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Auschwitz

J SS BACH . . . Between the covers

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This is not a conventional crime novel. There are victims, for sure, and perpetrators of terrible acts which still, when described, take the breath away in their depravity and cold, organised manifestation of evil. English academic Martin Goodman (right) MGhas written a starkly brilliant account of Nazi oppression in Central Europe in the late 1930s. He achieves his broad sweep by, paradoxically focusing on the fine detail. One family. One teenage boy, Otto Schalmek. One fateful knock on the door while Vienna and most of Austria are waving flags to welcome ‘liberation’ in the shape of the Anschluss.

 

JSSBThe Schalmek family are Jewish. That is all that needs to be said. The family becomes just a few lines on a ledger – immaculately kept – which records the ‘resettlement’ of Jewish families. Otto is taken to Dachau and then to Birkenau. His ability as a cellist precedes him, and he is sent to play in the house of Birchendorf, the camp Commandant. His wife Katja is the artistic one, and her husband merely seeks to keep her entertained by using Schalmek as a kind of performing monkey who plays Bach suites on the cello in between sanding floors and mopping up shit in the latrines.

 

The great irony is that Katja is unable to hear Schmalek’s artistry. She is, quite literally, deaf to the Baroque intricacies being played on the stolen Stradivarius. She is, however able to hear through her fingertips as she places her hands on the cello while Schalmek plays. She is pregnant, and although her other senses cause her to be repelled by the captive cellist’s physical state, there is an almost erotic connection between the two.

History, in the shape of Hitler’s madness and the relentless march of the Red Army, intervenes, and the death camps are liberated. Birchendorf is captured and arraigned for war crimes, while his wife and their young daughter manage to lose themselves in the flood of genuine refugees from the devastation caused by war. They manage to escape to a new life in Australia, while Schalmek also survives but goes on to become a revered composer whose rare performances are cherished by the international concert-goers.

Goodman’s book spans the years and the continents. Having been shown the shattering of the Schalmek family we go from the Nuremburg trials to late 1940s Canada and then, via Sydney in the 1960s, on to 1990s California, where Katja’s grand-daughter Rosa, an eminent writer and musicologist, seeks an audience with the elusive and very private genius Otto Schalmek. Rosa Cline is determined to write the definitive biography of Otto Schalmek, but their relationship takes an unexpected turn.

Another fine novel which walks the same bloodstained roads is A Lily of The Field by John Lawton. Again we have a teenage Jewish musician, also a cellist, who is dragged from the family home in Vienna and sent to the death camps. Like Goodman’s Otto Schalmek, Meret Voytek survives in hell due to her musical brilliance. Her Nazi captors may be brutal murderers, but they are not artistic philistines. There, the resemblance between the novels ends. Voytek is saved by Russians who intercept the Death March from Auschwitz, but her post-war life becomes entangled with Cold War espionage.

Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 19.52.58is a distinctive and beautifully written novel, full of irony, heartbreak and a scholarly brilliance in the way it portrays the human devastation of Hitler’s assault on the Jews. Yes, there is the almost obligatory account of the depravity and sheer horror of the camps, but Goodman also brings a sense of great intimacy and a telling focus on the small personal tragedies and discomforts – an interrupted family meal, a tearful and hurried “goodbye”, and a new grandchild never to be cuddled by grandparents. Crime fiction? Probably not, in the scheme of things. Thrilling, often painful, and full of psychological insight? Certainly. J SS Bach is published by Wrecking Ball Press and is out now.

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THE MUSIC OF CRIME FICTION

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V: ADAGIO

alotfJohn Lawton is a master of historical fiction set in and around World War II. His central character is Fred Troy, a policeman of Russian descent. His emigré father is what used to be called a ‘Press Baron’. Fred’s brother Rod will go on to become a Labour Party MP in the 1960s, but is interned during the war. His sisters are bit players, but memorable for their sexual voracity. Neither man nor woman is safe from their advances.

Fred becomes one of London’s top coppers, but to categorise the novels as police procedurals is accurate only in as far as that there are policemen in the books, and they occasionally have procedures. All this being said, Troy is in the background during much of A Lily of the Field, where we follow the life of teenager Méret Voytek, a brilliant young Viennese cellist.

