“A troubling book” – The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger

IMG_2022-8-6-192521A glass pearl is, as you’d probably expect, something ostensibly worthless dressed up to look like something of great worth. A fake in other words. Something that isn’t as it appears to be. Within the context of Emeric Pressburger’s long-neglected second novel, originally published way back in 1956 to considerably less fanfare than it is being greeted with today, the glass pearls are one of a number of stories told by Karl Braun, a German émigré living in London, to disguise the fact that he is, in fact, Dr Otto Reitmuller, a Nazi war criminal on the run from the authorities.

We meet Karl as he begins to establish himself in a new rented property, ducking and diving a little in the face of his forthrightly entrepreneurial neighbour, thinking about the woman he rented the property from and planning out his job, as a piano tuner. Through it all, there is a consistent rumble of unease as he wonders why others around him are behaving as they are – are they, in fact, acting out parts just to catch him out so that the authorities (Scotland Yard? State Prosecutor’s?) can swoop in? In his head, he imagines the eventual trial over and over again, always, somehow, arriving at a verdict in which he is found innocent or released.

In the afterword to the 2015 edition of this book, reprinted at the close here, Kevin MacDonald (himself a film director, whose films include the likes of Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland and How I Live Now), who is also Emeric Pressburger’s grandson, describes The Glass Pearls as “a troubling book” – and it is a troubling book. Within the confines of the novel, it’s troubling because, despite what we know about Braun, we do have sympathy for him. He is a fly in a bottle, jumping at shadows. We know he is being pursued because there is a trial ongoing in which more junior members of his team talk about him and the atrocities he committed – but we don’t know the extent of that pursuit and so we share in his paranoia as he goes about his business.  

It’s also troubling, though, when you factor in Pressburger himself, a Jew who fled Germany and managed to forge a life, leaving behind family members who were themselves unfortunately not as successful as Pressburger. Here is a novel about a sympathetic Nazi, who MacDonald tells us (MacDonald wrote a biography of his grandfather, The Life and Death of a Screenwriter back in 1994), “Emeric went so far as to imbue… with certain traits of his own; such that, to some degree, Braun is a self-portrait.” Strange, no?

But it’s the writing in the end, and the story, upon which The Glass Pearls lives and dies, and that is certainly good enough to sweep you up. Here is Braun worrying about his escape:

“Nothing was given free, but he had paid the price with bank-notes of sleepless nights, the silver of ghastly hours and the coppers of anxious minutes.”

The Glass Pearls is also interesting as a precursor of both William Golding’s The Marathon Man (Christian Szell was also modelled on Joseph Mengele) and Ira Levin’s Boys from Brazil (which actually featured Levin’s take on Mengele) – they certainly make for an interesting trio of mirror fiction.

Any Cop?: A slow burner in many senses but another book we’re glad Faber Editions have rescued from the wrecking pile of history.                                                                                                                 

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