Beyond Night: A Holocaust Remembrance Reading List

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day; it was on that date in 1945 that Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A powerful way to commemorate the Holocaust is to read its literature: the letters, diaries, memoirs, essays, poems, and fiction created during the events and since. A handful of these texts are well-known: Anne Frank’s Diary, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s memoirs Night and Survival in Auschwitz, Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus. These are rightly famous, and well worth reading (even if Night drives me crazy).

But what if you’ve read them and are looking for more?

Here are 15 less-familiar titles that will deepen your understanding of the Holocaust:

David Albahari, Götz and Meyer (1998) Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (2004)

In this novel, a teacher in Belgrade traces the fate of his relatives, uncovering the circumstances of their deaths in a gas van driven by the SS officers of the title. A novel about the limits of history and the possibilities and perils of the imagination.

Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (2017)

Why read this out of the many fascinating and heartbreaking Holocaust diaries? For one thing, the story is extraordinary: together with a cousin, Applebaum took refuge on a farm near Tarnapol, Poland. For much of their time in hiding, the two young women were buried in a wooden box, about the size of a wardrobe, able to come out only for an hour or two each night. More vexingly still, both women had sex with their protector, events described obliquely yet excitedly by Applebaum, yet which can’t help but lead us to ask questions about consent and abuse. Another quality that distinguishes this diary is that it’s paired with a memoir written much later, in which Applebaum describes her new life in Canada and reflects on her wartime experiences, yet in ways that seem at odds with the way she told them in the diary.

Heimrad Bäcker, transcript (1986) Translated by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling (2010)

Conceptual poetry, writes the scholar Leslie Morris, “seeks to create texts that disavow the very act of creation.” Bäcker’s poems are taken from official documents and eyewitness testimony. Here’s one, taken from a postwar record of criminal proceedings:

whereas he had to prepare breakfast each morning for about 300 prisoners in camp III, he had to provide a midday meal for only about 150.

Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar (1969) Translated by Leila Vennewitz (1990)

Maybe the most brilliant ghetto novel, written by one who survived the Lodz ghetto and two concentration camps. At the beginning of the novel, Jacob happens to overhear a bulletin on German radio describing a Russian advance. Having let slip the news, Jacob, who is too frightened to explain how he came by this knowledge, pretends that he has a radio (strictly forbidden in the ghetto) and invents the news. Amazingly, the book is funny, as well as very, very sad. Jacob’s inventions are an allegory for our own desires as readers of traumatic events.

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (written 1946-48) Translated by Barbara Vedder (1967)

Dark. So dark. These stories are more or less loosely based on Borowski’s own experiences as a non-Jewish political prisoner at Auschwitz and Dachau, most famously about his time as a member of the “Canada Kommando,” the prisoners tasked with separating the new arrivals from their belongings. Desperate.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Translated by Samuel E. Martin (2017)

The bark of the title comes from a birch tree at Birkenau, peeled off by Didi-Huberman on a recent visit. These same trees can be seen in the four famous photographs taken (at great risk and with daring subterfuge) by a member of the Sonderkommando (the “special squad”—the name given by the Nazis to the groups of Jews they selected to take the bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria) in the summer of 1944; these comprise the only images of the Holocaust taken by its victims. In this little book, Didi-Huberman intersperses his own amateur photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site with essayistic meditations on the paradoxes of commemorating mass murder.

Ida Fink, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (1983) Translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose (1987)

Ah, these stories! I’m in awe of how much Fink packs into just a few pages. Plus, she turns each text into a meditation on the stakes of representing and interpreting traumatic events. You would think the allegories of reading would get in the way of the emotional power of the stories. But no, Fink’s genius is to combine self-awareness with heart. Maybe the greatest Holocaust writer.

Imre Kertész, Fatelessness (1975) Translated by Tim Wilkinson (2004)

The most difficult but also the most brilliant Holocaust novel I know. Fourteen-year-old György is deported from Budapest in the summer of 1944 to a series of camps and (barely) lives to tell the tale. He tells his story in a fussy, roundabout style that is more amazed than horrified. What makes the book so challenging is that Kertész never allows his narrator the benefit of hindsight. Which allows us to experience the events of the Final Solution as its victims would have: as bewildering, boring, even at times exciting. An amazing accomplishment.

Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001)

Kluger’s bitter insights spare no one: she’s as scathing about the Vienna of her childhood as of the Jim Crow America she arrived in shortly after the war. And her portrait of her relationship with her mother—together, the two women survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen—is similarly unflinching. The memoir is highly self-reflexive; no surprise, perhaps, for Kluger, who re-wrote the book in English after writing a version of it in German, became a professor of literature.

Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Translated by Ann Smock (1996)

Enigmatic and fragmentary memoir by an eminent philosopher of Nietzsche and Freud about her experiences as a hidden child in Paris after her beloved father, a rabbi, is deported. The heart of the story is the triangular relationship between Kofman, her mother, and the loving yet anti-Semitic woman who took them in. I blogged about it here.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947) Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1991)

Brilliant memoir in which Millu tells heartbreaking stories of life in the women’s Lager in Birkenau. Here we find stories of pregnancy, prostitution, maternal love, self-sacrifice, sabotage, and gossip, told in unshowy, elegant prose. I’ve no idea why this book isn’t much more famous.

Jona Oberski. Childhood (1978) Translated by Ralph Mannheim (1983)

Spare, memorable novel based on Oberski’s own experience: born in 1938 in Amsterdam to German Jewish refugees, then deported first to the Westerbork transit camp and then Bergen-Belsen, where he was orphaned and cared for by a family friend. Much of its power comes from the point of view—we see what the child sees, we know what the child knows, leaving us often in the dark. I wrote about the effects of its style when the book was reissued a few years ago.

Göran Rosenberg, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012) Translated by Sarah Death (2015)

Rosenberg, a Swedish journalist, uncovers his parents’ story: how they respectively survived the war and built a life in Sweden after being miraculously reunited. As the title suggests, though, that life, although successful in many ways, was always lived in the shadow of the Holocaust. Rosenberg, as I wrote here, excels at depicting the scope of the concentration camp system, and the similarity between it and the Displaced Persons camps that replaced it.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter (2017)

Proving that great books about the Holocaust can still be written, Seiffert’s novel has several things going for it: its discrete, matter-of-fact style, which is nonetheless beautiful, even at times incantatory; its focus on an underexamined (at least in the English-speaking world) facet of the Shoah, the depredations of the Einsatzgruppen in the Ukraine in 1941/42; and its braiding together of stories of victims, perpetrators, and so-called bystanders.

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

A recent discovery for me: an absorbing account of Tec’s wartime experiences, in which she lived with a Polish family and passed as a Gentile.

Do you have favourite Holocaust texts? Particular omissions you want to rectify? Let me know! And take a moment to thank the translators of these books; the Holocaust was a multilingual phenomenon: we need translators to understand its true dimensions.


Lucky Per (May 2019 Readalong)


The only thing I do more than read–and honestly I do it much more–is to trawl the internet looking for new books to read. This is insane, because I have hundreds of unread books. And more are coming into and through the house all the time. My problem, I’ve recently learned, is that I am a time fantasist. I have a poor sense of how long things will take or what I can reasonably accomplish. (My wife, by contrast, is a space fantasist: for example, she thinks there’s always room for everything in the house, her car, etc. Luckily, she is a time realist and I am a space realist. Of such balances are happy marriages made.)

Anyway, one way I’ve found to commit to a reading project is to invite others to join me, so that I’m accountable to them. The strategy doesn’t always work: I’ve flaked out on plenty of group readings. But sometimes it does.

All of which is to say that I recently learned that Everyman’s Library will be publishing what I think might be the first English translation of Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per. Published in installments between 1898 — 1904 (which seems a long time; there must be a story there), the novel was lauded by the likes of Thomas Mann and Ernst Bloch. Naomi Lebowitz has brought it to English; I gather a film version was recently made, though I’ve no idea if it was released in the US/UK.

Here’s what the publisher has to say:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

I’m always intrigued by what the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari called “minor literature,” whether that be literature from less well-known languages or languages written by minorities within a well-known language (their example is Kafka’s German, inflected by Yiddish and written in a predominantly Czech-speaking city). And the idea of a doorstop always appeals to me (it’s almost 700 pages). But mostly I am curious about the (lamentably unnamed) love interest, the Jewish heiress. I’m especially curious to compare Pontoppidan’s portrayal of Jewishness to George Eliot’s in Daniel Deronda, which I read about ten years ago.


Why am I telling you all this? Because I want you to join in! If you have experience with and knowledge of 19th century literature, Danish culture, Jewishness, novels of development, or either luck or happiness, so much the better. But no worries if you don’t!

The book comes out in April; I plan to read it once my semester ends in early May, with a view to discussing it in late May. So check your calendar. Are you game? Are you free? Can you help me a time realist here? Let me know in the comments!



On Holocaust Diaries

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The diarists themselves offer a response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mysterious, Statuary Fatality”: A Conversation on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis


A while ago I convinced Scott of seraillon to help me host a discussion of Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962). I hope others will join in, and as they do I’ll link to their posts here:

Meredith at Dolce Bellezza

Jacqui at Jacquiwinejournal 

Grant at 1streading’s Blog

Nathaniel Leach

I’ve written up my thoughts on what for me are some of the key aspects of this fascinating and beautiful novel. Scott has responded and added some of the issues that most struck him. In a separate post at Scott’s blog we’ll reverse the roles.

Thanks, Dorian! Since you’ve divided your thoughts into discrete sections, I’ll respond in italics after each one.

First, a brief summary of the book:

On a Sunday in April 1957, the unnamed narrator is on a day trip from Rome with friends. They unexpectedly end up at some Etruscan tombs. A little girl in the party asks her father why ancient tombs are not as sad as new ones. With those who have been dead so long, he replies, it’s as if they never lived. To which the girl rather precociously (one of the book’s few false notes) responds:

‘But now, if you say that’, she ventured softly, ‘you remind me that the Etruscans were also alive once, and so I’m fond of them, like everyone else.’

He doesn’t say so directly, but the narrator seems to be moved by these remarks. We might even say that he is unsealed. The Etruscan tombs remind him of the grandiose tomb of the Finzi-Contini family in his native Ferrara. Perhaps emboldened by the girl’s insistence that everyone who is dead deserves to be remembered, the narrator thinks of the fate of Italy’s Jews during the war. He tells the story—a story it seems he has held inside for a long time: that’s what I mean by his coming unsealed—of his relationship to the Finzi-Contini family in the years before the war. (Interestingly, he only tells us, not his traveling companions. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than to suggest that, as befits this tightly wound character, even emotional catharsis is restrained.)

Beginning with the end, the narrator explains that the story of the Finzi-Continis is one of catastrophe. Of all the members of the family the narrator “had known and loved” only one had managed to find the eternal rest promised by the tomb:

In fact the only one buried there is Alberto, the older son, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma. Whereas for Micòl, the second child, the daughter, and for her father, Professor Ermanno, and her mother, Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, Signora Olga’s ancient, paralytic mother, all deported to Germany in the autumn of ’43, who could say if they found any sort of burial at all?

The plot then shifts to the narrator’s childhood, highlighting his occasional encounters with the Finzi-Continis, before moving forward to 1938 and the promulgation of racial laws in Italy. When the wealthy Jews of Ferrara are forced out of the tennis club, Micòl and Alberto invite the younger set to play on the court on the estate surrounding the family home.

The narrator, who had always been drawn to the mysterious family, quickly falls in love with the Finzi-Continis and especially with Micòl, and over the following year they become increasingly close but never intimate. Micòl evades and eventually rejects the narrator. He is distraught and eventually forces himself or is forced to get over it. And then the war begins and this idyllic (if that’s the right word) time in the narrator’s life ends. That’s the story he wants to tell—the story of the days in the garden of the Finzi-Continis’ estate—not the story of what happened to them all later.

When I put it like this, the book might sound dull, but I found it completely riveting. Whoever chooses to read along with us in the coming days will help us build a picture of the novel. For now I want to talk about three things that struck me, and then mention a fourth.

I too found The Garden of the Finzi-Continis beautiful and riveting – so much so, in fact, that I’ve now read it twice since January, first in the Jamie McKendrick translation and now in the translation you read by William Weaver. I can well understand why this could be someone’s favorite novel; it is moving, exquisitely constructed and has a delicacy and sense of closeness to lived experience that few novels attain from one end to the other. Both times I’ve read it I came away unable to think about much of anything else for days.

 Bassani’s choice to place his “end” of the novel at the beginning, the revelation of the fate of the Finzi-Continis, signals to the reader that the author’s interest lies not in depicting the horrors of the Holocaust but elsewhere: in the world(s) that it destroyed. One might argue that the novel shouldn’t be categorized as “Holocaust literature” because it deals more directly with Italian Fascism, but I’d counter that Bassani is aiming precisely at overturning the sentiment that if Mussolini had not formed an alliance with Hitler, the country’s situation might have been tolerable. Something of this view gets conveyed in the intense political discussions the narrator has towards the end of the novel with his friend Malnate, one of the novel’s only non-Jews, but Bassani clearly wants to lay bare Italian culpability. For all of the peace that Bassani portrays within the walls of Edenic garden of the Finzi-Contini family, he also provides increasingly palpable glimpses of the hell that is growing beyond the garden walls, of the insidious, creeping intolerance and oppression that are alluded to subtly but frequently for much of the novel. For me this worked brilliantly – focusing on the bright lives at the center of an encroaching darkness rather than on the darkness itself. At the end one feels – but only afterwards, after the gentle impression of the final words have subsided – the colossal weight of all that has been pressing inward. The effect is devastating.

Hilltop at Evening 1928 by Giorgio Morandi 1890-1964

I. (Jewish) Outsiders

I really love books about outsiders who fall into (or maybe insinuate themselves into) worlds that are different—and, in their perception, better, richer, more enlivening, more satisfying—than their own. L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is a fine example. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is another.

I think I’m drawn to this scenario because, as a child of immigrants, I was tasked with helping my parents find their way in a new place. At the same time, I wanted to escape that role by finding worlds or social situations that were just for me. Literature has of course been for me the most important and all encompassing of those worlds. But my decision to move to another country is another example as is, more pertinently to Bassani’s novel, my conversion to Judaism.

I fell in love with Judaism for many reasons, mostly generous and anything but self-serving, but certainly one reason was the sense I had of it as a kind of refined minority. I realize this way of thinking verges perilously close to anti-Semitic stereotypes of secret cabals. But I understood the narrator’s attraction to—what he calls his “deep solidarity” with—the Finzi-Continis. The comparison I’m making is inexact. The narrator isn’t a Gentile, drawn by some sort of philo-Semistism to this Jewish family. No, he’s Jewish too. So in what sense is he attracted to something other or foreign in the Finzi-Continis? The Jewish community in the Ferrara of the novel is small—a handful of families—but as in all Jewish communities (and the smaller they are the truer this seems to be) divisions are as important as similarities.

In his introduction to the Everyman Edition, Tim Parks notes, “One of the curiosities of Bassani’s writing is that, while deploring persecution, he actually seems to relish the phenomenon of social division, that fizz of incomprehension that occurs when people of different cultures, backgrounds, and pretensions are obliged to live side by side.” I agree, though “deploring” seems too unequivocal, too dutiful, too mildly liberal and progressive for Bassani’s narrator, who is a slippery figure.

At any rate, the narrator’s family prides itself on being modern. The father joined the Fascist Party already in 1919. That might sound crazy to us, but Italian fascism was not initially anti-Semitic and might never have been had Hitler not pushed Mussolini in that direction, leading to the Nuremberg-style racial laws of 1938 that I mentioned in my plot summary.

The Finzi-Continis, by contrast, are conservative; Professor Ermanno refuses to join the Fascists, not out of any anti-Fascist or progressive/communist/socialist conviction but because he doesn’t want to join anything, not least the modern world. (It’s interesting that Micòl more than anyone else in the family shares her father’s views, more than her brother, that’s for sure, who is all about his gramophone and modern design, though Micòl also avails herself of certain privilege of modernity, like taking a university degree for example.)

Yet the narrator’s family and the Finzi-Continis are united in their form of worship: they belong to the Italian rather than the German synagogue (these differing congregations meet on different floors of the same building, a wonderful example of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”) I’m confused by Bassani’s distinction here: I think it might be something like Orthodox (Italian) versus Reform (German) (Reform Judaism started in Germany in the 19th Century), but I’m not sure. Later, the Finzi-Continis and one or two other families (but not the narrator’s) decide to worship at even more exclusive synagogue (they call it the Spanish). I wondered if the suggestion was that they were Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi. Can anyone shed light here?

This wonderful essay by Adam Kirsch is smart on the paradoxical function of Judaism in the novel. He doesn’t explain the different congregations, but he has a lot to say about how the Finzi-Continis are positioned as “the Jews of the Jews,” an elite within an elite. The narrator’s father is convinced that the Finzi-Continis are in fact anti-Semites, adducing as proof their rejection, or, more accurately, lack of interest in the rest of the Ferranese Jewish community, as symbolized by the walls that surround their estate.

And yet the narrator’s father also thinks it’s embarrassing, even wrong, to be too devoutly or overtly Jewish: he barely speaks Hebrew, knows only a little of the liturgy, thinks of himself more as a freethinker than anything else. And yet that doesn’t contradict his strong sense of being a Jew, and his conviction that all Jews share a kinship he faults the Finzi-Continis for rejecting.

This sort of complicated emotional response—veering between pride and self-loathing—manifests itself in the narrator too, as in the scene where he runs into a Jewish boy of his own age: “Rapidly, between him and me, there passed the inevitable glance of Jewish complicity that, with anxiety and disgust, I had already foreseen.” The complicity might be good, but the anxiety and disgust sure aren’t.

The narrator remembers how, as a child, he would gather with the rest of his family under his father’s talit (prayer shawl) for the benediction. Because the shawl, which had belonged to the narrator’s grandfather, is so old and full of holes, the narrator is able to look out from, perhaps even to plot his escape from, what in the words of the blessing is the loving embrace of the family.

And what he looks out at is of course the Finzi-Continis performing the same ritual. He is drawn to the father—a scholar, a mild man, perhaps ineffectual but, we learn, genuinely kind, someone who will eventually become almost a colleague to the narrator—but even more so to the children. Yet where Professor Ermanno is the emblem of everything the narrator wants (what he calls “culture and rank”), his children, Alberto and Micòl, are at once more appealing and more off-putting:

I looked up, with always renewed amazement and envy, at Professor Ermanno’s wrinkled, keen face, as if transfigured at that moment, I looked at his eyes, which behind his glasses, I would have said were filled with tears. His voice was faint and chanting, with perfect pitch his Hebrew pronunciation, frequently doubling the consonants, and with the z, the s, and the h much more Tuscan than Ferranese, could be heard, filtered through the double distinction of culture and rank…

I looked at him. Below him, for the entire duration of the blessing, Alberto and Micòl never stopped exploring, they too, the gaps in their tent [the prayer-shawl]. And they smiled at me and winked at me, both curiously inviting: especially Micòl. (Ellipsis in original)

The narrator always wants to penetrate the closed-off space that is the life of the Finzi-Continis (the children don’t go to school, for example, and when they do have to appear for the end-of-year exams they arrive in a coach from the last century). The family, especially Micòl, seems to encourage him in doing so. But in the end he is just there on sufferance. Of course the ultimately irony is that whatever distinctions Jews make among themselves will be leveled by the terrorizing hate of National Socialism.

I’m drawn to your personal response to the work and how it resonated with you as an outsider, an immigrant and as someone who chose Judaism. The outsider element resonated with me too, and probably with many readers. I love how Bassani constantly literalizes this sense of exclusion, from the narrator seeing the Finzi-Contini children’s eyes peeking out from beneath the talit, to his initial inability to penetrate the Finzi-Contini estate during the beautiful young adolescent scene at the garden wall, to the lengthy, almost To the Lighthouse–like postponement of his entry onto the grounds then only much later into the house, and the remoteness of Micòl’s own room, which he is forced to conjure through imagination until he finally, too late, gets to see it for himself. Incidentally, that slow attainment of this “inner sanctum” appears to have as its countermeasure the slow encroachment of Fascism into the garden.

Of course another element that drew me into the novel is one you mention here: “At the same time, I wanted to escape that role by finding worlds or social situations that were just for me. Literature has of course been for me the most important and all encompassing of those worlds.” On the second read through, I was astounded at all the literature in this novel, which in addition to providing something of a crash course in late 19th century Italian poetry alludes to an astonishing variety of works, from Ariosto, to Stendhal (and the narrator, if anything, is a Stendalian figure), to Dumas, to Melville (I can’t recall whether Enrique Vila-Matas makes use of the “Bartleby” discussion in his Bartleby and Co., but if not, he missed a stellar example) and even possibly invents – in a curious passage – a Jewish poetess of 17th century Venice. A central literary figure is the renowned poet Giosuè Carducci, some letters of whom have come into the possession of Professor Ermanno, and around whom literary discussion sometimes revolves, especially arguments over Carducci’s nationalist sentiments and Republicanism (putting aside for a moment the characters’ religion, there is also in the novel an examination of their Italian-ness as relates to a glorified past now threatened by Fascism). Both the narrator and Micòl are by choice literature scholars, he in Bologna, she in Venice, he writing a dissertation on Enrico Panzzachi, a poet in Carducci’s vein, and she on Emily Dickinson. It’s telling that Micòl prefers “real novels” like The Three Musketeers to contemporary works like Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles. It’s also telling that so little of what was transpiring in literature during the explosive literary decade of the 1930’s Italy appears in the novel. For all their obsession with literature, the narrator and Micòl seem little aware of what is being written around them, at least until the narrator argues with his father, towards the end, that “the only living literature” is contemporary literature. But again he names no names. Another thing I appreciate about Bassani is his avoidance of “literariness” by cleverly making his characters literary scholars themselves, thus allowing him to bring in discussion of all kinds of literature without having to shoehorn it awkwardly into the narrative. I can think of few novels with more literature in them – okay, maybe Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

Your dissection of the Jewish inter-relationships is fascinating. I assumed that the Finzi-Continis were Sephardic because of their obvious Spanish roots – the two uncles Herrera from Venice who are Spanish, their tendency to speak “Finzi-Continian” as the narrator calls it, a hybrid of Ferrarese and Tuscan Italian peppered with Spanish words. I don’t really subscribe to Tim Parks’ notion that Bassani “seems to relish” the idea of social division. Rather, I think this is part and parcel of a style that pushes things apart so as to make them more distinct, to gain some clarity. The remarkable Chapter IV of the first part, for instance, that portrays the inside of the synagogue, possesses the same kind of clarity with regard to the divisions among Ferrara’s Jews that Bassani applies to spaces and interiors, which he almost treats like staging. In addition, the use of such distinctions helps underscore Bassani’s emphasis on the democratizing, leveling force of death. Ironically, I think he’s actually more interested in commonality than in division, since from the beginning, with the visit to the Etruscan tombs in the Prologue, he stresses the universality of death and of remembrance. One could write an entire essay on the description of the Finzi-Contini tomb, with its weirdly international Greek, Egyptian and Roman features and garish conglomeration of materials that seem to come from all over.

II. Telephones

Telephones are really important in this book. Why? One idea is that telephones are a way to combine intimacy with distance. In another novel, characters might write letters to each other. But here they call each other—at least until they know each other well enough to simply drop in. (Well, the narrator drops in on the Finzi-Continis; they never come to his family’s apartment. That would be unthinkable.)

Telephones also a sign of wealth and privilege. Malnate, for example, a friend of Alberto’s, an engineer, a Gentile, a communist, and a rival to the narrator in a way he doesn’t foresee, doesn’t have one; the narrator has to wait outside his rooms when he wants to see him. Maybe it’s important that only the Jewish characters have telephones (though admittedly, there aren’t very many non-Jews in this book). I seem to recall reading someone—maybe it was the philosopher Jacques Derrida—who argued that the telephone is a particularly Jewish mode of communication because it concerns the voice: Derrida or whoever connected it to the Jewish prohibition on representations of God. In the Torah, God speaks (to Moses, to Abraham, etc), but is never seen, indeed, is not to be seen.

These speculations aren’t meant to suggest that the telephone is some kind of divine technology—yes, it facilitates important narrative events (Micòl invites the narrator to the inaugural tennis party over the phone; later, after Micòl decamps for university, Alberto invites him over for what become regular evenings with Malnate and the family) but it can also foil them (as when the narrator misses Micòl’s call to tell him she is leaving town).

So telephones can keep people apart as much as bring them together. But perhaps their most important function is as yet another way that otherwise inaccessible spaces can be entered. But always in mediated form. The telephone is a form of intimacy that is never too intimate: talking on the phone is different than talking to someone in person. Yet talking on the phone, especially to Micòl, is surprisingly intimate, or at least promises intimacy, because the Finzi-Continis have separate extensions in their rooms, so that when the narrator talks to Micòl she is typically in bed. And the narrator wants badly to know what that room looks like. Micòl refuses to tell him. The narrator always wants—and assumes—more intimacy with the Finzi-Continis than he is given.

What a great element to zero in on! I’d of course noticed the phones, but frankly hadn’t given them much thought other than as appurtenances of a wealthy family that wants to be up with the latest technology. I especially like your observation of them as “yet another way that otherwise inaccessible spaces can be entered.” This novel is chock full of inaccessible spaces, and/or of spaces that seem enclosed yet endless, Piranesian tunnels and abysses (I’m thinking in particular of the strange mounds near the city walls that had served as munitions caches, into one of which the narrator enters, at Micòl’s insistence, in order to hide his bicycle, but also of the configuration of the Finzi-Contini house, which like something in a dream the reader can never quite puzzle out – I couldn’t anyway). I found it almost painful how Micòl, who nearly always answers the phone, later lets others answer when she is avoiding the narrator – even that tenuous line to her cut off.

Material objects in general inhabit a strange space in this novel. Some – like the American elevator in the house or the ancient but still meticulously maintained carosse in the garage, appear to stretch the Finzi-Continis mystical aura temporally similar to how the vastness of the house and estate stretches it spatially.


III. The Narrator

For me, the narrator is the crux of this novel. The more I read, the more uncertain I became about him. I didn’t like or trust him. (So what could it mean that I identified so strongly with his desire to be accepted?) I couldn’t figure out what we’re supposed to make of him. He reminded me of the narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels—not showily or vertiginously unreliable (like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, say), but profoundly blind to himself, his emotions, and the world around him. Clueless, but with more menace.

Actually, by the end of the novel, I sensed we were supposed to think he’s been hard done by. But I couldn’t quite manage to sympathize with him, despite the one thing we learn about what happened to him during the war.

This piece of information comes at the end of an apparently heartwarming scene. The narrator has been kicked out of the public library (Jews are banned), and this is particularly humiliating because he’s completing a dissertation on 19th Century Italian literature. Once he learns the news, Professor Ermanno invites the narrator to use the family library. With its twenty thousand (!) volumes, the professor wryly notes, he should be able to make good progress. The narrator works in the library every morning, and he and the professor, whose study is next door, fall into a routine of checking in on each other:

Through the door, when it was open, we even exchanged a few sentences: ‘What time is it?’ ‘How’s the work progressing?’ and so on. A few years later, during the spring of ’43, the words I was to exchange with the unknown man in the next cell, shouting them towards the ceiling, towards the air vent, would be of that sort: uttered like that, chiefly through the need of hearing one’s own voice, of feeling alive.

The narrator, we learn here, becomes a member of the Resistance (perhaps by being jailed for that reason he avoids being deported as a Jew—that almost happened to Primo Levi, for example). And his political commitment to fighting fascism should make us admire him. But I’m unconvinced. Even here the language is typically solipsistic. It’s probably more a commentary on the nature of imprisonment and the tactics the fascists used to crush their opposition than a criticism of his personality, but notice how the narrator’s prison “conversation” is really a monologue, practiced for selfish, though admittedly important, reasons, “the need of hearing one’s own voice.”

I can feel myself being unjust to the narrator here. But I wonder why this is the only reference to the narrator’s wartime experiences. Why not make more of it? After all, in the years after the war, everyone in Italy, it seemed, claimed to have been in the Resistance. It seems an obvious way to make us feel more strongly for the narrator. To me, it’s suggestive that Bassani downplays the option he’s given himself. Instead, he chooses to portray the narrator much more ambiguously.

Here’s a passage that stood out to me as particularly hard to parse. The narrator is celebrating Passover at home with his family. It’s 1939, and life for Italy’s Jews is getting ever more restricted. So what should be a joyous occasion is somber. The irony of celebrating the Israelites’ journey to freedom in a climate of anti-Semitism isn’t lost on anyone. But these societal concerns are less important—less irritating—to the narrator than his reluctance to be there. He chafes at his family; he wants to be with the Finzi-Contins. (Later, on Alberto’s invitation, he steals over to the Finzi-Contini’s Seder and notes that the same pastries he’d eaten with reluctance at home now taste delicious.)

Looking over the family members who have gathered to celebrate the holiday, the narrator sees faces that are “sad and pensive like the dead”:

I looked at my father and mother, both aged considerably in the last few months; I looked at Fanny [his sister], who was now fifteen, but, as if an occult fear had arrested her development, she seemed no more than twelve; one by one, around me, I looked at uncles and cousins, most of whom, a few years later, would be swallowed up by German crematory ovens: they didn’t imagine, no, surely not, that they would end in that way, but all the same, already, that evening, even if they seemed so insignificant to me, their poor faces surmounted by their little bourgeois hats or framed by their bourgeois permanents, even if I knew how dull-witted they were, how incapable of evaluating the real significance of the present or of reading into the future, they seemed to me already surrounded by the same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now, in my memory…. Why didn’t I evade, at once, that desperate and grotesque assembly of ghosts, or at least stop my ears so as to hear no more talk of ‘discrimination’ and ‘patriotic merits’ and ‘certificates of services,’ of ‘blood quotients,’ and so on, not to hear the petty lamenting, the monotonous, gray futile threnody that family and kin were softly intoning around me?

What are we supposed to make of this? Even though the passage is divided between past and present, even though the responses at the time are coloured by the knowledge of how things would turn out, I don’t sense much compassion for the past.

It’s a trope of Holocaust literature to juxtapose past innocence to present knowledge, and some writers are famous for their ruthless and judgmental hindsight (Elie Wiesel in Night and Aharon Appelfeld in almost all of his works are classic examples). The narrator is similarly callous here: “The same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now” isn’t much of a compliment. In fact, the whole logic here is hard to fathom. The narrator is saying: Even though they were so ignorant of what was to come, they nonetheless already had the same kind of fatality that they now have for me in my memory of them. It’s not that they were once vital, nor that their obliviousness has been ennobled or mitigated by the horrors that befell them. It’s that they haven’t even changed.

Is the idea then that the narrator’s prolepses—his flash forwards to future events—don’t make any difference? (Here’s an example from early in the book when as a boy he wanders around the walls of Finzi-Contini estate: “I stopped under a tree: one of those ancient trees… that a dozen years later, in the icy winter of Stalingrad, would be sacrificed to make firewood, but which in ’29 still held high.”)

I don’t know about you but I can’t warm to someone who listens to his frightened relatives and hears only “petty lamenting.” What does he want from them? Is it to be as blithely uninterested in the future as the Finzi-Continis? Maybe so: the scorn at the little bourgeois hats and hairdos sounds like something the Finzi-Continis might think, though would never say. Or, actually, it sounds like something they wouldn’t even concern them with. If anything, this is the narrator seeking—and failing—to ape what he thinks of as his betters.

It’s hard for me to excuse the narrator because of his youth: rather than callow he seems callous. Or somehow emotionally deadened, almost a bit autistic, though I’m uneasy at applying that kind of anachronistic diagnostic label. The novel often compares the narrator to Perotti, the Finzi-Continis’ servant, who disparages modernity even more than the family he has spent his life working for. You’d think that the suggestion that he is only a retainer to the family he admires so much—and possibly so pointlessly? I’m not sure what the novel wants us to think about them—would make us sympathetic to him. But I don’t think it does.

Not even the final “revelation” of why Micòl has spurned his often clumsy, even violent advances doesn’t change my feelings—SPOILER ALERT: he thinks Micòl has been having an affair with her brother’s friend Malnate—especially because I don’t see any evidence that this outcome is anything other than a self-serving construction on the part of the narrator.

Please tell me what you make of the narrator. Why is it that he doesn’t seem to have any present-day (that is, post-war) existence? He’s just a ghost in that opening section, as if he lives only to tell this story of the past.

I’m a little surprised by the degree of your negative reaction to the narrator, as I found him more sympathetic than not. True, he displays a great deal of immaturity – it’s not at all difficult to understand Micòl’s rejection of his groveling, possessive behavior – but at the same time he seems to grow in ways that the other characters do not. Micòl seems to retreat further and further into her Finzi-Continism. Alberto fades almost literally, recusing himself from the intense political discussions the narrator and Malnate engage in together and then, of course, slipping into terminal illness. And Malnate adheres to a fairly strict and pat Communist party line (despite his unexpected appreciation of poetry as revealed near the end; one other minor reason to read Garden is that one gets a rare English translation of Milanese poet Carlo Porta!). The narrator, despite having changed his dissertation interest from Italian Renaissance painting to Panzacchi, in the end advocates for living, contemporary literature, pushes back against those who seem to be inhabiting the past and lacking in foresight as regards the dangers Fascism poses for the future. And yet I agree that it’s unclear how much of the narrator’s “awareness” of that danger is supplied through his backwards glance. Still, if one thinks of Garden as a Holocaust novel, then the narrator plays the essential role of witness, one for whom the question of reliability is almost beside the point. It’s not as though the Finzi-Continis’ fate or the ravages of the Racial Laws are in question. Bassani’s own father disappeared into the camps, and it’s significant – almost irresistible to a writer, I would think, a Jewish writer from Ferrara no less – that of the 183 Ferrarese Jews rounded up and deported to Germany, only one survived. The narrator is obviously not that one, but he plays a role one could imagine that person playing, of having alone survived to tell the tale.

While I also thought the Passover supper scene complicated and puzzling, the narrator’s attitude made some sense to me given the dark constellation of tensions under which he had fallen: the rupture with Micòl; the somber, empty celebration given the dinner talk of increasing restrictions; the abeyance in which he finds himself after completing his dissertation yet – partly because of those restrictions – having no clear option for his future; and perhaps above all his complicated attraction to the Finzi-Continis, who have appeared from the beginning to represent for him wealth, culture, education, beauty even, and perhaps most of all what he refers to early on – and I can’t find the quotation – to their isolation, an aloofness, an outsider quality, that he himself feels almost as a privilege. Though at this point of the novel, the Passover dinner, the narrator is in his mid-twenties, I almost see him as a rebellious teen just itching to get out of the house and go where he’s understood – or perhaps more accurately where he’s among people with whom he aspires to belong.

There’s another element to this behavior hinted at not very obliquely in the remarkable father/son scene near the end of the novel and given a significant clue in light of that scene’s mention of the incident with “Dr. Fadeghi,” which must strike some readers as puzzling since it’s never explained and seems gratuitous. This is a reference to Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, and thus to the narrator’s possible, even probable homosexuality. His father is on the cusp of suggesting as much but can’t say it. Suddenly the narrator’s timid, aloof, unconsummated attraction to Micòl makes sense. I wondered about this too in relation to the prologue, where he’s traveling with “friends” from Rome as a lone man in a car with a family. There’s a second car of friends too, but who is in it? Why is the narrator stuck with the family? What’s his relation to them? They’re likely not Jewish, as we suspect from the father, laughing, telling his the daughter to ask the man in the back seat to answer a question she has about the Jews. I’m not sure that helps with your questions.

IV The Translation

William Weaver’s translation seemed to me excellent, but I don’t have any Italian, and I’m eager to hear your thoughts. I’m especially curious to hear how other translators have dealt with the text’s references to Hebrew and Yiddish, in particular, and Jewish custom and tradition in general.

I can only address the translations to the extent of my ability amateur opining, so I’ll only say that they struck me as quite different. McKendrick’s seems more precise, formal and elegant, which I suspect might be the right fit for Bassani. But Weaver’s seems warmer, more casual, closer to the blood that pulses through Bassani’s young characters. In the end, I could toss a coin and be content either way it landed, though I might hope slightly that it would land with McKendrick face-up. I took a look at the Hebrew/Yiddish language references in both translations, and while neither translator resorts to awkward English equivalents, McKendrick uses quite a bit more of the Hebrew/Yiddish terminology than does Weaver. I certainly get the sense that McKendrick is more careful than Weaver.

To summarize my main points: I’m really drawn to a novel narrated by a character I’m skeptical, even, it’s not too much to say, repulsed by. What’s especially weird about that is that I really sympathize with the narrator’s desire to be accepted by a family and a social world not his own. Maybe what I can’t take is the rejection of his background entailed by what at its best is not mere social climbing but rather a way to express who he most fully wants to be.

I did not get a sense of the narrator engaging in “social climbing” so much as wanting to escape from a relatively limiting environment – and in this regard the novel did have personal resonance, since I could not wait, as an adolescent, to escape the confines of a bourgeois home and find others interested in art, literature, travel, a wider view. So we have different takes – and therein lies the value of doing this sort of collaborative reading. I’d like to continue the discussion, and may send you a few meditations of my own about Bassani’s novel and ask for your responses. I’m eager now to go see what others have written.

On Being Too Generous

I was invited to give the d’var Torah (literally, “a word of Torah,” but in practice an essay on the week’s Torah portion, or parsha) at our synagogue last night.

This week’s parsha is Vayak’hel-Pekudei (it’s actually a double portion–you can read about what that means here) if you want the context for my remarks, which I titled “On Being Too Generous.”

Thanks to Rabbi Barry Block for the opportunity.

On Being Too Generous

This week’s parsha—actually a double parsha, a generous serving—offers us a mixed message.

It begins with Moses reminding the Israelites that G-d has commanded them to observe Shabbat, and not to kindle fire on that day. Interestingly, he says: “These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do” (my emphasis), as if these were the only things G-d had ever commanded. Moses’s phrasing tells us how important these particular commandments are. Above all else we are enjoined to observe the day of rest.

But the Israelites do not rest. In fact, they do just the opposite. For the very next thing Moses says puts them to work. G-d, Moses says, has also commanded that “everyone whose heart is so moved” shall bring gifts for the Eternal. He names a long list of precious objects that the people might bring: gold, silver, and copper; beautiful yarns and linens; animal skins and acacia wood; oils and incense. I’m interested in this commandment that apparently doesn’t apply to everyone—only “everyone whose heart is so moved” is commanded to bring what he or she can. What does it mean to command something for only a few? Aren’t the commandments for everyone? Maybe a gift that doesn’t come from a moved heart isn’t really a gift. Or maybe this way of putting it is Moses’s strategy for making everyone participate. After all, who wants to admit to being unmoved? Whatever the case, the commandment works. In fact, we soon learn, it works almost too well.

The gifts will be used to make the mishkan, the tabernacle, as well as the priestly vestments for Aron and his sons. Many commentators note that by beginning with a reminder of the commandment to observe Shabbat the parsha implicitly connects this creative work with the creation of the world itself.

Which is another way of saying that what is happening in the desert here is really important.

No wonder, then, that the Israelites are so generous with their gifts. In fact, they are too generous. They keep bringing gifts “morning after morning” until the master craftsmen who are leading the project have to talk to Moses about it: “The people,” the craftsmen say, ”are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded to be done.” Moses responds immediately:

Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.

I’m really struck by this demand to stop giving. It seems counterintuitive to me. I would have thought the more gifts the better; the more gifts the more powerful the sign of the Israelites’ recognition of G-d. But that’s apparently not the case. Which leads me to wonder: can we ever be too generous?

Some people are instinctively and openly generous. I married someone like that. But some people, like me, aren’t. Not that we’re cheap or defensive or selfish. But we fear the toll that giving takes on us, emotionally, physically, maybe even financially. Do I have it in me to give? I ask myself that question a lot. This week’s parsha might be saying: an important part of giving is knowing when to stop giving. Not because we’re lazy or selfish or protective of what we have, but because we need to recognize our limits.

This isn’t the only place in our tradition where we find the exhortation to value what we have, what we have done, and what we are capable of doing rather than what we don’t have, what we haven’t yet done, and what we feel we should be able to do. I’m reminded in particular, as Passover approaches, of dayenu—the principle of sufficiency we shout out in joyous song. Dayenu is less about making do or being satisfied with whatever crumbs the world gives us than it is about valuing the meaning of what is and what has been given.

Giving, the parsha suggests, is a kind of doing. The Israelites’ problem isn’t that all their gifts are getting in the way of the craftsmen’s ability to work. Giving, in this story, isn’t an inferior or second-rate version of doing, the way we sometimes criticize ourselves for writing a check instead of, say, marching at the Capitol. Rather, the Israelites’ problem is that they’ve given more gifts than the craftsmen could ever possibly need. Some kind of proportion or balance has been undone. As the text puts it, the people bring “more than is needed,” “their efforts have been “more than enough.” That surfeit, that plenitude, that extra just isn’t needed. And it counters the point of the gifts, which is to allow us to honour G-d.

So it turns out that what I thought was a mixed message is in fact quite consistent. We must be busy, we must be generous, we must gather the particular gifts we have to give. But then we have to stop giving. We have to appreciate what we’ve done and what we’ve made possible. If we give too much we’re actually doing harm, making a problem for ourselves and for others. What attracts me about this week’s parsha is that it’s not a lesson about overweening pride or about the inevitability of scarcity. It’s pleasantly un-punitive. It’s as generous in its thinking about generosity as the Israelites are. No one is harmed by the Israelites’ generosity—except maybe the Israelites themselves. Once they stop bringing more and more they are able—as the parsha goes on to do at great length—to admire the beautiful creation that comes from their gifts. And to do that, they—and we—need to stop kindling our literal and metaphorical fires and observe the literal and metaphorical Shabbats in our lives.

If we rest from our giving, the parsha explains, it’s only so that we can gain the gift of our rest.

Shabbat shalom!