Rest­less jour­ney of a per­pet­ual out­sider

Ex­ile: The Lives and Hopes of Werner Pelz

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Maria Tu­markin Maria Tu­markin

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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