Let’s Talk about “Scum” – another Singer book

Having read “Shosha” and come out of it with mixed feelings, I noted “Scum” on our shelves and thought I’d give another Isaac Bashevis Singer book a whirl.  “Shosha” is a book written mid-career, while “Scum”, published in 1991, was one of the Nobel Prize winner’s last books.

Both are set in Warsaw, and I think my choice was somewhat influenced by a conversation I had with a friend who had recently visited the Polish capital and was telling me how the decision had been made to rebuild the city after World War II to look as close as possible to the pre-war city.  “Shosha”, I knew, and “Scum”, I learned are topographic novels – Singer often leads you block by block, square by square, sometimes building by building through the city.

“Shosha” was largely set in immediate pre-war Warsaw, the 1930s.  A prominent location is the Bristol Hotel, described as a luxury hotel and the choice of American real estate mogul Sam Dreiman and his actress-companion, Betty Slonim.  I asked my friend if he saw the Bristol on his trip, and if it still existed.  He had not seen it, and did not know if was still (or again) in operation.

I think Googled the Bristol and found that it is still there, and still elegant.  I also saw that construction began in 1899 and the hotel opened in 1901.  I also learned that the German occupiers took over the hotel after the invasion of Poland, but that the hotel was not bombed and survived the war, unlike the major part of the city of Warsaw.

I wasn’t surprised when I read that the focal character of “Scum”, Poland native, Argentinian resident Max Barabender, stayed at the Bristol.  “Scum” is set in the year 1906, thirty years earlier than “Shosha”.  But something else did surprise me (and I know I am being picky).  Max Barabender had left Warsaw 23 years earlier (that would be 1883), when he was 24, yet he remembered the Bristol Hotel, and its reputation for luxury from those days.  An anachronism, right in the heart of “Scum”.

OK, let’s put that aside.  What about “Scum”.  Hit, or no hit?

In 1991, Isaac Singer was 88 years old.  And he wrote this book about 47 year old Barabender, traveling to Warsaw to regain his youthful ardor and cure his impotence, by finding willing women.  And willing women, he did indeed find.  There was the 19 year old daughter of a poverty stricken rabbi, there was the mistress of an aging underworld figure, there was the young servant girl who just wanted out of her straits, there was the over the hill wife of the baker.

So, how does he do it?  (Well, of course, so many of Singer’s characters seem to have this sexual magnitism.)  Well, he does it first by propositioning almost everyone he meets, and not only verbally but through what today would be closer to “date rape”, through physical pressure.  But none of the women seem to really mind, even those who fight back, to it knowing that they will give in eventually (eventually being in about five minutes).  No, Singer’s women are not very believable.

Max has a wife in Buenos Aires.  She lost all interest in physical, and emotional, contact after their teenage son, and only child, suddenly died, and eventually she sent her husband off to Warsaw with her blessings.  Once in Warsaw, Max tells everyone that his wife has died, that he is a wealthy widower looking for companionship.  He asks for the hand of the rabbi’s daughter, he tells the gangster’s wife that he will become her partner is encouraging Jewish girls to leave Warsaw for Argentina (without telling them that, upon arrival, they will be sent to a brothel), she tells the servant girl that he will travel with her anywhere she wants.

So is this just a silly story by an over-the-hill author, or is it a tale amplifying the existential condition of the typical middle aged male?  I vote for the former.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Shosha” – a book of some interest.

The introduction to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1978 novel “Shusha” is a puzzle:

“This novel does not represent the Jews of Poland in the pre-Hitler years by any means.  It is a story of a few unique characters in unique circumstances.”

What is he saying?  Why is he saying this?

Is he saying that the book does not represent ALL the Jews of Poland?  That goes without saying.  Is he saying that the characters in this book are not meant to represent any particular Jews who lived in Warsaw in the 1930s?  There are certainly clearer ways to say this?  Is he saying that the novel was not represent ANY Jews in pre-Hitler Poland?  Every novel is “a story of a few unique characters in unique circumstances”; this is almost a definition of a novel.  So what gives here?

I don’t know.  But I did read “Shosha” , a book that has been hanging around the house in multiple copies forever, earlier this week and, while I don’t think it’s the most engaging story around, I do think it has some value.  But in fact that value depends upon its accuracy in “representing the Jews of Poland in the pre-Hitler years”.  Otherwise, why write it?

Singer sure spends a lot of time describing the Jews of Poland, or at least of Warsaw, where the novel is set.  He talks about three distinct kinds of Jews:  the poor, and often very religious, Jews who live in and around Krochmalna Street, an area which he portrays as a sort of Warsavian Lower East Side.  There are the intellectual Jews, also impoverished, but living in various neighborhoods of the city, who hang around the Writers Club.  And there are the rich and assimilated Jews, some of whom now live abroad in America, but who return now and then for personal and business reasons.

