Gabriele Annan

Gabriele Annan is a writer and journalist who lives in London.

No Stick nor Trace: Bosnian fall-out

Gabriele Annan, 3 March 2005

Angela Brkic’s The Stone Fields is subtitled ‘An Epitaph for the Living’, but its underlying and overwhelming theme is death – death in Bosnia. It is a chronicle of Brkic’s Bosnian Croat family, from the end of the First World War to the present day (Brkic’s father emigrated to the US in 1959 and she was born there). The emphasis is on war: the Second World...

Throat-Rattling: Antal Szerb

Gabriele Annan, 5 June 2003

In his afterword, Len Rix, the translator of this Hungarian novel, says that its narrative ‘coincides with rising Fascism at home and abroad, and probes the national obsession with suicide’. It was first published in 1937 in Budapest, and its author died in a Nazi labour camp six years later at the age of 43. He was, Rix explains, a cradle Catholic, but ‘his technically...

Conversions: Ivan Klíma

Gabriele Annan, 13 December 2001

A parable, says the OED, is ‘a fictitious narrative (usually about something that might naturally occur), by which moral or spiritual relations are typically set forth’. Klíma’s new novel fits the description exactly.

There are three main characters, who take it in turns to tell the story and do a lot of thinking about ‘moral or spiritual relations’, each...

The penguin is called Misha and lives with Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov in his bachelor flat in Kiev. His eyes are small and melancholy. Viktor adopted him the year before the story begins, when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them. That must have been in 1994: the novel was written between December 1995 and February 1996, so the events in its short course...

Some Kind of Remedy: Jhumpa Lahiri

Gabriele Annan, 20 July 2000

Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book is a collection of short stories. It has already won several prizes: the Pulitzer 2000 for fiction, the New Yorker for best first book and the PEN/Hemingway award. Praise from Amy Tan is quoted on the cover, as it was on the cover of Gish Jen’s Who’s lrish? Tan and Jen both write about first and second-generation Chinese Americans, and are upbeat on the whole, sometimes relentlessly so. With a few exceptions Lahiri’s characters are Indians in America, most of whom are temporary residents or, in some cases, first-generation Americans. Lahiri is funny and sharp and ironical, but kind too, and the undertow in her stories is melancholy – which makes her more endearing. She writes a lot about disappointment: not so much with America – though that occasionally figures – as with people.’

‘We all have at least one terrible friend. Each one of us is someone’s terrible friend.’ The epigram was coined by a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge called Jack Gallagher, You could adapt it to the present mood in Europe by saying: ‘Asylum seekers are a menace. Each one of us is someone’s menacing asylum seeker.’ It doesn’t even have to be a Gypsy; it could just be the retired couple fleeing from Guildford who have bought the Tuscan farm across the valley from yours. The asylum-seeker scenario is one of the subtexts in Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s economical, cynical, pitiless and very funny novella.‘

Blair-Speak: Gish Jen’s Jokes

Gabriele Annan, 6 January 2000

Ever since her first novel Typical American appeared in 1991, the Chinese American writer Gish Jen has been acclaimed as the new Amy Tan. Amy Tan herself acclaims her on the cover of Mona in the Promised Land (1996), Jen’s second novel; and again on this collection of short stories. Jen has a lot going for her: she is witty, perceptive, penetrating, sharp on motives and a great mimic. She can do Black American, Jewish American (including the puns) and, of course, Chinese American: ‘When I first come to the United States, I also had to hide-and-seek with those deportation guys. If people did not helping me, I am not here today.’ Jen is affectionate towards her characters and impeccably well-intentioned. And so are nearly all of them, even when they appear to be up to no good. It almost always turns out that someone who has betrayed someone else, or stolen their silver flask, didn’t really do any such thing. Above all else, Gish Jen is charming; immensely charming; charming verging on cute.‘

Forbidden to Grow up: Ahdaf Soueif

Gabriele Annan, 15 July 1999

When Tolstoy died in November 1910, one of the principal characters in Ahdaf Soueif’s new novel felt bereaved: ‘I have derived more enjoyment from Anna Karenina and War and Peace,’ Lady Anna Winterbourne notes in her diary, ‘than from any other novels that I have read.’ The Map of Love suggests that Soueif herself may have Tolstoyan aspirations. Aspirations, not pretensions: there is an engaging modesty about her voice. Still, both her earlier novel, In the Eye of the Sun (nearly eight hundred pages), and The Map of Love (more than five hundred) are more than romantic love stories: they are interpretations of Egyptian history, past and present; and prescriptions for improvements that might be made there – just as Tolstoy’s novels were for Russia.’‘

