Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nooteboom in Berlin 1963

Happy Birthday Cees Nooteboom, eighty today. A noted Dutch novelist, Nooteboom has won various awards, not least the prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, but is equally well known for his travel journalism. Recently, a translation into English of his writing about Berlin has been published in English, and this contains several diary entries about his first experiences of the Berlin Wall in 1963. They are so readable and interesting that one hopes Nooteboom has a stash of diaries to be published one day.

Cornelis (Cees) Nooteboom was born on 31 July 1933 in The Hague, Netherlands, the middle child of three. His parents separated, then his father died as a result of a bombing in 1945. After the war, Nooteboom’s mother took the family to live in Tilburg, and she remarried. Nooteboom was educated largely at religious schools. He made use of some early experiences hitchhiking around Europe for his first novel, Philip en de anderen (Philip and the Others), which, subsequently, became a classic of Dutch literature. After various clerical jobs, he found work as a journalist, with the weekly magazine Elsevier, then with the newspaper de Volkskrant, and then, in 1967, he became travel editor of the magazine Avenue. Meanwhile, he also published further novels and books of poetry.

In 1980, Nooteboom published Rituelen (Rituals) which was later made into a film. This book, Nooteboom himself says, marked the beginning of the second phase in his career as a writer, in which he produced many more poems, novels, novellas and anthologies of pieces on travel and art. In 1987, he taught for six months at the University of California at Berkeley, and in 1989 the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) invited him to live for a year in Berlin, from where he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and wrote about it for many European newspapers. In 1991, his novel Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story) was given away free for Dutch Book Week.

Nooteboom has lived in Amsterdam since 1954. He married Fanny Lichtveld in 1957, but the marriage was annulled in 1964. For some years he was in a relationship with the singer, Liesbeth List, but is now married to Simone Sassen, and they divide their time between Amsterdam and Minorca. In 2009, Nooteboom was awarded the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the most important literary award in the Dutch-speaking world. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica own website.

I do not know if Nooteboom keeps a diary or not - I hope so - but one of his recent books translated into English - Roads to Berlin - contains a few early diary entries. His first Dutch book on Berlin - Berlijnse Notities - was published in 1990 and a second book - Terugkeer naar Berlijn - in 1997. Texts from both these books were collected with new material for a more recent publication, Berlijn 1989/2009. This has now been translated by Laura Watkinson, and published in English by Maclehose Press, London (2012) as Roads to Berlin.

The Maclehose Press website quotes a few reviews: ‘It is a wonderful voyage of self-discovery, and a psychological exploration of a nation in turmoil’ in the Financial Times; ‘Nooteboom wears his erudition lightly, and weaves personal anecdote into memorable reportage’ in The Sunday Telegraph; ‘there is a melancholy in his writing and a nostalgia for the past, both of which are very German - or at least used to be’ in The Spectator; and ‘his Berlin reportage, from a 1963 Khrushchev rally in East Berlin to the tearing down of the Palast der Republik, brilliantly captures the intensity of the capital and its associated layers of memory,’ in The Economist.

Several pages of the Kindle edition (by Quercus) can be read freely online at Amazon. Here is one diary extract to be found in the Prologue.

15 January 1963
‘West Berlin. You drive down Kurfürstendamm, which is bedecked with high, white lights, to the corroded, mutilated Gedächtniskirche, and then onwards. To your surprise, you see that the West has its own ruins: magnificent, hollowed-out monuments and empty windows with no rooms behind them, chunks of fossilised war, bricked-up doors that no smiling father will ever pass through again, off for a walk with Werner the dog. The only crossing point for non-German, non-military personnel is in Friedrichstraße, but we end up at the Brandenburger Tor by mistake. Snow and moonlight. Nothing on the frozen square in front of the gate: no people, no cars. Along the edge of that space, the black columns topped by the quadriga, the triumphal chariot. Four horses race along, pulling a winged figure that holds aloft a wreath, towards the east. Beneath, a quarter of the height of the columns, the blunt teeth of the Wall. A West German policeman signals that we are not allowed to drive on. So we stay where we are and watch things not happening. Two Russian tanks stand up high on huge pedestals, a reminder of 1945. We see two Russian sentries, shadows amidst the marble.

Friedrichstraße is not far from here. The same checks as at Helmstedt: documents, pieces of paper, money being counted, barriers, a classic copperplate engraving through which we move, remaining as human as possible. Two low walls have been erected across the road so that a driver would have to perform a dramatic swerve if he wanted to get through quickly. When all the German boxes have been ticked, we are allowed through, and the city continues, the way cities do after walls: the same, yet different. It is probably just me being oversensitive, but it smells different here, and everything looks browner. [. . .]

