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)
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear