The Searcher is Tana French’s second stand-alone novel, and the first to be written in third person. Although I regularly mourn the waning of third-person narration, I was surprised by French’s choice, as so much of the magic of her previous seven books stems from their brilliant use of unreliable first-person.
I’m a huge fan of French’s; in my opinion, there’s no better writer in crime fiction today. I even love the books that most readers dislike, The Likeness (2008) and The Secret Place (2014). (No accident that these are the most female-centered of her novels.) I especially love The Secret Place, set largely in a girl’s school, with its dreamy terrors, though, if pressed, I’d choose Broken Harbour (2012), set in the Gothic ruins of the Celtic Tiger’s economic collapse, as my favourite French. (Or maybe The Trespasser. It’s hard!)
No surprise, then, I think French succeeds with close third-person narration as much as with first-person. But this isn’t just the fan in me talking. French has been careful in her decision. What sets her novels apart isn’t just her mastery of suspense—surprisingly rare in crime fiction—but her patient, intelligent consideration of friendship. Reading a French novel you are led to ask not only whodunnit but, more esoterically, why do you have the friends you have; what distinguishes relationships that are freely chosen from those mandated by expectations (family) or contingency (work); which comes first, selfhood or friendship; are you drawn to your friends, and they to you, because of who you are; or do you become who you are because of those friends?
To be sure many of French’s novels do center on work relationships, namely the ones formed between cops. (Her first six novels are set in the fictional Dublin Murder Squad.) But in French’s hands, these partnerships, even if they are initially formed arbitrarily (x gets assigned to work with y), take on an intense, hothouse quality. The characters spend as much time sussing out each other as they do the crime. French’s cops are more like friends—really, more like frenemies—than like colleagues.
Some people, I know, don’t care for French because her language, concerns, and structure all tend to excess. But I love how she queers the conventions of detective fiction. French is a particularly Irish writer, inhabiting that great tradition of writers who mimic only to destabilize English realism (Swift, Le Fanu, Wilde, Joyce, Bowen, Beckett, etc.). Like these illustrious compatriots, French is swoony, preposterous, Gothic; she is a burst of febrile invention in the stylistically staid world of crime writing, a genre that, however invested in social change, is realist to its bones. (I’m talking about how it describes the world, not whether it’s plausible, which, so often, it isn’t. Not a criticism, by the way.)
French’s previous novel, The Witch Elm (2018), wasn’t just French’s first stand-alone, it was literally about what it means to stand alone, a question it explored by considering vigilantism and by using the protagonist’s head trauma to question the very idea of a coherent self. Other crime novels have used concussed or neuro-challenged detectives—off the top of my head, I think of examples by Margery Allingham, Howard Engel, and Henning Mankell—but always to ask questions about reason (can the crime be solved by a detective who can’t think “normally”?) rather than about identity. Yet The Witch Elm’s narrator was still enmeshed in a social world; he had all sorts of people worrying about him (and worrying him: the people in his life choked him with their concern). As this description implies, the book was also written in first person, taking French’s genius for charming but dubious narrators to its greatest height. In this regard, The Witch Elm was of a piece with the rest of her books. Taken together they make a brilliant, paradoxical argument about narration: the best way to show someone’s connections to others is to tell their story in first-person.
The Searcher shows the reverse to be true as well: third-person shows isolation. Cal Hooper has retired, at age 48, from the Chicago police. (As someone of the same age, I was curious but also dubious about the financial logistics of this plan. But I digress.) Wanting to put the job behind him—or, rather, his mixed feelings about it; his inability to any longer believe the police are fundamentally useful (an idea more and more crime writers are understandably wrestling with these days; too bad this is the most cursory, least interesting part of the book)—not to mention his recent divorce, Cal has come to rural Ireland, where he’s bought a tumble-down cottage and devotes his days to restoring it.
Cal loves his new life—frying the good Irish bacon while blasting Steve Earle, feeling his body return from decades of sedentary work, marveling bemusedly at the changeable weather—but he also feels ill at ease. He doesn’t know the place, doesn’t know everyone’s back story, doesn’t understand what the locals are actually saying when they seem to be chatting pleasantly. A parliament of rooks watches skeptically over his yard. People stop talking when he enters the pub. More to the point, someone is watching him, he can just tell.
The someone turns out to be a thirteen-year-old named Trey Reddy, whose beloved older brother disappeared a few months back. Everyone knows the family is shiftless—father fucked off, mother overwhelmed, kids going to school only when they feel like it—so they assume Brendan lighted out for something better, maybe in the city. He’ll be back eventually, chastened no doubt. Trey knows differently, knows no one cares like Brendan does, knows this older brother wouldn’t leave without saying something or sending word. Trey wants Cal, the ex-cop to find his brother.
The ex-cop doesn’t want to, but gets pulled in against his better judgment. The truth turns out to be fairly simple, but also messy, leaving no one untouched, and it proves Cal’s early intuition about that his bucolic new home is a heaving mass of secrets. Like so many of French’s characters, he feels that the world as we know it only barely makes sense, its meaning a hair’s breadth from meaninglessness:
All of a sudden he has that sensation… an intense awareness of the spread of the dark countryside all around his house; a sense of being surrounded by a vast invisible web, where one wrong touch could shake things so far distant he hasn’t even spotted them.
Distant things—the syntax here can trip us up if we’re not careful—do get shaken, and people do get hurt (physically, not just emotionally: it’s a violent book). Their trust in each other, their ease with each other, their sense of being safe with each other—all are badly eroded. By the end French leaves us a glimmer of hope that some relationships might survive; that people need each other is never in doubt. That’s true even when the relationships on offer are harmful. One drunken night at the pub Cal thinks he might finally have been accepted by the locals, then realizes he’s being played in a way he can’t yet understand. But he so hungers for “the effortless rhythms of the talk snapping back and forth across the table” that he’s willing to take what he can get: “He may not know these men, but they know each other, and there’s comfort in being around that.”
Reading The Searcher I would occasionally stumble over Cal’s folksy, backwoods, aw shucks language: “So if I show up at your place and start visiting with your mama, you never saw me before.” Visiting, your mama—these Southernisms are explained away (he moved to Chicago from the Carolinas)—but that Cal would think of and to himself in the same way, as shown by the appearance of similar language in the free indirect discourse, seems a bit much. (“On his way out Cal has himself a nice long wander around the lane behind Francie Gannon’s fields.”) What I’m saying is that French has never written an American before, and it shows.
Or does it? As always, French is ahead of her readers. If we think she’s failed, then the joke’s on us. We’ve been too quick to reach for plausibility and realism. Cal’s southernisms, his whole good ol’ boy persona, are strategic, useful in lulling suspects into dismissing him. And they may not just be his disguise, they may be the novel’s too. Finishing the book, I got to thinking about the title, which of course has many possible referents: Cal, Trey, Brendan, the locals Cal finds himself among, and, not least, readers. So many searchers. But then why hasn’t French used the plural? I thought, of course, about a text that does, John Ford’s classic western, The Searchers (1956). And to be sure Cal is taken by the men down the pub as a kind of John Wayne, and fashions himself as one too. Cross-cultural encounters usually start with stereotypes: here, the locals make lots of hay about Americans as gun-toting zealots; in turn, they revel in their Irishness (“‘Sure, I’ve no need for that carry-on at my age,” Cal’s neighbour says when they banter over the fence, “‘What sins would I commit, an aul’ lad like me? I haven’t even got the broadband.’”) French, I think, is up to something here. She wrongfoots us with these clichés. What truths do they tell? What do they conceal? What happens when a Western is transplanted to western Ireland?
In Ford’s film, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a confederate soldier drifting across Texas in the wake of the Civil War. On a visit to his brother’s homestead, his relatives are murdered in a Comanche raid. All except Ethan’s nieces, whose fate—they have been taken hostage—is even worse in Ethan’s eyes. Along with his adopted nephew (already challenging the idea that family is primarily biological), Ethan launches a quest to release them—which also means to redeem them—thereby restoring the “civilizing” function of white settlers, as symbolized by the houses that bookend the film. Famously, however, Ethan is uneasy in both, always framed in doorways, coming in only to leave again. Domesticating walls can’t contain him, not because he is a free spirit but because the civilization The Searchers pretends to uphold is predicated on the ineradicable violence he symbolizes and, like some vigilante Ancient Mariner, is enjoined to enact.
I wouldn’t say French’s novel is an homage or even a reworking of Ford’s film. A riposte maybe. But I definitely think she has Westerns on her mind. When Lena, the novel’s neatly deflected love interest, explains that the problem with rural Ireland is that young women leave for better things because their families won’t give them land, which leaves a landscape of bachelors, men who lash out because they’ve no young people around to show them that a changing world isn’t terrible. When Cal suggests that having kids makes you want to fight things, too, Lena replies:
That’s different. If you’ve kids, you’re always looking out into the world to see if anything needs fighting, because that’s where they’re headed; you’re not barricading yourself indoors and listening for the Indians to attack.
Lena is the most sensible person in the novel; she voices French’s rejection of the ethos of the Western. But French can’t escape the questions about our bonds to other people the genre poses. The solution isn’t for everyone to settle down and have lots of children, or even for women to be able to work the land as much as men do. It’s to imagine different kinds of relationships between the generations that exceed the familial. Which is where French is different than Ford. In the film, the relationship between Ethan and his surviving niece isn’t close, isn’t parental, but still familial. She is kin. In the novel, Cal and Trey’s relationship can be generative because it’s unnecessary, and even not quite socially sanctioned. (Cal is warned that people will talk—and, it is intimated, do more than talk—if they learn how much time he is spending with the child.) If Cal is a father figure to Trey the novel emphasizes the figure rather than the father.
Even though it contains French’s signature unsettling undercurrents of strong negative emotions, The Searcher is sweeter than The Searchers. In the end, I’m not completely sold on it; disappointingly, its style is less luxurious than usual for French. But it’s plenty suspenseful, and plenty smart, a fine addition to a wonderful oeuvre. It’s a good book about dogs, too, valuing them for what they are rather than sentimentalizing them. Which is fitting, for the affect between dogs and people is also neither biological nor, for the most part, useful—it is unearned and thus free, a gift that is just as powerful as the one that arises between Cal and Trey, the novel’s differently burdened but equally capable protagonists. Solitude is a fantasy, this worthwhile new novel teaches, and bad for you too. But the relationships our society legitimates aren’t always the remedy for that harm. It’s for a new kind of relationship—a new version of friendship—that The Searcher searches.
Busy month. I kept to a schedule, writing at least a few paragraphs most days, and reading something Holocaust-related every morning. (Useful, fascinating, bit wearing.) I wrote a chapter of this book manuscript or whatever it’s going to be. I rejoiced in cooler weather which turned my runs from grim duty to joyful endorphin-fests. I counted the Biden signs in the neighbourhood and felt incautiously optimistic (not that he would win Arkansas, as if, but that he would win overall, and bigly). I studied for my US citizenship test and drove to Memphis to take it. And on the weekends I treated myself to Our Mutual Friend, which I didn’t quite finish, but will soon. (It’s good!) Here are my thoughts on the rest of my reading:
Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle (1957) Trans. Roy Edwards (1960)
Minco, born Sara Menco, was a twenty-year-old Jewish newspaper journalist when the Germans conquered her native Holland. Shortly thereafter she was fired by the paper’s pro-German leadership. That was the first of many losses. When the rest of her family was rounded up she escaped—slipping out the back door, diving through a gap in the hedge, and running breathlessly in search of safety—and spent the rest of the war in hiding in a series of safe houses.
She resumed writing after the war, achieving success with this, her first book, in 1957. The old Penguin edition I read describes it as a novel, but its events track her own experiences closely. I prefer Minco’s more accurate subtitle: the book is indeed a little chronicle, modest in size, if not in scope, its mode of telling disjointed, eliding important connective tissue. Not a narrative, then, but rather a text struggling how to best represent time. Bitter Herbs is made up of discrete (and discreet) units that offer flashes of Minco’s experience before and during the Nazi occupation.
Readers are likely to calibrate the bits of the story to the historical timeline—”it must be 1944 by now; the Allies have arrived”—but Minco challenges that practice, preferring instead to perform, and thus make us in some small way feel, the dislocation of life on the run. Minco survived, or we would not have her book, but her story doesn’t end happily. The final chapter describes her paternal uncle, the only other person in her family to have survived (in his case thanks to his marriage to a non-Jew). Every day the uncle waits at the tram stop near his house, fruitlessly searching out familiar faces. No one else ever comes back.
Minco’s chapters are little essays. In the one that gives the book its title, as she reflects on her split-section decision to run when the SS arrived to take her and her parents away, Minco describes how, briefly reunited with her brother and sister-in-law in a safe house, the three take turns bleaching their hair, causing their landlady to become suspicious and kick them out. She compares the door of the no-longer safe house she passes through into an uncertain future to the one she fled through, which reminds her, in turn, of the custom at the end of the Passover Seder to open the door for the prophet Elijah. Instead of dwelling on this messianic moment—Elijah never comes, at least not yet—Minco remembers the last of the Four Questions, which, as the youngest in the family, she would always be the one to ask: Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs? Her memory concludes:
Then my father would chant the story of the exodus from Egypt, and we ate of the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, in order that we should taste again of that exodus—from year to year, for ever and ever.
Am I right to hear a note of disdain here? As if the ritual were an impotent reveling in pain? (That repetition of “year to year,” “for ever and ever”—the endlessness seems as bitter as the herb.) Yet Minco can’t help but remember the moment, which could also be read as an invocation of an unbreakable tradition. But any idea of permanence is belied by both the form and content of her book. Minco is keen, at the end of the book, to take the tram and not look back—to be different from her uncle.
Roy Edwards’s translation seems a bit dusty; I gather a new version is forthcoming in the UK. The old edition was, however, graced by beautiful, jagged drawings by Herman Dijkstra. I wonder if those were present in the original Dutch, or whether they were added by Penguin. Minco celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year; it would be nice if an English-language publisher would follow Germany’s Arco Verlag in releasing a lovely centenary edition of this underappreciated writer.
Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (2020)
I was talking with a friend on Twitter the other day about autofiction: I enjoy it, but I find it doesn’t stay with me, maybe because I’m not trained to read it the way I am, say, realism. And maybe the problem is with Nunez: I remember delighting in her previous book, The Friend, and then, months later, having no memory of it, and even a few weeks later I’m hazy about What Are You Going Through? Maybe I read her too quickly; maybe her style is too lucid. (Is that a thing?) Maybe I should read the book again; maybe she’s one of those writers who only blossom when re-read. I do know, though, that I much preferred Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, which similarly considers the emotional and physical caretaking of a dying friend. That I read in January and still think about all the time. Maybe because Garner’s book is filled with rage, and rage scares me. Nunez, though pointed—her tone reminds me of a perfectly plucked eyebrow—is calmer, less likely to push my buttons.
Hilary Leichter, Temporary (2020)
The first time I saw Hilary Leichter I was terrified of her. I was just beginning a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College. (It sounds much fancier than it was: people would often politely ask, “Where are you visiting from?” not knowing that this is academic speak for “We have hired you on a full-time basis but only temporarily; do not expect to stick around.”) The night before the semester started my wife and I and some similarly temporarily employed friends attended a student production of David Mamet’s Oleanna, a two-hander about a young woman who, under the auspices/prodding of an ominously named “Group,” accuses a professor of harassment. I have not seen or read this play since; I strongly suspect it now reads as regressive and dismissive of accusers, but at the time it seemed evenhanded and smart. Anyway, as a newly-minted instructor I was terrified by the play’s suggestion that students could turn on one. And mostly I was in awe at the actor who played the student, who transformed, even physically, becoming taller, more present, from the first to the second act. (I mean, the transformation is in the script, but the actor seemed to become someone wholly other, through her carriage, posture, intonations, etc.)
