Book Review: No Place to Lay One’s Head

No Place to Lay One’s Head, by Françoise Frenkel (translated by Stephanie Smee), is a memoir written immediately following the author’s escape into Switzerland from Nazi occupied France in 1943. First published in 1945 by a Geneva based publishing house, the few copies printed were quickly forgotten. Rediscovered in 2015 the book was republished and subsequently translated. This edition includes a preface by Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano. He writes:

“That curious impression I had upon reading No Place to Lay One’s Head was also the effect of hearing the voice of somebody whose face one can’t quite make out in the half-light and who is recounting an episode from their life.”

The tone of Frenkel’s writing is strangely detached, perhaps reflecting the trauma so recently suffered. She was fifty-three years old when she crossed into Switzerland and lived for a further thirty years, dying in Nice. Little is known of these later decades.

Born in 1889 to a wealthy Jewish family in Piotrków Trybunalski, an industrial town in Poland, Frenkel enjoyed beautiful books, music and intellectual conversation from a young age. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where she frequented the city’s libraries and bookshops. Her family back home lost many of their fine possessions during the occupation of the First World War but remained alive and well. The memoir does not detail what became of them later.

Frenkel’s first job was in a Parisian bookshop. It is known that she married yet her memoir makes no mention of her husband (he died in Auschwitz in 1942). When they decided to open a bookshop dedicated to French literature, their plan was to return to Poland. Finding that this market was already catered for they instead moved to Berlin and, in 1921, established a bookshop in what Frenkel describes as the city’s fashionable quarter. The enterprise quickly attracted

“experts in literature and languages, professors, students and members of that aristocracy whose education had been so strongly influenced by French culture”

The author writes warmly of this period, lasting for more than a decade, during which she befriended many of her clientele. The bookshop became a cultural focus, hosting events featuring many of the famous authors of the day. However, by the mid 1930s political events were intruding. As a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi Germany, Frenkel’s comfortable and intellectually rewarding way of life could not continue.

“Oh the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness or pity…
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”

In 1939 the author fled to Paris. When France fell to the Germans she travelled to Avignon. This was the start of many months spent moving from place to place as she sought safety from the ever increasing politically motivated dangers. Jews were being rounded up and deported to camps. Frenkel was fortunate in having good friends willing to risk their own lives to protect her.

One aspect that is not explained, yet undoubtedly enabled her to survive, is the author’s wealth. When she was forced to abandon her beloved bookshop and leave Germany she was denied currency and took with her only what she could carry in two suitcases. Despite this she lives in hotels and eats in restaurants. When the round-ups start she pays exorbitant rates to board in small rooms. She bribes those she hopes will lead her to safety. Her French friends are vital in seeking out contacts and posting letters to those abroad who may be willing to assist but there is no suggestion that they provided the funds she required.

Life in France at this time was hard for everyone with the occupying forces requisitioning food supplies leading to a burgeoning black market. Many French citizens believed the propaganda and blamed foreigners and Jews for their difficulties. There were still good people willing to help the refugees but also many who took advantage, whatever the human cost, regarding the situation as an opportunity to make money.

This is a fascinating personal account of an horrific period of history. Its publication is timely given our current political situation. Frenkel writes factually, almost dispassionately, with little attempt to garner sympathy. Her words offer a lesson in the importance of retaining our humanity, whatever indoctrination is being disseminated on behalf of self-serving politicians.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: In the Restaurant

“To eat together, to drink, to entrust oneself to others’ care: this turns the restaurant into a place where the open society is both celebrated and lived out every day.”

In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat (translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli), provides a potted history of the restaurant alongside the sociology and psychology of those who work in and frequent such establishments. Written in short bites of piquant text each entry is easily digested. This is a fun and fascinating account of the eatery’s growth and development.

What a modern European would think of as a restaurant came into being in Paris around 1760. The upper classes were enticed to eat at a new style of the ubiquitous inn, one which served ‘restorative’ bouillons for those who considered their palates sensitive. Customers were given a table to themselves rather than having to share benches with strangers. They could choose when they wanted to eat and select their choice of dish from a menu. Ambience and service were of the utmost importance.

Unlike other upper class venues at the time, anyone who could pay for their food and drink was admitted. Restaurants were furnished with niches and alcoves enabling a degree of privacy despite the public setting. Unusually, men and women appeared together. Before long these early restaurants were serving more than just bouillon. Specialities developed with views on quality and innovation disseminated by newly emerging writers – the restaurant critic. Interest in these Parisian ventures encouraged others to open restaurants around the world.

From the beginning staff were stratified with rigid, snobbish hierarchies emerging. The chef ruled in the kitchen which was kept hidden from customers. Waiters were go-betweens, tasked with making the customer feel welcome and valued. Despite the hard work and long hours, salaries were low – mortality amongst employees subjected to the health hazards in busy kitchens was high.

