A Very Un-English Childhood

A germ, according to the British Medical Association’s Complete Family Health Encyclopedia, is

the popular term for any microorganism that causes disease. Examples include viruses and bacteria. In medicine, the word germ is used to describe simple, undifferentiated cells that are capable of developing into specialized tissues, such as the cells of the early embryo.

In this memoir of his English childhood up to the age of thirteen or so, Richard Wollheim uses the word in both senses. His mother was obsessed by bacteria, and he describes her frenzied but systematic daily onslaught on them: scrubbing, vacuuming, dusting, disinfecting, closing every door so that they wouldn’t escape from the room she was cleaning into other parts of the house, and opening every window to chase them out. (A French governess who insisted on closing every window to stop them getting in didn’t last very long.) There were plenty of servants to do the job, but Mrs. Wollheim insisted on doing it herself, and one has to be grateful to her, because her son’s description of the operation is as meticulous as the process itself, and fascinating in a way you wouldn’t believe such a subject could be:

She would begin with her own bedroom. The door would be shut, the readily moveable furniture would be put together somewhere in the middle of the room, and all the windows would be thrown open. Then, with a duster, she would brush the dust off all the tops and all the surfaces. When she was convinced that all the dust had been got out of its hiding-place, and had settled on the floor, she would first use the sweeper, or the Ewbank, with its beautiful picture of a lion in a roundel, to remove the top layer. Then there was the dust that had sunk into the pile of the carpet, and for this she relied on the vacuum cleaner, or Hoover. Any residual dust, which had not fallen on to the floor, or had fallen on to the floor but had not been sucked up either by the sweeper or by the vacuum cleaner, would probably have floated out through the window.
The boy in the memoir belongs to the second type of germ described in the encyclopedia, and this specimen was to develop into a philosopher who became a professor at University College London, then at Columbia, Berkeley, and Davis, California. He died in London in 2003 aged eighty, just before this book found a publisher. When we first see him, he is two years old and trying to walk on a path in his parents’ garden without falling over. He falls just the same; then screams in indignation. (He does a lot of screaming in the course of his book.) The tiny incident—the stumble in the garden—occupies the whole first page, and a bit of the second. It’s not that it’s in slow motion—as he fell, “the path was racing towards” him—but every second is accounted for, every sensation as well as every thought, every plan for preventing the imminent disaster of hitting the ground. Wollheim writes like no one else: the density of his prose, the detail, the intensity, the startling unexpectedness of what he says and the way he says it are unique and constantly amazing.

This book, and my manner of writing it,” he announces early on,

should make one thing about my life clear: that everything I have lived through has either been completely forgotten or is as yesterday. There is no blue to the horizon of Time.

Here, for instance, is the family chauffeur on his bicycle, arriving for work,

in his cap and his chauffeur’s suit, and I retain a picture of him, as the bicycle slowed to a halt, and, with his left foot still planted firmly down on the pedal, he swung his right leg up, up and back over the saddle, and then, for a few seconds, held it stretched out behind him, totally stiff, parallel to the ground, the blue serge held neatly in place by a black bicycle clip, which encircled the turn-up of the trouser-leg. It was only at the moment when the individual spokes on the wheel started to become visible that he brought his right foot sharply to the ground, and ran for a few seconds beside his bicycle, like a trainer with his racehorse. How I loved the majesty of that outstretched leg, held rigid in all weathers: in the soft warmed sunlight of summer mornings, in the grey rain, and when snow lay on the ground and the bicycle wheel drew a dark line through the snow.

The term “Proustian” keeps cropping up in reviews and conversations about Germs, but there is something more scientific about Wollheim’s mode, as the title suggests. You watch him, i.e., the germ, the developing cell, through a microscope, in ultra-close-up: you watch it grow and assume its shape and wriggle its way through the tissue of human society around it. Wollheim had two significant interests: one was psychology, especially psychoanalysis (which he underwent later in life); the other was aesthetics, and therefore art. When you went to an art gallery with him, he would stand so long in front of each painting that you would probably have a backache by the time you came out. And both these obsessions—for his interests always came close to obsession—can be seen maturing in Germs.

The garden where the two-year-old fell was in Weybridge. Soon afterward, the family moved to nearby Walton-on-Thames, where Richard was to spend the rest of his childhood. Both are small towns in Surrey. Wollheim calls the area suburban, but “dormitory belt” or “stockbroker belt” would be a kinder classification: one circle farther out from London, one or even two degrees more posh, and greener, though not exactly rural. Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that he seemed a very urban kind of man, his descriptions of nature, especially of changing light, are magically perceptive and detailed, atmospheric without getting overblown.

Wollheim had a brother, Jimmy, who was three years older than he was. Somewhat mysteriously he is hardly mentioned in the book, but he appears in several of the snapshots published in it (most of them so endearingly amateurish that “snapshots” seems a better word for them than “photographs”). Several of them show members of the Wollheim family grouped with dancers from the Diaghilev ballet, and in one of them little Richard is sprawling on Diaghilev’s lap. His father, Eric, was an impresario who brought the Russian ballet to London, and Diaghilev became his friend. After Diaghilev’s death Eric Wollheim moved on to presenting cabaret shows and musical comedy. Among other productions, he brought The White Horse Inn to London, and My Kingdom for a Cow by Kurt Weill. The cover picture shows Mrs. Wollheim (Connie) towering over twelve-year-old Richard and tiny Kurt Weill. Richard is pouting; he does that in nearly all the photographs.

Connie came of an undistinguished, not very highly educated West Country family. Its most interesting living member was her brother, Uncle Ted, whose naval career came to a bad end, and whose only regular job was to be Father Christmas at Harrods. Connie never, ever read a book: “I’m not a great reader,” she would say; or “I’m not really an intellectual.” She didn’t even read the papers; which was just as well, because Richard was furiously allergic to newspapers all his life. His friends had to hide them when he came to the house, but even then he could usually smell them and that made him feel sick.

Connie was a showgirl under the aegis of the musical hall producer C.B. Cochran when Eric met and married her. (Wollheim explains “an all-important difference. The outward difference was that chorus-girls moved, and showgirls did not: inwardly it was a difference in respectability.”) Her husband immediately made her leave the stage and settle in Surrey. Their son thinks this was probably a mistake, because her new life didn’t give her enough opportunities to satisfy her enormous energy and even more enormous need for admiration. His father naturally spent most of his time in London.

Eric Wollheim was cosmopolitan, fluent in French and German, a Jew and a dandy, with carefully chosen clothes and always a sprinkling of cologne. He was born in Breslau, and brought up in Hamburg before moving to Paris and then to London. Wollheim says he doesn’t know whether his father had been baptized or not. The family were certainly not observant Jews; in fact, one of his great-aunts “used to tell her children that synagogues were places where one caught germs.” Germ-consciousness sounds like a hereditary trait on both sides of the family.

At weekends glamorous stage people, mostly female, and sometimes French, German, or Austrian, would come down to Walton for lunch, and Richard seems to have enjoyed that. “I didn’t grow up English,” he says.

I did not have an English name, did not have cousins. I did not belong to a social class, and for most of the time, I did not think of myself as English, nor did I want to be English.

When he was a bit older, he liked to think of himself as a “‘citizen of the world.’ …I have always detested patriotism with a fierce hatred.” But he was by choice—or Angst—a solitary child. (Where was Jimmy? Eliminated, as far as possible, from Richard’s memory, it seems.) He didn’t want the company of other children. When taken to a birthday party he kicked and screamed until the French governess’s successor had to take him home. He never mixed with other children at the local swimming pool, though he looked at the older girls with admiring fascination.

The second, last, and lasting governess was called Miss King, and was really more of a nanny. She was the person the little boy loved, and he writes more affectionately of her than he does anyone else. He didn’t love Connie. His portrait of his mother is comical and based on wicked references to her favorite remarks about herself—herself being her overwhelming interest:

For praise, my mother came to depend increasingly upon herself. If sometimes the words came out of the lips of others, it was because she forced people to say what she made it so clear she wanted from them. “You have to agree that…,” she would begin, or “You have to give it to me that…,” and then it would turn out to be her originality, or her courage, or her independence, or her sense of humour, that we were being asked not to overlook.

