Grandpa, Proust, Ulysses and World War II

by Bill Benzon

ScreenHunter_1984 May. 30 10.34My paternal grandfather, Axel Benzon, was a Dane. He and his wife, Louise, immigrated to America early in the 20th Century. He was trained as an engineer, was educated in the classics, and took up photography and woodcarving. He ended his professional career as chief engineer of the main U.S. Post Office in Manhattan.

He kept a diary, the pages of which are generically entitled: “Leaves from my diary.” It’s not handwritten, kept in one of those blank books one can buy at a stationary store. It’s typed on ordinary 8.5 by 11 paper. I’ve got a photocopy of much or most of it, but, judging by his index, not all.

In commemoration of this Memorial Day, May 31, 2016, I would like to share some passages from his diary, passages written just before the United States was drawn into the war. As you read these passages keep in mind that you are reading the reflections of a well-educated middle-class European who had immigrated to the United States.

But I want to approach the war obliquely. Let’s start with the best Western civilization has on offer. Here we have Grandpa commenting on Grandma’s interest in Proust (November 22, 1938):

Talking about books I think mama [his wife Louise] is on the way to become literary. She was interested in Anatole France some time ago and read some of his books, and now she is buried in Marcel Proust. Whether she is enjoying their language or their outpourings or both I do no know for she does not say much about it. Anatole France’s language is of course concise, clear and classically French and is therefore enjoyable …

… As to Proust it is said that the translation into English is so much better than the French edition that if it were retranslated into French it would be a much better book. The French language is not adapted to the outpourings of the quickly decaying spirit departing disillusioned from the splendor that was nothing less than a stinking dung heap as was the fate of Proust. He longed for what he thought was the highest he could think of on this earth; he found it and discovered it was rottenness. But just the same his description is more worth than Dos Passos’ description of the world as he found it in the twenties, to take an example.

Mama enjoys her reading more than she enjoys bringing up flowers or plants.

I just barely remember her. She died when I was quite young. Grandpa lived into my teens. I didn’t hear about Proust until I went to college, in 1969.

About a year later Grandpa fears for his homeland (14 April 1940):

Sunday and cloudy with occasionally a little snow–a good day to remain indoors and listen to the war news from Europe. These news are coming in frequently but are most confusing and it is difficult from the British and German dispatches to a form a true picture about the situation in all parts of Norway.

The Danish goose is cooked–there the Germans are in possession of all parts and are now fortifying points of vantage, especially the northernmost part of Jutland from where they can dominate a great port of Skagerak and Kartegat. [The Skagerrak strait between the Jutland peninsula of Denmark and Norway and Sweden; the Kattegat sea leads to the Baltic.]

The invasion of Norway was a masterstroke, no matter how it turns out. It gave evidence of the usual German thoroughness and precision and coupled with the fact that the German navy is so much inferior to that of the English it has been most successful and must have taken the English by surprise.

As you can imagine, his reflections are much occupied by the war. But not entirely so. For example, he also talks of his fondness for the game of golf and playing it on public courses in New York City—he lived in Jackson Heights at the time. I rather imagine that THAT land has long since been given over to building of one sort or another. In fact, at one point he mentions exactly that.

At one point he has copied one of his letters into his diary. He’d written the letter to one of his daughters, Karen, who apparently was visiting Demark at the time, the time when the Germans entered the country. This entry is dated April 20, 1940, just a week after the previous entry:

You are affected by the insensate sacrifice to the voracious Moloch of the flower of youth driven to the slaughter by monsters whose greed can never be sated and by the senseless destruction of the fruits of toilers whose only earthly desire is to be permitted peacefully to toil as long as they can labor.

How are your aunts and cousins in Denmark, and how is aunt Kate in Oslo with her two boys? Pity for they have toiled and suffered for many years until lately they all felt reasonably secure to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Well–I often ask myself this question–and we cannot help, cannot even communicate with them.

But let these blows not deprive you of the desire to continue your own life as happily and peacefully as you are privileged to do. You are born in an age different from that in which your parents were born and in a country different from the little pastoral Denmark. The premature invasion into your time of an unbridled science which as a colt breathlessly has galloped over your era will in time be curbed and led into the field of anthropology where it will either destroy or make useful the parasitic growth that now is the cause of our folly and inhumanity.

Notice the contrast between “pastoral Denmark” and “unbridled science.” I wonder just exactly what was on his mind there for, as an engineer, he was himself a man of science. I wonder what he would have thought about the “shock and awe” of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq or of the drones so beloved by our first black president, the one who received a Nobel Prize for Peace, and who is also the first sitting president to have visited Hiroshima?

In a letter of May 19, 1940, Grandpa writes about one of his fellow expatriate Danes:

Some time ago when Bang from Baltimore visited us he lamented about the poor condition in which Denmark was situated with respect to defend herself against an aggressor. The Finnish war was on at that time and we were filled with reports about the bravery of the Finns. The Danes could do as well and it would be better to go down in glory than to give in without a fight.

Poor Bang, he still lives in a world of illusion. He did not see that the news we received from Finland were all highly colored and that Finland was doomed. And still, he wanted Denmark to defend herself from German invasion.

I wonder what he’d think about The New York Times reporting on Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria. Would he think that the mainstream media now has been as lost in illusion as his countryman Bang had been back then?

And yet the mail must go on (June 8, 1940):

With all this misery in Europe things are quiet at the Post Office. Mail is not heavy and we can take our vacations knowing that there are hard times ahead of us so far as money is concerned. We must be glad if our salaries are not cut, for that in addition to increased taxation will be hard to bear.

He was waiting for the war to get worse. What are we now waiting for? What are the chances that the undeclared war on terror will end before the Statue of Liberty is claimed by the rising sea? I’m pretty sure that Grandfather would have had little trouble accepting the data on climate change.

War brings immigrants, a fact which is painfully and tragically evident these days (August 14, 1940):

At the Post office we are preparing for registering the aliens. This gives me more work for we have to build a number of typewrite desks and other things that have to be used. We do much work in the Post Office other than handling mail.

I don’t know what Grandpa would have thought about all the Arab immigrants who’ve been fleeing to Europe these days.

Here he alludes to the northwestern corner of the Roman Empire:

Incidentally I listened to [H.G.] Wells the other day over the radio and was shocked to hear how feeble was his voice–hardly distinguishable–but the old radical spirit was there undaunted–he really sounded as were he speaking from one of the many and deep shell holes dug by the barbaric German bombers in the relics from the old Londinium.

There's that late 19th Century education for you, and he was educated as an engineer, not a preacher or a diplomat.

But it’s not all war. Here Grandpa talks about more mundane matters (September 8, 1941):

From Billy we finally got words today. They have moved and are now settled in the town [Johnstown, PA]. It was not all good news in his letter for Betty’s mother is bedridden with a bad heart and his former landlady presumably has cancer.

He has further more lost his nice golf clubs–they were mislaid by a caddie in a wrong automobile when he went in for a drink and now after ten days he has not gotten them yet. That is a serious loss and I sympathize with him for he had a very good set of clubs.

Billy was my father and Betty, his wife, was my mother.

Grandfather goes on to report on a book he’s been reading, The Managerial Revolution by Burnham (whoever he was), that offers “another alternative to capitalism than socialism namely the ruling of the country by a new class of managers.” He says a bit more about the book and then: “I agree with him in most of his points, but if that is not socialism as I understand it then I do not know what it is. Socialism as he defines it is the Utopia which, if we should try to establish it now would be anarchism and chaos.” I don’t think Grandfather had much objection to socialism, though I rather suspect he wouldn’t think too much of the financial managers who run the world these days. If he were alive today, would he feel the Bern?

At last, as he continues talking about his reading, he closes with this:

Also a book by Frank Buck, the animal dealer and a novel by Storm, Count Ten, which I should read at least twice in order to understand it properly. The style is somewhat like that of Ulysses and it deals with a man who does not know what he should do but tries his utmost to live a life of decency wherein he can retain his self-respect.

Never heard of this (Hans Otto) Storm or his novel, but the Internet of course has. He was a Stanford-educated engineer; Count Ten was his third novel. Edmund Wilson thought it inferior to Storm’s previous two, Pity the Tyrant and Made in U.S.A., but found material of interest in it:

Implausible though a good deal of it is, it evidently makes use of actual experience; and the experience of Hans Otto Storm has been of a kind rather unusual among out fiction-writers. In the first place, Mr. Storm, though a radical, is not, like so many other novelists, a radical of the depression vintage. He is–one gathers from Count Ten–the descendant of German refugees of the Revolution of 1848 settled in Southern California. The hero of his novel, at any rate, begins by going to jail for resisting the draft in the last war and ends by going to jail again as the result of his activities as campaign manager for a movement evidently drawn from Upton Sinclair’s EPIC. He has, in the meantime, had a successful career as an agent of the mining interests.

Commenting on the fact the Storm is not a writer by vocation, but an engineer, Wilson observes:

An engineer who thus goes in for literature is such a novelty that Hans Otto Storm is able to carry us with him because we have never listened to precisely his story before. His writing about the sea–in Made in U.S.A. and in the episode of the yacht in Count Ten–without the parade of technical knowledge which is the betrayal of the layman in Kipling, gives us a much more intimate sense of living the life of the ship than we get from The Ship That Found Herself or The Devil and the Deep Sea.

But this is a digression. It wasn’t Grandpa’s reference to a forgotten book by a forgotten writer that caught me eye. It was his reference to Ulysses, a celebrated book by a celebrated writer, though a book that, in my experience, is mostly read by college students and their teachers. And yet there it is, in Grandpa’s diary, mentioned as though any well-read person would know it.

That’s what was on Grandpa’s mind on September 8, 1941, my father’s lost golf clubs and a forgotten book in the style of Ulysses. Two months later, on December 7, 1941, here is what’s on Grandpa’s mind:

It is cold today on this Sunday but the wires or rather the air is hot with reports about the attack of the Japanese air forces upon Hawaii this morning when five civilians and apparently three hundred fifty soldiers were killed. It is also reported that a large battleship was set afire and two others sunk …

The Dutch East Indies and the republic of Costa Rica have declared war on Japan.

10 pm. Canada has declared war on Japan.

He must have been typing while listening to the radio. A day later, December 8, 1941, America too declared war on Japan.