My Youth in
Marion, Countess Dönhoff
(Knopf)Countess Dönhoff grew up in the palace of Friedrichstein in East Prussia. Her father, August Karl Dönhoff, was sixty-four years old when she was born. He was a diplomat, and a member of Prussia's Upper House, and the Reichstag. The family tree is filled with the rich and famous out of four hundred years of East Prussian history; and the house was filled with even more of the rich and famous from the early years of this century, including visits from Field Marshall Hindenburg, the "victor of Tannenberg."
It's a romantic tale of the humble rich in their house of a multitude of rooms, overlooking the lakes, forests, and farm, many thousands of acres, with a workforce that varied from fifteen in-house servants to many of the villagers at harvest time. Dönhoff is intent on presenting us with the story of a privileged but humble childhood --- where the nobility were proper, weren't greedy for money, kept their neighbor's secrets, and practiced noblesse oblige. The children (the up-and-coming nobility) tolerated pain, never ratted on each other, hunted and fished with enthusiasm, and were big buddies with the serving class, who all knew their place.
Dönhoff emphasizes that her schooling was scanty at best, but the grooms, housemaids, chauffeurs, footmen, and coachmen were her instructors in life. She tells us that there was a real camaraderie, but anyone who has ever seen such a world knows that these "beloved" servants in that kind of societal structure damn well know their place --- treating the children of their masters with deference and fear, knowing well that their livelihood depends on playing the game.
Even more disturbing is Dönhoff's view of how world affairs impinged on East Prussia. World War I is scarcely mentioned, except for those relatives and friends who died; Hitler is described not as a monster who murdered millions on a whim, but, instead, as a lousy general who lost WWII because he maintained indefensible positions: "Three hundred thousand men" who Hitler refused to allow to retreat "would have been of invaluable help here in East Prussia." Help for what and for whom? To protect the estates? To protect the landed gentry from having to get out before the Russians turned up in 1945?
Like all too many Germans, she claims to have been a part of the plot on Hitler's life in July of 1944 --- but you get the feeling that she and her upper-class friends merely wanted to get rid of the son-of-a-bitch because he was a petty little corporal and an inefficient commander-in-chief, not because he was a monster.
The last part of Before the Storm tells of her joining the refugees in 1945, fleeing the Russians. But while the poor and hopeless were dying from hunger and cold, Dönhoff was travelling by horse from one big estate to another, seeking out old friends for food and shelter from the weather. She ends with a Buddha-like lecture on forgiveness and abandonment of force, but underneath the noble prose lies a arrogant melancholy that the world of inherited power, plutocracy, and privilege is gone forever.
Just to be just, we offered one of her fans a chance to describe his view of the self-same book. He said,
Countess Donhoff does not ask for your love or your favor. She is but recording, in the simplest of terms, what has happened to the world she was brought up in -- that of the Prussian Junkers. It is gone and everything of it has been wiped from the earth by the Communists.
She despised Hitler as did all the East Prussian Junkers for being "common," not of their class. They laughed at him, they snubbed him -- remember, when her father forgot Hitler's name as he was talking to him? But when war came her brothers marched off without question to fight in the Wehrmacht for the Fatherland, even though they knew they would probably lose both the war and their lives.
And when Göttderdämerung came she left a thousand years of her family history and rode horseback alone all the way across Germany. When she was allowed to return fifty years later, it was gone, all was gone.
There can be dignity in loss. It is women like the Countess that keep the world going.
--- Lolita Lark
(Villard)The handsome pilot Davey crash-lands in 1944 Vichy France, in the Massif Central. He is carried by a local farmer to the house of the lovely eighteen-year-old refugee Rachael. Fortunately, the owner of the house --- Pastor Favert, and his wife --- have been called away to the local extermination camp, so Davey and Rachael are free to explore the terrain of their young bodies, in the rough farmhouse, in front of the fire, despite his many bumps, cuts and bruises, and despite her fast-fleeting innocence. It all brings to mind that old Massif chanson,
O the weather outside is frightful/ But the fire is so delightful/ And since we've no place to go/ Let it snow let it snow let it snow.Pastor Favert, a Protestant minister in Le Lignon, actually existed (his name was Trocme) and did heroic work to save thousands of Jews, in defiance of the Nazis and the French collaborationists of occupied France. Daley has besmirched the good pastor's heroism by conjoining his works with a storyline hot-box of passion, two mythic characters fondling each other between the sheets --- turning her into a Jewish refugee version of the Valley Girls:
...her face got red and her body squirmed and bucked, and when he had finished she murmured, "That was really nice."This literary fooling around is coupled with some lorky dabs of philosophy on The Reality of Life. Davey is questioning his flight leader on his pre-war life and studies:
Toft's master's degree surprised Davey. "What subject?"
"That's what I was studying too. You going to teach it, or what?"
"Maybe," said Toft, "if I get out of this thing." And then after a moment: "We're all in college still. The college of life and death."
"The college of life and death?" As they say in my favorite hamburger joint, Hold the mayo!
You can always tell when the author has researched WWII and the Nazis when he pops up with big words like Obersturmbannfìhrer. So, as antagonist to the Pastor, we are given Obersturmbannfìhrer Gerhard Gruber who "was thirty-seven years old, tall and thin though a bit hippy." A bit hippy? Does that mean he smoked dope and wore beads in bed when he wasn't out murdering people in the streets?
His mistress, Claire, is a turncoat Frenchwoman. "Claire needed food --- scarce in Paris --- which he supplied," we are told: "His own needs were something else, which she supplied." Something else? Washing his uniform? Tying Gruber up for his weekly beatings? Tie-dyeing his shirts?
This is their night of passion:
Having felt for the ashtray on the bedside table, he rubbed out his cigarette. Claire did the same, and when they had slid down into the bed, she reached over and found his hand, which was nice.
As Miss Dillard, our English teacher, would scrawl in the margin,
What was nice? His hand? Finding his hand? Sliding down in bed? Doing the same? Rubbing out cigarettes? Feeling for the ashtray?
The publishers tell us that Daley has pumped out some twenty-five books previously. It's our guess that they are all the same novel, under different titles, with new names for the characters. Despite the hippies, between the schools of life and death, under the hot, dark covers --- we suspect we'll find the same old shake, rattle, 'n' roll, which must be, he would want us to believe, rilly nice.--- R. W. Pease
On the Reader
Of These Pages
(University of Minnesota)Manuel Puig is one of those names --- like Elizabeth Inchbald or Wang Chen-ho --- that you hear about and think, "Someday I should get hold of one of his (or her) books and read it." But if this one is any example, perhaps we'd better stick with Danielle Steele. The eternal curse on the reader of these pages is having to swim through a desultory dialogue between Mr. Ramirez, an old man from South America in a rest-home, and Larry, an attendant or whatever, who may or may not be affiliated with Columbia University.
You might call it a play. Except for the ending, it's all dialogue à la Harold Pinter --- although not as much fun (and you know how much fun there is in a Pinter play). There's long debate about whether Ramirez has any books lying about, and if so, whether he marked the pages, and if he did so, what his markings might mean, and whether they will be of interest to the International Human Rights Commission, Columbia University, and the University of Montreal. Ramirez makes appearance for the negative, Larry for the positive --- but sometimes, to thicken the broth, they change sides.
There is also a fairly long discussion of "those little cone-shaped caps with the rubber band that went under your chin" that Larry's mother forced him to wear, which he didn't like because it was "like having your prick sticking out of your head." The two of them, patient and attendant, from time to time --- insult each other ("You parasite"); and sometimes they just shut up,
Larry gives us an extended lecture on intercourse, and how he has to bathe three times afterwards, because "It smells like something rotting, putrefying, decaying, like mildew." This discourse, involving the tale of a visit to a house of prostitution, includes a switch-off question and answer: sometimes Ramirez is making up (or reporting) the facts, sometimes Larry doing so. At times it comes off like bad Socratic dialogue; other times, it might be just a takeoff on the catechism.
--- Larry...answer me...
To help befuddled us even more, the author has tacked on seven factual sounding letters at the end, reporting the psychological collapse and death of Ramirez which may or may not have been Larry's doing.
Puig got fame because of Kiss of the Spider Woman. For some of us, Eternal Curse could best be compared to the kiss of death. There's a picture of a dead or dying chicken on the cover.--- A. W. Allworthy