Apr 2003 Journal

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Noses – from the toffee to the hook variety

Recently the late Virginia Woolf has had more attention paid to the dimensions of her nose than any other woman since Queen Cleopatra, consort of Caesar and Mark Anthony. (‘Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter’, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, ‘the whole face of the earth would have changed.’)

The contemporary focus on the most famous female profile in 1920s Bloomsbury stems from the fact that for the film The Hours, snub-nosed Nicole Kidman was fitted with a plastic prosthesis to achieve a passing likeness to Virginia Woolf. Readers only fleetingly acquainted with the personalities of the Bloomsbury Group may assume that, being surnamed Woolf, Virginia owed her ‘Grecian nose’ to Jewish birth. Not so: as the daughter of Leslie Stevens, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, she only acquired her surname through marriage to Leonard, a prominent Fabian.

Interestingly enough, two other female celebrities of London’s interwar Bohème – Ottoline Morell and Edith Sitwell – likewise had noble hooters.

It seems that this particular physical endowment often goes hand in hand with literary genius. The Roman poet Ovid, of Metamorphoses fame, who ended his days in miserable exile on the Black Sea shore, bore the self-explanatory name Publius Ovidius Naso. I also remember reading an Ignazio Silone novel set in the Mussolini era where a Fascist official rebuked a teacher for displaying the bust of a Jew on his mantelpiece – only to be told that it bore a likeness to Italy’s ‘national poet’ Dante.

Then there was the French poet and dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac, equally renowned for his inordinately long nose and his skill as a duelist. The two were closely connected because whenever a bystander gave his nose more than a passing glance, Cyrano drew his sword. (In Rostand’s eponymous play he was also a heroically unrequited lover.)

As time went by, noses transmuted from the stuff of heroic tragic into that of fantasy. Gogol’s The Nose, which Shostakovich turned into an opera, is the story of a St Petersburg civil servant whose nose abruptly leaves him to gad about the city clad in fancy clothes and riding in fine carriages. At the beginning of his career Shostakovich earned a precarious living as a cinema pianist accompanying silent films. At around the time silent movies gave way to ‘talkies’, big-nosed comics figured in films on both sides of the Atlantic. In Germany, Siegfried Arno starred in the cycle-racing film Um eine Nasenlänge. In Hollywood, Jimmy Durante alias Shnozzle became a fixture in showbiz movies. The heyday of that genre also conferred (relative) stardom on the vocally supremely gifted (and delightfully Jewish-looking) Andrew Sisters.

Eventually Hollywood produced a star – Barbra Streisand – whose romantic and vocal appeal caused her to be cast as love interest without prior plastic surgery. But before this happened, the British film industry became guilty of a near-unforgivable lapse of taste. In David Lean’s otherwise brilliant adaptation of Dickens’s Oliver Twist for the screen, Alec Guinness, as Fagin, sported a monstrous nose, which provoked cinema-goers’ jeers in occupied Germany.

Even today the image of the repulsively hooknosed Jewish villain has not been entirely consigned to the rubbish-bin of history. In a broad swathe of Muslim countries stretching from Morocco in the West to Indonesia in the East, posters, newspaper cartoons, television graphics and book illustrations portray the Jews as people whose rapaciousness is made manifest in their prehensile noses. Paradoxically, Arab countries, where aquiline noses have traditionally been regarded as aristocratic, are still copying Stürmer cartoons 57 years after Julius Streicher mounted the scaffold at Nuremberg.
Richard Grunberger

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