The Mysteries of the Childhood Memoir

In the Light of Youth

Can the memoir capture the mysteries of childhood?


The years of childhood, the stupider adults used to assure us, are the happiest years of our lives, but as every child knows, they are, in fact, among the most horrible. When we are little, nothing makes sense, and everything is the wrong size. There are spikes and sharp edges everywhere. The people who unaccountably have charge of us seem incomprehensible, or mad, or both. Then we are sent to school, and the real trials and torments begin. We quickly come to understand that what we have to learn in order to get on in the world, or at least to get by in it, is how to impersonate ourselves convincingly; it’s a hard task, and many of us fail at it.

In his radiant masterpiece Germs, Richard Wollheim presents us with a childhood that is understood precisely in these terms, as a period to be survived only by stratagems. For him, to be a child is to be wholly at the mercy of blind, unpredictable forces, hard to resist for creatures handicapped by ignorance, small stature, and the undependability of the body. Wollheim, who died in 2003, was a highly respected philosopher in the areas of art and aesthetics and the thought and teachings of Freud. Germs is his final work, published posthumously in 2004, and now reissued with a warm and perceptive introduction by Sheila Heti. It is the book Wollheim considered his best, and we can safely trust his judgment in the matter; certainly it is his most radically conceived and passionately executed work. It is by turns exquisite, appalling, mysterious, and very, very funny.

On the surface, it is what it says it is: a memoir of childhood. But this is a childhood, and a memoir of it, like no other, though there are echoes of Proust, of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In places where the narrative voice takes on what might be termed a meticulous bleakness, we might even be in Beckettland.

Any account of childhood written by an adult might quickly become a work of adult art, presenting the child’s world, its highlights and its shadows, with a sensibility foreign to the experiences of being young. With his intensely concentrated gaze and voluptuous yet exact prose style, however, Wollheim offers us a work of vivid immediacy. Reading it, one experiences the kind of embarrassment that the critic Christopher Ricks identified in Keats’s poetry: Brought this close up to what it feels like to be a child, or for that matter an adult, Wollheim helps us see with awful clarity what an emotional and moral predicament it is to be alive.

A fitting epigraph to Germs could be Philip Larkin’s stark yet somehow comic line “Life is first boredom, then fear.” A lot of Wollheim’s deadpan humor derives from the glaring contrast between the conditions of his boyhood in Larkinesque suburban England—both boring and frightening—and his family’s florid background.

Wollheim’s father’s people were German Jews; the first to leave a record was Jacob Salomon Wollheim, born in 1745 in Breslau, now Wrocław, Poland. Among Jacob’s descendants were some truly extraordinary figures, who are dealt with in the book’s captivating central section. The most memorable of these ancestors is the polymath Anton Edmund Wollheim, born in 1810, the grandson of Jacob Salomon. “Anton was a scholar, a journalist, a playwright, a novelist, a dramaturge, a diplomat, a poet, and twice a soldier, and knew, in some serious sense, thirty-two languages,” Wollheim writes. After a stint in the Portuguese Army, Anton worked on cataloging the Sanskrit and Pali manuscripts in the Royal Library in Copenhagen and was sent by the Danish king on a mission concerning the Schleswig-Holstein question—on which, Wollheim notes, “he may have been one of the three experts to whom Palmerston famously referred.” Then, presumably having time on his hands, he translated a number of European classics, including Florian’s Wilhelm Tell, and contributed to the libretto of The Flying Dutchman. And even then he was only getting started.

Wollheim’s mother’s family “was altogether different,” as he puts it with typical, tight-lipped reserve (the tightened lips, we should note, are most likely suppressing a ghastly grin). If his father and his father’s family are the beating heart of the book, his mother is an all too palpable vacuum at its center. Her own mother and father were as English as cakes and ale. They were of West Country stock, and both their families “had lived close to the soil” and led “cold, rain-sodden lives,” about which young Richard remained stolidly incurious.

In contrast, Wollheim’s father, Eric, was a theatrical agent who had moved from Breslau to Paris to England by 1900 and set up a highly successful agency in London, representing superstars of the day like the great Russian ballerina Karsavina and the French chanteuse Lucienne Boyer, famous for her best-selling song “Parlez-Moi d’Amour.” Lucienne delighted Richard on her visits to his home by bringing along a huge jigsaw puzzle, which they would work on together in the garden in the pallid English sunlight.

There was also the sexually provocative singer Suzy Solidor, who on coming to England was entranced to discover shiny black Wellington boots, which she wore to lunch at the Wollheims’. “In wartime Paris,” Wollheim writes, “she graduated, I learnt years later, to studded belts and leather and whips, and, with a few lesbian friends, became the darling of the SS.”

But the most illustrious visitor chez Wollheim was Sergei Diaghilev, for whose Ballets Russes company Eric acted as London manager from 1918 onward. Though ever phlegmatic and poised, Eric seems to have idolized the Russian tyrant, yet not to the point of missing the comedy that went along with the melodrama. As Eric described Diaghilev to a journalist, Wollheim recounts, “the more worried he was about time, the shorter and shorter steps he took, so that, in the end, he was at a standstill.”

Germs is illustrated with a number of casual yet haunting photographs. One of the most remarkable of these was likely taken in the same garden where Richard plied the jigsaw puzzle pieces with Mlle. Boyer. It is a snapshot of the Wollheims, Diaghilev, and the dancer Serge Lifar grouped in deck chairs, with a background of tree and shrub and fence. Diaghilev is expansively seated, dandified as always, and grinning like the Cheshire Cat over the shoulder of Richard, at the age of 5, who sits in—or strains to get out of—his lap, wearing an expression of the most extreme discomfort and disgust.

It was the cosmopolite Eric who insisted, unaccountably, that the family must live not in London but in Surrey. They settled first in the town of Weybridge, in a house called Upton Pyne, and later in Walton-on-Thames, where the ominous-sounding house name was the Mask, though the reference was not to highwaymen and brigands but to theatrical masks and Eric’s, and his wife’s, connections with the stage.

It would be hard to overstate how bizarre a choice it was for this extravagant family to sequester itself in this leafy corner of England. It is the England that is celebrated in the poems of John Betjeman and that was mocked in every London music hall. “Surrey” was a keyword for many comedians of the time, when they wished to make jokes at the expense of the straitlaced middle-class world of afternoon tea and weekend garden fetes and Sunday-morning churchgoing.

Another photograph reproduced in the book also fixes the incongruity of the circumstances of the Wollheims-on-Thames. It was taken in a typical suburban street complete with fake half-timbered houses and box-shaped motorcars. Three figures are grouped against a tree. Richard, looking both surly and distressed, wears his school cap, tie, and overcoat neatly belted. Behind him stands his mother in furs and a pudding-shaped hat and marcelled hair, displaying what Richard would say was her usual expression, one of baffled and irritated distraction. And beside her, and half a head shorter, is Kurt Weill, wearing a homburg hat, a tweed overcoat, and an implausible smile. Mahagonny rises in the home counties.

Since to the child everything is strange, nothing is strange. Richard accepted the trials and terrors of the existence he was forced to lead as perfectly normal, if utterly unacceptable. He lived as an alien in a familiar land. He says of his parents that “if jointly they brought it about that I grew up in England, they also ensured that I didn’t grow up English.”

To escape this predicament, or at least to cope with it, he conjured for himself a heartland of the imagination situated somewhere between the mythical Scotland of the Waverley novels and the monde damné of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Young Richard’s main hobby, his main obsession, was being unwell and recovering from being unwell. He might have adapted Pope’s line and spoken of “this long convalescence, my life.” Once, after getting into a brief tussle among his schoolfellows, he was so upset and fevered that he contracted pleurisy. “I luxuriated in my new-found weakness, as other boys might delight in their new-found strength,” he recalls.

The illness was only the first in a series of similar afflictions, most of them of the ordinary childhood run but which assailed him “with excessive ferocity, and with a frequency out of the ordinary, so that I had measles three times, which I was told was a record.” Even in the adult voice we hear the small boy’s note of quiet pride.

What viruses are to us, so were germs to an earlier generation, the silent invaders that could bring anything from the common cold to devastating afflictions such as rheumatic fever or polio. As with the narrative itself, Wollheim’s title is suggestively ambiguous. Ideas, passions, obsessive loves—these also have their germs. As to love, there are lovely interludes in which some of Richard’s earliest infatuations are beautifully evoked. The account of how, in wartime London sometime in 1943 or ‘44, he lost his virginity to “a young girl in a brief belted coat”—a French prostitute who accosted him outside the Piccadilly Hotel—is as tender as it is funny, as precise as it is melancholy.

But before that, long before, there was school. We are well used to accounts of the horrors inflicted upon English schoolboys of a past age—girls seem to have fared better—but Richard’s tales of woe are special unto themselves. His tone is one of bemusement rather than anger. He looked upon school as another place of exile and confinement, where the grown-ups were crazier than usual and his fellow captives feral to a boy. “If there was early fear in my life, long before the word ‘love’ was breathed, it was school that introduced me, not to fear, but to the idea of a world of fear. By that I mean a world that fear stalked like a wild animal bent on indiscriminate revenge.”

Though there is much anguish and many an accident—“disgraced myself by falling into a tank of cow-dung, and then getting drunk on elderberry wine. I was probably eight or nine”—the book is far from being merely a list of grievances or a rancorous settling of scores. The author’s endearingly skewed perspective on the world, and the sparkle and immediacy with which he describes what he saw and experienced, make this a unique work. The set pieces in particular are masterpieces of descriptive writing. Wollheim does what the best artists do: He estranges us from the world and at the same time makes us gasp in delighted recognition of things we have always known but never noticed.

There is an extended passage devoted to the town’s messenger boys “of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, with their rough skin and their large chapped lips, and their hair clipped to the skin over the ears and high up the nape of the neck.” They were the sons of the working class, Wollheim tells us, and always would be, as they grimly and resentfully knew. They would congregate at places throughout the town, holding meetings, their form of “a morning council of war”; “with much ringing of bicycle bells, they rode always to one overruling end, which was, by all the means at their disposal, to take over the quiet suburban roads, and make them their own.”

Richard was terrified of them, and he was right to be. One day they cornered him, forced open his mouth, and filled it with rabbit droppings. “I felt that they were taking revenge upon me for years of humiliation suffered at other hands…. In front of my dog, I sat down and cried.” Away from the gang, however, these wild boys grew tame. Wollheim describes, with a compassion all the warmer for the restraint with which it is expressed, standing at his kitchen window and seeing one of them enter the yard to make a delivery: “Off his bicycle, on someone’s property, which was clearly signed ‘No Hawkers, No Trespassers’, weighed down by his load, the boy shuffled like a prisoner.” The messenger boys carried to young Richard the news that the world is a hard place, that life is cruel to some, and that very, very few of the ones at the bottom will manage to rise to the top.

Wollheim is one of those supreme observers who we feel is presenting things as they actually were and not as they emerge from the alembic of memory. His mother, Connie, is a set piece all to herself, someone he regards with what seems an unwontedly hard heart. Admittedly, she is both domineering and a person with little knowledge of or curiosity about herself, her emotions—or lack of them—and the workings of her own mind. She had been an actress, not very successful, but she “found a supporter, protector, attenuated lover” in C.B. Cochran, the overlord of London theater in the first half of the 20th century. In old age, she confided to Richard that she had never gone “all the way” with Cochran and asked if he understood what she meant, “as though,” Wollheim writes, “the secrets of sexuality were known exclusively to a generation that professed to have little use for them.”

The book does not say how Eric and Connie met. They both worked in the theater, and presumably this was how they found each other. They were married in 1920, and Connie gave up the stage. “There were several possible reasons for this,” Wollheim writes. “My father might have feared her failure, he might have feared her success, he might have wanted her at home.” In later years, she resented the decision, if decision it was—in those days, even the most momentous changes in a woman’s life could come about by mere drift.

In her son’s account, Connie lived a vapid life, reading nothing, learning nothing, a prey to various quirks and phobias, chief among the latter being her fear and detestation of germs. She was, Wollheim tells us, “a woman of great beauty,” one possessed of much energy but with nothing to expend it on, and so she “hit upon something the ultimate appeal of which may very well have been that in itself it meant nothing to her: it was cleaning the house.” She didn’t need to perform this task, since there were servants who could have done it or at least shared the work with her. In its precision, dedication, and utter futility, the system she devised reminds one of Beckett’s Molloy and his sucking stones. And when the system was interrupted or thwarted, the entire process had to be started all over again:

The fact that failure deprived her of pleasure, that it sent her back to the Hoover and the sweeper and the duster for another long period, did not much matter to her so long as failure was hers to adjudicate. It would be hard to exaggerate how readily pleasure could recede as an aim in the life of this woman, who, in company, presented herself as a dizzy hedonist, a huntress after pleasure with not another thought in her head.

On such a passage could be rested the entire case for this singular, transcendent work of art. Yet here, as in the many other pages devoted to his mother, Wollheim reveals, surely without intending to, a deep-seated resentment that at times rises almost to the level of detestation. And here also we find the psychological crux of the book: In Wollheim’s own family drama, it would seem his deepest wish, in a reversal of the Oedipus complex, was to kill his mother and marry his father.

If Connie is described as a useless monster, Eric, in Wollheim’s depiction, is the epitome of male assurance, elegance, and style. In anecdote after anecdote, he carries the day with irresistible insouciance. The most mundane of his doings is made to seem dashing: “Every morning, he stood on a pair of scales, and, taking out a gold pencil from his dressing gown pocket, he wrote down his weight in fine German numerals, on a pad which was attached to a metal ashtray.” Spied in the bathroom in the morning, your dad or mine would have a paunch and a rip in his pajamas; Wollheim’s has a gold pencil and a command of fine German numerals. One can only say: Poor Connie.

Wollheim is ever aware of his limitations. He writes, at the close of the book, that one of the ways in which childhood ends “is when, no longer reconciled to the cold fact that there are things about ourselves we cannot say but can at best express in tears, we try obliquely to conquer the inability to say one thing through the hard-won ability to say another thing that neighbours on it.” It is a way of inching toward the truth, and certainly Wollheim is a master of obliquity. He ends with a small flourish, and a glorious mixture of metaphors:

However little there was in the way of truth to the first thing said, there might be more to the second thing said, and eventually, or such was the hope, I would, in saying one thing after another after another after another, each with a grain more of truth to it than its predecessor, come to spill the beans: I might, if only the ear stayed steady, and that was another hope, find myself, with one broad archaic gesture, scattering the germs.


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