Tuesday 26 January 2016

Book Note: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Book Note: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life was widely reviewed after it was released in 2013, and has been very popular, not least among the women in the two book clubs in Hamilton, Ontario of which I am a member. I presented this book to one of my clubs on January 18, 2016.
The heroine of Life after Life, Ursula Todd, lives several different lives. Darkness descends over one life after another, and then the heroine emerges to live a new life, starting with her death the moment she is born. It’s not surprisingly, then, that one of the themes that reviewers have picked up on is the contingency of life. The novel asks what would happen if we could change history, or re-set the clock; we all wonder, sometimes, “what if” we had taken a different path, what would our lives be like.

Kate Atkinson
Ursula dies at her birth in 1910, but then she does not.  But she might well have: the infant mortality rate in the United Kingdom was 115/1000 in 1910 (compared to 250/1000 in Russia and 250/1000 in Germany). After World War I, everyone breathes a sign of relief until the Spanish flu comes along, maybe—or maybe not—killing members of her household.
In a review in The Guardian on January 12, 2014, Justin Cartwright wrote: “human life…hang[s] by a thread…our identities are not necessarily fixed.”  This raises the question, are we now the people we were at 20? At 40? How have we changed, and are the changes good or bad?  It also raises the question of whether we are mere victims of fate.  In the novel, Ursula’s psychiatrist introduces her to the phrase amor fati, or love of fate; and I have met people who say “Oh well, it was meant to be.” But I am interested in the question of whether we can influence things, not merely our own lives, but the lives of our families and those we love, and even the larger world. And I’m also interested in the question of how much obligation we have to try to influence that world.

Image result for Life after Life imageLife after Life is a political book, though reviewers seem to have neglected that aspect of it. The book opens with Ursula in Germany in 1930, assassinating Hitler. This is something we all wish someone had done: I believe that without Hitler, there would not have been genocide, though there still might have been another war. But in another life Ursula moves to Germany and becomes friendly with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, whom she visits at his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. In this life Atkinson paints Ursula and Eva as innocents, Eva attending to Hitler’s every personal need while Ursula enjoys the view and raises her daughter. To me, this raised questions of moral culpability. Were Eva and Ursula, women without clout or power living in a man’s world, nevertheless obliged to pay attention to politics? 
In another life Ursula stays in London during the war, working as a civil servant during the day and as an air-raid warden at night. In this life we don’t have to worry about her obligation to affect the world: she is “doing her bit” as a heroic British citizen should, during the Blitz. One question raised at the book club meeting was whether Ursula actually had a core personality, moving as she did among different lives. I assumed she did, and the heroic, hard-working unmarried British woman was it.

Life after Life is also a feminist book, at least for those of us who know what life was like for most women in the Western world until the sea change of second wave feminism gave us rights after about 1970. It read, to me, like a novel about what could have happened to my Scottish mother (born in 1920) and what did happen to many women, and it shows women’s powerlessness until the last third of the twentieth century.

In one of Ursula’s lives a little friend is molested and found dead. If Ursula had been molested and lived, her parents would probably not have believed what had happened to her, unless she accused a lower-class molester, perhaps one of the traumatized veterans of WWI wandering around the country lanes, bothering Ursula’s upper middle-class parents and their friends. In another version of her life her older brother’s college friend rapes her and leaves her pregnant. A woman raped in 1926 by a “respectable” young man would have had little recourse against him. And if she’d had an abortion, she would have risked death or infertility, and disgrace and imprisonment if caught.
Nor could she have kept the baby and lived a respectable life: the stigma of being an unmarried mother with very few very few resources would have been too severe. As it happens, in October of 2015 I visited the Foundling Museum in London’s Russell Square, a museum of the first British
The Foundling Museum
home for unwed mothers set up in 1793, for otherwise “respectable” women who had somehow been seduced and traduced by various bounders and cads. The women’s employers or family members had to write reference letters to the Foundling Home promising that the mothers were otherwise respectable.

In yet another life, Ursula meets a charming man and marrieds him. Then he tries to imprison her at home, beats her, and ultimately kills her. In real life, wife-beating was considered a “domestic” matter in most of the Western world up until the 1970s, or even beyond.
In her German incarnation, Ursula is also affected by the inferior status of women. When WWII starts she wants to go back to England with her German-born daughter, but she can’t because she has married a German. In those days women did not have independent citizenship; they had to take the citizenship of their husbands. This is still the case in some parts of the world today. 

Image result for Woman in Berlin book imageIn this second German incarnation Ursula stays in Berlin, rather than being pals with Eva Braun at Berchtesgaden. As Russian soldiers move in at the end of the war, she takes action to save herself and her daughter from rape: as we know from the book, Woman in Berlin, the Russians raped hundreds of thousands of German women and girls—even hidden Jewish women and girls. That these soldiers were starving, frozen, and understandable angry and distraught at the rapes and murders of their own family members by German troops does not excuse the inaction of their officers, who did nothing to restrain them. After a long struggle by feminist lawyers and activists, we now recognize mass rape in warfare as a crime against humanity, if not an aspect of genocide.    
So, I found Life after Life to be a fascinating political and feminist document. I was left wondering if the entire book was in fact a ruse to explore British and German history, from before WWI to after the defeat of the Germans in WWII, from a woman’s point of view. But even if you don’t see the book the way I did, it’s a fabulous read.  







