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May 2017

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Richard Aronowitz on the darkness lurking in his past and its connection to his role as a Nazi loot-hunter at the auction house, Sothebys
25th May 2017 - Richard Aronowitz

An American Decade

 

Richard AronowitzRichard Aronowitz works for Sothebys where he heads the restitution Department, working as a Nazi loot-hunter and provenance specialist. He was formerly a director at the London Jewish Museum of Art. He lives in Oxford. He is the author of Five Amber Beads and It's Just the Beating of my Heart. His latest novel, An American Decade, connects the current political climate with that of the tumultuous 1930s. After the death of his wife, Christoph leaves Germany in 1930 and eventually finds success as a singer on Broadway. As the decade unfolds, he witnesses the rapid rise of American organisations sympathetic to Hitler. The ominous presence and popularity of these far right groups become a constant reminder of his inaction. As the human horrors of Nazism close in he is forced to act and sets sail across the Atlantic in search of a hidden piece of his history. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Richard talks about the darkness lurking in his past and its connection to his role as a Nazi loot-hunter at the auction house, Sothebys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of An American DecadeThe mid-twentieth-century caesura of Nazism and World War Two has shaped much of my life, although where I come from and how I grew up would, at first glance, make the reasons for that difficult to fathom. Born as Richard Mercer in a now-closed maternity hospital in Cuckfield, Sussex in 1970, I moved in 1971 to the edge of the utterly beautiful village of Slad in Gloucestershire, made world-famous as the setting for Laurie Lee’s strongly autobiographical novel, Cider with Rosie. My later childhood was spent in the almost equally picturesque villages that orbit the not quite so charming former cloth-mill town of Stroud in the heart of the Cotswolds. To look at it, it was an absolutely idyllic childhood and a very outdoors one: building bonfires, playing in streams, shooting homemade bows and arrows… so far, so very Swallows and Amazons but without the water.

 

The thing was that there was always a darkness lurking there: when I was still quite young, I found out from my three much older brothers that I had been one of a twin, and that my twin had died at birth. Knowledge of his death haunted me for much of the rest of my childhood, and then the arrival of my aged, German-sounding great-uncle Isy from faraway Melbourne in Australia made me suspect that there was rather more suffering out in the world than this young life of Cotswold stone and collie dogs might suggest. For Uncle Isy, who – to complicate matters – had changed his first name to George when he moved to Australia after World War Two, had numbers tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his wrist. He also used to grab my porridge bowl off me if I did not finish it, and scrape the bowl down to the glaze so that no drop of the porridge would be wasted. What on earth was his story and why was he here in my apparently idyllic English childhood?

 

Slowly, other things began to emerge: a broken necklace of deep-red amber beads that my mother kept hidden away in her jewellery box; a set of silver-plated knives, forks and spoons that we ate with on special occasions and that had an initial on their handles that did not match our surname. And why did my mother sometimes come out with strange German exclamations? I had no idea what any of this meant. But slowly, very slowly, the truth always emerges like a splinter working its way to the surface of the skin. When I was perhaps around ten years old, my mother told me that she was from Wuppertal-Elberfeld in Germany and that she had come over to England before the war on her own when she was eight. Much of my teenage years were spent trying to piece her history together: I asked endless questions about it all and have never really stopped asking them since.

 

My mother Doris Aronowitz (whose surname I took as my nom de plume when she died), had – it became clear – come over on one of the Kindertransport trains from Germany very late indeed, in July 1939 a month or so before the outbreak of the war. She had never known her father and she had no siblings and had lost her mother in the Holocaust. Her aunt was also killed, while Uncle Isy survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the Death March. All of this history, despite the appearance from time to time of Uncle Isy, had remained almost completely hidden from us boys, and it took my relentless pushing for our mother to begin to open up about what she and her family had been through. According to some theories, there is always one “memorial candle” in every generation descending from Holocaust survivors, and I seem to have been the one chosen. I have always believed that my mother’s having had four sons was a way for her to recoup something for herself, to bring back her lost family life.

 

My debut novel, Five Amber Beads, looked at this deeply personal family history in the form of fiction, albeit fiction very closely connected to reality. I used the device of a provenance researcher working in the art world and looking into the ownership history of works of art between 1933-1945 (the period in which countless objects of cultural and personal value were confiscated and looted from Jews, or sold under duress by them in order to survive) as a way of examining my own provenance, my own family history. As a complete and utter coincidence, I was invited to become head of the restitution department at Sotheby’s in London, looking into exactly these matters of cultural loss and plunder during Nazism, the very year that that novel came out. I have worked in this field since 2006 and it is a fascinating and utterly absorbing area of work, not least because I – very occasionally – get to reunite the heirs of the pre-war Jewish owners with works of art that their forefathers lost after Hitler came to power in 1933.

 

The provenance and identity of every work of art created before 1945 is checked by me and my small team before it is offered for sale at Sotheby’s and this fine-toothed comb approach is intended to winkle out any work amongst the many thousands consigned each year to the renowned auction house that might have an unresolved Nazi-era looting or forced sale history. The stakes are very high and the buck stops with me and the team: if we let an unrecovered item of Nazi loot into one of our sales, it can do unbound reputational damage to the auction house and raise questions of good title and moral and legal ownership with the owner and potential buyer. When we do spot a work that was looted or lost and not recovered after World War Two, we initiate a dialogue between the current owner and the heirs of the pre-war owner to try to bring about a latent resolution of the work’s tragic history.

 

An American Decade focuses on the emergence of rabid Nazi groups in America during the 1930s. I had no idea at all that such organisations had existed in America, let alone flourished there, before World War Two and the grainy black-and-white footage of twenty thousand Nazis parading in Madison Square Gardens, New York City in February 1939 sends a chill down my spine every time I look at it.

 

 

 

Finding Awe in the Extremes
25th May 2017

Finding Awe in the Extremes

 

Brian van ReetBrian Van Reet was born in Houston and grew up there and in Maryland. Following the September 11 attacks, he left the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a tank crewman. He served in Iraq, achieved the rank of sergeant and was awarded a Bronze Star for valour. After an honourable discharge he studied at the University of Missouri and later the University of Texas. His writing has been recognized with awards and fellowships, including from the Michener Center for Writers, and has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Iowa Review, Fire and Forget and many other publications. He has twice won the Texas Institute of Letters short story award.

His debut novel, Spoils, is set in the spring of 2003 as coalition forces advance on Iraq. Nineteen-year-old Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, on her first deployment since joining the US army two years earlier, is primed for war. For Abu al-Hool, a jihadist since the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, war is wearing thin. When Cassandra is taken prisoner by al-Hool's mujahideen brotherhood, both fighters find their loyalties tested to the very limits.

Below, exclusively for Foyles, Brian describes how his ambivalence at having served in the Iraq war, and the awe to be found in extremes, provided the basis for his novel.

Author photo © Peter Tsai

 

 

 

Cover of SpoilsI don’t know any thoughtful Iraq veterans who aren’t at least ambivalent about that war. Part of me is proud I was there — not the pride of accomplishment — but the kind of pride that comes from enduring hardship, even if it was self-imposed. I enlisted two months after 9/11, more because I was reckless, 20 years old and ready for a drastic change in my life, than to carry out U.S. foreign policy. But that is the job, after all, and at the same time I am proud, I am dismayed to have fought in a cause that I came to view — while I was knee deep in it — as profoundly wasteful and misguided.

Deep ambivalences like these are common in wartime. They’re also essential to understanding Spoils, the novel I wrote in the years after returning home. It’s a book about conflict, but also about people. Why they fight, what they are actually fighting for, or against — oftentimes, not the obvious enemy — and how they are shaped and torn by these same experiences. As much as my novel is about the battlefield, it’s about the battles waged within the human heart.

