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review 2017-05-03 11:00
The Unpopular Genius: Gustav Mahler by Alma Mahler-Werfel
Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters - Alma Mahler-Werfel,Donald Mitchell,Knud Martner
Gustav Mahler (German Edition) - Alma Mahler-Werfel

As beautiful, highly educated and endowed for the arts as Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879-1964) was, she could have achieved a lot in the world, but during most of her life she remained in the shadows of her famous husbands and lovers. She had the bad luck to have been born at a time, when women only made their first tentative steps to claim their rights and their own place in society. Although her family and the circles that they frequented were among the most liberal of the fin de siècle, young and shy Alma quite naturally obeyed the command of her much older first husband Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) to give up for good all her own musical ambitions and activities. In 1939, when the Nazi regime defamed his work because he had been a Jew converted to Protestantism and refused him his place in the world of music, she brought out her very personal tribute to him under the title Gustav Mahler. Memories and Letters.

 

Alma Mahler-Werfel begins her largely admiring memories of her late husband with their first encounter at a dinner party in November 1901. Although frequenting the same circles, until then she had managed to avoid meeting the controversial conductor and composer Gustav Mahler against whom public opinion and malicious gossip had biased her. Moreover, Alma had been to a performance of his First Symphony and – like most music lovers of the time – she loathed it because even she as a student of composition couldn’t understand his modern approach. However, the middle-aged musician was immediately attracted to the young woman and quite naturally she was impressed by the man and flattered by his attentions. Passionate and used to getting what he wanted, Gustav Mahler didn’t take long to make Alma his bride and he expected of her no less than giving up her own life as well as identity. For her it was a great sacrifice to abandon her music studies and composing, but she was convinced that it was worth it. And she never lost this conviction although she acknowledges to have been too young as well as too inexperienced and romantic to have known better. On their wedding day in March 1902 – scarce four months after their first encounter – Alma was already with child, but her condition changed nothing. He and his needs were all that counted even after their daughter was born and then another daughter. She never once reproached him for his egotism and lack of regard for her because she felt that as a musical genius he stood so much above her. Besides, she was aware that he needed the stability of home and her support since he had to cope with opposition from all sides – for his Jewish descent, for his modernist understanding of music, and for his tempers and idiosyncrasies. At the cost of her own health, she stayed by his side on his travels until his untimely death in May 1911.

 

Every word of Alma Mahler-Werfel shows her unshakable awe of her ingenious husband and of his music although she didn’t go far beyond summarising the facts of their life together. I can’t help thinking that she left out quite a lot in order to paint as positive a picture of the man Gustav Mahler as she could. Maybe this was also due to her innate reserve and delicacy. It seems that she wasn’t actually a woman who wished to spread out her private life in public and in the foreword from 1939 she says herself that she hadn’t intended to publish her memories of Gustav Mahler or his letters to her during her lifetime. Seeing the Nazi regime talking ill of her late husband and denying his musical genius urged her to bring out the book in the dawn of World War Two. Although her portrait is necessarily biased and moreover incomplete, Gustav Mahler. Memories and Letters by Alma Mahler-Werfel is a partly forgotten read that definitely deserves my recommendation.

 

 

Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters - Alma Mahler-Werfel,Donald Mitchell,Knud Martner  Gustav Mahler (German Edition) - Alma Mahler-Werfel  

 

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review 2016-07-07 11:00
The Woman Who Re-Invented Herself: Bombay Anna by Susan Morgan
Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the "King and I" Governess - Susan Morgan

Nobody will deny that Anna Harriette Leonowens (1831-1915) was an impressive woman who led an extraordinary life for a woman in the Victorian Age. Nonetheless, nobody would still remember her, hadn’t her memoirs gotten into the hands of a Presbyterian missionary called Margaret Landon who wrote the biography of the English governess at the Royal Court of Siam in the 1860s. Anna and the King of Siam (»»» read my review on Edith’s Miscellany) quickly became a best-seller in 1944 and has been adapted for the stage as well as for the screen many times since. But how much of this story is true? In her biography Bombay Anna released in 2008 American scholar Susan Morgan ventures at telling The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of The King and I Governess.

