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Jew or Viennese or both?

Eva Menasse: Vienna ISBN 978-3-442-73253-1 (translated into English under the same title) ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Vienna from the beginning of the 20th century through two World Wars until today – what a marvelous setting! The story of a Jewish family – how promising! Those were my thoughts when I read about Eva Menasse’s novel “Vienna”. The Austrian writer apparently draws on autobiographical material, and narrating the fate of a Vienna based Jewish family throughout the 20th century could have been the occasion to draw a critical portrait of Vienna’s society, its latent anti-Semitism and xenophobism, to explore the moral choices a Jewish family faced under the regime of Adolf Hitler and during the confusing time immediately after World War II.

All these issues come up, focused through the lens of the narrator searching for his own identity in this family, in this town, in this country. But the novel lacks a coherent structure. It follows a historical timeline, but the beginning already is confusing. Too many characters are introduced at the same time, you never quite now what time the narrator is referring to at a specific moment. Later the story is at times repetitive, the episodes seem unrelated to each other and my reading pleasure was regularly thwarted by these experiences. Furthermore the story lacks active elements that propel it forward, there is no tension, no culmination point the story is leading to.

The family members have both Christian and Jewish roots and their quest for identity is the central element of the novel. This however gets blurred by 1001 anectodes, funny at times, but distracting from the main issue. The question of “who is the better Jew” and whether one can belong to the Viennese society as a Jew or only as a Christian remains unanswered.

On the positive side I freely admit that the main characters and the difficult family relationships and interactions are masterfully sketched, wonderful miniatures peppered with intense Jewish humour that made me laugh more than once. A book pleasant enough, but Thomas Mann has set a very high standard with “The Buddenbrocks” in the field of German family sagas, and compared to this masterwork, “Vienna” remains unsatisfying.

While I read the novel I explored the works of the composer Max Bruch and his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor captures some of the sadness I felt when I imagined the characters of the novel in their struggle for their identity:

Natural elegance – of rocks and music

Anti-intellectualism and the burning of books


Sven Hanuschek: “Keiner blickt dir hinter das Gesicht” – Das Leben Erich Kästners ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-423-30871-7 Erich Kästner: Über das Verbrennen von Büchern ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-85535-389-7 Erich Kästner was besides Enid Blyton one of the writers that marked my childhood reading. I have read “Emil and the Detectives” and “Emil and the Three Twins” countless times and admired the author for his ability to “sell” a moral lesson or two wrapped in attractive gift paper. The easy-going language, the slightly old-fashioned touch – both books were written before World War II – made reading an adventure and a wonderful pastime.

A legend in shatters

I held Kästner in unreserved esteem until I was about 15. By chance I borrowed Kästner’s own attempt at a biography “Als ich ein kleiner Junge war” (When I was a young boy) from the school library, and I was struck by the the way how Kästner sanctified and adulated his mother. His overly nostalgic look back upon his childhood in Dresden, his exclusive relationship to his mother, the total absence of his father and any friends from his peer group disconcerted me. I was for the first time confronted with the Kästner’s exceptional gift to showcase himself.

Sven Hanuschek paints a highly critical picture of the young boy’s family and Kästner’s fixation on his mother for several decades, he destroys the legends that Kästner and his later girl friend Luiselotte Enderle built around the writer’s person – hence the title of Hanuschek’s book: Nobody looks behind your face. Kästner was an enigmatic and complex person and the polished surface of his literary works may be misleading. “All is not well. I doubt some foul play”,  Hamlet would say.

Witnessing the Nazis’ rise

Kästner’s world-wide success as a childbook author obscures his political thinking, reflected in innumerable cabaret pieces, poems and his adult novel “Fabian – The Story of a Moralist”. Kästner was a keen observer of his time, abhorred the  militarism firmly rooted in German society and feared for the survival of the Weimar Republic. “Fabian” served its purpose – from its publication on, Kästner was branded as an enemy by the conservative political parties and foremost by the National Socialists.

In 1933, Kästner’s books and those of many others were burned in public by university students that had succumbed to Joseph Goebbels anti-intellectual propaganda. While many German writers, researchers, actors and musicians fled Germany after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Kästner decided to stay on and continue to observe the rise and fall of the “Third Reich”.

