The Little Stranger

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The Little Stranger

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

UK, 2018

HOME, 4 October 2018

The Little Stranger

What we have here is a stylish adaptation of Sarah Waters’s very British, class-ridden (57 varieties of prejudice) Gothic melodrama.

Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is the doctor of humble origins (his mother was a maid) who courts Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson), part of the upper-class family that live in the village’s big house. The family had been ravaged by war – the First World War as well as the Second – with Caroline’s brother Roderick having been disfigured and mutilated in the Battle of Britain.

A strange time, post World War Two Britain: the beginnings of the welfare state, ostensibly egalitarian, yet everybody all very class-wary, sensitive to accents and the minutiae of manners and behaviour. Everyone susceptible to slights of various kinds, snobbishness rife. An allusion to Jane Eyre and echoes also of The Go Between.
Everyone repressed too, unaware even of their own violent motives. Pent-up hostility.

A delightful slice of subtle and atmospheric horror.

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The Son

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The Son

Directed by Alexander Abaturov

Russia, 2018

HOME, 4 October 2018

The Son

This bleak and disturbing film centres on the death of a young man, a soldier in one of Russia’s vermin-turd wars.

A statue is to be made of him, he is to be an iconic Russian Soldier – though not Unknown, his name is Dima – and we see it unveiled in a drab military ceremony.

We hear from his parents, the mates he fought alongside. We also see life at a military base and in the field, someplace in Siberia, where soldiers intent on entering an elite unit (they are shaven headed, scrawny, runt -like) undergo brutal training. It is grim in Putin’s Russia, a once great nation in terminal decline, and there are signs here also of the nationalistic delusions, the collective insanity almost, detailed in recent books by Timothy Snyder and Serhii Plokhy.

Mind, although Russia is a basket case, you have to fear for the European Union, what with its lack of military fire-power and its bountiful confidence in soft power (which didn’t work so well in the Arab Spring, come to think of it: Assad is still murdering his own people in Syria). As for the EU nations laying on Russia’s border, neglecting payment of their NATO obligations, if push comes to shove will Trump’s USA really come to their aid?

The Russian guys here are killers and they have guns. They want what we have, and they have nothing to lose.

Germany’s Wild East

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Germany’s Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space

By Kristin Kopp

University of Michigan Press, 2017

ISBN: 9780472036820

Germany's Wild East: Constructing Poland as Colonial Space

This fascinating historiographical work focuses on fiction, film and cartography in an attempt to understand how Poland was represented in German culture from the middle of the nineteenth century up until the years leading up to the Second World War.

The first chapter examines Gustav Freytag’s popular novel Soll und Haben (1855), the inspiring story of how an industrious young man of good German stock made his fortune in the East. While journeying in this part of the world, he encounters a fair few Poles and they seem to him to be a simple, peasant people. Rather primitive and crude in their ways, like (say) the Indian tribes of the American West.

There are similarities between Soll und Haben and Das Schlafende Heer (1904), although Clara Viebig’s engaging Ostmarkenroman (yes, it is part of a whole genre), the subject of chapter two, was written half a century later. It is a stirring tale of a family of heroic German farmers who settle in the East, where they spend their days attempting to create system and order out of a chaotic, messy landscape. As well as dealing with the rowdy locals, bless, ‘em.

This foray into fiction culminates in chapter three, where Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895) is discussed as ‘an invasion narrative’, that is: an attack on the centre (Germany) from the margin and the periphery (here China and the Slavic East). Thinking about this, it would seem that the fact that Poland lay on Germany’s doorstep was both a boon (no need to go traipsing all over the world to build an empire) and a source of anxiety (teeming Slavic hordes may invade over Germany’s border too). I found the discussion here enlightening, both as regards Effi Briest (one of Thomas Mann’s favourite novels, incidentally) and current concerns around migration today. These same worrisome tropes surface now. You have fear of invasion and contagion. An almost ecstatic anxiety of getting swamped by aliens. The loss of identity and culture.

