Teaching Rhys

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I’ve taught Jean Rhys regularly for more than ten years: the quietly devastating story “Learning to be a Mother,” perfect for showing students how much you can say about something that seems at first glance so slight; the heartbreaking Good Morning, Midnight, with its hair-raising and endlessly discussable ending; and, most of all, my true Rhys-love, the marvelous Voyage in the Dark. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve taught this book, the third of Rhys’s five novels, but I know it’s never failed me yet. Even students who hate it get passionately caught up in our conversations. There’s a lot to talk about because Rhys’s fiction is such a challenge to how we talk about fiction.

Most of the things I have to say about Rhys come from the person who first introduced me to her, Molly Hite, now retired but when I knew her a professor of English at Cornell. The best courses I took in graduate school were the two I took with Molly. Anyone who’s been to graduate school knows that this could be faint praise, but Molly cared as much about her teaching as about the books she taught. And she cared about those a lot. Molly pressed Voyage on me the semester I was studying for my comprehensive exams. We were talking about an essay I wanted to write about representations of children in modernist literature. Molly said I had to add Voyage to my list. It’s about a girl who is eighteen, but none of the men she meets believe her when she says that, because, as one points out, women always say they’re either eighteen or twenty-two. This is just one instance in which Anna Morgan, the figure at the center of the novel, finds her lived reality butting up against dismissive patriarchal expectations.

Voyage isn’t obviously about childhood, but it turns out to be a smart way to think about the book. After all, Anna ends up pregnant, plagued by nightmares about the monstrous child within her that she desperately wants to abort, possibly at the cost of her own young life. After just the first few pages I saw how wonderful the book is. Molly was perhaps the only professor I knew in graduate school who really seemed to love reading, and I thrilled to that infectiousness. But I was also a little scared of Molly. Nothing unusual there, I was scared of most of my professors, but I felt it more strongly with her, probably because I cared about her opinion more than I did other professors’.

In my line of work, I often meet people who had very close, even nurturing relationships with their dissertation advisors. That was not my experience. Not that they were bad or hostile relationships. Just not close. But Molly was as close as I came to having a mentor. She cared the most about my writing, pushed me the hardest, and shaped my approach to reading most strongly. What she said to me about an essay I wrote on D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox has stayed with me: “You have to let the story be as weird as it is.” I say it to my students every semester, but these are words for every reader to live by.

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Although I didn’t know it at the time, this sentiment is expressed in Molly’s terrific essay on Jean Rhys, “Writing in the Margins” (published in The Other Side of the Story in 1989). Molly was modest enough not to tell me she’d written about Rhys, and in fact I can’t even remember when I read the article, not until I left grad school for my first job I think.

In an incisive critique of existing Rhys criticism, Molly says:

Both mainstream and feminist critics who admire Rhys’s fiction in effect try to settle her, accommodating her to [dominant cultural] presuppositions either by interpreting her as an alien and inferior sort of person who serves as an object of study (in the process sacrificing authorial empathy), or by interpreting her as Rhys’s own unexamined self-projection (in the process sacrificing authorial control).

The reason critics and ordinary readers alike feel the need to “settle” or domesticate Rhys’s fiction has everything to do with her particular, and to my mind highly experimental, conception of character. Molly says a lot of smart memorable things in this essay—you should totally read it, it’s quite accessible—but what sticks with me the most is her argument that our ideas of what fictional characters are supposed to be like are governed by an idea of voluntarism that simply doesn’t apply to protagonists like Anna Morgan.

By voluntarism, Molly means something like an unshakeable belief in willpower. The idea that characters—at least active, important, main characters, the kind E. M. Forster described in his engaging Aspects of the Novel as “round”—should change. They should make decisions, take charge of their actions, act on their wishes, shape the world around them. Rhys’s characters aren’t like that. But neither are they static, or minor, or clichéd or any of the things Forster says about what he calls “flat” characters.