As a twelve-year-old, she begins lessons in cello and piano from an eminent musician, Viktor Rosen. He realises instantly that she is prodigiously talented, and he gives her a gift:

Cello graphic

After the Anschluss, through her own naivete and a tragic act of fate, she is caught holding a bundle of anti-Nazi leaflets while traveling on the tram. She is taken by the SS and ends up in Auschwitz. Meanwhile, her parents have been likewise detained, and their family home ransacked. Méret’s skill as a musician has already been noted but, ever naive, she questions her friend Magda about why she has been singled out.

Quote2In the bitterest of paradoxes, the Auschwitz commandant, has a musical ear, and so he puts together an orchestra made up of the many skilled inmates. One of their bizarre duties is to play beautiful music as their less talented companions trudge off to work in the morning. Méret plays for her life, literally. The physical privations she undergoes are heart-breaking, but still she plays, still she clings on to what is left of her humanity.

In January 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, and the British and Americans from the west, the Germans realise that the game is up. Auschwitz inmates who are too infirm to walk are shot, and the remainder are sent out, under guard, to start the infamous Death March. In the freezing conditions few survive, but just as Meret is about to succumb, their column is overtaken by a Russian detachment. Salvation? Hardly. The first instinct of the Russian soldiers is to rape the women. Méret is saved by a no-nonsense officer. At this point, Fred Troy aficionados will recognise Major Larissa Tosca, Fred’s one-time lover. She has, in her time, spied for both America and for Russia, but here her cap bears the Red Star.

Long-time Lawton readers will know that he leaps about between the years with a sometimes bewildering agility. True to form, the climax of this book is played out in post war London and Paris. Méret’s rescue by the Russians has come at a price, and we find her tangled up in the spy ‘games’ which characterised much of the Cold War period. Lawton is much too clever a writer just to tell this one tale, however gripping it may be. Woven into the fabric is another thread which involves an interned Hungarian physicist, Dr. Karel Szabo, who ends up as a key figure in the American efforts to build and test the first atomic bomb.

One of the key figures from the spy ring of which Méret is a part is murdered in London, and it is then that Fred Troy becomes involved. For all his many qualities, Troy is an inveterate womaniser, but he is not a sexual beast, and the late scenes where he spends time with the fragile Méret, still beautiful but old before her time, are haunting in their compassion.

‘Troy had never heard her laugh. It was like that moment in Ninotchka when Garbo laughs on-screen for the first time. It is not merely that she laughs, but that she laughs so long and so loud.
As the laughter subsided she was grasping at words and not managing to get a sentence out.
“Oh, Troy ….oh, Troy..this is….this is a farce. Don’t you see? Viktor taught us the same part.”

“We’re two left-handed women trying to dance backward. Neither of us knows the man’s part.”
She reached up her sleeve for a handkerchief to dab her tears and found none. Troy gave her his, a huge square of Irish linen with an overfancy  ‘f’ in one corner.
Being drunk did not make her loquacious. In that, she was like Troy. At two in the morning Voytek was deeply asleep in front of the fire. Troy picked her up, astonished at how little she weighed, carried her upstairs and slid her into the spare bed. She did not wake. He went to his own bed.

A Lily of the Field is far from being a dry history novel where the factual details are more important than the plot and the dialogue. It is tense, funny, occasionally very violent, and written with a style and fluency which leaves lesser authors struggling in Lawton’s wake.  Above all, of course, it is about music. Méret’s brilliance as a musician is both her curse and her salvation.

A final little gem, which I only noticed recently. If you look closely at the book’s cover, you can see Méret Voytek, in her red coat, moving away from us. With her cello slung over her shoulder, she walks into history.

ALOTF2

Follow the links below to read the previous four parts in the series.

IV: SCHERZO

III: RONDO

II: MARCHE FUNEBRE

I: PRELUDE & FUGUE

WW2 HISTORICAL CRIME FICTION (1) A Lily of the Field

EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD LIST, and I’m no exception. To kick off a series of features on historical crime fiction, I am starting with my own favourite period – World War 2. I just missed it, by a couple of years, but both my mother and father served, as did my wife’s parents, and so ‘The War’, as it was always known in our house was – and remains – very much part of my consciousness. My selection is subjective, and there is no order of merit, but each of the five is a cracking read.

