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Dr. R. Brandon (England)
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The Jewish State (Penguin Great Ideas)
The Jewish State (Penguin Great Ideas)
by Theodor Herzl
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A Big Idea But Content a Little Disappointing, 26 Mar. 2015
This is another volume in the Penguin collection of small books on ‘Great Ideas’. This particular volume is essentially a reproduction of the pamphlet published by Theodor Herzl in 1896 in Vienna when he was 36 entitled ‘Der Judenstaat’. The pamphlet was written in response to what he refers to as the ‘Jewish Question’, i.e. anti-Semitism, and how to provide an antidote. This is a somewhat disconcerting phrase to a modern reader given the terrible history of the 20th century. The publication embodies Herzl’s proposal for a Jewish state and elaborates a process whereby this might be achieved following the establishment of two agencies: ‘The Society of Jews’ as a fund raising and directional body, and ‘The Jewish Company’ to be charged with carrying out the actual mechanics of the process. It is not for me to enter a debate into the merits or de-merits of Herzl's proposal but I was somewhat surprised by the lack of sophistication of the writing and the ideas. I was also surprised that Argentina was mentioned as a possible site for a Jewish state as an alternative to what he refers to as “our ever-memorable historic home” of Palestine.
Some of the views expressed and Herzl’s predictions of what might be achieved, now, not surprisingly, look rather dated but in 1896 who could have envisaged the events of 1933-1945. Given the importance of Herzl and this text in the history of Israel I can only say that I was a little disappointed in its content. However, Penguin must be congratulated in providing a readily accessible format for readers to peruse these important works for themselves.


A Quiet Flame: A Bernie Gunther Novel: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Bernie Gunther Mystery 5)
A Quiet Flame: A Bernie Gunther Novel: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Bernie Gunther Mystery 5)
by Philip Kerr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Another Excellent Volume in the Bernie Gunther Series, 25 Mar. 2015
This, the fifth in the Bernie Gunther series of detective novels, continues the winning formula established by author Philip Kerr. Gunther has now fled Germany to seek refuge in Argentina along with thousands of other Nazis under the sympathetic regime of Juan Peron. I do not want to reveal more of the plot other than to say the action swings back and forth from recollections of events in Berlin in 1932 and 1933 to Buenos Aires in 1950. As in previous novels Gunther comes across important real people of the day whose actions and historical placement always stand up to scrutiny if checked on-line. It should be noted that a small controversy has arisen as a result of some readers questioning the authenticity of the alleged events incorporated into the plot line. Not wishing to give away the story I would simply point out that Kerr has answered the questions raised very well, and again his responses may be found on-line.
The book seamlessly incorporates a wealth of local information and topography about 1950s Argentina and historical events around the accession to power of Adolf Hitler in Berlin. The writing is excellent, the plot line gratifyingly complicated but never unresolved, and the characters well drawn and believable even when attached to real historical figures. I unreservedly recommend this volume to Bernie Gunther fans, and the whole series to new readers of Kerr’s work.


Eichmann and the Holocaust (Penguin Great Ideas)
Eichmann and the Holocaust (Penguin Great Ideas)
by Hannah Arendt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Important Ideas But in a Somewhat Rambling Style, 17 Mar. 2015
This is one of a number of small volumes published by Penguin under the theme, ‘Great Ideas’. This volume contains extracts from five articles published by Hannah Arendt in 1963 in ‘The New Yorker’. The articles at the time were titled, ‘A Report on the Banality of Evil’ and reviewed the progress of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The phrase ‘Banality of Evil’ and accompanying viewpoint has since achieved wide circulation and attracted much debate.
I do not wish to debate the views expressed by Arendt but readers should know that her articles also discuss, whilst acknowledging the essential justice of the execution of Eichmann, whether or not in strictly legal terms he received a fair trial. Arendt thinks not. She also spends some time discussing whether or not influential Jews who negotiated and struck bargains with Eichmann, often exploiting poorer Jews in the process, carry any guilt themselves. Arendt also weighs the arguments for and against whether the trail should have been held in an international court rather than the local Israeli court in Jerusalem.
These are interesting and important articles although written in a somewhat rambling and not altogether satisfactory style. They are also quite dated in the light of the many atrocities that have since occurred. However, these small volumes do allow the reader to access important ideas in a very convenient format.


