Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived Loved and Died in the 1940s – Less would be more

This is my review of Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba.

Although much has been written about France under German occupation in the 1940s, “Les Parisiennes” takes a fresh angle on how women in particular were affected, describing the part they played in resistance, collaboration, or simply “getting on with life”.

The book is thoroughly researched with a six page “cast of characters” at the front, detailed notes on each chapter and an extensive bibliography at the end. However, I felt bludgeoned by the unrelenting spate of prose, since the basically chronological approach not only flits breathlessly between characters, but keeps digressing into a flood of often gossipy and gushing details or condensed potted biographies which seem of only marginal relevance.

Perhaps inevitably in view of the author’s interest in fashion, there is a clear preoccupation with the wealthy and glamorous who could afford to patronise the fashion houses which managed to flourish under Nazi rule. I suppose it is mildly interesting that gas mask holders were made into fashion items (but for how many women?) or that designer clothes had to be purchased under a “couture ration card” system with Balenciaga forced to close for exceeding the quota of seventy-five outfits (a year?) imposed to ration the amount of fabric used. It is made to sound like “a good thing” that of the 20,000 passes issued to attend fashion shows during the Occupation, only 200 were given to the wives of German officers, but weren’t the French women who attended to some extent collaborating? There is too much emphasis on people having a good time when for others basic food was in short supply and Jews were being dragged off by French police to the Vel d’Hiv (Vélodrome d’Hiver) en route for concentration camps. Also, can one really believe the example of so called “refugee-chic” in the tale of a woman fleeing from the fall of Paris who left her vehicle in search of petrol to remove the nail varnish which did not match the colour of her hat? Wouldn’t she have worried more about the smell and risk of catching fire?

The effect of this emphasis on celebrities and the privileged, is to trivialise events and create a sense of unease over being compromised oneself as a reader. In just one paragraph, we are told how “by the end of the forties”, the Marshall Plan had improved conditions, but not exactly how, except that a New Yorker journalist’s “Parisian friends had stopped griping about the black market (which they could presumably afford).. but are back to discussing passionately….the heady mysteries of La Grande Cuisine which, next to women, has always been their favourite topic of conversation”. The paragraph ends as follows. “Not only were the Parisians eating well again, but Wallis, Duchess of Windsor and her friends were buying jewels and couture clothes once more.”

If this book is best read by “dipping in and out”, there is the danger of missing some of the best passages, as in the chapter “Paris Returns” on the immediate aftermath of war, which actually includes some analysis, such as whether the death penalty was too harsh for the anti-semitic literary critic Brassilach (who gets very little mention elsewhere in the book, much less than Wallis Simpson). Simone De Beauvoir supported the punishment, perhaps swayed by De Gaulle’s view that “in literature as in everything, talent confers responsibility” but Anne Sebba points out with uncharacteristic tartness that De Beauvoir was also complicit, having claimed to be an anti-Nazi whilst eating well because her lover’s mother Jean-Paul Sartre took pains to obtain the best black-market foods. There is effective coverage on the practical problems of returning from the hell of the concentration camps and the guilt of those who came back alive: as a memoir recalled seventy years later, “”to survive it was necessary to destroy memory”. The author also considers the complicated relationship between the women who risked their lives in the resistance and were later rewarded as heroines, and those like the equally courageous Simone Veil who felt great bitterness over the lack of recognition of her suffering as a victim, deported to the camps.

Yet overall I was disappointed by the oppressive weight of excessive detail and too often superficial approach to a potentially fascinating subject matter – but the photographs are evocative.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars


Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 : Victims of a “Control + Alt+ Delete” policy”

This is my review of Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 by Ian Black.

This is a timely explanation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the centenary year of the infamous glib Balfour Declaration in which the foreign secretary of what was then a major imperial power casually and irresponsibly promised the clearly irreconcilable goals of both establishing Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people and protecting from adverse resultant effects the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine and Jews living in any other country.

With chapters defined by time periods from the arrival of the first Jewish settlers fleeing Russian pogroms in 1882, Ian Black presents the facts systematically up to the impasse with continual outbursts of violence in 2017, with “much of the world” favouring an independent state for the Palestinian people “alongside a secure and recognised Israel”, the conundrum being that this can only be accepted widely within the 1967 borders all but erased by decades of “illegal” Israeli settlements.

Perhaps because journalist author Ian Black is now a university senior fellow, he has felt the need for an academic approach, presenting minute detail backed by sources. The book is therefore very informative and often gripping because the facts are so telling, but it is heavy going at times by reason of the plethora of Arab and Israeli names, organisations, and italicised terms. All this gives a strong sense of authenticity and objectivity, but I could have done with glossaries of the above, plus a time-line of key events for quick reference and a few more maps embedded at various points to clarify various incidents – particularly since the index is of limited use in “checking back” on points .

Black leaves it to the reader to form her or his own judgements. In the welter of detail, certain themes recur: the weakening effects of poor leadership, corruption and divisions within Palestinian resistance; Arafat’s Fatah versus the more militant Hamas, with the West Bank Palestinian Authority at times co-operating with the Israeli defence forces to track down Hamas terrorists, their fanaticism often fuelled from an upbringing in the grim Gaza Strip. Similarly, a lack of cohesion between neighbouring Arab countries has prevented an effective response to the iron determination of the Israelis to obtain their ends with ruthless risk-taking in hunting down proactive opponents. The vicious cycle of Israeli intrusive security checks and time-wasting controls on movement in the occupied territories and inexorable defiant construction of new settlements is the inevitable response to the acts of violence by a democratically-supported Hamas and Hizbullah.

It is unclear that the conflict could have been averted completely, but the so-called Great Powers were slow to grasp the problem, with France and Britain more concerned over carving up the Middle East, and a general lack of understanding and respect for Arab culture. Sympathy with the Jews or a sense of guilt over the Holocaust made it hard for influential powers to take a firm line with the Israelis assuming they wished to do so. Even Obama, who was probably the US President keenest to obtain more justice for the Palestinians, was unsuccessful in making progress, and in view of the outcome of recent intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq one has to ask whether military action to enforce a fair settlement would have made matters even worse.

Even an already well-informed reader will find something new of interest. I was shocked by the “Olympian disdain” or arrogance with which Balfour told Curzon that “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad,…. is of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. Although I was surprised by how little Black writes about the great wall of separation – up to thirty feet of concrete in height and often constructed to fit round new illegal settlements, I had not realised that many of the latter are accessed by new roads and tunnels for use by Israelis only, reinforced the growing situation of an apartheid between western-style modern settlements in West Bank territory, highly subsidised to increase their attractiveness, and the squalid and deprived Arab communities which few Israelis get to experience firsthand. The Gaza Strip is described as an “open-air prison” where ironically some welcome the recent Israeli siege as a “blessing in disguise” which has boosted a billion dollar annual trade ranging from looted rocket launchers to wedding dresses passing through tunnels from Eqypt – a “blockade-busting” lifeline which sustains the rule by Hamas.

I was struck by the argument that it may now be too late to achieve a two state solution, since Netanyahu’s laws, edicts and funding of new settlements, often cunningly clustered to fragment Palestinian territory or occupy the more fertile land needed for economic viability, have increased the reality of “one state for two peoples, first and second class”. Yet a single state presents many practical problems: not only would Israel lose its distinctiveness and raison d’être as the Jewish nation state, but high birthrates could lead to a clear Arab majority within two decades, with the risk of “endless civil war” over say, the distribution of land or the “right to return” for those on both sides. So, at the end of a fascinating read one is left with a sense of anger over injustice, and despair over future prospects.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee – “The man who looked like the sort of man who would vote for Attlee”

This is my review of Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee: Winner of the Orwell Prize by John Bew.

This prize-winning biography achieves the challenging task of marshalling a mountain of research into an absorbing analytical account of the man who presided over the first majority Labour government in the UK. Criticised, like the Blair period, for failing to seize the opportunity for radical change, Attlee’s pragmatic approach in fact changed a good deal: introduction of the NHS together with national insurance and welfare systems, the more controversial nationalisation of essential industries, and overseas, the dismantling of the British Empire to be replaced by a Commonwealth, with India one of the first to gain an independence, sadly marred by bloodshed.

Clement Attlee was a man of contrasts. Public-school and Oxford educated, he traded a career in law for charity work with deprived boys in London’s East End, which led him to join the nascent Labour Party as a means of creating a fairer society. Mocked as an “invisible man”, likened to a rabbit or one of the “three blind mice”, even called “the Arch-Mediocrity” by the sharp-tongued Bevan, Attlee proved a courageous officer in the First World War, and quietly tenacious, chipped away patiently at problems in civilian life, prompting Churchill to describe him as a “lion-hearted limpet”. Although often painfully shy when thrust into the limelight, lacking in ego and refusing to promote himself so that a retirement speech and media interview on his life would be remembered mainly for their brevity, he was in fact at ease with himself, and so able to establish a rapport with both a mineworker’s union leader and King George VI. Ironically, the man who hated pomposity ended up accepting a hereditary earldom. Although it was feared he would be a liability in general elections, with his reedy voice and mechanical delivery of speeches, his authenticity proved popular with the general public, who liked his values, but not his continual reminders of the need to be “good citizens” and restrict consumption so that Britain could meet its obligations. Having been brought up to revere the British Empire, he was one of the first to call for the granting of Independence to India, and was keen to accept “Red China” as a legitimate power before America was prepared to do so. Despite his vision of achieving a lasting peace through an effective United Nations, with an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in the end he resorted to their development in order to protect the country against the threat of Communism. Very questionably, this was done covertly, to avert a violent outcry from the Labour left wing.

The history of the Labour movement which forms the background to this fascinating biography reminds us of how many of its current dilemmas are far from new. It is impossible to avoid making parallels with today as one reads about Attlee under attack from the left wing intellectuals in his party for his failure to attack the establishment, or criticised more widely for accepting huge loans from the US because of the crippling strings attached, or feeling obliged to enter into a costly war the country could not afford because of the need to show solidarity with the US over Korea. Likewise, there was his refusal to cooperate with west European states over the Schumann Plan to share coal and steel (forerunner of the EU) because he judged it incompatible with freedom to plan the UK economy. Another example was his inability to protect the Palestinians, as promised in the Balfour Agreement, because of a powerful US support for Jewish migration to the homeland of Israel.

With the current all-pervading media hype and obsession with celebrity, it would seem even less likely than before for such a man as Attlee to gain and retain power for so long. He may have been a Victorian at heart, puzzled by his grandchildren’s addiction to television, yet his unassuming dedication, based on a thoughtful vision of the world developed through years of observation, reading and reflection, still evokes admiration after half a century, and a regret that we do not have more politicians with his mix of altruistic vision, determination yet moderation.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Sad proof that style matters

This is my review of Baltic Facades: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since 1945 (Contemporary Worlds) by Aldis Purs.

I am sure this is a worthy study of recent historical, political and socio-economic events by a very knowledgeable author. The problem for me was that, apart from a degree of repetition and statement of the self-evident, the style is so turgid that I struggled to read it. I think the author may be writing in English as a second language in which case employment of a lively editor might have helped.

Since visiting the Baltic states has aroused my interest, I may make another attempt to read this later, since there seems to be a dearth of books on this subject.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

Could any book do greater justice to its subject than this?

This is my review of The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science: Costa & Royal Society Prize Winner by Andrea Wulf.

It is hard to think of a more impressive book than this – gripping, entertaining and informative as the author marshalls with great skill a mass of facts and ideas.

Although largely forgotten now, with his unflagging energy and curiosity, Humboldt achieved widespread fame during his long life (1769-1859) as a traveller, explorer and writer. Fortunate to have been born before it was necessary to be a specialist, Humboldt was influenced by Goethe to view the world as a unified whole, consisting of multiple interactions. Although, as a scientist, he continued to believe in the importance of close observation and precise measurement in understanding the world, he also grasped the need for imagination. “Nature must be experienced through feeling” and those who limit themselves to the simple classification of plants, animals and rocks “will never get close to it”.

Humboldt was a visionary thinker, ahead of his time. He suggested that creatures had evolved years before Darwin, in turn inspired by Humboldt’s writing, began to think about natural selection. He conceived the idea of an ecosystem, or groups of organisms coexisting in the same environment, decades before another disciple, Haeckel, coined the term “ecology”. Always looking for patterns, Humboldt was quick to notice how plants seemed to differ according to climate, in turn linked to latitude. In the same way, mountains, like the dramatic snow-topped Chimborazo which he climbed in Ecuador, demonstrated predictable zones of vegetation according to altitude, ranging from the tropical palms of the lowland, through the oaks and ferns of temperate climates up to the barren surfaces above the treeline. Through observation, he developed ideas of human-induced climatic change, as in the case of excessive clearing of forests in both Europe and South America. He even invented isotherms.

He realised that the nocturnal outbreaks of cacophony in the South American forests were not, as the natives claimed, the animals’ way of worshipping the moon, but “a long-extended and ever-amplifying battle” as the jaguars chased the tapirs, whose flight scared the monkeys, who disturbed the birds” and so on.

Unable to travel outside Europe before gaining his inheritance at the age of about thirty, Humboldt found the added difficulty of obtaining passage on a suitable vessel when most ships were needed for the Napoleonic wars. Then there was the further risk of being attacked by British warships when he eventually sailed to the South American colonies on a Spanish frigate.

His jouneys were full of bizarre incidents: the natives of the South American Llanos drove a herd of wild horses into a pond to drive up to the surface the electric eels that he was keen to study. Not only did some of the horses perish, but Humboldt and his colleagues made themselves ill from the shocks which could still be generated by the weakened eels. Years later on a trip to Russia, in defiance of the authoritarian government which sought to control his movements, Humboldt took his party on a 2000-mile detour at lightning speed to see the Altai Mountains where Russia, China and Mongolia meet. When their route was blocked by a major outbreak of anthrax, the ruthless Humboldt simply stocked up with uncontaminated food, and dashed through the affected area with all the carriage windows closed.

In the quarter-century gap between a five year odyssey in South America, often totally cut off from events in Europe and his visit to Russia, it is initially surprising to realise that he spent much of the time in Paris, which he loved for its cultural opportunities, or serving through gritted teeth at the court of the King of Prussia, where he disparaged Berlin as “little, illiterate and over-spiteful”. Yet he was far from idle, being prolific in writing detailed, often richly illustrated books about his journeys and ideas on nature in relation to man, lecturing and corresponding with other scientists and thinkers. Having impoverished himself through his travels, publications and supporting young scientifsts, he was forced to endure a tedious court post humouring the king, when his preference was for democracy, along with his condemnation of slavery.

He longed to travel to India, but was blocked by the all-powerful East India Company’s refusal to grant permission for this, despite his fame.

This is not merely the biography of a hyper-active, charismatic, workaholic genius, liberal-minded, often generous, yet sharp-tongued and dominating conversations in his unconscious assumption of superior knowledge, even talking over a piano specially played for his benefit, only to astound students by quietly taking notes alongside them when he knew there was something new to learn in chemistry or geology.

The final chapters also cover some of the gifted environmentalists who were inspired by him, such as George Perkins Marsh who in “Man and Nature” assembled comprehensive evidence of the destruction of the earth by human activity. “The Old World had to be the New World’s cautionary tale”. But, with the 1862 Homesteads Act which gave every loyal American over 21 the right to 160 acres, how could the march of change be prevented? Another example is John Muir, who set up the Sierra Club, now the largest grassroots environmental organisation in the US, and who was responsible for the establishment of the Yosemite National Park.

This is a fascinating book to encourage others to read, and return to again.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

The imponderable bloom of life and relationships

This is my review of At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell.

I read this popular philosophy in search of enlightenment on a fundamental but elusive theme: “the nature of being”.

Sarah Bakewell is strong on anecdotal biography, linked to a vivid sense of time and place. Sartre with his “down-turned grouper lips.. and eyes pointing in different directions..but if you forced yourself to stick with the left eye, you would invariably find it watching you with warm intelligence”. When held as a POW by the Germans, “his eyes gave him his escape route”, in the improbable form of a medical pass to leave the camp for treatment. Yet he missed the comradeship of being forced into close quarters with other prisoners. It filled him with fear to enter a Parisian café to observe “the few drinkers… more distant than the stars…each entitled to a huge section of bench…these men shimmering… within their tubes of rarefied light seem inaccessible to me”. Then he enraged his soul-mate Simone de Beauvoir by criticising her for having given in to the practicalities of life under Occupation, by buying tea on the black market, and signing a paper to certify that “she was not a Jew or a Freemason”.

I liked the illustrations which, being untitled, are open to one’s own interpretation: the influential Heidegger and Husserl, his former mentor and the “father of phenomenology” (definable as “the ways we experience things”), standing on a sunny slope against a background of wooded hills. Are the two men arguing over their different viewpoints, or exchanging polite banalities to mask how far they have grown apart?

The author ends the first chapter with useful if partial definitions of what existentialists do, in their concern with “individual, concrete human existence”. Individuals are responsible for all their actions, in a world where, as Sartre realised to his initial horror, everything is “contingent” and “it could all have happened a different way”, if individuals had taken alternative courses of action.

The author sheds light on some difficult ideas like Sartre’s “specific nothingness” with the example that when one has made an appointment in a café to meet a friend, the most important factor is the absence of that person. She is good on analysing the importance of Simone de Beauvoir’s arguably undervalued “The Second Sex” and the theories of the polymath philosopher-cum-psychologist Merleau-Ponty, also underestimated. His ideas may seem more accessible than most since they are underpinned with a scientific knowledge of neurology. It is easy to relate with a sense of relief to his views that an understanding of child psychology is essential to sound philosophy, that we need to study perception scientifically to make sense of the connection between our consciousness and the world around us. We have to connect socially with other people to exist in a meaningful way ourselves, rather than speculate about the reality of existence external to our own, as many philosophers have done.

Sarah Bakewell refers frequently to the opaqueness, and radical shifts in thinking of Sartre, Heidegger and Levinas. Sometimes, this seems like an excuse for the inability to present a coherent explanation of the essence of their ideas. With what often seems like the prime aim of entertaining us, complex theories are fragmented into bite-sized chunks, with explanations descending into a kind of woolly gimmickry which falls apart under close scrutiny: “If you had to sum up Heidegger’s opening sally in ‘Being and Time’ in one word, that word might be ‘wow!’..As a fresh starting point for philosophy, this ‘wow!’ is itself a kind of Big Bang. It’s also a big snub for Husserl… and his followers…..They have forgotten the brute reality on which all of us ought to be constantly stubbing our toes….Wake up, phenomenologists! Remember being – out there, in here, under you, above you, pressing in on you. Remember the things themselves, and remember your own being!”

Although I found parts of this book very interesting and felt the need to reread it, I also doubted whether this would actually add to my understanding. Apart from the fact that a chapter or two pulling together the essential theories would have been useful, I cannot escape the sense that much of the philosophy covered is highly arbitrary and subjective. It may appeal to one’s emotions, like Heidegger’s “notions of humans as a clearing into which Being emerges into the light”, but such ideas merge into each other in a muddled morass.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“Obstinate questionings of sense and outward things”

This is my review of Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time by A S Byatt.

Daily life, the structure of society, political views, education and childhood, the literary world and the landscape: these themed chapters explore the response of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the two pioneers of the Romantic Movement, to the unsettled period in which they lived with the fear of political revolution and disruption of industrial development.

The introduction supplies some very astute analysis of the marked differences between their personalities: “Wordsworth, in his innermost self, proud, solitary, courageous and self-regarding was on the surface suspicious and awkward. Coleridge, who lacked self-respect or self-confidence at the deepest level, was on the surface charming, warm, welcoming and quick to relax and involve people…Wordsworth increased Coleridge’s sense of his own value” and Coleridge had a “humanizing influence” on Wordsworth. Both, initially excited by the French Revolution, were so appalled by its violent excesses that they both became much more politically conservative with age, but Wordsworth, as a respected national figure , became ever more “remote, arrogant, self-absorbed and self-praising”, while Coleridge, a much more profound thinker, found his life severely blighted by frequent illness and opium addiction, for which he was too often dismissed contemptuously.

This book is packed with entertaining anecdotes and fascinating observations. In his sincere if somewhat theoretical concern for the deserving poor, Wordsworth’s poem about “The Leech-gatherer” was based on research that they “did not breed fast and were of slow growth” because of dry weather and being gathered too much so that “formerly 2/6 per 100, they are now 30s”.

Both poets agreed that young children should be allowed to develop naturally, with education a process kindling natural curiosity. Coleridge’s observation of his small children makes moving reading (“a little child, a limber elf, singing, dancing to itself”), and his natural skill in teaching them through play sounds quite modern. It is therefore a shock to learn how he abandoned them for long periods, at one point preferring to stay in Germany where he was having a good time studying rather than return to England to comfort a wife grieving over the loss of their infant son.

Wordsworth questioned the desire of Utopian idealists to educate working class girls on enlightened lines since it was likely to make them “unsettled…..indisposed to any kind of hard labour or drudgery. And yet many of them must submit to it or do wrong”. This was arguably true, but not what one might hope for from a Romantic poet.

A.S. Byatt is clearly shocked by Wordsworth’s support for capital punishment on the basis that time spent in the condemned cell gave a fortunate opportunity to repent. Nimbyism is evident in the opposition to construction of railways in his beloved Lake District which would be spoilt by “droves” of working people from Lancashire who would not appreciate the mountains

He opposed the extension of the right to vote, as likely to produce frequent parliaments and “convert the representatives into mere slavish delegates, as they now are in America, under the dictation of ignorant and selfish numbers misled by unprincipled journalists”. In view of the recent shock of democracy producing a Trump victory, these ideas seem remarkably relevant today, even if one disagrees with his opinion.

Perhaps because he tended to consider issues from more angles, Coleridge comes across less clearly than Wordsworth, but as more engaging. Yet even he came to fear democracy as the misguided pursuit of an abstract idea: “the incorporation of individuals into one unnatural state, the deluded subjects of which soon find themselves under a dominion tenfold more oppressive and vexatious than that to which the laws of God and nature attached them”.

The many quotations are often inserted clunkily into the text, and assume more practice in interpreting poetry than most readers are likely to possess. The passages wrapped round these extracts are often indigestible, even disjointed, since they read as if condensed down from detailed notes.

Recommended, but best read with other texts, such as the biographies of Richard Holmes on the Lakeland poets.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars