually in French.

Lots of the book is in French

Large chunks of the dialogue, and numerous throwaway words and phrases throughout the narrative prose are in French. Du Maurier not only spent his formative student days in Paris, but he had been born and raised there, was perfectly bilingual, and it shows.

‘Tiens! c’est la grande Trilby!’ exclaimed Jules Guinot through his fencing-mask. ‘Comment! t’es déjà debout après hier soir? Avons-nous assez rigolé chez Mathieu, hein? Crénom d’un nom, quelle noce! V’là une crémaillère qui peut se vanter d’être diantrement bien pendue, j’espère! Et la petite santé, c’matin?’
‘Hé, hé! mon vieux,’ answered Trilby. ‘Ça boulotte, apparemment! Et toi? et Victorine? Comment qu’a s’porte à c’t’heure? Elle avait un fier coup d’chasselas! c’est-y jobard, hein? de s’fich ‘paf comme ça d’vant l’monde! Tiens, v’là, Gontran! ça marche-t-y, Gontran, Zouzou d’mon cœur?’
‘Comme sur des roulettes, ma biche!” said Gontran, alias l’Zouzou—a corporal in the Zouaves. “Mais tu t’es donc mise chiffonnière, à présent? T’as fait banqueroute?’
‘Mais-z-oui, mon bon!” she said. “Dame! pas d’veine hier soir! t’as bien vu! Dans la dêche jusqu’aux omoplates, mon pauv’ caporal-sous-off! nom d’un canon – faut bien vivre, s’pas?’

It’s expecting a lot from your average reader to be able to read extended passages of dialogue in pure French. But it’s worse than that. A great deal of this dialogue is in the French slang from the bohemian circles of mid-Victorian Paris, French which is – as the narrator describes it – ‘droll, slangy, piquant, quaint, picturesque’ – in a phrase, ‘French French’.

The book contains all kinds of French dialects. For example, Trilby’s French is highly colloquial. Where the French students speak student slang (‘studio French’), Trilby speaks a more working class dialect of the street. And Svengali murders French with his heavy Germanic accent. And the three British characters all have different French accents which are phonetically transcribed.  So there are quite a few different types of French on display. Here’s Trilby:

‘Maïe, aïe! c’est rudement bien tapé, c’te musique-là! Seulement, c’est pas gai, vous savez! Comment q’ça s’appelle?’

Here’s the Laird struggling to speaka da lingo:

‘Voilà l’espayce de hom ker jer swee!’ said the Laird.

Here’s Little Billee, trying to keep up with native Frenchman, the sculptor Durien:

Durien came in and looked over his shoulder, and exclaimed: ‘Tiens! le pied de Trilby! vous avez fait ça d’après nature?’
‘Nong!’
‘De mémoire, alors?’
‘Wee!’
‘Je vous en fais mon compliment! Vous avez eu la main heureuse. Je voudrais bien avoir fait ça, moi! C’est un petit chef-d’œuvre que vous avez fait là—tout bonnement, mon cher! Mais vous élaborez trop. De grâce, n’y touchez plus!’

And:

‘Demang mattang, à votre sairveece!’ said Little Billee, with a courteous bow.

And:

‘Dites donc, l’Anglais?’
‘Kwaw'” said Little Billee.
‘Avez-vous une sœur?”
‘Wee.’
‘Est-ce qu’elle vous ressemble?’
‘Nong.’

And here’s Svengali speaking ungrammatical French with a heavy German accent:

“Sacrepleu! il choue pien, le Checko, hein?’ said Svengali, when they had brought this wonderful double improvisation to a climax and a close. ‘C’est mon élèfe! che le fais chanter sur son fiolon, c’est comme si c’était moi qui chantais! ach! si ch’afais pour teux sous de voix, che serais le bremier chanteur du monte!’

The Oxford University Press paperback edition I read has footnotes translating all this and it’s just as well. Every page of the novel has at least some French on it – raw, colloquial slangy French – and some pages have huge great chunks. How did the original readers manage when the dialogue just switched into pure French?

At last she asked Durien if he knew him.
‘Parbleu! Si je connais Svengali!’
‘Quest-ce que t’en penses?’
‘Quand il sera mort, ça fera une fameuse crapule de moins!’

Possibly an ‘educated’ Briton would have less difficulty with the occasional Latin tags which du Maurier scatters through his text:

  • ‘Quia multum amavit!’
  • et vera incessu patuit dea!
  • Omne ignotum pro magnifico!
  • Par nobile fratrum
  • ex pede Herculem!

But what about the patches of German and Italian, which also appear?

The experience of reading the book is not only to be soaked in the lives and jokes and high spirits of 1850s Bohemian Paris, but to be dropped into extended passages of raw French. This is the melodramatic climax of the entire book, when the conductor of the orchestra at her final concert tells Trilby to sing and, without Svengali, she discovers that she can’t:

The band struck up the opening bars of ‘Ben Bolt’, with which she was announced to make her début.
She still stared – but she didn’t sing – and they played the little symphony three times.
One could hear Monsieur J—— in a hoarse, anxious whisper saying,
‘Mais chantez donc, madame – pour l’amour de Dieu, commencez donc – commencez!’
She turned round with an extraordinary expression of face, and said, ‘Chanter? pourquoi donc voulez-vous que je chante, moi? chanter quoi, alors?’
‘Mais ‘Ben Bolt,’ parbleu – chantez!’
‘Ah – ‘Ben Bolt!’ oui – je connais ça!’
Then the band began again.
And she tried, but failed to begin herself. She turned round and said,
‘Comment diable voulez-vous que je chante avec tout ce train qu’ils font, ces diables de musiciens!’
‘Mais, mon Dieu, madame—qu’est-ce que vous avez donc?’ cried Monsieur J——.
‘J’ai que j’aime mieux chanter sans toute cette satanée musique, parbleu! J’aime mieux chanter toute seule!’
‘Sans musique, alors – mais chantez – chantez!’

At key moments throughout the book you need to be really fluent in French, and several other languages – or to be reading an edition which translates these passages – to have a clue what’s going on.

‘Got sei dank! Ich habe geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! Cristo di Dio…. Sweet sister in heaven…. Ô Dieu de Misère, ayez pitié de nous….’

This brings us to another really dominating aspect of the experience of the text – the pictures.

120 illustrations

Du Maurier was a writer only by accident and at the very end of his life. For most of his career he was a highly successful illustrator for magazines and books.

Born in 1834, du Maurier studied art in Paris, then got a job with Britain’s leading satirical magazine, Punch, in 1865, drawing two cartoons a week. He also did illustrations for popular periodicals such as Harper’s, The Graphic, The Illustrated Times, The Cornhill Magazine and Good Words. He illustrated a number of ‘classic’ novels from the time, including several by Thackeray. It was only after 25 or more years of producing a steady stream of humorous illustrations with comic captions that his failing eyesight drew an end to his artistic career and forced him to consider other options.

In 1891 he reduced his involvement with Punch and, at the suggestion of his good friend Henry James, wrote his first novel Peter Ibbetson, which was a modest success. Trilby was his second novel, published in 1894 and a runaway success beyond anyone’s imagining. He spent the next two years getting increasingly fed up with the demands from commercial interests and the book’s thousands of fans, before he died in 1896, leaving a long unfinished autobiographical novel to be published posthumously.

The fact that he was primarily an artist – and a book illustrator at that – explains why Trilby is stuffed with du Maurier’s own illustrations, some 120 of them by my count. These illustrations, like the ones he’d been doing all his life, portray rather stiff and starchy Victorian people but in situations which convey a sense of warmth and humour.

Here is young ‘Little Billee’ with the taller Taffy and the Laird, distracted from studying Old Masters in the Louvre by the sight of a pretty woman art student. It contains humour at the expense both of the easily distracted young man, as well as something satirical in the ‘saintly’ gaze of the fetching student. The entire setting is gently sent-up.

Among the Old Masters

Among the Old Masters

The presence of illustrations on around half the pages makes it feel like a children’s book, half-reminds you of reading Winnie The Pooh or Professor Branestawm. For the first 50 or 60 pages it doesn’t feel at all serious, which means that when you do finally get to the more ghoulish and creepy scenes with Svengali, it has more the sense of pantomime (‘He’s behind you!’) than full-blooded horror.

Combined with the general student hi-jinks of the early scenes, the good-humoured illustrations also contribute to the book’s entertainment value.

Comedy

Trilby so drips with comedy that it is almost a comic novel. The opening setup describing the three British artists in their studios is hugely funny. Their inability to understand the French spoken around them is gently mocked. In fact throughout the book there is a continual stereotyping of British and French national characteristics which is comparable to the outrageous humour of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The British are characterised by bluntness, philistinism, bad food, bad weather. In particular there is no end to the gentle raillery of the biggest of the three, big Beefy British warrior, Taffy the Yorkshireman or ‘the Man of Blood’.

A Yorkshireman, by-the-way, called Taffy (and also the Man of Blood, because he was supposed to be distantly related to a baronet) – was more energetically engaged. Bare-armed, and in his shirt and trousers, he was twirling a pair of Indian clubs round his head. His face was flushed, and he was perspiring freely and looked fierce. He was a very big young man, fair, with kind but choleric blue eyes, and the muscles of his brawny arm were strong as iron bands.

For three years he had borne her Majesty’s commission, and had been through the Crimean campaign without a scratch. He would have been one of the famous six hundred in the famous charge at Balaklava but for a sprained ankle (caught playing leapfrog in the trenches), which kept him in hospital on that momentous day. So that he lost his chance of glory or the grave, and this humiliating misadventure had sickened him of soldiering for life, and he never quite got over it. Then, feeling within himself an irresistible vocation for art, he had sold out; and here he was in Paris, hard at work, as we see.

He was good-looking, with straight features; but I regret to say that, besides his heavy plunger’s mustache, he wore an immense pair of drooping auburn whiskers, of the kind that used to be called Piccadilly weepers, and were afterwards affected by Mr. Sothern in Lord Dundreary. It was a fashion to do so then for such of our gilded youth as could afford the time (and the hair); the bigger and fairer the whiskers, the more beautiful was thought the youth! It seems incredible in these days, when even her Majesty’s household brigade go about with smooth cheeks and lips, like priests or play-actors.

He is the Roast Beef of Old England made flesh.

Taffy jumped out of his bath, such a towering figure of righteous Herculean wrath that Svengali was appalled, and fled.

And when the art students at Carrel’s studio attempt to carry out the traditional initiation ceremony on Taffy:

He took up the first rapin that came to hand, and, using him as a kind of club, he swung him about so freely and knocked down so many students and easels and drawing-boards with him, and made such a terrific rumpus, that the whole studio had to cry for ‘pax!’ Then he performed feats of strength of such a surprising kind that the memory of him remained in Carrel’s studio for years, and he became a legend, a tradition, a myth! It is now said (in what still remains of the Quartier Latin) that he was seven feet high, and used to juggle with the massier and model as with a pair of billiard balls, using only his left hand!

But then the entire bohemian world comes in for sustained ribbing. Du Maurier finds it all wonderfully entertaining and he invites you to, as well. Even when Svengali is at his most sinister he never loses the heavy German accent which made him such a figure of fun in the first half of the book and which remains right to the end, well, funny.

Du Maurier as intrusive narrator

Du Maurier intrudes a lot as the first person narrator, either directly or in the mocking persona of ‘the scribe’:

That is the best society, isn’t it? At all events, we are assured it used to be; but that must have been before the present scribe (a meek and somewhat innocent outsider) had been privileged to see it with his own little eye.

The present scribe is no snob. He is a respectably brought-up old Briton of the higher middle-class – at least, he flatters himself so.

And that is the question the present scribe is doing his little best to answer.

The present scribe was not present on that memorable occasion, and has written this inadequate and most incomplete description partly from hearsay and private information, partly from the reports in the contemporary newspapers.

And he also invokes the figure of ‘the reader’, an equally stereotyped source of humour, in the tradition of the 18th century comic novelists and of William Thackeray, so many of whose books du Maurier illustrated.

Of course the sympathetic reader will foresee…

Let the reader have no fear. I will not attempt to describe it.

And that, as the reader has guessed long ago, was big Taffy’s “history.”

Fundamentally this is a comic strategy, making the reader a collaborator in the essentially light-hearted and frivolous occupation of telling a story.

It is ironic that du Maurier was friends with Henry James. James was an avowed opponent of the ‘baggy monster’ novels of the great Victorians, stories told in monthly instalments which wandered all over the place and in which the author kept interrupting, introducing himself, making apologies and generally carrying on.

James spent his career developing infinitely more sophisticated narratives in which he explored the implications of different types of narrator. Trilby is a late-flowering example of everything James hated, more like an episode of the Chris Evans radio show than a work of art, with the effervescent presenter continually popping up and commenting on his own story, taking the mickey out of his readers, of Victorian society, of churchmen, of the French, of novels and of his own ability as a storyteller.

Prose constructed from humorous episodes

There’s another consequence of du Maurier’s origins as a creator of humorous cartoons, which is not so obvious but, I think, quietly ubiquitous.

This is to do with the structure of the humorous cartoons which du Maurier spent the majority of his working life devising.

As a rule these cartoons start with the incredibly realistic scene and setting. There is a wonderfully limned background and then the vividly delineated characters. It is only when you have taken in the substantial amount of visual information the artist is giving you, that the eye progresses to the bottom of the picture, there to discover the humorous caption.

These captions are almost always in dialogue form, in which someone says something and then someone else replies with something ironic or revealing.

Take du Maurier’s most famous cartoon (below). It is breakfast time in the household of a pompous vicar. He has invited a curate (a person who undertakes lowly duties in a parish) to attend. But in his epic condescension, the vicar has given the curate only one egg for breakfast, and a rather old one at that. The pompous vicar says:’ I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mrs Jones.’ To which the curate, unctuously keen not to offend his boss, replies: ‘Oh no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!’

The effort expended in creating the illustration is phenomenal. The attention to detail! The characterisation of the balding vicar, with his rigid backbone and hook nose and pompous demeanour, wonderfully contrasted with the young curate’s sloping shoulders and eager-to-please neophyte expression.

But just as important to the overall effect are the faces of the two women sitting aloofly at table. And that’s before you explore the wealth of visual detail, all the cutlery on the table, the pictures on the wall, and the presence of both a butler and a maid in the background.

What I’m suggesting is that du Maurier took a technique he had perfected in his cartoons – a wealth of realistic detail treated solely in order to lead up to a boom-boom punchline – and wrote his prose novels the same way. Realistic, if gently mocking depiction, leading up to a boom-boom punchline.

Take the long passage in Part Two (the novel is in eight parts) describing Svengali’s background, and which includes this paragraph. It is long and thorough and detailed and realistic – and it leads up to quite a good joke. Just like one of du Maurier’s cartoons.

He was poor; for in spite of his talent he had not yet made his mark in Paris. His manners may have been accountable for this. He would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humour, which was more offensive than amusing, and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice. And his egotism and conceit were not to be borne; and then he was both tawdry and dirty in his person; more greasily, mattedly unkempt than even a really successful pianist has any right to be, even in the best society.

All these jokes lead in the same direction. Du Maurier mocks the pomposity and pieties of the mid-Victorian middle class.

The example above doesn’t so much mock pianists themselves, as satirise posh society’s fashionable expectations of what they should be, namely dishevelled in appearance in order to stress their ‘Romantic’ sensibility. He mocking the way this idea – that being greasy and dirty equates to sublime artistic talent – is most piously held among the most refined and precious parts of society.

Same goes for the excerpt below. The Victorians, or Victorian journalists, developed the hackneyed phrase and idea that a piece of contemporary art or literature should be chaste and pure enough so as not to risk ‘bringing a blush to the cheek‘ of a young person.

In part of his lengthy description of Trilby, du Maurier goes into an extended riff which gently mocks this whole idea, invoking the non-existent ‘young person’ and the piety of her supposed parents (specifically, the mother).

Trilby had all the virtues but one; but the virtue she lacked (the very one of all that plays the title-role, and gives its generic name to all the rest of that goodly company) was of such a kind that I have found it impossible so to tell her history as to make it quite fit and proper reading for the ubiquitous young person so dear to us all.

Most deeply to my regret. For I had fondly hoped it might one day be said of me that whatever my other literary shortcomings might be, I at least had never penned a line which a pure-minded young British mother might not read aloud to her little blue-eyed babe as it lies sucking its little bottle in its little bassinet.

Fate has willed it otherwise.

Would indeed that I could duly express poor Trilby’s one shortcoming in some not too familiar medium – in Latin or Greek, let us say – lest the young person (in this ubiquitousness of hers, for which Heaven be praised) should happen to pry into these pages when her mother is looking another way.

Latin and Greek are languages the young person should not be taught to understand – seeing that they are highly improper languages, deservedly dead – in which pagan bards who should have known better have sung the filthy loves of their gods and goddesses.

First of all du Maurier laments that his tale is not pure enough to avoid a blush rising to the cheeks of any virginal young person who looked at it. Then he mockingly laments his fate as the author of such a shameful story. Then he moves on to make a joke about how, on this strict criteria, we ought to ban Greek and Latin since they are crammed full of obscenity.

You could sum it up by saying that the spirit of Punch saturates the entire book.

Anglo-Saxon morality

Anyway, this mention of Anglo-Saxon morality brings us back to the plot of the book, which is not at all what I expected.