Moral choices

Hanuschek’s biography recounts in a detailed way the personal evolution of Kästner as a writer, as a womanizer, as a colleague eager to help whenever he could. He also sheds a light on Kästner’s difficult moral choices during the Nazi time. He was an eye-witness of the burning of his books, but he did not speak out. Hanuschek has analysed Kästner’s letters and diaries and says that Kästner did not see any purpose of speaking out at the time. It was already too late. The Nazis had grabbed the power and a single opposing voice would have led him into a concentration camp and changed nothing.

Ethical questions of another nature – linked to the women he had attracted into his orbit and the son he would not officially recognize as such – troubled Kästner after World War II. Germany’s enthusiastic moralist was confronted with moral choices he was afraid to make. This slowed his literary production and encourage him to drink. Kästner died in 1974 from a combination of alcoholism, cancer and desperation. No happy end here.

Productive – undercover

As Kästner stayed in Germany during World War II, he witnessed the catastrophic consequences of Hitler’s politics. He did not write anything political. However he wrote movie scenarios, inoffensive poems often under an assumed name as the Nazis’ cultural bureaucracy had forbidden him to publish anything in the German Reich or Switzerland. Kästner’s earlier works continued to be printed abroad and circulated inside Germany despite the official ban. But Kästner didn’t engage in any rebellious act. He waited until the end of the war and then he told his story: What he had seen, what he had experienced – the abyss of human depravation.

And a few years after World War II, his books were again burned – this time by overzealous Christian students who saw some of his works as opposed to Christian morality. The book “Über das Verbrennen von Büchern” is a collection of speeches Kästner gave in 1947, 1953, 1958 and 1965 about what the burning of books stands for – the negation of culture, of rationalism, of human intelligence.

Diatribes and autocratic rule

Kästner’s biography and his idea about the burning of books – you cannot destroy the influence of a book as long as someone is willing to read it – is a highly fascinating read in a time when in democratic societies  a growing part of the population is cheering at populist politicians and rejecting the deemed elites, in a time when violent emotions and foul language in public triumph over rationalism and civility. I found striking parallels between the climate in Germany in the 20s and 30s and today’s voices in social networks and the diatribes of the US president. Erich Kästner has seen how such a climate may encourage violence and lead to the destruction of societies. He has also seen that it might be too late to act once populist leaders with autocratic tendencies are at the helm of governments. Will we learn from him?

Kästner’s favourite piece of music was a march composed for the movie adaption of Richard Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier”, but György Kurtag’s set of 19 movements called “Signs, Games and Messages” seems much more appropriate to illustrate this book review – a meditation and a warning:

On terror, fear, symbols and music

The Übermensch in search of his soul

David Khara: La trilogie Bleiberg (English title: 1. The Bleiberg Project 2. The Shiro Project 3. The Morgenstern Project) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-2290149942 The plot is quickly told: Aytan Morgenstern is a Mossad agent tasked to hunt down war criminals. In the first part of the Bleiberg trilogy he  sets out to triumph over a international criminal organisation that facilitated in the past the rise of Hitler and in the Nazis’ wake gruesome medical experiments undertaken by the SS to create the Aryan Übermensch.

Agent Morg’s personal fate is linked to those experiments, the link is a key element of his determination to fight his mysterious opponent. His enemy – the Consortium – however is not a shadow of the past, it determines the present too because it controls pharmaceutical companies and research labs and under th guidance of Viktor Bleiberg it tries to manipulate genetically a substantial part of the earth’ population – the Bleiberg project is at the center of the first part of David Khara’s riveting trilogy.

The second part – the Shiro Project – has a related background, the horrifying Japanese experiments in Manchuria during World War II. Nonetheless it follows a different line. Morgenstern has to team up with a killer of the Consortium. Biological attacks shake Moscow and the Czech Republic and threaten the Consortium’s economic interests. The virus used by the attackers came from a lab controlled by the Consortium and, being a criminal organisation, the mess requires an in-house solution. It kidnaps a person dear to the Mossad agent and blackmails him into cooperation. This framework allows the French writer to sketch the complex personality of Aytan Morgenstern.

While the first novel is abundant with violent action, fast-paced and a descent into Dante’s inferno recreated my mankind, the second novel is more subtle, interesting psychological and philosophical questions are integral part of the plot and emphasize the idea of the writer to see what mankind can learn from the past. It also tries to cast a definition of heroism very different of what you might imagine from a standard Mossad agent character.

The last volume – The Morgenstern Project – picks up a thread of the first volume: overcoming man’s natural physical and psychic limitations through technology. Transhumanism is the keyword – fusing man’s body with sophisticated technology to produce super-humans. Aytan Morgenstern – victim and benefactor of Bleiberg’s experiments – is being chased by people interested in his exceptional strength, intelligence and fighting capacities. The Consortium, the CIA, the Pentagon – all the usual suspects are involved and again a lot of action is seen e.g. in down-town New York. The head of the Consortium – Cypher – is the mastermind behind a diabolical plan that Morgenstern is beginning to decrypt, and the agent is more resolved than ever to neutralize the threat emanating from the Consortium

Morgenstern gets a lot of help in the last volume of the trilogy : two former colleagues, two characters from the first volume and a mole inside the Consortium. Furthermore the Mossad officially has broken of all contact to the “former agent Morg” to give him additional operational leeway. All seems to work according to the plan – but whose plan? Is Morgenstern being manipulated? If so, to what end? I will not spoil anyone’s pleasure by giving away the key to the mystery and let you enjoy the 983 pages up to the very last.

While Khara definitely wrote a work of fiction, the three volumes touch some very real issues: Man’s ambition to rule over others. Man’s temptation to abuse of its power. Man’s greed and vanity leading to the abolition of moral values. Man’s ability to inflict harm and man’s ability to suffer. Repentance is a thought that came to my mind several times while I read this page-turner. At times I had to get away from the fascinating plots to ponder the implications of man’s many failings in the world of today. In 1881, the German composer Max Bruch set to music a jewish prayer of repentance: Kol Nidrei, the Adagio for Cello, Op. 47.

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

From the cradle of Bolshevism to the ghetto of Lvov

albert londres

Pierre Assouline: Albert Londres. Vie et mort d’un grand reporter 1884-1932 ISBN 978-2-07-038236-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Superbe en français, outstanding English. Having worked as a journalist myself I make a point of avoiding books about a journalist. I have already read too many bad memoirs. This book is an exception. The biography of the French special envoy Albert Londres deserves the highest praise.

A thrilling story, the story of a thrilling life. A tour de force through the history of World War I, the birth of Bolshevism, the upheavals in the Balkans after the retreat of the Ottoman Empire. A discovery tour to the dark side of the French colonial empire with its prison camps and construction sites where French colonial officers supervise African foremen exploiting African slaves. A descent into the hell of French lunatic asylums, Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe and Brazilian brothels were French prostitutes, bought and sold by unscrupulous businessman, satisfy their customers.

Londres didn’t spare his readers in Paris in the 1920s and his growing audience – by 1929 he was a journalistic celebrity unable to cope with fan mail – witnessed how his job transformed his view on the world. He started as an observer and recorder of facts to report and inform, but by experiencing the personal misery of man and chosing the individual experience – the men and women who either made or suffered from the making of history – as the focal point of his stories, he became a fighter against social and racial injustice making enemies left, right and center in France and its colonies.

Pierre Assouline, a successful editor and a gifted writer, does a brilliant job in retracing the path that Londres took and the personal development that the journalist underwent. What captivated me most was Assouline’s style in the tradition of the great French romanciers, mimicking Londres’s sense of irony, descriptive precision and expressive excellence. Reading a French book has not often given me so much joy only for its style.

While Albert Londres fought against corruption, abuse of power and social injustice, the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg persued his own way to democracy and equality – in the realm of chamber music – inspired by the generally progressive ideas that were in the air all over Europe. His String Quartet No. 3 picked up the mood of the time:

A democratic revolution – all notes are equal