One From The Archive: ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy ****

First published in 2013.

9780142003077I am drawn to stories set during the Second World War, particularly when those stories are involved with survival.  I will read anything to do with this topic, from the diaries of those who hid from captors, to fictional accounts of the ways in which both capture and death could be evaded.  I also love fairytales, and modern day adaptations of old favourites.  I had therefore had my eye upon Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for quite some time, and began it as soon as I had procured a copy.

Throughout, I found the novel incredibly powerful – unsettling so at times.  The sense of place and atmosphere which Murphy built up were truly stunning.  I loved the way in which she transferred the fairytale to a believable historical setting – World War Two in Poland, where two young children – renamed Hansel and Gretel by their father so that they appear to be more German – are left in the woods.  They soon come across the house of an elderly lady named Magda, who is purported to be the town’s ‘witch’.

Throughout, Murphy has successfully brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust back to life, and she describes the struggle for survival which Hansel and Gretel and their new family endure so poignantly.  Each scene, particularly with regard to the darker ones, were incredibly vivid.

The author has created a wonderfully crafted and memorable tale, which I found very difficult to put down.  Murphy’s ideas were so clever throughout, and the original tale woven in so cleverly, that I am hoping she will continue the theme of updating fairytales, making them fit into both our generation and our history.

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Two Reviews: ‘A World Gone Mad’, and ‘What Was Lost’

A World Gone Mad by Astrid Lindgren ****
9781782272311Astrid Lindgren’s wartime diaries, which only became available to the public in 2013, have been translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.  It is fascinating to view the Second World War from the perspective of a housewife – and later an incredibly writer, publishing her beloved Pippi Longstocking close to the war’s end – in a neutral country; thus far, I have largely read accounts like this one from either Western of Eastern Europe, and a Northern perspective was rather refreshing.

It goes without saying that Lindgren writes incredibly well, and the translation has been handled both competently and admiringly.  Many of the entires are rather short, and not every day is covered, but the whole is perhaps all the more compelling for it.  Lindgren discusses what has happened in the wider world at any given time, as well as closer to home; how rationing does not affect the Swedes, for instance, but all she has read from elsewhere is focused upon the shortages of even basic foodstuffs.  A great amount of emphasis is placed upon Scandinavia, and the effects upon it.  Lindgren’s diaries are a real joy to read.


What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn **** 9781906994259
O’Flynn has been on my radar for quite some time.  I was undecided about which book of hers I would begin with, and chose this only because my boyfriend had a copy of it (although he doesn’t know where it came from, it must be said).  From the very beginning, I did like Kate’s character; she intrigued me.  I definitely preferred the sections which included her to those with Lisa and Kate, et al.; whilst in retrospect I can see that they were pivotal to the plot, they failed to come to life for me in quite the same way.  What Was Lost is well written and well pieced together; I’m surprised it’s a novel which hasn’t been more hyped up, if I’m honest.

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‘Survivor’ by Sam Pivnik ****

9781444758399‘Sam Pivnik’s life story is a classic testimony of Holocaust survival. In 1939, on his thirteenth birthday, Sam Pivnik’s life changed forever when the Nazis invaded Poland. He survived the two ghettoes set up in his home town of Bedzin and six months on Auschwitz’s notorious Rampkommando where prisoners were either taken away for entry to the camp or gassing. After this harrowing experience he was sent to work at the brutal Furstengrube mining camp. He could have died on the ‘Death March’ that took him west as the Third Reich collapsed and he was one of only a handful of people who swam to safety when the Royal Air Force sank the prison ship Cap Arcona, in 1945, mistakenly believing it to be carrying fleeing members of the SS. Now in his eighties, Sam Pivnik tells for the first time the story of his life, a true tale of survival against the most extraordinary odds.’

My sister purchased this as a gift for me when she visited Auschwitz back in August.  It is a Holocaust account which I hadn’t heard of before; I do not remember seeing any information about it upon its release, and have come across no reviews on Goodreads or blogs regarding the thoughts of its previous readers.  Regardless, as a History nerd, the premise appealed to me immediately, and I only waited for a couple of weeks before reading it.

Pivnik’s account is thorough, and all the more heartbreaking for it.  Usually with collaborative memoirs like this, I do not usually find that the prose style is quite up to scratch, but here it was refined, and read beautifully.  The prose style is fluid, and very much suits the piece.  Survivor is brutal in places; I expected this to be the case, but some of Pivnik’s descriptions were far more chilling than I had anticipated.

