Saturday, 30 April 2016

Cheering

At the outset, I realise, I should apologise to anyone I have misled - possibly disappointingly, this is not an essay about the activity of cheering, as in shouting in support of a person or cause or to express  pleasure at a sporting team's success or a remarkable performance by a musician.

I am very sorry if that is what you were expecting & I assure you, if you are really keen, that I will at some point in the future have a bash at the subject, if that would cheer you up at all?

Speaking of which - cheering up, that is, (the actual subject of this blog post), - I just have been, by a very minor incident that took place a few minutes ago in the cafe in Canterbury where I am sitting.

The exact spot in the cafe that I have chosen for myself is on the ground floor, near the door, which gives me the opportunity to see all the people who come in & out & hear bits of their conversations. My idea of bliss, Lord knows why, (oh, all right, because I am irredeemably nosey, I admit it).

Anyway as I sat sipping coffee & idly sticky beaking, a small girl came in with her mother. The two of them paused & looked around as they entered, & then the little girl looked up at her mother, an expression of excitement on her face:

"Because we haven't got a bike today, can we go upstairs?" she asked.

 "Yes", said her mother, & the child's face lit up with pleasure. She executed a very small dance of infant joy.

The little girl appeared to be as pleased as I used to feel when we were allowed to go upstairs on the bus & got either that wonderful seat that used to be tucked in at the back near the staircase on the old Routemasters or one of the seats right at the front, under the windows.

I didn't know children could still be content with small pleasures. Perhaps there is still some hope for the world.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

No Dyssing

Someone I heard on the radio yesterday claimed he was chastised by a tutor at university for using the word "dystopia". The tutor insisted that the word did not exist,  (even though it is an entry in the OED).

I like the tutor's attitude. His real point was that the correct word in the context of the man's essay was "utopia". The word "utopia" contains within it the inevitable promise of failure; no attempt at building a utopia has ever been successful to date, and therefore there is no need for a separate term to describe the failure that is inherent within the concept.

On the other hand no one has yet tried Auden's utopian plan

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Virtuous Circles

I am not entirely sure whether I've got this right but I'm assuming the phrase "virtuous circle" is an attempt to articulate the phenomenon in which someone goes so far in one direction that they end up meeting themselves coming the other way.

I encountered a perfect example of this while listening to a podcast of the Arts & Ideas programme, broadcast on Radio 3 on 21st April. In it Philip Dodd, (who is really such an astonishingly irritating broadcaster that I usually avoid him), interviews someone who makes the following observations about the recent flow of would-be migrants to Europe:

"What these people - let's call them "radical refugees" - demand is something very precise. They say, 

'I can choose the country I want; I can go there & that state is obliged to take care of me, to provide education & so on & so on, all of that'. 

This, I claim, is sheer madness. And it's avoiding the problem. We have to solve the problems there. Is the solution that all the poor people from the Middle East & then from Africa come to Europe? Then what?

And what about the extremely rich Muslim Arab countries just south of the war zone (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Emirates, to name them)? They're taking practically none of the refugees."

These comments sound to me like the kinds of remarks that extreme rightwingers might be expected to make, provided they are prepared for howls of outrage in reply. In polite liberal society they are as acceptable as telling a Brussels bureaucrat you actually think the Brexit camp have a few good points.

The comments were in fact made by the self-described Marxist Slavoj Zizek.

If you can put up with the bleated interpolations of Dodd, the full argument Zizek makes is an interesting listen, (not that he ever gets a chance to fully articulate it, thanks to Dodd's incessant interrupting). You can find it on the BBC Radio 3 Arts & Ideas website. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Battered Penguins - V by Thomas Pynchon


I know quite a lot of people who have read V, but I have not met one who professes to understand it. While Pynchon has a very readable style and the book swings along with gusto and confidence, it never really goes anywhere very much. 

Actually, I should rephrase that slightly - the book in fact goes to lots of places: Malta, Florence, Africa, New York, to name but a few. What it never does is arrive anywhere. Instead, it adopts the approach later taken - with somewhat less verve and energy - by Italo Calvino in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and Robert Bolano in 2666 .  In those novels, and in V, one narrative gets underway and is then replaced by another and then another, over and over again.

The result is quite vexing, if you are the reader.

But is it a novelistic duty to be comprehensible and not to annoy your reader? And is it possible that Pynchon is doing something deliberate with his interruptions and general lack of coherence? Is this jumbled approach emblematic of the random absurdity of life?

Who knows. Possibly the broken narrative is a deliberate attempt to invoke the mystery of existence - or possibly it is just a sign that the author couldn't think of any good endings.

Mind you, the concluding passage of V does have a poetic beauty - and it seems to hint at the ephemeral, meaningless quality of life. But it also doesn't have much to do with anything that has gone before, (admittedly, it involves sea and water, of which we do see quite a lot as the novel progresses, but the character who appears in the finale is one we have only recently been introduced to).

Does incoherence matter, if it is (moderately) entertaining? Should we sit back and enjoy the sheer variety on offer in the book, without worrying about whether it all makes sense? Pynchon is certainly inventively generous. He conjures up a sojourn in the New York sewers, (including crocodiles), several rollicking naval passages, a recurrent fascination with the world created by Baedeker guides, a sidetrack into the world of Parisian ballet and another, even more vivid, into a nightmarish period in the history of an unnamed African country. Presented with such a feast, I feel a bit ungrateful to have to admit that, rather than revelling in Pynchon's invention, I found myself increasingly appalled.

One reason for this is that as I grow older my tolerance for depictions of male sexual violence toward women is diminishing day by day, particularly when they are presented - as they are in V - as a kind of entertainment, or certainly without any apparent reference to the female perspective. The whole African section of the novel is vile in this regard. It also does not allow a black point of view even for a fraction of an instant to penetrate the text. I hope I'm not becoming absurdly precious and too heavily influenced by the whole "safe space", "trigger warning" movement, but the description of female impalement seemed to be undertaken with a disturbing relish that did not appeal to me. On the other hand, perhaps if you accept from the beginning that the novel is told from an entirely, utterly male viewpoint, a viewpoint that sees women as variations on a template supplied by Jayne Mansfield, (whose impending marriage is bemoaned by one character), you may get on better with the book than I did.

Pynchon does pepper the text with aphorisms, some of which don't stand much consideration, while others may resonate a little. Here are some examples; the second two are better than the first, in my view, but I don't spend much time in bars so it's hard to judge, (the fourth is problematic, I think, and the final one I can't judge at all, or even fully understand):

"... people who prefer to stand at the bar have, universally, an inscrutable look."

"...we suffer from great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in."

"People read what news they wanted to and each accordingly built his own rat house of history's rags and straw."

"Surely, if war has any nobility it is in the rebuilding not the destruction."

"Perhaps British colonialism has produced a new sort of being, a dual man, aimed two ways at once: towards peace and simplicity on the one hand, towards an exhausted intellectual searching on the other."

Pynchon also lards the text with ditties he has made up, and I'm afraid I found them tiresome. Mind yoy, I found the consistently wacky and, presumably, allusive names of his characters even more tiresome. Here are some examples:  Profane; Mafia; Stencil; Howie Surd; Veronica Manganese; Pappy Hod; Fergus Mixolydian; "Roony" Winsome, (who appears in an apartment decorated in what Pynchon describes as "Early Homosexual"); Benny Sfacim; and Dudley Eigenvalue,

Some surprising things that are mentioned in a book written as far back as 1963, include "Gitmo", "jihad" and "Chilean Riesling". Even more surprisingly, the book includes this passage about the Koran:

"The Lord's Angel, Gebrail, dictated the Koran to Mohammed the Lord's Prophet. What a joke if all that holy book were only twenty-three years of listening to the desert. A desert which has no voice. If the Koran was nothing, then Islam was nothing. Then Allah was a story, and his Paradise wishful thinking."

