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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

Facts First: An Interview with Michele Zackheim

March 28, 2014 | by

last train to paris

From the cover of Last Train to Paris.

Michele Zackheim’s new novel, Last Train to Paris, follows the adventures of Rosie Manon, the fearless foreign correspondent for the Paris Courier. Spanning the better part of a century, from 1905 to 1992, the story takes us to the Paris and Berlin of the midthirties and early forties, during one of the most fascinating and shameful periods in modern history, the years leading to World War II. Zackheim was moved to write the novel following a strange discovery—in the thirties, her distant cousin was kidnapped and murdered in France by Eugen Weidmann.

I spoke to Zackheim via e-mail and telephone over a period of three months. Our conversations touched on her family history and writing methods, and the formidable research she brought to her new novel.

All of your books share a certain preoccupation with World War II. Why?

My family lived in Compton, California, an area that was declared vulnerable to an enemy attack. I was only four years old when World War II ended, but I remember small details—a brass standing lamp with a milk-glass base that was lit at night while my parents listened to the menacing news on the radio. The sound of night trains, which ran on tracks a block away. And of course—and this is hard to admit—my only sibling was born in 1944. Because I was the eldest, and because before her birth I had already experienced grim hardships, an intense sibling rivalry was born. I have to assume that she became part of my unconscious interest in war. These memories, along with the emerging news from concentration camps after the war, and my parents’ outraged and mournful whisperings in Yiddish, created an unconscious anxiety that I’ve been making work about all my adult life.

You wove the story of your cousin’s murder through your novel. Was the expansion and departure from the initial incident a natural progression for you?

I often start out writing nonfiction. But there’s a problem. It’s boring for me not to embellish—actually, it’s no fun. Read More »

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Filling the Silence: An Interview with Marie Chaix

February 25, 2013 | by

xChaixTo call Marie Chaix’s work autobiographical would be incomplete, though most of her books tell and retell the stories of her life. Her writing is porous and breathes memory, attesting to memory’s transience and the impressions it leaves on the body.

At the age of twenty-six, Chaix read the notebooks her father had kept during his ten years in prison following World War II. Unbeknownst to her family, he’d been the right-hand man of pro-German Fascist collaborator Jacques Doriot and had fought in the Wehrmacht beside him. This was a shock and became the topic of Chaix’s first book, The Laurels of Lake Constance. Like many of Chaix’s works, it hovers somewhere between memoir and fiction. In June, Dalkey Archive Press will publish The Summer of the Elder Tree, translated by Chaix’s husband, Harry Mathews. It concerns her ten-year hiatus from writing following the death of her editor and reincorporates many of the places she visited in The Laurels of Lake Constance and in her second book, Silences, or a Woman’s Life, which Dalkey published late last year.

Chaix spoke to me on the phone from her home in Key West.
 
As someone who writes a lot of autobiography, do you believe that a story is preexisting—that a writer’s job is to find it, retrieve it, and record it—or is there some invention in autobiography?

Well, I didn’t realize it before writing, but in general I discovered that, even if you have characters that you know very well—even if you write about yourself, about your “life,” your memories—the result is exactly the same as if it was fiction. I think that readers know that it’s autobiographical because writers care when it’s autobiographical, but they read it and think about themselves, which is what happened to me.

But I think writing doesn’t work like that, you know? Of course, you have a motive, you have yourself, you have your family. But they become completely—and even yourself—you become completely part of a larger world, a larger story. Read More »

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When Agatha Christie Was Investigated by MI5

February 4, 2013 | by

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One imagines that MI5 was busy during World War II. But not too busy, it would seem, to take the time to investigate Agatha Christie. Why? Well, says the Guardian,

The answer, it can now be revealed, lay in the name of a character in her wartime novel N or M, whom she called Major Bletchley. He appears in the book as a friend of Christie’s pair of detectives, Tommy and Tuppence. In the book, published in 1941, N and M are the initials given to two of Hitler’s agents as Tommy and Tuppence hunt for the enemy within. Major Bletchley comes across as a tedious former Indian army officer who claims to know the secrets of Britain’s wartime efforts. Christie happened to be a close friend of Dilly Knox, one of the leading codebreakers at Bletchley Park. MI5 was concerned that the major’s inside knowledge of the progress of the war was based on what the codebreakers knew about Hitler’s plans. Had Christie mischievously named the character Bletchley because Knox told her what was going on there?