Chefs published cookbooks to raise their profile and that of their place of work. The dishes they developed evolved as increased tourism brought with it new culinary skills, ideas and tastes. Increased efficiency in the kitchen was achieved by introducing specialisms.

George Orwell was one of the first authors to draw attention to the more unsavoury aspects of a restaurant’s kitchen practices, based of his experience working there. Meanwhile critics were feted and the famous fed for free to raise an establishment’s profile. Over time food fashions changed as chefs sought to capture the zeitgeist. Customers continued to seek

“sophistication rather than satiation”

From a simple idea the restaurant developed in many directions. Industrialisation and automation brought with it fast food chains. The quest for Michelin stars encouraged the creation of labour intensive art to be consumed. Staff are still badly paid.

“It is possible to make a living from only one in five jobs in the American food industry.”

Although presented in anecdotal style with reference to individuals and particular establishments, the source notes for the numerous entries in this book are extensive. Detailed references are provided in a section at the end. What comes across is how much has changed and yet also remained the same. The restaurant remains

“a theatre for all the senses”

The players rely on both the artisanal and industrial workers. While customers may be hedonistic, enjoying the performance and eating experience, there remains widespread exploitation of staff and those who provide the base ingredients.

There are now many types of restaurant with wide varieties of operating philosophies. These cater for: the time strapped; those seeking comfort food; demands for fresh produce; the semblance of ethical practices; health fads and fashions. Although now everyday destinations for many, at the high end of the market success brings its own problems. One example cited was of the newly listed three Michelin star establishment that was asked by a potential customer where they could land their helicopter. The cost of such meals may appear obscene while people go hungry. Demand remains.

And such tales add to the interest of what is an entertaining and intelligent glimpse into the kitchens and public spaces of restaurants operating within a multitude of environments: capitalist and communist states; bustling cities and small town America; remote Spanish beach sides and Nordic forest. The author treads lightly yet gets to the heart of the issues faced by staff and proprietors. This is an entertaining smorgasbord of reading pleasure for anyone who has worked in or frequented a restaurant.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Shadows on the Tundra

Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (translated by Delija Valiukenas), is a memoir of the young author’s deportation, along with her mother and seventeen year old brother, from their comfortable home in Kaunas, the then capital of Lithuania, to a Gulag in Siberia. At the time Dalia was fourteen years old but to earn food for her family was required to work sixteen hour days of gruelling manual labour alongside adults. The memoir was written following her escape aged twenty-two, the pages buried in the garden of her Kaunas home before she was arrested and deported again. The papers were discovered quite by chance many years later, after Lithuania had once again attained independence. They were published in 1997, four years after the author’s death. They provide an account of life during Dalia’s terrible journey and her first year in the Gulag. The memoir has an immediacy often lost when writers rely on long held memories. It is a devastating depiction of the dehumanising of a people.

On June 14, 1941 at three o’clock in the morning, following orders from Moscow, mass arrests and deportations began simultaneously in all of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Juozas Grinkevičius, the head of the Lithuanian Bank’s currency commission and a mathematics teacher at the gymnasium, was taken to a concentration camp in the northern Urals where he died from starvation in October 1943. The extermination of his family had also been planned.

This book, his daughter Dalia’s account of her experiences, opens in June 1941 after she has been placed in one of sixty-three covered wagons being pulled by a train leaving Kaunas. Fifteen hundred Lithuanians are heading into an uncertain future.

“Secondary school, childhood, fun, games, theatre, girlfriends – everything is in the past. You’re a grown-up now. You’re fourteen. You have a mother to look after, a father to replace. You have just taken your first step in the battle for life.”

The train journey lasts for weeks. At stops along the way carriages are uncoupled as some of the deportees are bound for collective farms. Dalia’s worth is assessed as one would an animal. She is housed in a barracks and put to work in the fields alongside deported Ukrainians. Their supervisors treat them as criminals.

The next stage of Dahlia’s journey again starts by train but this time they are packed in so tightly they can only stand. Illness and lice now plague them. When finally unloaded they sleep in a stable, or perhaps it is a club hall – five thousand filthy, unwashed people, grateful to be able to stretch out and relax exhausted legs. They are near a river and a rumour circulates that they are to be transported to America. Dalia wants to believe this, it offers hope, but in her heart she cannot.

Housed in wooden sheds and selling their few possessions for food they sing songs from their homeland and gather wood from nearby forests to burn for heat. Soon they are moved onto barges and taken down the Angara River before being unloaded onto a beach. From there lorries transport them the three hundred kilometres to the Lena River. By now leaders have emerged within the group and they are learning of each other’s histories.

After a two week wait, the Lithuanians are once again loaded unto barges. They are being fed but there are still regular deaths. Those who had felt superior in their former lives try to give themselves airs and graces. Dalia understands that any influence they may have had, any ability to offer favours, has been stripped away.

