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Pity the polymath

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller - review.

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller
Kate Bassett
Oberon Books, 488pp, £20

Jonathan Miller has had an astonishing career, from Footlights and Beyond the Fringe to writing about Freud and Darwin. He wrote for the first issue of the New York Review of Books, edited the BBC arts programme Monitor and presented acclaimed television series about psychology and the history of medicine. One of the most distinguished theatre and opera directors of the past half-century, he has directed Gielgud and Olivier, John Cleese and Plácido Domingo, Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon. Peter Sellers, Alan Bennett and Michael Redgrave appeared in his 1966 TV production of Alice in Wonderland. Miller has won international acclaim, honorary fellowships and a knighthood.

He also has his critics. ITV’s Spitting Image made fun of his range of talents. In one sketch, he performed a liver transplant while simultaneously making calls to the “national opera” and managing a minicab service on the side.

What is most striking about Miller’s career is not just the achievement but the tensions between success and failure. The most fluent of conversationalists and performers, he has struggled with a stammer since his schooldays and with writer’s block through much of his adulthood. His career is full of books never completed, lectures never given, research never completed. Miller had a three-year fellowship at UCL to write a book about mesmerism, the spiritualist movement and the development of neuropsychological theories. It was never completed. “It seems,” said his lifelong friend Oliver Sacks, “that major ambivalences were involved.”

There is something manic about Miller’s creative energy. In the first seven months of 1991, he worked on six new international opera productions. At the same time, he presented two BBC series and managed to fit in a lecture tour of American colleges. And yet he has always been haunted by his father’s deep sense of underachievement. A distinguished analyst and psychiatrist, Emanuel Miller reared up on his deathbed and pronounced his last words: “I’m a flop!” Despite all the achievements in so many fields, his son has the same enduring sense of failure.

This is linked to a third tension: between Miller’s passion for medicine and science and his career in the arts. When he was interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs on Face to Face, he was asked how he would like to be remembered. Miller answered: for one worthwhile scientific article. However much he has achieved in the arts, he feels that he never made it as a great scientist. That was his true vocation, the path not taken.

All of this is documented in Kate Bassett’s new biography. She has done her research: interviewing numerous people who knew and worked with Miller, from school and university friends such as Sacks and Frederic Raphael to neighbours including Bennett and Claire Tomalin. She has read widely and, as a theatre critic, she is at home with his dramatic work. At times – and this is true of whole chapters – the book reads like a scissors-and-paste job, going from one production to another, with just the occasional anecdote to bring the cuttings to life. There are too many typos and errors and several omissions (at least three programmes I produced with Miller are missing from the chronology). The prose can be clunky and gushing.

Yet the biography’s strengths are considerable. Bassett is good on context (whether 1950s Cambridge science or Gloucester Crescent in the 1960s); she brings to life Miller’s schoolboy passion for science; she dutifully chronicles friendships and feuds and has dug up some real gems – in particular, a story by his mother’s friend, Stevie Smith – with fascinating insights into the young Miller. Bassett is thoughtful about the darker side of Miller’s life, from stammering to depression and the workaholic’s chronic fear of holidays. She is also unusually sensitive to questions about his Jewishness and his sense of being an outsider, someone immersed in Englishness but constantly drawn elsewhere.

In Two Minds is a fascinating account, bringing to life both the highs and lows of Miller’s career. Together with David Thompson’s outstanding Arena broadcast earlier this year, it reminds us of the scale of Miller’s talents. He has been one of the great figures of British culture over the past 50 years.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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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