Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Carl Watkins and Cheryl Strayed.

The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

This biography of the contentious Gabriele d’Annunzio is not the first to be written. D'Annunzio, who still sparks widespread controversy despite his death occurring over 80 years ago, is recognised as a ‘literary superstar’, remembered as "a kind of 'John the Baptist' to Benito Mussolini", and a "soft pornographer", or "at best a dilettante of sensation". Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of "the Italian novelist, poet, politician, warmonger and womaniser" divides the critics.

Writing in the Financial Times, Ian Thomson is impressed with the memoir which occupies an “already crowded field”. But this, Thomson claims, does not deter her success in creating a “hugely enjoyable” read. She does not glorify her subject; although handing him his necessary due, she effectively reduces the poet to “normal, weak human, and puts him, in some way, back in his box”. Thomson notes that the book has an air of eccentricity about it; failing to read chronologically with the diction described as “unusual, combining esoteric terms for which I had to resort to the dictionary with a smattering of f- and c-words”. The reviewer compliments Hughes-Hallett’s ability to encapsulate an era or attitude “with an arresting one-liner”; “For the belligerent d’Annunzio, ‘writing was a martial art’. In his life ‘the cult of beauty took the place of morality’”. A captivating read, Thomson concludes that the speed with which he “flew” through the book indicates just “how pleasurable, and readable, those pages were”.

Tobias Jones in the Sunday Times was not so enamoured. Jones sees in the nonsequential order of The Pike evidence of “narrative disarray”, with a subtext of exasperation at the chronology “leaping backwards and forwards”. What were "arresting one-liners" for Thomson are unfortunate clichés for Jones, who claims that the author was excessively influenced by her notorious subject, writing the biography with an artificial “desire to shock”. Perhaps Jones’s quandary is that d’Annunzio’s life, which he describes himself as “a spectacle: he wrote prolifically, and promoted himself fanatically, even once faking his death to increase publicity”, speaks for itself. Hughes-Hallett has, in Jones’s opinion, created “a serviceable biography” – and not much more.

The Telegraph’s review, by Jonathan Keates, falls somewhere in the middle. He commends the author for the “courage” it took to write a biography such as this, and insists that the book “ranges wider than the cradle-to-grave chronicle”. He certainly feels this book has impact – “its subject is so emphatically and relentlessly unimproving that several readers…might fancy a cold bath or a jog around the park” – but whether this is down to Hughes-Hallett’s writing or the strength of d’Annunzio’s character and story, Keates does not hint.

The Pike will be reviewed in the New Statesman's forthcoming history books special.


The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead by Carl Watkins

To Guardian reviewer Iain Sinclair, there is no better time than the New Year to examine our relationship with the afterlife and “kick free of the embrace of our inconvenient predecessors.” The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead by historian Carl Watkins records Britain’s attitudes to death from the Middle Ages up to the present day, from ghosts and folklore to the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.

Sinclair praises the book as a “voyage through time, by way of legends, brief biographies, and character sketches” led by “one of those rare guides who never overstays his welcome.” He praises Watkins for wearing “his research lightly as he journeys around the British landscape, teasing out themes and cultural shifts from the particulars of individual lives.”

To Peter Stanford in the Telegraph, the book’s “eye for detail provides a feast of illuminating stories to resurrect the religious mindset of those in the pews 500 years ago.” He lauds the book’s “tip-top”, “bottom up” approach for exposing the“yawning gap between the theory and the practice of institutional religion.” According to Stanford, “Watkins takes one story and then explores its wider ramifications in national, theological, cultural and political contexts.” This means that at times “his range is so wide that you risk losing sight of his main argument” Watkins brings the book to a sound conclusion, “a final reckoning where he can set out his stall.” Stanford agrees with Watkins that attitudes to death have suffered from the decline of religion, “without some sort of faith context, we don’t quite know how to discuss the subject.”

For Roger Clarke, writing in the Independent, Watkins is “at its best with his medieval specialisation.” “Better on aesthetics than social change,” argues Clarke, “Watkins is least comfortable when venturing into the more modern world of the séance or discussing proto-socialists such as Robert Owen and David Richmond.”

“For the medieval mind, death was something that haunted every moment of life,” writes Clarke. “By contrast, our modern sensibility is to go on for as long as possible as if we are immortal, leaving any thought of death and what (if anything) lies beyond until our very last breath.”


Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

After losing her mother prematurely to lung cancer, and having been deserted by her estranged father years before, Cheryl Strayed found herself burying her grief with a reliance on heroin and casual sex, eventually destroying her marriage. This book, written almost 20 years after the events it describes, sees Strayed reliving the journey that released her from despair. For three months she hiked 1,100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail, across nine mountain ranges from Mexico to Canada. She did it, in her words, “in order to save myself". 

Daneet Steffens, reviewing Wild for the Independent, describes this memoir as “a funny and fierce tale”. Her “in-your-face narration is completely immersive; a dynamic reading sensation that belies the fact that these events are two decades old”. Strayed’s courage is continuously admired, “she banishes any fear of potential dangers: ‘nothing bad could happen to me…The worst thing already had.’” Steffens finds  the book’s narrative pace  “pleasurably urgent”, matching the author's journey. 

The Guardian's review is similarly favourable. Sara Wheeler calls labels this a “hugely entertaining book”, but one that shows itself to surpass the clichés of the genre it finds itself in, “Cheryl Strayed takes the redemptive nature of travel – a theme as old as literature itself – and makes it her own”. Wheeler praises this “unusual” author for the way she tackles sex, “one of the last taboos in women's travel writing”. It is a theme the author  addresses unabashedly: “men are sized up as soon as they walk into the campsite and on to the page”. 

Olivia Laing, writing in the New Statesman, completes a trio of approving reviews. She deems the book “both touching and instructive”, because “[Strayed's] take is utterly sincere”. 

A monument marking the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, which Cheryl Strayed documents in her book. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis