Clive's Lives

Alfred Polgar

The forgotten wit who Marlene Dietrich had hoped would write her biography.

The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

Abel, if he had fled from the murderous attentions of his brother Cain, would as an emigrant have had to put up with an even more bitter inconvenience. He would have had to wander the world for the rest of his life with the brand of Abel on his forehead.
—Alfred Polgar, “Towards a Contemporary Theme”

Alfred Polgar

Born in Vienna in 1873, Alfred Polgar was educated in the cafes. He established himself early in his adult career as the unsurpassable exemplar of German prose in modern times, even though he never, strictly speaking, wrote a book. In 1927, his success as a writer of reviews, essays, and articles took him to Berlin, and in 1933, the success of the Nazis almost deprived him of his life. He escaped Germany the day before he was scheduled to be arrested. As a journalist dependent on the size of his audience, Polgar still had outlets in Vienna, Zurich, and Prague, but his position steadily became more desperate. “I love life and I would never willingly leave it,” he told a friend, “but it is leaving me.” In 1938, he left Vienna on the night train to Zurich only a day before the Anschluss. Luckily, he was able to follow the exile trail—Prague, Paris, Spain—all the way to America, although he knew before he got there that he was ill-equipped to flourish.

On the American market, his approach to writing would have been useless even if it had not been confined to the German language, because it was also confined to German-speaking society: His prose and its subject matter were aspects of each other. In Hollywood, he was a beneficiary of the MGM program that paid refugee writers for screenplays that would never be filmed. Well aware that this was tantamount to being given a free ticket to a soup kitchen, he was ashamed to take the money, but he had no choice. He was no longer young enough to master English in the way he had mastered his mother tongue. After the war, Polgar returned to Europe but felt unable to settle in Austria or in either version of Germany, despite his being greeted as a hero wherever he went. He died in Zurich in 1955 *, with his immortality already established by a whole constellation of kleine Schriften (small writings) that Marcel Reich-Ranicki rightly defined as “an immaculate unification of tact and intellect, conscience and taste.” Marlene Dietrich wanted Polgar to write her biography. Sadly, the project came to nothing.

When the New Hellas left Portugal for New York on Oct. 4, 1940, among the passengers were Heinrich Mann, Golo Mann, Franz and Alma Werfel, and Alfred Polgar. It was a convocation of the talents, but it is fair to say that even the imperious Alma, who had been loved by every important man in Vienna, knew which among her attendant male companions on the ship of the saved had a gift from heaven. Polgar was the one who could raise their tragedy to poetry. In his home ground, Polgar had made German the ideal instrument for a body of prose so charged with the precision of poetry that it gives a picture of his era no other writer could match for wealth of registered detail and subtlety of argument. His every essay forms a rhythmic unit from start to finish: “Many attempt without success to make up for their lack of talent with defects of character.” He could afford to say so because his strength and depth of character were in everything he said. “A commonplace soul is often uncommonly spirited. But dreck is still dreck, even when phosphorescent.” He could afford to say that, too, because he was never flashy. Most of his best effects were achieved with nothing more than a subtle shift against a prepared expectation. Sometimes you can barely hear the swerve. “To reform an evildoer, you must before anything else help him to an awareness that what he did was evil. With the Nazis this won’t be easy. They know exactly what they’re doing: they just can’t imagine it.” Drawn with a single calligraphic stroke from a fine brush, the distinction between knowing and imagining was crucial to him. Armed with that, he could make literature from the bare facts, however sad. “The striking aphorism requires a stricken aphorist.” We can almost convince ourselves that he welcomed disaster.

He hated every minute of disaster. As things happened—as Hitler made them happen—Polgar was presented with the dubious opportunity of gathering all the gifts with which he had so brilliantly reflected life in the German-speaking civilization in order to bring them to the task of recording its disintegration. It would have been a daunting task even for a much younger man; when he went into exile he was already 65. “It is the destiny of the emigrant that the foreign land does not become his homeland: his homeland becomes foreign.” Along with his books, he had left everything that sustained his imagination far behind. “When everything has left you, you are alone. When you have left everything, you are lonely.” In Hollywood, Polgar was too proud to accept his helplessness without an interior rebellion. (He was the one who called Hollywood a paradise over whose door is written, “Abandon hope.”) Those who would like to believe that Thomas Mann was an anti-Semite have to deal with the undoubted fact that he reached deep into his pocket at a crucial time to save Polgar, whom he realized was his equal as a guardian of the soul of the German language. (It was Mann who said Polgar’s prose was marked by a lightness that plumbed the depths.) Throughout the war, Polgar wrote for such German publications as there were; and after the war he went back to Europe in a kind of belated triumph; but he was never again the force he had once been, and today he has no international reputation whatsoever. He foresaw the reason: “My spiritual handwriting can’t be translated.”

In the doomed attempt to translate it, we should switch our attention from his last phase to his early glory, in which his exuberant sensitivity to the scope of civilized life can still be appreciated even if the English words chosen to duplicate it are clumsily assembled. Among his other talents, Polgar was a theater critic who could write a weekly review that chronicled a whole society. Our own greatest theater critic, Shaw, was limited as well as focused by his playwright’s agenda. Polgar, though he had dramatic gifts of his own, had no such limitation. Hear him on Pygmalion: “A comedy about a man who turns a girl into a lady, but in doing so overlooks the woman.” Polgar said of The Merchant of Venice: “Among empty masks made lifelike for a single evening by Shakespeare, the master wig-maker, Shylock is the only face.” Year upon year, Polgar would track every production of plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Hauptmann, Pirandello. His sequence of essays on Ibsen leaves Shaw’s equivalent effort looking thin. Polgar never gushed; he was discriminating even in his worship, but the wellspring of his enthusiasm was a grateful love.

We should think of that first before we begin to enjoy his limiting judgments. Critics are always remembered best for how they sound when on the attack. Schadenfreude lies deep in the human soul, and to read a tough review seems a harmless way of indulging it. But the only critical attacks that really count are written in defense of a value. It was because of his admiration for competent practitioners that Polgar assaulted the incompetent. He could be hilarious while doing so, but never for the sake of being funny. Lesser critics look for opportunities to pour on the scorn. Polgar would rather have avoided them. When forced to the issue, however, he left no man standing. He said of Man and Superman: “[T]he audience gets an exhausting idea of the inexhaustibility of the subject, and is bored brilliantly.” Of a young actress: “She is pretty, and tactfully concerned that the optical pleasure she provides shall not be disturbed by technical requirements any more than necessary.” Of a bad playwright: “Saying nothing is the mother tongue of his art.” Let it be said again that Polgar could write that way not because he was cruel but because he was comprehensive. The proof is in the subtle judgments he made between the two extremes of praise and blame.

Pianist Alfred Brendel put me on to Polgar. Brendel knows everything about the Viennese coffeehouse wits, and carries in his pocket an anthology of their best sayings, individually typed out on slips of paper. Away from the piano, Brendel’s fingertips are usually wrapped in strips of Elastoplast. (So would mine be, if they were worth $10 million each.) When you see those bits of paper being hauled from his pockets by his plastered fingers, you realize you are in the presence of a true enthusiast. Brendel gave me the name of every card in the pack but told me to be sure of one thing: Alfred Polgar was the ace of diamonds. The advice saved me years. I probably would have got to Polgar eventually, but by getting to him early I was granted entree to a whole vanished world, because Polgar is the gatekeeper. Though a shy man, he knew everyone because everyone wanted to know him; and he had their characters summed up. The way he wrote about everything at all levels confirmed me in what I had been trying to do. A single dull page would have been a relief, but there wasn’t one. I found his titles in second-hand bookshops all over the world: wherever the refugees had gone to die in peace, and their children had sold the books because the old language was the last thing they wanted to hear again. On Staten Island, N.Y., I found half a dozen, and there was a bunch of three in Tel Aviv. Strangely enough, Munich teemed with them: Despite instructions, fewer Jew-infected books were burned than the Nazis would have liked.

Correction, March 23: This article originally and mistakenly gave 1975 as the year of Alfred Polgar’s death. In fact, he died in 1955. (Return to the corrected sentence.)