When I stepped into the classroom the next week I didn’t even recognize that actor in Hilary Leichter, pleasant student ready to tackle Virginia Woolf. And when I did I had a moment of alarm—what would this student do to me? Nothing, it turned out, but good, by ably and generously contributing to the life of the seminar. Eventually she graduated and went on her way, and I did something similar, being very lucky to get my current job. I believe that all teachers really want is for their students to thrive, in whatever way best suits them. Imagine then my pleasure when I learned about Hilary’s first novel. And my joy and pride—you’d think I’d written the damn thing myself—when it got a rave New York Times review (it has since also appeared on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best of the Year list). I was excited to be able to convince the other members of the talent committee to invite Hilary to the Six Bridges Literary Festival; alas, our reunion was spoiled by COVID, but we finally got to reconnect when the festival went virtual last month.
In preparation for her appearance, which I agreed to moderate, I sat down to finally read Temporary. I was nervous. What if I didn’t like it? But my fear quickly vanished. The book is smart and engaging: just like Hilary herself. Temporary concerns a young woman who works a series of unusual temp jobs. In the world of the novel, though, which is both ours and not quite, such precarity is not a shitty fact of how we’ve decided to organize society but an identity position. Some people, like the narrator, are temps; they long for the permanence that Leichter calls “the steadiness.”
In reimagining economic reality as existential situation, Leichter critiques the cruel optimism of so-called late capitalism. The narrator’s jobs are like extravagant, explosive versions of what you’d find in Richard Scarry: she directs traffic, delivers mail, fills in on a pirate ship while someone is on leave, opens doors, robs banks, and even assassinates people to order. Throughout, Leichter literalizes the anodyne language of business management, giving it new life—“completely underwater” means something different when you work on a pirate ship. (The narrator concludes, perhaps offering Leichter’s own credo: “You can turn a phrase only so many times before it turns into something else.”)
Temporary could at first seem, like its title, slight. The publisher seems to be marketing it as charming, even zany (bright yellow cover featuring a delicate masked figure). And no question, the novel is fun and often laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly like the subplots involving the narrator’s 18 boyfriends, differentiated only by Homeric epithets: pacifist boyfriend, handy boyfriend, earnest boyfriend. When the narrator leaves the city for her pirate gig, the boyfriends move into her apartment, fixing it up for her and, as she learns on regular phone calls home, getting along famously: “‘We stayed up all night working!’ my caffeinated boyfriend chirps.”
But Temporary is serious business: its fantasy lets us imagine a world beyond precarity. “No one is outwardly harmed, but there’s harm everywhere”—this sentence encapsulates both capitalism’s false cheer and the novel’s stealth design. Will our protagonist find the steadiness she desires? Or will she tap into the power of temporariness, which has, after all, been handed down to her as a matrilineal inheritance, like the Jewishness that suffuses the novel without ever being named. Like Jewishness, at least in its exilic form, temporariness longs to be accepted by the fortunate steady, but, because such acceptance would undo its very identity, also rejects it. Temporary is a novel of resistance, not assimilation; as such, it’s a novel we need. Best of all, I can say I knew the author before she made it big, back when I was temporary too.
GennaRose Nethercott, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (2019) Illus. Bobby DiTrant
Cootie catchers are those folded paper fortune tellers you made as a kid to dare your friend to do something gross or to find out who you would marry. Nethercott’s book comes in a sleeve about the size of an LP filled with sheets you fold yourself and use to tell the story. In some version of late 19th early 20th century America, filled with trains and burlesque dancers, at an ominous plantation-like cranberry farm, terrible things are happening: every month a young woman goes missing, lost to the bog. Will Lianna escape? Where to and to what purpose? Will she bring justice to her sacrificed comrades? Depending on the vagaries of chance—i.e. how you play with the cootie catchers—any number of outcomes are possible.
I wouldn’t have read this had it not been for that lit fest panel I mentioned above (Nethercott appeared with Leichter). Which would have been a shame. I confess, though, that I found Lianna a little too cute—at least I did until I heard Nethercott’s (and Leichter’s) impassioned rejection of “whimsey” as a response women writers face more often than men; that dismissal, moreover, neglects the power of the fanciful to help us imagine a world that might be different than our own. As serious as a children’s game, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog is indeed a story of forced labour, violence against women, and the possibility of escaping those terrible material realities.
Charles Cumming, A Colder War (2014)
The follow-up toA Foreign Country. I enjoyed the glimpses of Istanbul. The love interest is a little too hetero-guy wet-dream-y, though.
Charles Cumming, A Divided Spy (2016)
The Thomas Kell trilogy comes to a satisfying conclusion. The last scene is especially good; unusual in spy fiction. I’ll read more of Cumming.
Barbara Demick, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (1996, revised 2012)
As I mentioned last month, Demick likes to use the experiences of a few individuals to illustrate larger political-historical situations. Here she offers a single street in Sarajevo as a microcosm for the siege of 1992—95. The six blocks of Logavina Street offer, for Demick, the best of the place, a city where, as the jacket copy puts it, “Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, lived easily together, unified by their common identity as Sarajevans.” I know Demick didn’t write that descriptions, but it speaks the strengths and weaknesses of her approach: light on history, good with character. The families Demick lives among experience the strains of life lived under threat of mortar and sniper: often cold, mostly hungry, always at risk.
Unfortunately, the capable storytelling isn’t matched by comparable analytic sophistication (her most recent book is better). I winced when Demick misread Primo Levi, dubiously compared Sarajevans under siege to inmates of a subcamp of Auschwitz. But in an introduction written for this second edition, Demick recognizes the book’s flaws, regretting its naivete. I don’t think she’s renounced her belief in the beauty of a multiethnic, cosmopolitan polity, but she no longer thinks this ideal is coterminous with freedom and democracy. The whole book is, no surprise, redolent of the 1990s, a time that now seems impossibly quaint and infuriatingly smug. But Demick is right to have left the text as it was written (even as she has added a welcome post-script updating readers on her subjects). And I still learned a lot. Logavina Street allowed me, who didn’t pay much attention to the events as they occurred—they were part of life’s grim background noise, inexplicable other than through lazy, and totally bogus, nostrums about age-old ethnic hatreds—to start remedying past ignorance.
Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1963)
Reader extraordinaire and Backlisted podcaster Andy Miller named Segal’s novel My First American as his best read of October. Hearing this, I resolved to take down my copy of this, her first novel, which, like Minco’s Bitter Herbs, could certainly be called a memoir, as it follows her own experiences closely.
Segal (née Groszmann) left Vienna in 1938 on one of the Kindertransports. In England she was billeted with various families who, although well-meaning, simply couldn’t understand her, mistaking her reserve for stubbornness instead of trauma. Segal’s vividly portrays her family in pre-Anschluss times (especially her charming uncle, Paul, part wastrel, part mensch), the new “families” she is plunked among, and herself, always tracking her own reactions. She has an eye for psychological complication—in the hours before her desperate parents send their only child off alone to a foreign country, for example, they buy her a sausage, which the girl has said she wants, but only because she sees they want to get her something special to prove their love; on the journey to England and in the first weeks there, spent in a freezing holiday camp hastily made over as refugee center, the sausage, which she cannot bring herself to eat and is in fact disgusted by but which she also cannot bear to throw away, begins to rot, its smell an unshakable stain symbolizing terrible misunderstanding and conflicted emotions.
Through force of will the child helps her parents get British visas (she writes begging letters to the authorities, trading on her position as lost and vulnerable child), though the visas only allow them to work in domestic service, so the family remains separated except for occasional visits. Segal’s mother takes to the work, even though in Vienna she had had servants herself; she is an unstoppable force. Her father does not, he is helpless, his training as an accountant hasn’t prepared him for his new role as a gardener. His health declines; Segal’s mother spends her scarce private time and energy to attending to him; Segal, now a teenager, condemns him as a burden. All very fraught. Eventually she moves to London, attends a women’s college, and, after the war, accompanies her mother to the Dominican Republic, where her uncle was hopelessly attempting to become a farmer (at the Evian conference on the Jewish crisis in 1938, the DR was the only country willing to take Jewish refugees). In 1951, her American visa finally comes through, and the last part of the book tells the story of her finding her feet in New York.
Other People’s Houses is like a mashup of Kluger’s Still Alive, Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In other words, extremely my shit. In tone it is most similar to Gornick—unsparing, but less harsh than Kluger and less sweet than Kerr. It’s terrific. I will say, I did find it a bit long, especially in its second half (the childhood parts of autobiographical books are always the best). In fact, I had the same feeling finishing this as I did when I first read Still Alive. I liked it, I knew it was good, but I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It took me several readings of Kluger’s memoir to really get a handle on its genius, and I suspect the same will be true for Segal’s. (No surprise, by the way, that Segal wrote the introduction to Still Alive.) I plan to teach Other People’s Houses; that’s when I’ll really get a handle on it.
Mark Roseman, Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany (2019)
As I say in my precis, this is the most consequential book I’ve read this year. A work of history both deep and accessible with important implications for how we think about resistance.
Liz Moore, Long Bright River (2020)
Moore’s title is lifted from Tennyson and works both literally—this is a great novel of Philadelphia; the Delaware recurs frequently—and metaphorically—the subject is the release and suffering users of races and classes find in the river of opioids deluging the country. Like Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, which I keep singing the praises of, Moore’s novel upends the conventions of the procedural. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a cop; her sister is an addict. Every call sends a spasm through Mickey: will this Jane Doe be Kacey? So far so compelling—but also so far so cliched. What’s really great here is how the shifty first-person narration (which is very subtly done, it takes a long time before we realize Mickey is, not exactly untrustworthy, but certainly prey to her own demons) forces us to consider what it means to value socially acceptable forms of addiction (to work, to control, to order). Long Bright River fillets the genre of the procedural, turning it inside out. I loved it—I stayed up until almost 4 to finish it and didn’t even regret it the next day—but I did wonder, Where can we go from here? Is the procedural simply impossible now? Smart book; looking forward to more from Moore.
Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar (1949)
Tey’s novel about a man who claims to be the long-lost scion of a pedigreed horse-owning English family, unseating his twin brother just days before the latter was to come into his inheritance, is plenty ingenious. We know from the beginning that Brat is an imposter, coached by a vindictive cousin who seizes upon the man’s uncanny likeness to the brother to split the inheritance two ways. (Shame Tey quickly gets bored of the cousin.) So the question isn’t “Is he for real?” but “Will he be uncovered?” Tey pulls a nice surprise at the end, and asks questions about identity and belonging. (There’s a lotta horse neepery, which I could takle or leave.) I liked it well enough—though less so, I think, than Rohan, whose take you should read—but not as much as her earlier novel of unsettlement, The Franchise Affair, and not as much as another novel from the period concerning an uncanny imposter, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, a more suspenseful book which has, it seems to me, wider ambitions.
Gerda Weissmann Klein, All But My Life (1957, revised 1995)
Memoir recounting, first, Klein’s childhood in a prosperous Jewish merchant family in the Silesian town of Bielitz (today Bielsko-Biala), a textile center near the Czech border that until WWI had been part of Austro-Hungary; the destruction of that world with the German invasion of Poland; her family’s subsequent dispersal and persecution; and eventually the story of her wartime suffering, first as a weaver in a series of slave labour camps and finally, most harrowingly, as one of only a handful of survivors of one of the longest and deadliest of the so-called Death Marches. Four thousand young women left the Gross-Rosen camp system in January 1945; after a 350-mile trek through that terrible winter, only 120 were still alive when the war ended in May.
Particularly interesting is the story of Klein’s rescue, at the point of death (she weighed 68 pounds at liberation), by an American GI, whom she subsequently married. I was struck by the differences between Klein’s experience and Ruth Kluger, who similarly survived a Death March but who memorably describes her first encounter with a GI who put his fingers in his ears when Kluger’s mother started to tell him what they had gone through. Kluger would go on to marry a GI too, though that marriage did not last. That Klein’s husband was Jewish, had been born in Germany, and emigrated with his family in the 1930s must have contributed to that difference.
Klein’s happily-ever-after contrasts with the other striking strand of her wartime experiences: her relationship with Abek Feigenblatt, a young man she met in a camp in 1941, when she and her parents were some of the only Jews left in Bielitz, and when it was still possible for people to visit those incarcerated. This was a work camp, not an extermination camp, and Abek’s job was to restore paintings, most of which had been stolen from Jewish homes, so he came and went with a great deal of freedom. The Bielitz ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and everyone left was sent either west, like Klein, to work, or east, like her parents, to be murdered.
The twenty-two-year-old Abek immediately falls for the teenaged girl (Klein was 17 at the time) and presses his suit. She is flattered but also unhappy; she does not love him and is both put off and frightened by his persistence. For the next few years their lives are painfully intertwined: Klein is briefly sent to Sosnowitz, forty-five miles away, where Abek’s family lives, and he urges them to arrange an essential worker permit for her, which she rejects for fear of being bound to him; later they write each other regularly from their respective work camps; and he eventually arranges to be transferred to a camp near her own, even though it is notoriously dangerous, so that, with the connivance of a kindly German overseer, they can occasionally see each other. Abek’s eventual fate—but also his disagreeable love—haunt Klein.
Some might say Klein’s experiences were too unusual, indeed too privileged, to count as representative. But all stories are particular, and all survivor accounts contain remarkable elements. After all, all survivors are anomalies. I am pretty amazed that Klein first published this in 1957; that it was revised in the mid 90s, as a result of a successful documentary film, makes sense: it feels of that Holocaust museum opening in DC/Schindler’s List Oscar winning moment. But to my mind it seems unusual for the 50s. I’d like to find out about its reception. Was it a success? How did its first readers take it? What framework did they place it in? One story often told is that that the Holocaust doesn’t coalesce as a concept until the Eichmann trial in the 60s, or the famous miniseries in the 70s. Klein’s book might challenge that. I do note that the back of my edition categorizes it as “Memoir/Judaica,” the latter an old-fashioned, exoticizing term. (I’d expect something like “Holocaust Studies” instead.)
Klein is a good writer, but not an extraordinary one. I missed, for example, Kluger’s analytic reach and sharp tone. Klein’s story is more triumphant, though certainly not without its bitterness. In general, she seems a more establishment figure, if I could put it that way. Her humanitarian work cannot be denied: Clinton appointed her to the USHMM governing council; Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom; as recently as 2008, in her 80s, she started a 501C3 that educates students about citizenship. Anyway, All But My Life is maybe not the only Holocaust memoir I’d want people to read, but I can recommend it.
Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)
Dillon has chosen 27 favourite sentences—from prose works ranging from Donne and Browne to Mantel and Jaeggy—and written a short essay on each. I have only three objections to this exercise. One, I’m deeply envious that I am not smart enough to have thought of this or good enough & well connected enough to pull it off. Two, Dillon loves to qualify and hesitate—and not just because nuance requires it. He speaks of “a certain kind of exposure,” “a certain fragility,” “a kind of care, and a kind of fury.” What he says about Janet Malcolm—“Malcolm’s own resistance to the same qualities [of permanence, order, closure] involves her in an orgy of provisionality and tentativeness”—is too often true of him too. Three, he is irritatingly fond of rhetorical questions, which is a shame since his real questions are excellent.
But even my envy and grumpiness give way before Dillon’s accomplishment. He’s a great celebrator, a quality I admire in a critic. And he’s a terrific close reader. My copy is filled with appreciative check marks and exclamations—he notices so much about his material, and develops those observations into suggestive insights. He’s really good on verbless sentences and on commas, especially those that are expected but elided. His choices are pleasingly unexpected; even the usual suspects are represented by obscure material. Joan Didion, for example, honed her craft writing captions for Vogue, and Dillon convincingly argues that his example—a sentence accompanying a photo of Dennis Hopper’s home—lost its power when Didion later revised and repurposed it in a published essay. Most importantly, he has good taste. He gets how amazing Elizabeth Bowen is, which is always going to win someone over in my books. He makes me want to read Maeve Brennan and Anne Boyer. And above all, he has sent me in search of Claire Bennett, about whom he writes brilliantly.
There you have it. Not quite the riches of September, but a better than average reading month. Mark Roseman’s book stood out above the rest, but Lore Segal, Hilary Leichter, Liz Moore, and Marga Minco impressed too. Not sure November will match up—I’ve spent most of it so far in a fog of election paralysis—but check back in a month to see.
A woman in Essen brings flowers to friends of her in-laws; their home, where she has enjoyed many musical evenings, was looted the night before. To get to the couple cowering in fear and shame inside she fights her way through a crowd of hostile onlookers.
A man who knows that deportations to the East have begun seeks to offer moral and physical support to the deportees, slipping into a synagogue where hundreds have been ordered to marshal. A woman—she will be sent to Minsk the following day—thanks him for his efforts. He should be thanking her, the man replies; his paltry efforts have allowed him to feel a little less guilty for what is happening “to his fellow countrymen.” The woman breaks down at this gesture of solidarity.
A woman writes to the professional association of teachers: she has lost her ID card and needs a replacement. She includes a photo not of herself but of a friend who has been in hiding for six months. The card which duly arrives, bearing the name of one woman and the photo of another, is a lifeline, not proof against discovery but enough to give the hidden woman a modicum of freedom.
A man who works for the Acoustic Institute of a university in Braunschweig is sent to an isolated site in the Harz mountains to run some tests for the military. While there he stays in an old forester’s hut. Friends ask if he can help a woman on the run; he agrees, and the woman, whom he has never met and never sees again, stays with him for several days.
These vignettes launch historian Mark Roseman’s fascinating new book. Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany tells the story of the Bund, an organization of about two hundred men and women in the industrial Ruhr valley who, beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the 60s, sought a different way of living. Their idealism led them to resist the Nazi regime in small, uncoordinated, but meaningful ways. Roseman describes this resistance, shows how those involved considered their actions both at the time and afterward, and, most significantly, offers a new understanding of resistance.
The Bund—not to be confused with the better-known secular socialist Jewish movement in interwar Poland—was “part political group, part 1960s commune, and part Quaker society.” Its full name was Bund: Gemeinschaft für sozialistisches Leben, which Roseman translates as “League: Community for Socialist Life.” Yet even though its members were close to the socialist and communist parties of the period, the Bund was never a political organization. Founded in 1924, it was one of many social movements in Weimar Germany, movements that modelled themselves on prewar youth groups, like the Wandervögel, the Naturfreunde, and even Zionist groups. These organizations believed themselves to be “natural fellowships,” in contrast to the artificial institutions of society. As Roseman nicely puts it, such organizations typically “sought freedom for the collective rather than for the individual.” Yet it was also true that they tended to be organized around a single leader, whose charisma would keep the association from splintering.
In the case of the Bund, that leader was Artur Jacobs, a high school teacher in his mid-40s, whose commitment to revolutionary pedagogy had gained him devoted followers and implacable enemies. (He once led a group of girls on a hiking trip during which teachers and students slept in the same barn. People were not amused.) Stymied by parents and superiors from bringing his teaching aims to fruition, Artur poured his passion, energy, and conviction into the Bund. He led the organization until his death, age 88, in 1968, together with his wife Dore (neé Marcus), the daughter of “two highly acculturated, educated German Jews.” (She had been one of the students on the hiking trip; maybe his critics were on to something. Their marriage was quite devoted, though.) Dore’s passion was Körperbildung, “body education,” an all-purpose name for activities—including nudism, sun worship, and primal dance—aimed at cultivating a more natural relation to the body. The most popular of these was eurhythmic gymnastics, invented by Émile Jacques-Dalcroze in the late 19th century. (It was the yoga of its day and features prominently in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.) In 1925, Dore founded a Bund school for body training and eurythmic education in Essen; many of the Bund’s core members were introduced to the organization through the school, which also provided crucial cover during the Nazi years (both literally—as a place to hide from prying eyes—and figuratively—as an activity the Nazis deemed harmless).
But even at its most corporeal, Bundist activity was grounded in core philosophical beliefs, specifically a counterintuitive attempt to blend Kant and Marx. (Marx directly opposed his materialism to Kant’s idealism.) Whereas Kant believed individuals must “learn to act in such a way so as not to impinge on others,” as Roseman puts it, Marx believed that social change would come from inescapable class conflict that exceeded any voluntarist acceptance of moral positions. Perhaps the tension between individual ethical beliefs and determinist social forces allowed the Bund able to negotiate the Hitler years as it did. In pressing “for socialist transformation at the societal level and for individual ethical improvement at the personal level” the Bund was neither an established organization nor a temporary confluence of individuals. It was something in between—flexible enough to evade easy detection yet strong enough to maintain the faith of its members. Thus, the Bund allows us to rethink our ideas of resistance and rescue, which, Roseman convincingly argues, have been narrowly conceived and overly reliant on retrospective thinking.
Before the war, the Bund sought cooperation among left-wing organizations and groups. But its main interest was to ensure members abide by Bund ideas about how to live—freedom for the self would come from freedom for the collective. Bund adherents organized camping trips and hiking excursions, celebrated the solstice, danced and trained their bodies, abjured alcohol and tobacco (caffeine, though, was a bridge too far), and generally enjoyed being among like-minded souls (so much so that their children often felt left out and later harboured ambivalence to the organization).
Thanks to Dore the Bund attracted many more women than most Weimar-era organizations. This would be important later—the Nazis certainly had plenty of rigid ideas about how women should live, but in general didn’t think of them as potential resisters. When the Nazis came to power, the Bund, like so many progressive groups, felt existentially threatened. Artur even spent several months in 1933 tramping through the countryside and hiding with friends, convinced he was on an arrest list. This fear eventually proved unfounded, but it was reasonable at the time. More at risk were Dore and Lisa Jacobs, Dore’s second-in-command at the eurhythmic school, both of whom were Jewish. In general, the pre-war Bund had little interest in Jewishness. Its spirituality, if it could be said to have any, was ill-defined and centered on nature-worship. Moreover, the small Jewish population of the largely working-class Ruhr valley tended to be middle-class: owners of the means of production, in Marxist terms, rather than workers. It is remarkable, then, and a sign of the group’s lack of dogmatism and willingness to shift to meet the needs of the moment, that many of the Bund’s wartime actions centered on helping German Jews, by expressing solidarity, sending food parcels to deportees, and even hiding Jews who had gone underground.
After the war, Bund members presented themselves as natural opponents of Nazism, suggesting that countering the regime—by providing both material aid for the persecuted and mental succor for “ordinary Germans,” as a light in the dark times and a possible way forward afterward—had been its rationale during those twelve terrible years. Roseman, who has been studying the Bund for almost 30 years, uses the group’s surprisingly large surviving historical records to show that this thinking in fact appeared only in hindsight. At the time, especially in the years after the Nazis took power but before the war, Bund members were shattered and demoralized, both scared for their safety and unsure how they could continue to live meaningfully when forced to limit their activities to secret meetings and despondent correspondence.
Paradoxically, the Bund’s postwar self-understanding obfuscated its wartime reality:
If there was one key words for the Bund in staking its claim in the postwar period, it was that it had continued to “live” in Nazi Germany—that is, it had gained vibrant, meaningful, lived experience. Yet the more the group marshaled its memories to establish its postwar fitness to lead, the more the complexity of lived experience—with its despair, fears, and more—slipped out of view.
Thanks to letters, diaries, and official documents, Roseman is able to reconstruct not just the Bund’s activities but also its members’ feelings during the Nazi era. He tracks them as they send hundreds of parcels to deported Jews, both to Poland (until 1942 when such parcels were no longer accepted) and to the way-station/giant prison of Theresienstadt. They added letters of succor and encouragement; Roseman notes that, especially “for a certain kind of high-minded, politically left-leaning German Jew, the Bund’s language and ideas were instantly recognizable and appealing, conveying the sense that the ethical and intellectual world they had felt themselves to be a part of still existed and accepted them within its fold.” As one recipient wrote from a ghetto in Poland, “to feel the warmth and proximity of people so similar to myself is like having a transfusion after losing a lot of blood—it is lifesaving.”
Bund members even accompanied deportees to holding centers, sometimes carrying their bags—risky actions, especially after a regulation prohibiting “persons of German blood” from having friendships with Jews was enacted in October 1941. Perhaps the most courageous thing they did was to help at least two and perhaps as many as five Jews survive the war. Dore was more or less protected by her marriage to Artur (though she and a dozen of the group’s core members spent the last year of the war in hiding in a house near Lake Constance, close enough to Switzerland that they sometimes risked slipping across to border to mail letters). But Lisa Jacobs had become a “non-person” by deciding not to answer her deportation notice, which meant she had to live without a ration card and at constant risk of discovery. She moved frequently from house to house—the fake teacher’s ID offering a little protection—staying only a few days at a time to reduce the risk to the person hiding her.
Perhaps even more surprising was the group’s efforts to save Marianne Strauss, who they had not previous known. In 1941-42, Artur had befriended David Krombach, a leader in Essen’s shrinking Jewish population. Krombach’s son was engaged to Marianne; the young woman, who worked in the Jewish Community office, acted as the intermediary in Bund efforts to help the Krombach family once they had been deported. When she went underground in 1943, defying her deportation order, Marianne had to trust that the kindness Bundists had shown her would hold: she showed up late one night at a member’s home, literally on the run from the SS. Until the end of the war she stayed with at least ten Bund families and made between thirty to fifty journeys across the Ruhr, each of them highly dangerous. (Not least because the Allies were bombing it pretty much every day.) Roseman gives us only a taste of this extraordinary story, having devoted his first book, A Past in Hiding, to it. (I’m reading it right now; it’s excellent.)
Importantly, although Artur and Dore and some of the others had talked about helping Marianne, they had no plan for doing so. They improvised, they sacrificed, they did what they could, never knowing if it would be the right thing or for how long they would be able to do it. They did not set out to “rescue” Marianne. Moreover, neither Marianne and Lisa—like everyone, Roseman intimates, who survived the war in hiding or on the run—were simply passive victims, mere recipients of aid. Lisa, for example, taught occasional gymnastics classes and even arranged to send packages to Poland. Marianne cooked for the people who sheltered her and even made artificial flowers from felt, which she sold for valuable ration coupons. Too often we think of survivors as either passive objects of rescue or as self-interested actors cheating fate through shrewdness and luck. Roseman complicates this view, showing us that, yes, survivors contributed to their own survival but they also helped others in need.
A similar sense of complication inheres in his argument that rescuers are not only disinterested altruists. Many of them were motivated by greed and graft, desiring money or sexual favours. (Nechama Tec’s terrific memoir of her experiences as a hidden child in Poland, Dry Tears, offers examples of both.) But Roseman also argues that “even those who made a strong and conscious decision to help Jews might have been involved in their destruction.” In fact, “some perpetrators were rescuers, and some rescuers were perpetrators”—not everyone who helped Jews did so for ethical reasons, and not everyone who helped out of moral principle could escape being caught up in the killing process. Several Bund members were conscripted into the army; one was sent to France, where at one point he was a guard on a transport that he knew carried Jews. This is a dramatic example; more innocuous is Artur’s criticism of Marianne when she got involved in a domestic dispute between a husband and wife who were hiding her. Roseman marvels that Artur could have rebuked a young woman whose parents had just been deported to Auschwitz, but he insists we need to take account, as much as the historical record allows, of realities, like this one, that “became unsayable after the event.”
Time and again, Roseman offers startling conclusions. The Bund succeeded in its resistance because it “created a collective space, a counterweight, to the world outside.” But that collectivity was loose, seemingly harmless (the camping trips, the gymnastics), and involved at least as many women as men (also deemed harmless). It had a big goal—“to create a just, socialist society”—but used small ways to achieve it, “day-to-day decisions, commitments, and practices.” Postwar German society did not think of the Bund—inasmuch as anyone thought of it at all—as a resistance organization. After all, it had predated the Nazis and had never been solely motivated by their defeat; it had rejected leafleting and vandalism as risky and ineffective; it lent its efforts to victims of the regime rather than setting its sights on the regime itself. (It was the opposite of “the Red Orchestra” group led by Harro Schulze-Boysen and Libertas Haas-Heye.) Roseman suggests that the Bund was an embarrassment to postwar Germany—it showed what had been possible but that almost no one had done.
Although Bund members continued to meet throughout the late 1940s, 50s, and even into the 60s, the movement petered out. Young people were not interested. Even though the Bund self-consciously did not criticize the younger generation that had been indoctrinated by Nazism, the hierarchical nature of the organization (Artur was still the leader) and its insistence on personal discipline (the Bund’s commitment to communal ideals did not include sexual liberation or experimentation with drugs) turned young people away. They saw it as too similar to the Nazi past they were eager to leave behind. On the face of it, the comparison is ridiculous. I was shocked, though, to read these lines written by Artur on the day when the Allies liberated the region around Lake Constance:
That we remained strong, that not a single one of us fell by the wayside, even among those who lived far from us, that is a glorious page in the Bund’s history. And that we remained alive, that we lived through this time awake, that we matured and grew—we owe that all to the Bund.
I thought immediately of Himmler’s infamous exhortation to members of the SS at Posen in 1943:
Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 are there or when there are 1000. And . . . to have seen this through and—with the exception of human weakness—to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.
Both writers reference strength, pride, and, most disquietingly, pages of glory. Both allude to a difficult task not just undertaken but seen through.
Of course, the comparison is ultimately not just ridiculous but disgusting; Artur’s references to maturing and growing have nothing to do with Himmler’s mass murder. Artur was no Führer. But that young Germans could have rejected the Bund as another relic of a terrible and embarrassing past begins to be understandable.
Which was ultimately a failure on their part, for as Roseman convincingly shows the Bund offers an inspiring model for social change. In recent years, historians have emphasized the ways the Nazi regime worked to gain acceptance, binding ordinary Germans together and, thereby, ultimately eliciting their at-least tacit support for its genocidal acts and aspirations (after the Jews, the idea was to kill the so-called Slavs). Considered in light of the regime’s efforts, the Bund’s quiet refusal is all the more remarkable:
The more historians have uncovered the degree of support the regime was able to elicit in its “dictatorship by acclimation,” the more impressive the Bund’s ability to maintain its separate life becomes. Perhaps we do not quite have a category that fits this intense, self-conscious cultivation of a communal shared space. It was more than mere non-conformity, but less than active combat against the regime.
Roseman adds that we especially lack accurate ways of thinking about rescue, which for many years after the war was not thought of as a mode of resistance—nice, for sure, but not something that could bring down totalitarianism. The reason Lives Reclaimed is one of the most consequential books I’ve read this year is that it argues not just, yes, rescue is resistance, but also, and more importantly, that our definition of rescue must be expanded. The way we usually think of rescue is too retrospective and too reliant on the idea of individual will-power. After the war, more than one attempt to have Bund members declared as Righteous among the Nations failed. This is the highest honour the state of Israel, through the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, bestows on non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
In the postwar environment of anti-communism, with Israel and West Germany locked in a delicate pas de deux, rescue meant actions done by a single person who had no self-interested reasons for helping. On this definition, Jews could not be deemed Righteous, nor could non-Jewish spouses of Jews—they were said to be acting in self-interest. Roseman asks us to shift from a psychological mode (which, by focusing on the individual, is also a capitalistic one) to a sociological one. Rather than looking for extraordinary, almost saint-like people who do good out of awe-inspiring altruism, Roseman suggests, we should look to networks of people who did good things, or things that had good results, from complicated motives. Most people who survived were helped by several, often many people, like Lisa Jacobs and Marianne Strauss who moved from house to house.
