|‹‹ History, publishers & vandals||The Light of May ››|
It can be better
28 April 2008 - 14:59 - #sticky
Jonathan Sachs, Britain’s chief rabbi, was on the radio Friday because it was Passover this weekend. Everybody in Europe listens when Rabbi Sachs speaks. Passover, he was saying, is a moment when we should bow our selfish heads and listen to the children. Passover is when God passed over our own heads and saved the children of those who professed faith. It is, par excellence, the children’s festival. It is not a time for forgetting, but a grand occasion for parents to tell the stories of our past. The children should be laughing, giggling and squealing with pleasure, for they are the ones who are going to be telling the same delightful stories to the end of this century. But, said Sachs, four million children in Britain are living in poverty; they don’t have the parents to talk to them. Sachs is not somebody to dwell on such figures without reflecting on the spiritual poverty in which so many of our children now live. British children spend an average of 40 hours a week in front of a screen of one sort or another – I would have thought it was much longer! — while their fathers spend only 35 minutes a week talking to them. Judaism has lasted 3,300 years because the fathers spoke to the children; they passed over the stories their fathers told. That is the real reason they call it ’Passover’. Do we, arrogant contemporary men, pass over anything?
Last Tuesday I was sitting with Michael Taylor in a café in one of the prettiest quarters of Paris. We were surveying the cultural blight about us. Michael, a quietly spoken American, has spent his entire life in France, apart from his university years – a true citizen of the world, who can tell you a thing or two about its enchantments, and its troubles. He has just published a lovely book about Rembrandt. He had written a splendid review of my Metrostop for French News, the best-selling English language paper that is based in Perigueux, his home-town, and he had invited me to talk about the book at Parson’s School of Design, in the 15th arrondissement, where he now teaches. We already knew we had much in common. While we were chatting we discovered something else: we had both graduated from UC Berkeley in 1970. What a disaster that soixante-huitard movement was. All it ever achieved was piles of shattered glass and broken paving stones that spread its dirt from the coast of California to the Communist wall in Berlin. It destroyed countless young lives, with its drugs and calamitous sex, and it disturbed many other people who were endeavoring to get an education. Only one feature in all that noise turned out to be historically significant: the American Civil Rights Movement and the pride this brought to millions of black people – though you could argue that even this was short-lived. Hurricane Katrina, when it swept across Louisiana in August 2005, revealed to us all the persistent, unacceptable face of black poverty in America’s South, scenes that you would not even expect to see in the developing world.
Michael went on to become one of the leading editors at the grand old publishing firm of Calmann-Lévy, in Paris. Its origins go back to the 1830s when two Jews, Michel Lévy and his brother Kalmus, left their native Alsace to make their fortune in the literary capital of the world, Paris. For the Ashkenazim of Alsace Paris was the New Jerusalem, the first Christian city in Europe to grant the rights of citizenship to the Jews. Kalmus adopted the Frenchified name of ’Calmann’ and he passed on his name to the company, one of the grandest publishers of all time. It was thanks to Calmann-Lévy that the world got to know the works of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, George Sand, Stendhal, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Maxim Gorki, Gabriele d’Annunzio, and countless others of equal literary renown. Their house on Rue Auber became a mecca for the grandest intellectuals the world has known. They withstood the ravages of both Nazism and Communism; in fact, after the Second World War they were one of the few publishing houses in Paris not to fall victim to the Marxist enthusiasms of the Left Bank; they published a series of books criticizing the false promises of Communism and advancing the idea of economic liberalism, not a popular thing to do in the Paris of those days. That was when my friend Michael Taylor became one of their editors. You could argue that Calmann-Lévy was hoist on its own petard. In the 1990s the house was bought up by the huge conglomerate Hachette; in 2002 they left their historical home on Rue Auber and moved out into the suburbs.
’The firm abandoned quality literature and shifted to the industrial output of manuals and the like,’ Michael told me. ’The work became utterly uninteresting and so I left.’ He moved down to Perigueux, wrote his own interesting books and did some journalist work. He refused even to consider taking up another editorial job. ’The rot really set in in the 1990s,’ he said. ’It was the same wherever you went in the world: the conglomerates took over, they bought up the smaller, well-known publishers because of the prestige of their imprints and then slaughtered their lists: Hachette and Flammarion were run by people in the arms trade who couldn’t care the slightest about the future of quality literature. It was the same in Britain, the same in America. Who on earth would want to be the slaves of these soulless corporations?’
Well, no defender of the liberal economy ever said that the market should determine everything. That was simply the caricature the Marxists made of the economists. But if you read the works of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the rest you will see that they all rated the spiritual welfare of humanity very highly; the market provided the mechanical means of preserving that spirituality. The market provided the tools, the freedom of choice that allows us to develop our souls. But that choice is ours, not the market’s.
It is remarkable, in fact, how many of the early liberal economists were churchmen. Some of these contemporary corporate men, on the other hand, have minds that are limited to mechanical growth models. So, I am afraid, did somebody like Margaret Thatcher. ’You can’t buck the market,’ she kept on repeating. She was wrong. Great artists spend their lives bucking the market. They create their own markets, which rise and fall with their creative work. I have often thought of the problem in terms of the two incompatible elements, fire and water. The water of the markets will always in the end quench the fire. But what a marvelous spectacle the fire of the artist creates – we would see nothing without it. The water of business makes life possible. The fire of art makes it livable. That heaving dark ocean of the economy is always, necessarily, there. But every now and again the great artist throws his inflammable materials out onto the ocean’s surface and then sets it alight. Ordinary men observe it all in awe. Whirling fiery wheels spin, rockets roar into the sky and for one fantastic moment the artist scribbles his name on the night’s sky. Then he falls, the fires are quenched, the heaving dark waters of the ocean take over once more. But who could imagine life without the passionate excitement created by those momentary fires? Life would simply become unacceptable. Gradually one falls into the monotony of life’s ocean. Then some daredevil throws out his fire once more. And the world is filled with wonder again.
From our café Michael and I wandered over to the school. I expected all the students to be American, but there was only one American there. The students came from every corner in Europe. The fact that they all had a training in the liberal arts made our session great fun. I talked informally about what I thought the source of inspiration of my historical tales in Metrostop was. ’It’s a passion,’ I said, ’if you don’t have that passion you will never be an artist.’ I received rousing applause, not once but twice.
On Friday I went to the Théatre du Chatelet where I watched the most wonderful ballet I have ever attended in my life. John Neumeier comes from Milwaukee, but he is another American who has spent most of his life in Europe, this time in Hamburg where he has organized an international company of star dancers. He describes his Death in Venice as a danse macabre – which brought me back to some of the opening scenes of my Metrostop Paris. Unlike a writer or a film-maker, the choreographer is limited to fleeting gestures on the stage to convey the passage of time; Neumeier dances with the allegories, already present in Thomas Mann’s short story, to play success against failure, justice against injustice, youth against age, life being led into death: the late medieval invention of death with a scythe stretching out a skeletal hand to the young blonde maiden, bubbling with life, is so true to the short story’s intent – already on the second page of the story you are in the chapel of one of Munich’s cemeteries and from then on we dance towards the collective death of the hotel residents of the Lido from cholera and ultimately the artist’s own death. ’As the ballet advances one distinguishes less and less dream, delirium and hallucination from reality,’ says Neumeier in an interview reproduced in the ballet’s programme, and he adds poignantly: ’All ballet is in part autobiographical.’ Neumeier’s danse macabre is about the imminence of our own death.
