A review of “On the Marble Cliffs” by Ernst Jünger

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Ernst Jünger in later life.
Although the above  photo shows Jünger looking every the inch the aesthete or scholarly type (which, in large part, he was) it’s important to know that this German man of letters was also a decorated soldier, and fought in the German army in both World Wars.
In Great Britain Jünger is known I think mostly in academic circles, and even then his most commonly cited book is Storm of Steel. For many years this has recognised as one of the most notable prose works concerning the First World War.
On the Marble Cliffs is a different kind of book, however. It concerns two brothers, living in a peaceful forest setting, who spend their lives studying botany, enraptured by the flora around them, and enjoying the tranquility and solitude of their surroundings. But their homeland and whole way of life are threatened by a marauding band of infiltrators under the command of the Chief Ranger. Things head for a bloody climax when those who live in the forest in the shadow of the marble cliffs realise they need to make a stand and fight, or else be overwhelmed by the Ranger and his men.
Like that book, Storm of Steel,  On the Marble Cliffs has passages that describe battle with evident skill, knowledge and even relish. However, this is a different kind of novel. Written in the late 30’s, it’s clearly a sideways take on Nazism. From a 21st century vewpoint, I also think it stands up as a general fable on the rise of all the regimes that use terror and coercion as their main weapons. Indeed, Junger goes out of his way to give this a ‘timeless’ quality, in the sense that a reader could imagine it taking place in virtually any epoch one cares to imagine. As a political fable, it’s a very good book of its type.However, Junger definitely had the Nazis in his sights when writing this, which makes it all the more noteworthy how it managed to get past the Nazi censors at all in the late ’30’s. It was a bestseller at the time and was only belatedly withdrawn from sale. (Apparently Goebbels is depicted as a character in the novel, and the Propaganda Minister was rather flattered by the portrait, which may have induced him to turn a blind eye…for a while. ) While its escape into the public domain remains something of a cause celebre for the book, it does stand up on its own terms, and is therefore much more than a historical curio or literary document forever tied to its era.

Try to get hold of a copy of this if you enjoy writers like Hermann Hesse. Junger writes in a similar style (i.e. a fable) in this novel, and deals with similar grand themes. Chief among these is the perennial European tension between those who want to dedicate themselves to great, peaceable works, and those who would rather go round tearing things up and imposing their own will and vision on people. I didn’t come away from the book feeling like Junger had provided many answers, but he depicts the tension vividly nonetheless.

Such a shame, then, that this book appears to be out of print and hard to find. I’m sure its time will come again, however. It remains a key work by Ernst Junger and an important work in the European canon.

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A Review of “Whatever it is I don’t like it” by Howard Jacobson.

This book is comprised of selected newspaper columns written by Howard Jacobson over the last ten or so years in the The Independent newspaper. I gave up buying newspapers a good while ago, so it’s good to have his columns collected here in book form.

Some readers will recognise the title as a quotation from the song sung by Grouch Marx in Horse Feathers. Others may miss the reference and reasonably infer that this book is the collected grumblings of a grumpy old man. Either that or the latest collection of rants from Tory misfit Jeremy Clarkson. 

Not so. Although Jacobson is frequently angry and indignant in these selected newspaper pieces, and though he is now a gent of a certain vintage, this book as a whole covers a far wider emotional and intellectual range. Nor does he write about cars much. And it turns out he actually likes quite a lot, too.

Chief among his loves has got to be the english language and the good old fashioned essay. How many times have you read a column in a newspaper and thought “what a load of…” or “how much was this hack paid to dash this off?”. You could never level these charges at Jacobson, since at his best he shapes and hones the language of his journalism as much as he does in his novels. As for the structure of his columns, they aren’t rambling or inconsequential in the way of many another columnist I could mention (try some of Jacobson’s lesser Independent colleagues for a start). In fact, you could give any one of these pieces to an A Level student as an object lesson in how to set out one’s stall, elegantly develop a line of argument and come to a pithy conclusion. I think Jacobson would quite like that, since the state of education in modern day Britain is something he returns to more than once.

The best thing I can say about these pieces is that, just like his novels, they will make you laugh but they will also make you think. You may agree with him at times, just as you will disagree with him at others. But Jacobson never ever gives less than his best and never wastes his readers’ time. Just as well, then, that his best newspaper pieces have been collected here, since they probably will be still read when The Independent and all the other print newspapers have gone the way of the dodo.

So rather than lump this book in with the ramblings of all the other grumpy old men, keep it instead with your collection of columns by writers like Kurt Vonnegut (“A Man Without a Country”) and Primo Levi (“Other People’s Trades”): good men and first-rate writers with something original to say, and a precise, elegant style in which to say it.

My only bone of contention is that at one point Jacobson expresses a liking for Michael Gove. In the light of this pip-squeak’s record so far as Education Minister, I don’t like that opinion, so I hope that, like Groucho,  Jacobson has others.

Travels back in time.

Some travel books are considered great because they capture the essence of a place. Other travel books are worth going back to because they freeze time. They capture moments spent in places which have changed or may have gone forever, and this is something to value for its own sake in a world which continues to change apace. 

