Wednesday, November 14, 2018

My Log 662 November 14 2018: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 98; Some of the greatest novelists of our time have been Americans: and Patricia Highsmith, often sloughed off as a mere mystery writer, was one of the best of them

For many years now I have done all of my book-reading in bed. It is just a habit I have fallen into: my waking hours I would rather be watching stuff than reading. So I have grown accustomed to reading for half an hour or so before going to sleep, and then, depending on when I awaken, reading for an hour or so in the early morning. This morning, for example, I awoke sometime after 4 am, decided to read for an hour or so, this riveting book The Tremor of Forgery, by Patricia Highsmith. At around  5.30, I told myself I could still have an hour, maybe two hours, of sleep. I tell myself, talk aloud to myself, “this is going to be lovely,” as I snuggle down to go back to sleep. It doesn’t always work. It didn’t this morning, but usually I get another half hour or even as much as two hours of extra sleep, which sets me up for the rest of the day.
Ms Highsmith, who lived most of her life in France and Switzerland and died at the age of 74 in 1995, first came into prominence when in 1951 Alfred Hitchcock made of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, what I thought was a rather indifferent film, yet one that attained a certain notoriety because of its unusual story.  This had a theme that Ms. Highsmith developed in a number of later novels, of characters who placed themselves, more or less by accident, in situations which lead them to later dramatic actions that they would, in their saner moments, rather not undertake. For example, the two strangers who meet casually on the train agree that they each had someone they wouldn’t mind doing away with, and even promise that they would perform the dreadful acts by killing each other’s chosen victim. Of course, one of them was half-joking, and recoiled from his promise, but the other, who turned up ready to do the deed, was deadly serious, and forced the reluctant one into action.
After this first novel, Ms. Highsmith was tabbed as a writer of mysteries, although it soon became clear that she was a psychological novelist of a high order. The first book of hers that bowled me over was The Cry of the Owl, an hallucinatory tale that begins with a man simply looking through a neighbour’s window at a young woman who spots him, invites him in, and then falls for him, with dreadfully tragic consequences. From the beginning, the reader is trapped by the impression that nothing can stop this character from proceeding, almost as if in the grip of some outside power, to actions he would rather have never taken.
Come to think of it, another remarkable American writer, Hubert Selby, jr, explored a similar territory, his novel The Demon  being about a character who started off performing the smallest of improprieties, stealing a few dollars, a slightly criminal act that, gradually, he expanded into major misdemeanours, until reaching the maximum of murder. In other words, yet  another writer interested in the consequences of ill-thought-out but apparently harmless actions that eventually run out of control.
Selby, incidentally, wrote the  only book I have ever had to abandon through sheer inability to take on the horrors he was loading on me as his reader. As reviewer Tony O’Neill wrote in The Guardian,  “the reader of The Room is dragged kicking and screaming into the head of the narrator, feels his rage, his impotence, his anger, his fantasies of retribution: we are made complicit in every sordid fantasy,” and he adds, “it a piece of art that will leave an impression on your soul.” To which I can only add, along with many others who have had a similar response to mine, “if you can get through it.”
Well, Patricia Highsmith is an almost equally disturbing writer as Hubert Selby, but at a less sensational level. This novel The Tremor of Forgery was written in 1969, but 20 years later was still being heaped with praise by reviewers, Graham Greene himself saying, “if I were to be asked what it is about, I would reply, apprehension.”
Its central figure is a novelist Howard, who has been hired to write the script for a proposed film, and has been sent to Tunisia to await his fellow workers.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t hear anything either from the director, or from his girl-friend whom he is about to marry. After a longish wait of some weeks he is finally told that the director has committed suicide, having chosen the writer’s apartment in which to commit the act. The girl-friend weighs in a few days later, telling her fiancé that the director had expressed his love for her, and had taken it badly when she turned him down, after a brief flirtation, the depth of which remained unexplained.
