These pieces, drawn from the pages of Quarterly Review and The Jewish Chronicle, cover a wide range of subjects from that traumatic period in world history: the politics of Verdi and Wagner; the melancholia of Stefan Zweig; the life of Violet Gibson, the woman who shot Mussolini in 1926; the writer and proto-fascist firebrand Gabriele D’Annunzio; the fraught personal life of Joseph Goebbels; the anti-Semitism of Céline, Pound, and Eliot. The key motif is the intersection of culture and politics, the symbiotic relation between the two. Recalling that Wagner’s “obsession in prose writings with a typological Jew […] was, like Shakespeare’s fascination with Machiavellian types, a projection of a powerful dramatic counter-self or selves” — and linking this to Hitler’s obsession with thrusting a nation into an active, masculine, materialistic mode, away from passivity, femininity, and idealism — Martin observes that this was an era in which “tragedy marched off the stage and on to the streets.” When discussing the Führer’s own notoriously pedestrian artistic tastes, Martin mentions Richard Nixon’s appointment of a second-rate judge, G. Harrold Carswell, to the US Supreme Court, which was defended by Republican senator Roman Hruska on the grounds that most of the American people are mediocre and “are entitled to a little representation” too. “Nations, alas, sometimes get what they deserve,” he notes — in 1994, though it reads like a portentous message to 2016. Reviewing a collection of Joseph Roth’s 1930s journalism, The Hotel Years, published last year by New Directions, Martin finds echoes of contemporary Europe in Roth’s depictions of Mussolini’s Italy, where “Any presence of strangers causes alert; each new wave of refugees renders the natives less welcoming. Sound familiar? Roth’s period pieces show a crooked timber of humanity that remains evergreen.”
Martin’s intellectual sensibility is very much that of the old-school man of letters, prizing rigor over faddish meretriciousness and ill at ease with the compromises imposed by commercial expediency. Reviewing a Peter Conrad biography of Verdi and Wagner, he bemoans its scurrilous focus on the composers’ personal lives at the expense of their professional achievements, and notes with horror that the book “has no notes!” In a similar vein, the author of a 650-page life of D’Annunzio is upbraided for having committed only a couple of pages each to the author’s major novels, L’Innocente and Il Fuoco. A piece on Oliver Hilmes’s biography of Cosima Wagner laments the trivial turn in contemporary trade biographies: “In the old, bad days, there was hero-worship, and idealization. In the new, ‘good’ era, we have desecration, or at least jokey debunking.” Martin is onto something here; it has to do with the dynamics of the nonfiction publishing industry, and the polarization of the market into extremes of “seriousness” — scholarly and rigorous but often inaccessibly dense — and the light-entertainment-type output aimed at what is patronizingly termed, in the business, “the general reader.” “In the genre of trade biography,” he writes, “big name authors often favor sensation and eschew any whiff of the academic. Editors concerned with sales encourage this, and writers whose day job may be mainly journalism fear if not loathe experts who might take them to task for this or that.” Conversely, the sealed-off milieu of academic publishing is a breeding ground for bad prose, enabling the normalization of such ugly tics as the end-of-chapter summaries, familiar to anyone who has engaged with academic literature: “An alert reader need to be detained at the end of each chapter with a pedestrian summary of what he has just read.” Amen to that. Martin, for his part, writes in a prose that is bright and engaging, enlivened by an almost nostalgically belletristic syntax and occasional sprinklings of mirth: the observation that Goebbels made “Clintonian sums from book-writing and journalism” is wonderfully apropos, and we can only admire the gumption of anyone who would start a review with the question: “Why write a book of almost prohibitive dullness?” There is only one brief lapse into questionable taste when, in a review of a book by the American scholar Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Martin playful refers to the author as “Ms R-R”: the gesture, however innocuously intended, is old school in all the wrong ways.
This collection features a number of pieces concerned with Jewishness and exile. Both themes are combined in the figure of the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, whose work has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. Successive displacements — he emigrated first to the UK, then the US, and finally Brazil — burdened Zweig with the dilemma facing many an émigré writer: “Where to go, who to be, what language to write in?” Zweig served as a propagandist during World War I; Martin observes that his early prose was characterized by “Wollust and self-indulgence [that] becomes harder, more spare and clear in the ’20s,” a change he likens to D’Annunzio’s shift from the overblown aestheticism of his early period to the laconicism of his later years. History and experience shape the artistic oeuvre, although it can also become an albatross for some: Hanns Chaim Mayer, who wrote a number of highly successful books on the Holocaust in the 1960s and ’70s under the pen name Jean Améry, declared himself sick of having to “play the Auschwitz clown” and wanted to be recognized as a literary author tout court. Martin appositely quotes the late Tony Judt on what he called “that republic of letters formed against their will by the survivors of the great upheavals of the 20th century.” The operative part is “against their will.”
Elsewhere, Martin’s reflections on the moral responsibilities of poets — apropos of Pound and Eliot: “How could such proponents of high culture have been complicit in views which led to the Holocaust?” — lead to some awkward ethical gymnastics, pitting the humanitarian in him against the acolyte. On the one hand he acknowledges that Eliot partook of “an ethnic thuggery which intellectuals of the day aped,” yet he maintains — some might say rather generously — that both poets deserved credit for having “placed the situation of the Jew in western culture at the centre of attention.” But perhaps the pick of these pieces is a fascinating review of Edward T. Linenthal’s book on the creation of the United States’s Holocaust Museum, opened in 1993 in the face of tumbleweedish WASP ambivalence. Martin speculates that the project played an important ideological role: for a nation whose own history was indelibly scarred by racist violence — from the genocide of the Native Americans right up to the state-sanctioned persecution of African Americans in the Jim Crow era — the appropriation of the Holocaust gave the postwar USA a moral rudder, implying “solidarity with all sufferers from race hatred, now and forever.”
This is certainly persuasive. But we might also see this grand symbolic gesture, rather less nefariously, as an implicit and logical acknowledgment of the historic demographic shift that, as Martin notes in another piece, did so much to shape US culture and society in the postwar era: when he archly suggests that “the excelling of Germanic Jews in […] the United States” might give Brits cause to lament that, ultimately, it was the Germans who really won the war, one senses he is only half joking. “German and Jew may be less an opposition than a symbiosis […] Germanic and Jewish may not be a wholly fantastic description of the Leitkultur in a post-British Empire, post-Sartrean/existentialist western world.” It is a timely reminder of the complex heterogeneity of American culture, which today’s peddlers of “post-truth” politics are systematically attempting to efface. As the world contends with a rising tide of national chauvinism unprecedented in recent memory, such insights — with their lucid and nuanced tracing of the contours of culture, ethnos, demos, and nation — are both instructive and urgently necessary.
Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31.