Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg

Family Lexicon is an autobiographical novel, first published in 1963, by the Italian author Natalia Ginzburg. I read an article about it recently and since our local library had a copy, I brought it home. I almost stopped reading it two or three times but kept going.

It’s a strange book. It tells the story of the author’s family in the 1930s and ’40s. The author doesn’t say much about herself. For example, she only mentions in passing that she’s gotten married the two times it happens. Instead, she describes the personalities, activities and especially the conversations of her parents and four siblings. The rise of fascism and the war play a relatively small role (people are arrested by the fascists, or taken away by the Germans, but not much is said about it). Ginzburg concentrates instead on the day to day lives of her family and their friends. The book is often amusing, but you have to put up with a lot of numbing detail (my mother said this, my father said that, we took a walk, the maid got upset, the new apartment was nice).

Her father is a biology professor who tells most everyone around him that they are “jackasses” and “nitwits”. Her mother is an easy-going sort who tries to see the good in everyone and everything. Her sister and three brothers are less interesting and get less attention. It’s the distinctive way the characters, especially her father and mother, talk to each other that’s the most interesting thing about the book.

Family Lexicon has gotten renewed attention because of last year’s new translation. If you’re interested, you can read positive thoughts about it here, here, here, here and here.

On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald

The German writer W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, so he had no memories of World War 2. But memory was one of the principal themes of the books he wrote. In 1999, he published the long essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Its subject is the Allied aerial bombardment of Germany in the final years of the war, or rather the failure of German writers to properly document and reflect on the effects of that bombing on Germany’s civilian population. Sebald believed that such horrible events deserved to be discussed and written about clearly and honestly. Instead, the survivors of the bombing avoided speaking about it and few German writers addressed the subject at all, or if they did, they did so poorly. Sebald doesn’t defend the German government and doesn’t spend much time criticizing the morality or the rationale behind the bombing. He is trying to understand what the experience was like for the German population and why the memory of it doesn’t seem to have been directly confronted.

There are three shorter essays in the book, each dealing with a writer who lived through the war, none of whom are well-known in America. The essay about the bombing, which is actually titled “Air War and Literature”, is the one that is worth reading.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson

America was a much angrier place in the years before World War II than I realized. It had only been twenty years since the end of the last war. The thought of getting involved in another one, especially in Europe, was very hard to accept. Even after Hitler was on the march, even after the Germans took France, many Americans believed we should stay out of the war. Some were even opposed to providing assistance to Great Britain, arguing that we should remain completely neutral. They hoped the British and Germans could negotiate an end to the war. If that didn’t happen, they were willing to see Germany conquer all of Europe rather than fight another war.    

There was an amazing level of animosity between these “isolationists” and the “interventionists” who wanted us to do whatever we could to stop Hitler. Organizations were formed; mass meetings were held; national radio broadcasts were delivered. Insults were hurled and friendships were destroyed. There were student protests. As the most famous isolationist, Charles Lindbergh was branded a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor. 

But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we all had somebody else to be angry with. When President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war, even the isolationist Republicans in Congress gave him a standing ovation. 

Those Angry Days is an interesting book, even though the author spends too much time on Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh (it really seems as if the author would have liked to write a book about them). Aside from the incredible amount of controversy over our involvement in the war (controversy that began before 1939, despite the book’s subtitle), the most surprising part of the story is President Roosevelt’s unwillingness to force the issue. He was clearly an “interventionist” who wanted to help the British, but, according to the author, he vacillated and procrastinated. He feared public opinion, even when most of the public were in favor of intervention. He made stirring speeches but didn’t follow through. It drove Churchill crazy. If you can believe Those Angry Days, it was only after Pearl Harbor that Roosevelt went back to being the strong leader he’d been in the early years of the Depression.

Bias or Good Sense?

Now that I’ve finished going through all but the philosophy books, I can get back to exercising my fingers and your patience here at WOCS.

So Vox has an article about the increasing animosity between Democrats and Republicans. According to opinion polls, most Americans used to be relatively tolerant toward other political beliefs. For example, back in 1960, only 4 or 5% of us said we’d care if our child married a member of that other (obviously misguided) party.

Then, beginning around 1980 (wasn’t there a Presidential election that year?), politics started getting more personal (why, as a matter of fact, there was!). In fact, by 2010, 33% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats admitted that such a marriage would make them uncomfortable. I bet the percentages have gone up since then.

