And That Man’s Name was Adolf Hitler

by John Phipps

Notes On My Current Reading



My reading has got pretty schizophrenic recently, so rather than make enemies by putting any of my opinions (all bad) down on paper, I thought I’d just try and make sense of the growing pile of half-read books.

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You have to do one book on World War 2 a year or they take away your man card. This year mine is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. I love knowing things about Hitler because you can turn them into innocent sounding anecdotes that end with the campfire twist: ‘and that man’s name was. . . Adolf Hitler’.

Everything you learn about him takes on a phantom significance, by mere dint of his having done it. I am thinking of condensing my findings into a small Christmas book called Wow, I Never Knew THAT About Hitler!

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Guy Talese’s history of the New York Times. The British papers were still top-notch in the period he’s writing about, though they had different priorities. I’ve seen a real headline from the British press of the ’70s that runs: QUEEN SHAKEN AFTER ROLLS HITS PEDESTRIAN.

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True story: some friends of my Dad’s parents actually ran Hitler over in ’20s Berlin. Of course they got out to see if he was OK, and it turned out he was completely unhurt. As the guy drove off after apologising profusely, the passenger turned and said, ‘Do you know, that man was the leader of the brownshirts!’ This story gets serious play when my Dad tells it at dinner parties.

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Bocaccio’s Decameron. The stories are exactly like the revenge/wish-fulfilment fantasies you read on Reddit about everyday villains — love rats, the office asshole, nightmare neighbours — being publicly put in their place. The only difference is the medieval context. You could do the whole thing as an online redtop with headlines like ‘When friars treated this man poorly, he had the perfect response’, or ‘These five words stopped a miser in his tracks’ or ‘My crossdressing wife is my world — and now she’s Queen of England!’

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This stars between the paragraphs thing has been so done to death that the last two novels I’ve read have employed the tactic, the better of which did so to make fun of it.

Star!

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Of course, if my grandparents’ friends had killed Hitler with their car, they would have felt guilty about it their entire lives.

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A biography of the Irish poet Derek Mahon. A very annoying book, albeit one that has the information I need. The life is treated exclusively as a source for the work, and the work is reduced to a treasure-house of propositions about the life. The two collapse into each other leaving nothing — it’s like seeing a magician hold up a rabbit and hat, before suddenly making both disappear.

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This is already too many books to finish before Christmas, and I am probably annoying everyone. There’s a dril tweet that says, ‘everyone less mentally ill than me is Privileged, everyone more mentally ill than me is Toxic, everyone equally mentally ill to me is Cool.’ Maybe the same is true of readers. I would say ‘insecure readers’ but I’m not sure it’s a meaningful distinction. The formula would go: everyone who reads less than me is a Philistine, everyone who reads more than me is a Psycho, everyone who reads the same amount as me is Chill.

(I hope I don’t need to add that personal observation ≠ endorsement.)

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‘The true art of reading, as of learning is this: . . . to retain the essential, to forget the non-essential.’

–Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

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From Cold Cream, the childhood memoirs of Ferdinand Mount. Unity Mitford (the Nazi-est of the Mitfords) is arguing with the author’s mother, Lydia Pakenham.

UM: I want to have a lot of sons for cannon fodder.
LP: I expect you’ll only have one and die in childbirth.
UM: [sobbing] I don’t think I shall, I’ve got very wide hips.
LP: That doesn’t count, the outside measurements don’t count!

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Bocaccio’s stories are not that satisfying in themselves but there is something immensely satisfying about the sweep of them. And the same is true of this column.

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This week I briefly considered doing a sort of spooky, avant-garde-ish thing with lots of short stories, all of which conduce to some form of the idea, ‘and that man was. . . Adolf Hitler.’ Eventually I realise that Roberto Bolaño has already written this book several times.

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Roberto Bolaño has published as many fiction books since his death as David Foster Wallace did while he was alive. He has another coming out next year, which will put his posthumous output level with the complete works of Marilyn Robinson, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith.

Not that it’s a competition.

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I’m reading The Golden Bowl too but let’s not get into that.

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My first thought on seeing the publisher’s brief: ‘Roberto Bolaño wrote a book in lockdown and I didn’t???!’

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I once spent a month in Mexico City. I used to go and sit in a cafe and read on Bolaño’s favourite street, Avenida Bucareli.

I didn’t know this was a cliché at the time, and anyway it is a nice street. On Sundays, old couples would come to the bandstand on a nearby traffic island and dance slow, semi-formal waltzes while corridos played through a speaker system.

Anyway, I was reading some novel or other – actually, since someone else has my Twitter password right now I can say it: I was reading Infinite Jest — and loving it! — when an old homeless guy came up to me and asked me where I was from. I said I was from England.

England. . .’ He looked at me suspiciously. ‘England is. . . Hitler?’

‘Not at all,’ I quickly reassured him. ‘Hitler was German.’ I was amazed that anyone could not know this fact.

‘Germany. . .’ He paused thoughtfully, before shooting me the little eye-twinkle of mutual understanding — as if to say, ‘German. . . I bet he was.’

I later remembered that Hitler was Austrian.

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‘My Darling Hess,

At a certain point, no matter how deadly serious the subject matter, people will begin to treat things flippantly out of boredom and frustration with the rigid forms of accepted speech.

I long to see you again.

Yours ever,

The Fuhrer.’

— Adolf Hitler. Private correspondence, 1927.

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End column.