Posts Tagged ‘Childhood’

Grand Tour #8 – Germany. The Flying Classroom / Erich Kästner

April 19, 2017

I’ve got past form with Erich Kästner. I was so engrossed in Emil and the Detectives one evening in 2006 that I left my phone on a train and never saw it again. It would be on a train, I suppose. Anyway, with all of German literature to choose from I could have opted for one of the acknowledged classics – Werther, say, though that’s hardly original – but in the end I decided to return to dear Erich.

The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer) is a book ripe for rediscovery, published in a new translation by the legendary Anthea Bell just a few years ago with the original Walter Trier illustrations preserved. It’s a pleasure just to hold the handsome Pushkin Press edition in your hand. The translation was funded in part by the Goethe-Institut, which I remember being a useful source of Thomas Mann stuff during my A levels. Long may it prosper.

The book opens with adult Erich being nagged by his mother to write the Christmas story he’s been banging on about, only it’s the height of summer and he can’t get in the right mood, so he goes to the Zugspitze, the only place in Europe with snow. Part of his motivation for writing this story is that he has just read a book in which the children were constantly happy. Childhood is not like that, he writes, and part of the process of growing up is learning to weather the punches that life throws at you, even as a child, so that you grow emotionally as well as physically. From one of the introductory chapters:

Only when the brave have become intelligent and the intelligent have become brave will we really be sure of something that we often, but mistakenly, feel is an established fact: the progress of mankind.

The Flying Classroom was published in 1933, the same year Hitler was elected Chancellor, and Kästner saw the way the wind was blowing. The knowledge of what came shortly after its publication, the burning of Kästner’s own books by the Nazis, makes reading this one a particularly poignant experience, though the story itself is poignant enough.

I get the impression there isn’t much of a tradition of the school story in German literature. The only one that comes instantly to mind is Robert Musil’s nasty novel of sadistic bullying The Confusions of Young Törless. How I love that book; but it’s not what Kästner seems to be going for here (except in the scene where two boys from a rival school abduct Rudy Kreuzkamm and tie him to a chair in the cellar with a washing line). The school story is a predominantly British genre, and whatever Kästner’s model may have been (Kipling? Wodehouse?), he outdoes the established masters here.

The action takes place on the last few schooldays before Christmas, and centres ostensibly around preparations for a school play, The Flying Classroom, written by Johnny and performed by him and four friends. You’re bombarded by names at the start of the book, but it’s worth slowing down and getting to know each of the boys individually: there’s Johnny, the creative one; righteous Martin, the leader; smart Sebastian, the joker; diminutive and weedy Uli; and hulking Matthias, Uli’s protector, who dreams of being a boxer and is rarely seen without a piece of cake in his hand.

At the start it appears that Johnny will be the central character, but every boy has his own story, the most engaging being those of Uli, who puts himself at risk in an effort to prove his bravery, and Martin, who is devastated at receiving a letter from his mother telling him she cannot afford the train fare of 8 marks for his journey home, and so he must stay at school for Christmas in the company of a small number of other boarders. The resolution of this plotline brought tears to my eyes, which is an effect books almost never have on me.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Mrs Lintott, of course, in The History Boys. I always knew that teachers were human, because I’d been brought up by two of them. If you’re a child with a parent teaching at your school, the assumption is that you live in perpetual fear of their embarrassing you in front of your peers. With me it was different, my father a universally popular man, me wanting occasionally to shout at children expressing admiration for him, ‘He’s not nice and funny at home, he’s a tyrant! A TYRANT!’ (The reality was probably somewhere between the two.) Let’s return to Mrs Lintott. When I quote Alan Bennett it’s usually to make a point, and the point here is that in Kästner’s world the lesson that one’s teacher is a human, when learned, deepens rather than undermines the relationship.

The boys’ teacher Dr Bökh (nicknamed Justus for his decency – ‘I’d go to the gallows for that man if I had to!’ swears Matthias), instead of disciplining them for delinquency, tells a candid story of his own childhood, and a friendship that he regrets having lost. This brings about a revolution in the attitude of the prefect Theodor, who treats the other boys more kindly. In another episode, the children deride their headmaster for his one repeated joke, but view him newly with sympathy and pity when, embarrassed, he attempts to tell a new one. Dr Bökh’s lost friend, it turns out, is an acquaintance of the boys, Dr Uthofft (known to them as No-Smoking because he lives in a no-smoking carriage from a decommissioned train), and the boys are able to effect a moving reunion, having intuited the importance of this friendship to the two men. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ in this demonstration of the potential of children to redeem adult suffering, and it is one of a number of moments that lift the book from mere greatness to magicality.

No-Smoking linked arms with Justus … ‘I’ll ask you at this moment, which I hope is a memorable one, not to forget your own youth! That may sound an unnecessary reminder now, while you are still children. But it isn’t unnecessary, believe us! We have grown older and yet we have stayed young. We two know what it’s all about!’

Dr Bökh and Dr Uthofft looked at one another.

And the boys privately decided, in their hearts, never to forget that exchange of glances.

I fear that out of context this reads as sentimental. Kästner is not a sentimentalist. He writes early on of communing by the slopes of the Zugspitze with a butterfly called Gottfried and a calf called Eduard. So far, so whimsical, you might think, but at the end he relates that Gottfried has died and Eduard has most likely been made into schnitzel. Everything has a season. The Flying Classroom isn’t sentimental, though it’s often gemütlich, in the best way. Reading it ought to be a Christmas tradition, like watching Fanny and Alexander or having a fistfight with your aunt.

It’s not sentimental, and it’s not soft. It’s robust and riotous and archly, absurdly funny. Sebastian scoffs at the sixth-formers taking dancing classes with girls. ‘They ought to read what Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about women,’ he rails. Professor Kreuzkamm, on learning of his son Rudy’s kidnapping, openly reprimands Rudy’s parents before the class. There are typographic jokes and puns, and always those warm, endearing illustrations. It’s a sad and joyous book, and I loved it.

Grand Tour #3 – France. Dawn & Morning / Romain Rolland

March 11, 2017

The name of Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was familiar to me, but it wasn’t until I read a piece by E.M. Forster, written on Rolland’s death (‘Romain Rolland and the Hero’, in Two Cheers for Democracy), that I became intrigued to read him. Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 on the strength of Jean-Christophe, a roman-fleuve in ten volumes, the committee citing ‘the lofty idealism of his literary production and … the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings.’

It’s not that I dislike lofty idealism of literary production exactly, but it’s rarely the first thing that attracts me to a book. Forster, though, made it sound good, recalling the excitement with which friends would ask one another if they’d read the latest volume, and stressing the musical aspect.

There is a scene in the opening volume … where the hero, still a baby, touches the piano for the first time, and experiments in the marriage of sounds. I have never come across a scene like it in literature, for it is not merely poetic, not merely good child psychology: it seems to take us inside a special chamber of the human spirit, and make us co-creators.

Given that Forster is never one to overstate anything, these are strong words indeed, and so I dug out (well, the staff of the University Library dug out) the first couple of volumes, Dawn (L’Aube) and Morning (Le Matin), in the hundred-year-old translation by Gilbert Cannan that no one has yet attempted to improve upon. It shows its age: Cannan anglicises the hero’s name as ‘John Christopher’, which would never be done these days. (I’ll stick to Jean-Christophe, if you don’t mind.)

romain-rolland

Cannan’s introduction made me wonder whether it was too late to turn back:

The first volume … carries John Christopher from the moment of his birth to the day when, after his first encounter with Woman, at the age of fifteen, he falls back upon a Puritan creed.

This sounds like precisely the kind of posing small-minded macho conservative moralism I despise, and Forster isn’t blind to that aspect, suggesting that Rolland’s ‘lifelong insistence on the Hero … has its distant parallel in the sinister cult which has produced Hitler.’ That said, there’s some of that in Montherlant, whose writing I love, and how much of a male chauvinist can a newborn baby really be? I decided to power through.

It didn’t take long for me to see what Forster was on about. Dawn opens with Jean-Christophe, a few hours old, being nursed by his mother while his paternal grandfather waits nervously for J-C’s profligate father to come home. In the scenes that follow, Jean-Christophe grows gradually, almost imperceptibly, learning to play. The reader shares his joy.

He was also a magician. He walked with great strides through the fields, looking at the sky and waving his arms. He commanded the clouds. He wished them to go to the right, but they went to the left. Then he would abuse them, and repeat his command. He would watch them out of the corner of his eye, and his heart would beat as he looked to see if there were not at least a little one which would obey him. But they went on calmly moving to the left. Then he would stamp his foot, and threaten them with his stick, and angrily order them to go to the left; and this time, in truth, they obeyed him. He was happy and proud of his power.

(Perhaps there are hints of fascism here too.)

Rolland is not a sentimentalist. He ends the first chapter with a warning that his ‘little salamander’ will be ‘brought to reason’ by life. The dawn of the book’s title doubtless relates to the dawn of Jean-Christophe’s life, but also to the several dawnings on him of life’s brutalities. These start at an early age, the realisations of his family’s social inferiority and of the merciless cruelty of others, both at school and at his mother’s place of work. (There are scenes in both Dawn and Morning that strongly recall Pip’s childhood humiliations in Great Expectations, which I like to imagine Rolland cherished, though it’s probably my sick fancy.)

Rolland notes almost boastfully that Jean-Christophe never has a day’s illness, and I thought: Heroism, tick. Heroes can be so boring. But while he has an iron constitution, Jean-Christophe is an intense boy. Sent back to school against his will following an episode of bullying, he attempts to strangle himself. He is troubled by various spectres: the spectres of a boy born to his parents before him and now dead, whose recycled name he has inherited, and of any number of mysterious things that scare him. He invariably suffers in silence, trying to be grown up, not knowing how to communicate his fear to his parents. The loneliness of childhood is brilliantly depicted.

The members of Jean-Christophe’s family embody radically different approaches to life (which is convenient). His musicality is nurtured by his grandfather, who notates Jean-Christophe’s various hums and turns them into piano pieces for him to play; his father encourages his pianism with thoughts of exploitation; his uncle Theodore cares only for the mercantile, and favours Jean-Christophe’s younger brother Rodolphe; but his uncle Gottfried becomes a vital influence: he dismisses Jean-Christophe’s early compositions as ugly, not out of cruelty but because he sees only the beauty of nature, which Jean-Christophe comes to see too.

Jean-Christophe had often heard these sounds of the night, and he loved them. But never had he heard them as he heard them now. It was true: what need was there to sing? … His heart was full of tenderness and sorrow. He was fain to embrace the meadows, the river, the sky, the clear stars.

Jean-Christophe’s unhappiness deepens in Morning: his patron, the Grand Duke, is a philistine, and the conversation at home leaves him intellectually stifled. If you’re a hero, you’ve got to be a bit miserable. Unexpectedly, he falls in love with a boy, Otto (Rolland’s quite explicit that it’s love), but the fact that J-C’s never had so much as a friend before means he goes somewhat overboard in his correspondence.

It is three days now since I heard a word fall from your lips. I tremble. Would you forget me? My blood freezes at the thought … Yes, doubtless … The other day only I saw your coldness towards me. You love me no longer! You are thinking of leaving me! .. Listen! If you forget me, if you ever betray me, I will kill you like a dog!

Out of context this reads as highly comical, but surrounded by the details of their torrid relationship it’s perfectly convincing, if tiresome. I suppose adolescence is boring, though I don’t think I ever wrote anything that overwrought when I was in love, or if I did then I had the decency to keep it to myself. The relationship is cruelly curtailed when Jean-Christophe’s brother Ernest discovers the correspondence, calls J-C a major-league fag (you have to read between the lines), and that’s that. The young can be very puritanical, can’t they.

Before the end, though, comes Woman. To be specific, Minna, a girl the same age as Jean-Christophe whom he is teaching to play the piano. To begin with he thinks he’s got the hots for her mother, but his affections change subtly, and she finds she feels the same way. This relationship is rather more engrossing than the one with Otto, partly because, nineteenth-century morality being what it is, something might actually end up happening. I particularly liked Rolland’s observation of the selfishness of love, of how when you’ve got only one person on your mind everyone else can fuck off. (I’m paraphrasing.)

To tell the truth, they were kind only by fits and starts … Jean-Christophe, who was consumed with love for all humanity, and would turn aside so as not to crush an insect, was entirely indifferent to his own family. By a strange reaction he was colder and more curt with them the more affectionate he was to all other creatures; he hardly gave thought to them; he spoke abruptly to them, and found no interest in seeing them. Both in Jean-Christophe and Minna their kindness was only a surfeit of tenderness which overflowed at intervals to the benefit of the first comer. Except for these overflowings they were more egoistic than ever, for their minds were filled only with the one thought, and everything was brought back to that.

Excuse my quoting at length, but though I didn’t love it wholly I thought there were parts of it that were very good indeed. I won’t go into detail about what happens with Minna, but you already know about his Puritan creed, yawn.

Getting back to Forster: ‘As the series proceeded, our excitement slackened,’ he writes, and he seems to suggest that the award of the Nobel Prize was as much for Rolland’s having completed his proposed ten volumes as for the volumes themselves, which fall off in quality when Jean-Christophe reaches Paris at around the halfway point. Forster doesn’t think Rolland’s work will survive as Proust’s (in which respect, well predicted), but he singles out Rolland’s internationalism for praise. That’s something I can certainly get behind, and if I end up not returning to Rolland I hope it will be because I have other authors from other countries demanding my time, and not because of indifference.

I’m sorry this has been so long.

france

The 1947 Club: The Path to the Spiders’ Nests / Italo Calvino

October 12, 2016

What a difference a pair of glasses makes. Philip Larkin and Italo Calvino shared a lifespan, born barely a year apart, in 1922 and 1923 respectively, and dying within three months of one another in 1985. That’s commitment. Larkin read English at Oxford, while Calvino studied agriculture at Turin and Florence, but when their countries came calling Larkin’s duff eyesight got him out of National Service, whereas Calvino joined the Resistance. It was Calvino’s wartime experience that formed the basis of his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno), which I read in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation, revised by Martin McLaughlin.

the-path-to-the-spiders-nests

Calvino’s protagonist is Pin, a boy of indeterminate age (I’d have put him at about 12 or 13; other sources – OK, Italian Wikipedia – say 10). He has had a difficult life. His parents are dead and he now lives with his older sister who works as a prostitute. He spends his time in bars, cracking jokes and singing sexy songs he doesn’t really understand in the company of much older people. He’s full of pugnacity and bravado.

All Pin talks about is men and women in bed, or men murdered or put in prison, stories picked up from grown-ups, fables they tell among themselves.

Pin is desperate to be taken seriously by the regulars at the bar, and so when one of them dares him to steal the gun of Frick, the German sailor who is his sister’s most frequent visitor, he sees the chance of acceptance. Having stolen the gun, his first instinct is to play around with it (‘Your money or your life!’), but then he marvels at the power it gives him, the power he wants so badly.

Pin cannot resist the temptation any more and points the pistol against his temple; it makes his head swim. On it moves, until it touches the skin and he can feel the coldness of the steel. Suppose he put his finger on the trigger now? No, it’s better to press the mouth of the barrel against the top of his cheek bone, until it hurts, and feel the circle of steel with its empty centre where the bullets come from. Perhaps if he suddenly pulls the gun away from his temple, the suction of the air will make a shot go off; no, it doesn’t go off. Now he can put the barrel into his mouth and feel its taste against his tongue. Then, the most frightening of all, put it up to his eyes and look right into it, down the dark barrel which seems deep as a well. Once Pin saw a boy who had shot himself in the eye with a hunting-gun being taken off to hospital; his face was half-covered by a great splodge of blood, and the other half with little black spots from the gunpowder.

He hides the gun in a secret place he knows on the riverbank where some spiders have built their nests. This place, known only to Pin, acquires a symbolic significance. Throughout the book he looks for someone he can trust enough to share the secret of its location, someone who will understand its beauty.

***

At times I struggled with this book, not with the words (the translation reads very well) but with maintaining an interest in it. It’s partly the result of an ingrained apathy to war stories. Some years ago I exchanged my copy of A Farewell to Arms for a not very good ballpoint pen as part of a Rag Week swap thing. You were supposed to keep swapping and eventually end up with something incalculably more valuable than what you started with. I was happy enough with the pen.

People draw comparisons between this book and Italian neorealist cinema. Calvino, like Rossellini or De Sica, takes as his protagonists the downtrodden, the people uncared for by those in power, the people with no ability to help themselves. It’s admirable, if not always a great deal of fun. A late chapter introduces two new characters, the philosophical Kim and the practical Ferriera, apparently solely so they can have a polemical conversation about the motivations of Resistance men. It feels clumsy, and perhaps the older Calvino would have omitted it.

The theme of how easily people can be bought when they’re desperate recurs throughout: the group of partisans Pin eventually joins is betrayed by a renegade who defects to the enemy; Pin’s sister ends up consorting with the SS; even Pin himself considers joining the Fascist Black Brigade. More than once I thought of Louis Malle’s masterpiece Lacombe Lucien, whose antihero Lucien joins the Nazis when he is rebuffed by the local Resistance forces; more than anything else he wants to belong, even if it means turning his back on his own people. Pin, like Lucien, is bored of waiting for something to happen to him.

The effect of the indifference of the people around him is to make Pin’s mischievousness, which might otherwise be tiresome, amiable. When the sailor Frick arrives for an assignation with Pin’s sister, Pin informs him that she’s in hospital being treated for VD. His repartee is spontaneous and often amusing.

