Uncultured 2: What’s On My Cult Radar
‘The Passenger’ by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
There’s a big world of stories out there, and I’m drawn to expansive world imprints like Pushkin Press. I discovered the collected novels of Stefan Zweig at Pushkin, along with unfamiliar story collections from Gogol and Chekhov. Bringing together my twin obsessions, they also publish ‘Walter Presents’ novels from the branded international TV format which has become a mark of excellence in the UK.
Pushkin’s latest release is ‘The Passenger’ by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, who wrote it at 23 and died at 27. The book had lain forgotten for years and has recently been rediscovered. The tale of a Jewish man fleeing Kristallnacht is startlingly immediate, and promotes the author to the pantheon of Böll, Mann and Fallada.
Unfolding in real time, Otto Silberman tries to negotiate the sale of his Berlin apartment and his company as associates rapidly fall way from him in fear or hatred, and finds himself quickening his pace and on the run. This is a book I’ve been waiting for years to read; an authentic drama told from ground level by someone directly involved (Boschwitz is clearly the hero, as he looked Aryan but had a Jewish surname), yet it plays out like a Hitchcock version of Kafka. Tense from the opening page, it turns the screw to the end, while offering insights into the German and Jewish mindsets of the time.
Boschwitz fled to the UK in 1939, where he was interned as an enemy alien even though he was Jewish, and then shipped off to Australia. When he tried to get back, his troop ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and he was killed. This alarming novel serves as his legacy.
A Canterbury Tale
A revisit to Powell & Pressburger’s 1944 film, which failed at the box office and no wonder; it has virtually no story, no tension, an incredibly strange, shambolic script and one of the most annoying performances in film history – and yet it still haunts.
Made to ease fractious US-UK domestic relationships (US soldiers were considered brash and vulgar, their UK hosts were cold and unwelcoming) it tells the story of the Glue Man, a mysterious night figure who pours glue in girls’ hair. Looking for him are a land girl, a US soldier who sounds like a strangled Will Rogers and a UK local. Their investigation doesn’t amount to much more than a few chats with interested parties, and the digressive dialogue spirals off into discussions of Chaucer and wood-cutting. Oh, and n the middle, everything stops for a boring slide show.
But it’s the fragility (and permanence) of history that matters here. Canterbury is depicted as a timeless, mythic, bucolic place where strangers are still greeted by haywains and blacksmiths, and the horse reins of the Canterbury pilgrims can still be heard jangling on the path to the city. An astonishing climax abandons the half-hearted mystery plot entirely in favour of drawing the leads into the cathedral, where Bach’s toccata and fugue resounds through the ancient stones and has a revelatory effect on these latter-day pilgrims unknowingly seeking a blessing.
What was the directors’ intention with this film? To show, Alan Garner-like, how the past bleeds through to the present? Or (more likely) to explain why the indefinable elements of English life were once so precious, and how they inspired others? The old Canterbury has been destroyed, its haywains replaced by street junkies. And so a film meant to inspire has become an elegy for a lost way of life.
Nothing But The Best
For a while in postwar Britain there was a fashion for satirical stories about working class heroes who mount assaults on the class system, from ‘Room At The Top’ to ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’. One of the most neglected is this bitter tale, starring a charismatic, youthful Alan Bates and super-cool Millicent Martin. Frederic Raphael’s witty script and Clive Donner’s swinging direction capture a world where image is everything and the rich actively encourage corruption.
The gorgeous photography is by Nic Roeg, and it’s full of shots of London seen from an ‘E’ type Jag. The story of the rise of Jimmy Brewster (Bates), an estate agent who pays a failed old Etonian (Denholm Elliot) to teach him social climbing, is a sour one, and the sudden gear change when Jimmy commits murder is jarring – but this is a latter-day black comedy closer to ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ than ‘The Knack’.
It’s remarkably cynical; everyone’s out for themselves, but money alone isn’t enough – it’s reaching the next step up while keeping the status quo that concerns them most. And the sixties trappings entice – the old-world banks and private clubs, the hunt balls and fine dining – all coveted by Jimmy, who wants it all.
Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert
This Carthaginian novel is probably Flaubert’s least remembered book, but has been cheaply reprinted of late, and has a bit of a cult following. It’s the story of the siege of Carthage (240–237 BCE) by mercenaries who haven’t been paid for their help in fighting the Romans, and of Mathô, a mercenary in love with Salammbô, the daughter of Hamilcar, chief magistrate of Carthage. That’s as much of a plot you need to know, for this is really about capturing the atmosphere of the times. It’s randomly sensual and violent and was a smashing hit in 1862, beloved by the French of course, but not by shocked, prurient Victorians.
The descriptions of food and clothes and heavily influenced French society. There were six attempts to make operas from the source material, and it even turns up in ‘Citizen Kane’, but in the Anglophone world it remained – and remains – largely unread. I have the Hopkins translation (clunky dialogue) and a French version which is more evocative but a bit of a slog (for me at least). Worthy of your attention, though.