Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Five Reads of 2009

by Paul Doolan

1. Alex Ross. The Rest is Noise. Listening to the Twentieth Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

 A friend leant me this book and suggested that I read the first chapter, on Wagner’s influence, as I am a Wagner fan.  I surprised myself by reading the first chapter and then staying up late a few nights to get the whole book read.  Ross has, as far as I am concerned, turned a history of 20th century classical music into an almost unputdownable page-turner.  Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker and has that magazine’s gift of writing as an expert for the layman without insulting the latter. Frank Zappa supposedly said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” but if, like me, you have zero grasp of music theory but you are interested in modern classical music, this book is an ideal companion.

2. Tim Robinson.  Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness. Penguin Books, 2009. Tim Robinson is an Englishman who has made his home in the lonely west of Ireland for many years now.  Originally a Cambridge trained mathematician, he is an expert in geology, a cartographer, a visual artist and, as writer, a fantastic stylist.  This book takes us through a stretch of the Galway coast and mixes geology, folklore and history, while it introduces us to some of the characters who live or have lived in this magical area, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, who claimed that he could only think in the dark and that Connemara was Europe’s “Last Pool of Darkness”.  The polymath Robinson writes sentences of such startling beauty it makes me want to hang up my pen.

3. Hans Fallada.  Alone in Berlin. Penguin Classics, 2009 (Published in USA by Melville House with the title Every Man Dies Alone) Fallada wrote this book in the year of his death, 1947, just two years after the collapse of Nazism. It is a novel set in Nazi Berlin. A simple, working class couple decide to oppose Nazi repression by writing an anti-Nazi slogan on a postcard every week, and they drop the postcards in strategic public places. The Gestapo attempt to hunt them down. The couple’s naïve attempt at resistance is almost pathetic, and, unknown to them, has no impact whatsoever except to set the brutal thugs who run the political police against them. Their act is doomed to failure and futility, but does, in some way, preserve their human dignity.This is not only one of the best reads of 2009, but of this century. This Tolstoyian novel contains over a dozen memorable characters. It is stifling, even terrifying in places and its dissection of what it means to live under a totalitarian dictatorship is unparalleled. I have read scores of books on Nazism, but nothing on a par with this. It makes for uncomfortable reading – how often have I collaborated with decisions that I have been opposed to? How can humans preserve their dignity while working and living in a system that is inhumane? The fact that this genuine masterpiece was published in 1947 in German and we had to wait until 2009 for a translation into English (by Michael Hofmann) speaks volumes about the insularity and ignorance of the English speaking world.

4. A.S. Byatt. The Children’s Book. Chatto and Windus, 2009. A book of incredibly rich texture and poignant detail, Byatt’s historical novel brings to life an array of fictional characters in late Victorian and Edwardian England – writers, potters, puppeteers and other middle class anti-establishment members of the establishment seeking an alternative lifestyle.  Some critics have attacked her for weighing down the story with a surplus of historical detail, but this is equivalent to attacking Tintorreto for including too many brush strokes in his historical paintings. Byatt’s characters become real as they emerge out of their detailed historical background. History makes the characters more than the characters make history.  And, for the reader, the tragedy is made more heartbreaking by knowing that World War One is waiting around the corner.  One thing though: Byatt describes the lively artistic scene in Ascona in the early twentieth century, populated by vegetarians, nudists, neopagans and would be Hindus, but she locates Ascona is Italy, while it is (and was then) in Switzerland.

5. William Trevor. Love and Summer. Penguin, 2009.This might be William Trevor’s last novel, seeing as he is now in his eighties, which would be sad indeed.  Nevertheless, let us be thankful, for this tale of love, loyalty and betrayal is near to being among his finest.  It is a slow moving story, set in a small town in Ireland during the 1950s. No inter-textuality, self-referentialty or other post-modernist high jinxes in sight here. Instead the plot slowly unfolds with a pared down simplicity and sympathetic inevitability that is the mark of this master. Not a word is wasted or misplaced.

I just today finished Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Venice - what an unusual book.  A novel that reads like part fiction, part memoir, part travelogue.  One half (in Venice) is all drugs (cocaine), very graphic sex scenes, drinking binges - a sort of desperate, tired superficiality, Jay McInerny at the Venice Biennale.  The second half of the book switches from third person narrative to first person, switches to Varanasi India, "the world's least boring place" and becomes a sort of spiritual quest.  The descriptions of Varanasi are dazzling.