 

The biggest surprise is to find in a chapter dedicated to the ancestors of Anna Harriette Leonowens, née Anna Harriett Emma Edwards, that her origins aren’t as noble as she herself made believe even her closest family. While her maternal grandfather William Glascott in fact belonged to the minor English gentry, the woman he married or just lived with in India is a phantom who seems to have left no traces in written sources. Like other scholars, Susan Morgan assumes that she must have been Indian or of mixed race – “a lady not entirely white” as Mrs. Sherwood aka Mary Martha Butt put it in the nineteenth century – as was common with soldiers’ wives in India in the early nineteenth century because marriageable Englishwomen were extremely scarce. As the author points out, Anna Harriette Leonowens took great care to hide her maternal grandmother pretending to have been born in Wales of pure English blood almost three years later than in reality. From existing sources Susan Morgan draws the plausible conclusion that in fact she must have grown up in the camps of the Sappers and Miners Corps, in which her late father and her step-father had served. With vivid imagination supported by nineteenth-century reports the biographer reconstructs the life that Anna Harriette Leonowens must have led as a child in the camps attending the regimental school, but none of it is based on established facts about her person because historical sources lack. In the following Susan Morgan reveals still more biographical information that isn’t in line with reality until the moment when she became governess at the Royal Siamese Court in 1862. The later life of Anna Harriette Leonowens is better documented and her biographer confines herself to outlining the most important stages and to putting them into relation with her real as well as re-invented past.

 

In my review of Anna and the King of Siam I said that “there is much that can make somebody tell a story in one way rather than another”. This is certainly true for Anna Harriette Leonowens who changed and stretched the truth because she wanted to climb the social ladder and to be recognised as being of pure and noble English descent. It is also true for Susan Morgan who merged the information from historical sources, her background knowledge of the time and her imagination to bring to life the person Anna Harriette Leonowens as she believes her to have really been. It’s not for me to judge if her biography is state-of-the-art from the scientific point of view, but in any case it’s well-written and gripping portrait of an extraordinary woman.

 

See also the long review of Bombay Anna by Susan F. Kepner in the TLC/New Mandala book review series on Mainland Southeast Asia and the many expert comments there.

 

Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the "King and I" Governess - Susan Morgan 

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review 2016-04-07 11:00
A Perseverant Advocate of Peace: Romain Rolland by Stefan Zweig
Romain Rolland - Stephan Zweig
Romain Rolland (German Edition) - Stefan Zweig

The Great War of 1914-18 had been raging in Europe and other parts of the world for over a year, when in December 1915 the little known French writer Romain Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings”. In reality, he may have been chosen because in his work he advocated peace and stood up against warmongers in his own as well as other countries. Just a few years later, in 1921, the by then already famous Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) portrayed the Nobel Prize laureate who was also his friend in the book Romain Rolland. The Man and His Work. But the biography isn’t a usual one because Stefan Zweig focuses on the artistic mission or rather vocation that his gifted friend felt in him from an early age and that he was determined to live although it meant sacrifice and even exile for a while.

 

Born into a bourgeois family in the small town of Clamecy, Nièvre, France, in 1866 Romain Rolland’s first acquaintance with the arts is with music that will always remain an integral part of his life. In school he also discovers his great love for literature and he makes friends with the writer-to-be Paul Claudel. Then he moves on to the École Normale to study History. There he makes friends with other important writers-to-be, namely André Suarès and Charles Peguy. After graduation fate has it that he is offered a two-year grant to further his studies in Rome and write his doctoral thesis. The experience is a revelation to him, not least because he meets a friend of Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner, Malwida von Meysenbug, who encourages him to go his way. Back in Paris Romain Rolland begins to teach Music History in different high schools and finally at Sorbonne University. At this time his writings are still closely linked to his work, but soon he makes first attempts at plays.

 

Around 1900 Roman Rolland and a group of friends found the literary magazine Cahiers de la Quinzaine. Moreover, they set out to modernise French theatre. Romain Rolland writes the seminal essay Theatre of the People (1903) and the first of a whole cycle of ambitious, though at the time unsuccessful plays. Then he turns to a cycle of biographies of the great men of history. Beethoven the Creator (1903), Michelangelo (1907), Handel (1910), and Tolstoy (1911) are the first to appear almost unnoticed by the public. In the early 1900s the author also begins to work on his most famous novel series in ten volumes surrounding a German musician in France, namely Jean-Christophe. The English edition is usually published in three volumes, namely Volume I – Jean-Christophe: Dawn, Morning, Youth, Revolt (1904/05), Volume II –  Jean-Christophe in Paris: The Market Place, Antoinette, The House (1908), and Volume III – Journey’s End: Love and Friendship, The Burning Bush, The New Dawn (1910-12). Immediately afterwards he writes the comic novel Colas Breugnon, but in summer 1914 the war breaks out and it can only be published in 1919. The author is in Switzerland at the time and decides to stay there in exile because he doesn’t want to be forced into line with French politics. He is against war and wants to work for peace although thanks to censure writings like his anti-war manifesto Above the Battle (1915) and his pacifistic articles later assembled in The Forerunners (1919) aren’t reprinted in France or other war-faring countries. In 1915 the Swedish Academy of Sciences awards him the Nobel Prize in Literature. And he continues to write. By 1921, when Stefan Zweig brings out his biography of Romain Rolland, the tragicomic play Liluli, the novel Clerambault. The Story of an Independent Spirit During the War (1920), and the idyllic novella Pierre and Luce (1920) have been published. By 1929, when a new edition of the biography appears with an addition to the final chapter titled Envoy also the first volumes of the novel series The Soul Enchanted (1922-1933) and a biography of Mahatma Gandhi (1924) have appeared.  More biographical essays, plays and novels followed.

