Thursday, December 11, 2014

Elizabeth Speller

Elizabeth Speller studied Classics at Cambridge University. She is the author of The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, both of which received stellar critical acclaim. She lives in England.

Speller's latest novel is The First of July.

Not so long ago I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ve just finished two very different non-fiction books: but there’s a sort of connection. At the centre of both is a powerful connection with place.

John Huth is a Harvard professor. His web page begins with a quotation from Kipling and explains his areas of study as being Experimental Particle Physics and Cultures of Navigation. It seems appropriate to the topic of his book that I’m lost immediately.

In The Lost Art of Finding our Way Huth explores a fascinating question: before signposts and early maps, and millennia before SatNav, how did human beings find their way, often accurately, across great distances? I read facts from his account out aloud to everybody: snakes measure distances in paces (yes, improbable, I know) and am delightedly smug when I find I already know one of Huth’s tips for orientation (lichen grows on the north side of trees). But perhaps most fun (and, in an emergency, most useful) is the suggestion for experimenting with navigation using these features of topography and nature. Riveting for the armchair walker or the real adventurer.

I came to re-read some of the Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s novellas after seeing Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel; Anderson explained that his delicious, fantasy middle-European setting was inspired by Zweig’s early twentieth-century fiction.

At the heart of this biography of Zweig - The Impossible Exile, by George Prochnik - is an attachment to the idea of a place. The biography is not sentimental but it draws on all the senses in depicting the sugar-dusted exterior of sophisticated pre-war Vienna and the chilly darkness within. A darkness only exceeded by exile.

This is not just a chronology of a life – in fact Prochnik seems fairly uninterested in the most successful parts of Zweig’s career. It is a recreation of the world represented by this hugely successful author (although one looked on with a degree of contempt by his more serious literary contemporaries) and how this world was lost.

I think this is an exceptional work because of two central themes. Zweig is not a man of great nobility, though with some eccentric charm, and probably not a Great Novelist (whatever that may be). He was born into a wealthy secular Jewish family, his books sold on a vast scale, but his tragedy was an experience shared by many Jewish Europeans in the 1930’s and 40’s, and the dismantling of his world was the permanent dismantling of Vienna’s rich cultural and intellectual society.

I have wrestled all my life with homesickness so ached as I read Prochnik’s profound contemplation on exile. Zweig’s forced departure from Austria – in the face of the malignity of Nazism (which he greatly underestimated at first) is a poignant and increasingly desperate Odyssey. Even German - the words that are Zweig’s trade – are now the language of tyranny.

But there can be no homecoming; instead there are Zweig’s efforts to carry with him a home, a culture that has already vanished. Prochnik makes Zweig’s Vienna so real that the disillusionment, loneliness and fear felt by the author and his young wife, Lotte, as they move from place to place are utterly persuasive (How far might the Nazis get? Where might the couple finally belong?). Mouth-watering Viennese food is described in the early part of the book and as the Zweigs settle and unsettle in London, Bath, New York and, finally, Brazil, Lotte attempts to find ingredients for the food they once loved in Austria.

When Zweig and Lotte finally decide they have reached the only possible end of their journey - in Brazil’s PetrĂ³polis - their decision is as moving as any carefully contrived fiction. The photograph of the couple, dead from a barbiturate overdose, might seem gratuitously morbid but, with her body curled into his, her hand protectively covering his fingers, the image speaks only of love, togetherness, and escape from the intolerable.
Visit Elizabeth Speller's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Elizabeth Speller and Erwin.

--Marshal Zeringue