Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s novel as TV series

This 2018 video from Britain says about itself:

Gwyneth Hughes’ adaptation of Thackeray’s literary classic is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English Society. Her story of “villainy, crime, merriment, lovemaking, jilting, laughing, cheating, fighting and dancing”, takes her all the way to the court of King George IV, via the Battle of Waterloo, breaking hearts and losing fortunes as she goes.

By David Walsh in the USA:

Vanity Fair: A new television adaptation of the great 19th century novel

1 February 2019

“But we are bound to stick closely, above all, by THE TRUTH—the truth, though it be not particularly pleasant to read of or to tell.”— Catherine: A Story (1839–40), William Makepeace Thackeray

A seven-part series based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair, was broadcast in the UK in September and October, and released in the US on December 21. It was distributed by ITV in Britain and Amazon Video in the US.

Vanity Fair, published in 1848, is one of the great novels of the 19th century. Thackeray (1811–1863) set his work during and after the Napoleonic Wars, with the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 playing a role in the events.

It follows, over the course of two decades or so, a group of characters—Becky Sharp (“Sharp by name, and sharp, I fear, by nature”, as someone in the series suggests), a young woman from a poor family who survives by her wits and charms; her friend, then rival … and then friend again, the naïve Amelia Sedley; Amelia’s husband George Osborne and her adoring lover from a distance for much of the book, William Dobbin; and Becky’s spouse Rawdon Crawley, and their respective families, lovers and friends.

Vanity Fair, book cover

It is a remarkable social satire and picture of life. Without moralizing or lecturing, Thackeray holds up to the light the opportunism, hypocrisy and greed of the middle classes, the pseudo-greatness and viciousness of society’s “betters,” the high price to be paid for “getting ahead” in society at any cost, etc., all these social features and more.

The title comes from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), the extended Christian allegory. In that book, often considered the first English novel, “Vanity Fair” is a location built by the devil, where people are sinfully attached to the things of this world. For Thackeray, who uses the title somewhat ironically, “Vanity Fair” refers to contemporary Britain, whose inhabitants, he writes in Chapter Eight, have “no reverence except for prosperity, and no eye for anything beyond success.”

During its 19-month serialization in Punch, the British humor magazine, in 1847 and 1848, the author gave his novel the subtitle Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, giving notice that he had also included many of his own illustrations. When it appeared as a single volume, it carried the unusual subtitle A Novel without a Hero.

Both subtitles are correct—and both are significant.

The new television series, written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by James Strong and (for one episode) Jonathan Entwistle, opens with Thackeray himself (Michael Palin), who acts as narrator throughout, introducing us to “Vanity Fair”, which he explains, “is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbug, falseness and pretension.”

In London, 1814, Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke), the daughter of an “opera girl” and an artist, and Amelia Sedley (Claudie Jessie), from a wealthy background, leave Miss Pinkerton’s school for girls, where Becky has been teaching. She quits the place on bad terms, complaining about her poverty wages and insulting its headmistress. Leaning out of the departing carriage, Becky shouts, “Vive la France! Vive Napoleon!” In his novel, Thackeray observes that “in those days, in England, to say, ‘Long live Bonaparte!’ was as much as to say, ‘Long live Lucifer!’”

Before she takes up her position in the countryside as a governess for the Sir Pitt Crawley family, a prospect she dreads, Becky spends a week in London with Amelia and her family. The vain, oafish Jos Sedley (David Fynn), Amelia’s brother, described by his own father as a “lardy loafer”, who has been making his fortune in India, is home for a visit. Captain George Osborne (Charlie Rowe), Amelia’s fiancé, also comes around. George, whose family is rich, takes an instant, snobbish dislike to the ambitious Becky, who openly sets her cap at Jos. George’s friend, Captain William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn), also loves Amelia, hopelessly. A memorable outing to Vauxhall Gardens, one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London at the time, provides Jos, who is known to be “terrified of young ladies,” the opportunity to propose to Becky, but he drinks too much, makes a fool of himself and evades the opportunity. Becky heads off to her governess position.

She sets to work in the household of Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes), a horrible, miserly, dishonest man, taking care of his two neglected young daughters. Thackeray writes of Sir Pitt, “Vanity Fair—Vanity Fair! Here was a man, who could not spell, and did not care to read—who had the habits and the cunning of a boor: whose aim in life was pettifogging: who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, but what was sordid and foul; and yet he had rank, and honours, and power, somehow: and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state. He was high sheriff, and rode in a golden coach. Great ministers and statesmen courted him; and in Vanity Fair he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius or spotless virtue.”

Becky makes herself useful, as a secretary, to Sir Pitt, who, in turn, develops a longing for her. His second wife’s health is fading. However, Pitt’s handsome son, Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman), a dissolute, debt-ridden cavalry officer who earns his living by gambling, catches Becky’s eye instead. The entire Crawley clan are in economic thrall to Miss Matilda Crawley (Frances de la Tour), their wealthy and eccentric relative (Thackeray writes that she was considered “a dreadful Radical … She read Voltaire, and had Rousseau by heart; talked very lightly about divorce, and most energetically of the rights of women”). Becky worms her way into Matilda’s good graces, until the older lady learns that her new protégée has gone and secretly married Rawdon! His aunt instantly cuts Rawdon out of her will, largely determining the course of the new couple’s future.

