Monday, 24 November 2014
A thinker at Waldemarsudde
I was here, at Prince Eugen's residence on the exquisite Stockholm island of Djurgården, in the course of a gusty but bracing and mostly blue-skied afternoon in early October before the formal business of the Birgit Nilsson Prize. Imagine my feeling of strong serendipity when, a couple of days later, I picked up my copy of Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt - second in my reverse-reading of his great semi-autobiographical novels about the horrors of the Second World War, and it's he who is my subject rather than the Rodin edition in Waldemarsudde's grounds - to find that his first chapter begins here, too. Malaparte described 'a clear September day of almost springlike softness. Autumn was already reddening the old trees of Oakhill'. Don't know what that is in Swedish; I'll make do with a slope in front of the villa, on the left one of several sculptures by the inescapable Carl Milles, whose legendary house and garden elsewhere in Stockholm I meant to blog about but never found the time.
Malaparte gives the names of sundry creatures to the six sections of novelistic reportage around his journalistic time at the Eastern Front and near the Arctic Circle, fraternising uneasily with the supposed enemy: 'The Horses', 'The Mice', 'The Dogs', 'The Birds', 'The Reindeer', 'The Flies'. I'm reminded of the sequences of animals going wild when the protagonist is cast out in Kozintsev's masterly film of King Lear. The connections aren't always instantly apparent, but Part One instantly places its subjects in Chapter One, 'Du côté de Guermantes': Prince Eugen identifies the 'sad, yearning wail' heard across Stockholm's harbour as coming from ' the horses of the Tivoli, the amusement park opposite the Skansen', being led down to a small beach by a girl in a yellow dress.
The sun was setting. For many months I had not seen a sunset. After the long northern summer, after the endless unbroken day without dawn or sunset, the sky at last began to fade above the woods, above the sea and the roofs of the city, and something like a shadow (it was perhaps only the shadow of a shadow) was gathering in the east. Little by little, night was being born, a night loving and delicate, and in the west, the sky was blazing above the woods and the lake, curling itself up within the glow of sunset like an oak leaf in the fragile light of autumn.
Amid the trees of the park, the two statues, Rodin's 'Penseur' and the 'Nike of Samothrace' wrought in excessively white marble [artistic licence, see above] made one think, in an unexpected and peremptory way, of the decadent and Parnassian fin-de-siècle Parisian taste that at Valdermarsudden seemed artificial and uneal against the background of that pale and delicate northern landscape [further licence here, this time on my part, with another Milles bronze in the formal garden and the linseed mill of 1785 in situ].
In the Chinese-box construction of Kaputt, Malaparte uses his conversations with Prince Eugen at Waldemarsudde as a frame for flashbacks to various scenes on Capri with Axel Munthe, in the Ukraine, on the Finnish side of Lake Ladoga. And this last offers the most astonishing literary image in the book. Malaparte would have us believe that the horses of the Soviet artillery, in desperate flight from a forest fire, ran into the lake, which froze on them.
On the following day, when the first ranger patrols, their hair singed, their faces blackened by smoke, cautiously stepped over the warm ashes in the charred forest and reached the lakeshore, a horrible and amazing sight met their eyes. The lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds upon hundreds of horses' heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an axe. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice. And they were all facing the shore. The white flame of terror still burnt in their wide-open eyes. Close to the shore a tangle of wildly rearing horses rose from the prison of ice...During the dull days of the endless winter, towards noon, when a little faded light rains from the sky, Colonel Merikallio's soldiers used to go down to the lake and sit on the heads of the horses. They were like wooden horses on a merry-go-round. Tournez, tournez, bons chevaux de bois - turn, turn, good wooden horses. The scene might have been painted by Bosch. The wind through the black skeletons of the trees played a sweet, childish, sad music; the sheet of ice seemed to turn, as the horses of that macabre merry-go-round tossing their manes would curve to the sad tune of the sweet childish music.
Natually I went online in search of photographs of this extraordinary event. I should have known from my reading of Malaparte's The Skin: none exists of the catastrophe described. What I did find was a still from a Canadian film clearly indebted to the novelistic treatment of this phenomenon, which makes me want to see the work of Guy Maddin in what he calls a 'docu-fantasia', My Winnipeg. His horses have escaped from a burning racetrack to the Red River.
The line between truth and fiction is more than usually blurred in Malaparte's work, as I found out reading The Skin, or more specifically the surrounding essays giving background. And here, in an afterword by Dan Hofstadter, I learned things I'd rather not know. Such as, for example, that Malaparte's distaste at hobnobbing with the banality of evil in the shape of Reichsminister Frank, the Nazi governor of Poland, meetings which govern the shape of his novel's second part just as Prince Eugene is the connecting thread of the first, may have been real, but his attitude to Frank originally had a very different slant. The original draft, according to Lino Pellegrini, praised Frank to the skies when it seemed that Germany would win the war; 'later, seeing how the wind was blowing, Malaparte rewrote the manuscript'. He was not present at the Iasi pogrom, which he describes so vividly and horrifyingly; he did not see for himself the ghettos of Poland.
Perversely, I'm still not convinced by Hofstadter's detonation. I want to know more. The books burst with a sense of savage indignation that can't be faked. Malaparte may have been an opportunist, but he was also a profound artist. Unfortunately, given the nature of the hybrid form, it's not entirely enough to say that art is one thing, life another.