Pivnik’s bravery is paramount to his account; he survived conditions which millions did not.  The very fact that he writes so humbly of his own efforts is extraordinary.  It was astounding to discover how much he went through, and yet still came out of the other side eager to live and contribute.  Survivor is an incredible memoir, which is sure to appeal to those who enjoy reading historical accounts of the Second World War.  There is so much to think about whilst reading, and so much to get choked up about too.  Survivor is an incredibly important book, and one which I wish I had heard about sooner.

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‘The Auschwitz Violin’ by Maria Angels Anglada ***

The history nerd within me is absolutely fascinated by books which take World War Two as their focus, particularly so in instances where fact and fiction have been woven together.  Such is the case in Maria Angels Anglada’s novella, The Auschwitz Violin.  Translated into English by Martha Tennent, it was originally published in Catalan.  Anglada, who died in 1999, was one of the most important figures in Catalonia, as well as one of the region’s most prestigious authors.

The Auschwitz Violin has been on my radar for a number of years, but I was only recently able to find a copy via my local library system.  Standing at just 109 pages, this book is a slim one, but even before beginning, I expected it to pack quite a punch.

Each chapter opens with an authentic document of World War Two; the first of these details the fatal shooting of a Jewish woman along the ghetto border, who is trying to steal turnips from a cart.  The novel proper begins in Krakow in 2001, with a concert musician named Climent, who becomes fascinated by the violin of a fellow player, and wishes to know its origins: ‘When the lesson finished, Regina placed her violin in my hands.  I tried it, and the strings responded to my every appeal. like pliant clay being molded in my hands’.  Her uncle, Daniel, made it, she tells him, to ‘the same measurements as the Stradivarius’.  Regina decides to give Climent photocopies of all of the material which she has collected about the Holocaust, in which the majority of her family were murdered.9781849019811

Throughout, the third person narrative voice has been used to detail Daniel’s story.  He has been imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp, tasked with building a wooden greenhouse, in which ‘Commander Sauckel, a refined but sadistic giant of a man, was determined to cultivate gladioli and camellias’.  Whilst giving his profession as a cabinetmaker, Daniel is actually a luthier, a violin maker.  When we first meet him, he is being harshly whipped for the crime of oversleeping.  Anglada quickly build a picture of the horrific conditions which surround her protagonist, and continually reasserts his place within the camp: ‘No nightmare, he thought, could possibly be worse than the cruelty that surrounded them, pervaded them, as inescapable as the air they breathed’.

As soon as the camp command finds out about Daniel’s true profession, he is told that he has just one day to repair a violin, otherwise he will face grave consequences.  This process of mending also helps to mend him, giving back the humanity which he had been stripped of upon arrival: ‘He was himself once again, not a number, not an object of taunting ridicule.  He was Daniel, a luthier by profession.  At that moment he thought of nothing other than the job at hand and the pride he took in it’.  As one would expect, there is information here which deals with the making of violins, but it does often feel as though it has been rather overdone, and it overshadows other details of the plot.  Some of the scenes which detail Daniel’s craft also tend to be a little long, or rather repetitive.

Anglada details how Daniel comes to rely on those around him in some ways: ‘His fellow inmates – lice-infested, like him, to a greater or lesser degree – provided a warm, familiar reassurance’.  The details which have been written about so simply carry with them a haunting quality: ‘From the ceiling hung corpses and violins’.  There is a flatness to the whole, though, and it is rather too distanced – the fault of the third person perspective, perhaps.

Catalan authors seem to do novellas well, but I must admit that I have a preference for Maria Barbal’s Peirene-published Stone in a Landslide, which I read a couple of months before The Auschwitz Violin.  Whilst it deals with entirely different subject matter, the aforementioned seems to have had a tighter handle both over characters and scenes, and is not so abrupt in some places as The Auschwitz Violin tends to be.  There may be a problem with the translation which takes some of the human element away, and there is a definite lack of emotion here; but nevertheless, the strong story in Anglada’s novella deserves to be read.

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Reading the World: Poland

I have never visited Poland, but I am absolutely fascinated by the country’s history, particularly with regard to its position during the Second World War.  Here are five books which I would highly recommend if you are interested in reading both fiction and non-fiction set within the country.

NB. I am fully aware that this list is incredibly war-oriented; if you have any recommendations for other Polish fiction, or books set within Poland, please do let me know.

