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Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Θὰ μπαίνεις

Two casualties of luggage restrictions. I’ve left the new book about Sir Henry Maine by Karuna Mantena and Julius Norwich’s Short History of Byzantium in England, packing Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, two more police procedurals by Graham Hurley and Ismael Kadari’s Three Elegies for Kosovo and The Ghost Rider, while waiting here for when they’re less celebrated - Stieg Larsson’s posthumous trilogy. I’ll hurry with the Hurleys as the French are making two Faraday books into 90 minute films; the author’s Pompey becoming Le Havre.
Chris Jameson, my skipper and I sailed into Le Havre aboard Danica one grey April dawn in 1962, me queasy from the early swells of a vernal gale steepened in the shallows of the Channel, to start an adventurous journey up the Seine to Paris, turning, with mast lowered, south south east through the French waterways and, from Lyons, via the Rhone to the Mediterranean and on to Greece, where we’d arrive in oven-like July. Γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Of Le Havre I most recall a high concrete digue of immense length between the roughness outside and the calm inside; dozing in my quarter berth in the unlit gloom of a sunless morning after a two day run from Lymington; the pleasing sound of surf thumping the harbour wall - á l’abri des coups de mare - wind rattling the halliards against the mast, stronger gusts whistling in the standing rigging, and the gentlest of rocking as of a return to the cosiness of the womb as the tempest we’d just missed grew in force, big rain rattling in bursts on our leakless cabin, water streaming over the lights.
And thinking of the lines from Ithaca that might fit that old experience, I’m wondering, in looking up the word ‘μπαίνεις’ in Niko’s lexicon, and hearing its pronounciation (baenis), what other meaning the poet’s attached to the line ‘Θὰ μπαίνεις σὲ λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους·’ – ‘You’ll enter into harbours yet unseen’…’with what delight, what joy’ – ‘μὲ τὶ εὐχαρίστηση, μὲ τὶ χαρὰ’ Of ‘μπαίνεις’ the lexicon reveals: ‘Μπαίνειστα’, as in ‘horning in’, and ‘πιάνω τον ταύρο από τα κέρατα’ meaning ‘take the bull by the horns’.
Reading Cavafy in 2010 I enjoy the benefits, with millions of others whose animosities have been reconstructed by changing times, of being no more than mildly puzzled by men’s fear of homosexuality. My phobias - unexamined hatreds – are more likely to be directed at someone who seriously believes there’s a future for fossil fuel, who buys celebrity magazines, who’s loud in public places, who's excited by leverage. In Cavafy’s time homosexuality was, as indeed it still is in parts of the world, an illegal condition; loathed, a source of profound distaste even horror, thought to be cureable or a malign choice, and, for those who were homosexual, perilous. Lauding homo-erotic verse carried risks, that now you’d only experience among the Taliban or a convocation of evangelical Christians (I simplify). Hardly 60 years ago it was tricky enough for heterosexuals in European society, especially women, to understand, through the haze of ignorance induced by suppression and repression, the physical intracies of sexual intercourse (ooh ah missus!). Imagine then the fate of those unguided by the conventions that, while, being unhelpful with detail, were at least encouraged to put themselves alongside the opposite sex and – with diffidence and fear - take things from there. Phew! Thus have we progressed through the age of repression, via achingly tedious decades of chuckling innuendo, to a position (know what I mean? Nudge nudge, wink wink) where the drivers of Cavafy’s genius are almost impossible to comprehend, hardly more to be grasped than the writings of Marie Stopes or Havelock Ellis or that Dutch author, whose name I couldn't recall, whose instructive book on ideal marriage had, in the early 1960s, to be signed for, when, with nervousness, I ordered a copy from the University Library in Cambridge and was allowed to take it to the reading tables, but not to my rooms. ‘The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops, the raging Poseidon do not fear’ – ‘Τοὺς Λαιστρυγόνας καὶ τοὺς Κύκλωπας,τὸν θυμωμένο Ποσειδῶνα μὴ φοβᾶσαι’. You must be joking. 30 years later, Masters and Johnson now long digested, along with that other now boringly humourless book The Joy of Sex, I recall hinting to my son that we ought to have ‘a conversation’. He, way ahead of me, being about ten or eleven, asked me to wait a mo’ while he fetched his class workbook full of finely crafted diagrams and explanations. “Gosh Richard, I doubt they circulate this in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.” Any paternal obligation to impart ‘the facts of life’ let alone ‘the birds and the bees’ was clearly futile.
