Each time we visit my father-in-law, he presses reading material on me - usually the latest New Yorker, or the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, or the New York Review of Books. He can no longer see well enough to read them and he seems to want to give them to someone who can. I've been so busy lately that my reading of anything other than online news and blogs has been minimal, but for this stay in Montreal I brought along two NYRBs and two New Yorkers, and the newest ssue of World Literature Today (WLT), and have actually made a dent in them. The New Yorker is way down in my estimation these days; in fact I'm feeling less and less enamored of regular magazines - they feel increasingly unfresh, studied, overly planned, formulaic and repetitive. I blow hot and cold on the NYRB; cold when it gets overly academic and self-conscious, warmer when someone actually writes a review that is about the book and its author more than it is about the reviewer. In both of these publications, I think these criticisms are the result of celebrity journalism and celebrity reviewers. I like WLT because it's not that way, and it brings a lot of authors to my attention through in-depth appreciation of the writers and their work - an opposite approach, really, since these are often obscure authors for an English-speaking public, as opposed to the New Yorker's chosen few: the olive-wreathed luminaries of the current literary scene.
In any case, I was struck by a review by Gabriele Annan in the Ocotber 6 NYRB of a recently published, anonymous diary written by a German woman during the Russian occupation of Berlin during WWII. The book is called A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. The author, who was 34 when she wrote the diary, died in 2001. We know that she was a journalist and editor, and that she was very well educated and well-read, especially in the classics. From the excerpts published with the article, it's clear this is a remarkable book by a remarkable person who must have felt her kinship with the Trojan Women during those eight weeks.
What happened during the occupation was "hunger, destruction and rape". According to estimates, over 100,000 German women were raped after Berlin was taken by the Russian army. The author - and virtually all of her female friends - were among them. She writes of feeling hungry all the time; she writes of feeling filthy and not being able to get clean; she writes of the rapes and her plan - which succeeded - to latch onto an officer who would protect her from the hoards in return for "the service" of her body. He is careful and apologetic, he can sing, and she says that what he does could not possibly be called rape. Still:
"For the moment I've had it up to here with men and their desire; I can't imagine longing for any of that again. Am I doing it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, canned meat? To some extent I'm sure I am."
Most of all she seems to retain the capacity, in spite of the situation in which she finds herself, to observe and record what is happening and her own feelings with a certain detachment and clarity that I find rare and moving; for me this is the nobility contained in just a few literary works, from the Iliad to the poetry of Anna Akhmatova.
"And yet I don't want to fence myself off; I want to give myself over to this communal sense of humanity...there's a split between my aloofness, the desire to keep my provate life to myself, and the urge to be like everyone else, to belong to the nation, to abide and suffer history together."
After the armistice, the officers depart; the electricity comes back. Someone plays a recording of Beethoven; she says she turned it off - "Who can bear it?" There is forced labor for everyone between 15 and 55 and her despair grows about the future: "Peace", writes Annan, "seems to have been a gray, gloomy anticlimax" to the sense of shared suffering during the war and occupation. But eventually the author begins to feel better - when she begins reading again: Rilke, Goethe and Hauptmann. "The fact that they were also Germans is some consolation," she writes. "That they were our kind too."