  1. Clara’s War by Clara Kramer (Ebury Publishing, 2009) 9780091924416
    ‘On 21 July, 1942, the Nazis took control of the small Polish town of Zolkiew, life for Jewish 15-year-old Clara Kramer was never to be the same again. While those around her were either slaughtered or transported, Clara and her family hid perilously in a hand-dug bunker. Living in the house above and protecting them were the Becks. Mr. Beck was a womaniser, a drunkard and a self-professed anti-Semite, yet he risked his life throughout the war to keep his charges safe.Nevertheless, life with Mr. Beck was far from predictable. From the house catching fire, to Beck’s affair with Clara’s cousin, to the nightly SS drinking sessions in the room just above, Clara’s War transports you into the dark, cramped bunker, and sits you next to the families as they hold their breath time and again. Sixty years later, Clara Kramer has created a memoir that is lyrical, dramatic and heartbreakingly compelling. Despite the worst of circumstances, this is a story full of hope and survival, courage and love.’
  2. Maus I & Maus II by Art Spiegelman (Penguin, 2003)
    ‘”Maus” is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. “Maus” studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.’
  3. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson 9780141399676
    (Penguin, 2o12)
    ‘”22 Britannia Road” by Amanda Hodgkinson is a heartbreaking and powerful novel about wartime secrets and the difficulties of adjusting to postwar life. It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made them a home in Ipswich. However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has criss-crossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help put his own dark past behind him. But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them unless they together confront what they were compelled to do to survive. ‘
  4. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (Jonathan Cape, 1956)
    ‘Although the silver sword was only a paper knife, it became the symbol of hope and courage which kept the Balicki children and their orphan friend Jan alive through the four years of occupation when they had to fend for themselves. And afterwards it inspired them to keep going on the exhausting and dangerous journey from war-torn Poland to Switzerland, where they hoped to find their parents. Based on true accounts, this is a moving story of life during and after the Second World War.’
  5. The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman (1946)
    ‘The powerful and bestselling memoir of a young Jewish pianist who survived the war in Warsaw against all odds. Made into a Bafta and Oscar-winning film.’

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One From the Archive: ‘The Love Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War’ by Lara Feigel ****

The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War is the newest offering from established non-fiction writer Lara Feigel. Here, she has attempted to create ‘a powerful wartime chronicle told through the eyes of five prominent writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green).’ These authors, Feigel states in her introduction, all played their part in the war: ‘Volunteering as ambulance drivers, fire-fighters and ARP wardens, these were the successors to the soldier poets of the First World War, and their story has never been told’. They have been chosen for a very particular reason. All of them, the author of The Love-Charm of Bombs believes, ‘floated dangerously on the futureless present’ when the war began, and ‘their public war work became the backdrop for volatile individual private lives’.

To illustrate this, Feigel has interwoven extracts from the fictional writings of the five writers she has selected, along with their letters and diary extracts. These sit alongside official facts about the Second World War, creating an interlinked book which is part history textbook, part biography and part literary criticism. Along with writing about the war as it was experienced in England’s capital, Feigel has also embraced ‘post-war Vienna and Berlin’. The book is split into six parts, each of which provides a chronological picture of the war, beginning with the Blitz and ending with accounts of the lives of each of the authors in the post-war years.

Feigel’s introduction sets the scene immediately: ‘… And then the sirens will start wailing, as they have wailed every evening for the last two and a half weeks, and another night of bombing will begin’. She has chosen to begin her narrative in the midst of the Blitz, the physical beginnings of the Second World War for British civilians. The first figure she describes is that of the ‘imposing’ Elizabeth Bowen as she surveys the city below her home, ‘strong-backed and long-necked’. The war, states Feigel, provides a situation through which Bowen can excel, not just as a writer, but in her role as an ARP warden: ‘She has found a home in wartime London and she paces the blacked-out streets with a vigorous certainty’.

The author then moves geographically from one writer to the next: ‘A few streets south’ of Elizabeth Bowen’s residence is ambulance driver Rose Macaulay, ‘who is finding the intensity of wartime London more sad than exhilarating’. Henry Yorke works ‘just around the corner from Macaulay’ as an auxiliary fireman, and is ‘enjoying the Blitz… pleased to be a hero at last’. Graham Greene works nearby at the Ministry of Information and in his nightly shifts as an ARP warden, and Austrian writer Hilde Spiel, who fears yet ‘another wakeful night at home’ in light of the air raids is a resident of Wimbledon. An informative map has been included to illustrate the locations of these authors.

‘Bowen, Green, Macaulay and Yorke were participants rather than witnesses [in the war], risking death, night after night, in defence of their city’, Feigel tells us. These writers are all separate from one another – they did not make up a set of literary friends akin to the Bloomsbury Group, for example – but all are linked, both through friendships and mutual acquaintances within the writing world. Spiel is the only one of Feigel’s authors who is not in the same position as the others. Although she went on to translate the works of Bowen and Greene into German after the Second World War, Spiel has been included as ‘a counterpoint to the more exalted lives of the other four protagonists: a reminder of the gloomy and often horrific reality of the war years’. Such a decision is an interesting one to make, particularly as Spiel herself seems so far removed from the others in the book. The chapters which focus on her feel entirely separate, whereas those which focus on the other authors link into one another rather nicely.

