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A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

Hodder, 2014, 268 p, plus 5 p Historical Notes, 9 p Endnotes and 1p Acknowledgements

 A Man Lies Dreaming cover

Before we plunge into the first chapter there is a framing device, “In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.” Then we enter the diary, from November 1939, of a private investigator who calls himself Wolf, a refugee to London from Germany after an event he describes as the Fall, before a passage in the third person relating ongoing events not described in Wolf’s diary. It very soon is apparent Wolf is a Nazi. “I don’t work for Jews,” he tells the woman who wishes to be his client. Moreover he once had an affair with his neice, Geli (who killed herself with his gun,) and then took up with “sweet, good-natured” Eva. This, in other words is Adolf Hitler, fallen on hard times. (That name though, does not appear on the page till very late in the book.) The woman is Isabella Rubenstein who wants to know the whereabouts of her sister Judith, supposedly smuggled out of a Germany led by the Communist Ernst Thälmann after the 1933 elections, but since disappeared. Altered history territory, then.

Except, it isn’t. The chapter ends with the framing device and the dreaming man is named as Shomer. The book continues with the noir thriller elements alternating Wolf’s diary entries with third person elements and every so often the framing device being reasserted. In this we learn Shomer was a writer of shund (a kind of pulp fiction) and the place he is dreaming in is Auschwitz, the real Auschwitz. So it appears it is Shomer who is telling Wolf’s tale, an exquisite revenge presumably since he inflicts pain on Wolf through the various beatings he receives throughout the thriller. Shomer also hallucinates a companion, Yenkl, partly, it seems, to give him some comfort.

It can also be considered a kind of revenge by Tidhar, who is an Israeli, and whose maternal grandparents were both Auschwitz survivors. (The rest of their families were not so fortunate.) This is the sort of subject matter which a non-Jew would have to treat with circumspection, if not avoid altogether. Tidhar has more licence in that regard.

Hitler has been treated before in SF of course, but not usually so directly – except perhaps for Fritz Leiber’s short story Catch That Zeppelin! and Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream part of which purports to be a novel written by a Hitler who emigrated to the US in 1919. The crazed nature of that narrative is not quite emulated here. If anything Wolf is relatively restrained in his ravings. That may be due to the necessity for a viewpoint character to be, at least, coherent.

An altered history would not be worthy of the name did we not meet the famous within and here – as well as Hitler – we duly encounter Oswald Mosley – soon to be a British Union of Fascists Prime Minister in Wolf’s world – his wife, Diana (Mitford,) and her sister Unity, whom Wolf knows as Valkyrie and has the hots for him. Various other Nazis pepper the plot, Rudolf Hess, Josef Kramer, Ilse Koch, Joseph and Magda Goebbels. Literary Brits pop up including Ian Fleming, Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh. Tidhar’s tendency to gild the lily was exemplified here at a publisher’s party (the publisher concerned had, of course, turned down My Struggle,) when Wolf re-encounters Leni Riefenstahl, now working in the US, and she relates to him a plot – to be written by F Scott Fitzgerald as a sequel to The Great Gatsby – for a projected film starring Humphrey Bogart as Gatsby, owner of a bar in North Africa when Daisy Buchanan walks back into his life. The film is to be called Tangier, though, not Casablanca.

There is, too, a Constable Keech. I wondered mildly if Tidhar was aware of what this word signifies for Scots. For myself, I could not avoid the inference.

A Wilfred Owen reference occurs in Wolf’s Great War reminiscences of being blinded and I must confess I liked the conflation, “It is a truth universally acknowledged , that once a detective acquires two concurrent cases , the two must be in some way related,” but I’m not sure about the odd scene where Wolf dreams he is in what is obviously, to us, Auschwitz. Then again, he tells the Chief Inspector who had interrogated him about the murders of prostitutes outside his office, “‘You Jews spend far too much time in your own imagination.’”

This could have been powerful stuff but there is something unbalanced about it all. The scenes in Auschwitz are compelling (but did they still require Sonderkommando to dig graves after the ovens came into operation?) and moving. However, they occupy far too few pages. It is Wolf’s tale which dominates. And that is too trifling to carry the weight thrust upon it by the overall concept.

Pedant’s corner:- USianisms abound. For a story mainly set in late 1930s London that is an added barrier to suspension of disbelief. We had purse for handbag, down-at-the-heels for down at heel, nightstand for bedside table, inside of for inside, ruckus for racket, nightstick – in the 1930s British policemen had truncheons, whiskey (whisky,) airplanes (aeroplanes,) bums used by an Englishwoman as a term for a ne’erdowell (not a chance,) beat-up (beaten-up,) the car’s hood (the car’s bonnet.)

Otherwise there was maw (it’s a stomach not a mouth,) “‘What are you looking at,’ he said’” (ought to have a question mark after at,) Mosleys’s (x2, the correct Mosleys’ was used once,) “the past was …. threatening to catch up to him” (to catch up with him,) tenements (does London have tenements?) sunk (sank,) “none … were” (none was,) “one table was covered in vegetarian dishes from an Indian-style curry to Italian lasagne and British shepherd’s pie” (lasagne and shepherd’s pie would never be vegetarian in the 1930s,) “and sat two tables away from Goodman. He tried to listen to their conversation” (his conversation surely?) ears perked (ears pricked is more usual.) “Her bosoms were immense” (no-one has more than one bosom.) “They put me in a cell again.” (They’d,) “‘Are you,’ I said,” (question mark, not comma, after “you”, “and he gives him with a cursory glance and his diagnosis,” (and he gives him with a cursory glance his diagnosis,) “before immigration out of Germany became impossible” (you cannot immigrate out of a country,) Goebbels misspelled once as Goebbles, “the back of my hands” (technically that would be backs, then,) detached of space and time (detached from,) a red phone box (what other colour would it be? He wasn’t in Hull,) fireworks (on 22nd November? (They were apparently to celebrate the General Election. Not in Britain.) Mosley declares victory on the stroke of midnight of election day. The votes would not all have been counted by then; probably not till the next day back then. He uses the phrase nineteen hundred hours, a military one, not one a politician would employ when addressing a crowd. His first act as the new Prime Minister is to declare war – because Germany has invaded Poland – then martial law (I doubt that last could have been done so readily.) Imposter (impostor.) Wolf describes Charlie Chaplin as “that vile man,” (his lampooning of Hitler did not come till 1940 in our world and would perhaps not have been necessary in Wolf’s.) “The sound the drawer had made … sounded very loud to him” (“the sound sounded” is inelegant, use a different noun; rattle? scrape? noise?) the limelight (of a spotlight, which could be moved? Limelights were fixed in position,) “he always had much respect for the German soldiers,” (lots of respect,) a row work (a row works,) exodii (used in the context of people making an exodus. Is this an invention by Tidhar?)

Ha’penny by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 318 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Ha’penny cover

The Farthing Set responsible for the peace between Britain and the Third Reich in 1941 has parlayed the murder of Sir James Thirkie (which kick started Farthing, the first of Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy) into a takeover of the government of the UK.

As in Farthing, first person narration by a female alternates with third person chapters again concentrating on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard. The woman narrator here is actress Viola Lark, one of the aristocratic Larkin sisters (who are clearly modelled on the Mitfords.) In this respect the failure to mention the British Union of Fascists or Oswald Mosley in Farthing is partly explained. In her acknowledgements Walton says she avoided the use of real names for those with speaking parts in the narrative. (There is one glaring exception to this, but in our real world he was dead by 1949 when this book is set.) In Ha’penny the attraction of fascism for one of the Lark sisters, Celia, has gone so far as for her to have married Himmler but it is another sister, Cressida, the communist one, who draws Viola into a conspiracy to murder Hitler during a visit to the theatre on his trip to Britain.

Ha’penny does not work quite as well as Farthing. Partly this is because the setting has been established and we are working through its ramifications but more importantly it is that the whodunnit element is wholly absent. We know from the first sentence that Viola has been apprehended and the plot motor, the conspiracy, is also revealed early on. Viola’s narration is also not as fresh (though less twee) as was Lucy Eversley’s in the previous book. The insidious creep of authoritarian measures, the poisoning of public attitudes, is well brought out, though. The new Prime Minister says, “‘we don’t want them to be able to say that we’re using these laws to shut people up, especially when we are.’” It was particularly salutary to read this so soon after the House of Commons debate on bombing Syria and the prior comments about those against it being “terrorist sympathisers”. The web of complicity woven around Carmichael is drawn tighter, however, as he is offered the oversight of a new law enforcement agency, The Watch, an analogue of the Gestapo.

