In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
Today, the words “written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger” are considered a stamp of genius. The mid-twentieth-century creative partnership between the son of a Kentish hop farmer and a Hungarian-born Jewish émigré is the stuff of legend. Powell and Pressburger met in 1938, when Alexander Korda, then the owner of London Films, hired Pressburger to rewrite the script for The Spy in Black, which was being directed by Powell. The chemistry between the two men was immediate. “I was not going to let him get away in any hurry,” Powell recalled. “I had always dreamt of this phenomenon: a screenwriter with the heart and mind of a novelist, who would be interested in the medium of film, and who would have wonderful ideas, which I would turn into even more wonderful images.” Theirs was a unique collaboration, not least because Pressburger should have been Powell’s subordinate; “in the 1930s,” the director (and Pressburger’s grandson) Kevin Macdonald explains in the biography he wrote of his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter, “the scriptwriter had about the same status as the electrician—the foreign scriptwriter even less so.” Instead, the two worked together on equal terms. When, in 1943, they formalized their relationship—what Powell called their “marriage without sex”—creating their production company, The Archers, “their separate creative identities” were, according to Macdonald, fully “submerged.” The two men shared equally both the financial rewards and the creative responsibility for the films they made together. The movies that followed in the forties, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (“which may be the greatest English film ever made,” surmised The New Yorker in the mid-’90s), A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus, are today beloved and admired the world over. Yet mention the The Glass Pearls, and the title is unlikely to ring a bell.
In the aftermath of the dissolution of Pressburger and Powell’s partnership in the late fifties, Pressburger turned to novels. The first, Killing a Mouse on a Sunday, published in 1961, is set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and tells the story of a once notorious bandit, now a tired old man living in exile in France who resolves to cross the border back into Spain, despite the danger to his life, to visit his dying mother. In an interview published in the Daily Mail at the time, Pressburger explained that after years of “communal” creativity in the world of film, he wanted to “prove I could do something on my own.” The novel met with favorable reviews, was quickly translated into a dozen languages, and adapted for the big screen in 1964 as Behold a Pale Horse, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, and Anthony Quinn. (That the film itself died a quick death didn’t really matter.) Everything was set for Pressburger’s second novel to build on this success. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be. The Glass Pearls, published in 1966, was a much darker, grittier tale about a Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight in the dingy streets of London’s Pimlico. It garnered one lone review, a damning write-up in the Times Literary Supplement. The book barely sold its initial print run of four thousand copies, immediately sinking without a trace. And yet, despite the reception it received at the time, The Glass Pearls is a truly remarkable work. It deserves to be recognized both for its own virtuosity, and as an important addition to the genre of Holocaust literature. Indeed, I’d go as far as to declare it a master class in rendering the banality of evil. In the same way that the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger’s very best films wasn’t recognized until the seventies, when critics like Ian Christie and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese began to champion the work, the audiences of the mid-’60s simply weren’t ready for the disturbing complexity of The Glass Pearls. The novel’s reissue in 2015 by the Faber Finds imprint—with a new preface by Macdonald and an introduction by the film scholar Caitlin McDonald—has gone some way to righting its place in the canon, yet it still sadly remains largely unknown and unread.
Set in the summer of 1965, The Glass Pearls opens on the morning of the first Saturday in June, when Karl Braun, a piano tuner, moves into new lodgings in southwest London. Described as “hatless, with a bow-tie, greying hair, slight in build,” Braun is introduced as a rather unremarkable specimen, the kind of man who fits right in to the drab world of communal living and nosey landladies; just the latest in the line of “countless tenants” who’ve “left behind coffee-stains and hair-grease as pockmarks of their private worlds by which to be remembered.” Given the literary preoccupations of the period, namely kitchen-sink realism, this is an immediately recognizable milieu. (Indeed, interestingly, when Pressburger decided to turn his hand to novel writing, it was authors Bill Hopkins and Colin Wilson to whom he turned to for advice, both associated with the Angry Young Men set.) Pressburger, however, is lulling his readers into a false sense of security. Well before the end of the first chapter, it’s revealed that the rather meek Mr. Braun is really the infamous Dr. Otto Reitmüller, a brain surgeon–turned–Nazi war criminal who’s been in hiding for twenty years, and one of “the biggest fish” sought by those in pursuit of justice, wanted for crimes against humanity in the form of the inhumane surgical experiments he carried out on concentration camp inmates.
The central complaint of the disparaging TLS review was that the “twist” in Pressburger’s tale is revealed too soon. The reviewer’s take, unfortunately, is a gross misunderstanding of how the novel works. The horror of the story isn’t in the revelation of Reitmüller’s real identity, nor in the details of the experiments the doctor carried out, though they are undoubtedly horrific: “He put a person under hypnosis, bid him tell his personal story in great detail and then he operated. As soon as the patient recovered, he heard his story once again, noted the discrepancies and operated again, cutting out another minute colony of cells. Ad infinitum. Or, rather: ad finitum. The end came soon enough.” The true horror of Pressburger’s story is in the way in which he forces his readers to sympathize with Braun; it’s in our slow acknowledgement that this “cultured man, a fine musician, an accomplished violinist,” a man who spends his evenings frequenting concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, who chivalrously wines and dines a young woman called Helen, and who still, after two decades, keenly mourns the deaths of his wife and child (killed in the war during a bombing raid on Hamburg), is also a morally bankrupt, cold-hearted killer, who never for one second expresses any regret or guilt for what he’s done.
Pressburger shrewdly invokes the reader’s sympathy for Braun from the very moment our protagonist’s true identity is revealed. He describes the news that the Bundestag has extended the statute of limitation for the prosecution of alleged Nazi criminals (originally it was only twenty years from the war’s end) as dealing Braun a blow of “cruel ferocity.” A limited ordeal, however lengthy, is one thing, Pressburger points out: “Only if the suffering imposed upon them appears to be limitless do they go to pieces.” To set Braun up as the one who’s being subjected to cruelty and suffering is an audacious move, but it works. An unexpected visit from an old partner-in-crime—a man who tries to convince Braun to join “the Brotherhood” in South America—instills a new fear in Braun that the net is closing in around him. He is a man of reason—“Anybody could make mountains out of molehills. He, a scientist, who prided himself on his logical mind, he should know better,” he thinks. “The natural function of a logical mind was to reduce mountains to molehills, not the other way round.” Yet fears increasingly “crawled like ants all over his mind,” and his actions become rash. Although narrated in the third person, Pressburger is so tightly focused on Braun’s internal, unraveling psychological state the reader can’t help but become enmeshed in his “terror.” For the majority of the novel, for example, it’s actually impossible to tell whether Braun is really being followed, or whether his suspicions are simply the result of his overactive, terrified imagination. To describe the text as cinematic sounds rather unimaginative, but Braun’s deteriorating psychological state is rendered visually on the page—“Another spark lit another warning light in his mind”—and the tension ratchets up, as in the very best thrillers. The whole novel is something of an extended chase sequence in the same vein as Powell and Pressburger’s brilliant film 49th Parallel.
It takes some knowledge of the details of Pressburger’s life to fully grasp the murky agitation of The Glass Pearls. In the same way that his films spoke, Macdonald declares, “for his personal life,” so too this novel has strong autobiographical elements. As part of his new identity as Braun, Reitmüller passes off the memories of one of his patient, gleaned during the course of his barbaric experiments, as his own. And yet those memories—of fleeing Germany aboard a night train, hands “trembling” when the Gestapo officer examined his passport; of queuing at the Prefecture in Paris to be issued a resident permit as a foreigner, and the disabled Frenchman who helped him; of the murder in the house where he thereafter rented an apartment on the rue Quentin Bauchart; and of the parties he threw there, where he served small green oysters known as portugaises, within which he and his friends placed worthless glass pearls in order to trick guests—are Pressburger’s own. Already disturbing enough within the reality of the novel, the revelation that these memories are real coats them with an additional sheen of darkness.
Born Imre József Pressburger, into a middle-class Jewish family in Miskolc, Hungary, in 1902, Pressburger studied in Prague before his life as a student came to an abrupt end when his father died suddenly in 1926. Forced to get a job to support himself and his widowed mother, he wound up in Berlin, where he began his literary career writing short stories for newspapers, after which he got a job as a scriptwriter at UFA (Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft), then the most powerful film company in Europe. When, with the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933, Pressburger lost his job as part of the state-sanctioned purge of Jewish employees, he fled to Paris (as detailed in The Glass Pearls). Two years later, he relocated again, this time to London with its booming British film industry. Pressburger met Korda via mutual friends in 1936, and two years later, Korda introduced him to Powell. The rest, as they say, is history.
It isn’t just that Braun’s borrowed memories are those of the author. Pressburger gives his doctor other significant personal characteristics: he’s a gifted violinist and music lover, as Pressburger was, and he loves a down duvet, as did Pressburger (still a rarity in England in those days). Why, one wonders, would someone who narrowly escaped the gas chambers of Auschwitz, where many of his closest family members—including his mother—met their deaths, go on to write a novel in which he mapped so closely his own identity onto that of his oppressor? “Could it be that as a survivor he somehow felt implicated in the crimes,” Macdonald wonders, “felt that he had not done all that he could to stop them?” Pressburger never forgave himself for his mother’s death, for not having been able to take her with him when he fled Germany. As he grew older, he was prone to increasing bouts of melancholia; it would make sense to attribute these to survivor’s guilt and the potential associated self-loathing.
As McDonald suggests, however, we can also read The Glass Pearls as “the culmination of Pressburger’s attempt to understand the Nazi mentality.” Anyone familiar with his and Powell’s canon already knows he’d long been preoccupied with the figure of the “good German”: think of Hardt in The Spy in Black, the German U-boat captain who’s reluctant to be a spy; Vogel, the baker-turned-Nazi soldier in 49th Parallel; and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Even the “bad” Nazis Pressburger wrote were never one-dimensional. Take the six Nazis in 49th Parallel, for example, each of whom is “humanized,” Macdonald reminds us. “Clearly Pressburger is not interested in perpetuating the stereotype of Nazis as inhuman monsters,” McDonald agrees. “On the contrary, he wants to humanize his protagonists as much as possible, in order to show that the rise of the Nazi Party and the Holocaust are not historical aberrations and that evil exists in us all.” When, in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the now aging, ex-German Army officer Kretschmar-Schuldorff laments the loss of his sons to the Nazi Party, it’s exactly this potential that Pressburger is illustrating. Take Hannah Arendt’s famous pronouncement about the notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Exactly the same could be said for Reitmüller/Braun, but the trouble with this, as Arendt continues, is that “[f]rom the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this morality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” Today, Arendt’s theories about the banality of evil have been digested and understood by the culture, but back when Pressburger published The Glass Pearls—only three years after Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963—many people still struggled to grasp the concept. As Arendt herself acknowledged, “the coexistence of normality and bottomless cruelty explodes our ordinary conceptions and presents the true enigma of the trial.” Bearing this in mind, McDonald closes her introduction with an apt comparison between Pressburger’s disconcerting novel and Powell’s different but equally distressing Peeping Tom. Although this film about a voyeuristic serial killer was met with universal disgust and outrage on its original release, it has since been hailed as a masterpiece. “[I]t was simply too shocking for the audiences of the time,” McDonald surmises. It’s a claim that could equally be applied to Pressburger’s magnificent but unquestionably disturbing novel.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.