In the same way that Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without any presents, it is now safe to say that a week spent talking of books about Women in War wouldn't be quite right without some Persephone titles...that's two mentions in as many weeks, and there will be more because I am hugely impressed with the new short story collection, but I make no apology. Persephone have carved out their own very particular niche with these, so two of my favourites on the Women in War theme today and please do add more of yours (by any publisher) in comments.
I expect some of you downloaded Eva Ibbotson's Madensky Square on the Kindle Daily Deal on Monday (what a good run we have had with these recently) and of course she was the daughter of Viennese-born Anna Gmeyner, who was the author of Manja. The family exiled in London in 1935 having fled the rising anti-semitism and persecution in Germany.
I have no idea where Manja might rank in the Persephone sales list, nor how many of their devoted fans will have read it. To my mind it is one of the toughest, most challenging books that Nicola Beauman has published, and one that completely blows out of the water assumptions (should there be any) that Persephone might be a publisher welded to a comfort zone of cosy, old fashioned hot-water bottle reading. Recalling the book many years after that first reading its impact for me has never lessened.
First published in 1938, Manja recounts the lives of five children born in the same hospital and their fates decided by the families into which they are born. Fascinatingly the births are preceded by five very different conception scenes which give some clues to the future awaiting each child. From Heine and his liberal apolitical parents, a doctor and a music teacher, to Franz and a family still smarting from the defeat in World War One. Then there is Harry born to a father who hardly feels like a Jew any more and a German mother, and Karl the son of an active communist and his wife. Finally Manja the result of a fling between her feckless mother and a Jewish composer, but a conception scene of such rare beauty that it transcends all others. Each child well-placed in a different but recognisable milieu and representing the elements of 1920s and 30s German society
It is a fascinating, original and highly courageous foundation for a novel given this is the 1930s, but most astonishing is the crystal clarity of foresight exercised by Anna Gmeyner, and as outlined by Eva Ibbotson in her excellent introduction to her mother's book...
'The war had not yet come but these refugees saw its necessity as the English could not yet do.'
The book is laden with passages of beautiful lyrical prose and deeply symbolic imagery which elevate it into something much more than a gentle polemic on the inexorable rise of Nazism as witnessed and experienced through the lives of once-innocent children. As the rising anti-semitism takes its toll, and thus Manja's position as the only Jewish girl in the group becomes increasinlgy precarious, the book offers a more universal perspective on human frailties and the resilience of the human spirit.
This is 500 pages of exquisite reading that will repay that heavy investment of time required handsomely.
Another favourite of mine, and I am sure of many of you too... Few Eggs and No Oranges : The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45. and this fabric endpaper one that I have seen for myself in the Imperial War Museum, a printed rayon headscarf called 'London Wall' and produced by Jacqmar in 1942.
To my mind diaries are best read slowly in instalments on a day by day basis, and whilst many volumes might understandably achieve a degree of self-centred monotony, not so with Vere. Her life is whirl of sleepless night during bombing raids, mass clearance of rubble the next day and interspersed with the actual events of the war as they are happening, and as seen through the eyes of one in the midst of the carnage. As in Manja, there is resilience here too, occasionally bowed but never broken, Vere rolls up her sleeves and sets to, horrors are invested with the perspective necessary to make them tolerable... because after all what else is there to do but cope and carry on.
'November 1940 - Friday, 1st ~ Warnings at 6.45pm and soon two bombs came down fairly near here. Near enough for me to dive under the table. Very nasty. More down later. Planes zooming near. Have been working hard all the evening addressing envelopes for the Christmas Fair. Felt rather tired.'
Wednesday 6th ~ Slept in my own bed, but it was far from being a quiet night. In fact it was awful. At about 3am was awakened by two screaming bombs coming down not far away. Others followed. Gunfire terrific. I slept and dreamed all about bombs until I could not tell which was dream and which reality. Then I plunged into a nightmare - in which I was in a long room, a German and an Italian soldier walked in and said: 'I must inform you that England has lost the war.' I think I spat at them, but cannot be sure.'
Priceless, don't you just love Vere, and mention of that visit to the Imperial War Museum reminds me how much I enjoyed it. I was moved and engrossed in equal measure, and how familiar scenes like this might have been to Vere...