Tuesday, April 25, 2017

An Evening With Philip Kerr

Sometimes 15 bucks can buy a lot. Here in London we are staying at the Langham Hotel, which is close to Regent Street, Oxford, Piccadilly, and across the street from the BBC. But the real reason we stay here, I think, is that it is close to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, which might be my wife's favorite book store. We checked in on Monday and the very next day we found ourselves perusing the shelves at Daunt Books – that is, she was perusing the shelves. I was sitting in a chair reading the first chapter of a book that started with the sentence something like this: “When I was fifteen I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up: French.” It seemed like a good book but I wondered if I would really read it when there was so much else on my night table and thought about how fully packed we already were, so I let it be as we went for lunch next door. But then a poster caught my eye: on Wednesday night Philip Kerr was coming to Daunt Books!

Philip Kerr is a favorite author, one of those for whom I don't think, I just get the latest book that comes out and read it and follow his character, Bernie Gunther, ex-Berlin policeman and eternally semi-compromised, hopefully not totally so since he is trying to do good, Nazi collaborator-underminer. I just buy every book, as I do with John Le Carré and Alan Furst, and probably like David McCullough, although I think I've missed one or two of his – but not Furst, Le Carré, or Kerr. With them it's every single one. They do spy stories, but that seems insufficient a description to me. These are intelligent and extremely literate narratives of imaginary people among real situations in the WWII and the Cold War. One learns a lot and one doesn't put the book down. If that “one” is me, anyway.

Ann was tired so I went to the talk alone, only a 12 minutes walk. I didn't know what to expect – book, yes; talk, no idea. But it turned out that the man is a real mensch. He doesn't waste sentences, he's full of thought and information, but he is also warm, intimate, frank, and interesting. A smart guy. Maybe he was especially warm because he felt at home here in London, where he looked forward to going home to his own bed, instead of a book tour hotel bed and up at 4 to leave for the plane at 5 and another city. The only thing worse than an American book tour, he said, would be not being asked to do an American book tour. Funny thing, though; here he was on Marylebone High Street, waxing intimate among friends and neighbors, but three of the questions came from Americans. We're everywhere!

So, since he is such a favorite author and this was such a newsy, informative talk, I thought it was worth recapitulating. And, it will come as no surprise to readers, adding in my own question to him and comments to him afterwards.

Interesting how he got into this line of work. He qualified as a lawyer, but didn't look forward to being a barrister – you have to choose your course pretty early in the UK. So he got an advanced degree in German jurisprudence – I think he went to school in Germany for a while when he didn't mesh exactly with English education, imagine that – and then went into the advertising business. But while others were taking the three hour advertising business lunch, he was researching and writing. First it was the London library, and then when he worked for Saatchi, he'd go to the British Museum Library in the morning and order some books that would take a few hours to arrive. So then he'd go to work – “work,” he said, with air quotes, “looking out the window for a few hours, it was the advertising business and that's the way it was then,” and then go back to the library instead of going to lunch. What a wonderful experience for him! The high ceilings, the desks, the heritage! And of course, access to everything.

He had also tried painting at one point. He taught himself, by going to the masters – the modern masters, not the old ones, they were too hard – and copying them. He said that if anyone came to visit him now they would find a lot of Miro's and Picasso's on the wall and think, “This fellow's doing pretty well.” It made me think about his writing, and how it's inevitable that we read and copy, and I'm sure that entered into his growth as an author.

What he thought was that the British authors who bookended the century in Germany were Isherwood – he loved Cabaret, and the interesting fact that you couldn't do the Horst Wessel song because that was forbidden in Germany, but the guy who wrote the substitute for the film did such a good job that everyone who listened thought it was authentic, and he was Jewish. And then Le Carré. Why hasn't Le Carré gotten the Nobel Prize, he wondered. God, the plots! They click together like a fine watch. Bob Dylan getting it, surely Le Carré is more worthy (I differ with him here – I think the Dylan award was great.) I think Kerr's admiration of the Le Carré plots is a nod from a professional to the ultimate master, like Klay Thompson admiring Steph Curry – you know the field very well, what it takes, and you can understand better than non-practitioners what mastery means, in detail. High praise indeed.