For the narrative follows neither Trilby nor Svengali. It turns out all to be about Little Billee, the naive and innocent youngest of the trio of British painters in Paris. He is arguably the most gifted and certainly the most sentimental, always ready – as du Maurier mockingly points out – with a tear poised at the edge of his eye, to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

So it is that Little Billee falls in love with Trilby. When she is posing (dressed) for Taffy, the Laird and Little Billy, she keeps looking up and seeing his eye firmly focused on her face while he neglects his drawing. Once or twice he goes into studios of other artists, especially the training studio of Carrel and, finding Trilby posing nude in front of thirty or so male students, rushes back out, red-faced with shame and mortification.

Slowly Trilby realises that he has ‘fallen in love’ with her. And at the end of a Christmas Day when the other two Brits have staged an epic party for all their Bohemian friends (described with a Dickensian love of the food and with much mocking and ribbing of the hosts and guests) Little Billee takes Trilby to the top of the garret stairs and proposes to her. In fact this turns out to be the nineteenth time he has proposed to her (comedy!) and she, exhausted and worn down, says yes and then runs off in floods of tears.

Without realising it, Little Billee’s naive obsession proves the catastrophe or turning point of the action. For he writes a letter to his mother and sweet virginal sister back in provincial Devon announcing that he is to be married – but instead of joy, this prompts horror in Mrs Bagot (Billee’s real name) who promptly turns up in Paris with her teenage daughter and accompanied by her brother-in-law who is, rather inevitably, a man of the cloth, the Rev. Thomas Bagot.

They represent, in other words, a full frontal, massed assault of Victorian Values at their most strict and narrow and they proceed to interrogate Taffy about this ‘Trilby’. At which he is forced to concede that she is an uneducated model and cleaner. Can you imagine the response of the respectable Mrs Bagot and the reverend? Suffice to say, it is not favourable.

Then, at just the right moment, Trilby walks in (‘just as in a play’ as the author comments, tongue in cheek) and has a Grand Confrontation with her fiance’s mother. Long story short, Trilby a) presents herself with dignity and honour but b) agrees that she must not come between sweet Billee and his family. So she immediately decides break off the engagement and to leave Paris.

Little Billee discovers this, later in the day, from a letter she sends him – and promptly has a nervous breakdown. He has a complete collapse. He is confined to his bed, doctors tend him, it takes weeks to recover, during which Trilby packs her bags and, taking the younger brother she cares for, flees Paris to an unknown destination. When Billee is better, he is helped to a train and back to England, all the way back to the family home in Devon, where he is cared for by his sweet sister and loving mother.

Taffy and the Laird are left devastated that their happy-go-lucky little household has been broken up, and upset about Billee and worried about Trilby.

As a reader who had been very happily amused and entertained up to this point, I was absolutely furious with Mrs Bagot. She is concerned for her son’s future, for his career, for his place in society, and that he should marry a ‘respectable’ woman who will help him climb the ladder. Nonetheless, Billee’s selfish obsession and his mother’s narrow-mindedness bring the happy-go-lucky first half of the novel to a crashing end, and I couldn’t help resenting her for it.

The odd thing is that du Maurier, having spent 150 pages being amusingly indulgent of the student milieu, having reported their drunkenness, their laziness, their slovenliness, the cheap clothes, their outrageous jokes and the easy way they hang round with models who are ‘no better than they should be’ (it is very broadly hinted that Trilby has had a number of lovers) all of a sudden sits up and becomes pious and sentimental on us, himself.

He takes Mrs Bagot’s concerns seriously. When Trilby leaves the studio she glimpses virginal Miss Bagot in the cab waiting outside and is stricken with guilt at besmirching the name of such a family. Later that day, when Billee reads the goodbye letter from Trilby, he collapses in the arms of his mother and sister i.e. he is won over to their side, and du Maurier gives us some surprisingly pious paragraphs about family honour and so on.

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

When push comes to shove, du Maurier abandons his youthful high-spiritedness and tolerance – and sides with the enemy. It is almost unbelievable that this one event has such seismic consequences for all concerned, and strips the book of its innocence. From now on du Maurier struggles to recover the high-spirited humour of the first half. The reader, rather like Taffy and the Laird, feels a strong ‘sense of desolation and dull bereavement’.

The passage of time

Instead, five years pass. Billee, now William Bagot, continues painting and becomes a success, a name, an artistic ‘lion’, who is invited to salons by rich society ladies, who mixes with the highest society, is mentioned among the great up-and-coming artists and so on. But inside he is cold and empty. He is as polite as is required, but his heart is dead.

It was as though some part of his brain where his affections were seated had been paralyzed, while all the rest of it was as keen and as active as ever. He felt like some poor live bird or beast or reptile, a part of whose cerebrum (or cerebellum, or whatever it is) had been dug out by the vivisector for experimental purposes; and the strongest emotional feeling he seemed capable of was his anxiety and alarm about this curious symptom, and his concern as to whether he ought to mention it or not.

Du Maurier takes us on Billee’s journeys into upper-class society and, more interestingly, for a page or two, out to the East End where he also becomes well known and takes part in evening sing-songs in squalid taverns… an echo of Dorian Gray’s adventures out East.

Du Maurier says it was the breadth of Billee’s human sympathies which underpinned the warmth and humanity of his art. Which is fine, but there was no such painter as William Bagot. And also, throughout the extensive and detailed sections on art, I can’t help thinking that British art of this period grew steadily more isolated from all the trends on the Continent, almost completely oblivious to Impressionism and the myriad types of post-Impressionism, continuing with ever-more dreamy depictions of sad-eyed women by Edward Burne-Jones or the stately, half-naked ladies of ancient Rome by Frederick Leighton, Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Wonderful in their way, but eventually destined to hit the brick wall of European Modern Art and evaporate overnight.

The book contains very long passages about art, about types and theories of mid-Victorian art, about the difference between superficial and profound art, much humour at the expense of the Laird’s endless attempts to paint toreadors accurately (and a typical joke about the fact that, once he actually visits Spain and starts to paint toreadors from life, his paintings immediately stop selling).

But to a post-modern reader it all seems pre-historic. We are told that one of Billee’s most successful paintings is of a sow in a sty being suckled by lots of little pink piglets, handled with:

An ineffable charm of poetry and refinement, of pathos and sympathy and delicate humour combined, an incomparable ease and grace and felicity of workmanship.

This sounds like the sickly sweet animal paintings of Edwin Landseer, and reminds me of the depiction of the artist Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) or Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of the artist Dick Heldar in The Light That Failed (1891). In none of these three books is there a glimmer of the tsunami of modernism which is about to completely revolutionise the very idea of what art is.

Anyway, rather surprisingly du Maurier describes himself as being present in the story – telling us that he was introduced to the Laird and Taffy when Little Billee brought them to a grand party at the house of millionaire Sir Louis Cornely.

And it is here that they hear, from the lips of a great classical singer, of the spreading reputation of La Svengali, the most beautiful woman singer in the world. This gives rise to discussion among the posh chaps present who have seen the famed singer at various venues around Europe, while Billee, Taffy and the Laird listen in amazement, wondering if it can possibly be the same Svengali they knew all those years ago back in Paris.

Darwinism

The novel takes us up to page 200 with a lengthy passage describing Billee’s return from London, where he had attended this party, back to his family in Devon. His mother has ambitions to marry him to Alice, daughter of the local vicar. She is, indeed, a noble, virtuous, shy, well-mannered and devout young lady, and deeply in love with Billee. Billee goes and sits by the sea, with Alice’s own dog, Trey sitting at his feet (in order to give the whole scene a sentimental resonance. Think of Landseer’s sentimental dog portraits.)

There's No Place Like Home (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

There’s No Place Like Home (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Billee would like to please Alice, his mother and his sister, and is sure he could make the lady a good and faithful husband except for one tiny detail… He is an atheist. He is reading On the Origin of Species for the third time and it has demolished his belief in a Christian God. If there is a God, how could he be so cruel and vengeful, flooding the earth, punishing unbelievers, conceiving of Hell?

To round out this scene, as Billee is walking back towards the village, he bumps into Alice’s father, the vicar. The vicar starts questioning Billee about his faith, which church in London he attends and so on, to which Billee has to stumblingly admit that he has no faith and attends no church. By the end of the walk the pair are no longer on speaking terms, and Billee’s engagement to Alice is broken off.

Du Maurier being the satirist that he is, then gives a page-long passage describing the way that this redoubtable pillar of the church (the vicar) in later life came into a small fortune due to acquiring shares in a rising company, and found that the financial independence this gave him allowed him to read widely and, like Billee, to lose his faith. He ends up becoming a Positivist (i.e. a believer in science not religion as the source of truth). The vicar argues with his bishop, loses his post and moves to London where he becomes an atheist lecturer.

So far, so satirical. His daughter, on the other hand, remains sweet and virginal and a devout Anglican. This little homily seems to me to epitomise the split-mind of Victorian men – happy to mock and satirise his fellow middle class peers – but coming over all pious and sentimental at the sight of a young English lady.

