On Holocaust Diaries

I gave this paper as a talk the other day at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The next day I taught three hour-long sessions using passages from three of the diaries I reference in the talk  to middle- and high-school students and their teachers. Both events were part of the 27th annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. My thanks go to the conference organizer and Chair of the Arkansas Holocaust Education Committee, Grace Donoho, and, especially, Dr. Jennifer Hoyer of the German Department and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Fayetteville.

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I want to focus today on our fascination with Holocaust diaries, and I want to suggest that the reasons they typically fascinate us are not actually the reasons why they are so important.

We tend to privilege diaries, and especially Holocaust diaries, for their seemingly immediate access to experience. We are getting events as they happened and so are placed directly in the midst of a historical event to which we might otherwise not have access. So the thinking goes, anyway. Holocaust diaries can be considered Exhibit A in the category of testimonial literature that Elie Wiesel, writing in the late 1970s, deemed the genre of his generation, and that critics writing in the wake of Wiesel have described as the kind of writing most commensurate to the traumas of the 20th century.

In this context, let’s consider the following statement by survivor Primo Levi, who incidentally did not write a diary [other than the “retrospective” diary at the end of Survival in Auschwitz]:

We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. … We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are… the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception.

Survivors, he adds, “speak in their stead, by proxy.”

The Final Solution was designed to be just that—final; there weren’t supposed to be any survivors. Survivors can thus be considered as a kind of noise or static, or, to change the metaphor, as the flaw that inheres in any system or machine. Exceptional, and interesting as such, but hardly representative. And because it is the case that many diarists did not survive the war—to use Levi’s language, those who did are the exception rather than the rule—these writers could be said to be what he calls “the complete witnesses” and therefore to offer us something even more valuable than survivor memoirs. But what interests me about Levi’s claim extends beyond the distinction between who lived and who died. To my mind, what Levi is really pointing to is something more fundamental about the very nature of experience, namely, that there is an inescapable surrogacy at the heart of experience.

I’m arguing, on the basis of reading Holocaust diaries, that all experience is characterized by indirection, by proxy-ness. To rephrase this in terms given to us by literary criticism, there is always a distinction between the “I” that narrates and the “I” that experiences.

Here, for example, is Hélène Berr, a 20-year-old student of literature at the Sorbonne, writing on June 24, 1942 about the traumatic events of the previous day, when her father, a prominent industrialist, had been arrested:

The first time I awoke and saw the morning light through the blinds, it occurred to me that this morning Papa would not have his usual breakfast, that he would not be coming to the breakfast table to get his toast and pour his cup of coffee. The thought was immensely painful.

That was only my first awakening, and gradually (I often drifted back to sleep) other thoughts came to me, making me realize what had happened. I am still waiting for the sound of keys jangling in his pocket, of him opening the shutters in his bedroom; I am still waiting for them [her parents] to get up, because he’s the one who turns on the gas. At those moments I can grasp it. At this moment of writing, I am not managing very well.

In her description of how she feels when expecting her father, she can grasp the fact of his arrest—via absence, via what’s not happening, and who isn’t there—but in the actual act of writing, she cannot grasp the situation at all. In other words, what the narrating I grasps is that it cannot really grasp what has happened to it.

Later, on October 10, 1943, taking up her diary after a year-long hiatus, Berr describes this split even more clearly:

Then there is the considerable repugnance I feel at thinking of myself as “someone who writes”, because for me, perhaps mistakenly, writing implies a split personality, probably a loss of spontaneity and abdication. [Not mistakenly!]

The split between narrating I and experiencing I allows us to see that even the testimony of direct witnesses to the Holocaust is indirect. The record of experience is at a remove from experience itself. That doesn’t mean these records are fictional or biased or untrustworthy. But it does mean that no one, not even the person doing the experiencing, has unmediated access to direct experience.

[Riff on James Young: the things diarists say are said from within the frame of their world-view: contrast Frank with Flinker—I absolutely agree but my point is more about experience itself.]

Moreover, even the very diaries themselves, irrespective of what is in them, are themselves examples of mediation, documents that stand in for the life of the person who wrote them, a person that is often no longer present, even alive once we are reading their entries.

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Published Holocaust diaries usually begin with an introduction explaining how the diary came down to us. Some of these stories are almost as well-known as the diaries themselves.

For example, many people know that Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary, searched through the secret annex after the Gestapo raided it and retrieved Anne’s diary, which she kept in case any of the family returned from deportation.

Anne Frank had no way of knowing her writing would be preserved. Others were more deliberate about attempting to enact that preservation. Often, they relied on non-Jewish friends to keep their pages safe. Hélène Berr passed hers on to the family cook with instructions that she get them to Berr’s lover, who was fighting with the Free French. Victor Klemperer similarly gave his to a sympathetic friend.

Other stories are more haphazard, even dramatic. Dawid Serakowiak’s notebooks were found stacked on a stove, ready to be burned, when the Lodz ghetto was liberated. And consider the case of the diaries of Petr Ginz—a Czech teenager who wrote and illustrated adventure stories in the mode of Jules Verne, and whose entries are usually laconic descriptions of which of his friends are no longer at school, but who also wrote a heartbreakingly detailed description of the day he received his deportation notice, a description that focused on the delicate task of disassembling typewriters to clean their keys (this was his after-school job) (it’s a remarkable example of disassociation or of preserving one’s dignity, depending on how you look at it). Ginz’s diaries resurfaced when a man remembered some papers and drawings he had inexplicably kept after he bought an old house in Prague. He was reminded of the documents because of a news story about the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. Among the crew was an Israeli astronaut who had taken with him a drawing of the moon by a teenager deported from Prague to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz—the same Petr Ginz.

There’s something avid in the way these stories are described by editors and readers alike. (I confess I share this sentiment.) I think that hunger, that fascination is worth thinking about, because it allows us to consider more fully the relationship between the diarist and the diary.

Diaries often seem to be direct replacements for the writers themselves. Perhaps even to be more important than the writer.

Think of Anne Frank naming her diary Kitty—turning it into an other, and, even more importantly, into an authority that legitimates her writing by being not only confidante but also judge.

Think of Chaim Kaplan, writing on August 2, 1942, amidst liquidation of Warsaw ghetto, in the last line of his last entry: “If my life ends—what will become of my diary?”

Think of Hélène Berr, writing in October 1943: “It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andrée [the family’s cook] will have kept these pages, which are a piece of me, the most precious part, because no other material thing matters to me anymore.”

Think of Molly Appelbaum, writing from near Tarnów, Poland, on March 1, 1942: “I look at each written page [of my diary] with respect. Why, these are the pages of my existence, my life.” (Even though her emphasis is on herself, the proof of the value of that life lies only in the diary.)

Think too of Artie Spiegelman, in the autobiographical comic Maus, listening to his father tell him about his separation from his wife, Artie’s mother, upon their arrival at Aushwitz-Biurkenau after months in hiding. Artie exclaims, “This is where Mom’s diaries will come in especially useful. They’ll give me some idea of what she went through when you were apart.” (But he finds out his father burned them, at which point he bursts out, accusingly, “God damn you, you murderer!”, as if the diary was in fact a person.) (It might be worth noting that these dairies were themselves reconstructions: they were lost in the war and she re-wrote them once settled in America.)

These are all instances in which the person seems subordinate to the diary.

Holocaust diarists are often convinced—usually rightly—that they will not survive. (The last line of Sierakowiak’s diary” “There is really no way out for this for us.”) But they want their diaries to survive. We might say that the narrating I triumphs over the experiencing I.

What does that mean, then, about the status of diaries as witnesses if the experience contained within them is never as direct as we assume?  Have we fetishized diaries at the expense of the actual lives involved?

The diarists themselves offer a response:

Klemperer famously writes, on May 27, 1942, “I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!”

Berr says something similar on October 10, 1943: “I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill.”

And Samuel Golfard, in hiding in Eastern Galicia, begins his diary on January 23, 1943:

I am not composing these words for myself. They are intended for those who will survive and who might quickly forget what they had lived through not so long ago. Let these words refresh in their memory the moments of horror, the bloody scenes that took place before their eyes, the black night of savagery.

These statements are directed outwards, beyond the self. There’s even a sense that the writers don’t want to keep writing any more, or do so only at great cost or against all odds. Berr says as much: “I’m not even keeping this diary anymore, I’ve no willpower left, I’m just putting down the salient facts so as to remember them” (September 10, 1942). Sierakowiak doesn’t say it in so many words, but the terseness of his entries, coupled with his laments over his weakening concentration, failing health, and ebbing vitality, indirectly indicate to us how much the writing takes out of him.

On this way of thinking, the diary is an instrument, a tool of survival. Moreover, it is the often the only means of survival, and the only way it survives is by becoming separated and distanced from its writer. It is the very distinction between the writer’s experience and the diaries’ representation (their being a form of representation) that allows us to have access to these historical events at all.

Diaries, then, substitute for people who aren’t there any longer. [Even prey upon them? Cf Berr: I’m not even writing this diary anymore, but I have to.]

This is a melancholy, even dismal state of affairs. And inasmuch as we replace the reality of loss, suffering, and death—starvation, terror, dehumanization, typhus, tuberculosis, all the terrible traumas suffered by Frank and Berr and Sierakowiak and Klemperer, to name only a few—with the survival of the diaries themselves then it’s worse than that. To do so is to emphasize triumph where there is in reality only loss, a loss we’re literally papering over by fetishizing the miracle that the documents have come to us at all.

But this doesn’t have to be the only way to think about diaries as proxies for their authors. We can take the distance between diary and diarist not as a replacement of the latter by the former, but as a tribute the former pays to the latter.

Because if it weren’t for the mediated-ness of representation we wouldn’t have witnessing at all. The distance between person and diary is necessary. Sometimes that distance is physical (the two get separated: think of Frank’s pages scattered on the floor of the secret annex; think of Sierakowiak’s stacked on the stove, that narrow escape from the funeral pyre) but it is always structural (as I’ve been arguing, it’s constitutive of the form).

The separation of the diary from the diarist—sometimes a contingent fact of the vicissitudes of history but always an inescapable fact that is constitutive of the very act of writing—does two things at the same time: it keeps us from accessing direct experience but that very separation allows us to have any access to experience at all.

For Elie Wiesel, the legitimacy of the literature of testimony lies in its urgency:

We have all been witnesses and we all feel we have to bear testimony for the future. And that became an obsession, the single most powerful obsession that permeated all the lives, all the dreams, all the work of those people. One minute before they died they thought that was what they had to do.