What happens when a novel centers on someone who is unable to change or take charge or her circumstances? And not because of some kind of personality defect (she’s weak or stupid or passive) but because of who she is (a woman, young, poor, from a far-away place that most of the people who live in the country she’s moved to have never heard of and even when they have can’t take seriously: Anna, like Rhys, is from the Caribbean island of Dominica).

One of the first things I ask students about Anna is: what should we call her? Here I’m riffing off an anecdote Molly offers in the essay: a male student “remarked wonderingly that he wasn’t sure why we were taking a floozy so seriously.” I don’t think any of my students even know what a floozy is. But they have other names. Is Anna a pushover? A weakling? A depressive? A gold-digger? A space-cadet? An idiot? A heartless bitch? I’ve heard all these things. Most often, I hear some version of the half-plaintive, half-aggressive question: Why doesn’t she get her act together? As I tell those students, it’s quite revealing how Anna can upset us. The mostly privileged students I teach are deeply attached to the idea that those who work hard will succeed.

Ultimately, these conversations always turn on the question of whether Anna is a victim. As Molly puts it: “Rhys’s protagonists are victims who are fully aware of their victimization.” She adds:

Their awareness does not make them any less victimized, it serves only to make them self-conscious in their roles and thus alienated from the society that wants to identify them completely with these roles. Worst of all, because their situation as both marginalized and wholly conscious is impossible in the terms proposed by the dominant culture, the statements in which they express their awareness cannot have any acknowledged context.

They can speak in ways that are expected of them—but if they do they are dismissed. Or they can not speak at all. No wonder they are so unhappy.

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Yet Rhys’s characters are anything but inarticulate. The abiding interest of her novels lies in the presence of a distinctive consciousness that is pretty much unintelligible to the society in which she lives but possibly, if we’re willing to expand our expectations of literary character, intelligible to us. Especially in Rhys’s first person novels, this conundrum is expressed through narrative voice. I could talk for a long time about the many wonderful qualities of Voyage in the Dark—it’s a desert island book for me—but I don’t want to go on too long. Let me just give a few examples:

She can be funny and shrewd, as in this moment when the older man she falls in love with, a man who keeps her and later abandons her, leaves her some money:

I took the money from under my pillow and put it into my handbag. I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.

She is a fascinated observer of others—though what that observation is used for is harder to figure. Here she’s writing about how much she liked one of the women who worked in her father’s household in the Caribbean:

The thing about Francine was that when I was with her I was happy, She was small and plump and blacker than most of the people out there, and she had a pretty face. What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she had finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud—louder than you could believe possible. It was a ritual.

Is this ritual positive? A kind of repetition compulsion? Does the passage express female desire, or, on the contrary a way of curbing it?

Notice how in both passages Anna uses “you.” This is characteristic, but oddly enough it doesn’t always make us feel closer to her, as when she says:

 I didn’t say anything. I put my face nearer the glass. Like when you’re a kid and you put your face very near to the glass and make faces at yourself.

You might do this, and you might not. The attempt to universalize—or at least widen—the behaviour actually ends up seeming estranging, though it doesn’t mitigate the pathos of this attempted challenge to the overwhelming power of female appearance. (A constant anxiety in the novel is that when women age, men will replace them with someone younger.)

Some similar examples:

Being afraid is cold like ice, and it’s like when you can’t breathe.

After a while I crossed everything out and began again, writing very quickly, like you do when you write

I felt emptied out and peaceful—like when you’ve had a toothache and it stops for a bit, and you know quite well it’s going to start again but just for a bit it’s stopped.

Or, finally, this description of depression:

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that—lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. … You feel peaceful but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really, al you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night—that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, “He got sick of me,” and “Never, not ever, never.” And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead.

Rhys’s prose is at once affectless, even artless, and affecting. It’s carefully shaped; I’m struck by how the repetition of “you” distances at least as much as it draws us closer.

It’s always hard to know what to make of Rhys’s tone, once again, I’d say, because of the way the characters are at once powerless without being stupid or unaware. On the contrary they are highly aware, but that awareness only lets them see more clearly the prison they live in. As in this example, when Anna daydreams about being back at home and feeling that everything that’s happened to her—abandoned by her lover, without any money or prospects, and now pregnant on top of it all—is just a dream:

She’ll smile and put the tray down and I’ll say Francine I’ve had such an awful dream—it was only a dream she’ll say—and on the tray the blue cup and saucer and the silver teapot so I’d know for certain it had started again my lovely life—like a five-finger exercise played very slowly on the piano like a garden with a high wall round it—and every now and again thinking I only dreamt it it never happened…

How could we read that “lovely life” as anything but ironic, especially as it’s likened to a doubled metaphor of control and imprisonment—the piano exercise, the walled garden? And yet it’s more lovely than her current life, which has the ominousness of a dream she cannot escape.

Although I don’t think Molly was appreciated by her colleagues or the profession as much as she should have been, I don’t want to suggest that she and Rhys were the same. Yet I’ve a hunch that they had a few traits in common—at once brash and shy, both seem to me to be people the world hasn’t always know what to do with. (I’m writing as though Molly were dead! That’s so weird; I’m sorry. As best I can tell, she’s enjoying retirement in the Pacific Northwest.) But it does seem fitting that I can never read Rhys without thinking of Molly. Both were fiercely committed to the idea that books are always more off-putting, more ready to wrong-foot us, than we think, especially if we come to them with ready-made ideas of how they should work and what they should mean.

When Molly leant me her copy of Voyage in the Dark in the fall of 2001, Rhys wasn’t read that often. Most people knew her only as the author of Wide Saragasso Sea. I never studied her in a class. Fifteen years later, Rhys feels firmly canonical. Even more than her critical or academic acceptance, I take heart in the way non-specialist readers have embraced her, as evidenced by ReadingRhys week. I suspect that wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, beachcombing near Seattle maybe, Molly approves too.

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Holocaust Literature Week 2: Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka”

This semester I’m blogging about my class on Holocaust literature. Here is the first installment.

Vasily Grossman (1905-64), who we studied at the beginning of Week 2 of the course, is not nearly as well known in the canon of Holocaust literature as someone like last week’s author, Primo Levi (or some of the other writers we’ll study this semester, like Elie Wiesel and Tadeusz Borowski).

I can think of at least two reasons why. First, the reception of Holocaust literature in North America has been biased towards texts written in Western European languages. At least in part, this preference was a function of the inaccessibility of documents and archival material in Soviet-occupied Europe during the Cold War. Second, Grossman was not a survivor, per se, though his mother was murdered by the Nazis along with more than 20,000 other Jews in the family’s hometown of Berdichev in the Ukraine.

Grossman was born to an assimilated Jewish family. He did not have a Jewish education. It is unlikely he knew Yiddish. Berdichev, an important banking center, had one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a prosperous, cosmopolitan world quite unlike the shtetl world made famous in Sholem Aleichem’s work and depicted in the early parts of Wiesel’s Night.

Grossman studied to be an engineer, but turned to writing in the 1930s. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Grossman was assigned to the Red Army newspaper. He became one of the most famous Soviet war correspondents, taking on many dangerous assignments, including a posting in Stalingrad. He accompanied the Red Army on its march westwards, where he reported on what has been called “the Shoah by bullets” (the death meted out by the Einsatzgruppen—mobile units or death squads—across Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine. These firing squads murdered approximately tow million people in the years 1941-44, 1.3 million of them Jews, among them Grossman’s mother). Later, in 1944, he also reported on “the Shoah by gas.” He was with the Red Army when it arrived at the extermination camp Treblinka in August 1944.