Similar, though still bowdlerised and certainly unillustrated, information had been dutifully imparted to me in callow youth, via headmaster and housemaster; a process of circuitous, tortuous and most serious explanation. My parents, thank goodness, were more relaxed than I, possibly through association with farming and the countryside, except "for us it’s much more pleasurable; much less matter of fact." But even they didn’t venture onto the subject of homosexuality. The word ‘queer’ was acceptable, along with ‘fag’ (learned from Americans not public school) up until about 1965, along with the old let-out - ‘but some of my best friends’. Only about then did things begin to change. Wolfenden, published in 1957, helped, and the outcome of the Chatterley case in1960 oiled the wheels. Cavafy died over thirty years earlier, he began writing a century ago and I’ve only started to read him in the last two years, giving closer reading in the last few months.Σὰ βγεῖς στὸν πηγαιμὸ γιὰ τὴν 'Ιθάκη, νὰ εὔχεσαι νἆναι μακρὺς ὀ δρόμος, γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
When you set out on the journey to Ithaca, pray that the road be long, full of adventures, full of knowledge
Indeed. No wonder Cavafy spoke of himself as a poet of the future, no wonder he was ‘in his personal life…reticent and secretive’ (p.x. Peter Mackridge’s introduction to my copy of the poems published in 2007). The full excitement I feel in struggling with the original texts, hardly available until the Sachperoglou-Hirst-Mackridge edition was published, is the poet’s – to borrow Mackridge (p.xiv) ‘betwixt-and-between position’, his ‘braiding’ of different versions of Greek – classical, demotic, kavarouthesa – his characters – Mackridge’s help again – part pagan, part Christian, ἐν μέρει ἐθνικός, κ`ἐν μέρει χριστιανίζων. Law and society are wont to abhor betwixt-and-between; things that are neither fish nor fowl, of the land and of the sea are notoriously taboo, since eluding primitive classification. There’s a Turk in the Balkans who joins the retreating Christians in Kadare’s Elegies for Kosovo who’s burned alive by the Latin inquisition who’d have tolerated him as a foreign pagan or a converted Christian but won’t stomach his wavering between Christ and the Prophet. Doesn’t it say in Revelations “I spit on you because you blow neither hot nor cool”? Cavafy is all hybridity, mongrel – my favourite when it comes to dogs, fusion, mixture. I am surprised I didn’t encounter him when, earlier. coming across Pessoa or Whitman, those artists of internal multiplicity.
** **
My book now is Alone in Berlin. Written over three weeks in 1947, as Jeder stirbt für sich allein, it's not been widely available, despite it’s author’s fame in Europe, and certainly not in Michael Hofmann’s English translation published last year. I came across it because Amazon, noting my reading of wartime European noir, recommended it. After that its superlative reviews took over. Written by Rudolf Wilhelm Adolph Ditzen (1893-1947), who died before his novel was published under the long adopted pseudonym of Hans Fallada, the story fictionalises the contents of a Gestapo file which was given to Ditzen, who’d just come out of a Nazi psychiatric unit, having survived in Germany through its years of disgrace, by Johannes Becher, a poet friend, with a ministerial post in Soviet East Germany. The file covers a Berlin police investigation between 1940-1943 into the cases of Elise and Otto Hampel who were beheaded by the Nazi’s in Plotenzee Prison in March 1943. Primo Levi described Fallada’s novel about them as ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’.
