Saturday, November 30, 2013

Let us go gracefully

‘Today I was filled with terrible despair, and I shall have to come to terms with that as well. [. . .] Even if we are consigned to hell, let us go there as gracefully as we can. I did not really want to put it so blandly.’ This is Etty Hillesum, a young, passionate Dutch woman, writing in her diary about ‘our impending destruction and annihilation’ at the hands of the Nazis. A little more than a year after writing this, she died at Auschwitz, 70 years ago today.

Esther (Etty) Hillesum was born in 1914 in Middelburg to a mother of Russian descent and a Dutch father who taught classical languages. In 1932, she moved to Amsterdam to study law, and then Slavic languages. As a student, she moved in left-wing circles, which included many Jews who had fled Hitler’s Germany. One of these was Julius Spier, a psychoanalyst and, apparently, an expert at reading hands, who became a mentor for Hillesum, and her great love. Their relationship eventually became physical, even though she was living with another man, and even though she knew he had similar influence over other women.

In July 1942, Hillesum took a job at the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, but after two weeks asked for a transfer to Camp Westerbork, a transit camp used by the Nazis to assemble Roma and Dutch Jews. There she became ill in the winter, and, on recovering, refused offers of help to go into hiding, preferring to continue working at Westerbork. In September 1943, she and most of her family were transferred to Poland. Etty Hillesum died on 30 November in Auschwitz. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, the Etty Hillesum Research Centre, and Catholic Ireland.

Hillesum began to write a diary in March 1941, probably encouraged by Spiers who she had consulted for the first time a few weeks earlier, and she continued to do so for 18 months until October 1842. Knowing she was unlikely to return from the camps, Hillesum gave her journals (eight closely-written exercise books - see a picture of them here) to the only writer she knew, Klaas Smelik, and his daughter. They tried to have them published, but were unsuccessful at the time.

Only in 1980, when the journals were shown to the journalist and publisher Jan G. Gaarlandt did they make it into print, in two volumes in 1981-1982, since when many editions and translations have followed. The first English versions, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans, were published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 1983 and 1987. The following extracts are taken from An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943 published by Persephone Books in 1999. Some pages of the diary can be read online in a different edition at Googlebooks.

9 March 1941
‘Here goes, then. This is painful and well-night insuperable step for me: yielding up so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper. The thoughts in my head are sometimes so clear and so sharp and my feelings are so deep, but writing about them comes hard. The main difficulty, I think, is a sense of shame. So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love. I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection, and yet it remains a mere trifle, set apart from what is truly essential, and deep inside me something is still locked away.’

4 July 1941
‘I am full of unease, a strange, infernal agitation, which might be productive if only I knew what to do with it. A ‘creative’ unease. Not of the body - not even a dozen passionate nights of love could assuage it. It is almost a ‘sacred’ unease. ‘Oh God, take me into Your great hands and turn me into Your instrument, let me write.’ This all came about because of the red-haired Leonie and philosophical Joop. S [Julius Spier] reached straight into their hearts with his analysis, but I still think people can’t be reduced to psychological formulas, that only the artist can render human beings down to their last irrational elements.

I don’t know how to settle down to my writing. Everything is still much too chaotic, and I lack self-confidence, or perhaps the urgent need to speak out. I am still waiting for things to come out and find a form of their own accord. But first I myself must find the right pattern, my own pattern.’

24 April 1942
‘[. . .] And this, too: how can I explain that, whenever I have had physical contact with S. in the evening, I spend the night with Han? Feelings of guilt? In the past, perhaps, but no longer. Has S. unleashed things deep down inside of me that can’t yet come out but carry on their subterranean existence with Han? I can hardly believe that. Or is it perversity? A matter of convenience? To pass from the arms of one into those of the other? What sort of life am I leading?

Last night when I cycled home from S., I poured out all my tenderness, all the tenderness one cannot express for a man even when one loves him very, very much, I poured it all out into the great, all-embracing spring night; I melted into the landscape and offered all my tenderness up to the sky and the stars and the water and to the little bridge. And that was the best moment of the day.’

26 April 1942
‘Just a small red, faded anemone. But I like the idea that in years to come, I shall chance upon it again between these pages. By then I shall be a matron, and I shall hold this dried flower in my hands and say with a touch of sadness: ‘Look, this is the anemone I wore in my hair on the fifty-fifth birthday of the man who was the greatest and most unforgettable friend of my youth. It was during the third year of World War II, we ate under-the-counter macaroni and drank real coffee, on which Liesl got “drunk”, we were all in such high spirits, wondering if the war would be over soon, and I wore the red anemone in my hair and somebody said, “You look a mixture of Russian and Spanish”, and somebody else, the blonde Swiss with the heavy eyebrows, said “A Russian Carmen”, and I asked him to recite a poem about William Tell for us in his funny Swiss burr.’

