Monday, October 8, 2012

My Summer Readings: Many Shades of Grey


Summer of 2012 in the south of France was both very busy and very social.  As a result, I only managed to read three books which coincidentally covered the most dreadful period of the 20th century, namely the rise of fascism in Europe and WW II.  As illustrated by these three books, the history of this period cannot be seen in black and white.  Major events took place in a more sinister grey zone with many shades of grey.  Fifty shades of grey would be an understatement, or like comparing the “Divine Marquis” with Erika. L. James!

Two of the books are in English: And The Show Went On by Alan Riding and The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor; the third is a French translation of an Italian novel Canale Mussolini by Antonio Pennacchi.  They are all recent releases.

Canale Mussolini pleased me the least.  Its length, over 500 pages, was obviously an inconvenience for summer reading.  Halfway through the book I was tempted to drop it.  Not that the book is badly written, although Pennacchi uses a very colloquial style and vernacular that often made me wince.  His Italian text is peppered with the Veneto region dialect.  Consequently in the French translation the choice of words is odd, if not confusing.  

Canale Mussolini is the thirty-year saga of a family named Peruzzi of mainly illiterate peasants from the Veneto region during the rise and fall of Italian fascism.  Thanks to the family’s close relationship to Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, the seventeen-member family is relocated and given land in the Agro Pontino region near Rome.  Although the region was left in ruins after the Allied landing in 1944, the drainage and colonization of the malaria infested Pontine Marshes is still regarded as one of the lasting social contributions of Mussolini’s dictatorship. 

What makes the second half of the book so fascinating is the politically incorrect manner that the author describes Il Duce, his fascist movement and its followers the so-called “black shirts”, including the male characters of the Peruzzi family.  At the beginning of fascism, the black shirt militia, camicie nere or squadristi, were former disgruntled WWI veterans.  In portraying fascist Italy, Pennacchi takes no prisoners.  He is irreverent and handles self-mockery and self-deprecation with gusto.  It is laughable that most of the Italian fascists were former Socialists and Communists, in that they emulated their Duce who started his political career as a communist.  It is somewhat ironical to learn that Pennacchi did the reverse process:  fascist as a young man, leftist as an older one. 

The book’s nuggets consist of little known but highly pertinent historic anecdotes of the Benito Mussolini era, his rise and fall.  The book is an ode to the resilience of the Peruzzi family, the embodiment of the Italian underprivileged.  The book has not yet been translated into English; it will be a challenging task for any translator.

The sub-title of Alan Riding’s book And the Show Went On is Cultural life in Nazi-occupied Paris (1940-44).  Actually this very comprehensive book describes the cultural life beyond Paris and before 1940.  In May 2012 Alan Riding visited Rio de Janeiro to promote the Portuguese translation of the book.  The book has also been translated into French.  Riding was born in Brazil of British parents and spent many years as a journalist in Latin America.  He also spent decades in Western Europe as the New York Times cultural correspondent.  This experience led him to research the role, behavior and reaction of artists, literati and intellectuals when confronted by oppressive dictatorships.  I was lucky to meet Riding personally before a book signing and his debate with famous free-spirited Brazilian celebrity Fernando Gabeira. 

Gabeira is a “green” politician, author and journalist whose fame however doesn’t derive from his current worthy activities.  During the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985) Gabeira was a student involved in anti-military activities.   One of his faits d’arme was his role in the kidnapping of the United States ambassador in 1969.  As a result Gabeira is still persona non grata in the U.S.A.  More recently, he made headlines when parading on Ipanema beach only wearing a minuscule knitted swimming costume. Rumor had it that it was the bottom part of his girlfriend’s bikini.  Gabeira also ran for mayor of Rio de Janeiro and narrowly lost to the current mayor.

The impact of dictatorship on cultural life and on the activities and production of artists and intellectuals was the topics of the Riding-Gabeira debate.  Comparisons between situations in France and Brazil were made.  At the outset, it is worth pointing out that as the result of its military debacle and defeat, France was forcibly occupied by a dictatorial foreign country.  Dictatorships in 20th century Latin American were self-imposed and did not involve foreign occupation.  

During the four-year Nazi occupation (by the German armed forces and paramilitary groups like the Gestapo) French life was not painted in black and white but in many shades of grey similar to the Italy of Antonio Pennacchi.  In the French artistic microcosm, heroes were few and far between.  If some artists and literati were primarily concerned with their daily survival, others grabbed the opportunity to improve their lots through fraternization or blatant collaboration.  Some of these literati took the opportunity of the occupation to intensify their personal feuds, not to mention those French writers and thinkers who fell over themselves to do the bidding of the occupying forces.  As Jews were obliged to either flee or go underground, opportunists advanced their career by taking their jobs as part of the French-driven Aryanization policy.  For some actors the occupation was a bonus, they welcomed the larger audience.  Were not Germans keen theatre and movies goers?  Cultural production continued in spite of censorship imposed by both German and Vichy governments.  According to Riding, German censors were often more open-minded than their French counterparts!

Riding may not have unearthed new facts, but he has enriched the topic.  His exhaustive compilation and the profusion of noteworthy anecdotes make this compact reading crowded with hundreds of characters very captivating.  In Riding’s account, cultural life in Paris covers a very broad field from prostitution to philosophy; one wonders which was more favored by the occupying forces!   Riding discloses that Hitler had some respect for French culture and that some of his underlings in the cultural area often turned a blind eye on subtle forms of resistance and even developed lasting friendships with their French peers.  Riding reveals that at the end of the war when things were going badly for them, German officers even went to the Comédie française to watch a five-hour long play titled Le soulier de satin (in French) by Paul Claudel.  Had they been punished? Hardly the ideal Rest and Recuperation program in Gay Paris!  Too long, the play is rarely featured. 

Alan Riding does not pass judgment on the behavior of the French cultural celebrities and he quotes the late former British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden who claimed that those who have never gone through foreign occupation “have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that”.  At the end of his book Riding ponders on the role of “those engaged in artistic and intellectual creation” as they propagate doctrines which may lead to extremism.  On this subject, one should highlight that Germany, Spain and Italy underwent far more radical and dramatic mayhem than France and without the contribution of renowned intellectuals.  While the influential intellectual glitterati were chatting, writing, acting and painting in Paris or Nice, the liberation of France was carried out by others who were less wordy but more action-oriented.  Instead of being in the driver’s seat, the French cultural elite was a mere spectator of its own deliverance.

My last read was Anne-Marie O’Connor’s riveting story of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Vienna Belle Epoque socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925), the now world famous The Lady in Gold.  It is somehow upsetting to discover that the portrait painted in 1907 became known by a name coined by the Nazis in order to hide the Jewishness of the sitter.  O’Connor is also a journalist; she was a foreign correspondent for Reuters and currently writes for the Washington Post.  Her non-fiction book is as dazzling as the Klimt painting itself, and reads like a novel.  It oozes feminine empathy and thanks to O’Connor’s exhaustive research, the reader becomes bonded to the many hapless characters in the book.  The book received so many complimentary reviews that there is nothing more to add.  It can appeal to an eclectic lot: art lovers, feminists, 20thcentury Mitteleuropa history buffs, readers interested in the Holocaust, and more surprisingly, lawyers familiar with international litigation.

Except for a chapter devoted to Klimt, the book is about the women of the Bloch-Bauer family: Adele the rebel and pre-feminist, her straight-lace sister Luise and her nieces gentle Maria and plucky Nelly.  The most fascinating section of the book covers Nazi Austria from the rather welcome German annexation in 1938 (Anschluss) to the defeat in 1945.  Jewish families were the first targets of the Nazis’ feral anti-Semitism; rich families like that of Adele lost everything but at least managed to save their life. 

The last part of the book describes the twists and turns of the recovery of the Bloch-Bauer art looted by the Nazis and exhibited in Austrian museums.  I found this section much less inspiring.  Maria teamed up with a West Coast lawyer who also had an axe to grind with the Austrian government.  The lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, is coincidently the scion of another Viennese glitterati, composer Arnold Schoenberg who was Adele’s contemporary.  Finally in 2006 after a protracted legal battle, five Klimt paintings, all property of the Bloch-Bauer family were removed from the Belvedere Museum in Vienna and shipped to the United States where Maria and other heirs live.  

When I finished the book I had more questions than answers.  Adele’s Lady in Gold portrait (Klimt painted another one for her) was privately purchased for the exorbitant price of US$135 million by philanthropist and art collector Ronald Lauder, son of Estée Lauder, the founder of the cosmetic empire.  Why did he pay so much money?  Art pundits believe that Lauder needed a significant piece of art to boost ticket sale at his boutique museum, the Neue Gallery in New York City on the Upper East Side.  The other four paintings were soon after auctioned off to anonymous art collectors and are not visible to the public.  The sale of the five Klimt paintings grossed US$327 million divided between the heirs; understandingly Mr. Schoenberg got the lion share of the proceeds (40%).  .

In the mid-90s, I visited the Belvedere Museum and strolling through its collections I admired the Lady in Gold portrait which I compared to a fin de siècle Theodora from the famous Ravenna mosaics Klimt used as a source of inspiration.  I had no clue who sat for the portrait.  When writing this blog, I Googled “Adele Bloch-Bauer” and found pictures of the portrait not the biography of Adele.  The painting has upstaged its sitter.

Last but not least, rumor has it that Adele and Klimt had been lovers.  Klimt was a well-known serial lover, bordering on promiscuity.  Someone may one day write a trilogy about their affair. Title any one? Fifty Shades of Klimt? Or possibly Fifty Shades of Gold?