Pedant’s corner:- Viola’s Britishness is questioned when she reveals she was born in Dublin (in 1917). Since Ireland was part of the UK then that would make her British no matter her ancestry. There were no opening quotation marks when a piece of dialogue began a chapter. “‘There’s a Joe Lyons automat on the corner of Charing Cross Road.’” (A Lyon’s Corner House I’d have accepted. I don’t think automats made it to Britain till the 1960s.*) Station wagon (OK the book has the USian text but Viola is supposed to be an English aristocrat, she’d have written “estate car”.) Was it necessary to transliterate a Spaniard’s pronunciation of the city as Barthelona? National Service. (In our time-line, yes. Would they have kept it on in this one?) “The report on the bomb and bodies were waiting for him” (the report was waiting,) Boedicea (it was generally spelled Boadicea in those days [Boudica or Boudicca now]) Canada is referred to as part of the Commonwealth (just scrapes by for 1949,) “‘He’s an ASDIC man. Radar you know.’” (ASDIC was a sonic technique, radar uses radio waves.) “There were a series” (there was a series,) the German Embassy in London is described as if “made over by some mad devotee of monumental Bauhaus” (the Nazis shut Bauhaus down,) the French for lark is rendered alouetta instead of alouette, vol-au-vents again (I still think the plural is vols-aux-vents,) come-out (the entry of a debutante to society was known as a coming out. Walton perhaps used “come-out” to avoid any inference of being gay by the modern reader.) The lower case sergeant is used for the police rank while Inspector is capitalised; they both ought to be so, “the Home Secretary’s backup were violating police tradition” (the backup was,) Inspector Jacobson from Hampstead seems to know what The Watch is but Carmichael had only just found out himself.
*Of course, it’s an altered history, maybe that’s part of Walton’s scenario.

Are Dead Nazis Due Royalties?

I heard about this in an item on the radio news today.

It seems the owner of the copyright of the diaries of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels is suing a publisher over quotations from them.

My first reaction was “Goebbels had an estate?” As far as I was aware he and his wife Magda had killed all their children before themselves committing suicide – or having an SS man shoot them. So who could be the beneficiaries of his estate? (A private individual it would seem from the link above.) Reflecting on it as I write this, I wonder did Hitler have an estate? And who owns that?

My second thought earlier was, why should Goebbels have an estate? It all ought to have been confiscated and given over to victims’ organisations. Surely no single person has the right directly to benefit financially from the activities of the Nazi hierarchy?

This is a murky area of course, as the publishers are seeking to do just that.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying to retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

Hitler’€™s War by Harry Turtledove

Hodder, 2010, 496 p.

The usual fare from Turtledove. This time the altered history is that World War 2 starts in 1938 – though the actual Jonbar Point seems to be when Spanish General Sanjurjo survives his aeroplane flight from Portugal to Burgos to head up the Nationalist army in the Spanish Civil War which continues long after it did in our history as, after a failure of the talks in Munich two years later Hitler declares war on and invades Czechoslovakia. Major differences are that Poland then becomes a German ally, the invasion of France is not swift enough (apparently due to the early German panzers not being quite as effective as their later 1940 counterparts would be) and Japan eventually attacks the already war-embroiled USSR in Siberia.

The viewpoints are many, but hardly varied as the characters are as cardboard (or as functional) as always, or there simply to outline the war’€™s progress. The writing is as annoying as ever with its repetitions of information we already know. Particularly irritating was the observation that someone or other didn’t like some aspect of warfare “one bit” occurring again and again.

The reading is easy though; something I felt I needed after Gardens of the Sun. I don’t think I’€™ll be following the rest of The War That Came Early series though. There’€™s now another four of the beggars!

The Road To Stalingrad by John Erickson

Stalin’s War With Germany Volume 1
Grafton, 1985, 814p (including 144p of sources and references and a 26p index.)

I remember seeing a newspaper review of this and thinking, “That sounds interesting, I’ll maybe get it in paperback.” Then I realised it was the paperback. (£7.99 was a lot of money for a book in 1985. And there was the second volume to consider). It was a few years later before I bought both, I believe. They are weighty tomes and I didn’t feel able to give them the necessary time till now.

