Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Book of the Month: Selling Hitler (Robert Harris)

In 1983, on the fiftieth anniversary of the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, Stern, a respected magazine in (what at that time was) West Germany, made a sensational announcement. Stern had discovered 27 volumes of the personal diaries of Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party and Germany’s dictator from 1933 to 1945.  Stern had sold the British serialization rights to Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the News Corporation, and the story appeared simultaneously in the Sunday Times, in Britain. 

In less than two weeks of the announcement, the sensational diaries (which contained roughly 50,000 words), were proven beyond doubt to be forgeries. The affair cost Stern several millions deutschmarks; the reputations of a few suffered setbacks; and the careers of a few were destroyed.

Novelist Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, first published in 1986 (Harris was a BBC journalist at the time and a few years away from writing his blockbuster novels), is a riveting account of how a small time crook—thanks to a combination of greed of few, incompetence of some, and hubris of many (including renowned historians, hard-nosed managers within Stern, and experienced journalists)—came to play a gigantic hoax on the world and almost got away with it.

The person who faced the full wrath and derision of the world when the diaries were proven to be fakes was the Stern reporter Gerd Heidmann. Born in 1931, Heidmann was a member of ‘Hitler’s Youth’. At the time of the publication of the diaries, Heidmann had worked for Stern for more than 25 years. His reputation within Stern, until then, was not exactly scintillating. He was regarded as someone who might have been able to gather material for a story but not actually able to make a story out of it, the job falling to the real journalists. Heidmann deeply resented this insinuation, although he had, through the 1970s, accepted advanced payments from his employers for writing books which he had failed to deliver. Heidmann was also a man who, it would be fair to say, found it near impossible to put a distance between him and the subject of his research (in a very loose sense of the term). In the 1970s Heidmann began researching the memorabilia of the Third Reich—for which there was apparently not inconsiderable demand, especially in West Germany and America (according to Selling Hitler)—and found himself getting increasingly immersed in the shadowy world of the German Nazis. The Nazis Heidmann fraternised with included Hans Baur (Hitler’s personal pilot), Otto Guensche (Hitler’s SS adjutant—the man who burned the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun after they committed suicide), as well as high profile Nazis who had escaped the Nuremberg trials, such as Karl Wolff and Wilhelm Mohnke—the man known as Hitler’s ‘last general’ following his spirited, if hopeless, fight against the advancing Russians as Berlin fell and his master blew his brains out with a pistol in his bunker. On an impulse Heidmann bought Carin II, the yacht that once belonged to Herman Goering himself. Around that time he briefly had a relationship with Edda Goering, the only child of Herman Goering. The yacht was in a state of great disrepair and Heidmann simply did not have the means to maintain it. He tried to sell it, using a former Nazi as a middle-man; however even after he brought down the price from over a million deutschmarks to just under three quarters of a million, there was no interest. As a result Heidmann was forced to take loans from Stern and was heavily in debt by the time the 1980s arrived. It would appear that as Heidmann ‘researched’ more and more into the dark depths of the Nazi rule of Germany, his perspective towards the Third Reich began to change. He began regularly wining and dining with the Nazis, and, when he married his third wife (for the fourth time), Gina, a friend of Edda Goering, who shared Heidmann’s interests in the Nazis, he requested Karl Wolff and Wilhelm Mohnke to be witnesses (they obliged). For his honeymoon Heidmann—with Karl Wolff in tow—went sailing in the South American sea where he spent the next nine weeks searching for Joseph Mengele and Martin Bormann. Wolff introduced Heidmann to Klaus Barbie—the ‘Butcher of Lyons’ and a notorious war criminal. Heidmann would boast of his friendship with Barbie in the years to come.  Heidmann became increasingly obsessed with collecting memorabilia of the Third Reich. In his quest to hoard as many things as he could that might have had an outside chance of having been associated with the Fuhrer, Heidmann came into contact with a wealthy South German, Fritz Stiefel, who had a private collection of Hitler memorabilia. It was Stiefel who showed Heidmann what he believed was a personal diary of Adolf Hitler.

At this stage enters the second protagonist of the story—Konrad Kujau who had more aliases than you and I have had hot meals. Originally from East Germany Kujau crossed the border and entered West Germany a year before the wall went up. A compulsive liar, Kujau led a life of petty larceny throughout the sixties, getting into trouble with the police on innumerable occasions. Although he had not, at that time, embarked upon his career in forgery, Kujau had shown awesome talent for weaving fantastic stories explaining his past, education, and means of subsistence. Sometime in the 1970s Kujau hit upon the idea of swindling gullible hunters of Nazi relics, and started ‘creating’ fake originals. It started off as Kujau smuggling genuine Nazi military memorabilia, via illegal trade, into West where (it would appear) there was an unending demand for such bizarreries, from the Communist East Germany where (it would seem) there was a ready supply. Sometime in the early 1970s Kujau ‘discovered’ the latent artist in him. He began introducing forgeries into the genuine material. And when it came to Hitler Kujau had many opportunities: not only could he copy Hitler’s handwriting, he could also forge his paintings. Stiefel was one of Kujau’s customers.

When the Nazi obsessed Heidmann saw Stiefel’s Hitler diary, he knew he was onto the scoop of the decade. Soon he tracked down Kujau, except Kujau was calling himself Fischer, in Stuttgart. Kujau, at this time, ran a cleaning business and a shop of Third Reich memorabilia. Kujau weaved (yet another) fantastic story for Heidmann: he had a brother in the East German army, who had managed to get his hands on to the Nazi stash that included Hitler’s personal diaries. For a price Kujau was willing to smuggle the diaries out of East Germany. Heidmann, without running even a rudimentary search, swallowed Kujau’s story hook, line and sinker. This may not be as surprising as it may seem at first: this was a man who believed Martin Bormann was still alive and leading a secret life in Spain, Switzerland and South America. What is surprising is Heidmann, who, until then, had not produced any material of significance for Stern in his more than twenty years of service, managed to bypass the editors and convince the management that they could get their hands on to a scoop that would fetch the magazine millions. The management, with utmost secrecy—the editors of the magazine and Heidmann’s immediate managers (who did not think highly of the reporter at all) were kept totally in the dark for a long time—colluded with Heidmann’s plan. Heidmann became the contact person with Kujau (although until the very end he kept the identity of the supplier secret from the management) and was, in effect, provided with a carte blanche to obtain Hitler’s diaries.

