Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jared Diamond, Lara Feigel and Marco Roth.

The Love Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

Lara Feigel’s reinvention of biographical writing breathes danger, excitement and passion into wartime London. Interweaving letters, diaries, fiction and civil defence records, The Love Charm of Bombs traces the restless, crossing paths of five writers – Graham Green, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke, Elizabeth Bowen and Hilde Spiel – as their proximity to death brings with it an aphrodisiacal consciousness of being alive.

Much like the shattering effects of the Blitz, Feigel’s work has divided critics. Nicholas Shakespeare’s review for the Telegraph praises The Love Charm of Bombs as “intelligently written, seamlessly presented and with something of the quality of a tapestry.” Yet he laments its wandering conclusion: “it might have packed more punch had it broken off with the all-clear siren and not followed her disparate group into the slow, grey post-war years.”

Craig Brown applauds the book’s ability to capture the “strange euphoria of war”. Like Shakespeare, however, he criticises its “bitty”, sprawling nature. Writing in the Daily Mail, Brown said that the five writers rarely come together and remain distanced from the public “almost as if they were members of a different race”. Feigel’s diligent provision of lengthy synopses are also “unnecessary to those who have read them and meaningless to those who have not.”

The New Statesman’s John Sutherland welcomes Feigel’s innovative remoulding of biography into “life writing”. The author, a lecturer in English and Medical Humanities at King’s College, London, “has written a wonderful book in a critical genre in which she is a pioneer.” Sutherland’s review focuses on the “metropolitan orgasm” in literary London and the way in which war stimulated culture, as seen among Feigel’s chosen writers. “Like slow bruises, great fiction emerged (love stories, most of them) in the postwar, post coital years.” Remarking on the dawn of “new biography” he adds: “Let’s hope they are as good as this one.”

 
The Scientists by Marco Roth

This memoir by Marco Roth details his adolescence, growing up in New York as the only child of members of the "liberal Jewish elite". But his father, a hematologist, had AIDS; the book charts Roth’s discovery of the real reason for the existence of his "microscopic sibling HIV". The Scientists will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Tim Adams, writing in the Observer, notes that “The Scientists seems an odd title for such a literary quest”; with connotations of order and process, this book “departs from any such rational scheme in favour of the more chaotic and obsessive, hopelessly self-absorbed stuff of his life”. The author’s prose, he says, is “effortlessly erudite and often startlingly precise. He writes beautifully.” However, this “compulsive memoir” is in Adams’s opinion also tinged with a hint of desperation; perhaps the pressure of success from his social standing, or the urgency with which Roth was “born, or doomed” to write this book.

Publisher’s Weekly also admires Marco Roth for documenting the “silence and shame” he grew up with, having such a socially respected father who suffered from AIDS. The sense of this memoir being a necessary eruption for the author is also captured in this review, with its description as “powerfully forlorn”, it is deemed “a ferocious literary exercise in rage, despair, and artistic self-invention.”

Jessica Winter’s review of The Scientists, in The New York Times, delves into the journey of self-discovery Roth endured whilst writing his memoir. Roth’s aunt, Anne Roiphe, had previously written a book which strongly suggested that Marco’s father has been homosexual, and that he may have contracted AIDS “in the more usual way”. “This quasi revelation," Winter writes, "required a recasting of his own identity - if his aunt’s assumption was correct, he writes, ‘then my own existence was like a prop, a decoy to throw off nosy people like Anne’”. It may be because of this that Winter finds the tone of the book “intensely private” in the sense that Roth does not venture into any of the social, political or cultural debates surrounding the topic of AIDS. Winter notes Roth’s “almost paralytic analysis . . . a compulsion to perform an autopsy on the smallest event, exchange or artefact”. But it might be this, she suggests, that gives The Scientists its peculiar power.


The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

Variously described as a biogeographer, evolutionary biologist, psychologist, ornithologist and physiologist, Jared Diamond bridges the gulf between primitive society and modernity in The World Until Yesterday. Picking up from the theory of environmental determinism he introduced in Guns, Germs and Steel, the author argues that traditional societies still have something to teach us.

Soon to be reviewed by the New Statesman, the book has been both praised and condemned.

The Telegraph’s Tom Payne was “riveted by the thought-provoking study”, though remained unconvinced by the some of its central arguments. “I put this book down not completely convinced that I could incorporate many of its teachings into my life,” he said. “But it did leave me riveted, thinking hard and, I dare say, [commenting on the New Guinean’s child-rearing practices] a bit less begrudging of bed space if someone wakes up crying with a cold tonight.”