The “we” in Wiesel’s first sentence refers to Holocaust survivors. But, like Levi, although less consciously, he distinguishes between those who survived and those who were murdered. Beginning with “we” Wiesel moves to “they” and “those people.” Holocaust diaries, I have hoped to show, show us in action what Wiesel can only unconsciously recognize, the fundamentally mediated quality of supposedly immediate or direct testimony.

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“Humanity on its Last Legs”: Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost (Guest post: Nathaniel Leach)

Pleased to have another post from now-somewhat-regular contributor Nathaniel Leach. Here he is on a classic yet underappreciated Canadian novel. Its interest in race, sexuality, oppression, and what we might today call intersectionality are as relevant now as they were nearly 70 years ago.

I first started reading Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost (1951) twenty years ago on a trip from Toronto to Englehart, Ontario. It was a long trip (check the map if you don’t believe me), but I only got through about a third of the book. It was enjoyable enough, but it seemed fairly conventional and didn’t really stand out as something special. I picked it up again this year as I attempt to clear my shelves of the many such books that I have left in states of semi-completion, and this time, when I did finish it, it really surprised me. It struck me as a tragically beautiful, well written book that powerfully challenges the prejudices of its time. This left me with a number of questions. Had my perspective changed, or did the book just start slow and pick up speed? Had I missed something when I first started reading it, or had I built it up in my mind because it wasn’t quite what I expected? I suspect that each of these possibilities is a little bit true.

Indeed, there is much that seems very conventional about the book, as it combines familiar narrative elements in its story of an ambitious social climber caught in a love triangle dividing him between high and low society. Jim McAlpine, an erstwhile History professor at the University of Toronto is invited to Montreal by Joseph Carver, owner of The Sun newspaper, who, having seen an article of McAlpine’s, offers him a regular column (oh, for the days when academics were seen as so widely employable!). McAlpine welcomes this opportunity, and begins spending time with Carver’s divorced daughter, Catherine, who likes him, and promises to be a match well-suited to advance McAlpine’s social and professional aspirations. He, however, becomes more intrigued by Peggy Sanderson, an independent working woman who rejects social convention, frequenting jazz clubs and befriending many of the black musicians who play there.

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The book’s focus on race makes it impossible to ignore how much of its time and place it is: the time is 1950 (contemporary with Callaghan’s writing of it) and the place is Montreal, the city where, just a few years before, Jackie Robinson had played before breaking the colour barrier in the major leagues. One character points out that the Brooklyn Dodgers chose Montreal because of its reputation as a tolerant city, but the book clearly documents the limits of this tolerance; Peggy’s black friends are accepted within their home district of St. Antoine, but trouble arises when she treats them as equals in other parts of the city. While it is heartening to read a book from 1950 that challenges racism as strongly as this one does, it also shows its age in many ways; for example, Peggy is impressed when Jim talks about “Negro writers” instead of using a different word that starts with “N” (which is, indeed, preferred by many of the other characters in the book).

This strong sense of time and place left me feeling that I would appreciate the book more if I knew Montreal better; it’s a city I’ve visited a few times, but have spent the last few years avoiding (as anyone who drives regularly from the Maritimes to Ontario will understand). This is unequivocally a Montreal book (somewhat ironically, since Callaghan is unequivocally a Toronto author). The geography of the city informs everything. On the first page, we are told: “Those who wanted things to remain as they were liked the mountain. Those who wanted a change preferred the broad flowing river. But no one could forget either of them.” The geography of the city becomes a blunt metaphor for class divisions, although throughout the book, many characters sing the praises of Montreal’s inclusivity and the opportunities it offers. The importance of place is developed through to the very last page where Montreal’s mystifying topography becomes a heartbreakingly perfect metaphor for the tragically divided worlds of the characters.

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What interested me most, though, were the places where Callaghan defies not just social convention but also literary convention. The love triangle actually peters out fairly quickly and is replaced by a more nuanced exploration of race, sexuality and the limits of humanity. Moreover, we sympathize less and less with Jim as he attempts to change Peggy, while still cultivating Catherine’s friendship. Jim becomes obsessed with Peggy and determined to rescue her, while she welcomes his friendship but resists his attempts to encroach on her independence. Peggy rejects Jim’s sexual advances, but her sexual relations are speculated about extensively, although not conclusively. She is rumoured to have slept with many of her musician friends, although it is significant that she never confirms or denies such rumours, always dismissing them as irrelevant. By refusing Jim’s attempts to sexualize her, Peggy resists the conventional role of the heroine by refusing to play a part in the stories that men, and especially Jim, project onto her.

What is particularly remarkable about the book, then, is its refusal of simplistic narratives about race and sex, and its exploration of the psychological nuances of prejudice and desire. This is illustrated through two intriguing episodes from the latter half of the book, which both mark Jim’s progress towards the realization that his desire for Peggy and his desire for social acceptance can never be reconciled. The first of these is an encounter that Jim has with a Polish Jew named Wolgast who is the co-owner of a bar that Jim and his friends frequent. After Peggy brings a black man to his bar, Wolgast searches for her with seemingly violent intent, but when he runs into Jim instead, he is mollified and explains his anger over coffee. He tells Jim about his father, a serf in Poland who, on market days, would take him to town on a white horse, instilling both father and son with a sense of pride. When the landowner forces Wolgast’s father to sell the horse, he becomes despondent and dies shortly afterwards, exhorting his son with his dying words: “try and own a white horse of your own someday, son.” The white horse thus becomes a fairly obvious symbol for social acceptance that Callaghan uses throughout the final chapters of the book.

More complex are Wolgast’s motivations for his anger with Peggy; on the one hand, Callaghan makes a point of emphasizing that Wolgast is not troubled by the anti-Semitism that surrounds him: “Nor had French Canadian hostility to the Jews disturbed him. It only made him smile complacently… everybody knew the French Canadians were hostile out of envy; it was a mark of respect.” On the other hand, Peggy’s actions trigger a defensive reaction in Wolgast: “no one who couldn’t go anywhere else had felt free to come into his bar just because he was a Jew. No one had ever shown that much contempt for him, he told himself—until today.” He believes Peggy has brought a black man into his bar because she assumes that, since he is Jewish, he would tolerate her wish, and it is this assumption that outrages him, as if it degraded him back to the outsider status he has fought so hard to escape. He justifies this attitude further by his love of Montreal; having worked numerous dodgy jobs from Brooklyn to Buffalo, Wolgast credits Montreal with giving him the chance to own something legitimate (his “white horse”), and therefore wants “everything to stay the way it is,” and worries that his bar will lose its reputation. Callaghan thus suggests how victims of prejudice can be induced to transmit this prejudice to others so as to preserve their own precarious place within the social order. While Jim tries to show Wolgast that Peggy did not mean to insult him and instead was paying tribute to his lack of prejudice, even he criticizes Peggy’s “lack of prudence” which “always brings out the worst instincts in us, the stuff we try and hide, the stuff that’s inhuman.” Like Wolgast, Jim blames Peggy for bringing inhumanity to light rather than criticizing and confronting the inhuman behaviour itself.

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Jim is finally forced to face this inhumanity when he takes Catherine to a hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadians [sic- one of the few things that drove me nuts about this book]. The scene is particularly brilliant in the way that Jim’s reflections on society’s treatment of Peggy are interwoven with what is going on both on the ice and in the crowd. The situation reaches its climax when a Ranger viciously slashes a Montreal player, leading to a brawl on the ice, and, when the instigator escapes receiving a penalty, causing the crowd to erupt in rage at the referee. Jim, coming to the realization that most of the crowd would react the same way to him and Peggy if they knew about her views, is shocked by the violence of the “crazy, howling mob.” Despite the friendly conversations he has with members of the home crowd, he reflects increasingly on their unspoken attitudes and begins to feel like an outsider. This scene leads Jim to imagine himself as the potential victim of violence, and prefigures a scene of actual violence, a fight in a nightclub, in which Jim finds himself powerless to help Peggy. Jim’s trajectory from prospective social insider to powerless outsider is almost complete as he becomes increasingly confronted with the “worst instincts” and “inhumanity” of those around him, a trajectory that is completed with an even more extreme act of violence at the book’s end.

Again, this may not be an incredibly original narrative, but for me, what makes this book more than what I first thought it was is the way it communicates a human perspective without falling back on an over-simplified humanism. Even if there is a human essence that transcends skin colour, Callaghan suggests, there is a great deal of ugliness within this shared nature, as members of various races, classes, and genders contribute to the victimization of Peggy in order, like Wolgast, to advance their own interests. Even Jim, the figure we most identify with, proves to be morally weak and physically powerless to intervene in the cruelty she suffers. In the end, Callaghan shows us a world inhabited, like Wolgast’s bar, by “humanity on its last legs” and in need of a redemption that is always out of reach.

“All that is Seen, Understood”: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight

There is nothing more horrible than this: a world elucidated and all that is seen, understood.

So concludes the narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s marvelous novel Sight (2018). Although I’m reluctant to think of novels as having keys—it suggests they’re problems to be solved, secrets to be transgressed—this sentence gets to the heart of the book. I almost wrote, “to the heart of Greengrass’s argument.” For Sight at times masquerades as an essay. At others it’s a compelling example of what people are calling autofiction (at least, I think so: I’m not actually sure what that means). Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Maybe not to everyone’s taste. (If you want a lot of plot you will not love this book.) But definitely to mine. Reading it, in fact, I often had the rare, even uncanny feeling that the book was written just for me, which made me both eager to plough through it and reluctant to finish. Greengrass’s sentences are often long and always, as the example above suggests, complex. I don’t think it was just because I was squeezing the book into the ends of my mid-semester days that I often found myself going back and re-reading.

X-Ray HandSometimes when reading something I sense I’m the target audience for I get restive and grumpy, frustrated at having been pigeonholed, no matter how accurately. But with Sight I felt the difference between a book written for someone like me and a book actually written for me. Which of course is crazy. But I’m totally taken with the book’s central question: can there be seeing without knowing? The way I usually phrase it is: can there be experience without interpretation? Like Greengrass and the narrator with whom she seems to share so much, I always answer no. But I’m obsessed with what it might mean to answer yes. What is the cost of interpretation, of knowing? We can see what we gain when seeing turns into understanding. (Our very language, which offers seeing as a synonym for understanding, underlies this connection.) But can we see what we lose in that process?