So what Kerr wished for in his heart of hearts, was to be sandwiched in between Isherwood and Le Carré. And guess what, amazingly, a few years ago he was in France, I think, or maybe Germany, not sure, and right there on a table in a book display was Isherwood on the left, Le Carré on the right, and there he was in the middle, Phillip Kerr. Dream come true. He took a picture and sent it to his mother.

An inevitable question came from the audience, Why write about that time, the war years, and why about Germany? Kerr answered that this was a time when you could easily tell the good guys from the bad guys. Hell, the bad guys wore black and had a skull and crossbones on their caps – how hard can it be? Which led him to remember a cartoon of two Nazis standing together in their uniforms, and one says to the other, “Is it possible we're the bad guys?” He said that when he started there wasn't that much written about that time, but now it's exploded. The last clear war with goodies and baddies.

Afterwards, when I chatted with him as he signed my book – typically, I again forgot to ask for the “For Budd” inscription and just got his scrawl, I always forget – I offered my preferred explanation to that question. My view is that WWII is the modern equivalent of the Trojan War, and they were still writing and singing about that 500 and 800 years later. Total war – they don't say “world war” for nothing. So, I told him, it's possible that he will be even more famous than he imagines. Kind of took him aback, but I just left him with that and left – although I did manage to say that I thought his books were terrific, and that he was terrific, “Not to be over the top,” I added.

He reflected on book tours a lot. His itinerary calls for him often to be met at the plane by “an escort.” Hmmm, said his wife, “An escort?” “Not that kind of escort,” he had to reply, of course. These escorts are usually ladies of a certain age, he said, often retired with wealthy husbands and looking for things to do. They pick you up. Remember, he said, you have to sit in the front in the passenger seat, not the back. “Very democratic.”

One of the things he does is ask escorts who they have escorted before, and who was the worst one and why. The lady he had in mind said, “Mitt Romney.”

Really? Why is that?”

Well, first of all, he sat in the back. And then he said, “Do you have a dog?”

No, why?”

Well, I see the leather is all scratched up and I wondered if you had a dog.”

The lady took great offense, putting down her car. I thought, So Mitt! Awkward to the end. Gets in the back because he is a plutocrat. But quite probably was trying to show he was as astute as Sherlock, and also to find common cause with his hostess because we all remember that Mitt likes dogs, and took Seamus to Canada on the roof of his car, to the endless delight of Gail Collins in the NYT. And all he comes off as, is an asshole. Poor Mitt. I guess.

But the worst pick up was Oliver Sachs in Germany, who was very quiet in the car until they came to a complete stop on the autobahn because of traffic. All of a sudden he shrieked, opened the car door and ran out onto the autobahn. Traffic picked up and his hosts tried to chase him down so he wouldn't get killed in traffic and to lure him back into the car. Which they did. He explained that he suffered from claustrophobia and had had an attack. Then the hosts had to rearrange the doors to his hotel room so he didn't feel constricted. Well, he could write.

Kerr talked about the talks he gives. Don't prepare, that's his advice. It will come across as cold and boxed up; instead, just let it flow. I think he's exactly right. This talk was that way, things came to mind, he has a very active mind, free associates well, is very fluent, and the enthusiasm is there as he discovers himself where he's going next.

Sometimes it leads to surprises. When he was in Lyon, he was asked if he would pick a picture in the art museum and talk about it. Sure, he said – always say yes, that's another thing he's found out. He figured that he'd go to the museum and talk for 5 or 10 minutes into a recorder or something like that. On the way there, he asked how long they would like him to talk. “An hour would be good,” they said. And there would be about 200 people there to listen.

