Hide in Plain Sight
The Glass Pearls, a novel by Emeric Pressburger (right), has been republished for the first time since 1966, under the Faber Finds imprint.
The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966. His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing).
This third book — the excellent introduction by Caitlin McDonald mysteriously refers to it as his second — is striking particularly because it is so uncinematic. The tale of a Nazi doctor who performed brain surgery of death camp inmates and is now hiding out in (moderately) swinging London, compels more for the protagonist’s thoughts than for his actions. If presented on the screen, what we would see is a worried-looking piano tuner going about his business and hesitantly wooing a younger woman.
It’s the internal angst of the character which compels one’s interest. The reviews I had seen focussed on Pressburger’s remarkable feat of making his Nazi doctor an at-times-sympathetic hero. I appreciated his craftsmanship and his moral imagination in doing so, but the trick is fairly simple: if you create a credible character with a clear problem, and show him taking understandable steps to deal with the problem, the audience is compelled to take interest in proportion to the difficulty of the problem rather than the worth of the problem-solver. What’s most impressive is that Pressburger could bring himself to go there. All through the war his “propaganda” films were attacked for not being propagandistic enough, for giving too much credit to the enemy, and here her is, years after the war, willing himself to engage with the struggles of a war criminal to evade justice. That must have been tough.
But despite the morally complex effects of engaging with “Karl Braun’s” difficulties, he is not a sympathetic character per se — justifying his medical crimes by arguing that they were for the good of humanity, he has nevertheless destroyed his notes in order to make good his escape — or so he believes. He’s totally unrepentant, and his religious beliefs consist of imagining a God as cold-blooded and “rational” as himself, who will be sure to judge him kindly.
For movie fans, the most appealing elements are the little anecdotes spun by the protagonist, “proof” of his fictional past as an anti-Nazi photographer who escaped Germany for Paris in the ’30s. These tales may even be drawn from Pressburger’s own experience, since he briefly dallied in the City of Light before England, Korda, Powell and Fate beckoned. But of course the author of THE RED SHOES could equally well have invented them from whole cloth. Each story is a perfect pearl of experience, whether true or false. They FEEL true.
The other cinematic connection is the relationship of this book, despised or ignored by the British press when first published, with Powell and Leo Marks’ PEEPING TOM. Both deal with German immigrants in London (Powell’s film is a little strange here since the character was never written as German, and we see film of him growing up in England). One is a photographer, one claims to be one. Both pursue a chaste relationship with a girl who doesn’t suspect their dark secrets. False name Karl Braun and real name Carl Boehm.
In a way, the book is about memory, the subject of the Nazi doctor’s research. Pressburger had looked into brain surgery when writing A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, so it surprised me that he didn’t include the remarkable fact that the brain can be operated on while the patient is conscious. The brain, which processes sensation, feels none of its own, and so with a local anesthetic you can have the too of your head taken off and doctors can give your neurons little electric shocks to see what happens.
Pressburger’s doctor has been laboriously opening his patient’s heads, removing pieces of grey matter, and then repairing the patient and interrogating them to establish the effect on their memories. Horrible, but reality provides an even worse and more dramatic possible approach.
Strong as it is, the novel’s horror is almost upstaged by the preface by Pressburger’s grandson, producer Kevin MacDonald. He relates that when Alzheimer’s claimed Pressburger’s own memories, he became terrified of imaginary Nazis coming for him, and even fought the ambulance crew who came for him, believing he was being taken to the camps. It’s a cliché that memory plays tricks on us. Memory does not mean us well. Memory, perhaps, is a Nazi doctor.