Sugar-Sticky: Anita Desai

Gabriele Annan, 27 May 1999

When Tim Parks reviewed Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Ground beneath Her Feet, in the New York Review of Books he grumbled ‘that the sheer quantity of events that crowd these 575 pages is such as to overwhelm any depiction of inner life or any mind’s attempt to grasp the half of them’. By the end of his piece he is thoroughly exasperated: ‘By making the double gesture of appearing clear-sighted and then filling his pages with supernatural incident and metaphysical muddle that could mean anything or nothing, Rushdie, and many like him [my italics], play to those who, while understandably unwilling to subscribe to any belief so well defined as to be easily knocked down, nevertheless yearn to have all the mystical balls kept perpetually spinning in the air before them. Closet New Agers will be thrilled. The potential readership is huge.’ So boo squish to Vikram Chandra too, and a reprimand even for Vikram Seth, who doesn’t go in for mystical mythography, it is true, but might be accused of narrative plethora; he certainly fits in with the idea of fiction held by Rushdie’s naive hero: ‘I always thought story-telling was like juggling … You keep a lot of different ideas in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you’re good you don’t drop any.’‘

By the time she got married in 1895, Irene Langhorne was 22 and had had 62 proposals. Getting proposals was what Southern belles were brought up to do. Irene was the second of the five Langhorne sisters of Richmond, Virginia. She married Dana Gibson, the inventor of the Gibson girl. Famous for her beauty from coast to coast, she never got divorced and never gave any trouble, so she doesn’t come into James Fox’s story much; and neither does the eldest Langhorne sister Lizzie. Lizzie just got on the others’ nerves and was poor. There were also three brothers, but they don’t come into the story at all. They drank a lot, as did many Southern gentlemen after the Civil War.

Not Sex, but Sexy: Alma Mahler-Werfel

Gabriele Annan, 10 December 1998

‘You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.’ This is Cicely in The Importance of Being Earnest refusing to let Algernon look at her diary. But it could easily be her flesh-and-blood contemporary Alma Mahler protecting hers. In fact, the exchange preceding Cicely’s remark crops up in several variations in Alma’s pages, each with a different male in the role of Algernon. It goes something like this:‘

Shena Mackay’s latest novel invites you to observe the Zeitgeist of 1997 addling the brains and hearts of quite a large number of Londoners. They seem an incongruous lot, but with her usual ingenuity she manages to portion out the action among them and to make them connect (not necessarily in the Forsterian sense). They tend to come in pairs locked in ideological conflict, which doesn’t have to be verbal: it can be expressed in their behaviour, their domestic arrangements, their clothes. Altogether it is a Dickensian assemblage, vivid, lively, quirky and woven into a network that stretches from Dulwich to Maida Vale, and from Tufnell Park to the art galleries in Mayfair. Every bit of the novel is either topographical or topical, or both: like Hoxton, the new cool place for artists to have their studios.

Thoughts about Hanna

Gabriele Annan, 30 October 1997

Last year in Bonn in the brand-new Museum of Modern History (Haus der Geschichte) I watched a video about concentration camps. A row of female guards captured by the Allies stood in line, middle-aged and grim. Then a younger one spoke straight to camera. She was blonde and dishevelled; she said her name, her age – 24 – and that she had been at Belsen two months. She looked terrified. I felt sorry for her, and shocked that I was. This novel is about someone like her, and examines the feelings I had.

Rainy Days

Gabriele Annan, 18 September 1997

The only book about Albania I had read before this one was Edith Durham’s deadpan account of her travels there before the First World War. It is called In High Albania and describes how she had to become an honorary man in order to get around – not among the Muslims, as you might think, but among the Catholic tribes of the north, whose favourite Sunday pastime was shooting members of families with whom they were at blood feud. The cover of The File on H shows three young peasants in their Sunday best – black from head to foot. They look threatening all right, but any photography buff will recognise one of August Sanders’s most frequently reproduced images. These young men are Germans. They are not going to shoot anyone, because that was not the tribal custom in the Westerwald in 1914, when the photograph was taken. It seems an odd choice for a novel set in Albania in the late Thirties; but maybe it symbolises the lack of Western metaphors for what it’s like to be Albanian. Albania has been behind one iron curtain or another for centuries, and its impenetrability is its lure.’

Heritage

Gabriele Annan, 6 March 1997

The subtitle is a promise: ‘Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family’. It promises mystery and its unravelling, and delivers a new literary genre: a steamy bouillabaisse with puzzling lumps of biography, autobiography, genealogy, Freudian family romance, thriller and psycho-philosophical pronouncements floating about in it. Stanford White is the author’s great-grandfather. He was a glamorous turn-of-the-century architect in New York, very sought after in his time and still admired today; though most famous, perhaps, for his death. In 1906 he was shot dead while watching a performance of Mam’zelle Champagne at the Roof Top in Madison Square Gardens (which he designed). The trial that followed has been described as the most sensational in the States until O.J. Simpson came along.

Only the Drop

Gabriele Annan, 17 October 1996

A man in a Thurber cartoon asks a woman: ‘But Myra, what do you want to be enigmatic for?’ Or words to that effect. The question kept coming into my head as I read Beryl Bainbridge’s new novel, which is set on the Titanic during the four days before she sank, and narrated in the first person by a survivor whose first and only name is Morgan. The title, Every Man for Himself, suggests that human selfishness is going to be the theme. In fact, almost everyone or rather every man – behaves rather well, observing the women-and-children-first injunction when it comes to piling into lifeboats. ‘Every man for himself’ seems to refer rather to the inscrutability, the enigma of other people. There is a mystery about almost every passenger, and one of them, a middle-aged lawyer called Scurra, is opaque mystery all the way through, down to the scar on his lip – which some say he got in a duel, and others from the bite of a South African macaw. Morgan is only 22, and he develops a crush on Scurra, who is given to portentous and mostly cynical pronouncements. ‘Every man for himself’ is one; but the most portentous of all – because it opens and closes the book – is ‘Not the height, only the drop, is terrible.’ What can it mean?’

