Review of Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming (2015)
Is this book any good? It’s not often that I have to ask myself that question.
Its author, Lavie Tidhar, seems like an interesting guy. An Israeli who grew up on a kibbutz, moved to South Africa, and now lives in London, Tidhar has written—in English, as best I can tell—quite a few books, mostly science fiction and fantasy.
Like those earlier works, A Man Lies Dreaming, much fêted in the UK on its publication last year and newly arrived in the US from Melville House, is genre fiction. I was going to call it a pastiche of hard boiled detective fiction, except that pastiche often means derivative, and this book, even though in dialogue with and indeed filching styles and phrasings from all kinds of books, is anything but derivative. And if pastiche is problematic, then calling this book hard-boiled is even more so. A Man Lies Dreaming is instead an example of a genre that seems endlessly interesting to writers—alternate histories of WWII-era Europe. In this regard, Tidhar’s book reminded me of Jo Walton’s Farthing trilogy. Walton is another writer who is nominally a fantasy writer but mostly writes books that are hard to classify.
A big difference between Tidhar’s book and Walton’s, and indeed almost every book that revisits the struggle against fascism, is that in his the Germans haven’t won the war. Indeed, there hasn’t even been a war, at least not as we know it. In his world, the National Socialists came to power only briefly before being decisively defeated by communism, an event ominously called the Fall by fascists and their opponents alike. A Man Lies Dreaming is set in England in late 1939. The fascist leader, Oswald Mosley—whose real-life attempts to bring fascism to England were scuppered in the 1930s (and who is memorably pilloried in P. G. Wodehouse’s peerless The Code of the Woosters)—is about to be democratically elected. Former high-ranking Nazis, who have made their way to England and drifted into various illegal enterprises, abet Mosley’s rise to power.
Against this backdrop, Wolf, a down-at-heels private detective, is hired by a beautiful and rich young woman to find her sister. So far, so Hammett (or Chandler). Wolf is a bit different than Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, though. He makes us uneasy already from his first sentence: “She had the face of an intelligent Jewess.” No matter that his client, Isabella Rubenstein, is an intelligent Jewess. What disturbs is the attribution of her Jewishness to her physiognomy, and the not-so-coded anti-Semitic suggestion that her intelligence will lead to some sort of scheming or malice. Indeed, on the next page Wolf bluntly asserts that he won’t work for Jews—though his poverty and her wealth, as well as, more complicatedly, his intensely ambivalent relationship to Jews, means that he takes the case.
Our uneasiness about Wolf is soon confirmed in, well, spades. He’s none other than Adolf Hitler, reduced, if that’s the right way to put it, to pounding London’s mean streets as a gumshoe. The novel doesn’t explicitly name Wolf as Hitler until it’s almost over, but it’s not exactly keeping it a secret, either. Everything we learn about Wolf’s earlier life matches on to Hitler’s, and in a historical note at the end of the book Tidhar reminds us that Hitler “used the nom de guerre of ‘Wolf’” in the 1920s.
In turning Hitler from a dictator to a PI, Tidhar makes things uncomfortable for his readers. As developed by Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and others, the hard-boiled detective was already Exhibit A in readers’ willingness to sympathize with disreputable characters. (These days we so equate Hammett’s Spade with the charisma of Humphrey Bogart that we are quick to forget the novel’s introduction of him as looking “rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.”) Of course, those novels always gave us an out because the society in which the PI made his way was so corrupt that any uncertainty we felt about the hero paled in comparison to his singular ability to do the right thing—or maybe he could be such a moral exemplar precisely because he was beyond the phony morality espoused by everyone around him.
But what happens when the knight in dark armor is Hitler?
Tidhar uses the irony of his conceit to trouble our relationship to his central character. Hitler’s famous abstemiousness (no alcohol, no cigarettes, no meat) contrasts nicely with the usual private eye vices. And characters are forever wondering at how Wolf could have come down so far in the world—that’s partly presented as a function of his purity (unlike other Nazi leaders like Göring and Goebbels or even famously sadistic functionaries like Ilse Koch or Josef Kramer, all of whom appear in the novel, Wolf is unwilling to turn his hatred into mere criminality) and, conversely, partly as a way of reinforcing the delusory quality of Hitler’s appeal. It’s as though no one in the novel can imagine how he managed to sway as many people as he did for as long as he did.
Perversely, then, we are sometimes led to side with Wolf, even feel bad for him. After all, like any good, dogged, hard-done-by PI he pursues his case no matter what obstacles are thrown in his way. He’s even falsely accused of being the serial killer who is murdering London’s prostitutes (like most noir fiction, A Man Lies Dreaming has too many busy sub-plots).
But he’s still Hitler. He’s despicable: violent, full of hate, and convinced of his own superiority. (I haven’t even mentioned his line in violent and debasing sex.) So when terrible things happen to him we’re left cheering. At least, that’s how I sometimes felt. At others I was more relieved than triumphant. And mostly I simply didn’t know how to feel. It’s common for the hardboiled PI to suffer a lot of physical abuse. Tidhar takes that convention and runs with it, most dramatically when Isabella’s father—immensely rich and influential, yet another anti-Semitic cliché except that he is hardly the effete weakling of Nazi propaganda—ambushes Wolf in his office. After beating him to a pulp, Rubeinstein and his henchmen circumcise him.
This vivid, visceral, and totally insane moment has significant ramifications. One of the subplots involves a secret Jewish resistance group that smuggles Jews out of an increasingly anti-Semitic England and on to safety in Palestine. Wolf gets his hands on one of the resister’s identity papers and, replacing the photo with one of his own, he becomes Moshe Wolfson. Late in the novel, a devoted and misguided admirer finally goads Wolf into admitting that he is in fact Hitler. The upshot is a furious spasm of violence that eventually leads Wolf to break down—or is it break through? Kicking the boy over and over until he is nothing but pulp, Wolf screams “I’m Hitler! I’m Hitler! I’m Hitler.” That avowal doesn’t last long, and the scene concludes:
He was no one. He was nothing.
“I’m…” he said. The theatre was quiet. The seats were empty and silent with disuse. There was no one to hear him, no one to respond. No one to acknowledge him, there was no one to march to his tune.
“I’m a Jew,” he said, and laughed; but like Wolf himself, the sound meant nothing.
What are we supposed to make of that? (You can see that whatever this novel has going for it, it isn’t subtle.) On a first reading, it would seem that Wolf’s identification as Jew is presented as totally spurious (“the sound meant nothing”). But then what about the novel’s denouement, when Wolf—now Wolfson—makes his way on to a ship leading to a new life in Palestine? Are we to cheer the little boy who cheerfully tells Wolf, “You ain’t nothing mister. You ain’t worth shit”? Or are we to laugh—or cry?—at Wolf’s taking on of that most sacred of Jewish cultural traditions, the Jewish joke? Consider this entry from his ship’s journal:
In the latrines an argument over who is a Jew, some suggestion not everyone on board may be kosher. “Easy way to tell,” I said. Pissing against the wall in a row, we all had a good laugh. I looked at my Jew dick in my hand almost in affection.
Should we be enraged with Wolf’s appropriation of the people and culture his real life counterpart tried to exterminate? I mean, even here Hitler is still a dick. “Almost in affection”: ugh, what a shit. Or should we conclude that Wolf aka Hitler is really now a Jew? I can’t decide whether this perverse use of the idea that the Jew is a universal figure for suffering is only Wolf’s (and therefore something we can dismiss as delusional) or in fact the novel’s (and therefore something we’re supposed to take seriously). When even Hitler can be a Jew the term has become so metaphorical as to be meaningless.
I’ve been talking about the novel as though it’s written in first person, but that’s only partly true. There are two other narrative voices in addition to the first person excerpts from Wolf’s diaries. They might help us decide what the novel wants us to think about its premise. The first of those voices continues the story that Wolf tells, but in third person rather than first. It’s unclear to me why we need both, since the third person sections don’t cast new light on the first person ones. We’re given no reason why any given piece of information is narrated in first or in third person; this arbitrary and unnecessary distinction is the weakest part of the book.
The second voice is also told in third person but it’s connected to someone else altogether, a man named Shomer who is interned in Auschwitz. Shomer is a fictionalized version of the real-life Yiddish writer Nokhem Meyer Shaykevitch, who wrote hundreds of popular novels, plays, and stories under that pseudonym. (So it’s a fictional version of a real person who in fact used a fake name to write his fictions: got that?) The real Shomer died in New York in 1905 and so was spared the Nazis’ largely successful attempt to destroy his linguistic and cultural world. Shomer became famous, or perhaps infamous, as the foremost purveyor of shund, that is, trash or lowbrow literature. As Tidhar explains, Sholem Aleichem (the leading Yiddish writer of the late 19th century and best known today for the stories that Fiddler on the Roof is based on) attacked Shomer’s work as poorly constructed and morally dubious.
Shomer is obviously Tidhar’s stand-in, though his attempt at rescuing Shomer would have been more convincing had Shomer had a larger role in the story. Having said that, though, I must acknowledge that Shomer is interned in a concentration camp and Tidhar’s point, I think, is that Shomer is no longer a human being or on the verge of no longer being one. (It’s worth noting that Tidhar’s brief descriptions of life in Auschwitz, in particular of the Sonderkommando and the Canada Men, the Jews who were forced to work the crematoria and to separate newly arrived prisoners from their families and their possessions, is more sensitively managed than usual and much less pious and lugubrious than, say, Martin Amis’s in his recent The Zone of Interest.)