Wednesday 6 January 2016

Donald Trump and the Fascism Debate

Donald Trump and the Fascism Debate

There’s been a lot of media discussion in the last couple of months about whether Donald Trump, who is campaigning to become the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States, is actually a fascist.

Michael Marrus (source:Globe and Mail)
Michael Marrus, a distinguished historian of the Holocaust at the University of Toronto, argued in a commentary in Toronto’s newspaper The Globe and Mail (“Is Donald Trump an American Fascist?”, November 30, 2015, page A14) that European fascism of the 1930s and 40s had the following tendencies, which sound a lot like Trump:

“Fascists generally shared a common core: hyper-nationalism, militarism, xenophobia, a cult of leadership, the projection of energy, a powerful sense of having been victimized by outsiders and a sense of urgency”
Donald Trump (source: Business Insider)

Trump is certainly a hyper-nationalist, a militarist (“bomb the hell out of ISIS”), and xenophobic. He hates Mexicans and Muslims (all of them foreigners, in his view, regardless of whether they were actually born in the US). He certainly projects energy and a sense of urgency, and claims that outsiders have been victimizing Americans.

Clifford Orwin(source:University of Toronto)
In a reply to Marrus, Clifford Orwin, a professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, argued that Trump is merely “An opportunist, not a fascist” (The Globe and Mail, December 3, 2015, p. A18). He argues that the conditions for European fascism of the 1930s—recovery from warfare, mass epidemics, economic depressions, and new nation-states characterized by extreme ethnic chauvinism- do not exist today in the US. Also, he says, Trump is not building on a large social movement; he’s merely running for president. 

I am not so sure I’m persuaded by Orwin. The world and American economies have been quite insecure since 2008, and the terrorism and refugee crises emanating from the Middle East certainly impinge on the US. Trump does have a social base, although it appears to be among older white males, thankfully a declining sector of the US population. Also, you don’t need a large base ahead of time to become a fascist leader, as we know from Hitler; that base can grow as you make racist promises and blame scapegoats for all social evils, just as Hitler blamed the Jews for both World War I and the economic crisis of the 1920s.

Even the liberal international weekly, The Economist, has wondered if Trump is a fascist (“Trump in History: This land is our land,” November 28, 2015, pp. 24-25). The Economist discussed other nativist (chauvinist, anti-foreigner) periods in American history, especially the anti-Catholic movement a hundred years ago. Just as some people suspect Muslim mosques of promoting terrorism today, so people thought Catholic churches and even convents were harboring traitors and stashing arms for an invasion by the Pope. The Economist  has invented a new term for Trump alone: “bouffant fascism.”

Even if Trump himself is merely an opportunist, he is building upon incipient fascist tendencies in some groups of the American population. And his proposal to register all Muslims living in the US (including many American citizens) strikes terror not only in Muslim hearts (I assume) but also in the hearts of scholars of genocide like me. Here are some stages that lead to genocide: registration, deprivation of property, concentration, extermination. That’s what the Nazis did, making it their business to register every Jew or supposed Jew in Germany and occupied Europe, so they could eventually exterminate the entire Jewish population.

Friendly Fascism Book
In 1980 Bertram Gross, an American scholar and former official in the Roosevelt Administration, published a book called Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (Published by South End Press in Boston). He argued that the US was producing what he called “a motley array of fanatical freebooters,” including the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis, who liked to focus attention on scapegoats such as feminists and gays and lesbians. He also thought that the white elite class was drawing in on itself—for example by building more and more gated communities—while scapegoating and neglecting the poor, especially but not only blacks.

Bertram Gross
Gross also predicted a more unbalanced economy, more integration of big business and the government, more imperialism abroad, and “informational offensives” to manage minds of the elites and immobilize the masses. And he argued that the US was producing a “vigilante-violence” culture, such as we see today in a gun lobby so strong that very little can be done about it, even though the vast majority of Americans wants more controls on sale of guns.  

Thirty-five years after Gross published his book, we can certainly see that the one per cent—actually the one-one hundredth of a per cent—of  the US population, the super-rich, is protecting its privileges, while the middle class is being hollowed out and the poor have to support themselves by talking on several part-time, low or no benefits jobs. Inequality is drastically widening. Meantime, mass incarceration of African-Americans has removed huge numbers of black males from the labor market, thereby inflating the figures on extent of employment among the (free) black males still able to work. President Obama’s attempt to reduce  mass incarceration has barely touched the problem, since most black prisoners are imprisoned by states, not the federal government.

I wonder what Bertram Gross, who died in 1997, would say if he could see that most of his predictions have come true. But even he might have been surprised by Trump’s desire to register Muslims—and like me, he would have remembered the Nazis.

Meantime up here is liberal multicultural Canada, at least one Muslim woman has been physically attacked for wearing a hijab. And I hear reports that Muslim women are fearful of waiting for the Toronto subway, where someone might try to push them onto the tracks, and Muslim men are afraid for their wives’ safety as they go about their daily business. My son, who lives in Toronto, has made it his business to keep a discreet eye on identifiable Muslim women when he’s in the subway, so he can intervene if they are harassed or attacked. 

I wonder if Canada could ever produce a Donald Trump with so much appeal, or if we could use our hate-speech laws to prevent his making xenophobic statements against Muslims and Mexicans. Some people are suggesting that he be barred from entering Canada, on the grounds that he is a hate-monger.  I wish the US had hate-speech laws as well, so that he could be prosecuted under them, whether he’s a fascist or merely an opportunist.