A warning from history

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, The Triumph of Youth by Jacob Wassermann.

Jakob Wassermann

Jakob Wassermann photographed by Grete Kolliner. In the public domain

On the 6th of September 1928, Arnold Bennet wrote in his Books and Persons column in  The Evening Standard that Jacob Wassermann’s historical novel The Triumph of Youth was “…a remarkable book” and that as he read it his admiration continued to grow. Bennett went on to say a lot things about it. In fact, he dedicated the whole column to a review of the novel, noting at the start that he had received it the week after he had written about the “relative inferiority of historical novels.” Despite his enjoyment at reading the novel, he added in his column of the 6th:

The book has none of the characteristic defects of the historical novel, and so I am rather confounded.

Why was he confounded? In his comments of the week before (which as he pointed out “…caused a certain amount of protest” adding “They were intended to do so”) he had written:

In my view the first rate-rate historical novel conceived on an extensive scale has yet to be written.

Arnold knew why:

Truth to human nature is the chief lack in historical fiction. The majority of historical novels are no nearer to human nature than, say, Wagner’s Ring. There is more truth in one pretty good novel of modern life than in a whole year’s output of historical swashbuckling, hair-tearing, fustian eloquence, hissing crime and deathless passion.

(Naomi Mitcheson, however, was a notable exception.)

He ended with a series of questions:

Why should even the better historical novelists be content to imitate imitations of imitations of imitations, whereas the better novelists of modern life go straight to life. Was human nature in the periods which we call historical utterly different from modern human nature. It was not. It was only slightly different. I suggest that some young author not yet sure of his path should look into this affair.

Arnold was almost wholly prescient in his call to arms. Jacob Wassermann was in his fifties when he wrote The Triumph of Youth, a tale of heresy, the power of storytelling and dysfunctional families in the Holy Roman Empire of the seventeenth century. However, it was clear from his review that Arnold felt, if a little surprised at its promptness, that his question had been answered.

What particularly and astonishingly satisfies me in this book is its atmosphere of naturalness. Everything is terrible, but nothing is forced, and beauty disengages itself from the asphyxiating horror. The people are not aware that they are living in the dark age. They hate their age: they are unhappy and unfortunate in it: but their age is as ordinary to them as ours to us. They have no idea that any other age could be different from theirs. Herein is the supreme excellence of a historical fiction. Jacob Wasserman is indeed an uncommon fellow. He has at once imagination, insight, a fine sense of form and marked dramatic power.

Once in power, the Nazis burned his books and Wassermann died of a heart attack in 1934.

The Triumph of Youth

I’ve let Arnold do the talking this week and rightly so, I feel. I will only add that I too enjoyed the book and would, if only to that distant shore, thank Arnold for introducing me to another German author of note (the other being Lion Feuchtwanger ) Both men were of Jewish descent and both centred their writing on the dilemmas we create or have thrust upon us and, in those years after the Great War, Arnold Bennett too should be recognised as “an uncommon fellow,” open to literature that came from outside of Britain.

On the 6th of September, Bennett was in Annecy in south eastern France with his partner Dorothy. On Noel Coward’s recommendation they visited the village of Duingt and, noting its lack of sunlight, concluded that “Noel must have been there in love, some hot August.”

Three cheers for great books

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa. 

It has been a while since I last wrote anything here and I’d be surprised if anyone is out there still. However, it is nice to be surprised and if you are indeed there, I hope you feel that what I write comes with equal measures of gentle enjoyment and useful information.

I have not been idle (apart from writing nothing here) and continue working my way through Bennett’s columns from The Evening Standard as collected in ARNOLD BENNETT: The Evening Standard Years ‘BOOKS AND PERSONS’ 1926-1931, edited by Andrew Mylett and published in 1974. From them I had chosen Le Cahier Gris by Roger Martin Du Gard which Bennett reviewed on the 2nd of August, 1928. He wrote, amongst other things, that the Thibualt series, from which it comes, “…should emphatically be read.” I read Le Cahier Gris in French (English editions are very hard to come by) using Google Translate. This consisted in scanning the page using the app on my phone and then deciphering the English gobbledegook that it provided as a translation. Not something I would recommend and doubtless played its part in my less than enthusiastic reaction to the novel. However, had I been able to read it without the intrusion of Google Translate, I doubt if I would have warmed to a tale of, what I saw, as two silly teenage boys with a crush on each other running away from home.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-28224-0009 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5350429

Arnold Zweig (left) with Otto Nagel – By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-28224-0009 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5350429

However, that is not the reason for returning to this blog. Having read Bennett’s comments from the 6th of December 1928 of Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa, I decided to read it and I am glad I did. There are not many novels which I have read and felt that I wanted to stand and cheer at the end and this was decidedly one of them. Not only cheer, but applaud, weep and groan in despair at times too. I am not one for sentiment in novels or having my heartstrings pulled by a novel but there was something in the quiet nobility of the story of a Russian sergeant who escapes from a German prisoner of war camp somewhere in the snowy wilderness of the Eastern Front of 1917 and takes on the identity of another soldier, which buried deep under my skin. The soldier, Grischa, simply wants to get home but in the bureaucratic world of the Eastern High Command he is now, under his new identity, regarded as a deserter and must be shot. No one, not even the General who signs the order, believes he actually should be shot and part of the mastery displayed by Zweig is to keep the reader’s hope alive in a way that seems neither naive nor unreasonable. Bennett wrote, “…it [the novel] has had the closest shave of being a masterpiece.” I would agree and add that, rather than Le Cahier Gris, this is a novel that still needs to “emphatically be read.”

Arnold_Zweig_der_Streit_um_den_Serganten_Grischa_1927

I had learned my lesson and read the English translation – By © Foto H.-P.Haack (H.-P.Haack)Das Foto darf für wissenschaftliche oder populärwissenschaftliche Publikationen gebührenfrei verwendet werden, sofern der Urheber mit Foto H.-P.Haack vermerkt wird. – Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig → Privatbesitz., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4053310

Looking at Bennett’s diary, I see that on the 4th of December he was stopped four times in the street by people checking that he was indeed Arnold Bennett. He then gulped down oysters at the Reform Club with Geoffrey Russell, his solicitor, before dashing to a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at St. Margaret’s church, sometimes known as the parish church of the House of Commons.

Bennett’s columns of late have touched more on book issues rather than books per se but I have come across a mention of Andre Maurois’ biographies of Disraeli and Shelley. As books that always seemed be somewhere in my parents’ house, I think I shall read and write about them.

 

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