Category Archives: Reading

A Woman in Berlin

For the past couple of months I have been trying to write about the two days in April that I spent in Poland, visiting the village that was once my mother’s German home. Capturing the events of that trip is one thing; capturing the emotions stirred and the thoughts engendered is quite another. I have written about fifteen pages, which may or may not become part of something bigger. Meanwhile I do what all literary scholars do when they are stalled in their writing—I keep reading.

The book I have just finished reading, a book that I both could not put down and often could not bear to continue with, is A Woman in Berlin. Written as a diary by “Anonymous,” it chronicles a woman’s experiences in the eight weeks between the final battles in and around the capital city to the retreat of the Russian forces. It covers the period April 20, 1945 to June 16, 1945.

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I no longer remember how I heard about this book. I have read many memoirs by Germans about their wartime experiences (especially those ethnic Germans who lived in parts of eastern Europe—Latvia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Prussia, Romania, and, of course, Pomerania) but this is the first diary I have read. It has had a profound effect on me probably because of the sense of immediacy it conveys. The details of daily existence, as well as the thoughts and acts of an ordinary human being in a time of chaos and danger, are acutely rendered. I got my copy through Amazon’s used bookseller network. It was originally in the Milton Ontario Public library. It has the plastic wrapped cover and all and is stamped “DISCARDED” on the inside. Clearly it was waiting for me to bring it home.

The author wished to remain anonymous, and there are few biographical details about her given in the book. She is in her early 30s. She has blond hair. She is slim. She is engaged to a man called Gerd who is (she assumes) at the western front. She has some experience in journalism or publishing. In any event, she can certainly write.

The diary has been endorsed as “authentic” (whatever that means) by Antony Beevor (author of The Fall of Berlin 1945) and others, though apparently when it was first published in the 1950s it was not well received. Readers did not want to hear details about how ordinary German citizens suffered during the war. They did not want to think of Germans as victims. And German readers did not want to be reminded of the atrocities they endured. More specifically, many did not want to read about rape. Because that is a large part of the diary. Rape. And the enormous effort it took to stay alive, despite everything. Bombing raids. No food. No water. No electricity. No transportation. Burned and smashed buildings. Ruined homes. And rampaging Russian soldiers.

I knew about the rapes. It’s all there in the history books. Estimates are that about 100,000 German women and girls were raped by Russian soldiers who treated the defeated as spoils of war. It did not matter how old or attractive the women and girls were; they were all vulnerable. Anonymous was quickly and repeatedly “taken” (the word she uses) by several different men. But what this diary reveals is how diverse particular women’s and girls’ experiences were. One mother managed to hide her daughter in a crawl space for weeks. She was not found. Russian soldiers tended not to enter apartments that were above the first or second floors, so women and girls living on the upper floors had a greater chance of being spared. One woman (perhaps a lesbian) dresses like a man and passes. Another woman, an actor, uses stage makeup to make herself look very old and the soldiers choose the two young refugee girls who live with her instead.

Some women are so traumatized that they commit suicide. Others try to make better deals for themselves by connecting themselves to a particular Russian in exchange for food and other items that can be used or traded, as well as for protection. Anonymous “partners” with three different men who, for a while, keep other soldiers away from her. “Her Russian,” whoever he happens to be at the time (Anatol, Nikolai, the major), becomes part of the economy of her makeshift “family,” a widow (whom she calls “the widow”) and Herr Pauli, the widow’s invalid lodger. She lives in their flat because her own attic apartment (actually it is not even her own but where she ended up during the bombing raids); the Russians bring them meager but essential means of survival for which they are all grateful. Bread. Canned meat. Potatoes. Matches. Vodka.

Remarkably, Anonymous also thinks about why the Russian soldiers act as they do. Not all are animals. Not all are monsters. They had to get drunk in order to rape, because such acts of violence against women went against their basic human moral code. Alcohol removed inhibitions. She is “convinced that if the Russians hadn’t found so much alcohol all over, half as many rapes would have taken place.” She notes that ordinary soldiers were not given home leave, unlike German troops, so many of these Russian soldiers had not seen their wives or girlfriends for four years. The more educated of them, officers like her “major,” wanted companionship and conversation as much as they wanted sex. They often pleaded with women to let them “sleep at your house.” Code for forced sex, to be sure, but also a request for a pretend domesticity.

The raping stops the forced labour begins—women are rounded up and made to do manual labour: clearing rubble, emptying factories of their machines, washing. Anonymous is able to walk around the city. She visits friends. She asks every woman she talks to the same question: “how many times?”

Gerd comes home. At first she is full of joy, but when Gerd learns about the rapes he turns cold and distant. “For him I’d been spoiled once and for all,” she writes. He calls all the women “bitches.” He finds them “horrible to be around.” He leaves again. The diary ends with her wondering if they will ever find their way back together again. For Gerd and other husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends the women left behind are ruined. But you cannot read this diary and reach that conclusion. On the contrary, you cannot help but marvel at their strength, their dignity, their ability to cope. These women elicit our greatest respect. But only now, after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall, can we hear such stories. A Woman in Berlin was first published in 1953 and the response was contempt or silence. Anonymous did not want the book to be republished until after her death. Finally it was republished, in its complete form, in 2000, and this is the copy that now lives with—and in—me.

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In the chill mid winter

Minus 14 today and it feels like Minus 27. Lucky me I didn’t have any meetings scheduled for today so I can work at home. This is beginning to feel like a luxury. When I was just a professor, I had a flexible schedule. Although not the practice at all universities or in all departments, it’s generally acceptable for faculty members in my shop to work wherever they want to when they are not in the classroom or in meetings. After all, we’re constantly connected anyway, living in the cloud, and if someone really needs to talk to me rather than sending an email s/he is free to phone my mobile—which is always with me. So I’m “there” even when I’m not. The work all gets done. Because I’m teaching this term I also need to carve out some time and quiet space to get the readings done—which is impossible if I’m in my office. Even after all these years I still have to re-read every single book and article every single time. I need the prose to be fresh in my mind and I need to be able to discover new things about the works I’m teaching, even if I’ve taught them several times before. But of course, I’m also constantly refreshing reading lists and that means I not only read and reread but also write lecture notes.

This is what today looks like so far, written from mi casa:

• Constantly check and answer emails.

• Write emails on topics such as scheduling meetings, requesting information, reviewing a new graduate program proposal….

• Pick up voicemail message remotely and phone the person back to consult about an academic grievance case.

• Read this book, which I’m teaching next week. It’s good. I recommend it.

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• Make gulaschsuppe which we will eat for dinner tonight.

• Throw a load of laundry in.

• Cuddle a cat or two.

• Check out the websites for a upcoming trip to Washington, DC—The Museum of the American Indian, The Library of Congress, and TripAdvisor for hotel recommendations.

• Update calendar, marking off the time when I’ll be at conferences—in Cuba in April and Puerto Rico in July (yes, I love that my work takes me to interesting places).

All of this before noon.

I have been thinking a lot about how important our workspaces are. While I love my big bright office at the university I can only do certain kinds of work there. Sometimes I just need to be alone, inside my own head, reading and absorbing, thinking. I know that this work is invisible to others—those who think professors are spending their work-at-home days napping or watching movies. I can’t do without this quiet time. And if dinner is ready when Arlequino gets home then all the better.

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The pleasures of marking

That’s right. There’s a certain kind of marking that I really like: reading a strong PhD student’s dissertation chapters. That’s what I’m doing today. At home. Rainy day. Coffee nearby. Homemade soup for lunch. Cats asleep. And a really, really engaging chapter to read. One that provokes, explores, takes risks, argues, illustrates, illuminates. . .the best kind of academic writing. I find myself agreeing with but also disagreeing with some of the critic’s statements–which is a good thing because the ideas and claims are not wrong but provocative and worth arguing about.

As an editor (which is a primary role of the dissertation supervisor) I find the places where more explanation/discussion would make the point clearer. I read paragraphs that should engage with work done by other critics–work that I know about but the student (by this time really a junior academic) might not know about. I correct typos and grammar. I note when stronger transitions need to be written. I can point out where the logic is wonky. This is how I can be helpful.

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I don’t know if I’m THAT good, but I’ve done a lot of editing or other people’s work. Although it can sometimes be tedious and is pretty much always time consuming, it is a real pleasure to see another person’s brain at work. A privilege, even.  And in this case, reading this final chapter of a very good dissertation, I also get to see a young scholar surpass my expertise in this particular area of research. S/he now owns it, at least for a while, and that’s wonderful and makes me proud.

