Month: January 2011

Discoveries: Sarah Bakewell on Irmgard Keun

I interviewed Sarah Bakewell last month about her biography of Montaigne for the new Interview of the Month slot on the Blackwell Online website (that interview will be available there very soon). Visiting her website recently I saw her post about Irmgard Keun, a writer I had never heard of.

Bakewell: How to LiveIt turned out that Sarah had never heard of her either until she stumbled on one of her books in My Back Pages in Balham.  That gave me an idea for a new series of guest posts, featuring readers on writers or books they have recently discovered. 

Sarah has very kindly allowed me to republish her post, the first in a series of what I am unsurprisingly going to call Discoveries. If you would like to contribute, email me at george [at]

Sarah BakewellWhen I’m working from home there usually comes a point where I have to get up from my desk and rush out into the air, usually on the pretext of going to the supermarket or post office. But sometimes, once I get out into the street, I realize at once that I don’t need groceries and I have nothing to post.

When this happens, I keep walking past Balham tube station until I get to the best second-hand bookshop in the neighbourhood (also one of the best in London), My Back Pages.

Irmagard Keun Child of all NationsI tend to come out with exactly one book, and it’s never one I had previously intended to buy. Last week it was a Penguin Classic I’d never heard of, by Irmard Keun, called Child of All Nations. I bought it because I liked the cover.

Child of All Nations was written in 1938, and only translated into English in 2008 – by Michael Hofmann, who is best known for his translations of Joseph Roth. There’s a connection, for Irmgard Keun travelled round Europe for many years as Joseph Roth’s companion. Both were writers and bohemians, both drank too much, and both were in flight from the Nazis, who were burning their books.

The novel is the story of Kully, a young girl whose parents are doing just what Keun and Roth did. The father drifts from one European capital to the next, writing and boozing, and trying to charm or wheedle money out of people. Whenever he does get a few coins, he blows it on inviting impecunious poets and street-drinkers out for absinthe and rum. Meanwhile, Kully waits with her mother in Dutch and Belgian hotels which they cannot afford to leave, for that would mean paying the bill. She picks up languages by the half-dozen, meets children and adults, and plays with anything she happens to find, from rotting crabs to tiny balls of mercury spilled from a broken thermometer. She observes all: an eternally naïve narrator who misunderstands what is going on, but who – of course – really understands more than anyone. The adults are lost and often sad; Kully does not get it, and so she sees things as they really are.

Irmgard KeunIt’s an exquisite, moving book, beautifully written (and beautifully translated). Kully’s father is an unforgettable character: warm, impulsive, generous; intimidating when drunk, shockingly irresponsible, yet somehow reassuring. When he is around, it seems nothing can go wrong; the trouble is, he is hardly ever around. Early on, he is described as having eyes which “sometimes looked as if they had swum far out to sea and weren’t completely back yet.” And when he gives a lecture in Poland, Kully (who isn’t sure what a lecture is) pictures it as a glittering spectacle in a vast castle, attended by thousands of people. It must, she imagines, “must be something like thunder made out of diamonds.”

This book is thunder made out of diamonds too, and it takes you far out to sea. I’m glad so few of the books I find are like this, or I’d never get anything else done; I’d read and re-read them, and perhaps forget to come back.

©  Sarah Bakewell 2010. For original post, see Sarah’s site here.

46. Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity

“Elephants are not treated much differently now than they were in the mid-eighteenth century: they are objects of awe and conservation, yet legally hunted, made captive, abused, and forced to labor for human gain. What then has research and learning served?”


In Elephants on the Edge, Gay Bradshaw makes an eloquent but always scientifically reasoned plea on behalf of the elephant, “for if we fail to act on what we know, we will lose them, and more”. It’s not just a call for better conservation measures and an end to the culling of an animal listed as “endangered” on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature Red List in 2008. It’s an argument for expanding our notion of moral community to include animals, not least the sociable, communicative, intelligent elephant. Bradshaw Elephants on the Edge“This book”, one reviewer wrote, “opens the door into the soul of the elephant” and it is a remarkable world which we glimpse through that door. The book has also been highly praised by writers as diverse as Peter Singer, Desmond Tutu, J.M. Coetzee and Tim Flannery. Listen to the podcast by clicking on the link above and visit the website of the Kerulos Center in Oregon, which Gay directs, to learn about some of the inspiring projects they are running.

IUCN status report on elephant IUCN Assessment, 2008

Whose crisis? Whose future?

Whose Crisis, Whose Future cover Susan George is an internationally renowned political scientist and author of over a dozen widely translated books. She was born in the Midwest during the Great Depression, but moved to France in the 1960s and subsequently took French citizenship. She still lives in Paris.

