“What is a writer? asked jesting Pilot - and would not stay for an answer”….OK I cheated, the question was actually “what is truth?” But the rest of the quotation (from one of my favourite essayists – Francis Bacon 1561-1626) is correct.
I don’t know why this quotation is so deeply engrained in what passes for my mind….although Bacon (and Lamb – I kid you not!) are probably the characters responsible for my love of good language……Charles Lamb actually came along a couple of hundred years later (1775-1835) and I remember mainly for his essay “on eating roast pig”. Joseph Addison came in between (1672-1730) and William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a contemporary of Lamb’s…
Perhaps this is why I’ve never been a great fan of novels – the classical essayists, to whom I was introduced in my teens at school, made their impact, I realise, for two reasons – they crafted short pieces which left a vivid impression.
That said, if I am asked to name my three favourite writers, it’s not necessarily George Orwell who comes to mind….but rather Arthur Koestler, Joseph Roth and Sebastian Haffner – ie a Hungarian and two Germans - and all of them essentially journalists!
He was a prolific and powerful writer whose arguments on such varied subjects as the death penalty; and laughter and jokes I remember to this day. His memoirs give a far better sense of what it was like to be alive in the early part and middle of the 20th century far better than any novel.
I wrote an extensive post about Joseph Roth last year; until recently Roth was known in the English-speaking world basically as the author of The Radetzky March but now enjoys a reputation for his journalism and short stories thanks to the quality of his translator, Michael Hofmann,
He was a master of the feuilleton, a peculiar form of journalism that was especially popular in European newspapers in the early 20th century. In his confident, controversial way, he added,
“What people pick up the newspaper for is me. Not the parliamentary report. Not the lead article. Not the foreign news….I don’t write ‘witty columns.’ I paint the portrait of the age.”
I was long a fan of Sebastian Haffner whose material on contemporary Germany I remember reading in The Observer – although he was by the 60s back in Germany. But he had made his reputation in Britain in 1940 with Germany Jekyll and Hyde – a contemporary account of Nazi Germany. In 1978/79 he produced “The Meaning of Hitler” but it was his posthumously produced "Defying Hitler – a memoir” which I found quite stunning in the picture it painted of how ordinary decent citizens reacted passively to the beatings, sackings and disappearances being inflicted on their neighbours…..
In the post-war period too many people fell for the argument that it was all the fault of a few Nazis when, in reality, it was a significant section of an entire society which was complicit…..
Reading it just a couple of years ago, I was immediately struck with the American parallels….
An article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books looks at a new book by Konrad Jarausch who gave us Out of Ashes – a new history of Europe in the 20th Century
The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.
But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.
Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic “They Thought They Were Free”, recently republished with an afterword by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, was one of the first accounts of ordinary life under Nazism. Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, “Defying Hitler”, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)
A much broader perspective comes from Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives – how ordinary Germans experienced the 20th century, an effort to reconstruct the experience of Germans across the entire twentieth century.
What distinguishes the three books is their sense of intimacy. They do not focus on historic figures making transformative decisions. They explore how ordinary people attempted to navigate their lives under terrible conditions.
The message seems to be that – in the hands of a skilful writer or journalist – the words and conversations of ordinary people can be moulded into powerful literature….
Joan Didion was another writer who had this gift of conveying conversations - Everyman's Library has a wonderful 1000 page collection of her nonfiction – We Tell Ourselves Stories in order to Live