A renewed war with France looms, as Napoleon has escaped from exile on the island of Elba and assembled a new army. George is generally inattentive to Amelia, who naively adores him. Thackeray, throughout his works, writes strongly about the situation of women. He observes that Amelia’s “heart tried to persist in asserting that George Osborne was worthy and faithful to her, though she knew otherwise. … She did not dare to own that the man she loved was her inferior; or to feel that she had given her heart away too soon. Given once, the pure bashful maiden was too modest, too tender, too trustful, too weak, too much woman to recall it. We are Turks with the affections of our women; and have made them subscribe to our doctrine too.”

Amelia’s father goes bankrupt and George’s cold, unforgiving banker-father (Robert Pugh) demands that his son instantly end the relationship with her. George proceeds to marry Amelia against his father’s wishes, and is cut off financially for his efforts. This couple too is now poor. George grows resentful of Amelia, who he blames for his difficulties. To make matters worse, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, with the various characters now temporarily quartered in Brussels, George falls for the flirtatious, conniving Becky and begs her to run away with him, which she refuses to do.

George dies at Waterloo, and Amelia, pregnant with his child, dedicates herself to his memory. Dobbin knows the truth about George’s failings and disloyalty, but can’t bear to tell her.

Becky becomes disgracefully involved with Lord Steyne (Anthony Head), a rich, powerful and cynical marquis. “I have arrived”, she says, when the nobleman inveigles her an invitation to court.

In one of the most powerful, disturbing sequences in both the novel and new series (in Episode 6), Rawdon is locked up for non-payment of debts. Although appealed to and fully capable of doing so (thanks to the depraved marquis’ “generosity”), Becky does not extract her husband from debtors’ prison. Another of his relatives eventually does so.

Rawdon returns home unexpectedly to find Becky—alone, at night—singing to Lord Steyne, with whom she has been carrying on an affair. Becky protests her innocence. Steyne, believing that Rawdon is aware of the sums he has given Becky, supposedly to pay her debts, interjects: “Innocent! When every trinket you wear on your body I gave to you. Oh, I see what this is. The pair of you mean to lay a trap for me, to con me out of even more money than the thousands of pounds I have already given to this whore … which, no doubt, Colonel Crawley, you have already spent.” He calls Rawdon a “pimp”, who thereupon attacks and drives him out of the house. The marquis obtains his revenge, having Rawdon appointed to a position on a remote island where he later dies of yellow fever.

Mr. Osborne continues to persecute Amelia, who he blames for the falling out with his son. When Dobbin intervenes on behalf of Amelia and her young son, her deceased husband’s father hisses, “She may have seven children and starve, for all I care. She is dead to me.” Later, he makes his support for Amelia’s son conditional on the boy being taken away from his mother, which she, heart-brokenly, accedes to.

Dobbin, seeming to give up on Amelia, goes off to India. Years pass. In the end, fortune favors Amelia, when her son inherits his grandfather’s house and wealth. She now is provided for. Becky wanders the continent, working in gambling dens and such. She has been cold and unloving to her own son, and when he, for his part, ends up with the Crawley estate, he informs his mother, in a letter, “I do not wish to see you. I do not wish you to write to me. On no account should you ever attempt to make contact again.”

In Pumpernickel (a fictional Weimar), Germany, Becky and Amelia meet and reconcile. Dobbin arrives from India, with Jos, and hopes that time will have opened Amelia’s eyes. When she still persists in her illusions about her dead husband, Dobbin bursts out, “All these years, I have loved and watched you. Now I wonder, did I always know that the prize I’d set my life on was not worth winning? Your heart clings so faithfully to a memory because that is all you are capable of. Your soul is shallow. You cannot feel a love as deep as mine. … Goodbye, Amelia. Let it end. We are both weary of it.”

It takes Becky’s intervention, who informs Amelia that George proposed their flight together when they were in Belgium, to finally make her friend see the light: “George was not as he was painted! A man who was weary of you, who would have jilted you, but Dobbin forced him to keep his word! Why would anybody do that? Heavens above, Amelia, because he [Dobbin] loves you! Because he wants your happiness above his own!” It is a quasi-happy conclusion for Amelia and Dobbin, while Becky goes off with Jos, to a less certain future.

The new series (Vanity Fair has been adapted numerous times for radio, film and television) is a valuable and conscientious one. It starts off slowly enough, but then so perhaps does Thackeray’s novel. The first two episodes are slightly colorless. The scene at Vauxhall Gardens is not as spectacular and disastrous as it ought to be. With Becky’s departure from the dreary Crawley household and the emerging financial distress of the Sedleys, however, events become more colorful and compelling. The last few episodes are quite riveting. …

Cooke is fine as Becky, who exhibits an extraordinary selfishness and ruthlessness (produced by her circumstances), but who is not essentially mean or vindictive, as her ultimate conduct toward Amelia and Dobbin reveals. The younger generation of performers is generally fine, but it is the older generation—a chilling Anthony Head, Frances de la Tour, Robert Pugh, Simon Russell Beale (as Amelia’s father), Felicity Montagu (as Matilda Crawley’s unfortunate servant) and Suranne Jones (as Miss Pinkerton)—who truly stand out.

The series sincerely attempts, all in all, to do justice to Thackeray’s complexities and ambiguities. As one commentator observed, in Vanity Fair, “Conventional categories of human types were disregarded in favor of an individualization so complete that we know the characters better than we know our friends” (A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh, 1948). The book is “without a hero,” as its subtitle suggested. Thackeray “possessed a terrible power,” asserted the same literary historian, “to detect and expose men’s self-deceptions, shams, pretenses, and unworthy aspirations.”

The novelist despised cant and mythologizing. For example, in his earlier Barry Lyndon (1844—adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1975), the story of an Irishman striving to become a member of the English aristocracy in the late 18th century, the narrator, a soldier at the time, remarks that it is very well “for gentlemen to talk of the age of chivalry; but remember the starving brutes whom they lead—men nursed in poverty, entirely ignorant, made to take a pride in deeds of blood—men who can have no amusement but in drunkenness, debauch, and plunder. … While, for instance, we are at the present moment admiring the ‘Great Frederick [Frederick II, King of Prussia 1740 to 1786],’ as we call him, and his philosophy, and his liberality, and his military genius, I, who have served him, and been, as it were, behind the scenes of which that great spectacle is composed, can only look at it with horror. What a number of items of human crime, misery, slavery, go to form that sum-total of glory!”

In Vanity Fair, Thackeray flogs the “great ones” in society for their selfish, callous treatment of their servants and the small shopkeepers and others whose bills they refuse to pay. How many noblemen, he asks, “rob their petty tradesmen, condescend to swindle their poor retainers out of wretched little sums and cheat for a few shillings? … Who pities a poor barber who can’t get his money for powdering the footmen’s heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady’s dejeuner ? … When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed: as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls thither.”

As for the Becky-Rawdon household, “Nobody in fact was paid. Not the blacksmith who opened the lock; nor the glazier who mended the pane; nor the jobber who let the carriage; nor the groom who drove it; nor the butcher who provided the leg of mutton; nor the coals which roasted it; nor the cook who basted it; nor the servants who ate it: and this I am given to understand is not unfrequently the way in which people live elegantly on nothing a year.”

Thackeray was no political radical himself, and he had terrible blind spots, including the suffering of the Irish people, but he was for the most part a devastating, uncompromising realist about people and society, a figure who belongs alongside Dickens, George Eliot, Scott, Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as a leading practitioner of the novel.

In The Historical Novel, Georg Lukács argued that Thackeray “is an outstanding critical realist. He has deep ties with the best traditions of English literature, with the great social canvases of the eighteenth century [in the work of novelists Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett in particular].”

Famously, Karl Marx, in his 1854 New York Tribune article, “The English Middle Class,” included Thackeray, along with Dickens, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, as belonging to that “splendid” group “of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

These writers, Marx indicates, have specialized in depicting “every section of the middle class.” And how have they painted this social grouping? “As full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance; and the civilised world have confirmed their verdict with the damning epigram that it has fixed to this class that ‘they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them.’”

Thackeray’s major novels, Vanity Fair, Barry Lyndon, Pendennis (1848–1850) and The History of Henry Esmond (1852), along with rambling, uneven but still occasionally fascinating works, like The Newcomes (1855) and The Virginians (1857–1859), can hardly be recommended too highly. The new television series, in so far as it captures much of Thackeray’s intent, also deserves an audience.


Imprisoned Kurdish-Iranian refugee wins Australian literary prize

This 31 January 2019 video says about itself:

‘A victory for humanity’: Behrouz Boochani’s literary prize speech in full

Behrouz Boochani wins Australia’s richest literary prize

Asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani has accepted the $125,000 Victorian premier’s literary prize via video link from Manus Island where he has been held for six years.

‘I would like to say that this award is a victory. It is a victory not only for us but for literature and art and above all it is victory for humanity’, the writer said. ‘It is a victory against the system that has reduced us to numbers. This is a beautiful moment. Let us all rejoice tonight in the power of literature’.

Translated from Knack magazine in Belgium, 1 February 2019:

Iranian-Kurdish asylum seeker on Manus island wins major Australian literature prize

The Iranian-Kurdish writer and journalist Behrouz Boochani, an asylum seeker who has been imprisoned for years on the Papuan New Guinean Manus island by Australia, has won one of the most important literary awards Down Under. Boochani wrote the book via text messages.

