One of the most powerful images from the Vienna Portraits exhibition currently at the National Gallery is by Egon Schiele of himself and his pregnant wife dying of Spanish ‘flu. He was to succumb to it himself three days later, aged just 28, later described by the Nazis as a ‘degenerate’ artist. I cannot empty my mind of this picture and the thought of all that lost brilliance. Yet in an exhibition where death is continually hovering and suicide ever present, it’s impossible to know how would he have dealt with all that was to follow after 1918?
Between 50 and 100 million people across the world died of what became known as Spanish ‘flu. One of the most shocking aspects was the way it could sometimes claim its victims in a day and was especially virulent among the previously healthy young. After waking up with a shivery twinge, victims might find by lunchtime that their skin had changed colour to a vivid purple and a few hours later they were dead, sometimes choking on thick scarlet jelly that suddenly clogged the lungs. The pandemic has been described as “the greatest medical holocaust in history” and may have killed more people than the Black Death killed in a century.
I have often thought of this pandemic as my own aunt, my father’s older sister, Irene, died aged 12 in 1918. My father’s family had moved to Brighton hoping this would be safer than London because of the new terror of Germany’s doodlebugs. But Brighton, being a port, was in fact more dangerous as the disease was thought to have been carried ashore by travellers. My grandfather, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who had been in England less than 20 years, never recovered from the loss of a favourite daughter and gave up on joy and God. They were buried with my aunt in a Brighton cemetery.
Brighton can never for me be simply a seaside resort. I have always known that my father was deeply scarred from the loss of the sister he barely knew when he was six and the consequent suffering endured by his family for whom emotions must have been ‘unexploded’ and so I relished a book which looked at the town twenty years later during World War Two. Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded is partly about attitudes to Jews and immigrants in Britain at the end of the thirties but it is also a deeply felt examination of repressed emotions waiting to explode as of course they do in the course of the novel. The background history is fascinating, never intrusive, but there is plenty to learn here about politics and history of art. For example Picasso’s Guernica is on show at the Whitechapel Gallery from December 1938 to mid-January 1939, the hero, Otto, is a ‘degenerate’ artist and Virginia Woolf, whose suicide frames the book, enters to give sparsely attended lectures. I shan’t tell the story but it’s a powerful, often painful, read and Evelyn and her defective husband Geoffrey are utterly believable protagonists.
One other book I have read this week is Robert Harris’s brilliant thriller, An Officer and a Spy. In this retelling of the Dreyfus affair virulent anti-Semitism in France is overt, barely repressed and with consequences which have shuddered down the ages. Even those of us who thought we knew this tale cannot fail to see it through fresh eyes.