Archive for November 2011

The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann

November 28, 2011

A Man’s a Man for a’ that . . .

Returning to this large novel after twenty-five years, in the 1996 translation by John E. Woods, one notices the following:

1. The central figure, Hans Castorp, is not attractive–things happen to him, largely. This fits with the general theme of passivity in the novel, most of whose characters are taking the Alpine cure for their TB at a sanatorium above Davos. The first 200 pages or so establish the lay of the land, so to speak, as Hans Castorp discovers what life is all about “up there”; then, the action is largely made up of his efforts to sort out how to live while avoiding a return to the “flatlands.” (He comes from Hamburg, a stand-in for Mann’s own Lübeck, both flat areas indeed, where, appropriately, Plattdeutsch is spoken.)

2. Hans Castorp’s mentor, the cheerful humanist Settembrini, moves to the valley halfway through the novel. Whether this has any symbolic or other meaningful significance is hard to see, but for plot mechanics, it opens things up a bit and forces the action out of the sanatorium itself. Such simple considerations matter even in the most ambitious of works.

3. The Magic Mountain is not modernist in the tradition of English-language novels–James, Conrad, Joyce–there is an apparently omniscient narrator, with gravitational attraction to Hans Castorp–no events are narrated that don’t involve him or give us his thoughts, rather than someone else’s (one exception–his friend Joachim sees him enter the psychoanalysis clinic). There are some apparent slips in later chapters where the narrator acts as though the “we” is identified with those up on the Mountain, perhaps the director, Dr. Behrens himself. There is even a slip of an “I.”

4. One of the last chapters, “Fullness of Harmony,” describes Hans Castorp’s discovery of the gramophone and his love of certain specific works. Wagner is not mentioned, but the novel’s climax is distinctly Wagnerian–after so much raffiniert talking, differences are settled suddenly, with a gunshot. Listen to Act II of Tristan.

Early stethoscopes

The Righteous, by Martin Gilbert

November 20, 2011

                                   The hero
Acts in reality, adds nothing
To what he does. He is the heroic
Actor and act but not divided.
It is a part of his conception,
That he be not conceived, being real.
Stevens, “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War”

The Israeli memorial Yad Vashem keeps a meticulous record of the “Righteous Gentiles,” those who made some effort to save Jews from the Holocaust. This book by British historian Martin Gilbert describes hundreds of these little acts of kindness in chapters arranged by geography. The detail is overwhelming in an odd inverse of other Holocaust histories. Rather than event after event of brutality, charitable actions of one kind and other tumble on in no apparent order, except for the organization by country that the chapters follow.

Some people saved their neighbors, others people whom they didn’t know at all. Some acted out of Christian imperative, or Communist doctrine, or a desire to give the conquering Germans a black eye. The motivation of some will never be known, because they were denounced and sent to the camps themselves, or shot in their own villages, or killed after the war was over by their neighbors who resented their assistance to the Jews. Without comment, Gilbert notes that many acted out of Christian duty while their coreligionists thought it equally their duty to aid the Germans in the roundups. Some even who had been vocally anti-Jewish before the war and agreed that the Jews were enemies of Christian civilization saved Jews, perhaps the first ones, whom they encountered as real people.

Mrs. Klima, in  Warsaw, took in a Jewish couple whom she didn’t know, out of a “sacred duty to shelter anyone in need.” When it was time to make her Easter duty, she didn’t see how she could avoid having to confess breaking the law by keeping the Jewish couple in her house. The Jewish couple moved out temporarily, in the thought that Mrs. Klima would thereby be spared having to confess what she had done. She went ahead and confessed anyway, but the priest was sympathetic and “assured her that she was performing a noble service in helping those in danger.”

Oskar Schindler gets attention here, as does Fr. Bruno of Belgium, who established a network to save over 320 Jewish children. Bishops, priests, and Protestant ministers are among the Righteous. Gilbert does not attempt to show who did enough, or the most, or whether the efforts of a particular Christian community were adequate under the circumstances. The focus is on the efforts actually made and the charity given. The book is generously illustrated with photos of those sheltered and their protectors. There are several pictures of young Jewish girls in their First Communion dresses as they hid out under assumed names.


Six Jewish girls hidden at convent of Lubbeek in Belgium (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Fateful Choices, by Ian Kershaw

November 13, 2011

But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.
–Joyce, Ulysses

The author examines ten “fateful choices” that determined the course of the Second World War:

1. London, Spring 1940: Great Britain Decides to Fight On

2. Berlin, Summer and Autumn 1940: Hitler Decides to Attack the Soviet Union

3. Tokyo, Summer and Autumn 1940: Japan Decides to Seize the “Golden Opportunity”

4. Rome, Summer and Autumn 1940: Mussolini Decides to Grab His Share

5. Washington, DC, Summer 1940–Spring 1941: Roosevelt Decides to Lend a Hand

6. Moscow, Spring-Summer 1941: Stalin Decides He Knows Best

7. Washington, DC, Summer-Autumn 1941: Roosevelt Decides to Wage Undeclared War

8. Tokyo, Autumn 1941: Japan Decides to Go to War

9. Berlin, Autumn 1941: Hitler Decides to Declare War on the United States

10. Berlin/East Prussia, Summer-Autumn 1941: Hitler Decides to Kill the Jews

Through these more or less chronological decisions, though there is a great deal of overlap, the author explores how things happened to unfold and how they might have gone otherwise. There is a great amount of detail in the book, and probably too much for all but the most dedicated history buff–who met with whom when, what was said and written, movements in one direction stayed, reversed, moved to a new course, and sometimes back to the original plan.

FDR’s determination to get the US into the war in Europe to help Great Britain is examined closely. He knew his political limits and was careful not to go further than Congress would let him at any particular time, but always looking for the event that would justify a declaration of war against Germany. Hitler tried to hold off war with the US until he could achieve victory in the east, instructing the U-boats not to fire on American ships in the Atlantic. As it turned out, Japan struck first, and Germany declared war on the US under the Tripartite Pact, relieving FDR of having to justify getting into the war. As a matter of pride, Hitler wanted to beat the US to the punch and declare war first.

Stalin’s belief that he knew more than anyone around him made Barbarossa a surprise. It wasn’t that Stalin believed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 would prevent an attack by Germany–Stalin expected an attack, but not until 1942 and was furiously working to rebuild the Soviet Union’s armed forces, whose officer corps he had largely destroyed in the purges. When the news came on June 22, 1941, he was flatfooted. Kershaw considers the interesting prospect of what might have happened if the Soviet Union had taken the initiative and attacked the Germans in Poland. In the end, though making for fun speculation, this is unknowable.