Long before I ever considered becoming a soldier, I thought of myself as some kind of writer. So, if I were able to live an alternate life in which I had never joined the military, I may very well have written a novel, anyway. It would not have been this one, however. The disillusionment, fear and loss of control that I experienced in Iraq directly inform the book’s tone and story.

With this said, Spoils is not thinly veiled autobiography. It’s told from three competing perspectives, and two of them are quite different from my own. Cassandra Wigheard, the book’s protagonist, is a young woman in the U.S. Army who enlists to test her mettle, to escape a hard life for one she hopes will be harder. Although officially not allowed to participate in ground combat, she’s a true grunt at heart. She wants to fight, and gets her wish to tragic effect. After a brief but vicious engagement, she’s taken captive by a group of jihadists who’ve been drawn to Iraq by the American presence. The ensuing ordeal pushes her to the breaking point and beyond, calling into question her deepest motivations, beliefs and loyalties.   

Other chapters are narrated from the perspective of one of her captors, a war-weary fighter called Abu Al-Hool. On the one hand, it might seem audacious for an ex-soldier like me to attempt to see the world through the eyes of his old enemy. On the other hand, thoughtful soldiers do this sort of thing all the time. We were doing it, even while at war, where by necessity the enemy must be imagined. It was rare to get so much as a glimpse of the person who was trying to take your life.

The third perspective in the book hews, at least on the surface, closer to my own experience of the war. A disenchanted tank crewman named Sleed makes a poor but seemingly innocuous decision, which then spirals out of control in a kind of horrific butterfly effect that eventually encompasses all the other characters. Sleed’s part in the story shows how our actions, if predicated on cynical and self-serving reasons, can come to haunt us in ways we never expected.

Writing Spoils was an arduous process that involved much research, refining, failure and rejection. So, pretty much like the typical author’s experience of getting a first book published. There were times I had to scrap hundreds of pages, entire drafts, and go back to the drawing board. That was tough to do, and if I’d had a choice in it, I probably would have quit long ago. But I didn’t quit, because I felt like I didn’t have a choice. This story was one that I had to tell. I went back to it time and again until I’d done it the best justice that my abilities and imagination would allow.

War, captivity and terrorism are not the most uplifting subjects to read and think about. I know this, and believe me when I say that they were not exactly uplifting to write, either. But I did my best to take this material and make out of it something nuanced, substantive and even beautiful. Because there is a kind of terrible beauty — awe might be a better word — to be found in the extremes. This is one reason why people seek out war in the first place: to get close to that awful abyss, to gaze upon it. Sometimes, to disappear into it. Spoils is a record of that journey. Thank you for any time you might devote to understanding it.

 

 

 

On National Brothers Day, Stuart Heritage Reflects on his Relationship with his Brother, Pete
24th May 2017 - Stuart Heritage

My Brother, Pete

 

Stuart Heritage has written for the Guardian since 2009. His weekly column about his young son 'Man With a Pram' ran in the paper's Family section between 2015 and 2016. He founded a celebrity news site called Hecklerspray (Metro's Best British Blog in 2007 and the Observer top 50 most powerful blogs in the world in 2008) and has written for Vanity Fair, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Red, Marie Clare, the NME, Shortlist, Time Out and the Radio Times. He lives in Ashford, Kent.

His new book, Don’t be a Dick, Pete is Stuart's unconventional biography of his younger brother Pete told in Stu’s trademark wry observational tone. Pete is quite the character: Alpha Male, Danny Dyer fanatic, Tough Mudder Iron Man champion, self-proclaimed ‘King of Ashford’; known to his friends as ‘Shagger’ – and the total antithesis of liberal, bookish, mild-mannered Stu. Through a series of painfully relatable and excruciatingly funny anecdotes from throughout their lives, Stu reflects on his own experiences of fraternal dynamics and what it means to be a man, a father, a husband and a brother. Below, exclusively for Foyles on National Brothers Day, Stuart describes how he came to write about the 'whirlwind of aggressive single-mindedness' that is his brother Pete, and how their relationship is reflected by that of brothers everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of Don't Be a Dick, PeteFive years ago, at Christmas, my little brother Pete sat down next to me. I say ‘sat’, but that isn’t really how Pete does things. His is more of an aggressive flop, a deadweighted thunk that’s often performed with one hand down the front of his pants like some kind of godforsaken zoo animal. “Look at this”, he said.