Shut your eyes as tight as you can

Gabriele Annan, 21 March 1996

‘We are talking in bed, friends again instead of lovers. Apricot-coloured fern fronds wave against the pearl grey background of my flannel sheets. Both of us are surprised to hear thunder, thunder in February, in Wisconsin, over frozen ground and dirty snow. My hand rests lightly on his grey hair, our legs are still entwined.’ What kind of a memoir is going to follow on from this opening? The answer is two kinds. One – the part dealing with the present and recent past in the USA – is pure schlock mixed with aspiring schlock, i.e. laced with jargon and touting every psychotherapeutic and feminist cliché. The subtitle – ‘Healing the Trauma of War and Exile’ – should be read as a health warning.’’

Glee

Gabriele Annan, 7 September 1995

Isaac Babel was a middle-class Jew from Odessa who rode to war with a Cossack regiment. This extraordinary conjunction occurred during the Russo-Polish war of 1920. It is not news, because the single work that made Babel a famous writer – the short story collection Red Cavalry – is based on his experiences that summer, when he turned 26, at the First Cavalry Army HQ in a Volhynian village. The Red Cavalry stories are beautiful, brutal and shocking; but the shock of the unexpected in the Diary – the unlikelihood of such a man being in such a place at such a time – is even greater. Not just a Jew with the Cossacks, his traditional persecutors: but an astonishing writer coming into his own on the battlefield, finding a vision somewhere between surrealism and expressionism, and a new, abrupt and plangent voice to put it over. Besides, Babel witnessed the last battles ever to be fought on horseback and with sabres. Mounted nurses – ‘all whores, but comrades, whores because they’re comrades’ – rode with the Cossacks, while bombs dropped from American planes defending the newly created Polish republic. Their commander was called Major Cedric E. Fauntleroy. What could be more surreal than that?’

Lots to Digest

Gabriele Annan, 3 August 1995

‘All stories have in them the seed of all other stories: any story, if continued long enough, becomes other stories,’ declares a female hermit who is the Ur-storyteller in this Indian multi-storey story. The man listening to her imagines ‘stories multiplying spontaneously, springing joyously out of a mother story, already whole but never complete, then giving birth themselves, becoming as numerous as the leaves on the trees, as the galaxies in the sky’. So the man becomes a storyteller himself; besides, his own story is already a story within a story. Many of the stories (but not all) begin with the injunction: ‘Listen.’ Implicit in it is another injunction: let go, accept confusion. For, among other things, this 520-page novel is an Eastern challenge to Aristotelian aesthetics. This is made quite explicit about halfway through, when a well-meaning Englishman presses the Poetics on a clever Indian boy. The boy doesn’t go for it: ‘there seemed to be a peculiar notion of emotion as something to be expelled, to be emptied out, to be, in fact, evacuated, as if the end purpose of art was a sort of bowel movement of the soul.’ Clarity, order, logic and simplicity are Western demands. Forget them if you want to enjoy this riotous, sly and sophisticated saga, which isn’t, in fact, as aimless as it pretends, since it is an argument – sometimes quite a sharp challenge – deliberately aimed at Western canons, ethical as well as aesthetic.’

Count Waller’s Story

Gabriele Annan, 24 November 1994

The hero of Irene Dische’s first novel was Adolf Hitler, alive and well and living in New Jersey. The hero of her second is Benedikt August Anton Cecil August Count Waller von Wallerstein. As a boy, he was obsessed with drawing.

Royal Anxiety

Gabriele Annan, 9 June 1994

My favourite recent book about the Queen is called The Queen’s Knickers by Nicholas Allan. It is a picture book for small children. The centre spread presents several rows of knickers for every royal occasion: Union Jack knickers for state visits, black knickers for state funerals, tartan for Balmoral, knickers printed all over with corgis for home, and appliquéd with real holly for Christmas, ‘which is why she keeps her Christmas message very short’. She gets into a terrible flap trying to decide which pair to wear for a visit to the child narrator’s school. The little girl ‘puts her at her ease’ by pointing out that it doesn’t matter because they won’t be seen anyway. After the visit the Queen sends her a bread-and-butter letter. It will actually have been written by a lady-in-waiting, though that is not explained in The Queen’s Knickers, which is a perfectly Queen-friendly book. It can be read as a variant on ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, except that it’s much less contemptuous: the attitude is indulgent, though, rather than awe-struck.

