Books: Cultural Amnesia — Alfred Polgar |
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Alfred Polgar was born in Vienna in 1873, educated in the cafés and established himself early in his adult career as the unsurpassable exemplar of German prose in modern times, even though he never, strictly speaking, wrote a book. In 1927 his success as a writer of reviews, essays and articles took him to Berlin, and in 1933 the success of the Nazis almost deprived him of his life. He escaped the day before he was scheduled to be arrested. As a journalist dependent on the size of his audience, Polgar still had outlets in Vienna, Zurich and Prague, but his position steadily became more desperate. “I love life and I would never willingly leave it,” he told a friend, “but it is leaving me.” In 1938 he left Vienna on the night train to Zurich only a day before the Anschluß. Luckily he was able to follow the exile trail—Prague, Paris, Spain—all the way to America, although he knew before he got there that he was ill equipped to flourish. He was set in his ways, and he had nothing to sell. On the American market, his approach to writing would have been useless even if it had not been confined to the German language, because it was also confined to German-speaking society: his prose and its subject matter were aspects of each other. In Hollywood he was a beneficiary of the MGM programme that paid refugee writers for screenplays that would never be filmed. Well aware that this was tantamount to being given a free ticket to a soup kitchen, he was ashamed to take the money, but he had no choice. He was no longer young enough to master Engish in the way he had mastered his mother tongue.

On his home ground, Polgar had made German the ideal instrument for a body of prose so charged with the precision of poetry that it gives a picture of his era no other writer could match for wealth of registered detail and subtlety of argument: not even the magnificent collected journalism of Joseph Roth is quite in the same class. Polgar’s prose is probably fated to remain accessible only to readers of German, who can approach it through several one-volume selections. The best of these, chosen by Polgar himself from the nine separate volumes of his writings, was published in West Berlin in 1950 under the title Auswahlband (Choice Volume). Another selection, with the conspicuous omissions that you might expect, was published in East Berlin in 1975 as Die Mission des Luftballons (Mission of the Air Balloon): Polgar had too much prestige to be repudiated as a bourgeois writer. There is an excellent biography, Alfred Polgar, by Ulrich Weinzierl. After the war Polgar returned to Europe but felt unable to settle in Austria or in either version of Germany, despite his being greeted as a hero wherever he went. He died in Zurich in 1975, with his immortality already established by a whole constellation of kleine Schriften (small writings) that Marcel Reich-Ranicki rightly defined as “an immaculate unification of tact and intellect, conscience and taste.” Marlene Dietrich wanted Polgar to write her biography. Sadly, the project came to nothing.

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Abel, if he had fled from the murderous attentions of his brother Cain, would as an emigrant have had to put up with an even more bitter inconvenience. He would have had to wander the world for the rest of his life with the brand of Abel on his forehead.


IF I HAD what it took to translate the separable remarks of Alfred Polgar and collect them into a book, The Brand of Abel might be the title. Most of his remarks, however, don’t separate out: they are bonded into his feuilletons, a form that Karl Kraus hated so much he blamed Heine for inventing it. But Kraus couldn’t write an essay, for a reason that Polgar nailed in a single, ostensibly praising antithesis: “He wasn’t a constructive talent: he was a critical genius.” (Polgar also said of Kraus that if he had lived, he would have had no-one left to attack.) Polgar could write an essay. His every piece forms a rhythmic unit from start to finish. Occasionally, however, a sentence can be carried off on its own. Those were the sentences Kurt Tucholsky was probably thinking of when he said that Polgar wrote filaments of granite. (Filaments of Granite wouldn’t be a bad title either, but it would fudge the point.) The brand of Abel is one of the filaments. The brand of Cain belonged to the scriptures we already possessed. The brand of Abel belongs to the scriptures that the twentieth century wrote for us: the books, the articles and sometimes the single statements that evoke the human disaster. In that new book of the holy word, witnesses to the modern multiple apocalypse speak with precise resonance. The qualifications for having even a single statement recorded in that sacred text are punishingly high.

But the man who is there a thousand times over is Alfred Polgar. A measure of how dreadful his era was is that it took everything he had to express it. A measure of what he had is that he could. It should never have happened, of course. So much lyrical talent should never have been required to deal with such an artificially contrived misery. At the most it should have been occupied with the tragedies of ordinary life, the events that Nadezhda Mandelstam was later to subsume under her concept of the privilege of ordinary heartbreaks. But as things happened—as Hitler made them happen—Polgar was presented with the dubious opportunity of gathering all the gifts with which he had so brilliantly reflected life in the German-speaking civilization and bringing them to the task of recording its disintegration. It would have been a daunting enough task for a much younger man. But when he went into exile he was already sixty-five. In Vienna and Berlin he had been at the top of his profession. Leaving it all, he was penniless. What little money he had made from selling his library was used up, and he had reason to believe that he would never make any more. Where he was heading, they spoke English, and he was too old to master it.

When the New Hellas left Portugal for New York on October 4, 1940, among the passengers were Heinrich Mann, Golo Mann, Franz and Alma Werfel, and Alfred Polgar. It was a convocation of the talents, but it is fair to say that even the imperious Alma, who had been loved by every important man in Vienna, knew which among her attendant male companions on the ship of the saved had a gift from heaven. Polgar was the one who could raise their tragedy to poetry. “Many attempt without success to make up for their lack of talent with defects of character.” He could afford to say so, because his strength and depth of character were in everything he said. “A commonplace soul is often uncommonly spirited. But dreck is still dreck, even when phosphorescent.” He could afford to say that too, because he was never flashy. Most of his best effects were achieved with nothing more than a subtle shift against a prepared expectation. Sometimes you can barely hear the swerve. “To reform an evildoer, you must before anything else help him to an awareness that what he did was evil. With the Nazis this won’t be easy. They know exactly what they’re doing: they just can’t imagine it.” Drawn with a single calligraphic stroke from a fine brush, the distinction between knowing and imagining was crucial to him. Armed with that, he could make literature from the bare facts, however sad. “The striking aphorism requires a stricken aphorist.” We can almost convince ourselves that he welcomed disaster.

He hated every minute of disaster. “It is the destiny of the emigrant that the foreign land does not become his homeland: his homeland becomes foreign.” Along with his books, he had left everything that sustained his imagination far behind. “When everything has left you, you are alone. When you have left everything, you are lonely.” In Hollywood Polgar was too proud to accept his helplessness without an interior rebellion. As Hannah Arendt records, there was a phrase among the refugees for how they felt about America: Dankbar aber ungülcklich (thankful but unhappy). Polgar was too gracious to say it, but he felt it. (Sometimes he almost said it: he was the one who called Hollywood a paradise over whose door is written “Abandon hope.”) Those who would like to believe that Thomas Mann was an anti-Semite have to deal with the undoubted fact that he reached deep into his pocket at a crucial time to save Polgar, who he realized was his equal as a guardian of the soul of the German language. (It was Mann who said Polgar’s prose was marked by a lightness that plumbed the depths.) Throughout the war, Polgar wrote for such German publications as there were; and after the war he went back to Europe in a kind of belated triumph; but he was never again the force he had once been, and today he has no international reputation whatsoever. He foresaw the reason. “My spiritual handwriting can’t be translated.”

In the doomed attempt to translate it, we should switch our attention from his last phase to his early glory, in which his exuberant sensitivity to the scope of civilized life can still be appreciated even if the English words chosen to duplicate it are clumsily assembled. Among his other talents, Polgar was a theatre critic who could write a weekly review that chronicled a whole society. Our own greatest theatre critic, Shaw, was limited as well as focused by his playwright’s agenda. Polgar, though he had dramatic gifts of his own (with Egon Friedell he wrote the most successful full-length cabaret script of the years between the wars), had no such limitation. He could see the whole play, and the whole world with it. To pit one critical genius against another, hear him on Pygmalion: “A comedy about a man who turns a girl into a lady, but in doing so overlooks the woman.” Writing about his beloved Büchner, Polgar pulled off a character analysis so penetrating that we have to go back to Coleridge to find an equivalent. Polgar said this of Büchner’s Danton: “His withdrawal from blood and terror is no moral withdrawal. His capacity for political murder has simply ceased, fallen out of his soul like an object out of an open hand grown tired of holding.” Polgar thought Büchner’s talent had been on the Shakespearean scale: high and knowledgeable praise from a critic whose interest in Shakespeare knew no limits. Polgar said of Shakespeare’s Richard II: “He was, with God’s blessing, a weak, empty king, and becomes, with God’s ill-will, a full, fruitful man, out of whom necessity presses sweetness and wisdom. He falls upward into depth.” First the argument, then its compression. Polgar said of The Merchant of Venice: “Among empty masks made lifelike for a single evening by Shakespeare the master wig-maker, Shylock is the only face.” Year upon year, Polgar would track every production of plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Hauptmann, Pirandello. Wonderful is the only word for his long comparison of Ibsen to Wagner. His sequence of essays on Ibsen leaves Shaw’s equivalent effort looking thin. Polgar never gushed; he was discriminating even in his worship; but the wellspring of his enthusiasm was a grateful love.

We should think of that first before we begin to enjoy his limiting judgements. Critics are always remembered best for how they sound when on the attack. Schadenfreude lies deep in the human soul, and to read a tough review seems a harmless way of indulging it. But the only critical attacks that really count are written in defence of a value. It was because of his admiration for competent practitioners that Polgar assaulted the incompetent. He could be hilarious while doing so, but never for the sake of being funny. Lesser critics look for opportunities to pour on the scorn. Polgar would rather have avoided them. When forced to the issue, however, he left no man standing. Witness the neatness with which he evoked Hermann Bahr’s Napoleon turning back defeat with a strategic master stroke. “He emits the deathless words ‘All battalions forward!,’ draws his ceremonial dagger, and exits stage left in the direction of Lombardy, which he is seen in the next act to have conquered.” The young Kenneth Tynan would have been proud of that. Polgar’s demolitions were usually instantaneous. He called Sacha Guitry’s Desirée “a jeu even older than vieux.” He said of Man and Superman: “the audience gets an exhausting idea of the inexhaustibility of the subject, and is bored brilliantly.” Of a young actress: “She is pretty, and tactfully concerned that the optical pleasure she provides shall not be disturbed by technical requirements any more than necessary.” Of a bad playwright: “Saying nothing is the mother tongue of his art.” But occasionally Polgar decided that a bad playwright, especially if he had earned an unwarranted reputation, needed something more effective than a skewering: he needed to be rubbed out. One such unfortunate was the fashionable darling Raoul Avernheimer. Polgar granted him the favour of a complete paragraph. At the risk of interfering with its remorseless build-up, I will try to render it in English:

Civilization and culture, if they are left in peace long enough by war and pestilence, generate mould. And over this mould a layer of dust forms. And in this layer of dust microscopic life-forms settle. And these microscopic life-forms generate excrement. And in the breakdown-products of this excrement even less visible life-forms find their domicile. And these life-forms, as long as they are resident within the periphery of Vienna and eligible to vote in the central electoral district, generate the world portrayed in the comedies of Raoul Avernheimer.