Immediately he set about writing an essay called “The Hell of Treblinka.” Published in November 1944, it is one of the earliest accounts of the death camps. After the war, it was submitted as evidence by the prosecution during the Nuremberg trials. This extraordinary work is readily available—translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler together with Olga Mukovnikova—in an invaluable collection of Grossman’s essays, stories, and journalism called The Road (New York Review Books).

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I began by asking the class to recall the question I’d given them at the end of the previous meeting as a way to guide their reading: What does Grossman value?

Hands shot up. I was relieved to see it, since, on the face of it at least, this is an easy question. Grossman is a passionate writer, not shy to render judgment and lay blame. And since that is what students want to do too, at least when it comes to the Holocaust, they take to him immediately. Of course, Grossman also gives us the tools to complicate what seem like straightforward categorizations.

Life, people, humanity, came the answers. Each student who spoke—and I reminded students that if they hadn’t yet said anything in class this was absolutely the day to chime in because soon, maybe already by the next class, their identity would be sealed: they would be a person who doesn’t talk in class—had to point to a specific passage to support their claim. “The most precious valuable in the world—human life.” “The epitaph history will write for [the victim] is: Here Lies a Human Being.” “Killing turned out to be supremely easy… This must be unflinchingly borne in mind by everyone who truly values honor, freedom, and the life of all nations, the life of humanity.”

These were all good examples. I pointed to another quintessentially Grossman-ian formulation: the victims, he says,

were caught up in a single flood, a flood that swallowed up reason, and splendid human science, and maidenly love, and childish wonder, and the coughing of the old, and the human heart.

The list of attributes and qualities here is typical; Grossman loves lists. (At one point in the essay he simply names, for almost ten lines, the belongings the new arrivals would have left scattered on the ground, commenting only, tartly, “It requires real skill to sort out, in the course of only a few minutes, all these thousands of objects.”) This particular list is a strange one. Ranging from physiology (the coughing) to emotion (love and wonder) to human accomplishment (reason and science), it seems to want to encompass everything that might go under the name the human condition in a single sentence.

Grossman absolutely believes in the idea of the human condition. This emphasis on common humanity is at least in part a political and ideological choice. In the course of this forty page essay, Grossman only mentions once that most of the victims were Jewish. That decision is a function of the Soviet insistence that only the suffering of Mother Russia rather than any individual group of people be commemorated. Grossman’s insistence on a kind of universal brotherhood of mankind is also evident in his insistence that the victims looked out for each other. Solidarity of this sort did exist in the camps, but so too did its opposite. Many of the course texts, I noted, will offer a quite different view of affairs.

Grossman was no doctrinaire Marxist—in the essay he even obliquely criticizes Stalinism; after the war he fell into disfavour and his great masterpieces Life and Fate and Everything Flows were written “for the desk drawer” and only survived because they were smuggled to the West in the Krushchev period. But he also insists in classic Marxist fashion that “what engenders a particular regime is the material and ideological relations existing among a country’s citizens… the nature of these relations is what should appall us.”

Yet Grossman never interprets Nazi Germany this way. Instead, as the students noted, he regularly describes them as demonic monsters, purveyors of “bestial madness.” They are refused any redeeming qualities; indeed, they aren’t even human: “The beast that triumphantly kills a man remains a beast.” What, I asked the class, is the effect of Grossman’s rhetoric? What is implied by this way of thinking and talking? (To offer compelling interpretations, students need to be able to draw out the implications of their observations, so I wanted them to practice drawing out the consequences of their ideas.) It’s like they’re not real people, someone said. Exactly, I responded. And why does that matter? Well, they were people, said another. Yes, I added, people like us.

It’s easy for us to imagine that these events have nothing to do with us. It allows us to approach the Holocaust as a kind of macabre spectator sport. But if we treat the Nazis as monsters, we effectively let ourselves off the hook. We don’t need to think of ourselves as in any way implicated in their way of viewing the world. In this way, Grossman risks devaluing the idea of humanity he values so much. In an oblique way, this risk is evident too in his treatment of what the historian Raul Hilberg would later call bystanders, in this case the local Poles who Grossman uses as mere neutral evidence for German actions. He doesn’t’ consider more complicated questions of implication or degrees of guilt, concepts that someone like Primo Levi would develop in his essay “The Grey Zone,” which we’ll read in a week or so.

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Whenever I teach “The Hell of Treblinka,” I work towards a close reading of a single passage. This time, I left it too late and we didn’t have the time to really do justice to it. But that’s okay. The work the class did in pointing to specific passages to support each claim, although time-consuming, was worth it. I want students to see that they can’t just go with their gut, can’t just offer a vague sense of what the text is saying (which often amounts to what they wish it were saying). They have to work with what’s there. Only then will their readings convince.

At any rate, here’s the passage that to my mind gets to the heart of Grossman’s enterprise. Having described the chaos new victims would have experienced on arrival—separated from loved ones and possessions, shaved and otherwise physically humiliated, herded along a path lined by high fences towards an imposing brick building—Grossman explains what would have happened next:

The door of the concrete chamber slammed shut […] Can we find within us the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt, what they experienced during their last minutes of life? All we know is that they cannot speak now… Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat, packed so tight that their bones cracked and their crushed rib cages were barely able to breathe, they stood pressed against one another; they stood as if they were a single human being. Someone, perhaps some wise old man, makes the effort to say, “Patience now—this is the end.” Someone shouts out some terrible curse. A holy curse—surely this curse must be fulfilled? With a superhuman effort a mother tries to make a little more space for her child: may her child’s dying breaths be eased, however infinitesimally, by a last act of maternal care. A young woman, her tongue going numb, asks, “Why am I being suffocated? Why can’t I love and have children?” Heads spin. Throats choke. What are the pictures now passing before people’s glassy dying eyes? Pictures of childhood? Of the happy days of peace? Of the last terrible journey? OF the mocking face of the SS man in that first square by the station: “Ah, so that’s why he was laughing…” Consciousness dims. It is the moment of the last agony… No, what happened in that chamber cannot be imagined. The dead bodies stand there, gradually turning cold. (Ellipses in original unless bracketed)

Here Grossman imagines the ground zero of the Holocaust, the centre of what the French political prisoner David Rousset, a survivor of Neuengamme and Buchenwald, called l’univers concentrationnaire. He takes us into the gas chamber. What happened there? Historians and forensic researchers can tell us a lot: we know that people were so desperate to escape that they clawed at the walls. We know from the evidence of the piles of corpses that those who were bigger and stronger climbed over those who were smaller and weaker to get the last bit of air. But the desire to enter into that scene—to turn it into a scene—is both taboo and inescapable in Holocaust literature.

Remember this passage, I told the students, when we read Maus: we’ll see how self-consciously Spiegelman points to the limits of eyewitness testimony. Remember this scene when we watch Schindler’s List: we’ll see how dubiously Spielberg flirts with exploiting our dark compulsion to enter into this space.

For now, I want us to see that when Grossman wonders whether we can “find the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt” he is asking a real question. This vivid passage aims to make us feel present—we see that most clearly in its use of physical and corporeal details: the clammy sweat, cracked bones, and crushed rib cages.

It even imagines how people might have acted and thought in those final moments. What kind of actions are these, I asked the students. They’re kind actions, caring. An old man shouts “Patience,” a mother seeks to make space for her child. The people evoked are vulnerable: that old man, that woman with her child, the young woman who wants to live. There’s even the intimation of revenge and resistance—someone, the only person here who isn’t described in any way, shouts out “a holy curse,” which he or she, as well perhaps as Grossman himself, insists, which is to say, hopes, must be fulfilled. These aren’t just victims; they are also resisters, not least in their staunch avowal of basic human dignity. They resist by maintaining solidarity with each other: “they stood as if they were a single human being.” Here we have Grossman’s credo in a phrase.

With only a minute or two left, I asked the class to tell me what happens in the passage between the sentence starting “Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat” and the one starting “Someone, perhaps some wise old man.” A moment’s silence: the students were tired but still game. They hadn’t packed up their stuff yet. But they knew there was an answer I was looking for and it made them wary.

Look at the verbs, I prompted. They shift from past tense to present, someone said, half-hesitantly, half-triumphantly. Yes, I said, pointing out examples: someone makes an effort; a mother tries to make more room for her child; heads spin; throats choke. What’s the effect of this shift? It’s like replacing statistics with stories, one student said. Yes, but that doesn’t explain this particular choice on Grossman’s part. What does the shift to present tense suggest? It makes it more intense, another said. Normally, I would have payed out this suggestion further, getting the student to expand on what she meant by intensity. But I was in a hurry, so I finished the thought. Right, it makes the scene immediate, vivid. In a way, it undoes what happened in the chamber, bringing the dead to life.

And yet, I concluded, these attempts at immediacy fail. The dead don’t live. Even if the passage returns to present in the final sentence (suggesting an ongoing duration—these bodies are in some way still standing there) the penultimate sentence, like the rest of the essay, is in past tense. In that sense, the key statement here is: “No, what happened in the that chamber cannot be imagined.” We are left only with a statement of absence: “All we know is that they cannot speak now.” Grossman has tried to do that for them, but ultimately refuses the possibility.

Grossman’s passionate desire to do justice to the victims and his equally ardent disgust for the perpetrators is matched by his modesty and reserve. He speaks for them only inasmuch as he rejects that speaking.

We’re returning to Primo Levi next class, I said, as the clock showed two minutes past the hour and the next group of students milled around outside the room. Think about Grossman’s humanism as you read Survival in Auschwitz. Will Levi’s humanism look like Grossman’s?

Class dismissed.

Holocaust Lit Fall 2016: Week 1

Last fall I blogged about my Short Fiction class. (You can read the first entry here.) I couldn’t keep it up all semester, and there’s no reason to think this year will be any different. But I’m going to try again, this time with the course I have taught the most, and that means the most me: English 248, The Holocaust in Literature, Theory, and Film.

So far this group (18 students) has impressed me with its energy and intelligence. We’re only in the second week, of course. But the beginning has been promising.

Today I thought I’d share with you the text we worked through on the second day of class, a short excerpt from The Reawakening, one of Primo Levi’s extraordinary memoirs of his experiences during the war.

Levi, a secular Jew from Turin who had trained as a chemist, was arrested in the Italian Alps in December of 1943 where he had joined a small band of partisans in the nascent Italian Resistance movement. Once it was discovered that he was a Jew, Levi was deported first to a transit camp called Fossoli and then to Auschwitz in February 1944. Thanks to his scientific background, Levi avoided the gas chamber and was sent to work in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, called Buna-Monowitz, where the Germans were trying to synthesize rubber. Through good fortune and the care of a Gentile Italian prisoner, who slipped him extra food when he could, Levi survived the bitter depredations of camp life. He was lucky to have been in the camp infirmary when the Germans abandoned it in January 1945 shortly before the Red Army arrived. In this way he avoided being sent on one of the so-called Death Marches, in which the Germans force-marched the remaining prisoners to other camps in Germany proper. Thousands of the malnourished and weakened prisoners died that way.

Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981

Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981

The passage we worked through begins with a description of the change in camp life after liberation:

Outside the windows, despite the steady snowfall, the mournful roads of the camp were no longer deserted, but teemed with a brisk, confused and noisy ferment, which seemed to be an end in itself. Cheerful or wrathful calls, shouts and songs rang out till late at night. All the same, my attention, and that of my neighbours in the near-by beds, rarely managed to escape from the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation of the smallest and most harmless among us, of the most innocent, of a child, of Hurbinek.

Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and he had no name; that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralysed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, as thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency; it was a stare both savage and human, even mature, a judgment, which none of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish.

