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‘Maman, What Are We Called Now?’ by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar *****

Persephone Books are a real treat for me. I love that moment when I open one of their beautiful dove grey covers for the first time, and always take a moment to admire the undoubtedly beautiful endpapers, before embarking on a story which I’m always certain I will enjoy. I was lucky enough to be able to reserve a copy of Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar’s Maman, What Are We Called Now? from my local library, as it’s a copy I’ve had difficulty picking up elsewhere.

Maman, What Are We Called Now? collects together a short journal and articles written by Paris resident, Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, during the Second World War, and directly afterwards. First published in its original French in 1957, and in English in this translation by Francine Yorke in 2015, the book is the 115th title on the Persephone list. It also includes a long, and highly informative preface written by biographer Caroline Moorehead, in which she provides a lot of information about both their families, and their backgrounds. I really appreciated both the specific context, and the personal details which she gives; they certainly add to the whole.

Mesnil-Amar’s original journal was written between July and August 1944, and begun on the day she learnt that her husband was missing. Moorehead contextualises this well, commenting: ‘In the last frenzied weeks of the German occupation of Paris her husband André had disappeared. She wanted to record her thoughts, her fears, her desperate hopes, her memories, along with a description of Paris itself… When she abandoned her diary, five weeks later, Paris was free and André, miraculously, was alive.’

Both Jacqueline and André were Jewish, but were ‘totally assimilated’, seeing themselves as French citizens first, and Jewish second. André joined the Jewish resistance, which had begun in Warsaw in 1942. After being tricked by the Gestapo, he was sent to Auschwitz on the last deportation train, on the 17th of August 1944. Astonishingly, he managed to escape from the moving train, and walked the 50 kilometres back to Paris. After being reunited with his wife and young daughter Sylvie, he and Jacqueline helped to set up a vital network of information for deported Jews, helping them to locate their families after the Holocaust.

Throughout Mesnil-Amar’s heartrending journal, the reader is made party to her extreme anxiety, uncertainty, and grief. On the 25th of July, just a week after André’s disappearance, Mesnil-Amar writes: ‘I was straining to hear the slightest sound, longing for the familiar rapid footsteps outside the door, bur they never came. A thousand times I thought I’d heard one of the sounds that are so much a part of the man I love – the jangle of his keys, the click of the door handle, his little smoker’s cough, the rustle of a newspaper – and the sound of his cheerful voice calling out his pet name for me from the other end of the flat. But nothing. Complete silence. Always the same all-enveloping silence we endured after the others were arrested.’ On the same day, she writes of the clash of information which she has been given by others: ‘Everything just adds to the confusion and the horror, it’s all black and shadowy… I will sell my rings, I will sell my soul, I will sell my life, but I can’t believe even that would be enough.’

Throughout the journal portion of Maman, What Are We Called Now?, Mesnil-Amar lays her panic and vulnerability bare. She writes briefly of members of her family, all of whom are in hiding across the city. She writes, sometimes at length, of the incredibly brave and selfless people around her, and how they have provided herself and Sylvie with help, and with hope. She addresses sections of her journal directly to André, and these are fervent and sincere.

Something which she comes to realise is the disconnect which her husband’s disappearance creates. On the 26th of July, Mesnil-Amar reflects: ‘This endless walk took me through every part of Paris, so many different cities, each one a part of me, my avenues, my streets, the loveliest and the ugliest, the oldest and the newest, and I walked with my eyes half-closed, all of a sudden a stranger in my own city, separated from it by my grief and yet forever bound to it.’ She questions her faith, wondering whether she does believe in God: ‘Not every day, alas. And especially not every night… I no longer know who or what to hold on to, what god, what human face, which of the values that used to give meaning to my life.’

Under the rather lovely pen name of Delphine, Jacqueline contributed articles, theatre reviews, and ‘light-hearted sketches of society life’ to various magazines. After the war, the tone and topics of her writing, unsurprisingly, shifted. Moorehead notes that in these later articles, ‘the light-hearted Delphine of the pre-war years had been replaced by a more serious, sadder figure.’ One can notice a shift in tone even between the journal and the articles written afterwards; there is a gaping sadness, and a despair which is almost palpable. Both her prose and the translation are fluid and beautiful, and throughout, Jacqueline is astute and highly observant of everything around her. She questions herself relentlessly about why people were resigned to standing by and watching, as the whole of Europe was decimated, and much of its Jewish population was murdered before their very eyes.

I always feel incredibly grateful when I come to read a diary, particularly one as illuminating as Mesnil-Amar’s. For me, they provide, by far, the best insight into the author’s present. They record details which may otherwise be lost to the annals of history, or perhaps might not be picked up by future historians. Maman, What Are We Called Now? – something which Mesnil-Amar’s daughter asked her, picking up as she did on the grip of Nazi Germany, and the deportation of friends – is such an important document, and one which is an absolute privilege to read.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Germany

Germany is the third country which I have been lucky enough to visit so far this year.  My boyfriend and I travelled to beautiful Munich at the end of February.  Here are seven books set in Germany which I have loved, and would highly recommend.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) 893136
HERE IS A SMALL FACT:  YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.  Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  SOME MORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION:  THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.  It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.  ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW: DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
2. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.  When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
494653. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004)
For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.  Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.  Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.
4. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008)
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
5. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous (1953) 12238919
For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. The anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject–the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.
6. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)
‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of Offshore comes this unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his fiancee Sophie, newly introduced by Candia McWilliam.The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking?Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, The Blue Flower is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.’
95455457. The End: Germany 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw (2011)
Ian Kershaw’s The End is a gripping, revelatory account of the final months of the Nazi war machine, from the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945.  In almost every major war there comes a point where defeat looms for one side and its rulers cut a deal with the victors, if only in an attempt to save their own skins. In Hitler’s Germany, nothing of this kind happened: in the end the regime had to be stamped out town by town with an almost unprecedented level of brutality.  Just what made Germany keep on fighting? Why did its rulers not cut a deal to save their own skins?  And why did ordinary people continue to obey the Fuhrer’s suicidal orders, with countless Germans executing their own countrymen for desertion or defeatism?

 

Have you read any of these?  Have any made their way onto your to-read list?

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‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962’, edited by Karen V. Kukil *****

‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962’ (Faber & Faber)

Sylvia Plath’s Journals have just been reissued by Faber & Faber.  In this new edition, edited by Karen V. Kukil, the Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College,  ‘an exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath during the last twelve years of her life’ has been included, and ‘there are no omissions, deletions or corrections of Plath’s words in this edition’. Her journals, says Kukil, ‘are characterized by the vigorous immediacy with which she records her inner thoughts and feelings and the intricacies of her daily life’.  She goes on to explain the way in which, ‘Every effort has been made… to give the reader direct access to Sylvia Plath’s actual words without interruption or interpretation’.

The main body of the diary spans from its beginnings in July 1950 to 1959, and the appendices stretch up to 1962, the year in which Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty.  The entirety is unabridged, and has been taken from twenty three original manuscripts in the Sylvia Plath Collection at Smith College in Massachusetts.  They document her ‘student years at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and two years of teaching and writing in New England’.

Journals contains a wealth of new material, all of which was sealed by Hughes until February 2013.  The journals have been split into separate sections, each of which spans a different period in the poet’s life.  Photocopies of her journal pages have been included at the start of every one.  These show the progression of her writing, and are really a lovely touch to add to the wonderful whole.  Two sections of glossy photographs can also be found within the book’s pages.  As one would expect with such a bulk of work, the notes section and index are both extensive.

The first journal, dating from when Plath was just eighteen years old, opens with a poem by Louis MacNeice, and two quotes written by Yeats and Joyce respectively.  The first entry which Plath writes reads like an echo for much of her life: ‘I may never be happy, but tonight I am content’.

Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Cantor, Cape Cod, 1952

Throughout her journals, Plath is so warm, full of vivacity, and strikingly original.  In an entry in the first journal, written in August 1950, she writes: ‘I love people.  Everybody.  I love them; I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection.  Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.  I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.  But I am not omniscient.  I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have’.

Each and every entry is filled to the brim with musings, philosophy, emotions, questions and answers.  Plath is so very honest, and incredibly witty too.  When speaking about a dentist removing her wisdom teeth, she says: ‘The doctor pinned the bib around my neck; I was just about prepared for him to stick an apple in my mouth and strew sprigs of parsley on my head’.  Some of the entries reflect upon her day, and others are small self-contained essays about a veritable plethora of subjects.  Amongst other things, she touches upon such topics as literature, love, communal living, politics and the notion of democracy, and then burrows into each one of them in turn, providing the reader with her insights into and musings of each.  Some of the vignettes included are so very charming.  The following occurred whilst Plath was looking after a family of three children over the summer of 1950:

“Your hair smells nice, Pinny.” I said, sniffing her freshly washed blonde locks.  “It smells like soap.”
“Does my eye?” she asked, wriggling her warm, nightgowned body on my arms.
“Does your eye what?”
“Smell nice?”
“But why should your eye smell nice?”
“I got soap in it,” she explained.

