Posts Tagged ‘The History Boys’

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.

Reine des mouettes

November 9, 2015

Reine des mouettes, mon orpheline,
Je t’ai vue rose, je m’en souviens,
Sous les brumes mousselines
De ton deuil ancien.

Rose d’aimer le baiser qui chagrine
Tu te laissais accorder à mes mains
Sous les brumes mousselines
Voiles de nos liens.

Rougis, rougis, mon baiser te devine
Mouette prise aux nœuds des grands chemins.

Reine des mouettes, mon orpheline,
Tu étais rose accordée à mes mains
Rose sous les mousselines
Et je m’en souviens.

‘Sir, I don’t always understand poetry,’ pleads Timms in The History Boys, which I like to quote here ad nauseam. Well, there’s not understanding and there’s not understanding. If I don’t understand Ezra Pound, that may simply indicate that I’m a normal human being; if I don’t understand the poem above, an unpublished verse by Louise de Vilmorin (1902-1969), it’s partly because, vaguely competent though my French is, I will never have the comprehension of a native speaker, and so I fail to observe whatever idioms and intralineal meanings it may contain; in English I understand it even less. The last verse, in my rough translation:

Queen of the seagulls, my orphan girl,
You were pink given to my hands
Pink beneath the muslin
And I remember it.

Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean I don’t love it, as I love ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ or Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. The Beethoven defies analysis, up to a point (not that I’ve ever tried); this poem, slight, for all I know written in a stray quarter of an hour, probably doesn’t. But as I read it, thinking perhaps, What does this mean, I also think, How beautiful this is. I see the seagulls and the pink and the muslin and the mists.

When, ten or twelve years ago, I was in a voracious poetry-reading phase, I frequently read French poetry I didn’t comprehend, just for the feeling of the words. Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Mallarmé. The magic wouldn’t have worked with a language I didn’t speak at all – Hungarian, for example – but with French I knew at least how it sounded, if not always what it meant.

When, foolishly, I went to see Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen at ENO a few years ago, the banality of hearing it sung in English killed the opera stone dead. The mystery was shattered, Bizet’s clothes were well and truly off. For all I know the libretto is dreary in French too. Stephen Fry, writing years ago in the Literary Review:

Call me old-fashioned, purblind, hidebound, reactionary and out of touch if you will, but I believe that one of the great advantages of being born English is that one can hear the world’s greatest opera in a language other than that in which one asks strangers the way to the lavatory and orders deliveries of coal. However literate or musical the translation, opera in English always sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan. Most libretti are horribly commonplace and I feel very sorry for Italians and Germans who listen to Da Ponte and Wagner and cannot hear the pretty rhythms and alliterations of their two beautiful languages for the banal meaning they convey.

I’ve had assorted phrases from ‘Reine des mouettes’ swimming around my head for a week or so, and that’s because Francis Poulenc’s setting of the poem has insinuated itself into my brain. To quote Jeremy Lion, ‘It is a medically proven fact that if you set things to music you remember them much better, like the alphabet – and wars.’ Here is an educational song teaching facts about various countries of the world.

Poulenc was the closest thing to Haydn the last century could come up with. Four-square phrases, catchy tunes, humour, plus extra insouciance. He mingles joie de vivre and poignancy with speed and grace. I love Sylvia McNair’s performance here, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. Her vowels are a bit off, but together they have the measure of a song that is very difficult to perform.

Poulenc doesn’t hang about, does he? One semiquaver and you’re in. Hear the rhythmic variety of his melodic setting too, the first two lines syncopated, the third and fourth in regular quavers. The poem doesn’t have a regular metre (how does poetic metre work in French anyway? I get confused), but even if it did you sense he’d shake it up a bit to reflect speech rhythms. When the words recur towards the end of the song he introduces further rhythmic variation through triplet figuration.

The setting of the final stanza is especially delicious, the urgent, questing harmonies of the piano and the ‘quasi parlando’ vocal pressing for some kind of resolution, then the blissful release of the final two lines, prolonging the ecstasy of the eventual cadence. But the music doesn’t resolve with that last vocal phrase, ‘Et je m’en souviens’, but is carried by the piano to the subdominant, major and minor sevenths alternating gloriously before the longed-for release. Hard to describe Poulenc without using the imagery of orgasm. He’s just that kind of composer.

Any amount of analysis doesn’t explain why I feel the way I do about the music. You can break it down into chords and patterns, but exactly why this note here or that note there should make me shiver is a mystery, not least because I may be the only person it affects in this way. What has given me the context to ascribe this particular emotion to this particular part of this particular song is all the music I have ever listened to. I’ve devised an inexpressible grammar of music in my mind. I don’t know how to approach that, or whether it matters.

Gull

Image by Dschwen from Wikimedia Commons.

Out of body

November 1, 2015

When I look back on photographs of myself as a boy, which I do far less often than I imagine, a feeling of dissociation comes over me. It’s me, indisputably, and yet it isn’t.

January 1986

As friends stared glassily at photographs of me and the strange little barnacle that in those days passed for my organ of generation I tried to explain that the child they were scrutinising was not me. This was the biological as well as the psychological truth. Every cell in my body had by that time been replaced. P.G. Wodehouse’s typewriter comes to mind as a model of this important phenomenon. He bought his Royal in the 1910s and used it right up to his death. But by then every part of it had been renewed: the chassis, the platen, the roller, the keys – everything. Was it still the same typewriter?