A case in point is Michael Palin’s characteristically engaging book Around the World in Eighty Days, which was published to tie in with his late-80’s TV series of the same name. I loved that programme when it was first shown, but I only read the accompanying book for the first time a couple of weeks ago.  Reading it, I was struck by how quickly the world has changed, even in less than 25 years. To pick two examples from many, Dubai when he was there was not the developed desert megacity it is now. And early on in the journey Palin took the ferry from Venice to Alexandria, via the Corinth Canal and Crete. You can still get the same ferry- in theory at least- but the route has altered to take in a stop in Syria. Needless to say the service is suspended until further notice.

This brings me on to another travel book I read a couple of years ago.

“From the Holy Mountain” by William Dalrymple is a decent read. However, I found it very hard going at times. With hindsight, though, the things that exasperated me about it could now be seen as strengths of a sort, given the ongoing civil war in Syria and general unrest in the region.  The narrative framework for this book is provided by a Byzantine monk, John Moschos, who travelled throughout the Eastern Roman Empire from Mount Athos in Greece, through Turkey and the middle east, and ending in Egypt. These modern states all cover the territories held at one point or another  by the Byzantine empire, and as such they form the ancient heartlands of Christianity.

In undertaking his journey, Dalrymple was keen to find out what echoes of the past could still be caught in these former Byzantine states. He also sought to reveal the current state of Christians and Christianity in the area. At its best I found the book enlightening, particularly good in those passages dealing with southern Turkey, the Armenian people and Syria. Up to around page 300, I found the author was able to maintain the balancing act between giving an account of his journey, sketching the historical background and letting the Christians he met along the way tell their own story. However, despite the blurb on the jacket of my copy, this is NOT a consistently “witty” or “funny” book. While Dalrymple is an agreeable guide, I didn’t find his attempts at humour particularly strong or well judged. Besides which the tale he unfolds is, by and large, a consistently sad one, telling of persecution, suffering and mutual misunderstanding between peoples, religions and governments.

Dalrymple at his best turns a vivid phrase. On the other hand his approach errs towards being lumpen and over-detailled and he can be long-winded. For instance, while he clearly spoke to a lot of people along the way, every encounter seems to be rendered verbatim. Similarly, while the copious bibliography proves that the author has done his background reading, this often results in clumps of factual details choking the narrative (instances like the two page diversion on the significance of St George to various nations had me wishing he’d just get on with it). At times like these Dalrymple doesn’t wear his learning lightly: he is one of those who keeps it on at all times like an anorak.

In hindsight, however, it’s perhaps as well that some of the more lengthy interviews were spared the editor’s blue pencil. As things get ever more vicious, especially in Syria, it could be that this book becomes one more useful point of reference for anyone wanting to know how some people in the region got by in the last few years before events took their most recent turn.

Review: The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher

Greater London consists of approximately seven million souls and counting. Half the time it seems a million of them have either published, or are threatening to publish, a book about the City. Setting aside fictional works set in the Capital, there are all manner of books about every conceivable aspect of the Metropolis. It seems there is no stone left to be unturned about London, no fact too trivial or obscure to be recorded, at length and ad nauseam.

However, even for the cynic, Geoffrey Fletcher’s book The London Nobody Knows (originally published in the 1960s) remains essential and a genuine cut above the rest. Aside from the quality of the writing and drawing, I think its virtue lies in the fact that it’s not very long and manages to say a lot about the city in relatively few pages.

Fleshed out by the author’s own beautiful line drawings, this book was written as an attempt to document specific features and even whole areas of the Capital that were in danger of being lost forever. Like most British cities, large chunks of London were famously bombed to hell during the second world war, and by the 1960’s Britain was in he grip of regeneration fever. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just bomb sites that were being built over. Even older buildings that were still fully functional were being pulled down and redeveloped in the name of progress and modernity. Fletcher recognised this, and hence the determination to document what was under threat.

Beginning with a rather special streetlight just off the Strand (still there by the way) Fletcher makes his own selection of things that were, in his opinion, overlooked or in danger of being swept away. These are things which, for him, captured something of the City’s essence. Years before the term ‘psychogeography’ was coined, Fletcher describes the above mentioned streetlight, buildings like Wilton’s Music Hall, markets, architecturally interesting streets and many other things, and in so doing manages to distil not only their own indivdual qualities, but also London’s peculiar atmosphere.

He has an eye for the quirky, the long forgotten, and the wholly original. Unfortunately a lot of what he described back then is long gone, but some things remain. The book is more than just a historical curio, however. The quality of the writing, the drawings and Fletcher’s own particular vision make this a worthwhile read. Other books on London may be longer, others may be more comprehensive, and others may be more fact-filled. But probably none are as charming, well-illustrated or as fitting a testament to the many eccentricities and quirks of the place as Geoffrey Fletcher’s book.

The book also served as the inspiration for a 1967 short film presented by James Mason, which is a classic in its own right, and is a companion piece to Fletcher’s work. Like Fletcher’s book, it cover some more upbeat and quirky material together with more challenging themes. The following Youtube video showing various clips from the film is a little on the dark side (for example the footage of meths drinkers and various herberts fighting in the street) but it does convey the sense in which the film (and the book natch) are both fascinating social documents.