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The pleasures of the memoir

Teaching is done! So now I can read with abandon, promiscuously, widely. But after wolfing down the much ballyhooed The Hunger Games (just to see what all the fuss is about) I pick up, of course, a recent memoir.

Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? has just come out. We know much of her life story from her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, an autobiographical novel that she wrote when she was so young, just 25 when it was published. But this is the real thing: the memoir. Featuring her larger-than-life Evangelical Christian adoptive mother whom she calls “Mrs Winterson,” the story traces her childhood and her coming into writing, as well as her coming out as a lesbian. Mrs Winterson is a harridan. A big, fat woman with rigid views on everything, a woman who deliberately shuns pleasure, who refuses to sleep with her husband and actively dislikes her adopted daughter. I’ve just begun the book, but I’m already hooked.

Winterson was born at about the same time in about the same place as me: Manchester, England, 1959. She was the child of a factory worker, who gave birth at age 17 and couldn’t keep the child. There’s a whole chapter on Manchester, the first industrial city, and I know so well the houses and streets she describes: the two up and two down terraced houses, the coal sheds, the slate roofs, the back alleys, the cats, the corner shops, the public library, the terraces and brick walls, the grey, cold days. Eating a bag of chips. Drinking milk from the glass bottles left on the doorstep by the milkman. Jam sandwiches, corned beef sandwiches, sponge cake. School uniforms. Endless pots of tea. Holidays at the seaside. That sense that Manchester is in the southern part of the North (my paternal family comes from Yorkshire, the real North). All of you Corrie fans know it too.

But whereas in my home books were sacred and reading encouraged, in young Jeanette’s home books were banned–except the Bible, commentaries on the Bible, and one or two others. Fiction was banned because, according to her mother, “The trouble with a book is that you don’t know what’s in it until it’s too late.” So Jeanette sneaks books from the library, buys books with her market-stall work earnings, hides books under her mattress. When her mother finds her stash she promptly throws the books out of the window into the yard; then grabs paraffin, goes outside, and sets them ablaze. The image of books burning always makes me gasp.

For the young Jeanette, books offer a world outside, a magic carpet that spirits her away to a better place, a place where she might be loved, where she might be happy.

Jeanette recalls finding T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, opening it, reading the first lines —“This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy”— and instantly bursting into tears.  She took the books outside (because weeping in a library is not the thing) and reads it straight through. Then she writes:

I had no one to help me, but T.S. Eliot helped me.

So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs  a tough language–and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers–a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Literature is what makes life better. Later in the same chapter: “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”

Oh, yes. Yes. Yes.

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The trouble with reading?

Reading week seemed to come late this year. I was tired and a bit sick with a cold, so when the last week before the break ended I breathed a big sigh of relief and determined to take some downtime. Much needed downtime. I read. A novel. Yes, that’s right just ONE novel.

I have been noticing lately that I am having trouble concentrating on reading. This is disturbing, because I have been a book guzzling gal all my life. I could read before I went to school (thank you, Dad, for teaching me) and I have read thousands of books. Until very recently I could read a book in a day; I always read for at least half an hour before going to sleep; and getting a job as a full-time reader/professor is the perfect fit for me. So what has happened? Why has it taken me a week to read a single book, a book that I’ve already read?

I blame the iPad. I really do. The iPad is never far from my reach and I’m constantly engaged with it–email, social media, games, web browsing, reading magazines and newspapers, looking at photos, sometimes watching TV programs or even whole movies on it. The iPad is my constant companion. My love object. My latest addiction. And it seems to have destroyed –or at least affected– my ability to be absorbed for long periods of time in just ONE book.

I asked my students about this, about whether they were also having trouble with focused reading. Oh yeah, they said. One said that it was hard to find time and a quiet place to read–too many people around, too much noise. Another said that although he reads books, his younger siblings have NEVER read whole books. Yet another said “reading a novel is such a lonely activity.” Wow! That’s what used to be appealing about reading….that deep immersion in an entirely imaginary world. Keep in mind that I’m talking to a class full of senior undergraduate ENGLISH majors. We are all, it seems, having more trouble with the completely ordinary activity of reading.

Never thought it would happen to me.

No, I will not give up the iPad.

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