The story line is a bit odd.  The central character is not really Shosha – in my mind she plays a supporting role – but Aaron, a would be writer who grew up in the Krochmalna neighborhood, but who moved out and now is one of Warsaw’s young intellectuals, writing for local publications and dreaming of doing something big.  Shosha was his neighbor and best friend until she moved away at age 7; he does not see her for twenty years, and those twenty years have not been good to her.  Shosha suffers from some malady (ala Oskar in Gunter Grass’ “The Tin Drum”) where she stopped growing physically and mentally, and has never reached puberty.

Aaron is, among other things, a ladies man (although the description of him and his older companion and mentor Morris, also quite a rake, makes this seem less that possible), and he has recently broke up with Communist girlfriend Dora, who wants him to move to Moscow with her, and has started affairs with his landlord’s maid, the non-Jewish Tekla, with Celia, the outgoing wife of mild, meek Haiml,and  with Warsaw born American Yiddish theater actress Betty Slonim, mistress and muse of the wealthy, married, old and not well Sam Dreiman, American real estate mogul.  But he marries Shosha.

Why he marries Shosha is a mystery and source of frustration to all of Aaron’s friends, as it is to me. She  doesn’t really have a role in the story.  She could have been a rag doll for what she adds to the story line.  “What?  Aaron is marrying a rag doll and bringing her everywhere with him? Why did he do that?  She’s not even alive.”  These words could be said about Shosha.

Putting Shosha to the side, a lot does happen, mainly surrounding Aaron’s relationship with Betty and Sam.  Sam hires Aaron to write a play for Betty to star in, to take Warsaw by storm.  Aaron writes and writes, but never succeeds (he has a lot of interference from Sam, Betty and each of the prospective actors, each of whom want their roles amplified and changed).  Finally, in a fit of exasperation, Sam pulls the plug.

I guess it’s a coming of age story.  The poverty ridden lost writer becomes found through a series of lucky connections, cannot quite adjust to becoming a man of substance and prospective fame, reaches to his past for some sort of security, finds success illusive, and retreats to his adolescent shyness.

Although much of the book foreshadows Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the story line ends before the war begins, except for an epilogue where the now American Aaron visits the now Israeli Haiml – everyone else has perished, some as Holocaust victims, some of natural causes and at least one of suicide.  Shosha had died as they were evacuated from the ghetto.

But the book, it seems to me, was about the pre-Hitler era Polish Jews, and about Warsaw, its neighborhoods, its streets, its synagogues, its hotels, its clubs, its Jewish theater.  Don’t let that introduction fool you.

Holocaust Memoirs: What to Make of Martin Gray’s “For Those I Loved”

No matter how young you are, nor how long you are going to live, you could probably read a different Holocaust memoir every day and never run out of books.  And you would be fascinated by each of them.

If you decided to do this, undoubtedly one of the books you would choose early on would be “For Those I Loved” by Martin Gray, originally published in French in 1971.  And there’s a good reason for this.  The book tells an extraordinarily dramatic story (with, as it turns out, a positive ending).  Gray tells of being born and raised in Warsaw in an assimilating Jewish family.  His childhood is ideal and well funded, but everything changes when the Germans enter the city and the Jews are confined to an overcrowded ghetto.

But young Martin (he was then Mietek) was not one to simply await his fate.  Even as a young teenager, he figured out how to leave and enter the ghetto, how to work with gentiles on the outside, and how to become a ghetto smuggler, bringing merchandise into the ghetto from the outside which he sold at an extraordinary profit, enough to help his family and his friends, and his friends outside the ghetto, and to pay off a series of Polish ghetto border guards at the same time.

Eventually, the gig was up, and he (along with all his family members, but his father, and his girl friend) were rounded up, and put on a transport for Treblinka, the death camp used primarily to be the killing ground for Jews from northern Poland, including Warsaw.  At Treblinka, everyone but Martin were sent to their deaths, but Martin (how old was he, now, 16?) was put in a work crew were he stayed for some time, learning the Nazi mind, looking to save himself at all costs.  Eventually he was put on a detail in the “lower camp”, where he was one of a group who took the bodies from the gas chambers and got rid of them.  He recognized that his position was one that could be highly criticized, but if he didn’t do it, someone else would, and he would be dead.

He realized that if he could get on a work detail that took the clothes of the dead and moved them to outgoing trains, he might be able to escape on one of those trains, and that’s exactly what he did.  We then follow him through the Polish countryside as he portrays himself as a regular Polish peasant and, at the same time, trying to warn the Jews in those towns where the ghettos still stood what their future would bring.

We see him work his way back to Warsaw, back to the ghetto, where he hopes to help those who remain behind, including his father.  He helps get ready for what became the ghetto uprising, re-connecting with some of his gentile contacts and smuggling arms into the ghetto (using the sewers as his means of ingress and egress), he fights the Germans as the uprising begins and the Nazis move in, and he sees his father killed in the fight.