The reader reads with disbelief as tens of thousands of deutschmarks were made available to Heidmann to buy each of the diaries. It is estimated that Stern spent a total of 9 million deutschmarks to obtain the diaries. It is also estimated that Heidmann siphoned off roughly half of the amount to support a Sybaritic life-style as well as to indulge fully in his all consuming passion of collecting Hitler memorabilia for his personal collection. (And Kujau obliged. In Heidmann’s personal collection was the pistol which, Heidmann believed, Hitler used to kill himself. Kujau, very helpfully, had also supplied a note from Martin Bormann confirming that the Fuhrer committed suicide with the pistol! Kujau also told Heidmann that he could smuggle out of East Germany the original manuscript of Mein Kamfp!)

What is really breathtaking is the sheer scale of the forgery and Kujau’s industriousness. All in all, sitting in his attic in Stuttgart, Kujau produced 27 personal diaries of Adolf Hitler. All were written in the old Germanic script, and each page of the diary was initialled by Hitler! He also produced (for a hefty fee of course) Hitler’s ‘personal notes’ on the Hess affair, which ‘showed’ that the Fuhrer was aware of Hess’s flight because he (Hitler) wanted a peace treaty with Britain, and that he declared Hess insane only because the mission failed.

Stern did seek opinions from handwriting experts, all of whom opined that the handwriting was probably Hitler’s; but, crucially, Stern did not subject the diaries to forensic tests which would have proved, in a matter of days, that the diaries, in fact, were crude forgeries: the paper used for the diaries as well as the typewriter on which the diaries were typed were post-World War. When the editors of the magazine were belatedly taken into confidence, their scepticism of Heidmann’s discoveries was brushed aside, and they were ordered to tow the ‘party line’. (The editors, Peter Koch in particular, fought a heroic battle when the scandal blew up in the magazine’s face. For all his efforts Koch was made the scapegoat and made to step down when Stern was forced to accept that the diaries were forgeries; which he did, but not before claiming more than a million deutschmarks in severance fees.)

Two British historians played important, if slightly peripheral, roles in the whole affair. One of them was the pompous Hugh Trevor-Roper, who, at that time, was the master of Peterhouse, one of the oldest and most conservative collages in Cambridge, UK. He had also managed to become, through his connections, an Independent National Director of Times Newspapers. Rupert Murdoch who had bought Times had no time for the ‘establishment waxworks’ such as Trevor-Roper (so the reader is informed in Selling Hitler) but had allowed the historian—known for his sharp tongue, intellectual arrogance and insistence on the kind of dinner table etiquettes that would not have been out of place in Victorian Britain—to be one of the independent directors because he was told that that would enhance his chances of buying Times in class-ridden Britain.

Trevor-Roper (who had also managed to become Lord Dacre of Glanton by this time) was considered in the UK as something of an authority on Hitler. His reputation rested on two books, one which he wrote and another which he edited.

In September 1945, Brigadier Dick White (who later became the chief of both MI5 and MI6) was tasked with preparing a report (in six weeks) on what had happened to Hitler. White delegated the mission (codenamed Operation Nursery) to Trevor-Roper, who was, at that time, his intelligence officer. With the zeal befitting an amateur detective Trevor-Roper interviewed those who were close to Hitler in his last moments (and were still alive). The fruition of the investigation was a book entitled The Last Days of Hitler, which was regarded as a masterpiece in Britain (and banned behind the Iron Curtain). The consensus on how Hitler ended his life is derived from Trevor-Roper’s investigations. Trevor-Roper also edited, introduced, and helped publish another book entitled Hitler’s Table Talk, which was based on the extensive notes kept (on Martin Bormann’s orders) of what passed for conversation when Hitler had his dinner, and during which the Fuhrer expatiated on wide-ranging subjects. (It would seem that there wasn’t a subject on which the Nazi dictator didn’t have an opinion: from the origins of the planet to the superiority of air-cooled engines, the inability of the English to perform Shakespeare and the legends of ancient Greece—the Fuhrer had a view on everything; and these frenzied, semi-deranged soliloquies were recorded verbatim by the slavish Martin Bormann.) When Rupert Murdoch became interested in the Hitler diaries, Trevor-Roper was asked to fly to Switzerland (where, in the vault of a bank, Stern, whose paranoia about the material leaking out had reached unprecedented levels, had kept the diaries) and give his views on whether the diaries were authentic. Trevor-Roper, who was not known for his trusting nature, confirmed that the diaries were genuine. Trevor-Roper wrote in the Times:

‘When I entered the back room in the Swiss bank, and turned the pages of those volumes, my doubts gradually dissolved. I am now satisfied that the documents are authentic; that the history of their wanderings since 1945 is true; and that the standard accounts of Hitler’s writing habits, of his personality, and even, perhaps, some public events may, in consequence, have to be revised.’

Trevor-Roper would begin to have doubts about his own judgment fairly soon after this and he would partially recant his opinion in the news-conference Stern arranged to convince the world that the diaries were genuine, after allegations were levelledthat the diaries were not genuine; however, it would be too little too late and Trevor-Roper’s reputation would be severely damaged.

