I’ve had a good run with Faber Editions this year with two excellent novellas, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs Caliban and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, and to these I will now add this fascinating novel by the filmmaker Emeric Pressburger called The Glass Pearls. Pressburger was most known for his collaboration with Michael Powell; their production company released fourteen films of which some of the classics were The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus (an adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name).
In his afterword to the book, Kevin Macdonald (Pressburger’s grandson) throws some light on the essential details of his grandfather’s life – Pressburger was a Jew, born in Hungary in a world that revered all things German. After studying engineering in a prestigious university in Prague, Pressburger moved to Berlin in the 1920s, the most happening city at the time, but where he fell on hard times. He would then gain a foothold into the film industry and the rest they say is history.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Pressburger was forced to flee but Macdonald argues about how in his material whether books or films, he tried to depict a sympathetic view of the Germans, who he insisted were not Nazis. Pressburger knew Berlin and its inhabitants intimately and strongly believed that there was a sea of difference between ‘Germans’ and ‘Nazis’.
Something of this quality is palpable in The Glass Pearls too, a brilliant unsettling tale of paranoia and moral complexity centred on a war criminal on the run.
We are introduced to our protagonist Karl Braun who in the book’s opening pages arrives at his new lodgings on Pimlico Road in London. When Karl inspects his new surroundings, his landlady Mrs Felton is not around, but he bumps into the building manager Mr Strohmayer, a charming but dubious man always looking to make easy money through impromptu side deals.
Karl works as a piano tuner at Mr Parson’s firm and his job requires him to visit client homes all over the city to fix or repair their pianos, his schedule chalked out by Lillian Hall, Mr Parson’s secretary, who secretly holds a torch for Braun.
It soon becomes clear within the first ten pages itself that Karl Braun is a Nazi war criminal on the run, and for twenty years has managed to remain in hiding, a period during which the War Crimes Tribunal was hunting down perpetrators of heinous crimes to prosecute them. With this twenty year statutory period almost coming to an end, Braun is looking to enjoy his first taste of freedom, but soon receives some disturbing news from a friend who he hadn’t seen for years. This man Hein informs him that the period of tracking war criminals is likely to get extended.
If Hein was wrong in assuming that his friend could be talked into abandoning a clandestine life for the safety and cosy companionship of the Brotherhood, he was right about the intention of the West German Parliament. Early in March the English papers reported that the majority of members in the Bundestag voted in favour of extending the deadline for the prosecution of alleged Nazi crimes.
The news hit Braun with cruel ferocity. Most people can bear anything as long as their ordeal is limited. As long as they can count the days, the years; as long as they know they are progressing towards an end of their tribulations. Only if the suffering imposed upon them appears to be limitless do they go to pieces.
But more importantly, he lets Braun know about the Brotherhood in Buenos Aires who is in need of funds and a good doctor to carry out their activities. Hein plans to join them, and tries to convince Braun to do the same although Braun refuses.
Braun’s murky past is unknown to his work colleagues and his immediate acquaintances and he has every intention of keeping a low profile till he can get to Zurich and access the wealth he and Hein had amassed and finally settle down.
Left alone, Braun sat on the green velvet settee, contemplating the months lying ahead. Life was not too bad. He did not mind tuning and repairing pianos. Visiting other people’s homes, watching their relationships, could be quite amusing. He made enough money for his needs he even had a little in the bank. He enjoyed a good book, a good play, a good concert, a good talk. What else does a man want from life?
But that’s easier said than done and meanwhile things begin to get tricky. Beset by loneliness, Braun is attracted to Helen Taylor, the woman employed by the estate agent office that secured him the place at Mrs Felton’s. The two soon begin to regularly see each other and attend musical concerts, theatres and dine at fancy restaurants. Braun has a fine taste for music and opera and some of his tastes begin to rub off on Helen too. Helen has a complicated personal life herself, she is divorced from her husband Dan and they share joint custody of their daughter Eve. Terrified of losing her daughter, Helen struggles to maintain a balance between holding onto her job and her rented place while at the same time letting loose and having a good time herself. Braun regales her with stories about his time in Paris and the exciting adventures he’s had and she remains fascinated trying to live vicariously through this memories. For instance, one of his stories centres on the glass pearls that lend the book its name; he reminisces on a party he had attended where glass pearls were inserted into oysters to watch for the ladies’ reaction, a story that will gather much significance in the final pages.
In the midst of all this, Braun is consistently tormented by the fear and paranoia of being caught and imprisoned and now with Helen in the picture, worries about the shame of being arrested in front of her. These instances of fear are immediately followed by moments of logic and rational thinking (the hallmark of his time as a doctor in a Nazi concentration camp), but he remains troubled by this wild oscillation between paranoia and calm as he navigates his present circumstances and their complications with the uncertainty of the future stretching before him.
His panic further escalates when he learns of some unknown, shadowy individuals who are trying to locate him – are they the police or the war crime tribunal who has finally learnt of his whereabouts and are out to get him?
But Braun’s scars run deep. We learn that his wife and only child were killed during sustained bombing raids on Hamburg; a fate he was destined to escape simply because he was called away to the concentration camp to continue his work. Is there evidence of guilt and trauma there? Through the momentous effort required to keep his past under wraps and escape prosecution, Braun begins to feel tired. He desperately longs for peace, to lead a normal life, and even contemplate love through his budding relationship with Helen. Is that now within his grasp or is this dream futile?
The Glass Pearls then is an excellent novel, a fascinating exploration of fear and moral dilemma, of an individual’s desperate effort to start afresh, how you can’t entirely leave the past behind and the randomness of fate (surrounded by news of the atrocities suffered by his people during Hitler’s reign, one of Braun’s neighbours at Mrs Felton, a Jew, manages to escape to Zurich simply because of a minor adjustment to his name that miraculously saves him – the very Jewish Kohn becomes Kolm). Where Pressburger’s storytelling skills shine is the way he manages to instill some amount of sympathy in the reader for Braun; given the magnitude of his crime, the reader wants Braun to get the punishment he deserves and yet there’s the other part that wishes him to escape the clutches of law.
Both the introduction (by Anthony Quinn) and the afterword mention how Pressburger was torn by guilt – while he managed to flee to England he could not arrange to bring his mother and family safely there, they would go on to perish in concentration camps. Quinn and MacDonald discuss how Pressburger, a Jew, projected his guilt and shades of his identity onto his creation Braun, a Nazi criminal and it is this backstory too that heightens the strange and unique allure of The Glass Pearls.