A quartet of gifts
I don’t like being given gifts of books as a general rule. I buy plenty of books for myself, almost invariably second-hand. And sometimes people give me books which I then feel somewhat reluctantly that I have to read. But for my birthday this year, back in July, I was given four books, one of which was a complete surprise, and the three I’ve read are all excellent.
East, West Street
This was the surprise, both book and author completely new to me. The illustration on the cover of the Penguin edition looked unpromising, and I wasn’t immediately sure whether this was a novel or not. [I don’t read much fiction. Except le Carré. See below.]
Philippe Sands is apparently a well-known human rights lawyer. The inspiration for the book is a trip to Lviv, in western Ukraine in 2010, to give a lecture at the university. His visit encourages him to delve into the hitherto unknown history of Leon Buchholz, his maternal grandfather, whom he knew only as an elderly, rather private refugee in Paris, living in an apartment near the Gare du Nord. Sands is an extraordinarily diligent researcher, and he uncovers a fascinating story.
Leon’s parents were part of an extended Jewish family from Lviv, his father an inn-keeper. The family roots were in nearby Zolkiew. His only brother, Emil, was killed fighting in 1914, and his father, Pinkas, died shortly afterwards of a broken heart. Leon aged ten and his mother moved to Vienna, to live with his sister, Gusta, married to Max Gruber. After his studies Leon lived the life of a single man-about-town in Vienna. Following the Anschluss many Jews tried to emigrate. His brother-in-law’s business is confiscated by the Nazis without compensation. In December 1938 Leon secures a visa and leaves Vienna for Paris, leaving his wife Rita and their small daughter behind. After leaving Vienna, he never sees any of his extended family again. They all die in Nazi camps. Lots of questions remain. Was Leon in a gay relationship in the 1930s with his best friend ? Why did his wife and baby stay behind in Vienna ? How did the baby [Sands’ mother] manage to arrive in Paris in July 1939 ? Accompanied by whom ? What connections were necessary to allow Rita, a registered Jew, to leave Austria in October 1941?
The story unfolds gradually, and leads into other stories. Two other men who grew up in the same culture and who studied in the same city became lawyers. One of them Hersch Lauterpacht, became a Professor of International Law at Cambridge, and was largely responsible for developing the notion of ‘Crimes against Humanity’ employed at the Nuremberg trials.The other, Rafael Lemkin, emigrated to the United States and was responsible for developing the notion of ‘genocide’. Which also featured, less prominently, at Nuremberg. Sands traces people who knew them and speaks to their descendants. And he traces too the family of Otto Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was a loyal friend of Hitler; and who in 1939 became Governor-General of Occupied Poland and the Fuhrer’s personal representative for the Polish Occupied Territories. It was Frank who was ultimately responsible for the murder of millions of Jews and of Poles in eastern Europe, including the death of Leon’s entire family. Frank was put on trial at Nuremberg and subsequently hanged.
The common thread in these stories is the city of Lviv, known at the time as Lemberg. [According to a man I met in Chantilly the French version is called Retour à Lemberg.] A city which Susie and I were delighted to visit in January this year. It was the capital of Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, containing a rich mix of Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. It is a fascinating city, stuffed with historic churches and cobbled streets, coffee shops and chocolate makers. And it has a totally different feel from the more Soviet style Kyiv. But there are no Jews left there now.
Mission in Contemporary Scotland
On a different tack, this is an important book by Liam Fraser, a young-ish Church of Scotland minister. Since the 1970s Scotland has moved from being a Christian to a post-Christian society. Now 93% of Scots do not attend church.
Historically the Church in Scotland was linked to the Crown. The Scottish Reformation of 1560 separated Scotland from Rome; and created an enduring divide between Protestant and Catholic Scots. The Reformation gave rise to the parish state. In Scotland “every part of society had to conform to the faith taught by the Kirk”. The Church had a monopoly on education; was the enforcer of morals; and the provider of upkeep of the poor. And, Fraser notes “this enculturation of Christianity in Scotland bore much fruit”.
