Defeat… Victory… Terms I do not know what to make of. One victory exalts, another corrupts. One defeat kills, another brings life. Tell me what seed is lodged in your victory or your defeat, and I will tell you its future. Life is not definable by situations but by mutations. There is but one victory that I know is sure, and that is the victory that is lodged in the energy of the seed. Sow the seed in the wide black earth and already the seed is victorious, though time must contribute to the triumph of wheat.
This morning France was a shattered army and a chaotic population. But if in a chaotic population there is a single consciousness animated by a sense of responsibility, the chaos vanishes. A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing wishing him the image of a cathedral. I shall not fret about the loam if somewhere in it a seed lies buried. The seed will drain the loam and the wheat will blaze.
Today, we pay homage to a famous teenage diarist, Anne Frank (a Jewish girl who was hiding from the Nazis for several years in a flat with her family). If you have never read her diary, you should. (In my opinion, it should be compulsory reading in every school: but for its historical value and for the way it captures the difficulties of growing up.)
The finest thing of all is that I can at least write down what I think and feel, otherwise I would suffocate completely.
(The Diary of Anne Frank, 16 March 1944)
Saturday, 7 November 2020 Got up in the morning to sunshine outside and feeling better than I’ve felt in days. I’m sure the fact that it’s a day of leisure for all of us helps to raise my spirits too (and everybody else’s in the family).
I wondered what to write for the Lockdown Diaries II today and in the end I decided on continuing to work with some famous diarists in history. I looked up Anne Frank’s diary entry for this day, in 1942: after months in hiding, tempers in her family were fraying and sibling rivalry seemed to be in full flow. Anne’s words display classic teenage angst. And yet, despite the difficult circumstances she endured, she was not without hope and continued to strive to become a better person. She could be an example to us all.
I think of the middle-aged man who pushed me in the supermarket yesterday. I’m sure he has many problems to cope with; I’m almost equally sure he hasn’t got not as many as I’ve got (but I’m not ready to talk about that yet here). But no matter how many problems we’ve got – does that justify any of us forgetting basic human consideration for each other?
With that, I’ll hand the word to Anne:
Saturday, 7 November 1942
Mother’s nerves are very much on edge, and that doesn’t bode well for me. Is it just a coincidence that Father and Mother never scold Margot and always blame me for everything? Last night, for example, Margot was reading a book with beautiful illustrations; she got up and put the books aside for later. I wasn’t doing anything, so I picked it up and began looking at the pictures. Margot came back, saw “her” book in my hands, knitted her brow and angrily demanded the book back. I wanted to look through it some more. Margot got madder by the minute, and Mother butted in: “Margot was reading that book; give it back to her.”
Father came in, and without even knowing what was going on, saw that Margot was being wronged and lashed out at me: “I’d like to see what you’d do if Margot was looking at one of your books!”
I promptly gave in, put the book down and, according to them, left the room “in a huff”. I was neither huffy, nor cross, but merely sad.
It wasn’t right of Father to pass judgment without knowing what the issue was. I would have given the book to Margot myself, and lot sooner, if Father and Mother hadn’t intervened and rushed to take Margot’s part, as if she were suffering some great injustice.
Of course, Mother took Margot’s side; they always take each other’s sides. I’m so used to it that I’v become completely indifferent to Mother’s rebukes and Margot’s moodiness. I love them but only because they’re Mother and Margot. I don’t give a darn about them as people. As far as I’m concerned they can go jump in a lake. It’s different with Father. When I see him being partial to Margot, approving Margot’s every action, praising her, hugging her, I feel a gnawing ache inside, because I’m crazy about him. I model myself after Father, and there’s no one in the world I love more. He doesn’t realise that he treats Margot differently than he does me: Margot just happens to be the smartest, the kindest, the prettiest and the best. But I have a right to be taken seriously too. I’ve always been the clown and mischief maker of the family; I’ve always had to pay double for my sins: once with scolding and again with my own sense of despair. I’m no longer satisfied with the meaningless or the supposedly serious talks. I long for something from Father that he’s incapable of giving. I’m not jealous of Margot; I never have been. I’m not envious of her brains or her beauty. It’s just I’d like to feel that Father really loves me, not because I’m his child, but because it’s me, Anne.
I cling to Father because my contempt of Mother is growing daily and it’s only through him that I’m able to retain the last ounce of family feeling I have left. He doesn’t understand that I sometimes need to vent my feelings for Mother. He doesn’t want to talk about it, and he avoids any discussion involving Mother’s failings. And yet Mother, with all her shortcomings, is tougher for me to deal with.