In an exhaustive review that surveys anthropological ideas, Wade Davis endorsed the spirit but not the execution and conclusion of The World Until Yesterday. Reviewing the book in the Guardian, Davis argues that Diamond’s narrow focus on environmental determinism overlooks the importance of ideas. The author’s observations are “original” and “wise”, but his conclusions are “uninspired and self-evident”: “One could be forgiven for concluding that traditional societies have little more to teach us save that we should embrace healthier diets, include grandparents in child rearing, learn a second language, seek reconciliation not retribution in divorce proceedings, and eat less salt.” Diamond is praised for his New Guinean studies. However, his “limited” experience and research elsewhere means that “a book of great promise reads as a compendium of the obvious, ethnology by anecdote.”

By contrast, Peter Forbes's review in The Independent praises Diamond’s recalibration of primitive history: “Jared Diamond is one of the few people who have changed the way we see human nature and our history.... he has formulated some very powerful ideas that counter our habitual arrogance.” Forbes, too, remarks Diamond’s bias towards New Guinea, “the region and the people he loves”.

17 August 1939: Members of the 3rd Women's Territorial Service, leaving Croydon station for their fortnight's training under canvas, kiss their husbands and boyfriends goodbye. (Getty Images)
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What can a new book of Holocaust testimony tell us about the Third Reich?

Laurence Rees has probably interviewed more people who lived through the Holocaust than anybody else.

“The first authoritative and accessible account of the Holocaust in three decades”, proclaims the publisher’s blurb about this book. But wasn’t Saul Friedländer’s prizewinning classic Nazi Germany and the Jews (in two volumes, in 1997 and 2007) authoritative and accessible? Perhaps the publishers think that Final Solution, the thousand-page epic published posthumously less than a year ago by the late, highly readable historian David Cesarani, wasn’t authoritative? Or maybe Peter Longerich’s Holocaust (2010), which nobody could reasonably say wasn’t authoritative, in some way wasn’t accessible?

These are not the only serious and approachable accounts of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews between 1939 and 1945. The Holocaust is one of the most intensively studied subjects in history and the publishers are misleading potential readers when they imply that somehow it isn’t.

What new insights and material does Laurence Rees bring to the table? Rees made his name in the 1990s as a television producer, making numerous outstanding programmes. He was editor of Timewatch, the BBC’s flagship series of historical documentaries, and then became head of history at the BBC while continuing to produce his own programmes, including The Nazis: a Warning from History (1997) and Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution (2005). These and other programmes were notable for their depth of research, their accuracy and their awareness of the latest thinking by specialists on the topics they covered. Rees has won numerous accolades for his work, including a Bafta and two Emmys. He has done more than anyone else to raise the standard of historical documentaries and to spread to a wide audience in a gripping fashion the findings of academic research, above all on the Nazis.

But he grew dissatisfied with television’s insatiable demand for new methods and perspectives. In 2008, he resigned from the BBC to set up a multimedia website about the Second World War, although he returned to television work with his independent company, with programmes such as The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler and Touched by Auschwitz. One hopes that he will continue making documentaries for many more years.

Rees has accompanied a number of his television documentaries with products of an even more traditional character: books. Auschwitz: the Nazis and the “Final Solution” (2005), a tie-in with his television series of the same name, became a bestseller. Like his others books, The Holocaust reads rather like a television programme put down on paper in an expanded but, in essence, unaltered form. The text is a kind of voice-over, written in plain and simple language that often verges on banality.

Television documentaries depend above all on visual images. The room they leave for spoken words is very limited; hence the need for simplicity and concision. However, a book of more than 500 pages demands a different kind of approach – the employment of stylistic grace of the sort that one finds in Friedländer’s magnificent volumes – and it is notable by its absence here.

Among Rees’s great virtues as a producer of documentaries about the Nazis were the assiduity and ingenuity that he displayed in searching out eyewitnesses and persuading them to speak to the recording camera. Often their testimony was gripping, moving and disturbing. Who can forget the blank denial of an elderly German woman confronted by Rees’s team with a denunciation that she had written to the Nazi authorities at the age of 20, reporting the “suspicious behaviour” of a neighbour who failed to give the Nazi salute and seemed to have a Jewish friend? The Gestapo always investigated letters such as this, and all too frequently the story ended with the arrest of the person denounced and their imprisonment and even death.

Over the years, Rees has probably interviewed more people who lived through the Third Reich than anybody else. For the television series he produced, hundreds of interviews had to be boiled down to a few fairly short excerpts. In The Holocaust: A New History, he presents a further, much more generous selection, marking it as “previously unpublished testimony”. Thus the book reproduces the documentary format of interviews linked by commentary.

Much of this testimony presents detailed evidence of the sufferings of the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism across Europe. Rees quotes at length an interview with a Frenchwoman who was taken with her family at the age of nine by French police as part of a round-up of Parisian Jews in 1942. They were kept in appalling conditions at a holding camp in Beaune-la-Rolande, south of Paris, and then their mothers were taken away, to be murdered at Auschwitz, although the children did not know their fate.