Let it be said again that Polgar could write that way not because he was cruel, but because he was comprehensive. The proof is in the subtle judgements he made between the two extremes of praise and blame. He admired Max Reinhardt’s independence and industry, but knew where to find fault. Some of Reinhardt’s productions Polgar found not only stylized, but sterilized. (The alliteration is there in the original.) Bound in ties of friendship with Egon Friedell, Polgar greeted the polymath’s Judastragödie with only two cheers. He noted his friend’s “peculiar fencing stance: on the tip of the sword with which he attacks flutters the white flag with which he surrenders.” Friedell could have done without Polgar’s praise for his brains: “High intelligence, from which the blessing of refreshing words falls in a shower, offers here a rich substitute for art.” In his letters, Schnitzler reveals how wounded he was by Polgar’s criticism. He would have been wounded less if Polgar had called him a bad writer. But Polgar called him a good writer who was doing the wrong thing, indulging himself in “the opal tint of his half-bitter, half-sentimental scepticism.” Werfel would not have enjoyed hearing that his diction was “palate-irritatingly over-spiced.” (Werfel forgot the imputation long enough to grant Polgar one of the best things ever said about his style: he said that Polgar had the gift of catching deep-sea fish on the surface.) If Schiller could have come back from the dead, he might have wondered why he made the trip when he heard Polgar point out that William Tell “isn’t a protest against tyranny, only against its misuse.” When we call a critic deadly, it should be because he knows about life, and will not accept its being falsified. Polgar was suspicious of the theatre, which he called “a charlatan that works real magic.” His love for it was an intelligent love. He tested it against the world, not by its own standards. Hence the permanent validity of his mocking advice to a bad critic: “Take aim, let loose. And when your arrow sticks in, draw a target around its buried point. That way you will score a bullseye every time.”

Alfred Brendel put me on to Polgar. Brendel knows everything about the Viennese coffee-house wits, and carries in his pocket an anthology of their best sayings, individually typed out on slips of paper. Away from the piano, Brendel’s fingertips are usually wrapped in strips of Elastoplast. (So would mine be, if they were worth ten million dollars each.) When you see those bits of paper being hauled from his pockets by his plastered fingers, you realize you are in the presence of a true enthusiast. Brendel gave me the name of every card in the pack, but told me to be sure of one thing: Alfred Polgar was the ace of diamonds. The advice saved me years. I probably would have got to Polgar eventually, but by getting to him early I was granted the entrée to a whole vanished world, because Polgar is the gatekeeper. Though a shy man, he knew everyone, because everyone wanted to know him; and he had their characters summed up. As for his own books, they put me on the spot. The way he wrote about everything at all levels confirmed me in what I had been trying to do, but the quality with which he did it was a poser. A single dull page would have been a relief, but there wasn’t one. Travelling a lot at the time on filming trips, I found his titles in second-hand bookshops all over the world: wherever the refugees had gone to die in peace, and their children had sold the books because the old language was the last thing they wanted to hear again. On Staten Island I found half a dozen, and there was a bunch of three in Tel Aviv. Strangely enough, Munich teemed with them: despite instructions, fewer Jew-infected books were burned than the Nazis would have liked.

The original Polgar volumes are delectable to look at. Usually they are bound in light cardboard of a primary colour made pastel by time, and the format is small enough to fit the pocket. But the bindings are fragile, and easily crack. It was encouraging to discover, in the 1980s, that Rowohlt was putting out a multi-volume complete edition on thin paper, strongly bound. The editor could not have been better chosen. It was Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a long-time admirer of Polgar who was unlikely to muff the job. Nor did he, but the edition is unsatisfactory in one crucial respect. Each piece comes to an end without a sign of its provenance: to find out when it was written, you have to turn to the critical apparatus at the back of the volume. There was some reason to divide his work into its genres, although it would have been better arranged in a pure chronology, to show how his diversity was operating all the time. But to leave the dates off the pieces was to connive at a trick of wish fulfilment. German literature in the twentieth century was fated to lose its self-sustaining monumentality. The point came when everything depended on which year a piece was written, and then which month, and even which day. Glossing that over, you miss the story of how politics invaded art and came close to killing it. The complete edition would be a tomb if Polgar did not have a spirit that can shine through marble. You can see that I am unable to stop borrowing his tricks. But the real trick is to borrow his tone. Nobody should try who can’t write English as well as Polgar wrote German, and I’m afraid that lets me out. It was hard enough, for this note, taking him on a sentence at a time. But he could write a whole essay like that: joined-up writing in excelsis.