Silent vision

Old Man Goya

Julia Blackburn <em>Jonathan Cape, 260pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0224062794

In his recent exploration of the art of biography, Works on Paper, Michael Holroyd points out: "The biographer wants the best of both worlds - the artistic freedom to invent and the reliance on the authenticated fact." Perhaps it's the impulse, conscious or unconscious, in many biographers to refute this charge that has led to biographies putting on so much weight in recent years. The fatter the better seems to be the thinking of both biographers and publishers. The factier the better. A biography of fewer than 400 pages is extremely rare today.

So even before one has opened this portrait of Francisco de Goya, Julia Blackburn is to be congratulated, simply for having produced a book that can be comfortably read anywhere. Blackburn has approached her subject with humility and curiosity, and her exquisite portrayal of Goya's life and work reads like an extended love letter, full of intimacy and tenderness.

Halfway through a long and eventful life, at the age of 47, Goya contracted a serious illness that very nearly killed him, and left him stone deaf. Unlike Beethoven, who could still hear sounds if he clenched a stick between his teeth and rested the other end directly on the piano top, Goya could hear nothing at all. The inner ear had been destroyed. It is not clear what caused this illness. It may have been a form of Meniere's disease, or lead poisoning from the white base-paint he used - but in any case, it led to a dramatic and irreversible exclusion from the world of sound that lasted until his death 35 years later.

Blackburn is fascinated by the impact of Goya's deafness on his work as an artist, and she makes a persuasive case that it was integral to the flourishing of Goya's visual genius: "Before his illness, he had said how much he longed to have quiet, to be left alone, free to get on with the work that pleased him. And now his wish had been granted with a terrible precision." Blackburn interweaves descriptions of Goya's prodigious output of etchings (many of which are powerfully reproduced here), paintings and drawings with her retelling of his life, so that each continually illuminates the other.

Old Man Goya is not a conventional biography, but it is certainly a successful marriage of "artistic freedom" and "authenticated fact". Blackburn writes with a novelist's eye, not as a historian. She is far less interested in plotting exact chronologies than in entering imaginatively into Goya's experience of deafness and intense sight, which she does with great skill. She shows him waking from a nightmare and realising that he's been screaming because his throat is sore. She describes him easily startled by the way people "erupt into view as if they've dropped from the sky". She imagines him almost killed by a passing cart that he hasn't heard coming. At the same time, she applies layer after layer of dense visual detail to overwhelm the silence.

Blackburn's evocation of the brutality of the fighting that raged between France and Spain from 1807 to 1812, which inspired Goya's series of etchings The Disasters of War, is deeply shocking (and a sharp reminder that modern warfare in all its awfulness is not so very modern). "This was a war that went on long enough for soldiers to fight in fields where the ground was already covered with human bones from an earlier battle. For them to try to dig pits to bury their dead, only to find the earth already full of corpses. The soldiers raped the women and girls they found hiding in the houses, and then killed them afterwards to wipe out the memory of what had been done."

Ordinary street life fascinated Goya, too, and Blackburn's narrative is full of quirkiness, comedy and absurdity. She leaves us in no doubt about Goya's insatiable appetite for humanity, in all its grotesquery. At 78, living in Bordeaux with his mistress Leocadia and his illegitimate ten-year-old daughter, he was still "taking a lively interest in circus animals, acrobats and monsters".

Leocadia, 42 years younger than Goya, lived as his common-law wife for more than 15 years, and tended him through his final illness. The despicable way in which she was treated after his death by Javier, Goya's son from his first marriage, is yet another engaging story in Blackburn's elegant and moving narrative.

Rebecca Abrams's most recent book is Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush (Cassell)

This article first appeared in the 22 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Who <I>really</I> downed the twin towers?

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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