Susan George achieved prominence in 1976 with her first ground-breaking book, How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reason for World Hunger (available as a free download via this link). After hunger she went on to study debt and poverty, as reflected in books such as The Debt Boomerang and A Fate Worse than Debt.

George is president of the board of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, an international network of scholar-activists committed to social change.

Susan George 1

Before we talked about her new book on our current predicament, Whose Crisis, Whose Future?, I asked her about the values she grew up with. Had the great collective effort made by the US in World War Two been particularly influential? [To listen to this section of the interview, click here.]

Turning to her new book, I asked Susan to outline what her new book was about. Did the crisis of the title go beyond the current financial crisis? [To listen to this section of the interview, click here.]

Susan George

Besides diagnosing the problem, does the book also put forward solutions? [To listen to this section of the interview, click here.]

The diagrams below depict, first, the status quo in Susan George’s analysis, with finance at the centre of everything and the environment only a peripheral concern, and second, the state which Susan George advocates we must move to, and quickly.

Susan George graphic 1

Susan George graphic 2

Susan George

Collaboration in order to bring about change is a key element of Susan George’s prescription. She discusses the need for concerted action here.

Susan George

Already in her first book Susan George was saying “Study the rich, not the poor” and she is saying it still. I asked her why that was so and why the message still needed repeating. [To listen to this section of the interview, click here.]

Susan George

George Hijacking AmericaI asked Susan why she thought that people voted for – and believed in – governments that didn’t have their best interests at heart. This took us to a discussion of her previous book, Hijacking America and the role of “money, management and media” in shaping our political culture and the shortcomings of the left. [To listen to this section of the interview, click here.]

Susan George

The final question: does Susan George believe we can save the planet while neoliberal capitalism remains the dominant international system? [To listen to this section of the interview, click here.]

Susan George

If you would like to listen to the complete interview, you can click here.

6. Books of the Year – Catherine Arnold

Cat ArnoldOur final guest who shares the highlights of her past twelve months of reading is historian Catherine Arnold.

I first interviewed Catherine about the second book in her London trilogy, which explores the darker aspects of the city’s past, Bedlam: London and its Mad. You can hear the interview here. (The first volume of the series, as yet unpodcasted, is Necropolis: London and its Dead.)

More recently, we met to talk about her latest book, City of Sin: London and its Vices. You can listen to that here

Here are Catherine’s choices from her 2010 reading:

Newgate London's Prototype of HellLooking back at the books which I’ve enjoyed over the past year reveals that history, personal, national and social, has been much on my mind. I’m currently researching a book about London and crime, and to this end I’ve particularly enjoyed Newgate, London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, and Tyburn, London’s Fatal Tree (Alan Brooke and David Brandon), both from the History Press (Sutton). Gripping accounts of two of the darkest aspects of London life.

Willetts Members OnlyAs I have also become something of an expert on the sins of the flesh, I highly recommend Paul Willetts’ Members Only (Profile Books), a highly entertaining account of the life and times of Paul Raymond. Raymond was Mr Soho, and his life story reflected the changing nature of London’s naughtiest neighbourhood and its transformation from sleazy clubland to sanitized tourist trap.

Gregory Queen's FoolA mixture of the personal and political side of history is one of the most compelling aspects of Philippa Gregory’s writing, and this year I’ve particularly enjoyed catching up on her work, particularly The Queen’s Fool (about a young Jewish girl at the court of Mary Tudor) and The White Queen  (both Simon and Schuster) which sees Miss Gregory heading in a slightly different direction, towards the Plantagenets and their extended, squabbling families. Families, extended, eccentric and otherwise are the focus of two memoirs which have intrigued and entranced me.

Families, extended, eccentric and otherwise are the focus of two memoirs which have intrigued and entranced me.Seymour In My Father's House Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, about growing up in a dotty vicarage on the Welsh Borders, has been re-issued this year with an introduction by her daughter. Another unusual family feature in Mirand Seymour’s memoir, In My Father’s House (Simon and Schuster) about Miranda’s childhood in a rambling Nottinghamshire mansion with her charming but infuriating father, a motorcycle fanatic and late convert to homosexuality, and her tremendously loyal and long-suffering mother.

Finally, for anyone looking for a diverting but thought-provoking read, I’d recommend This Charming Man by Maria Keyes which ventures boldy into some dark territory (domestic violence and alcoholism) whilst maintaining her distinctive warm, witty tones – she’s the slightly dotty Irish best friend every girl needs.