Outfits to die for

Gabriele Annan, 10 February 1994

You could call this a post-feminist work – ‘post’ even the new-wave feminism-with-a-smile of writers like Naomi Wolf. Jeanine Basinger seems out not so much to deconstruct Hollywood as to defuse the horror myth of its patriarchal Weltanschauung. The patriarchalism is there all right, but riddled with subversion. Her attitude is most clearly seen when she deals with Shirley Temple. Temple films are women’s films according to Basinger’s completely acceptable definition of the genre: films where the woman – in this case Temple – ‘is always the centre of the universe … and her concerns are always related to love, family, choices, and all the other usual things’. Basinger starts off with a run-through of some of Temple’s more thought-provoking sequences:’…

Redheads

Gabriele Annan, 25 March 1993

The blurb says that Eunice Lipton is ‘a distinguished art historian’, but don’t be misled by that or by the alluring reproduction of Manet’s Olympia (head and neck only) on the dust-jacket. Read the health warning beside it: ‘A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire’. This is not art history, but part autobiography, part historical sleuthing and part feminist consciousness-raising.

Self-Hatred

Gabriele Annan, 5 November 1992

This German novel has waited nearly forty years for its English translator. Michael Hofmann fell in love the moment the Good Fairy told him about it, and set out to liberate it from the thorn hedge of neglect. The Good Fairy, in this case, was a Berlin bookseller ‘who First recommended Koeppen’. Wolfgang Koeppen is 86. He wrote a couple of novels before the war, but his fame (now in abeyance, even in Germany where he was once classed with Böll and Grass), rests on the three he published in quick succession in the early Fifties. This is the third and he has not written much since. In his Introduction, Hofmann thanks the bookseller, Barbara Stiess, and also his publisher Daniel Halpern ‘for his unforgettably impulsive agreement to publish the book’. So the English version of Death in Rome is the result of three people’s enthusiasm.

Good Form

Gabriele Annan, 25 June 1992

‘In the simple mechanic movements of address, the foot takes the second position, the other the third, then the body gently falls forward, keeping the head in direct line with the body. The bend is made by a motion at the union of the inferior limbs with the body, and a little flexing at the limbs.’ These instructions for a gentleman’s bow are not too difficult to follow. But what about the ones for the waltz?

Alma’s Alter

Gabriele Annan, 11 June 1992

This book is beautifully designed and printed, and very well translated by Mary Whittall. The English sometimes sounds a bit gnarled, but so does Kokoschka’s idiosyncratic German: not because Czech was his first language, though; his father was a German-speaking Czech from Prague, his mother Austrian; he was born in Lower Austria in 1886, grew up in a suburb of Vienna, and trained at the famous School of Arts and Crafts there. Whittall even manages the puns: in a letter of June 1930, for instance, Kokoschka jokingly compares his own indigence to that of Der arme Heinrich (‘Poor Heinrich’), the hero of a Medieval epic and a recent play by Gerhard Hauptmann. The passage ends er im Kreuzzug an leitender stelle (ich im Bummelzug von Gabes nach Reval). Literally this means: ‘he is a leading position in the crusades, I on a slow train from Gabes to Reval.’ Whittal renders it: ‘he in the vanguard of a crusade (I in the guard’s van from Gabes to Reval).’ She must have been pleased with that, and quite right too.

Too vulgar

Gabriele Annan, 13 February 1992

Queen consorts usually have their lives written by the Barbara Cartlands of biography, romantics like Joan Haslip whose life of the famous fascinator Elizabeth of Austria, the last empress but one, was as spirited as its subject. Gordon Brook-Shepherd is not that kind of writer at all (nor was his empress that kind of empress). A former foreign correspondent and deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, he is a specialist in modern Central European history who munches informatively through the events on his plate. No dramatics for him, and no psychologising either.

Not nobody

Gabriele Annan, 24 October 1991

The Red Countess’ – die rote Gräfin – is well-known in Germany. More green than red now, and never any redder than the SPD, she is 81, still an active political journalist and still publishing Die Zeit, her country’s most prestigious political weekly, which she edited from 1968 to 1973. At one time she was asked to stand for Bundespräsident. She is definitely not nobody, and the writings collected here are imbued with a calm self-confidence that turns out to be her salient characteristic. It rests on the conviction that she can tell right from wrong. She has always acted accordingly, without any soul-searching or fuss.’

Bullies

Gabriele Annan, 7 February 1991

The Mann family romance is among the tragic real-life soap operas of the century, a large-cast drama of genius, talent, fame and infamy, fraternal hatred, rocky and rock-hard marriages, open and covert sexual deviancy, secrets and suicides. It provided material for Thomas, Heinrich, Erika and Klaus Mann’s novels and plays, and for plenty of biographies and psycho-literary studies besides. Golo Mann is the third of Thomas and Katja Mann’s six children. He was born in 1909 and must have been the model for the little boy nicknamed Beisser (Biter) in his father’s comical and touching novella Unordnung und Frühes Leid (‘Early Sorrow’) – which, he says, ‘others greatly admired but I found embarrassing’. Graceless, bumbling Beisser is outshone by his flower-like sister Lorchen, who has stolen their father’s heart with her pretty ways. Beisser suffers from terrible rages and is made to stand in a corner where he screams and screams until he turns blue. The nanny thinks he is having a fit, but it’s only the blue nursery distemper coming off on his wet cheeks. Golo Mann quotes his mother’s diary on the subject of himself as a small child:’

