Hiding in Poland: Two Holocaust Texts

Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood, Nechama Tec (1982, revised 1984)

The Journey, Ida Fink, Translated by Joanna Weschler and Francine Prose (1990)

Here we have two books about Jews living in hiding during WWII. Dry Tears is a memoir; The Journey is a novel, yet one based on its author’s experiences. I read them back to back, which people who don’t feel compelled to study the Holocaust probably shouldn’t do. But both are well worth reading, especially if you believe Holocaust survivor stories must include cattle cars, barbed wire fences, and concentration camps.

Tec was born in 1931 in Lublin to Roman Bawnik and Esther (Hachamoff) Bawnik. Her father—maybe the most important person in her life—had been groomed to become a rabbi, but suddenly broke with religion around the time he turned 14, around the same time he was orphaned. A period of hard years followed; eventually he found work in a candle factory, where he began, rather audaciously, given their class and religious differences, to court the owner’s daughter. Tec’s mother was from an Orthodox family and they looked askance at Bawnik, but he had excellent business sense, and it wasn’t long before he was running a factory himself. His shrewdness, tact, and measured approach to situations helped the family many times over during the war.

Tec begins her memoir with the invasion of Poland in September 1939. Rather than military defeats and political upheavals, however, she focuses on education. With the beginning of the war, school was interrupted, never to be resumed for Jewish children. The family engages a tutor for Tec and her older sister, a young woman named Hela Trachtenberg, who they nickname Czuczka (“piglet”) because they love her so. Czuczka engages Tec’s interest and sparks in her a desire to learn, if only because she dotes on her tutor. Tec, who became a sociologist and academic in America after the war, clearly spent a lifetime learning. Yet Dry Tears, like most Holocaust stories, details an unusual, perhaps more pragmatic but certainly more drastic education; once the Jews of Lublin and the surrounding areas are forced into a ghetto, the formal education stops. Tec will learn many things over the course of the book, but they will be of the order of how to lose herself in another identity, how to sell on the black market, and how to ingratiate herself with people who are taking a risk in hiding her and could turn on her at any moment.

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Lublin, 1940

Where Dry Tears is unusual in the corpus of Holocaust memoirs is in describing life before the war. We don’t see these in the canonical texts by Levi, Millu, Wiesel, etc., which either begin with deportation or imprisonment. This difference might be because Tec’s reminiscences came later than those others (it was first published in 1982 and then reissued with a new epilogue in 1984). But the more important reason is that the ruptures in Tec’s life weren’t quite as drastic as the ones experienced by those other survivors. Amazingly, everyone in her immediate family survived the war.

Don’t get me wrong, though: Tec suffers plenty of trauma. Like any book about the Holocaust, Dry Tears is full of terrible, indelible images, ones that Tec assures us she has spent a lifetime haunted by. Some of these are terribly poignant, like this early scene, when the family is hiding in their factory, and Tec finds a hole in the wall separating their hideout from the convent school next door:

I found a small opening in the wall from which, unobserved, I could watch the girls at play. To me they seemed so content, so carefree, and I envied them their fun. Did they know that a war was on? At times, as I watched them, I too became engrossed in their games and almost forgot about the war. But the bell that called them back to class called me back to reality, and at such moments I became more acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever.

Here we have in miniature the tension that will structure Tec’s life for the next several years. Her ability to become engrossed in the lives of others will help her when she needs to become someone else. But such loss of awareness carries risks, not least the threat of losing one’s self. Or of becoming careless—though of course her identification with others can never be fully complete; she is never just a Pole. The bell doesn’t toll for her. She is always marked by difference, yet her life depends on not showing it.

Other images are more violent. Tec hears about the children of her father’s business partner, forced to cut their father’s body into pieces in order to smuggle it out of their hiding place, when the man takes a cyanide pill in the mistaken belief the Nazis are at the door. Even more viscerally, a family friend describes the death of Czuczka, murdered in a raid:

she was lying on the ground beside the house in which she had been hiding, her hair disarrayed, her glasses missing, and without eyes. The birds had attended to her body. The picture he drew was vivid and merciless. We were spared no details.

Don’t forget, Tec is 11 years old. How merciless that verb “attended,” which only reminds us of the attention she and millions of other victims didn’t get—the ritual observances that ought to have attended their bodies in the hours after death.

Maybe most terrible of all, for me at least, is the description of the partial liquidation of the Lublin ghetto in summer 1942. Tec’s mother rouses her in the middle of the night and as they make their way to a new hiding place, Tec sees baby carriages in the almost abandoned streets. But the carriages aren’t empty: “There was no place for them [the babies]. No one would allow them in to hiding for fear they would cry and lead to the discovery of others.” The next day, Tec looks into one of the carriages and sees “an unrecognizable bloody mass, that seemed strangely alive.”

The family realizes they cannot continue to hide in the factory. From summer 1942 they leave Lublin—the girls to a village called Otwock, and the parents to the city of Kielce. The girls can pass as Poles because of their looks and their fluency in Polish. The parents, whose Polish is heavy accented (their language is Yiddish), cannot be in the open.

Tec takes on new identity: her name is Christina, nicknamed Krysia, and like all Poles she is Catholic. She must learn to think of herself as Krysia, even with her family. The girls study up on Catholic ritual. Most importantly, they learn to behave like a Christian, which means, Tec tells us, to move with assurance. In hiding, her father explains, they no longer have the luxury of being afraid. They must be cautious, but they must be assured. No easy task for a young child, especially since her parents are unable to leave the house which puts a huge amount of responsibility on her. After several months in which the family is separated, the girls are able to join their parents in Kielce, where a family named Homar has taken them in, in exchange for which risk the Bawniks will pay the rent and all the food. Tec becomes entwined with the Homars and their extended family, as she is sent out first to work the black market and later to sell the rolls her mother makes in their hidden annex. (Her sister has a good but risky job in the canteen of a club for German officers.)

Time and again, Tec is faced with the anti-Semitism of her hosts, which is general rather than personal (“Don’t be a nosy Jew,” “Don’t be clumsy like a Jew,” they tell her, responding to her hurt looks by assuring her, “You are not really Jewish.”) Her father explains that this cognitive dissonance is useful, even essential for the family: were the Homars to realize they really were sheltering Jews they would likely be unwilling to continue taking the risk.

The Homars can live blissfully in contradiction, but Tec can’t. The most fascinating parts are the discussions of the psychological toll of living openly in hiding:

An extra layer of secretiveness, combined with a fear of discovery, became part of my being. All my life revolved around hiding; hiding thoughts, hiding feelings, hiding my activities, hiding information.

Everything has to be held in—when the girls are finally on the way to being reunited with their parents, her sister orders Tec: “Cry quietly!” Ideally these tears would be as invisible as the dry ones named in the book’s title. But dry tears aren’t the same as no tears. Complete repression is impossible—and undesirable.

Sometimes it almost seems to work, though:

And eventually I grew oddly accustomed to anti-Semitic remarks. A slow transformation was taking place in me. It was as if in certain circumstances I lost track of who I really was and began to see myself as a Pole. I became a double person, one private and one public. When I was away from my family I became so engrossed in my public self that I did not have to act the part; I actually felt like the person I was supposed to be. … I never talked about these changes to anyone. I was not proud of them. I felt guilty and embarrassed. I felt like a traitor. It was as if, as I gave up my old self, I was giving up my family as well.

There’s that word again, “engrossed,” the same one she used in describing the experience of watching the convent girls. But this is no war-time Stockholm syndrome. It’s more complicated. Tec needs to become a part of the Homars. And she even enjoys it. But she also doesn’t want to, and even recoils from them. That distance becomes complete when, at the end of the war, when everyone has to hide as low from the conquering Russians soldiers as they have from the Germans, the Homars ask them to leave, and moreover not to tell anyone that they hid a Jewish family for almost three years. Not out of modesty, but out of fear and shame. The Homars are worried what their neighbours and friends would say.

No wonder, then, when, in the last pages of the book, Tec returns to Lublin, pressed in the back of a military truck, she refuses to look, afraid that what she sees would confirm her sense that she no longer belongs there. The last sentence reads, “I closed my eyes instead.”

That liberation isn’t liberatory is a common conclusion in Holocaust texts. In the epilogue added two years later, Tec shows that her teenage self was right. Home wasn’t home any more. The family realized they would have to leave Poland and set off on another dangerous journey, this time into defeated Germany in order to reach the American sector. The details of that trip, and what happened after, remain untold. Even happy Holocaust stories are shattered, governed by silence, evasion, and elision.

Fragmentation is even more apparent in Ida Fink’s The Journey. I’ve written about Fink before. If you’ve never read her, start with her two volumes of short stories, especially A Scrap of Time. Fink has been called the Chekhov of the Holocaust, which sounds like a terrible, nonsensical description, but is actually quite apt. She has his mixture of poignancy and acidity, and she works so well with a short form. (She’s actually much more of a miniaturist than Chekhov, many of whose stories are really long. I doubt Fink ever wrote one more than 20 pages, and most are well under ten.) When I teach her stories, as I regularly do, I follow the scholar Sara Horowitz’s suggestion that Fink is perhaps the most brilliant writer of the Holocaust when it comes to showing what literature can do that history cannot. She plays with the order of events, mimicking how hard it is to narrate a traumatic experience, and she jumps from one perspective to another, allowing us to see what individual characters cannot, even to tell us the experiences of those who were murdered.

Because I love Fink’s stories so much, I came to The Journey with high expectations. It tells, as is to be expected, an extraordinary story. (All stories of survival are extraordinary. There were not supposed to be any such stories.) And I was fascinated by it as a guide to what Fink went through in the war. (I don’t know exactly how autobiographical it is, but it is always presented as such. Details about Fink’s life are hard to come by. That mystery, plus the fact that she was a very late starter as a writer, which I always find endearing, exert a strong pull on me. If I had any Polish, I would drop everything and write her biography.)

But I also found it a difficult book. Fink’s stories are, not warm exactly, that would be crazy, but poignant and pathos-laden, in the best possible sense. I am so moved by them. The Journey, by contrast, is distant, as if guided by the unconscious decision taken by the narrator and her sister (like Tec and her sister they are teenagers, but a few years older) not to let themselves be emotional with each other:

I said “Lie down, try to sleep. And don’t start bawling like an idiot,” I added, even though she wasn’t crying at all; she just had a pained expression on her face. And that’s how it would be between us from now on: no gestures of tenderness. The more we needed to be tender to each other, the colder and more distant we were.

Unlike Tec, the narrator uses her false papers to leave Poland, by joining a convoy of Ostarbeiter, Workers from the East, basically slave labourers used by the Germans to prop up the war effort, both in factories or on farms. What follows is a journey through Germany in wartime, not the crazed Germany of the Nuremberg rallies nor the bombed-out Germany of the end of the war, but rather a rural, almost bucolic, but poor, hardscrabble, and suspicious Germany. At every turn the girls (and the others they encounter who are like them) fear being taken for Jews. Perhaps because they experience that fear—that is, perhaps because they can’t follow the advice of Roman Bawnik—they are continually found out, sometimes by people sympathetic to them, but more often not. It is a life on the run, and it is always very, very dangerous, even though it is mostly characterized by boredom and backbreaking work.

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The narrator never really knows where she is—we have references to the Ruhr and the Rhine, but nothing concrete, nothing like the certainty Tec has about at least her geographic, if not her emotional whereabouts—and she starts losing her sense of who she is. Unlike in Tec’s book (and here we see the difference in genre playing a role), the narrator doesn’t reflect on how this loss makes her feel. Instead Fink makes us feel that confusion, by calling the character sometimes by her real name but sometimes by her (shifting) aliases. Even more complicatedly, Fink mostly narrates in first person but sometimes switches to third, so our perspective on events is also undermined. I’m pretty good at following complicated texts, but I often lost track of who was who in this novel. And it’s not like it has a thousand characters.

The Journey, in other words, is a confusing book, but, again, this confusion is performative, offering us some semblance of the characters’ experiences. The paradox here is that even though the narrator must inhabit her new identity as fully as possible, she is never in Tec’s situation. She can’t ever really pass. Despite her Aryan looks, remarked on by almost everyone she meets, people sense her Jewishness, which is ineradicable in a way Tec’s doesn’t seem to be. And even more than Tec, Fink emphasizes luck, especially in a climactic scene when she on the point of being sold out to the Gestapo when a chance, banal occurrence intervenes and saves her life. Like Tec’s memoir, Fink’s novel ends with an epilogue, in which the narrator returns to the scene of that moment, only to find it as impossible, as meaningless as the first time.

If I could put it this way, I would say that Dry Tears is realist and The Journey modernist. But a realist Holocaust text is a contradiction in terms. Still, Tec’s memoir was a lot easier to get a handle on than Fink’s novel. I suspect if I read The Journey again I’d get more out of it, but I can’t imagine teaching it. Much too hard. Dry Tears, on the other hand, would probably teach well, and I’m thinking of adding it to my class. (Though then I’ll need to figure out what to cut to make room…) Taken together, though, these texts, no matter how difficult and desperate, expanded my understanding of what happened in those terrible years, and how writers have found ways to describe them.

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Ripeness is All:Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney

The Putney of the title of Sofka Zinovieff’s novel is a district in southwest London where, in the late 1970s, the Greenslay family live in a grand but ramshackle house. Edmund, the father, is a successful novelist. Ellie, the mother (short for Eleftheria), is a political activist, keen on reclaiming her Greek homeland from the generals who rule it; occasionally she takes time out from her cause to provide excellent food and gnomic advice to her children and the various other friends and hangers-on who shuffle through the house. The children are Theo, who plays almost no role in the novel, as if to symbolize the possibility that someone could escape their past, and Daphne, who is nine when the novel opens but a teenager during its most important years.

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If Daphne is modelled on her mythical counterpart, then Apollo must be Ralph Boyd, a composer who first comes to the house to work on a project with her father (he is writing the score for a theatrical version of one of Edward’s novels). The relationship between the two men is fruitful, the production a success, the composer (then aged 30 with a wife—herself Greek—and a young child) installed as a friend of the household.

Another book might have focused on the collaboration between the two men, but artistic creativity, though omnipresent (Daphne later becomes an artist herself, sewing intricate fabric collages based on her life experiences), is always in the background. Instead Putney is about desire: the moment Ralph sets eyes on Daphne he wants her, even though at first he doesn’t know if she is a boy or a girl. “A sprite,” he concludes, relishing the fantastic, even mythological qualities of that designation. Then he gets a closer look:

She was dressed in ripped shorts and a striped T-shirt and wore no shoes. Ralph took in the grubby feet, the burnished skin that must have recently seen more than English sunshine, the muscular limbs and unbrushed, almost black hair. Teasing, moving like mercury, she knew how to disappear before you could get a grip. She laughed, skipped and slithered past them [Ralph and her father], through the front door that was still ajar and out along the garden path to the road. Without turning, she flicked one of her hands as if dismissing both men.

His intestines juddered. Then, bewilderingly and somewhat shockingly, the beginning of a hard-on. He squatted down to the floor and opened up the backpack to gain time and distract Edmund, who was gazing after his daughter and laughing.

“Daphne’s a free spirit. As you can see.”

Ralph smiled, trying to disguise his turmoil … Ralph had never been attracted to children, or at least not since school. He had not ogled young girls or prowled in parks. This was something different from anything he he’d known. Beautiful and pure and powerful. The beginnings of love.

This cataclysm is immediately compared to the more ordinary coup de foudre that comprises the story of how Edward and Ellie met: here, and throughout the novel, inappropriate feelings and experiences are set against appropriate ones; the juxtaposition serves a dual function—what’s appropriate both hides and highlights what’s inappropriate. This play of hiding and revealing is a bit like the use of free-indirect discourse. We might mistake a sentence like this one from the middle of the passage—“Teasing, moving like mercury, she knew how to disappear before you could get a grip”—as omniscient, but on closer examination we see that the sentiment must be Ralph’s (that “you” is his way of trying to generalize his response—he is the one who needs to get a grip). Although sexual desire is present in his first response to Daphne, for several years their relationship is odd, unsettling, intense, but not fully or clearly wrong. That changes when he begins sleeping with her when she turns 13.

The distinction between what is acceptable and what isn’t gets to the heart of the book’s concerns. Zinovieff is interested less in the nature of desire than in the permissiveness of a bohemianism that itself was about to vanish with the advent of neoliberalism. A good thing about Putney is Zinovieff’s refusal to simply satirize or critique that bohemian milieu, so proud of its apparent transgressiveness that it countenances child abuse, even if only by ignoring or being unable to see what is happening right in front of it. Which isn’t to say that Zinovieff excuses that blindness. But she considers both the enabling and disabling aspects of permissiveness. As the novelist Esther Freud puts it in her blurb, the book’s subject matter is “the blurred area between consent and abuse.”

In this regard, the novel is more hopeful than the myth to which it occasionally but not dogmatically alludes. The fate of the nymph in the myth is, as is typical of such stories, double-edged at best: Daphne escapes Apollo’s pursuit only by becoming a tree. (A laurel, which in a move that transforms suffering into art, becomes the symbol of poetry.) Putney offers its Daphne a better fate. Although her early adult life is unhappy, even desperate, in ways that she only later realizes are connected to her experiences with Ralph, she comes through these travails to a place of acceptance. This conclusion is abetted by her own teenage daughter, Libby, who has found her own meaning by dedicating herself to working with her father, himself Greek, to help the refugees from the Middle East who wash up on the shores of Europe. (What is it, by the way, with all these sensible teenage girls? Maybe I have this on the brain because I’m still making my way through Anniversaries. But my sense is that teenagers are more often than not sources of wisdom and levelheadedness in the books I’ve been reading. Where are all the sullen, pain-in-the-ass teenagers?)

More ambivalent is the fate of Daphne’s childhood friend Jane, who is a figure without any counterpart in the myth, but important to the novel. Regrettably, her importance is mostly mechanical. Jane’s home life is the opposite of Daphne’s: ordinary, sensible, unimaginative, loving in a more dependable way than her friend’s. Each is drawn to the other’s life. But Jane much more so than Daphne. Daphne takes Ralph’s attentions—which, as Jane later points out, is really grooming, that is, the way the adult predator prepares the underage object of their desire for sex—as her due. Elaborate, (seemingly) spontaneous gifts aren’t out of place in her world. Neither is the waywardness of adult attention—which makes her all the more drawn to Ralph’s constancy. We don’t see much of Jane’s life—only enough to see the contrast to Daphne. But we know that physically Jane is more ungainly, more like an actual teenager than Daphne. No one would confuse Jane for a sprite. Even as an adult—thinner, highly competent, a successful scientist with two well-adjusted grown children—she tends to clump through the world, as Zinovieff’s descriptions of her as a dedicated but plodding runner suggest. She has the same graceless function in the novel: to make things happen, to keep secrets before revealing them at the right moment for the plot to take its next turn. She is more function than character.

When Jane and Daphne reconnect in middle age—the present of the book; the past is offered in reflections that occasionally become full-on flashbacks, as if Zinovieff can’t quite decide how directly she wants to present the past—Jane is the one who encourages Daphne to reassess her relationship with Ralph. Initially, Daphne thinks fondly of her relationship with Ralph: it was something special, the high note of a sometimes feral, sometimes magical, but always free-spirited childhood. At Jane’s prodding, she begins to reassess these experiences, especially once Jane asks her the question she somehow has never asked herself: what would she think if a man Ralph’s age spent so much time with Libby?

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Zinovieff convincingly portrays the way people can seemingly suddenly reverse their most-cherished opinions, even their very sense of who they are. There’s a nice scene in which Daphne sees Libby and her best friend getting ready to go to a party—she sees that the girls have a sexual power they don’t yet understand and aren’t ready to wield; reconsidering the experiences Ralph forced her into (not just the sex, but a whole repertoire of roles she was asked to fill: muse, vagrant, seductress, delinquent), she now understands them as having been more harmful than exciting.

The portrayal of Ralph is similarly cunning, though here we have, instead of a sudden moment of enlightenment, a continual, though increasingly hard to maintain, blindness to the consequences of his actions. Ralph is a master of compartmentalization. Zinovieff pulls off quite a trick in convincing us of his initial claims—offered as much to himself as to Daphne—that his passion for the girl is simply different from his love for his wife and family. They’re both valuable, he insists, both necessary to him, both beautiful. As I write these words now, I see how self-serving and creepy they are. But for a surprisingly long time Zinovieff keeps us open to the possibility that Ralph isn’t harming the child. Eventually, as we learn more about him, we see him as a damaged and harmful person who is caught up not, as he prefers to believe, by changing, increasingly puritanical times, but by an inability to maintain the compartmentalization that has governed his whole life.

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There’s a lot to like about Putney. It takes a “ripped from the headlines” situation (prominent artist revealed as a pedophile, a sexual aggressor, a predator who used the power of his age and experience to abuse his victims) and turns it into a consideration of social and sexual liberalism. The most interesting moments, for me, are when Daphne asks herself (and even, in one scene, her father) what her parents had been thinking the whole time. Why did it suit them to let a man escort their teenage daughter on a thirty-hour bus trip across Europe? What did they make of the little presents he regularly brought their daughter? Of the afternoons they spent together wandering the streets and parks of Putney? The answers are unclear: Ellie is dead, from cancer, and Edmund unable to comprehend what Daphne is asking him.

I don’t think the novel would have been better if Zinovieff had given us an answer—if she had, for example, included sections from the parents’ point of view. It matters that we don’t know, because it insists on the necessity for interpretation but also the impossibility of final judgment. (Which is different from the legal and emotional need for certainty and judgment experienced by those who have been abused.) If anything, what the novel needs is a little more clarity about its own interest in obscurity.

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Earlier, I quoted Esther Freud’s praise for the novel. I suspect I might have thought of her even if I hadn’t read her blurb. For Putney reminded me of Freud’s wonderful novel Hideous Kinky (1992), an autobiographical depiction of a bohemian mother who takes her young children to Morocco in the early 1970s in search of spiritual and sexual enlightenment. Hideous Kinky isn’t doing quite the same thing as Putney. There’s no question of sexual abuse in the earlier book, for example. But it too explores the costs and gains of an unconventional, non-bourgeois childhood. Yet it has more to say about the ambivalence of such unconventionality for children’s well-being.

Freud’s book is better than Zinovieff’s because it makes more of uncertainty. It is narrated by a very young child—she’s only about five. Amazingly, Freud never makes this scenario cute or cloying. Instead, she asks that we read with and against her narrator, so that we have a more rounded sense of what is behind the child’s vivid but inchoate experiences of wonder, fascination, and abandonment. Our response to her mother is more complicated than our response to Ralph; more akin to our response to Edward and Ellie, except that Freud pays more attention to her than Zinovieff does to them.

Probably because I used to teach it, I think of Hideous Kinky quite often (and I wonder why I haven’t read the rest of Freud’s work—I really should rectify that). I’m not sure I would teach Putney (even setting aside any worries about how difficult some students might find the subject matter). I’m not sure it’s as intelligent a book. Ultimately, I couldn’t help but feel that Zinovieff is even more taken with the Greenslays than Jane is. Yes, most of the time she is even-handed when it comes to their world, showing us both its pleasures and its failures. But I don’t think she really countenances Jane’s ordinary life as a real substitute. It’s not even that the life she has built for herself is in some way scarred by what we learn Ralph did to her. Rather, it’s that this life just isn’t very interesting to Zinovieff. She does her best to be dispassionate about bohemia, at once celebrating and critiquing, but in the end she’s in thrall to it: the former triumphs over the latter. There are, after all, plenty of descriptions like this one:

He followed her down a staircase, past walls plastered with photographs, postcards and newspaper clippings in an open-ended collage. They entered a spacious, bright yellow room where maybe a dozen people sat at a refectory table or sprawled in armchairs. The scene spoke of unhurried pleasures: bottles of red wine, coffee cups, ashtrays, orange peel, the remains of a circle of Brie in its balsawood box. Open French doors looked out through a mass of overgrown honeysuckle towards the river.

I see nothing here asking us to question these pleasures: the passage seems to value the leisure (“unhurried”) that attends them. The life that is made out of these pleasures—along with the very idea that life is a product of pleasure—is characterized by plenitude and creativity: the making of something like art from everyday materials (that collage, which can always be added on to, “open-ended”); the “spacious: room in which people “sprawl,” even the “mass” of honeysuckle, which seems carefree and luxuriant rather than ill-kempt and oppressive.

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Zinovieff isn’t saying that the world which foregrounds these sensual pleasures (the Brie in its little box) has in some way caused the sexual abuse that is carried on in its midst. Nor does she say that those pleasures excuse that abuse, quite. But she does say the pleasures are real pleasures that she likes a lot. Like the brilliant cover of its American edition (so much better than this horror), Putney wants to separate the pleasures of succulence (here, a perfect strawberry) from the possibility of decay. But this is the very separation that in its most compelling moments it demands that we challenge.

 

 

 

 

“‘Go to hell, Arthur'”: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (1)

Caroline and Lizzy are once again hosting German Literature Month, and I wanted to squeeze in at the last minute to offer a few notes on a very long German novel I started reading last week. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (Jahrestage) has recently been issued in its first complete English translation by Damion Searls (whose good work with Hans Keilson, among a host of other writers, I’ve had occasion to note before).

If you follow translated literature at all, you’ve probably heard about the book; the publisher, NYRB Classics, has rightly been making a big deal about it. It’s an epic project, and I hope they’re financially rewarded for taking the risk. Anniversaries is long: about 1700 pages, and they’re not exactly easy ones. Johnson published it in four parts in the 1970s and early 80s; NYRB has combined them into two oversize (and heavy—the books are just this side of ungainly) paperback volumes that come in a slipcover box.

I’m not quite 200 pages in, so only have the barest sense of what this immense text is all about. What follows then are some disorganized and speculative first impressions.

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Anniversaries centers on Gesine Cresspahl, a German woman living in New York in 1967 with her ten-year-old daughter, Marie. It also features Gesine’s parents, her depressive mother, Lisbeth Papenbrock, and her father, an enigmatic businessman who, as far as I can tell, has no first name. Cresspahl has emigrated to England (he meets Lisbeth on what he thinks will be his last return to Germany in the late 1920s), but returns to Germany in late 1932 with his pregnant wife, who wants to be with family when the baby, Gesine, is born in March 1933. Gesine tells Marie the story of her parents, though like everything in the book the telling happens obliquely—it’s not like we ever see them sitting down to chat, the girl demanding, Mother, how did your parents meet, that sort of thing. (Actually, there’s at least once scene like that, p 109 in my edition, but thus far it’s the exception.) The book’s driving force isn’t so much psychological (what motivated Lisbeth, say, to do this or that thing?) as structural (how are the two time periods juxtaposed?).

There’s another organizing principle, too, the one that gives the book its title: Anniversaries is organized into something like diary entries, one for each day of the year from August 1967 to August 1968. I say “something like” because Johnson makes no attempt to naturalize the entries—that is, it’s not really a diary (which, after all, would mean the book would need to be called Tagebuch). There’s no sense that Gesine is recording the events of her days. Importantly, and strangely, the book shifts between third person and first person plural, with only occasional instances of first person singular. Oftentimes, the “entries” aren’t even about Gesine and Marie’s daily lives. Instead they’re about what’s happening elsewhere to other people, whether across town or around the world. Or, rather, they’re about what The New York Times has reported in its daily edition.

Whereas the juxtaposition of past and present takes the form of oscillation—and this back and forth concerns space as much as time: the first entry begins while Gesine is on vacation at the Jersey shore, which leads the narrator to reflect on the difference between that shoreline and the one in Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, on the Baltic, where Gesine was born—the accumulation of news from the Times takes the form of linearity.

Anniversaries, then, is a highly structured book. (I am surprised how non- or un-associative it is: again, this might have something to do with the preponderance of third-person narration; easier to present associative thinking in first person: I’m thinking of someone like Proust.) But it doesn’t feel tidy or airless. It is also distinctly unwelcoming. I can’t put my finger on what makes it so, I need to think about this more as I read. But I find myself reading more from admiration rather than fascination. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like it. I really do. But so far I haven’t fallen into it, and I suspect that’s because it doesn’t want me to.

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Gesine loves the Times. Like a lot. She buys it every day, she fishes it out of trashcans if she misses a day, she reads it at breakfast and in the subway and on the Saturday morning ferry rides she takes with Marie to Staten Island (Marie’s own obsession). There are some great descriptions of how to fold the paper so you can read it in a crowded subway car. In this regard, the book has reminded me how much I love reading newspapers: first the Calgary Herald (either it was much better then than now or I was a much worse reader or, more likely, both), then the Globe and Mail, and eventually, after moving to the US, the Times, which it took me a while to warm up to but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as fully adult as when my wife and I first took out a subscription to it. We still have one, but for a few years now it’s been digital and I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to. Buying and reading a physical newspaper feels like one of those pleasures that life strips away from you, often for no good reason, as you get older.

But I digress. I can’t figure out why Gesine loves the Times as much as she does. Is it a sign that she, like me, is making her place in the US, binding herself to its journal of record? Is it because she needs to immerse herself in the present to keep the past away? (Remember, she’s born when the Nazis take power, and so presumably her story will become more and more representative of her birth country’s terrible path through the 20th century.) Given what I said earlier, about the book’s lack of interest in psychology, I probably shouldn’t be asking this question. Motivation isn’t the thing, here. But I’m puzzled by the newspaper material; I’ll have to keep thinking about it. We hear a lot about Vietnam, of course, and race riots in various American cities. But also about local events, crimes especially, but even some bits of local colour, news about the mayor, even sports, which Gesine seems alternately bemused by and uninterested in. 1968 is an epochal year, of course, so lots more is to come: the Prague Spring, the Democratic Convention, the assassination of MLK.

At one point, the narrator describes Gesine’s prodigious but erratic memory:

She had searched her memory for the year 1937 and once again retrieved nothing but a static, disconnected fragment. This is how her mind’s storage system arbitrarily selects things for her, stored up in quantities beyond her control, only sometimes responsive to commands and intentions.

Here, I think, we’re asked to think of Gesine as a kind of newspaper. Or is it like the reader of a newspaper, dipping into this story and that? Or as a kind of yearbook or encyclopedia or better web page, but one in which the flipping of the pages, the dipping into the entries, the clicking of the links is done for rather than by her?

Just after the passage I cited, we learn that Gesine values one function of her mind in particular:

memory, not the storage but the retrieval, the return to the past, the repetition of what was: being inside it once more, setting foot there again. There is no such thing.

You can glimpse what I’m calling the book’s unwelcoming nature in the eschewal in that last sentence of any conjunction. No “but,” no “however,” no “yet,” no “alas.” An austere, abrupt (in German they might call it ruppig) statement that almost brutally reverses or refuses what came before.   `

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Abruptness doesn’t preclude lyricism, though. Every once in a while, Johnson sneaks in something lovely, like this description of autumn in New York:

The park outside our windows is now entirely lit by the October sun that pushes every color one step closer toward the unbelievable: the yellow sprinkling of leaves on the grass, the elephant skin of the bare plane trees, the bright maze of branches in the thornbushes on the upper promenade, the cold Hudson, the hazy forest mist on the other side of the river, the steely sky. Sundayness has fallen on a Sunday. It is an almost innocent picture, in which children and people strolling along live as if harmlessly. It’s an illusion, and it feels like home.

The first lines are lovely, if a bit conventional. But the sense of quiet and lassitude is so well done: “Sundayness has fallen on a Sunday,” I love that. And yet as the passage continues, it becomes as “steely” as the sky: the picture is almost innocent; the passersby live as if harmlessly. And then this: “It’s an illusion, and it feels like home.” Is that “and” a recognition that Gesine and Marie, or maybe everyone on the Upper West Side, or maybe everyone everywhere else, too, lives in illusion? Or does it mean something like “and also” or “but at the same time”? An illusion yes, but also something like home? Can you see what I mean when I say it’s hard to fall into the book? It’s always making us think so hard.

When he wants to, Johnson can paint vivid character portraits. The less important someone is, the more sharply they come into view. Here, for example, is a description of Gesine’s friend Annie Fleury, nee Annie Killainen, a Finn who once worked at the UN, then married a writer who has taken her to Vermont, where she struggles with her three children and his abuse. She can’t keep up with the housework, what with three children and

because she also has to discuss “choice passages” of Mr. Fleury’s daily labors at night, and also has to type up a clean copy of these and all the other passages during the day. She seemed happy enough while straightening up and baking, and even though we were alone, with all the children out in the dripping-wet woods, she didn’t complain, it’s just that she hardly seemed to perceive F. F. Fleury at all when he showed his face in the kitchen and she wordlessly handed him a drink, making him a new one unasked every time, five before dinner, many more throughout the meal and afterward, until he finally found his way out of his stubborn, violent silence into the argument that Annie let pass over her, without defending herself, sitting slightly hunched, with strangely squared shoulders, hands between her knees, almost happy, as though what she’d expected was finally happening.

Amazing stuff. How economically Johnson gives us a vision of a life gone wrong, though not perceived as such, a portrait of a woman so beaten down that the only pleasure she has left lies in welcoming the beating. And although the focus is on Annie, we also get a glimpse of the pathetic, raging, and dangerous husband. Who even knows if these people will ever return in the book? (This is their only appearance so far.) I think the degradation of the scene—so powerfully presented in that image of the argument, that is, the screed, of a man battering a woman like a storm surge—is only heightened by the brief eruption into this dismal litany by that beautiful description of the children “out in the dripping-wet woods.” (Good with the compound adjectives, our Johnson.)

Almost as compelling is Johnson’s portrayal of Marie. She’s almost too good to be true, spunky and wise, a street-smart immigrant child who at first refuses to accept her new home but eventually identifies with it so fully she becomes afraid of the pull the old country might have on her mother. A bit precocious, Marie could at her most sprightly be a child from a Jonathan Safran Foer novel or, more tolerably, a Wes Anderson movie. But so far, so good. It’s clear Johnson adores her, but he hasn’t made her adorable, if you know what I mean. She has too much dignity for that. Here’s a nice moment on the ferry:

A Japanese gentleman had asked Marie for help, pressing his camera into her hand with extraordinarily fulsome apologies, and she had positioned him and his family in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers with expert instructions and hand gestures before flexing her knees to absorb the swaying of the ship’s deck and pressing proof of the visitors’ trip around the world into their camera. As she disembarked over the gangway and up the stairs and down the ramp alongside the ferry building, she answered the tourists’ friendly looks three times, not with a smile but with a slight bow suggested from her shoulders and recognition in her eyes. – Welcome a stranger: I said in English, and even though she obviously recognized the quote from the Transit Authority’s buses, she replied, almost in earnest, almost excited: — That’s right Gesine. Welcome a stranger.

Where Marie is almost sage-like (look at her, practically quoting the Torah, practically responding to foreigners in their own idiom—that near, slight bow) and unperturbable (she absorbs more than just the swaying of the ferry in this book), her mother is at once more enigmatic and more erratic. I don’t have a handle on her yet. I’ll finish this post with the moment that has troubled me the most so far. It’s from the entry for September 12, 1967, which offers an unusually self-contained narrative.

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Gesine, who works at a bank, doing something we either don’t know about or that I have forgotten, has been asked to meet her boss at JFK to translate a letter he is bringing with him from overseas. She is taken there in the boss’s car, which is driven by his African-American chauffeur, Arthur. Arthur is distant and formal, rejecting her efforts to have him call her by her first name. He keeps the panel between the front and rear of the car up; Gesine “feels sealed, shipped, and delivered like a package for someone.” But when the boss arrives, Arthur is transformed. The two are matey, not equals but open and casual with each other. The panel between front and back stays down. Then we get this:

—And how did you and she get along? the boss asks, tossing his head towards Mrs. Crespahl. – She was fine: Arthur says, and Mrs. Crespahl catches his eye in the rearview mirror for a moment. He doesn’t wink at her, just gives her a tiny, reassuring widening of the eyelids.

I might have known that the boss would put his arm around your shoulders, hold the door for you, let you choose where to sit. Gesine, or whatever your name is.

All right, Arthur. And, go to hell, Arthur.

So many unexpected reversals here! We’re denied the possible moment of solidarity between the African American man and the immigrant woman, one who perhaps fancies herself free of American prejudice, or eager to show herself as such: he doesn’t wink. But he does offer that reassuring widening of the eyelid, an interpretation we are inclined to trust, especially if we think it comes more from an omniscient narrator than Gesine. Surprising, then, that what Arthur is thinking is anything but warm towards Gesine, anything but reassuring. And even more surprising, and disquieting, that Gesine responds with such hostility. Of course, we only have Gesine’s imagining of Arthur’s thoughts to go on. What makes her think that’s what he’s thinking? I find her hostility disproportionate in response to his—but why do I think that? Maybe the point here is that in relation to white men, who get to set the terms of how the world works, there’s no room for solidarity between those they are able to play off each other, those who need the validation of the dominant group much more than they need to look out for each other. I don’t know. I don’t know what to make of Gesine, here or elsewhere.

*

As soon as I learned this translation of Anniversaries was forthcoming I knew I had to have it. But that I have actually started reading it, so soon after its arrival (most books sit in my house for years before being read, if in fact they even are), I owe largely to Scott from seraillon. We were emailing a few weeks ago, and he was enthusing about its brilliance. At that point he was as far in as I am now (he’s probably almost finished by now!), and he said something that whetted my appetite:

What Johnson does with each day of his year of daily entries is of astonishing diversity and imagination. And some of it is really awe-inspiring, the kind of writing that just leaves me holding the book and wondering “How did he do that?” There’s a collage/montage quality, but as though of overlapping translucent motifs that gain depth and form as they accumulate.

Like all of Scott’s descriptions, this is beautiful and smart. It inspires me to make my own responses to the book equally nuanced and articulate. Check back in over the coming weeks as I report on my changing and, with luck, deepening impressions of this steely masterpiece.

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“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.

 

 

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?

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.”

 

 

 

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors: Émile Zola’s The Kill (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. Here is his take on the second volume, The Kill. Mine is here.

Toronto, where I live, was recently named the fifth-most expensive city in the world adjusted for income. The house my spouse and I bought a decade ago, for a sum that at the time stretched the upper limits of plausibility, is now, at least on paper, worth three times what we paid for it. Local media outlets frequently cover stories of families cashing in on the boom and moving out of the city, and of a younger generation priced out of home-ownership — along with an accompanying rental crisis, skyrocketing rents, and new condo developments crowding out the city’s waterfront. All this was on my mind this week as I read The Kill, Émile Zola’s 1872 novel of greed, sensuality, and corruption, set against the backdrop of real-estate speculation and urban renewal in 1850s Paris.

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The Kill takes up the story of Aristide Rougon, son of Pierre and Félicité, who in The Fortune of the Rougons had abandoned his Republican ideals in the immediate aftermath of Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 1851, to side with his parents’ Bonapartist politics.
One of the first things we learn here about Aristide, who has moved to Paris in the wake of the coup, is that he has changed his surname, to Saccard. This is at the request of his elder brother Eugène, a power-broker in the new Imperial government (so they don’t ‘get in each other’s way,’ Eugène says), though the choice of name is Aristide’s. A derivation of his first wife’s family name, Sicardot, this new moniker evokes money (sacs d’écus), and the sacking of cities (saccager), as translator Brian Nelson notes in his helpful introduction to this volume. For Saccard’s younger second wife, Renée, the ‘dry syllables’ of this name “reverberated in her ears like two rakes gathering up gold,” while Aristide himself reflects that “there’s money in that name; it sounds as if you’re counting five-franc pieces.” To which Eugène sardonically responds that it will either make Aristide a crook or a millionaire. Both, as it turns out.

In Fortune Aristide, in whom the “coarse, greedy” appetites of the Rougons had “matured too quickly,” was an indolent but greedy sensualist who dreams of becoming rich as rapidly as possible, “building castles in the air.” (Eugène, for his part, dreamt of “bending people to his will,” which I’m sure we’ll see more of when we get to His Excellency Eugène Rougon). In the present novel, Aristide sees these dreams realized, rising quickly through the city’s social ranks as he takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by the massive urban renewal of Paris to turn incredible profits on land speculation:

he knew that the shower of gold beating down upon the walls would fall more heavily every day. Smart people had merely to open their pockets. He had joined the clever ones by reading the future in the offices of the Hôtel de Ville. His duties had taught him what can be stolen in the buying and selling of houses and land…. he knew how you sell for a million what has cost you a hundred thousand francs; how you acquire the right to rifle the treasury of the state, which smiles and closes its eyes; how, when throwing a boulevard across the belly of an old neighbourhood, you juggle with six-storeyed houses to the unanimous applause of your dupes.

Aristide’s employment at city hall gives him insider knowledge of Baron Haussmann’s plans for the redevelopment of Paris, which he exploits by purchasing properties slated for future demolition, ‘renting’ them to fictitious tenants at inflated prices and thus artificially driving up their assumed value for the compensation monies given to landlords holding expropriated properties. It’s a lucrative game, though not without its risks — Aristide gains a fortune of millions, but finds himself both blackmailed and blackmailer of colleagues who could expose him, and anxiously teetering on the verge of financial ruin as projects threaten to fall through.

After our first two Zolas, the fantastic Belly of Paris and the so-so Fortune of the Rougons, I’m glad to say I found The Kill a great read, especially the second time through. In this second book of the series, Zola already seems to have found his voice, settling into the stylistic marks and themes that will characterize the other books. It’s also nice to be back in Paris; having already started on our next book, The Conquest of Plassans, it seems to me that there’s a marked difference between those novels set in the bustling capital and those set in that sleepy southern city — where the latter are suffused with the heavy slowness of summer days in a small town, the former, and this was true too of The Kill, seem to be impelled forward with the motive force of great cities. It’ll be interesting to see if this holds true through the rest of the novels, as we work through them.

Early on in The Kill, Aristide prophecies the future transformation of Paris, hints of which he has gleaned through attentively watching and listening at work. Eating dinner with his first wife Angèle on the Buttes Montmartre, looking out over the city laid out before them, they see a ray of sunlight illuminate the houses below, which “seemed to catch fire and melt like an ingot of gold in a crucible.” Saccard jokes that it’s raining twenty-franc pieces, while his wife comments that they are not easy to pick up. But Aristide is already off and running, demonstrating with outswept arms the great cuts that will be made in the city in the coming years:

a cut there, another further on, cuts everywhere, Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened, providing a living for a hundred thousand navvies and bricklayers, traversed by splendid military roads….

Angèle, frightened, sees Saccard himself as this knife, the movements of his hand mercilessly slicing up the city. When, later in the novel, Aristide glances at Haussmann’s famous map of Paris, he sees that the Prefect’s “blood-red pen-strokes cut even deeper gashes” than he had. It’s the bleeding of the city that will yield gold, for the man who knows how to play the system: “There lay his fortune, in the cuts that his hand had made in the heart of Paris, and he had resolved to keep his plans to himself, knowing very well that when the spoils were divided there would be enough crows hovering over the disembowelled city.”

This trope of hunting runs throughout the novel, and gives meaning to its title, which is a little misleading in English; the original French title, La curée, refers not to a ‘kill’ as such but to that part of the killed animal given to the hounds as a reward for running it to ground (the spoils, maybe?). There’s a great passage here where Zola has Aristide smelling out the traces of his prey:

[it was a] breath, vague as yet, that rose from the great city, the breath of the budding Empire, laden already with the odours of alcoves and financial deals, with the warm smell of sensuality. The faint traces that reached him told him that he was on the right scent, that the prey was scudding before him, that the great Imperial hunt, the hunt for adventure, women, and fortunes, was about to begin. His nostrils quivered, his instinct, the instinct of a starving animal, seized unerringly on the slightest indications of the division of the spoil of which the city was to be the arena.

Between 1853 and 1870, Haussmann cut vast swaths through Paris, displacing some 350,000 residents from the city center, most of them the urban poor, while building new apartments, parks, and boulevards that reconstituted central Paris as a leisure-ground for the bourgeoisie. We don’t see much of the actual demolition here, or the displaced poor (though I think we’ll see them soon enough in the series); Zola’s concern is rather with the speculators, city-planners and bureaucrats who profited from the opportunities provided by urban renewal on a grand scale. For these, it is a hunt: the city becomes a forest, filled with “the rush for spoils…with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches… The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months.”

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It’s not only gold that is opened up in this orgy of speculation; vice, too, “flowed through the gutters, spread out over the ornamental waters, shot up in the fountains of the public gardens, and fell on the roofs as fine rain”:

At night, when people crossed the bridges, it seemed as if the Seine drew along with it, through the sleeping city, all the refuse of the streets, crumbs fallen from tables, bows of lace left on the couches, false hair forgotten in cabs, banknotes that had slipped out of bodices, everything thrown out of the window by the brutality of desire and the immediate satisfaction of appetites…the voluptuous nightmare of a city obsessed with gold and flesh.

This voluptuous nightmare is embodied in the novel by Saccard’s second wife Renée and his son Maxime (Renée’s stepson), who embark on an incestuous affair. Maxime and Renée adore the new Paris, riding through the Bois de Boulogne, strolling along its boulevards, admiring the uniform façades of the new apartments, the shops and cafés, then returning home to Saccard’s mansion near the Parc Monceau, “the flower-bed of this new Paris.”

The city is made for them, encouraging their crime. Renée too senses an exhaled message emanating from the city’s streets, but it is different from Saccard’s: “The shamefulness that had lingered there—momentary lust, whispered offers, prepaid nights of pleasure—was evaporating, floating in a heavy mist dissipated by the breath of morning. Leaning out into the darkness, she inhaled the quivering darkness, the alcove-like fragrance, as an assurance of shame shared and accepted by a complicitous city.”

Zola’s mania for description, which was largely absent from The Fortune of the Rougons, is given full rein here, particularly in pages filled with architectural detail — much of it provided by Saccard’s mansion, whose ornamental excesses satirize the eclectic and gaudy interiors of the nouveaux-riches of the Second Empire:

balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall, naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts…[and] escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent…Roses and dazzling garlands encircled the arch; fillets of gold, like threads of molten metal, ran round the walls, framing the panels, which were hung with red silk; festoons of roses, topped with tufts of full-blown blossoms, hung down along the sides of the mirrors. An Aubusson carpet spread its purple flowers over the polished floor. The furniture of red silk damask, the door-hangings and window-curtains of the same material, the huge ormolu clock on the mantel-piece, the porcelain vases standing on the consoles, the legs of the two long tables inlaid with Florentine mosaic, the very flower-stands placed in the window recesses, oozed and sweated with gold.

Here, the dominant note is struck by gold; in Renée’s private apartments, it is flesh and carnality that reign:

The bed seemed to stretch out till the whole room became one immense bed, with its carpets, its bearskin rugs, its padded seats, its stuffed hangings, which continued the softness of the floor along the walls and up to the ceiling. As in a bed, Renée left upon all these things the imprint, the warmth and perfume of her body… still warm and moist, where one found on the fine linen the adorable shape, the slumber, and the dreams of a thirty-year-old Parisian woman…. The pink bath, the pink slabs and basins, the muslin of the walls and ceiling, under which pink blood seemed to course, had the curves of flesh, the curves of shoulders and breasts; and, according to the time of day, one would have imagined the snowy skin of a child or the warm skin of a woman. It was redolent of nudity. When Renée emerged from it, her fair-skinned body added a little more pink to the pink flesh of the room.

These rooms also exert an influence on the characters, various décors leading Renée to assume a different aspect of sensuality: now ‘dainty and pretty,’ now ‘a capricious, carnal courtesan,’ now a ‘goddess’ assuming ‘chaste postures…revealing noble outlines of antique grace.” There’s another place, however, the bizarre, dark center of this affair, the mansion’s hothouse, where the idea for the affair first clearly comes to Renée, and to which she ‘drags’ Maxime “on bad days, when she needed a more acrid form of intoxication… It was there that they tasted incest.”

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Zola calls Renée “the most complex of women,” which may be true; for me she was the only sympathetic character here: sad, manipulated by various men, while continually reverting to her memories of innocent childhood games. The daughter of a wealthy old bourgeois family, made pregnant at 19 by a rape and married off to Aristide, who saves her honor in return for a couple hundred thousand francs of start-up capital, she is world-weary at 30, pursuing an affair with her stepson without really knowing why — to experience “something different” but also following a path of vice she feels, since her violation, to be intrinsic to her being. Maxime, for his part, is a dissipated and effeminate child of the Second Empire, in whom vice is “a natural, external growth. It waved over his fair hair, smiled upon his lips, dressed him in his clothes,” and was reflected in his ‘whorish’ blue eyes that “were never lowered: they roamed in search of pleasure, a pleasure that comes without effort, that is summoned, then enjoyed.” He neither desires nor pursues the affair, but simply takes it as it comes, and is seemingly unperturbed by its end.

That end, when it comes, is crushing in its abandonment of Renée: Saccard discovers her in an embrace with Maxime (she is trying to convince him to run away with her) when his eyes fall on the long-sought deed to Renée’s property, which she has just signed. His anger immediately abates. He takes the deed in hand, amicably guiding Maxime downstairs, and leaving Renée alone in her apartments:

So the drama was ended! Her crime, the kisses on the great grey-and-pink bed, the wild nights in the hothouse, the forbidden love that had consumed her for months, had culminated in this cheap, banal ending. Her husband knew everything and did not even strike her. … She looked down, and when she saw herself in her tights, and in her light gauze blouse, she gazed at herself with lowered eyes and sudden blushes. Who had stripped her naked? What was she doing there, bare-breasted, like a prostitute displaying herself almost to the waist? She no longer knew…. She was ashamed of herself, and contempt for her body filled her with mute anger at those who had left her like this.

It is, of course, Saccard and Maxime who have stripped her, left her as a blank figure of exchangeability, her husband using her “like a stake, like an investment… an asset in [his] portfolio.” She is part of that ‘band of illustrious prostitutes,’ “creatures who let their lovers pay for their luxuries, and who were quoted in fashionable society as shares are quoted on the Bourse [stock-exchange].”

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The novel ends as it began: with a ride in the Bois de Boulogne, where ‘tout Paris’ goes to see and be seen. In the first, Renée and Maxime are not yet lovers, dreaming of something to shake them from their lethargy, while in the second, at the novel’s end, Renée is alone. She has just spied a reconciled Aristide and Maxime, walking together on the side of the path — Aristide is encouraging his son to invest in his newest business venture — when, suddenly, the Emperor rides by: Aristide calls out a cry of support, and is briefly acknowledged with a glance. The cruel symmetry of these bookends, which highlights Renée’s suffering (what was it all for, in the end, if nothing changed?), also shows up the real point of all this activity, this frenzy of destruction and speculation: it is precisely to make sure that nothing changes, to safeguard the city as a pleasure-park for the wealthy, where all sins, even incest, can be waved away if there’s profit in it. Reading it, I heard an echo of another fictional depiction of 19th-century bourgeois revolution, Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, with its cutting justification for Garibaldi’s unification of Italy: “everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.”

The Example of Zannovich: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (Guest Post by Nathaniel Leach)

Even if you got your fill of Döblin in my post, I urge you to read Nat’s shorter and smarter post on the same novel.

My excitement about Michael Hoffmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz can be traced to my very first day of graduate school. In a course on the fundamentals of critical theory, we were shown one of the opening scenes of Fassbinder’s adaptation, in which the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf is lying on the ground, being told a story. It seemed like a strange choice for a course where we would be going on to read Kant, Hegel, Levinas and many other heavyweight philosophers, and I remember being puzzled about how this guy lying on the floor connected with the history of Western philosophy. It took some time for me to get over my bewilderment and realize that my resistances were coming from the excessive rationalism of my undergraduate self. In time, the professor of this course became my supervisor and mentor, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned from her was that the oblique, hidden, and seemingly chance connections between things are often more significant than relationships dictated by rationality and causality.

Not coincidentally, I’m sure, this is one of the lessons of Berlin Alexanderplatz too; although its main plot can be summed up fairly simply—Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, tries to go straight, but suffers a series of increasingly disastrous misfortunes—this narrative is continually interrupted by digressions that detail seemingly insignificant events taking place in Berlin at the same time, or that re-tell versions of biblical stories and other prominent narratives of Western culture. These narrative interpolations demand that we read Franz Biberkopf’s story within a very broad cultural context, but at the same time, the narrative mostly refrains from making any direct connections between the stories; we are never told exactly how we should read these digressions as bearing on Franz’s story, and they are in fact often highly ambiguous. For example, Döblin’s insertion of the story of Job invites us to think of Franz’s sufferings as being like those of Job, but we also can’t avoid reflecting on the fact that he is to some degree deserving of his sufferings, or that he completely lacks Job’s patience and religious perspective.

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All of this is perhaps a long-winded way of explaining why, upon reading the book, I was inclined to attribute a particular significance to the story told to Franz in Chapter 1, even though I was also not surprised to find that it raised more questions than answers. Disoriented after his release from prison, Franz is helped by Eliser, a Jewish man who brings him into his house. Franz lapses into an almost catatonic state, and Eliser tells him the story of Stefan Zannovich, the son of an Albanian peddler, who launches an impressive career of social climbing by brazenly impersonating European nobility. Eliser concludes that “what you can learn from Stefan Zannovich is that he knew himself and he knew people”. This story thus seems to be a fable about autonomy, suggesting to Franz that he can control his own fate, and it is indeed instrumental in getting Franz back on his feet (literally, as he has been lying on the floor throughout).

It is not quite so simple, however; Eliser’s brother-in-law, Nahum, arrives during the telling of the story and insists that Eliser tell the end of the story, which is that Zannovich pushed his fraud too far, was found out, and eventually killed himself. For Nahum, the moral of the story is simply that “sometimes you can’t do everything you’d like to, sometimes things get fouled up”. Franz seems to hear Eliser’s message of hopeful autonomy and ignores Nahum’s warning, demonstrating both the power of stories and the danger of selective reading. But this is a highly ambiguous moment; it is not clear which of the brothers-in-law’s interpretations should be trusted, or indeed, if both are flawed. Nor is it clear whether Franz misreads Eliser’s intentions in telling him the story, or whether the story in fact has the desired effect. Nahum calls Eliser a “bad man” for telling the story, but Eliser’s intentions seem to be benevolent, even though Franz’s revival is somewhat questionable.

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While the meaning of the story of Zannovich is ambiguous, what does seem clear, however, is that Franz has failed to understand it fully, and that if he has learned anything from it, the lesson is painfully incomplete. The narrator continually reminds us that Franz has greater punishments in store for him, suggesting, at the very least, that this story has not fixed what was wrong with Franz. Moreover, while Franz is grateful for the help, he also diminishes its significance: “these Jews helped me, just by telling me stories. They talked to me, they were decent people who didn’t know me from Adam, and they told me about this Polack, and it was just a story, but it was very good just the same, and it was very instructive for me in my position. I thought: a glass of cognac might have set me to rights just as well”. Not only does he call it “just a story”, he judges it by its results, which he deems could have been achieved by other means anyway.

Ultimately, as Eliser’s interpretation suggests, the point of the story seems to be to signal that this book is about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of self and others. But what exactly does it mean to “know oneself and know others”? Are these two different things, or are they connected? Is such knowledge to be understood as a philosophical ideal or is it merely instrumental and pragmatic? Is it significant that “self” is listed first, before “others”? Zannovich “knows others” in the sense that he knows how to manipulate them, while Franz’s understanding of others is almost always superficial and naïve. After being revived, he falls back on an overweening belief in himself that either exploits others, as in his string of relationships with women, or fatally misunderstands them, as in his toxic friendship with the womanizer and petty crook, Reinhold.

This lack of knowledge is apparent in Franz’s decision, immediately after his revival, to sell nationalist newspapers, “not that he’s got anything against the Jews, but he is a supporter of order”. While the book is not highly political, aside from a few pointed sections, I found it hard not to read Franz’s lack of self-knowledge in conjunction with the rise of National Socialism. Döblin, writing in 1928, is diagnosing the ills of a society about to be swallowed up by fascism, and one of these ills is the ugly and violent form of self-reliance embodied by Franz Biberkopf, whose lack of political conviction belies his philosophical kinship to fascism at this point in the book.

This resonance was developed for me by one of those oblique connections I mentioned earlier; while reading this book, I happened also to be reading Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich, in which Klemperer poignantly describes the increasing circumscription of his rights as a Jew living in Germany, and his increasing immersion in his academic work to avoid the reality of Nazism: “why should I sour my life still further by reading Nazi publications when it was already being ruined by what was happening around me? If by chance or mistake a Nazi book fell into my hands I would cast it aside after the first paragraph. If the voice of the Fuhrer or his Propaganda Minister was blaring out of a loudspeaker on the street I would give it a wide berth, and when reading the newspaper I desperately tried to fish out the naked facts- forlorn enough in their nakedness- from the repulsive morass of speeches, commentaries and articles”. While I identified strongly with this as a reader in 2018 trying to avoid depressing news without entirely burying my head in the sand, it also made me think of Franz Biberkopf; if Klemperer, one of the most sensitive observers of pre-WWII Germany, can reproach himself with allowing himself to become too self-involved and overwhelmed by the media, how much more does Biberkopf in Döblin’s chaotic world embody this flaw? The polar opposite of Klemperer, Franz does not question himself, and when he does dabble in politics, selling newspapers or, later, agitating with his anarchist friend, Willi, he believes he knows all the answers. He is by no means inherently fascist, but he embodies a lack of understanding or caring about others that is easily manipulated by the much more frightening Reinhold.

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The “example of Zannovich” (as the section heading calls it), then, is a negative one, deceiving Franz into believing that he is at the centre of the world, and enabling him to subordinate otherness to his will with a fascistic autonomy. (This is also pretty much the history of Western philosophy according to Emmanuel Levinas, so maybe that grad course really was on to something). Questions still abound, of course; for one, why does Eliser tell the story? Is he deceitful, or does he (like the narrator) foresee the necessary process that Franz must go through? If the novel diagnoses the ills of its society, it does so in order to suggest a solution of sorts, one that revises Eliser’s formula and makes the understanding of self and others inextricably linked.

“We Know What We Know, We Had to Pay Dearly Enough for It”: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

A few weeks ago, during some pleasant days vacationing in Maine, I read Michael Hofmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was good to have time to devote to it, because the book is fairly demanding. Yet I wouldn’t say I was immersed in it—it’s not the kind of book to love, fall into, think about even when you’re not reading it. At least it wasn’t for me. But I doubt Döblin wouldn’t have wanted any of that. After all, he was a doctor, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, and there is something of our conventional idea of medicine in his prose—it is detached, even Olympian, concerned with individuals but convinced that their functioning is a result of physiological and mental processes that exceed or evade individual consciousness or willpower.

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The novel’s plot is fairly simple. Franz Biberkopf is a pimp and small-time crook. He is sentimental, sometimes kind, shrewd yet naïve, always thuggish. The book begins as he is released from prison after serving a sentence for beating his former girlfriend to death. Frightened by his re-entry into the world, he is helped back on his feet by a man he happens to run into in the street, an Orthodox Jew who impresses Franz with his wisdom. Soon an old friend gets him a job selling shoelaces door-to-door. One of his customers, a wealthy widow, takes pity on him—he reminds her of her dead husband—and intimates she will take care of him but Franz can’t help but boast about his conquest to the friend, who proceeds to rob the woman. It is one of many betrayals in the novel. In response, Franz goes on a bender; eventually he rights himself enough to find work selling newspapers, but he’s barely making ends meet. His quest to go straight is further threatened when he comes into the orbit of a small-time but seductive mobster named Reinhold. Reinhold is a magnificent, despicable character, a man who hates women as much as he is drawn to them: he loses interest in each new girl after a week or two and arranges to pass them on to Franz. But Franz tires of the scheme—in his lumpish way, he likes the women, feels bad for them, doesn’t want to do Reinhold’s dirty work for him.

Reinhold is furious and takes revenge. He allows Franz into his band of crooks, and when a heist goes wrong takes the opportunity to push Franz out of the getaway car. Franz is run over and badly hurt: he survives, but loses an arm. After his lengthy recovery, he is brought back to life yet again by the crooks he’d been involved with before going to jail. They introduce him to Mitzi, a young girl newly arrived from the provinces, who goes onto the streets for him. So Franz is back where he started, once again a small-time pimp, though he’s chastened and knows he’s lucky to have the saintly Mitzi.

But fate won’t leave Franz alone, or he can’t leave well enough alone (for Döblin it’s the same thing): Franz won’t give up Reinhold (the novel doesn’t make much of this, but Rainer Werner Fassbinder emphasized the homoeroticism of this intense relationship in his gargantuan and compelling fifteen-hour television adaptation). Reinhold’s jealousy—which the novel figures as purely evil: unmotivated and unexplained—leads to a terrible denouement resulting (SPOILERS!) in Mitzi’s death and Franz’s psychological breakdown. (Reinhold murders her when she rejects his advances.) Eventually, though, Reinhold gets his comeuppance. This is cleverly handled: Reinhold gets himself arrested by pretending to be someone else, because he figures he is safest in jail, but once there he finally falls in love for real, with a boy in fact, to whom he tells everything, and when the kid is released he can’t help but talk about the mastermind he met inside and before long one of the little crook’s associates goes to the police to collect the reward and so Reinhold is arrested again, from within prison this time, and sentenced to ten years, not least on the strength of Franz’s testimony at trial.

Franz recovers from his breakdown—it’s at least his fourth time starting over—but the book is done with him: “Straight after the trial Biberkopf is offered a job as assistant porter in a medium-sized factory. He accepts. Beyond that there is nothing to report on his life.” Among its last lines we find this conclusion: “Biberkopf is a little worker. We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

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As Hofmann says in his excellent afterword, the novel has “good bones.” The repetitions, the peaks and valleys, the overall narrative arc are all satisfying. And there’s plenty of lurid excitement, B-movie type stuff. But it’s not an exciting book. (It’s nothing like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, for example.) Events matter less than their telling. Think about that enigmatic last line: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” Who is “we”? The narrator? The narrator and the reader? Franz himself, thinking of himself in the plural? (That would be weird, but the narration routinely moves from omniscience into subjectivity within a single sentence. An example, chosen at random, describing Franz’s testimony at Reinhold’s trial: “That’s all they can get out of Biberkopf on the subject of Reinhold. Nothing about his arm, nothing about their falling out, their fight, I shouldn’t have done it, I should never have tangled with him.”)

Let’s assume the “we” refers to readers. How have we paid for what we’ve learned? Maybe by mistakenly thinking the plot is what matters, that this really is the story of a guy named Franz Biberkopf, a scoundrel who wants to go straight and eventually does. In fact, that story is just a way for the novel to indulge its more urgent fascination with life in Berlin. As Fassbinder put it, the language of the novel is a way to imitate the rhythm of the S-Bahn (commuter rail), which Döblin heard coming through his window.

For an example of what that might mean, look at this passage:

It was the second week of April in Berlin, the weather could be balmy at times, and, as the press unanimously proclaimed, the gorgeous Easter weather was bringing people out of doors. In Berlin at that time a Russian student, Alex Fränkel, shot his fiancée, the twenty-two-year-old arts and craft worker Vera Kaminskaya, in her digs. The same-aged au pair, Tatiana Sanftleben, who had been in on the suicide pact, got scared at the very last moment, and slipped off as her friend was already lying lifelessly on the floor. She ran into a police foot patrol, told them the terrible details of the past few months, and led the officials to the place where Vera and Alex lay dying. The serious crime squad was alerted, and murder detectives despatched to the site. Alex and Vera had wanted to marry, but their economic circumstances would not allow it.

In other news, the investigations over responsibility for the tram accident on Heerstrasse are still unconcluded. Eyewitnesses and the driver, one Redlich, are being questioned. Technical reports are not yet completed. Only when they have come in will it be possible to decide whether the catastrophe was due to human error (driver slow to apply the brakes) or a tragic combination of circumstances.

The stock exchange was largely quiet: in the open market, prices were a little firmer, in view of a recently published Reichsbank report that took a positive view of the disposal of 400 million in obligations and another 350 million in credit notes. In individual shares, as of 11 a.m. on 18 April, I. G. Farben traded over a narrow range from260.5 to 267, Siemens & Halske 297.5 to 299; Dessau Gas 202 to 203, Waldhof Cellulose 295. German Petroleum steady at 134.5.

To return to the tram accident on Heerstrasse, all the inured passengers were said to be improving in hospital.

There’s plenty of this roving-eye stuff in the novel (all fascinating to me, and lovely in its mimicry of the language of newspapers), but it’s never just “local colour.” Here, for example, the idea of “human error” or “tragic combination of circumstances” brings up the ideas of willpower and fate that the Franz story is also wrestling with. And the story of the murder-suicide pact—a little novel in itself—is a commentary on the difficulty of life for so many in Weimar-era Berlin.

In such passages the narration is the definition of omniscience. At others, however, it closely attaches itself to Franz’s perspective, even his stream of consciousness. But it regularly abandons that perspective, in the most abrupt manner, as in this passage:

In the night Franz wakes up and doesn’t get off to sleep again. It’s freezing. Cilly [another girlfriend] beside him is asleep and snoring. Why can he not sleep? The vegetable carts are trundling on their way to the market hall. I wouldn’t want to be a horse, not in this weather, at this hour. Stables is warm, I’ll be bound. My God, this woman can seep. Can she ever sleep. Not me. My toes are frozen, I can feel the itch and tickle. There’s something inside of him, his heart, his lungs, his inner self, it’s there and it’s being buffeted and bent, who by? It doesn’t know, the mystery thing, doesn’t, who by. All it can say for sure is that it’s not asleep.

Those last three sentences are so odd. I don’t think they are free indirect discourse; I don’t think they’re offering Franz’s perceptions in third person. Why would that be necessary? We just had them in first. I think this is third-person omniscience, but a different omniscience than in the tram accident and stock market passage.

The newsreel passages tell us everything. These other passages—typically centered on Franz—hint that they know everything but without letting us in on the secret. “There’s something inside of him”—this is at once certain and vague. What is the something? Is it analogous to willpower? What makes Franz do what he does? Are we supposed to learn anything from his fate?

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In this regard, it’s no surprise that the text regularly references stories from the Torah, especially Job and Abraham. They have the same kind of gnomic assurance. And they too are famously hard to interpret. Are these references meant to be analogies to or parables of Franz’s experience? Is he suffering for no reason? Has he been selected to perform a great sacrifice? Impossible to say. Unlike the stories from Torah, which are made to be interpreted (rabbinic Judaism is in some sense nothing but the history of those interpretations), the story of Franz Biberkopf doesn’t seem to want to be interpreted.

More than anything this detachment from the conventions of interpretation is what makes Berlin Alexanderplatz easy to admire but hard to love. Thinking about its author in relation to his contemporaries, Döblin is warmer than Musil, less intellectual, his ironies less bitter. But he’s nothing like Mann, whose 1929 Nobel Prize victory quickly eclipsed the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz. I wonder how this book compares to Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, another German epic based on biblical stories. I bet they’re pretty different.

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Inasmuch as there is warmth or passion here, it’s in the novel’s depiction of the city. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the great city novels. Maybe the greatest. (More interesting in its depiction than either Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway.) But it is not a love letter to Berlin. Nothing as kitschy as that. I don’t think it’s right to say that the city is a voracious machine, churning up all who enter into it (though the novel is fascinated by the construction of the subway, with lots of chewy descriptions of digging and earth-moving), unless of course we think of life itself—both animal and human—as a kind of machine, better, a kind of immense system. People aren’t simply pawns of that system—Döblin isn’t entirely determinist—but they aren’t in charge of themselves and the universe, either.

The best attitude to take to what Freud in another context called “narcissistic blows” to our anthropocentrism is the one incarnated in the famous Berliner Schnauze, literally, the Berlin snout, figuratively, the defiant, coarse, and clever slang of Berlin. That’s the language Franz and the others use all the time—heck, so does the narrator—and that’s what’s made the novel for so long seem untranslatable.

Hofmann’s solutions to this dilemma are admirable. He writes about this in his afterword, where he rightly notes “Döblin often has it in him to speak like his characters” (he’s not looking down on them, not offering their non-standard speech in distinction to his). Instead, the use of dialect “seems to be a function of intensity, but generally within reach of all.” Hofmann uses what he calls “the regional unspecific” to good effect, though the book does seem a little British sometimes. My favourite part of his comments concerns dropped letters: “I don’t like dropping letters and misspelling words in speech the way Dickens does, until I found the effect is entirely different if you just do it, without the rather self-congratulatory apostrophe, which is the perfect mark of bad faith.” (Ouch! I’ve been guilty of that!)

As Hofmann explains it, the book’s use of dialect is generous, and I appreciate the way that sentiment cleaves to some of the novel’s other expansive qualities. One of the ways the book is different for us than it was for Döblin and his first readers is that its invocation of the modern metropolis is now historical. In its suggestion that leftist movements are on the rise and National Socialism just a bad joke, we can glimpse how things might have been.

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The part of the book that moved me the most is an unwitting performance of this idea of the road not taken. At one point, the novel describes the movement of the # 4 tram as it leaves Rosenthalerplatz. At Lothringer Strasse, four people get on, “two elderly women, a worried-looking working man and a boy with a cap and ear-flaps.” The women are going to buy a girdle; the man needs to return a defective second-hand electric iron he bought for his boss. And the boy?

The lad, Max Rüst, will one day become a plumber, the father of seven little Rüsts, will work for Hallis & Co., installers and roofers, Grünau, at the age of fifty-two he will win a quarter-share of the Prussian State Lottery jackpot and retire, and then, in the midst of a case he is bringing against Hallis & Co., he will die at the age of fifty-five. His obituary will read: On 25 September, suddenly, from heart disease, my dearly beloved husband, our dear father, son, brother, brother-in-law and uncle Max Rüst, in his fifty-sixth year. This announcement is placed by the grieving widow, Marie Rüst, on behalf of all with deep grief. The rendering of thanks will go as follows: Being unable to acknowledge individually the many tokens of sympathy we have received, we extend thanks to all our relatives, friends, and fellow-tenants in Kleiststrasse 4 and our wider acquaintances. Especial thanks to Pastor Deinen for his words of comfort. – At present this Max Rüst is fourteen and on his way home from school, via the advice center for those hard of hearing, with impaired vision, experiencing difficulties of speech, dyspraxia and problems with concentration, where he has been a few times already, about his stammer, which seems to be getting better.

Exuent Max Rüst. His ordinary and yet, to me, pathos-laden life (that stammer! that ill-fated and perhaps ill-advised lawsuit!) might have been the focus of a different book, though it is unclear whether we are to take the same sense of fate countering an individual’s striving. Still, fate certainly has its way with Max, as of course it does with us all. This burst of narrative omniscience—reminiscent of similar moments in Woolf’s near-contemporaneous Jacob’s Room, another great city novel—suggests the triumph of determinism. But how much more moving it is for us to read this passage in light of what we know of German history. It is possible that Max Rüst might indeed have left all of his little Rüst descendents and died peaceably enough in the increasingly prosperous Federal Republic in 1968 (Kleiststrasse would have been in West Berlin). (Would Rüst have looked askance at the student demonstrations? I’m guessing yes.) But there would have been so many possibiilities in which he wouldn’t have made it to that end (deployed to the front, killed in an air raid, lost to the hatred and violence of the SS, either as victim or perpetrator).

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” I suggested earlier how we readers might have paid for it. But I didn’t say what we know. The terrible rise and legacy of fascism is something we know that the all-knowing narrator can’t. Maybe we wish we didn’t know it. Maybe the cost of reading Berlin Alexanderplatz today is to know the extraordinary viciousness that overwhelmed the garden-variety, even petty viciousness of the world it depicts.

A Note on David Downing’s Spy Novels

David Downing writes pretty good historical spy thrillers. The Dark Clouds Shining concludes the Jack McColl series, set at the edges of WWI and in its aftermath, particularly Russia in the years after the Revolution. Downing takes readers to some unusual places—the Western Front is barely mentioned. Instead, his hero McColl finds himself in the Kiautschou Bay concession (home of the Tsingtao brewery), the Dublin of the Easter Uprising, the border between Finland and Russia, and Tashkent and Samrkand in the early 1920s, where Soviet and Uzbeki cultures abut uneasily. Downing is great at subordinating his historical material to his story. We learn a lot, and quite effortlessly, too.

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Unlike a lot of books set during WWI, especially those involving Britain, the emphasis here isn’t on the betrayal of innocent lives by those who want to cling to power, but rather the new ways of life that arise from the war: a world that begins to imagine decolonization, gender equality, and the liberation and equality promised by socialism and communism. Of course the books also emphasize the failures of these promises, in part by the excesses of the liberatory movements themselves and in part by reactionary forces in the not-quite-former Great Powers.

McColl finds himself working for a country and, especially, an ideology he no longer believes in; his on-again off-again girlfriend, an Irish American journalist—finds herself caught up in the exhilaration of the Russian revolution and then quickly in the disappointing, even murderous reality of what the revolution quickly becomes.

Unable to resolve its socio-political conundrums, The Dark Clouds Shining saves its tidying-up for the relationship between the two leads: a satisfying but also much less ambitious ending. But then again I’m not sure thrillers are ever able to tackle the big questions they circle around, constrained as they are to emphasize individual character rather than societal, structural, or communal concerns.

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If you haven’t read Downing before, I recommend starting with his six-book John Russell series, set before, during, and after WWII and named after the train stations of Berlin (and Prague). Downing feels more in command of that material than he does in the new series, and Russell is more fully realized than McColl (although there’s not really that much to choose between them: they are good guys who sometimes have to make hard decisions and who treat women well—a fact the novels are a little too self-satisfied about). One of the best parts of the earlier series is that Russell’s one-time girlfriend and eventual wife, Effie, grows from a bit part to a central character. In the McColl series, Caitlin is even more important—the last few books are split equally between her and Jack, and she is at the center of their most interesting scenes.

Recently I wrote about two masters of the spy genre. Downing isn’t at their level. But he’s pretty good: absolutely reliable light reading, and there’s nothing wrong with that.