 

Nota bene:

Since Stefan Zweig committed suicide in 1942, all original German editions of his work are in the public domain. A digital edition of an English translation of Romain Rolland. The Man and his Work is available on Project Gutenberg … like many of the works of Romain Rolland.

 

 

Although renowned for his fictionalised biographies of great historical figures – like the one of Romain Rolland that I just presented – and for his autobiography The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig was also a highly celebrated writer of fiction, especially novellas. To get an idea, I invite you to read my short review of Letter from an Unknown Woman posted here on Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion earlier this year and my long  review of Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany.

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review 2016-03-03 11:00
The Person Beyond the Mother: A Woman’s Story by Annie Ernaux
A Woman's Story - Annie Ernaux,Tanya Leslie
Une Femme (Poche) - Annie Ernaux
Gesichter einer Frau - Annie Ernaux

There will be very few who deny that the mother has a very special place in the heart of a person and that when she dies, it uses to be a particularly painful loss in most cases even if she has been suffering for a long time. It means the irrevocable end of an era – of “childhood” in a wide sense – since even the last remaining bond is cut and we can no longer submit like a child to her loving care if we feel like it. After the death of her mother, the renowned French author of autobiographical prose Annie Ernaux (born 1940) set out to trace the course of life of the woman who brought her into life and raised her. The result is A Woman’s Story first published in 1989, a touching literary portrait of a strong and powerful woman who was more than just the author’s mother.

 

The slim book begins in the morning of 7 April 1986, when Annie Ernaux receives a phone call from the nursing home of the hospital in Pontoise where her mother has died after breakfast. Although her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1980s and her condition has been constantly deteriorating since moving her to the nursing home became inevitable, death arrives unexpected. Now the author’s last living connection with her childhood is gone which makes her feel as if her roots had been cut off. Only after a first period of shock and mourning, she finds the strength to sit down and pay her literary tribute to her mother as she did for her late father before (»»» read my review of award-winning A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany).

 

Skilfully combining biographical and historical facts, anecdotes passed on in the family, own memories, conclusions and contemplations the author resurrects the picture of a woman born as forth child of six into a poor, but proud working-class family in the small town of Yvetot in Normandy in the early years of the twentieth century. She leaves school aged eleven and works in the factory always dreaming of a better life. Then she meets her future husband originating from a humble family like herself and working in the same factory. She gets married, has a first daughter and saves money to make her and her husband’s dream of a little café and grocery shop come true. This is in the 1930s and great grief is around the corner. Her little girl dies from diphtheria, Nazi-German troops occupy France, war rages in the country. Then a ray of light: another daughter – the author – is born to her in 1940. Things change for the better after the war, but she and her husband need to work hard to give their daughter a better start into life than they had. The girl studies at university, becomes a teacher, marries a bourgeois… and moves away. In 1967 her husband dies suddenly. Three years later she goes to live with her daughter’s family first in Annecy, then in Paris. But eventually, she feels the urge to return to Yvetot which she does in the mid-1970s.

 

The book isn’t a biography in the strict sense nor a memoir, but an homage to an exceptional woman and the different sides of her character that the daughter hardly noticed while she was alive. Moreover, it’s just the simple, even ordinary story of the ups and downs of a French mother’s life in the twentieth century that Annie Ernaux retells with great sensitivity and a certain nostalgia blending with the inevitable sorrow of a person who writes about a loved one who just died. This doesn’t mean that the tone of the book is whining or depressing – not at all! It goes without saying that it’s not a cheerful read either, but it’s quiet and contemplative as befits this kind of text. Highly recommended for reading!

