Thursday, 10 September 2009

Adventures in the 20th century

I've been reading a lot recently. I couldn't face paying £3.50 a day to watch TV in hospital and Radio 4, for all its virtues, does have quite a few unlistenable bits. The books have merged into something of a wordy mass but one or two stand out.

A Chapter of Accidents by Goronwy Rees (above) was one. I was led to it via Byron Rogers' biography of RS Thomas (posted on here): Rees was fantastically rude about Aberystwyth* and by extension Wales, in withering d'haut en bas fashion. He had, at best, a dubious and patronising attitude to his home country - an attitude cited by Rogers as emblematic of the English-educated, somewhat deracinated Welshman of the time.

Rees had a glittering Oxford career, Fellow of All Souls at twenty-one and a social success to boot. He later became - unhappily for all concerned - Principal of the University College in Aber', being forced to resign due to articles he'd written on his close friendship with the recently defected Soviet agent and rake Guy Burgess. He both explained and condemned Burgess.

The bulk of A Chapter of Accidents is concerned with Burgess and his impact on Rees. Understandably, it's something of an apologia for Rees's relationship with a traitor: on the one hand, he suffered from the suspicion that he too was an agent; on the other, he was criticised by the EM Forster crowd for betraying a friend. Whilst the prose is always elegant and controlled it's quite a frightened book, written by a man in desperate need of justification.

Unsurprisingly, the account needs to be taken with the occasional pinch of salt. Rees apparently made a death-bed confession that he had been a Soviet agent, a claim substantiated by the discovery of a KGB file on him in the Mitrokhin archive. There's one thread in the book suggesting Rees had been an agent; however, it stays unpulled.

Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating dissection of the mentality and rationale of the mid-twentieth century intellectual communist. In Rees's case, the more typical reasons impelled him to join the party: the inter-war economic crisis (especially unemployment in South Wales), a deep suspicion of what seemed to be a clapped-out English ruling class reluctant to challenge the rise of fascism, and the attraction of communism's futurity, as well as its combination of ideas and action. Burgess's motivation, as Rees sees it, was more unusual, not to say paradoxical:
It was not for love of a new Utopian world that he had become a communist; it was because he thought that capitalism was at the end of its tether and could no longer fulfill its historical mission. He felt that it had betrayed him... British capitalism...could no longer serve the interests of the British people and could no longer shoulder the burdens of Empire. His hatred of capitalism was not that of the idealist who condemns it for its sins; it was that of a disappointed and embittered Imperialist who rejects it because of its failures...
[He] had an instinctive dislike, even contempt, for other than Anglo-Saxon countries. He did not speak their languages or read their literature and he regarded their politics as childish. In this respect he combined all the prejudices of an American WASP and an English country gentleman, and was as provincial, as insular, in a sense as patriotic, as a reactionary colonel.
Burgess was an incessant, almost obsessive, reader of the great Victorian novelists - George Eliot, Dickens - and of biographies of the great Victorian statesmen - Salisbury, Gladstone. He was nostalgic for an era of greatness whilst living, as he saw it, in an era of decline, one of frivolity and cynicism. He thought Strachey was a midget set against the Victorian eminences he lampooned.

I would say this is one of the more unusual intellectual formations of the mid-twentieth century communist. But in any event it underlines how it pays to beware the idealist and utopian: there's often something quite different motivating them than that which they'd like you to believe.

I find the most insightful descriptions of communism and its attractions are to be found in personal memoirs such as this. As the authors usually have a literary and intellectual background as well as a taste for the outré, they also often happen to be very good reads.

The God that Failed is the best known set of personal accounts (and the best known of these is that by Arthur Koestler). However, as a series of essays it doesn't provide the satisfaction of seeing the parabola of attraction and disillusionment in the context of the whole life. There are a few more obscure memoirs, which do this quite triumphantly. I would recommend:

The Undefeated by George Paloczi-Horvath: excellently written and something of a combined intellectual-action adventure story by a literate and aristocratic Hungarian.

Rise and Fall by Milovan Djilas: fascinating account by a swashbuckling, Montenegran soldier-intellectual who went from ultimate insider to ostracised outsider in Tito's Yugoslavia.

Children of the Revolution by Wolfgang Leonhard: another inside to outside account, Leonhard spending a good part of his childhood in exile under Stalin's terror (gripping), then being one of the Communist ruling elite inserted by the Soviet Union into post-war East Germany before defecting in 1949.

* We lived in Aberystwyth for a while when I was a child, in a damp - actually wet - farm cottage in the middle of Borth bog. My fondest memory is playing on the huge sand dunes of Ynyslas, not something which recommended itself to Rees, I suspect. A less attractive one is of my toddler brother falling off the garden wall and landing upside down in a disused toilet full of stinging nettles; apparently I ran inside shouting 'what to do? what to do?'.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmmm, interesting reading. I always feel suspicious of communist intellectuals, but I suppose that's easy now with hindsight... I've just finished reading Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori - fascinating acounts of pre-WW2 East and Central Europe and some of the triggers for fascism.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: I've ordered the book you've been reading. The reviews on Amazon made it sound v interesting. I do find that region and period fascinating. Such a rich set of cultures buzzing with ideas. But with horrible threats and impossible situations.