Sunday, October 23, 2016

FRANCES FAVIELL, The Dancing Bear (1954)

[Note: We're still travelling in England and Scotland at the moment, but I prepared a few posts to go up in my absence. Please don't be surprised, concerned, irritated, etc. if comments take a bit longer to appear or if I am not replying to comments as I usually do. It will be because I'm busy gazing at Alnwick Castle or Kings Chapel and haven't got round to moderating comments. But please do comment freely—they will appear eventually and I will appreciate them as always.]

The complete and utter devastation of Berlin had shaken me profoundly. Nothing, not even the nightmare journey from Cuxhaven across the areas of blackened and desolated towns and villages, shattered railway stations, and the twisted tortured relics of battle, had prepared one for the dead horror of this city.

Following her harrowing World War II experiences—described in her brilliant memoir A Chelsea Concerto—Frances Faviell moved with her family to the rubble and ruins of war-torn Berlin. The bombs are no longer falling, but the suffering caused by war goes on, and Faviell powerfully details her own experiences and those of the Altmanns, a family she befriends.

The new Furrowed Middlebrow edition of the book

She describes the hungry, increasingly desperate German people and the bureaucracy of the four occupying armies, witnesses the ruins of a once-great city, and learns the horrifying origin of a game played routinely by children in the streets. And she tries to help the kind Frau Altmann as she copes with a son who sympathizes with the Communists, a daughter strategically dating American soldiers for the benefits they confer, and the entire family’s daily struggle for survival.

The Dancing Bear offers fascinating and important personal insight into life in the German capital in its most difficult days. At times, these insights are harrowing to say the least, as when her husband’s aide, Stampie, gives her a tour of the city shortly after arrival:

It had begun with the memorial to his beloved Desert Rats and ended up with the Reichskanzlei, Hitler's headquarters, and each devastated stark ruin seemed worse than the last.

"Sorry I can't take you over Adolf and Eva's bunker," he had apologized, "We used to be able to go in—but now the Russians have taken a fancy to it we can only see it on Sundays in company with the Comrades on their conducted tours!"

It was the last straw when he said ghoulishly, "There are thousands of bodies still in these ruins! But it's over a year ago now, they can't be much more than bones. When we first came the stench was awful—sweet and sickly like cancer—but it's much better now. You'll notice it sometimes after the rain, though! We'll just see the Schloss now and the Dom; they both make grand ruins…"

Sometimes the reader catches glimpses of things they may never have heard about in history class, such as the process of “denazification” that German citizens were required to undergo in order to work for the Allies (“I agreed with Stampie that it was a lot of nonsense, and that anyone could just pay the fine imposed by the Court and still remain a Nazi at heart”). And there are numerous fly-on-the-wall glimpses of what Berliners felt about their city, such as this one:

I closed my sketchbook—it was too poor a light to draw. Lilli asked to see the sketches and exclaimed in delight as she recognized the lovely ruined Gedlächtniskirche and the Brandenburger Tor through which she passed so often on her way to the Opera House.

"I love the Gedlächtniskirche as a ruin," said Ursula, leaning over Lilli's shoulder and looking too. "It was really very ugly as a building."

(Apparently others shared her sentiments about the loveliness of the church’s ruins, since they were famously incorporated into the ultra-modern church built around them, which remains a tourist attraction to this day (better known to us as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church—see below.)

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at night

Faviell must have been at least as alarmed as she was flattered by the presentation of a gift from a woman who obviously hadn’t quite been denazified:

"This," she said, "is my greatest treasure, but if it were found n this house now that my husband is trying to get his denazification through, it might cause trouble for him. We are forbidden to possess these books, you know."

I took the box without opening it.

"I can't like you," she went on. "Life is too bitter for that—but I respect you—and I want you to have this and no one else."

I did not know what "this" was until we got home. It was a beautifully bound book with the gold title, "Adolf Hitler," and depicted in photographs the entire life of the former Fiihrer, from childhood to his rise to fame.

It was a most interesting document, and as my husband said, probably one of very few now in existence, as the Allies had ordered them all to be burned.

One wonders what became of this document? I recall being taken on a tour of the National Archives in Washington when I was still too young to fully appreciate it, and being shown some snapshots of Hitler and Eva—perhaps that collection had similar origins to the one Faviell was given.

An early American edition

Although The Dancing Bear is a bit quieter in tone than A Chelsea Concerto—the Blitz lends a sense of urgency that day-to-day life, even among the ruins of war, can’t quite provide—Faviell’s compassionate and observant eye makes this tale very nearly as compelling. Frau Altmann is a poignant and touching figure, and the books provides some sharp insights into, for example, the scars of war that children carry with them, and the rise of a youth culture in rebellion against the authorities who allowed war to happen (in the latter sense, although the city is different, it’s an interesting companion to Rose Macaulay’s brilliant The World My Wilderness, for example).

But Faviell is also, here as in Concerto, well able to shift gears and note the humor of situations as well as their horror. One of my favorite such passages, and the last I’ll share here, is a variation on the many examples of humorous notices posted on ruins in London:

The Berliners could laugh easily like Londoners, and some of the ironical notices they had put on their ruined homes reminded me very much of the days of our London Blitz.

"All my own work—Adolf Hitler" was one I saw, and "Give me ten years and you won't recognize Berlin. Oh yeah?" was another on a completely demolished home. In spite of the acute shortage of food and fuel and the hopelessness of the future, their spirits rose as the cold gave way to milder days with the promise of spring.

Both The Dancing Bear and A Chelsea Concerto, along with all three of Faviell’s novels—A House on the Rhine (1955), also in part based on Faviell’s experiences in postwar Germany, Thalia (1957), and The Fledgeling (1958), are now available as Furrowed Middlebrow books from Dean Street Press. Click below to view all of Faviell’s books on:

          Amazon US or Amazon UK


  1. Yay! Just went to my mailbox to find.... A Chelsea Concerto.

  2. I thought this was a fantastic book though as I commented on the previous post, very hard for me to read as it closely mirrored the experiences of my best friend who experienced much of what it portrays.

    I have also now read A House on the Rhine, equally fascinating, which covers a period about ten years after the end of the war, and depicts how amazingly fast things changed in Germany. I am now on Thalia....

    Thank you so much, Scott, for bringing these books back to life!

  3. Obviously a hugely important book to be republished, although probably a bit grim for my feeble self. But these things must be remembered.

  4. This was a grim but fascinating read! If I hadn't been on a plane, I might have been distracted by something more frivolous but I found it fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation and for reprinting it.


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