 

Pete proceeded to pull out his phone and show me a YouTube advert for something called a Tough Mudder. The advert looked terrible; full of bearded topless men with tribal sleeve tattoos roaring at each other as they crawled over rocks and plunged into icy water and carried logs around for no immediately discernible reason. The Tough Mudder was ostensibly a leisure pursuit – a gussied-up fun run – but that isn’t what the video looked like. The video looked like the country had gone to war, and sustained so many casualties that was left with no choice but to introduce a policy of enforced barista conscription.

 

Pete was very excited about the idea of doing a Tough Mudder with me. I was not. As if often the case with this sort of thing, I lost the argument. To cut a long story short, I ended up doing a Tough Mudder. It was awful, so I wrote a newspaper column about it. About how much it cost, and how much it hurt, and how Pete – possibly off his nut on creatine at the time – began the race by screaming at the sky and ripping off his T-shirt like Hulk Hogan being attacked by moths.

 

“Are you exaggerating?” asked my editor when I filed the column. “Is your brother a real person who actually exists?”. I told him he was, and he didn’t believe me, so I invited him to my wedding. That evening, as Pete all but pinned him to the wall and forced him to do a near-infinite succession of sambuca shots while howling like a wolf and making ‘blap blap’ noises with his mouth, my editor was forced to concede that, yes, he was a real person.

 

I started to write more columns about Pete. About the time his bicep ripped through a shirt during a meeting with his boss. About the time he had to move back in with Mum and Dad, and Mum and Dad kept feeding him baked potatoes until he threatened to kill himself. Every time I wrote about Pete, the weird little soft-handed liberal bubble that counts as my readership reacted in exactly the same way. The vast majority would hear my stories about this Danny Dyer fanatic, this WWE devotee who once owned an above-ground hot tub and went by the name of Shagger, and wonder if he really existed. There was also a small contingent of people who’d openly declare that they fancied Pete, but I’m absolutely not going to dwell on that.

 

By the time one of these columns was used in a GCSE English exam, inundating my Twitter feed with hundreds of messages from 15-year-old boys calling Pete a ‘fucking ledge’, my mind was made up. Pete and I had always been different – I’m bookish and well-behaved, while he’s a whirlwind of aggressive single-mindedness; I do my best to seamlessly meld into the world, while he actively forces the world to meld around him – but it started to feel like this might be worth examining properly.

 

This is how Don’t Be A Dick, Pete came about. I wanted to know how two people, made with the same equipment by the same people, raised in the same house at the same time, could end up so different. Maybe if I went back and tracked some of this oddest behaviour from the past (he tried to stab me once, it’s in the book) and compared that with today, now that he’s got a nice house and a fast car and a lovely girlfriend and a new baby, I’d start to work out what makes the boy tick.

 

Something I hadn’t really taken into consideration, however, was the sheer length of time that I’d have to spend thinking about Pete. For almost a year while I wrote this book, he was absolutely front and centre of my mind. During this time, I managed to call both my wife and son by Pete’s name on numerous occasions, which isn’t necessarily something I’d recommend to anyone keen on maintaining a largely harmonious domestic life.

 

I still don’t think I’ve properly figured Pete out. He’s still an enigma wrapped in a mystery dressed in a replica Manchester United top. But I’ve closer than I’ve ever managed. In the process of writing this book, I’ve realised that we’re both slightly incomplete as people. He’s all left-brain and I’m all right-brain. He’s all raging id and I’m all cowering superego. Throughout our childhood, these differences made us fight time and time and time again. But thanks to the experience of putting this book together, I’ve now come to realise that – if we work together as often as possible – we just about scrape together all the qualities of a single normal person.

 

The more I talk to people about the book, the more I realise that this is pretty much the case with all brothers. Everyone’s got a story about a fight or a misunderstanding or an accident that happened years ago and has since taken on the timbre of legend. Everyone has some sort of scar to show for it, whether real or imagined. And, as maddening and infuriating as these conflicts were at the time, in hindsight everyone’s grown slightly fond of them. They’ve become a sign of closeness.

 

For better or worse, without your brother’s influence, you probably wouldn’t be who you are today. And that sucks, obviously, because Jesus Christ my brother is a dick.

 

 

Simon Edge on Why it’s Time for A Hopkins Revival
23rd May 2017 - Simon Edge

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins – Why it’s time for A Hopkins Revival

 

 

Photo of Simon EdgeSimon Edge read philosophy at Cambridge and worked as an English teacher in the Gaza Strip and a specialist journalist on the Middle East before becoming editor of Capital Gay and then entering Fleet Street. A gossip columnist on the Evening Standard, he then joined the staff of the Daily Express and has also written for , The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman and Attitude, where he is a contributing editor. Simon was on the inaugural intake of City University's MA in Creative Writing and subsequently taught on that course as a visiting lecturer. His novel, The Hopkins Conundrum, although a tragi-comedy, is also very serious about trying to understand the process of composition and bringing to life the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins' unique take on rhythm, rhyme and meaning. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Simon explains why the time is right for a Hopkins revival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of The Hopkins RevivalEven though she appears mostly offstage, one of the most significant characters in Muriel Spark’s post-war novel The Girls of Slender Means is Joanna Childe, who teaches elocution in the home for young ladies where the tale is set.

Poetry is her guide, and everyone in the house can hear as she beats out the stresses and throbs of Gerard Manley Hopkins at full volume. When she moves on to Wordsworth, it’s a let-down. “I wish she she would stick to The Wreck of the Deutschland,” sighs one resident. “She’s marvellous with Hopkins.”

It’s hard to imagine any such conversation nowadays. That’s partly because our modern domestic soundtracks are mostly musical rather than poetic. But Hopkins himself has also fallen out of fashion.

With the centenary of his first publication due next year, I hope that may be about to change.

Gerard Hopkins – he did not commonly use his middle name in his own lifetime – was born in Stratford, East London in 1844. The eldest child of a shipping insurer, he was a small, earnest young man whose chief concerns at Oxford were religion and poetry.

The university was the centre of High Anglicanism – a controversial movement in the second half of the 19th century – but Hopkins committed the ultimate rebellion for a young man of his day by “going over to Rome“. 

He was formally received into the Catholic Church in 1866, yet even that was not enough. Set on becoming a priest, he joined the Society of Jesus, a hardcore order regarded at the time as a dangerous cult. It would set him apart from his family and university friends for the rest of his life.

While his order frowned on such things, he toiled privately composing verse in a radical system of metrics of his own devising. His most ambitious work was inspired by a tragic sensation of the day, when a ship carrying German emigrants to America – including five nuns – was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames.

Unfortunately, with its complicated syntax and unconventional form, it baffled all who saw it and his attempts to get it published in the Jesuit monthly journal failed.

Hopkins died of typhoid in 1889, aged just 44, with virtually nothing published. It was not 1918 that his university friend Robert Bridges – by that stage the poet laureate – published a collected edition. By the wartime years, Hopkins was regarded as a visionary genius – one of the finest 20th century poets the 19th century had ever produced.

I first encountered him at school and was baffled with the best of them. But something struck a chord and I found myself coming back again and again in adult life. However hard the writing might be to understand, Hopkins’ pent-up passions were easy to see in the frenzied repetitions and climaxes of his verse. I came to think of him as a poetic version of Van Gogh.

My new novel The Hopkins Conundrum follows the comic fortunes of a modern chancer who hopes to exploit the difficulty of Hopkins’ work to make his own fortune: he wants to convince the credulous that the poems contain the secrets of the Holy Grail.