Every Curve of Flesh

Gabriele Annan, 10 January 1991

‘It’s ages since I got over being a sexual psychopath,’ Wedekind wrote, ‘and yet, I shall never forget it: those were happy days.’ His Diary of an Erotic Life is a record of those happy days between 1887, when he was 23, and 1894. A few pages of short entries cover the period 1908 to 1918. That was the year he died, after several botched operations on his appendix. The last entry is a poem to his wife Tilly. She was a beautiful actress much younger than he was, and they had two little girls. In the poem, Wedekind sets her free. The marriage was going badly – she had tried to commit suicide a few months before. He speaks of his dreary illness: perhaps he foresaw his death. The poem is an affectionate, fatalistic farewell ballad – the ballad form used ironically, as Heine used it. Wedekind admired and regularly parodied Heine. In order to get a rhyme the translator has decided to call Tilly ‘dear lass’. Wedekind just calls her Tilly. The invocation has to be repeated three times because it occurs in the refrain, and that is a pity. The translation of the prose, on the other hand, gets Wedekind’s throw-away, disillusioned tone rather well.’

Lament for the members of a class of masters

Gabriele Annan, 6 December 1990

Gregor von Rezzori was born on his mother’s estate in Bukovina in 1914. Bukovina was Austrian in those days, Romanian after the First World War, and Russian after the second. The Rezzoris were minor Austrian gentry administering the outposts of empire, more like the British in India than like the magnates who entertained Patrick Leigh-Fermor when he passed through the Balkans. There was Italian blood on the father’s side and Romanian-Greek and Irish on the mother’s. Rezzori is very much concerned with blood and racial inheritance in all his books. The concern itself appears to be an inheritance: his father was steeped in late 19th-century Greater German ideology. He was also unquestioningly anti-semitic. Rezzori deplores such attitudes: but he can never leave them alone – they are an ingredient in the fuel he runs on.’

Futility

Gabriele Annan, 27 September 1990

This biography is sad and bad. Bad like a bad pre-war Hollywood movie – monumentally, heroically implausible. But its badness is also its greatest asset: the style and attitude transport one to the time and place where most of the action is set. Everything that happens is drama, every conversation is script. Antoni Gronowicz, now dead, claims that he met Garbo in Paderewski’s house on Lake Geneva in 1938 when she was 35 and he was 22. They went for a moonlight walk and Garbo seduced him. Gronowicz immediately conceived the idea of writing a book about her. She was against the idea and forbade him to take notes in her presence, let alone use a recorder. But he lured her into intimate conversations which continued over the years, and he would write down everything she said the moment he was alone. By the end of the Fifties he had enough notes to begin pressurising her about a biography. Her reaction was in full make-up: ‘I will deny that I talked with you, I will deny that I know you, I will deny that I have even heard of you.’ And he replied: ‘If you imagine that you will always be great, I am warning you now that you will gradually sink below the horizon of remembrance and be gone for ever.’’

Mad John

Gabriele Annan, 28 June 1990

This is Richard Evans’s second book on McEnroe. The Struwwelpeter of tennis is now 31 and No 4 in the international ratings. The first book, McEnroe: A Rage for Perfection, came out eight years ago when McEnroe was 23 and rated No 1. The new book belongs to the genre of defensive biography. It is as though Oliver had written a life of Roland: the wise, steady friend standing up for the brilliant, wayward hero. The comparison may sound pretentious, but then Evans compares McEnroe to Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, with quotations from Shakespeare and from Peter Levi on Shakespeare. He uses adjectives like ‘pavonine’, and describes McEnroe’s style as pointilliste – rather a good idea, except that it leads to an analysis of pointillism: ‘tiny jabs of colour executed with the deft touch of a true artist’.

It

Gabriele Annan, 24 May 1990

The history of psychoanalysis is full of skeletons. This particular one has tumbled out of its cupboard several times before but is none the worse for that. It is still an enjoyable read, whatever else it may be, and every bit as much of an atmospheric period piece as Gwen Raverat’s famous reminiscences of more or less the same time – even if no two atmospheres could be more different than draughty Cambridge and richly-upholstered Vienna on either side of the turn of the century.’

The Trouble with Trott

Gabriele Annan, 22 February 1990

In England, Adam von Trott has always been the best-known of the plotters against Hitler who were shot or hanged after the abortive coup of 20 July 1944 – better even than Claus von Stauffenberg who carried the bomb in his briefcase to the Führer’s headquarters in East Prussia and detonated it. This is because from 1931 to 1933 Trott was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College and made a tremendous impression on his contemporaries and seniors at Oxford. He made friends with men and women who were to become, or beginning to be, what the Germans call prominente. Among them were Richard Crossman, A.L. Rowse, Maurice Bowra, Isaiah Berlin, David Astor and the journalist Shiela Grant Duff, who, in 1982, published a book about their relationship, and followed it up with a volume of their correspondence. At opposite ends of the political spectrum he impressed Lord Lothian and won the affection of Sir Stafford Cripps. Trott was intelligent, aristocratic, idealistic, thoughtful, funny, beautiful, and devastatingly charming: a male Zuleika Dobson. Undergraduates and dons of both sexes were bewitched by him and never shook off the spell. No one who had ever known him at all could escape haunting by his heroic and gruesome death. The familiar photograph of him listening to the judge pronouncing the death sentence has become a tragic icon. It can be seen again in MacDonogh’s book, and on this page.’

