Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Christopher Isherwood and Natalia Ginzburg write some fascist-era autofiction - “How monotonous you are! All you do is repeat yourself!”

 

I mean to write shorter, but I usually don’t.

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Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood.  Character portraits, just one at novel length in Mr Norris, many in Goodbye, against the background of the Nazi takeover of Germany, background noise but suddenly the only thing that matters.  Charming, funny, elegant, all the nice words that go with a light, even simple, version of the British prose “house style” of the 1920s and 1930s, the most immediately appealing English house style I know.

The atmosphere of the novels is homosexual.  The ethos, even.  Armistead Maupin writes, in the introduction to the New Directions edition, that he was at first frustrated by the passive “camera eye” side of Isherwood – “his own life, particularly his sex life, was a blank” (p. ix), but these are novels where the absences are highly visible.  I mean, if I had read these as a naïve 14-year-old, I would have missed a lot, but not this:

The little American simply couldn’t believe it.  “Men dressed as women? As women, hey?  Do you mean they’re queer?”

“Eventually we’re all queer,” drawled Fritz solemnly, in lugubrious tones…

“You queer, too, hey? demanded the little American, turning suddenly on me.

“Yes,” I said, “very queer indeed.”  (p. 396)

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Family Lexicon (1963) by Natalia Ginzburg.  A memoir, a novel, I don’t know.  It’s another book about creeping, and then open, fascism, this time in Turin, beginning as a portrait of Ginzburg’s goofball parents but turning into something else.  A resistance memoir.  “Leone was arrested in a clandestine printer’s shop” (154 of the NYRB edition). 

Curiously, though, the bulk of the novel is described exactly in the title.  Ginzburg catalogues all the strange phrases and inside jokes that every family has, the endless repetitions.

“How I do love cheese,” my mother invariably would say whenever cheese was served.

And my father would say, “How monotonous you are! All you do is repeat yourself!” (29)

Irony there, outstanding irony.  In the book’s extraordinary conclusion, the parents old, the fascists defeated, Ginzburg constructs an extended semi-dialogue consisting of nothing but decades of old stories and lines, all ending with exclamation marks, a high-level babble that only the family members, and the people who read Family Lexicon, can understand.

Jenny McPhee did the translation.  Admirably, she was not afraid of keeping all sorts of Italian obscurities, explaining them in notes.  Readers for some reason often praise a book for not sounding like a translation.  This translation sounds like a translation, thank goodness.

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So, two books that are fascinating enough for their historical setting – Isherwood’s, especially, must have seemed like news from the front – but that also have more complex literary conceptions at their core.  And both have terrific characters with big personalities, observed and enjoyed by the narrator, and by me.

 

15 comments:

  1. But this! downright punchy.

    I should read Ginzburg.

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  2. Punchy, right.

    I should read more Ginzburg.

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  3. You might add The Hiding Game (Naomi Wood, 2019) about 1920's Bauhaus and creeping fascism, with strong characterizations. And follow up with a review by Adam Tooze in LRB, December 5, 2019, Emil Nolde: The Artist During the Third Reich.

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  4. It's a genre isn't it? An inside-the-Bauhaus novel ought to be interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  5. Yes, fascism affected the Bauhaus beginning in the 1920's.

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  6. Readers for some reason often praise a book for not sounding like a translation. This translation sounds like a translation, thank goodness.

    Amen to that. I should really read Ginzburg.

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  7. As usual, with the cant praise ("doesn't sound like a translation") I have great doubts about the underlying premises, whatever they might be. I mean, I know it's a translation, you know, everyone knows.

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  8. I haven't read Ginzburg but I've read the Isherwood. It's terrible to see how the Nazis take over the country, piece by piece.

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  9. I'm reading Victor Klemperer's diaries, which chronicle the same thing, every little change, every new restriction, life growing worse and worse, but sometimes just a little bit at a time.

    And then, all of a sudden, the changes are not so little.

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  10. Yes, I always recommend Klemperer to people who want to know what the coming of Nazism was like. I've never read anything to match it.

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  11. Right, Klemperer's book is unusual. We are lucky to have it. I had forgotten, or never knew, that he was working on a history of 18th century French literature for much of the 1930s, to keep himself sane. Right now Rousseau is driving him crazy.

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  12. You should have a look at his study of language under Nazi rule.

    I remember how in his diaries Klemperer keeps kicking himself for having never learned Italian (I think), for having to read his sources in translation.

    I read Isherwood (Berlin Stories, maybe?) a million years ago. I recall thinking it was pretty good.

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  13. The language book does sound interesting. The materials he collects in the diaries are interesting.

    Klemperer reads Italian but it is not good enough, given that he teaches Italian literature. "My Italian never counted for much" (Feb. 7, 1935). I never know quite how to interpret Klemperer when he writes such things because he is, temperamentally, an extreme pessimist, which might be annoying in some contexts, but sadly not this one.

    "Pretty good" is pretty good for Isherwood. He is not nearly as original in his prose as Waugh or Bowen, to pick some close contemporaries. But good enough to handle his extraordinary subjects.

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  14. In another context, Klemperer would be a fine comic character. His adventures learning to drive are like something out of Wodehouse. But as you say, we're lucky to have his diaries.

    The language book is very good. It refutes the idea that language is a neutral tool that merely describes the world. And other hijinx.

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  15. Yes, his car, the building of his little house, his cats. In an English novel, this is all comedy.

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