Otto and Elise Hampel
Leaving for a moment the genius of the man who bore such eloquent witness to this couple, I read the Afterword of the novel by the Australian academic Geoff Wilkes, which as well as telling me more about Fallada, gives an overview of the contents of that Gestapo file with its illustrations – two uneducated working people who paid with their lives for circulating, over three years, a large number of anti-Nazi postcards all over Berlin calling for civil disobedience, especially requesting people withhold donations to The Winter Fund, a false front charity used to fund the war, and workplace sabotage; no bombings, no organized conspiracy, no assassinations – just badly written postcards placed at random across the city. How I honour them and how I honour the damaged drug dependent alchoholic Hans Fallada for showing the heroism involved in such ordinary, almost boring, subversion. Most of the Hampel’s postcards – in the novel they become Anna and Otto Quangel - were immediately handed into the police, their effect on the Nazi government seems to have been sub-token. All that Elise and Otto Hampel did could be dismissed as futile. Murdered (for such it was) in 1943, husband and wife died before the dawn they longed to see and for which they gave their unrenowned lives.
Yet not so. Geoff Wilkes says it well in the last sentence of his afterword (p.588)
...whereas Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) dissects and analyses 'the banality of evil', Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin comprehends and honours the banality of good.
I sub-titled this web-diary – in Greek - η κοινοτόπια του καλόυ. Wanting to complement Arendt's understanding of evil, I sought a Greek translation of a phrase that captures the idea, without conceit or whimsy, that good is also ordinary, not only the work of great and virtuous heroes and saints. When I was somewhere near sixteen my stepfather may have wanted to convey to me a message about my propensity to dismiss or scorn some people. It might have been that I was studying Conrad’s Lord Jim for A-level; Jim, who's harboured dreams of his own heroism; who when the pilgrim ship Patna, on which he’s first mate, seems about to founder, surprises himself for ever by deserting his passengers and jumping with his skipper and other officers into its only lifeboat. JH said to me:
Don’t assume that you will, if tested, act as you’d wish to have acted. Don’t ever assume that someone of whom you may have little opinion, as indeed they may have of themselves, will not surprise you and indeed themselves, when a circumstance arises in which they have a choice between cowardice and courage. You don’t know until and if it happens.
Fallada’s story is about unlikely heroes - people to whom ‘it happened’.
[Back to the future - April 2011: Neil Davenport's review of Alone in Berlin in Spiked Review of Books]

[Friday 1 July 2011:
The real damage is done by those millions who want to ’survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.
These are the words of Sophia Magdalena Scholl - 9 May 1921 – 22 February 1943, who with her brother, Hans, and friends formed the White RoseAlex Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, Traute Lafrenz, Katharina Schueddekopf, Lieselotte Berndl, Jurgen Wittenstein, Marie-Luise Jahn, Falk Harnack, Hans Leipelt, Marie-Luise Jahn and Professor Kurt Huber. Also Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and Freya von Moltke of the Kreisau Circle...and...
I recall Traudl Junge - the real person, not the actor in Downfall, Hitler's personal secretary, saying in a commentary on that great film:
Of course, the terrible things I heard from the Nuremberg Trials, about the six million Jews and the people from other races who were killed, were facts that shocked me deeply. But I wasn't able to see the connection with my own past. I was satisfied that I wasn't personally to blame and that I hadn't known about those things. I wasn't aware of the extent. But one day I went past the memorial plaque which had been put up for Sophie Scholl in Franz Josef Strasse, and I saw that she was born the same year as me, and she was executed the same year I started working for Hitler. And at that moment I actually sensed that it was no excuse to be young, and that it would have been possible to find things out. Im toten Winkel - Hitlers Sekretärin (2002)
 ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΤΘΑΙΟΝ 26:40 ~ καὶ ἔρχεται πρὸς τοὺς μαθητὰς καὶ εὑρίσκει αὐτοὺς καθεύδοντας, καὶ λέγει τῷ Πέτρῳ Οὕτως οὐκ ἰσχύσατε μίαν ὥραν γρηγορῆσαι μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ;

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Simon Baddeley