Here I think of the paradox central to the Freudian enterprise. If the unconscious can be made conscious, much of its damaging power might be undone. But when the unconscious becomes conscious it dissipates, and even Freud was clear that we lose something—some energy, some power, some part of us that is larger than us but deeply part of us—in that evanescence. The goal of analysis, for Freud at least, was never just normativity. After all, symptoms aren’t just problems. (Symptom, for Freud, are compromise expressions: versions of unconscious desires that have been distorted enough to be acceptable to the censor of conscience and thus see the light of day: symptoms are things like dreams or slips of the tongue or obsessive behavior or bodily symptoms that have no physiological origin.) Symptoms are also who we are. We need to recognize them as valuable parts of ourselves, even as we work to mitigate their most harmful qualities.Freud_hansAll this talk of Freud is relevant to Sight. The narrator, who spends many of her days idly paging through books in the library at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London, weaves scenes from her own life (the death of her mother, childhood vacations with her psychoanalyst grandmother, vacillations over whether to have a child) with scenes from medical history: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays; Freud’s analysis of the child of an associate, a four-year-old patient he named Little Hans; and the eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter and his sometime colleague the medical illustrator Jan van Rymsdyk’s fascination with the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

When I compare Greengrass’s use of historical material to that of, say, Pat Barker or Giles Foden (I’m thinking of Toby’s Room and Turbulence), I can’t help but think that there is no point to the latter novels, despite their charms. These historical fictions are ruled by the principle of the info dump, no matter how skillfully applied. Why not, Greengrass’s novel made me wonder, be more honest and use that material the way a good essay might? Why not use the strategies of juxtaposition and reflection to come to a new way of seeing? Greengrass doesn’t try to naturalize her use of the medical material—despite her narrator’s days in the library she’s not trying to write a book about Röntgen, Freud, or Hunter. Instead, she asks us to think about the (oblique) connections between this material and the narrator’s life. For me, these connections center on the role of the unseen and the unspoken in the narrator’s life, her sense of living precariously amidst an incompletely understood past and an unknowable future.II-B-1Let me close with a couple of examples of the book’s prose. They’re concerned with time as the medium of experience, time as a way to see what—like the bones in the hand made evident by the x-ray, the phobia exposed by the analyst’s question, or the fetus revealed by the scalpel—would otherwise be hidden. A loss of mystery accompanies that endeavor: the hidden alters itself in some fundamental way the very moment it becomes the known. The consolation for that loss, like the song of Orpheus meant to compensate for the loss of Eurydice in the original instance of the treachery of sight, might be Greengrass’s beautiful sentences.

Here’s the narrator remembering the room she would stay in when she visited her grandmother in Hampstead every summer:

Before I was born [the room] had been my mother’s, and the white-painted bookshelf which leaned fifteen degrees west of true was still filled with books which had once been hers. Sometimes, opening them, I would disturb loose sheets of paper that fluttered downwards, drifting to the floor to settle gently amongst the swirling patterns of the rugs, disjointed lists of words, phone numbers or addresses or single pages cut from longer letters, descriptions of nameless places, congratulations on achievements since forgotten. I would pick them up and hold them and, trying to connect their recipient with my mother, so uncompromisingly grown up, so firm and sure, I would catch from the corner of my eye the outline of my own inescapable adulthood flicker against the yellowed walls, a long shadow cast by a low sun.

And here she is, reflecting on Röntgen and his rivals, men who discovered the same phenomenon yet who for reasons of chance have not gone down in history, and resisting the lure of the counter-factual:

To say that something other might have been is not to diminish the value of what was, the marvel of it or its solidity, besides which it is not the fact of Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery which fascinates but rather it is those days and nights through which he worked alone, bringing to this mystery’s unravelling all of his slow, systematic persistence until he possessed not just the sight of something but that extra thing that knowledge, understanding is—not the mere serendipity of discovery but the moment of its tipping into insight which draws our lonely curiosity. We are unsatisfied. Revelation is by definition isolate., it can neither be communicated nor transferred, and trying to comprehend it we feel only the chill of our exclusion.

What a ride that passage takes us on! A brilliant description of creating and discovering, which matters, it seems, only when it becomes something more than itself, something called knowing, is followed by a reversal, in which the narrator, even as she argues for the need to turn seeing into understanding, intimates (in part via that “chill”) how difficult, even unlikely that process is—and, moreover, that it might entail loss as much as gain.

 If these passages excite you as much as they do me, you need to read this book. They’re examples of the things I love about Sight: its intelligence, its beautiful language, its seamless blend of essayistic and novelistic. (This might have been the kind of thing Barthes had in mind when he imagined “the novelistic without the novel.”) And, truth be told, the fact that no one seems to know about this book. And yet here I am, giving up another secret. But in this case, the cost of making the unseen seen feels unequivocally worth it.

 

 

Persephone Readathon: Betty Miller, Farewell Leicester Square

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A few years ago a generous colleague bought me a copy of Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square–my first Persephone edition. I’ve lusted after these books for a long time, but I have so many other book fetishes I thought I should keep this one in check as long as possible. Is that why I left the book languishing for so long? Fear that I would feel compelled to order many more of these austere oblong editions with their delicious endpapers? More likely it’s because my TBR pile grows like kudzu: what once saw the light of day is soon overgrown by the new arrivals that shawl out of the ground like vast clouds of gnats. When I came across a Persephone Raadathon hosted by Jessie of the blog Dwell in Possibility, I thought I would take the chance to thank my colleague for her kind gesture by actually reading the book. (It’s about the pressures to assimilate experienced by Jews in 1930s England–so intriguing!) Do you have unread Persephones lying around? Why not join in too?

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“Abandoning myself entirely to the buzzing, hot stillness”: Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall

A woman accepts an invitation to stay with friends at their hunting lodge in the Alps. The lodge is actually a two-story wooden villa with some outbuildings, including a hut for the gamekeeper and his dog. Her hosts are unusual—he, Hugo, heir to a saucepan fortune and something of a hypochondriac, has stockpiled food and supplies in the house; she, Luise, is a passionate hunter. The two don’t seem to have much in common, but almost as soon as they arrive, Luise convinces her husband to accompany her to the nearest village for a drink at the inn. Afternoon turns to evening; the couple doesn’t return. The woman is restless, but succumbs to fatigue: she makes herself something to eat and goes to bed without waiting up for her hosts. The next morning, there’s still no sign of them, and so, calling the dog, Lynx, to accompany her, the woman sets out to see what’s happened. The dog is running ahead, and suddenly he cries out in pain. He’s hurt, bleeding from the mouth, and whining in fear. The woman can’t see what could have caused the injury; she gently pushes the dog aside and continues down the path—and immediately bangs her head on something she can’t see. Apparently, an invisible barrier has been thrown up in front of her. No matter how carefully she moves her hands along it, she find no end to it; she can’t pass it. In a distant field she sees a farmhouse and the figure of a man. She calls out to him, but he doesn’t move and as she looks more closely she sees that he isn’t breathing; he’s frozen in place. Everything on the other side of the invisible barrier is as though turned to stone. The woman and the dog give up and return to the lodge. Soon she has to face facts: somehow, she and a few animals in the surrounding woods, meadows, and mountains are the only beings still alive.

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So begins Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, a sad, moving, and beautiful novel first published in Austria in 1962 and translated by Shaun Whiteside into English in 1990. Haushofer—about whom I know little: she was born in Upper Austria, went to school in Linz, university in Vienna and Graz, and spent most of her life in Steyr, where she married the same man twice and raised a family—had a short life (1920-1970) and didn’t write many books, but on the evidence of this one she was the real thing.

The Wall is filled with lovely low-key descriptions of the land from which the narrator struggles to rest a living. But these descriptions are always practical, always connected to the task of surviving; this narrator has no time for lyric effusions about the landscape. Here for example a storm is about to break:

It’s never entirely silent in the forest. You only imagine it’s silent, but there is always a whole host of noises. A woodpecker taps in the distance, a bird calls, the wind hisses through the grass in the forest, a big branch knocks against a tree-trunk, and the twigs rustle as little animals scurry around. Everything is alive, everything is working. But that evening it really almost was silent. The silencing of the many familiar noises frightened me. Even the splashing of the stream sounded restrained and muted, as if the water too was only moving lethargically and unwillingly. Lynx stood up, jumped miserably up on the bench beside me and nudged me gently, intimidated by the terrible silence.

Haushofer reminds me a bit of Lawrence. She shares his fondness for parataxis (though admittedly this is much more common and in fact grammatically sound in German than in English), as well as his willingness to repeat words and phrases, to the point of ungainliness. Also like Lawrence, she is brilliant on animals. The Wall is a great book about how much people need animals. (I realize people are animals; I mean non-human animals.) In addition to Lynx, probably my favourite character, the narrator becomes close to several cats and to her cow, lovely, patient, beautiful Bella, whose milk keeps all of them alive.

The Wall, then, is a book about living beings—about what it feels like to be alive, and what it takes to stay alive. Mostly it takes hard work. Here’s the narrator, having decided to take Bella and her calf to summer in an alpine meadow and painfully lugged everything she needs to keep herself whole up the mountain, clearing out the long-abandoned hut in which she will live:

The hut was thick with dirt, and that disturbed me a great deal. It was by now too late to start spring-cleaning. So I washed only the necessary pots with the wire brush and sand, and put a little pot of potatoes on the spirit stove. Then I dismantled the bed and carted the musty pallet to the meadow and beat it with a stick. A cloud of dust arose. I couldn’t do anything more for the time being, but resolved to lay the pallet outside to air on every fine day.

And here she is making hay for the winter (accompanied by Lynx, who, as always, is sharply attuned to her moods but not much help with the work):

The sun cast its full brilliance on the slope. The fresh-cut swathes of hay already lay wilted and dull. I stood up and began to turn them with the fork. The meadow was one great hum of startled insects. I worked slowly, almost drowsily, abandoning myself entirely to the buzzing, hot stillness. Lynx, who had checked that everything was all right with me, trotted to the stream and drank in long, lapping gulps, then lay down in the shade, his head on his paws, his mournfully wrinkled face entirely hidden by his long ears, and dozed away. I envied him.

Sometimes she gets something like rest, as when she discovers a stretch of raspberry bushes that have just ripened:

As I had no sugar and couldn’t make preserves, I had to eat the berries straight away. I went to the patch every other day. It was the purest joy; I was bathed in sweetness. The sun warmed the ripe berries, and a wild aroma of sun and maturing fruits enveloped and intoxicated me.