On Thursday in Melbourne, Boochani won the Victorian Prize for Literature, the literary prize of the state of Victoria, with its 100,000 Australian dollars (approximately € 63,500) the highest-rated literature prize in the country. But Boochani could not accept the prize himself. He can not leave Manus island, where he lives since 2013.

The asylum seeker received the prize for his book ‘No friend but the mountains: writing from Manus prison’.

‘No friend but the mountains’ is a Kurdish proverb about governments oppressing Kurds.

His debut also received the prize for best non-fiction book, worth 25,000 dollars (about 16,000 euros). Boochani wrote the book according to his publisher with text messages that he sent from Manus to helpers in Australia.

Australia since 2012 has imprisoned on Manus asylum seekers who tried to reach Australia with boats. Doctors and refugee workers have already sued the government because of the precarious situation there several times. Australia also gets a lot of criticism internationally.

In the absence of Boochani, his translator Omid Tofighian received the prize. Boochani himself spoke in an interview with the newspaper The Age of ‘paradoxical feelings’. “I don’t want to celebrate this achievement while I still see many innocent people suffering around me.”, he said. “I demand freedom, give us freedom. We have committed no crime, we are only seeking asylum.” He accused Australia of a “barbaric policy.”

Boochani lived for years with hundreds of other refugees and migrants behind a steel fence in an asylum center on Manus. After the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court decided their detention was illegal, they were transferred to another, open center on the small island in the Pacific.

According to his publisher Boochani has a degree in political science, which he obtained in Tehran. He calls himself journalist, writer and filmmaker.

Why, Australian right-wing government, do you imprison Mr Boochani? Did he murder? Did he abuse children? Did he steal one Australian dollar? Did he steal one Australian dollar cent? No, no, no and no!

Oude Buisse Heide nature reserve, first day

This November 2015 Dutch video is about the nature reserve Oude Buisse Heide and the nature reserve Wallsteijn next to it.

Today, 21 January 2018, we traveled to the Oude Buisse Heide nature reserve in the Netherlands.

This area is property of conservation organisation Natuurmonumenten. It was transferred to them by famous Dutch socialist poetess Henriette Roland Holst.

Henriette Roland Holst

She wrote many of her poems at Oude Buisse Heide.

Atelier Oude Buisse Heide

In the atelier, built for her and her visual artist husband in 1918, by Margaret Staal-Kropholler, the first ever female architect in the Netherlands.

Margaret Staal-Kropholler

Here, she also wrote four poems in 1944, as the World War II front line was close to the Oude Buisse Heide. These four poems are in the poetry book De loop is bijna volbracht (The journey is almost finished).

Ms Roland Holst had helped the Dutch anti-nazi resistance, eg, writing anti-occupation poems and hiding fugitives from the German secret police at Oude Buisse Heide. She thought the nazis might soon come and kill her for that. She was already 74 years old, so she thought she might die soon anyway.

The last lines of the first poem in De loop is bijna volbracht are (my translation):

I want to stay a little while
in order to, in the dying light,
weave the spicy and sweet smells
and the fading colours
into a last poem.

These lines are about the beautiful nature of the Oude Buisse Heide.

As we arrived late in the afternoon, we saw and heard only a few sides of that beauty.

We did hear a nuthatch calling and other bird sounds. A carrion crow sat on a tree, then flew away.

Novel on nazi Germany published

Polish Jewish deportees expelled from Germany on October 27-28, 1938, in Zbąszyń © Yad Vashem Photo Archives

By Clara Weiss in Germany:

“Life is forbidden to us … do you want to comply with that?”: The rediscovery of Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Traveler in Germany

Der Reisende, by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, edited by Peter Grad. Klett-Cotta 2018. 303 pages. All translations from the German are by the reviewer.

In early 2018, the German publisher Klett-Cotta released, for the first time in the original German, The Traveler (Der Reisende), by the writer Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1915-1942), who was driven into exile by the Hitler regime.

The novel was written over the course of a few weeks in November 1938. It is a remarkable literary work treating the situation in Nazi Germany in the wake of the so-called Kristallnacht (The Night of the Broken Glass), the murderous anti-Semitic pogrom of November 9-10, 1938. The book resonates powerfully today amid a global refugee crisis and resurgence of far-right forces.

The protagonist of The Traveler is Otto Silbermann, a German-Jewish businessman who fought in World War I. Like an entire layer of German Jews who had been thoroughly assimilated culturally and formed part of the country’s middle or upper class, Silbermann identifies entirely as a German. His existence is shattered by Kristallnacht.

The two-week period October 27 to November 9-10 marked a watershed in the escalation of Nazi anti-Jewish policies. On October 27-29, the Nazis undertook the first mass deportation of Jews from Germany. Some 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship were rounded up by the authorities and sent to Poland where the right-wing Sanacja (Sanation, or act of healing) regime denied them entry. Thousands remained stranded in the border town of Zbąszyń until the late summer of 1939.