The ‘parish state’ was undermined between the late 17th and mid-20th centuries by two key facts: schism, and economic affluence. “The Reformed vision of Scotland as a godly nation, where kirk and people were one, died on May 18th, 1843” with the Great Disruption.
The Kirk had little to offer to contemporary youth culture. Growing affluence led to a less restrictive form of morality. The BBC ceased to uphold traditional Christian values. The duplication of church buildings after 1843 led to what Robin Gill calls ‘the empty church’ phenomenon. And with the advent of the Scottish Parliament, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland lost its role as a kind of surrogate parliament.
Fraser distinguishes two kinds of church: a. inherited, communal, and institutional, where worship is just one thread in community life; and b. voluntarist, associational, and congregational. The traditional denominations belong largely to the first kind; and a growing number of evangelistic and charismatic communities to the second kind. The first type of church will be less focussed on conversion and evangelism.
Community is essential for people to hold onto the faith. Why then don’t church communities work ? Fraser suggests that church plants in new housing areas are culturally isolated. Church without Walls recognised that the primary problem of the Church of Scotland was its prevailing ‘church culture’; traditionalism and clericalism. But CWW was squashed by vested interests in the Church of Scotland and a refusal to invest in new training structures.
Fraser is more positive about Mission Shaped Church, and the Church of England’s Fresh Expressions. Which now make up 15% of the Church of England congregations. One aspect of their success is the emphasis on worship. “If worship is dowdy and passionless and irrelevant, then non-Christians will think the Gospel is too.” Fraser offers Messy Church as an effective fresh expression; possibly the only initiative that has reached unchurched families. The future will be a mixed economy [Rowan Williams] of traditional and fresh expressions of church. Fraser uses stark language: “The creation of fresh expressions is analogous to the Church sending out lifeboats from the sinking Titanic, allowing the people of God to survive their impending disaster”
I have come back from Chantilly with what feels like jet lag. But is more probably an incipient cold. So I have been treating myself to a read of Silverview, the first posthumous le Carré book, assembled for publication by one of his sons. It is an absolute delight. The book’s narrator, Julian Lawndsley, is an ex-city high-flier, who has opened a bookshop in a small seaside town. But after a couple of months his life is disrupted with the arrival in the shop at closing time of Edward Avon, also known as Teddy. Edward is a Polish emigré who lives in a big house on the edge of town, and who claims to be a school-friend of his late father. Edward persuades Julian to contemplate a Festival of Literature in the basement. For which he will supply ideas and computer back-up.
Teddy is sparing with information about himself. But enlists Julian to take a message to an unknown woman [lover ?], at the Everyman cinema in Belsize Park. And later invites him to dinner to meet his Deborah, a noted Arabist and supposed former head of an international think tank, but now dying of cancer. Meanwhile the intelligence service’s Head of Domestic Security, ‘Proctor the Doctor’, is investigating a major leak of classified information. Proctor’s interviewing of two retired intelligence colleagues is a comic masterpiece. As the threads come together in a tense climax, no-one is quite what they seem to be.
This is vintage, late flowering le Carré. He continues to write like a dream. Especially dialogue. It isn’t perfect. The opening chapter is a slow burn. The men, and the characters in le Carre are predominantly men, are more convincing than the women. The book has echoes of his earlier work. The [eventual] Middle Eastern thread recalls the theme of Little Drummer Girl. The machinations within the secret service, and the conflict between conscience and duty to the Service, are reminiscent of A Delicate Truth. With which Silverview has affinities; it is not clear exactly when the new book was written. The seaside town setting, and the brief sketch of Julian’s reprobate father, bring back memories A Perfect Spy, le Carré’s most autobiographical [and arguably best] book.
Now that I’ve finished it, all too soon, I want to start reading it all over again. It’s a bit like the fish pie we had for lunch; autumn comfort food. When I retire, I’m going to sit down and re-read all the le Carré books. And write something about Love and loyalty in the le Carré corpus.
Yes, I’m aware that there are only three books here, not four. The fourth book is Patrick Marnham’s life of Jean Moulin. Which I look forward to reading.