From the outset, The Love-Charm of Bombs is historically and geographically grounded, and the author has set the scene incredibly well. She has interspersed her own writing and original sources from the five authors which she focuses on with quotes from prominent writers of the day – Harold Nicolson and Virginia Woolf being prime examples. She presents each of the writers in a glowing light, explaining their origins and following their decisions and life stories in minute detail at times. She describes their circumstances, their privileges, their turmoil and their relationships. Throughout, we also learn about the ‘liberating effects of war for women’, the fascination of doing one’s utmost for the war effort, the camaraderie within air raid shelters, the uniforms and duties of wardens and the like, and ways of avoiding conscription into the Army. Feigel has also illustrated the ways in which wartime experiences have impacted upon the fiction of each of her writers, and how they used their own day-to-day lives to craft harrowing stories.

The lives of the female authors whom Feigel has focused on are far more interesting than the lives of her men. There was something entirely endearing about her portrayals of Bowen, Macaulay and Spiel, but the sections which detail the lives of Greene and Yorke lack the same sparkle.

The book certainly contains a lot of material, but it is written in such a way – almost with a fictional third person perspective style of narrative voice – that it does not at any point feel overwhelming. Feigel has done well to create such a multi-layered biography of five very different wartime experiences, and The Love-Charm of Bombs has evidently been meticulously researched, a fact which is evident from the extensive pages of notes and bibliography alone. Photographs have been included throughout to better illustrate points, and the majority relate incredibly well to the text which surrounds them. The only downside to the text is that it does begin to feel rather repetitive at times, and the same details are often written about several times within the space of just a few pages. It is perhaps a little long on the whole, but it is well pieced together, and Feigel certainly cannot be faulted on her marvellous research.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’ by Elsa Triolet ****

First published in April 2014.

I had been looking forward to reading Elsa Triolet’s A Fine of Two Hundred Francs for several years before I finally purchased a copy.  What could be better than a book of short stories which appears on the Virago Modern Classics list, all of which are set within the French Resistance movement during the Second World War?  Triolet herself was part of the revolutionary Russian Futurist movement, and was awarded the Prix Goncourt for this book.  She was also decorated as a heroine of the French Resistance in 1945.  The entirely important stories within A Fine of Two Hundred Francs were first published illegally by underground presses in France, and according to their blurb, they provide ‘… a moving and shocking testament to the courage of those caught up by the nightmare of war’.

Four stories in total appear in this volume – ‘The Lovers of Avignon’, ‘The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky, Painter’, ‘Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree’, and ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’.  Each story is more like a novella, really.  I must admit that I skipped Helena Lewis’ introduction, as it did give quite a lot of the plot of the first story away, and I wanted more than anything to be surprised by the tales.

Regardless, Lewis does set out the way in which Triolet has chosen an interesting choice of settings and subjects.  In ‘The Lovers of Avignon’, it is 1942, and we meet Juliette Noel, who is working for the Resistance during the winter, trudging from one farm to the next to find places in which those she is helping will be able to stay.  In ‘The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky, Painter’, a Jewish artist has to conceal his religion, lest he be set upon, or have to face the cruel consequences of his people.  ‘Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree’ tells the story of an escaped woman in hiding, who seeks a safe house in which to live out the remainder of the war.  ‘A Fine of Two Hundred Francs’ wonderfully highlights the tensions which prevail in situations of such strain.

Each of the stories is as strong as the next, and they make a wonderful and thought-provoking collection.  So much consideration has clearly been woven into each, and each story is full bodied and well realised in consequence.  Interlinked details and characters meander from one story to the next, and this helps the book to be a coherent, almost novelistic, volume, which simply cannot be put down.  Triolet is gifted at using differing narrative perspectives, and has such grasp of the little details which make stories so memorable.

The details which Triolet injects into her stories are both thoughtful and startling, and the sense of place is marvellously wrought: ‘All night the rats did an infernal dance’, the fallen snow is ‘beautiful like fragile lacework’, and the slopes of mountains look like ‘badly shaven cheeks, dark and wrinkled’, for example.  She writes beautifully, and her characterisation is exquisite throughout.  She is so perceptive of each of her protagonists, and describes their thoughts and feelings with such clarity, as though she herself is living within them and experiencing everything which they do, making them feel wonderfully fleshed out.

It is so important that books like A Fine of Two Hundred Francs are read and considered.  The tales which they tell do not deserve to be forgotten, and I was surprised to discover that this volume is currently out of print.  Whilst we wait hopefully for a Virago reissue, I can only suggest that AbeBooks, libraries and secondhand bookshops are scoured for this wonderful volume.