Tuesday, July 31, 2012

From Grandfather’s Diary: WWII, Ulysses, and Proust

My paternal grandfather, Axel Benzon, was a Dane. He and his wife, Louise, immigrated to America early in the 20th Century. He was educated as an engineer and knew Greek sufficiently well that he wrote poetry in Greek. He ended his professional career as chief engineer, I believe, of the main US Post Office in Manhattan.

And he kept a diary, the pages of which are generically entitled: “Leaves from my diary.” It’s not a handwritten affair, kept in one of those blank books one can buy at a stationary store. It’s typed on ordinary 8.5 by 11 paper. I’ve got a photocopy of much or most of it, but, judging by his index, not all.

Here’s the opening paragraphs from the entry for 14 April 1940:
Sunday and cloudy with occasionally a little snow-a good day to remain indoors and listen to the war news from Europe. These news are coming in frequently but are most confusing and it is difficult from the british and german dispatches to a form a true picture about the situation in all parts of Norway.

The Danish goose is cooked – there the germans are in possession of all parts and are now fortifying points of vantage, especially the northernmost part of Jutland from where they can dominate a great port of Skagerak and Kartegat.

The invasion of Norway was a masterstroke, no matter how it turns out. It gave evidence of the usual german thoroughness and precision and coupled with the fact that the german navy is so much inferior to that of the English it has been most successful and must have taken the English by surprise.
As you can imagine, his reflections are much occupied by the war. But not entirely so. For example, he also talks of his fondness for the game of golf and playing it on public courses in New York City—he lived in Jackson Heights at the time. I rather imagine that THAT land has long since been given over to building of one sort or another. In fact, at one point he mentions exactly that.

But that’s not what I’m after here, nor his enumeration of Christmas gifts. Though as I did not mark those specific passages I have to do a bit of looking around in order to find them, which may take awhile. And, of course, in looking around, I spot things. For example, this paragraph from a letter to one of his daughters, Karen, on 20 April 1940:
You are affected by the insensate sacrifice to the voracious Moloch of the flower of youth driven to the slaughter by monsters whose greed can never be sated and by the senseless destruction of the fruits of toilers whose only earthly desire is to be permitted peacefully to toil as long as they can labor.

How are your aunts and cousins in Denmark, and how is aunt Kate in Oslo with her two boys? Pity for they have toiled and suffered for many years until lately they all felt reasonably secure to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Well-I often ask myself this question – and we cannot help, cannot even communicate with them.

But let these blows not deprive you of the desire to continue your own life as happily and peacefully as you are privileged to do. You are born in an age different from that in which your parents were born and in a country different from the little pastoral Denmark. The premature invasion into your time of an unbridled science which as a colt breathlessly has galloped over your era will in time be curbed and led into the field of anthropology where it will either destroy or make useful the parasitic growth that now is the cause of our folly and inhumanity.
I wonder what he would think of “shock and awe” or of drones?

From a letter of 19 May 1940, talking about one of is fellow expatriate Danes:
Some time ago when Bang from Baltimore visited us he lamented about the poor condition in which Denmark was situated with respect to defend herself against an aggressor. The Finnish war was on at that time and we were filled with reports about the bravery of the Finns. The Danes could do as well and it would be better to go down in glory than to give in without a fight.

Poor Bang, he still lives in a world of illusion. He did not see that the news we received from Finland were all highly colored and that Finland was doomed. And still, he wanted Denmark to defend herself from german invasion.
I wonder what he’d think about The New York Times reporting on Iraq, or Afghanistan. Would he think that Tom Friedman is as lost in illusion as his countryman Bang?

From 8 June 1940:
With all this misery in Europe things are quiet at the Post Office. Mail is not heavy and we can take our vacations knowing that there are hard times ahead of us so far as money is concerned. We must be glad is [sic] our salaries are not cut, for that in addition to increased taxation will be hard to bear.
He was waiting for the war to get worse. What are we waiting for? The war in Afghanistan to end? For climate chaos to get worse, and worse? I rather suspect that Grandfather would have been had little trouble accepting the data on climate change.

From 14 August 1940:
At the Post office we are preparing for registering the aliens. This gives me more work for we have to build a number for typewrite desks and other things that have to be used. We do much work in the Post Office other than handling mail.
2 December 1940:
Incidentally I listened to [H.G.] Wells the other day over the radio and was shocked to hear how feeble was his voice – hardly distinguishable – but the old radical spirit was there undaunted – he really sounded as were he speaking from one of the many and deep shell holes dug by the barbaric german bombers in the relics from the old Londinium.
There's that late 19th Century education for you, and he was educated as an engineer, not a preacher or a diplomat.

