In this month’s Open Letters Monthly I review Steve Sem-Sandberg’s latest lurid novel of Nazi-era Europe, The Chosen Ones, and consider what novels might do that works of history don’t.
In this month’s Open Letters Monthly I review Steve Sem-Sandberg’s latest lurid novel of Nazi-era Europe, The Chosen Ones, and consider what novels might do that works of history don’t.
We’re already through six weeks of the semester, and if you’re keeping track at home you know I’ve missed three weeks. I hope to get to those later, but don’t hold your breath. It’s hard to keep up, and even harder to reconstruct. The headlong pace of the semester sweeps all before it, but I’m delighted to say that I’m having so much fun teaching this group. They are the best class I’ve taught in years. After six weeks, almost all students still participate regularly in discussion, and most of the ones I suggested come meet with me after less-than-distinguished early papers actually did so. Unheard of!
This week we faced our toughest challenge yet: Imre Kertesz’s novel Fatelessness (1975). Kertesz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, insists the novel is not especially autobiographical, though its protagonist, György Köves, shares some of Kertesz’s wartime experiences. Like Kertesz, György grows up in Budapest to divorced parents, is deported to Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 14, and is later transferred to Buchenwald.
Fatelessness is a hard book. It’s not only a lot longer but also far more conceptually complex than anything we’ve read so far. (Which is saying something, since Primo Levi, in particular, is no slouch when it comes to intellectual sophistication.) I teach the newish translation by Tim Wilkinson; it seems to me admirable though by no means easy or always elegant, which I suspect is true of the original too. There’s an earlier English translation by Christina and Katharina Wilson, which goes by the slightly but significantly different name Fateless. I’ve not read it, so can’t compare them. If anyone has, I’d love how the translations match up. I’d especially like to hear from anyone who has read Kertesz in his native Hungarian.
It’s been several years since I taught Fatelessness. Students tended to resist it, and although I could tell it was remarkable, I didn’t have a good handle on it myself. The ending in particular is hard to make sense of. I took it off the syllabus for a couple of years, but I never found anything that satisfied me more and the book kept calling to me, so back on it went. Third time’s the charm, I guess. I’m still not entirely clear on what Kertesz wants to say, exactly, in the last chapter, but I feel more confident with it than before and this group of students tackled the book cheerfully and with good will, which made me like the book even more.
So it was a good week in the classroom. (Really, the book deserves even more than a week, but sometimes less is more.) Here I’ll concentrate on the first day’s discussion and allude occasionally to some of the things we covered during the rest of the week.
We began, as I like to do, at the beginning. I read the opening paragraph:
I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to “family reasons,” my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the “family reason” might be. I told him my father had been called up for labor service; after that he didn’t raise a further peep against it.
What’s the tone here, I asked the class, and how can you tell? It’s straightforward. What does that mean? Is “straightforward” a tone? It’s simple, you can tell already he’s young. How can you tell? Well, he is supposed to be in school. Right. But can you tell by his way of speaking? His sentences are simple—they’re not complicated and they almost all start with “I.” That’s mostly true, here, about the syntax, though that third sentence is a bit more complex. And we’ll see that his sentences are actually often rather hard to parse, clotted as they are with seemingly unnecessary qualifications and hesitations, the most apparent of which is the term “naturally.” But let’s stick with your other observation—the sentences almost all start with “I.” Does that suggest anything about him?
Maybe he only cares about himself, came the tentative reply. Is he selfish elsewhere? Maybe not selfish, but he doesn’t know how to deal with other people. For example? Well, later he’s embarrassed about all the emotion around his father leaving. And he always seems to be astonished by other people’s reactions. We considered a couple of examples from the first third of the book. Then I brought us back to the opening paragraph. Are there other things you notice about his way of speaking or the kinds of words he uses? He says, “peep.” That’s a young word. A young word? I teased. Like, we just invented it? The student blushed, became more precise. A word a young person would use. Immature. Right, this instance of slang seems important. It suggests something about this person. Neither Levi nor Wiesel would have said “peep.”
What else can we tell about him based on his way of speaking? Think especially about the first and second sentences. What’s the relation between them? After a minute we concluded that the second sentence reverses the first, or, rather, qualifies it. Qualification of this sort is everywhere in the book. It’s the most obvious characteristic of György’s narration. (Later we looked at a famous, grotesque example. György gets inflamed wounds on his hips—phlegmons—that burst and become infected with the lice that are everywhere in the camp. Contemplating the voraciousness of the parasites he comments: “In the end, I realized that, to some extent, and taking everything into account, I could see it their way.” Three qualifying phrases in one simple sentence—typical of his way of speaking.) What kind of person might he be then, given these incessant qualifications and hesitations? Here I was pushing a particular line, and the students could sense it. That always make them clam up—they get scared of giving the wrong answer. Someone ventured: he wants to get things right?
Interesting. Yes, accuracy matters to him. He can’t cut any corners, someone said, he has to tell it exactly. He likes rules, I added. Can we think of any examples? He worries about being with his father on the day of his deportation because that’s the day of the week he’s supposed to be with his mother, according to the court ruling in his parents’ divorce. And he worries about the star on his jacket, someone added. Oh yeah, remind us about that. It’s on page 5—he’s walking and decides not to take his coat off in case his star gets covered up: “It was a clear, balmy morning, considering it was still just early spring. I was about to unbutton myself but then had second thoughts: it was possible that, light as the head breeze was, my coat lapel might flap back and cover up my yellow star, which would not have been in conformity with the regulations.”
The stakes of following rules are high for someone like György, I said. But he’s also shallow, someone said. How so? He doesn’t want a home made star. He thinks those are embarrassing. Yeah, he’s really immature, someone else piled on. But he’s only 14, another student said. He doesn’t know anything other than the rules the Nazis made for him. (Here I gave a brief clarification about the relation of the Hungarian and German governments during the war, but the student’s point still stood.)
So thinking about this rule following and then going back to the opening paragraph, we can see that there is something both fussy and oddly accepting about György’s attitude to his experiences. Fussy is the word I always come back to for György’s style, with its endless qualifications and circumlocutions.
All of this had taken a while, so I also didn’t mention the two uses of euphemism in the opening paragraph—one quoted (“family reasons”), the other not (“labor service”). But they are significant because of a tendency we remarked on later—the way György accepts, even takes on and unthinkingly uses, the language of his oppressors.
Over the course of the week, we saw that tendency ever more clearly and worried a lot over what it suggested. Is it a sign of how thoroughly he’s been duped, how unable he is to escape from the ideology that vilifies him? Or is a sign of something more nefarious—is he a traitor to his people? (A people he has little to do with—an early scene shows how assimilated the family is, serving pork at the father’s farewell supper, stumbling through prayers in a language almost none of them speak. György falls in with the other Jewish kids in his building, but only because they have all been singled out as Jewish, something that never meant anything to them before.) Is György an idiot? Totally clueless? Self-hating?
I reminded students of the extraordinary, ten-page long description of György’s arrival at Auschwitz, where, among other things, young György admires the SS officers spotless uniforms and observes with interest but also revulsion the prisoners who unload them from the train: “It was quite a shock, for after all, this was the first time in my life that I had seen, up close at any rate, real convicts, in the striped duds of criminals, and with shaven skulls in round caps. Dude, I shouted, shamelessly mugging for the students, that’s you!
The best way to understand György in moments like these, I suggested, is to think about the novel’s unusual use of time. When is György telling his story? A hard question, met with silence. As they’re happening to him, someone finally ventured. Is it in present tense? The student had to admit it wasn’t. So not quite as it’s happening, but you are basically right, I said. It’s very close to the events, from some imaginary, impossible to pinpoint position that is after the events but not much after.
Compare this, I said, to the texts we’ve read before. Borowski also used a first person narrator in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” but he told the story in present tense. Even more characteristic is the first person voice of Wiesel’s Night and Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (these are the missing three weeks’ worth of blog posts). Remember that Levi and Wiesel regularly used retrospection. They narrated from well after the events. We noted how Levi liked to move from narrative to essayistic mode (typically noted by a shift from “I” to “we”), as he stepped back to consider, for example, how the Germans’ thoroughgoing utilitarianism was at work in the “selection” process. We noted how Wiesel regularly castigated the Jews of his hometown of Sighet for not seeing what was about to befall them. These attitudes can only be offered in retrospect, through a hindsight that, in Wiesel’s case in particular, is pretty dubious. (Hindsight 20/20, etc.) Kertesz’s novel, by contrast, is never retrospective. It sticks so closely to its events, because it believes that is the most honest way to represent them, especially for its young protagonist, who lacks any context to make sense of what’s happening to him and his world.
At the end of our last class on the novel, I would wrap up the week’s discussion by reading an excerpt from Kertesz’s Nobel Prize address in which he takes up this method:
But the hero of my novel does not live his own time in the concentration camps, for neither his time nor his language, not even his own person, is really his. He doesn’t remember; he exists. So he has to languish, poor boy, in the dreary trap of linearity, and cannot shake off the painful details. Instead of a spectacular series of great and tragic moments, he has to live through everything, which is oppressive and offers little variety, like life itself.
But the method led to remarkable insights. Linearity demanded that each situation that arose be completely filled out. It did not allow me, say, to skip cavalierly over twenty minutes of time, if only because those twenty minutes were there before me, like a gaping, terrifying black hole, like a mass grave.
What Kertesz here calls linearity is linked to a scene at the end of the novel that we considered, in which György returns to Budapest at the end of the war and is asked by a reporter to share his stories with the world. The reporter seems to have his heart in the right place: he wants to avoid platitudes, he wants to mobilize citizens’ attention to what happened, he wants to fight the apathy the world threatens to sink into even though the war has only just ended. (He’s a lot more sympathetic than the family who has taken over György’s father’s apartment, and refuses to let him in or even to acknowledge his existence.) But he also sees György as a symbol of the times rather than as an individual, and he presses him to describe what it was like in “the hell of the camps.” György responds firmly that he is “not acquainted with hell and couldn’t even imagine what that was like.”
Here we see the outcome or even payoff of the extreme literalism that characterizes György’s way of expressing himself from the beginning of the book. He refuses to speak grandiosely of atrocities, not out of some kind of perverse admiration for the camps, but because he never experienced anything grandiose, only boredom and pain and hunger and even pleasure, the pleasure of still being alive, a sensation that never abandons him even when he is reduced to the most minimal sentience. The reporter give György a slip of paper with his address and urges him to come see him but György lets it drop into the street as soon as the men take their leave of each other. Why does he do that I asked one student, a really smart kid who saves everything for his writing and is unaccountably quiet in class. He hadn’t been expecting the question and struggled a little and then said, simply, I don’t know, I was wondering that too. How did it make you feel, I asked. Upset. Frustrated. That seemed to me a completely understandable response and many students agreed. Despite the novel’s first-person narration, we’re much closer to the reporter than to György, who we have a hard time identifying with. But then another student piped up to say that she was glad György dropped the paper, because the reporter just wanted to exploit him. (Indeed. And that should make us think hard about what our relation to the works we’ve been studying might be. What do we want from them?) I agreed, even if the exploitation was more metaphysical than financial (the reporter admits that neither of them is likely to make much money from any articles they would write together.)
Our insistence that survivors return to tell the world about the atrocities they suffered through is a version of the retrospection that Kertesz contests. What Kertesz wants instead is to present the experience of the survivor from within, which is to say, from the position of someone who is merely surviving, not yet a survivor. Some of the power of Fatelessness comes from the dramatic irony that arises when we compare our knowledge of historical events with György’s—we know what it means to have been “selected,” whereas Györy can only, disquietingly, exult in the clear physical superiority of those in the group he’s been sent to when the people in his transport are separated out. But most of its power comes when we allow ourselves to think about what that disquiet implies: an utter refusal to make of the events something other than what someone going through them might have experienced.
Fatelessness is the only novel I know of that attempts to portray the experience of what was known in camp slang as the Musselmänner, the Muslims, those who were unable through bad luck or poor constitutions or mere inability to find a way to finagle, through some kind of position or job, a few scraps more to eat than the allotted rations and who quickly wasted away. These figures are present throughout Holocaust literature, sometimes as objects of fear, sometimes of contempt, sometimes, as in Levi, as the representatives of the truth of the entire genocidal project, a truth no survivor can be said to share. Here we see one reason why Kertesz needed to write a novel rather than a memoir. By definition, we have no testimony from within that experience, since no one survived it. But Kertesz makes it palpable and plausible how one could be reduced to this state, and how within this zero-degree of human sentience there could still exist, however minutely, the desire for life. It is in this sense that György, transferred to Buchenwald, nothing but a sack of skin and bones who can no longer walk and is left for dead on the ramp until through the most contingent action—he happens to blink just as he is about to be carted to the charnel house and is instead taken to the camp infirmary, it is suggested because the prisoners sorting the living from the dead are so amused at the sight of one so obviously far gone attempting to announce his connection to the living—only in this sense can we understand what otherwise seems only ironic or deluded, György’s breathtaking statement. “I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.” In the same vein, György, who survives by being taken on as a kind of pet prisoner in a hospital unit manly for non-Jewish prisoners, for reasons that are obscure to us because they are unclear to him, can also think, back in Budapest, fondly on the camp: “I was seized by a sharp, painful, futile longing for it: nostalgia, homesickness.” This feeling too must somehow be accepted as part of what Kertesz woudl doubtless shudder to call “the Holocaust experience.”
There’s so much more to say about Kertesz’s remarkable—and still too little appreciated—novel. But I’ve already said a lot. Suffice it to say that the class did terrifically well with this demanding novel. Next week, after a break for Rosh Hoshanah, we’ll spend several days working on the first long essay. I’m crossing my fingers that when we return to the course texts, this group will continue to keep on bringing it the way they have so far.
I’ve taught Jean Rhys regularly for more than ten years: the quietly devastating story “Learning to be a Mother,” perfect for showing students how much you can say about something that seems at first glance so slight; the heartbreaking Good Morning, Midnight, with its hair-raising and endlessly discussable ending; and, most of all, my true Rhys-love, the marvelous Voyage in the Dark. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve taught this book, the third of Rhys’s five novels, but I know it’s never failed me yet. Even students who hate it get passionately caught up in our conversations. There’s a lot to talk about because Rhys’s fiction is such a challenge to how we talk about fiction.
Most of the things I have to say about Rhys come from the person who first introduced me to her, Molly Hite, now retired but when I knew her a professor of English at Cornell. The best courses I took in graduate school were the two I took with Molly. Anyone who’s been to graduate school knows that this could be faint praise, but Molly cared as much about her teaching as about the books she taught. And she cared about those a lot. Molly pressed Voyage on me the semester I was studying for my comprehensive exams. We were talking about an essay I wanted to write about representations of children in modernist literature. Molly said I had to add Voyage to my list. It’s about a girl who is eighteen, but none of the men she meets believe her when she says that, because, as one points out, women always say they’re either eighteen or twenty-two. This is just one instance in which Anna Morgan, the figure at the center of the novel, finds her lived reality butting up against dismissive patriarchal expectations.
Voyage isn’t obviously about childhood, but it turns out to be a smart way to think about the book. After all, Anna ends up pregnant, plagued by nightmares about the monstrous child within her that she desperately wants to abort, possibly at the cost of her own young life. After just the first few pages I saw how wonderful the book is. Molly was perhaps the only professor I knew in graduate school who really seemed to love reading, and I thrilled to that infectiousness. But I was also a little scared of Molly. Nothing unusual there, I was scared of most of my professors, but I felt it more strongly with her, probably because I cared about her opinion more than I did other professors’.
In my line of work, I often meet people who had very close, even nurturing relationships with their dissertation advisors. That was not my experience. Not that they were bad or hostile relationships. Just not close. But Molly was as close as I came to having a mentor. She cared the most about my writing, pushed me the hardest, and shaped my approach to reading most strongly. What she said to me about an essay I wrote on D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox has stayed with me: “You have to let the story be as weird as it is.” I say it to my students every semester, but these are words for every reader to live by.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, this sentiment is expressed in Molly’s terrific essay on Jean Rhys, “Writing in the Margins” (published in The Other Side of the Story in 1989). Molly was modest enough not to tell me she’d written about Rhys, and in fact I can’t even remember when I read the article, not until I left grad school for my first job I think.
In an incisive critique of existing Rhys criticism, Molly says:
Both mainstream and feminist critics who admire Rhys’s fiction in effect try to settle her, accommodating her to [dominant cultural] presuppositions either by interpreting her as an alien and inferior sort of person who serves as an object of study (in the process sacrificing authorial empathy), or by interpreting her as Rhys’s own unexamined self-projection (in the process sacrificing authorial control).
The reason critics and ordinary readers alike feel the need to “settle” or domesticate Rhys’s fiction has everything to do with her particular, and to my mind highly experimental, conception of character. Molly says a lot of smart memorable things in this essay—you should totally read it, it’s quite accessible—but what sticks with me the most is her argument that our ideas of what fictional characters are supposed to be like are governed by an idea of voluntarism that simply doesn’t apply to protagonists like Anna Morgan.
By voluntarism, Molly means something like an unshakeable belief in willpower. The idea that characters—at least active, important, main characters, the kind E. M. Forster described in his engaging Aspects of the Novel as “round”—should change. They should make decisions, take charge of their actions, act on their wishes, shape the world around them. Rhys’s characters aren’t like that. But neither are they static, or minor, or clichéd or any of the things Forster says about what he calls “flat” characters.
What happens when a novel centers on someone who is unable to change or take charge or her circumstances? And not because of some kind of personality defect (she’s weak or stupid or passive) but because of who she is (a woman, young, poor, from a far-away place that most of the people who live in the country she’s moved to have never heard of and even when they have can’t take seriously: Anna, like Rhys, is from the Caribbean island of Dominica).
One of the first things I ask students about Anna is: what should we call her? Here I’m riffing off an anecdote Molly offers in the essay: a male student “remarked wonderingly that he wasn’t sure why we were taking a floozy so seriously.” I don’t think any of my students even know what a floozy is. But they have other names. Is Anna a pushover? A weakling? A depressive? A gold-digger? A space-cadet? An idiot? A heartless bitch? I’ve heard all these things. Most often, I hear some version of the half-plaintive, half-aggressive question: Why doesn’t she get her act together? As I tell those students, it’s quite revealing how Anna can upset us. The mostly privileged students I teach are deeply attached to the idea that those who work hard will succeed.
Ultimately, these conversations always turn on the question of whether Anna is a victim. As Molly puts it: “Rhys’s protagonists are victims who are fully aware of their victimization.” She adds:
Their awareness does not make them any less victimized, it serves only to make them self-conscious in their roles and thus alienated from the society that wants to identify them completely with these roles. Worst of all, because their situation as both marginalized and wholly conscious is impossible in the terms proposed by the dominant culture, the statements in which they express their awareness cannot have any acknowledged context.
They can speak in ways that are expected of them—but if they do they are dismissed. Or they can not speak at all. No wonder they are so unhappy.
Yet Rhys’s characters are anything but inarticulate. The abiding interest of her novels lies in the presence of a distinctive consciousness that is pretty much unintelligible to the society in which she lives but possibly, if we’re willing to expand our expectations of literary character, intelligible to us. Especially in Rhys’s first person novels, this conundrum is expressed through narrative voice. I could talk for a long time about the many wonderful qualities of Voyage in the Dark—it’s a desert island book for me—but I don’t want to go on too long. Let me just give a few examples:
She can be funny and shrewd, as in this moment when the older man she falls in love with, a man who keeps her and later abandons her, leaves her some money:
I took the money from under my pillow and put it into my handbag. I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.
She is a fascinated observer of others—though what that observation is used for is harder to figure. Here she’s writing about how much she liked one of the women who worked in her father’s household in the Caribbean:
The thing about Francine was that when I was with her I was happy, She was small and plump and blacker than most of the people out there, and she had a pretty face. What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she had finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud—louder than you could believe possible. It was a ritual.
Is this ritual positive? A kind of repetition compulsion? Does the passage express female desire, or, on the contrary a way of curbing it?
Notice how in both passages Anna uses “you.” This is characteristic, but oddly enough it doesn’t always make us feel closer to her, as when she says:
I didn’t say anything. I put my face nearer the glass. Like when you’re a kid and you put your face very near to the glass and make faces at yourself.
You might do this, and you might not. The attempt to universalize—or at least widen—the behaviour actually ends up seeming estranging, though it doesn’t mitigate the pathos of this attempted challenge to the overwhelming power of female appearance. (A constant anxiety in the novel is that when women age, men will replace them with someone younger.)
Some similar examples:
Being afraid is cold like ice, and it’s like when you can’t breathe.
After a while I crossed everything out and began again, writing very quickly, like you do when you write
I felt emptied out and peaceful—like when you’ve had a toothache and it stops for a bit, and you know quite well it’s going to start again but just for a bit it’s stopped.
Or, finally, this description of depression:
But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that—lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. … You feel peaceful but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really, al you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night—that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, “He got sick of me,” and “Never, not ever, never.” And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead.
Rhys’s prose is at once affectless, even artless, and affecting. It’s carefully shaped; I’m struck by how the repetition of “you” distances at least as much as it draws us closer.
It’s always hard to know what to make of Rhys’s tone, once again, I’d say, because of the way the characters are at once powerless without being stupid or unaware. On the contrary they are highly aware, but that awareness only lets them see more clearly the prison they live in. As in this example, when Anna daydreams about being back at home and feeling that everything that’s happened to her—abandoned by her lover, without any money or prospects, and now pregnant on top of it all—is just a dream:
She’ll smile and put the tray down and I’ll say Francine I’ve had such an awful dream—it was only a dream she’ll say—and on the tray the blue cup and saucer and the silver teapot so I’d know for certain it had started again my lovely life—like a five-finger exercise played very slowly on the piano like a garden with a high wall round it—and every now and again thinking I only dreamt it it never happened…
How could we read that “lovely life” as anything but ironic, especially as it’s likened to a doubled metaphor of control and imprisonment—the piano exercise, the walled garden? And yet it’s more lovely than her current life, which has the ominousness of a dream she cannot escape.