Thus du Maurier was quite relaxed and open about the ‘affairs’ of the many models he described in the French scenes – of Svengali’s one-time girlfriend ‘Mimi la Salope’, and of Trilby herself. But as soon as an English lady – Mrs Bagot – and even more, an English virgin – saintly young Miss Bagot – enter the narrative, all open-minded, relaxed tolerance of permissive living vanishes, and the narrative hits a cold hard wall.

As far as I can tell, for the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th, this was a common phenomenon. Young, and not so young, men went over to Paris to have ‘adventures’ i.e. casual sex, and then came back to England to act as stern, upright defenders of British sexual morality.

Fake context

You know the movie Forrest Gump where Gump is made to appear at various key moments of history, for example receiving a war medal from President Johnson, the inclusion of real historical events and personages designed to give verisimilitude to the story.

Same here. Du Maurier invokes a number of figures from the worlds of art and music and literature to lend reality to his tale. Regarding Billee’s success as an artist, du Maurier intrudes into the narrative to ask us whether we remember the first great success of Billee’s painting – ‘The Moon-Dial’ – or the great sale at Sotheby’s where his painting fetched a record price? He makes this effort in order to persuade us that Billee is one of the great contemporary British painters (although we all know that he doesn’t exist).

Similarly, after Trilby’s great appearance singing in Paris, du Maurier claims his fictitious character was reviewed by the entirely real figures of Berlioz (who, he says, wrote no fewer than twelve articles about La Svengali) and Théophile Gautier, who is made to write her a poem.

Back to Trilby

These digressions take up about 50 pages of this 300-page book. Only now do we touch back down five more years after the previous events (the vicar and so on).

Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird reunite to go to Paris to see a performance of Trilby under the management of Svengali. First they take a stroll around all their haunts – which gives du Maurier chance to describe how Paris changed in the 1860s due to Baron Haussmann’s famous boulevard-building programme.

They also bump into a raft of former acquaintances from their student days, most of whom have abandoned art. One of the liveliest of them, Dodor, is now working as shop supervisor in a haberdasher’s store and is engaged to the owner’s daughter. Another, l’Zouzou, a soldier who was, to their surprise, related to a grand ducal family, they meet on an outing to the Bois de Boulogne, where he is entertaining his bride-to-be, a very ugly American lady named Miss Lavinia Hunks, and her incredibly wealthy mother. This is all the opportunity for much knowing satire and mockery.  Such is life. Sic transit gloria mundi, and other truisms.

Our trio then attend the Paris premiere of Trilby’s singing, which du Maurier describes in pages of detail. The humble milk girl they’d known back in the day who could barely hold a note is now the possessor of the greatest voice the world has ever heard. (In a stroke of creative inspiration du Maurier has her sing mostly cheap trite street songs and nursery rhymes, but with such thrilling passion and expression that there is 15 minutes of standing ovation at the end of her brief concert.)

They go away stunned at the impact her performance has on them. Above all, for the central protagonist of the novel, Little Billee, it seems to unblock the cold channels of his heart. Once again he feels the thrill of passion and is swept up with genuine love for his friends and burning jealousy for the man Trilby has married, no other than her mentor, the tall, swarthy, oleaginous Svengali.

Next day Little Billee pops down to the post office to write and send a letter to his dear mama. Who should be there but Svengali, with a clutch of letters. Svengali notices our hero:

looking small and weak and flurried, and apparently alone; and being an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew, he had not been able to resist the temptation of spitting in his face, since he must not throttle him to death.

That ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ is on the face of it, heart-stoppingly offensive and anti-Semitic. You have to remember that a) plenty of other characters are given the same kind of excessive description based on national stereotypes, especially big strong Anglo-Saxon Taffy – and b) that du Maurier’s style delights in hyperbole and exaggeration and c) that it creates humour by concatenated repetition. So, for example:

As for Trilby, G—, to whom she sat for his Phryne, once told me that the sight of her thus was a thing to melt Sir Galahad, and sober Silenus, and chasten Jove himself – a thing to Quixotize a modern French masher!

Galahad, Silenus, Jove and Don Quixote are all dragged into a short sentence (which also makes a throwaway generalisation about the French) in a classic example of du Maurier’s technique of comic hyperbole, of overdoing it for comic effect.

Or sentimental hyperbole, as when Svengali’s sidekick Gecko describes his devotion to sweet Trilby:

‘Well, that was Trilby, your Trilby! That was my Trilby too – and I loved her as one loves an only love, an only sister, an only child – a gentle martyr on earth, a blessed saint in heaven!’

That’s five descriptive phrases in a row, a glut of descriptors, which are piled up like this in order to satirise the speaker.

Indeed, all the characters, in their dialogue, and the narrator in his prose, are given to overemphasis and repetition. It’s part of what makes the whole thing feel like a Victorian play, crammed with moments of comedy, sentiment, horror and shock by turns.

So I think the purpose of that ‘Hebrew’ sentence is comic rather than insulting. On some level, now lost to us, the unnecessary repetition of ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ was meant to be humorous. As that last clause – ‘since he couldn’t throttle him to death’ – is also typical of the mocking exaggeration du Maurier applies to all his characters.

Anyway, Little Billee fights back and isn’t getting anywhere, when Taffy, who has witnessed the whole episode, steps up to Svengali who, recognising him, cowers in terror. Tall, strong, manly, Anglo-Saxon Taffy takes ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ Svengali by the nose and wags his head from side to side before delivering a stinging open-handed slap. While the manager of the hotel calls for the police, Svengali runs off, and doesn’t bring any charges.

Taffy gives Svengali what for

Taffy gives Svengali what for

This all happens in Paris. Then our trio return to England and to their separate pursuits. Little Billee goes down to Devon again, this time accompanied by Taffy, who turns out to be have connections with the vicar and with the local gentry, and gets taken up by them, the two artists generally making a very favourable impression on the local society and peasants.

Once they have all celebrated a quiet Christmas, Billee and Taffy return to London in order to see Trilby’s London debut. They don’t know that that very afternoon Svengali had been in a brawl with his loyal and devoted lieutenant, Gecko.

Back in those bohemian Sunday afternoon sessions, Gecko had often played violin for Svengali and, as Trilby’s singing career took off, Gecko had continued to be lead violin in the orchestra, whose arrangements Svengali wrote himself.

But all through those years Gecko had grown more and more devoted to Trilby. The encounter with Billee and Taffy had put Svengali on edge and tetchy. Several times during the afternoon’s rehearsals he had criticised Trilby’s singing and, finally, rapped her over the knuckles with his baton.

At which Gecko snapped and leaped at him, stabbing Svengali with a shallow cut on the neck. Gecko is manhandled away, doctors are called who patch up Svengali’s throat but tell him on no account must he conduct this evening in case the wound bursts again.

So that evening, at the grand theatre in London, where are assembled the cream of high society and stretching up away into the gods, everyone who is anyone, Trilby goes to sing with Svengali, for the first time, not conducting, but in a box, though still placed so he can see her.

But when the band strikes up, and the conductor turns to Trilby, the statuesque woman in the expensive ballgown appears dazed and confused. ‘What am I doing here?’ she asks. ‘What do you mean, sing?’ The conductor begs and implores her to perform and so she eventually reluctantly gives in and – gives vent to the tuneless, cracked voice the bohemians remember from all those years earlier.

The shocked audience starts booing. Trilby bursts into tears and is hustled off the stage. It is discovered that Svengali is dead. He died of heart failure in his box and had been sitting there with a rictus grin on his face and black demonic eyes empty of life.

Our heroes – the Laird, Taffy and Billee – swarm backstage and, when Trilby obviously recognises them, the show’s impresario allows them to take her home with them.

They put her up in Billee’s Fitzroy Square rooms. And here the truth comes out. She remembers nothing about the previous five years. Her memory is that she first fled Paris to escape Billee – lived miserably in the countryside for a while then,after her kid brother died, came back to Paris, suicidally depressed and unable to sleep, and came across Svengali somewhere. And he helped her to sleep. And he adored and worshipped her. And they seemed to travel around a lot and she was often tired. That’s all she can remember.

When they explain to her that she is one of the most famous women in Europe, that she is the most famous singer in the world, she laughs and puts them off and says, ‘Get away, nonsense, who are you trying to kid?’ She has no memory at all of her world-conquering career. For the entire time she has been the puppet of Svengali, the master musician and hypnotist.

And now Trilby is drained and broken. Only 23 she looks 30, her skin white and translucent. For the last thirty pages of the book she wastes away and dies. She is surrounded by the three chaps and her maid, and regularly called on by the best doctors money can buy, but they can do nothing.

Du Maurier wrings every last drop of emotion from the situation, making Dickens’s description of the death of Little Nell look like a newsflash. First he gets Mrs Bagot to come all the way from Devon and, upon seeing how nobly Trilby is dying, to realise what a foolish woman she has been and to beg Trilby to forgive her and Trilby begs Mrs B to forgive her and both women collapse in tears – as does the gentle reader.