That Shomer represents Tidhar becomes clear halfway through the book in a scene describing an encounter between two prisoners who discuss how anyone could ever write about what is happening to them. It will be clear to many readers—and if it’s not Tidhar makes it explicit in his note—that one of the men is Primo Levi, who argues that “the novelist must employ a language as clear and precise as possible, a language without ornament.” The other, less well known to English-speaking audiences, simply calls himself Ka-Tzetnik, that is, “inmate.” Ka-Tzetnik, who would later case a sensation at the Eichmann trial, where he fainted during his testimony, and who later wrote a serious of lurid Holocaust novels, including House of Dolls, about the camp brothels, argues with Levi:
To write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet. Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.
The anachronism of this speech—no one at the time and in that place would have spoken of the Holocaust—is beside the point, because this isn’t really Ka-Tzetnik speaking, it’s Tidhar. For him, pulp or popular literature is an appropriate way to talk about the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. It might even be the best way. I don’t think Tidhar is arguing that Levi is wrong, rather that his approach only tells part of the story, maybe doesn’t grapple with the utter insanity of what the victims are experiencing. (I do think Tidhar’s Levi is a caricature, though—and Levi in fact wrote about how the Lagers would have generated a new language had they existed any longer than they did—but I also think Tidhar wouldn’t take that as a criticism, since I don’t think he sees anything wrong with caricature.) Even Wolf/Hitler gets in on the act. On the boat to Palestine, he reads Conrad’s The Secret Agent, laconically concluding, “Have read better, by worse.” Of course Hitler would have no taste. But Tidhar we need to take more serious. Still for me the question remains: what can shund do that serious or traditional or highbrow literature cannot?
The answer seems to be that it lets us escape. The man of the title, the one who lies dreaming, isn’t primarily Wolf/Hitler (whose dreams are other people’s nightmares). Rather, it’s Shomer, who finds some respite from his concentration camp existence by imagining the story we are reading:
And Shomer’s mind shies from the glare, conjures up a safe haven, a world of mean streets and buxom dames and flat-footed detectives, as is, if only he could open up a secret door, he could be transported there, and be free.
I read this book because I can’t get enough of the period it’s about, even when the period is an imagined version of the real one. But I also read it because I thought it might be something I could teach at the end of my course Literature after Auschwitz, which examines representations of the effects of the Holocaust on those who came after it, those who had no direct experience of it but whose experiences have nevertheless been sharply affected by it. The first time I taught the course, I ended with Ellen Ullmann’s recent novel By Blood, a book I like a lot and that fit pretty well with what I was trying to do but which was a bit too long and too interested in so many other things to be the ideal last book on the syllabus. (Sometimes books don’t teach well for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with quality.) I read A Man Lies Dreaming with one eye to its possible placement on the syllabus.
And that’s where I come back to the question I asked at the beginning. Is this book any good? But do I mean, does this book have literary merit? (Tidhar would say that could be a dubious proposition, one inclined to value certain kinds of books over others.) Do I mean, does this book treat fascism and the Holocaust in an ethically sound way? (Here everything depends on how we’re meant to take the book’s portrayal of Hitler.) Or do I mean, would this book be good to teach?
Here I am led to wonder about the relationship of prurience to critique in this book. I think there are pleasures that are regressive and pleasures that are critical. (And maybe some that are just pleasures.) Regressive pleasures are still pleasures—just because, for example, Downton Abbey is selling us a fantasy that whitewashes a restrictive class structure by pretending to overturn or undermine it doesn’t mean it’s not also satisfying to watch—but in the absence of any self-consciousness about that regression they’re dangerous.
Now A Man Lies Dreaming is nothing if not self-conscious. And it has the honesty to admit, in that passage I quoted above about Shomer’s dreams of pulp fiction, that what it is describing is a fantasy—“as if, if only he could open up a secret door, he could be transported there, and be free.” The challenge of reading A Man Lies Dreaming lies in figuring out what it thinks fantasy can do. When is fantasy mere indulgence, a hopeless, ineffectual, and even pernicious because distracting response to a horrifying reality? And when is it a powerful counter-force to that otherwise seemingly overwhelming reality? What’s so great about reality, anyway?, Tidhar seems to be asking. In the end, he lets Shomer dream himself into Wolfson’s place, so that he gets to be the one who is welcomed to Palestine. Is this escape, or is this escapism?
What do you think? Should I teach this book?