The other British historian, who (unlike Trevor-Roper) did not have a reputation to lose, was the right wing David Irving. In 2006 Irving went to prison because of his views on the Holocaust; in the 1980s he was regarded in Britain—in a kind of grotesque euphemism that only the British seem capable of—as a ‘maverick’ because of the very same views. Irving had published a book entitled Hitler’s War which was widely criticised (and consequently sold well) because of his portrayal of Hitler. (Irving’s stated purpose was to portray Hitler as an ordinary man and not as a diabolical figure.) Needless to say the book and its author were very popular amongst the neo-Nazis and the Holocaust-deniers. Irving, who routinely met with right-wing, neo-Nazi groups, was approached in the 1980s by a German man called August Priesack. Priesack—‘Professor’ Priesack as he called himself—had reached the pinnacle of his career in the 1930s when he was employed by the Nazi party to track down Hitler’s paintings. (His task was to buy up as many paintings as he could and then sort out the genuine from the fake; it would appear that fake Hitler paintings were flooding the markets even then.) After the Second World War Priesack’s fortunes had predictably nosedived. And now he wanted Irving’s help because he was in trouble. The previous year Priesack had brought out a book containing hitherto unpublished photographs of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. The Bavarian authorities had charged Priesack with contravening anti-Nazi legislation. Priesack, who had greatly admired Hitler’s War, was hoping that Irving would provide him with a character reference! It was in his meeting with Priesack that Irving first became aware of the story of Hitler’s diaries. How did Priesack know about their existence? Because Fritz Stiefel had earlier approached the ‘professor’ to seek his views on the authenticity of the Hitler’s diary Kujau had sold him. Priesack had seen the Hitler’s diary at Stiefel’s residence where he had also met Konrad Kujau. The content of the diary in Stiefel’s possession was (like the diaries Kujau would later sell to Heidmann) utterly trivial and banal. Despite this the ‘professor’ had no doubt that the diary was genuine. He had even paid an emotional tribute to Kujau. ‘You,’ Priesack told Kujau, ‘are our salvation. You must find more documents. History will thank you.’ (Kujau did ‘find’ several more documents—27 more volumes of Hitler’s diary to be exact—and went to prison for his efforts. History did not thank him.) It was this story that Priesack passed on to Irving during their meeting. (By this time Kujau was passing himself as a middleman, and had invented a brother in the East German army who, ‘at great personal risk’ and ‘bribing several Communist officials’, was helping to smuggle the diaries out of East Germany). Priesack had made photocopies of a few pages of the Hitler diary he had seen at Stiefel’s residence. He passed them on to Irving. The day after his meeting with Priesack, Irving sat down to examine the photocopies. Although he was no hand-writing expert or a Forensic analyst, Irving reached the inescapable conclusion in less than 3 hours: the diary was a forgery. Irving came to this conclusion simply by reading the diary carefully and discovering that several words were written differently in different documents (which suggests that Kujau was not a particularly accomplished forger, after all) and a number of words were misspelt. Irving noted in his personal diary:

‘By lunch-time I was unfortunately satisfied that the Priesack collection was stuffed with fake documents.’

At this time Irving (according to Selling Hitler) was in deep financial trouble, following a rancorous and costly divorce. When he got wind of the news that Stern was on the verge of announcing their sensational discovery of Hitler’s diaries, Irving swung into action. He went to rival newspapers as well as television channels (in West Germany), and gave a spree of interviews (at very handsome fees) in which he denounced the documents as fakes. (Selling Hitler informs that Irving earned £15,000 in less than a month.) He even turned up at the conference Stern organized (which Hugh Trevor-Roper also attended) when the scandal began snowballing, and disrupted the conference by waving the photocopies of the fake documents he had in his possession. Irving was however a man of altogether lesser moral fibre. His involvement in this affair was entirely dictated by self-interest. He wanted to string along the controversy for as long as he could (more television interviews and newspaper articles). When he realised, upon his return to England from West Germany, that the brouhaha was settling down (because most now believed that the documents were forgeries), Irving gave an interview to the BBC saying that he had changed his mind and now thought the diaries were genuine. It did not work, as the forensic tests (which Stern should have carried out at the beginning) proved beyond doubt that the diaries were fakes. However, as mentioned earlier, it wasn’t as if Irving (as observed bitterly by Peter Koch, the editor of Stern) had a reputation to lose.

Why would anyone give serious consideration to the notion that Adolf Hitler, during his years in power—his schedule crammed with murdering millions of Jews and invading countries and ushering Europe into a disastrous war—had the time to write diaries, especially when he was supposed to have remarked in the 1940s that he hated writing?

Selling Hitler provides two possible explanations. The first one is rooted in an anecdote recounted by Hans Baur, Hitler’s personal pilot, in his memoir, entitled Hitler’s Pilot, which was published in the 1950s. The anecdote in turn relates to a true historical event. On 20 April 1945, as Hitler ‘celebrated’ his 56th and final birthday, a mission codenamed ‘Operation Seraglio’ began. This involved evacuating about 80 members of Hitler’s entourage from his Berlin bunker to a destination in South Germany, where the Nazis had half-formulated a plan to form a new centre of command in the event of Berlin’s fall to the allied forces which, at this stage, was imminent. (Hitler himself had refused to leave, as had Eva Braun, his companion of several years. Braun would achieve her life-long ambition of becoming Mrs Hitler within the next 9 days, and would kill herself, along with Hitler, the day after the marriage.) Hans Baur had managed to make two planes available for the mission. In addition to people, a mass of official government documents, personal papers, personal properties and valuables—filling ten trunks—were loaded onto the two planes. One of the planes was to be flown by Major Friedrich Gundlfinger, a veteran of the Russian front. It was the plane Gudlfinger was flying that did not complete the journey. Gudlfinger’s plane crashed into the Heidenholz forest close to the Czech border, very near to a small German village of Boernersdorf. All the trunks, carrying documents, on the plane went missing—possibly destroyed, possibly stolen by the villagers who rushed to the spot after the plane crashed. The information that Gudlfinger’s plane had gone missing was relayed to General Baur in Berlin; and it fell to Baur to inform the Fuhrer that one of the planes in ‘operation Seraglio’ had gone missing. Ten years later, in his memoir (Hitler’s Pilot) Baur recorded Hitler’s reaction when he heard the news. Hitler, Baur recalled, ‘became very pale’, and asked which plane had gone missing. When informed that it was the plane Gudlfinger was flying, Hitler (according to Baur’s memoir) appeared ‘very upset’. He then uttered words (recorded in the memoir) that would cause much mischief forty years later. ‘In that plane,’ Hitler exclaimed, ‘were all my private archives that I had intended as a testament to posterity. It is a catastrophe!’ When Konrad Kujau invented a brother in the East German army who, he (Kujau) claimed had got his hands on the stash from this plane, the Nazi-obsessed Heidmann had no trouble in accepting the hypothesis that the trunks on Gundlfinger’s plane contained Hitler’s personal diaries, which had somehow survived the crash. Heidmann, with a colleague from Stern, even made a trip to the sleepy hamlet of Boernersdorf (at that time in East Germany) and confirmed from the older villagers that there indeed had been a plane crash in the dying days of the Third Reich. From this information Heidmann made the leap of faith that the diaries Kujau was passing on to him were genuine Hitler diaries that were on this plane. This is the second explanation Selling Hitler provides as to why Kujau’s improbable story was believed. Kujau was believed because people wanted to believe him; either because they had lost their perspective (Heidmann) in their mania for the Third Reich memorabilia, or because they were desperate for a sensational story (management of Stern)—which they thought would bring them fame and money—and had taken leave of their common sense.

Heidmann and Kujau’s worlds came crashing when the diaries were shown, beyond doubt, to be false, and Stern was forced to accept that they had made a monumental error of judgement. The Stern management forced Heidmann to finally reveal who his contact was. After that he was summarily fired and Stern announced that they would be pressing charges against him for fraud. Stern accepted that Heidmann genuinely believed that the forged diaries were genuine; the fraud charges related to the money (meant for the diaries) he had siphoned off. As the spokesperson for Stern said, ‘Heidmann has not just been deceived, he too is a deceiver.’ The name Heidmann supplied to Stern was Konrad Fischer (which was what Kujau had told his name was to Heidmann). Kujau realised the balloon was going up when he read in the newspapers (in Stuttgart) about the controversy. He phoned Heidmann, telling him that he was phoning from Czechoslovakia. A distraught Heidmann told him that the diaries were fakes. ‘Who could have forged so much?’ Heidmann demanded to know. ‘Oh my God,’ wailed Kujau, ‘oh my God!’ Heidmann told him that both of them were going to end up in prison. ‘Come on,’ pleaded Heidmann, ‘where did you get the books from?’ ‘They are from East Germany, man.’ Kujau replied.

Kujau was of course not in Czechoslovakia; but neither was he in Stuttgart. He was in the Austrian industrial town of Dornbirn, near the Bavarian border, holed up in the house of the parents of his mistress. His plan was to sit it out in Austria till things cooled off. That was not going to happen. Every day on the Austrian television was news about the fake diaries. It was Kujau’s turn to feel shocked and betrayed when he learned that Stern had given Heidmann a total of 9 million deutschmarks to buy the diaries. Kujau had received at most a quarter of the sum. The deceiver had been deceived. Kujau, bitterly upset, phoned his lawyer in Stuttgart and learned that the Hamburg State Prosecutors were looking for him. The police had broken into Kujau’s premises and, watched by a gaggle of reporters, had removed evidence: ten cartons and two sacks full of books about Hitler, correspondence, newspaper cuttings, a copy of Mein Kamfp and artists’ material. Kujau contacted the Hamburg prosecutor and told him that he was willing to surrender voluntarily. Kujau returned to Germany and, over the next ten days, stuck to his original story—that he was only a middleman and the diaries had indeed come from East Germany. But, true to form, he weaved another story. It was not his brother but another man, called ‘Mirdorf’, whom Kujau had known when he was living in East Germany, who had supplied Kujau with the diary, which Kujau had sold to Fritz Stiefel. Later, after Heidmann became aware of the diary and pressed Kujau to provide more diaries, Kujau contacted ‘Mirdorf’ and obtained more diaries. This was a wildly improbable story and the Hamburg prosecutors had no trouble demolishing it. The only part of Kujau’s story that was true was that he had not received 9 million deutschmarks from Heidmann.

As Heidmann had predicted both he and Kujau were charged with fraud; both were found guilty and were sent to prison for 4 and 3 years respectively. During the trial Heidmann went completely to pieces, while Kujau revelled in the notoriety and gave interviews to magazines from his cell.

At the time several theories floated about the origins of the diaries and possible conspiracy behind them. Communists saw a Capitalist plot to denigrate them; Capitalists saw a Communist plot to spread disinformation and destabilise the Federal Republic of Germany. To some historians it was fresh evidence of the continued hold of Hitler over the West German society. The truth, in all probability, was more prosaic. As mentioned at the beginning, a small time crook and a forger managed to hoodwink people because of the naivety, incompetence and greed of those whom he hoodwinked. That said, as Selling Hitler postulates, there are a few unanswered questions about Konrad Kujau. The foremost is when, how and why did he learn to forge Nazi documents which fooled a number of handwriting experts and ‘Hitler specialists’. Did he learn his craftsmanship by working for someone else? Although it is possible that Kujau might have had an accomplice to help him forge the diaries (although he denied it), the reason the fraud swelled to the level it did was the utter incompetence of Stern. Kujau probably did not guess (who could?) that the magazine would behave so foolishly.

Selling Hitler, first published in 1986, does not say what happened to the two protagonists of the story. WikiPedia informs that both Heidmann and Kujau served their sentences and were released after a few years. Heidmann’s career was destroyed and he never recovered from the debacle. Kujau, on the other hand, thrived. For a few years after his prison release Kujau became something of a minor celebrity and appeared on television show as a ‘forgery expert’.  Soon he set up a business selling ‘genuine Kujau fakes’. He even stood for the election of the Mayer of Stuttgart (he lost; you’d be relieved to know). He died in 2000 of cancer when he was 62. In 2006 his grand-niece was charged with selling ‘fake forgeries’, cheap Asian made copies of famous paintings, with forged signatures of Konrad Kujau. Heidmann is alive and apparently leads an impoverished existence. In 2002 it was alleged that Heidmann had worked for the dreaded East German secret service, Stasi, although he portrayed himself as a double agent. Heidmann vehemently denied that he had ever worked for Stasi.

When last interviewed a few years ago, Heidmann still believed that the diaries were original.