The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination
The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination
by Fiona MacCarthy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.95

5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Masterpiece, Beautifully Written, 17 Mar. 2015
A masterpiece. Clearly this will be the definitive biography of Edward Burne-Jones for many years to come. The result of prodigious and painstaking research, beautifully written and a model of clarity and straightforward writing. Perhaps we would expect nothing less from this wonderful author, Fiona MacCarthy, who already has a number of excellent works to her credit.
The author takes us in a chronological sequence through the different periods of the life of Burne-Jones, often in two or three year sections (apart from the first 19 year section of his childhood in Birmingham). These are characterised by his formative trips abroad, for example to Italy (five trips) or by the various places he lived, The Grange, Fulham or Rottingdean, Sussex, or by circles of interest, for example Little Holland House. Throughout MacCarthy makes us aware of the development of the artistic skill of Burne-Jones and his expanding interests from watercolours, to oils, and, under the influence of his lifelong friend and close collaborator William Morris, stained glass and designs for tapestries. The prodigious output of Burne-Jones must be daunting for any biographer but MacCarthy takes us through this maze carefully highlighting the key works and their inspiration. Despite his horror of social events Burne-Jones had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances and these characters appear and recede as the story progresses but are always well-rounded and real in the narrative. MacCarthy does not balk from dealing with Burne-Jones’ affair with Maria Zambaco or his numerous other infatuations and flirtations with women young and very young but these are never allowed to become overly suggestive or lewd, a clear sense of proportion and appreciation of Victorian values being maintained.
The family that Burne-Jones married into, the Macdonald family of his wife Georgiana (Georgie), was extensive and gave rise to a number of famous figures who were all frequent visitors to the Burne-Jones household either as adults or children. These figures include Rudyard Kipling, Angela McInnes, Edward Poynter and Stanley Baldwin and their vivid recollections provide a valuable source of information for this book. Likewise Burne-Jones was a frequent letter writer and thankfully many of these survive and give an excellent insight into the mood and thinking of the artist. Always uneasy with the Establishment but not so radical as William Morris; witty and with a wonderful imagination and love of ancient legends; easily attracted by beauty but sensitive to a fault to the feelings of others, this is the story of a wonderful man and amazing artist who has found exactly the right biographer.
This book contains a family tree, and many colour and black and white photographic and some printed illustrations and is recommended without reservation to all those interested in Victorian art and the pre-Raphaelites.


The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919
The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919
by Mark Thompson
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A Comprehensive History of All Aspects of the WWI Italian Campaign, 22 Feb. 2015
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This excellent comprehensive history of the Italian Front from 1915 to 1919 in the First World War covers not only the campaign itself but much background detail as well. The book follows a strict chronological narrative for the actual campaign but devotes intermediate sections to other aspects of Italian history including the background and causes of the war, the personalities of the key leaders, the geography of the area and the distinctive role played by Italian Futurist artists and the unique war poetry that emerged from the battles. Also included at the end of the book is an important appendix on the Third War of Italian Independence, 1866, that perhaps would have been better placed at the beginning.
The author, Mark Thompson, has clearly carried out copious research of secondary, mainly Italian, sources to construct this impressive book. Thompson shows that the very vocal Irredentists (those who wanted to ‘redeem’ lands to Italy) wanted to ‘complete’ the unification of Italy as they saw it by capturing Austrian territory all the way to the Alps, the city of Trieste, and lands in Dalmatia and even parts of Albania to convert the Adriatic into an Italian Sea. The fact that the overwhelming number of inhabitants of these areas were not Italian was no impediment to the Irredentist polemic. Thompson shows that these views were held by a small educated ruling clique at the top of Italian society and supported by the Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and his successor Vittorio Orlando, Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino and the disaster prone head of the army General Raffaele Cadorna as well as hotheads such as Gabriele D’Annunzio and Mussolini. These aggressive views formed no part of the thinking of the vast bulk of the Italian population for whom the concept of a unified Italy was still a novelty. As a result most of those drafted into the armed forces had no idea why they were at war.
The author provides excellent passages describing the arid rock strewn lands of the Carso, scene of the repetitive battles of the campaign, and the mountainous and seemingly impossible fighting terrain of the Trento. It was nevertheless over this unpromising countryside that the courageous Italian soldiers were thrown at well armed Austro-Hungarian Empire troops by that most inept of generals, Cadorna, who seemingly felt that a great blood sacrifice was a necessary precursor to the final appropriate ‘redemption’ of the country. Cadorna was the only military leader in modern times to have recourse to the Roman practice of ‘decimation’ to enforce discipline.
This is not a ‘battle’ book and the author does not burden the reader with maps of manoeuvre or detailed divisional movement but describes the general sweep of conflict. That being said one or two extra maps would have been welcome as those provided as endpapers lacked many of the place names mentioned in the text.
The author revisits the Italian and Austro-Hungarian headquarters, and keeps us abreast of the crucial role played by the conduct of the war on the Russian Front, and surprisingly for me, the role of British and French commanders who actually sent troops and guns to Italy at key stages of the campaign. The brief intervention of German troops (who were not at war with Italy) and the swashbuckling performance of Erwin Rommel in the early stages of the monumental Italian defeat of Caporetto also make fascinating reading. I was also surprised by the ability of Italian industry to quickly ramp up during the war from very small beginnings to produce prodigious numbers of weapons, equipment and aircraft thereby laying the foundation for the future Italian industrial base. The Austro-Hungarian Empire by comparison remained moribund and never made such progress, relying solely upon the quality of its troops, and thereby guaranteeing eventual defeat.
As mentioned earlier, this is an all encompassing book that touches on many aspects of the war, its associated politics and the aftermath. The author convincingly shows how the betrayal of the troops by the government and the foolish and unsuccessful claims for territory made at the peace negotiations sowed the seeds for the future collapse of Italian democracy and the rise of Fascism.
This is an excellent product of extensive research but two minor criticisms are perhaps warranted, the absence of a couple of appropriate maps as described above, and the fact that at times the book is really quite dense and heavy to read although perseverance does pay good dividends.


The World of Yesterday
The World of Yesterday
by Stefan Zweig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Overly Long, Some Excellent Passages, But Irritating, 31 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The World of Yesterday (Paperback)
A quote on the cover of this book suggests that it is one of the greatest memoirs of the twentieth century, it is not. This book is patchy and could have been much improved with some substantial pruning down from its 462 pages. There are passages, particularly when Zweig has some major historical changes to relate, that soar and flow with the speed and elegance one often finds in his works of fiction. However, there are other passages particularly relating to his early life and education that are just plain tedious. Zweig also has a tendency to produce lists of literary figures he was aquainted with, and these become rather repetitive as the book progresses. Some of the thumbnail sketches of his friends and acquaintances such as Theodor Herzl or Richard Strauss are interesting but are never fully developed.
The other major problem with this ‘memoir’ is that it is entirely egocentric to quote a term from one of Zweig’s acquaintances and heroes, Freud. The book contains virtually no mention of Zweig’s first wife, Friderika, or her two children, we have no idea whether or not they accompanied the author on his numerous trips abroad, I suspect not. Nor do we learn of his divorce, or his secretary, Lotte Altmann, who became his second wife and who later joined Zweig in their joint suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, just after this book was completed. This overbearing absence gives the work a very odd and unsatisfactory feel. Yes, other commentators have said this is not an autobiography but a memoir, but that is semantics, the single dimension is a major flaw and points to a serious character fault in its creator.
It is true that this is an important work in terms of illustrating the complete destruction of civilised intellectual life by the Nazis, but it also completely fails to give the slightest hint that exactly the same thing was taking place in the Soviet Union. Surely Zweig who had contacts all over the world and was aquainted with a number of Russian refugees must have been aware of the Soviet intellectual repression that was well under way in the 1930s. Perhaps the absence arises from the fact that it did not inconvenience him or he was unwilling to criticise left-wing governments.
I frankly found the book irritating and did not warm to the intensely self-regarding Zweig who could have put over the same message in considerably fewer pages.


Dollfuss
Dollfuss
by Gordon Brook-Shepherd
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Piece of Pre-Anschluss Austrian History, 20 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Dollfuss (Hardcover)
Like other Gordon Brook-Shepherd books this straightforward biography is well written and demonstrates that, as always, Brook-Shepherd is on top of his subject and well informed. The author was in the British Intelligence Staff in Vienna in the late 1940s and has written several good books on the post First World War period.
This biography of the Chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss, takes us from his early peasant upbringing where he gained a deep respect for the Catholic Church, to his experience as a soldier in the First World War, and then his series of rapid government appointments as an agrarian reformer and then President of the Austrian Federal Railways. Always he initially faced ridicule for his diminutive height, being barely five feet tall, but always silenced his critics by force of personality and administrative ability. After this rapid rise he quickly became Chancellor of Austria in May 1932. From then on the book tells of his struggles against the Austrian Marxists and the growing threat of `anschluss' from Germany following Hitler's accession to power. Dollfuss was engaged in a frantic search for allies and actively sought protection from a very responsive Mussolini. This dramatic two year period of his chancellorship saw the collapse of parliamentary democracy in Austria (yet another warning of the dangers of proportional representation and parliamentary stalemate, if one were needed), a brief civil war against the Marxists in February 1934 when worker's tenements were shelled, and the abortive Nazi putsch of July 1934 that resulted in the murder of Dollfuss and the failure of Hitler's first foreign adventure.
Throughout, Brook-Shepherd is forthright in his views and dismisses many of the myths and obfuscations that have been invented by the Left to blacken the name of Dollfuss and excuse their own failures.
My one minor criticism of this otherwise excellent book is that the author has clearly researched all the many diplomatic exchanges between Rome, Berlin (and Munich) and Vienna and is somewhat loath to omit any detail. This may be good from an academic point of view but can lead to the occasional `languor' in an otherwise very interesting history. The book contains a number of interesting photographs of the key characters.


Pereira Maintains
Pereira Maintains
by Antonio Tabucchi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderfully Satisfying and Complete Novel, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Pereira Maintains (Paperback)
Do not be put off by the odd title of this book, it is an excellent, entertaining, and wonderfully satisfying and complete novel. The story is set in Lisbon in 1938 under the rule of the right wing dictator Salazar and the ongoing civil war in adjoining Spain. Dr Pereira, the central character, is the cultural columnist for a small evening newspaper and it is the unexpected and increasingly alarming sequence of events that upset his previously quiet and non-committal routine that provide the essence of the tale. Whilst this book does have a political theme, it is handled very lightly and with dry humour. The unusual way in which the narrative is constructed, and I rush to assure potential readers that this is a straightforward novel and not some Modernist experiment, draws in the reader and continuously and incrementally builds the tension. I felt compelled to read the book from cover to cover in an afternoon, I simply had to know what was going to happen.
This book is a little gem, the translation is transparent, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to all, one of the best works of fiction I have read in some time. I now feel compelled to read something else by the late Antonio Tabucchi.