None of us, that is, except Henek; he was in the bunk next to me, a robust and hearty Hungarian boy of fifteen. Henek spent half his day beside Hurbinek’s pallet. He was maternal rather than paternal; had our precarious coexistence lasted more than a month, it is extremely probably that Hurbinek would have learned to speak from Henek; certainly better than from the Polish girls who, too tender and too vain, inebriated him with caresses and kisses, but shunned intimacy with him.

Henek, on the other hand, calm and stubborn, sat beside the little sphinx, immune to the distressing power he emanated; he brought him food to eat, adjusted his blankets, cleaned him with skillful hands, without repugnance; and he spoke to him, in Hungarian naturally, in a slow and patient voice. After a week, Henek announced seriously, but without a trace of selfconsciousness, that Hurbinek ‘could say a word.’ What word? He did not know, a difficult word, not Hungarian: something like ‘mass-klo,” ‘mastiklo.” During the night we listened carefully: it was true, from Hurbinek’s corner there occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not, admittedly, always exactly the same word, but it was certainly an articulated word; or better, several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root, perhaps on a name.

Hurbinek continued in his stubborn experiments for as long as he lived. In the following days everybody listened to him in silence, anxious to understand, and among us there were speakers of all the languages of Europe; but Hurbinek’s word remained secret. No, it was certainly not a message, it was not a revelation; perhaps it was his name, if it had ever fallen to his lot to be given a name; perhaps (according to one of our hypotheses) it meant ‘to eat,” or ‘bread’; or perhaps ‘meat’ in Bohemian, as one of us who knew that language maintained.

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.

What is it about Hurbinek, I asked the class, that so gets to Levi and the others? What is the source of “the distressing power he emanate[s]”? It’s that he can’t speak but he wants to, said one student. It’s his need for language, said another. It’s because he’s judging them, said a third. So already we see the power of language and expression, as something fiercely desired but perhaps unattainable. Note what doesn’t surprise or horrify them: that a toddler is here in Auschwitz. The chasm between our expectations and the victims’ experiences is immense—we will encounter this again and again in the course.

Does Hurbinek freak everyone in the camp out, I asked. Not Henek. What’s different about Henek? He cares for him. Does any one else? The Polish girls, one student noted. But what does Levi say about the Polish girls? They don’t really care for him, answered one. They fuss over him, but they don’t like him, said another. He’s like a mascot to them, one concluded. Like a puppy or something. Right, I agreed. Levi distinguishes between false and true intimacy. Something about Hurbinek’s lack of language keeps almost everyone at a distance. Note that he sleeps on a pallet, like an animal. He has his own corner. He’s separate. And yet he isn’t an object of disgust or scorn. He fascinates the others. They follow his efforts to wield language with something like avidity.

How old is Hurbinek, I asked, switching gears. Three, a couple of people said at once. He looks three, one immediately added. That’s when I really first started having hopes for this class. Most readers don’t notice that Levi does something strange here: he begins with uncertainty—“he looked about three”—but ends with conviction: “Hurbinek, who was three years old.” I think this redescription is important—it’s a version in miniature of the speaking by proxy that Levi, in an essay we’ll read in a couple of weeks, will describe as central to the survivor experience. The survivor always testifies to an experience that isn’t the “true” or “ultimate” experience of the camp, which of course was to murder everyone in it. For now I noted that Levi’s descriptions of Hurbinek are unstable. He calls him a baby at one point. But his stare is also called “mature.” In an especially resonant phrase, Levi calls him “the little sphinx.”

Why? And what’s a sphinx? A couple of students cobbled together an accurate enough description of the Theban sphinx. Does anyone know the riddle he posed to travelers? The one only Oedipus could solve? “What goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Right—and the answer of course is a person, a human being.

In some ways, Hurbinek, who is paralyzed from the waist down, doesn’t fit the terms of the riddle at all. In that sense, he could be taken to be some kind of non-human other. But it’s clear that Levi values Hurbinek, even if he’s a little afraid of him. The literature of the Holocaust, I argued, is regularly preoccupied by what it means to be human. It will be important for us to see both victims and perpetrators as humans—it is as bad to demonize the latter as it is to demean the former. If we do so, we might falsely be able to convince ourselves that the events we’re studying have nothing to do with us, as we are neither angelic martyrs nor inhuman monsters.

The reference to the sphinx also tells something about Levi and his values. What can we tell about him based on his use of the term? He’s smart, he’s well read. Yes, and in a tradition that isn’t only or primarily Jewish. (We’ll say a lot more about Levi’s classical, humanist upbringing when we read his most famous memoir, Survival in Auschwitz starting in the second week of class.)

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Time was getting short and there were still a number of things I wanted to get through. I hurried us along. Let’s go back to Henek for a second, I said. Notice that Levi uses the same word to describe him that he does to talk about Hurbinek. Henek is “calm and stubborn”; Hurbinek continues “in his stubborn experiments.” Repetition is always significant in interpreting literature, I told the class. When we see the same images, the same metaphors, the same formulations or sentence structures, the same words, we should take note. Patterns are suggestive and meaningful.

By using the same word in reference to each figure, Levi cements the connection between them. But why this word? What does it suggest to us that they are stubborn? I can’t remember how they responded to this question. Not particularly helpfully, as I recall. But I was also going for something here, and so the question wasn’t particularly useful. Stubborn suggests persistence, I said, it suggests working away at something difficult. Anyone who writes about the Holocaust—and by extension anyone who reads about it—has to be stubborn. In fact, “stubborn experiments” could be a name for Holocaust literature itself, which is dogged in its attempt to describe what has been called indescribable. Holocaust literature is necessarily experimental literature. But the persistence connoted by the word “stubborn” promises attainment or completion or at least possibility. I want students to finish the course thinking that the Holocaust can in fact be represented.

I thus offer Hurbinek as a figure for the struggle to put traumatic experience into language. He does, after all, say a word. It’s not a message, it’s not a revelation. The word remains secret, though it’s open to, and in fact even demands, interpretation.

In the end, then, the real writer here, the one who wields language with extraordinary finesse, is not Hurbinek but Levi. In the last few minutes of class I turned our attention to the final phrase of the passage, one I’ve always found strange: “he bears witness through these words of mine.” Shouldn’t that be: I bear witness to him through these words of mine? Once again Levi points towards the necessarily proximate status of witnesses. The survivor is always a surrogate for those who didn’t survive.

The most significant way Levi can speak for Hurbinek—that is to say, be that surrogate—is to mimic in his own language the child’s struggle to express himself. I pointed students to the striking syntax of so many of Levi’s sentences:

All the same, my attention, and that of my neighbours in the near-by beds, rarely managed to escape from the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation of the smallest and most harmless among us, of the most innocent, of a child, of Hurbinek.

Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz.

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed.

In each of these examples, I said, as the hour came to an end, Levi seems to do what he says Hurbinek did, when in his groping toward language he offered “several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme.” Levi seems compelled to re-describe Hurbinek. It’s never enough to say one thing about him (he was a nobody). He has to say three things about him (he was a child of death, a child of Auschwitz). Clusters of adjectival phrases and ramifying clauses cascade forward in these elongated and elegant sentences. We read of “the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation” of Hurbinek, who is variously described as “the smallest and most harmless among us,” “the most innocent,” “a child,” “Hurbinek.”

Levi’s technique here might be a function of the way Hurbinek escapes definition. Which would return us to the suggestion we considered earlier that he is some kind of unknown being, some non- or a-human creature, a little sphinx indeed. But we could instead say that it is the best way for Levi to honour Hurbinek. In offering his own version of linguistic experimentation and variation he seeks to do justice to the child’s experience, and his ambivalent effect on his listeners. In this way, perhaps, Hurbinek does indeed bear witness through Levi’s words.