We can be persuaded to doubt our certainties but never our lies.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Books read in 2012

Below is the list of books I read in 2012.


  1. An Object of Desire (Steve Martin)
  2. The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)
  3. Submarine (Joe Dunthorne)
  4. A Visit from the Good Squad (Jennifer Egan)
  5. Started Early Took My Dog (Kate Atkinson)
  6. The Wilt Inheritance (Tom Sharpe)
  7. Last Man in Tower (Arvind Adiga)
  8. The Collaborator (Mirza Waheed)
  9. The Emperor of Lies (Steve Sem-Sandberg)
  10. The Report (Jessica Francis Kane)
  11. Untold Story (Monica Ali)
  12. The Accident (Ismail Kadre)
  13. Lost Horizon (James Hilton)
  14. The Good Earth (Pearl Buck)
  15. Good Morning Midnight (Jean Rhys)
  16. The History of Mr. Polly (H.G. Wells)
  17. A Man of Parts (David Lodge)
  18. Lucky Break (Esther Freud)
  19. Half Blood Blues (Esi Edugyan)
  20. Two Serious Ladies (Jane Bowles)
  21. Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim)
  22. Whatever Makes You Happy (William Sutcliffe)
  23. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
  24. Point Oemga (Don DeLelio)
  25. Mr. Rosenblum’s List (Natasha Solomons)
  26. It’s A Man’s World (Polly Courtney)
  27. King of the Badgers (Philip Hensher)
  28. The Passport (Herta Muller)
  29. The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Euginides)
  30. All that I am (Anna Funder)
  31. Summer Things (Joseph Connolly)
  32. As I lay Dying (William Faulkner)
  33. This is How (M.J. Hyland)
  34. The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
  35. A Bend in the Ganges (Manohar Malgaonkar)
  36. Cactus Country (Manohar Malgaonkar)
  37. The Croweaters (Bapsi Sidhwa)
  38. Tamas (Darkness) (Bhisham Sahani)
  39. Jean Christophe Vol 1—Dawn (Romain Rolland)
  40. Jean Christophe Vol 1—Morning (Romain Rolland)
  41. Jean Christophe Vol 1—Youth (Romain Rolland)
  42. Jean Cristophe Vol 1—Revolt (Romain Rolland)
  43. Lolita (Reread) (Vladimir Nabokov)
  44. The Tortilla Curtain (T.C. Boyle)
  45. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon)
  46. The Aunt’s Story (Patrick White)
  47. The Casualties of Peace (Edna O’Brien)
  48. Brazaville Beach (Reread) (William Boyd)
  49. Life Class (Pat Barker)
  50. I Served the King of England (Bohumil Hrabal)
  51. A Life Apart (Neel Mukherjee)
  52. Always Outnumbered Always Outgunned (Walter Mosley)
  53. Fifth Business—The Deptford Trilogy (Robertson Davies)
  54. The Manticore—The Deptford Trilogy (Robertson Davies)
  55. The World of Wonders—The Deptford Trilogy (Robertson Davies)


  1. Anatomy of A Moment (Javier Cercas)
  2. Bedwetter (Sarah Silverman)                    
  3. My Father’s Fortune (Michael Frayn)
  4. Selling Hitler (Robert Harris)
  5. The King’s Speech (Mark Logue & Peter Conrad)
  6. The Fry Chronicles (Stephen Fry)
  7. The Box—Tales from the Dark Room (Gunter Grass)
  8. With the Kisses of His Mouth (Monique Roffey)
  9. Cooking for Claudine (John Baxter)
  10. May Week was in June (Clive James)
  11. Mountain of Crumbs (Elena Gorokhova)
  12. How to be A Woman (Caitlin Moran)
  13. The Genius in My Basement (Alexander Masters)
  14. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (Gertrude Stein)
  15. What is Remembered (Alice B Toklas)

I shall start with the non-fiction list first (it’s not very long).

Until this year I had not read anything written by Gertrude Stein, and my knowledge of her was very limited: an obscure, modernist American writer, who lived most of her life in Paris.

I picked up The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas from the local library out of curiosity. The blurb said that although the book was entitled as an autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Stein’s life-long ‘companion’ (an early twentieth century euphemism for a lesbian partner), it was actually Stein’s autobiography. The ‘autobiography’ is a pleasure to read. It has a wonderfully gossipy feel to it. Gertrude Stein is a great raconteur and the book is full of anecdotes about various artists with whom Stein mingled in the first thirty years of twentieth century. The cavalcade of artists is unending. Picasso and Matisse are but two of the artists who appear in this very engaging memoir. Stein doesn’t much care about chronology of events when she tells her story, and neither should you: just immerse yourself in the artistic world in Paris at the turn of the last century. (Also ignore Stein’s penchant for peculiar punctuation.) If you have a Kindle or any other e-reader, this book is free to download on Project Guttenberg.

After reading The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, I wanted to find out whether Alice B Toklas had herself written anything. It turned out that she had. Thirty years after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, and seventeen years after Stein’s death, Toklas, nearing the sad end of her long life, published her own memoir, entitled What is Remembered. The memoir ends with Stein’s death. Tokals’s style is much more sedate than Stein’s and she essentially covers the same ground as in Stein’s book. What comes across very poignantly is the close bond the two women shared and how Stein was the centre of Toklas’s life. I found the simplicity of Toklas’s narration touching.

Michael Frayn’s memoir, My Father’s Fortune, was moving in parts. In fact I had heard Frayn in a literary programme where he read extracts from his memoir and spoke at some length about his family and his father’s life. Frayn’s mother died when he was relatively young, and it was his father who raised him and his younger sister. The memoir is at times self-consciously twee, but on the whole enjoyable.

May Day was in June is the third volume of Clive James’s memoir. It has everything I have come to expect from a Clive James memoir. Like the previous volumes of the memoir, May Day was in June pullulates with off-the-wall, larger than life characters. James has almost eidetic memory for events and describes at great length and in great detail (and very wittily) incidents that happened decades ago. At times, though, the tone becomes too flippant; also James does not give much by the way of information about his inner life; the narrative moves along in a series of incidents where James passes side-splittingly funny observations about people and events.  What the memoir also does, very expertly, is, to create for the reader, the atmosphere among the academics in Cambridge in the 1960s.