Seriously ugly

Gabriele Annan, 11 January 1990

This, say Barbara Skelton’s publishers, is the ‘second – and some people will be relieved to hear, final – volume of her riotous autobiography’. On page one of volume one there is a quotation from Harriette Wilson about the meaning of the term ‘gentleman’ – a subject not really very close to Skelton’s heart. For an English autobiographer, she seems wonderfully free from snobbery, whether plain or inverted. But the presence of Harriette Wilson signifies because, like hers, these are the memoirs of a grande horizontale.’

Antonia White died eight years ago aged 81. In the past three years, two biographies or memoirs of her have been published, each by one of her two daughters. She is best known for her convent school novel Frost in May, which Elizabeth Bowen admired for being both a ‘minor classic’ and a ‘work of art’. It was published in 1933; by 1954 its author was complaining that it hung ‘round my neck like a withered wreath’. She would have liked her three subsequent novels and book of short stories to be equally successful, but they weren’t. They are perhaps more so now, having recently been reissued and made into a television serial.

The Bart

Gabriele Annan, 10 December 1987

‘And yet, could the age of the conquering bourgeoisie flourish, when large tracts of the bourgeoisie itself found themselves so little engaged in the generation of wealth, and drifting so rapidly and so far away from the puritan ethic, the values of work and effort, accumulation through abstention, duty and moral earnestness, which had given them their identity, pride and ferocious energy? … The fear – nay, the shame – of a future of parasites haunted them.’ These sentences, from the Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire, 1875-1914, would make the perfect epitaph for Simon Blow’s history of his maternal grandmother’s family, the Tennants. Or for a Thatcherite tract on Britain’s decline from Victorian values. Or for a great novel like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. The rise and fall of a mercantile dynasty is a rich old subject, and can be approached from several angles. Which will Simon Blow’s be? ‘If I was more Tennant than anything else,’ he writes, ‘I began to wonder who the Tennants were. Should I be proud, worried or ashamed? What influence was this blood likely to have over my destiny?’ It sounds like another search for identity – ‘the curse of the age’, as E.S. Turner recently remarked à propos of Gloria Vanderbilt’s autobiography.’

Stuffing

Gabriele Annan, 3 September 1987

Bloomsbury on the left, Neo-Pagans on the right, these columns represent, more or less, Paul Delany’s relative definition of the two Edwardian intellectual groups. The first two pairs of adjectives are quoted from his Introduction. Of course, Bloomsbury and the Neo-Pagans had much in common: an educated upper middle-class background; Cambridge – almost all the men went there, and some of the women; at Cambridge, the Bloomsbury men mostly belonged to the Apostles, and so did Rupert Brooke and Ferenc Bekassy, a fringe Neo-Pagan; nervous breakdowns were common in both groups and treated by the same doctors with the same regime – called ‘stuffing’ – in the sense of fattening up; members of both sets recognised one another in the audience at the opera and Diaghilev’s London seasons. If they did not all know one another, at least they knew of one another – in l911, there was a partial, temporary and gingerly link-up, initiated by Virginia Woolf; and all along James Strachey, born to be Bloomsbury but in love with Rupert Brooke, functioned as a sort of inter-coterie courier.’

Diary: Trouble at Pyramids Street

Gabriele Annan, 3 April 1986

Pyramids Street runs double track from the centre of Cairo to the western suburb of Ghiza. Seafood restaurants and night-clubs with belly-dancing line the final few kilometres. The last building is the Mena House, a soaring, turreted Oriental San Simeon set in luscious grounds. Now a hotel, it was once a royal hunting-lodge. Across the road lies an enclosure where camels and Arab steeds wait to take tourists up the last steep bend to the Pyramids. When the camels with their robed drivers lurch in for work, the early sun glows crimson and scarlet on their trappings, and from our sixth-floor window at the Mena House I try to achieve Delacroix effects with my instamatic. It is not easy to exclude the souvenir stalls, pylons, concrete lampposts and small unlovely concrete mosque from the frames. Behind the Pyramids the desert begins.

A Resonance for William Styron

Gabriele Annan, 7 November 1985

In 1972 a 26-year-old American schizophrenic, Anthony Baekeland, killed his mother Barbara with a kitchen knife. They had been sleeping together. It was her idea: she thought it would cure his homosexuality. An earlier cure by means of a French girl had not been completely successful; Tony’s father, Brooks Baekeland, had gone off with the girl he married after Barbara’s death. This occurred in Cadogan Square, so Tony was sent to Broadmoor. Eight years later he was released, extradited, and sent to live with his maternal grandmother in New York. He stabbed her with a kitchen knife. She survived and he was sent to the penitentiary on Rikers Island, where he killed himself by putting his head in a plastic bag. By this time it was 1981.

