The national memory of any people is a mixture of truth and myth.
- Madeline Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948
Not what I expected, this book, but in retrospect not surprising. The author, after all, was only born in 1937, and it was only in the following year, ten days after Nazis marched into Prague, that her parents were able to secure necessary papers to exit the country. The papers were necessary for leaving, and leaving was also necessary. A bare two weeks after Czechoslovakia’s future existence had been signed away at Munich, a newly formed Czecho-Slovak [note the difference in name] Defense Ministry asked for the dismissal of Madeline’s father, Joseph Körbel, from the diplomatic service. He had become a political undesirable. Besides his views and public positions, the Defense Ministry noted, “Dr. Körbel and his wife are Jews.” In that ten-day interim, the family slept in friends’ apartments and spent their days on the streets and cafes, to avoid the Nazi dragnet.
The author was a tiny child in the Prague of that time and spirited to safety in England as quickly as her parents could arrange it. She would, however, grow up to earn a doctorate in history, and a visit years later to the place of her birth (Prague: May 15, 1927) would not be complete for her without seeing it in historical context. Thus “Part I: Before March 15, 1939” of the book is not memoir but the product of research and delivers a blow-by-blow account of the history of Czechoslovakia and Prague leading up to March 25, 1939.
This book is obviously not comfort reading or escape literature. Seeing Germany gobble up more and more of Europe, page by page, is all the more painful since a reader knows what will follow, while at the same time seeing a series of decisions made by leaders and diplomats who did not have a vision of what was to come.
…The war in Europe was still months away. When it did come, it was expected to be over quickly. Nazi prison camps, such as Dachau, housed dissidents regardless of race.
It was an anxiety-ridden, confusing, depressing, hostile, and saber-rattling “calm” before the storm of the Second World War, a long, drawn-out horror that appeasement did nothing to prevent.
I am also still reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, by Mari Sandoz. About two-thirds of the way through the book, knowing what lies ahead for the principals, I am living vicariously alongside them with a heavy heart.
What can be said of a bookstore customer who orders books and then brings them back to loan to the bookseller to read? That’s a reading friend! “I’m just glad you’re interested,” she told me. So this afternoon at the bookstore I started reading Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss. After that I’ll read the same author’s Notes from No Man’s Land, but my reading friend recommended that I start with Having and Being Had, “because it won’t break your heart like the other one.” Forewarned. Although history has been breaking my heart over and over for years, as has politics.
(Notice that I have set aside Crazy Horse and Madeline Albright for a Eula Biss session. This is typical of my reading life.)
Having and Being Had is a book of nonfiction. It is a collection of very short personal essays, often anecdotal in nature, that take us with the author as she explores the role of economics in our everyday lives. You think you know about the game of Monopoly™? Well, I certainly found the story surprising!
When Biss gets into the question of class, I recall my brother-in-law telling us on Monday, as four of us in masks rode in the Artist’s big Chevrolet station wagon to Traverse City, Empire, Glen Arbor, and back home, “This is the way two lower-class couples ride together: men in front, women in the back.” Middle-class couples, he told us, would sit with their spouses, while an upper-class foursome would mix mates for the length of the drive. Really? I have always just thought that (1) most men have longer legs, so (2) when one man is driving, it makes sense for the other man to be the front-seat passenger. Also, (3) that older people divide up riders this way. I’d never thought of it as a class thing. But author Eula Biss says that her husband can identify from a distance people who grew up in his boyhood neighborhood, not because he knows or ever knew the particular people, but because the fact that you grew up on the South Side is “written on your body.”
Although the foregoing paragraph contains random thoughts, I am not writing down every thought from every short chapter’s essay, because almost every sentence I read generates associations and ideas and speculations that would run into whole paragraphs.
Bicycles have the same rights and duties as motor vehicles. But being governed by the same laws doesn’t produce equality.
-Eula Biss, Having and Being Had
Stop and think about that a moment. Then read on.
A bicycle doesn’t occupy a full lane, is rarely granted the three-foot passing margin required by law, and must use signals not everyone understands. Bicycles belong to a different class and they can’t expect to be treated like cars. And so, bicycles break the rules, riding through stop signs and red lights. Like the people who occupy neighborhoods that are overpoliced and underpoliced, bicycles know that what keeps them safe on the street is not the law, but their own vigilance, quickness, and wit.
I admire the way the writer has personified the modes of transportation, having them stand in for the riders and drivers the law actually covers. I think it makes her point more effectively and facilitates the neighborhood analogy she brings at the end.
The value of art, the artist’s life, the ‘precariat’ as a class – all this I read this morning in the dark. But then, “The Hug”! What a horrible little story that is! I am so sorry she acquiesced! …And yet, in the scale of the world’s horrors, I realize one this small barely registers at all.
I picked up Madeline Albright again last night, joining the family in London:
…As refugees in London that summer, we had plenty of company. Jews and other antifascists arrived from Germany, Austria, Poland and our own Czechoslovakia. The British had quotas that limited the number of adults, but an exception was made for unaccompanied children under seventeen years of age.
A humanitarian program, the Kindertransport, had begun rescuing Jewish children from Germany and Austria….
Is there a word that jumps out at you in that first quoted paragraph? Maybe more than one, but how about antifascists? The word appears again in subsequent pages, and every time I see it I think of a president of the United States who thinks that being antifascist is a bad thing, and I ask myself how this can be possible in my country. Does he imagine we should support fascism? Remain neutral? Would he have American citizens fleeing for their lives to other, safer countries?
“So long as grass shall grow and water flow,” the treaties with the Native American tribes read. “All men are created equal,” reads the Declaration of Independence. And yet -- a history of broken promises and cruel exceptions, offset by periods of self-conscious and fumbling attempts to do better and to make amends.
I picked up and brought home last night an old novel from 1909, The Making of Bobby Burnit, by George Randolph Chester. It looked to be a Horatio Alger-type story of the period, but riches-to-riches rather than rags-to-riches. That is, the son of a wealthy merchant inherits the retail business and has to prove himself under strange terms set in his father’s will.
The story proceeds slowly in the beginning – nice young man, spoiled by life, keeps proposing to nice young woman who won’t give him an answer, etc. Then gradually begins a cascade of bad business decisions and money lost. But the book only really got interesting to me (and I wasn’t looking so much for interest as for relaxation) when Bobby bought a newspaper and resolved to launch a campaign against corruption in his town. (There is a surprising amount of detail on investments and municipal utilities.) The newspaper, too, was a money-losing proposition at first (advertising revenue plummets), but this is a novel, the young man has more of his inheritance in reserve, and all comes right in the end.
In books from this era, it’s interesting to examine the publisher’s lists of other titles at the end of the story. How many of the listed authors, so popular in 1909, are still read today? Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle stand out from the crowd. Ellen Glasgow’s name, too, I hope rings a bell. Literary fame in general, however, is a fleeting thing for most. We remember many more politicians and fighters, even those who fall into the evil category, than the writers of yesterday. Is there a lesson in that fact?