The Post Office Girl
The Post Office Girl
by Stefan Zweig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars A Well Written, Fast-Moving, Tragedy, 10 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: The Post Office Girl (Paperback)
The manuscript for this book was discovered some time after the suicide of Stefan Zweig in Brazil in 1942. With this in mind we do not know if the story as published is how the author intended it to be. Was it complete, we do not know, but it is significant that Zweig laboured hard and long to complete other works for publication before committing suicide?
The story is set in Austria in 1926 where many are suffering from the dramatic changes that resulted from the First World War; with rising inflation and widespread unemployment. Christine Hoflehner is a postmistress in a small town struggling to look after her ailing mother whose family has been impoverished by the war. Suddenly Christine is plucked from this depressing mundane environment by wealthy relatives and for a brief glorious period she is shown the high life and economic freedom in a Swiss resort, only to be very soon cast down again.
The superb writing style of Zweig propels the reader headlong through Part One of this story so that you cannot bare to stop turning the pages. The pace slows considerably in the Second Part but the excellent writing is maintained. Here Zweig dwells on the many difficulties visited on every aspect of the life of the poor and their bleak prospects. (The writing here is reminiscent of the novels of Hans Fallada.) But is escape at hand?
Zweig published an immense volume of work including many highly praised biographies, novellas and short stories, this being one of only two full length novels that he wrote, the other being, ‘Beware of Pity’ (1939). In his day he was one of the most widely read and highly regarded writers in Europe. This novel, although possibly not as he may have completed it, provides an excellent demonstration of his writing and spellbinding storytelling skills.


The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World
by George Prochnik
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unsatisfactory Despite Some Lyrical and Interesting Sections, 5 Jan. 2015
I have to admit to being rather disappointed with this book after reading the very fulsome praise in the press. Perhaps there was a hint in the reviews when mention was made of the ‘unusual non-linear’ format.
It seems that neither of the two recently published biographies of Stefan Sweig has been entirely successful. The earlier, ‘Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Sweig’ by Oliver Matuschek has been criticised for failing to capture the essence of the man whilst dealing well with the facts of his life, whereas this present work deals with little more than the thought and philosophy of Sweig whilst omitting almost all the key biographical and literary details.
The book is divided into somewhat mysterious non-chronological chapter headings that often have little to do with their content, which possibly justifies the absence of a contents list, or even more serious, an index. The chapters vary greatly in relevance and interest with perhaps the best being that dealing with Viennese coffee house society. Others deal, somewhat repetitively, with Zweig’s feelings of alienation when in exile in England, the USA and finally Brazil; perversely always seeking peace and quiet and then when achieving it being totally dissatisfied with the absence of intellectual society. The book would, perhaps, have been better titled, ‘A Study in the Psychology of Exile’ as much of the content is given over to this question. Prochnik even indulges himself by bringing his own family history into the narrative although this has little relevance to the life of Zweig other than the shared experience of exile from Fascist Vienna.
The author omits any critical appraisal or timeframe of the literary work of Zweig other than to quote from his memoir, ‘The World of Yesterday’ and ‘Erasmus of Rotterdam’ the latter being invoked for its portrayal of character traits to be found in Zweig. Quite a serious omission when the vast and highly acclaimed literary output of Zweig is considered.
There is a troubling fault-line in the oft repeated portrayal of Zweig as a world humanist; promoting the mixing of peoples of different ethnicity and religion to forge a peaceful educated society. Zweig himself only sort the company of a very narrow intellectual, largely Jewish, section of society and was most uncomfortable when he found himself in less elite surroundings. Somewhat reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw who espoused the delights of the ‘working man’ but hated actually meeting them. Finally the author makes little of the fact that Zweig was determined in 1942 on suicide, probably as a result of depression, and in an act of supreme egotism was happy to take his secretary and much younger lover, Lotte Altmann, with him to the grave.
This is an altogether unsatisfactory book despite the widespread press acclaim. It does contain some very lyrical and interesting sections but these are far from constituting a serious biography.


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