But he survives, escapes the ghetto, joins the Partisans and participates in the march of the Soviet Army to Berlin.  He’s in Berlin where the war ends, gets into a DP camp, and fairly quickly gets to New York, where his grandmother, and his uncle, live.

Once in America, he is the same determined kid (he is still under 20), takes odd jobs, works in the Catskill resorts, becomes a pedlar in the apartments buildings of the Bronx and in Lakewood NJ (this was illegal), meets an antique dealer and realizes that antiques may be his fortune.  Everyone in America wants things from Europe, and he still has contacts there, so he begins to travel back and forth, to buy low and sell high.  When German antiques become scarce, he finds a company that makes replicas (largely china, I think) and pawns them off in America as originals.

Then he meets the girl of his dreams, they eventually “retire” to southern France in the house of their dreams and have four beautiful children.  But the good times do not last, and in 1970 a wildfire takes his house, his wife and all four of his young children.  And, as part of his recovery, he writes this book.  Quite a life.

It turns out that his life is not over.  Forty four years after “To Those I Loved” is published, Gray continues to live, now in Brussels with his second wife at age 93.  What he has done with his time is a bit of a mystery to me, but only a small part of the big mystery that is Martin Gray.

And this is where I get very confused.

The question is:  how true is Gray’s memoir?  He has supporters who say that every word is true.  He has opponents (both serious scholars and Holocaust deniers) who say that no one could have lived the life of Martin Gray during the years of World War II, that he would have been both a Superman and a Zelig – always at the fulcrum of history, often at the point of inevitable death, and continually surviving.  And there are those who have tried to research book, who question the timing of various events, who have spoken to others present at the events who have no recollection of Martin Gray (under any name).  Yet there are those who know Gray well, or who have interviewed him for various publications, and who swear to his truthfulness.

Usually where there is some question raised about the veracity of a memoir (think James Frye or Benjamin Wilkomirski – Google them), truth or falsity, or a combination of both, is fairly easy to conclude.  But not so in connection with Martin Gray.  Thus, my confusion.  I don’t know if this memoir is 100% accurate, or a piece of fiction.

In one sense, it makes little difference.  The book describes important things – ghettos, uprisings, transports, non-Jewish Poland, Treblinka, and so forth.  In another sense, of course it is crucial.  And not knowing is very disturbing.


The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and the Trauma of Theater J

Theater J, the professional theater of the District of Columbia’s Jewish Community Center, has had quite a year, as some of you know.  A self-proclaimed watchdog effort determined that some of the plays produced at the theater were anti-Israel, or were giving Israel a bad name, and those plays (artistic merit aside) should not be performed at a theater sponsored by the Jewish community (either through DCJCC dues or through contributions to the local Jewish Federation, which provides funds to the JCC).  Putting aside my opinion and the opinion of the leadership of both the JCC and Theater J that the plays in question were not in fact anti-Israel, putting aside my belief that the leaders of this censorship effort have no concept of what theater is and should be, and putting aside the fact that their campaign simply put a spotlight on things they were trying to keep quiet, their efforts were ultimately successful, and cost the long time artistic director of the theater his job, and resulted in a change in the selection of plays to be performed at Theater J.

That said, we continue to support the efforts of Theater J, as well as the new theater recently created by former Theater J artistic director Ari Roth.  There hopefully will be a place in the city for both to be successful.  Roth’s new theater, Mosaic, has not yet opened its new season, but Theater J is closing its current season with a production of Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”, which we saw last evening.

“The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” is not a new play.  It first opened in 2000 at the Manhattan Theater Club and then ran for over two years at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway.  It has been revived, and somewhat updated, time and time again since then.  It’s original production was nominated for three Tonys.  The reviews of its current production have been quite positive.  Too bad, then, that I, and several others with whom I have conversed about the play, really didn’t like it very much.

The story line is simple – It’s the upper West Side of New York, the allergist has recently retired (early) to spend his time doing good deeds for those who need it, his wife is intellectually inclined but her work has only been as a volunteer and she views herself as mediocrity (and therefore a loser) personified.  Her mother (whose main interest is her bowel movements) lives down the hall – the mother and daughter have a love/hate relationship, with the hate part dominating their verbal communications.  The allergist, not a strong type, is frustrated with his wife, but wants to be of help.  Nothing is positive.  But then……

Then, a childhood friend of the wife appears (almost out of nowhere) and turns the world upside down.  She is glamorous, knows everyone and has been everywhere when important things happen, she is talented, a gourmet cook, and a sexual free spirit.  First bringing excitement to the family, she then comes close to destroying it.  The play, by the way, is a comedy.  A comedy which I, by and large, found decidedly unfunny (with a couple of exceptions).

