Uncultured 2: What’s On My Cult Radar

The Arts


‘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.

23 comments on “Uncultured 2: What’s On My Cult Radar”

  1. Roger says:

    “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.”
    That was the panic-stricken response after Dunkirk. It had some odd effects: the Amadeus Quartet formed when its members met in an internment camp and at another someone I knew who was a guard and had left school aged fourteen eventually became an academic specialising in German literature and history because the camp commander encouraged the inmates to give the guards further education lessons.

    George Orwell was an admirer of Salammbô. I haven’t read it for years, but I can still recall a chilling scene where Hamilcar can almost, but not quite, realise that a slave isn’t happy at the prospect of his son being sacrificed.

  2. Allan says:

    Always thought part of Canterbury tale lived on in 2001 a space odyssey. The opening scene of the hawk turning into a spitfire seems to have inspired Kubrick’s shot of the man-ape throwing the bone up for it to fall as a satellite.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Not a surprise that Salammbô is a hard slog in French. It is for even a fluent French speaker. I really think you have to be a native speaker to fully appreciate Flaubert’s rhythm and cadence (and use of dialect). So yes — you’re right about it being more “evocative” in the original French yet, that can actually be a deterrent to the full, flavorful understanding — again unless you’re a well-read native speaker (in my humble opinion). Another thing with Flaubert, especially for the reasonably fluent you don’t often get a chance to “catch your breath” while you’re translating along. He is a perfectionist; a practitioner of le mot juste and in fact, is credited with coining the phrase. He never wastes a word. Every word is to the point, particularly in the descriptive passages so, it is easy to stall over these passages, especially if you run up against his often idiosyncratic language. On the other hand, having made it through in French, you can be well and truly pleased with yourself.

  4. Stephen Winer says:

    And the cut in A CANTERBURY TAKE from the arrow in the pilgrims sequence to the fighter jet has to be where Stanley Kubrick got the cut from bone to spaceship in 2001.

  5. Helen+Martin says:

    This saves me the Google search to find out about Salammbo as I have just come across it again in HHhH – which is an absolutely transfixing book. It’s like watching a disastrous train wreck which you just can’t take your eyes away from.

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    Can you get away from those two prepositions at the end without sounding pedantic? Is there a better translation of the Flaubert? I know I’d never make it through in the original – not that I wouldn’t try, though.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    I’ve only read the Krailsheimer English translation. He was a longtime Tutor in French at Christ Church. I think he did a good job of capturing the flow of the original French, keeping in mind that at times you may think you’re reading poetry rather than prose. I did read the Gerard Hopkins Bovary and had the feeling that he took a bit too many liberties as a translator so I did not read his Salammbô. The Krailsheimer is available as a Penguin Classic. In fact, the cover of one edition is used as art for the Salammbô entry above.

    Of passing interest — and perhaps not unexpected — may be that the violence and sensuality throughout the book, if not its literary merit, has found its way into a thankfully forgotten 1960 Italian film ( Salambò) which managed to offend the Italian censors and a first-person perspective adventure video game, Salammbo: Battle for Carthage, an adaptation of the famous French comics artist, Philippe Druillet’s comic series Salammbô,

  8. John Howard says:

    Thank you Admin.. The reference to Alan Garner above has told me that I need to go back to my shelves and re-read his books.
    I’ve seen Nothing But The Best years and years and years ago but now want to search it out and watch again.
    As for Salammbo, well I will need the look for that one and suspect I shall look for Stu-I-Am’s suggestion

  9. chazza says:

    My favourite translation of “Salammbo” is still the Everyman Library edition translated by J.C.Chartres – a rather literal translation but then I am a great fan of the unnecessary adjective….

  10. Kim Newman says:

    Frederic Raphael first adapted Stanley Ellin’s story (Nothing But the Best or The Best of Everything) as a TV play (now lost, I presume). It was done again as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Ellin is one of my favourite overlooked authors.

  11. tony+williams says:

    Salammbo: gosh I must have read that in 1962. At my grandparents but where and why would a working class Welsh family get a copy. It did transport me away from our weekly Sunday lunches. And some of the light programs Sunday stuff.

  12. Martin+Tolley says:

    Salammbô is available in French, Finnish and English on Gutenberg.

  13. Tim+Lees says:

    Salammbo’s a great pairing with Fellini Satyricon, if you want the visuals to go with it.

  14. SteveB says:

    I love A Canterbury tale
    And yes I always understood it as a love letter to a way of life
    Still waiting for a bluray release. I think it’s pretty much the last Powell / Pressburger to get one

  15. Paul+C says:

    The Boschwitz looks intriguing – will try that one. Recommend the new Carl Hiaasen comic crime novel ‘Squeeze Me’ which is great fun and includes a demolition of a character who is clearly Donald Trump but is never quite named. Best new crime novel I’ve read so far this year,

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    A final word (at least from me) on reading Salammbô in French. It is worthwhile. But obviously, it shouldn’t be donkeywork. However, even if you are comfortable in your “French skin,” unless you are a native speaker, I would suggest considering an ebook version with an embedded French/English dictionary. As has been pointed out elsewhere here, the estimable Project Gutenberg has several ebook formats, presumably with some having a pop-up dictionary.

  17. Helen+Martin says:

    Thank you, Stu, for all that.

  18. Jonah says:

    Off-topic: WTH! On amazon.com, the hardback edition of Fowler’s “Film Freak” can be bought new from “KnowledgePond” for $902.81.

  19. Helen+Martin says:

    Jonah – and no doubt worth every penny, but my goodness, what is it, a hand written copy with the author’s own annotations?

  20. Paul+C says:

    A search on Abe for signed books by Chris produces 85 results ranging from just £17 for The Bureau of Lost Souls to £55 for Seventy-Seven Clocks (excluding postage). Go on – treat yourselves………

  21. Brooke says:

    And over 100 USD for Casebook (Soho Devil). I’ll resist …for awhile.

  22. David+Ronaldson says:

    Thanks for the recommendations; I really like the sound of The Passenger, though my wife may have something to say about my ever-growing ‘About to Read’ list.

  23. Helen+Martin says:

    My husband’s favourite Serling is the water truck in the desert “and Burt Reynolds had hair!” he said. That one didn’t need specific dialogue at the end because it was a parable right from the beginning. The program always had an eeriness that was most unsettling.

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