Mrs B and Trilby have a long conversation about God, death and forgiveness, in which Trilby reveals that the worst thing she ever did in her life was go off for a carriage ride with some admirers and leave her five-year-old brother crying at home. Mrs Bagot cries. Trilby cries. The reader cries.

Then, right at the end, from out of nowhere a packing case is delivered and Trilby unwraps it to discover a fine photographic portrait of Svengali in his Hungarian musicians outfit, staring straight out of the photo. Trilby is lying on a couch, places it on her feet, holding it at full length and then… a strange change comes over her. Svengali’s intense black eyes hypnotise her one last time, from beyond the grave, and she sings the Chopin Impromptu in A flat which was her signature piece, sounds of supernatural beauty which bestil the room and move the listeners to tears.

Then she is gone. Doctors called. Death confirmed. Not a dry eye in the house.

The death of Trilby

The death of Trilby

Postscript

Cut to twenty years later at the Grand Hotel on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris where Svengali had spat at Billee and Taffy pulled his nose and slapped him.

Taffy is now married to Little Billee’s sister, but alas Little Billee is dead. Trilby’s dying words were ‘Svengali, Svengali, Svengali’ and this prompts the sensitive Billee to have a recurrence of the brain fever which had afflicted him all those years earlier. He sickens, wastes and dies, an ‘early death, his manly, calm, and most beautiful surrender.’

Well, anyway, Taffy and wife have come back to Paris sometime in the 1880s. Once again du Maurier shows off his knowledge of the city as he has the happy couple tour round all his old haunts. But the purpose of this final section is that he takes Mrs Taffy to the theatre and notices, down in the orchestra pit, a grey-haired violinist who looks like Gecko, Svengali’s old assistant.

It is Gecko and Taffy invites him out for a meal. And now, for the first time, we hear the full story and Gecko clarifies, if we had any doubt, that there were two Trilbies: the sweet innocent natural girl – and then the robotic hypnotised singing machine which Svengali and he spent three long years hypnotising and training to sing note by note.

Not only notes but inflections, volume, stress, every element of singing was drilled into her by the painstaking Svengali. Once again Gecko emphasises that Svengali was a musical genius, and had a crystal clear idea of what perfect singing should be, but which most humans fell short of.

But because he exercised complete control over Trilby, he was able to programme her like a robot; and, eventually, after the long years training, control her with the slightest movement of his eyes or his baton.

So these final pages make explicit the theme of the double, the doppelgänger, and suddenly I’m thinking of Jeckyll and Hyde, and the Picture of Dorian Gray and all those Sherlock Holmes stories which are based on people living double lives, the whole late-Victorian fascination with two-sidedness. Trilby the sweet innocent / Trilby the robot.

Gecko says it was horrible to see Trilby turned into an automaton; only on a few occasions in all that time was she truly herself. He leans his head on his arms and weeps. Truly this is not a happy book. Taffy orders Gecko a cab and pours him into it. Then Mr and Mrs Taffy stroll home through the deserted streets of Paris, looking forward to going back to England, back to their quiet little country home and their happy family.

For all its jaunty humour and carefully calibrated irreverence, Trilby ends with a hymn to the pieties of home and family every bit as whole hearted as Tennyson’s great mid-Victorian poem, In Memoriam. It’s final words are characteristically in French, but the sentiment is piously British and Victorian.

Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de ta famille?’

Anti-Semitism

Quite obviously the novel brings together two blatant, popular and enduring stereotypes or topoi: the pure, upstanding, virginal white English woman in jeopardy from a dark, swarthy, threatening foreigner from the East. These are so obvious, and have been written about and criticised so often, that I can’t think of much to add except for a few thoughts about Svengali.

The most striking thing about the Jewish characterisation of Svengali is how breath-takingly in-your-face it is.

Trilby went to see him in his garret, and he played to her, and leered and ogled, and flashed his bold, black, beady Jew’s eyes into hers, and she straightway mentally prostrated herself in reverence and adoration before this dazzling specimen of her race. So that her sordid, mercenary little gutter-draggled soul was filled with the sight and the sound of him, as of a lordly, godlike, shawm-playing, cymbal-banging hero and prophet of the Lord God of Israel – David and Saul in one!

Not only Svengali is described in anti-Semitic terms. His first attempt to hypnotise someone is:

Mimi la Salope… a dirty, drabby little dolly-mop of a Jewess, a model for the figure.

Du Maurier notes that one of the contemporary music scene’s greatest singers is of Spanish or Sephardi Jewish ancestry:

For Glorioli – the biggest, handsomest, and most distinguished-looking Jew that ever was – one of the Sephardim (one of the Seraphim!) – hailed from Spain, where he was junior partner in the great firm of Moralés, Peralés, Gonzalés & Glorioli, wine-merchants, Malaga. He travelled for his own firm; his wine was good, and he sold much of it in England. But his voice would bring him far more gold in the month he spent here; for his wines have been equalled – even surpassed – but there was no voice like his anywhere in the world, and no more finished singer.

And, surprisingly, the protagonist of the story, Little Billee, is described as having a tincture of Jewish blood in him:

In his [Little Billee’s] winning and handsome face there was just a faint suggestion of some possible very remote Jewish ancestor – just a tinge of that strong, sturdy, irrepressible, indomitable, indelible blood which is of such priceless value in diluted homœopathic doses, like the dry white Spanish wine called montijo, which is not meant to be taken pure; but without a judicious admixture of which no sherry can go round the world and keep its flavour intact; or like the famous bull-dog strain, which is not beautiful in itself; and yet just for lacking a little of the same no greyhound can ever hope to be a champion.

As usual, when you read these kinds of comment in context you realise that they are more complex and multiform than the term ‘anti-Semitic’ (or ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’) allow. They are just selected examples from a spectrum of comments based on ideas of racial characteristics which we have, by and large, abandoned.

In fact these four examples demonstrate how du Maurier applied racial stereotypes toall his characters, and invoked a wide range of ‘types’. Svengali has all the threatening stereotypes du Maurier can muster heaped on him but Mimi is, by contrast, a hapless victim. Glorioli is characterised as not an Eastern  but a Spanish Jew, and therefore is described in different terms from the other two.

And this last paragraph, where he says a drop of Jewish ‘blood’ enhances character doesn’t appear to be an insult but a roundabout form of praise of Jews – albeit based on ideas of ‘race’ or ‘blood’ which we now find abhorrent.

Also, anyone angered or horrified by the cruder descriptions of Svengali must also bear in mind that du Maurier also makes him tall and powerful. He is a big threatening man. And credit is repeatedly given to his unquestioned musical genius. Svengali plays the piano to concert level and is credited with arranging the music for Trilby to sing with great taste and precision.

And, after all, we should remember that Svengali is invited to the heroes’ Sunday afternoon parties. Invited, not banned. Du Maurier is interested in creating a rounded, if objectionable, character. He is a novelist, not a Nazi.

Anyway, this spectrum of opinion about Jews is itself only part of the broader spectrum which includes comments about all manner of races – the French ‘race’ and character is pored over at length, the Americans come in for some ripe satire, at least half the negative characterisation of Svengali derives not from his Jewishness, but from the (arguably more damning) fact that he is German.

He could be very funny, Svengali, though he was German, poor dear!

Let alone the countless mocking descriptions of all aspects of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ character, some fond, some satirical, some surprisingly patriotic, some openly scathing (about the narrow philistinism of the English bourgeoisie).

The point is that the entire book comes from an completely different way of looking at human nature – in terms of the intrinsic values of identifiable categories called ‘races’ – which tried, throughout the 19th century, to make sense of the diversity of human beings by grouping them into categories.

All ages do this. Our own age – as I’m reminded every time I open a newspaper or turn on the radio – enthusiastically groups humans into categories according to present-day concerns, namely ‘women’ (who all and everywhere need our help), ‘people of colour’ (who need to be more represented in culture and organisations) and Muslims (who are the victims of Islamophobia). Against them are lined up racists, sexists and Islamophobes.

These are just the same kind of sweeping generalisations but, because they belong to our time, we take them for granted – just as much as du Mauritier’s readers accepted stereotypes about the English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Germans and Jews.

Reading du Maurier’s racial generalisations doesn’t offend me. It feels as remote from real life as reading the medieval Catholic literature which damned Jews and Muslims to an eternity in Hell. (There is hair-raisingly anti-Semitic content in Dante, who also condemned the Prophet Mohammed to a special place in Hell.)

None of that offends me. It is of anthropological and historical interest. I am interested in the cultural system these old categories embodied and elaborated, and the light it sheds on how previous societies created and structured their values. It’s no different from reading contemporary journalism which blames ‘gammons’ for Brexit and ‘angry white men’ for Trump. A lot less harmful because it is so obviously from a vanished era, and it is done with sympathy and humour.

I’m not trying to let du Maurier off the hook. There is a virulence and vehemence about the characterisation of Svengali which I can easily imagine being very offensive to any Jew and indeed any progressive liberal reading it these days.

