The Dancing Bear – Frances Faviell
Originally published in 1954, and now reissued by Dean Street Press, this was Olivia Faviell Lucas’ first foray into literature. She was better known at the time as a painter. Although it precedes her fabulous account of the Blitz, A Chelsea Concerto, The Dancing Bear recounts her experiences in post war Berlin, from 1946 to 1953, although much of the narrative is around events between 1946 and 1948. It is a harrowing read but one in which Faviell’s warmth and humanity shines through.
Faviell and her young son, John, accompanied her husband as part of the British Control Commission to Berlin. Even though she had experienced first-hand the Blitz, the scenes of destruction she found there shook her as did the desperate circumstances in which the Berliners found themselves in, scrabbling around to eke out a pitiful existence. Stampie, Faviell’s driver, is a fount of all knowledge about contemporary Berlin and ever resourceful in finding those precious items that make life bearable. The two form an impressive partnership.
Faviell constructs her narrative around a local family, the Altmanns. Whilst this approach is potentially limiting in scope, it does allow us to get to know the family better, get under their skin and understand their worries, struggles, and even ambitions through Favell’s sympathetic storytelling. It does leave a suspicion that there is some quite considerable artistic licence at play because, surely, Faviell could not have been so lucky as to hit on a family whose fortunes are so wildly different and tragic as they are portrayed in the book.
Faviell and Stampie first encounter Maria Altmann as she struggles to push a handcart through the streets. She collapses and although it is forbidden for allies to allow Germans into their cars, they drive her home. This is the entrée she requires to meet the rest of the family. Her eldest son, Kurt, has not returned from the Eastern front, Ursula “works” for the Americans and is the provider of money and goods, Lilli is a ballet dancer, and Fritz is a ne’er do well, a constant source of concern.
Tragedy stalks the family. Maria’s husband dies as does the pregnant Lilli while Ursula marries her GI, Joe, and leaves for a better life in the States while Fritz moves to the Russian sector and rise up the Communist youth movement. Maria too dies. Although the subject matter is grim, Faviell manages to inject some light and humour into her account, not least when recounting the escapades of Stampie and the love rivalry the American Joe and a close friend of the family, Max, over Ursula. We learn that while Ursula’s heart may be with Max, the harsh economic reality of her circumstances means that Joe will always win out.
As well as providing astonishing insights into the struggles of the Berliners as they face the Russian blockade, only alleviated by the Allies’ air drops, and the ever-constant fear that the Allies will abandon them to the Russians. There are two more general insights that I found fascinating; how the former members of the Hitler Youth found the organisation of the Communist party (Fritz) and the emerging right-wing factions (Max) provided them with a sense of direction and mission that had been missing since the defeat of the Further, and how the initial stand-offishness of the British alienated the Berliners, making it much harder to rebuild bridges when the official British line towards them softened.
The bear is the symbol of Berlin and the title refers to the lament of many a Berliner that they have to dance to the tunes of their invaders. Faviell’s book opened my eyes to the privations suffered by the Berliners and is a surprisingly empathetic, moving account. It is well worth a read.