Reading Exile, Roger Averill’s moving memoir of his friend and mentor Werner Pelz, made me realise once more how fortunate we are in Australia to be an immigrant society. How dull it must be if a society closes its doors to people who come from a variety of experiences and offer a different way of looking at the world! Averill has the gift of making his subject instantly real to his readers, and right from the opening chapter I wanted to know more about this man.
In a cruel series of ironies, Werner Pelz had to flee Germany for being Jewish, and was then interned in the UK for being German. From there he was sent to internment in Australia, travelling on the infamous HMT Dunera to the camps in Hay and Tatura. But after the war he returned to Britain, remaking himself as an Anglican vicar, an author, a BBC presenter and a columnist for the Guardian. Decades later, he came back here to Australia to lecture in sociology at La Trobe – which is where in the 1980s, he met the author, Roger Averill, and formed a friendship which continued to flourish long after his retirement.
The book begins in the immediate aftermath of Pelz’s death, when Roger is tasked with sorting out his papers. The meaning of the quotation that introduces the novel comes into focus as Roger finds gaps in the written record of his friend’s life:
I am not explained, not even when everything about me has been explained. (Werner and Lotte Pelz, True Deceivers)
Anyone who has had the experience of sorting out the effects of a deceased friend or relation experiences this odd sensation of realising that the one you thought you knew so well, is not quite what you had always assumed. The detritus left behind is as revealing as the mementoes, and equally revealing can be the missing effects, the ones you expected to find that are not there. Why keep the gifts from this person, and not from that? Why are there letters and cards from here and not from there? Why hoard these souvenirs, and not those? These discoveries lead in turn to anxiety that there may be aspects of a friend’s life that one would perhaps rather not know…
Averill entices the reader onward on his quest to make sense of the man he loved. There are times when this is a bit confronting for the author, as when he learns that in the aftermath of the Holocaust which claimed Werner’s parents, his friend did not take steps to reunite with his surviving sister. It seems to Averill, as it seems to us, that this was unkind, and he searches for a meaning that is consistent with the kindness of the man he knew. He’s not always successful in this quest, and the reader is left with an enigma, but this is as Pelz would have wished it because he was a man more interested in asking questions than in definitive answers.
Pelz married twice, but the marriage which produced his only son, Peter, was an impulse provoked by a bureaucratic requirement. The marriage was dysfunctional almost from the start. In the postwar period, Werner met Lotte, and was attracted by her intellectual qualities. He was, at this time, experiencing an existential crisis, as many people did in the aftermath of the Holocaust. His family hadn’t really practised their religion in Berlin until they were ghettoized, and Werner had found then that the learning required for his Bar Mitzvah constricted his thought. Yet in Britain, he fell in with an Anglican missionary group that had plans to work in Berlin during its reconstruction, and he had grand plans to convert Germans to a ‘new mythology’ because the old one had failed and led to Nazism. However the group required its proselytizers to be married, and so a hasty union was organised. The awkwardness of the arrangement can be seen in the photos that accompany the book. They do not look like a loving couple, not even on their wedding day.
Averill, whose fondness for his subject is overt, is at pains to explain all this. Werner was a young man alone and friendless in a country that had failed him, and he lacked a sense of belonging. He may have thought that a spiritual role would help him to make sense of the unimaginable fact of the Holocaust. And Lotte, whose own mental health wasn’t stable, encouraged his grandiose plans to save Germany from itself. Alas for their child, she violently rejected her pregnancy when it occurred because it put an end to their plans to return to Berlin, and Werner’s poor relationship with his son is another enigma that Averill has to try to untangle.
Despite their dysfunctional marriage, their fundamental incompatibility exacerbated by her physical and mental ill-health and her melancholy, Lotte and Werner became close because of their intellectual interests, and he cared for her for a long time.
With plans to work in Germany in disarray, Werner became a curate. He then tried to garner popular support for nuclear disarmament from within his parish with sermons, pamphlets and plays, to the extent that eventually his parish duties (like his domestic ones) were neglected. He crossed swords with the conservative nuclear deterrence stance of the Church of England and caused dismay amongst the congregation. But he had found his destiny: he began to write.
His spiritual restlessness manifested itself in countless rejected manuscripts until the publication of Irreligious Reflections on the Christian Church, published by SCM Press in 1959. It questioned the materialism of the established church, and in God is No More, which he co-wrote with Lotte, Werner aimed to ‘scrape off the centuries of religious domestication that cling to the words and teachings of Jesus, to restore to them their iconoclastic, radical, world-shaking power‘ (p197). He had a column in The Manchester Guardian which brought him a wider profile when it shed Manchester from its masthead, and he picked up a segment on BBC TV’s faith program. (You can see the obituary at the Guardian here).
The style of Werner Pelz’s books is, apparently, similar to the teaching style that made Werner a well-loved mentor to his students when he was eventually offered a position in sociology at La Trobe University. His ‘unsystematic, poetic approach‘ (p197) isn’t a linear argument that can be refuted with logic, but is rather a series of assertions for reflection and discussion. From the excerpts from his writings in this book I’m not sure that this style would have suited me when I was a student, but I would have liked his original thought and the way that he challenged sacred cows.
This affectionate memoir is testament to the memory of a most interesting man.
Author: Roger Averill
Title: Exile: the Lives and Hopes of Werner Pelz
Publisher: Transit Lounge 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge
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