At the end of World War II, the composer Richard Strauss, whose final work was an opera titled ‘Capriccio’, wrote: ‘The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.’Strauss described the government sanctioned anti-semitism as ‘the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.’ Assia Gutmann, whose father was Jewish, was one of the many victims of this period in history. At age six, she and her family were driven out of Berlin by the anti-semitic policies of the Third Reich. Mercifully, their exile saved their lives, but Dr Gutmann’s family perished.
The Meaning of ‘Capriccio’ In 1990, Ted Hughes, England’s Poet Laureate, published a collection of twenty poems, entitled Capriccio. The volume was illustrated by artist Leonard Baskin, and published by his Gehenna Press in a limited edition of only fifty copies. At $4000 each, and filled with richly coloured engravings by Baskin, the beautifully boxed leather volume was a […]
Today is the 46th anniversary of the deaths of Assia Gutmann Wevill, and Shura Hughes Wevill. They both died on 23rd March, 1969. Assia was 41 years old, and her daughter Shura was four. After a fraught phone conversation with her lover, Ted Hughes, Assia took pills, turned on the gas, and lay down to die with her daughter, whom […]
Notes found in Ted Hughes’ loose leaf notebook in the British Library summarise the story of a Jewish Talmudist, Rabbah bar Hannah, who set down his life story of perilous adventures,etching them onto a rock. Kabbalah (Hebrew קַבָּלָה) literally mens “receiving/tradition”. It is an ancient series of spiritual teachings originating in the twelfth century BC, in the town of Safed in […]
A shibboleth is a linguistic marker that is characteristic of members of a group, which is used by another group to identify members of the first group. Such identification typically has bad consequences for the members thus identified. The story behind the word is recorded in the biblical Book of Judges. The word shibboleth in ancient Hebrew dialects meant ‘ear of grain’ (or, some say, ‘stream’). Some groups pronounced it with a sh sound, but speakers of related dialects pronounced it with an s. In the story, two Semitic tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, have a great battle. The Gileadites defeat the Ephraimites, and set up a blockade across the Jordan River to catch the fleeing Ephraimites who were trying to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no sh sound in their language, pronounced the word with an s and were thereby unmasked as the enemy and slaughtered. Adapted from: Words in English public website Ling/Engl 215 course information Rice University Prof. S. Kemmer
Note: This chapter comes half way through the novel. Assia has returned from a clandestine trip to Spain with her lover, Ted Hughes. She and her husband are on a holiday in Germany, when Assia discovers she’s pregnant. Chapter 13. SHIBBOLETH Germany, October 1962 The countryside in autumn was beautiful; in the forest, russet and gold leaves quivered on the great pine trees, standing tall and straight like sentinels. After picnicking in the shaded woods on dark pumpernickel bread, and cream cheese with paprika, their walk had slowed. It was getting dark, and both of them were weary. Towards nightfall they reached a pretty little township, straight out of Hansel and Gretel. Assia felt at home in this rural village, as if she’d returned to the enchanted life of her early childhood, when she was protected by her mother, adored by her father, and cossetted by her German grandparents. She felt faint, and in spite of her fears, protective of the tiny life that might be growing inside her. Her body craved rest. She imagined sinking into clean white sheets under an eiderdown filled with soft goose feathers. ‘Let’s stay here tonight, darling. I’m worn out, and that little gasthaus we passed just now looks so welcoming. Not nearly as dilapidated as some of the houses here. I remember those little inns, like our bed-and-breakfast cottages in England. Vati and Mutti used to take me and Cissy to little gasthausen […]
Note: this is part of a chapter from my completed manuscript, ‘Capriccio’, a fictional biography of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the woman who came between the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath Smell of Burning Tel Aviv 1935 – 1946 You wore the sign of lightning to ward off lightning – Ted Hughes, Smell of Burning Assia’s memories refuse to leave her in peace that night. In her mind, she is a child again, back in Berlin, re-living the time when all her safeties had been stripped away. She remembers how, late one cold night, she and her parents and little sister board a train out of Berlin. Vati is carrying two huge suitcases with their most precious possessions. Assia and Celia each clutch their one permitted plaything: Assia a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, Celia a white fluffy rabbit. There’d been a tantrum when Celia’s first choice, an almost life-size teddy bear, was decreed too large to take with her. Assia feels the fear in the air, and hides under the carriage seat […]