Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading group: For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

This book, first published in Romania in 1934, and only last year published in English for the first time, has a history poignantly echoing its subject matter and theme.

It is the first-person story - narrated in the form of a diary and in many ways paralleling the author's own journal - of a young man who, as a student in 1920s Romania, struggles with anti-Semitism and the sense of his own Jewishness newly thrust upon him by the equal status recently granted to Jews in the country and the inevitable backlash. While the unnamed narrator will conclude at the end of the book: 'I will never cease to be a Jew, of course. This is not a position I can resign from. You are or you're not. It's not a matter of either pride or shame', he doesn't feel that Jewishness is his prime identity. Rather, he identifies as Romanian, or, as Clare, who had suggested the book, said, he feels that his identity is primarily rooted in the Danube and the fishing village beside it from which he comes. And he sees himself primarily as an individual, rather than a member of any grouping.

It is an identity he is denied not only by anti-Semites who see Jews as alien and the cause of the country's troubles, but by other Jews who see him as espousing the assimilationism they deplore. The early (undated) entries consist of reports not only of the beatings he and his fellow Jewish students suffer at the university - and the escapes and detours they have to make to avoid them - (before they are eventually virtually barred from lectures), but also of the lengthy arguments he has with the Jewish friends who espouse different positions from his own, and indeed from each other. Marcel Winder embraces the role of Jewish victim or martyr, metaphorically notching up his beatings on the bedpost; S T Haim is a fervent Marxist, preparing for revolution; and Sami Winkler is Zionist, planning to emigrate to Palestine. The narrator also meets Abraham Sulitzer, who as a travelling bookseller personifies the archetypal Wandering Jew, an anti-Zionist anti-assimilationist who insists on the supremacy and future longevity of Yiddish (and utterly derides the notion of the re-adoption of Hebrew, a 'dead language'), and the books he sells are, amazingly, Yiddish translations of European classics.

While the narrator cannot agree with any of his Jewish antagonists, he remains on friendly, indeed affectionate terms with them all, and all of their arguments, indeed their whole speeches and even their lectures, are laid out verbatim with scrupulous fairness in a book the overall tone of which is indeed wistfully affectionate. It is not a fairness that, on publication and for many years after, author Sebastian would experience over his book.

There are two non-Jewish characters by whom the narrator is immensely impressed: the brilliant lecturer Ghita Blidaru, who persuades him to move from law to architecture, and the architect Mircea Vieru, to whom Blidaru introduces him, and for whom he then works. Both impress him with their respective intellectual and creative abilities, and their liberal attitudes - although both, as the war approaches and antiSemitic attitudes harden and 'normalise', will eventually express anti-Semitic thoughts of their own, once again replicated by the narrator with thoughtful scrupulousness. Blidaru was based on Sebastian's real-life lecturer and mentor Nae Ionescu, whom he asked to write a preface to the novel. Unexpectedly, Ionescu wrote a denouncement of both the novel and the author, deriding him for believing that he could think of himself as belonging to any nation, and anything other than a Jew. Unfortunately, Sebastian allowed publication to go ahead with Ionescu's preface. Opprobium fell on him from all sides. The narrator hopes that Sami Winkler will 'prevail' in Palestine, but can't believe that he will. 'Two thousand years can't be overcome by leaving for somewhere,' he muses after Sami's departure, and he has wondered about the effect of settlers on the existing population in Palestine. The book, and the author, were consequently roundly condemned by anti-Semites and Zionists alike.

Everyone at our meeting was amazed by this book, by the way that it addresses so calmly and reasonably issues that seem again, today, too volatile to be considered with dispassion and dealt with via the kind of calm discussion that, as Clare said, is the only way to solve problems. We all thought it a very important book and that its publication in English in our present climate was salutary and timely.
Ann, a historian, said too that she was prompted to read up about the history of Romania which of course we don't learn about in the UK.

However, when Clare commented that she thought the book flowed beautifully, most people disagreed, finding that the long replicated speeches and extracts from lectures given by the characters required a different kind of reading from that of the novelistic mode of the rest, and thus made for a difficult, disjointed, overall read. Afterwards I met Trevor, who had been unable to make the meeting, and he said that his reaction had been the same. Nevertheless, all felt it was a book that one should read, and were grateful to have done so.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Reading group: Utz by Bruce Chatwin

Warning: some plot spoils.

Once again much time has passed between a reading group discussion - this one was held in early March - and my finally getting around to writing about it, and I'm afraid my account of our meeting may be a little sketchy.

Bruce Chatwin's final novel before his early death, this book concerns the story of Utz, a minor Saxon baron (he claims), a half-Jew and a lifelong collector of Meissen porcelain. Beginning with Utz's funeral in 1974, the story is narrated in the 1980s - in Chatwin's famously lapidary prose and with much erudition - by a male art specialist who as a young man encountered Utz in Communist Prague in 1967 (the year before the Prague Spring and the consequent Soviet crackdown) - his one and only meeting with him. Throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century, Utz had amassed and guarded his priceless collection which he now took the narrator to view, crammed into his small flat beside the Jewish cemetery. Earlier he had hidden it from the Nazis on his Sudetenland estate, and now, having pragmatically given up his estate to the Communists and retreated with his porcelain to Prague, he was protecting it from appropriation for the museum through one of his many 'deals'.

Most people in the group were fascinated by the book's theme (though John was a notable exception): that of the pathology of obsessive collecting, and the tension between an obsession with collecting material things that bind you to one place and the need to be footloose and free of possessions - a tension known to have been that of Chatwin himself, a former Sotheby's expert addicted to bohemian travel.