Although I don’t think Molly was appreciated by her colleagues or the profession as much as she should have been, I don’t want to suggest that she and Rhys were the same. Yet I’ve a hunch that they had a few traits in common—at once brash and shy, both seem to me to be people the world hasn’t always know what to do with. (I’m writing as though Molly were dead! That’s so weird; I’m sorry. As best I can tell, she’s enjoying retirement in the Pacific Northwest.) But it does seem fitting that I can never read Rhys without thinking of Molly. Both were fiercely committed to the idea that books are always more off-putting, more ready to wrong-foot us, than we think, especially if we come to them with ready-made ideas of how they should work and what they should mean.
When Molly leant me her copy of Voyage in the Dark in the fall of 2001, Rhys wasn’t read that often. Most people knew her only as the author of Wide Saragasso Sea. I never studied her in a class. Fifteen years later, Rhys feels firmly canonical. Even more than her critical or academic acceptance, I take heart in the way non-specialist readers have embraced her, as evidenced by ReadingRhys week. I suspect that wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, beachcombing near Seattle maybe, Molly approves too.
This semester I’m blogging about my class on Holocaust literature. Here is the first installment.
Vasily Grossman (1905-64), who we studied at the beginning of Week 2 of the course, is not nearly as well known in the canon of Holocaust literature as someone like last week’s author, Primo Levi (or some of the other writers we’ll study this semester, like Elie Wiesel and Tadeusz Borowski).
I can think of at least two reasons why. First, the reception of Holocaust literature in North America has been biased towards texts written in Western European languages. At least in part, this preference was a function of the inaccessibility of documents and archival material in Soviet-occupied Europe during the Cold War. Second, Grossman was not a survivor, per se, though his mother was murdered by the Nazis along with more than 20,000 other Jews in the family’s hometown of Berdichev in the Ukraine.
Grossman was born to an assimilated Jewish family. He did not have a Jewish education. It is unlikely he knew Yiddish. Berdichev, an important banking center, had one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a prosperous, cosmopolitan world quite unlike the shtetl world made famous in Sholem Aleichem’s work and depicted in the early parts of Wiesel’s Night.
Grossman studied to be an engineer, but turned to writing in the 1930s. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Grossman was assigned to the Red Army newspaper. He became one of the most famous Soviet war correspondents, taking on many dangerous assignments, including a posting in Stalingrad. He accompanied the Red Army on its march westwards, where he reported on what has been called “the Shoah by bullets” (the death meted out by the Einsatzgruppen—mobile units or death squads—across Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine. These firing squads murdered approximately tow million people in the years 1941-44, 1.3 million of them Jews, among them Grossman’s mother). Later, in 1944, he also reported on “the Shoah by gas.” He was with the Red Army when it arrived at the extermination camp Treblinka in August 1944.
Immediately he set about writing an essay called “The Hell of Treblinka.” Published in November 1944, it is one of the earliest accounts of the death camps. After the war, it was submitted as evidence by the prosecution during the Nuremberg trials. This extraordinary work is readily available—translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler together with Olga Mukovnikova—in an invaluable collection of Grossman’s essays, stories, and journalism called The Road (New York Review Books).
I began by asking the class to recall the question I’d given them at the end of the previous meeting as a way to guide their reading: What does Grossman value?
Hands shot up. I was relieved to see it, since, on the face of it at least, this is an easy question. Grossman is a passionate writer, not shy to render judgment and lay blame. And since that is what students want to do too, at least when it comes to the Holocaust, they take to him immediately. Of course, Grossman also gives us the tools to complicate what seem like straightforward categorizations.
Life, people, humanity, came the answers. Each student who spoke—and I reminded students that if they hadn’t yet said anything in class this was absolutely the day to chime in because soon, maybe already by the next class, their identity would be sealed: they would be a person who doesn’t talk in class—had to point to a specific passage to support their claim. “The most precious valuable in the world—human life.” “The epitaph history will write for [the victim] is: Here Lies a Human Being.” “Killing turned out to be supremely easy… This must be unflinchingly borne in mind by everyone who truly values honor, freedom, and the life of all nations, the life of humanity.”
These were all good examples. I pointed to another quintessentially Grossman-ian formulation: the victims, he says,
were caught up in a single flood, a flood that swallowed up reason, and splendid human science, and maidenly love, and childish wonder, and the coughing of the old, and the human heart.
The list of attributes and qualities here is typical; Grossman loves lists. (At one point in the essay he simply names, for almost ten lines, the belongings the new arrivals would have left scattered on the ground, commenting only, tartly, “It requires real skill to sort out, in the course of only a few minutes, all these thousands of objects.”) This particular list is a strange one. Ranging from physiology (the coughing) to emotion (love and wonder) to human accomplishment (reason and science), it seems to want to encompass everything that might go under the name the human condition in a single sentence.
Grossman absolutely believes in the idea of the human condition. This emphasis on common humanity is at least in part a political and ideological choice. In the course of this forty page essay, Grossman only mentions once that most of the victims were Jewish. That decision is a function of the Soviet insistence that only the suffering of Mother Russia rather than any individual group of people be commemorated. Grossman’s insistence on a kind of universal brotherhood of mankind is also evident in his insistence that the victims looked out for each other. Solidarity of this sort did exist in the camps, but so too did its opposite. Many of the course texts, I noted, will offer a quite different view of affairs.
Grossman was no doctrinaire Marxist—in the essay he even obliquely criticizes Stalinism; after the war he fell into disfavour and his great masterpieces Life and Fate and Everything Flows were written “for the desk drawer” and only survived because they were smuggled to the West in the Krushchev period. But he also insists in classic Marxist fashion that “what engenders a particular regime is the material and ideological relations existing among a country’s citizens… the nature of these relations is what should appall us.”
Yet Grossman never interprets Nazi Germany this way. Instead, as the students noted, he regularly describes them as demonic monsters, purveyors of “bestial madness.” They are refused any redeeming qualities; indeed, they aren’t even human: “The beast that triumphantly kills a man remains a beast.” What, I asked the class, is the effect of Grossman’s rhetoric? What is implied by this way of thinking and talking? (To offer compelling interpretations, students need to be able to draw out the implications of their observations, so I wanted them to practice drawing out the consequences of their ideas.) It’s like they’re not real people, someone said. Exactly, I responded. And why does that matter? Well, they were people, said another. Yes, I added, people like us.
It’s easy for us to imagine that these events have nothing to do with us. It allows us to approach the Holocaust as a kind of macabre spectator sport. But if we treat the Nazis as monsters, we effectively let ourselves off the hook. We don’t need to think of ourselves as in any way implicated in their way of viewing the world. In this way, Grossman risks devaluing the idea of humanity he values so much. In an oblique way, this risk is evident too in his treatment of what the historian Raul Hilberg would later call bystanders, in this case the local Poles who Grossman uses as mere neutral evidence for German actions. He doesn’t’ consider more complicated questions of implication or degrees of guilt, concepts that someone like Primo Levi would develop in his essay “The Grey Zone,” which we’ll read in a week or so.
Whenever I teach “The Hell of Treblinka,” I work towards a close reading of a single passage. This time, I left it too late and we didn’t have the time to really do justice to it. But that’s okay. The work the class did in pointing to specific passages to support each claim, although time-consuming, was worth it. I want students to see that they can’t just go with their gut, can’t just offer a vague sense of what the text is saying (which often amounts to what they wish it were saying). They have to work with what’s there. Only then will their readings convince.
At any rate, here’s the passage that to my mind gets to the heart of Grossman’s enterprise. Having described the chaos new victims would have experienced on arrival—separated from loved ones and possessions, shaved and otherwise physically humiliated, herded along a path lined by high fences towards an imposing brick building—Grossman explains what would have happened next:
The door of the concrete chamber slammed shut […] Can we find within us the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt, what they experienced during their last minutes of life? All we know is that they cannot speak now… Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat, packed so tight that their bones cracked and their crushed rib cages were barely able to breathe, they stood pressed against one another; they stood as if they were a single human being. Someone, perhaps some wise old man, makes the effort to say, “Patience now—this is the end.” Someone shouts out some terrible curse. A holy curse—surely this curse must be fulfilled? With a superhuman effort a mother tries to make a little more space for her child: may her child’s dying breaths be eased, however infinitesimally, by a last act of maternal care. A young woman, her tongue going numb, asks, “Why am I being suffocated? Why can’t I love and have children?” Heads spin. Throats choke. What are the pictures now passing before people’s glassy dying eyes? Pictures of childhood? Of the happy days of peace? Of the last terrible journey? OF the mocking face of the SS man in that first square by the station: “Ah, so that’s why he was laughing…” Consciousness dims. It is the moment of the last agony… No, what happened in that chamber cannot be imagined. The dead bodies stand there, gradually turning cold. (Ellipses in original unless bracketed)
Here Grossman imagines the ground zero of the Holocaust, the centre of what the French political prisoner David Rousset, a survivor of Neuengamme and Buchenwald, called l’univers concentrationnaire. He takes us into the gas chamber. What happened there? Historians and forensic researchers can tell us a lot: we know that people were so desperate to escape that they clawed at the walls. We know from the evidence of the piles of corpses that those who were bigger and stronger climbed over those who were smaller and weaker to get the last bit of air. But the desire to enter into that scene—to turn it into a scene—is both taboo and inescapable in Holocaust literature.
Remember this passage, I told the students, when we read Maus: we’ll see how self-consciously Spiegelman points to the limits of eyewitness testimony. Remember this scene when we watch Schindler’s List: we’ll see how dubiously Spielberg flirts with exploiting our dark compulsion to enter into this space.
For now, I want us to see that when Grossman wonders whether we can “find the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt” he is asking a real question. This vivid passage aims to make us feel present—we see that most clearly in its use of physical and corporeal details: the clammy sweat, cracked bones, and crushed rib cages.
It even imagines how people might have acted and thought in those final moments. What kind of actions are these, I asked the students. They’re kind actions, caring. An old man shouts “Patience,” a mother seeks to make space for her child. The people evoked are vulnerable: that old man, that woman with her child, the young woman who wants to live. There’s even the intimation of revenge and resistance—someone, the only person here who isn’t described in any way, shouts out “a holy curse,” which he or she, as well perhaps as Grossman himself, insists, which is to say, hopes, must be fulfilled. These aren’t just victims; they are also resisters, not least in their staunch avowal of basic human dignity. They resist by maintaining solidarity with each other: “they stood as if they were a single human being.” Here we have Grossman’s credo in a phrase.
With only a minute or two left, I asked the class to tell me what happens in the passage between the sentence starting “Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat” and the one starting “Someone, perhaps some wise old man.” A moment’s silence: the students were tired but still game. They hadn’t packed up their stuff yet. But they knew there was an answer I was looking for and it made them wary.
Look at the verbs, I prompted. They shift from past tense to present, someone said, half-hesitantly, half-triumphantly. Yes, I said, pointing out examples: someone makes an effort; a mother tries to make more room for her child; heads spin; throats choke. What’s the effect of this shift? It’s like replacing statistics with stories, one student said. Yes, but that doesn’t explain this particular choice on Grossman’s part. What does the shift to present tense suggest? It makes it more intense, another said. Normally, I would have payed out this suggestion further, getting the student to expand on what she meant by intensity. But I was in a hurry, so I finished the thought. Right, it makes the scene immediate, vivid. In a way, it undoes what happened in the chamber, bringing the dead to life.
And yet, I concluded, these attempts at immediacy fail. The dead don’t live. Even if the passage returns to present in the final sentence (suggesting an ongoing duration—these bodies are in some way still standing there) the penultimate sentence, like the rest of the essay, is in past tense. In that sense, the key statement here is: “No, what happened in the that chamber cannot be imagined.” We are left only with a statement of absence: “All we know is that they cannot speak now.” Grossman has tried to do that for them, but ultimately refuses the possibility.
Grossman’s passionate desire to do justice to the victims and his equally ardent disgust for the perpetrators is matched by his modesty and reserve. He speaks for them only inasmuch as he rejects that speaking.
We’re returning to Primo Levi next class, I said, as the clock showed two minutes past the hour and the next group of students milled around outside the room. Think about Grossman’s humanism as you read Survival in Auschwitz. Will Levi’s humanism look like Grossman’s?
Last fall I blogged about my Short Fiction class. (You can read the first entry here.) I couldn’t keep it up all semester, and there’s no reason to think this year will be any different. But I’m going to try again, this time with the course I have taught the most, and that means the most me: English 248, The Holocaust in Literature, Theory, and Film.
So far this group (18 students) has impressed me with its energy and intelligence. We’re only in the second week, of course. But the beginning has been promising.
Today I thought I’d share with you the text we worked through on the second day of class, a short excerpt from The Reawakening, one of Primo Levi’s extraordinary memoirs of his experiences during the war.
Levi, a secular Jew from Turin who had trained as a chemist, was arrested in the Italian Alps in December of 1943 where he had joined a small band of partisans in the nascent Italian Resistance movement. Once it was discovered that he was a Jew, Levi was deported first to a transit camp called Fossoli and then to Auschwitz in February 1944. Thanks to his scientific background, Levi avoided the gas chamber and was sent to work in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, called Buna-Monowitz, where the Germans were trying to synthesize rubber. Through good fortune and the care of a Gentile Italian prisoner, who slipped him extra food when he could, Levi survived the bitter depredations of camp life. He was lucky to have been in the camp infirmary when the Germans abandoned it in January 1945 shortly before the Red Army arrived. In this way he avoided being sent on one of the so-called Death Marches, in which the Germans force-marched the remaining prisoners to other camps in Germany proper. Thousands of the malnourished and weakened prisoners died that way.
The passage we worked through begins with a description of the change in camp life after liberation:
Outside the windows, despite the steady snowfall, the mournful roads of the camp were no longer deserted, but teemed with a brisk, confused and noisy ferment, which seemed to be an end in itself. Cheerful or wrathful calls, shouts and songs rang out till late at night. All the same, my attention, and that of my neighbours in the near-by beds, rarely managed to escape from the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation of the smallest and most harmless among us, of the most innocent, of a child, of Hurbinek.
Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and he had no name; that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralysed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, as thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency; it was a stare both savage and human, even mature, a judgment, which none of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish.
None of us, that is, except Henek; he was in the bunk next to me, a robust and hearty Hungarian boy of fifteen. Henek spent half his day beside Hurbinek’s pallet. He was maternal rather than paternal; had our precarious coexistence lasted more than a month, it is extremely probably that Hurbinek would have learned to speak from Henek; certainly better than from the Polish girls who, too tender and too vain, inebriated him with caresses and kisses, but shunned intimacy with him.
Henek, on the other hand, calm and stubborn, sat beside the little sphinx, immune to the distressing power he emanated; he brought him food to eat, adjusted his blankets, cleaned him with skillful hands, without repugnance; and he spoke to him, in Hungarian naturally, in a slow and patient voice. After a week, Henek announced seriously, but without a trace of selfconsciousness, that Hurbinek ‘could say a word.’ What word? He did not know, a difficult word, not Hungarian: something like ‘mass-klo,” ‘mastiklo.” During the night we listened carefully: it was true, from Hurbinek’s corner there occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not, admittedly, always exactly the same word, but it was certainly an articulated word; or better, several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root, perhaps on a name.
Hurbinek continued in his stubborn experiments for as long as he lived. In the following days everybody listened to him in silence, anxious to understand, and among us there were speakers of all the languages of Europe; but Hurbinek’s word remained secret. No, it was certainly not a message, it was not a revelation; perhaps it was his name, if it had ever fallen to his lot to be given a name; perhaps (according to one of our hypotheses) it meant ‘to eat,” or ‘bread’; or perhaps ‘meat’ in Bohemian, as one of us who knew that language maintained.
Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.
What is it about Hurbinek, I asked the class, that so gets to Levi and the others? What is the source of “the distressing power he emanate[s]”? It’s that he can’t speak but he wants to, said one student. It’s his need for language, said another. It’s because he’s judging them, said a third. So already we see the power of language and expression, as something fiercely desired but perhaps unattainable. Note what doesn’t surprise or horrify them: that a toddler is here in Auschwitz. The chasm between our expectations and the victims’ experiences is immense—we will encounter this again and again in the course.
Does Hurbinek freak everyone in the camp out, I asked. Not Henek. What’s different about Henek? He cares for him. Does any one else? The Polish girls, one student noted. But what does Levi say about the Polish girls? They don’t really care for him, answered one. They fuss over him, but they don’t like him, said another. He’s like a mascot to them, one concluded. Like a puppy or something. Right, I agreed. Levi distinguishes between false and true intimacy. Something about Hurbinek’s lack of language keeps almost everyone at a distance. Note that he sleeps on a pallet, like an animal. He has his own corner. He’s separate. And yet he isn’t an object of disgust or scorn. He fascinates the others. They follow his efforts to wield language with something like avidity.
How old is Hurbinek, I asked, switching gears. Three, a couple of people said at once. He looks three, one immediately added. That’s when I really first started having hopes for this class. Most readers don’t notice that Levi does something strange here: he begins with uncertainty—“he looked about three”—but ends with conviction: “Hurbinek, who was three years old.” I think this redescription is important—it’s a version in miniature of the speaking by proxy that Levi, in an essay we’ll read in a couple of weeks, will describe as central to the survivor experience. The survivor always testifies to an experience that isn’t the “true” or “ultimate” experience of the camp, which of course was to murder everyone in it. For now I noted that Levi’s descriptions of Hurbinek are unstable. He calls him a baby at one point. But his stare is also called “mature.” In an especially resonant phrase, Levi calls him “the little sphinx.”
Why? And what’s a sphinx? A couple of students cobbled together an accurate enough description of the Theban sphinx. Does anyone know the riddle he posed to travelers? The one only Oedipus could solve? “What goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Right—and the answer of course is a person, a human being.
In some ways, Hurbinek, who is paralyzed from the waist down, doesn’t fit the terms of the riddle at all. In that sense, he could be taken to be some kind of non-human other. But it’s clear that Levi values Hurbinek, even if he’s a little afraid of him. The literature of the Holocaust, I argued, is regularly preoccupied by what it means to be human. It will be important for us to see both victims and perpetrators as humans—it is as bad to demonize the latter as it is to demean the former. If we do so, we might falsely be able to convince ourselves that the events we’re studying have nothing to do with us, as we are neither angelic martyrs nor inhuman monsters.
The reference to the sphinx also tells something about Levi and his values. What can we tell about him based on his use of the term? He’s smart, he’s well read. Yes, and in a tradition that isn’t only or primarily Jewish. (We’ll say a lot more about Levi’s classical, humanist upbringing when we read his most famous memoir, Survival in Auschwitz starting in the second week of class.)
Time was getting short and there were still a number of things I wanted to get through. I hurried us along. Let’s go back to Henek for a second, I said. Notice that Levi uses the same word to describe him that he does to talk about Hurbinek. Henek is “calm and stubborn”; Hurbinek continues “in his stubborn experiments.” Repetition is always significant in interpreting literature, I told the class. When we see the same images, the same metaphors, the same formulations or sentence structures, the same words, we should take note. Patterns are suggestive and meaningful.
By using the same word in reference to each figure, Levi cements the connection between them. But why this word? What does it suggest to us that they are stubborn? I can’t remember how they responded to this question. Not particularly helpfully, as I recall. But I was also going for something here, and so the question wasn’t particularly useful. Stubborn suggests persistence, I said, it suggests working away at something difficult. Anyone who writes about the Holocaust—and by extension anyone who reads about it—has to be stubborn. In fact, “stubborn experiments” could be a name for Holocaust literature itself, which is dogged in its attempt to describe what has been called indescribable. Holocaust literature is necessarily experimental literature. But the persistence connoted by the word “stubborn” promises attainment or completion or at least possibility. I want students to finish the course thinking that the Holocaust can in fact be represented.
I thus offer Hurbinek as a figure for the struggle to put traumatic experience into language. He does, after all, say a word. It’s not a message, it’s not a revelation. The word remains secret, though it’s open to, and in fact even demands, interpretation.
In the end, then, the real writer here, the one who wields language with extraordinary finesse, is not Hurbinek but Levi. In the last few minutes of class I turned our attention to the final phrase of the passage, one I’ve always found strange: “he bears witness through these words of mine.” Shouldn’t that be: I bear witness to him through these words of mine? Once again Levi points towards the necessarily proximate status of witnesses. The survivor is always a surrogate for those who didn’t survive.
The most significant way Levi can speak for Hurbinek—that is to say, be that surrogate—is to mimic in his own language the child’s struggle to express himself. I pointed students to the striking syntax of so many of Levi’s sentences:
All the same, my attention, and that of my neighbours in the near-by beds, rarely managed to escape from the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation of the smallest and most harmless among us, of the most innocent, of a child, of Hurbinek.
Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz.
Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed.
In each of these examples, I said, as the hour came to an end, Levi seems to do what he says Hurbinek did, when in his groping toward language he offered “several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme.” Levi seems compelled to re-describe Hurbinek. It’s never enough to say one thing about him (he was a nobody). He has to say three things about him (he was a child of death, a child of Auschwitz). Clusters of adjectival phrases and ramifying clauses cascade forward in these elongated and elegant sentences. We read of “the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation” of Hurbinek, who is variously described as “the smallest and most harmless among us,” “the most innocent,” “a child,” “Hurbinek.”
Levi’s technique here might be a function of the way Hurbinek escapes definition. Which would return us to the suggestion we considered earlier that he is some kind of unknown being, some non- or a-human creature, a little sphinx indeed. But we could instead say that it is the best way for Levi to honour Hurbinek. In offering his own version of linguistic experimentation and variation he seeks to do justice to the child’s experience, and his ambivalent effect on his listeners. In this way, perhaps, Hurbinek does indeed bear witness through Levi’s words.
I reckon I’ve had The Go-Between on my shelves for more than 20 years. Jacqui’s enthusiastic and thoughtful review finally spurred me to read it. (That plus I’ve taken a doubtless-brief-but-nonetheless-well-intentioned pledge to read books I already own rather than buy new ones.)
I can’t imagine matching Jacqui’s summary of the novel, so I direct you there for more details. I’ll just give a brief synopsis here. Leo Colston is a man in his middle sixties who, when the novel begins, finds a trunk full of old papers, including his diary from the year 1900.
As he remembers the dramatic events of that year—events we’re told have marked him forever, somehow left him unfit to participate in life—he tells us about his school days where he was first bullied and then later respected based on a strange incident I’ll say more about in a minute. When the school is suddenly closed for the year because of a measles outbreak, the almost-thirteen-year-old Leo is invited by his friend Marcus Maudsley to spend the summer at his family’s estate in Norfolk. The Maudsleys are richer than Leo and his widowed mother and he feels ill at ease and awkward in their home, not least because he has no proper summer clothes and the weather turns hotter than anyone can remember. Maudsley’s sister Marian (I think she’s about 19 or so) takes pity on Leo, buys him a new summer suit, and then, either as a result of a premeditated plan or, more likely, a readiness to seize the situation, for she knows Leo is ready to do anything for her, entices him into carrying secret letters to Ted Burgess, the hunky tenant farmer. Readers know long before Leo does that Marian and Ted are lovers; Leo is shocked when he finds out, not only because of the class difference, but also because she is engaged to be married to Viscount Trimingham, a fatally decent man who has been badly wounded in the Boer War.
(If the book sounds a bit melodramatic when I summarize it this way, I think I’m doing it justice.)
Anyway, Leo doesn’t want to be the lovers’ go-between anymore but Marian has ways of convincing him, ways just slightly more pleasant than those used by her rather demonic mother, the lady of the house, Mrs. Maudsley, who forces the presumably unwitting Leo to reveal the affair. Things end pretty badly, though most of the drama happens off-stage. What’s really bad, it seems, is the hold the whole situation has had on Leo, as we see in a coda in which the now elderly Leo continues to be manipulated by a very old Marian all these years later.
I read an old Penguin 20th Century Classics edition of the book, but in the US the book is published by New York Review Classics. Their edition has an excellent introduction by the Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín. Tóibín offers some background on Hartley, whose solicitor father made a fortune in the brick trade, moving the family up from the middle class. Hartley seems to have felt uncomfortable in the new world in which he moved (Harrow and then Oxford). Rather than rebelling against it, Hartley sought to become more a part of the establishment, trading the Methodism of his childhood for the Church of England, for example. In this regard, he seems rather like his protagonist Leo. Although it wasn’t much of a secret that Hartley was gay, there seems to have been something of the closet about him, a desire to blend in, but more to efface than to protect his difference.
Hartley doesn’t seem to have been much liked by the literary world. In 1923 Virginia Woolf recorded meeting “a dull fat man named Hartley” while visiting the socialite and patron of the arts Ottoline Morrell. One of the Sitwells called him “Bore Hartley.” I confess these descriptions make me more not less sympathetic to him, though Tóibín reports him as becoming increasingly conservative as he aged and always quarrelsome with servants (who certainly appear in a dim light in The Go-Between). I wonder, has anyone written his biography?
Tóibín’s most interesting point is that the novel isn’t really about either the foreignness or the persistence of the past—lots of people who have never read this novel know its first line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”—but rather about Leo’s self-division. He dislikes, even condemns Marian and Ted, yet he’s helplessly drawn towards them. Hartley professed to be surprised and dismayed when readers sympathized with the lovers. If that’s true, it’s a remarkable lack of insight that proves writers aren’t always good readers of their own work. Tóibín interestingly links Hartley to writers like D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster (all these sets of initials, aren’t their real names good enough for them?), other writers of the period who extolled the value of the senses in hide-bound English society.
I’m not really buying this comparison, because I don’t think Forster and Lawrence have much in common. Hartley is like Forester, I grant, in that both are writers who are at best ambivalent about the power of sensuality. Lawrence, by contrast, had no ambivalence there. Where the Hartley – Forster comparison comes up short, in my opinion, is in their differing use of narrative voice. Forester never wrote in first person, as far as I know; he certainly wasn’t compelled to trace the modulations of a distinctive first-person narrative voice the way Hartley does here. Forster’s concern with the unreliability of perception attaches itself to skepticism about third-person omniscience.
No, the writer Hartley really reminded me of is Kazuo Ishiguro. Now that I think of it, I rarely hear critics placing Ishiguro in any kind of literary tradition or continuum. (Not that I know the Ishiguro criticism particularly well; correct me if I’m wrong.) If anything he’s discussed as part of that flowering of new English writing in the 1980s, the Granta writers, the young Turks who are now the old guard of English literature (Rushdie, Amis, Graham Swift, Jeanette Winterson, McEwan, etc). Hartley seems like an important model and precursor for Ishiguro, although I think Ishiguro is more sophisticated in his use of unreliability, more unreliably unreliable if I could put it that way, and a better writer all around. But I’ve only read one novel by Hartley, and most of Ishiguro’s, so I ought to read more of the former to be sure. Looking around my shelves, I find I’ve got six other Hartley novels lying around—he’s apparently one of those writers I’m highly invested in even though I hardly know anything about them—so I certainly could find out.
I just want to say two other things about The Go-Between:
I couldn’t decide how clueless Leo is supposed to be. Or, rather, I couldn’t quite decide whether the events of that summer are supposed to be told by Leo at the time or by Leo in retrospect. Sometimes we are clearly dealing with a child’s voice:
She was silent and I felt for the first time that she was unhappy. This was a revelation to me. I knew that grown-up people were unhappy—when a relation died, for instance, or went bankrupt. At such times they were sure to be unhappy: they had no option: it was the rule, like mourning after a death, like a black margin around the writer paper. (My mother still used it for my father.) They were unhappy to order. But that they should be unhappy in the way that I was sometimes, because something in my private life, to which perhaps I couldn’t give a name, had gone wrong—that hadn’t occurred to me.
Here we’re in that Jamesian world of innocence ruined, though James famously set himself tougher challenges than writing about a teenager, as when he sought to narrate from a child’s perception though not in a child’s language in his novel about a five-year-old buffeted by a nasty divorce, the magisterial What Maisie Knew. Plus, the parenthetical sentence could only be narrated within the present of the narrated events.
But at other times it’s harder to pin down the voice. Here the narrator has accompanied the family and the other house guests to church:
Again Lord Trimingham was the last to leave. I thought Marian would wait for him, but she didn’t, so I did. Most of my shyness with him had worn off, and I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. But I did not want to broach at once the subject that was uppermost in my mind.
I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. By this point in the novel, Leo has had two great successes. He’s made a splendid catch in an important cricket match and then sung two songs to great success at the party afterwards. And he’s meditated a lot on how extraordinary the attention made him feel, and how uncomfortable too. But that complex and complexly phrased sentiment, of being disposed to think one’s words and actions become one, with its quality of self-deprecation and irony that undermines the ostensible meaning of the words—that seems an attitude that only the older Leo, looking back on himself, would be in a position to note. And yet the story really only works if the older Leo is kept in abeyance. If retrospection governed the narrative too completely there would be no suspense, and our sense of how children and adults can work at cross-purposes, in which ignorance tragically shades into malevolence, would be much reduced.
One way to read the end of the book is that it shows Leo never really learns anything, but that would challenge even further the sense that the older man can make sense of his younger self. Perhaps it is just this uncertainty—that the older man thinks he knows more than the younger, yet proves to be just as or maybe even more clueless—is what Hartley wants to get at in a passage like the one I’ve cited. That would be pretty sophisticated; I suppose I wasn’t convinced that novel is quite that sophisticated, but maybe I’m under-selling it. (And it’s an awfully good book, don’t get me wrong.)
So that’s one thing. The other is about the supernatural. Young Leo, we learn, is fascinated by the zodiac and by the idea that events can be determined by spells. The way he moves from being bullied to being respected at school is that he puts a curse on two boys who have been tormenting him; soon afterwards they fall off the roof during a nighttime escapade and hurt themselves badly. When word of the spell gets around—I can’t remember if Leo puts it out himself or if it’s found out in some other way—Leo’s stock rises dramatically and he is soon being asked by his classmates to create imprecations and spells to order. Towards the end of the book he again has recourse to magic and again succeeds, though less clearly than the first time.
What is this material doing in this book? My sense is that the general way this book gets talked about (hot summer, lost innocence, boy becoming man, elegy for forgotten way of life) ignores this supernatural material. But it’s pretty important to the book; we hear a lot about it, especially in the first quarter or so. These weren’t the most evocative bits of the book, by any means (that would be the languorous descriptions of the heat, and the landscape, and the rituals of English life that someone like Ishiguro would later so profitably explore as strange performances). They seemed awkward, kind of clunky, something that belonged more in a Roald Dahl story, or some minor Greene work, than in the kind of book this seemed to want to be.
This lack of fit interested me, and I wonder if anyone has any ideas about it. One thought I had was that the spells are meant ironically, a way to emphasize how little control Leo (like all children) has over the world, and even to disparage him in our eyes, since he thinks he has control when he doesn’t. But I’m unconvinced because the book rather seems to believe in the spells. In that case, their efficacy would suggest Leo knows more than he thinks, if not more than he lets on. (This would be a peculiarly unconscious certainty.) But does Leo’s magic run out when he exchanges school for the adult world? Or are we to take him as more responsible for his actions towards Marian and Ted than it at first seems? Are Leo’s spells magical thinking—or are they really magic? I’m not sure the book knows how to answer that question. And that uncertainty makes me like it all the more.
Last month two short pieces of mine went live.
In the most recent issue of The Scofield, dedicated to the Swiss writer Max Frisch, I recommend his compatriot, the wonderful crime writer Friedrich Glauser, as someone to check out once you’ve made your way through Frisch. Glauser had a pretty intense life and he wrote some terrific crime novels.
And in last month’s Open Letters Monthly, I wrote about my favourite travel books, the trilogy Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote describing his travels across Europe on foot in the early 1930s. I’m in good company here: there are lots of great suggestions for you to consider. If you’ve got favourite travel writing, I’d love to hear about it.
The two never met, as far as I know, but I bet they’d have got alone like gangbusters.
Every year it’s the same. I leave for vacation in Canada with ambitious reading plans, usually involving a fat Penguin classic. I take the book with me and find myself unable to read a word once I arrive. Instead I’m helplessly drawn to books I’ve left behind at my mother’s house or books I buy, mysteries mostly. It’s as though I need weeks of nothing but light reading to allow my readerly self to recuperate for another year. (As someone who has spent almost his whole life in a classroom, the new year always starts for me in September–or, since coming to Arkansas, cruelly, August.)
This year’s abandoned classic was Leopold Alas’s La Regenta. I read the first 60 pp on the plane and was impressed. Not easy stuff, by any means, but interesting, and often quite funny, particularly impressive since at least at first it’s all about priests. I was glad to have read Sentimental Education so recently as I could see Flaubert was an important inspiration for (the brilliantly named) Alas.
But then I got to Calgary, and the mountains beckoned and La Regenta sat on the shelf, untouched, for the next three weeks. I felt especially bad about this failure because Tom from Wuthering Expectations had organized a readalong. This is now the second time I’ve funked one of his group readings (there was that Hamsun I abandoned ¾ of the way through a few years ago) and since he is one of the bloggers I most respect I really wanted to participate. You can check out the posts, with typically interesting comments, over at the site, though I confess I’ve only skimmed them, partly to avoid spoilers and partly because I feel so badly about giving up.
So what did I read on my vacation, you ask?
Well, a few things:
Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird (1976)
Rohan had written about this shortly before I left and when I looked up at the shelf of books that I’ve still got to get out of my mother’s house some day, there it was. Bashert, right? I must have bought my copy in my bookselling days in the early 90s. Over 20 years it had been sitting there, just waiting for me to get to it. American literary fiction isn’t really my thing, but the 70s are long enough ago that this book almost felt like literature in translation. Rohan’s review is as smart and thoughtful as you’d expect; read it to get a better sense of the book. She liked it better than I did. Although I appreciated its astringent, unsentimental portrayal of aging, I tired of its protagonist’s jaundiced take on contemporary life. I wasn’t convinced the novel itself was distancing itself from the character’s embitterment, so the whole thing started to feel querulous and brittle. And I really wanted more about his wife, who seems much the most interesting character.
Eva Dolan, Tell No Tales (2015)
Why doesn’t this superior police procedural about a hate crimes unit in Peterborough have a US publisher? It didn’t seem to matter that I came into the series late (this one is the second; I gather there are three so far.) And the story—about a far-right party loosely or not so loosely modeled on UKIP and featuring violence to immigrants–felt even more relevant this summer than it must have last year. Dolan’s not breaking any new ground, but this is satisfying stuff. I’ll read more but I’d rather not have to import from the UK.
Michael Frayn, The Russian Interpreter (1966)
Years ago I read Spies and really liked it. And like all sentient human beings, I love Noises Off. So when I came across a whole series of early Frayn novels in the bookstore—recently reissued by Faber in the UK and Canada; I think some interesting small publisher has them in the US, but I can’t remember where I saw that—I grabbed the one that seemed most appealing. Given my fascination with all things Russian, and with the vicissitudes of European 20th Century history, The Russian Interpreter was the obvious choice. I liked the book for its pleasing combination of English reserve and Russian lugubriousness. Set in Moscow in the late 50s, it tells the story of an English graduate student of Russian history, Paul Manning, who gets involved with a visiting English businessman named Procter-Gould. Procter-Gould has no Russian, so Manning starts interpreting for him, not least in his love affair with Manning’s own girlfriend. No one is quite what they seem, and it all gets a little byzantine. It’s totally unfair, but I couldn’t fall in love with this book because I wanted it to be Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, another novel by an English author set in Moscow, though this time in 1913, and one of the very best English novels of the 20th century.
Frayn is no Fitzgerald, but who is? And The Russian Interpreter has a great opening:
Manning’s old friend Proctor-Gould was in Moscow and anxious to get in touch with him. Or so Manning was informed. He looked forward to the meeting. He had few friends in Moscow, none of them old friends, and no friends at all, old or new, in Moscow or anywhere else, called Proctor-Gould.
Ragnar Jónasson, Night Blind (2015) Trans. Quentin Bates (2016)
Arnaldur Indridason needn’t worry about being deposed as King of Icelandic crime any time soon. I read Jónasson’s first book earlier this year and liked it enough to buy this sequel. The writing here is less clunky, but the plotting is weaker, and I really missed the intense evocation of bad weather that characterized the first book. I like Iceland a lot but can’t see myself continuing with this series.
Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (2014) & Death is a Welcome Guest (2015)
These were the discoveries of my trip. I’d read Welsh’s debut ten or fifteen years ago or whenever it was and liked it a lot. I read her next book and liked it less. And then I forgot about her. She’s written quite a lot in the meantime, it appears. These are the first two of The Plague Trilogy (the third isn’t out yet, worse luck) and I don’t know why they haven’t got more press, at least here in the US. You can read Grant’s useful review here. (Added 8/5/16: I just came across Max’s review too.)
As a hypochondriac of longstanding, I’m enthralled and terrified by stories of pandemics. So I am definitely the right person for these books, which is about an illness called the Sweats that quickly wipes out most of the world. Each book has a different protagonist; the last page of the second volume suggests they will meet up in the third. I found these books in the crime section and it’s true that each has a suspicious death at its center. But I didn’t find that stuff nearly as interesting as Welsh’s depiction of apocalypse. Rather unusually, the second volume is even better than the first—the first sometimes felt a bit like Ballard-lite, though with much less interesting prose—since it considers what kinds of communities could be built after a catastrophe and how hard it might be to do so. The best thing about these books is that they are real just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-sleep-oh-well-it’s-almost-finished-might-as-well-just-read-the-rest page-turners. Volume three, please!
Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (2014)
Another book I found in the crime section that really doesn’t belong there. (And I say that as someone who loves crime fiction.) Woodward seems like a writer I need to pay more attention to. I really liked the first half of this (rather long: 500 pp) book. Interwar England is my meat and drink and I appreciated how adroitly Woodward taught me things, especially about the old Heathrow, the farming community in Middlesex that was requisitioned and destroyed by the British government during the war to build the military airfield that became the airport we know today. I was especially fascinated by the story of how sludge cake—basically the refuse from the sewers of London—were first used to fertillize the crops in this area. Teaching readers stuff about the world is something realist fiction does best, but it’s not easy to do without dumping information on readers in a heavy-handed way.
But before long Vanishing grew more and more complex. Too complex. It tells the story of Kenneth Brill, from his boyhood in Heathrow to his student days at the Slade School of Art to his time in a camouflage unit in Egypt in the war. The retrospective material is brought out at his trial in a military court, where he has been bought up under suspicion of treason. (He claims to have been painting the landscape of his childhood before it is destroyed; the military claims he is encoding secrets about the airfield into his paintings to pass on to the enemy.). The camouflage stuff is interesting, but I started to be reminded of a novel like Giles Foden’s Turbulence, which taught me things about weather prediction during WWII that I could have learned more concisely and compellingly in an essay. Camouflage does give Woodward a metaphor to work with as he also examines Brill’s queer sexuality and the appeal of fascism in the England of the period. But I don’t know exactly what he wants to say about all these things and in the end I didn’t quite care enough to really think it through. There’s really a whole lot going on here, I haven’t even mentioned all the subplots, and I found the story’s narrative structure, its use of unstable, unreliable first person not quite well handled enough to sustain my interest. (It’s no Ishiguro.) But Woodward is definitely a talent and I mean to try some of his other books when I’ve time. For more check out this interestingly ambivalent review by John Self at Asylum.
So I didn’t get on with my classic, but I read some good things (and more importantly went on a lot of great hikes). Now I’m back in Arkansas, sweltering in the heat, and trying to stay on top of a lot of deadlines before the new semester begins in just three weeks…
What about you? What did you read on your summer holidays?
Eline Vere (1889) is the best book I’ve read this year, would undoubtedly be one of the best books in almost any year. It’s the first novel by Dutch novelist Louis Couperus (1863-1923). I fancy myself pretty well read in European literature since 1800, I mean, nothing like some people, but more than many. But I had never heard of this book, though I gather it is a great classic of Dutch literature, until I read about it on this terrific list. (As it happens I have those books by Prus, Eça de Queirós, and Der Nister in hand and somehow need to make time for them.) If you like sweeping books about a richly appointed bourgeois world, with a generous but unobtrusive narrator, and just enough asperity to balance a tendency to effusiveness, you’re going to love this book.
It captivated me over a long weekend at one of my very favourite reading places of all, my in-laws’ farm in rural Missouri, where there is a really excellent porch swing and all manner of birds and animals to look at when you’re tired and need to raise your eyes from the page.
The scene is The Hague in the late-nineteenth century. The characters belong to the interrelated wealthy families who run the place, or who have enough money that they don’t need to work. They’re not that rich, though, the possibility that the money is going to run out is a worry for many of them, as is the sense, as befits this buttoned-down Protestant milieu, that the men, at least, ought to work regardless of financial need, out of a moral duty to lead society.
The book’s question, then, is: what makes a meaningful life? And in the great 19th century realist tradition, that question is much more difficult and fascinating for women. What do they live for, if not work? Marriage and family are two obvious answers, satisfying for some of the female characters. But not for all, certainly not for the protagonist, Eline.
Eline Vere gets compared to Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Effi Briest. The reason is obvious: all are novels centered on eponymous heroines who are drawn to men who aren’t their husbands as a way to overcome their boredom and uncertain place in society. I’ve not read Effi Briest—I can already hear Tom telling me I have to rectify that oversight, and I mean to—but I didn’t find Eline Vere as much like those books as blurb writers would have us believe.
For Eline’s dissatisfaction doesn’t find a sexual outlet. She’s not even married, so adultery doesn’t even come into it. In some sense, the book is a long search for the right man for Eline. It seems, halfway through, that she’s found him, an eminently suitable, kind, dutiful, all-around stand-up guy named Otto van Erlevoort. They get engaged, despite his family’s initial reservations—Eline somehow seems so different from them. Otto’s sister never overcomes these reservations: “I know she’s beautiful and charming, but there’s something about her that, well, that I find unsympathetic… She doesn’t have a heart, all she has is egotism, stone-cold egotism.” Later, the sister’s sister-in-law adds similar misgivings: “There’s something about Eline that makes me think she might not fit in very well with the rest of the family. She adapts herself, certainly, but I’m not sure she does so with all her heart.” Note the motif of the heart, or, rather, heartlessness. Having a heart seems here to mean caring for others. But it also seems to mean playing a part, going along with appearances, fitting in with others. The heart is a sign of both authenticity and falsity. Small wonder, then, that the book opens at a party in which the youngsters of the Dutch beau monde organize extravagant dramatic tableau. Eline, who at age 23 is or could be part of that set, is notably absent. (It’s a classic dramatic set-up: as various characters ask each other where Eline is, we get more and more intrigued about her.)
So sure was I that Eline’s travails had to play out in a love affair that I spent the first half of the book wondering who she would fall in love with, and in what way that love would be inappropriate or scandalous. The first candidate is an opera singer who takes The Hague by storm and who Eline is obsessed with for a while, secretly buying pictures of him and stalking him in the park where he takes a walk most days. But she never even speaks to him and before long throws over the infatuation as silly. Then I thought the trouble might be with her brother-in-law, Henk, who obviously adores her and who she seems to like a lot too. (After the death of her mother, Eline lives with her sister, the much more pragmatic Betsy, and Henk and their children.) But Henk is like the faithful Newfoundland dog he’s compared to early on and really only wants everyone he knows, especially his wife and her sister, to get along, so that he can be left in peace to go riding and shooting. He’s a tenderly imagined version of Charles Bovary, though rather more competent. Then Otto comes along and Eline gets engaged to him and it all seems so promising.
There’s an absolutely wonderful set piece—Couperus is almost as good as Tolstoy when it comes to set pieces—at the Van Erlevoorts’ summer home, De Horze, complete with lovely meals and long days with seemingly endlessly lengthening shadows on the evening lawn and children rushing around underfoot and inventing games. I’m absolutely a sucker for this stuff, and Couperus lays it on thick. But he does so only to insist that idyll can’t last. At almost the exact halfway point of the book, at the end of the De Horze chapter, at the end of the summer, we find this meditation on self-sabotage and the loss of happiness:
[Eline] opened the window and looked outside. The rain had stopped and the air was fragrant with moist foliage. The sky was clear, wiped clean of leaden clouds but for some lingering streaks, from which rose a brilliant crescent moon. The far-flung fields lay muffled in silence; a lone windmill held aloft a dark motionless sail, starkly defined against the pale sheen of the evening sky. The ditches glittered like strips of metal, and a scented freshness emanated like a gentle sigh from the slumbering landscape. Eline leant out of the window, hugging her bare arms. She felt as if that soft sigh of freshness had sweetened all her thoughts with the fragrance of wild flowers, banishing the stale, sickly smell of her former state of mind. It was like inhaling the heady perfume of musk and opopanax, and she felt very young, younger than she had ever felt before, and oh!—of this she was certain—never had she been in love as she was now, never! Her Otto! Thinking of him she felt no need whatsoever to conjure up some idealised image of him; she thought of him as he was, manly and strong in his good-natured simplicity, with one single thought governing his mind: the thought of her. His love was so rich, so full, so all-encompassing. And hers was growing by the day, she believed … no it couldn’t grow any further, that would be impossible! No further wishes, no concerns about the future; it would unfold of its own accord, a perspective tinged with a golden glow! Nothing but the stillness of that lake into which her soul had glided, nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy! Nothing but that … She could not imagine what more a human being could wish for.
Only, there was one tiny blemish in all that clear expanse of blue, an inkling of fear that change might yet come! It was so very long since she had prayed, and she was unsure how to go about it, whether she should say the words aloud or just think them. Indeed, she no longer knew whether she believed in God, she no longer knew what she believed, but now, at this moment, she dearly wished to pray that it might remain as it was now, that nothing would ever change—oh, for that gentle happiness, that tranquility of mind, that blue to remain with her for ever!
“Never again as it was, please God; make everything stay the same as it is now! I’ll die if anything changes!” she whispered under her breath, and as she folded her hands in prayer, a teardrop quivered on her lashes. But it was a tear of joy, and in her joy that tiny fear drowned like a drop in the ocean.
But of course it doesn’t. The fear grows to unmanageable proportions. You can see from this passage that Couperus stays close to Eline perspective, and so that the conventionality or melodramatic extravagance of some of the prose (“nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy”) is the character’s. (He also moves us from character to character—we aren’t constrained to Eline’s perspective, which allows us to see, for example, how frustrating Eline can be at times, especially in the only strand of the story that includes characters from a different social strata, a young couple and their children named the Ferelijns, who have settled in Java and only returned to Holland temporarily due to the husband’s ill health. Eline, who went to school with the wife, veers between sensitivity and obliviousness about their quite precarious financial situation.)
Eline’s life unravels because she can’t imagine herself to be happy, because part of her doesn’t want to be happy, and because she can’t wholeheartedly accept what the rest of the characters call happiness. Eline is a confusing but compelling mixture of fatalism, congenital, even hereditary dissatisfaction, and self-awareness. The hereditary part—Couperus is like a less-militant Zola at times—comes to the fore when Eline and Betsy’s cousin, Vincent—decadent, a bit louche, a debtor (the worst thing you can be in this social world), a dabbler in Nietzsche—comes to visit.
Betsy hates him; Eline adores him; she almost falls in love with him, but their relationship is weirder than that, and besides the genuinely egotistical and probably gay Vincent doesn’t care about her. (Vincent is saved by a rich American friend, a man named St Clare, an enigmatic figure who has wandered in from a James novel. To make things even more complicated he almost has a thing with Eline.) Something about Vincent makes Eline unable to love Otto, or, rather, confirms for her that a life with Otto isn’t possible. Betsy exults when she can finally kick Vincent out of the house; Eline publicly berates her for her unkindness. This rupture leads to an extraordinary scene–another one of those set pieces–in which Eline leaves Betsy’s home in the middle of the night, in the midst of an enormous and terrifying storm. It’s cheesy in my telling but absolutely riveting in Couperus’s.
The book Eline Vere did remind me of is Buddenbrooks, though I haven’t read it in about 25 years, so I may be overstating the similarities. They share a Northern European, Protestant, bourgeois setting and a belief in hereditary decline. What Mann’s novel has that Couperus’s doesn’t is a belief in art as a kind of safety valve. Yes, the generations become more effete as they move away from business, but at least they gain in sensitivity and artistic refinement.
Eline too is drawn to art. She is a passable pianist and her voice is quite good, but she never keeps up with her lessons, and besides as her health gets worse her doctors forbid her from practicing. First love fails Eline, then art. Without those things, what can a woman of this time turn to?
Eline did for a time love Otto; I don’t think we’re supposed to believe otherwise. But as the book goes on it seems that Eline doesn’t really love anyone—not because she’s as selfish as others think she is, but because she doesn’t want to, or, at least, know how to. She increasingly finds herself unworthy, and she has an extraordinary way of evading or upending any situation that others create to make her happy, often by making herself so unpleasant that she drives people away. The end offers one of the more subtle portraits of madness in 19th century literature (and that’s saying something, there’s madness all over the place there).
We see Eline unable to sleep, increasingly delirious, and we follow the restless zigzag of her thoughts: first desperately trying to hold on a love she can no longer feel, then despairing over her inability to force herself to keep loving Otto, and finally raging over her situation, “because she was being assailed by thoughts she did not wish to think at all, and because she felt herself too weak to turn around and fight those invisible forces.”
Couperus doesn’t judge his characters—he’s no Flaubert—valuing this closely-knit society with its demonic fascination with duty even as he shows it to be narrow and conventional and totally unable to know what to do with Eline. But he makes Eline off-putting enough that we can’t totally sympathize with her, even though we ultimately must pity what today we might call the manic-depressive demons that surge through her.
I’m not sure how well I’ve conveyed this book to you. What I most want you to know is that it’s stranger than it seems. Its gilded, cozy, and upright surfaces—if you’re at all susceptible to gemütlichkeit you’ll love this book—contain unsettling depths. But the depths aren’t appealing enough to allow us to dismiss the surfaces as mere conventionality. Above all, I hope I’ve made this book intriguing enough that you’ll want to read it and talk about it with me.
Thanks must go to Archipelago Books for their lovely edition, with its generous margins, thick paper, clear font, the whole pleasing heft and size of the book itself. No doubt I would have appreciated some parts of the story even more had the book come with notes or introduction. Definitely a list of characters or family tree would have been helpful. But in the end I enjoyed the book all the more because I just had to plunge in and make my own way through it. (Actually, there’s an afterword by someone named Paul Binding and as I recall it’s quite good, more appreciative than academic.) Yes, sometimes I had a hard time keeping the characters straight, but Eline Vere gave me what I too seldom get when reading these days and what I long for more than anything else: a deep sense of immersion, a wish to be alone with the book and to keep the pages turning. The novel’s 500 pages, but twice as long would have been just fine with me. Ina Rilke’s translation seems excellent. I mean it as a tribute to her when I say that I often found myself thinking, Well, I can read German, surely Dutch isn’t that different, I bet I could read this book in the original! Rilke’s supple English—neither fussy nor anachronistic, neither old-fashioned nor contemporary—made me believe in such a fantasy. I’m keen to read more of her translations from the Dutch. And I’m even keener to read more Couperus. A few of his books are available but as best I can tell his masterpiece Old People and Things That Pass (1918) is not. Archipelago, or other brave publishers, I beg you: please, please, please, more Couperus.
I’ve written before about how my wife and a friend of ours from the days when we were all starting out as academics and in our first, temporary jobs after graduate school decided to read Proust together. We tackled one volume each summer for seven years, switching between his city and ours once our careers and life-paths took us in different directions.
We finished Proust and decided to stay with French literature: two years ago we read Madame Bovary. Last year we didn’t read anything; instead we went to our friend’s wedding. But we were back at it last week. Our book this year was Flaubert’s other well-known book, Sentimental Education (1869). We had a hard time with it and although our friend thinks we should try Bouvard and Pecuchet next year I think he’s going to be outvoted. I’m plumping for Stendahl but neither of the others seems much interested. We’ll probably end up with either Balzac or Zola. Vote your choice in the comments!
I don’t think I would have made it though Sentimental Education without the reading group. Certainly I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much on my own. Each of us experienced the same phenomenon: we didn’t much like reading the book, but we sure enjoyed talking about it. Nonetheless, I’ve concluded that Flaubert is a writer I admire but do not like. He’s like Joyce for me. They’re both so, I don’t know, airless. I need my books a little shaggier. That’s why I wrote a dissertation on Lawrence, I guess.
Anyway, here are some observations on the novel, taken from the notes I scribbled during our conversations:
We did understand, by the way, that not liking the book was pretty much the point. It’s a book about having high expectations for life and one’s self and being disappointed in them. But the trick is that those expectations aren’t foiled because of bad luck or history or poverty or illness. Rather they’re foiled from inability—including the inability to recognize one’s lack of ability. Sentimental Education is about being mediocre. The narrator readily lets us see how mediocre the characters are, which makes the novel Olympian and rather disdainful.
The hero, if you can put it that way, is Frédéric Moreau, a young man from the provinces who flunks out of law school but is able to live in relatively grand style anyway because he inherits a lot of money from an uncle. In fact, at the beginning of the book he’s returning from a trip to visit the uncle, his mother having sent him there in hopes of currying the man’s favour. Frédéric returns from Le Havre to Nogent-sur-Seine via Paris, where he switches to a steam ship because he’s sulky about having to go home for the summer and it will take him longer to get there by boat than by any other route. So he begins taking a petty revenge against his mother. This is a fine introduction to a novel filled with mean-spirited and selfish actions.
The boat trip results in more than a small-minded psychological victory, though. Onboard Frédéric meets Jacques Arnoux, an art dealer and impresario and eventual porcelain manufacturer with whom he will be intertwined for the rest of the book. More importantly, he meets Arnoux’s wife, with whom he is immediately besotted. Much of the novel is about the relationship they never quite consummate.
But it’s not really a love story. Yes, Frédéric falls immediately for Madame Arnoux, swooning for her, to the point that he ignores her lack of interest and regularly misrepresents her words and deeds as coded expressions of her own desire for him (though eventually they do become something like lovers). But Sentimental Education is no Anna Karenina. It’s not even Madame Bovary. For one thing, Madame Arnoux isn’t the only woman in Frédéric’s life. There’s Rosanette, one of Arnoux’s mistresses, with whom Frédéric takes up; the two even have a child together. There’s Louise, the daughter of the Frédéric’s neighbour in Nogent-sur-Seine. And finally there’s Madame Dambreuse, the wife and eventual widow of a banker, who Frédéric meets through Louise’s father, who is Dambreuse’s business manager. Got all that? Sentimental Education is a book obsessed with crowds, but it doesn’t have that many characters. In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, there are a number of young men Frédéric knows from his time as a student, including his schoolboy friend Deslauriers, who is a lot poorer than Frédéric. The two treat each other fairly badly, considering they’re such good friends.