That was the marvel of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, performed at the Théatre du Champs Elysées on the eve of the First World War. Neumeier builds up the premonition of a Death in Venice with a series of ten tableaux. Each one of them plays on coincidences of places, peoples and facts – just my stuff! That’s the way one should write history, and not just ballet. In Mann’s original tale the principal figure is a great writer, Gustav von Aschenbach; in Visconti’s film he is a great composer as we drift through the music of Gustav Mahler; in Neumeier’s ballet Aschenbach is obviously a great choreographer. I was puzzled when I came into the theatre to find that the music played in counterpoint was Bach’s Das musikalische Opfer and Wagner’s Death of Isolde. I was amazed to discover, as the performance developed, how well these two pieces complemented each other, culminating, with the final tableau of the Liebestod, with Elizabeth Cooper’s piano performance of Wagner’s Death of Isolde and Aschenbach’s death on stage. Cooper, her floodlit piano to the left of the stage, is literally one of the dancers – she used to do this sort of thing in Maurice Béjart’s ballets. It is impossible to put into words the extraordinary emotional effect this climax had on the stunned audience, many of whom were in tears at the end.
Coincidences of places and peoples transcend everything in Death in Venice – right through the fantasy into reality. Visconti had played on this in his film. Neumeier brings it out in the perpetual motion machine he sets off in his ballet. And it is already there in Mann’s original work. The year Mann went to Venice to write his short story, 1911, was the same year the influential autobiography of Richard Wagner was published, and the same year psychoanalysis broke into the theory of the Narcissus Complex. It was the year Gustav Mahler died; ’I am thrice homeless,’ he is reputed to have said, ’as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.’ Mahler was already Aschenbach in Mann’s work, long before he was adopted by Visconti. Neumeier may use the music of Bach and Wagner to create his own game of counterpoint, his feast for our eyes. But in the most critical gesture in the ballet, when blond Tadzio stretches his hand out to Aschenbach we know from Mann that the writer/composer/choreographer says silently: ’I love you.’ The fact of his silence is the death of the artist. That’s Mahler.
Now, music does seem to be one of the two facets of high culture that is surviving into the twenty-first century. For the performers, crushed by an impossible market for their talents, this is not a great time to be a musician. But for us listeners, we have never known such a wealth and variety of music: you can take your pick of music from every century and from every corner of the world and find – simply in Paris – not simply a competent performance, but an exquisite interpretation. The other element of culture that is very much alive today is gourmandise, cooking. Again, in Paris alone, you can take your pick of every cuisine in the world. I suppose it is true that you would never find a restaurant serving one of those multiple course meals a l’ Escoffier of the mid-nineteenth century. But who would want to eat like that now? In Paris, the cuisine of the world comes to your platter.
Early on Saturday I caught the TGV out to Rheims on a trip organized by the British Conservatives in Paris. Rheims may be the town where the Kings of France were crowned over a period of 1,500 years – it is odd, I do not know of a single painting of a coronation at Rheims, though I imagine some of my readers could put me right. Rheims for me is two things: the fire and smoke billowing out of the cathedral following Germany’s attack by cannon in August 1914, and Robert Nivelle’s offensive on the German concrete emplacements on the Chemin des Dames on 16 April 1917. Our arrival in Rheims was three days after the 91st anniversary of this most terrible of battles, the der des ders. As our train roared across the plain of Champagne, revealing huge yellow fields of colza – which never existed in the First World War – and the ridges, the mists and the rain – which did – I couldn’t take out of my mind images of Nivelle’s troops marching silently up the line; some of those boys repeated the ’baah! baah!’ of sheep on their way to the slaughter. The battle was fought in a snow storm, to which was added the effect of the creeping barrage, a roaring curtain of shellfire created by artillery engineers to the rear, aiming just ahead of the troops as they advanced onto the German positions. The infantry clambered up the steep escarpments of Chemin des Dames, tearing their hands on the bushes and thickets, to the summit, where the German machine gunners awaited them.
The tragedy of the Chemin des Dames was a technological gap between firepower and infantry movement – only solved in the 1930s when aircraft replaced static cannon. That was, indeed, the tragedy of the whole First World War. The disasters of the First World War were the secrets of success in the Second. Flying Fortresses and Lancaster bombers performed the part of cannon in Normandy to destroy Hitler’s offensive at Mortain; the British disaster at Passchendaele in that same year, 1917, was in fact an incredible story of combined operations, land and sea, that was eventually incorporated into the D-Day operations of 1944. My mind couldn’t get onto anything else as that train sped on. Within three quarters of an hour we were in Rheims. Appropriately, it rained all day and it was very cold.
