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The Loser by Peter Ustinov
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The Loser (1960)

by Peter Ustinov

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(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

(In autumn 2012 CCLaP auctioned off a first-edition copy of Peter Ustinov's The Loser through its rare-book selling service [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks]. Below is the description I wrote for its listing.)

Don't let anyone tell you any different -- Peter Ustinov was a great writer. And the reason some might say otherwise is of course that this British second-generation German/Russian immigrant was known primarily in his lifetime as an award-winning actor, while otherwise being literally the classic, slightly insulting definition of "dilettante" -- someone who dabbles in everything but isn't good at anything, including in Ustinov's case doing a children's album, penning a series of stage plays, directing several operas, being a fixture on American talk shows, starring in an improv radio comedy for the BBC, collecting rare cars, learning six languages, color-commenting on Formula One races, working for UNICEF, and being the passionate president of a prominent "world government" organization. And among these Renaissance Man activities, Ustinov was the author of a handful of novels, including 1960's The Loser, his very first; and for a man who was known by so many for his more wacky roles, he couldn't have picked a more serious subject to tackle for his first novel, charting the entire rise and fall of Germany's Nazi Party through the story of a random twenty-something citizen who got convinced to be one. After all, this came just 15 years after the end of World War Two, and right at the beginning of the countercultural, twentieth-anniversary "naked new look" at exactly what had happened back then; so this was suddenly a very hot topic among society at large at the time Ustinov wrote this, a yearning among the generation right after the war (i.e. the Baby Boomers) to look at these events from their parents' youth, and to speak of both the complexities and atrocities in a way that the older generation simply didn't have the emotional capacity to do.

And that's why I call Ustinov a deceptively great writer, because he takes a surprisingly complex look at what exactly went wrong in Germany in the 1920s and '30s to lead to so many millions succumbing so heavily to the dark side, not exactly sympathetic but more showing that any country back then could've suffered the same fate; in fact, that's where this multifaceted book starts, is with a hefty indictment of all the parties involved with the apocalyptic farce known as World War One, which both the winners and the losers had treated at first like any other of the six-month regional skirmishes they were constantly fighting throughout the Victorian Age, but then with neither side willing to eat crow and finish the damn thing once casualties reached the millions because of the unforeseen innovations that the Industrial Age brought to mass killing. Wounded as a nation, then, overly punished by the winning Allies, with a fascist-friendly culture that had been obsessed with the military and nationalism for an entire half-century, the main narrator of The Loser is a typical young German named Hans symbolically born right at the end of the Great War, literally raised since birth in a culture that could easily breed a party of thugs like the Nazis, with the rest of this novel basically a look at what exactly developed among society there back then to make things turn first as ugly then as nihilistic as they did. A sweeping saga that takes us through several battlefronts before delving into surprising plot turns in Italy, Ustinov's dry, sometimes harrowing novel ends with the question of whether any German raised in such a way would ever have the capacity to be normal, productive members of society again; and the dark answer here is, "Eh, not really," an assessment that panned out in the real world as well, in that Germany was unable to rise even incrementally as a cultural, economical and humanitarian force in the world again until all the way in the 1970s, not coincidentally when all the middle-agers who had lived through the war started dying off, and their positions of power taken over by an entire new generation of radically liberal, green-friendly children. Ustinov was pretty brilliant to be able to lay all this out in such a simple yet powerful way, and this surprisingly great novel will be a welcome treat to those interested in the war, German history, and forgotten gems of Mid-Century Modernist literature. ( )
2 vote jasonpettus | Oct 25, 2012 |
Great Condition! ( )
  leslie440 | Feb 5, 2012 |
War
  Budzul | Jun 1, 2008 |
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