But on the other hand, he is the baddy. Baddies, in boy adventure stories like this, always are laden with all the negative qualities the writer can muster.They generally are cruel, sadistic bullies, often from the East (reflect on the villains in the James Bond books; plenty of eastern stereotypes, not least about Russia).

Every age tries to make sense of the world by creating stereotyped categories of human beings to populate it with, those on ‘our’ side and those who are ‘against’ us, and then proceeds to vilify and insult those opponents. To imagine that our own society doesn’t do just the same is naive.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction from the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi (1982)

The Lord our God, the King of the World, had divided the waters of the Red Sea, and the chariots had been engulfed. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them on quails and manna? No manna descended from the black sky, but only pitiless snow. (p.65)

Primo Levi

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919. He was taking his final exams in chemistry as Italy joined Hitler’s war (June 1940), and then pursued a number of job options designed to conceal his Jewish identity. In 1943, when the situation in the civilian world became impossible for Jews, he joined a partisan group in the mountains outside Turin, but was quickly captured by Fascist forces. He was held in an Italian internment camp before being shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Here his chemistry expertise secured him a ‘good’ job and helped him survive a grim and horrifying year, before the camp was liberated in 1945 and he made his way, via a long detour into Russia, back across a ruined Europe and home to Turin.

Levi took up various jobs in post-war Italy while writing short stories and an account of his year in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo. This wasn’t much noticed when first published in 1947, in a country still prostrate with poverty and wanting to forget the war – but had more impact when republished in 1958. It was translated into English as If This Is a Man in 1959. It was followed by a sequel, The Truce (1963/65) describing his long odyssey home after release from Auschwitz, and then by a trickle of short stories, further memoirs, poems and novels. All depict with unsparing accuracy the horrors which he and tens of millions of others, Jewish and Gentile, had to endure as Europe descended into barbarism and anarchy.

The combination of unflinching truthfulness about the horrors he’d witnesses, and the quiet dignity of his civilised worldview and restrained style, led Levi, by the 1980s, to be considered one of Italy’s leading writers and, in some quarters, as a secular saint.

Narrative levels

The novel operates on least three narrative levels:

  1. The present The ‘present’ of the main narrative which moves forward in simple chronological order, the events of one day or night following the others consecutively. The chapters are long and broken up into shorter sub-sections, a flexible technique which allows some scenes to be described in detail while others move swiftly over months of relative inaction.
  2. The remembered past Most of the many characters in the novel has a back story which we learn about at some point or other. In addition, many of them tell anecdotes about the adventures and travels which brought them to join the partisans. Thus, from the level of the Continual Present, the text repeatedly opens doors into events from the past, recalled around a campfire, over a drink, in the safety of the forest or a ruined building – memories which slowly form a mosaic, the remembered fragments of a lost, an exterminated, civilisation.
  3. History The text is divided into 12 chapters and each of them has a formal date stamp, as the present narrative moves slowly from ‘July 1943’ to ‘July-August 1945’. In the early chapters the events seem to take place in a nameless wilderness and the characters have the archetypal power of types – the silent one, the strong one, the lost one, the angry one – like modern equivalents of The Pilgrim’s Progress or extras from Waiting For Godot. But as the novel progresses, the context of the wider world impinges more and more – especially after the partisans hear over a crackly radio that Mussolini’s government has fallen and the Allies have invaded Italy (September 1943) – and the story is pulled out of its timeless allegory and into the orbit of actual history, becoming less mythical, less archetypal, more the story of individuals in recognisable times and places.

If not now, when?

Levi published If Not Now, When? in 1982 under the Italian title Se non ora, quando? It was translated by William Weaver and published in the US in 1985. Some 40 years after the events it purports to describe.

I was expecting it to be about his time in the mountains outside Turin with the Italian partisans, but it isn’t at all. It is set a thousand kilometres away, in the vast empty spaces of south-west Russia and describes the adventures – or bare survival – of several groups of ‘partisans’ – in fact little more than ragtag groups of men, women and children – who’ve somehow escaped the Germans as they swept into Russia in 1942, and have survived to endure an incredibly harsh hand-to-mouth existence in the wild.

The narrative describes their extended trek across the marshland, forests and fields of Russia and Belarus, across the border into Poland, and then on to Germany. It features a host of harrowing and upsetting incidents along the way, as the group joins and splits from other partisan groups, Jewish and Gentile, and struggles to survive, to kill or sabotage German forces where they can, sustained by hatred, revenge, fear, and the dream of one day journeying to Palestine to start a new life.


Plot summary

Mendel and Leonid

The novel opens with two Jewish men meeting in the woods. Mendel ben Nachman, a watchmaker, is 28. He saw the Jews of his village, Strelka, rounded up by the SS, forced to dig a pit, then shot and buried in it, including his wife, Rivke, his ballebusteh, the queen of his house. Throughout the novel her death and his visions of her body, lying cold and lifeless in a pit of lime and mud, haunt his days and especially his nights. Mendel was dragooned into the Red Army artillery and fought numerous battles before being defeated by the Germans and escaping into the forest.

Mendel is talking to Leonid, trained in paratroop school, caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp or Lager (as Levi always calls them) near Smolensk, who has escaped and lived wild. Mendel has made a base of sorts in the forest, near Valuets, a village near Bryansk, and Leonid has just stumbled across it as the novel opens. They eat, smoke, chat. Two Jews with terrible stories to share and a minimal approach to bare survival in the wild. After a few days a little girl, all unwary, stumbles across the base. She’ll tell the local peasants. They must move on. And so begins their epic trek.

The Uzbek and the Heinkel

Mendel and Leonid meet Peiami Nazenovich (p.14), who’s made a base in a crashed German plane, a Heinkel. They warily chat, then they barter salt for some mouthfuls of a rabbit he’s caught and cooking. Food. Hunger. Barter.

They move on, towards Nivnoye marshes, and come across a larger camp with some scores of ‘partisans’ ie men and women who are surviving in the woods, led by Venjamin Ivanovich (p.33) As they approach the camp, the band are celebrating the end of the war, a bit prematurely since in fact it’s only the overthrow of Mussolini (July 1943). Surely the war can’t last much longer, they sing happily. Little do they know. Venjamin is suspicious of them because they are Jews and, after they’ve been with them a few days, advises them to leave, to press on West towards Novoselki, in the midst of the Polessia marshes, where rumour has it there’s an entire village of hiding Jews, the so-called ‘republic of the marshes’.

The republic of the marshes

The first hundred pages or more of the novel refer to place names but I couldn’t find many of them on a map. They appear to be so generic that there are scores of them scattered across the vast empty spaces of western Russia and Belarus. The landscape – frozen marshes, snow-capped forest, secret hideouts – is as stark and primeval as the elementary human relationships it is describing. Men and women are reduced to their basest needs: food, shelter, a smoke, companionship. It is the minimal landscape, the psychological ground zero of Waiting For Godot (1953).

After walking for more than ten days Mendel and Leonid come to the ‘republic of the marshes’, based on an abandoned monastery hidden in the forest and inhabited by a group of armed Jewish survivors. It is ruled by Dov, in his fifties, who comes from faraway Siberia where the comet exploded and destroyed hundreds of miles of trees. The Germans have not got anywhere near Siberia so he’s one of the few characters who can be confident that his native village still exists and the people he knew will still be alive. Almost all the others know their villages have been burned and everyone they knew murdered by the Germans. Mendel and Leonid are welcomed to the ‘republic’ and given tasks  in the routines of chores, foraging, guarding, cooking, as autumn comes on, August and September.

At which point the group get a tip-off that a German force is in the area, trying to track down surviving partisan bands. There is just time to prepare some defences, to build camouflaged trenches, when the Germans attack. There’s a big firefight with machine guns – the heaviest weapons the partisans possess. The fleetest of foot escape out the back while some see the slower members being caught, lined up against a wall and shot by laughing SS officers. Old Adam was wounded in the thigh and bleeds to death a little distance away. His daughter, Sissla, keeps on, weeping. Ten partisans survived the attack.

Ulybin’s partisans

Dov leads the survivors north where, after weeks of travel, they stumble into guards for a larger band led by a tough man named Ulybin. This is based in three wooden barracks hidden in forest near Turov (p.74). These are Russian and Polish partisans, not Jews. They accept the Jews as allies but, in a series of personal encounters, explain that they finds them strange and uncanny. They tell them they had included a group of Jews, led by the eccentric Gedaleh Skidler, but he didn’t get along with Ulybin and, after one almighty argument, Gedaleh had led them off.

Some Red Army officers appear with information and supplies. Dov, injured at the monastery and visibly aged since, reluctantly goes off with them, to what they all refer to as ‘the Great Land’, meaning Russia, free Russia unoccupied by the Germans, but making it sound like a country from an allegory.