Among the graphic details supplied in the narrative, the interviewee describes how suddenly the children went to the camp latrine, and said, “Oh, come look, come look” – at the bottom, mixed with the excrement, there were many brilliant, shiny things. They were wedding rings that the mothers, having been told to surrender all their jewellery, had preferred to throw away rather than give up. Her father, who was away at the time of the raids, eventually succeeded in using bribery to free the girl.

At a Nazi death camp, one former prisoner interviewed by Rees had escaped immediate gassing by following the cryptic advice of one of the inmates: “Say you’re a carpenter.” He quickly learned the trade on the job and describes how when the women arriving at the camp had their heads shaved, they “gained hope, for if they are going to have their hair cut, it means there is going to be some life after . . . for hygiene is necessary in a camp”.

The interviewees provide vivid descriptions of the horror of the evacuation of the camps as the Red Army approached, with the SS shooting anyone on the “death marches” who failed to keep up. One interviewee, whose job was to sort the clothes of murdered Jews, remembered: “When I marched out of the camp . . . I was very well dressed. I had a Russian hat, a fur hat, with a heavy coat, and good shoes. And the only thing is, I don’t know what made me do it, but I had my pockets full of lumps of sugar. Why I did it, I don’t know – other people took meat. The sugar and the snow [mixed together], I survived because of that.” Often Rees’s subjects evoke the state of mind they were in at the time, ranging from dull despair to terror, while those forced to help the SS suppressed their feelings in order to survive.

All of this is effective and often it is powerful. The question to ask, however, is whether relying so heavily on such testimonies is the right way to go about putting together a book, as opposed to a television series, on the Holocaust. There is no denying that the interview material on which Rees focuses is largely compelling, always illuminating and on occasion very moving, and Rees and his team clearly took great care to sift it for inaccuracies. Taken as a whole, it adds considerably to the detailed picture we already have of the Nazi persecution and extermination of the Jews. Still, it gives the book a rather partial character. This is not a complete history of the Holocaust and much of the most compelling evidence is left out because we have read it somewhere before.

Rees does incorporate written material in some quantity but he nonetheless privileges his interview material because, as he argues, when you talk to the people who lived through it, the history still lives. That is the view of the television producer; for a historian who spends almost all of his or her time ploughing through mountains of documents, history lives through the written word far more than it lives through interviews, because the written word can have the immediacy that comes from being contemporary, rather than being passed through the sieve of decades-old memory.

In its narrative structure, this is a fairly conventional chronological account of Nazi anti-Semitism. The first eight of the book’s 18 chapters describe the origins and spread of anti-Semitism in Germany and its consequences in practice once the Nazis assumed power. It is noticeable here that there is an overwhelming focus on Hitler, who is portrayed as almost the sole driving force in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. It’s a pity that Rees didn’t devote more attention to other leading anti-Semites in the Nazi leadership, from Goebbels to Alfred Rosenberg, or to the question, much debated and researched in recent years, of how far and in what way the Nazis’ hatred of Jews was shared by the bulk of the German population.

Persecution slid into murder in a process that Rees correctly portrays as occurring in stages and linked to Nazi plans for the creation of a new racial order in Europe that involved the murder by starvation and unchecked disease of millions of “Slavs”, “Gypsies” and other supposed racial undesirables. At this point, Hitler becomes much less prominent in the narrative, in a way that is surprising given his centrality in the first half of the book. Perhaps this is inevitable, in the light of Rees’s admirable determination to range across the whole of Nazi-dominated Europe, taking in the persecution and murder of Jews from Belgium to Belarus, but it again throws into relief his relatively narrow focus on Hitler earlier on.

The late David Cesarani deliberately extended his narrative of what the Nazis called the “final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe” – a “problem” that was entirely of their own making and a “solution” that was a euphemism for brutal, unrelenting extermination – beyond the end of the war, up to 1949, because, he argued, the suffering of the Jews did not end with the collapse of the Third Reich but continued in displaced persons’ camps and in what remained of Jewish communities in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Rees stops abruptly in 1945, however, and we don’t learn enough about what came after.

This isn’t, therefore, the best book about the Holocaust, nor is it the first authoritative and readable account in decades, but it does add to the mass of testimony and evidence accumulated by other historians. Like all of Rees’s work, it is accurate and carefully researched, and the combination of a clear, simple style and powerful transcripts will ensure it a wide readership.

Ironically, in view of the scepticism that led its author to abandon his job in television because he thought that the future lay with the World Wide Web, it is perhaps a history not for the internet but for the television age.

Richard J Evans’s books include “The Third Reich in History and Memory” (Abacus) and “The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge