Wearing the Mask: James Sturm’s Off Season

Off Season, the title of James Sturm’s latest comic, refers to New England in winter, as experienced on a trip that the main character, Mark, newly separated from his wife, Lisa, takes with their kids to Maine one blustery November weekend. It’s off season: most of the stores and restaurants are closed; the beach is freezing; the kids hungry and restive. The only place open is a 7-11. Walking past an art gallery, Mark remembers that he and Lisa bought a painting there in happier days. He was shocked, and pleased, to find himself becoming the kind of guy who buys art. But now he wonders if that decision was all Lisa’s. He imagines coming back to the seaside town in the summer, to find out what he really wants. Maybe he is a guy who buys art.

Not that he can afford any. Lisa has, as he sourly puts it, “the house, the rich parents, and plenty of time to volunteer for ol’ crooked Hillary” (he supported Bernie). Mark, a contractor who can fix anything, has had to sell his truck, which means that instead of being independent, he now works for a shady guy named Mick, a Bernie Bro with a BMW who does good work when he gets around to it, but gives Mark the runaround, writes bad checks, and eventually spreads lies about him. We don’t know enough about Mick to say for sure, he’s probably a shit all the time, but Mark’s hard time, at least, is an aberration from the life he thought he had been living.

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Which brings us to the second meaning of Sturm’s title.  Not the off-season, but an off-season. A spell of bad luck and despair that can happen to anyone, anytime. And not just anyone: even countries can have off seasons. Mark’s trip with his kids to the shore doesn’t happen in any old November. It’s November 2016. Trump, seen only once in the book, haunts the book: his oleaginous, bullying, smug, thoughtless bluster seems at once a threat to some basic American decency and a confirmation that the very idea of decency was a fantasy, told by a few for a few. (We can’t just console ourselves by thinking that Trump and the selfishness and hatred he’s emboldened is an aberration.)

Sturm draws Trump as a piggy-faced dog–everyone in the book is a dog. Or a person-dog. Sturm’s choice nods to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where the characters are humanoid animals, one for each ethnic or national group. The use of animals in place of people will always prompt questions of empathy and identification—and those are important questions to ask in a time when difference is even more demonized than usual. (Sturm alludes to the issue in a chapter showing how Mark and Lisa met: they worked backstage at a summer theater on the Cape, helping with a production of Orwell’s 1984 in which the actors wore masks: from off-screen, as it were, we hear the director and actors participating in a Q & A with the audience: “Using animals as human stand-ins is as old as storytelling…” one says; another asserts, “As an actor, it’s liberating to wear the mask.” Here Sturm at once acknowledges and ironizes what he’s up to.) But where Spiegelman’s conceit is tied to the world view of his father, a Holocaust survivor, Sturm’s feels less subjective. That is, the dogs don’t symbolize Mark’s views. It’s pretty amazing how much variety Sturm gets from his dog characters, and if I knew my breeds as well as my daughter does I could hazard some connections between how the characters look and what they’re like. But that would be to miss the point. The book isn’t schematic—most of these dogs aren’t pure breeds, I don’t think, they’re mutts.

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Off Season is unhappy about American politics. But it has nicer, and more nuanced, things to say about Americans. This comes up in its depiction of parenting, which might be its real subject. (Perhaps the idea is that Trump’s America is an unruly, even monstrous child, and good-enough—sympathetic but firm—parenting is what it needs.) The book is filled with parents trying to do their best, and mostly but of course not always succeeding. Mark and Lisa try hard not to take out their marital problems on their kids, though they sometimes fight through them. The best parent in the book is a minor character named Kirsten, the mother of a friend of Mark and Lisa’s son, and who, it is intimated, voted for Trump. In a memorable chapter, Mark and his daughter drive through a blizzard to pick the boy up from his friend’s house. The car spins off the road: they are unhurt but by the time they’ve trudged through the snow to the shelter of the house they’re cold and wet. Mark spends an enjoyable evening playing board games and eating chili with Kirsten and the various neighbourhood children who’ve gathered at her house, while he waits for her boyfriend to get home from work.

Barry gets Mark out of the ditch: when Mark thanks him, he replies, “Thank Jesus. He has our backs whether we know it or not.” That feels a little much (it’s not a totally implausible response, but in my experience people who think like this are usually more circumspect when first meeting someone—they will, however, say “Have a blessed day” to you all the time), but the point, maybe not subtle but also not wrong, is that we shouldn’t reduce people to their political convictions or opinions, shouldn’t be so quick to pigeon hole them. Maybe Mark is, after all, both a builder and an art lover. What would be so weird about that? (Or maybe the point is that we should consider the material and social conditions that allow people to live in cognitive dissonance: generous to individuals, even ones they don’t know, but hostile to groups. Or, maybe, hostile to individuals who don’t look like them.)

Apparently Sturm first published the book serially online in the wake of the 2016 election. But his concerns here aren’t only topical; he’s been thinking about them for a while. Sturm wrote one of my favourite comics, Market Day, set in the Pale of Settlement in the early 20th century, I. B. Singer, Sholem Aleichem territory, but shorn of anything folksy or sentimental. Its Yiddishkeit is as somber as Sturm’s palette—and as moving. I disagree with the Times reviewer who finds Off Season more vibrant than his earlier books because, unlike them, it’s set in the present. That’s a spurious distinction. It’s been several years since I read Market Day, so I may be misremembering, but both it and Off Season want us to think about how people—men, really: Sturm isn’t bad with women, but they are never center stage in his books—can make a living in economies that don’t value them. (Market Day is about a rug maker who can’t sell his work anymore; machine-made rugs cost a lot less.) In both books, the main characters respond to their precarity with violence, directed at others and at themselves. When Mark loses his cool, he doesn’t hurt anyone (at least not directly) but his response (he vandalizes the house he’s been building with Mitch) is disturbing. My criticism of Sturm is that he’s not sure what to make of violence. Is it an understandable, if regrettable, response to an intolerable situation? An intolerable response? Secretly exciting and laudable?

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Off Season ends in oblique, low-key optimism. Which is maybe the best we can hope for right now. It’s a beautiful, pensive, involving work: you can read it in an hour but you’ll want to linger longer. My only wish is that in his next book Sturm thought a little more about violence, frustration, anxiety, loathing, all kinds of bad affects. Are they what’s off this season? Or are they with us all the year long?

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March 2019 in Review

March is a long time ago now, but I wanted to say a few words about my monthly reading. A better than average set.

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Yiyun Li – Where Reasons End (2019) Sad, funny, wise, painful. I quoted bits here.

Christopher R. Browning – Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992/98) This Holocaust scholar could have won plenty of rounds of Humiliation for not having read Browning’s classic microhistory of the actions of Order Police Battalion 101 near Lublin in 1942. Sometimes books you feel just have to have read disappoint. Not Ordinary Men, which remains as eye-opening now as then. (Browning has written a thoughtful essay for the 25th anniversary edition, bringing the latest research, especially concerning the photograph record of the unit, to bear on his original conclusions.)

The book begins with a sobering statistic: in March 1942, 70—80% of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive, and 20—30% had been murdered; by February 1943, the proportions were reversed. 1942 was the darkest year in Jewish history; Browning examines one example of the men who perpetrated that darkness. The average age of the 500 men in the battalion was in the upper 30s, meaning that they had come of age before the Nazis came to power, and they were working- and lower middle class men from Hamburg, an area and the social classes famously antipathetic to National Socialism—facts which, taken together, suggest these men would have been among the least likely to be drawn to fascism. Yet they readily participated in mass executions, round-ups, and deportations.

Browning notes that 10—20% refused to partake in atrocities (and they had the benefit of a commander who actually asked before the first action if anyone wanted out—rather than a death sentence or a transfer to the front, these dissenters were moved into clerical positions or even sent back home); 20—30% participated avidly in atrocities; while the majority (50—70%), although reluctant, participated anyway. For the men in this last category, it was easier to follow along, and too unpleasant to risk the scorn of their more hateful colleagues. These are sobering numbers, with implications beyond Browning’s specific example. What makes us think we wouldn’t number among the majority in a similar scenario?

Leslie Morris, The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture Outside the Margins (2018) I had a realization as I reviewed Morris’s book on the idea of translation in postwar German Jewish culture: academic monographs make me grumpy and I should stop writing about them. Thus, I’ve given up reviewing books for Choice, a publication designed to help libraries decide what to buy. (I wrote for them for 10 years.) Morris, whom I have not met even though the field we work in is small, probably deserves a more charitable reviewer. I did my best to point out the inspiring range of her material—ranging from a defunct Berlin sculpture park to Jewish body art to the poets Raymond Federman and Rose Ausländer. But her insistence, so typically academic, that we think, read, or engage “in new ways,” without explaining how or why, grated on me. As I concluded: “her description of Jewishness as an endlessly deferred cipher, at once spurring and spurning interpretation, is as unexceptional as it is unexceptionable.”

Andrea Camilleri – The Overnight Kidnapper (2015) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) Of course, the crime itself has vanished from my memory, but I recall the latest Montalbano as a decent effort. I didn’t want any surprises, and I didn’t get any.

Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 2] (2016) Trans. Anne Ishii (2018) I read Volume 1 last month; happy to say that the conclusion doesn’t disappoint. It plays a trick on us, but a fair one: leading us to believe in an impossible ending, then gently showing us why the all-too-possible one, however melancholy, is the right choice.

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies (2018) The latest Rebus—once again improved, I suspect, by the audiobook’s excellent narrator—is one of the best in a while, featuring a rich set of storylines, plus better use of Brillo the dog (see my February complaint). The détente between Rebus and Edinburgh crime boss Big Ger Cafferty suggested in the previous installments is gone. This despite the fact that Rebus is coming to terms with a COPD diagnosis. Has anyone written about the pathos of ailing detectives?

H. F. Heard – A Taste for Honey (1941) I admit, I did not do this book justice. I read it on a Friday night when I was exhausted and should have gone to bed. But even in a better frame of mind, I think I would have found this tale of Holmes in retirement thin gruel. You better like Holmes a lot more than suspense if you’re going to enjoy it.

Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex I & II (both 2015) Trans. Frank Wynne (2017 & 2018) Not sure how long they’ll stay with me, but I liked these books a lot. I tried to articulate why—and the issue I take with the conclusion they seem to be coming to—here.

Mihail Sebastian – Women (1933) Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh (2019) More anon.

Solomon Perel – Europa, Europa (1990) Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo (1997) Almost on a whim, I decided to teach Agnieska Holland’s adaptation of Perel’s extraordinary Holocaust memoir this semester. It went well—I’m finding the movie more interesting the longer I spend with it (always a good sign). The film is plenty unusual, but Perel’s memoir even more so. His story is stranger than fiction: after escaping the Nazi advance by fleeing east of the Bug river (the part of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union in the Hitler—Stalin pact) and finding refuge as a Komsomol in an orphanage in Grodno, the Jewish Perel passed himself off as an Ethnic German when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. (He had been born in Germany before moving to Poland with his parents as a child.) Perel found himself honoured for fighting at the Front and then shipped to a boarding school for elite members of the Hitler Youth, where he spent most of his time worrying someone would notice his circumcision. (Tonally, both book and film are crazy: sort of funny, sort of campy, sort of moving.) Remarkably, Perel survived the war surrounded by Nazi true believers, and at war’s end found himself reunited with his elder brother, the only other member of the family to survive. Perel’s story is even more unlikely than most survivor tales. What is most interesting is the way his cognitive dissonance features in odd switches between first and third person. At heart there seems something fundamentally incurious about Perel. An effect of his experiences? Or a predisposition towards surviving them?

Michelle McNamara — I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018) I don’t read much True Crime. But I do read a ton of crime fiction. So, I naively assumed, when I started listening to McNamara’s acclaimed description of her pursuit of the serial rapist she named the Golden State Killer, that I knew what I was in for. Nope. I was shocked by how visceral, graphic, and uncomfortably voyeuristic this book—and, I suspect, its genre—turns out to be. It’s creepy as shit. To her credit, McNamara is aware of these difficulties, and doesn’t shy from highlighting her obsessive interest. Sadly, McNamara couldn’t finish her book: she died about three-quarters of the way through, and the finished version has been pieced together from notes. (The editors clearly describe when and how they’ve reconstructed.) Still, I did find the book repetitive and confusingly structured—perhaps a fitting response to the relentlessness of the crimes, dozens and dozens of them, perpetrated over a decade all over California. (If I had a better sense of California’s geography I might have had an easier time of it.) The tension between what we know—the killer was finally caught (in part thanks to McNamara’s efforts—and what she didn’t gives the book a macabre poignancy. Not for the faint of heart.

Lissa Evans — Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) Read my take, if you like, but be sure to read this novel. There’s a dog that understands Yiddish!

David Bezmozgis — Immigrant City: Stories (2019) Bezmozgis is one of my favourites, the heir to Bernard Malamud. I snapped up his new collection on a recent weekend in Canada (why no US pub date?) and finished it before I was even home. I’m not sure Bezmozgis has ever written anything as rich as his first novel, The Free World (the great novel of the emigration of Soviet Jewry), but most of these stories are the equal of those in his terrific first collection, Natasha and Other Stories. Of course, some stories are stronger than others. “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” for example, is a bit travelogue-y. But “Immigrant City” breaks new ground for Bezmozgis (not sure the attempt to juxtapose earlier generations of Jewish immigrants to newer ones from Syria and Somalia completely works, but it’s thought provoking—I suspect it would hold up to rereading). And “Little Rooster” is a classic that is going straight onto the syllabus of my course on postwar representations of the Holocaust.

More before too long, I hope, about April reading, which is proving decidedly more unavailing.

Diversify your Delusions: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End

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A parent’s folly, I thought, is to want to give a child what she does not have. A parent has to be quixotic. The word reminded me what I had forgotten all these weeks, that on the day Nikolai had died, when I had not known it would happen, I had been listening to Don Quixote on a long drive. I had been laughing to myself in the car. I had laughed at times since then, but that laughter in the car—quixotic—would never be mine again. [Does the “she” in the first sentence refer to the child or the parent? The narrator mentions Nikolai, so the answer is probably the parent. But if so, why parent and not mother? I’m interested in the push and pull between specific and general here.]

***

Are some days more special than others, or are we giving them names and granting them meaning because days are indifferent, and we try to wrangle a little love out of them as we tend to do with uncaring people?

***

Where should I go from here?

Oh you know you’re doing fine.

I didn’t know it. I wasn’t feeling fine. I had but one delusion, which I held on to with all my willpower: We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words.

A good tactic is to diversify your delusions, he said. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket kind of thing.

I couldn’t refrain from pointing out that he had used a cliché.

Whatever, he said.

Sorry, I said. Still, please enlighten me.

Oh, do what squirrels do. Dig a hole and store a handful of delusions there, and dig another one and store more. Some delusions are for today. Some are for tomorrow. Some take a few months to ripen. Keep them dry so they don’t get moldy. Keep them private so others don’t step on them by accident or dig them up and steal them. Be patient. Delayed gratification is the key to a successful life of delusions. And if you’re lucky, some delusions become self-seeded. Some even go wild like dandelions.

Are you making fun of me?

Indeed I am, he said. Nobody needs to be taught how to live under delusions. It’s like sleeping.

There is a condition called insomnia, I said.

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Some representative passages from Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End (2019).

The narrator, a writer and a teacher, conducts a series of conversations with her oldest son, who has recently killed himself. These are interspersed with meditations, as in the first two examples. Over and over the two of them return to language, playing with it, acting as guardians of it (the contest over cliché here, for example).

This is a very sad book, but wise and even sometimes joyful, though a joy always on the verge of despair. You can see it in the narrator’s claim that she is giving life to her lost child, once again, but this time in words. The book wants to believe in this beautiful sentiment, but it also recognizes it as fatuous: a delusion. (And what about that “we” in her sentence? What does her husband, the boy’s father, think? This is one of the only times the narrator mentions him.) And yet delusions might be good things to live under, especially if they disseminate, no matter how much an even brilliant teenager derides the idea. For delusions are connected, Li suggests, to imagination to thinking, to the life of the mind. And the mind—even or especially a mind in distress—can go off in all sorts of directions. Which might be a way to counter the terrible reality that time can only go in one.

Speaking of terrible reality, the book’s composure is even more striking when you find out that, like her narrator, Li had a teenage son who killed himself.

A couple of years ago I read one or two of Li’s early story collections. I found them uneven, sometimes exciting, sometimes too careful. She’s made the quite the leap in the intervening years, and I’ll be seeking out the books I missed.

February 2019 in Review

Short month, short books. Verdict: plenty of decent reading, some even better than that. Here’s what I read in February 2019.

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Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 1] (2014) Trans. Anne Ishii (2017) Gentle manga about Yaichi, a single parent raising a delightful, rambunctious daughter, Kana. Their lives are interrupted by the arrival of Yaichi’s brother-in-law, a white Canadian named Mike Flanagan, who visits Japan in the wake of his husband’s (Yaichi’s brother’s) death. Yaichi spares no effort to welcome Mike—aided by Kana’s joy in the sudden appearance of this unexpected uncle—but his not-so-latent homophobia keeps getting in the way. Lots of secrets, lots of emotion, but all handled lightly. I was engrossed and moved and have the sequel from the library ready to go. Plus, who doesn’t like a hunky Canadian hero?

Ken Krimstein – The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth (2018) I enjoyed this comic, which combines Arendt’s biography with her political philosophy. Maybe I found the experiment so compelling because I don’t really know my Heidegger. (I’ve been avoiding him since college; my undergraduate institution was regrettably besotted by the thinker of Being.) At least that’s how I felt after reading the TLS review, which called out Krimstein for his misleading summary of Arendt’s erstwhile lover’s philosophy. I agree that Krimstein rather hurried over Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, and maybe he does spend too much time offering potted biographies of the many intellectuals, artists, and otherwise famous people Arendt came across, but Three Escapes gave me a clearer sense of Arendt’s life, especially the years before the war, and made me thrill to the capacious generosity of her ideas. A book could do worse.

Hana Demetz – The House on Prague Street (1970) Trans. Hana Demetz (1980) Score another one for open stacks. While at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archive earlier this year, I was browsing the shelves when my eye was drawn to the cornflower blue spine of Demetz’s book, written in German and later translated into English by the author herself. Happily, my local library had a copy, which, I suspect, no one had checked out for years. Which is a shame: The House on Prague Street is really good. It tells the story of Helene Richter, who grows up in eastern Czechoslovakia in the 1930s but whose life revolves around the summers she spends in the small town in Bohemia where her maternal grandparents live in the house that gives the book its title.

Her mother’s Jewish family are successful industrialists, the classic success story of Austro-Hungarian emancipation. (The first pages might have come from a Joseph Roth novel.) Imagine their unhappiness when Helene’s mother marries a law clerk from a Sudeten German family. This makes Helenka, as she is affectionately known, half Jewish, which has important consequences for her after 1938. Unlike the rest of her mother’s family she is not deported to Theresienstadt or further east. Instead she comes of age in wartime Prague, where she experiences plenty of privations but nothing like those suffered by her mother. Imagine her mother’s anguish when Helenka falls in love with a German soldier, on leave for a few days from the eastern front. That Gerd seems to be a genuinely kind person, and no Nazi, does nothing to assuage the mother’s hurt. These scenes are riveting—the tone is different from, say, the bitterness of Ruth Kluger’s fights with her mother in her memoir Still Alive; Demetz’s bitterness is always mixed with sweetness—and only become more poignant in light of the traumas that descend upon the family.

The mother dies of a sudden illness because she cannot be taken to the Jewish hospital after curfew. Gerd is declared missing, presumed dead. The father survives the war, only to be murdered in a street fight between German sympathizers and communists in the weeks after armistice. At the end, Helene returns to her grandparents’ house, which has been taken over by Orthodox Jews returned from the death camps. They are suspicious and resentful of her; she respects their claim on the house, but has no respect for them, describing them as uncouth, even primitive. Not even genocide, we learn, will necessarily bring people together. Demetz offers no vision of Jewish solidarity. And why should she? After all, it was the perpetrators who defined the victims as much as or even more than the victims themselves.

The neatness of the book’s narrative structure—it ends with Helene on the station platform, awaiting the train back to Prague, standing under the same swaying begonias that so imprinted themselves on her mind as a child—reminds readers that The House on Prague Street is a novel, not a memoir. Yet it reads more like the latter than the former. It has the feeling of coming directly from the life of the author.  It’s not perfect, sometimes it strains a little for effect, but it’s captivating and moving. Some enterprising publisher ought to reissue it.

Anthony Horowitz – The House of Silk (2011) (Audiobook) Enjoyable Holmes novel, improved by Derek Jacobi’s peerless narration. It’s true, I did guess the ending (a subplot fooled me, though I also found it a bit silly), but the book’s real pleasure lies in its subtle characterization of Watson, nothing like the “sack stuffed with straw” so derided by Virginia Woolf. As always, Horowitz brings the stuff.

Hana Demetz – The Journey from Prague Street (1990) After so enjoying Demetz’s earlier novel I had to read its sequel, which sees Helene and her husband escape Czechoslovakia and build a life in America. Unfortunately, Journey isn’t a patch on its predecessor. Maybe the problem is that Demetz wrote it in English. But I think it’s more that the situations—infidelity, divorce, the trials of starting over in mid-life—are tired and their handling uninspired. Maybe Demetz only had one book in her. (I believe, actually, she wrote some others before House, but I don’t think they’ve been translated.)

Sarah Moss – Ghost Wall (2018) I’m writing about this for another outlet, so will only say: I liked it, sometimes quite a lot, but I wasn’t as crazy about it as so many people on Book Twitter seem to have been.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947/1986) Trans. Sharon Lynne Schwartz (1991) Brilliant, evenhanded, non-judgmental and unsparing narrative memoir (what I mean is that Millu tells her experience in Birkenau through a series of stories about other inmates, stories that have the texture of fiction—not that their made up, but that their telling is literary). I’ve written about Smoke before. How good is it? Well, this is the fourth or fifth time in the last couple of years I’ve read it, and it gets better and better. I now know it well enough that I won’t have to read it from cover to cover each semester, but I’ll look forward to dipping into it.

Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins (2011) Trans. Peter Millar (2015) My high hopes for this mystery, set in the rubble of immediate postwar Hamburg, were dashed almost immediately. The writing is pedestrian, and the murderer pretty obvious. The use of the setting is good, and I learned what people did to survive the brutal winter of 1947. I’d have been better off reading a history, though. I believe it’s a first novel, and it might be that Rademacher improves (there are two sequels plus a whole other series), but I’m not inclined to give him a chance. (Especially since I got the book from the UK.) No Philip Kerr, let me tell you.

Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem (1999) My third audiobook of the semester was the fifth in the Holmes/Mary Russell series. It looks back to the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (still the best so far), and expands upon an interlude referred to there in which the leads find themselves in Mandate Palestine. I’m really interested in that time and place, and I enjoyed learning about General Allenby, who seems to have been quite a character, but this book is much too long and much too dull. King hasn’t lost me entirely, Russell is still a good character, and I’ll continue with the series, but plan to take a break for a while.

Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016) Not only the book of the month, but the book of the year so far, and one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I want to write a proper post about it, so for now will just say that it’s about an indigenous family in Winnipeg, specifically its female members, and their response to the countless aggressions (micro and macro) they endure. (The Break is a strip of land, a hydro corridor, in the city’s North End). The highest praise I can give books is that I still remember them weeks later, and The Break passes that test easily.

Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy (2018) Wilkinson’s debut novel, conversely, does not. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, and I found its central conceit—that African Americans are like spies in enemy country, nicely formulated in an epigraph from Ellison’s Invisible Man—fascinating and timely. Marie Mitchell is an African American woman in the FBI in the late 1980s. She ends up working for the CIA in the then-newly renamed Burkina Faso on a mission to ingratiate herself with its charismatic President, Thomas Sankara. Until reading this novel I was completely ignorant of Sankara’s revolutionary Marxist and anti-imperialist program, which seems to have transformed life for the country’s poor. In the novel—and I suspect in life—the CIA wanted him gone; when Marie is sent on a mission of the kind she has always wanted she is forced to reconcile her love of the work with her feelings that the country she is working for isn’t really her own.

The sections in Africa are nicely handled: the book never feels like a travelogue. Yet even though I was impressed by what Wilkinson was trying to do I didn’t feel she quite pulled it off. There are two reasons for that: one, she’s trying to do too much, and, two, she doesn’t do the genre justice. In addition to everything I’ve mentioned the book also tells a family story, involving Marie’s divorced parents (one a cop and one, it turns out, a former spy) and her sister, who had tried to forge a path into intelligence work and couldn’t. Wilkinson ties this together with the political story, but it’s too much. As Wilkinson admits in this interview, she isn’t that well versed in spy fiction. I appreciate her efforts to queer/diversify the genre—it needs it!—but I want that effort to be accompanied by a better sense of suspense, pacing, etc.  For me, a fascinating misfire.

Primo Levi – The Reawakening (1963) Trans. Stuart Woolf (1965) (The proper title is The Truce.) Although I have taught a short excerpt from this for years in my Holocaust Lit class, I’d never read the whole thing. I read it with some students, and their appreciation of it increased my own. It’s a picaresque, describing the eleven months it took Levi to return to his home in Turin from Auschwitz-Birkenau. We enjoyed comparing The Reawakening to the much more famous Survival in Auschwitz (a.k.a. If This is a Man: Levi’s American publishers didn’t do him any favours). The sequel is markedly different in style, tone, and structure. It is ordered chronologically, for one thing, unlike its much more essayistic predecessor. “Picaresque” is misleading: it suggests scrapes and hijinks and ne’er-do-wells (all of which feature here), when in fact the book contains at least as much that is somber as triumphant. But it’s a book about coming back to life: hard, painful, but ultimately affirming. Levi is sometimes even funny, especially in his appreciation for Soviet organization, or lack thereof. At one point, describing a Soviet DP camp, he says something like (I don’t have the book in front of me), “There was no organization, but we got fed every day. It was a perfect system.” At moments like this, my students and I were reminded of the well-known encounter between Levi and a man named Steinlauf in Survival in Auschwitz. Steinlauf, a WWI veteran, perseveres even in the Lager he with a diligent regime of personal cleanliness, even though in those conditions hygiene was impossible. The point, he explains to Levi, urging him to wash in the ice-cold dirty water provided the prisoners, is to maintain one’s self as a human. Levi sees the man’s point, but he admits himself incapable of following another man’s system. This is the Levi we see in The Reawakening, a man who is finally free yet not forced to navigate the chaotic, ramshackle, uncoordinated but ultimately inescapable Allied bureaucracy.

Although short, The Reawakening is full to bursting with vivid characters and outlandish scenarios. Through a series of misadventures, Levi and the handful of Italian deportees who survived with him are sent east, through the Ukraine and almost up to Minsk, before making their way back down through Romania, Hungary, Austria, even Munich (where Levi refuses to leave the train station) and finally home to Italy. Maybe the thing that made the biggest impression on my students was how fraught the immediate months after the war were. We tend to think that liberation brought a return to normal life; Levi makes it clear, however, that this concept didn’t survive the war.

Looking back, February’s highlights were The House on Prague Street, The Reawakening and, above all, The Break. Anyone read them?

 

“Peddle your philanthropic bullshit to someone else”: Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation

As Hannah Arendt tells it, Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem for his role in organizing the Final Solution, was given a copy of Lolita by one of his jailers. The gift did not go over well. Two days later, Eichmann, “visibly indignant,” returned it, unfinished. His verdict? “‘Quite an unwholesome book’—‘ Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch.”

I’m baffled by this story. What motivated the Israeli official? Was he making a joke? Setting a test? Teaching a lesson? (Lolita is framed as a jailhouse confession, after all.) Why did Eichmann reject the book? Did he take Humbert Humbert’s tale at face value—that is, did he fail to see the book’s critique of pedophilia? Or on the contrary did he see his own evasions in the narrator’s? Was he rejecting the joke, test or lesson? Above all, why “unwholesome”? (Unerfreulich can also mean unpleasant.)

Arendt offers no explanation for her inclusion of the anecdote. (It’s literally a parenthesis.) But she places it in a discussion of what she calls Eichmann’s aphasia—his inability to wield language without resorting to cliché. The man himself apologized for his inarticulateness to the court, saying that his only language was Amtsprache, bureaucratese. According to Arendt, anyway, Eichmann had no critical faculties. He saw the world through ready-made phrases and shopworn ideas. No wonder wholesomeness was his recourse. He knew what he liked because he liked what he knew.

But maybe in this case he was on to something. Lolita is disreputable. It relishes that designation, of course, asking us to decide what we mean when we reject something as immoral. The point of that challenge isn’t to expand what counts as acceptable behavior but to make us realize how easily we accept, even condone abuse. The novel’s glittering language—the fancy prose style Humbert warns us about in its first pages—only exacerbates the sordidness of its subject matter, so that even our pity and horror for what happens to twelve-year-old Dolores Haze comes to seem tainted by having to be earned from reading against the grain.

I thought about Eichmann and Lolita as I wondered how to respond to Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation (1979), certainly the most unpleasant and maybe the most unwholesome book I’ve read in a long time.

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It’s all the publisher’s fault. When I read the promotional copy—which also appears on the dust jacket—describing Deviation as “a seminal work in Holocaust literature” I was immediately intrigued. (“Seminal” should have tipped me off—I thought we retired that word.) I even managed to convince Scott—who knows Italian literature much better than I do—to read it with me. (Sorry, Scott!)

But Deviation is not about the Holocaust. About fascism, yes, about forced labour camps, definitely, about the relationship between industry and Nazi expansionism, quite interestingly, and about moral equivocation most definitely. But not about the Holocaust, and to suggest this is, frankly, disgusting and disrespectful.

The publisher’s bait and switch has certainly coloured my view of the book, but even without that aggravation I think I’d be hard-pressed to know what to make of Deviation. I’ll let D’Eramo—in the guise of her narrator, basically a version of D’Eramo herself—explain what the book is about. Lucia, like her author born and partially raised in France before returning to Italy as a teenager, is an ardent Fascist. With the establishment of the Republic of Salò in September 1943 and the rise of partisan resistance to fascism, believers like Lucia were left “feeling as though their earlier ideals were crimes” (they were!). Eighteen-year-old Lucia comes to a decision:

I realized that the only way to learn the truth for myself about Fascists and anti-Fascists—many said that they could no longer figure it out [note the resemblance to Trump’s pet expression “People are saying”]—was to ascertain it firsthand. Understanding this, I had to go to the places about which the most outrageous stories were told: the Nazi concentration camps. That’s why I ran away from home on February 8, 1944, and went to Germany as a simple volunteer worker, with pictures of Mussolini and Hitler in my backpack, sure about what I was doing. But after spending a few months in a labor camp near Frankfurt am Main, my comrades organized a strike at the factory, the IG Farben, where I worked in the Ch 89, the chemical division. As a result, I was jailed, then later transferred and detained in Dachau. In order to survive, I escaped from there in October, and for a couple of months I remained hidden in Munich. Then I left, following the death of the friends who were helping me … I headed back to my first Lager [the IG Farben camp at Frankfurt-Höchst], travelling partway by train without a ticket, crouched in the toilets of the cars, partway on foot, spending the night in bomb shelters, in abandoned cattle cars, in foreigners’ barracks … in mid-February [1945] I arrived in Mainz.

Basically, the book is about Lucia’s attempt to come to terms with the evasions and lies in this story. What she first tells us is that on December 4, 1945 she finally returned to Italy, and did so as a paraplegic, her legs having been paralyzed when a wall fell on her as she was helping to dig survivors out of the rubble of a bombed-out building. But this first return was in fact her second.

It’s true, Lucia was involved in the brief and ultimately unsuccessful strike led by both volunteer and forced labourers at the IG Farben camp. And it’s also true that she was arrested. But after a failed suicide attempt—she took rat poison, and only survived because she took too much too quickly, and vomited it up: a nice metaphor for her life, where excess always turns in her favour—she was repatriated by the Italian consul and sent back to Italy.

As far as Lucia is concerned, the only good thing about this outrageous bit of good fortune is that her father, a bigshot in Fascist Italy whom she hates, had nothing to do with it. In fact, he refused to pull any strings for her. But in Verona, waiting for the train that will take her to Como, and home, she rebels. (That’s not the right word. She does something remarkably stupid.) She throws away her papers and arranges to get arrested by some SS men taking a convoy of political prisoners to the station. In this way, she is sent to Dachau, from which she eventually escapes after she volunteers to be part of the shit commando—a work detail sent around Munich to unclog sewage pipes (there are some memorable descriptions of this work in the book’s first pages). When the work detail is caught in an air raid, she slips off into the pandemonium, eventually ending up at a makeshift transit camp for displaced foreigners located in an old brewery. And from there she makes her way, in the manner described in the long quote above, to IG Farben and later to Mainz, where she has her accident.

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The novel—it’s really autofiction avant la lettre—was written over a period of about 25 years, and its distinct sections are dated to show us this progress. D’Eramo usually tells the story in first person, but sometimes switches to third person, suggesting, as translator Anne Milano Appel suggests in her introduction, how foreign to D’Eramo that person now seems to her. (I’m using author and narrator interchangeably in a way I normally never would, but D’Eramo invites the equivalence.)

In the second half of the book, D’Eramo asks why she repressed the memory of returning voluntarily to Germany. But what she presents as an attempt at self-understanding reads as delusory exculpation. Even her big theory about Nazism and its camp system (she regularly distinguishes between Fascism, by which she means Italian Fascism, and Nazism; this distinction is her most interesting idea) fails to make us think better of her. In D’Eramo’s view, the camp system was a form of class warfare, in which only the working classes were made to suffer. Her evidence is that she never met any rich people in her various forms of voluntary incarceration. (Leading her to offer an anti-Semitic canard about Jewish wealth: “The big financiers, the truly wealthy were sheltered abroad.” Bollocks.)

Here and indeed everywhere in the book, D’Eramo comes across as a terrible person, describing “defenseless masses [that] huddle like sheep,” remembering concentration camp inmates as “a swarm of horrible, wonderful insects” (what the hell is “wonderful” translating here?), and criticizing an old woman’s desperate grief at the realization of her impending death as “a kind of greediness that was more irritating than moving.”  She is revolted by the coarseness of her fellow inmates, repulsed by their way of eating, and eventually driven to exclaim, “I despise victims.”

Readers will surely agree with Martine, one of the narrator’s co-conspirators in fomenting the IG Farben strike, who sees through D’Eramo’s political awakening: “So shut your mouth and peddle your philanthropic bullshit to someone else. Why do you try to excuse yourself? You are who you are.” Specifically, she’s someone who, Martine adds, wants the privileges of being a fascist student in the camp (better food and living conditions) without any of the drawbacks (D’Eramo is hurt that others hate her so much).

The most generous reading of Deviance I can muster is that at least D’Eramo is honest enough to show herself in a bad light. But that honesty feels so self-serving. She’s proud of it, like the student who thinks that his honesty in admitting he hasn’t done the reading for class is enough for him to be excused from any consequences. After all, at least he hasn’t tried to bullshit the instructor. But the fact is he’s merely swallowed his own bullshit. So too D’Eramo, whose great struggle in life—the thing she wrestles with for decades—is the lie she tells anyone who will listen, mostly herself, that she was sent to Dachau for her part in organizing the IG Farben strike, when in fact she chose to be sent there. Finally acknowledging that lie, she seems to think, is a courageous thing to do. (Amazingly, she never refers to her real courage, which consists of living with constant pain from her injury, and refusing to use her disability as an excuse for not doing what she wants to do—having a child, writing her books, etc. Except maybe that doesn’t take courage, just determination.)

Admittedly, D’Eramo does wrestle with the hold that the concept of willpower has over her—she sees this as a legacy of her upbringing and she believes more than anything in the need to overcome the prejudices of her bourgeois milieu. Not because she regrets her commitment to fascism. Nor even because she sees the terrible ends to which a belief in willpower can be put (demonizing anyone unlucky in any way or lacking the advantages of her class position as weak and second-rate). Only, as far as I can tell, because she hates her family so much.  And even that rejection relies on the attributes of her middle-class childhood: she wills herself to overcome the idea of willpower. This is akin to the fetishization of toughness that the philosopher Theodor Adorno called one of the most damaging attributes of the fascist mindset. Even if D’Eramo regrets her past beliefs (and I’m not clear she ever does), she maintains the very attitudes that undergirded that belief.

One of the prisoners in the train taking her to Dachau, a partisan (that is, someone brave enough to resist the regime), tells her, after he finds out how D’Eramo came to be in the freight car with the rest of them, “The performance is over. You can go home.” As much as I sympathize with the man, he’s wrong. D’Eramo’s performance, aimed at much at herself as us, is never over, even when she later acknowledges her own act. Because in the end the acknowledgement is the performance.

And I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of that performance. When she calls herself “an inveterately elite worm,” should we applaud her self-awareness? When she describes how she failed in turning what she thinks could have been the most socially aware moment of her life (choosing to be sent to Dachau) into a mere moral act, adding that, even if she can be excused for what she did at the time, given her youth, her upbringing, etc., can she be excused now, are we supposed to admire the question?

No way. After all, she never gets beyond asking it. D’Eramo regularly points out her mistakes—yet she keeps making them. She offers what she knows is a false analogy between her own experience in the hospital after her accident, waiting for the paperwork to come through so she can leave Germany, to the travails of deportees in the cattle cars. But saying it’s a shitty analogy doesn’t make it less shitty.

Nor is she winning me over when, writing in the mid 1970s, she explains that she “agonized retroactively for the children of the Osten [Slavic prisoners of war, both military and civilian, mostly Russian, whom she encountered in the IG Farben camp] and Jews whom I could see clustered behind the barbed wire when I skirted the transit camps in search of shelter, and who, in my distorted memory, stared at me with the dark eyes of my son.” Thanks for nothing, lady. It’s almost as bad as the anti-Semitism and historical inaccuracy in her description of a gold necklace she continues to wear for decades after the war, which she “snatched from a body, like the Jewish Sonderkommando [the prisoners forced to operate the crematoria] did at Auschwitz.”

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Really, the only thing that didn’t make my gorge rise while reading Deviation is D’Eramo’s use of scabrous details: she tells us of men aroused in the disinfection shower; of the chest burns she suffers when she’s assigned to carry blocks of sulfuric acid in the IG Farben camp, as punishment for demanding equal food for Eastern and Western prisoners; of the aftermath of her injury, when her buttock splits open, “emitting copious putrid matter with an unbearable stench”; and of a nurse in the hospital where recovers from that injury who, receiving a letter from a man asking for money to start up a toilet paper factory, since it is sure to be in short supply in post-war Germany, uses the letter to wipe herself.

These details are the only things in this book that don’t stink. They’re gross, but honestly so. They’re not bullshit. The unwholesomeness of the book lies in D’Eramo’s mental gymnastics not her bodily suffering. Adolf Eichmann was wrong about Lolita: the unpleasantness of its events is not something readers are invited to pat themselves on the back for navigating. But his judgment wouldn’t be inappropriate for Deviation. Who do I give my copy back to?

 

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.

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.

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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?