Getting on

Gabriele Annan, 20 December 1984

At the beginning of The Ledge between the Streams, the fourth volume of his autobiography, Ved Mehta has got to 1942. Many of his readers will already know that he is a blind Indian writer living in New York, and that he was born in the Punjab in 1934, the son of an ‘England-returned’ doctor in the government medical service. Dr Mehta (Daddyji) was a true ‘babu’: he ‘admired everything British’. Born a poor village boy (though of the warrior caste, one rung below the Brahmins), he had raised himself to the middle-class through education. He and his family were mobile, not so much upwardly, because that is not the Indian way, but forwardly into a Westernised way of life. They sat on the symbolic ledge of the title between the two streams of tradition and progress, one slow and deep, the other clear, cold and fast.

Demi-Paradises

Gabriele Annan, 7 June 1984

Imagine a mixture of Maurice Chevalier (Gallic charm), Max Miller (the Cheeky Chappie), and Don Juan, with a boastful list of sexual conquests on which contesse, baronesse, marchesine, principesse line up with famous literary and theatrical ladies as well as top professionals in another field. The man is also a racing driver, yachtsman, avant-garde theatre and film producer, poet, translator of Elizabethan verse and Christopher Fry, and the inventor of the windscreen-wiper, starlight electric bulbs and château bottling, not to speak of his being a Rothschild. He owns Château Mouton Rothschild, which he raised to the rank of a premier cru by means of hard work and a craftily fought campaign against the other five who wanted to keep him out. He also established a wine museum at Mouton, not the usual mouldering old presses and dusty glass cases full of corks and tasters, but a beautiful pleasure dome filled with works of art connected with wine.

Ivy’s Feelings

Gabriele Annan, 1 March 1984

Ivy Litvinov was the English wife of Maxim Litvinov, Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the Thirties and Stalin’s Ambassador to Washington after the war. John Carswell is the son of Catherine Carswell, who was Ivy’s best friend until she followed her husband to Russia in 1920. In 1959, after Catherine and Litvinov were dead, Ivy got permission to visit her native land and turned up on John Carswell’s doorstep. He sounds irritated with this cumbersome human legacy, but it is nothing to his irritation with Ivy for not having made more of her opportunities in the way he would have wished – for turning her back on them, in fact. ‘She was not identified with the adventure of her life,’ he says crossly. ‘History was in an ironical mood when it provided Ivy with an itching pen and a keen eye and sent her to observe from a vantage-point some of the most extraordinary phases through which the human race has passed, and then muffled her with a passion for English literature and the primacy of her own feelings.’ All the more credit to him, then, for producing, with elegant economy, a vivid impression of this bizarre and remarkable lady. Perhaps it is his running quarrel with her that gives his book its momentum.–

Mrs Meneghini

Gabriele Annan, 17 February 1983

Giovanni Battista Meneghini died exactly two years ago aged 85. He had been a deserted husband for 12 years and a widower for four. With the help of Enzo Allegri, a journalist on the staff of the Italian weekly Gente, he completed 16 chapters of the present book, and Gente published them in instalments. The remaining chapters were concocted from tapes and other material by Allegri after Meneghini’s death.

Uncle Zindel

Gabriele Annan, 2 September 1982

Isaac Singer is a man of far away and long ago. He was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1904. His father was a Hassidic rabbi from a Jewish shtetl in Galicia, a place almost untouched by the Industrial Revolution and sealed off from modern thinking, where from dawn to dusk every activity was elaborately regulated by tribal custom and religious ritual. This is where Singer’s roots are, and many of his stories exploit the exotic appeal of such an archaic background.

God’s Little Sister

Gabriele Annan, 1 July 1982

Bronislava Nijinska was born in 1892, not just in a trunk, but very nearly on stage at the Opera Theatre in Minsk. Her father danced with her mother in Act One of Glinka’s A Life for the Czar. During Act Two Eleanora Nijinska was taken to hospital and another dancer took her place. When the curtain came down on Act Three a messenger arrived to tell Thomas Nijinsky that he had a daughter. He already had two sons: Stanislav, aged four, and Vaslav, later le dieu de la danse, who was two. Bronislava Nijinska grew up to be one of the few choreographers of any period whose works are still performed all over the world. Les Noces (1923), to Stravinsky’s music, evokes a peasant wedding: remote and ritualistic, it has an undertow of desolation which recalls Tatyana’s nurse weeping bitterly when, at 13, she was married to another child. Les Biches (1924), witty and funny with music by Poulenc and a cast of Bright Young Things, would surprise anyone who knew Nijinska only from these memoirs: they are earnest, intense and quite humourless: but immensely important for the history of ballet and of Nijinsky in particular. It is he who occupies the centre of the stage. Nijinsky is one of the mystery figures of European mythology, almost like Caspar Hauser or the Man in the Iron Mask: something strange, weird, freakish attaches to his legend, as well as much glamour. Not many people are alive who saw him dance: the rest must either take it on trust not only that he was better than any other dancer ever seen but that his dancing was different in kind, or they can choose to believe that if he were to appear today, when dancers are more athletic and more scientifically trained, we should not be very impressed. Nijinska persuades one to take the former view.

