Restless journey of a perpetual outsider
Exile: The Lives and Hopes of Werner Pelz
IN the mid-1980s, last century, Werner Pelz’s lectures in sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne may have been mild in delivery but their message, writes Roger Averill, carried ‘‘ a sense of danger and whimsy more usually associated with Old Testament prophets’’.
Averill was Pelz’s student. The two got talking — books, poetry, philosophy and life — and, in not much time, they stopped being a teacher and student and turned into friends. Forty-three years between them didn’t matter a fig.
When Pelz died in 2006, aged 84, Averill, having rushed to his nursing-home bed, kissed his forehead, stroked his hair.
Christopher Hitchens once insisted a good biography should ‘‘ cause us to wish we had known its subject in person’’. Readers of this book who had never before heard of Pelz might wish, like I do, that they had.
At 17 he left his native Germany for England, thanks to the devotion of his parents, and also their foresight: it was a month (to the day) before World War II. From that moment on he would be a perpetual outsider, even among other outsiders. He was a German Jew who after the war became an Anglican vicar, albeit one filled to overflowing with questions and non-conformist misgivings. ‘‘ As a priest,’’ Averill writes, ‘‘ Werner encouraged his parishioners to abandon religiosity ... As a sociologist he was encouraging his students to abandon social science.’’
He wrote for The Guardian, broadcast on the BBC, wrote and staged plays for his parishioners. Well before we all turned to fiction to make sense of the facts, Pelz and his first wife, Lotte, co-wrote I am Adolf Hitler, a mock autobiography of the Fuhrer. He was, in other words, a true original.
When young, he worshipped Zarathustra, smuggling his cherished copy of Nietzsche’s book aboard the HMS Dunera, bound for Australia, and for two years’ internment in camps at Hay and Tatura as an enemy alien. In later life he preferred Don Quixote: a man who doggedly, heroically, refuses to be disenchanted with the world.
There was something of both Quixote and Zarathustra in Pelz. Brilliant, questing, a lifelong thinker-for-himself; and — in the same breath — haunted, self-sabotaging, selfdeluding, prey to hubris and doubt.
He left Australia at 21; he sailed back, to take up the La Trobe lectureship, at 52. He was a teacher not merely audacious but also, it seems, unfailingly generous. His life, despite its riches and blessings, reads like tragedy. In many ways it is a story of what the Holocaust By Roger Averill Transit Lounge, 368pp, $32.95 did to those, like Pelz, who had escaped it but could not escape it.
Averill doesn’t quite say it like this. But to me Pelz’s soul seems afflicted by what Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich called the ‘‘ inability to mourn’’ (in their 1967 book of that title). They were talking about fellow Germans complicit in Nazism, not about German Jews such as Werner. And yet ... Werner never said proper goodbyes to his parents: in 1939, leaving for England, all he could muster was a ‘‘ wooden hug’’ for his mother and an embarrassed look away from his father’s first-ever display of tears. When his parents’ last-ever letter reached him in 1943 — the letter in which Ludwig and Regina Pelz said their goodbyes, now certain of the fate that awaited them — Werner pushed it into a pocket, then lost it. Too much.
The Holocaust, for a while there, tipped Pelz towards the Christian God. He did not deny his Jewishness; later, he re-embraced it unconditionally. But he never quite faced the story of his family and, so, the story of himself.
Averill’s deep love for his subject does not stop him telling us of the coward and the obstinate oaf in Pelz. His disengagement from his younger sister Jutti, who survived Auschwitz, unlike their parents, is shocking. After the war she asked him for help. He did nothing. Pelz’s failings as a father and stepfather are also unsettling, especially in the light of his parents’ all-abiding love for him.
I wish Averill didn’t strain to fill the inevitable gaps in his expansive research by inserting ‘‘ one imagines’’. The story as it stands is gripping, no narrative flourishes required. I wish, too, that the account of Pelz’s dying was not tacked on to the end of each chapter, in the form of Averill’s diary entries, and thus stretched out across the book, a slowing-down of farewell and a poignant counterpoint to his dear friend’s aversion to farewells. But it feels like a misjudgment.
Averill digs deep, scours wide. We trust him — trust his integrity in chronicling Pelz’s life, trust his not playing haywire with the facts and with us. I think Pelz would have liked the book. And he would have thought the right man got to write it.
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