Friday, August 23, 2013
Young Adolf - Beryl Bainbridge
"Never in all my life, thought Adolf, under torture or interrogation, will I mention that I have been to this accursed city, visited this lunatic island."
Rarely has a book I've read drawn so many covert glances on public transport. The front cover of the young bellhop Adolf Hitler saluting while dressed in his uniform seemed to encourage multiple double takes.
Bainbridge deploys a virtual blitzkrieg of ironic frisson in this tale of the visit of the young Adolf Hitler to pre-WW1 Liverpool. As the hapless anti-hero bumbles his way through some down at heel adventures during his stay with his half brother Alois' family, his future is farcically foreshadowed.
We first meet him on the boat crossing the channel where his barely controlled paranoia is set off by the appearance of a bearded stranger - "he had strolled in a leisurely fashion away from the stranger until, arriving at a convenient flight of stairs, he had bolted below deck and locked himself in the gentleman's lavatory."
Apart from the clothes on his back his only possession is a Western penny dreadful celebrating the exploits of "Old Shatterhand, chief of the white settlers of Texas and Arizona pledged to annhilate the fiendish Ogellalah Indians." Bainbridge has fun writing a passage of titillating violence celebrating the appalling legacy of genocide in the American West culminating thus: "'I am great,' hollered Old Shatterhand. 'I am glorious.' Only at these triumphant and concluding words did Adolf put down his book. Immediately he was aware of the rumblings in his stomach."
When he is greeted at the station in Liverpool we find that Adolf wasn't expected but has used money that Alois sent to their sister so that she could visit. The fatted calf is not sacrificed to celebrate his arrival. "She (Alois' wife Bridget) wasn't going to move the linen from the bed to the couch, not with Adolf looking as though a good wash would kill him."
One of the other characters is the landlord Mr Meyer who is friendly with Alois and very friendly with his wife. Adolf has a reputation which precedes him: "'It's his half-brother that's come instead.' 'The artist brother?' Mr Meyer suggested. 'Adolphus, the lone wolf?'"
Beyond the frisson of the main character this novel also paints a wonderful picture of turn of the century Liverpool. Indeed my reading of Bainbridge is building into archeological strata showing Liverpool's development and character. "In the opposite direction the street sloped endlessly downhill, out of sight, past the rows of blackened dwellings. the Brewery and the Home for Incurables, the Soap Works and the Bovril Factory, and ended at the warehouses and the docks. There wasn't a tree growing on it from here to the river."
The overall Irishness of Liverpool's populace at the time is nicely captured in the following aphoristic lines, part of a discussion on the way immigrants are integrated, or not, into the cities' fabric. "'The agitators complain that we take employment away from the decent English working man. And have you any idea who he is, my young friend? Why, he is an Irishman.'" This is said by Meyer, a Jew. Bainbridge has fun with identity, letting us know that a character called Mary O'Leary is, in fact "sixty-five years old and Russian."But having lived in Liverpool from a very young age she retains little of her racial identity, at least in Meyer's reckoning: "In a sense she is not a foreigner. I have never been anything else. If you can believe the newspapers myself and others like me are the sole cause of all the trouble in this town."
Of course a discussion of racial prejudices is an area where prefiguring is unavoidable, nor is it avoided. Driven to rage by his own sense of inadequacy and paranoia Adolf lets fly with an undiplomatic rant. "'Impure blood,' shouted Adolf, 'spawns impure ideas and creeds. We've not only the Jews to contend with but the Slavs, the Socialists, the Hapsburg Monarchists, the Roman Catholics, the Croats...' 'There would seem to be no one left,' Meyer observed mildly." This is received with great equanimity by Meyer, who is sympathetic towards Adolf's feelings of inadequacy. These feelings are nicely encapsulated in this, one of my favourite lines in the book: "Meyer was old and could be trusted not to succeed where he himself had failed."
When introducing Adolf to another character later in the book Meyer mentions the rant: "'Do not,' warned Meyer, 'talk to him of racial struggles or contaminated blood. He is not as tolerant as I am, nor as small. He has a fist like a sledge-hammer.'"
The relationship between the brothers teeters on the edge of murderous rage at times: "He felt choked, not by the pressure of his brother's fingers but by hatred." An offer of second hand clothes serves to ignite a feeling in Adolf that his brother is looking down on him. His brother is taken back by the response. "He had a fair temper himself, as he would be the first to admit, but he was staggered by this rather effeminate display of snickering frenzy." Bainbridge builds a sense of a small insignificant man with overweening ambition and a desire to prove himself equal with anyone, and violently disposed towards anyone who points out his failures, however unknowingly they may do so.
His current position is in huge contrast with his ambitions:"He had no job, no address, no qualifications and he refused to admit to any religious beliefs. His entire life, with its small triumphs and disasters, its boundless hopes and aspirations for the future, was condensed to a few words scrawled on a piece of grey paper the size of a visiting card. This puny dossier was no sooner completed than it was stamped with a row of figures that effectively obliterated his name and date of birth. For some reason he had been terrified at the sight of those impersonal digits." It's like a music hall routine where the punchline is freighted with horror so that you shiver rather than laugh.
But for all his hatred of his setbacks, and his dislike of charity, it seems that Adolf become attached to some of the things he receives, such as the shirt that Bridget makes from some abandoned fabric: "'Brown' Bridget said dubiously. 'It's an odd colour for a shirt.' 'Get away,' scoffed Mary O'Leary. 'The one he's wearing is like a rag the doggie brought in.'"
Adolf assosciates himself with great artists: "He had read that great artists, great people, felt exactly as he did, but it wasn't much comfort." It is also suggested that the poisoned river that Adolf will bring to a flood is in some sense a result of his strangled desire to be an artist: "'At the moment,' continued Meyer, 'you are poisoned - one might also say opulently swollen - by creative urges that have no outlet.'"
Bainbridge's creativity is certainly not strangled. She is unafraid of tackling any subject matter, as shown in other books I've read. Harriet Said and The Bottle Factory Outing were similarly transgressive, but dealing with sex and murder rather than the continental, history shaking evil here tackled. Master Georgie perhaps comes closer in it's easy dismissal of the myth-making around Britain's military exploits such as The Charge of the Light Brigade. And like those three this convinces me yet more of Bainbridge's audacious genius and draws me towards other of her books that I've picked up over the past year.