In another sequence the partisans discover a handful of Germans have built a triangle of fires a few days march away, which they are lighting to get German planes to drop supplies. Ulybin selects a group of the fittest men to carry out a small mission, to walk across country to the strip, to shoot the handful of Germans who man it, and create an alternative drop zone a mile away, then returning to the barracks with their booty (p.103). All goes according to plan, and the partisans feast their eyes sorting through the food and munitions. But next night the German planes drop bombs fly low over the fake landing zone and drop bombs instead of supplies. Somehow they’ve learned about the partisans’ trick. Several men are killed by the bombs.

The Gedalists go their own way

To everyone’s surprise, twenty or so pages after he went off to ‘the Great Land’, Dov returns with Russians bearing supplies, and accompanied by the troupe of Jewish partisans led by Gedaleh. They had been in Lyubin when the Germans took it and killed all the Jews they could find. They escaped into the woods and here they are. Gedaleh holds a summit meeting with Ulybin. Ulybin’s men have been ordered East to join up with Red Army forces. Gedaleh considers he has different aims, to head West, harass the Germans, and break through the line.

The survivors split into two groups, Gentiles going with Ulybin, all the Jews deciding to follow Gedaleh, plus one token Russian, Piotr, who can’t explain it but feels he’s come to like and respect the Jews. There is a moving scene where he tries to put into words why he likes them, egged on and ridiculed in equal parts by his Jewish audience. It is one of the many scenes where the nature of Jewishness – what is it to be a ‘Jew’ – is discussed, probably the most prominent theme in the book.

The rest of the novel follows the epic trek of Gedaleh and his thirty or so partisans who come, over a period of time, to refer to themselves as the ‘Gedalists’. Gedalah is much more emotional and unpredictable than Ulybin. He used to be a shoe salesman and keeps an old violin with him in homage to the time it stopped a bullet going for his heart, at Luninetz, and which he later ironically decorated with a medal taken from a dead Hungarian. He partners off with one of the five or so women in the group, plain, lazy, bubble-bursting Bella. Gedaleh’s mercurial character, his flashes of humour, his impulsive decisions, his quickness to take up the violin and start playing a Jewish folk tune, are a major flavour in the rest of the book.

In the windmill

After weeks of trekking, the Gedalists hide out in an abandoned windmill miles from anywhere. One of the youngest in the group, Isidor, can’t stop himself paring away the mould from the walls and eating it. He is 17, and hid from the Germans in a hole under a stable with the rest of his Jewish family for four years, until the peasants hiding them had milked them of all their money at which point they betrayed them to the Germans. Isidor, who happened to be taking one of the rare permitted walks into the woods at the time, returned to watch, from hiding, a squad of teenage Nazis beat his mother, sister and father to death. He ran away, survived for weeks in the wild, then stumbled upon the group, but has been mentally disturbed ever since, given to compulsive behaviour and obsessed with fantasies of revenge.

On one of the peaceful evenings, Gedaleh plays folk tunes on his violin and then an arrangement of a long poem by a Jew, Martin Fontasch. Gedaleh tells his story. Martin was a writer who escaped to join a partisan band. When the Germans captured him they gave him thirty minutes to write a last poem, before they shot him.

Do you recognise us? We’re the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight.

If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when? (p.127)

Here, as in scores of other memories and vignettes on almost every page, the novel stuns and appals with the understated way the characters share stories of horror and unendurable suffering. Each of them is a survivor and a witness to barbaric atrocity.

Along the trek, Leonid who we first met in the opening pages, had paired off with Line, a skinny, blonde woman named after the English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. But one night Mendel, overcome by memories of his dead wife and exterminated village and, very characteristically, recalling the women and love affairs of the Patriarchs and Elders from the Old Testament, finds himself seducing Line. They silently climb the stairs to the windmill’s rickety upper floors and make dry, sad (and, one imagines, very dirty) love. But Line was the only thing keeping Leonid together and next morning he is gone, along with a machine gun, to Geladeh’s fury.

The relief of Chmielnik

Having crossed the border from Belarus into Poland, the Gedalists hear from locals about a small concentration camp or Lager at the nearby town of Chmielnik, and go on a mission to liberate it (p.170). There is a great deal of tension on the long walk through the snow to get there and they arrive only to discover they are too late to save most of the inmates, who have been shot and incinerated. The air of the surrounding area is heavy with the ashes of incinerated human beings. Behind the barbed wire fence remain only ten walking skeletons.

The partisans approach carefully, realising the watchtowers are abandoned, their machine guns gone, but there are one or two guards patrolling the perimeter. The terrifying character known as Mottel the throat-cutter silently kills the ones out patrolling, and then the partisans attack the guardhouse with grenades. At least one guard survives and prompts a prolonged firefight, before they storm the building, finish off the wounded and drag the officer outside. The partisans bicker and quarrel about what to do until the German stands to attention and says, ‘Get on with it’, and they shoot him.

In the brief firefight Leonid, who had rejoined them, is shot dead. He had given up the will to live anyway. But not as much as the Lager inmates. Only one will even walk out the gates, and he hasn’t gone far into the woods with the partisans before he asks to go back.

The Free Polish Army

The Gedalists hear that there’s a long goods train in a siding at a town nearby, Tunel, and go to loot it then sabotage it. Here they are unexpectedly surrounded by armed men led by Edek, 23, leader of a squad of the Free Polish Army, the Armia Krajowa, and Marian, his experienced sergeant. The Gedalists are disarmed while Edek seeks guidance from his superiors (p.184). The Gedalists settle into a modus vivendi with the Poles.

In November the Polish Army group picks up a distress call from a group of fellow Poles surrounded by Wehrmacht forces in the nearby Holy Cross mountains (p.196). The Gedalists volunteer to help, and set off accompanying Edek’s Poles to travel across country for several days. When they arrive, the mountain is shrouded in fog. They make their way slowly to the summit, intending to surprise the surrounding Germans, and so help the besieged forces escape. But the firefight which kicks off is very confused, it’s never clear where the enemy actually is, and after chaotic firing and explosions, they appear to disappear altogether into the fog.

As our guys climb the mountain they discover nothing but dead bodies and a fortress at the top completely filled with emaciated corpses. The Germans had starved them to death then left. Once again they are too late. Once again the forces of Death triumph. The Jews lament and Mendel, who has emerged as a moral focus of the text, wonders why, why does evil prevail?

The Russians arrive

Back at the barracks the partisans are celebrating a wedding. A while earlier Gedaleh had suggested that a way to ‘cure’ young Isidor might be to make a man of him, to take his virginity and the woman they call White Rokhele, ten years older, had obliged. Now they are very definitely an item and Rokhele comes to Mendel, who has established a sort of authority, as a man who knows prayers and sprinkles his conversation with Biblical blessings and references, asking him to marry them.

In the middle of the celebrations, a terrifying bombardment kicks off, deafening everything, a monstrous barrage of shells and munitions screaming overhead, some landing terrifyingly close. Initially the Gedalists think it’s a German attack on them, but then realise it’s actually a full scale attack by the nearby Russians on the German lines. The front line of the war in the East has crept up to them and now is passing right over them (p.210).

In the midst of the chaos one of the partisans on guard duty outside crashes through the door, clutching a man they think might be a spy, named Schmulek, who he found prowling round just before the bombardment began. But Schmulek claims to be a partisan like themselves and begs to be allowed to take them to his hideout. Amid the deafening din of the shells, some of the Gedalists follow Schmulek through the woods to a well. In its walls are embedded steps down which they clamber to find the entrance to a cave. In fact to a warren of caves. At one stage, Schmulek tells them, 200 Jews took refuge here. Now all of them are dead except him – in the middle of this chaos more memories of atrocity and murder. Our partisans cower in the dark, listening to the inhuman rage of the guns over their heads.

The schoolhouse at Wolbrom

Next morning, when they emerge from the well-cave into the unnaturally quiet landscape, it is to find the well surrounded by laughing Russian soldiers. A political commissar turns up and the mood changes. He rounds up the other survivors from the Gedalists’ ‘barracks’, and they are disarmed and driven off to the nearby town of Wolbrom. Here the Red Army authorities accommodate them in an abandoned school and feed them, they are treated alright, even though the commissar is sceptical about their story of being real genuine fighting partisans. He thinks Jews can only be helpless victims. But while they await some kind of orders from above about what to do with the Gedalists, and the weeks go by, right-wing Poles start to hassle them. First they daub anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, then chuck a Molotov cocktail through the window. It is time to leave (p.221).

The Lager at Glogau

The Gedalists steal a lorry from a vast vehicle dump near the railway station and head West towards Glogau, just inside Germany (though, after the war, it became part of Poland). The high anxiety of stealing the lorry at night, and then the bickering and arguing about who should drive the truck (since none of them know how to drive) are described with deadpan humour. But some days down the road they run into a platoon of Red Army soldiers under the command of an angry corporal who impounds their vehicle and they are again detained – but this time behind the barbed wire of the former Lager or concentration camp at Glogau (p.230).