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The edition of The Wall that I read comes with a blurb from Doris Lessing. It’s better than your average praise:

It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine’s loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory against everything that would like to undermine and destroy. It is as absorbing as Robinson Crusoe.

(I confess I have never read the Defoe, but I take it to be governed by a tendency to document and report, and The Wall has some of that, in its careful descriptions of how to chop wood and cut grass and never touch the seed potatoes, no matter how hungry you are.) Lessing is an important writer for me; I take her praise seriously. Indeed, reading it I was reminded of her near-contemporaneous Summer before the Dark (1973). Perhaps even closer in spirit to The Wall is a book even dearer to my heart, Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), a story about a woman sent to catalog a library in a fabulous house on a remote island in northern Ontario who finds a bear can make for good company.

Lessing and Engel’s books are stories of idylls. Is this one too? “A woman and her animals, alone at last.” Maybe. But if so, it’s a frightening idyll, one filled with hard work, and cold and hunger, the threat of death, and at the end of it all the realization that human beings might, with her, come to an end. Which isn’t to say that the narrator doesn’t experience something like positive transformation. But doing so requires that she shrug off her most human qualities. Loneliness, she writes, has led her, “in moments free of consciousness and memory, to see the brilliance of life again.” At Christmas time, depressed that in the forest it is nothing more than another snowy day, she consoles herself with the possibility of being able to forget the past: “something quite new lay waiting behind” the old ways of seeing. Imagining a real transformation means imagining something beyond herself:

One day I shall no longer exist, and no one will cut the meadow, the thickets will encroach upon it and later the forest will push as far as the wall and win back the land that man has stolen from it… The forest doesn’t want human beings to come back.

Here Haushofer reminds me of Woolf in the Time Passes section of To the Lighthouse. This passage could have come from the earlier novel:

I see the plants flourishing, green, well-fed and silent. And I hear the wind and all the noises from the dead cities; window-panes shattering on the pavement when their hinges have rusted through, the dripping of water from the burst pipes and the banging of thousands of doors in the wind. Sometimes, on stormy nights, a stone object that was once a human being tips from its chair at a desk and crashes with a boom to the parquet floor. For a while there must have been big fires as well. But they’re probably over now, and the plants are hurrying to cover up the remains. If I look at the ground behind the wall, I don’t see any ants, or beetles, not even the tiniest insects. But it won’t stay that way. With water from the streams life, tiny, simple life, will seep in and revivify the earth. I might have been quite indifferent to that, but strangely it fills me with secret satisfaction.

Given its interest in overcoming the human, it is less obvious in The Wall than in the other books I’ve referenced that the heroine’s self-discovery is a good thing. Plus—spoiler alert!—near the end something weird and terrible happens. A man comes out of nowhere and kills the bull and the dog before the narrator kills him. All of this happens so abruptly—here I was reminded of Beckett’s Molloy and its sudden, hallucinatory depictions of murder—that I’m not even sure whether it really happened. Actually, I think it does. But where this guy comes from and whether there are any more like him or if there are any repercussions or ripple-effects from this burst of violence are never explained.

That violence would seem to mitigate fully any notion of an idyll, and indeed ultimately there is no way out for the narrator. She runs out of paper, and simply ends her chronicle. Yet the book doesn’t feel hopeless. It ends on a note of what I can only call grace. Maybe today we would call it mindfulness. Over and over, the narrator is granted the peace of no longer having to think (prevented by exhaustion, by the need to keep on task, by the joy that comes from taking care of and being cared for by animals). But she doesn’t become wild. She doesn’t want to give up thought. She distinguishes herself from animals; despite the frailty of the human and the lure of its extinction, she accepts the tragedy of self-consciousness. For her, as for Leonard Cohen in his equally graceful “Famous Blue Raincoat,” that means she’s keeping some kind of record:

Over the last few days I have realized that I still hope someone will read this report. [Again, the language of documentation.] I don’t know why I wish that, it makes no difference, after all. But my heart beats faster when I imagine human eyes resting on these lines, and human hands turning the pages.

Where the book seems most feminist is in its depiction of the narrator as someone who, for whatever reason (though it is intimated that the reason is because she is a woman), needs to care for others: “There was something planted deep within me that made it impossible for me to abandon something that had been entrusted to me.” This despite the fact that care is always stymied. To love is to keep alive, but life is replaced by death, and so love is always tragic:

I often look forward to a time when there won’t be anything left to grow attached to. I’m tired of everything being taken away from me. Yet there’s no escape, for as long as there’s something for me to love in the forest, I shall love it; and if some day there is nothing, I shall stop living. If everyone had been like me, there wouldn’t have been a wall… but I understand why the others always had the upper hand. Loving and looking after another creature is a very troublesome business, and much harder than killing and destruction.

This is the most allegorical and “message-y” the book gets.

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Apparently, Haushofer took a long time to write this book. Not only did she have a household to run, even as she suffered from poor health, especially debilitating headaches, but she also wanted to make sure she got it right: that her descriptions of animals and plants were accurate and that the life she described for her heroine was plausible. I wonder if she was helped in her search for accuracy by her background: she grew up in the foothills of upper Austria, where her father was a forester. In one sense, nothing happens in this book. Yet it’s utterly compelling, partly because it has relentless forward momentum even as the telling ranges back and forth in time (only ever within the years after the incident, though—she almost never says anything about her life before the wall). The book is propelled by the changing of the seasons, of weather and climate, of life and death. It’s all very elemental, but never portentous. (Haushofer is the anti-Cormac McCarthy.)

I’m speaking a lot about feelings here. Something about this novel incites reflection on our experiencing of reading it. I felt shame, too. How could I, with a doctorate in comparative literature with particular emphasis on English and German-language 20th century literature, have never heard of Haushofer before? How could I have taken all those classes, sat through all those colloquia, and never come across this remarkable author? Maybe things would be different if I were still in graduate school today: maybe Haushofer is having a resurgence, dozens of academic teaching her works and writing assiduously about her. (I gather a film adaptation came out a few years ago; that can’t hurt.) But my shame quickly turned into something more generative. I’m thrilled with the discovery, and reassured to realize, yet again, how much literature remains to explore. Haushofer is a writer for everyone: careful, matter-of-fact, gentle, joyful—but not sweet. She’s more like the cranberries the narrator strains and jars to keep her through the winter than she is like the raspberries on which she gorges to the point of  surfeit.

I plucked The Wall from the bottom of a large stack of unread books in my study largely because I wanted to contribute to #WITMonth, the creation of Meytal Radzinski (@Biblibio), an event that has gratifyingly become a sensation in the book world. I like to think the sense of discovery that accompanied my reading of this remarkable book is in keeping with the spirit of this celebration of month-long event. Of course, now all I want to do is seek out Haushofer’s other books; every book read from the TBR pile only leads to two or three more…

 

 

“So we are both bereaved!” Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy

The most powerful and consequential scene in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy (1977-80) occurs early in the first volume, The Danger Tree. A young Englishwoman, Harriet Pringle, is the primary observer of the scene. Manning detailed Harriet’s experiences in Romania and Greece with her feckless husband, Guy, a teacher attached to the British Council, in three wonderful novels published in the 1960s as the Balkan Trilogy. At the end of those books, Harriet and Guy, on the run from fascism, had been pushed from Bucharest to Athens and, finally, across the Mediterranean in two ancient, creaky, and overcrowded ships to safety in Egypt.

Manning couldn’t let go of her characters (another way to say this is that she couldn’t keep from revisiting her own life, since Harriet and Guy are modeled on Manning herself and her husband, Reggie, and their wartime experiences). In the last years of her life, she took up their story again, adding a new character, Simon Boulderstone, to the mix. In the opening chapter Simon, a twenty-year-old recruit freshly arrived in Egypt to fight Rommel’s army, gets separated from his regiment and falls in with Harriet and her circle of fellow refugees.

Cairo, Manning explains, “had become the clearinghouse of Eastern Europe”:

Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafes were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.

Except it might not. Things in Cairo are tense. The Germans aren’t far away, though no one knows for sure where exactly. The darkest rumours suggest they’ll take the city in a matter of days. Many exiles have chosen to leave for points east. The Egyptians, by contrast, are sanguine, even welcoming the possibility of German takeover, so much resentment is there of the British. The Anglo-Egyptians, by contrast, are incensed. One of them, Sir Clifford, an agent for an oil company, explains, with unpleasant distaste, “The gypo porters are having a high old time at the station. I was there yesterday, saw them chucking the luggage about, roaring with laughter, bawling, “Hitler come.’”

In the midst this turmoil, Clifford leads a group that includes Simon and Harriet on an excursion to the Fayoum, an oasis region about sixty miles from the city. The self-proclaimed Egyptologist leads the motley and mostly listless group through various tombs and a fly-ridden picnic in the heat of the day. Towards evening, they pass the home of Sir Desmond and Angela Hooper, and, despite the group’s protestations, Clifford decides to drop in to see if the couple has heard any news.

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As the group waits awkwardly in a living room “as large as a ballroom” they hear a car shrieking on the drive and a terrible commotion in the hall. A woman runs into the room, calling for Sir Desmond, “her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the torn, paint-covered overalls that protected her dress.” This is Lady Hooper, returned from a sketching session that ends abruptly after a terrible accident.

Behind her, two servants carry in “the inert body of a boy”:

He lay prone and motionless, a thin, small boy of eight or nine with the same delicate features as his mother: only something had happened to them. One eye was missing. There was a hole in the left cheek that extended into the torn wound which had been his mouth. Blood had poured down his chin and was caked on the collar of his open-necked shirt. The other eye, which was open, was lackluster and blind like the eye of a dead rabbit.

Manning conveys horror through simple repetition, as if her language were shocked by what it had to describe. “Eye,” for example, is repeated three times, twice in a single sentence, which includes a meagre yet highly effective simile (the boy’s open eye is blind like the eye of a dead rabbit’s—an eye is like an eye). The idea of a hole or orifice is similarly repeated. There are the eyes and the mouth, of course, and the terrible opening in what had been the cheek. But there is also a painful contrast between these unnatural openings and the ordinary one of the “open-necked shirt.”

The Hoopers’ child—as best I can tell, he is never named—had picked up an explosive hidden in the sand while playing in the desert. The guests are horrified and fascinated by the scene. Sir Desmond and Angela react with stoic calm, but they are clearly in shock. They decide the boy should have something to eat, “a little nourishment, light and easy to swallow.”