1 July 1942
‘My mind has assimilated everything that has happened in these last few days. So far the rumours have been infinitely worse than the reality, for us in Holland at least, since in Poland the killers seem to be in full cry. But though my mind has come to terms with it all, my body hasn’t. It has disintegrated into a thousand pieces, and each piece has a different pain.’

3 July 1942
‘Yes, I am still at the same desk, but it seems to me that I am going to have to draw a line under everything and continue in a different tone. I must admit a new insight into my life and find a place for it: what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about that. They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there. Today I was filled with terrible despair, and I shall have to come to terms with that as well. [. . .] Even if we are consigned to hell, let us go there as gracefully as we can. I did not really want to put it so blandly.’

The Diary Junction

Friday, November 22, 2013

For Mrs Moore

C. S. Lewis, a British writer of Christian tracts and fantasy novels, died 50 years ago today (the news of his death being somewhat eclipsed by the assassination of J. F. Kennedy on the same day). He is most well remembered for his seven novels in the Chronicles of Narnia series, but less so for a diary he kept during his early years, before he became a Christian, at the behest of his intimate, but much older, friend Mrs Moore.

Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1898, with the first names Clive and Staples, but he is always known as C. S. Lewis. His mother died when he was only ten. He studied at Cherbourg School, Malvern, and University College, Oxford, but his student life was interrupted by service in the army during the latter stages of the First World War (during which he was wounded in the Battle of Arras). After the war, he returned to Oxford and gained several degrees. From early in the 1920s, he lived with Mrs Janie King Moore, the mother of a friend of his who had been killed in the war, and her daughter. Mrs Moore was more than 20 years Lewis’s senior but, nevertheless, the two had some kind of long-term relationship.

Lewis remained at University College as a tutor, and, in 1925, was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College. In 1930, Lewis, his brother and Moore jointly purchased a house called The Kilns; and, the following year, he became a committed Christian. By 1933, Lewis and a group of literary friends, dubbed the Inklings, were meeting regularly. Lewis’s first major work, An Allegory of Love: Study in Medieval Tradition, was published in 1936 (later, it won a Gollancz Memorial Prize). The Screwtape Letters, in 1942, published as installments in a magazine, was one of many Christian works he penned.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - the first of what became known as the Chronicles of Narnia, for which C. S. Lewis is probably most famous - was published in 1950, and the last - The Last Battle - in 1956. In 1954, Lewis was elected Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge. In 1956, he married the American Joy Davidman in order to allow her to stay in the country. Although she was ill with cancer and expected to die quickly, she survived until 1960. Three years later, Lewis himself died, on 22 November 1963, the same day as Aldous Huxley died, and President Kennedy was assassinated (see JFK’s assassin in Moscow for a Diary Review article on Lee Harvey Oswald). For more biographical information on Lewis visit WikipediaJohn Visser’s fan site, or the official C. S. Lewis website.

According to Walter Hooper, editor of All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis 1922-1927 (HarperCollins 1991), Lewis made a number of attempts to keep a diary when he was a boy, but all were short lived: ‘Then, at the age of 23, when an undergraduate at Oxford, he began a new diary which runs to over a quarter of a million words and covers the years 1922-27. This was the pre-Christian Lewis, an atheist whose objections to the Faith were ventilated in this attempt. He persevered because it was meant to be, not just about his life, but that of his friend Mrs Moore. Several times he records how he fell behind and how Mrs Moore insisted that he pick it up again. Much of its documentary content was dictated by her interest in recording the pleasures and disappointments caused by the many visitors to their house. And, as the diary makes clear, Mrs Moore was its primary audience. Lewis often read it aloud to her, and she could have looked at it at any time.’

Some pages from All My Road Before Me can be read online at Amazon and Googlebooks.

21 February 1924
‘Immediately after breakfast I tood Biddy Anne in to Gillard to be vetted. Biddy Anne is a yellow cat that has recently adopted us. I walked in from the Plain, called at College and went to the Union, coming home again by bus.

I then made up my diary since my illness. After lunch the weather changed. A startling mildness came over the air and it was like spring though there were heavy black clouds to the east. After D [Moore] and I had strolled in the garden to enjoy this, I came in and read over my diary for this time last year. It is dully written - I recover the horrors from memory and not from the words.’

22 February 1924
‘I had an unusually nasty dream connected with my father in the night - a dream of the clinging sort.

After breakfast I took down all the gas globes for D to clean. I spent the morning working on Henry More’s Defence of the Cabbala, a fantastic, tedious work. After lunch I crumbled ham and swept the kitchen and scullery and then went out for a walk with Pat.’

27 February 1924
‘A letter from my father this morning, answering my last, in which I had pointed out that my scholarship had now ceased and that I should need a little supplement to carry on. This question had been raised before. He replied with a long and pleasant letter with a sting in its tail: offering what was necessary, but saying that I had £30 extra expenses last year (which I cannot account for at all) and remarking that I can always put money in my pocket by spending more time at home. There comes the rub - this cannot be answered: yet to follow his suggestion would be nerves, loneliness and mental stagnation.

I finished More’s Philosophical Works this morning and made out a table of chronology from Ward’s Life and my old table done for the English school. After lunch I went first to the Union where I extracted several facts from the Dictionary of National Biography subvoce More and then to Wilson to borrow his Theological Works . . . In the evening I began The Mythology of Godliness’.

1 March 1924
‘I spent most of the morning in the kitchen cutting up turnips and peeling onions for D, and then went for an hour’s walk in the fields. After lunch and jobs I took Euripides from his shelf for the first time this many a day, with some idea of reading a Greek play every week end (when I am not writing) so as to keep up my Greek. I began the Heracleidae. Coming back to Greek tragedy after so long an absence I was greatly impressed with its stiffness and rumness and also thought the choruses strangely prosaic. The effort to represent a scuffle between Iolaus and the Herald is intolerably languid. After the first shock, however, I enjoyed it.’

The Diary Junction

Benjamin Britten’s centenary

Today marks the centenary of the UK’s most celebrated composer, Benjamin Britten. Centenary concerts are taking place not only in the UK but across the world, with, for example, War Requiem in Berlin, Turn of the Screw in Bologna, Billy Budd in Rio de Janeiro, and Peter Grimes at the Carnegie Hall, New York.

The Diary Review has already published articles on Britten and on his lifelong partner, Peter Pears - see Britten’s firecracker crits and Peter Pears centenary - but Britten’s centenary is excuse enough to reproduce a few more extracts from his diary. The following - covering some early encounters with Pears - are taken from Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten 1928-1938 published by Faber & Faber in 2009.

The book’s editor, John Evans, says that 1937 began sadly for Britten: ‘In January his sister Beth caught influenza, and infected her mother, who had come to London to nurse her. Weakened by the illness, Mrs Britten died of a heart attack. On 27 April his friend, the writer Peter Burra, was killed in a plane crash. Burra had owned a small cottage at Bucklebury and it fell to Britten and one of Burra’s closest friends, the young singer Peter Pears, to sort out his papers. The two men soon formed a strong friendship and began performing together.’

30 April 1937
‘I have a rehearsal with Boult of H. F. at BBCC at 11:30 - it goes quite well, tho’ he doesn’t really grasp the work - tho’ he is marvellously painstaking. Sophie of course sings well. Lunch after with her & Arnold jun., & John &; Millicent Francis. Then I meet Poppy Vulliamy & have long talks with her. She goes off to Spain very soon to look after the evacuated children from Madrid & Malaga. I have agreed to adopt one & pay for him for a year. Back here in the aft. & then out to dinner with Peter Piers & Basil Douglas - very nice, but sad as we have to discuss what is best about Peter Burra’s things. BBC. Contemporary concert after cond. by Boult - BBC orch They do my Hunting Fathers very creditably - I am awfully pleased with it too, I’m afraid. Some things don’t satisfy me at the moment - but its my op. 1 alright [. . .]’

6 May 1937
‘Sketch another song for Hedli in the morning. Lunch & excessive political arguments with Peter Floud at Baker Street - I am in a damned muddle trying to compromise between Pacifism and Communism. Back here in aft. & then meet & walk Harry Morris - a charming kid - protege of Barbara’s who is very keen on music & very good draughtsboy.

Then after tea Kit takes us round looking for car’s - find a possible Lee Francis in Highgate, Kit stays to dinner - having delivered the child to his home in Hampstead. After dinner general slack & then Kit drops me at Paddington at 10.45 & I meet Peter Pears & travel with him in a packed dirty train to Reading where we arrive about mid-night - & set out for the Behrend’s house (Burclere) on his motor-bike, in the pouring, pouring rain. After wandering helplessly in the maze of roads over the common - very cold & damp, to our skins - & me pretty sore behind, being unused to pillion riding - we knock up people in the only house with a light in we meet at all, & get some rather vague instructions from them. Wander further & quite by accident alight on the house - at about 1.45 or 50. Have hot baths & straight to bed. The Behrends themselves are in town.’

7 May 1937
‘After a 9 o’clock breakfast Peter & I go over to Peter Burra’s house (Foxhold) to spend the day sorting out letters, photos & other personalities preparatory to the big clean up to take place soon. Peter Pears is a dear & a very sympathetic person. - tho’ I’ll admit I am not too keen on travelling on his motor bike! Catch 5.35 up to town, & I have to walk from Kilburn Park Station - but it’s all for the good of the cause & so far there’s no likelihood of an immediate settlement. Spend evening writing letters & sketch another song for Hedli.’

The Diary Junction