He had prepared exactly nothing. So what he included us in was his facing the abyss and having to talk is way out. Which he did. He gave us the particulars, how he built up a case in figuring out why this picture interested him, and the one right next to it for that matter, the details of which I pretty much forget now, but it was memorable.

There was a lot of talk about Brexit. Kerr averred that he had been a Remain voter, but observed that this was not the first time England divorced itself from the continent, the first being 400,000 years ago as it floated away. I forget what he cited as the second time, probably Napoleon's time. He observed that all the separation comes from the hinterlands, which typically hate the central capital. As Roger Cohen writes in the NYT, The fracture between globalized metropoles and depressed regions.” Berlin is very different from the rest of Germany, they have a mordant sense of humor similar to the Brits, and the rest of Germany hates them. Same in France, same in the US, although he cited Washington rather than New York. Brexit is on everyone's mind, and at the time it wasn't clear what was going to happen in France. Today as I write this, it seems pretty clear that Macron and continuity will reign in the near future. Near term crisis averted, long term crisis still very much in play.

He also talked about the Germany-Greece nexus. Was it just after WWI that Greece went in hock to the German bankers? So this isn't the first time. And he cited the horror of Salonica that exported 98% of its Jews to Germany for killing, when the concentration of the Jewish population there was second only to Poland. Another overlooked horror. He's almost done with his next book – that was fast! - and it's about that.

Germany tried several times to dominate Europe. The first was at the time of Martin Luther – who, Kerr said, was a terrible man, a terrible anti-Semite. The Reformation led to German domination of the continent, in Kerr's view. More directly, they used their military in 1870, 1914, and 1939. But they learned. What they learned is that it's much easier to do it with finance. Germany calls the tune in Europe. What is it about the Germans, we always wonder? Kerr didn't go into it, but I remember a letter to the editor from a psychiatrist who had lived in Germany, concerning reunification. His observation was he would only start to trust the Germans when they changed their child rearing practices – they are brutal and unfeeling, just watch any German playground, and we know what that leads to

He was also asked about which Nazis he found most interesting. “Who's my favorite Nazi?” he asked, observing that it was a common question. “Who would I like to have dinner with?”

The first name was Goering. People forget what a hero he was, dating from from WWI, and he was very popular and charismatic. He would walk around Berlin and people would give him beer and wurst and he'd eat it – all the others would be afraid of being poisoned, but not him. He had a way with people, which paid off when he convinced a guard to smuggle him some poison at Nuremburg.

The other had to be Goebbels. Joey, after all, was actually a novelist, unpublished at first, but when he became Reich Minister of Propaganda, he got published in a hurry. Kerr imagined what that particular interview with the publisher was like. I actually was surprised because Bernie Gunther's boss was Heydrich at one point, and there's a lot of him in all the books. But I admit it's hard to be fond of Heydrich, or any of them of course. Cute they were not.

It's not well known, but Hitler was lazy as hell, never even walked anywhere, got driven around the Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgadan, which Bormann had set up for him because he was too vulnerable and unpopular in Berlin, and he hated Berlin and Berliners. Confiscated all the property around, sometimes at gunpoint and tank point, making him locally unpopular.

And, there was this, which Kerr was so emphatic about. There was a paper in Munich, the Munich Post, which just prior to Hitler's taking power had a Deep Throat source to the top Nazis. They were constantly publishing scoops, although they only had about 60,000 readers, and in those days news didn't travel the way it does now. They got a real scoop in 1932 – they got wind of the Final Solution, and it was pretty much everything that came out of the Wannsee Conference 10 years later. The thought that Hitler was a Zionist and wanted to expatriate the Jews and only later came upon the Final Solution is completely wrong, and there is the document to prove it, says Kerr, convincingly. The editors debated whether or not to publish it, but since Hitler was on the verge of power, they figured this was their last shot to keep him out. Didn't work, and one of the first things the Hitler government did was to clean out the Munich Post, brutally.