She would also say “‘I do what I do,’ ‘That’s what I’m like,’ ‘You can’t change what a person’s like.’” Wollheim comments:

I do not know that I wanted to change what my mother was like, or at any rate not until many years later, by which time what I really wanted was to change her for someone else.

Still, he says she was “a woman of great beauty with strong bones, and deep-set eyes.” On the photographs, her bones certainly look strong, but her “large grey eyes” don’t seem particularly large or deep-set, though very close together.

His father “was good-looking in the only way I have really been able to think of men as good-looking: he was well-dressed.” Judging by the photographs, most people would think him ugly, at his worst in a swimsuit; but that picture was taken in the late 1910s when swimsuits were not flattering. In 1935 or 1936, he failed to come to an arrangement with the director of a Munich theater who had to explain very politely that he wasn’t allowed to employ Jewish artists. After that, Eric Wollheim makes a rather sad exit from the stage of his son’s book: “The further decline in my father’s fortunes lies outside the scope of my childhood.”

Richard Wollheim grew up in a house called the Mask:

It was the house where I learned to read and write, where I had many childhood illnesses and came to love them, where I acquired certain habits of religions and day-dreaming, which were of enormous importance to me, and where adolescence struck me.

The habits of religion did not last into his adult life, but in the period covered by this memoir, he falls to his knees often and with much intensity of feeling; and mostly—he was a child, after all—in order to ask God for something or else to prevent something from happening. The illnesses, though, kept him from having to mix with other children. It was only just before the war, when he was sixteen, that he made friends with someone his own age.

He met a girl called Jill while they were both on holiday at the seaside. They sound like soul mates—or perhaps intellect mates—discussing Auden and Marx and Dostoevsky together; and it is clear from the way he describes her gumboots and the way she runs that Richard was very drawn to her. But the letters they wrote to each other were always intercepted by Jill’s boarding school or by her parents, so they never met again. He thinks that if they had, it might have allowed him to live “the life of someone who remained the permanent convalescent that I wanted to be for ever”—a puzzling, inexplicable conclusion to their relationship. Earlier in his history, he is more specific about his pleasures of invalidism: “Much though I loved the condition of being delicate, it was from out of these years that there was born a certain fierce love of freedom.”

Richard Wollheim started writing Germs twenty years ago, but didn’t go on with it. However, “the desire to write it had remained inside me like a benign lump. Now it seemed to be growing.” The sinister metaphor could be read as a symptom of an obsession with health and sickness, but it is certainly arresting and even brave. He was often sick in his childhood. When he was, presumably, four or five years old, he was sent to a nearby school. At the end of the first week, he got into a fight (he hadn’t meant to) with other children as they all waited outside the building to be picked up by their parents. The other boys turned on him. When his mother arrived, “I scrambled into the car, and by the time I reached home, I felt feverish.”

The fever turned into pleurisy, followed by a string of other ailments. His father bought him one of those hospital tables that tilt over the bed and he loved reading from it. “The table was my favorite companion for many years, and I still possess it.” He wasn’t sent back to school for several years afterward, and so “the epoch of governesses” began. The beloved and long-lasting Miss King spent a lot of time reading to him—especially Walter Scott—approved of by the family doctor. When she skipped a footnote, as his parents had told her to do, he screamed. So then she’d leave the room pretending to get something for him, and let him read the footnote for himself.

The Waverley novels became the scene of an imaginary life and he would sit on the lavatory as on a throne, being “a king, King Canute, or a great prince, though also a bard” while he waited for someone to come to wipe his bottom. This phase ended when he was at last allowed to do that for himself; and one of the poker-faced comic high spots in his memoir is the detailed lesson in paper tearing and folding that preceded his new freedom. “This small incident was probably the greatest increase in personal responsibility that my childhood had in store for me. It is what I think of when I hear moral philosophers discuss responsibility.”