Not much traffic. Lots of neon signs. Is it a disappointment? Would I have liked it to be more dramatic? And why do I think I have any right to expect something? Two motionless soldiers stand guard in front of a monument. At Alexanderplatz, a steam train passes over a viaduct, but otherwise there is nothing to report - the occasional sign with words that look rather unread, slogans talking to themselves.’

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Haig and Wordsworth

The diaries of Field Marshal Douglas Haig and of Dorothy Wordsworth have just been added to the UK Memory of the World Register, a Unesco initiative to list documentary heritage of cultural significance. Haig’s diaries are considered important for the insight they provide into army operations during the First World War; and Wordsworth’s journal is judged a literary work of international significance, as well as having been an inspiration to her more famous poet brother.

Unesco announced on 9 July that 11 items had been selected from the UK’s libraries, archives and museums to represent the outstanding heritage of the United Kingdom. From the Domesday Book to Hitchcock’s Silent Films, it said, these priceless items span nearly 900 years, come from across the country and embody pivotal moments in the history of their communities and the UK as a whole. Included among the 11 new items are two diary-based collections: the Haig diaries, held by the National Library of Scotland, and the Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, held by the Wordsworth Trust.

This was the third group of inscriptions to Unesco’s UK Memory of the World Register, an online catalogue created to help promote the UK’s documentary heritage across the UK and the world, and follows two earlier groups of inscriptions in 2010 and 2011 - the latter of which included Anne Lister’s diaries. See The Diary Junction for more on Lister’s diaries.

As well as country-specific registers, Unesco also administers an International Member of the World Register (‘a catalogue of documentary heritage of global significance and outstanding universal value’) which includes a number of UK collections.

For the UK Memory of the World Register, Unesco’s announcement said this of Haig’s diaries: ‘The role of the British Army in the First World War and the competence or otherwise of her generals continues to be a subject of debate. As Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Douglas Haig commanded the largest British Army ever assembled and, for his role in the war, has become arguably the most controversial general in the Army’s history. Haig kept a diary throughout the war, and this momentous document now forms part of Haig’s personal papers at the National Library of Scotland.

The diary is vital to understanding key battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele through Haig’s own words, recorded on an almost daily basis. It is of national importance because, although no one single document can tell the whole story, it is at the heart of the documentary evidence that has informed modern opinion on the First World War. Whilst research in more recent years has begun to move away from focusing on the successes or failures of a small number of generals, the diary has remained central to an understanding of not just the role played by Haig, but of the British Army, her generals and her allies. It offers an insight into how and why decisions were made as events unfolded in the fields of Belgium, France and beyond. Regardless of one’s viewpoint on Haig’s own character or abilities, the diary is an essential element of the documentary heritage of the First World War. Written in these circumstances, the diary offers an immediacy that few documentary sources can in the day-to-day record and analysis of this cataclysm.’

Haig was born in Edinburgh in 1861, and educated at Clifton School, Bristol, and Oxford University. He entered the army in 1885, serving as a cavalry officer in the Sudan and distinguishing himself in South Africa during the Boer War. He served under Lord Kitchener in India. From 1905 to 1909 he played an important role in reforming the British Army. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Haig served as Commander of the First Army Corps of the British Expeditionary Force, and shortly after, in 1915, was promoted to Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force.

Although greatly admired among his fellow officers, Haig was mistrusted by the Prime Minister, Lloyd George who considered he was wasting soldiers’ lives without any prospect of victory. During 1919, Haig served as Commander-in-Chief Home Forces in Great Britain; he retired in 1920, devoting much energy to improving the welfare of ex-servicemen; and he died in 1928. His role during the war remains controversial to this day, with some claiming he was a butcher, a class-based incompetent commander, unable to grasp modern tactics and technologies, and others maintaining that his role was crucial in defeating the German army through a war of attrition.

Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and the National Library of Scotland website. Here is part of Haig’s diary entry for the day the war ended.

11 November 1918
‘Fine day but cold and dull. –

Reports from Foch’s H.Q. state that meeting with German delegates (which took place in train in the Forest of Compiègne, not in Château as previously reported) began at 2 a.m. and at 5 a.m. the Armistice was signed. The Germans pointed out that if the rolling stock & supplies of the Army (which have to be handed over by the terms of the Armistice) are given up, then Germans East of the Rhine will starve. Report says Foch was rather brutal to the German delegates, and replied that that was their affair!

The Armistice came into force at 11 a.m.

The state of the German Army is said to be very bad, and the discipline seems to have become so low that the orders of the officers are not obeyed. Capt[ai]n von Helldorf who tried to get back to Spa from Compiègne with the terms of the Armistice by night was fired at deliberately by the German troops [ ] and could not pass, while on another they broke up the bridges so that he could proceed.

At 11 a.m. I had a meeting in Cambrai with the 5 Army Com[mande]rs’ and Gen. Kavanagh Com[mandin]g Cavalry Corps. I explained that for the moment my orders are to advance onto a sector of the German frontier 32 miles wide extending from Verviers (exclusive) to Houffalize in the South. The Northern half of this sector would be held by the 2nd army; South[er]n half by 4th army. The other armies w[oul]d for the present either stand fast, or send back behind railheads such divisions as could not be easily supplied. Each army sent forward would consist of 4 Corps = 32 Div[isio]ns. The remaining 28 Div[isio]ns w[oul]d be under the command of the 1st, 3rd, & 5th Army Commanders. The selection of Div[isio]ns had been made for reasons of man-power & recruiting, but I sh[oul]d be glad of any suggestions from Army Com[mande]rs in the subject.

I then pointed out the importance of looking after the troops during the period following the cessation of hostilities – Very often the best fighters are the most difficult to deal with in periods of quiet! I suggested a number of ways in which men can be kept occupied. It is [as much] the duty of all officers to kept their men amused, as it is to train them for war. Staff officers must – If funds are wanted, G.H.Q. should be informed & I’ll arrange for money to be found.

After the Conference, we were all taken on the Cinema! Gen. Plumer, whom I told to ‘go off and be cinema’ed’ went off most obediently and stood before the camera, trying to look his best, while Byng, & others near him were chaffing the old man and trying to make him laugh.’

‘Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journal,’ the Unesco announcement said, ‘is a work of literature of international significance. It was also the inspiration for her brother William, one of the leading figures of British Romanticism. The journal gives readers today a unique insight into the lives of these two remarkable people.  William and Dorothy Wordsworth arrived at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in 1799, when they were both in their late twenties. In May 1800, William left Grasmere for a short absence and Dorothy decided to write a journal for his ‘pleasure’ when he returned. So began a journal that she continued to write for the next thirty or so months.

Four notebooks survive; a fifth, covering most of 1801, is now missing. The journal was written largely within the Dove Cottage household and describes in Dorothy’s beautiful prose her observations of domestic life, her neighbourhood and the natural world. It also records one of the world’s greatest poets at work.  From the journal we can picture the scene of brother and sister walking, talking, reading and writing together. It is an intimate portrait of a life in a place which, to them, was an earthly paradise.’

Further information on Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal can be found at the Wordsworth Trust website, The Diary Junction and The Diary Review. Here is one extract from the diary considered particularly interesting for it is known to have inspired Wordsworth’s most famous poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.

15 April 1802
‘The wind was furious... the Lake was rough... When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up -- But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway... -- Rain came on, we were wet.’

The Diary Junction

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

I am entirely alone

‘When I say something it immediately and finally loses its importance, when I write it down it loses it too, but sometimes gains a new one.’ So wrote Franz Kafka in his diary, exactly 100 years ago - on his 30th birthday. His diaries, which were saved for posterity, thanks to his friend, Max Brod, provide far more insight into Kafka’s intense, often depressing and guilt-laden mental world, than they do more directly into his literary works. One entry ends with ‘saw only solution in jumping out of the window’, and another with ‘I am entirely alone’.

Kafka was born on 3 July 1883 into a Jewish German-speaking family in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He had two brothers, both of whom died very young, and three sisters. He grew up fearing his father to the point of stuttering in his presence, but, nevertheless, continued to live at home for much of his adult life. He trained as a lawyer at the University of Prague and then was employed by the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, a job which he hated. Suffering from insomnia, he began writing at night. He was chronically ill with different complaints, including tuberculosis (diagnosed in 1917) which eventually killed him.

In 1902 Kafka met Max Brod and they would remain friends throughout Kafka’s life. He was engaged twice, to Felice Bauer and Julie Wohryzek, and, in the early 1920s, he fell in love with a married Czech writer Milena Jesenská Pollak. In the last year of his life, he met Dora Diamant, a Zionist and moved to Berlin to live with her. However, he returned to Prague, and then died in 1924, aged but 40, at a sanatorium near Vienna. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Kafka Project, or Kafka Online.