But it is not under concentration camp conditions. Once again they are fed and watered by the Red Army. And the officer in charge is a puzzle: he claims to be named Smirnov, Captain Smirnov, but Mendel and the others suspect he is a Jew pretending to be ethnic Russian.

One by one Smirnov calls the partisans in for interviews. To Mendel he explains that he wants them to write their story. He wants a record made of this vast panorama of chaos and destruction and suffering. The Gedalists mingle with other camp inhabitants and hear their – generally horrifying – stories. A French woman in particular recounts her long harrowing journey from Paris high society to the lowest pit of hell in a concentration camp. It is just the latest of the many harrowing accounts which stud the text, which make it not just the story of a handful, but emblematic of an entire generation, of an entire race hunted to near extinction.

Eventually it is May 1945. The Gedalists wake up one day and all the Russians are gone. The camp gates are open. Smirnov leaves a note telling them where to find a stash of machine guns and ammunition. The Gedalists move out, heading west further into Germany.

Vengeance in Neuhaus

The end of May finds them at the German village of Neuhaus, near Dachau. The German army has surrendered. The Americans are in charge. The towns and roads are packed with displaced persons trying to find their way home. In Neuhaus they find themselves among a crowd of Germans, who mutter anti-Semitic insults. Suddenly there’s a shot from somewhere, and the woman they call Black Rokhele slumps to the ground and quickly dies (p.241). The crowd vanishes, it is impossible to tell who did it.

That night the male Gedalists go on a revenge attack, breaking into the local Rathaus or town hall, killing the bodyguards, throwing grenades, executing all the men they find. Ten Germans for one Jew. Exactly as the Germans did in so many of their occupied territories. And, being Jews, they debate it fiercely afterwards: is revenge justified? Bible heroes carry out vengeance, so does God condone or forbid it? If it’s wrong why, as Jozak says, does it feel so right?

Mendel, who has emerged as the reader’s representative in the text, simultaneously the most Jewish (the most learned in Bible teaching and Talmudic law) and the most sceptical of the group, can’t decide. To be a Jew seems to involve being endlessly plagued with questions and anxieties.

But mostly, the Gedalists just want to get out of Europe, out of this place where there is no safety and no escape from endless persecution and contempt.

They hand themselves into the American authorities, who note their names, then let them go on their way, in their easygoing  Yankee manner – so unlike the murderous Germans or suspicious Poles or unreliable Russians. They walk on to Plauen, to the big railway station here, on the main Berlin to Italy line (p.246).

Train to Italy

The Geladists find a derelict house in the town to make a base and set about bartering for food. Over the next few days Geladeh chats up one of the men who works on the German railroad, who plays the flute. They are to be seen playing flute and violin duets. Abruptly, one night, Geladeh announces he’s got his railway friend to arrange for an entire carriage on the next train heading south to be made available to them. It’s a hush hush operation and in the middle of the night the surviving 31 Geladists pack their few belongings into the carriage, which the railroad man attaches to the long locomotive. The whistle blows and it sets off chuntering slowly south towards Italy.

The British Army Jews

At the border of the Brenner Pass, the train is stopped and the carriage opened by British Palestine Jews, operating with the British Army but licensed to help and rescue surviving Jews (p.256). There follows a long discussion about whether to accept their help or not during which their spokesman, Chaim, lays out the merits of going to Palestine but on condition they hand over their weapons at the border to the Allied border guards and declare themselves stateless persons. After much debate among the group, they agree.

Milan

The train rumbles into the bombed-out central station at Milan. The British Army Jews had given them the address of the Assistance Centre for Jews in the city. Processed through here, they are sent out of the city to a farm in the countryside, where the Geladists are housed in peace and comfort, where there is regular food, all they have to do is help with the farm work, sometimes loading rather heavy crates, which they suspect are full of weapons, onto trucks (p.266). All of them now want to leave Europe and make their way to Palestine to found a new state, a state where Jews won’t live in fear.

They are surprised to be invited to a party in the city, given by a very swanky fashionable couple. Four or five go and find themselves completely ill at ease among city dwellers, a type none of them have ever known, and who poke and prod them like zoo animals. ‘If they knew everything we’d done, they’d be scared of us,’ says Mendel (p.269). And the reader has become so inured to the hardships and horrors of their journey, that we too feel uncomfortable – we resent the tourist superficiality of the well-heeled Milanese who seem to have come through the war unscathed and enjoy the frisson of talking to real genuine partisans!

In the middle of their embarrassment, there’s a phone call from the farm. Their comrade, the one they call White Rokhele who Mendel married to Isidor on the night of the great bombardment, and who the text has recorded becoming more and more heavily pregnant over the past few months, has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital.

With relief the Gedalists exit the party and catch a taxi to the maternity hospital, there to meet with their comrades, Izu, Bella, and the baby’s father, Isidor, the one who saw his own family beaten to death by the SS, the one who Rokhele ‘healed’ with love and sex, now pacing the room like any expectant father.

It is a painful labour, there are complications, doctors and nurses rush in and out and tell our guys to be patient, while all along I had a bad feeling that God (and the author) might pull one more brutal hurt from his bag.

But no – Rokhele is safely delivered of a baby boy. And as the small group huddle round laughing and celebrating, another group, of nurses and doctors, is huddled round a newspaper that’s just been brought in, with an enormous headline. A new kind of weapon, an atomic bomb, has been detonated at a place in Japan named Hiroshima. And on this ominous, on this world-threatening note, the novel ends.

New life has come into the world. The mother’s friends celebrate. But a new technology which could end the entire world and place all previous barbarity in the shade, has entered at the same moment. God and the author have left a bitter blow to the end, not the one I expected, one much bigger and which shadows our lives to this day.


Jewish

‘A dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent’ (p.5)

The book is saturated in Jewish traditions, Jewish proverbs, Jewish stories, Jewish music and humour, rabbinical teachings, with numerous characters referring to (what we Gentiles call) ‘Old Testament’ characters, as if they lived only recently, as if their lives provide useful examples of how to behave now, people to compare ourselves against, here in the midst of the worst calamity humankind has ever known.

He, Mendel, if they were to ask him his age, and he decided to answer sincerely, what would he say? Twenty-eight, according to his papers, a bit older when it came to his joints, his lungs and heart; and on his back a mountain of years, more than Noah and Methuselah. Yes, more than they, since Methuselah begot Lamech at the ripe old age of one hundred eighty-seven, and Noah was five hundred when he brought Shem, Ham and Japheth into the world, six hundred when he built the ark, and a little older when he got drunk for the first time… No, he, Mendel the watchmender, roaming about the woods, was older than they. (p.23)

Many of the characters speak only Yiddish, and the book is alive with the language itself, and its traditions, stories, jokes and riddles, with its peculiar kind of argumentative wisdom, with its vivid words and phrases.

‘You’re a nebbish, a loser, a meshuggener.’ (p.30)

And also rings with the prayers and blessings and the age-old laments of persecuted Jews, updated to reference all the innovations of modern evil:

The Holy One, blessed be He, why was he hiding behind the grey clouds of Polessia instead of succouring his people? ‘You have chosen us among the nations’: why us exactly? Why do the wicked prosper, why are the helpless slaughtered, why bare their hunger, mass graves, typhus, and SS flamethrowers into holes crammed with terrified children? (p.61)

Why indeed? And why – everywhere they go – the unremitting hostility, anger and hatred of almost all the Gentiles, the contempt, suspicion, spitting, threats and violence, the Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred, why the virulent genocidal anti-Semitism which the characters experience or recall on almost every page?

The novel offers no answers, no redemption, except for the vitality of the text itself and the words and memories and lives and consciousnesses of the characters it creates. Implicitly, its message is that People are our salvation. There is no God. There is no Heaven. Life. Being alive. Living, breathing, thinking, are the greatest, the deepest, the fathomlessly profoundest gift. Everyone who spits on Life, holds Life cheap, who kills, alienates himself from the God who made us.

The story is its own justification. It bears witness to atrocities and suffering beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine. Yet it pulls and gathers this unspeakable horror into the great European art form, the novel, which proves able to takes all the abuse which can be hurled at it, only to emerge stronger and more powerful.

Not many writers can really be called ‘wise’. Many, especially many British and American writers, are merely provocative – creators of brands and personas which are good for a quote or a facile phrase, poolside entertainers, producers of fictions which morph seamlessly into TV dramas or Hollywood movies.

Levi is different. Even translated into another language, his books have a depth and dignity in their phrasing and rhythm, a restraint which accepts the full depths of horror but doesn’t give in to hysteria or despair, effortless insight into extremes of human psychology, which lift him onto another plane.

This is an astonishing novel, resonating on countless levels, which deserves to be read and reread and reread, to appal, to terrify, to teach and to inspire.


Credit

Se non ora, quando? by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi Editore, Turin in 1982; in English translation by Simon and Schuster in 1985; by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1985. All references are to the Abacus paperback edition of 1987.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/ 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)

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