One pair of books that really gripped me this year were James Lovelock's calls of desperation about climate change, The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia.  As he says, we are like tourists on a boat over Niagra Falls and we pretend to be unaware that the engines have just failed.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain

by Paul Doolan 
For devotees of Thomas Mann, Zürich, Switzerland, is somewhat a place of pilgrimage, for it is here that the Great Mann saw out his last years and came to his final rest.

The author of Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain fled from his native Germany shortly after the Nazi accession to power in 1933.  Mann and his wife headed for Zurich, the city where they had honeymooned in lavish style in the Hotel Baur au Lac in 1905. Mann wrote that he would never forget his five years living among the hills and woods of this beautiful city, but in 1938 they crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Soon after World War Two, fleeing the increasing intolerance of McCarthyism, once again the Mann family returned to the Old World and in 1952 they settled again in Switzerland.  In 1954 they moved for the last time, to a house overlooking Lake Zurich in Kilchberg.  A little over a year later Germany’s greatest man of letters was buried in the village cemetery.

Mann’s last study has been moved from Kilchberg and is today nestled in the beautiful Bodmer House, next to Zurich University at Schonberggasse 15.  It is opened to visitors on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons free of charge.  The house has a long literary tradition going back centuries – Goethe visited it on two occasions. On the second floor, Mann’s study appears like it was always there, an organic space grown within an ancient house.

To visit the preserved room of a long departed always has something ghostly.  What was once a room of creativity and life has become a shrine.  Stepping into Mann’s study is like entering the burial chamber of an ancient Saxon king.  The great man’s possessions are all here.  His Nobel Prize for Literature hangs in the entrance hall, near his death mask.  His books line the walls: Luther, Schiller, Ibsen, Joyce.  The massive mahogany writing desk, where he wrote all of his books, supports a calendar that says August 12th, the day of his death. On the desk stand what Susan Sontag once referred to as “a nest of small photographs in silver frames”, as well as his collection of Chinese boxes, a head of Buddha and a number of ancient Egyptian figurines.  Indeed there is something Egyptian about the room, the objects have been mummified.  Only the body is missing.  From the window, looking across the medieval town centre, in the far distance, perches Kilchberg church and cemetery, where Mann lies buried.

In June 1955 Thomas Mann turned 80 and the village of Kilchberg swarmed with well wishers.  Nearly a thousand cards, telegrammes and gifts arrived.  He was most touched by a gift from his children, a gold ring with a tramoline stone. Albert Camus sent his best wishes, as did Pablo Picasso.  The presidents of both Germanies, East and West, sent official delegations. The President of the Swiss Republic came to offer his congratulations and the rector of the prestigious Federal Institute of Technology arrived bearing an honorary doctorate for the octogenarian. A party was held in the village hall and the following night he was regaled by the Zurich City Council at a lavish reception in the City Theatre, the Schauspielhaus, followed by drinks at the Hotel Baur au Lac, where the Manns had spent their honeymoon a half century ago.

Mann seemed tired and easily flustered during these days, but otherwise in excellent health.  Two months later he died, after a brief illness.  Once again the quiet village of Kilchberg hosted visitors and dignitaries.  The small church filled to bursting.  The West German delegation took up a prominent place inside the church but the East Germans were prevented from bringing in their huge funeral wreaths, capped with the atheist hammer and sickle.  Voices were raised in anger.  Outside in the cemetery journalists hung around in untidy groups while onlookers roamed among the graves.

The 161bus from Zurich’s Burkliplatz stops at Kilchberg’s medieval village church, the end of the line.  The Mann family plot is towards the back of the cemetery.  Here the great man rests with his wife and three daughters.  The gold ring that they gave him lies buried here too. In a late afternoon in November I stand here as the moon takes its appointed course across the crystalline splendours of the valley with the mercurial, leaden waters of Lake Zurich below. And there, in the far distance, the towering marble statuary of the high Alps in full snow embraces the horizon.  The view is magical; I call it Mann’s Magic Mountain.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nursing Times

Stories in 2008 of thousands of Chinese infants made ill by contaminated milk powder briefly caught the world’s attention. Yet in 2007 alone, according to the United Nations International Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF), one and a half million babies died who otherwise might not have done if they had been breastfed: a figure that compares with the number of those murdered at Auschwitz. The ‘bottle versus the breast’ controversy has raged for over a hundred years, but the no less contentious ‘mother versus wet nurse’ debate goes back much further in history.  Whether or not mothers should nurse their own children has been a subject of debate from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome through all of modern European history to the present day. In this article I review the arguments that have been presented over the centuries and the way in which fashions have changed.
Read more this article which appeared in History Today magazine.