Though he was reluctant to publish his writing, and indeed published very little in his lifetime, Kafka is a giant in the literature world. His reputation stems largely from very few extraordinary novels - Der Process (The Trial), Das Schloss (The Castle), Amerika - which Brod published soon after his friend’s death. Kafka had left instructions for Brod to destroy all his written works, but Brod chose to ignore the request. Also among Kafka’s writings was a hoard of diaries. These were not translated and published in English until 1948-1949, when Secker & Warburg brought out two volumes (The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913, The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923) as translated by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg. A one volume edition was published in 1964 by Peregrine Books.

Some information about Kafka’s diaries can be found at Wikipedia and the full texts in German can be read at The Kafka Project and at University of Vienna web pages created by Werner Haas. A few extracts in English can be read at the Word and Silence website. Here are a few extracts taken from the first published translation of the diaries. (Brod, too, kept a diary, and these have been the subject of some mystery - see The Diary Review article, Brod’s diaries in Kafkaesque story.)  [Addendum Nov 2023: see also Times of Israel article on a new unexpurgated version of Kafka's diaries.]

2 July 1913
‘Wept over the report of the trial of a twenty-three-year-old Marie Abraham who, because of poverty and hunger, strangled her not quite nine-month-old child, Barbara, with a man’s tie that she used as a garter. Very routine story.

The fire with which, in the bathroom, I described to my sister a funny motion picture. Why can I never do that in the presence of strangers?

I would never have married a girl with whom I had lived in the same city for a year.’

3 July 1913
‘The broadening and heightening of existence through marriage. Sermon text. But I almost sense it.

When I say something it immediately and finally loses its importance, when I write it down it loses it too, but sometimes gains a new one.

A band of little golden beads around a tanned throat.’

21 July 1913
‘Don’t despair, not even over the fact that you don’t despair. Just when everything seems over with, new forces come marching up, and precisely that means that you are alive. And if they don’t then everything is over with here, once and for all.

I cannot sleep. Only dreams, no sleep. Today, in my dream, I invented a new kind of vehicle for a park slope. You take a branch, it needn’t be very strong, prop it up on the ground at a slight angle, hold one end in your hand, sit down on it side-saddle, then the whole branch naturally rushes down the slope, since you are sitting on the bough you are carried along at full speed, rocking comfortably on the elastic wood. It is also possible to use the branch to ride up again. The chief advantage aside from the simplicity of the whole device, lies in the fact the branch, thin and flexible as it is, can be lowered or raised as necessary and gets through anywhere, even where a person by himself would get through only with difficulty.

To be pulled in through the ground-floor window of a house by a rope tied around one’s neck and to be yanked up, bloody and ragged, through all the ceilings, furniture, walls, and attics, without consideration, as if by a person who is paying no attention, until the empty noose, dropping the last fragments of me when it breaks through the roof tiles, is seen on the roof.’

13 August 1913
‘Perhaps everything is now ended and the letter I wrote yesterday was the last one. That would certainly be the best. What I shall suffer, what she will suffer - that cannot be compared with the common suffering that would result. I shall gradually pull myself together, she will marry, that is the only way out among the living. We cannot beat a path into the rock for the two of us, it is enough that we wept and tortured ourselves for a year. She will realize this from my last letters. If not, then I will certainly marry her, for I am too weak to resist her opinion about our common fortune and am unable not to carry out, as far as I can, something she considers possible.’

14 August 1913
‘The opposite has happened. There were three letters. The last letter I could not resist. I love her as far as I am capable of it, but the love lies buried to the point of suffocation under fear and self-reproaches.

Conclusion for my case from ‘The Judgement’. I am indirectly in her debt for the story. But Georg goes to pieces because of his fiancée.

Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together. Live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that is the only possible way for me to endure marriage. But she?

And despite all this, if we, I and F, had equal rights, if we had the same prospects and possibilities, I would not marry. But this blind alley into which I have slowly pushed her life makes it an unavoidable duty for me, although its consequences are by no means unpredictable. Some secret law of human relationship is at work here.’

15 August 1913
‘Agonies in bed towards morning. Saw only solution in jumping out of the window.’

21 August 1914
‘Began with such hope and was then repulsed by all three stories; today more so than ever. It may be true that the Russian story ought to be worked on only after The Trial. In this ridiculous hope, which apparently has only some mechanical notion behind it of how things work, I start The Trial again - The effort wasn’t entirely without result.’

29 August 1914
‘The end of one chapter a failure; another chapter, which began beautifully, I shall hardly - or rather certainly not - be able to continue as beautifully while at the time, during the night, I should certainly have succeeded with it. But I must not forsake myself, I am entirely alone.’

The Diary Junction