A servant brings a bowl of gruel and Sir Desmond, “bending tenderly over the boy,” attempts to feed him:

The mouth was too clogged with congealed blood to permit entry so the father poured a spoonful of gruel into the hole in the cheek. The gruel poured out again. This happened three times before Sir Desmond gave up and, gathering the child in his arms, said, ‘He wants to sleep. I’ll take him to his room.’

I’d actually read The Danger Tree before, right after I devoured The Balkan Trilogy. Returning to it now, almost ten years later, I’d forgotten most of it, except this utterly indelible scene. The parents’ decision is so insane, so deluded—the boy is clearly dead, obviously beyond any “wants”—and yet so understandable. The matter-of-factness of the telling (that terrible sentence, “The gruel poured out again”) lends dignity to the disbelieving parents.

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In one way, the child’s death is a minor event. It doesn’t involve Harriet, Guy, or Simon directly; it has no direct connection to the war (though that’s presumably why live explosives are lying around). Simon, once he finally makes his way to the Front, has even forgotten all about it until a Signals man warns him about minefields and other booby traps: he broods on the information “until suddenly, like a returning dream, he remembered the dead boy in the Fayoum house.” Everything about the day has become distant, the people “beings of an unreal world.” Yet he muses on the moment; similarly, this minor moment echoes and ricochets across the books’ 500 pages. Like Simon, Manning keeps coming back to the boy’s death. In particular, she develops the character of his mother, Angela Hooper. In the death scene, she is a cipher: partly desperate, partly clueless. Later, she becomes a joke among the Cairo expatriates (Clifford, nasty little snake, dines out on the story for months; soon everyone knows it). Angela moves to Cairo, where, having separated from her husband and abandoned her previous life as an artist, mother, and hostess, she is a Brett Ashley figure who drinks too much and doesn’t seem to care about anything, so traumatized is she by the past.

Yet as the trilogy continues, Angela becomes increasingly complex. Her relationship with an alcoholic poet, Bill Castlebar, reveals itself not to have been the tawdry joke everyone initially took it to be but a sustaining, if not sustained, quasi-marriage of equals. She becomes especially important to Harriet, who gains in her something she has never had before: a friend of her own. Previously Harriet has always had to make do with her husband’s numerous hangers-on. (Guy attracts almost everyone he meets, men anyway, because he seems to take such interest in them, and he does, but only insofar as they are a problem for him to solve or a vessel for him to fill with knowledge or advice; besides, he is chronically over-committed, probably as a way to keep real intimacy, real friendships, at bay, and so he carelessly foists everyone who clamours for a slice of his attention on to his wife. She doesn’t want to look after them and they don’t want to be looked after by her.) When Angela first re-encounters her, Harriet is sure the bereaved woman won’t remember their first meeting. But she does:

‘I brought in my boy and the room was full of people. He was a beautiful boy, wasn’t he? His body was untouched—there was only that wound in his head. A piece of metal had gone into the brain and killed him. He was almost perfect, a small, perfect body, yet he was dead. We couldn’t believe it, but next day of course… We had to bury him.’

Harriet isn’t ready for this confidence, misreading it as some combination of delusion (and what does that ellipsis signify?) and over-sharing: “wishing this would end,” she redirects the conversation. Harriet is our hero, but as we see here she’s not always sympathetic. Her ability to see through other people’s bullshit is refreshing (she sees through Guy’s, but won’t leave him: frustrating!), but she can brusque—sometimes that makes us cheer, as when she admits she is “never unwilling to disquiet” a man who had once left Guy in the lurch, but sometimes that makes us wonder, as when she dismisses a man’s anxiety about whether he will ever be able to take up his career again once the way is over (he is an actor, and fears his moment has passed) by heartlessly replying, “We’re all displaced persons these days.”

Most of the time, though, Harrier is sensitive and perceptive. There’s nothing Proustian about Manning’s style or approach or concerns, but over the course of these novels she does something I’ve only seen in Proust: she reveals characters to each other over an extended period of time, so that by the end they only barely resemble our initial sense of them. Just as Marcel comes to see Charlus entirely differently over the course of the lifetime described by his book, so too Harriet finds entirely unpredictable depths to Angela. The same is true of Castelbar. At first, he seems merely an unpleasant, no longer young man on the make, who has attached himself to Angela because she is rich and will buy all his drinks and even, rather unaccountably, even to himself, wants to screw him. But the relationship is for real. And we learn, with Harriet, how kind he is, and Harriet, at any rate (with luck we already know this, but we can never be reminded too often), learns how important kindness is in the people we love—and how little of it she gets from Guy:

He was kind, and not only to Angela. He carried his kindness over to Harriet so she, an admirer of wit, intelligence, and looks in a man, was beginning to realize that kindness, if you had the luck to find it, was an even more desirable quality.

Harriet even comes to see the actor, a man named Aidan Pratt, the one whose worries about his career she had dismissed, in a completely other light, such that he demands her sympathy. He tells her the story of his war, which consists of two traumas: one, referenced only obliquely and never developed, concerns the death of a lover; the other concerns his experiences as a conchie, a conscientious objector, early in the war. He was put to work on a liner transporting orphans to Canada, but the boat was torpedoed by the Germans and he the only survivor, having spent days adrift in the ocean in a life-raft full of children he was unable to save, an experience that did away with his pacifism.

Over and over, Manning gives us glimpses into the extraordinary yet commonplace terrors faced by people at war. Flipping again through Deirdre David’s workmanlike but comprehensive recent biography of Manning, I’m reminded that many of the Levant Trilogy’s first readers liked the Simon sections of the book best. They were impressed with Manning’s ability to describe the confusion and terror of desert tank warfare. I suspect sexism played a part in this response—the books were most valued when Manning proved able to move past her own experiences to depict the male experience of fighting. I think these scenes are good, too, but, as I’ve suggested, they’re not what most interests me. Besides, I think the distinction between what happens at and behind the Front misses Manning’s point. These worlds are connected by a shared experience of loss and trauma, as Simon himself recognizes when, having learned that his brother has died, he is given a week’s leave in Cairo, where he meets Angela again. She remembers him immediately, even apologizing for what the scene with her son must have looked like to an observer:

‘We didn’t know he was dead, you know: or perhaps we couldn’t bear to know. It must have been upsetting for you. I’m sorry.’

In what could be a motto for the books, Angela observes that she and Simon now share the most profound and inescapable experience, of loss: “So we are both bereaved!”

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Olivia Manning, self-portrait c. 1930

I could say a lot more about these books, but this post is long enough. I’ll end by listing a few other favourite moments. Harriet is given the chance at a new life when, having almost died from amoebic dysentery, she finds a place on a ship taking women and children back to England. At the last moment, though, she decides not to get on the boat, a lucky thing too, since it is sunk shortly after entering the Indian ocean. Guy and everyone in Cairo think she is dead (some sections of the last volume are focalized through Guy; it is interesting that this doesn’t make us sympathize with him any more), whereas Harriet has no idea what has happened to the boat. Blissfully unaware, she sets out on an adventure, first to Damascus and then Palestine. These sections are fascinating, but underdeveloped. (Perhaps Manning thought she had mined her experiences in Jerusalem sufficiently in my favourite of her novels, School for Love.) More than the novel’s travelogue of the Levant, what stays with me are its arresting observations (watching a porter manage piles of luggage, Harriet “saw that from bearing so much eight, his feet had become almost circular and appeared to have toes all round”), vivid characterization, even of minor roles (who can forget Lister, who in his cups always returns to memories of his childhood nurse, who used to pull down his underwear and beat him with a hairbrush: “Bristle side. Used to pull down little kickers and beat little bum. Poor little bum!”), and striking, often violent scenes, whether of a bar in Tiberias destroyed by violent, maudlin, drunken Australian soldiers on leave, of a collapsed house after an air-raid in Cairo, where, for days afterward, survivors can be heard wailing to be released, though no one will do anything about it, or of a miserable polar bear in the sweltering Cairo zoo, with which Harriet tries to bond “through the medium of her intense pity.” She tells the bear, “’If I could do anything for you, I would do it with my whole heart. But the world is against us. All I can do, is go away.’”

Harriet’s rather despairing conclusion isn’t quite the book’s. People do care for each other, though it almost always ends badly (they get blown up, they take another lover, they get sick and die). (Maybe the only exceptions are a pair of lesbian ambulance drivers–I wanted a whole book about them–though it’s unclear whether their relationship can survive the war.) Nor is it clear that going away is as practicable a solution as Harriet here seems to think. After all, she is returned to Guy, and, in a way to life, having been presumed dead. Fittingly, this reunion is more moving to the people watching it than to the novel itself. Harriet and Guy are delighted to be together again, but Harriet, at least, now has no illusions that she will ever come first with her husband. Her tart observation that marriage is “knowing too much about each other” is fitting for novels in which the most profound togetherness comes only through loss.

I read these books alongside Scott of the blog seraillon. Please read his excellent essay.

“Hey, let me in!” Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

A lot happens in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina. A woman named Sabrina disappears; her distraught boyfriend, Teddy, goes to stay with his best friend from high school, Calvin, who now works with computers for the military; the woman’s sister, Sandra, struggles with her grief; a cat goes missing. But we rarely see these events directly. We see instead their after-effects, which, given the extremity of the events (the most drastic of which I am eliding here so that it stays a surprise), are traumatizing. Most often, those responses take the form of an almost wordless sinking into the anesthetizing commonplaces of middle American life. Characters sit in silence—whether they’re alone or not—watching tv, playing video games, wasting time online.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

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The style of Sabrina is at odds with Calvin’s young daughter’s favourite book. (She’s in Florida with her mother as the couple experiments with a trial separation, but she’s left a lot of toys behind in the bedroom Teddy uses.) Its pages overflowing with hectic, garish drawings, the children’s book is nothing like the one we’re reading. After all, it has a key: each page lists the names of the items young readers are meant to find in its pictures. Perhaps that promise of fixed meaning is why Teddy is so drawn to it.

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Sabrina, by contrast, feels empty. It would be easy to turn this observation into judgment, to say something like: Sabrina is about a hopeless, denuded world, “the indigenous American berserk” as a form of numbing. Or: its characters are lost, helpless, incapable of self-reflection.