7 December 1941:
It is cold today on this Sunday but the wires or rather the air is hot with reports about the attack of the Japanese air forces upon Hawaii this morning when five civilians and apparently three hundred fifty soldiers were killed. It is also reported that a large battleship was set afire and two others sunk...

The Dutch East Indies and the republic of Costa Rica have declared war on Japan.

10 pm. Canada has declared war on Japan.
Ah, at last, one of the two passages I’ve been looking for. This entry is mostly personal and family stuff. 8 September 1941:
From Billy we finally got words today. They have moved and are now settled in the town. It was not all good news in his letter for Betty’s mother is bedridden with a bad heart and his former landlady presumably has cancer.

He has further more lost his nice golf clubs – they were mislaid by a caddie in a wrong automobile when he went in for a drink and now after ten days he has not gotten them yet. That is a serious loss and I sympathize with him for he had a very good set of clubs.
Billy is my father and Betty, his wife, my mother. Grandfather goes on to report on a book he’s been reading, The Managerial Revolution by Burnham (whoever he was), that offers “another alternative to capitalism than socialism namely the ruling of the country by a new class of managers.” He says a bit more about the book and then: “I agree with him in most of his points, but if that is not socialism as I understand it then I do not know what it is. Socialism as he defines it is the Utopia which, if we should try to establish it now would be anarchism and chaos.” I don’t think Grandfather had much objection to socialism, though I rather suspect he wouldn’t think too much of the financial managers who run the world these days.

At last, as he continues talking about his reading, he closes with this:

Also a book by Frank Buck, the animal dealer and a novel by Storm “Count Ten” which I should read at least twice in order to understand it properly. The style is somewhat like that of Ulysses and it deals with a man who does not know what he should do by tries his utmost to live a life of decenty wherein he can retain his selfrespect [sic].

Never heard of this Storm or his novel, though the Wikipedia has, but that’s not what caught my eye. You see, when I went off to college I thought of myself as a fairly literate young chap and so was taken aback a bit to hear these people raving on about some book called Ulysses that I’d never heard of. And here I am, leafing through my grandfather’s diary and I come upon a mention of that very book as though any well-read person would know it. By the time I got to college, well, that’s where you’d find Ulysses, in the literature curriculum. But Grandfather was well out of college by the time the book had been published. He must have read it because that’s what he did.

As for the mention of Proust, I’ve done a bit of searching and can’t find it. Grandfather was talking, not about his own reading, but about his wife’s. I forget just what she was reading, though I don’t think it was Proust. But it must have been something French, which gave him a reason to bring up Proust. Judging from his comment I don’t think he’d read him. What he said was that he’d been told the English translation was so much better than the original that a re-translation back into French would have been a considerable improvement.

Other than his wife, just who did this man talk too in his daily life? He doesn’t mention any New York friends who share his interests.

And then there’s the fuss over the appointment of Bertrand Russell to a position at City College.

And so on.

All during the run-up to World War II.

Addendum: The Proust passage, 22 November 1938:
Talking about books I think mama [his wife] is on the way to become literary. She was interested in Anatole France some time ago and read some of his books, and now she is buried in Marcel Proust. Whether she is enjoying their language or their outpourings of both I do no know for she does not say much about it. Anatole France’s language is of course concise, clear and classically French and is therefore enjoyable...

...As to Proust it is said that the translation into english is so much better than the french edition that if it were retranslated into french it would be a much better book. The french language is not adapted to the outpourings of the quickly decaying spirit departing disillusioned from the splendor that was nothing less than a stinking dungheap as was the fate of Proust. He longed for what he thought was the highest he could think of on this earth; he found it discovered is was rottenness. But just the same his description is more worth than Dos Passos’ description of the world as he found it in the twenties, to take an example.

Mama enjoys her reading more than she enjoys bringing up flowers or plants.

2 comments:

  1. He wrote in Greek? He rewrote some of the Greek myths in English.
    His intellectual lens was formidable and forbidding; he was a bitter man. I always experienced equal parts shock, dismay, and empathy toward him. He would rather be feared by people walking softly around him than risk the small talk of conversation that brings simple laughter.

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  2. I thought he had, that is, written in Greek. If not -- I believe you have whatever he wrote -- he read the language.

    The bitterness, or perhaps its prelude, shows here and there in the diary entries. By the time we knew him he'd gone blind and so couldn't do any of the things he'd enjoyed.

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