Posts Tagged ‘1942 Novel’

An early English-language edition, perhaps a little too "prettied-up", when one considered the darkness of much of the content...

An early English-language edition.

The Angel with the Trumpet by Ernst Lothar ~ 1942. First English language publication 1944. Alternate U.S. title The Vienna Melody. This edition: George C. Harrap & Co., 1946. Translated from the German by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. Hardcover. 439 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This is a dense, clever, sometimes powerful, occasionally humorous, and ultimately deeply disturbing novel, based as it is on the author’s own experiences as a member of the Austrian artistic and dramatic community in the years leading up to Hitler’s Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938.

It’s also an ambitious traditional-style family saga, following the stories of three generations of a prominent Viennese family, the piano-making Alts, and incorporating cameo appearances by various high-profile historical characters.

We have Mozart in a flashback scene of the performance in the Alt family music room of the composer’s personal rendition of Die Zauberflöte in its entirety, high soprano arias and all. The ill-fated Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf, who has carried on an illicit romantic relationship with a young woman who then marries into the Alt family; his dramatic suicide (real) takes place on her (fictional) wedding day. A highly unlikable Adolf Hitler appears first as a student who takes and fails an entry examination to art school alongside one of the Alt sons, and later in full dictator mode.

The rise and fall of the Alt family is something of an analogy to that of Austria itself, and it feels very deliberate. Lothar paints a damning portrait of a family, and by extension a people, who turn on their own for political expedience.

I am of course referring to the persecution of the Jewish population. Perhaps nowhere else in Europe had those of Jewish heritage become so much a part of existing society that their “Jewishness” was merely a descriptor, not a barrier to social standing, or to one’s career, and definitely not to one’s participation in the fine arts.

So how, in a few short years, did an entire society turn against a portion of itself, and why where “decent people” unable to prevent the tragedy of the ethnic-religious “cleansing” which accompanied the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich?

Troubling, indeed. But much more recent political events very close to home show that this is not an outdated possibility. Enough said.

Political and historical significance aside – and this is a valuable book to read for its documentarian atmosphere for anyone who is interested in the time period it covers, 1889 to 1938 – The Angel with the Trumpet is also an absorbing dramatic novel.

I did feel that the novel was just the slightest bit weak in its failure to fully engage me in the lives of its characters; there were few times when I completely identified with any of them, or cared deeply for their joys or despairs, though I certainly found myself deeply interested in what would happen next.

The ending is ambiguous, for the book was published before the conclusion of the war, but it shows a gleam of hope, that amongst all the evil of the time some people still cared for the wellbeing of others, and for their troubled, deeply changed, but still beloved country.

adrienne-gessner-ernst-lothar-2The author, Ernst Lothar, was a theatre director and producer as well as an established writer when he fled Austria for the United States in 1938, along with his wife, actress Adrienne Gessner. Lothar’s loving nostalgia and poignant despair for his lost homeland are very evident in this novel. The couple returned to Austria after the war, and continued to pursue their artistic endeavours. They are buried under the same headstone in a Viennese cemetery.

mv5bntk5zte2nzytyjrlmc00mwuwlwe4n2qty2flztc1mwm4yzy4l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndy3mzu2mdm-_v1_sy1000_cr007161000_al_This novel was made into a 1948 Austrian film, with Adrienne Gessner filling one of the secondary roles. It was remade in Britain in 1950, starring English actors but using much of the Austrian-shot footage.

The Angel with the Trumpet was recently republished by Europa under its alternate title, The Vienna Melody. Those with experience in reading vintage novels will find much to enjoy, though its relatively slow pace and matter-of-fact portrayal of dramatic scenarios may fail to completely engage the modern reader.



Read Full Post »

I’ve just finished something of a mini-binge of World War II-era spy thrillers, with the first two of what would turn into a handsome list of espionage and suspense thrillers by Helen MacInnes.

Above Suspicion was the first, and published in 1941 in the opening moves of what was to become the prolonged agony of the Second Great War, its urgent and foreboding tone rocketed it to bestseller heights. MacInnes followed her first novel by another even more topically urgent and dark, Assignment in Brittany, in 1942.

Though definitely dated, these suspense novels are decidedly still very readable today, made even more enthralling by the fact that we know what happened in the years after, while MacInnes and her heroic characters are facing a tremendous and forbidding Great Unknown. I’m going to give brief sketches of both in two hundred word snapshots, if I can condense them so tightly – with the strong recommendation that you discover these for yourself if you feel that these might be your thing. These two novels are excellent examples of their genre, though highly dramatized and relying upon those inevitable unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks in order to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. Though neither has an ending that is neatly rounded off; the settings and times don’t allow it.

I have read Above Suspicion numerous times through the years, but Assignment in Brittany was new to me, and I was pleased at how engaging both of these were, even though in the first I knew the plot inside and out, and the second I guessed at rather successfully all of the way through, except for the rather heartrending (but ultimately optimistic) twist at the very end.

Both books were immediate bestsellers, and remain very readable – and continually in print –  almost seventy-five years after their first publication.

above suspicion helen macinnes 001 (2)

“Because of the acute shortage of regular book cloth under war-time rationing, this book is bound in ‘leatherette,’ a sturdy paper fabric especially designed for this purpose.”

Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes ~ 1941. This edition: Triangle Books, 1944. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Young Oxford University don Richard Myles and his wife Frances are recruited to travel to Europe during summer break in order to discover what has happened to a possibly-compromised chain of British secret service agents. The premise being that the two are so innocent-seeming as to be able to wander at will, from agent to agent, following the links as identified at each contact. In their travels they run in and out of numerous sinister encounters; the Nazis are very much on the ascendant and their evil shadow looms over the lands the Myles visit on their journeyings.

above suspicion helen macinnes  old dj 001 (2)

This dramatic vintage dust jacket illustration illustrates one of the peak moments of this suspense thriller, as the heroine is attacked by the Head Evil Nazi’s killer dog and is rescued by quick deployment of her husband’s handy-dandy sword-stick. Imminently distressing dispatch of the hound aside, isn’t this a gorgeous bit of graphic design?

A novel made most poignant by the time of writing; the last months of peacetime shadowed by foreboding clouds of war. The author draws upon personal experience in telling her tale, and it is an interesting combination of travelogue and suspense thriller, full of asides describing the scenes in which the action is set, and philosophical musings regarding the whys and wherefores of the imminent conflict. The German psyche is searchingly probed by a very British analyst – MacInnes in the guise of her heroic (and autobiographical) married couple – and found to be both blustering and chillingly focussed on military dominion.

assignment in brittany dj helen macinnes 001

I am fortunate enough to be the possessor of this handsomely dust-jacketed first American edition. An absolutely stellar example of vintage cover art. Wouldn’t this make an amazing wall poster?

Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes ~ 1942. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1942. Hardcover. 373 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Martin Hearne is parachuted into Brittany, into the very forefront of the Nazi occupation, in the guise of  his French body double, Bertrand Corlay. Many surprises await Hearne, not least of which is the discovery that his predecessor was less than forthcoming about some of his own activities before his evacuation to England via the Dunkirk debacle. For instance, his pre-marital arrangement with the neighbouring farmer’s daughter, Anne, and his estrangement from his invalid mother, who keeps strictly to her own rooms in the shared household. Who is beautiful and passionately forthcoming Elise? Why do the Nazi occupiers greet “Bertrand Corlay” with warm enthusiasm, while his fellow villagers hiss in cold disgust?

An escaping American journalist sheltering in the Corlay home sets off a string of complications, most notably a dramatic trip to the medieval monastic stronghold of Mont St. Michel, situated at the end of a causeway above tidal flats of quicksand. A return to the Corlay home finds Hearne confronted by steely-eyed Teutons who have discovered their collaborator is not what he seems, in so very many ways. Will Hearne make it back to England with his meticulously written notes and maps, as well as his new-found love?

Good dramatic stuff, rather nicely plotted for its type of thing, though with an exceedingly strong reliance on Hand of Coincidence. The evil Boche are given no ground, and the resident Bretons are depicted as cunning and stubborn survivors, insular to an astounding degree, but in the main resistant to their unwelcome occupiers by a combination of sullen non-cooperation and occasional acts of secret sabotage.

An engaging period thriller, written at the time it depicts, and so a valuable snapshot of the mood and details of its moment in time as well as a very readable diversion.

helen macinnes bio dj assignment in brittany dj 001

Author biography from the back cover of “Assignment in Brittany.” Check out the casual cigarette! No doubt the other hidden hand is nonchalantly holding a martini glass…

Read Full Post »

Breakfast With the Nikolides by Rumer Godden ~ 1942. This edition: Pan, 2002. Softcover.  ISBN: 0-330-48781-7. Includes an Introduction by Yvonne Roberts, and the short story A Red Doe. 213 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

Though frequently listed as one of Rumer Godden’s “children’s” books, Breakfast with the Nikolides is a decidedly adult novel, chock full of dark and difficult themes: sexual desire, frustration, betrayal, revenge, reconciliation. Written early in her long career, the fifth of her twenty-four novels, Godden remarked that though the book was received without much comment, it came very close to her personal goal of “truthful writing”.

This is one of the “Indian” novels, started in 1940 as Rumer, her two young daughters and their governess sailed back to India – where Rumer had already spent the majority of her life – to escape the potential German invasion of England at the start of World War II.

Inspired by Rumer’s experiences living in the rural Bengali area of India as the daughter of British Colonialists, the vivid depictions of the setting and supporting characters were drawn from first-hand observation and feel clear and true.

This was one of the novels Rumer Godden felt was “vouchsafed” to her – she drew a definite distinction between “a book written when you are looking for something to write, searching for a theme, and one that seems to arise of itself, demanding to be written.” Breakfast with the Nikolides was a book that demanded to be written, and though it seems at times the author is still working on clarifying her “voice”, on the whole it is a successful experiment.

In the small East Bengal town of Amorra, the Government Agricultural Farm flourishes under the guidance of English agriculturalist Charles Pool. Though he has lived and worked intimately with the local community, he still remains, after eight years, something of a mystery man. The assumption is that he is a bachelor of celibate habits, for he lives an exemplary life of dedication to his goal of converting the local farmers to his new and productive ideas, and he is a respected lecturer at the progressive agricultural college which has now been established at the farm.

One day Charles goes down to the jetty on the river to meet the paddle-wheel steamer, where he meets a beautiful woman and two young girls –  his wife Louise and their daughters. Louise, 11-year-old Emily and 8-year-old Binnie have travelled the long and arduous way from war-torn France where they had been living until forced to flee the German occupation.

Emily and Binnie are enthralled with their new environment; Emily in particular hopes that she will never have to leave. When her father, against her mother’s wishes, gives her a spaniel puppy, Don, this action precipitates a far-reaching set of events ending both in tragedy and elemental change for all of the protagonists.

Lovely Louise is a woman with some serious personal issues. Long estranged from her husband for reasons which we gradually get some clues about, she also has a very difficult relationship with her eldest daughter, whom she seems to misread at every turn. Despite Louise’s insistence that their unification as a family is only temporary, Charles and Emily begin to gradually build up a fragile relationship of trust and affection, which Louise openly resents. She is not looking for a reconciliation; rather she has turned to Charles as a temporary refuge until the war is over; she makes it clear that as soon as she can she will return with her daughters to “civilization”.

The spaniel Don becomes sick; Louise suspects rabies, and, without explanation and in an attempt to shelter her daughters from an emotional trauma and a real physical danger, sends the girls for an unexpected morning visit to a neighbouring family. “Breakfast with the Nikolides” is an unexpected treat, and the girls happily go off, unsuspecting of the drama that will ensue upon their return. (One of my personal small disappointments in this novel is the too-brief introduction to the rather intriguing Nikolides children, Jason and Alexandra, whom we tantalizingly meet for only a few moments before the story whirls on its way without them.)

The young college veterinarian, Narayan Das, becomes involved in the saga, as does one of the agricultural students, Anil, passionate and poetical son of a wealthy and influential Brahmin family.

As events unfold, we see that the marriage of Charles and Louise has foundered because of deep faults on both sides; neither party is innocent here, and though we never get the full details, we learn enough to sympathize even more deeply with the children of this tempestuous union. Godden concentrates to a great degree on showing us the feelings of Emily, who perhaps could be described as the chief character; another one of Godden’s “waifs in the storm” who suffer as the adults in their lives behave badly. Our heroine Emily weathers this episode of the familial storm, and, though emotionally battered and bruised, finds a certain peace of her own by the story’s end, though there are many loose ends left unravelled, just as in “real life”.

The place-portrait of the Indian village is also one of this book’s strengths; Godden’s intimate familiarity with the time and place she writes about is apparent in her clean yet detailed descriptions. Very nicely done.

This is a novel for mature teens and adults, who would best be able to appreciate what the author has presented here; I suspect a younger reader would soon lose interest.

I had to double-check the publication date; this novel has a very contemporary feel to it. Well worth reading, and a good companion piece to Godden’s other adult novels, which show a range of styles as she continually experimented with and honed her considerable craft.

Read Full Post »