But talking about the book this way—as I find myself inclined to do—is wrong. I suspect most interpretations of the book will take the form of sociological diagnoses (what is wrong with America?). Sabrina connives with this way of thinking, because of the apparent affectlessness of its presentation, and its lack of interest in interiority or psychology. (In this sense, its totemic object is the psychological evaluation form Calvin and his co-workers are required to fill out at the beginning of each shift: What is your stress level, on a scale of one to five? How many units of alcohol did you consume last night? And at the bottom, three questions about whether you want to talk to anyone about anything, questions it is clear the answer to which should always be no.) But if Sabrina leads us to read in certain ways, that isn’t because it necessarily agrees with those ways, but because it wants us to ask why we read that way.

Every text is about interpretation in some way, but Sabrina foregrounds interpretation more than most. Which might seem funny because its characters say and do so little. (What’s to interpret, you might ask.) But the emptiness I mentioned earlier has an unexpected effect. Not that we need to ignore or undo it by unduly filling it but that we have to slow down, look closely, think about this only apparent blankness. Drnaso’s emptiness is a spur to thinking, not a convenient way to shut thinking down (as would be the case if we were to dismiss these people, this world). I’m reminded of Caché, Michael Haneke’s film about surveillance, and the way it makes viewers into paranoid readers, alert to the possibility that every quotidian scene could be sinister, every seemingly empty or boring frame of surveillance video could reveal significant horror. Not that Sabrina incites paranoia, but, like Caché, it turns the very way we look at (and therefore consume) it into the thing we most need to pay attention to, instead of, as we do too often, ignoring it as simply a neutral vehicle for receiving its themes.

On Twitter, Tony from Messenger’s Booker said he was uncertain about the book. He noted how hard it was to tell characters from one another, especially early on, and I certainly agree. In fact, at first, I often wasn’t sure if many of the characters were men or women. This uncertainty bothered me. But why? What was I doing in wanting distinctions when the book apparently didn’t? For whatever reason, I found this uncertainty more of a barrier than the book’s complete lack of exposition. You only find out important information—who characters are, how they know each other, where they live, what’s happened to them—retrospectively, or sometimes not at all. And the only suspenseful sequence—a lovely bit in which Teddy finally leaves his Calvin’s house in search of that missing cat; wandering the empty suburban roads he’s eventually given a lift by a guy in a truck—resolves benignly: we expect Truck Guy to take Teddy out to some deserted stretch of highway and murder him, but, nope, he just drives him right to the Humane Society. No cat there, though.

Drasno’s way of organizing his pages is similarly unsettling. He alternates between smaller, regular shaped panels and larger ones that are two or sometimes more rows high. When that happens, do we read the top row, then the second row, and finally the big panel? Or do we read the big panel in between the first and second rows? It’s not always easy to tell.

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That I took these narrative and visual ellipses and involutions in stride but was bothered that I couldn’t distinguish characters surely says something about me as a reader: I have plenty of experience with narrative experimentation, after all, but my resistance to corporeal uncertainty apparently runs deeper. Yet in the end neither of these modes of uncertainties matters much in themselves. They are just two possible examples of something much more important: the book’s ability to disquiet readers.

But more than unsettled or disquieted, Sabrina made me very, very sad. Even the final pages, which (assuming they aren’t a fantasy—always a possibility) suggest something like fulfillment for one of the characters, didn’t change my mood. At first, I responded to this sadness by explaining it away. I don’t need to be so sad, I said to myself, because life isn’t as hopeless as this book suggests. Most people, I insisted, aren’t quite this unable to communicate, aren’t quite this isolated, aren’t quite this close to the brink of absolute desperation. (Most people aren’t quite this traumatized, either, we might also like to think.) But I realized that this was a lousy response. A better way was to be true to my feelings. The most accurate response to contemporary reality, the philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote, is to acknowledge all the anxiety, all the sadness, our culture legitimately incites.

Besides, exaggerated or not, the book speaks truth. I felt this most strongly in its depiction of the relationship between anonymity and communication. Connection is routinely sterile, oblique, and failed; instead we are offered the echo-chamber of talk radio, the violence of online forums, the broken sentences of people under duress. When Sabrina’s fate is revealed, Calvin and Teddy are faced with virulent, cruel, hateful responses that I might have found unbelievable were I not on Twitter every other minute.

I wonder what J. G. Ballard would have made of this book. Surely, he would have recognized its landscape of empty spaces: office corridors, housing tracts, rest-stop fast-food joints. But he would have admired, even thrilled to see those anonymous non-spaces put at the center of such a powerful work. Drnaso is more circumspect. He’s not critiquing this homogeneous world, nor the people who live in it. But neither is he championing it as unsung or transformative. Even when Calvin takes a new job, packs up his life, stops on his way out of town to visit Teddy at his own new job, and hits the road (cue more rest stops, more empty restaurants, more generic motels), it’s hard to see these developments as new beginnings.

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On every page, the narrative and visual point of view of Sabrina is strikingly neutral. Perhaps the very form of comics allows this to be so. We can see things that the characters cannot; we can see things from a point of view that can more properly be called omniscient than anything in ordinary fiction. Take Calvin’s cross-country journey. In his hotel he is awoken by someone banging at the door. He stays in bed, but in the following panels we see what he can’t (though presumably he hears at least some of it): a man at first apologizing and then turning belligerent when his apology isn’t rewarded. Then we see the man’s partner calling to him from down the hall. The man—maybe he’s drunk, or just drunk on anger and self-righteousness—has the wrong room, is banging on the wrong door. The woman shuts the door in his face, and we’re left with a panel of the man in an empty corridor, standing to the side of the frame, as so often in this book. “Hey, let me in!” he shouts. No response. Good for the woman, we think. But isn’t she running a risk? Will she be okay? This resistance to the man’s violence feels dangerous in a book where violence comes so often to the surface. What does the book want us to think here? Is it critiquing Calvin for huddling in his room? Or the man for being a shit? Is it valuing the brave woman? Can anything change when people can’t talk to each other? Is talking so great anyway? Couldn’t that just be another ruse for the violent to get their way? It’s hard not to read a scene in which we are grateful that loud BANGs come only from a fist on a door and not a gun to the head as anything other than a critique of America today. But maybe the real lesson of this beautiful and disturbing book is that any diagnosis of contemporary America’s ills is just part of the problem.

 

 

July 2018 Vacation Reading

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The Three Sisters, Canmore, AB, July 2018 Photo: Brett Buchanan

 

Spent much of July in Canada, lucky me, visiting friends in New Brunswick and family in Alberta. Did a lot of hiking, caught up on some television, avoided news as much as possible, enjoyed the time with my wife and daughter, and also got in a fair amount of reading.

As usual I didn’t read very many of the things I thought I would. The need to take it easy and follow the drifts of serendipity was more overpowering than ever this year. It was a joy to read so haphazardly.

Here are some capsule thoughts on the stuff I read.

Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014)

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Late to this party, but now that I’m here, I’m staying for the whole thing. (Clumsy way of saying I will read the other two books in the trilogy, and then look into Cusk’s backlist–if anyone has suggestions about where to go first–her fiction? her nonfiction?–I’d like to know.) I’m not as over the moon about what Cusk is doing as some readers seem to have been. (I’m unconvinced this is the novel’s salvation, for example, mostly because I don’t think it needs saving.) But I found Outline engrossing and satisfying. I think it would repay re-reading more than most books. A part of me wonders if the book isn’t too perfectly devised to be interpreted in a particular way (as if it were designed for the classroom). But another part of me thinks that Cusk is likely ahead of me and has written her book in this way knowingly, to make a point about what kind of book our literary culture considers important. (I am not exactly sure what that point is, though.) I really like Cusk’s use of indirect narration–the only way, though an important one, in which she resembles Sebald, whom I suspect she is often compared to. She’s got a handle there on something significant about how we tell stories now; I look forward to thinking about this more as I read the follow-up books.

Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man (1963)

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The best book I read in July, hell, one of the best of the year. I can’t say much about it because Hughes delivers an important surprise about a quarter of the way through that shifts ours understanding of the whole thing, in a way that effectively provokes us to examine our expectations. That might sound like a trick or a gimmick, but it is totally not. Basically, all you need to know is that this is a great noir set in the American southwest. It would have been so easy for Hughes to have written this in first person. Her choice to use third makes it even more compelling. The rare thriller that demands to be re-read. (I just read another of her books and hope to write more about it soon.)

Edmund Crispin, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

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The only dud of the bunch. I was excited to find reissues of Crispin’s mysteries while browsing in a bookstore, but was disappointed with my choice, which I selected because it was published before any of the others sitting on the shelf. I’m guessing it’s not the first in the series, because the detective, an apparently brilliant and maddeningly insouciant Oxford don named Gervase Fen, isn’t given anything like an ordinary introduction; it’s as though we’re already supposed to know all about him. [I just looked this up, and this book is the first of the series: another strike against it!] I don’t know if amateur and professional theater companies were as big a part of actual life in early to mid 20th Century Britain as they are in crime fiction of the period, but I find theatre stories a particularly tedious sub-genre, and as Gilded Fly involves a production so far from the West End it premieres in Oxford, I’m hardly the ideal reader of the book. I finished it–mostly because it is so short–but unless someone mounts a convincing defense of the series (and promises later ones get much better) I won’t be reading any more.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk (2017)

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An excellent novel by a writer who clearly knew what she was about, especially when it comes to preserving the strangeness of the past. A shame she died last year (at only 64), not long after publishing this book. Birdcage Walk is set in and around Bristol in the 1790s. It’s good with ideas–the joys and disillusionment the Revolution brings to progressive thinkers, including the protagonist’s mother, as best I can tell a sort of Mary Wollstonecraft type (though the hero is no Mary Shelley, except in being abused by men); the similarities and differences between those who build with their hands and those who create with their minds–but even better with things: it’s filled with vivid scenes of, for example, a difficult labour, the burying of a corpse, and a headlong boat ride, racing first with then against the tide. Dunmore reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald (some of the highest praise I can offer). There’s nothing here quite as extraordinary as the wash day in The Blue Flower or the break-up of ice in The Beginning of Spring, but Dunmore’s book is definitely in that league. Although there won’t be any new books from Dunmore, she has a long and enticing backlist. I plan to start with The Siege, about the siege of Leningrad, but if anyone has other suggestions, I’m all ears.