Stephen Fry, ‘Naked Children’ (originally published in The Listener, anthologised in Paperweight)

What do we feel when we contemplate our past selves? I started thinking about this a couple of nights ago when I reencountered Scripps, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, remembering going up to university for interview:

I’ve never particularly liked myself but the boy I was, kneeling in that cold and empty chapel that winter morning, fills me now with longing and pity.

I don’t feel longing or pity when I look at the photo of myself above, grasping the mane of my rocking horse. My memories don’t go that far back (I was two and a half), so I can’t say how that boy felt, but I imagine he’s as happy and excited as he looks. I identify more with what Edmund White writes in his preface to A Boy’s Own Story, a novel he wrote about his teenage self at a remove of about 25 years:

If I’d hated myself as a boy and adolescent, I now felt an affection for the miserable kid I’d once been, a retrospective kindliness one might call ‘the pederasty of autobiography.’

Not that I was miserable often. I’ve been able to find only one photo in which I look genuinely wretched, pouting and red-eyed and sitting alone in a corner. Hints of blotchiness on my face and feet suggest eczema may have been the cause. It bedevilled my boyhood, though my abiding memory is not of the physical discomfort but of my mother’s anger at my grandfather’s repeated commandment, ‘Don’t scratch, press.’ He meant well, but didn’t know what it was like first-hand. She and I both knew it was hopeless.

In other photos I see chinks in my armour that might have been exploited by others. Hints of effeminacy, as I stand limp-wristed in the garden with my yellow plastic spade, or unwrap my Christmas presents with something that isn’t flamboyance exactly but certainly isn’t straight, that could have led to bullying but didn’t. A guilelessness also, a credulity in my expression, that I don’t remember ever having.

Anyway, I made it, I grew up without the assistance of my adult self to hold my hand; but now I feel an unusual desire to be a friend to that boy. I’d like to visit him from the future so I could reassure him that he’d be OK, that he wouldn’t have to go to war, that he’d pass his A-levels (something I think I had occasional anxieties about even as early as primary school, the result, I suspect, of overhearing conversations between my parents about my father’s sixth-form teaching).

I also think, wouldn’t it be cool to introduce him to the music he wouldn’t discover until later. I could have been listening to Weill and Oscar Peterson at a much younger age. As it was, I was happy enough with The Sound of Music, and didn’t feel I needed someone older and wiser telling me what to do.

July 1986

Dubious dress sense aside, he looks such a nice guy, doesn’t he. I’d like to have known him.

Now that I’ve reached the point at which I am envying my childhood acquaintances their friendship with me, some kind of protocol of decency has been breached. I hereby declare an indefinite moratorium on self-regarding blog posts like this, though I doubt it’ll last long. I’ll try to think of something else to write about for a while.

Hart Crane (1899-1932)

May 31, 2015

Back to school.

Timms Sir. I don’t always understand poetry.
Hector You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.
Timms I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.
Hector But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying.
We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.
Lockwood Fucking Ada.

Alan Bennett, The History Boys, Act 1

That was how it was with me and the poetry of Hart Crane. I found his name in an encyclopaedia we had at home. A disciple of T.S. Eliot, queer, dead at 32 having jumped off a boat, a tragic and thereby glamorous figure. One of my people, anyway, I could tell before having read a word of his poetry. I found his poems in the public library.

The Wine Menagerie

Invariably when wine redeems the sight,
Narrowing the mustard scansions of the eyes,
A leopard ranging always in the brow
Asserts a vision in the slumbering gaze.

At eleven years old, I could recite this poem. I was in one of those moods that I and perhaps you get of hunger for something new, and wasn’t about to be put off by my not understanding a word of it. ‘Mustard scansions’, what a fabulous phrase, I thought then. If you google it, you find tens of critics disagreeing about what it means. They can’t even decide whose eyes the scansions belong to; I think the leopard. Is there a leopard, or is it a metaphor?

One of his less unstraightforward offerings:

North Labrador

A land of leaning ice
Hugged by plaster-grey arches of sky,
Flings itself silently
Into eternity.

“Has no one come here to win you,
Or left you with the faintest blush
Upon your glittering breasts?
Have you no memories, O Darkly Bright?”

Cold-hushed, there is only the shifting moments
That journey toward no Spring—
No birth, no death, no time nor sun
In answer.

I set the first verse of that to music in my teens, and tried to make the music spare and calculatedly artless, the chords blocky and slow-moving, bare fourths and fifths, no counterpoint, just monument. I’m not sure it worked.

I’m still waiting to understand Crane’s poetry, but sometimes phrases of his come into my head and I find myself thinking that it doesn’t really matter. It makes me seem like the laughably philistine headmaster of The History Boys who misrepresents Hector so grossly in his eulogy —

He loved language. He loved words. For each and every one of you, his pupils, he opened a deposit account in the bank of literature and made you all shareholders in that wonderful world of words.

— but until you understand the meaning, the words have to suffice, and there’s beauty in the look, the sound, the feel of Crane’s words, even if you don’t grasp what they’re getting at, yet.