Tag Archives: World War II

Canoe

One book in my collection of poetry is the anthology Poems that Make Grown Men Cry, edited by father-son team Anthony and Ben Holden. Clive James contributed this poem by Keith Douglas to the book, and in his introductory comments tells us that it dates from early in the poet’s career, before he went off to war and became famous for his war poetry. Keith Douglas was killed in action during the invasion of Normandy.

James is moved by this work that is to him “all grace,” but feels that the supremely gracious moment is at the end, where, “…I can hardly breathe for grief. The grief is personal, of course. My father went away in the war; he, too, was fated never to return, and my mother continued her voyage alone.”

CANOE

Well, I am thinking this may be my last
summer, but cannot lose even a part
of pleasure in the old-fashioned art
of idleness. I cannot stand aghast

at whatever doom hovers in the background;
while grass and trees and the somnolent river
who know they are allowed to last for ever,
exchange between them the whole subdued sound

of this hot time. What sudden fearful fate
can deter my shade wandering next year
from a return? Whistle, and I will hear
and come again another evening, when this boat

travels with you alone towards Iffley:
as you lie looking up for thunder again,
this cool touch does not betoken rain;
it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.

-Keith Douglas, 1940

A feast of a book.

From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.

This paragraph from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr conveys the tone of the whole book, which I am only halfway through. Too soon, certainly, to be writing a review, but I can’t help myself, I have to share the joy. My copy was a Christmas gift from Kate and Tom; Kate said it was the best book she’d read all year.

I got into it right away, but it isn’t the kind of book you want to rush through. In that way it reminds me of The Red Horse by Eugenio Corti. They are both set during World War II with all its horrors, but even they can’t blot out the love that glows in these novels. Reading them is like being in the company of the best sort of humans, illuminated by a wise and able storyteller, someone who seemingly effortlessly paints lush pictures in your mind of the landscape of humanity and even of the dark places in individual souls, but who somehow leaves you with hope. You don’t want to leave, and while you are at this feast you want to linger over every bite, every description and metaphor that wants to pull you into another aspect of life and reality.

One of the protagonists is a young blind girl, Marie-Laure. Doerr’s descriptions of  her imagination make me wonder if he spent a lot of time under a blindfold, learning what sensory riches are available to those who can’t depend on their eyesight. Telling the story from her point of view enlarges the world that we get to live in as we read. One such moment is when she is accompanying the housekeeper on errands, often to give food to the needy:

…[Madame] burgeons, shoots off stalks, wakes early, works late, concocts  bisques without a drop of cream, loaves with less than a cup of flour. They clomp together through narrow streets, Marie-Laure’s hand on the back of Madame’s apron, following the odors of her stews and cakes; in such moments Madame seems like a great moving wall of rosebushes, thorny and fragrant and crackling with bees.

The other protagonist is an orphan boy, to whose orphanage a Nazi officer pays a visit, in a moment that hints at the impending gloom:

The lance corporal looks around the room — the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children — with equal measures of condescension and hostility. His handgun is black; it seems to draw all the light in the room toward it.

I have read very little 20th, and less 21st-century fiction,  but I can identify two elements of this novel’s style as those that I am more likely to encounter in newer books: Present-tense narration, and alternating chapters set in different time periods and about different characters whose lives, we predict, will merge in the end.

More than once in the past I’ve laid aside a book because one or more of these devices was annoying or contrived, but in this case the suspense is only heightened by getting glimpses of what the future will hold for for these young people. The plot was already deliciously thickened by the second chapter, because of these tiny bits of foreknowledge.

So many books I have gobbled up too fast, trying to get to the main point, to find out What Happened, promising myself that I will go back and read the story again so I can pay closer attention and do justice to the other facets of the creation the author has made. Doerr makes it so that I have no compulsion to rush. Everyone is in a process, we all have time. Take time to notice the feel of the air and the way the seasons are changing, the story progressing. Though the war is hanging over them (and the reader) and using them and hurting them, it is not everything. There is a bigger world, a whole universe, of which this one crazy man and his evil system is but a very small room.

Marie-Laure has felt trapped in her house near the sea for months — her father doesn’t think it safe for her to go out exploring the way they used to do back in Paris, now that they are occupied by the Germans. But Madame takes matters into her own hands and walks the girl down to the beach for the first time in her life. As they get close to the shore, Briny, weedy, pewter-colored air slips down her collar.

And then her feet touch the sand: ...wet, unwrinkled sand. She bends and spreads her fingers. It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. Tiny slips of wrack.

Her world that was dreamily expansive when she was younger and raised by her doting father, and then became overshadowed and dirtied by the privations and separations of wartime, begins to open up again.

The German orphan boy Werner also has a rich childhood, because of kind people and in his exploration of the abundance of wonders in the physical world. He holds within himself a knowledge of the good even through years when he is victimized into participating in the wickedness.

The depictions of the heroes of this book, children growing up, ring true to me. I don’t think it is easy to get that right, and it’s not surprising. No accomplished author is that close to the experience of being a child, and no one can have had the experience of every child. It seems to me a very great gift to be able to “create” young people especially, and to reveal them so deeply and keep them real.

Maybe this will only be Part One of my review, but just in case, I will end with my own reflection of one theme that emanates from this novel: You are never ultimately trapped in a dark place. Light fills this universe of which the darkest moments are only specks, and light is in you.

Architecture of War and History

The uses and abuses of architecture, that subject that interests me but which I barely dabble in, got my attention again recently through an article by George Packer in the Feb 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. In his “Letter from Dresden: Embers,” Packer writes that the German city “has the unstable character of a place with a romantic self-image and a past that it would rather not discuss.” But we will discuss Dresden’s past, and ask also, if its latest building project in present time is vandalism, or an enlightening statement.

Before reading Packer’s piece I was fairly ignorant about this city, but as is often the case with New Yorker articles, this one led me on several tangents. The gist of Packer’s thesis is that Dresden is well served by having a gutsy architect like Daniel Libeskind to design its new national military museum, because the artistic violence of his plan is exactly what Dresdeners need to shake them out of their nostalgia and set their view of history straight.

Since reading that article I’ve gone on to learn a little more about the architect, the city, and what took place there toward the end of World War II. I also happened to read a novel that ties in to the reluctance of Germans to talk about the war and come to grips with that painful history. Of course, I haven’t taken my own photos. But if I do get to Germany I’ll be sure to visit these buildings and write another more personal blog post. For now, I want to set down what little I learned–I should say, the questions that have been raised–and if I put it here it’s available for anyone else who might like to know.

It was on February 13, 1945 that the Allies bombed Dresden, an event that some say resembled the horror of Hiroshima, and that the Neo-Nazis brand as equal to the Holocaust. What troubles people about the Dresden of today is the city’s selective reporting of its history, the portrayal of its wartime past as only victimization.

Matthias Neutzner is a local historian interviewed for the New Yorker article: “Neutzner said that Dresdeners remained unusually resistant to the past: ‘The city was erased in one night, and it was very easy for German propaganda to transform this city of art into a city of innocence which had nothing to do with the crimes of war.’

“In Dresden, Neutzner said, the story of the war has effectively been reduced to just one day: ‘It started and it ended on February 13, 1945.’ Neutzner’s aim is to get the city’s residents to remember ‘that this was the sixth year of a huge war, that there were twelve years of Nazi crimes, there were eight small concentration camps in Dresden with three thousand prisoners. All this is completely unknown in Dresden.'”

The diaries of Victor Klemperer are held up as an essential source text for those who want the whole story. He was one of the fewer than 200 Jews who remained in the city on that day of destruction in 1945, out of more than six thousand prewar. Published in the 1990’s, the three volumes in English are I Will Bear Witness, To the Bitter End, and The Lesser Evil. Packer writes that they tell “in mundane and relentless detail how the humanistic city of his youth turned into a place of terror that ostracized, humiliated, warehoused, tortured, and, finally, annihilated its Jews.”

Since the war the city has been busy rebuilding, trying to restore architectural Dresden as much as possible to its lovely pre-war state by recreating buildings like the Frauenkirche cathedral. This activity contrasts with the attitude of another war-torn city, Berlin, where the “new architecture often has the quality of what Bertolt Brecht called Verfremdung, or the V-effect–estrangement, distancing. Berlin makes little attempt to hide the worst decades in German history. After 1989, the city placed its vanished Jews near the center of its collective consciousness, understanding that this was part of the price of reclaiming its international status.”

It was the Jewish Museum in Berlin, shaped, as one person said, “like a deconstructed Star of David,” that in 2001 made a name for Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, the one chosen to design the Military History Museum in Dresden, a renovation of the former military arsenal building that has been serving as a museum since 1897.

Not everyone likes this architect’s style. Back in 2003 Deroy Murdock cautioned against Libeskind and his art in a National Review article quoting heavily from the architect’s own words, poetic and otherwise, calling his poetry grotesque and his Berlin museum ghoulish. Murdock was lobbying against Libeskind as a contestant in the running to design the new World Trade Center in New York, and in fact, he did end up designing the overall site plan.

I must admit that Libeskind’s poetry strikes me as twisted and broken, not lovely. But history shows mankind to be perverse as well, and Libeskind thinks it’s healthy to face one’s past and its ugliness, so that you can get a more balanced and true understanding of reality from which to make progress. The arrow-shaped addition to the old museum, cutting through the building just as the Holocaust made a gash through the 20th Century and human history, nonetheless rises to a higher elevation where visitors will get a broad and fresh perspective on the whole city, a view that wasn’t possible from the former museum.

Spiegel Online quotes Libeskind as saying, “…sentimentality is not a foundation on which you can build a new city.” To make a sure foundation, it would be necessary to know where the bedrock is, and where the sand. The architect has built in a degree of disorienting experience a step above the mere visual. Packer writes, “The effect of these [oddly angled] inclinations, Libeskind said, should be above all physical: ‘It’s like a collapse, isn’t it? You feel it in your knees….You can’t be neutral in these spaces.'”

He goes on to say, “The triangular structure on the front of the arsenal points to the direction from which Dresden was bombed. It also interrupts the smooth flow of that big arsenal. It creates a question mark about the continuity of history and what it means. It gives people a point of reflection.”

It’s these philosophical question marks that get my mind’s wheels turning. I can see how trying to recreate the city as it was in the 1930’s would convey that you want to go back to that better time. But was it any better, the society and people who participated in the extermination of their fellow humans? Even if it were, going back is not an option. We need to live where we are now, and go forward, trying to learn from the past, even though it speaks to us of our failings.

The new military history museum is scheduled to be completed this year and to open in 2013. Studio Daniel Libeskind’s statement about the project explains: “The central theme of the Military History Museum is the human being: those who went into the war and those who have remained at home; people of different eras and people of different generations.”

As the facade of the old building “represents the severity of the authoritarian past in which it was built, the other [new “arrow” facade] reflects the openness of a democratic society and the changed role of its military. In the new elevation of the Museum both are visible at the same time and one through the other.”

Packer concludes: “…though the museum is crude architecture, its bluntness should give it power as a civic institution: nothing more subtle than this could offer Dresden the possibility to break from its self-delusions.”

Update: Comments generated a Part II to this discussion, here: Architecture of War and History, Part II