Back in 2016, when I was researching Writers, Lovers, Soldiers, Spies: A History of the Authors’ Club of London, 1891–2016 for the Club’s 125th anniversary, I was surprised that we didn’t have more correspondence from the early period. It turns out that the reason was that Algernon Rose, the Club’s Secretary from 1908 to 1934, took much of it home with him.
In February of last year, the Authors’ Club received an email from a member of the public who had inherited a collection of letters addressed to Rose, offering to donate them to our archive. Naturally, we accepted. Arriving at the Club one evening in March, I was handed a Jiffy bag at the porters’ lodge. I waited until I got home to open it; inside was an old cardboard stocking box from Green & Edwards department store in the Finchley Road, containing far more letters than I had anticipated.
The signatories included Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, J. M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells and other notable writers of the period. Often candid and informal, they offer a fascinating glimpse of the personal and professional connections among writers in early 20th-century London.
Given the potential public interest in the letters, the Club has decided to publish a small book containing a full catalogue of the letters, with a narrative text by me explaining the circumstances of their composition and relating the extraordinary life and career of Algernon Rose, musician, author, journalist, world traveller and networker. The Foreword is by the eminent literary journalist and Authors’ Club President John Walsh.
Don’t miss the opportunity to own this piece of history – a handsomely printed and bound 76-page hardback with colour illustrations throughout, one of a numbered, limited edition of 200 copies – by contributing to our Kickstarter fund. We are already almost three-quarters of the way to raising the money needed to print the book..
Founded by Sir Walter Besant in 1891 to provide a congenial central London venue where authors could relax and socialise, the Authors’ Club was a home from home to many leading figures of English letters in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Its Presidents have included Thomas Hardy, J. M. Barrie and Compton Mackenzie, while Emile Zola, Mark Twain, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Veronica Wedgwood and T.S. Eliot were among the guest speakers to address the Club’s dinners.
It is one of life’s ironies that when we are young, and keen to establish our own identity and place in the world, we have little interest in the experiences of older generations; by the time we come to find their stories fascinating, it is often too late. I remember my paternal grandparents as a rather severe elderly couple who, on their annual visits from Frankfurt, seemed to cast a pall of gloom over the household. After my parents’ divorce we lost contact, so I had little idea of who they really were or what they had experienced in the course of their eventful lives. Then, a few years ago, I inherited a small collection of books that had belonged to them. Along with some old photo albums and other family mementos, they revealed a rich inner life.
The family were originally from Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) but moved to Dresden in 1922. My grandfather, Alfred Schüler, was working as a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company when, in September 1935, the political situation in Germany persuaded him to take his wife Hedwig and their younger son Andreas to Barcelona. After the Spanish Civil War broke out the following year, they were forced to move once again, to Genoa, where my father joined them in 1938. After a brief return to Spain in 1939, they obtained permission to emigrate to the USA, and for eleven years Alfred worked as a night auditor at the Hotel Plymouth in New York. In 1955 he was offered a position with the United Restitution Organization, the legal aid service set up to help victims of Nazi persecution seek financial compensation from the German government. They posted him to their office in Frankfurt am Main, where – one of the few Jews to resettle in Germany after the war – he worked until his retirement in 1973.
As I unpacked the books in our London flat, blew the dust from their tops and read the inscriptions and dates on the flyleaves, I became aware that each one embodied a narrative beyond the one printed on its pages in heavy German black-letter type; that of a cosmopolitan literary and artistic culture that was obliterated in Germany by the rise of fascism but which, carried into exile, greatly enriched the wider world.
The family was not deeply observant, but here were the two volumes, bound in dark blue cloth, of my grandfather’s German-language Bible, with his signature on the flyleaf over the date, ‘1.12.1934 (Channukah)’. It seems astonishing today that nearly two years into the Nazi regime, the Hebrew scripture could still be published in Germany (by Kauffmann Verlag), with the authority of the Jewish community of Berlin. One of its editors, Harry Torczyner, had already settled in Palestine by the time it appeared, while his colleague Georg Salzberger – a relative of my grandparents who had won the Iron Cross at Verdun – was rabbi at the liberal Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt until 1937. After a year’s incarceration in Dachau, he was released and emigrated with his family to London, where he established the Belsize Square Synagogue.
