George Szirtes is a poet, prose writer and translator. At the Book Festival he talks about his latest work
The Photographer at Sixteen published by Quercus (which is one of the books I recommended in Scottish Review for summer reading):
This book is a memoir of his mother who he says was 'a complicated person, tyrannical, admirable, full of love – a love that wants to occupy all available space'. Most of what he found out about his mother's life before the family arrived in England as refugees from Hungary, came from his father. After his mother's death, George talked regularly to his father, asking him questions and recording what he said. But there was still much that remained unknown and unknowable, as all of his mother's family died in concentration camps, so there was no-one to ask about her early years.
A few family photographs survived, and from these he imagines what her life was like. He admits to guesswork and says that 'memory is mainly invention, and knowledge of another is invention to the highest degree'. But he invents, he says, 'with a sense of homage. I didn't want it to be a Holocaust book – her life was bigger than that'. For Magda (his mother) did spend time in two concentration camps – Ravensbruck, then Penig.
His book is part memoir of his mother, part journey to the places she lived in. It takes us to Budapest (George's birthplace, and where Magda lived and worked as a photographer, got married, and had her two children) and to Cluj, where his mother grew up – now in Romania, but during Magda's childhood, part of Hungary. It is also a journey into George's own past – in 1984 he returns to Hungary for the first time. He explores his own feelings about Budapest, a city he could barely remember, yet which is so evocative for him in a subliminal way. And he considers the events of history that shaped his early life and the subsequent paths that led him into poetry and literature, and how the threads of people's lives are braided together in ways that are both indissoluble and mysterious.
Part of the same talk and discussion of the lives of remarkable women was Jenny Robertson, who has written a biography of the Polish writer Zofia Nałkowska, From Corsets to Communism
(published by Scotland Street Press). Jenny has written many books of fiction and poetry, and is a Polish scholar. Her interest in Poland began when she was still a schoolgirl, when she started a correspondence with a Polish woman and decided she wanted to learn the language. Since then she has made several visits to Poland.
She describes the subject of her biography, Zofia Nałkowska, as 'famous for her wit, her charm and her piercingly blue eyes... [which] looked unflinchingly at human nature in all its foibles'. Zofia did not exempt herself from this penetrating observation, as is shown in the nine volumes of diaries she kept throughout her life, documenting her intimate thoughts and feelings. These diaries showed that she 'crafted her outer persona as carefully as her award-winning prose' and was not nearly as self-confident as she appeared. These diaries were a great gift to the biographer, it meant that Jenny did not have to invent what she really felt and thought, for it was all there.
Zofia was a prolific writer, first published when she was only 15. She always wrote about contemporary issues – people of the present day – she did not look back to the past. Her problems came with communism, for while she was left-wing, she was not a party member and was much too independent to be told what to think. Jenny said that 'she fell foul of the regime and had to re-write her novel 10 times which she found demoralising'. Zofia's own description of this process was: 'they make you a rag and wave you about'.
Another leading author, Maria Dąbrowska, was critical of Zofia. Maria wrote in 1947, when Zofia was 63, of her 'patronising little wags of her finger at men who jump up trembling, to offer her a cigarette'. It seems that it's nothing new for women in the public eye to be criticised for their clothes or appearance or mannerisms, rather than for the work they do.
So Zofia had her critics as well as her many admirers, but her work was well-known and widely loved. Jenny said her most important work in English translation is titled Medallions
. After the second world war, Zofia went into the death camps, talked to survivors, and wrote what they said into the stories that make up this book. She interviewed people, listened to what they said, presented the voices of these people, and wrote down the stories as they were told to her. People were shocked by what they read, by the terrible experiences of people in the camps, for these were the first accounts from survivors of what really went on.
Zofia always believed that women should have the same rights as men, not just to vote, but to love whoever they pleased. She was a feminist avant la lettre, her feminism was in her actions and her life. But she never resented or disliked men. Jenny says 'she charmed them and played the flirting game. What she really wanted was a man that she could depend on, but she never achieved that'. She picked men who were as tyrannical as her father. Yet she had a strong faith in people in general. I've bought Jenny's book and look forward hugely to reading all about this fascinating woman.
Sue Prideaux talks about her biography of Friedrich Nietzsche –
I am Dynamite (published by University of Chicago Press):
I have not read Nietzsche's works but he is one of those writers who is so often quoted that you begin to think you know at least the gist or drift of his thinking, in the shape of some aphorism or other (and he was very fond of aphorisms). Some of his quotes have become part of our language (like quotes from the Bible
, to be selectively applied when convenient to bolster our own particular argument). Probably his most well-known is 'God is dead', which always made me shudder a little – not just because he said it or someone repeated it in words or in print (just because someone says or writes this, doesn't make it true) but because of that note of triumphalism I read into it. But it turns out I was quite wrong, as Sue Prideaux explains in her talk.
In conversation with Stuart Kelly at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Sue says that she wanted to write his biography after reading his personal journals and letters, and she realised there was quite another side to him. He had a sense of humour, was often ironic and not afraid to make fun of himself. She describes his first meeting with Richard Wagner, someone he greatly admired, when Nietzsche was just a young student in Basel. Nietzsche recounts how he thinks he must buy a new suit to wear, for the meeting with this great man. He duly orders it, the tailor comes to deliver it, but Nietzsche doesn't have the money to pay for it immediately and had hoped to buy it on credit. The tailor refuses him credit, holds onto part of the suit, Nietzsche holds onto another part and he describes a tug-of-war with the tailor. In the end, he gives in and decides his old suit will just have to do.
And the famous quote? It turns out we only know half of it. The full quote is 'God is dead and we have killed him'. Far from being triumphant, it was more a cry of despair. It was because of Darwin's work on evolution, natural selection and his Origin of Species
, that Nietzsche felt God had been cut out of the picture. And if so, he asked – what then is the meaning of life? Where do we look for morals and ethics without God and religion? And that's where he saw an abyss. And, Sue says, we are still looking for the answers to these questions.
She says too, that Nietzsche 'adores Jesus Christ, says that he was the only Christian. He hates how the church erodes suffering into virtue. It was only a virtue to suffer. Only a virtue to be poor. He said this was a slave morality – and wanted instead, a morality of affirmation'. It was Lou Salomé, who Nietzsche fell in love with, who wrote that 'at the centre of Nietzsche there is a God-shaped hole'.
Sue also said that 'Nietzsche loathed the big state. He abhorred nationalism. He thought of himself as a bad German, but a good European. He detested anti-semitism... His sister, Elisabeth, was exactly the opposite'. But when Nietzsche fell ill and went mad, it was Elisabeth who took charge of him and created his archive. Nietzsche died in 1900 but Elisabeth lived until 1935. Hitler was in the ascendant during the 1930s and was chancellor from 1933 on, and Elisabeth is a great admirer. She invites Hitler to the archive, where he spends an hour and a half – she even gives him Nietzsche's walking stick. But, Sue says, Hitler probably never even read Nietzsche's work, he just took the soundbites, such as 'ubermensch', and 'will to power' and used them out of context to act as ballast for his own philosophy.
A couple of other Nietzschean quotes which I like: 'Never trust a thought that occurs to you indoors' – an example of his irony, yet there's something serious in it too. (The philosopher Kierkegaard spent a lot of time walking outdoors.) And: 'All philosophy is autobiography', in other words, subjective. I wonder if this is another example of Nietzsche being part-ironic and part-serious?