Meantime, Howard, has run into two companions, the one a semi-hippie homosexual painter from Denmark, whose sexual attentions he rejects, but with whom he nevertheless becomes a close friend. The other is a character remarkably achieved by Highsmith in all his irritating tenacity and deviousness:  a middle-aged, simple-minded American who takes Howard aside, and swearing him to secrecy, reveals that, at the suggestion of some government operative he had run into, he had embarked on a programme of recording weekly tapes extolling the American Way of Life, and transmitting them electronically into the Soviet Union. These broadcasts are so pathetic that Howard welcomes them, because he believes they will be creating a deserved  anti-American backlash in Russia, not  at all what the broadcaster is aiming for.  He dubs the man, in his mind, as OWL, for Our Way of Life, the subject of his tapes, and that is how he is facetiously referred to throughout the novel.
The success of the novel rests on the superb delineation of the contrast between its Western characters  and the physical and social reality of this hot, sandy country in which they feel such strangers.
Jensen, the Dane, has developed a contempt for the Arabs, Howard is more understanding, but is bothered by their habit of stealing, and when he surprises one breaking into his bungalow during the night, an incident occurs that becomes the central issue of the novel. He repulses the invader, shuts his door with a bang, and goes back to bed. It is around this incident that OWL’s tenacious and inquisitive nature asserts itself:, he heard a yell during the night, and questions Howard closely as to what happened. Gradually, he puts together a narrative to which he insists Howard must agree.
When Howard’s girl-friend Ina turns up to visit him from New York, OWL makes it his business to tell her of his suspicions, thus throwing a cloud of apprehension between the two lovers, who were just on the point of confirming their decision to marry. Prodded by OWL with his myopic Christian certainties as to doing the right thing according to Our Way Of Life, their apprehension develops into an all-pervading uncertainty.
The tensions that Highsmith succeeds in creating in this novel make it into a real page-turner, difficult to put down, something that I felt even though I began to realize after a few pages that I had read it before.
Patricia Highsmith wrote twenty-two novels, most of them superb studies in the problems of creating and maintaining human relationships. She also wrote something that her oficinados call the Ripliad, a series of novels about Tom Ripley, an attractive, well-educated, plausible and likeable young man who makes his living by criminality, and will stop at nothing in his search for personal gratification.
To add to the mystery of this great writer, if you are interested you should read the Wikipedia entry for her: she is variously described as chronically ill, depressed, alcoholic, and homosexual, although preferring men’s company to that of women.  One of her publishers described her as “a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being…I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant.” An editor said of her: “She was very rough, very difficult...But she was also plainspoken, dryly funny, and great fun to be around”.
In short it seems, a character well worthy of the novels she wrote.

Monday, November 12, 2018

My Log 661 November 12 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 97 Technology overtakes me as I desperately search for a vital Rugby game: my son saves me with his sweet patience, narrowly avoiding a heart seizure

Leading up to last weekend I was plunged into a major psychological crisis from which it is a miracle I have emerged unscathed. Or more or less unscathed.
It is the sort of crisis about  which I know many of my erstwhile friends (I call them erstwhile because I am already in the process of dumping them for good, the rotters) will attempt to diminish, by calling it trivial, beneath  the attention of any serious person, unworthy of me, and various other meaningless descriptions.
At the very source of it all lay my desperation in face of the failure of Canadian sports television channels to broadcast Saturday’s  momentous Rugby Union game between England and the New Zealand All Blacks, who still hold a place of importance in my heart (or, in deference to those who say I have no heart, somewhere around where the heart is usually to be found), in any case  a place of importance in my lifetime’s experience, consolidated ever since I had the pictures of every All Blacks team from 1905 on pinned to my bedroom wall when I was a child.
I have lived a peripatetic life that for many decades took me to regions outside the All Blacks ambience, but from the moment I realized I could pick up their games by internet, thirty years or so ago, the old enchantment has caught hold, and I am captivated as every Test match against the old adversaries approaches.
This game against England was one of particular moment, because through an accident of scheduling, our team had not met theirs for four years, giving the Poms, as we laughingly call the English in Kiwiland, time to hire an aggressive Australian coach who declared his intention of beating  the All Blacks in the forthcoming World Cup. The All Blacks (who, incidentally, were given their name from the colour of their jerseys when they toured Europe in 1905, winning 35 games and losing one, to Wales, who have only once beaten the All Blacks since, in 1953, 65 years ago), have won the last two World Cups, and have so immeasurably improved since the last one in 1915, that I feel justified in calling this Aussie coach’s daydreams  a laughable conceit. I go to no less an authority than the Financial Times, of London to back my ludicrous claims: “The All Blacks are the most successful sports franchise in history, achieving a better win ratio than Brazil in football or Australia in cricket,” wrote their commentator Jamie Smyth, last year.  “They have claimed three World Cups and won more than three-quarters of the matches they have played in their 125-year history, more than any major national sports team. Many New Zealand fans go to rugby matches wondering not whether their team will win, but rather by how much.”
However, behind every adversary’s laughable conceit lies the possibility that it may be carried out; so one can see the importance of Saturday’s rare game as we lead up to the next World Cup to be played towards the end of 2019, a date that only an optimist would say that a 90-year-old fan might expect to meet.
When the local sports channels fail me (have you ever noticed that they seem to think any old soccer game between West Ham and Burnley, for instance, carries more weight than an All Blacks Test? How the hell did we ever make it through the last war, with guys like these among our decision-makers? I ask you) I have to resort to illegal streaming channels that offer free services, until you have clicked several buttons, when they come up with demands for considerable sums of money, for which, if you pay them, you get frequently interrupted shots of a game that are quite likely to be wiped off the screen at any moment as their perpetrators flee from criminal persecution.
Occasionally in the past I have successfully negotiated such channels, but recently they seem to have toughened their demands, and for several days, desperately trying one after the other, I kept getting put on to betting sites in which I have no interest, having made my last bet at the age of nine when my Dad gave me half a crown to spend at the races, and I lost.
In the last throes of desperation I turned to my ace in the hole, a son who knows this streaming world inside out, since on his computer he sees every television show ever screened anywhere within an hour of its having been broadcast, through some legerdemain that I would never have the nerve  to investigate, so complex and convoluted does it seem to a guy like me. This son is a paragon of patience and understanding of the aged, among whom he likes to include me, for reasons that still escape me. And after I have described my dilemma to him I can depend upon it that within minutes he will be saying, in the gentlest voice, “Are you a complete idiot?   Why can’t you just follow the instructions?” enunciated in slightly rising tones that have been known to bring the neighbours knocking on my door in alarm.
In vain do I say that I have just done exactly what he told me, and that the message that came up on my computer did not have the word Google across the top as he claimed it would, but rather it had a message explaining why I was in error. Eventually he agreed he would  drop over to my place (an hour’s ride away in the bus) and see if he could arrange things on my computer so they would work. Which he did, and sat there clicking and touching, clicking and touching, and when I inquired as to what he was doing, he would say, “I am doing the work. You can’t expect everything to come up like roses just because you hit one or two buttons. You have to be prepared to do the work. You have to cancel those betting channels, and keep on doing it.” Anyway, he got some game or other  going, seemed satisfied that I should be able to do the same in his absence, and took off with the confident smile of a job well done.
That’s as maybe : I had no idea where to start, but figured it may as well be with the channels I had already spent three days trying to connect with.   I realized my son had recently had open-heart surgery, and could not afford to be disturbed unduly, so I was determined not to  approach him again. Meantime I had decided to enrol  in a relatively honest-looking channel that asked me to pay some $30 for three months, surely not a high sum for the three or four Rugby games I would want to see in the next two or three weeks.