Germs has only three chapters. The last is called “Love and Fear.” After newspapers, Wollheim’s greatest chronic fear was sunlight after rain. There is no explanation: it came upon him one rainy afternoon when he’d been allowed to go to the cinema, and by the time he came out, the wet pavement and leaves were glistening in the sun, and he was panic-stricken by the sight. As for love, a sentence from John Updike’s Villages quoted by John Banville in a recent review in this paper sums up Wollheim’s take on women as much as Updike’s: “How little men deserve the beauty and mercy of women!”*

as the natural habitat of love, I did not envisage this condition as one of pain. Rather I conceived of the pangs of love as a sort of internal flame, which warmed the soul rather than burned or singed it, and it gave a sumptuousness to women in glorious contrast to the partially frozen condition in which men, grown-up men, passed their lives.

Wollheim was fifteen when he first read the pièces condamnées from Les Fleurs du Mal:

So much of life, so many things that had been kept from me, suddenly became clear, and Baudelaire became one of my great prophets.

From this time onwards, an image of great vividness, of great poignancy, of some delicious sadness, haunted me in a number of variations. Often, when I went to foreign films, I hoped to see the very scenario enacted on the screen. I state it in a particular version, but there were many, many completely interchangeable, completely equivalent, versions.

In the one he describes a man, a girl, and a slightly older woman sit together in a room. The man looks at the girl, who looks at the slightly older woman, who eventually gets up and leaves. Then she returns. “The man sighs, he is close to fainting, and the girl who remains weighs up the careful balance of pleasure and pain that this elegance of despair gives her.” “The elegance of despair” has a fin de siècle ring to it, and as told by Wollheim, the scene is melancholy and tense at the same time. And this is his conclusion:

In a world in which women love women, a man might come to win a woman’s love. He could try, in thought, in speech, in gesture, to become as like women as nature would permit, in much the same way as, within religion, which was only just beginning to lose its command over me, or perhaps to exchange one form of command for another, the believer tries to come closer to Christ through the imitation of Christ. The way to a woman’s heart, I had come to believe, was along the hard, stony, arduous track of effeminacy.

This strange conclusion is the strangest thing in a very strange book.

His memoir has some flash-forwards, and one of them casts a light—a very oblique light—on the same idea. It is during the war; he is twenty years old, an officer in the army, and stationed near enough to London to spend many evenings nightclubbing there with “young effete officers from the Brigade of Guards, and middle-aged aesthetes, and druggy women in dark glasses.” He is mortified to be the only one who hasn’t lost his virginity, so one night he travels up to London alone for the sole purpose of doing just that. He wanders around and around the Piccadilly area for a long time before he finds a sweet nineteen-year-old French prostitute who takes him to her room. They both cry—she for her brother in the French navy, and he—for her? He achieves what he came for, and on the way downstairs “I knew that what I wanted, and wanted inordinately, was, not so much to have her, though I also wanted that, as to be her.” Because women, to him, were so infinitely much better than men.

Wollheim says that the only other time he ever spoke of that evening in London was “one warm night in the early 1990s, when I was staying alone with IB in Oxford.” IB is Isaiah Berlin; SS is Stephen Spender; BA is Boris Anrep—easily guessed because Wollheim describes him as a mosaicist, of whom there aren’t many; and some readers of Germs would know that he was the artist who made the mosaics in the entrance to the National Gallery. There are lots of other acquaintances and friends closeted behind their initials, but the silliest example is “Lucienne B,” who sings “Parlez-moi d’amour” to little Richard when she comes down to Walton for lunch.

Guessing the initials in Germs has become a party game among London intellectuals. But that doesn’t stop them from admiring Wollheim’s memoir, which was chosen by several distinguished writers as their “book of the year.” If reviews of his work seem too full of quotations, it is because Wollheim’s writing is indescribable—except possibly by him. It is as though he were both the analyst and the patient on the couch, both of them with a remarkable and idiosyncratic prose.

  1. *

    The New York Review, December 16, 2004.