According to the story that Utz told the narrator, hassled in 1952 by the Communists over his collection, he had the urge to 'get out', away from Prague, and he 'escaped' to Vichy, tearing himself away from his collection and leaving it in the charge of his devoted housekeeper Martha (a former servant on his Saxon estate). But after failing to enjoy anything in Vichy, from the views to the food, and after failed attempts at sexual liaisons, he was soon drawn back. During the meeting the narrator concludes: 'The collection held him prisoner.'

The narrator also reports that early in his life Utz had written, in an article denouncing the 'suffocation' of museum collections in which things cannot be touched: '...the passionate [private] collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker.' Utz explains to the narrator the source of this fetishisation, tracing the connections between the Biblical notion of clay as the source of human life, the Jewish notion of the golem (central to the history of Prague Jewry) in which a gifted and learned Rabbi could create a golem as God created Adam, and the medieval notion of the Holy Grail and historical events linking it with the special clay required to make Meissen porcelain. 'Are you suggesting your porcelains are alive?' the narrator asks him, and Utz replies, 'I am and I am not.'

This ambiguity characterises not only Utz: it characterises the whole story, and indeed the book itself. It was pointed out in the group that on the occasion of Utz's first Vichy adventure it is not after all the porcelain, exactly, that draws him back:
He was desperately homesick, yet hadn't given a thought for the porcelains. He could only think of Martha, alone in the apartment.
The narrator, too, comes to doubt Utz's claim to have needed simply to get away - even entertaining briefly the idea that he was a spy - since it soon becomes clear that the trip to the formerly Nazi-collaborating Vichy became a yearly occurrence, and a yearly chance for Utz to deal in porcelain - as Utz says, when others were smuggling precious private possessions out of Prague and the hands of the Communist authorities, he was smuggling them in.

Ten years after the death of Utz in 1974, the narrator is passing once again through Prague. He visits the museum, knowing that part of the deal that Utz had made with the Communists was that it should go there after his death, only to find that the collection has in fact disappeared. He meets up with the professor who first introduced him to Utz, who now reveals information that undercuts the story we have learned so far, and the impressions the narrator has so far received. Utz, it turns out, was by no means the ineffectual lover he was presented as being at Vichy, and the strangely sumptuous bedroom the narrator had witnessed when visiting his flat in 1967 had been frequented - much to Martha's heartache - by a series of 'Merry Widows' and operatic divas. And Martha, who slept on the landing, had not been simply his servant, it turns out. In 1952 he had married her as a matter of convenience, in order not to be evicted from his flat. Sometime in the sixties, finally rejected by a young opera singer as a ridiculous old man, he accepted Martha fully as his wife and into his bed, marrying her again, this time in church, in 1968, the year after the narrator's encounter with him.

The novel ends with uncertainty. What actually happened to the porcelain? (I won't give it away here.) Did it really happen this way, and why? What were the motives? The narrator comes to his own conclusion, but it's one that he wants to believe, rather than one he can be certain of: that in the end material objects are nothing in the face of human love. The overriding effect is an evocative sense of the unfathomable mysteriousness of human motive and life.

Early on in the novel the author strongly signals this underpinning uncertainty by stating that Utz was of nondescript appearance, and that he cannot even remember whether Utz had a moustache. It will turn out later that he did have one - the professor, Orlick, will tell the narrator that tickling women's throats with it was Utz's particularly idiosyncratic seduction technique. In the early section the narrator addresses the reader in a confidential manner: 'Supposing, then, we add a moustache? ... On reflection, I think I'd better withdraw the moustache', thus not only leading us to read the whole story up to Orlick's revelation with a picture of Utz without a moustache before having our preconceptions overturned, but also explicitly highlighting the authorial choices, and consequent contingency and unreliability, of storytelling.

I have to say however that the way this is handled strikes me as not entirely successful. The book, which is very short, is related from a single time level - one year on from Orlick's revelations - and, since all of the events of the novel are over before the story is narrated, and the narrator clearly therefore knows the whole story before beginning, his uncertainty about Utz's moustache in the earlier part of the narration is inconsistent with his eventually evident prior knowledge of its existence. It may be that Chatwin is thus slyly conveying the unreliability of his narrator, and indeed of his own novel, but it seems to me, rather, a structural error in a book that on the level of prose style is a masterpiece of polish.

The treatment of Utz's funeral compounds for me this view. In the light of the end of the book we can see that the evocative tenor of the opening funeral scene, with 'jackdaws with twigs in their beaks ... wheeling above the lindens' - is the product of the narrator's imagination and surmise. The narrator is quite open about this: at the end, after recounting the revelation by Orlick of the fate of the porcelain, he states: 'I am now in a position to add to my account of Utz's funeral.' Since the narrator has in fact known the whole truth behind the funeral scene before beginning his narration - ie, his position with regard to knowledge of events hasn't in fact changed - this again seems a structural error.

We didn't address this in our discussion, though comment was (fairly belatedly) made on the unreliability of the narrator. It was Ann who had suggested the book, since, working in museums herself, she had been particularly interested in the subject matter. She had jotted down her thoughts as she reacted to the book, noting the elegance of the prose, but also wondering if the book was somehow patronising. If I remember rightly, she had wondered at the end if it amounted to very much. We all agreed on the elegance of the prose, but I said, in line with Ann's sense of patronisation, that I found it perhaps rather conventional and patriarchal. In spite of the thematic obsession with uncertainty, there seemed to me a patrician air of certainty in the manipulation of language, and I wondered too if there was a kind of cultural autocracy in the unexplained references to arcane knowledge and phenomena. Clare said she had wondered that too.

And that, I'm afraid, apart from the inevitable and lengthy dissection of the plot and themes and characters' motives, is all that I can remember of our actual discussion.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here