What he leaves us in no doubt of is the scarring-for-life nature of the horrors he witnessed, and nobody sets them before us with a greater strangeness of literary style. How Kurt Vonnegut dealt with his witnessing of the bombing of Dresden - or not, since he was walled up in the depths of Slaughterhouse Five while the firestorm swept through the streets above him - is cause for amazement of quite a different sort. Here the language is not florid and evasive but short and sharp in its irony and matter of factness. I've just read Charles J Shields' very readable biography of the great man, and I sense that it doesn't take into sufficient account the shaping effect of this trauma - Vonnegut was set to shovelling charred corpses in the aftermath - on an ambivalent personality.
His famous motto, or - let's not get the two confused - that of a key character, 'Dammit, you've got to be kind', was not always carried out in practice, least of all on those who ought to have been his nearest and dearest. But that's the human condition for you: which of us has always lived up to our ideals? Milton's seminal line on Satan in Paradise Lost, 'comprehending the good, but powerless to be it', surely applies to most of us. It's an upsetting mystery how the hell Vonnegut ended up in a second marriage with a careerist piranha whom nobody quoted in the book seems to have liked (and the first Mrs Vonnegut, Jane Cox, who strikes me as both brilliant and profoundly supportive, would have been relatively fine about it if he'd taken up with an earlier long-term mistress whose humanity she didn't doubt).
The book left me feeling very heavy, above all because Vonnegut seemed so miserable in his personal circumstances during the years leading up to his death. But the artist's life's his work, and there he made so many others happy and decisive. I was going to add a few lines about his son Mark's second book, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, but I ended up disliking this in many ways admirable man as I never quite could Vonnegut himself, so all the wisdom I thought I'd imbibed went up in smoke - unfair, perhaps, but there it is.
Another book both bitter and sweet, on a less cosmic scale than Malaparte's epics, perhaps, but no less resonant, and relevant here because of the past's effect on the present, is Maxim Leo's Red Love: The Story of an East German Family. Translated (superbly, I'd guess) from the German by Shaun Whiteside, Leo's history is essentially that of five people. There's the author himself, growing up in the crumbling East German system only to feel oddly bereft of a country when the Wall comes down, at least for a while. His parents, a rather beautiful couple if not without their troubles, are the wistful Anne who wants to believe in the system and how it can be changed from within and handsome artist Wolf, the eternal rebel who ends up being a man without a cause. And then, central to the book in every way, there are the two grandfathers: Anne's father Gerhard and Wolf's father Werner.
Gerhard's life seems like a screenplay, a story of unbelievable courage and integrity ultimately betrayed by a system. Max takes his days in the French resistance from Gerhard's own writings, which read like an adventure story too astonishing to be true, one you could film almost unfilletted; and yet since he seems to have been a man of total truthfulness, one could hardly impugn his veracity. The son of a courageous Jewish father, he escaped to Paris, then had extraordinary adventures and narrow escapes as a fearless youth plunging headlong into his work with the French resistance. Werner, on the other hand, seems like a feather for each wind that blows - a kind of Everyman, I suppose, with unbelievable luck. He adapts to Nazi ideology and the world of the GDR equally well, if not without repression and retribution. Having given us the two stories, Leo links them eloquently:
I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again. The persecution, the war, the imprisonment, all the terrible things that Gerhard and Werner had been through, could be buried under that huge pile of the past. From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream. The idea of building an anti-fascist state had a beneficial effect on both of them. Gerhard could devote himself to the illusion that GDR citizens were very different Germans from the ones that had once driven his family out of the country. And Werner could act as if he had always believed in Socialism. All wounds, all mistakes were forgotten and forgiven if you were willing to become part of this new society.
New faith for old suffering: that was the ideal behind the foundation of the GDR.
That is the explanation for the unbounded loyalty with which Gerhard and Werner were bound to that country until the bitter end. They could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lie they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time.
And their children? They were hurled into their fathers' dreamlands, and had to dream along whether they wanted to or not. They didn't know that founding ideal. And because they had nothing to overcome, nothing to hide, they found faith difficult too. They saw the poverty, he lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion. And they heard their fathers' phrases as they raved about the future. Much of the power and the euphoria had gone. And the grandchildren? They were glad when it was all over. They didn't even have a guilty conscience at kicking the state. What did I get from the great dream? Small-minded prohibitions, petty principles and jeans that looked like elongated Youth Front shirts. The energy of the state had been used up in three generations. The GDR remained the country of old men, of the founding fathers, and their logic no longer made sense to anybody.
There you have it; I hope the passage was worth quoting in full. The troubles of the fathers invade the hopes of their children, and children's children, more than we like to think. Inherited disposition to depression, for instance, may be a myth: was it not because my grandfather was an invalid for the last 24 years of his life, after his mustard-gas poisoning in World War One, that my father succumbed to invalidism in his late 50s, during five crucial years of my development, leaving me to deal with my own improperly unleashed demons in mid-life, too? But this is another argument altogether, for which all I recommend is that you read Darian Leader's superb little study Strictly Bipolar. And so it goes...
Which is why I should take us out of the woods of melancholy Waldemarsudde, round the bay on the south (above and below), which was always my intention to complement the north-side routes we took to and from the fabulous Thielska Galleriet in the early spring.
and in to the fruitful heart of Djurgården. Large co-operatives grow fruit and vegetables in a huge clear space in the centre of the island where the sunflowers still grew
and autumn was in the leaves but not in the light
while vines and lavender were still themselves close to the pavilion.
Now we head into the depths of winter, but bright, cold days like today can still lift the spirit. Nature is merely conserving its energy, not dead. Of course you knew that, but I find it comforting to remind myself.