The perplexities of Jewish history were represented by a three-volume set of the works of Flavius Josephus, comprising his Antiquities of the Jews and History of the Jewish War. Translated by Dr Heinrich Clementz, they were published by Benjamin Harz of Berlin and Vienna in 1923.
My grandparents were avid readers of contemporary German literature. A three-volume set of Stefan Zweig’s novellas and short stories, with leather spines and marbled boards, bore my grandfather’s signature on the flyleaf, along with the date 24 December 1930. By that time, the Austrian writer’s books could be found on the shelves of every educated German-speaking household. In this collection, tales written over many years were retrospectively assembled into a sequence Zweig called The Chain, in the manner of his hero Balzac’s Comédie humaine. I had discovered Zweig’s work for myself more than a decade earlier thanks to the championship of Melissa Ulfane at Pushkin Press and the superb translations of Anthea Bell (see SF no.6). In his haunting stories of dislocation and loss I found a world that seemed strangely familiar, like a half-remembered dream. I realize now that it was part of my cultural DNA.
Another household name at the time, though little remembered today, was Paul Heyse (1830–1914); a red clothbound three-volume set of his Poems (Berlin: Wilhelm Herz, 1901) had belonged to my grandmother. Heyse was an acclaimed poet, dramatist, novelist and short-story writer, whose verses were set to music by Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910.
Among the other major literary figures of the period, Thomas Mann was represented by his novella Mario and the Magician, a lovely little hardback from Fischer Verlag in a beautifully decorated slipcase. Between the pages was a bookmark from the Dresden bookseller G. A. Kaufmann, and on the flyleaf was pencilled the date 7.6.1930.
Soft maroon leather blocked with rich gold lettering encased a German translation (by H. Bock-Neumann) of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne. One of the most celebrated works of Danish fiction, and much admired by Thomas Mann, this 1880 novel tells of a young poet’s struggle to make sense of his existence. On the flyleaf, over the date ‘Am 26 Mai 1911’, was written a quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
O my soul, I have given thee everything, and all my hands have become empty by thee – and now! Now sayest thou to me, smiling and full of melancholy: ‘Which of us oweth thanks? – Doth the giver not owe thanks because the receiver received? Is bestowing not a necessity? Is receiving not – pitying?’
Then there was an antiquarian curio, A Description and History of the Bastille during the Reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI, translated from the French and published by Herold Bros of Hamburg in 1790. The book was a gift to my grandfather from a friend: on the flyleaf was inscribed, ‘To my dear Dr Schüler, as a lasting memento of E. M. Simon, July 1933’.
There were also many of the slim hardbacks produced by the Leipzig publisher Insel-Verlag which, according to Allen Lane, provided the inspiration for the King Penguin format. Launched in 1912, the series was instantly recognizable by its stiff cardboard bindings covered with bold patterned paper, on to which a label was pasted bearing the author’s name and the title. Among my grandparents’ collection were the very first of the series, Rilke’s prose poem The Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s verse drama The Fool and Death and Zweig’s Decisive Moments of Mankind, a collection of five ‘historical miniatures’ ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to the California Gold Rush.
I was surprised by the number of miniature volumes my grandparents possessed, until it occurred to me that their portability enabled them to survive the frequent jettisoning of personal effects that must accompany a life in exile. They included a handful of tiny books from the Zwickau publisher Schumann Brothers’ ‘Portable Library of Italian Classics’: two marble-bound volumes containing Giovanni Battista Guarini’s The Faithful Shepherd (1819), along with one-volume editions of Giuseppe Parini’s satirical poem ‘The Day’ and Tasso’s Selected Poems (both printed in 1821). The Berlin publisher Friedberg & Mode’s ‘Théâtre Français’ collection contributed a miniature edition of Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire, while the English-language titles included a tiny Merry Wives of Windsor bound in orange leather and – between tartan boards – Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, both published by David Bryce & Sons of Glasgow.
