Sunday, July 12, 2015

Better than Proust’s madeleine

Happy birthday Timothy Garton Ash, historian and journalist. I sometimes read your articles in The Guardian, but, on seeing that your 60th birthday was upcoming, I raced to the library, yesterday in fact, to borrow The File: A Personal History. This is a book you wrote in the 1990s partly based on a Stasi report of your earlier life in Berlin (which you describe as ‘better than Proust’s madeleine’) and your own diaries - hence this article. Unfortunately, I can only find one mention of you in my own diaries - concerning something you wrote in 2005 about decivilisation, which chimed so well with a novel I’d just written that I couldn’t resist making a note of it.

Garton Ash was born on 12 July 1955. His father, John, had been a Royal Artillery officer, one of the first to land in Normandy on D-Day, and later a finance expert advising schools in the independent sector. Timothy himself was schooled at Sherborne, and then studied modern history at Oxford University. He moved to Berlin, in the early 1980s, to further his postgraduate research, and then travelled widely through Eastern Europe reporting on the emancipation of Central Europe from communism. He was appointed foreign editor of the Spectator, but also wrote for The Times and The Independent.

Since 1990, Garton Ash has been a Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and, since 2000, Professor of European Studies. He is also the Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow. In the US, he maintains a part-time residence at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University). There is very little personal information about Garton Ash readily available on the internet, other than that he is married to Danuta, has two children, and is based in Oxford. More readily available is information on his fellowships (Royal Society of Literature, Royal Historical Society, and Royal Society of Arts) and awards (the Somerset Maugham Award, for example, the George Orwell Prize, and Orders of Merit from Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic).

Garton Ash’s most recent books are Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name and Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. His current research is listed as being on global free speech in the age of the internet and mass migration.

After authoring, in the 1980s and early 1990s, several books on the recent history of central Europe, Garton Ash turned his attention to a more personal story. He discovered that the Stasi had kept a detailed file on his activities and movements while living in Berlin, and he returned to the city to look into the file, and, ultimately to write and publish a book on his findings - The File: A Personal History (HarperCollins 1997, republished by Atlantic Books in 2009, with a new afterword).

‘In this memoir,’ the publisher says, ‘Garton Ash describes what it was like to rediscover his younger self through the eyes of the Stasi, and then to go on to confront those who actually informed against him to the secret police. Moving from document to remembrance, from the offices of British intelligence to the living rooms of retired Stasi officers, The File is a personal narrative as gripping, as disquieting, and as morally provocative as any fiction by George Orwell or Graham Greene. And it is all true.’

Of interest to me, to this web site, is that Garton Ash kept a diary during his Berlin years, (I’ve no idea whether he has continued to keep one in the 30 odd years since - I hope so), and used that diary to inform and colour his literary and moral adventures in Stasi-land. Unfortunately, however, he rarely quotes from his diary at any length, preferring to cite it as the source of some piece of information about his whereabouts or feelings or thoughts. However, here are a few short extracts, as quoted in The File directly from his diary.

In the first pages of the book, Garton Ash reproduces a Stasi observation report on him for 6 October 1979 when he made a trip to East Berlin. He follows this by describing the contents of his own diary for that day, which has Claudia ‘cheeky in red beret and blue uniform coat’. ‘Over Friedrichstrasse,’ his diary continues, ‘searched down to the soles of my shoes (Duckers. Officer very impressed.)’ He then continues with memories of the day before quoting this, also from his diary of that day: ‘Becoming yet more intimate . . . The torchlit procession. The cold, cold east wind. Our warmth. The maze - encircled. Slipping through the columns, evading the policemen. Finally to ‘Ganymed’. Tolerable dinner. C. re. her ‘Jobben’. Her political activity. We cross back via Friedrichstr. To Diener’s . . . c.0300 at Uhlandstr. Daniel, desperate and pale-faced before the flat door - locked out!’

At the end of this introductory chapter Garton Ash writes: ‘The Stasi’s observation report, my own diary entry: two versions of one day in a life. The ‘object’ described with the cold outward eye of the secret policeman and my own subjective, allusive, emotional self-description. But what a gift to memory is a Stasi file. Far better than Proust’s madeleine.’

Garton Ash’s diary continues to inform and enrich his story in the book, part memoir, part analysis, part drama (in the sense that he confronts several of the people who had informed on him years earlier, and considers at length whether to mention their real names or not). But, as I’ve said, he rarely quotes more than a few words. Here’s some further, very brief, extracts from later in the book when he’s heading for Poland to cover the rise of Solidarity.

- ‘Poland,’ he writes in The File, ‘was what journalists call a ‘breaking story’. To follow such a story is like being lashed to the saddlestraps of a racehorse at full gallop: very exciting, but you don’t get the best view of the race. Yet I tried to achieve a view from the Grandstand, even an aerial view, and to understand the story as part of history. The history of the present. For me, Poland was also a cause. ‘Poland is my Spain,’ I wrote in my diary on Christmas Eve 1980.’

- ‘On the day I left East Berlin, my diary records: ‘It seems to me now odds-on that the Russians will march into Poland. (And the Germans? Dr D. today says Ja.)’ ’

- ‘I am startled to find that on the last page of my diary for 1980 I myself wrote: ‘There will be a nuclear war in the next decade.’ And then in capital letters, as if the lower case formulation was still inadequate: ‘WE WILL SEE A NUCLEAR WAR IN THIS DECADE.’ ’

As mentioned above, Garton Ash appears once only in my own diaries. This was in September 2005, and I was much taken up with my failure to get any attention for a novel I’d published, Kip Fenn - Reflections (more recently re-self-published in three volumes under the title Not a Brave New World - a trilogy in three wives). I had been very excited about this novel - the fictional memoir of an international diplomat, but one set in the future, spanning the whole of the 21st century, and very much focused on political and social issues, particularly the rich-poor divide. Despite its original format and story-line, I’d been unable to get anyone in the publishing industry to even glance at it, let alone take it seriously. That particular day, I noted in my diary several stories in The Guardian, all of which related directly to themes in my novel, in particular Garton Ash’s: Decivilisation is not as far away as we like to think.

Garton Ash concluded that article as follows: ‘In political preaching mode, we may take [hurricane] Katrina as an appeal to get serious about addressing these challenges, which means the great blocs and the great powers of the world [. . .] reaching for a new level of international cooperation.’ This is precisely, but precisely, the main and urgent theme of my novel.

I also note in my diary that day how the media was giving a lot of attention to the UN’s 60th birthday, and calling for an increase in the amount of aid to the developed world - again this is a major theme in my novel, one that dovetails with the need for a new level of international cooperation. Indeed, the career of the narrator, Kip Fenn, in my novel leads him to become head of a major new UN agency designed to fund sustainable development in developing countries to counteract the worst effects of climate change.

What I could not understand then, I still cannot understand today, is why the publishing world - by which I mean publishers, agents, reviewers etc. which effectively guard the gateway to both supply and demand - showed absolutely no interest in considering a serious novel, about our political and social future. As far as I can tell, nothing like it had been published before, or has been since - and yet I personally yearn for such novels, ones that have something to say beyond the emotional landscape of individuals or nirvanas of descriptive paradise.

So, once again Timothy Garton Ash, happy birthday, and if your interest is at all peaked by the idea of my novel, I’d be more than happy to send it to you - I’ve plenty lying around the house.

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