‘If you want to, you can get into the Black Brigade too,’ the militiaman says to Pin.

‘If I want to, I can get into that cow of a grandmother of yours,’ Pin replies readily.

Pin’s smart mouth is the catalyst for his departure from the Resistance. When the rest of the detachment goes off to fight a battle, he is left behind with the leader, Dritto, and Giglia, the wife of the cook, Mancino. Pin appears more interested in whether Dritto and Giglia will fuck than in watching the fighting, and when the others return he jokes about Mancino being a cuckold and is chased out.

The final chapter is the most beautiful. One last time Pin takes the path to the spiders’ nests. He walks past places where he should be playing, but has no appetite for play: the war has hardened him. When he reaches the spiders’ nests, he finds the place changed and the gun no longer there. It’s been so long since he visited. He’s at an impasse, unable to go back or forward, when Cousin (Cugino), a member of Dritto’s detachment, arrives unexpectedly. Might Cousin be the friend Pin has been looking for, the person who will understand the secret of the spiders’ nests?

This book is sometimes talked of as a coming-of-age novel, but it seems to me the opposite is true. Pin has spent a long time trying to be a grown-up in a world that has no place for children, and his incipient friendship with Cousin seems to signal a return to childhood innocence. Pin’s interest in sex throughout the book is vicarious: he understands it as something that obsesses the grown-ups who surround him, and as the means by which his sister makes her living, but is not interested in it for himself. When Cousin embarrassedly asks Pin if he can meet his sister, Pin is deflated: if, like everyone else, Cousin is only interested in sex, their friendship cannot bloom; but Cousin returns to him having changed his mind, and they walk off together, hand in hand, like Pooh and Piglet.

‘Can you remember your mother, then?’ asks Pin.

‘Yes, she died when I was fifteen,’ says Cousin.

‘Was she nice?’

‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘she was nice.’

‘Mine was nice too,’ says Pin.

‘What a lot of fireflies,’ says Cousin.

‘If you look at them really closely, the fireflies,’ says Pin, ‘they’re filthy creatures too, all reddish in colour.’

‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘but seen from this distance they’re beautiful.’

And they walk on, the big man and the child, into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.

I remember 4

September 18, 2016

I remember being scared of going on downward escalators when I was about nine or ten, and being ashamed of it as I knew I’d been able to go on them when I was younger.

***

I remember light pink fluoride pills.

***

I remember hearing Chopin’s Funeral March on the radio when I was ill and thinking how beautiful it sounded but wondering if it might just be delirium.

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I remember making a boiled egg for my father, perhaps because it was his birthday, and dropping it into the pan, under the impression that it would float, never having done it before, and the egg cracking on the bottom of the pan and the albumen emerging from beneath, and him being angry.

***

I remember a Year 5 Music lesson where I became aware I couldn’t see the board because I didn’t have my glasses and hoping desperately that I wouldn’t be asked by Dr T to read anything out because it would have meant admitting I couldn’t see.

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I remember wrinkled fingertips.

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I remember my little tin of blue Humbrol enamel paint that I bought to paint a model perhaps but ended up just opening every so often, prising the lid off with the end of a teaspoon to see the magical blue inside.

humbrol

I remember visiting Hinkley Point and being given blue plastic earplugs which I kept for ages afterwards.

***

I remember eating and enjoying tongue, without acknowledging to myself what it was.

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I remember assuming ‘several’ meant at least seven or so, and coming only slowly and stubbornly to the realisation that it might mean, say, three or four.

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I remember praying for God to kill me.

***

I remember the big yellow metal train in Welshmill Park with the graffito on saying PENIS LOVERS MEET HERE FRIDAY 8PM, and wondering what went on at such meetings.

***

I remember an awful assembly at St John’s in which I was part of a presentation on hair, explaining that people had straight hair because of flat follicles and curly hair because of round follicles, and not understanding why flat and why round, which I still don’t. And then saying of Charlotte M the line ‘Her perm won’t last long,’ not really knowing what a perm was or why anyone would want one, and dimly sensing, perhaps, the absurdity of parroting words I didn’t comprehend written by some teacher who had no idea what children were.

***

I remember Mr P saying it was always worth having a go during oral exams even if you didn’t know the word, as a pupil of his had once had his Brummie-inflected ‘a bee’ taken as ‘abeille’ and accepted.

***

I remember feigning that I’d expected Gianluca Vialli to be sacked as Chelsea manager, though I hadn’t and it upset me.

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I remember Maths Circus.