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (2017)

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Terrific Indigenous YA from Canada. In the dystopian world of this novel–set in Northern Ontario about forty years from now–not only has climate change made much of the world uninhabitable, but, almost as bad, something has made people unable to dream. (No doubt it has something with their inability to contrive a way of living in the world that doesn’t destroy it, but fortunately Dimaline doesn’t labour over an explanation.) If you can’t dream you go crazy, so when it’s discovered that Indigenous people have been spared the affliction it’s not long before they are being hunted and placed into facilities where the bone marrow that somehow protects them can be extracted. There are obvious resonances to the residential schools that devastated Indigenous culture in Canada, but again, Dimaline underplays the connection. A friend told me she didn’t care for the book because she thought it was so poorly written, and I agree that Dimaline (in what I believe is her first novel) too often overloads her sentences with metaphor. For example, here’s her narrator, a teenage boy named Frenchie, when he stumbles across a miraculously pristine lake: “I heard capture and release and a high whine over something that echoed off the trees growing downwards towards the brook like pious monks in all manner of fancy dress, voluminous green silks peeking out of their austere brown habits.” I’m willing to believe, just about, that the boy would make such a comparison, but what is the comparison about, exactly? The end of the sentence says that trees look like monks, but the beginning is about sound, and I find it confusing that so much description should be appended to what isn’t even the sentence’s subject. But in the end, I am both a sucker for dystopian stories (which more and more are just slight exaggerations of reality) and for the balance between hopefulness and hopelessness on which the book pivots. Bottom line: I stayed up late to finish, reading as avidly as I did as a child.

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015)

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This was Fuller’s first novel, and her new one (her third, I believe) is getting a lot of good buzz. I’m certainly going to read it, because this was excellent. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and I don’t think the frame story is as engaging as the main one. (Fuller just ran out of steam, I think, but that’s okay because I’d rather the book was 300 pages that left me wanting more than 450 pages that made me want less.) In the mid-1970s, while her mother, a concert pianist, is on tour in Europe, eight-year-old Peggy is taken on vacation by her father, a survivalist and, it turns out, a crackpot (though that’s probably a redundancy). The vacation turns out to be a nine-year odyssey in a remote valley in Bavaria, where the two live without any human contact. The father convinces his daughter that the rest of the world has been destroyed and that they have only each other to rely on. (The frame story hints at the narrator’s difficulty in re-entering the ordinary world.) Fuller’s characterization, especially of the father, is careful and convincing. We see his monstrousness, his selfishness, but we also see his capability and his ability for joy. (Mostly, though, we see the former.) Fuller handles the denouement deftly, too: it’s never clear whether Peggy escapes alone or with help. The best thing of all, though, are Fuller’s descriptions of what the two do to survive: what they eat, how they collect and catch it, how they make do with what they have, and how much their “success” is twinned with delusive failure. An unspectacular but totally captivating novel.

Lee Child, Without Fail (2002)

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A long time ago I read the first Reacher novel in the hopes of seeing what all the fuss was about, but that wasn’t a good idea, since Child hadn’t yet perfected his style. A friend gave me this installment, from much later in the series (though I think the point is they aren’t a series, each book is, I suspect, as self-contained as Reacher is supposed to be), and I plucked it off the shelf when I needed pure distraction. It was the perfect vacation read: totally undemanding and suspenseful. Child writes too much (though he’s never wordy and his syntax is as simple as possible), but the book didn’t feel padded the way a lot of thrillers do. Someone is trying to assassinate the Vice President-elect and the head of his security detail at the Secret Service calls in Reacher to help. Plenty of action, plenty of suspense, and just the right amount of neepery re: protection details. I’m not a card-carrying fan-club member just yet but I will read more for sure. My main takeaway so far, though: that Reacher, not a big eater.

Andrew Taylor–The Ashes of London (2016)

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Another good vacation book, this one historical fiction set in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London composed of two parallel stories that of course intertwine, but mostly pretty glancingly, so the thing doesn’t feel too contrived. Plenty of historical figures have cameos, including Christopher Wren and even Charles II, and the criticisms Roland Barthes made of this technique about 40 years ago probably apply, but I know so little about Restoration England that it didn’t bother me too much. It’s both interesting and a liability that one of the protagonists is almost but not quite a detective–such a thing didn’t exist in the way we know it today, and Taylor, who is as pleasantly workmanlike a writer as one could wish in such a book (I mean that as a compliment: he’s a good writer, but he’s not trying to be something he’s not, Hilary Mantel, say), makes good use of the character’s in-between status as someone near but not of court life to take us all over London. There’s already a sequel, and I’ll read it for sure. Not a book to change anyone’s life, but totally enjoyable. Just like a vacation, maybe?

And you? What have you been reading this summer?

Levant Trilogy Readalong

Harriet Pringle is a levelheaded young Englishwoman recently married to a feckless intellectual. (Her carefulness apparently doesn’t extend to her choice of husband, though Guy is careless rather than actively bad.)

The time is the early 1940s. Guy is attached to the British Council in Bucharest. When war breaks out, the Pringles and other assorted expatriates make their desperate way to Athens, only to find the war pursuing them.

These events are told in three wonderful and accessible novels by the mid-twentieth-century writer Olivia Manning, collected as The Balkan Trilogy.

Recently, I was evangelizing for these books, as is my wont, and Scott from seraillon took the bait. Happily, he enjoyed them as much as I hoped he would. That’s when I suggested we read The Levant Trilogy, which picks up where the other books finish, with the Pringles washing ashore in an Egypt living in fear of Nazi conquest.

We’ll be writing about The Levant Trilogy in the first week of August. I suppose you could read them without reading The Balkans first, but I don’t recommend it. So if you want to join us–and we hope you do!–and are new to Manning you have some work ahead of you. But don’t let that put you off! The books are longish but you can really tear through them. (Max has been reading them recently too.) They offer a fascinating and oblique (fascinating because oblique) look at the world part of the Second World War.

So what do you think? Olivia Manning in August? Please join us!

Spent: Émile Zola’s The Kill

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. You can find his take on The Kill here.

The Kill is a great book, light-years more compelling than its predecessor, The Fortune of the Rougons, which Keith and I wrote about not so long ago. You could absolutely read this without having read the earlier book. In fact, I think Kill is the perfect entry point into Zola’s work.

The book is at once a miniature and an epic. It’s short—well under 300 pages—with a small cast of major characters. It has thematic density and coherence: its three great subjects—financial speculation, urban modernization, and the equation of spectacle and desire—are different iterations of the same dynamic and destructive energy. And its style is similarly uniform: the book is composed mostly of fabulous blocks of descriptions that show how significant and yet destabilizing appearances can be. An early description of the Bois du Boulogne—the vast new park that is the setting of the opening and closing scenes—is larded with the language of artificiality: what seems natural is anything but (conversely, what seems contrived is, in the Paris of the 1850s, understood as quite natural): a grouping of evergreens is “theatrical,” its foliage “like the fringe of curtains”; the landscape is “like a newly painted piece of scenery” manifesting “an air of entrancing artificiality”; the walks that wend their way through the park are lined with iron hoops “in imitation of rustic woodwork.”

I’ve already written a little about Zola’s yes of description in my post on The Belly of Paris, but there’s still more to say, not least about his use of similes—are these another instance of the insatiable drive of a capitalist economy (which of course doesn’t spare the arts) to transmute one thing into another, to take something solid and turn it into air? Or are these similes the very method by which the controlling entity that is Zola’s narration reacts against, even acts as a check on, capitalism’s headlong and glib transformations? To say more, I feel the need to read Lukács’s famous essay on narration and description. As I understand it, he posits description as a reactionary force (because committed to keeping things the same, by telling how things are) opposed to the progressive potential of narration (which is about change). If that’s right, all I can say is that Lukács must not have read Zola. (Surely he did—but what on earth did he make of him?) The power of Zola’s description might not fall neatly into the progressive/reactionary distinction, but I can’t see how anyone could read Zola and think description was committed either to keeping things the same, or neutrally observing what exists.

If anyone has ideas about this, I want to hear them. I’ll keep thinking about the issue as we make our way through more of the cycle. For now, though, tempted as I am to simply cite long chunks of the novel, I want to consider some of the moments that ruffle the novel’s clarity. These moments often concern secondary characters. Although unimportant to the plot, and perhaps even to its themes, these characters are what give the novel a pleasingly unruly and capacious quality. They are hints of bagginess in an otherwise controlled exercise.

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As its title suggests—and Keith gives a lovely explanation of the connotations of the original—this is a turbulent, even violent book. Often that violence concerns financial speculation and chicanery. In this regard, the book is only too relevant to our own gilded age. But the book’s violence is often less abstract and more corporeal. And invariably women are the ones who suffer from that violence. It’s as if the economic machinations—which are concerned with making something out of nothing (as when Saccard inflates the rents of his buildings in order to increase the payout when he is compensated for their expropriation)—need a physical analogue; the bodily version of making something from nothing is the ability to reproduce.

So we have Renée’s rape, resulting in her pregnancy, leading to her desperate marriage to Saccard. It tells us a lot about the cultural acceptability of rape that Saccard has no scruples about pretending to have perpetrated the act. In the end, she miscarries (an event uncannily predicted by Saccard’s sister, the mysterious and cutthroat Madame Sidonie, in a brisk and businesslike way that makes me wonder if she had some kind of hand in it). That might be for the best, given the fate of children (especially girls) in this novel. Saccard, for example, pawns his daughter from his first marriage off on his brother, Pascal (the doctor I discussed in my post on Fortune), although given what we’ve seen of the latter’s kindness, she might be better off with him.

Throughout the novel, Zola compares Saccard and Maxime. Although they superficially seem quite different—the father a ruthless speculator, the son a languorous dandy—the end of the book intimates that the son might be ready to follow the father into a life of speculation rather than simply gliding along as he has. (In the novel’s memorable formulation, “he usually remained at the bottom of whatever pit he fell into.”) We oughtn’t be surprised by that possibility, though, because we’ve already seen that Maxime is more than ready to ape the father when it comes to women. In fact, he does something even worse than his father. Whereas Saccard didn’t actually rape Renée—he only pretends to have been the man who did it—Maxime has no such scruples with his stepmother’s first maid. As the narrator wryly puts it, describing the way Renée introduces Maxime to the world of female sexual display by asking him to accompany her to her dressmaker: “The excellent education Maxime received bore early fruit.” The consequences of that fruit are much more serious for the maid than for him:

At seventeen the young lad seduced his stepmother’s maid. The worst of the affair was that the maid had a baby. They had to send her to the country with the brat, and give her a small annuity.