 

English edition:

A Woman's Story - Annie Ernaux,Tanya Leslie 

 

Original French edition:

Une Femme (Poche) - Annie Ernaux 

 

German edition:

Gesichter einer Frau - Annie Ernaux 

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review 2015-09-24 07:00
Six Years of Waking Nightmare: Outcry by Manny Steinberg
Outcry - Holocaust memoirs - Manny Steinberg

More than two months ago, I found a small parcel in my letterbox, neatly wrapped into brown paper and handaddressed by someone working for Amsterdam Publishers in the Netherlands. It contained the book giveaway that I had won on GOODREADS just a few days earlier and that I had expected to arrive with me only some weeks later. This was a nice surprise – not least because there was a beautiful art card of a Dutch painting from 1656 attached with a handwritten inscription on behalf of the author and the publishers. Alas, my agenda was too tight at the time to allow me to read Outcry. Holocaust Memoirs by Manny Steinberg right away.

 

Already the first page of the book caught me although it reveals little more than that the author was born Mendel Steinberg in Radom, Poland, in May 1925 and that he had two younger brothers, Stanley born in 1927 and Jacob born in 1934. Overall, this information is of little consequence and most readers will just read over it, most likely forget it, but for me it built a bridge to my own family. My mother’s three older brothers were born in the same years! Moreover, the birthday of the eldest is in May just like the author’s. The fates of our two families under Nazi rule were very different, though, because my family had the good luck (and it was nothing else!) not to be of Jewish faith, nor to have Jewish ancestors in our genealogical tree. As far as I know, the ordeal of the concentration camps was spared all members of my family, but nobody ever talked about the war years, least of all to me who was a child when those who could have shared their memories were still alive and in their minds. Thankfully, instead of keeping his memories to himself like so many others and not just in my family, Manny Steinberg made them public.

 

By contrast to other memoirists the author didn’t jump right into matters, but took his time to first recount his happy childhood. Although the chapter is titled Sunshine, his early years haven’t been a bed of roses for Mendel. Only eight years old he lost his beloved mother when his youngest brother Jacob was born. Fortunately, when his father remarried after the mourning period, he was at good terms with his step-mother. His home in the Jewish quarters of the small Polish town of Radom consisted of a two-room apartment harbouring also the tailor’s workshop of his father, so overall the family wasn’t particularly well-off, and yet, the income sufficed to feed them all well (except during the time of the Great Depression) and to give the boys a good education. Moreover, their relations with each other were warm and loving, plus they had many friends. However, already in the second half of the 1930s Mendel and Stanley faced Anti-Semitism in their surroundings and with the German invasion of 1 September 1939 everything changed to the worse.

 

As the title of the second chapter suggests, Shadows were gathering over the family. It’s here that the inconsistencies concerning the ages of Mendel and Stanley begin. The author says that “the Nazis, like locusts were covering our country, leaving only destruction and death behind”, when he was approaching the age of the Bar Mitzvah, thus his thirteenth birthday. That would have been in spring 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria (not that my country would have put up any resistance!). Only about eighteen months later it was the turn of Poland to see the German bombings that the author describes in the opening of this chapter and the creation of crowded Ghettos where thousands died from penury, illness and Nazi violence. By this time Mendel must have been past fourteen really. The family survived the daily terror of Ghetto life for nearly three years and then came an early morning in June 1942 when the Nazis knocked at their door. They separated and deported them. Mendel, now already seventeen not fourteen as stated in the book if he was really born in 1925, and his father were taken to a concentration camp nearby not knowing what was the fate of the others yet.

 

And this is the beginning of the age of Darkness in the life of Mendel Steinberg now become prisoner number 27091. The events recounted in this chapter are just as terrible, shocking and hard to believe as in other memoirs of the kind. The author creates a very vivid picture of the daily horror he experienced not sparing the reader appalling details, nor hiding his own state of mind that is often one of desperation and hatred. Only the fact that fate had it that he knew his father alive and in another barrack of the camp and that his brother Stanley was with him during most of his imprisonment gave him the strength to hold out until the liberation in April 1945 that brought back the Light. Mendel, Stanley and their father survived and seized the first opportunity to immigrate into the USA and start a new life.

 

I already mentioned the inconsistencies regarding the ages of Mendel, Stanley and Jacob in different stages of the story. I must admit that they confused me quite a bit. In addition, I’m not sure about how accurate the chronology of historical events in this memoir is. I’m no expert in the history of the Third Reich or World War II, but nonetheless sometimes the information the author gives is at odds with what I know. Maybe this is just because so many years have passed and we all know how unreliable our memory can be. For the rest, it is a very touching book that convinces with simple language without unnecessary flourish. If the topic weren't so horrible, I'd say that I enjoyed the read. In any case, the book deserves more attention – so we never forget!

 

Outcry
Holocaust Memoirs

by Manny Steinberg

 

Second (revised) edition

 

ISBN 9789082103137

Amsterdam Publishers

179 pages

 

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