Posts Tagged ‘ diarist ’

Pevsner’s diaries – a question of evidence

In her review of Pevsner – the Early Life: Germany and Art (Stephen Games, Continuum, 2010), Rosemary Hill makes a shrewd and accurate observation. ‘It may be true, if unpalatable to some, that Pevsner had some sympathy with the political right in Germany before 1933, and little interest in himself as a Jew. But the evidence that would confirm or refute it, as well as cast light on his feelings about his family, must be in the diaries he kept at the time.’    

A page from Pevsner's teenage diaries

 I have been lucky enough to have been given exclusive access to Pevsner’s diaries, along with his personal correspondence – an extraordinary resource, as I have explained on my website,  www.pevsner.info . As well as supplying the dates that establish the timing of key events and the detail of private thoughts and feelings that bring Pevsner’s portrait to life, they also provide the context which makes it easier to weigh his public pronouncements. 

Annie Pevsner

Pevsner’s  diaries reveal, for example,  that he adopted conservative political views, as a teenager, at least in part as a reaction against his mother’s strident liberalism. Throughout the First World War – the years when the young Nika was entering an uncomfortable adolescence – she proclaimed pacifist views, worked for pacifist causes, and supported his older brother in his defiantly antipatriotic sentiments. ‘We had “Tipperary” amongst the files of music,’ Pevsner remembered, and he lived in dread that she would sing it in public. She was prone to remark to the rest of the family that an English victory would be a good thing, and she would have been just as happy to see their father naturalised a Swiss citizen as a German. ‘She shows warm sympathy for communism and things like that – a bit incongruous, with her mouth full of  …. good Schnitzel.’ ‘She accuses the Kaiser of being solely responsible for the war,’ he lamented. ‘She says of the German people’s sufferings, “They deserve it, it doesn’t matter”.… She  compares the Germans to the Conquistadores …. She doesn’t believe this rubbish, of course – but it makes any dealings with her impossible. I have to get away from her, I have had it.’    

Pevsner in his teens

 As for his interest in himself as a Jew –  gangling and awkward in his teens, Pevsner was chronically aware of his appearance and his inability to fit in, and part of this was anxiety about his Jewishness. He remembered having gone once to a Tanzstunde or formal dance at the house of a friend, and then never again: ‘It was  probably anti-semitism – did I know?’  He was certainly aware that the mother of one friend was unwilling to receive another of his classmates in her house. ‘Someone got cross and said, “Judenbengel (Jewboy)”. That’s nasty .… It’s hurtful, and makes P gauche and uncertain of himself.’ ‘Why don’t I find my own acquaintances?’, he wrote miserably at eighteen. ‘Because I am solitary, I abhor people impinging too much, and I fear anti-semitism.’    

At the same time, he detected the same kind of anti-Jewish sentiments in himself, and, as part of the unflattering self-portrait he was determined to draw, he did not shrink from documenting them. ‘I can only get over this,’ he wrote at the age of eighteen, ‘by becoming a christened non-Jew, amongst other non-Jewish Jews. Once I can ignore the solidarity that is being forced on me, then perhaps this anti-semitism will become less raw and aggressive.’    

This was, in fact, precisely what happened. In later life, as a Lutheran convert of thirty years’ standing and a recently naturalised Englishman, Pevsner would remind his children, ‘The fundamental fact you must keep in mind is that you are, to put it in the Nazi way, 75% Jewish.’ He never sought to deny his Jewish descent, but he almost certainly felt that, after his conversion, he was a ‘Hitler Jew’, someone whom only Hitler made a Jew. For this reason, among others, he refused ever to seek sympathy by classing himself as a refugee from anti-Jewish persecution. ‘I am not … the refugee settled successfully,’ he wrote to Francesca Wilson in 1961. ‘My case was to a large extent one of losing a job (for whatever reasons) and deciding to go to a more promising country to start again. I went through a difficult year or two and then got my family over complete with removal vans.’   

People may not always directly tell the truth about themselves – although Pevsner was more scrupulous than many diarists – but in the words they use and the facts they choose to reveal (or conceal), they give themselves away, in the best as well as the worst sense, and an archive of  the richness of Pevsner’s personal papers is a biographer’s dream.

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Pevsner’s reading list

Pevsner kept diaries for over sixty years. For the first six of these years, between the ages of 12 and 18, before he had other and larger projects to catalogue, he not only wrote the diaries every day but kept minutely detailed indexes to what he had written, almost more revealing than the entries themselves.    

The diarist

 ‘Abhorrence of a vacuum’   is followed by ‘longing for a brown complexion’,  ‘nailbiting’  and  ‘the first drink’.  ‘Pevsner the poseur’ is counterbalanced by ‘dealings with his conscience’.  His views on  ‘the coming rise of the proletariat’  sit side by side with thoughts on the relative merits of trousers and bare legs. He both confesses his fear of having no talent as a scholar and congratulates himself on his new-found self-assurance.     This blog will aim, like the diaries, to provide insights into Pevsner’s character as well as angles on his work. But it won’t be indexed and the entries will come in no particular logical or chronological order.    

The reading list

 Some early clues to his interests. He thought it was worth the effort to make a list of what he had been reading: Thomas Mann above all, Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Strindberg, Dostoevsky — not many laughs here — but also Longfellow, Poe, Molière, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Bernard Shaw and Shelley. In contrast with the Buildings of England years, when he complained that he never read a novel at all, the young Pevsner seems to have tried to keep up with recent fiction as well, some of it racier than one might have expected.    

Herman Bang

Peter Altenberg (right) with Adolf Loos, c. 1905

Danish novelist Herman Bang was described by Monet as ‘the first impressionist author in the world’; his novel Families Without Hope (1880), centred on a young man’s love affair with an older woman, was banned. Peter Altenberg, Austrian poet and essayist, an influential member of the ‘Young Vienna’ movement, was a professional bohemian given to aphorisms very likely to appeal to a teenage diarist: There is only one thing indecent with nakedness, and that is to find nakedness indecent, Art is life, life is life, but to lead life artistically is the art of life, and so on.     

Richard Dehmel, 1905

Frank Wedekind (Fotografie, um 1917)

Frank Wedekind, 1917

The poet Richard Dehmel (author of the poem which Schoenberg set to music as ‘Verklärte Nacht’) was another author to cause a scandal through his championing of sex as the weapon with which to break the bonds of bourgeois morality.  Arnold Zweig was an anti-war activist, Frank Wedekind a satirist and cabaret artist who had gone to prison at the turn of the century for lèse-majesté.  Arthur Schnitzler had just written a play – Professor Bernhardi (1912) – attacking anti-semitism, and was one of the first writers in German (he was Austrian) to experiment with the stream-of-consciousness narrative.   

Theodor Storm had been consumed by his love for a very young girl – an echo, perhaps, for the sixteen-year-old Pevsner of his love for the fourteen-year-old Lola. Storm believed in the therapeutic effect of reminiscences: hard to know if Pevsner found his diaries therapeutic, but they were a habit that he would find very hard to break.