ALOTFA LILY OF THE FIELD by John Lawton

Lawton is a master of historical fiction set in and around the war. His central character is Fred Troy, a policeman of Russian descent. His emigré father is what used to be called a ‘Press Baron’. Fred’s brother Rod will go on to become a Labour Party MP in the 1960s, but is interned during the war. His sisters are bit players, but memorable for their sexual voracity. Neither man nor woman is safe from their advances.

Apart from being an elegant and sharp-tongued writer, Lawton’s great skill is to people his books with real personalities of the period. Sometimes they are thinly disguised, but more often than not they play themselves. Across the spread of Fred Troy novels, we meet, in no particular order, Nikita Kruschev, the entire Labour Shadow Cabinet, Winston Churchill’s gunmaker and an American presidential candidate.

Fred becomes one of London’s top coppers, but to categorise the novels as police procedurals is accurate only in as far as that there are policemen in the books, and they occasionally have procedures. All this being said, Troy is in the background during much of A Lily of the Field. We follow the life of teenager Méret Voytek, a brilliant young Viennese cellist. Through her own naivete and a tragic act of fate, she is caught holding a bundle of anti-Nazi leaflets while traveling on the tram. She is taken by the SS and ends up in Auschwitz. Meanwhile, her parents have been likewise detained, and their family home ransacked.

In the bitterest of paradoxes, the Auschwitz commandant, has a musical ear, and so he puts together an orchestra made up of the many skilled inmates. One of their bizarre duties is to play beautiful music as their less talented companions trudge off to work in the morning. Méret plays for her life, literally. The physical privations she undergoes are heart-breaking, but still she plays, still she clings on to what is left of life.

In January 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, and the British and Americans from the west, the Germans realise that the game is up. Auschwitz inmates who are too infirm to walk are shot, and the remainder are sent out, under guard, to start the infamous Death March. In the freezing conditions few survive, but just as Meret is about to succumb, their column is overtaken by a Russian detachment. Salvation? Hardly. The first instinct of the Russian soldiers is to rape the women. Méret is saved by a no-nonsense officer. At this point, Fred Troy aficionados will recognise Major Larissa Tosca, Fred’s one-time lover. She has, in her time, spied for both America and for Russia, but here her cap bears the Red Star.

Long-time Lawton readers will know that he leaps about between the years with a sometimes bewildering agility. True to form, the climax of this book is played out in post war London and Paris. Méret’s rescue by the Russians has come at a price, and we find her tangled up in the spy ‘games’ which characterised much of the Cold War period. Lawton is much too clever a writer just to tell this one tale, however gripping it may be. Woven into the fabric is another thread which involves an interned Hungarian physicist, Dr. Karel Szabo, who ends up as a key figure in the American efforts to build and test the first atomic bomb.

One of the key figures from the spy ring of which Méret is a part is murdered in London, and it is then that Frec Troy becomes involved. For all his many qualities, Troy is an inveterate womaniser, but he is not a sexual beast, and the late scenes where he spends time with the fragile Méret, still beautiful but old before her time, are haunting in their compassion.

‘Troy had never heard her laugh. It was like that moment in Ninotchka when Garbo laughs on-screen for the first time. It is not merely that she laughs, but that she laughs so long and so loud.

As the laughter subsided she was grasping at words and not managing to get a sentence out.

“Oh, Troy ….oh, Troy..this is….this is a farce. Don’t you see? Viktor taught us the same part.”
“We’re two left-handed women trying to dance backward. Neither of us knows the man’s part.”

She reached up her sleeve for a handkerchief to dab her tears and found none. Troy gave her his, a huge square of Irish linen with an overfancy  ‘f’ in one corner.

Being drunk did not make her loquacious. In that, she was like Troy. At two in the morning Voytek was deeply asleep in front of the fire. Troy picked her up, astonished at how little she weighed, carried her upstairs and slid her into the spare bed. She did not wake. He went to his own bed.’

A Lily of the Field is far from being a dry history novel where the factual details are more important than the plot and the dialogue. It is tense, funny, occasionally very violent, and written with a style and fluency which leaves lesser authors struggling in Lawton’s wake. A final little gem, which I only noticed recently. If you look closely at the cover, you can see Méret Voytek, in her red coat, moving away from us. With her cello slung over her shoulder, she walks into history.

A Lily of the Field is available in all formats, and John Lawton has his own Amazon page
and website.

 

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