Impossible to prove, but I doubt that would be included in the text if the novel were published for the first time today. Joking about the Koran is not much of a laughing matter any more.

In conclusion, I found the book extremely original and intriguing but not entirely satisfying. Whether for good or bad, I also suspect it was a trailblazer - would David Foster Wallace have produced Infiinite Jest without Pynchon's puzzling precedent? It seems to me there is a line that leads from one to the other.

Possibly the novel is an attempt to portray through fiction the vision of life articulated in the diary of a character called Fausto:

"There is, we are taught, a communion of saints in heaven. So perhaps on earth, also in this Purgatory, a communion: not of gods or heroes, merely men expiating sins they are unaware of, caught somehow all at once within the reaches of a sea uncrossable and guarded by instruments of death."

Possibly; possibly not. While I admire Pynchon's persistence and confidence, I think that a novel cannot be described as entirely successful if, at the end of very nearly five hundred pages, the reader is still asking themselves, "What exactly is this thing all about?"


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Unfair

I have to go to England next week and so I booked a Eurotunnel trip last night. Trudging, metaphorically, through the dreary stages of the booking process - car number plate; caravan or no caravan; "API"; et cetera - I noticed for the first time this:


What about budgies, I thought, what about anacondas (even though I don't actually know what exactly an anaconda is)? Why just dogs, cats and ferrets? Why can't I take my tadpoles, if I want to?

Or can I? Is the discrimination the other way round? Is it that you can take any pet without paying the outrageous extra cost of 25 Euros, but dogs, cats and ferrets, for mysterious reasons, incur that extra charge?

Why charge for animals anyway? So far as I can tell, you can shove thousands of people into your car and pay no extra, but one miserable ferret and you're up for 25 euros. Where's the logic?

Anyway, I'm collecting together a menagerie for next week's trip, and they'll all be on the back seat - just to test the system. There won't be a dog or a cat or a ferret among them - so I'm assuming they'll all be free of charge.

A cockatoo, I thought I'd take, plus a frog and a goldfish - and maybe a walrus. An angora goat, for something fluffy, a sloth or two, (I've always been fond of them), an orang utan, (one of the ones I adopted at Christmas), a goldfinch, (ideally the one from the Mauritshuis, provided I have time between now and then to whip down to The Hague) and maybe a butterfly. That should do it. Any other suggestions gratefully taken onboard (onboard geddit?)

Friday, 15 April 2016

Please Beleaf Me

Although it is still quite cold, the trees in the park behind our house are getting dressed up for summer. Which should bring to mind the Philip Larkin poem with the line about the trees coming into bud, "like something almost being said"

Instead, all I can think of is that Lydia Davis micro-story called Spring Spleen. It goes like this:

"I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly.

Soon they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child."

(For more Lydia Davis, search out the book that Spring Spleen comes from: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-241-96913-7)

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Mud Larks

No sooner had I scoffed at beaches made of mud than I was forced to reconsider the errors of my ways. This was done via the medium of film, more particularly the film called A Bigger Splash, which we went to see yesterday and very much enjoyed.

Anyway, having never encountered the concept of a mud beach, I was now confronted with one in full "glorious" technicolor. More particularly, I was confronted with the sight of Tilda Swinton and the new(ish) Belgian film star called Matthias Schoenaerts lying on such a beach and fondly smearing mud over each other.

I have to say I'm still not enthusiastic. It was, quite frankly, an unappetising sight.

But the film is excellent - and the image of a mud covered Swinton sitting bolt upright on her mudflat (sorry, beach) and peering up through muddied eyes at the heavens, wondering what she had done to deserve the blow fate has just dealt her is one of the more comic things in a film that, while essentially serious, is also at times very, very funny indeed.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Cultural Difference

Mention of oceans and beaches yesterday reminded me that after going to Berlin the other day, (of which more perhaps in the future), we stopped for a night on the way back to Brussels in a Friesian seaside town called Harlingen.

Harlingen is an absolutely sweet place, full of pretty houses and apparently friendly people. We went to a restaurant that was run beautifully, (no canned music, hurray), and where they gave us the most deliciously fresh fish and oysters and so forth, (perhaps I am creating a false impression in using the word 'gave' - we did have to pay, of course, but not vast sums).

While waiting for one or other course, my husband got into a discussion about the language of the area with a woman who I think was one of the owners of the restaurant.

As a child my husband had picked up somewhere this phrase about the Friesian language: "Good bread and good cheese is good English and good Fries". Was the Friesian language really as close to English as this phrase suggests, he wanted to know.

Not quite as close seemed to be the slightly disappointing conclusion. It would not be enough to move to Harlingen and simply do what I witnessed many adults of my parents' generation, (although not, I hasten to add, my parents themselves), doing whenever they encountered a foreigner who didn't speak English: speak very loudly and slowly in English

My husband, perhaps sensing that they were on the point of exhausting the topic of language similarities or the lack thereof, changed the subject.

Were there any beaches in the Harlingen area, he enquired.

"Yes", the woman told him proudly, "there is one."

"Is it a pebble beach or a sand beach?" I asked.

She turned to me with a delighted smile.

"It is mud," she said, "the beach is mud."

I've been thinking about it ever since. For an Australian, that woman was stretching the definition of  what a beach is. Are we alone in the world in believing, on our extremely large island (or very small continent), that a beach must be made of sand, or, - and this concession is merely to be kind to our mother country - possibly made of countless round stones? I think I'm right in asserting that, if you are Australian, mud is not a permissible substance for inclusion in the category headed "beach" - at least it is not as far as I know, (any Australians who disagree, please set me straight immediately).

Anyway, despite its lack, in my view, of beach possibilities, I still really liked Harlingen. Should you wish to see it for yourself, while staying right where you are, here are some pictures of the dear little place.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Too Fluid

I remember as a child being exhorted to plunge into some bitterly cold ocean or other, by adults who, as they waded in ahead of me, appeared to be rapidly turning blue.

Small though I was, it struck me that there was something odd about the adults' attempts to lure me into the water with them. The phrase "Don't be so wet" - or, to begin with, more kindly, "Don't be so wet, darling" - rang back at me through the icy air.

Get wet to prove you are not wet - even aged five that seemed a puzzling proposal.

I wonder now where that particular notion of wetness, as in feebleness and weakness, came from? And does it still exist? Do people still tell children that "wet" is a state that they ought to avoid? Does the concept exist in other languages or is it something peculiar to Britain? And why was it wet not to get into the ocean but also wet to scream blue murder, as I did, when, having consented to enter a much warmer ocean in quite a different part of the planet, I was attacked by a Portuguese Man o'War jellyfish?

Wetness and weakness - I suppose there is a logic to the entangling of these two concepts, if you take solidity to be a metaphor for toughness. On the other hand, fluid is far from feeble, as any houseowner who has dealt with a flood will tell you. The kind of force that a battering ram can produce is immediately visible, but the strength of wetness, while not instantly noticeable, is greater than you might imagine. Hidden, out of sight, seeping silently beneath foundations, it can destroy as effectively as any solid object - and with a quieter, more insidious power.

I Heard That - London Fields by Martin Amis

Phew.

I have at last reached the end of Audible’s unabridged version of Martin Amis’s London Fields. What an enormous relief.

I resorted to Audible because I have never been able to persist with any of Amis’s novels in their on the page manifestations but was convinced that I ought to have at least one of them under my belt. For most of my adult life, after all, I have been under the misapprehension that Amis is a giant of our culture and one of the late 20th century’s truly gifted writers. Thus, my lack of persistence has seemed to me to be a shameful failure which has left a great gaping void in my cultural experience.

I have filled that void now; I have made my way to the end of the unabridged text of one of Amis’s novels. In the process, I had hoped to become a member of the Amis fan club. I believed that the result of my hours of listening would be that I'd turn into an Amis admirer, able to share the enthusiasm that so many others feel for the great man.

Sadly, things didn't work out that way.

I do of course recognise that Keith Talent is, in theory, a hilarious creation - in the mould, perhaps, of Toby Belch or Falstaff or - well someone. And Marmaduke is too - despite the fact that each time his name rang out from the narrator's mouth all I could think was, “Oh for pity’s sake, not another hyper-exaggeration in prose form of dressing or doing other day-to-day things with a small child; flipping hell, we get it, Martin, get rid of that trowel you’re ladling it all on with, please"

To put it another way, while recognising that each and every character in the novel is a richly comic creation, I was distracted by a nagging question - aren’t things that are richly comic supposed to raise at least the occasional laugh?

Because, you see, for me nothing did.

Really, I mean it.

Or, to adopt for a moment the tiresome approach to prose chosen by Mr Amis, let me spell it out longhand: in the laughter stakes the book achieved a result of exactly zero, so far as I was concerned. That’s the big O I’m talking about. Yes, precisely nil on the scoreboard in the game of mirth provocation. Nada; niente; nichevo; totally, utterly, completely zilch. Not one solitary, damn, miserable, infinitesimal trace of a faint guffaw; not a skerrick; not a sausage. The novel turned out, so far as I was concerned, to be an absolutely, undeniably, appallingly, unspeakably and tiresomely giggle free zone.

Possibly the repetitive, Thesaurus-influenced approach is simply not for me. It makes the whole thing seem so laboured. Using a verbal sledge hammer is an odd way to generate laughter, in my experience. Never trusting the reader enough to allow them to work out for themselves that a joke is being cracked - or is about to be - seems to me a condescending kind of method.

Yet every single time Amis is about to articulate something he considers amusing, he cannot resist flashing textual warning lights and setting off verbal sirens, just in case you might be too thick to pick up that he is on the point of being - or at least trying to be - droll.

It is like being locked in a cupboard with the literary equivalent of that nudge-nudge Monty Python character. Throughout the entire work, he is there, looking over your shoulder or squeezing up beside you, winking and digging you in the metaphorical ribs. It wouldn't surprise me if in the Kindlefire version of the novel blinding neon signs have been inserted around the edges of pages, to alert you  to humour by flashing the words, “JOKE IN PROGRESS” at appropriate points. Amis seems unable to cope with the possibility that you might not recognise exaggeration or grotesquery or whatever effect he intends to blast you with. He becomes the joke teller who laughs at his own punchlines. He revels so in his own originality, doubling up at his own gags, (which you could see coming several miles off), that he leaves no opportunity for you to edge in a faint chuckle of your own.

But I suppose it is all down to stylistic taste. Clearly, one of the points of Amis is his labouring and his exaggeration and his repetition and his baroque heaping on of more and more and yet more verbiage. While these are all elements that I dislike in his writing, I assume that he - along with some of his contemporaries, e.g. Will Self - is in revolt against the Hemingway/Chandler et cetera crisp, streamlined model of prose. In other words he is self aware; he is banging on and on completely deliberately. His repetition laden mode of operation is knowing, rather than the result of an inability to be succinct. The fact that the great steaming pile of verbiage that results does not interest or entertain me is not necessarily a sign that it is bad; it is at least done intentionally, with the aim of not being short, sharp, minimalistically to the point. Therefore, possibly the problem is not that Amis is no good so much as that he is no good for me. That is to say, what I demand from fiction is not what Amis is intending to provide.

It is therefore unfair to condemn Amis’s work, except on the grounds of my own personal taste. Within the scope of Amis’s own private conception of what literature should be, he may well succeed. He may well have achieved that which he planned. Starting from the position that we all share one huge insight and that is that humans are universally idiotic and vile and life is a huge joke played by an indifferent universe, he sets out to create a world where the loathsome, despicable creature called man is systematically stuffing everything up. There is much evidence that this may be a horribly accurate assessment of existence but it is still a very bleak scenario. Reading a novel where the reader is invited simply to stand back and sneer at the antics of his fellow humans is ultimately a dispiriting venture, in my opinion. However, after a discussion with a member of my family who is loving London Fields, I realise that it can give pleasure to others who demand exactly this level of cynicism and despair from a work of fiction.

Which leaves me only able to say that I personally hated the book - and also that I thought it was utterly unoriginal, indeed possibly plagiaristic. That is, in its plot the thing is a straight out steal of Muriel Spark’s The Driving Seat - at least that’s how it appears to  me.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Battered Penguins - The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes




This charming book could be described as Michael Innes's 1940 updating of Buchan's 39 Steps. Set mainly in the Highlands, it features Innes's genial policeman, Appleby, but the protagonist is actually a young woman called Sheila Grant. Quite by chance she gets caught up in trying to foil the plans of a secret vanguard of Nazis , when she overhears a piece of poetry - Innes was really a professor of English at Oxford, so this is entirely appropriate - being muttered on the train to Inverness.

I really enjoyed the book, which had a number of surprisingly exciting twists and turns. I had Innes down for a writer of cosy whodunnits but, while this is definitely reassuringly Golden Age in atmosphere, (gallant men, plucky women  that sort of thing, not a speck of grit or a trace of interesting social mix anywhere in its pages), it is also exciting. I suppose I should point out that I don't get out much, so it doesn't take a great deal to excite me. All the same there were nail biting moments, in my (sheltered) view.

I also very much liked the fact that the central female character was given a good deal of initiative - and even allowed to wield a gun in self-defence. I also enjoyed the evocation of a wonderfully empty, (wonderful for the tourist; rather a drawback for those characters trying to get help as they evade the baddies, of course), rural Scotland - and also  of  a world in which constant self-censorship in the interests of not inflaming minority sensitivities was not yet deemed necessary.  Innes writes beautifully and is capable of comic turns as well as philosophical and pastoral musings. In this regard - that is, the comic - I rather liked the  scene in which Appleby and a cohort of other males have to dress up to look like Women's Institute members  and then find themselves needing to give chase to the Nazis: 

"Gathering up their skirts, they went pelting after him"

The green-minded may be a bit shocked by the wanton use of petrol to set fire to pristine moorland so that our heroes and heroine can make a quick get away, under cover of flame and smoke. Nowadays this kind of environmental vandalism would trigger outrage, but The Secret Vanguard is not at all a nowadays kind of  book. It has a single  purpose: to give  a white English-speaking  middle class reader about an hour and a half of very light diversion. Speaking as a pretty much paradigmatic example of its target audience, I reckon it perfectly fulfils that aim


Monday, 4 April 2016

Now That We Need Them

Yesterday was that rare thing in this part of the world - sunny. And so we decided to go to Antwerp.

We had a look at the glorious train station and then walked down a pedestrian street called Leysstraat.

Leysstraat is lined with highly ornate buildings and almost all of them sport friendly figures or faces on their highly decorated facades. The few buildings in the street that have been built since the war are plain, lacking in craftsmanship and altogether unendearing. They lack individuality and most  of them reminded me of the Budapest Communist Party Headquarters design story, told by Tibor Fischer in Under the Frog (waking up late for his appointment with those commissioning the headquarters, the architect jumps out of bed and straight onto the complex model he has made of his projected building, destroying it instantly; unable to construct an equally elaborate new model in the 10 minutes he has left before the meeting, he grabs a shoebox and presents that, successfully, instead).

Why do we meekly accept the progressive endrearying of our urban environment? Why do we never rise up against the slow but steady tide of lowering standards and expectations and the assumption that prettiness is neither desirable nor affordable?

More basically, why at the precise moment when we created something - the traffic jam - that meant we really needed nice things to look at to distract us from the fact that we were stuck in a morass of fumes and metal, did we decide that utterly plain facades were the way to go?

If you would like to meet some of the stony Leysstraat population, you can find them here.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

With All Your Might

This week I read in the paper about a minor celebrity who had died. As usual, we were told that this had happened after a long "battle" against some hateful disease.

The regular use of fighting words in the context of death after a long illness always makes me uncomfortable. It implies that it is dishonourable to feel weak and tired when you are ill. You should be raising banners and actively wielding cudgels, it suggests, at a time when you are at your most feeble.

I prefer the phrase I saw used about someone in the Telegraph obituary column a couple of weeks ago. The person in question, we were informed, had died:

"... after a long illness, bravely borne."


Saturday, 2 April 2016

Not That Again

I went to see Son of Saul the other day. Some people express the view that enough is enough and the whole subject of the Holocaust has been dealt with plenty of times already and it is extremely tiresome that there are those who continue to bang on about it. For me, on the contrary, it seems that the more I learn about it the more I feel the need to find out. I suppose what I really want to find out is how European civilisation came to a point where such things could be contemplated - and not merely contemplated but carried out enthusiastically!

How did anyone even think up the idea of annihilating a race? And then what gave them the temerity to think that it would be all right to suggest such a thing out loud? And finally what drove many to agree and to participate with gusto in the appalling process?

And within the big questions are the smaller ones: were those who drew up plans for the machinery of killing - the Schreibtischmörderer, as Theodor Adorno apparently called them - morally better or worse than those who operated that machinery; were the Jews who were chosen by the Germans to work in the concentration camp zonder commandoes, plundering the clothes of the dead, removing their gold fillings et cetera, victims or culpable? On this second question, I agree with Joshua Cohen who, in a fascinating review of The Wall by HG Adler, (from which I also gleaned that Adorno term) in the London Review of Books, 3 March. 2016, writes:

"... being forced to participate in another's death while waiting for your own was victimisation at its most perverse."

In his review Cohen also details an incident at Theresienstadt that I knew nothing about before - or at least had completely forgotten about (it is largely drawn from WG Sebald's Austerlitz, which I did read a long time ago, but have clearly since forgotten) :

"In the summer of 1944, with Denmark protesting against the deportation of its Jews to Theresienstadt, Germany capitulated to diplomatic pressure and allowed the International Red Cross to visit the camp to prove that no exterminations were being carried out on site. The Reich Security Main Office, sniffing a PR opportunity, ordered the Gestapo to implement Operation Beautification (Verschönerungsaktion) which would transform the camp temporarily into a picture-postcard hamlet.


Sebald describes it accurately in Austerlitz, because he relied on Adler’s account. ‘It was decided,’ Sebald writes, ‘to organise the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up programme: pathways and a grove with a columbarium were laid out, park benches and signposts were set up, the latter adorned in the German fashion with jolly carvings and floral decoration, over one thousand rosebushes were planted.’ Food rations were increased; new clothes – not just uniforms – were sewn. Conditions in the barracks improved, especially after seven thousand prisoners were dispatched to Auschwitz a month before the inspectors’ arrival. Dr Paul Eppstein, president of the Judenrat, was appointed mayor for the day, and tasked with leading the Red Cross contingent on a tour; Brundibár, a subversive children’s opera whose villain resembled Hitler, was performed; a football game was played, and there was a show trial in which Jewish lawyers, judges and jurors tried another inmate for ‘theft’. The Red Cross report, made public only in 1992, might as well have been ghostwritten by the Reich: ‘The SS police gives the Jews the freedom to organise their administration as they see fit.’ A later propaganda film presented the camp as a spa town for the Jewish elite, which explains Adler’s name for it in The Journey: Ruhenthal means ‘Valley of Rest’. The novel depicts it as a sanatorium with an identity problem: sometimes the Jews are the patients and the Nazis are the benevolent physicians pursuing their ‘cure’; at other times the Nazis are ‘the diseased’, armed lunatics bent on eradicating their Jewish caretakers."
From what I can tell from the Cohen review, Adorno and Adler were at odds over the usefulness of portraying the Holocaust in fictional or poetic form. It seems to me that any means that communicates to large numbers of people both the reality and the horror of the events in the various German concentration camps cannot be criticised. It is important that we never again become complacent about our own capacity for brutality. In this context, I recommend Son of Saul - it is not at all enjoyable but it is powerfully instructive and moving.