It's true that Hitler met with Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a more than virulent anti-Semite. As I remember it, and this might be wrong, the leader said that if Hitler sent the Jews to Palestine he would want to kill them all, but then Hitler decided to do it himself. Al-Husseini was a fascist ally, and Hitler needed all he could get at that point. You could feel Kerr's choler rising as he recounted this. This is a guy who knows intimately what happened, and he's not letting it go. Good for him!!

It will come as no surprise to my readers to hear that I ventured an observation-question during question time. I said first how much I appreciated his work and that his books were more than enjoyable, that “enjoyable” might not be the right word, I guess. But then I said, look, Hitler's guys were a bunch of thugs, clearly. Do you remember Godfather II and Hyman Roth – Kerr nodded yes, he sure did – “Michael, we are going to get what we've always wanted, a partnership with a government. Now the observation-question: do you think this describes the Putin government as well? Lots of reaction from the crowd behind me – they didn't see this coming – kind of amazed chortle-bemusement.

Kerr also hadn't made the connection, and you could see he liked it. He said, of course that's right, and made the obvious points. Putin was KGB chief in Dresden and took over from Yeltsin in return for leaving the Yeltsin family alone, and they thought they could control him, which turned out to be a bad bet. Kerr said that he would be brave in saying this, hoping that it wouldn't lead to a rendezvous with thallium or radioactive rubidium. He remembered visiting with the Chief of Police in St. Petersburg in the early 90's and wanting to interview and get lots of data. The Chief was very cooperative, and Kerr paid about ₤200 to rent a car from the KGB! He said that he was probably the only Brit who paid the KBG for information instead of the other way round. He asked the Chief why he was doing this, and the Chief said, to get the truth out. He said glasnost, he said perestroika. Kerr said, you sure don't hear those words anymore. I wondered if this was the same Chief who was good friends with my friend Victor, who actually saved his life by exiling him as a penalty for his samizdats on the real health statistics of St. Petersburg, instead of having him sent to the gulag.

In other words, he took my point and supported it. Later, there was a guy in front of me in the audience who asked the first question, and we traded cards. He is a principal in the firm Grant & Gutsell – Customs, Tax and Border Control Consulting in the UK. He brought up Kaliningrad, né Konigsberg, an old Prussian City now a hotbed of Russian military and spy activity, an active and festering abscess on the Baltic between Poland and Lithuania. He referred me to Martin Cruz Smith recent book, Tanya. “It's all true,” he said, “It's not fiction!”

He was amazed when I said I had read it, and indeed Bill Smith was a friend of mine, and he had joined us at a baseball game a couple of years ago, and that he was from Reading, PA. Actually, the friend I have is Nelson Branco, his son-in-law, a fellow pediatrician. I overplayed it a little, but it seemed too sweet to pass up. My father would have said of me, “Bigshot!”

There were a few other points. Kerr said that Churchill had gotten it exactly right when he rallied the British and said they were looking into the abyss. “Absolutely right!” That was Churchill's genius. He said he was asked by Americans about “his process” of writing his books. He pooh-pooed the question, saying, “Well, I start working at 8 o'clock....” He was asked why Bernie moves to different areas for the books – “I thought it would be boring if he just stayed in one place.” I agree. Part of the reason we stayed at Cap Ferrat for four days during this trip is that this is Bernie's locale lately, at the Grand Hotel, which we walked around in since our new friends Marty and Ellen stayed there. He also alluded to Bernie's being a unreliable narrator, which as we know is a literary allusion. I don't think I ever thought about that, myself.

He finds it interesting and ironic that Hitler's bunker in Berlin is located where there is now a car park. Likewise, it is interesting and ironic that you can go to Berchtesgaden and have tea and biscuits as you you look out at the beautiful view.

So, that was my evening with Philip. Full of thought, full of action! Just like the books. What an exciting time! Came home and told Ann all about it. So, so sweet.

Budd Shenkin

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