The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger (Faber) 2022
Emeric Pressburger’s novel The Glass Pearls was originally published in 1966. It barely sold its print run and received one terrible review in the TLS. This was in stark contrast to Pressburger’s first novel, To Kill a Mouse on Sunday (1961) that sold well, was critically praised, translated into six languages and was made into the 1964 film called Behold a Pale Horse (directed by Fred Zinnemann). In the 1960’s the working class anti-hero was in vogue in British films and novels: kitchen sink realism was one of the reasons why the expressively romantic films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger went out of fashion. Their artistic partnership had now ended. They were no longer bankable. Pressburger turned to writing novels instead of film scripts.
The Glass Pearls does have an anti-hero but he’s a middle class German and former Nazi war criminal living in cheap lodgings in London. Critics and public might have enjoyed the novel’s domestic scenes but its ex-Nazi must have then struck readers as out of sync with the times and a repellent proposition – Pressburger’s character is partly based on the concentration camp doctor Joseph Mengles. Hannah Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1964, made a great impact but war criminals usually figured, in the public eye, through appearances in cinema newsreels. Nazi doctors, and other Holocaust issues, had to wait for the late 70’s to be accepted into mainstream popular culture (i.e. Ira Levin’s 1976 thriller The Boys from Brazil and its film version two years later.)
It’s the mid sixties. Karl Braun rents a room in West London. He is a piano tuner working for a firm of piano tuners. Both his work colleagues and fellow lodgers believe that Braun came to England to flee Hitler. On the surface he is a calm and cultured man. He dates Helen, a rather naïve woman, whom he takes to restaurants and classical music concerts at the Festival Hall. He weaves romantically embellished stories about his former life in Paris. This fiction has to be revised or modified when Helen’s questions appear too probing or the real truth is defended after reading newspaper articles about Nazi war criminals recently put on trial. Braun’s febrile imagination causes him to fantasise about his own trial. For Braun is really Dr. Reitmuller of the Wittau concentration camp. Braun’s aim is to travel to Zurich and withdraw money he deposited there just after the war. And then possibly fly onto Argentina and join a group of other ex Nazis involved in a farm collective project.
Pressburger’s novel is not a conventional man-hunt thriller. It’s a real and imagined panicky flight from hostile powers that Braun mentally creates and real forces that may be pursuing him for other reasons. The writing is utterly brilliant: so seamlessly integrated are passages about fictitious pursuers suddenly appearing and all the possible obstacles (Will his name and the pass code still be operative at the Zurich bank?). As a reader you enter Braun’s head and emphasise with his cunning, stress, and anguished attempts to control his constantly prepared, likely to be revised, exile story.
Braun’s paranoia weaves a frightening web of suspicion with a depth, going beyond his Nazi criminality, to tap into a more generalised survivor need to lie and deceive. He is monstrous and very human (Braun still mourns for his wife and young child killed in the bombing of Dresden in the week when he returned to Wittau and his prisoner experiments.) We are sympathetic and yet repelled. (A brain surgeon who sawed people’s heads open and chopped up their brains). And we want Braun to both escape and also be captured.
The noirish panic of The Glass Pearls is raw and infectious. As I read I felt Braun’s anxiety coursing through me. There’s a scene where he nervously goes to a concert hall to tune the piano for a famous pianist. Braun removes a violin left on the piano and then senses he’s not alone.
‘He peered into the darkened hall. If somebody was watching him, the snooper was invisible to him. First, he had focussed all his senses through the eyes to penetrate the gloom. Now, he switched them over to his ears. And suddenly he heard a whisper. It seemed to come from one of the front row. First he couldn’t understand the word. then he realised that somebody was calling him. Not by ‘Karl’ or Braun’. The voice said ‘Herr Doctor!’ He advanced to the very edge of the platform. Whoever it was, the eavesdropper was scurrying now towards the exit. At the same time, he heard steps from the far end of the stage and when he turned, he saw a middle-aged man, in his shirt-sleeves, coming towards him.’
Pressburger has a cinematic eye for detail and effect that’s both Hitchcockian and a reminder that Pressburger was a consummate screenwriter. This makes for a very suspenseful novel (At times you almost feel handcuffed to character and situation, only to be unlocked by the morally queasy revelation of the novel’s last page that’s cleverly timed and genuinely shocking).
The Glass Pearls is a troubling and important contribution to literature about the Holocaust: a gripping and entertaining fiction full of light and shade. The passages about Braun’s charming, though manipulative, dating of Helen and his conversations with eccentric lodgers relaxes the tension of Braun’s struggle, and ours, with his former horrific Reitmuller self. The finely written warm ‘memories’ of immediate post-war Paris and The Glass Pearl’s detailed London passages, describing its sixties classical music culture, refugees and the office people from work, so appreciated by an isolated and frightened man, are needed to balance affairs and temporarily deflect the dark German past. And they memorably do so in this masterly and undeservedly forgotten novel.
It was only after the end of the war that Emeric Pressburger found out that his mother along with many of his cousins, aunts and uncles had been murdered at Auschwitz. He suffered from not having brought his ageing mother to England when it was still possible. In some respects the character of Karl Braun is a painful projection of Pressburger’s dark side: haunted by family guilt and the conviction that the Nazis were constantly pursuing him.
Alan Price © 2023.