On the threshold of the air – the songs of Viktor Ullmann

Coming soon at the Inside Out Festival.

For obvious reasons, there is very little art that was created by the persecuted during the years of the Holocaust: Miklós Radnóti’s  poems, taken from the pocket of his coat as his body lay in a mass grave; Charlotte Salomon’s paintings; Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française, unread in notebooks for a lifetime; works from ghettos, hidden or buried in milk churns. Another of these very rare exceptions is the composer Victor Ullmann, held in Theresienstadt and murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Some of his songs are to be performed at the Inside Out Festival at St John’s Waterloo on 23 October, and his opera, The Emperor of Atlantis composed in Theresienstadt, is currently in London, performed by the English Touring Opera company. I was lucky enough to see a full dress rehearsal.

Born in 1898, Victor Ullmann was Jewish by the "Nuremburg Laws", although his family had converted to Catholicism before he was born and his father had served in the Austro-Hungarian army. Musically very talented, Ullmann studied Schönberg with after serving in the First World War, and later worked as conductor. After 1933 he worked as a music teacher and journalist in Prague.  He was deported to Theresienstadt in the autumn of 1942, where he was able to play, compose and organise musical events. He was murdered by gas two years later.

The Emperor of Atlantis is a strange, short opera. The Emperor plans a total war, and demands Death leads his armies. Death will not, and, insulted, refuses to carry on his role as Death. This means the tortured, aged and morally ill do not die. Soldiers cannot fight: indeed, in the opera, one shoots another and he simply gets up. Instead they fall in love. Finally, Death agrees to return only if the Emperor is his first victim. The Emperor will not accept this but then, thinking on the suffering that not dying creates, changes his mind, and accompanies Death. Musically, the work seems to reference the whole of German music from Bach – the production begins with Bach's cantata "Christ Lag" – through to Schönberg, and takes in jazz and music hall, too.

But perhaps what is most striking (to a non-opera buff like me) is its difference from other, postwar Holocaust art to simplify, perhaps too much. Much Holocaust literature, film and art by survivors stresses the lack of redemption: the terrible dream, which Primo Levi discusses at the end of his account, is of waking up back in the camp, as if liberation had never happened. Much (arguably less good) art about the Holocaust seems to strive for a sort of redemption: Schindler’s list, for all its many praiseworthy qualities, is a story of survival and redemption (Schindler’s, the people he saves) in the midst of genocide. The Emperor of Atlantis seems suspended between – or, more accurately, before - these two alternatives. It neither offers redemption nor collapses into despair.

The Emperor himself, the subject of the opera, is a sign of this. At first, he is a monster, ruling his empire with no human contact, communicating solely by telephone. (Anyone outside the polis is, Aristotle points out, either “a beast or a God”: the Emperor fancies himself the latter but is clearly the former). It is the figure of the Emperor, taken as a satire of Hitler, which caused the Nazis to ban the opera in Theresienstadt. But as the opera goes on, he seems to me more complex and sympathetic: not at all a Hitler. He is more of a Wotan figure, caught in a machine both of his own making and beyond his control. And yet, that he sacrifices himself for his people is both hopeful for the future (a sign of redemption) and at the same time echoes one of the Nazis most powerful myths (Hitler as Christ saving the German people).

Similarly, the magic realism of the piece (brilliantly brought out in the current production) on the one hand makes it a sophisticated fairy tale; on the other, magical realism  is often a powerful way of engaging with oppression and persecution (as Bulgakov’s The Master and Margareta shows). Again, it is only really in recent years that this way of writing or art-making has been applied to the Holocaust (and sometimes less successfully).  

And the very "German-ness" of the music is interesting. Postwar artists and writers often found the whole of German culture – and the whole of western culture – infected with the Holocaust and tried to forge new ways of meaning, to create new languages. In contrast, The Emperor of Atlantis revels in these forms, using and reusing them. It is because of this, perhaps, that the astonishingly beautiful and moving "Christ Lag" which prefaces the opera does not seem so out of place. Thematically, this very Christian account of Christ’s resurrection might seem inappropriate for an Opera that we can now see as addressing a catastrophe imposed on the Jews: but musically it works. More, perhaps, the production asks us to reflect on the Bach and on questions of the corruptibility of even the most beautiful moments of culture.

Paula Sides and Jonathan Gale perform songs of Victor Ullmann as part of the Inside Out Festival.  For more information and to book, click here.

Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. He works on contemporary literature and philosophy, and in Holocaust and Genocide studies. He is Deputy Director of the Holocaust Research Centre there.

Richard Mosley-Evans (right) as the emperor (Photo: Richard Hubert-Smith)
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism