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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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I’m telling Bessie about the revelation which I must have had before I was ten because it was in our dining room in Vienna.
About this room I retain two incompatible recollections. In one, the margin around the square table leaves barely enough room for the four chairs; in the other my mother is practicing at her Blüthner grand piano on the right; its keys are toward the window.
I stand with the piano on my right, my back is to the table. I can’t ask my mother, who died ten years ago at age 101, if I am right in remembering that the radio, which I retrospectively endow with the features of the cathedral shaped radios of the 1930s, stood on the small table to the left of the window. The window gives onto a square gray yard that has no function except to be between our and the next four-story building in the block-through housing complex between Josephstädter Strasse and the Albert Gasse. There is a tub with a bush nobody cares anything about. Out of the radio comes the male announcer’s voice giving the latest report from the Spanish Civil War and I understand that there is always war somewhere.
My friend Bessie is waiting for the revelation. This one needs no ghost come from the grave… I argue that revelation does not require a new truth. This truth was new to me. The thought was mine because I had thought it. Moreover Bessie believes that I have grafted an adult idea onto a childhood memory—a memory which I have shown to be unreliable. But I am unable to unremember what I remember—the wallop of sudden knowing that the quiet in our dining room, the absence of event in the yard outside the window is a deception: Somewhere there is war, and there will always be war.
War was not an alien idea to the Austrian nine-year-old. When Mr. Knightley brings out a drawer full of old memorabilia to entertain Mr. Woodhouse, I see Grandfather’s drawer of WWI medals, buttons, buckles. There were sepia photographs of young men in uniform and picture postcards with oval medallions framing the pretty ladies who, the year I turned them over on Grandfather’s counter top, would have been in their middle forties. Their left shoulders and breasts were naked under diaphanous folds, and out of their small, half-open mouths the rows of their white little teeth smiled with the seduction of modesty.
In New York, in the 1950s, my friends were into Freud. When I told Alana my curious inability to remember the word “celery,” she made me do some dream work. I offered the recurring dream in which my mother and I sit in the cellar—cellar! Celery!—across from a wall pierced with narrow slits. We are bombarded by ordnance which we repel with our tennis racquets. “A war dream!” I said. “Sex dream,” said Alana: “Cellar. The lower regions.” “Come off it!” I said, but the vegetable has never since caused me the least difficulty.
Kent, in the late summer of 1939
My autobiographical novel, Other People’s Houses, recalls the days leading up to the war and some of these events. There was the day Mrs. Gilham, my Tonbridge foster mother, took me and my foster sister, Marie, to be fitted with gas masks. For the littlest children there were colorful Mickey Mouse masks, but when the evil smelling rubber attached itself to the babies’ faces, they howled in terror. Everyone took home one of the grotesque masks in a square box with a string to wear over our shoulders. We were never to leave the house without our gasmask. On the way home the distraught Mrs. Gilham asked me–didn’t I come from over there?—if it was going to be war. I told her, no, Hitler would not be so foolhardy as to go to war against the allies. Mrs. Gilham seemed relieved, but she had frightened me: The grownups knew no more about what was going to happen than we did. How were they going to take care of themselves and of us?
On September 3, the day war was declared, the weather was unsuitably brilliant. Mrs. Gilham cried and gasped for breath and sent Marie and me to fetch Mr. Gilham who was working down on his allotment. With our gasmasks over our shoulders, Marie and I ran all the way. “WAR!” we shouted, breathless, as soon as we made out Mr. Gilham’s figure squatting near a corrugated iron tool shed on the far end of his plot that was striped with tidy rows of tomato plants, carrots, lettuce, beans. “Mum says to come home. It’s war!” yelled Marie. Mr. Gilham straightened up. “Charlie!” he shouted to the man weeding the neighboring allotment: “War!” “Which?” shouted Charlie with his hand behind his ear in a pantomime of not having heard. “WAR,” shouted Mr. Gilham with his hands cupped into a megaphone.” Oh! Okay!” Charlie shouted back nodding his head up and down in a pantomime of having understood, and went back to his weeding.
Nothing happened. The weather continued to be unnaturally, ostentatiously lovely. It was shocking, and reassuring that the radio played the same tunes it had played before The War. The next-door Hoopers and their dad were digging a bomb shelter in their back yard. Marie and I went to school and unless we forgot, we carried our gasmask in its square box on the string over one shoulder.
My mother and father were working as a “married couple” meaning cook and butler in Kettle Hill House, in nearby Sevenoaks. On Thursday, their afternoon off, they visited me at the Gilhams. The police had come and requisitioned my parents’ torches—what the US calls flashlights—and a large-scale ordnance survey map to prevent my father and mother from signaling information to the enemy across the not-very-distant Channel.
The Gilhams had no telephone; I try to remember by what means my mother, some few weeks later, communicated to me that they were holding my father in a Tonbridge school, en route to his internment on the Isle of Wight. England was rounding up all “German-speaking enemy alien” males over 16. (My old love of England tells me to believe that in the early days and months of the war these determinations must have made sense and must have seemed necessary.) I borrowed Marie’s bicycle and circled the schoolyard. The soldier with the gun let me peek through the locked gates into the yard where some men stood about, but I did not see my father. I bicycled home.
There followed the decree that ordered all German-speaking enemy aliens to remove from within a certain number of miles from the coast. My mother arrived with her packed bags. She packed mine and we boarded the train for Guildford.
Guildford, Surrey, 1940 to 1946
Kari Dukasz, a onetime journalist and sportswriter, and his wife, Gerti, Viennese friends of my parents, were working as a “married couple” in Guildford. They had found us a little room. I remember that it was at the head of a steep stair. I was throwing up. Between bouts I lay on one of the two beds and my mother read me David Copperfield and that’s when I knew what I had not known before: This was what I was going to do. I was going to be a writer of books.
On the Isle of Wight, my father had suffered a first small stroke and was released as—I’m guessing—a German-speaking enemy alien unlikely to be a danger to England’s war effort. Had Uncle Kari telegraphed him our present whereabouts? My father arrived in Guildford that same night and stopped a policeman to ask for directions to our address which he had written on a piece of paper and the policeman arrested him for being an alien out after curfew. I want to believe that it was the same policemen, who, later that same night, brought my father to the little room at the head of the stair. I remember waking and seeing my parents sitting together on the edge of the other bed. My father was crying.
Miss Wallace, a member of the Guildford Church Committee for Jewish Refugees, found my mother a job as cook to the McGregor family who lived in Shalford’s Old Mill, a National Trust property. As for me, Miss Wallace took me home to live with her and the elderly Miss Ellis who owned the large Victorian house called Belcaro.
Did my father continue to live in the room at the head of the stairs? I remember my dismay when I looked out of the window and saw him stoking the bonfire, as assistant to the regular Belcaro gardener. I have come across the two dog-eared booklets with which, once every other week, my enemy alien father and mother were required to check in at the local post office.
The Battle of Britain
If my gasmask was not on its hook next to the mackintoshes it must have been on some shelf in a closet. Nobody carried a gasmask.
Weekends at the McGregors felt like a party. They opened the Mill to their interesting London friends who needed a break from the nightly bombing. My mother did the endless amount of cooking in the spirit in which Ginella, the oldest Macgregor daughter, entered the land army.
Graf (Count) Bobby was the invention of prewar Jewish Vienna. One or many anonymous wits had created the repertoire of Graf Bobby stories of the type “Polish joke.” Graf Bobby spoke with the peculiar nasal pronunciation meant to represent the dialect of the etiolated nobility of the imperial Austrian court of yore. Graf Bobby had come to England in the refugees’ intellectual baggage where the jokes proliferated, relocated and updated. Here’s one: Graf Bobby, having flown his bomber to London, returns to his home base with the bombs still on board. Doesn’t he understand the danger, thunders his superior, of landing a plane with a full complement of explosives? Yes, well, I know, explains Graf Bobby, but just as I arrived over London, they sounded the all-clear.
Guildford was an unlikely target for a planned attack but there were frequent explosions when the German planes, on the way home from blitzing London, dumped a left-over bomb. One of these made a direct hit on Mrs. McGregor’s vegetable marrow. A marrow is a gourd that can grow to enormous size. Its taste is bland and watery and not, fortunately, popular in the United States.
Just as we knew when the Germans flew over Guildford on their way home, we learned the sound of our planes returning from their nightly missions on the continent. We had watched the chevron formation in which they set out in the direction of the Channel. In the morning we leaned out of the window and saw the gaps and counted the missing planes and men who would not return.
I was visiting at the Mill on the day my young Aunt Edith came to introduce herself to my mother. Edith, with her little English had been up to London in a useless attempt to free her new husband from interment on the Isle of Wight. It was thrilling to meet the pretty woman who had married my beloved Uncle Paul. Edith cried when she embraced my mother. She hugged me and I had never felt anything so soft as the skin on the underside of her arm. My mother made us lunch but I can’t remember eating it because the two younger McGregor daughters called us to watch, in the cloudless sky, silenced by distance, the extreme drama of a dogfight between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt. I remember failing to keep track of which was which and not knowing if it was the German or ours that was going into an increasingly rapid circular descent belching black and gray smoke. The neat silver plane turned hell’s own red, roasting—was it the German pilot inside, or the English? Edith wept and hid her eyes. The plane touched down out of our sight behind the cap of a nearby hill and in the subsequent silent blue there hung, like the modest brown seed of a dandelion, a human, a man, floating downward with the gentlest swinging motion, from the leisurely parachute—nor were we ever going to know if it was ours or if it was the German.
Oh, but we did, in the subsequent weeks or months intensely care which and how many went down each day after day. One waited as in a sporting match for the headlines that shouted the increasing number of theirs downed by the growing skill of our fighters.
Belcaro might have been a latter day, a last chapter in the world according to Jane Austen. Children should have their meals with the governess in the nursery or the schoolroom, but because of the absence, in my two old gentlewomen’s household of these conveniences, I ate my supper with Josie in the kitchen, before joining the ladies in the drawing room. We always “dressed.” Miss Ellis had got me a little green silk frock. The ladies wore long velvet. We disposed ourselves around the fire place and Miss Ellis took up her sewing. Miss Wallace hugged the dog, noticed the cat and opened the piano to give us a little Schubert—as a girl she had studied music in Germany. At nine o’clock she turned on the radio for the news, and ours had downed two Messerschmitts and the next day four more….
I did not follow the process of the war except to internalize names of places and battles: the Battle of the Bulge, Midway, Guadalcanal, the Maginot Line. And Dunkirk. About the rationing I remember Josie cursing Miss Ellis and wished her a heart attack for taking the cream off the top of the milk.
My father returned from the hospital after another stroke and my mother left the McGregors and got a job as cook in a restaurant on North Street. She asked and received a dispensation that allowed her, a refugee, to do her stint as an air-raid warden. Nights she patrolled the neighborhood streets. She observed the play of the search lights and heard the distant anti-aircraft fire. My mother checked any slightest infringement of the blackout. She might knock on Miss Ellis’s door to catch a glimpse of me.
And England prepared for the invasion. Signposts that named the roads to the next village were removed or replaced so as to confuse any German division that might be parachuted into the area, or misdirect the stray Nazi, like the one who fell out of the sky and invaded Mrs. Miniver’s kitchen.
Miss Wallace’s Church Committee convened and decided to collect and bury the identifying papers of Guildford’s refugee Jews.
Miss Ellis, with admirable English fortitude, watched the despoliation of her ancient rose garden on one side of the house and on the other, of her plum trees, her apple trees. A contingent of soldiers was at work pouring four rows of waist-high concrete pylons. Out of each pylon protruded an iron post. The posts were connected with coil upon coil of barbed wire. The project—I don’t know if it was ever completed—was to girdle the south of England so as to halt or at least to slow the advance of enemy tanks.
For the last year of the war, Guildford came under direct nightly attacks by a new weapon that could have no tactical use except to unnerve the population. We called it the Doodlebug and became expert at interpreting the behavior of the unmanned flying bomb. It announced its approach by a characteristic throbbing that stopped when the mechanism rebooted to descend, count one two three four five six and detonate. The explosion was loud because it was nearby. If I was still alive in my bed, it must have hit a neighbor and here came the next—the throbbing sound, it stopped, one two three four five… I prayed to Nobody up there, if You will take away the terror of this death over my head I will never never ask for anything ever again.
My father had several more strokes. He died the week before the end of European war.
In 1946, when I left Guildford to enter the University of London, the pylons in Miss Ellis’s garden had not been removed but the barbed wire was overgrown with a creeper. It had the smallest silver leaves and clouds and clouds of star shaped white flowerets.
Bessie points out that my childhood revelation is disproved. It is true that I lie in my bed and no kind of fighting is going on—not at this moment, not immediately over my head. The places in the world where the terror is going on have not yet declared themselves to be wars.