My character’s madcap scheme to stir up Hopkins mania is entirely cynical, but I hope my comedy may generate an interest in this neglected poet for rather better reasons, and introduce a new generation to his rich, enthralling work.

 

 You can view a video trailer here.

 

 

#FoylesFive: Japanese Literature
22nd May 2017 - Jennifer Jenkins

#FoylesFive: Japanese Literature

 

Having grown up on a diet of Japanese cartoons, I always had an interest in the country and its culture, but it wasn’t until I finally visited Japan last year that the floodgates of my obsession finally broke open. 

As soon as I was back I bought a rice cooker, started learning kanji and, most importantly, immersed myself in the wonders of Japanese literature.

Here is a small selection of my favourite Japanese books.

 

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

A chillingly good collection of constantly surprising short stories, eerily connected to one another.

 

The Girl Who is Getting Married by Aoko Matsuda

The Japanese do short stories really well, and this fascinatingly bewildering story is proof of that. I won’t spoil it for you but I will only say this, it all takes place on a staircase. This and the other five titles in the Keshiki chapbook series by Strangers Press are a very good introduction to Japanese writing.

 

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

This is far from your usual whodunit, if nothing else because the 'who' is spelled out right from the word go. The real beauty in this story lies in the how and the why.

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Yes, well spotted, this is by the same author as Revenge, but honestly she is that good to deserve two mentions in the same list. If slightly creepy short stories are not your thing, this might be more up your street: a sweet tale of the brief friendship between lonely characters.

 

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson

I know, I know, this is not by a Japanese author, but honestly if you want a taste of the gaijin experience, Will Ferguson is your man. A word of advice, you might want to refrain from reading this in public as you will find yourself giggling uncontrollably from beginning to end. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#FoylesFave: A Heart so White
22nd May 2017

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#FoylesFave: A Heart So White

 

 James from our Charing Cross Road branch explains why, If you enjoy the prose style of W G Sebald, the trappings of noir, Macbeth, overheard conversations and deadly pillow talk, A Heart So White is the novel for you.

 

 

Cover of A Heart so White

With a suicide by gunshot in its opening sentence and the revelation of smouldering secrets at its conclusion, this novel is the best kind of thriller. However, what sets it apart is that it is also and perhaps above all a relentless and formidably convincing depiction of how a disquieted mind thinks and worries, shapes and reshapes life with language, written in the kind of brilliantly fixated prose only Marias can offer.

 

Juan is a translator and interpreter, newly married to Luisa, who shares his profession and whose presence in his life has Juan contemplating the meaning and consequences of marriage. Luisa also prompts him to press his father, Ranz, for details about his dramatic family history, whose scandals and tragedies were, it soon becomes clear, only hinted at in the unforgettable opening scene.

 

Marias is an expert writer of ruminative prose who worries at points like an obsessive picking at a thread. The scene describing the flirtatious first meeting of Luisa and Ranz, in which neither says a word to the other and two world leaders enact a proxy romance on their behalf, is reason enough to pick it up. If you enjoy the prose style of WG Sebald, the trappings of noir, Macbeth, overheard conversations and deadly pillow talk, this is the novel for you.

 

 
 

 

 

 

Latest Blog
Richard Aronowitz on the darkness lurking in his past and its connection to his role as a Nazi loot-hunter at the auction house, Sothebys
25/05/2017

Richard talks about the darkness lurking in his past and its connection to his role as a Nazi loot-hunter at the auction house, Sothebys.

Finding Awe in the Extremes
25/05/2017

Brian describes how his ambivalence at having served in the Iraq war, and the awe to be found in extremes, provided the basis for his novel.

On National Brothers Day, Stuart Heritage Reflects on his Relationship with his Brother, Pete
24/05/2017

On National Brothers Day, Stuart Heritage reflects on fraternal dynamics, how he came to write about the 'whirlwind of aggressive single-mindedness' that is his brother Pete and how their relationship is reflected by that of brothers everywhere.

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