The parents of Herschel Grynszpan were among the deported. Driven to despair, Grynszpan shot and killed [a German diplomat] in Paris. The assassination served the Nazis as pretext for a long-planned, state-organized pogrom in the German Reich, which by now also encompassed recently annexed Austria. About 1,500 people were murdered on Kristallnacht, countless businesses and apartments smashed up, 1,400 synagogues destroyed and some 30,000 Jewish men incarcerated in concentration camps.

A destroyed synagogue in Berlin after the pogrom of November 9-10, 1938, © Yad Vashem Photo Archives

Both the deportation, known as the “Polenaktion” (Polish Action), and the subsequent pogrom were widely reported in the international press. Bourgeois governments across Europe and internationally responded by drastically tightening their immigration policies, largely blocking entry to political refugees and Jews fleeing Germany. Hundreds of thousands of Jews thus remained trapped in Nazi Germany.

Otto Silbermann, the protagonist in The Traveler, is one of them. Following Kristallnacht, he is forced to leave his business behind. He hands over the bulk of his shares to his former partner, a member of the Nazi party, whom he had hitherto considered a friend and who now shamelessly uses the opportunity to cheat Silbermann out of the business he had built. His apartment is destroyed during the pogrom and his wife, who is not Jewish, goes to stay with her brother who refuses to take in Silbermann for fear of being “compromised.” Most of his friends and relatives are in concentration camps. His son, Eduard, studies in Paris and tries to get visas for his parents, but to no avail.

Cover of the German edition of Der Reisende

Silbermann reflects: “It is strange…Ten minutes ago my house, a part of my fortune were at stake. Now my bones are at stake. How fast it goes. War has just been declared on me, on me personally. This is it. A moment ago war was really declared on me, conclusively, and now I am alone, on enemy territory.” With the remains of his fortune stuffed in a briefcase, Silbermann takes train after train across Germany, desperately trying to find a way to cross the frontier.

Silbermann has lost all his rights as a citizen and feels powerless, as the entire state machinery is being deployed in order to crush him. He is, as he puts it in one scene, “vogelfrei”, outlawed, and at the mercy of the arbitrary violence and treachery of anyone he meets. He is haunted by the fear that a fellow passenger will discover he is Jewish and betray him to the police. Finally, Silbermann attempts to cross the Belgian border, but he is captured by Belgian border guards who want to send him back. Silbermann protests:

“But I am a refugee – I am a Jew. They wanted to arrest me. They will incarcerate me in a concentration camp.”

“We cannot let you through. Come on!” …

“I am staying here! You do not have the right, you cannot do this! I am in a free country, after all!”

“You have crossed the border illegally.”

“But I had to. I was persecuted.”

“Not everyone can come to Belgium!”

“But I have papers. I have money … It is not my fault that I had to cross the border illegally. I am being persecuted.”

“That is not Belgium’s fault. We are sorry …”

“I cannot go back. It’s impossible.”

“Mais oui, mon ami, it is very well possible.”

Silbermann is sent back and again takes train after train in Germany.

Boschwitz, who was just 23 years old when he wrote the novel, describes the climate and portrays the moods in Nazi Germany with such admirable clarity, seriousness and psychological acumen that the book’s underlying anger emerges all the more forcefully.

Many scenes, especially those depicting Silbermann’s interactions with his fellow train passengers, are informed by an acute awareness of class and political tensions in Nazi Germany.

We meet a wide variety of characters—a Jewish artisan who like Silbermann is trying to escape, but is unable to finance his flight; a young woman who can’t marry because she and her fiancé don’t have enough money and can’t take out a loan—he was just released from a concentration camp; convinced Nazis and shameless opportunists who exploit the situation to enrich and advance themselves on the basis of the misery and over the bodies of the persecuted; and others who are casually indifferent to the fate of the Jews. It is a society in which the fear of denunciation and the concentration camp is omnipresent. Everyone expects a new war. The atmosphere is unrelievedly tense and cold.

The Traveler gives an inkling of what a major novel of Nazi society, a Gesellschaftsroman [social novel], might have looked like. There is no comprehensive artistic picture of German life during Nazi rule comparable to that provided by the major novels written under the Empire or the Weimar Republic. Literary documents from the period in general are understandably rare.

From the point of view of its character as literary testimony, The Traveler has been legitimately compared to the diaries of Victor Klemperer (published for the first time in the 1990s), a German-Jewish linguist who survived in Nazi Germany with the help of his non-Jewish wife and who meticulously documented his everyday experiences.

Boschwitz’s own short life tragically reflected the fate of the refugees he was describing in his novel. Born in 1915 to an affluent family, he was one of the many German Jews who felt no connection to Judaism or Jewish culture until they were branded and persecuted by the Nazi regime. He never met his father, who was German-Jewish but had converted to Catholicism and died in World War in 1916. His mother, from a prominent Protestant family in Lübeck, raised him and his sister in the latter faith.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, © Leo Baeck Institute

Following the Nazis’ rise to power, his sister became a Zionist and left for Palestine. Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz and his mother stayed in Germany until 1935. They first fled to Scandinavia, where the young man had his first novel Menschen neben dem Leben (People Next to Life) published in Swedish under the pen name John Grane. The success of the book made it possible for him to study two semesters at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Boschwitz wrote The Traveler, his second novel, in Brussels in only four weeks following the November 9-10 pogrom. By the beginning of the Second World War, on September 1, 1939, he and his mother had emigrated to Britain. Here they were arrested on June 9, 1940 and held at the notorious Isle of Man internment camp, as were thousands of German Jewish refugees.

While his mother remained at the camp, Boschwitz was deported within two weeks by the British government as a potential enemy agent and subjected to the notorious 57-day voyage to Australia of the HMT Dunera. The conditions on the vessel were calamitous. With some 2,500 refugees—mostly anti-Nazi Jewish refugees—on board, the ship was horribly overcrowded and the British guards robbed and abused the passengers. One of Boschwitz’s manuscripts, Das grosse Fressen (The Great Guzzling), was apparently lost to this pillaging. Boschwitz then spent some two years in Australian internment camps. He was released in 1942 along with other prisoners who declared their readiness to fight in the British army.

Along with almost 400 passengers, he embarked on the MV Abosso back to England. It was torpedoed on October 29, 1942 by a German U-boat. Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, aged just 27, was among the 362 passengers who were killed. It is believed that a second version of The Traveler, which he considered his best work, as well as the manuscript for another novel, sank with him.

The Traveler has been published before but never in German. It was first published in English as The Man Who Took Trains in Great Britain in 1939 and as The Fugitive in the US in 1940. In the 1940s, a French-language version (Le fugitif) was also published. All the translated versions are credited to John Grane.

German publishers rejected the novel twice. In the 1950s, the renowned Fischer Verlag rejected it. In the 1960s, German novelist Heinrich Böll, then one of the most influential writers and public intellectuals in West Germany, tried to have it released by Middelhauve Verlag, but that firm too rejected it. (Raoul Hilberg’s monumental history of the Destruction of European Jewry, written in the US in the late 1940s and early 1950s, met with a similar fate at the hands of German publishers in the 1950s and 1960s).

That this extraordinary novel has been rediscovered and published in German after some eight decades is largely due to the efforts of editor and publisher Peter Graf. One of Boschwitz’s relatives living in Israel approached Graf after reading about his efforts to reissue the novel Blutsbrüder by Ernst Haffner (published as Blood Brothers in English in 2015). That novel, about two homeless youth in the Berlin of the early 1930s, became an immediate bestseller in Germany after its republication and is now considered one of the great novels of the Weimar Republic era. Graf carefully worked on the first German publication of The Traveler, based on correspondence and other documents by Boschwitz that belong to the collection at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.

The novel has met with great success in Germany, obviously having struck a deep chord. It was reviewed by all the major newspapers, and numerous readings in German cities and towns have been organized. The German publication of Boschwitz’s first novel is planned for 2019. A new French translation of The Traveler is also being prepared. One hopes that The Traveler will be published in many other languages as well. Though written 80 years ago, it is not just a remarkable literary document about the Nazi period, but speaks immediately to the major political and historical questions of our time.

Dutch transphobic nazis threaten storytelling to children

This video shows that in 1943, during the Hitler occupation, the Dutch nazi party NSB opened their first children’s home on the border of Nijmegen city and Berg en Dal village.

Unfortunately, today in Nijmegen there were violent people who wanted to go back to the days of the fascist Third Reich. When children, like in the 1943 Nijmegen home, got a nazi ideology indoctrination. And when LGBTQ people were deported to death camps.

Translated from Dutch daily De Gelderlander, in Nijmegen city in Gelderland province today:

Library calls off drag queen lecture because of demonstrating right-wing extremists

NIJMEGEN – The Nijmegen library has canceled a reading afternoon by drag queens on Saturday afternoon due to the presence of right-wing extremists. An hour before the start, around 1pm, young men walked around the library who were ‘experienced as threatening’. The reading afternoon has then been canceled.

By Jacqueline van Ginneken

Outside there were around 2pm four activists, members of Identitarian Resistance from North Brabant province, an extreme right-wing action group. One of them wore a crucifix and a black flag with the symbol of the group; a second man distributed flyers containing the text ‘We are here now to promote the traditional family as the cornerstone of society. Transgender people read to children from the age of four on, traditional values ​​and standards are pushed aside. This is forced upon us”, according to the campaigner.

It feels a bit ambiguous, says library director Bert Hogemans about the decision to call off the reading session. “Now you have the feeling that the activists get their way. As a public organization, you do not want to give in, but on the other hand, it’s about safety.”

At a previous reading by a drag queen in early October, members of the [extreme right Roman] Catholic foundation Civitas Christiana … demonstrated. Within the library there was then no problem, but outside a grim atmosphere arose with a disturbance between activists and passersby. That demonstration then had been announced. The Saturday afternoon action was a surprise. Hogemans: “We had no indication that there would be a demonstration. There were also no signals from the police.”

Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide on stage in the USA

This music video says about itself:

This BBC telecast represents the world premiere of the 1988 Scottish Opera version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, directed by Jonathan Miller and John Wells. Bernstein attends and John Mauceri conducts this most complete version of the score ever seen on the stage. Directed for the cameras by Humphrey Burton.

By Joanne Laurier in the USA:

Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide at the University of Michigan

23 November 2018

The University of Michigan’s University Opera Theatre in Ann Arbor staged Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta, Candide, in mid-November. This energetic and engaging production brought to life a remarkable musical work, composed and first presented in the 1950s.

Bernstein based his operetta on the famed 1759 novella by Voltaire, the French writer, historian and philosopher. The original Candide was an enormously influential Enlightenment work that satirized established religion, government and philosophy. It follows a naïve youth through a series of calamities, natural and man-made, that shakes the complacent, fatalistic optimism in which he has been instructed and, by implication, casts doubt on any divine plan for humanity. The satire, which was an immediate best-seller, was put on the list of prohibited books by the Catholic Church in 1762 and banned in various locales.
Voltaire's Candide

Bernstein hardly made a secret of the fact that one of the impulses for his operetta was provided by the McCarthyite witch hunts in the 1950s. The work was created in 1953 as a result of discussions between the composer and playwright Lillian Hellman. Both had been affected by the Red Scare. Bernstein was forced to sign a humiliating affidavit attesting to his anti-communism. Hellman, a onetime member and continuing supporter of the Communist Party, was blacklisted in the film industry, and her partner, author Dashiell Hammett, another party supporter, went to jail for refusing to provide the names of those who had contributed to a bail fund for Communist Party leaders prosecuted under the reactionary Smith Act.

Hellman adapted Voltaire’s work with lyricist John La Touche and Bernstein. LaTouche was later replaced by poet Richard Wilbur. In 1956, the year that Bernstein was simultaneously composing West Side Story, Candide was ready for performances in Boston, where Dorothy Parker contributed lyrics to “The Venice Gavotte” in Act 2. …

Candide’s complicated performance history involves numerous revisions in the 30 years since its premiere in 1956. Versions appeared in 1973, 1982 and 1989, and further posthumous revisions in 1993 and 1999—Bernstein died in 1990. UM presented the 1989 Scottish Opera Edition of the Opera-House Version.

Voltaire (Gillian Eaton) narrates the story set in idyllic Westphalia (a region in northwestern Germany), where the scholar Dr. Pangloss (Benton DeGroot) tutors his four students—Candide (Daniel McGrew), Cunegonde (Lucia Helgren), Maximilian (Fernando Grimaldo) and Paquette (Eileen Vanessa Rodriquez)—in “optimism”, where “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Cunegonde, the beautiful daughter of a Baron, and Candide, a bastard cousin, fall in love. The Baron is not pleased and expels Candide, who eventually joins the Bulgar Army, currently engaged in “liberating” Westphalia. The Bulgars supposedly kill Cunegonde, after ravishing her, along with the rest of her family. Candide is left to wander through Europe. More disasters befall him.

Candide at the University of Michigan

Candide at the University of Michigan

He happens to be in Lisbon when the famous … earthquake kills 30,000 people. Candide and Pangloss are blamed for the disaster and the latter is publicly hanged as a heretic in the Inquisition. Candide later finds himself in Paris and discovers that Cunegonde is not dead after all, simply earning her living as a courtesan. They eventually set off for the New World, South America, and further unhappy adventures.

Over the course of their wanderings throughout Europe and South America, Candide and Cunegonde are subjected to every sort of painful adversity: wars, shipwrecks, earthquakes, rapes, beatings and swindles. Their life lessons knock the stuffing out of Pangloss’s “optimism”.

Bernstein’s Candide itself wanders through an array of musical styles: jazz, Broadway, Igor Stravinsky, neo-Baroque, operetta, tango, Gustav Mahler, and, in some versions, a Schoenbergian twelve-tone row.

Many of the lyrics are striking, such as when Pangloss sings: “Though war may seem a bloody curse, it is a blessing in reverse. When cannon roar, both rich and poor by danger are united.”

Pangloss is also responsible for such gems as these: “Since every part of the body is made for the best of all possible reasons, it follows that every part of the State—which is merely a body in macrocosm—is made of the best of all possible reasons.”

Narrator Voltaire derides the Catholic Church for torturing and killing its victims in an “Auto-da-Fé” (act of faith, or the burning of heretics and apostates), while a chorus sings:

What a day, what a day,
For an Auto da Fé!…
It’s a lovely day for drinking
And for watching people die!
What a perfect day to be a money lender!
Or a tradesman, or a merchant or a vendor!
At a good exciting lynching
It’s a bonnie day for business,
Better raise the prices high!
For an Inquisition day this is a wonder!

“One final word in praise of the universal laws of Science,” says Pangloss. “God in his wisdom made it possible to invent the rope and what is the rope for but to create a noose?”

The University of Michigan production was a serious effort, remarkably well organized and executed. Conductor Kenneth Kiesler and director Matthew Ozawa are prominent artists. Kiesler has conducted orchestras and opera companies on five continents, while Ozawa has directed opera throughout the US and elsewhere.

The student singers and musicians delivered taut, elegant and committed performances. The entire ensemble was top-notch, with the four leads—Helgren as Cunegonde, McGrew as Candide, Grimaldo as Maximilian and Rodriquez as Paquette—vivacious and entertaining. The energetic Samantha Rose Williams as the Old Lady also deserves special mention.

The sets were imaginatively minimalistic and inventive, as cast and crew used numerous blackboards, ranging from the gigantic to the hand-held, to create backdrops and props.

As noted above, Bernstein always pointed to the anti-communist purges of the 1940s and 1950s as one of the impulses for his operetta. According to the official Leonard Bernstein website, the operetta’s creators saw a “parallel between the Inquisition’s church-sponsored purges and the ‘Washington Witch Trials’, fueled by anti-Communist hysteria and waged by the House Un-American Activities Committee.”

In 1989, between the acts of a concert performance of the work in London, Bernstein remarked: “Why Candide? Whither and whence Candide?… The particular evil which impelled Lillian Hellman to choose Candide and present it to me as the basis for a musical stage work was what we now quaintly and, alas, faintly recall as McCarthyism—an ‘ism’ so akin to that Spanish inquisition we just revisited in the first act as to curdle the blood. This was a period in the early ‘50s of our own century, exactly 200 years after the Lisbon affair [massive earthquake], when everything that America stood for seemed to be on the verge of being ground under the heel of that Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, and his inquisitorial henchmen. That was the time of the Hollywood Blacklist—television censorship, lost jobs, suicides, expatriation and the denial of passports to anyone even suspected of having once known a suspected Communist.

“I can vouch for this. I was denied a passport by my own government. By the way, so was Voltaire denied a passport by his.”

With Candide, Bernstein was attempting to create a popular American musical satire. Undoubtedly, one of his inspirations or models, in the general sense, was The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill. Bernstein had conducted a concert performance of the “play with music”—also a bitter satire and based on an 18th century work—in 1952 at a music festival before an audience of nearly 5,000 people. That performance, featuring Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife), is considered the “warm-up” for The Threepenny Opera’s enormously successful run off-Broadway in 1954 and then from 1955-1961. Lenya once asserted, “I think surely Leonard Bernstein knows every note of Kurt Weill … and he is the one who took up after Weill’s death … I think [he] is the closest to Kurt Weill.”

However, Candide does not succeed in eviscerating the American social order as the earlier work had done to its German equivalent. The issue here is not the presence or absence of artistic genius, with which Bernstein was blessed in full measure, but primarily the different times and the consequences of the political defeats suffered by socialism and the working class in the middle of the century.

The lesson Bernstein seems to have drawn from the McCarthy period was a slightly cynical and discouraged one—to roll with the punches, so to speak. He didn’t submit the anti-communist affidavit out of pure careerism, as others did in relation to HUAC, but he certainly didn’t see or understand that it was necessary to resist. Or, more precisely, his outlook was one of encouraging a militant liberalism as the answer to reaction. And this is what led more or less directly to Candide’s “softness” or obliqueness.

Despite Bernstein’s intriguing and entertaining comments, it could hardly be said that the operetta, for example, fully takes on McCarthyism and political reaction in America. The less historically informed spectator today might be forgiven if he or she even failed to make that connection. Blind optimism in the face of the tragedies that actually occur to people—including the traumas of the 20th century—seems more its message. Candide is simply not that cutting, and its conclusion, as the UM production—in its weakest aspect—demonstrates, can be interpreted in a relatively conformist and complacent fashion.

In the program, director Ozawa states: “Making my UM directorial debut with Bernstein’s wildly exuberant operetta has been a treat … What better way to bring our communities together than on a show that celebrates diversity, humanity, and our ability to cultivate a collective ‘garden.’”

This is not an appropriate reading of the situation of Voltaire’s characters, or Bernstein’s to a large extent, who are beaten down and more resigned, in the end, than “exuberant” about their prospects for the future.

In the novella, in its concluding passage, Pangloss, addressing Candide, continues his dreadful sophistic apologetics for things as they are: “There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

According to the Bernstein website, “Candide is perhaps destined never to find its perfect form and function; in the final analysis, however, that may prove philosophically appropriate.” The “highly checkered career of this work”, in Bernstein’s words, and its never really having found its “perfect form and function,” had a great deal to do with the political difficulties of the period and the composer’s own response to them.

Despite these weaknesses, the idea of adapting Voltaire was a good one, and UM’s production is a valuable effort marking the centenary of Bernstein’s birth.

The author also recommends:

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein—Part 1
[24 August 2018]

The centenary of Leonard Bernstein—Part 2
[25 August 2018]