Which brings me to the aforementioned watchdog group, known as COPMA (or Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art).  Because I thought their campaign against Theater J was mis-directed (feeling that the plays that they criticized only described dilemmas facing the State of Israel, mainly in connection with its Arab citizens and neighbors, dilemmas which all Israelis recognize and discuss ad nauseam, and were not at all anti-Israel), it occurred to me (and I obviously say this with a high degree of irony and lack of seriousness) that a play such as “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” would have been a better target for their efforts.

Every character is “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” is Jewish, with the exception of the apartment building doorman.  And everyone one of them, in his or her own way, is neurotic, loud and abrasive, filled with arrogance and self importance, clannish, and ethno-centered.  And each of them seems to have no current connection with any Jewish community as a whole or to the Jewish religion (in fact, one of their daughters who lives a religious life in Israel is verbally belittled again and again).  Each character in this play is a Jewish stereotype, and a bad one, and as audiences watch this play, especially gentile ones, they cannot help to have their inner and sometimes submerged anti-Semitic instincts increased.

So why should a theater which is a part of a Jewish community center and partly financially supported by a Jewish federation be permitted to put on plays which demean Jews and Judaism.  Isn’t that as bad (or perhaps worse) than putting on plays that deal with Israel’s struggles?  Where is COPMA, I ask?

But we get back to the purposes of theater.  One of those purposes is to allow playwrights and all those connected with a production to express their artistic creativity and follow their instincts uninhibited by state or organized private pressure.  Another is to show the drama of life, whether it be political drama, social drama or individual drama.  To focus on people’s weaknesses and limitations, to bring attention to shortcomings, in the hope that others will build a better world in part because what they are seeing brings them to think.

But if Theater J is not allowed to produce shows that require you to see something negative about Israel, don’t you think that one day a COPMA will be created to make sure that Theater J not be allowed to produce shows that require you to see anything negative about Jews.  Theater J’s productions (to the extent that they have Jewish content at all) should focus on good Jews, happy Jews, the perfect State of Israel, the wonders and truth of the Jewish religion.  Of course, no one will come to see those shows…..but I guess that is the price you must pay if COPMA (or its equivalents) are allowed to succeed in meeting the inevitable goals of their members.

“The White Baton” by Stanley Laudan

Here’s a book you haven’t read.  Published in England (only) in 1959, it is the memoir of musician Stanley Laudan, Polish by birth, who eventually wound up in England.  His journey was a unique one, starting in the industrial city of Katowice in southern Poland, where in 1939, the 26 year old Laudan was a happy go lucky leader of a western style band playing at the Bagatelle Night Club.  And it was truly a night club, with the music starting at 11, the crowds beginning to grow at midnight, and the band continuing until 6 in the morning, when the club would close and the band members would play poker until noon and sleep until 9 p.m.

Germany seemed much further away than it was until late August 1939 and rumors of a possible invasion spread, creating panic for some, and complacency for others.  The average Pole really did seem to believe that the Polish army would rout the incoming hordes of Germans.  In fact, when all the young men were called to report for military duty, the lack of weapons did not seem an overwhelming problem because, after all, they were going to take them off the bodies of dead invaders.

Called up for duty after the September 1 attack, and sent to join a second defense group (they were only to see action if the first responder defenders could not stop the Germans, something that was deemed unlikely), Laudan saw the Polish lines crumble and soon was hightailing it away from the front, and trying to avoid even the “Wasser Poles”, Polish residents of German ethnicity who were clearly supporting the western attackers.

Not only was Laudan a musician, and clearly a likeable person, he was a clever individual who knew that the army was not for him, and who (even though he was Catholic, not Jewish) thought that a Nazi controlled Poland would not be the best place to live, he and a Jewish friend and band mate decided to try to get to eastern Poland, that part of Poland now occupied by Soviet troops.  They succeeded in obtaining false papers, and were able to take the train from Cracow to near the border and arrange a way to cross into Soviet controlled territory.

Then making their way to Lvov, under Russian domination, they quickly figured out that Soviet occupation was not going to be benign.  The Jews were not being singled out, to be sure, but the capitalists were, and all sorts of people were deemed to be capitalists.  And this large and lively city was beginning to take on a very drab coloration.  They realized that only “cooperatives” were being allowed to flourish and decided to form a “cooperative nightclub”, again with papers that looked like, but did not actually, authorize them to do so, found space, and went into business (so to speak), being left alone, and sometimes meeting as customers, the Russian occupiers.

Until one day there was a raid, as the Russians were rooting out people without permission to live within its territory, something that Laudan had never obtained.  People were being rounded up and transported away, but to where?  Siberia?  that was the rumor.