Meantime on the side, thrashing around on my computer aimlessly and in increasing dismay, I had opened a programme that offered to answer questions, paying the $5 introductory fee, and had proceeded to enrol until I hit the place where they were asking for a big sum of money for a year’s service, at which point I withdrew. Meantime my son on his own volition phoned to see how things were proceeding, and when I told him I had enrolled in a site but had been unable to connect it to anything concrete, in spite of having paid my $30, my son calmly, and with only the slight suggestion of a raised voice to nothing higher than would have awakened a herd of brahmah bulls, suggested I should send him the material and he would try to make it connect. At this point the guy --- I have to pause here and pay tribute to his superb grasp of these technological mysteries --- almost magically straightened it all out, connected me, and low and behold I managed to watch the Rugby game first to last.
I have to report not only that my son did not have a heart seizure but  that the All Blacks managed to win by the narrowest  of margins, 16-15, in a game that everyone agreed was most encouraging for the  Poms, and presaged something pretty phenomenal for their World Cup prospects. I almost had a heart seizure myself as we hung on desperately --- I am sorry that word has cropped up so many times in this one Chronicle --- managing to survive an apparent winning try that the French referee and South African television match official agreed should be to disallowed.
Now, on to Ireland next week. The cognoscenti are saying Ireland is even better than England. But the All Blacks have had a hell of a scare, and can be expected to be at their best. 
I certainly hope so. I always say it when we are beaten, “After all, it’s only a game.”  Thank heaven my fanaticism is limited, so that I can actually believe that.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

My Log 660 November 6 2018: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 96 Fascinating account of German attitudes towards Hitler as he marched across Europe; given in a memoir by the last of the July 20, 1944 conspirators

I have just read a curiously fascinating little book that has lain unread in my shelves for some years. It is called Valkyrie: the Plot to Kill Hitler, was written by a man called  Philipp Von Boeselager, and was first published in English in 2009, the year after his death. He was the last remaining member of the great conspiracy that tried many times unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler, culminating in the attempt on July 20 1944. Although he had always been reluctant to discuss his experience, he finally realized it was up to him to record the details of a plot that, had it succeeded, could have changed history, and saved the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who were subsequently killed as the war continued until the German surrender on May 7, 1945.
The fascination of the book comes not so much from the detailed story of the plotting, as from the fact that Von Boeselager  was a member of the high German aristocracy, from a family long associated with the German military, and his account of the war is told from the point of view of such a rigidly proper viewpoint  as to be, in its way, almost amusing.
Great attention is paid to the rigid requirements of citizenship placed on members of this high Catholic family of nine children, brought up in an immense castle, fathered by a man described as “a cultured man of letters. Originally from Brussels on his mother’s side, he considered the European nobility a single unit. He hunted all over the continent, and spoke four or five languages….He attached particular importance ro learning how to make proper use of freedom --- and the capacity for Christian discernment which was for him its corollary --- and of hunting."
Philipp was born in 1917, his elder brother Georg, who became a  co-member of the conspiracy, in 1915: Georg is portrayed as the absolute epitome of the military hero, a leader of men, always concerned about his soldiers,  a brilliant strategist and fighter, who eventually fell in the service of his country after giving everything he had to its cause.  The boys were 18 and 15 when the Nazis came to power in 1933, an event that left their family rather indifferent, for the father was not sorry to see the end of the Weimar republic, nor of the humiliation they had felt after the defeat in the First World War. “My father believed in European unity before it was fashionable to do so….as a former officer… he was a patriot and he wanted to see Germany regain all its rights as a great nation…..We had no more need to be ashamed of wanting to restore Germany than had the French who in1914 wanted to return Alsace and Lorraine to France.”
Georg passed his final exams in 1934: a man given to action, loving the outdoor life, he wanted to become a military officer.  “It seemed to us that the army was the only institution that had remained faithful to its principles and was capable, through its vitality and culture, of preserving its identity and, especially, its autonomy with respect to the government.” When Philipp’s turn came he asked the advice of his grandfather, telling him he was leaning towards a career in diplomacy, but the old man said, “My boy, in diplomacy it’s not always good to tell the whole truth, but with the Nazis you’d have to simply lie, that wouldn’t be suitable for you. Choose the army instead; war is coming.”