I don’t know how I should act. I can’t very well confront her with her carelessness, her sarcasm and hart-heartedness, yet I can’t continue to take the blame for everything.
I’m the opposite of Mother, so of course we clash. I don’t mean to judge her; I don’t have that right. I’m simply looking at her as a mother. She’s not a mother to me – I have to mother myself. I’ve cut myself adrift from them. I’m charting my own course, and we’ll see where it leads me. I have no choice because I can picture what a mother and a wife should be and can’t seem to find anything of the sort in the woman I’m supposed to call “Mother”. I tell myself time and again to overlook Mother’s bad example. I only want to see her good points, and to look inside myself for what’s lacking in her. But it doesn’t work, and the worst part is that Father and Mother don’t realise their own inadequacies and how much I blame them for letting me down. Are there any parents who can make their children completely happy?
Sometimes I think God is trying to test me, both now and in the future. I’ll have to become a good person on my own, without anyone to serve as a model or advise me, but it’ll make me stronger in the end.
Who else but me is ever going to read these letters? Who else but me can I turn to for comfort? I’m frequently in need of consolation, I often feel weak, and more often than not, I fail to meet expectations. I know this, and every day I resolve to do better.
They aren’t consistent in their treatment of me. One day they say that’s Anne’s a sensible girl and entitled to know everything, and the next that Anne’s a silly goose who doesn’t know a thing and yet imagines she’s learned all she needs to know from books! I’m no longer the baby and spoiled little darling whose every deed can be laughed at. I have my own ideas, plans and ideals, but am unable to articulate them yet.
Oh well. So much comes into my head at night when I’m alone, or during the day when I’m obliged to put up with people I can’t abide or who invariably misinterpret my intentions. That’s why I always wind up coming back to my diary – I start there and end there because Kitty’s always patient. I promise her that, despite everything, I’ll keep going, that I’ll find my own way and choke back my tears. I only wish I could see some results or, just once, receive encouragement from someone who loves me.
Don’t condemn me, but think of me as a person who sometimes reaches the bursting point!
Yesterday, speaking to Lieutenant Gavoille, I had let drop the words, “Oh, we’ll see about that when the war is over.” And Gavoille had answered, “I hope you don’t mean, Captain, that you expect to come out of the war alive?”
(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras)
Ayer decía al teniente Gavoille:
—Ya lo veremos después de la guerra.
Y el teniente Gavoille me respondió:
—No tendrá usted, mi capitán, la pretensión de seguir viviendo después de la guerra.
…during the Second World War he [Jorge Luis Borges] had considered giving up his habit of not reading the papers (because it made more sense to read the classics), but had decided instead to spend some time every day reading Tacitus on a different, early war. In a world like his, in which events repeat themselves ad infinitum, his decision was not without logic and Tacitus had the advantage of a superior style while, in his view, the content remained essentially the same.
Life always bursts the boundaries of formulas. Defeat may prove to have been the only path to resurrection, despite its ugliness. I take it for granted that to create a tree I condemn a seed to rot. If the first act of resistance comes too late it is doomed to defeat. But it is, nevertheless, the awakening of resistance. Life may grow from it as from a seed.
We’ll remember the Exodus, the flight of many millions of French civilians from the advancing German army in June 1040, with another quote from Léon Werth’s book 33 Days. (For the previous two quotes, please see the links below.)
Quote of the Week:
Behind this soldier is the entire might of the Reich, and the eyes of German soldiers are “full of victory,” as a peasant said to me. I’m obsessed by the idea that between this soldier and myself there is no man-to-man relationship or any relation determined by the laws and customs of a common country. There’s only the law of war, which is nothing but utility and caprice. Between him and me, it is understood that he has the power of life or death.
A few weeks ago, we had a quote from Léon Werth’s book 33 Days. The author was French, and a friend of Antoine de St-Exupéry who not only dedicated The Little Prince to him, but also wrote the foreword to 33 Days.
33 Days tells the author’s experiences in the so called Exodus, the great flight of many million French civilians from the advancing German army in June 1940.
It’s a book close to my heart because Léon Werth’s description of what it was like to live under occupation tallies with what my grandmother told me about living under first German, then Russian occupation in World War II. (Although my grandmother had much more horrific stories to tell of the vulnerability of civilians – and especially that of women – than what you can read in 33 Days.)