As luck would have it, Laudan came into contact with a White Russian who had been told to look for musicians and entertainers who might be appropriate for careers throughout the Soviet Union, and this led to Laudan becoming one of the leaders of a band that played in Bialystok and then Minsk, and then to become a performer on stage in Russia proper, first in Moscow and then all of the republic and the other Soviet SSRs, always of course under threat of exile if he, or any of his group, stepped out of line.

A visit to some of the prison labor camps near Archangel (as an entertainer, not a prisoner) convinced Laudan that Russia was also not the place to be, as luck again played into his hand with the USSR declaring an amnesty for certain Polish prisoners and residents as Poland and the USSR eventually became allies against Germany and the Axis.  Getting permission to rejoin the Polish army (remember, he had deserted), Laudan was in fact able to leave the Soviet Union.  (Although this is where the book stopped, he wound up in England where he lived for several decades, still playing music for his living, marrying and fathering several children).

This is the bare outline.  The book itself is short (under 200 pages), and gives a rather different perspective of life in pre-war Poland, of the German invasion, of the Russianization of eastern Poland, and of life as a traveling musician (with privileges, to be sure) in a society where even privileges do not make up for the poverty and backwardness of the people and the tyranny of the state.

Worth reading (if you can find it).

Two More Penguins: H.E. Bates and R.H. Mottram

Can’t say that I had heard of either of these early twentieth century English writers, but I had their orange Penguin paperbacks, and decided to read them.  Worth doing.

First, R. H. Mottram wrote a trilogy of which “The Spanish Farm” was the first volume (I do not have the other two). It’s a World War I novel, but the heroes are not politicians or soldiers, but rather Madeleine, a French country girl, of intelligence and capability who lives with her father and siblings on a farm in northern France which becomes a billeting stop for English officers.  It is part of a larger baronial estate and Madeleine falls in love with the Baron’s son, who is called off into war.  Missing their assignations, she vows to wait for him (does he feel anything for her, a commoner?) until she learns that he has been injured, and then she must search.  First to a military hospital, then to take a job in AMiens, and then Paris.  No trace of her one time lover, but she does run into an English officer she had known from the farm, and they have their own series of rendezvous but her heart belongs to her titled neighbor, now possibly dead.  But he isn’t dead, he appears, he longed for her as much as she for him, but he goes off and this time, he is killed, forcing her to return to the farm and resume her previously life, with everything somewhat changed.  A good, and unusual, story.  I think I would classify it as an example of feminist literature. It was apparently very popular in its time.  And worth reading today.

The other book I read was a book of three long stories (termed novelettes) by H.E. Bates, another prolific English writer.  They contrasted with the stories of Max Beerbohm that I read last week.  The Beerbohm stories were, as they might say in England, wickedly clever, and intellectually written.  The Bates stories were not at all clever (you pretty well knew how they’d turn out), and they were written in simple words, and simple sentences.  But they were ultimately readable, and very enjoyable.  I only read two of them (one, about an unattractive woman with low self esteem and questionable ethics who finally attracts two men, not realizing that one of them would kill the other, and the other about a country gentleman with an unappealing wife who meets a young girl who promises that they can have fun over the summer, although he believes – incorrectly – that the summer would never end).  I didn’t read the third story, the shortest of the three, because it was a sea captain’s story, and I just wasn’t interested.

I recommend both books.

Two More Penguins: Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm.

Continuing my exploration of my old English Penguins, I have just read Somerset Maugham’s “Cakes and Ale” and Max Beerbohm’s “Seven Men and Two Others”.

I had read “Of Moon and Sixpence” by Maugham some years ago, and enjoyed it.  It’s the basic story of artist Paul Gaugin and his move to the South Pacific.  I have never read “Of Human Bondage”, probably his best known book.  And I must admit not having known anything about “Cakes and Ale”, the third book with which he is identified.  I found it a pleasant enough read, but nothing to write home about.

It’s a book about two writers (perhaps one is based on Thomas Hardy and one based on Hugh Walpole, they say), of a different generation.  The younger man knew the older when they both lived in the same small town and the older writer taught the teen age youngster how to ride a bike (among other things).  They reconnect in London, some time later, when the younger writer is not so young and a sexual relationship develops between him and the wife of the elder, all of which is kept rather secret (as are her various other assignatons.) Years later, after the wife of the older officer disappears and he gets remarried to a very different type of woman and then dies at a ripe old age, the younger man is asked to write his biography.  And this is whether certain other things all come out.  Not the most essential story, but not totally lacking interest.

Now as to Max Beerbohm, his is a name I first heard long ago, but never read anything by him and don’t think many people today do read his work.  “Seven Men and Two Others” is a book of 6 short stories (all of which, like “Cake and Ale” are about writers) and, although I think that they vary in quality, the best ones are quite good. I especially recommend the first story in the book, “Enoch Soames”, and the fifth, “Felix Argallo and Walter Ledgett”.

Beerbohm himself is a character in both of these stories.  Enoch Soames is a poet who is despondent because no one seems to read or appreciate his work.  Beerbohm suggests that great artists are often not appreciated during their lives and that in a hundred years, everyone may know his work.  His comments are overheard by another gentleman who introduces himself as the Devil and makes a Faustian bargain with Soames.  He will send Soames on a time travel trip to the British Library Reading Room one hundred years into the future (which turned out to be June 3, 1997) and allow Soames to see if anyone is reading his work, in return for Soames dedicating his eternity to Satan.  The deal is made, Soames spends 4 hours at the library and discovers that no one is reading his work and that his work is not found in the library’s catalog.  In fact, the only mention of himself that he can find is in a short story written by Beerbohm.  He returns to 1897 and to Beerbohm and asks Beerbohm if he is planning on writing about this embarrassing escapade (which he obviously knows he will).  Beerbohm promises he won’t, as Soames and the Devil vanish into the air.  The rest is history.

Felix Argallo is a Spanish born writer whose success comes after years of struggle all at once, and an extraordinary success it is.  Walter Ledgett, on the other hand, has no success at all and is convinced he never will have.  Max Beerbohm comes up with a plan to restore Ledgett’s lost confidence.  He goes to the house of the much older Argallo and asks him to write out four letters that Beerbohm will dictate.  Each of the letters is addressed to Beerbohm and speaks ecstatically of the work of Ledgett and of Ledgett’s extraordinary personality.  Shortly after writing the letters, Argallo commits suicide.  As Beerbohm knew would happen, a call goes out from Argallo’s publisher for any letters addressed to or from Argallo, so that they can be included in a book to be published in honor and memory of Argallo.  The four letters appear and, one would think, Ledgett’s career would get a big boost.  But there’s a problem.  The letters refer to incidents involving Argallo and Ledgett together that Ledgett has no memory of – he says that they never occurred.  Only after Ledgett is convinced by Beerbohm that he is suffering from the effects of monoutinasamnesia (forgetting one specific thing only) and enviroactivity (forgetting anything at all connected to the matter being forgotten as a result of the monoutinasamnesia) is he willing to accept that the famous and respected Argallo did think that there was something specially about his own work and worth.

Very clever stories – the result of a very clever mind.

Three Little Penguins Sitting in a Row (three reviews)

You remember those boring orange (and sometimes red, or purple, or blue, or green, or yellow) Penguin paperbacks that they stopped putting out about 50 years ago?  Well, I have something over 400 of them, and every once in a while, I think that I should read them all.  (I have actually read relatively few, and often don’t remember which ones I have read)

Of course, this will never happen.  And some of the Penguins (especially the non-fictions – like several fat volumes on Chinese art, just to give one example) are not ready for prime time (21st century style0 but others are.

So, I decided to read some, and I picked three rather short volumes.  Here they are:

E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End”, first published in 1910.  The orphaned Schegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, meet the Wilcox family on a vacation, and after Helen’s sudden engagement to young Paul Wilcox ends in equally sudden disaster, cannot conceive that they will become neighbors, that Mrs. Wilcox is sick and about to die, and that Margaret will wind up the new Mrs. Wilcox, or how much of their future lives will revolve on the Wilcox country house, Howard’s End.  Each of these families is eccentric in their own way, as is that lost young, would be intellectual, Leonard Bast and his wife of dubious background, both of whom are key to this saga  But it’s more than a story of families, it’s a tale of social classes, of wealth and poverty, in turn of the century England.  The Wilcox family is business class, the Schlegels can live on money previously earned, Bast is stuck in poverty, and class differences control so much thought.  The book moves right along, the characters are continuously developed, nothing too unexpected happens, the books maintains an even rhythm.  Then, towards the end, tensions rise in unanticipated ways, emotions begin to govern, and every comes together in a beautifully written, if unanticipated and horrific, perfect train wreck, tearing everyone’s world apart, before everything settles down again just where the conversation started, at Howard’s End.  Highly recommended.

From “Howard’s End” and England, I went to France, to read Colette’s “Cheri and The Last of Cheri”, two short novels (one from 1920 and one from 1926, published together by Penguin.  I must say that “Cheri” left me cold – Cheri is a beautiful man/boy of 19 (I always assumed he was a girl) who takes up with Lea, a 493year old friend of his mother, and they stay together in a combination erotic and mother/son-like relationship for six years, breaking up when Cheri is married off to a beautiful young woman Edmee.  But his marriage is problematic, because Cheri cannot put Cheri out of his mind, and he returns to her, only to see that things can never been the same, and that now Cheri is an older woman of 49.  (By the way, when Cheri was published, Colette herself was 49.) I thought the book rather boring and quite uninteresting, although it was a very popular book when first published.

Six years later, “The End of Cheri” is published.  During these years, the world has changed.  World War I has devastated Europe.  Paris is no longer quite what it was, and Cheri is no longer what he was.  Exactly how Cheri spent the war years is not discussed (he was apparently in the military), but when he comes out, he is lost.  Edmee, on the other hand, is thriving.  She volunteers with the Red Cross at a hospital for wounded veterans, clearly doing good work, and working very hard.  Cheri, on the other hand, has no interest in volunteer activities, no interest in work of any sort, and spends his time wandering the city, sitting in bars, wandering the city and sitting in bars.  His relationship with his wife falls apart, although she shows ultimate patience, it is clear that he cannot rekindle a relationship with the now 55 year old Lea, but he develops a non-physical friendship with one of Lea’s friends, whom he calls Pal.  What’s wrong with Cheri, anyway?  PTSD?  Some other underlying psychological problem.  He’s a young man who has everything and he cannot hold anything together.  What’s his future?  I will give you a hint.  The book is short.  While I can’t recommend “Cheri” standing alone, putting it together with the second story creates a poignant story unfortunately not uncommon among veterans of all wars.

OK, time for the third book.  This time, I came back to America and read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last (and unfinished) novel, “The Last Tycoon”.  This one I really liked.  It’s the story of Hollywood in the thirties (Fitzgerald died in 1941), centering on a number of studio executives, each a rather complex character, not the one-sided personalities you might anticipate, and two women, one a college student daughter of one of the studio owners, the other a young woman recently moved to California from England (neither of whom had ambitions in the cinema world). The story was unfolding interestingly when Fitzgerald died – our young English friend turned down the proposal of the (not much older, but recently widowed) producer, Monroe Stahr, as she was engaged to a man due soon from England (her emotions not sufficient to lead to a break up), and our young college student (Bennington College, by the way) was becoming disillusioned by the business she had grown up around (and disillusioned by her father).

Fitzgerald did leave notes  outlining much about how he anticipated the story line to proceed – there is a summary of these notes appended to the Penguin edition.  I will tell you this – it was not going to end happily.  By the way, as Colette was the same age as Lea in Cheri, Fitzgerald was not too much older than Monroe Stahr and both were suffering from a lingering heart condition, anticipating potential death.  Fitzgerald died suddenly, of course, and apparently Stahr was to be killed off by Fitzgerald (although not from his heart disease).  Highly recommend this (incomplete) novel.

Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain and Even a Little About the Jews

Who knew that Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant were buddies?  And that Mark Twain’s publishing company put out Grant’s impressive two volume autobiography?  Certainly not me.

Over the past few days, I read Mark Perry’s “Grant and Twain”, published in 2004 by Random House.  An interesting study of the two men and their relationship with each other, and with other military and literary figures of their day.  Grant was older than Twain – he was born in 1822, Twain in 1835.  And Grant died much sooner – in 1885, Twain in 1910.  And they apparently didn’t know each other until after the end of Grant’s presidency (he left office in 1877) and after Grant hit serious financial problems after the bankruptcy of Grant & Ward, an investment firm started by his son and partner Ferdinand Ward, in which Grant had a 25% interest; both Grants were bamboozled by Ward, an investment whiz kid, whose judgment turned sour and whose problems were hidden from the Grants until the collapse of the firm.

This shook Grant, who had no pension either as a result of his military service or his presidency, and who (not starting with significant assets) had serious concern about how he was going to support his wife and family.  To make matters worse, in early 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer (he was an inveterate cigar smoker) and from that date until his death less than one and a half years later, spent most of his time writing articles for a number of periodicals about his military days, and his memoirs.  Perry’s description of Grant’s writing of his memoirs, which were completely only a few days before he died, during a period of increasing pain and decreasing strength, is the description of will power in action.  Grant was intent on finishing his books, and with the help of two researchers and fact checkers, and a couple of men who read over his drafts (including Twain), he sat in his room, and wrote and wrote and wrote, sometimes well into the night since he often could not sleep because of the pain in any event.  A more than impressive accomplishment.

Meanwhile, Twain had had success with “Tom Sawyer” and less success with his other writings, but was very well known and, unlike Grant, had a very expensive life style (Grant and his wife Julia lived well, but  not extravagantly), which required more money than he was making from his writing and his lecture tours.  He went into a number of business ventures (none successful), promoted several inventions (also without success), and was the owner of an upstart Hartford publishing firm, named for his business manager, Charles L. Webster.  It was the desire of Twain to publish Grant’s memoirs that led to their first meeting, and it was the first meeting that led to their friendship and eventual publishing arrangement.