So, the brothers joined the cavalry, to which they were devoted for the rest of their lives. Philipp joined the Fourth Army which entered France in May, 1940, exhibiting an effortless superiority to the French army. He tells a story of approaching his adversaries on the battlefield under a white flag and making a deal with them to save lives. When a superior arrived and ordered him into action, he refused because of the deal he had made, and when the superior persisted, he drew his gun, pointed it at his superior, and forced him to yield. “Everything went as planned, without shedding a drop of blood. ..few people knew what had happened, and we tried to keep it quiet.” His outfit was poised for the attack on England, but when England refused to surrender, they were suddenly transferred to Poland, very close to the USSR, which they attacked on June 23, 1941.
He became aide-de-camp to Field Marshal von Kluge. Noticing a bald statement in a field report, “Special treatment for five gypsies,” he asked for an explanation of the responsible officer, a man with a scandalous reputation, embittered by his treatment during the First War, what “special treatment” meant. “Those? We shot them!”
“What do you mean, you shot them! After a trial before a military tribunal?”
“No, of course not. All the Jews and Gypsies we pick up are liquidated, shot.”  Philipp thought his Marshal would explode as he protested in the name of the Geneva conventions, the laws of war, and even the interests of the German army. But eventually he drew from the officer the rejoinder: “Jews and Gypsies are among the Reich’s enemies. We have to liquidate them.”
The war had been raging for three years by this time, and all of Western Europe had been conquered by Hitler’s army, so it does seem to me rather unlikely that  even a rigidly trained military officer full of morality and fighting spunk could have found nothing, until this moment, to arouse in him feelings of disgust at what his nation, and its army, had been doing.
His account of the unsuccessful advance on Moscow  is accompanied by careless references of contempt for the Russian soldiers, who, we are given to understand, were as often as not drunk on vodka, and were thrown into certain death by careless officers. Also, although mostly in the notes at the back of the book, Russian citizens are recorded as protesting against the government foisted on them by the Communist authorities.  Yet somehow or other, resistance offered by partisans, citizen militias, proved to be a major problem as the German advance was stalled, and then gradually turned back, this highly disciplined German army thrown into a disastrous retreat, from which they were never rescued.
He gives a harrowing picture of the state of the German army under the withering bombardment they suffered, especially once the Soviet forces were armed with newly supplied American weapons. Some severe doubts have in recent years been cast on the behaviour of the German troops,  which some German authors and historians have claimed were  stoked by massive quantities of drugs that kept them awake as they marched back and forth across the frozen tundra.
From out of their massive retreat, a group of dissenting officers began to conspire to assassinate Hitler, whose crazy military decisions were making defeat almost inevitable. They realized  that just to remove Hitler would not be enough: he could be replaced by someone who might conceivably be worse. So various planned assassination attempts were stalled because neither Himmler nor Goering nor Goebbels were also present,  as they would need to be if a coup d’etat were to succeed.
The attempt, when it was made by Claus von Stauffenberg, the severely wounded man whose job was made more difficult by his injuries, did not succeed in anything except  the death of hundreds of conspirators and people connected to them. Of course, a peripheral  result was the demonstration to their adversaries that such a determined resistance to Hitler did exist.
On another point the book is strangely silent. Neither Philipp nor his brother Georg, though deeply committed to the conspiracy, was arrested, and no satisfactory explanation is offered for this when virtually every other conspirator was either summarily shot or imprisoned.
This little book does contain an account that could be used as a warning in the present day: that no matter how disciplined and well trained an army, it can nevertheless fall into the hands of unscrupulous  national leaders. One does not have to look too far in the present world to envisage  the possibility --- however remote it may seem --- that something similar could happen, not far from our borders,  that would be a disaster for the entire modern world.