The Confessions of Josef Baisz
King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust
These are, all three, novels about powerlessness and power. All three prowl about the margins—in time, in place, in morbid psychology—of fascist dictatorship, the mighty ideology of the gutter which promised every derelict that he too could have muscles. If the strong gave forth sweetness, these novels are more interested in the sour poison which is sweated by the weak.
Beryl Bainbridge has written a great deal, with compassion and cunning, about the weak. Sometimes they are women, locked into some male-constructed paddock whose grass is growing thin but whose gate is rusted shut. Sometimes, but much less often, they are men. There is something of the pasha in the gaudy display and bulging bellies and bedroom tyranny of most of Bainbridge’s men, but a few turn out as pathetic as only an aging pasha jostled by infidels can be. All of her novels, in more or less explicit ways, are about an increasingly bewildered and helpless England, the display gone shabby and the belly sagging and the knack of tyranny lost somewhere, a kindly but uncomprehending old country giving up hope of understanding the younger world, suffering some pain now and feeling the cold more.
But in this new, amazing short novel, she has taken up a helplessness that doesn’t finally resign itself. The idea is disconcerting. The young Hitler, escaping from the Vienna doss house, comes to spend a month with his relations in Liverpool. In their grotesque, hand-to-mouth household, he passes a few weeks. Then, as pallid, erratic, and hysterical as he came, he takes the train home again.
There is some basis for this. Hitler’s half-brother Alois lived in Liverpool for a time. He married there, and a baby called Pat was indeed born (he changed his name, and is very possibly living in the United States, a senior citizen, to this day). From time to time, the bar regulars at the Liverpool Press Club pass around the old legend that Adolf Hitler visited the city, presumably some time in the blank space between his departure from the Männerheim in Vienna and his arrival in Munich in 1913. If he did visit England, Hitler certainly never mentioned the fact to anyone afterward. And—more to the point—neither did Alois, who soon abandoned his wife, returned to Berlin, and in the Thirties ran an extremely successful pub there, much frequented by foreign journalists. It’s a Liverpool myth, no more. But myth is now a great part of what Liverpudlians are left to hold on to. Myth, and the railings.
“It being now one hour into Sunday morning and a day of rest ahead, there were still people in the streets, many of them walking the worse for drink or hanging on to railings, too confused to advance further.” Liverpool is Beryl Bainbridge’s city, the place of most of her novels so far. Even in 1912, when “Young Adolf” arrives at Lime Street Station, his only luggage a copy of Karl May’s Old Shatterhand, this is already a…
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