Data like this suggests that our politics is becoming a bigger part of our personal identity. Whether you are a Republican or Democrat defines what kind of person you are. It particular, it defines you as the bad kind or the good kind.  

The Vox article implies that the degree of animosity one feels toward supporters of that other party reflects one’s bias. The more upset you would be if your child married a Democrat or a damn Republican, the more biased you are. 

Vox even allows you to take a little test to measure your bias. It’s one of those “implied bias” exercises that measures how quickly you associate something (in this case, a political party) with words like “good” and “bad”. Quick responses are said to indicate strong associations and fundamental beliefs; slow responses indicate the opposite. (I’ll wait here if you want to take the test. It’s right after the article’s third paragraph.)

I took the test myself and even accept the results. In fact, I was pleased by the results. I wear my “bias” as a badge of honor!

Here’s my score:

test 1

That’s me way over on the very far left. I’m basically off the chart in my animosity toward Republicans. But whether this demonstrates bias or good sense is a matter of opinion. (I lean toward “good sense”.)

Anyway, it seems as if we Americans are dividing into increasingly distinct political tribes, which will lead to more paralysis, discord and even discrimination. Unless, of course, a threat from a common enemy brings us together. That’s what happened in 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, as discussed in an interesting book called Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II. 

The level of animosity between the “isolationists” (who desperately wanted us to avoid another war in Europe) and the “interventionists” (who wanted us to do whatever we could to stop Hitler) is amazing. Organizations were formed; mass meetings were held; national radio broadcasts were delivered. Insults were hurled. Friendships were destroyed. And suddenly, we all had somebody else to be angry with. When President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war, even the isolationist Republicans in Congress gave him a standing ovation.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we could even agree on what constitutes a paramount common enemy. Violent Muslim fundamentalists? Not dangerous enough. Global warming? Not quick enough. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Earth will be attacked by space ants or the rulers of Omicron Persei 8. But even that might not work

Why the Germans and the Jews?

A recent subscribers-only article in the New York Review of Books begins with a joke that’s not supposed to make anybody laugh:

The historian George Mosse liked to tell a hypothetical story: if someone had predicted in 1900 that within fifty years the Jews of Europe would be murdered, one possible response would have been: “Well, I suppose that is possible. Those French or Russians are capable of anything.”

The article’s author, Christopher Browning, continues:

Indeed, the wave of pogroms in Russia in the 1880s and the Dreyfus Affair that consumed France in the 1890s stood in stark contrast to the situation of Jews in Germany, who at that point enjoyed the greatest degree, anywhere in the world, of assimilation, social mobility, and access to preeminent positions in business, the professions, and culture (even if they were still blocked from careers in the military and the higher civil service).

The book being reviewed is Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust by the German historian Götz Aly. It’s an attempt to explain why the Holocaust occurred in 19th century’s “land of golden opportunity for Jews”.

The principal explanation Aly offers is that:

an uneven and incremental process of Jewish emancipation [in Germany] during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries … transformed Jewish life. Armed with a culture of education and freed from past restrictions, Jews quickly seized the economic opportunities offered by modernization, urbanization, and industrialization. Educationally unprepared Germans nostalgically tied to traditional ways of life moved into cities and took up new occupations only reluctantly. Spectacular Jewish advance contrasted with German lethargy, resentment, and disorientation, producing envy of Jewish wealth and success as well as fear and a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Jewish competition.

Many Germans benefited when jobs once held by Jews were made available and Jewish property was redistributed. But most Germans needed a “new morality” to “justify” their treatment of the Jews:

For those consumed by envy of Jews but ashamed of [the] tawdry motive [of material gain], race theory concealed their embarrassment. For those suffering a deep inferiority complex about Jews, race theory inverted success and failure, turning Jewish accomplishment into evidence of Jewish vice. For those troubled by the large difference between Jews they knew and the Nazi stereotype, race theory allowed individual experience to be ignored.

Above all, race theory turned persecution and murder into self-defense, requiring “pitiless” cleansing in the present to achieve a future Utopian happiness and social harmony. “Pseudoscience,” Aly concludes, “disguised hatred as insight and made one’s own shortcomings seem like virtues. It also provided justification for acts of legal discrimination against others, allowing millions of Germans to delegate their own aggression, born of feelings of inferiority and shame, to their state”. This “passively expressed anti-Semitism gave the German government the latitude it needed to press forward with its murderous campaigns”.