The codebreakers at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire had broken German Enigma machine cyphers, enabling Churchill and his military commanders to know what the enemy was planning. Berlin believed Enigma was unbreakable, making it all the more essential to ensure that only a very small circle of people knew what the codebreakers at Bletchley were up to.

What worried MI5 even more was that it was Knox who had just broken the Enigma machine cypher used by German secret service officers sending spies to Britain.

It is almost unthinkable to imagine equal concern being lavished on the work of a modern bestseller; James Patterson and John Grisham somehow don’t seem likely tools of espionage, although it’s tempting to imagine government agents poring over the bestseller list in search of security breaches. In any event, MI5’s fears were unfounded. When confronted, Christie responded, “Bletchley? My dear, I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters.”

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“Things Grown-Ups Talk About”

January 18, 2013 | by

Today is A. A. Milne’s birthday. While he is certainly best known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh, Milne was a prolific writer who came to resent his association with the beloved bear of very little brain. One of the more intriguing episodes of Milne’s life is his feud with author P. G. Wodehouse.

The two men were initially friends: exactly the same age, and both comic writers, they moved in the same circles in 1920s London, playing on the same cricket team and contributing to many of the same publications. In 1928, they even collaborated on the adaptation of Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. By the 1930s, their friendship had cooled somewhat—Wodehouse defenders cite jealousy—but it wasn’t until World War II that things became actively hostile. Read More »

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In Which Philip Roth Announces His Retirement (in English)

November 13, 2012 | by

Last month our friends at the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles reported that Philip Roth has called it a day, and the world took notice. Here is the full interview with Nelly Kaprielian, in English. —Lorin Stein

Out of all your novels, Nemesis seems to be the one where you lay out most clearly your own vision of existence.

That’s true. I think everything in life is a matter of luck. I don’t believe in psychoanalysis, or in a subconscious that guides our choices. All we have is the good luck or the bad luck to meet certain people who will be either good or bad for us. My first wife, for example, turned out to be a criminal—she was always stealing, lying, and so forth—and it’s not as if I chose her for that reason. I hate criminals. But there you are, I had the bad luck to marry a bad person. Psychoanalysts will tell you that I chose her unconsciously—I don’t believe in that, though in a certain way this isn’t far from my own view, which is that, in the face of life, we are innocents. There is a certain innocence in each of us in the way we deal with our lives.

Nemesis belongs to a group of four novels entitled “Nemeses” (including Everyman, Indignation, and The Humbling). How are they connected?

Each one deals with the subject of death from a different point of view. In each of these books, the protagonist has to face his “nemesis,” a word one hears a lot in the United States, and which could be defined as doom, or misfortune, a force that he can’t overcome and that chooses him as its victim. Read More »

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Documenta 13

July 11, 2012 | by

Massimo Bartolini, Untitled (Wave), 1997–2012. Photo: Nils Klinger

Michelangelo Antonioni was not happy with the grass. This was the summer of 1966, and London was experiencing an extreme drought. The director had shot the pivotal scene in Blow-Up where David Hemmings photographs an unconsenting Vanessa Redgrave and her lover, and maybe, or maybe not, a murder at Maryon Park. But the grass looked terrible, scraggy and yellow, so Antonioni had the crew spray-paint it green, and then shot the whole sequence again.

Antonioni would’ve approved of the grass in Kassel, though. It was incredibly green, food-coloring green. The leaves, too. The city, at the northern tip of the province of Hesse, in the middle of Germany, is known for having been nearly obliterated by Allied bombs in World War II and for Documenta, the hundred-day international exhibition of 150 contemporary artists that takes place every five years. I was there with my girlfriend, Liza, for the event's thirteenth incarnation, but at some point, everyone I met would mention the destruction—whether to explain the city’s history of manufacturing weapons or the blocky postwar architecture.

The painter and professor Arnold Bode organized the first Documenta in 1955 in order to exhibit publicly the “degenerate” art that had been banned under the Third Reich. The work of prewar and wartime modernism was displayed in the ruins of the Fridericianum Museum, not just as an act of recovery but of testimony, too. This year, the director is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and the exhibition spread beyond the renovated Fridericianum to the main square, the train station, the Brothers Grimm Museum, the sprawling Karslaue Park, and more. There were paintings, installations, films, performances, lectures, seminars, and, as described in the press packet, “periodic activity.” I was there for three days, which is enough time to realize how little time that is, especially since this year Documenta extends beyond Kassel to Alexandria, Cairo, and Kabul, where ruins, recovery, and testimony are not distant concepts.

Read More »

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