It didn’t seem right to keep all these books myself – though I would hang on to the Zweig and a few others – so I posted some to my cousin in Hawaii, a painstaking and indefatigable researcher to whom I owe much of my knowledge of family history. Others, along with a couple of the photo albums, I decided to deliver in person when I next visited another cousin in Dresden. I took the Eurostar to Brussels, and then the Thalys train to Cologne, where I spent the night in an old-fashioned hotel overlooking the Rhine. Carnival was in full swing.
From Cologne, I travelled via Frankfurt, Fulda and Leipzig to Dresden; nearly thirty years after reunification, west–east train journeys in Germany can still be circuitous. As the train crossed the bridge over the Elbe, a Baroque symphony of cupolas and pinnacles unfolded. When I first visited, only a few stumpy towers arose from the blackened ruins; now, virtually the entire historic skyline has been recreated. My cousin met me at the Hauptbahnhof and drove me the short distance to her flat. After supper, I brought out the books, including several of the colourful Insel titles, and photo albums. My cousin and her husband were particularly captivated by the photos taken by my father on visits to them, which conjured back into being the lost world of the GDR: the street signs, the lampposts, the Trabants.
The next morning, we took the tram to the Altstadt. In front of the Frauenkirche, the great domed church destroyed in the Allied bombing raid of February 1945 and painstakingly reconstructed between 1994 and 2005, three red buses had been set on end. Used to ferry Syrian civilians from Aleppo before it fell to Assad’s forces the previous autumn, they now formed an installation by the artist Manaf Halbouni. Entitled Monument, it was a message from one war-ravaged city to another, and a stark reminder that the saga of exile and loss is far from over.
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I have been struck recently – somewhat belatedly, I admit – by a curious aspect of the campaign to leave the European Union: a refusal to take seriously things that are demonstrably serious, creating an air of almost hysterical frivolity in the tradition of ‘Up Yours Delors’, ‘Allo ‘Allo and the Carry On films. A consistent theme in the rhetoric of Leave campaigners, for example, has been to compare the European Union to a totalitarian state or occupying power. For Jeremy Hunt, it was the USSR; For others, it was the Third Reich; and most recently, they have invoked the Chinese crackdown on the democracy protests in Hong Kong. The political and moral irresponsibility of such comparisons is only matched by the disrespect for those who have lived, or are still living, under real political oppression. But of course, it’s a figure of speech, an exaggeration, a joke. Where’s your sense of humour?
‘Who Do You Think You’re Kidding, Mr Juncker?’
Another comparison trundled out ad nauseam is the Second World War, the Blitz, Dunkirk… We heard it from Theresa May in her negotiations with the EU last April, prompting the Danish PM to whistle ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Back in 2017, Michael Howard even suggested that Britain would be prepared to go to war with Spain over Gibraltar. Those who wish to remain in the EU have been branded traitors, and just last week, Boris Johnson accused MPs seeking to avoid a no-deal Brexit of ‘collaboration’ with the EU. Collaboration? We are not – yet – at war with our European neighbours, as far as I know.
Here again, the lack of proportion and self-awareness would be astounding had we not been drip-fed this nonsense for decades. Few people who actually experienced the horrors of the Second World War wanted to relive them; even half a century later, many could not bring themselves to talk about it.
The sabre-rattling reached a new decibel level in an article by Rod Liddle in The Times last week, arguing that ‘a peaceful, easy life hasn’t made us happy,’ and that war ‘increases social cohesion and integration’. Liddle is of course a professional wind-up merchant, and it wouldn’t do to take him too seriously, but he shrewdly tapped into a strain in the Leaver mentality, which might best be summed up by Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ Not all the Doctor’s contemporaries would have agreed; John Scott of Amwell certainly didn’t.
Oh! What a Lovely War
But perhaps we have grown bored with 75 years of peace and prosperity, and forgotten how lucky we are. It has happened before. Until now, the longest interval of peace in Europe was from 1871 to 1914, when the imperial rivalries of Britain and France, Russia and Germany were fought out in far-off places at the expense of far-off people. It seems inconceivable now, in the knowledge of the catastrophe that followed, but towards the end of that period, people started to tire of peace and yearn for war. Politicians, the press and artists such as the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti began to argue that society had grown decadent, and that war would be cleansing, heroic and regenerative. As the title of a pamphlet published by Marinetti in 1909 put it, war is ‘the world’s only hygiene’.
Melodramatic stuff, but there is a strong element of narcissism, self-regard and self-pity to the current national psychodrama. ‘There seems to be an ingrown psychological thing about it,’ the writer Lawrence Durrell noted in an interview with the Paris Review as long ago as 1959. ‘You can see it reflected even in quite primitive ways like this market business now – the European Common Market. It’s purely psychological, the feeling that we are too damned superior to join this bunch of continentals in anything they do.’
We don’t seem to have advanced much since then. The idea that we could be an ordinary, decent, middle-ranking country on amicable terms with our neighbours, sitting on boring committees painstakingly working out the humdrum details of food standards, workers’ rights, fishing quotas, Regional Development Grants and the Common Agricultural Policy – let alone the huge challenge of climate change – is just not grand, glamorous or exciting enough for the Leaver ego.
Carry On England
Instead, ever since the referendum campaign, Leavers have called for a return to Britain’s ‘buccaneering spirit’. Let us think for a moment what this actually means. The Collins English Dictionary defines a buccaneer as ‘a pirate, esp. one who preyed on the Spanish colonies and shipping in America and the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries’. Buccaneering, then, is simply a romantic word for demanding money with menaces. Is this how a supposedly civilised country ought to conduct itself in the modern world? Even taken metaphorically, it glorifies a predatory mode of doing business that would not meet any current standards of ethics and corporate governance.
But then it’s not meant to be serious. Just like the Irish border isn’t serious, the shortage of medicines isn’t serious, the haemhorrage of capital and skilled workers isn’t serious, the spike in hate crimes isn’t serious. British pluck will see us though. Chin up, what ho!
Of course, some of the actors in this farce are serious – deadly serious. For Vladimir Putin, Steve Bannon, Arron Banks and the financial speculators who have already made fortunes short-selling the falling pound and the shares of struggling British businesses, this is a cold, calculated exercise in self-interest. But what characterises their cheerleaders and puppets, the little men like Nigel Farage, Mark Francois and yes, Boris ‘Bananas’ Johnson, is the fundamental lack of seriousness of their Carry-On vision of history. But they will not be the ones to suffer the consequences of their jolly japes.
Joseph Silk, a world-famous painter, has died. His grand-daughter Eva, the custodian of his legacy, travels to Berlin, where the Jewish Museum has obtained a questionnaire – the testament of the title – that the young József Zyaad, as he then was, completed on his release from a concentration camp.
But having reinvented himself on arrival in postwar Britain, Silk had no desire to revisit his traumatic past – a stance that brought him into bitter conflict with his Zionist brother László, who devoted his life to memorialising the Shoah.
Moving skilfully between past and present, London, Budapest and Berlin, Testament is a hugely ambitious first novel. So assured is its control, so rich its frame of reference, and so sensitive its handling of unspeakable horror, that is hard to believe it is a debut, let alone the work of an author under 30. The prose is spare, precise, elliptical and richly evocative, and has a resonance and power that makes much contemporary fiction seem flat and lifeless on the page.
The novel is clearly founded on extensive research: into the Hungarian labour divisions of the Second World War, the Lake District refuge for young Holocaust survivors who became known as the ‘Windermere Boys’, the ‘University of the Ghetto’ that flourished at the Passmore Edwards Library in London’s East End, and the groundbreaking 1945 exhibition of American Abstract Expressionists at the Whitechapel Gallery next door. Yet however fascinating in itself, the historical background always supports and drives the narrative forward, and is never allowed to overwhelm it.
There are, perhaps inevitably, echoes of Sebald, particularly The Emigrants, which also deals with a painter-survivor, and Austerlitz, which is haunted by the ghosts of Theresienstadt, but Testament is a strikingly original achievement with its own singular insights.
With great psychological acuity, the narrative explores fundamental issues of identity, survivor guilt, and the way trauma extends down to the second and third generations. As Eva’s search for the truth leads her inexorably towards her estranged and embittered father John, we discover how he in turn was damaged by all that remained unspoken in the shadow of his father’s overpowering personality and unhealed psychic wounds – and a startling family secret is revealed.