Originally published in 1975, firmly during the cold War era, The Road To Stalingrad filled a gap by being the first UK history of the Russian Front to focus primarily on Soviet sources.

Its starting point is the disruption to the Soviet armed forces caused by the purges of the 1930s, the rearrangements and lack of preparedness which that caused, all of which was exacerbated by the strange purblindness of Stalin with regard to German intentions in the run up to war. Thereafter it considers the frontier battles, the deep German advance, touches briefly on events behind the German lines, deals with the Moscow counterstroke and the following abortive Soviet offensive in early 1942 with which Stalin thought he might win the war that year, up to the German drive to the Volga and the Caucasus.

The book is strongest on the deliberations within the stavka, the Soviet high command, but really that means the decisions reached by Stalin. Marshal Shaposhnikov, the main military voice within the stavka – even though Zhukov was made Stalin’s deputy in 1942 – seems to have learned early to go with that flow.

Unfortunately it is not till page 538 and the start of the Battle of Stalingrad that the narration comes to life. Here Erickson begins to leaven his account with details of the battle. Up till then he is more concerned with the general sweep of events and is peculiarly fixated on enumerating the switching of multifarious Divisions between the various Soviet Armies, Groups and Fronts. Along the way there is a daunting array of Russian General’s names to deal with.

While the book does have maps, they are very few and only depict large areas. Some showing the smaller movements involved would have provided clarification of the somewhat dense prose.

What, for me, it all illuminated was the unlikelihood of any attack to liberate Europe by the Western Allies being likely to succeed had Hitler’s armies not already been embroiled and macerated in the East. The sheer numbers of troops involved, the scales of the operations, are stunning. As it was, Stalin’s pressing of Britain and the US to initiate a Second Front quickly was deflected as they were as yet not adequately prepared for any such endeavour.

At the end of the 642 pages of narrative we have reached only the encirclement of von Paulus’s Sixth Army, trapped in the city. The second volume of Erickson’s history, The Road To Berlin, awaits. It may be some time.

War Memorials

In Great Britain there are War Memorials – mainly to the Great War and the Second World War – in even the smallest towns and villages. Sometimes when you’re driving along in the countryside there will be one at the edge of a field; covered in names even though there appears to be no habitation worthy of the name round about.

I’ve also come across them on walls in churches, police and railway stations (does anyone know what happened to the memorial at Dumbarton East when they demolished the old buildings?) and Post Offices commemorating the former workers who “gave their lives.”

It’s always striking that the number of dead for World War 1 outstrips that of World War 2 – perhaps a reflection of the fact that, after 1916 till late 1918, the greater burden of the Allies in the Great War lay on Britain and its Empire, while in WW2 most of the fighting after 1941 was done by the USSR and the US.

I spent a fortnight in Germany 30 years ago and was tremendously saddened by the war memorial in the town where I was staying. The sacrifice seemed even more poignant because they lost (and, of course, in WW2 had no shred of excuse nor reason to fight.)

I have already posted pictures of Kirkcaldy’s War Memorial.

There is another war memorial in Kirkcaldy, though, one which is fairly unusual.

It is to the local dead of the Spanish Civil War; members of the International Brigade who came from Fife or the Lothians. That conflict preceded and presaged the greater anti-fascist fight of WW2. Arguably had France and Great Britain taken the government side in that war then the later, bigger war might have been averted. But Britain at least was in no mood to fight (think of all those names on the WW1 memorials) and was also unprepared (no Spitfires for example.) This was still more or less true by the time of the Munich crisis in 1938. But failure to stand up to him on both those occasions and also during the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the 1938 Anschluss encouraged Hitler to believe we never would.

Here is the memorial in situ. It stands just off Forth Avenue, quite near Kirkcaldy railway station.

Spanish Civil War Memorial

The main plaque is inscribed as below.


These are the names just above the plaque.

Memorial front names

There are more on the plinth below the shield.

Memorial top names

This is the shield. The mounted knight is an old emblem representing Fife.

Memorial shield

It’s strange to think that had the Western European powers fought in Spain and helped the Spanish Republic to victory, a Nazi Germany would, paradoxically, likely have survived long past 1945.

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