The format of the book is interesting, because although it focuses on their relationship, it also relates the biography of each of them, often a chapter devoted to one, and then one devoted to the other.  The chapters on Twain are rather straight forward, the way any other biographer would approach his subject (showing Twain as a somewhat cranky and frustrated author), but the Grant chapters only focus on Grant’s post-presidential life, with the exception of some references to various Civil War campaigns and battles, told as flashbacks as Grant rights his memoirs.  Thus, Perry speaks hardly at all of Grant’s presidency, and certainly does not provide anything like a complete history of Grant’s military career.  I say that not as criticism, but just to show Perry’s focus.

Now, as to the Jews (a subject to which I often return), I say this also not in criticism.  To my knowledge, there are no Jewish characters in Perry’s book, and nothing is said of either of their relationships to Jews.  Now, in fact, Jews did figure into their lives.  Grant is fairly well known for the infamous order he issued (soon stricken by President Lincoln) that all Jews be forced to leave the lower Mississippi River territory under Grant’s control during the Civil War.  A book by Jonathan Sarna, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” has recently been published to strong reviews.  Grant’s action was apparently occasioned by some complaints directed to a few Jewish commercial travelers, and was quickly of great embarrassment to General Grant, something he explained as a quick and wrong decision made in the fog of war.  He more than atoned for his sin during the remainder of his life, becoming rather close to the Jewish community and even participating in the dedication of my synagogue in Washington DC in 1876.  Similarly, Mark Twain (I do know that was not his real name) early in his writing career wrote some rather scathing descriptions of some Jews, but later he too atoned for his sins, becoming notoriously universalist and liberal, and winding up with a Jewish son in law with whom he was rather close (a pianist who became conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra).  Why both of them started out as they did, and ended so similarly in this regard is hard to say. Grant grew up in small town on the Ohio River not far from its confluence with the Mississippi and spent his post-West Point years in St. Louis, and of course Twain is from Hannibal, MO, right on the big river itself.  Perhaps there was something in the air.

In any event, I do recommend “Grant and Twain” because it not only throws light on the two title characters, but brings them together, something that otherwise we would probably never know.

General Patton, His Grandson, George C. Scott, Bill O’Reilly and Richard Cohen – What Does It All Mean?

“Patton”, with George C. Scott playing the general, remains one of my favorite films.  George Patton came across as an extraordinary difficult man, and a military genius.  He undoubtedly was both.  Some of his more embarrassing moments were displayed in the film, such as the time he decided to treat soldier suffering from battlefield fatigue or PTSD by slapping them around, an event that had a very negative effect on his military career.

But the film (as I recall) ignored another negative aspect of Patton – his apparent virulent antisemitism.  Do you know about that?  Perhaps not.

Patton was put in charge of the Displaced Persons Camps after the war.  President Truman engaged Earl Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, to tour the camps. In his diary (Patton was a meticulous diary keeper), Patton wrote “Harrison and his ilk believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to Jews, who are lower than animals.”  He also wrote that if the Jews were not kept under military guard in the DP camps, “they would not stay in the camps, would spread over the country like locusts, and would eventually have to be rounded up after a good number of them had been shot and quite a few Germans murdered and pillaged”.

In addition to evidencing antisemitism, Patton was also accused of being a little to comfortable with Nazis.  He admired Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) and wanted to socialize with him after the war, he claimed that most Nazis were not evil, but just bureaucrats, he was given control of the military occupation of Bavaria and was fired by President Eisenhower for putting so many ex-Nazis on the payroll (he claimed they were the only ones who knew what they were doing).  Shortly after he was dismissed, Patton was killed in Germany, in an automobile accident.

The other day, I came across a book written by Gen. Patton’s grandson, Benjamin Patton, called “Growing Up Patton: Reflections on Heroes, History, and Family Wisdom”.  It was the story of Benjamin’s grandfather (whom he never met), father (another General George Patton, who served in Vietnam among other places, and who was in some ways similar to his father, and some ways not), and mother.  It’s an interesting book, mixing family history, the author’s memories, correspondence, and discussions not only of father, mother and grandfather, but a number of others (members of the military, and religious advisers) who influenced the three.  Benjamin is clearly ambiguous about his family members, not failing to point out their shortcomings, including a large section on Patton’s feelings about Rommel and his placing Nazis in the Bavarian administration.  But what did not get mentioned?  The antisemitism, of course.  Verboten territory?  Too embarrassing?  Not important? I don’t know.

The quotes referenced above come from Richard Cohen’s column in the Washington Post on September 29, 2014, where he discusses Bill O’Reilly’s book “Killing Patton”.  Cohen, like me, wonders why, with all of the criticism of Patton, O’Reilly too left out references to his antisemitism.

Perhaps it is coincidental that both Benjamin Patton and Bill O’Reilly both omitted references to Patton’s feelings about Jews.  But perhaps it is not coincidental.  Perhaps it says something profound about non-Jewish America today.  I think it does.  But what?