Tolstoy’s Daughter

Gabriele Annan, 1 April 1982

Alexandra Tolstoy died in 1979. Except for Vanechka, who died in 1895 when he was seven, she was Tolstoy’s youngest child. She was also his close companion and secretary in the last years of his life. ‘The first and best period of my life was with my father. It lasted 26 years – perhaps only six or eight conscious years, and perhaps then not fully conscious, for it was not an easy period.’ So she wrote in 1977, in her foreword to these memoirs. But the memoirs themselves, written mainly between 1929 and 1939, open on a grimmer note: ‘Only now as I near the end do I remember my childhood without any bitterness.’ The shadow over her childhood was the knowledge that her mother did not love her. ‘She had given all her affection to my little brother Vanechka, beautiful as an angel.’

Bad Feeling

Gabriele Annan, 5 November 1981

Death at Astopovo, like death at Mayerling, has become part of Western mythology. People like to imagine the scene and to hear the story that led up to it over and over again. Kenneth MacMillan began his ballet Mayerling with a prologue tableau of the end: black figures with umbrellas stand and watch the snow falling into Maria Vetsera’s open grave. The snow falls at Astopovo too, where Anne Edwards sets her prologue and shows us Countess Tolstoy outside the stationmaster’s hut, trying to catch a glimpse of her dying husband through the curtained windows.

Jewishness

Gabriele Annan, 7 May 1981

This might have been the autobiography of the present Archbishop of Paris. It caused some sensation when it first appeared in French in 1978. The author is an Israeli historian and political scientist who teaches at the University of Tel Aviv and the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He specialises in the history of the Third Reich and has also written about psycho-history and collaborated with an Arab, Mahmoud Hussein, in a Dialogue about Arabs and Israelis.

Maria’s Mystery

Gabriele Annan, 6 November 1980

Maria Callas died almost exactly three years ago. Two months later Arianna Stassinopoulos was commissioned to write her biography. She was half-way through when she made the discovery that there were two Callases: La Callas, the diva of the legend, and Maria, the living suffering woman ‘beyond’. ‘And just as she was in danger of disappearing into a shimmer of ordinariness – of insecurities, of snobbery, of fears, of common humanity – I rediscovered her without illusions in all her real rather than her public greatness … It is this passion for life, for her art and for something unknown beyond both, that was compelling her and driving her forever on.’ Miss Stassinopoulos worked hard at her research and unearthed three particularly enlightening sources. The first was Callas’s correspondence with her godfather, Leonidas Lantzounis, a Greek doctor living in New York. Callas wrote to him over a period of thirty years with astonishing frankness, especially about her notoriously hostile feelings towards her mother and sister. Secondly, there were transcripts of conversations between Callas and the American music critic John Ardoin; and thirdly, the desolate tapes she made all alone in the last years of her life.

Father’ Things

Gabriele Annan, 7 August 1980

Like J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, this is a biography-cum-autobiography in which the father is more reprehensible by conventional standards – and in the eyes of the law as well – than mere monsters like old Gosse or Butler/Pontifex. Wolff père was a professional conman, if ‘professional’ is the right word. In some ways it isn’t, because his operations were too slapdash, too reckless, and too much part of his dream about himself, to merit that adjective: on the other hand, they were the means by which he kept himself and his wife and two sons in various states of grandeur or misery.

A Hindu Marriage

Gabriele Annan, 19 June 1980

In 1956, when he was 22 and about to go up to Oxford, Ved Mehta finished an autobiography, Face to Face: a provisional one, naturally, under the circumstances. In 1972, he published Daddyji, a life of his father. Daddyji was born circa 1895, but the book reaches back to the birth of the grandfather, and beyond: though the beyond is rather shadowy. ‘By extension’, it was ‘the story of an ancient Hindu family from an Indian village, aspiring to enter the modern world’.

Sheep into Goats

Gabriele Annan, 24 January 1980

Both authors of The British Aristocracy have been connected with Burke’s Peerage. One doesn’t expect genealogists to be particularly indulgent: their job, after all, is to separate the sheep from the goats. But these two are soft-hearted and broadminded to a fault, or so social historians, as well as some of their subjects, might think. They draw the demarcation-line between the aristocracy and the rest to take in almost the whole middle class except ‘the rag trade, showbiz and property dealing’. They contend (and under the guise of merely purveying scholarly information spiked with quaint anecdotes, this is quite a contentious book, almost a tract) that the term ‘middle class’ has become over-extended: ‘It is understandable that the aristocracy should be called middle-class by its enemies – after all, middle-class is a variant of the Marxist “bourgeoisie” – but there is something particularly absurd about aristocrats speaking of themselves as middle-class, as they frequently do these days.’ So Bence-Jones and Montgomery-Massingberd take the word ‘gentleman’ and make it mean ‘aristocratic’: their definitions define not so much what is as what they think ought to be.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences