Walking Around in the House of Suffering

George Szirtes: The Photographer at Sixteen ISBN 978-0-85705-853-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Quite a bewildering book. Szirtes sketches a portrait of his mother, and he sketches it with little sympathy. He is interested, but distant. Portraying a stranger. How little he knew when he started the journey back in time, trying to understand her. How much remained unclear when he was done. Right at the beginning, he says about his parents: “They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask.” Strangers. I always felt it was more cruel to be with people that do not communicate than to be lonesome. Silence works both ways: offensive as a weapon, defensive as a shield. But silence is always a challenge for a child. Just like a “no” , that perhaps might become a reluctant “yes”.

The portrait of the mother betrays the son. It is intentional. “The Photographer at Sixteen” is a hybrid: part portrait, part memoir. Death is never very far. Nor is desperation. Szirtes language is blunt, laconic. And if father-son-conflicts have inspired more than one novel, drama or poem, the relationship between mother and son is no less… no less what? Cruel? Fascinating? Parents, be they male or female, who pass their unfulfilled social ambitions on to their children are a terrible burden. They want you to have a happy life or what they consider a happy life. As for your wishes, they usually are secondary.

“She had suffered history, now history had to redeem itself through the future.” The future of young George and his brother. Their mother had survived the Nazi concentration camps, and the family had fled Hungary after the Soviet repression of the uprising in 1956. History, suffering, the will to survive, ambitions past, present, future – Szirtes offers a remarkable insight into his family’s story stretching “from Cluj or Koloszvar, also known as Klausenburg” to Wymondham. The elements he reveals give his mother and his relation to her a more precise contour: admiration for his mother’s beauty and her sense of chic, respect for her will-power and ambition, mixed with a healthy dose of scepticism about her choices, her priorities.

Changes in the society of Szirtes’ adopted home country and his mother’s declining health account for the souring relation between a challenging mother and rebellious son. The UK was a safe haven, but not heaven. Delusions, disappointments, a feeling of alienation leading to a certain bitterness – does that sound familiar? Brexit is the final episode of something that started back then in the 60s and is coming to its conclusion in our days. And it had and still has a profound impact on the individual’s life.

What struck me, was the effort invested by the Szirtes family in creating a maximum distance between them and their original Jewish identity. The Holocaust and the prevailing anti-Semitism may have justified such an attitude in Hungary, but not in the UK. To me it looks like fleeing from oneself. And what identity is to be found instead? A post-World War II British identity? If Britons struggled with this concept – they still do – how could a family of Hungarian exilees of Jewish descent possibly succeed?

What I appreciated most about the book, is the fact that Szirtes does not shy away from showing us how little he knows of the biography of his mother. By extension he says that we can only have a fuzzy idea of some person’s identity, changing over time and with the source of our information about that person. How little we know about even those who seem close to us. “I am interested in her, so I go on inventing a truth I can believe in … The trick is to invent the truth.” This book is about composite identities: what others see in us, what we see in us, what we try to make others see in us. Man is a confusing species.

I recently came across a composer who first had to flee the Nazis and seek refuge in the USSR, where a decade later he was arrested by the Soviet authorities who sensed a “Jewish cosmopolitan conspiracy”, whatever that might have been. In 1940 Mieczyslaw Weinberg wrote his String Quartet No. 2:

A Quartet Written on the Way to Tashkent

Blood, Sweat and Tears or the Delight to Be a Victim

heroic failure

Fintan o’Toole: Heroic Failure. Brexit and the Politics of Pain. ISBN 978-1789540987⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Now that Theresa May has failed to secure a majority for Brexit plan A, it begins to show that neither the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn nor May herself have a plan B. Actually, there shouldn’t even have been a plan A. The initiators of the 2016 referendum never meant it to succeed. They wanted to shake up the political establishment, but not to ruin their country by pushing it out of the European Union. Fintan o’Toole, an Irish historian, literature critic and columnist, has written a well-researched, well-articulated analysis of the British, or rather the English, psyche that led to the disgraceful spectacle we have observed over the past two years.

As my desperation has been nurtured over the past two years by the many lies told by Brexiteers to their unsuspecting victims, the British voters, I take the unusual step of wrapping a review of this interesting and irritating book in two distinct personal letters. My frustration has to be vented, and this is the place to do it!

Dear Brexiteers,

I know you are busy toppling your government and polarizing your country even further, so I will be brief and not detract your attention from serving your country. About Brexit – I wish you to leave the EU as fast as you can. Preferably without a deal. Because I want you to fall flat on your face. I want you to feel the heat of competition under WTO rules, the burden of bankruptcy of your inefficient economy, the dead weight of a dysfunctional public administration and the shame triggered by derelict infrastructure no longer funded by Brussels. I WANT YOU TO FEEL PAIN! ENORMOUS, UNBEARABLE PAIN.

Fintan o’Toole’s book pushed my anger at British politics at a new level. The book’s general idea is easy to understand. Emotionally, the UK has not overcome the fact that victory in World War II did not lead to prosperity and international prestige, but translated into economic hardship, the dissolution of the empire and a relative decline in global importance. I perfectly understand that this amounted to a huge disappointment. However the psychological trick that UK politicians used to deny this fact and to compensate this feeling of loss is appalling: self-pity.

The UK apparently feels best when it’s beleaguered, but once the enemy is vanquished, heroism has lost its purpose. O’Toole shows that politicians looked for a new villain that a) could be used as a scapegoat for all that went wrong (Thatcherism, the Falkland War etc.) and b) that could make Britons rally around the Union Jack. The EU was perfectly suited for both. Self-pity went viral through the endless repetition of “It’s all Brussels fault” and “Germany still is the enemy, only now it sails under the European flag.” If you marry self-pity with auto-suggestion, you end up with Brexit, hard or soft, depending on the size of your ego.

Why did all this work? O’Toole speaks of a perfect cycle of self-pity and self-love. “We deserve to be loved, but we are hated because we are so wonderful”, he says. British logic? British humour? The lack of recognition has over decades been sublimed and transformed into political masochism. “The political erotics of imaginary domination [by the EU] and imaginary submission are the deep pulse of the Brexit drama”, o’Toole writes. The pleasure to be a victim, the delightful feeling to be exempted from any responsibility, has become the goal of British politics. The EU’s function is “to be a more insidious form of Nazism”. O’Toole presents a horrifying analysis here, but I suspect it comes very close to the truth. You relish pain? You’ll get pain. Plenty of it.

Dear Remainers,

I wish you a lot of courage. The less enlightened part of your journalists and politicians has condemned you to spend blood, sweat and tears, and is far from certain that your coming sacrifices will ever be rewarded. These people have left the path of rationalism long ago, they discard the empirically verified for day-dreams and wishful-thinking as Fintan o’Toole shows with many examples at hand. Since those politicians have been democratically elected, there’s little to be done about that, as long as a majority of British voters prefer lies to truth. We, the European people, will offer you exile anytime, but unfortunately the United Kingdom can only be saved by its own people. That’s you.

O’Toole puts forward an interesting fact that should be considered by all Remainers. He reflects the improbable alliance between two social classes, far apart one from each other, that support Brexit: parts of the working class and parts of the upper class. As a binding agent he sees “the sheer joy of being able to fuck everything up.” It’s stupid to break stuff, but let’s do it anyway, just for fun. And never mind the consequences, says the political punk Boris Johnson. A little bit of “Dunkirk Spirit” and British improvisation will do miracles.

If this is the spirit of the Brexiteers, Remainers must acknowledge that the next generation will have to pay for the fun that old, bored, rich, white men like Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg have right now. This a point women are sensible to. They don’t want the future of their children being gambled away for the thrill of a former stock broker like Farage. Brexit is about emotions, o’Toole says. On both sides. Right. So let’s use emotions like the Brexiteers do. There are only 32 million men compared to 33 million women in the UK. That gives women a real majority. Use it! It may be too late to stop Brexit, but it’s not too late to shape a post-Brexit future limiting the damage Brexit will do.

Unless a miracle happens between today and March 23, the UK will hit a wall at full speed abd finally wake up and acknowledge the realities of the 21st century. Economically, it is of marginal importance, compared to heavy-weights like the China, India, the US and the European Union. As for its political and military potency, let’s not talk about it. The EU Council fares better without constant British interfering, and the UK’s nuclear weapons are just as obsolete as the British pound. Past sacrifices on Europe’s battlefields will not be forgotten, but the United Kingdom itself has made them irrelevant by not embedding them in a narrative of a sustainable European peace and prosperity after the war. Britons fought for Europe from 1940 to 1945, yet they fought against Europe almost since the German capitulation.

And before you get me wrong: The EU botched up a lot of things, as o’Toole underlines. But Brexit is going to make the situation worse, especially for the UK. Many on this side of the Channel are sick of trying to convince Britons that, on the long run, cooperation is better than confrontation for both sides. Dear friends, for you will remain friends, you can fight now with Russia, China and President Trump on your own. Soon, you will be alone. Good luck and good-bye.

Am I angry? You bet. What about music? I’ll settle for something violent and cruel tonight: Aribert Reimann’s opera “Lear”:

Lear – You are men of stone