Most of Rheims was destroyed by First World War bombardment; high flying bombers leveled the rest during the Second World War. Yet there are still a number of things to be seen: obviously the cathedral – most of the stained glass was blown out, which allowed Marc Chagall to place his blue design of Jewish fantasy and magic in an east window above the altar – I don’t actually think it is his best work, he goes a bit too far with his glorious blue, drowning out everything else. There is a lot of art-déco architecture in the streets, which got in there when Rheims was born again out of the debris of 1914-18. Some of this is fantastic. There is a concrete Halle aux Blés by Eugene Freyssinet that is an exotic post-modern type of design, though it is in sorry need of repair. The art-déco brasserie next door had an invitingly warm interior for us frozen pedestrians as we marched on to the Cathedral. I took a photograph of a bridesmaid and her smiling little daughter inside the Hotel de Ville because, as I told her, ’You are so beautiful.’ Well, I wasn’t going to commit Gustav von Aschenbach’s error. The caste-iron art-déco doors behind her were pretty good, too.
The highlight of our visit was the Champagne cellars of Veuve Louise Pommery. She must have been the Merry Widow of Rheims in her day; a relief of her lithe body, reclining over an oversized glass of champagne, is carved into the wall of one of the cellars, which includes vintage champagnes dating back to 1884.
But the goal of the trip was not just tourism, it was to chat with some of our political friends. Most of the members of our group are successful businessmen. We all believe in free trade, private enterprise and open frontiers. We are British Conservative, but we are not just British. The spirit is very European. Westminster has swung so far in the direction of the ’Eurosceptics’, whom the rest of Europe dismisses as ’Nationalists’. An incompatibility seems to be developing and nobody seems to be willing to solve it. ’We are against the Treaty,’ declared a shadow minister at a Conservative dinner in Paris last year; actually, most people at that dinner were not against the Treaty of Lisbon though they were too nice to say so. The shadow minister spoke of the unimportance of Luxembourg, cheerfully unaware that one of our most active delegations comes from Luxembourg!
It was, in fact, with the purpose of meeting members of the Luxembourg delegation that we set out for Rheims on Saturday. At lunch I sat next to somebody who had been working on the European coordination of air control through most of his professional life. Limiting air control to national administrations would be the height of folly – on my flight to Saint-Petersburg last August I flew over at least a dozen nations! Yet it is on this issue that Britain has been making such a fuss these last years: the Euro Brits find themselves in total discord with what is being argued back in Island Britain.
While we were sipping champagne in the cellars of Pommery a German member of the Luxembourg delegation came over to talk to me. He carried with him a paper which advocated the beatification of Robert Schuman – yes, you heard that correctly, Schuman’s beatification. The idea has already been endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI, and it could well happen within the next couple of years. One can imagine the noise that will come out of Britain’s tabloid press – indeed, the broadsheets are bound to join in the chorus. It will be a revival of the Sixty Years War between those polite ’Eurosceptics’ – ’Me? Nationalist? Never!’ — and the rest of Europe.
As a matter of fact, a pretty good case can be made for Schuman’s beatification. For those who don’t remember, Robert Schuman was the first president of the European Parliament. Before that he had been Foreign Minister under several governments of the French Fourth Republic. On 9 May 1950 Schuman presented from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the ’Schuman Plan’, which had actually been drafted by his friend, the Cognac businessman, Jean Monnet. With the exception of the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and, of course, the French government, Europe was totally unprepared for this. The Schuman Plan set up the European Iron and Steel Community which led the way, seven years later, to the establishment the European Economic Community. Schuman was the Founding Father of the European Union.