Zola’s judgmental language—“the worst of the affair,” “the brat”—isn’t just a ventriloquism of Maxime’s perspective. It’s the whole family’s, even the whole society’s. Saccard doesn’t care; he just pays out. But Renée is furious, yet not because of his abuse of his power over the young woman, but because of the girl’s social standing: “That he, whom she wanted to turn into a gentlemen, should compromise herself with a girl like that!” But she gets over her anger quickly enough, when she considers what a delightful scandal it would have been had Maxime in fact taken her advice to “have started off with a lady.” What the maid makes of it all or what becomes of her life: the novel doesn’t know or care.

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I suggested a moment ago that Maxime does what his father doesn’t—the son actually takes advantage of a woman, while the father only pretends to. But that’s only because the older man doesn’t have to. At two key moments in the book, Saccard is poised to hurt a woman, even kill her, but then something happens to stop him. One is an important scene Keith mentions, in which Saccard discovers Maxime and Renée’s affair, but is diverted from whatever emotional and physical outburst he is on the point of launching when he sees that his wife has signed over her property to him. (It is interesting that Renée is disappointed that nothing dramatic or drastic happens, as if the affair would only hold meaning if it did unleash trouble.)

The other is to my mind the most vivid scene in the novel. It describes the death of Saccard’s first wife, Angèle, whom he brought to Paris from Plassans. Angèle might be “an insipid, fair-haired person,” but she’s shrewd in her insight into the depth of Saccard’s desire to carve his fortune from the flesh of Paris, no matter what the cost. (There’s a great scene with them in a little restaurant overlooking the city, in which Saccard accurately predicts just where the new boulevards will slice through the city.) Saccard’s attitude to Angèle is deplorable; he thinks of her as “an inconvenient piece of furniture of which he was eager to rid himself.” And before long he gets his wish. She comes down with a lung inflammation that quickly worsens. It’s as the woman is dying in their cramped rooms—“death entered slowly into the hot, moist room, where the uneven breathing of the dying woman sounded like the spasmodic ticking of a clock running down”—that his sister comes to him with the proposal about marrying the disgraced Renée in exchange for money and property. Saccard is immediately tempted; he sends his sister to conclude the negotiations, leaving him to wrestle with whatever scruples he has:

Saccard went to the window and pressed his forehead against the icy panes. He forgot himself so far as to beat a tattoo with his fingers on the glass. But the night was so black, the darkness outside hung in such strange masses, that he began to feel uneasy and returned to the room where Angèle lay dying. He had forgotten her [!!!], and received a terrible shock on finding her half raised up on her pillows; her eyes wide open, a flush of life seemed to have returned to her cheeks and lips. Little Clotilde [the daughter who will soon be shipped south], still nursing her doll, was sitting on the edge of the bed; as soon as her father’s back was turned, she had quickly slipped into the room from which she had been removed and to which all her happy childish curiosity attracted her. Saccard, his head full of his sister’s proposal, saw his dream dashed. A hideous thought must have shone from his eyes. Angèle, terrified, tried to throw herself back in the bed, against the wall; but death was at hand, this awakening in agony was the last flicker of the lamp. The dying woman was unable to move; she sank back, keeping her eyes fixed on her husband, as if to watch his every movement. Saccard, who had dreaded a resurrection, a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury, was relieved to see that the wretched woman had not an hour to live [!!!]. He now felt nothing but deep anxiety. Angèle’s eyes told him she had overheard his conversation with Madame Sidonie, and that she was afraid he would strangle her if she did not die quickly enough. Her eyes also betrayed the terrified amazement of a sweet and inoffensive nature that discovers at the last moment the infamy of this world, and shudders at the thought of the many years spent living with a thief.

Jesus! This has to be one of the most cruel scenes in literature, up there with the end of Père Goriot and Brighton Rock. From the beginning the passage shows Saccard’s terrible selfishness: if we are expecting the first sentence to be an indication of his anxiety for his wife, or his guilt about what he is contemplating, we are immediately disabused: he’s pressing his forehead against the window not because he’s distraught but because he’s so excited by his future prospects that he beats a lively rhythm against the panes. (He’s practically about to burst into song.) Is Saccard ruthless enough to murder her? My sense is he’d really rather not but that if he had to, well, needs must. (His sister would do it in a second.) Think about how he describes the possibility that Angèle might recover: not as a blessed or fiercely-desired event, almost a miracle, but rather as “a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury.”

In the end, everything goes Saccard’s way. Angèle obligingly dies, and even gives mute signs of forgiveness. Clothide’s attitude here (and let’s not forget her doll: an important motif) is shown to be one of natural curiosity, a kind of childish fascination with death that could seem ghoulish but that the novel seems to present as innocent. But she’s paying attention to the wrong thing. The lesson here isn’t that bodies are mortal, but that men are bad, or, at least, that they are ready to use women for their advantage.

Throughout the novel, even in circumstances less grim than this one, women are trophies for men, pawns to be used to bolster their self image and to help them get ahead. There’s no difference between Saccard’s marrying Renèe for money and him giving her ostentatious jewelry that he requires her to wear at parties in front of his business associates. And there’s only a slight difference between these sets of exchanges and Saccard’s willingness to murder his first wife and Maxime’s casual seduction and abandonment of the maid.

So thoroughgoing is this attitude of violence to women that even scenes that could otherwise seem sweet become ominous. Late in the book there’s a vivid scene in which Saccard and some associates tour a building site. Renèe’s property, the one she in desperation signed over to her husband for pennies on the dollar, is to be torn down to make way for one of the new boulevards. As the men, dressed in their fine clothes, advance gingerly through a sea of mud, half-enviously, half-contemptuously observing the efforts of the myriad of workmen dismantling the site, they reminisce about the neighbourhood that was. One of the businessmen, who used to live there, sees his old rooms in a half-demolished building: “A breach in the wall showed it quite bare, already cut into on one side, with wallpaper with a pattern of big, yellow flowers, a broad strip of which fluttered in the wind.” The old man is overcome with emotion for his younger days, a time when he was poorer, perhaps more honest, and, it seems, a little happier, not least because, as his colleagues tease him, he was sowing his wild oats: “‘I still remember an ironing girl who lived opposite. The bed was on the right, near the window. Ah, my poor room, look what they’ve done to it.” Is the bed his or hers? Either way, they presumably slept in it. And what happened to the girl? The man doesn’t care, he’s on about his room. Hard not to read the description of the room’s violation as a hint at the fate of the woman.

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Happily, not every woman in the novel is abused. The prime exception is Céleste, Renée’s maid (presumably hired after Maxime disgraced the previous one). For most of the novel she glides almost unnoticed in the background. The most we learn of her is that she is “always methodical,: and arranges her mistresses dresses according to their dates, labelling them and “introducing arithmetic into [Renée’s] blue and yellow caprices. She kept this closet as calm as a sacristy and as clean as a stable.” These qualities inhere in all aspects of her life, it turns out: at the end of the book, she abruptly leaves Renée’s employ, the very day when she has saved the five thousand francs she needs to return to her village and set up a little shop. Renée, who has deceived herself that nothing can shake the woman’s devotion to her—to the point when she mawkishly imagines Céleste closing the eyes on her corpse—is shocked to find that the maid cares nothing for her, indeed has contempt for her whole way of life. Céleste refuses Renée’s entreaties, her promises of money: “‘You could offer me all the gold in Peru,I wouldn’t stay a week longer. You really don’t know me. I’ve been with you for eight years, haven’t I?’ … ‘I’ll go back home; I’ll buy Lagache’s house, and I’ll live very happily’.”

Céleste is the only character in the novel who doesn’t care about Paris, who doesn’t want more than she can have, who gets what she wants, and who doesn’t hurt anybody to do it. (Well, she hurts Renée’s feelings, but that’s because Renée hasn’t a clue about her.) Its interesting to compare her to Saccard’s valet, Baptiste, a figure who shares some of Céleste’s contempt for the family they serve, and is characterized by extreme rectitude. But Saccard fires Baptiste, and Céleste finally tells Renée why: Baptiste has for years been seeking out the stable boys. In the end, Baptiste differs from Céleste in that he continues to inhabit the frenzied world of Parisian high society—after Saccard fires him (rather than prosecuting him, because that would be to risk too much fuss), Baptiste ends up in the employ of another wealthy family. In stereotypical fashion, Baptiste’s homosexuality is expressed primarily through his contempt for women. In this way, he might not be so different from the novel’s other men, though they themselves would no doubt dispute it strenuously.

Out of this landscape of ruined, violated, abused women—I didn’t even mention Louise, Maxime’s tubercular wife, who dies within six months of being married off to him; Henry James would have written a whole novel about her: she is hunch-backed, and witty, and unflappable, but her knowingness doesn’t stop her from being taken advantage of, for Maxime only marries her for her money—the woman who suffers the most is Renée. There’s the rape, of course, and the abuse Saccard and Maxime put her to. There’s her father’s coldness to and disdain for her. And there’s her self-abuse, almost a kind of masochism, expressed in her need to feel her relationship with her step-son in a sin, even a crime. (In this regard, the novel shares her feeling: Zola repeatedly describes their affair as “incest,” which isn’t quite accurate, as if he feels the need to insist that what their relationship is deplorable.)

Keith finds her the only sympathetic character in the novel: I’d put Angèle in that role first, and Céleste second, but I see what he means. It’s hard not to feel for her, especially when she thinks of herself as a broken doll: “she had come to that, to being a big doll from whose broken chest escaped a thin trickle of sawdust.” In the novel’s final scene, she returns to her childhood home and makes her way to the room on the top floor where she and her sister spent their happiest times. The room is sadly denuded, deserted, silent, a shell of its former self. Among other bits of junk she finds one of her old dolls, “all the bran had flowed out through a hole, and the porcelain head continued to smile with its enameled lips, above the wasted body which seemed as if exhausted by puppet follies.”

Exhausted by its own follies—even in this offhand description the novel casts judgment on women and the figurines that symbolize them, as if the bran (or sawdust, in the earlier image) had run out through the fault of their own dissipation. But it would be more accurate to say that this enervation is the result of their abuse at the hands of men. If everything has to change so that it can stay the same—so that the rich can get richer, and the poor poorer—then we need to consider the role women play in this rapacious stasis. Almost without exception they comprise the spoils that the masters of speculation tear into in what Zola calls—and now we can see this is a pleonasm—“an orgy of gold and women.”