Forests and lesser vegetation are replaced by tundra. Dalia is disembarked where the riverbank is steep and a cold wind blows down from the mouth of the Lena. The people find just a few tents and wooden structures alongside piles of bricks. It is now August 1942 and they have reached their destination – Trofimovsk Island in the Arctic. They must build their own accommodation on this previously uninhabited outpost if they are to survive. They wear only the clothes they brought from Kaunas.

The Soviets have decreed that a fish processing plant will be built and worked by these exiled people. The Lithuanians and then Finnish prisoners are racing against time before the onset of a frozen, blizzard filled winter. In Trofimovsk the sun sets in November and does not rise again until February.

Inadequate brick and timber shelters are built, each housing too many people. Those who can work, including Dalia, are sent each day to walk for miles into the tundra and search for logs carried down from the upper reaches of the Lena river. These must be chopped out of the ice, tied into rope harnesses and dragged to Trofimovsk to be used to heat the apartments and offices of the supervisors. The prisoners do not have the right to take any of this wood. It is the only source of fuel. Dalia sneaks out and steals it, at great risk.

Dalia describes the terrible pain – from illness and wounds caused by the rope harnesses – as she helps drag the logs up the steep and frozen shores of Trofimovsk Island. The workers have no strength or energy. Their feet are wrapped in frozen sacks tied together with ropes. They suffer from exhaustion, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene and starvation. Hundreds die.

The Trofimovsk superiors live in warm houses built from logs. They dress in furs, eat bread, butter, sugar and canned goods sent to the Soviet Union by the allies from America. They regard the Finns and Lithuanians as sub species, observing their: lice ridden, rag covered bodies; the damp and filth of their shelters; the pails overflowing with shit from diarrhea. The dead are piled up and left for the wild animals – around three hundred that first winter. Food is withheld from the living to force them to work until they drop. Any possessions the prisoners have managed to retain are taken by the supervisors for a pittance – gold watches for a bag of flour or tinned food that may then be stolen by the other starving people.

Those who somehow survive that first, terrible winter are offered small respite when a doctor arrives at the Gulag and demands that the supervisors allow the workers to eat the fish and other provisions that were always available – the supervisors would have preferred the barrelled fish to rot. Baths are constructed and clothing disinfected.

As the river starts to thaw the workers are sent to other islands to catch and process fresh fish – the working factory envisaged. Dalia lives in a basic yurt but after the horrors of the winter even the pain caused by dipping damaged hands into frozen water and then salting fish is tolerable because she can now steal enough to eat. Unlike the theft of the wood to burn at Trofimovsk, pilfering of fish is tolerated. The work they are doing is pointless anyway. In a country where payment is made per unit and corruption a way of life, the barrels leak and fresh fish mixed with putrid meaning produce rots and will eventually be dumped in the sea.

Dalia describes the main camp supervisor as a  psychopath. It is hard to understand how such treatment of other human beings could be allowed to occur, although at a lesser level brings to mind the actions of our current government towards refugees and the homeless.

This is a striking and searing depiction of survival in horrific circumstances. A disturbingly evocative yet vital read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes, by Giorgio van Straten (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre), documents the author’s research into and thoughts on how allegedly missing manuscripts from renowned writers came to disappear. Some are assumed lost due to accidental fire or theft, others destroyed by their creator or at the wish of surviving family. Reasons are myriad and it is the musings on these that form the basis of this work.

How important, really, is any piece of writing? The author states this view:

“The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature”

Poignantly, the daughter of one of the writers featured, Sylvia Plath, wrote in a 1997 poem of the appropriation of her mother’s memory by literary commentators who speak as if they had known Plath despite never having met her. Such is the interest and affinity generated by certain literary works.

There are thoughts on ownership and control of written words, of censorship due to the culture of the time along with protection of life and legacy. A memoir written by Byron is suspected destroyed due to its reveal of his homosexuality at a time when this was regarded as more shameful than incest. It would not only have been his reputation that was affected but also those of the men he had had affairs with.

Scholars grow excited at the idea of the rediscovery of writing assumed lost forever. When pages do emerge there are concerns over authenticity.

The book sets down known facts alongside rumour and conjecture. One writer featured, Malcolm Lowry, is reported as having destroyed the manuscript of his second book when he could not achieve the desired perfection. He wished to write an incomparable masterpiece. Such was his conceit that he preferred not to publish rather than submit a lesser work. Of his first book it is stated:

“It was praised superlatively and attacked; vilified by reactionary critics and admired in the most progressive literary circles.”

How familiar this sounds. There are certain books one is supposed to revere to be considered discerning. Opinion may be subjective but will be judged by the self professed experts and their acolytes.

As a lover of literature but one without qualification I found this book fascinating yet its supposition a little frustrating. There are so many fabulous books in existence, is the loss of a few such a calamity? From an academic perspective there may be unanswered questions. Completists may mourn a possible gap in their collection. A reader can always find some other book to read.

An interesting exploration of the reasons manuscripts disappear alongside aspects of writers’ lives and their proclivities. It is succinct and engaging. The importance of the missing works is perhaps a different conversation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.