Anyway, I was saying it’s not really a love story. Flaubert defined it as the only kind of love story suitable for his generation: “It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays—that is to say, inactive.”
This idea of passivity or inactivity—remember, the big event in Frédéric’s life is his inheriting a small fortune from his uncle—affects more than just romance. Sentimental Education is famously also a novel about politics, even about revolution. The last part of the book is set against the Revolution of 1848, when the Orleans monarchy was overthrown in favour of the short-lived Second Republic. Many of the book’s characters are active in these turbulent political events, though Frédéric mostly avoids them (he literally leaves town during the most dramatic and violent weeks). And with the exception of one character, a shopkeeper called Dussardier who Frédéric and his circle befriend on a lark, and who is a committed Republican, so committed that he dies for the cause, no one partakes of these events out of a sense of duty or obligation or passion. According to the introduction to the new Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Helen Constantine, Flaubert did not know Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) in which he famously said that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and once as farce, but Sentimental Education could have been written with that dictum in mind.
The reason the 1848 revolution was a pale imitation of 1789, at least on the evidence in this novel, is that it was self-interested. Self-interest matters a lot in this novel; if it’s about anything, it’s about how people use each other. Characters regularly claim to care for things—movements, causes, other people—but prove not to. This isn’t just a function of their fickleness or moral laxity: it’s a function of the world they live in. No one feels secure enough in their place in society that they don’t feel the need to use others to get ahead. Even Madame Arnoux, who in general is gentle and definitely put upon by her rakish/obnoxious husband, isn’t above using Frédéric’s infatuation with her to help her family out financially. (Again, Dussardier, the shopkeeper, is the only exception, but he’s such a minor character and he meets such a sad end that we can’t make an example of him.)
Flaubert could have made much of this cutthroat world in which everyone is out to get everyone else, or, in which a lot of cynical people are out to get each other and whatever innocents are around—but then he’d have been Henry James, and Flaubert is after something more dispiriting than the actually quite lurid and melodramatic James. (Madame Dambreuse is the most Jamesian character—there’s a great moment when she and Frédéric attend an auction of the Arnoux’s personal effects—they’ve fallen into financial ruin—and when she sees how distressed Frédéric is by the sale of so many objects he had become so familiar with, having attached them to his love for Madame Arnoux, not least a small jewellery box, she insists on outbidding everyone for it and giving it to him, just to show him who’s boss.)
The dispiriting part isn’t just that everyone uses everyone else. It’s also that they’re not always that good at it. Frédéric in particular is a hard character to get a handle on, because he’s so narcissistic, always preening in mirrors and admiring his outfits, always ready to do whatever it takes to keep up his image, yet at the same time he’s regularly taken advantage of. He’s not very clever, but he’s also not naïve. His self-reflections, when they occur, never lead anywhere. They don’t make him act any differently. We’re in the odd position of neither liking him much nor of feeling bad for him when he’s been fleeced. Who could like a guy who, walking through a crowded street, thinks things like:
He felt sick at the sight of their vulgar faces, the idiotic remarks, the foolish satisfaction on their sweaty foreheads! However, the knowledge that he was worth more than these people lessened the fatigue he felt contemplating them.
Here as elsewhere, Flaubert uses free indirect discourse—the description of a character’s thoughts in apparently omniscient voice—to devastating effect. The more we know Frédéric the less we like him. The mingling of narratorial and character’s voice is often so subtle it takes us a while to figure out who is being judged. Early on in the novel, when Frédéric is still poor and convinced he’ll stay that way, he convinces himself that poverty could work to his advantage:
A soul like Madame Arnoux’s would surely be moved by that sight [of the poverty that would no doubt bring out his genius] and she would take pity on him. So this catastrophe was a stroke of luck after all. Like the earthquakes in which treasures are uncovered, it had revealed to him the secret riches of his character.
Flaubert uses metaphor so sparingly that when we get one we are apt to hold onto it gratefully. At last, a poetic moment! But when we think about what’s being said here we see something more disheartening than high-flown, beautiful rhetoric. Who thinks of an earthquake as something that reveals buried treasure? Who ignores its destructiveness? Maybe someone who doesn’t in fact have any secret riches or rich interior life.
Flaubert loves bathos: any time he verges on the lyrical, he’s sure to follow it with a prosaic detail. A long description of arriving in Paris at dusk works itself up to an unusually delicate effusiveness—“the entire greeny stretch of the Seine tore itself into silvery shards of silk against the pillars of the bridge”—only to be immediately followed by: “He went to have dinner for forty-three sous in a restaurant in the Rue de la Harpe.” Or consider this momentary idyll amidst the bustle of the city:
Leaning on the plush windowsill, [Frédéric and Deslauriers] smoked cheroots. The sun was shining, the air was mild, swarms of birds flew down into the garden; statues of bronze and marble washed by the rain glistened. Aproned maids sat chatting on chairs. And you could hear children laughing, along with the continuous murmur of the fountain.
Nice, right? I love Paris in the springtime. But how does Frédéric respond?
Under the influence of the wine circulating in his veins, half asleep, bemused and with the light full in his face, he felt nothing but an immense sense of well-being, a dull voluptuousness, like a plant saturated in warmth and wet.
He responds stupidly, complacently, dully, like a plant. Notwithstanding some lyric pages in the countryside near Fontainbleu late in the novel, this isn’t a book that loves the country. Flaubert was not a writer who knew the name of every flower or tree. In this world-view, it’s not a good thing to be like a plant saturated in warmth and wet. (That’s about as much sex as Frédéric gets, by the way.)
After all, plants don’t do much. One of the most fascinating things about Sentimental Education for me was watching Flaubert try to escape from his own trap. Hardly anything happens in this novel. It’s not dramatic. In fact, it’s against the very idea that life is dramatic, structured like a story with obstacles to be overcome and climaxes to be attained. It ironizes the story of the young man on the make who comes to the capital form the provinces and takes the town by storm. It ironizes Balzac, in other words. There aren’t any set pieces in this novel. A scene at the horse races could have been highly dramatic. It could have shown Frédéric as a hero, or advanced one of his affairs. It could have been the horse race from Anna Karenina. But it’s not.
The second race was not very entertaining, nor the third, apart from a man being carried off on a stretcher [good joke there: all of J. G. Ballard in a nutshell]. The fourth, in which eight horses battle it out for the Prix de la Ville, was more engaging.
A paragraph about this race follows. It’s interesting enough, I guess. But then this:
A dispute held up the last race. The crowd, bored, broke up. Groups of men were chatting below the stands. The talk was rather loose. Some society ladies left, shocked by the proximity of the kept women.
And that’s it. Except traffic. What follows is a pretty lengthy description of how long it took everyone to get home, since all the carriages were leaving at once. Always, always, Flaubert ironizes and debunks. But what is he left with? What kind of a novel repudiates all the things that make up novels? That’s the corner Flaubert paints himself into, the aridity I complained about at the beginning.
Very rarely does Flaubert indulge in pathos. One such moment comes near the end of the book. Frédéric and Rosanette’s child falls seriously ill. Frédéric, who hasn’t had much to do with it, tries to downplay the illness; Rosanette is frightened. The child falls unresponsive; Rosanette calls Frédéric to her side. But it’s too late:
The child was dead. She took him up, shook him, hugged him, calling him the sweetest names, covered him in kisses and sobs, walked round and round, distraught, tore out her hair, uttered little cries; and collapsed on the couch where she remained open-mouthed [in Madame Bovary the motif of open mouths signals imbecility and vacuity], with floods of tears issuing from her staring eyes. Then she was overcome with lethargy and all became calm in the apartment. The furniture was turned upside down. Two or three napkins lay around. Six o’clock struck. The night light went out.
I find those napkins heartbreaking, a forlorn symbol of the aftermath of sudden, terrible emotion. But my reading partners thought this made me a chump (they’re more Flaubertian than I am, I guess), noting, perhaps rightly, that the emotion (all Rosanette’s) peters out rather quickly—that phrase “all became calm” suggests the event might not in fact matter so much. It doesn’t to Frédéric, who thinks only of himself: “It seemed to him that this death was but a beginning, and that an even greater misfortune was about to befall him.” (It doesn’t). Even Rosanette is hard to sympathize with: she wants them to embalm the child, a wish both grandiose and ignorant. As the narrator says with typical acerbity, “There were many reasons against it, the most cogent of which was that it was not feasible in the case of such a young child.” What I’m saying is, if you want pathos in your literature, as I’ve come to realize I do, then Flaubert is not your guy.
I’ll end the way the novel does. Years pass. Frédéric gets older, but not wiser. France gets another monarch. Frédéric reconciles with Deslauriers: the latter had tried to revenge himself on his richer friend because of the lousy way Frédéric had always treated him—he marries Louise, who Frédéric had been on the point of deciding was the girl he should have loved, but (no surprise) the joke cuts more than one way: Louise quickly leaves Deslaurier for another man, so that even speaking of the falling out between the two as a breach that has to be reconciled is actually putting events too strongly. Anyway, the two friends, or whatever the hell they are, they’re not even really frenemies, meet up again and reminisce about an adventure from their school days. One Sunday in the summer of 1837 they slipped off to the local brothel. On the way they picked enormous bouquets of flowers from Madame Moreau’s garden, in the hopes of impressing the prostitutes. But when they arrive at the house things don’t go according to plan:
Frédéric presented his [bouquet], like a lover to his betrothed. But the heat, the fear of the unknown, a kind of remorse, and even the pleasure of seeing at a glance so many women at his disposal, affected him so powerfully that he went deathly pale and stood still, tongue-tied. They all laughed, delighted at his embarrassment. Thinking they were making fun of him, he fled. And as it was Frédéric who had the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.
The last line is typical Flaubert, an extra little sting of bathetic deflation. It also summarizes Frédéric and Deslauriers’s relationship, in which money always gets in the way. (It’s like every other relationship in the book.) The scene is also emblematic of Frédéric’s inability to act: here he is, on the threshold of his desire, and he can’t pull the trigger. Worst of all, perhaps, we see how his narcissism and self-regard cause him to misread the situation. He thinks he’s being laughed at when in fact they’re laughing with him, or they would be if he let them.
Sentimental Education is about the hash we make of our lives when we’re so absorbed in ourselves that we miss the opportunity for community or fellow feeling with others. Think how differently things would have gone if he’d laughed along with them. But Flaubert isn’t writing a morality tale. Things can’t be other than the way they are. That’s what makes the whole enterprise so dispiriting. Telling the story to each other, Deslaurier and Frédéric conclude: “Those were the best days of our lives!” And you know what, they probably were. Isn’t that depressing. Almost as depressing as the complacency that besets so many of us—Flaubert would say, all of us—when we look back on our lives and think that regardless of all the vicissitudes life has thrown our way things have worked out for the best.
Any story we tell of our own lives—the very idea that our lives have a story—is bound to be narcissistic. Flaubert brilliantly arraigns the navel gazing of the Bildungsroman. But maybe a little narcissism isn’t so bad. Better than an irony that scorches everything in its path, anyway.