Schuman was not your average kind of politician. He was born in 1886 in Clausen, at the foot of the fortress of Luxembourg. His birthplace in the staunchly independent Duchy, sandwiched between the warring nations of Germany and France, already gave him a role in life; the death of both his parents before he was twenty-six did the rest. His father had been a proud Lorrainer, his mother was a proud Catholic. Robert Schuman would attend Catholic mass nearly every day of his life and took long retreats in the monastery of Maria Laach, a fairy castle of an abbey on the shores of Laacher See, just across the frontier in the German Rhineland. Maria Laach happened to be the spiritual home of another man who, late in life, would change the face of Europe and the world, Konrad Adenauer. Schuman did not actually meet the future German chancellor at this time, but he did befriend the abbot of Maria Laach, Ildefons Herwegen who told him, after his mother’s sudden death, to shake himself out of his grief through prayer and work. Schuman wanted to take on monastic orders. ’You must remain a layman,’ the abbot advised Schuman. ’The saints of the future will be dressed in town costume.’ The saints, people like Adenauer and Schuman, would be the peacemakers in a world that could not put aside war. In the years before the First World War Schuman studied law in Germany, he set up a legal partnership in Metz and adopted as his motto the Latin slogan of the Catholic youth league in which he was active: ’in necessariis, in dubio libertas, in omnibus caritas’ – ’in necessity unity, in doubt liberty, in everything love.’ He contrasted this with the talion law, the law of retaliation, ’an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ Schuman’s law was the law of reconciliation.
When Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France after the First World War it was Schuman who negotiated the special status of the provinces, protecting them from the insanely radical anti-clerical, centralized laws that had been forced on the rest of France during the first years of the twentieth century. In 1919 he was elected deputy to the French National Assembly and eventually was named Secretary of State for Refugees — for which he was ideally suited, in Paul Reynaud’s brave government of 1940. But he refused to join Pétain’s collaborationist administration that May and he consequently became the first French deputy to be arrested by the Gestapo. Schuman called his seven months in gaol his ’time of Lent’. For the rest of the occupation he withdrew to the Benectine abbey of Ligugé, near Poitiers. Contemplative Christianity provided the moral basis of Schuman’s postwar European policy — and it is remarkable how true this was of so many of the pioneering figures in the European movement of that time. It was Christianity that pulled Europe out of the ashes of 1945.
I would be the first to support the efforts of my new German friend, Heinz Hermann Elting, to have Schuman beatified. There is no doubt in my mind that this man was a saint.
But I am afraid some of the enthusiasms of the campaign have led to historical shortcuts that are simply not acceptable on closer analysis. In his attempt to prove the novelty of Schuman’s law of reconciliation Elting takes the still popular stand – in Germany – that the Peace Conference in Paris after the First World War was tainted by the spirit of talion law. I think I have demonstrated in my 1918 that there was nothing unreasonably vindictive about that Conference – those who argued most forcefully against the position of Conference were the Communists and the Nazis, not exactly the sort of supporters saintly men like Schuman were seeking.
Elting cites specifically Aristide Briand, several times French Prime Minister, and Gustav Stresemann, German Foreign Minister in the late 1920s. I am sorry, but these men were not saints. Briand demolished the guarantees of Western security that had been written into the Paris Conference system; he advanced the men, like Pierre Laval, who would turn out to be the most evil Nazi collaborators anywhere in Europe. As for that false prophet of ’peace’, Gustav Streseman, he masked his true purpose, the rearmament of Germany and expansion into the East, by signing the Pact of Locarno with the Western powers in 1925. Locarno effectively destroyed the Paris system by destroying all guarantees of of non-violation of the frontiers of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Germans, even today, have an unfortunate tendency to forget that this was not Hitler’s work, it was Streseman’s. Streseman further contributed to Germany’s commitment to war through a series of secret military agreements with the Soviet Communists which not only opened up arms supplies from Moscow, but a training of German pilots, in the area around Moscow, in such peaceful activities as Stuka dive-bombing. Putting forward people like Briand and Streseman as ’reconciliators’ will do the campaign to beatify Schuman no good.
I heard the cuckoo sing in my garden this morning for the first time. I can’t promise you peace in the world and I can’t swear that our publishers will continue to produce good books. If it is art and high culture you seek you must go and look for it yourself and don’t expect it to be served to you on a television platter. But I can guarantee that in the next few days it will be spring.
|‹‹ History, publishers & vandals||The Light of May ››|