Of great interest also is chapter four, where Kristin Kopp turns to cartography. Here she presents a survey of various German atlases and maps from the interwar years. We can see that land lost to a newly independent Poland is still represented as in some sense German: it is perhaps Volksboden (on my understanding: land where a significant German minority resides) or Kulturboden (land that has been cultivated, shaped and developed, by German hand or culture: a curious notion, this, that land itself can possess a national identity).

Finally, an analysis of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen follows in chapter five: Lang’s epic sees a Germanic noble swanning about amongst Slavic savages.

There is only one reference to Hitler in the book (where he argues that Danzig – present day Gdansk – is a German city; a claim of Kulturboden, I’d say) but his presence is implicit throughout. Because this is the culture that created him, and not only him but a people prepared to follow his lead. Hitler’s love of Karl May novels, his comment that ‘the Volga will be our Mississippi’, the notion of Lebensraum: it all grew out of this culture. The Nazi policy of Generalplan Ost, with its intention to create German settlements in the East, is simply a logical extension of these ideas.

Incidentally it is curious that there is no mention of Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire in the book, because Germany’s Wild East is consonant with Mazower’s main thesis, which is that Nazi Germany colonised Europe as Europeans had colonised Africa.

The publisher’s description of description of Germany’s Wild East is here.

The Godfather

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The Godfather

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

USA, 1972

HOME, 30 September 2018

The Godfather

A new 4K restoration makeover is as good a reason as any to revisit Francis Ford Coppola’s great film.

The central relationship, the one that makes everything tick, is that between Michael (Al Pacino) and his father (Marlon Brando).

At the start, Michael tells the girl he will eventually marry a true, violent story about how his father helped a singer’s career true. He concludes by saying something like: ‘That s my family; its not me.’ How little he knows himself.

Sometime later Michael is alone with his father in the hospital, solitary defender against assassins coming to kill him. ‘I’m with you now,’ he says, embracing him. Accepting his father, his family, his fate. The decision has been made.

Later still, attending a baptism in church, Michael vows to renounce Satan and all his works while assassins in his employ carry out their tasks. It is a lie before God, a seal upon his soul’s damnation. And it makes it easier to lie to the woman who is now his wife.

Naturally, the film is not only about Michael’s journey, compelling though that is. There are many brilliantly constructed set-pieces, various convoluted strands of betrayal and intrigue, and even the odd moments of humour. Consider the legend ‘TOLL PAID’ over Sonny’s  (James Caan’s) bullet-strewn body. Or the scene where Michael and a Sicilian beauty go for a stroll, two gunmen guarding him at the rear, while in between the guards and the courting couple are five (I counted them) middle-aged chaperones, there to guard the young lady’s honour and virtue.

Pure cinematic bliss.

Wajib

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Wajib

Directed by Annemarie Jacir

Colombia, 2018

HOME, 1 September 2018

Wajib

We are in Israel.

A father and son drive around, giving out invitations to the daughter’s wedding. The mother may attend, but it is uncertain: she had deserted the family some years before, leaving the country to live abroad.

They are a Palestinian family and their friends (most of them, anyway) are Palestinian too; it is a film about the Palestinian experience, at home and in the diaspora – like the mother, the son lives abroad and has returned only for the wedding.

You can see that the son is angry about the humiliations his father has had to endure, the compromises he has had to make, and is making still. Not for him, a newly minted European, the restrictive, oppressive life he sees around him. Whereas the father is contemptuous of professional Palestinians who romanticise ‘the homeland’ from a safe distance – being mighty careful, mind, that they don’t actually set foot there. He doesn’t want his son to become like those he despises.

This is a very fine film, which i enjoyed very much. I would describe it as a fairly low-key family drama, not overtly (or not very often) political, yet rich with acute observation. The accumulation of small telling details carries a potent kick and, at the end, you are so close to these people’s lives that you can almost hear their heartbeat.

OthelloMacbeth @ HOME

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OthelloMacbeth

By William Shakespeare

HOME & Lyric Hammersmith

HOME, 19 September 2018

Caroline Faber (Lady Macbeth) and Sandy Grierson (Macbeth) in OthelloMacbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jude Christian; Designed by Basia Binkowska; Lighting Design by Joshua Pharo (HOME Manchester 14-29 Sept 2018; Lyric Hammersmith 5 Oct‐3 Nov 2018). Photo by Helen Murray

Caroline Faber (Lady Macbeth) and Sandy Grierson (Macbeth) in OthelloMacbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jude Christian; Designed by Basia Binkowska; Lighting Design by Joshua Pharo (HOME Manchester 14-29 Sept 2018; Lyric Hammersmith 5 Oct‐3 Nov 2018). Photo by Helen Murray

A Shakespeare double-bill, two for the price of one: Manchester audiences can spot a good deal when they see it.

We got Othello in the first half of theatre. At the end of that play, Desdemona (Kirsten Foster) and her slain sisters arose from the pit, resuscitated, and got ready to give Macbeth a weird welcome in the second half.

Each play could, and in the first instance probably should, be appreciated in its own right. But it is interesting also to reflect on how they relate and refract upon one another – they have been brought together with that purpose after all, after all. So in that spirit, you’d have to say that the fusion was effective (momentarily, any roads) as a commentary on toxic masculinity. In one play you have Othello’s (Ery Nzaramba) jealous rages, in the other Macbeth’s (Sandy Grierson) cruel and murderous tyranny, and in both women are their victims. Desdemona is murdered, as is Lady MacDuff (here Melissa Johns’s performance was a highlight for me), her innocent cry that she had ‘done no harm’ failing to deter her killers.

Of course it is not quite as straightforward as that with Shakespeare, it never is. You could argue, for example, that Othello is a victim too, a victim of Iago’s malice: though isn’t he a little too easily persuaded of Desdemona’s infidelity? And Lady Macbeth (Caroline Faber) is the locus of evil intent in that play; and her complaint about her hubby is that he is too soft, has too much of ‘the milk of human kindness’ for his own good. And if the problem is men’s weakness, their frailty, then Macduff (Samuel Collings: another highlight for me), although a good man, is weak too. His response to grief is that he must ‘feel it as a man’ – and so he weeps.

What is clear is that you have outstanding performances of two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, brought together in a highly thought-provoking manner, which allows you to see each one in a new light. And incidentally, the end of Macbeth segues back into Othello once again, like one side of a Mobius strip leading onto the other.

OthelloMacbeth is showing at HOME until 29 September. Details here.

Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora! @ the Leopold Museum

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Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora!

Curated by Monika Faber and Magdalena Vukovic

Leopold Museum, Vienna

13 July 2018 – 29 October 2018

Arthur Schnitzler, 1915 Foto | Photo: Austrian Archives/IMAGNO/picturedesk.com

Arthur Schnitzler, 1915
Albuminpapier | Albumen print
IMAGNO, Sammlung Christian Brandstätter Wien | IMAGNO, Collection Christian Brandstätter Images
Foto | Photo: Austrian Archives/IMAGNO/picturedesk.com
Der österreichische Schriftsteller Arthur Schnitzler. 1910. Photographie von Madame d’Ora. – 19100627_PD0004

As it happens, I came across the above photograph of Arthur Schnitzler – and one of Gustav Klimt too – in the Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora! exhibition at the Leopold Museum over the Summer.

These were two of d’Ora’s society portraits, which included, as well, minor Hapsburg royalty. Also, d’Ora (real name: Dora Kallmus) did a lot of work for fashion magazines in Austria and Germany and later France, a country frequented throughout her career and later moved to (Dora Kallmus was Jewish). Whilst in Paris, d’Ora photographed Josephine Baker and, another big music star at the time, Maurice Chevalier. There is a smiling, older, seemingly genuinely happy Picasso here too.

Two photographic series stood out for me, struck me as being of particular importance. The first showed refugees in Salzburg in the late ’40s: these were ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe, perhaps participating in the ‘orderly and humane’ expulsion (ethnic cleansing by another name) that Churchill had promised at Potsdam: R.M. Douglas’s fine history charts the abysmal failure of this policy. Anyway, it is clear d’Ora, the Jewish photographer whose sister died in the Holocaust, shows palpable compassion towards these displaced Germans.

Then there is the second series of photographs, these the most disturbing images of all. From the late ’40s onward, actually well into the 1950s, d’Ora took a peek into Parisian slaughterhouses. We see here row upon row of animal carcasses. There are the severed heads of sheep and cattle amid sometimes gleaming hygienic surfaces, as in this example:

Abgetrennter Kalbskopf in einem Pariser Schlachthaus, um 1954 Severed calf’s head in a Parisian slaughterhouse, c. 1954

Abgetrennter Kalbskopf in einem Pariser Schlachthaus, um 1954 Severed calf’s head in a Parisian slaughterhouse, c. 1954
Silbergelatineabzug | Gelatin silver print
31,7 × 24,5 cm
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg
Foto | Photo: Nachlass Madame d’Ora/Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

And elsewhere the machinery of butchery (and genocide) stands ready and waiting. All is inanimate, dead. An accompanying text suggests (and it is surely correct) that d’Ora used this project as a way of approaching or addressing the Holocaust, an event that we know had touched her personally. I wonder, though, whether d’Ora had read and been influenced by Georges Bataille’s famous essay on slaughterhouses or seen any of the photographs by Eli Lotar that inspired it.

Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora!, an exhibition showing hundreds of photographs of this wonderful artist, is showing at the Leopold Museum until 29 October. It is a must-see. Details here.

The Road to the Open

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The Road to the Open

By Arthur Schnitzler

Translated by Horace Samuel

With a Foreword by William M. Johnston

Northwestern University Press, 1992

ISBN: 0810109964

The Road to the Open

The keynote of Schnitzler’s great novel of turn of the century Vienna is anxiety, an anxiety centred on the future.

Its main character is George von Wergenthin, an aristocrat, musician and composer, and we follow his life for a period of about a year. The crucial question is whether he will amount to an artist of substance or remain forever a dilettante; and it is uncertain to the last. Somehow, he is unable to bring artistic projects to a satisfactory completion and his private life is a mess: he has a child with a woman that he doesn’t intend to marry. Most of George’s friends and acquaintances – writers and artists, students and political activists – are Jewish and the so called ‘Jewish question’ is a central issue here, as in no other city. (at this time the mayor of Vienna  is Karl Lueger, an anti-Semite much admired by Hitler.) It is another source of anxiety, to add to the rest. At one tense gathering George listens to two of his Jewish friends, Leo and Heinrich, discussing their lives and has a premonition of the difficulties that lie ahead:

He saw for the first time the designation Jew, which he himself had often used flippantly, jestingly and contemptuously, in a quite new and at the same time melancholy light. There dawned within him some idea of this people’s mysterious destiny, which always expressed itself in every one who sprang from the race, not less in those who tried to escape from that origin of theirs, as though it were a disgrace, a pain or a fairy tale that did not concern them at all, than in those who obstinately pointed back to it as though to a piece of destiny, an honour or an historical fact based on an immovable foundation.

His Jewish friends have different fates. For some (including Leo) Zionism, emigration to Palestine, is the only answer; while another (Oskar) converts to Catholicism (as did the Wittgenstein family, incidentally). Then there is another path that many took, socialism or communism, with its promise (not entirely fulfilled, as we know) to melt all ethnic and national identities in the furnace of history. As for Heinrich, probably George’s closest friend, he doesn’t journey along any of these paths, and nor does he choose assimilation or integration into the life of Vienna. Rather he plumbs in the end for a kind of abnegation, a clear-headed lonely existence, proud and dark:

He needed acquaintances to go walks and excursions with, and to discuss all the manifold problems of life and art in cold shrewd fashion – he needed women for a fleeting embrace; but he needed no friend and no mistress. In that way his life would pass with greater dignity and serenity. He revelled in these resolutions, and felt a growing consciousness of toughness and superiority. The darkness of the forest lost its terror, and he walked through the gently rustling night as though through a kindred element.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate in The Road to the Open, perhaps Schnitzler’s most accomplished work of fiction. You have the innovative use of interior monologue and the way the perspective constantly shifts from character to character (it is not only George’s story), creating a rich, multi-layered, social world that is both personal and political. These people let us into their lives, share their thoughts on love and suicide, science and music, identity and guilt (and for George at the end there is a need or obligation to feel guilt). That Schnitzler drops a lot of place names – there are references to churches and coffeehouses and landmarks in the city centre, the Riesenrad in the Prater, Sievering and Sophienalpe in the Vienna woods – also made the novel come alive for me, since I know these places. Incidentally, it is hardly a coincidence that a lot of the action is set in the Vienna woods, with the characters walking or bicycling down various Wanderwegs: it chimes with the original German title, which is Der Weg ins Freie.

We all have an Elsewhere (or several), a place we can escape to, and for many that is ‘Vienna 1900’: The art of Klimt and Schiele, the architecture of Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, the fiction of Zweig and, yes, Schnitzler. The Secession, Jugendstil, the Wiener Werkstatte and all of that. The Road to the Open is contemporaneous with this glorious period (it was written between 1902 and 1908, and published in the same year that Klimt completed Danae) and shows us something we likely always knew: There is no Elsewhere that can insulate us from life, no time and place where people were free from foreboding or fear for the future. At one point in the novel Heinrich speaks of anxiety as ‘a perfectly legitimate daughter of reason’ – it is a consoling thought, kind of.

The publisher’s description of The Road to the Open is here.

Alfred Seiland @ the Albertina

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Alfred Seiland

Curated by Prof Dr Klaus Albrecht Schröder

Albertina, Vienna

13 June – 7 October 2018

Alfred Seiland | Wildwood, New Jersey, USA, 1983 | The Albertina Museum, Vienna © Alfred Seiland

Alfred Seiland | Wildwood, New Jersey, USA, 1983 | The Albertina Museum, Vienna © Alfred Seiland

This retrospective exhibition of work by the renowned Austrian photographer Alfred Seiland was a highlight of our annual visit to the Albertina.

At its heart was an early series, East Coast – West Coast (1979–1986), which featured photographs of America. However, these were not photographs of iconic American landmarks or cities. Instead, you would typically see automobiles (real gas-guzzling machines), looking now as antediluvian as mainframe computers, as ill-designed and ill-adapted as the platypus. They would be parked outside motels or flimsy-looking apartment buildings, below neon signs, or sitting on vacant lots, idling in the streets of small towns arising out of an oppressive desert landscape.

To begin with, the photographs look like a charming slice of late twentieth century Americana, landscapes you would like to step into. You think of TV cop shows, neo-noir films, the novels of Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark and Newton Thornburg. But then you think: No, I would feel hopelessly uprooted and lost here. Look at the buildings: they are makeshift, impermanent, not built to last. There is no recognisable sign of history, a lack of human attachment or atmosphere (or rather: that is their atmosphere). Placid yet precarious. Treacherous. Alien, even.

Included also are some photographs from a campaign that Seiland did for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung between 1995 and 2001. Typically, you would have a famous person (a small figure in a larger landscape) reading the newspaper, their face obscured. So you do have to take it on trust that it is who they say it is. It had its moments, notably one with Helmut Kohl ensconced on the good ship Europa, entering choppy waters, then as now. Klaus Maria Brandauer, the great Austrian actor who starred in The Magic Flute in Salzburg over the Summer, was in one of these photographs too. (That trio of films he made with Itsvan Szabo, above all Mephisto, will undoubtedly stand the test of time.)

As well, there are a bunch of photographs of Austria and a selection from another series, Imperium Romanum, focusing on the territory of ancient Rome; Don McCullin recently hit upon this as a subject too. This latter batch shows cities and urban spaces in the Middle East, taken often with the desert as a backdrop. All look somehow unsustainable and at risk: an eerie aura here.

If I had to explain why I was so fascinated by Alfred Seiland’s outwardly unpretentious pictures, I would say it is because they seem to show the faultlines of a society within an ordinary milieu. They don’t show violent crimes or even awful accidents but they suggest how such accidents might happen and escalate. You don’t see doom-laden catastrophes or tragic incidents but its clear that, with just a slight push here or there, such incidents could occur, spiral out of control and cause harm. Within all these landscapes there is a muted dynamism coupled with a lack of care – an absence of attachment and investment to a particular place and time – which means that if and when something goes wrong, it will go very badly wrong indeed. What is to stop it?

When we left the Albertina (eventually) the sun was scorching in the city, as everywhere this past Summer. So we went to Heiner’s for lunch, where I had a large glass of chilled soda-water followed by a ham roll and salad and a cherry crumble cake, one of their celebrated Fruchtkuchen, to end: good Viennese fare.

The exhibition features around 80 photographs by Alfred Seiland and is showing until 7 October. Details here.

War Diary

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War Diary

By Ingeborg Bachmann

With Letters from Jack Hamesh

Edited and with an Afterword by Hans Höller

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Seagull Books, 2018

ISBN:9780857425324

War Diary

This short book is best viewed as a package, so let me begin by enumerating its contents.

There is, to start with, a diary (or some extracts from a diary) kept by Ingeborg Bachmann and covering the period from about September 1944 to June 1945. In these pages she mentions her friendship, probable romance, with a British soldier named Jack Hamesh. She is able to discuss literature, politics and the like with him. Like her, he is Austrian. Unlike her, he is Jewish. In 1938 he had escaped from Vienna to London via Kindertransport, later enlisting in the British Army.

As well as the diary, the book contains several letters from Jack to Ingeborg, with these letters dating from Easter 1946 to July 1947, so a few years after the diary entries and their first meetings. The letters are intimate and candid about Jack’s feelings – it is clear that he loved her – and they clearly meant much to Bachmann: else why would she have kept them? His last letters are written from Tel Aviv, where had gone to live after the war, knowing that Ingeborg could not follow him. Vienna was over for Jack, his life there had ended in March 1938. The city was a deceitful dream. In one letter to Ingeborg he writes:

Remain my dear friend whom I need so badly and love very, very much and cannot forget.

Following the letters, there is an Afterword by Hans Höller, though in truth it is rather more than that. For Höller provides an overarching narrative that allows the reader – even one largely unacquainted with Ingeborg Bachmann’s work – to place the diary and letters within the context of her life, and Jack’s too, to some extent. One key sentence stands out and is worth quoting in full:

In her description [in the diary], the end of the 14 June [1945] meeting is like a dream picture of a new coming together after the catastrophe, like a picture Chagall never painted: after a Jew, driven out of Austria in 1938, has kissed her hand, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a Carinthian Nazi family climbs up into an apple tree that night and cries, thinking she never wants to wash her hand again.

Indeed, what was Ingeborg to do with her burden, her share of guilt and shame? Her family had embraced Nazi ideology (as did much of the Austrian populace) and although she rebelled against it (but how strongly?), Austria’s compromised history was hers too. She muses about the impossibility of betraying one’s own family yet could not fully accept them (their beliefs and deeds) either. Alone, she had to forge her own path.

We know of Ingeborg Bachmann’s close friendship with Paul Celan through their letters, dramatized in Ruth Beckermann’s film The Dreamed Ones, but it seems as though her relationship with Jack Hamesh, a Viennese Jew who emigrated to Palestine, was if anything even more intense.

Then we come to the last, the final item. There is a further note by Hans Höller, written after the publication of the first German edition, where he gives some information that had come to light regarding the life of Jack Hamesh. He lived in Israel until 1987, the year of his death, and his name there was Jakob Chamisch. Tellingly, we learn that among his effects was a signed photo of Ingeborg Bachmann dated 23 June 1946.

As I said: the book is a package. There are fragile items, surviving only as fragments (the diary is incomplete, we don’t have Ingeborg’s letters to Jack), but from them we can piece together an important friendship in the lives of two young people, both floundering in the violence of their shared history, each striving in their own way to make sense of themselves and their fractious times.

The publisher’s description of War Diary can be read here.