The Best of Brit Lit

This week: a man uncovers his grandfather's Nazi past, the private life of Caravaggio, and the rose in all its forms.

05.23.11 7:05 PM ET

The editor of the TLS, Peter Stothard, picks his favorite British reads. This week: a man uncovers his grandfather’s Nazi past, the private life of Caravaggio, and the rose in all its forms.

Hidden Traces of a Nazi Past

There are not many biographies of dentists, and Bruno Langbehn was not a particularly talented filler of teeth. The author of The Perfect Nazi, Martin Davidson, embarked on his exploration of his maternal grandfather because Langbehn was a very typical member of the SS, one of a cohort of German war children, old enough to experience the romantic heroics of the First World War, young enough not to have grasped its horror. As Nicholas Stargardt describes in the TLS this week, this placed him firmly in the age bracket and outlook of the men who mostly manned the SS-SD police state, nearly all born between 1903 and 1909.

Davidson’s quest began with a telephone call a week after Langbehn’s death in 1992, during which his mother began to talk more freely about her father than she had ever done while he was alive. Martin finally plucked up courage to ask how it was that a man of his grandfather’s age, who would normally have been serving at the front in 1944-5, had been able to live with them in a flat in Prague. She could have replied that her father had been invalided out of the Wehrmacht in 1940 with a badly broken left hand—and it would have been true. But she did not. Instead, she told him that her father had been in the SS, and thus prompted years of sleuthing, shared by Martin and his sister Vanessa, to uncover the hidden traces of the past.

Men like Langbehn were firmly on the far right völkisch orbit before they found their place in the SS. In Langbehn’s case, 11 years in the Nazi stormtroopers preceded his entry into the SS in 1937, where he made it into the middle ranks of its Security Service, and helped to run its political nerve center, the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin. Most of his SD colleagues there had full university degrees and many prepared themselves for their future roles with doctorates in law: Langbehn did not; his was a technical training as a dentist, but this also positioned him perfectly to take over the leadership of the Berlin section of their professional organization. No doubt it also smoothed the way for his formidable mother-in-law, Ida, to acquire an “aryanized” Jewish dental practice in Charlottenburg.

In recent years, Stargadt comments, a few German writers have delved into their family pasts in the Third Reich; Uwe Timm encountered similar problems unravelling his elder brother’s service in the Waffen-SS in In My Brother’s Shadow. Like Davidson, Timm did not try to face this past until he had entered middle age himself and the older generation who could have answered his questions about the Third Reich, but would never have done so, was dead. "What Martin Davidson has achieved is truly remarkable. It is also moving, enlightening, and wonderful to read."

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane By Andrew Graham-Dixon 544 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $39.95.

The Private Lives of Caravaggio

Almost everything we know about Caravaggio, writes Angus Trumble in the TLS, is to be found among the records of the civil and criminal courts, "a scarifying catalogue of beatings, knifings, swearing, slander, stone-throwing, assault with a dish of artichokes, other fights and fracas, and manslaughter." Most of his contemporaries seem to have agreed that there was something far more lethal than a bee in Caravaggio’s bonnet. "If we can know him at all, it is by usually hostile accounts of his behavior and through his paintings; his voice is almost completely silent."

Trumble is reviewing Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon, who fills the gaps, as they regularly occur in his subject's life, “with deftness, common sense, and a subtle command not only over the enormous and rapidly expanding literature, but also the real situations and remarkable places to which both the artist and his work so imperfectly cleave.” He is “a sure guide—to the many ruptured relationships and, at times, vicious quarrels that punctuated the artist’s life, and propelled him from Rome to Naples, and onward to Calabria, Sicily, Malta, and back—and an equally reliable sceptic.”

There can be no more contentious issue than that of Caravaggio’s sexuality, “and this matter continues to tie us in knots,” writes Trumble. In Graham-Dixon's view, “a lot has been made of Caravaggio’s presumed homosexuality” although there is no absolute proof of it, only strong circumstantial evidence and much rumor presented as the single key that explains everything, both the power of his art and the misfortunes of his life. While the balance of probability suggests that Caravaggio did indeed have sexual relations with women as well as men, Trumble wonders whether this “omnisexual view” has begun to be taken too far. Caravaggio’s “carefully differentiated male nipples” should not be too readily discounted. It is unhelpful to make so much of showing that a boy model “had his own separate mattress to sleep on.”

The Rose By Jennifer Potter. 560 pages. Atlantic Books. $35.

The Tale of the Rose

“The rose was made for symbolism, metaphor, allusion,” writes Helen Castor. Its beautiful flowers—in the wild, each bearing the symbolically charged number of five petals—bloom alongside vicious thorns. Sight, touch, smell, and taste—when petals are distilled into rose water or rose oil—are all captivated (or challenged) by this extraordinary plant. If only sound is missing, then that is a gap rapidly filled, as Jennifer Potter makes clear in The Rose, “this sweeping and sure-footed survey of thousands of years of rose cultivation, by the long playlist of songs in which roses appear.”

The story of rose culture—in all senses of the word—is “a tale well worth telling.” The first impression The Rose makes on its reader is the tactile pleasure of handling a book that has been made into a sumptuous object. The heavy, glossy pages with polished gilt edges emphasize, by counterpoint, a sense-memory of the fleshy softness of the petals depicted in the glorious illustrations. The second impression is just how rich and yet elusive Potter's subject is. While here is agreement on the first surviving representation of a rose, in a delicate fresco painted 3,500 years ago at Knossos in Crete, there is no certainty, for example, about the vexed question of where many-petalled garden roses, with their long stems and high buds, were first brought in from the wild.

The most likely answer, Potter suggests, is that they developed simultaneously in both China and Iran, before spreading westward from the Persian plateau to Asia Minor, Greece and beyond. But perhaps “certainty is not to be looked for” when examining a flower so symbolically potent that it has so often shown capacity to represent diametric opposites, in politics and religion, with equal force.

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Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War.