Cooking for Claudine is a quirky book by John Baxter (another book I picked up out of idle curiosity from the local library; I had never heard of Baxter before). The book is about a Christmas meal Baxter prepared for the French family of his French wife (Claudine is his ‘formidable’ mother-in-law). The title is a bit of a misnomer: Baxter cooks the Christmas meal not just for Claudine but for the entire French clan of his wife. After reading this immensely enjoyable book, I wasn’t clear why Claudine was described as ‘formidable’; if anything, she comes across as a sweet old dear. Cooking for Claudine abounds with good humour. The book is part memoir, and Baxter regales the reader with anecdotes collected from his peripatetic life across several continents (before he settled down with Claudine’s daughter, in Paris, at the age of fifty). I enjoyed Cooking for Claudine so much that I have ordered another book by Baxter, A Pound of Paper, which allegedly is about Baxter’s life-long love affair with books.

Selling Hitler is an early non-fiction book by the best-selling novelist Robert Harris. It is a thrilling account of how a small-time crook from West Germany came to hoodwink the publishing world by selling them fake diaries of Adolf Hitler for multi-million deutschmarks in the 1980s. Harris’s droll, sardonic style of narration adds to the enjoyment.

I read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman because it was chosen by the book-group of which I am a member. Most in the book-group (consisting in its entirety of men) were scathing of this book, with one claiming that he found it impossible to go beyond the first few pages. I found it easily possible to complete the book. Driven by the curiosity to find out how Moran coped with life-changing events such as developing tits and growing pubes (the chapters have titles such as ‘I Need a Bra’ and ‘I Grow Furry’) I finished the book, which is part memoir part collection of essays, in two sittings. Moran, who is apparently a popular columnist in the Times, keeps a steady supply of humorous observations which makes it an easy and entertaining read. If she had a serious point, I missed it.

I had read Alexander Master’s Stuart: a Life Backwards a few years ago and I had enjoyed it. The book told the true story of a drug addict or an alcoholic (most probably both), who was in the habit of assaulting others, taking overdoses etcetera, to bring some fun to his otherwise bleak life, and who eventually killed himself by jumping in front of a train. What I remember liking about Stuart: a life Backwards, was Master’s style of narration, which avoided falling into the trap of maudlin sentimentality. The book, in spite of the grim subject matter, managed to be hilarious without being insulting to or condescending towards Stuart, its ‘hero’, who—sorry as you felt about his sorry life and sad, though not entirely unexpected, demise—you were glad was not your next door neighbour. In The Genius in My Basement, a peripheral (real life) character in Stuart: a Life Backwards takes the centre-stage, viz., Master’s landlord, who is described as ‘eccentric’ in the earlier book. In The Genius in My Basement you learn a bit more about this ‘eccentric’ landlord, Simon Norton. When you finish reading the book you reach the inescapable conclusion that the term ‘barking’ would be more apposite. The main point of Master’s new book (as I understood it) is that here was a man who probably was a genius—at least that’s what everyone who knew him in school thought—a prodigy in the making, in mathematics (isn’t it curious that you can be a prodigy only in certain fields—mathematics, chess, music; have you heard of a prodigy brick-layer?), who lost the gift somewhere along the way, which is very sad. On the positive side, Simon himself doesn’t give a sh*t; he never considered himself to be a genius, anyway; and is happy as a Larry.

I am not a fan of Stephen Fry, who has, in the UK, a reputation for being a versatile actor, witty host of television shows, and in general talented. I think he is only some of these things: he is an actor, though not particularly versatile; he hosts a few shows on the terrestrial channels (in particular the incredibly boring QI) but I don’t think reading out semi-witty comments written by television hacks makes you witty; and as for being gifted, it is, well, a matter of opinion. The Fry Chronicles is the most recent instalment of Fry’s memoirs. What I remember of this memoir, which I read at the beginning of 2012, is Fry’s (not very convincing) attempts to appear very modest about his success, and his repeated exhortations to the readers to consider him very lucky to have achieved ‘what little success’ he has enjoyed despite his meagre talent. I had little trouble believing him. Does Fry believe it himself? Would you believe a fat man who says he is into minimalism?

On to fiction.

The best fiction I read In 2012 was towards the end of the year: Robertson Davies’s superlative The Deptford Trilogy, comprising three novels (Fifth Business, The Manticore, and The World of Wonders) originally published in the 1970s. Superbly plotted and exquisitely written, the novel sequence is one of those books which have riveting plots and burst with ideas. This is the birth centenary year of Davies and one hopes there will be a revival of his novels. 

Manohar Malgaonkar was an earlier generation of Indian writers who (I suspect) is a forgotten name even in his own country (which, these days, seems to be producing high numbers of writers writing in original English, for a country where English is not a ‘native’ language). Manohar Malgaonkar’s name was suggested by an Indian friend, who also presented me with a copy of his 1970s non-fiction book, The Men Who Killed Gandhi, Malgaonkar’s investigative account of the conspiracy to assassinate Mahtama Gandhi, considered to be the father of the modern Indian nation. I found the book unputdownable, one of the most thrilling books I have read in recent years. A modicum of Internet search revealed that Malganokar (who died in 2010 at the age of 97) had written a number of novels, all of which out of print at present. I read two of the novels (ordered from second-hand book-shops) in 2012. A Bend in the Ganges has India’s bloody partition as its background, while The Cactus Country is based on the 1971 India-Pakistan war which resulted in the creation of a new country, Bangla Desh. Both the novels are extremely well-written, very atmospheric, and ring with authenticity. A Bend in the Ganges, in particular, is very harrowing in parts. I asked my friend whether there were any other novels written by Indian writers on India’s partition (which has the dubious distinction of being the event responsible for the forced migration of highest number of people in the twentieth century), and he suggested two: A Train to Pakistan, written in original English by the celebrated Indian novelist, Khushwant Singh, and Tamas (a Sanskrit word, apparently, for Darkness), an original Indian language novel (translated into English under the same title) by Bhisham Sahani. I read Tamas, which tells the story, in a series of extraordinary incidents, of Sikh and Hindu families caught in the madness of India’s partition as the communal violence engulfed what would become Pakistan. Tamas leaves you with terrible sadness for the human condition.

Emperor of Lies, a huge success in Sweden upon its publication, has, at its centre, one of the most controversial characters in the Holocaust history: Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the eponymous hero of Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel. Rumkowski ran for the Nazis the Lodz ghetto in Poland before it was liquidated (and Rumkowski, the ‘eldest of the Jews’, met his own end in Auschwitz). Sem-Sandberg’s portrait of Rumkowski is relentlessly unsympathetic (despite his assertion in the ‘afterword’ that he has not taken any ideological position towards Rumkowski). The novel is also a painstakingly researched chronicle of the daily life of the largest ghetto in Europe. While it means that the novel has a vast number of characters, very heavily based on real-life denizens of the ghetto, each with a heart-breaking story, which robs the novel somewhat of narrative coherence, it also makes it a very fascinating read. A remarkable novel on a tragic period in twentieth century Europe (translated in faultless English by Sarah Death).

King of Badgers is a ‘state of the nation’ novel Philip Hensher seems to be focusing on writing these days. I like Philip Hensher, who is difficult to pigeonhole as a novelist because he has published novels in different genres and on different subjects (though not with equal success). My most favourite Hensher novels are his earlier ones (e.g. Kitchen Venom) full of mordant wit. King of Badgers is Hensher’s seventh novel, the starting point of which (very dramatic) is based on the true story of a mother in the UK who faked her daughter's kidnapping in order to get money. Hensher excels at looking under the veneer of the respectable lives we lead and into the motives that drive us, throwing into sharp relief the defects and foibles of our existence. Weariness, exhaustion and sexual predatoriness seem to blight the lives of most of the characters in King of Badgers. The plot of the novel also becomes amorphous as the novel progresses, but on the whole, the novel succeeds in holding a mirror to the modern British society.
Anna funder achieved worldwide fame a few years ago with her superlative Stasiland, a fascinating account of the lives of ordinary people in the former German Democratic Republic. She has followed it up with All that I Am. It is a historical novel, which has long forgotten real-life characters that, in the 1930s, exiled to England from Germany for their anti-Hitler views, tried to form an anti-Nazi resistance movement. At the centre of this utterly absorbing story are the tragic figures of Ernest Toller, a left-wing playwright who rose to prominence in the Weimar Republic, and Dora Fabian, an intrepid young Jewish woman who might have been Toller’s muse, and whose mysterious death set Toller’s life on a trajectory that ended, five years after Fabian’s death, in a hotel in New York. All that I am ticked all the boxes for me. It is simply yet elegantly written, does not lack drama, and is, ultimately, incredibly moving. I couldn’t recommend it enough.

The Indian writer Arvind Adiga was virtually unknown until he won the Booker Prize for The White Tiger in 2008 (not altogether surprising, seeing as it was Adiga’s debut novel). The White Tiger was a savage indictment of the inequalities in the Indian society and its less than perfect political system. In Last Man in Tower Adiga turns the searchlight on to Mumbai’s (India’s commercial capital) middle classes. With great skill Adiga tells the story of middle-class greed and betrayal in a manner that is humane and understanding. Last Man in Tower is, in some ways, a morality tale: how in the face of a promise of a better life, life-long friendships, allegiance and values crumble. It is a brilliantly executed subtle tragic-comedy, which confirms that Adiga is a formidable talent.

Talking of Booker-winners, Julian Barnes, one of my favourite novelists, won the award (finally) for The Sense of an Ending, in 2011. The Sense of an Ending can be seen as a thematic continuation of Barnes’s memoir, Nothing to be Frightened of (reviewed on this blog some years ago), published a few years before The Sense of an Ending: namely the tricks memory plays when we recall past events which have shaped our lives. The Sense of an Ending reads like a thriller. The narrative—laced with Barnes’s trademark asides and musings on life—builds up a momentum that propels the eager reader towards the denouement, which doesn't disappoint.

I read Bouhmil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England because it had an endorsement on the front page by Julian Barnes who had described Hrabal as a ‘superb writer’. (As per the WikiPedia entry, Hrabal, a Czech writer who fell to his death from a hospital building in 1997, at the age of 83, is considered one of the best writers of the twentieth century. It just shows my ignorance of non-English writers that I needed Julian Barnes’s endorsement to become aware of Hrabal. How well known Barnes might be in Czech Republic? Would he need endorsement from well-known Czech writers when his translated novels are promoted there?) I Served the King of England (the title is a bit of a misnomer, as the protagonist never actually serves the King of England, although he serves the exiled monarch of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie) is a picaresque novel that has a fantastical feel to it. The novel is funny in a macabre way—its protagonist refuses to take anything or anybody—least of all himself—seriously—because what Hrabal is doing here (I think) is commentating on the bleakness of human lives.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad became hugely popular upon its publication and also won for its author the 2011 Pulitzer Award for fiction. It is a novel of thirteen chapters. Egan described it as a book of loosely connected stories, which is what it is, although in the UK it was marketed as a novel. Unsurprisingly there is no settled tone to the narrative; it is a polyphonic ‘novel’ of shifting narrative voices. Egan also boldly experiments with the form in the novel (not always with success). The interlocking stories, very readable and entertaining in themselves, depict, thematically (like the as in I Served the King of England ), fractured and frequently unsatisfying lives in twenty-first century America.

The Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues was shortlisted in the UK for several awards but didn’t win any, as far as I am aware. Which is a shame. Half Blood Blues is an absorbing tale of friendship, betrayal and, ultimately, redemption. It is also an oblique commentary on the status of blacks in Nazi Germany.  A great pleasure of reading this novel is its lyrical language, pithy metaphors and easy-on-the ear slang. There are a few false notes, especially towards the end, but on the whole it is a first-rate novel.

James Hilton was a Twentieth century British novelist who wrote very popular novels in his time, some of which were also made into successful Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s. I read Lost Horizon, Hilton’s novel which donated the English language the term Shangri La, out of a sense of nostalgia. It used to be a very favourite novel of my father. In it Hilton creates a world which, while it requires suspension of credulity on reader’s part, gives him a glimpse of what might be described as higher order of existence. 

Steve Martin is a seriously good comic actor and has been described as ‘indecently multitalented’ by The Sunday times. In the past few years Martin has diverted some of his energies into writing fiction. In 2012 I read An Object of Beauty, Martin’s third novel, in which he turns his attention to the world of painting. In it Martin creates for the reader the world of New York art scene where talent and creativity collide with cold commercial calculations. It is a well-plotted novel but the tone of the narrative is not even and, despite the witty one-liners which come thick and fast, is curiously flat at times. Well worth a read, though.

Lucky Break is British novelist Esther Freud’s seventh novel. In it Freud, the daughter of the painter Lucian Freud (and great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud), who was herself an aspiring actress many years ago, portrays, gently and tender-heartedly, the world of aspiring actors struggling to establish themselves. The novel progresses at a sedate pace and, despite its subject matter, eschews drama and grand gestures; however Freud more than makes up for it with her astute observations and gentle humour.

The American novelist Jessica Frances Kane’s debut novel, The Report, fictionalizes a little known tragedy that took place in London, in the 1940s, in the middle of the Second World War. The novel—written in a devastatingly effective understated tone—is a humane and astute examination of human emotions and the human need to make sense of what has befallen us even though the understanding—as in the case of some of the characters in the novel—will bring nothing but heartache. I loved this novel.

With A Man of Parts, David Lodge returns to the realm of biographical novel. In it we learn more about the remarkable life (or part of it) of one of the most remarkable figures in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century British literature: H.G. Wells. Lodge focuses on what is generally regarded as the period when Wells was at the peak of his powers. Like Author Author (Lodge’s 2005 biographical novel based on the period in the life of the American novelist Henry James) A Man of Parts is a mixed bag. At times the novel, which extensively quotes from Wells’s published writings, reads more like a chronicle of Wells’s life and less like a novel. Lodge probably covers no new grounds, and, seeing as there are excellent and thoroughly researched biographies of Wells available (including one written by his son Anthony West) one wonders what the purpose was behind A Man of Parts other than give an opportunity to readers like me, who have neither the patience nor intellectual wherewithal to plough through the weighty biographies, to learn more about H.G. wells.

I read H.G. Wells’s History of Mr Polly after I read in the A Man of Parts that it was a hugely successful novel in its time. The novel was first published over a hundred years ago and it shows, especially in the prose and narrative style; but its theme transcends time. There are also a couple of bravura set-pieces, described by Wells with great gusto.

I re-read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita after several years for the book-group of which I am a member, and once again marvelled at the erudition, cleverness, language and humour of the novel.

Another novel I re-read for the book-group was William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach. It is one of Boyd’s early novels and cemented his reputation in the UK as a novelist. It is a well-written novel (you expect nothing less from Boyd) which has two stories, neither of which resolves satisfactorily.

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is one of the most side-splittingly funny novel I have read in recent times. The novel is written in the hard-boiled prose of Raymond Chandler and has, at its core, a mystery. The novel, which is set in a hypothetical Jewish colony in Alaska, is also a ‘what if’ novel. Apparently there was a suggestion, as the Second World War loomed, that the European Jewry be resettled in Alaska (as per the afterword of the novel), which for a number of reasons did not come to fruition. A very satisfying read.

A few years ago I had read the improbably named T. Coraghessen Boyle’s The Road to Wellville and had enjoyed it tremendously. I then went on a buying spree and bought 8-9 more novels and short-stories of the supremely prolific Boyle, but did not read any until this year. I read The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle’s 1995 novel in 2012. It is a heavy satire on a subject that is still very topical and triggers strong emotions on both sides of the Atlantic: illegal immigrants. Boyle’s novel deals with the immigrants from Mexico into California. The Tortilla Curtain crackles with Boyle’s scintillating prose; there are also several vividly imagined set-pieces that take your breath away. The novel is not without its flaws but is a very compelling read.

Jeffrey Euginide’s The Marriage Plot, like his two earlier novels, is gracefully written and oozes erudition; unlike the two previous novels, there is no subterranean disturbing element in The Marriage Plot, which is essentially a 21st century middle-class romance (nothing wrong with that); a witty, literary romance, but lacking perhaps in the complexities of human desire. The novel is remarkable for its striking description of Manic Depressive Psychosis from which one of the main characters suffers.

I read a number of novels of Nobel Prize winners this year, which left me feeling underwhelmed. I have reviewed Herta Muller’s The Passport, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, and Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story, and Gunter Grass's The Box (released in the UK as fiction and elsewhere as non-fiction) on this blog.

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, full of Southern misery, brought me as near to death as was possible without actually dying. It is the kind of novel you’d probably not enjoy when you read it but would be very glad to have finished.

Finally, Jean Christophe. I had planned to read all the volumes of Romain Rolland’s three-volume novel sequence (consisting of ten novels), which were singled out for special praise when Rolaand was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature (1915) in 2012, but managed to finish only the first volume. I shall read the remaining two volumes in 2013.

Top Ten Novels read in 2012

  1. The Deptford trilogy (3 novels) (Robertson Davies)
  2. All that I am (Anna Funder)
  3. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
  4. A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
  5. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
  6. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon)
  7. Last Man in Tower (Arvind Adiga)
  8. The Emperor of Lies (Steve Sem-Sandberg)
  9. A Bend in the Ganges (Manohar Malgaonkar)
  10. Half Blood Blues (Esi Edugyan) / The Report (Jessica Frances Kane)

Top Non-fiction read in 2012

  1. Selling Hitler (Robert Harris)
  2. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (Gertrude Stein)
  3. Cooking for Claudine (John Baxter)
  4. The King’s Speech (John Logue and Peter Conrad)
  5. The Genius in my Basement (Alexander Masters)