Plath’s writing, as anyone who has read even a single one of her poems will know, is absolutely beautiful.  Her descriptions particularly are gorgeous: ‘The two lights over the front steps were haloed with a hazy nimbus of mist, and strange insects fluttered up against the screen, fragile, wing-thin and blinded, dazed, numbed by the brilliance’, and ‘The air flowed about me like thick molasses, and the shadows from the moon and street lamp split like schizophrenic blue phantoms, grotesque and faintly repetitious’.  Throughout, she makes the everyday entrancing, and notices the positive and beautiful qualities in everything which her words touch upon, however much we may take the element in question for granted in the modern world.  The scenes which she builds are so vivid.

The importance of Plath’s art is prevalent immediately: ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow’.  Poems have been included throughout, all of them placed into the volume in the order in which they first appear in her journals.  It goes without saying that each and every one is perfect, startling and exquisitely crafted.  At times, she provides a fascinating commentary upon her own writing, beautifully analysing her own finely wrought sentences.

Plath was such an intelligent woman, and throughout she writes with such clarity, even in the earliest journal entries.  She both praises and chastises herself and humankind – for example, writing ‘I think I am worthwhile just because I have optical nerves and can try to put down what they perceive.  What a fool!’  There are hints of the growth of her coming depression too.  She writes in 1950, for example, that ‘I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad’.  Plath also continually muses on life and death and the vast chasm between the two, as well as the very notion of existence: ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay is dead and she will never push the dirt from her tomb and see the apple-scented rain in slanting silver lines, never’, and ‘I loved [Antoine de Saint-]

Sylvia Plath’s high school graduation photograph

Exupery; I will read him again, and he will talk to me, not being dead, or gone.  Is that life after death – mind living on paper and flesh living in offspring?’

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a book to be savoured, and is a wonderful companion to the stunning Letters Home, another Faber & Faber must for any fan of the poet.  Both books are sure to delight without a doubt.  In them, Plath provides us with a window into her world, and her journals particularly are written in such a way that it feels as though we as readers are her closest confidantes.  Nothing is hidden from us, and each and every entry drips with verity.  Even the biggest of her fans will learn swathes from reading this beautiful and important book.

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Flash Reviews (8th August 2013)

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
This year, I have been reading my way through The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. My second scheduled play for July was Henry VIII. I was rather skeptical about beginning it, as I had to read Richard III for my studies at school and very much disliked the experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised here. Whilst it isn’t my favourite Shakespearean work by any means, Henry VIII is very well written, as Shakespeare’s plays invariably are. I must admit that I was expecting more to happen, but it was entertaining enough to fill a couple of hours.

The Return of The Soldier by Rebecca West
I very much enjoyed The Fountain Overflows when I read it last year, and couldn’t wait to read more of West’s fiction. I loved the way in which The Return of The Soldier launched straight into the story, and the fact that questions were raised in my mind from the very first page. I adore West’s descriptions, particularly those of her surroundings. She really does use colour and light magnificently. The sense of place and time has been captured wonderfully, as has the passing of years for the characters. She portrays the horrors of war with such startling starkness, and these passages act as a wonderful if horrid contrast to her descriptions. Shell shock and memory loss were captured sensitively, and with such care. Jenny’s narrative voice in this lovely novella was wonderful, and it matched the unfolding story so well. The relationships between characters, and the way in which they shift and adapt with time, have been deftly and believably portrayed. A beautiful novella, and one of the loveliest I’ve ever read.

Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes by Walter de la Mare
April’s love for de la Mare’s poetry has made me consider him amongst my favourite poets, a high accolade indeed. Peacock Pie is an adorable collection, and I wish I had known about it when I was younger, as I imagine that it would have been a firm favourite of mine. De la Mare writes beautifully, and it is clear that he had such admiration for and love of the English language. I love his plays on words and rhyme schemes.

Beatrix Potter: A Holiday Diary, edited by Judy Taylor
My boyfriend and I visited a marvellous bookshop in Cambridge for the first time last Monday. We have been coveting a visit to it for ages, but each time we’ve woven down the little side alley to go there, it has been closed. Imagine my delight last week when we found that not only was it open, and crammed from floor to ceiling with all wonders of new, secondhand and antiquarian books, but that it had an entire shelf of beautiful books by and about Beatrix Potter. This was one of the Potterish purchases I made, the other being a gorgeous hardback of her collected letters. I could happily have bought them all, but I doubt I would have been able to carry them out of the shop, let alone to Jamie Oliver’s restaurant where we had lunch, and then back to the car after more shops had been visited. This volume is slight but extremely sweet, and I love the many pictures throughout. It is a real shame that nobody had thought to edit out the spelling mistakes though – Norman Warne’s name was, in one instance, ‘Normal’, for example. Regardless, I would certainly buy more books published by the Beatrix Potter Society. Even their lovely pastel colours just ooze charm.