Quote of the Week:
I don’t need a dictionary to describe the difference between force and authority. I’m nothing more than a member of a captive tribe.
They’re next to us, up against us and all around us. They’re outside the house and inside the house, which they enter whenever they like.
I had been looking on at a carnival of light. The ceiling had risen little by little and I had been unaware of an intervening space between the clouds and me. I had been zigzagging along a line of flight dotted by ground batteries. Their tracer bullets had been spraying the air with wheat-coloured shafts of light. I had forgotten that at the top of their flight the shells of those batteries must burst. And now, raising my head, I saw around and before me those rivets of smoke and steel driven into the sky in the pattern of towering pyramids.
I was quite aware that those rivets were no sooner driven than all danger went out of them, that each of those puffs possessed the power of life and death only for a fraction of a second.
The Air Vice-Marshal, with flailing arms, was describing how his fighters had completely broken up the first raid of Christmas Day, while the admiral, in whose dockyard the bombs had actually fallen, listened with all the courteous scepticism of a solid sailor for a romantic airman.
For today’s quote, an excerpt from a Saint-Exupéry novel, Flight to Arras.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, most famous for his lyric children’s book The Little Prince, was a pilot by profession. Most of his novels are based in his own life experiences; Flight to Arras, set during World War II, is no exception.
An estimated 10 million people, including up to 80% of the population of Paris, fled south from the German advance to seek safety beyond the River Loire in what became known in history as l’Exode – the Exodus.
Francia, junio 1940:
Se estima que 10 millones de personas, incluido hasta el 80% de la población de París, huyeron hacia el sur del avance alemán para buscar la seguridad más allá del río Loira en lo que se conoció en la historia como l’Exode: el Éxodo.
Today’s quote is longer than usual: it’s an excerpt from Flight to Arras, a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and it captures the utter exhaustion of a squadron of French pilots during the German offensive on France in June 1940.
Like all Saint-Exupéry novels, Flight to Arras too was inspired by the author’s own experiences. Saint-Exupéry served in the French air force and continued to fight after the fall of France. He disappeared during a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean Sea in 1944; his identity bracelet was finally recovered from the sea in 1998. He’s the author of such classics as The Little Prince, Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars.
Each burst of a machine gun or a rapid-fire cannon shot forth hundreds of these phosphorescent bullets that followed one another like the beads of a rosary. A thousand elastic rosaries strung themselves out towards the plane, drew themselves out to the breaking point, and burst at our height. When, missing us, the string went off at a tangent, its speed was dizzying. The bullets were transformed into lightning.
And I flew drowned in a crop of trajectories as golden as stalks of wheat. I flew at the centre of a thicket of lance strokes. I flew threatened by a vast and dizzying flutter of knitting needles. All the plain was now bound to me, woven and wound round me, a coruscating web of golden wire.
The only photo I remember from my primary school history book is this:
I’m sure you’ve all seen it before: St Paul’s dome standing intact above the ruins, surrounded by smoke and flames, seemingly indestructible, converting into a symbol. Iconic doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was taken on 29 December 1940, the 114th night of the Blitz, by Herbert Mason, a Daily Mail photographer, from on top of the Daily Mail building in Fleet Street. I take my hat off to Mr Mason – quite apart from any other considerations, just for having the guts to stand on an exposed London rooftop during a German bombing raid, taking pictures.
A fit of September blues, accompanied by September skies. (That means grey; where I come from September skies are famous for their particularly beautiful deep blue colour.) My September blues, however, are not merely due to the fact that summer is over; my plans for rowing up the Thames à la Three Men in a Boat are over too. For reasons I don’t want to discuss here not only we didn’t succeed in following the Three Men upriver this summer, we didn’t even have a holiday. Maybe better luck next year?
So – for a while at least – this is the last post in the Upriver series. And what better way to wind up and lighten the September blues at the same time than to immerse ourselves into some books set on boats (and envy the people who get to sail on them)?
During World War II, the island of Malta, just off the coast of Sicily but held by the British, became a crucially important location to both sides. Pre-war British reasoning that the island was indefensible meant that when Mussolini declared war in June 1940, Malta’s meagre defences consisted of six obsolete Gloster Gladiator aircrafts. Within hours of the declaration of war bombs were falling on Malta; the Grand Harbour, Valletta and the so-called Three Cities on the other side of the harbour suffered particularly badly as the Italians and the Germans tried to starve and bomb Malta into surrender…
“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three…” (1Cor 13:13)