By overvaluing the individual, Roseman argues, we lose sight of what he calls rescue-resistance really happens. In the case of the Bund, then, we need to look beyond the Bund’s postwar emphasis on moral principle, which Roseman judges to be as misleading as psychologist’s insistence on empathy, and instead look at what they did and why they did it at the time. Even the term “rescue” is too retrospective, Roseman suggests—it implies a completed action; it suggests that people helped others with a definitive end point in mind. (“I will do something to save this person from the Holocaust”—a statement that makes no sense when we think that at the time no one knew, exactly, what “the Holocaust” was.) In reality, as Bund members diaries and letters suggest, people help others from much more temporary, obscure, and uncertain reasons and in temporary, obscure and uncertain ways. They were answering a knock on the door and giving someone a bed and soup for a few days, not “rescuing a Jew.”
There will always, Roseman notes, be tension between experience and memory. As Kierkegaard put it, “life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” But we would do well, Roseman argues, to reverse the dictum as best we can, to try to live in that past. After the war, people wanted heroes—and a particular kind of hero. The exigencies of the postwar moment, particularly in western Europe meant it was better for reasons both economic (we want the US to help us) and psychological (we don’t want to think about all of us as a collective) to emphasize individual responsibility. But those reasons have been falsely naturalized into unchanging psychological concepts (martyrs, saints, etc). Even the retrospective self-understanding of those who helped is shaped by those concepts, obscuring and distorting their actual motivations and actions. If we take even the Bund’s own postwar self-presentation as the truth, we will paradoxically dilute the power of what the Bund did. Taking flowers to an elderly couple the day after Kristallnacht, or thanking a woman on the point of being deported for the chance to help her, says Roseman, are not actions that “lead” to rescue. And when we look back on the Holocaust and other fascist atrocities, such actions seem insignificant. But at the time they were pretty amazing, and certainly consequential.
Lives Reclaimed really impressed me. It’s super learned but also very accessible. Roseman is a much better writer than most academics; he offers us satisfyingly detailed historical context without overwhelming his narrative drive. And even as we learn about many of the Bund’s members, he keeps his focus on the group as a collective. Personally, I found it liberating to think that we can resist without setting out to be resisters, especially if we can find some likeminded people to surround ourselves with. Too often, Holocaust education, especially for children, argues that people need to be “upstanders,” not bystanders. But we don’t have to—can’t—do it all alone. Surprisingly, given its subject matter, Lives Reclaimed is one of the most optimistic books I’ve read in a long time.
After initial discontent—how will I write anything when I’m always asking my kid if she’s done her math, especially since I hate writing anyway?—the month turned better, better than better, actually, really good, in fact, like those crisp, perfect days in the Rockies after the first brief snowfall. And to fair, that rise in spirits came about because of Corona-time. Since we’re all working remotely we were able to visit my in-laws for the Jewish High Holidays. Spending those important, soulful, introspective days with family (especially family who will cook for you) was meaningful, even joyous. The joy of seeing our daughter spend time with her grandparents was exceeded, for me, only by the joy of having a lot of extra time to read. Here’s what I got through this month:
Perhaps my favourite Ernaux so far, despite the disturbing subject matter. The writer remembers how she found herself, age 23, pregnant. She didn’t want the child; the father, who was no longer in the picture, expressed neither interest nor responsibility. Fearing her life will end before it has begun, though having to rouse herself from initial paralysis, Ernaux sought out an abortion—then illegal in France. (This was 1963.) The abortion is as terrible and dangerous as Ernaux’s reflections about it are cool and acute. A worthy autofictional accompaniment to Jean Rhys’s classic novel Voyage in the Dark.
Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town (2020)
I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never paid attention to China’s occupation of Tibet, beyond vaguely registering it as wrong. Demick—a journalist who has been based in the Balkans, Korea, and, latterly, China—moves between the dangerous present and the bleak history of the 20th Century in describing the experience of Tibetans under Chinese rule. I’m currently reading her first book, about the siege of Sarajevo, so I know that the technique in evidence here—telling a big story by focusing on a handful of individuals—is one she has used from the beginning of her career. (Both Parul Sehgal and Anne Fadiman in their reviews of the book—both good, but if you only have time to read one choose Sehgal’s—note that John Hersey pioneered this form of reportage in Hiroshima.) Eat the Buddha—a reference to how the starving Chinese Communists ravaged Tibet in the 1930s, eating even votive offerings made of barley flour and butter, and thus also a metaphor for what Han Chinese have done to Tibetans—follows a similar path, concentrating above all on a woman whose father was one of the last Tibetan kings and whose subsequent life has been a via dolorosa orchestrated by the Chinese communist party to punish her for those origins.
Demick focuses her study on Ngaba, a city in the eastern plateau of Sichuan, which in the last decade has become a center of Tibetan resistance, most dramatically and tragically by the self-immolation of several monks. (Most Tibetans live not in the Tibet Autonomous Region but in four Chinese provinces.) Reporting there is largely prohibited; Demick is understandably cagey about how she managed to spend as much time there as she did, but I would have liked to hear more about those efforts, which must have been substantial. Security may be tighter in this one-stoplight town than anywhere else on earth: 50,000 officers watch over 15,000 people. Demick ranges beyond Ngaba, as well, offering glimpses into Tibet proper, specifically Lhasa, and Dharamshala, India, where the current Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans live in exile.
I learned so much from Demick’s careful book. Did you know, for example, that traditional Tibetan society had evolved a delicate, necessary balance between those who farmed (barley, mostly, as not much else will grow at that altitude) and those who herded? People needed both skills to survive the harsh climate, and marriages were designed to ensure families included people who could do both. Communism and planned economy destroyed that balance—climate change, exacerbated by rampant capitalism, has put it further at risk.
Finishing the book, I felt even more anger than usual the companies and citizens (i.e. us) so eager for money they readily overlook China’s human rights abuses.
Charles Cumming, A Foreign Country (2012)
Better than average spy novel, more Lionel Davidson (lots of action; interest in the details of how spies do their job) than John Le Carré (more interest in the telling than in the told; labyrinthine).
Stephan Talty, The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia (2020)
The Butcher of Latvia was Herbert Cukurs, an internationally renowned aviator revered in his native Latvia. As late as 1939 his speaking tours included a sold-out event at Riga’s Jewish Club. Two years later, though, Cukurs was one of the most notorious members of the bands of roving Latvian nationalists who gleefully did the Nazis’ bidding after they occupied the country in the summer of 1941. Talty observes that this fury stemmed less from deep-seated antisemitism, though he doesn’t discount that either, and more from hatred of the Soviets who had brutally occupied the country as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Jews were equated with Bolshevism; Cukurs and his ilk saw no contradiction between this claim and the wealth of Latvia’s Jewish bourgeoisie.
Talty’s book purports to explore Cukurs’s about-face, but it’s in fact more interested in the plot the Mossad organized in 1965 to assassinate him. Like many perpetrators, Cukurs fled to Brazil after the war but, unlike them, he lived under his own name. Why the Israelis didn’t kidnap him and bring him to trial, as they had done three years previously with Adolf Eichmann, is never made clear, though the answer seems to be that there was less evidence against Cukurs. There was still plenty, though, some of it recorded by a woman named Zelma Shepshelovich, a Jewish woman hidden in Riga by a Latvian officer. Kept to an apartment the officer shared with two other men, who bragged about the atrocities they had committed, she spent her time committing names, places, and deeds to memory. Escaping to Sweden after a dangerous journey across the Baltic in 1944, Zelma wrote a 50-page memo detailing this information and gave it to the Americans and British, neither of whom wanted anything to do with it.
As you can see, this short book is about many things: Cukurs’s life before the war; the atrocities in Latvia after the German invasion; the plot to kill Cukurs, which took months and required an agent to survive a lengthy, tense cat-and-mouse game with the paranoid and violent Cukurs, who even at age 64 remained a sharpshooter; and Zelma’s life during and after the war, when she and her protector suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviets (the latter was sent to the Gulag; Zelma didn’t know peace until she was able to emigrate to Israel in 1979). Talty tries hard to tie it all together, but it’s tricky because the Mossad team knew nothing of Zelma (her role in the book is to be an exemplary victim).
As if this wasn’t enough, the most interesting part of the book is something else altogether: the reason the Israelis were so keen on getting to Cukurs when they did. The statute of limitations on Nazi perpetrators was about to expire in mid-1965. Two men, one of them famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, led an international campaign to convince the West German parliament to extend the period under which Nazis could be brought to trial. Many Germans wanted to let the statute expire—as one politician put it, “We have to accept living among a few murderers.” But the tide turned, punctuated by a stirring surprise speech in the Bundestag by the Social Democrat Adolf Arndt, who shocked the country by insisting that everyone in Germany had known what was going on in their name.
Talty suggests the assassination of Cukurs turned the tide (Arndt’s speech referenced details that can be connected to Cukurs’s actions), but the connection is strained. The Good Assassin isn’t perfect—at once overstuffed and thin (much of what he presents has been published elsewhere)—but it contains some gripping material, even if a bit breathlessly presented.
Hadley Freeman, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family (2020)
Another third-generation Holocaust memoir, in which a writer uncovers the experiences of their grandparents. I read these obsessively, for professional reasons, but also, I’ve realized, out of an obscure and unfair resentment: I have no similar story, and sometimes I wish I did (which I realize is insane in many ways). It would give me an easy answer to a question I struggle with: why do you study/teach/have such interest in the Holocaust.
House of Glass is like most of these books: the story of the past is fascinating, always heartbreaking and usually unputdownable, but the story of the telling is weak, clunky, uninteresting. The reason that Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost is the ne plus ultra of this genre is that he’s a scholar of narrative, so he knows how to structure a book, making comparisons if not equivalences between the two narrative levels. Holocaust stories, after all, are always as much about finding out what happened as telling what happened.
Freeman, a British-based journalist who has written a lot on fashion, which serves her well in a family story that revolves to a surprising degree on that industry, tells the story of her paternal grandmother Sarah Glass, born Sala Glahs in early 20th-century Galicia. Sala’s three brothers, Jehuda, Jakob, and Sender immigrated to Paris after WWI and the death of their father. There the brothers became Henri, Jacques, and Alex, and to varying degrees assimilated to French culture. Two of the brothers survived the war, one having pioneered a photoimaging technology that the Allies used in fighting the war, and the other having launched himself through sheer force of will into a career in fashion that saw him become friends with Christian Dior and, late in life, Picasso. The third was murdered at Auschwitz. Sarah, as Sala became known, was married off to an American and spent a life of quiet desperation on Long Island.
I really did not care for Freeman’s clunky insertions re: the rise of antisemitism in Europe and America today (as if it ever went away, and as if today’s antisemitism had the same roots and causes as it did in the 1930s); I did, however, liked that she at least imagines why the brother who was deported did not take the opportunities that, in retrospect, could have saved him. (I say “imagine” because she is not immune to the language of passivity that is so often used to blame victims.)
Jacqui liked this book a lot; her take is worth listening to, especially if you are not a grumpy scholar of Holocaust lit!
Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (2019)
Breezy, enjoyable, but also sad novel about a young black British woman looking for love while clinging to a journalism career. I especially liked the group texts with her friends. Various kinds of male shittiness, mostly sexual, are exposed in ways that may or may not have hit home with this reader. Thanks to Berlin bookseller Magda Birkmann for the recommendation.
Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901) Trans. John E. Woods (1995)
Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (1910) Trans. Jamie Bulloch (2017)
After Buddenbrooks, I thought I would stay in the Baltic, though this time further east, in the countryside near Saint Petersburg. I like epistolary novels, I’m fascinated by the end Czarist Russia, and I like suspense, so Huch’s novella should have been just my thing. But I found the story—about a family that retreats to their dacha after death threats have been made against the father, the minister for education, only to be infiltrated by an anarchist—thin and dull. I couldn’t understand why all the letters sounded the same, despite ostensibly being from different characters, and I don’t know if the author or the translator is to blame. Bulloch’s translation feels pedestrian, and I know Huch is much loved in her native Germany, so maybe the problem is his. Regardless, the book left basically no impression on me.
I don’t like Aharon Appelfeld, and I didn’t want to read this, his most famous novel, in which Jews find themselves willingly marooned in a fictional Austrian spa town in the months leading up to their final destruction. I realize this is the worst possible, least charitable reading mindset. I expected to dislike it, and I did, but I thought it would give me material for something I’m writing, and it did, so I guess it was worth it. Nothing about it changed my verdict: Appelfeld’s dream-like style (cod Kafka) irritates me, but his victim-judging is what really pisses me off.
Tessa Hadley, Accidents in the Home (2002)
Hadley’s first novel, and, although it occasionally falters (as in the title, just a little too cute), her particular magic is already evident. We get the complicated families she loves so much, with plenty of step-siblings and remarriages; we get the sudden life upheavals, which people gamely try to surmount, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always without making too much of a fuss; we get that satisfying sense of someone capturing ordinary bits of middle-class life. Catching up with Hadley—only three left to go now—has been a highlight of my reading year.
Martin Doerry (ed), My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (2002) Trans. John Brownjohn (2004)
David Cesarani is bullish on this text in his invaluable history of the Holocaust, and now I see why. Lilli Jahn’s life and fate is both unusual and typical, and terribly moving. Jahn, née Schlüchterer, was born in Köln 1900 to an assimilated, middle-class family. She studied medicine and received her medical degree in 1924. During this time, she fell in love with a fellow medical student, Ernst Jahn, neither Jewish nor, it seems, as gifted a doctor as she. Plus, he couldn’t quite abandon a former girlfriend (my sense from the letters between them is that he liked Lilli a lot but didn’t find her hot). Lilli, a singularly kind soul, babied Ernst through his cold feet; the two married in 1926. The letters between them and between him and his future father-in-law regarding the marriage are fascinating; her parents had understandable reservations, and mixed marriages, though not unheard of, were still not terribly common in Germany.
Impossible to read the book and not wonder what might have happened had Lilli given up on Ernst. Maybe she would have gone to England with her younger sister, a chemist. Instead, the couple settled in a town near Kassel, where Ernst had taken a practice. (Lilli gave up a much better opportunity to do so.) They briefly practiced together but soon the first of their five children arrived and that was the end of Lilli’s medical career.
Life for the growing family wasn’t always easy, but they were close, and we get the full panoply of German (Jewish) bourgeois life: hiking holidays, evenings with the one or two educated families in town, an almost painful belief in the power of literature and culture more generally. Lilli suffered from being apart from her family, and from city life. The children were raised Lutheran, but as National Socialism took hold life even for them became more complicated. They couldn’t, for example, join the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls.
Although Lilli was more protected than most German Jews, thanks to her marriage, by the late 1930s she rarely left the house. Her life got even worse when Ernst fell in love with the female doctor who become his locum in the summer of 1939. For a while the three lived unhappily together, but eventually the woman became pregnant and Ernst travelled back and forth between two households. In 1942 he asked Lilli for a divorce, which she granted despite the risks it opened her too. By now she was the only Jew left in the town, and the Nazi mayor, who had long wanted her gone, took her divorced status as an opportunity to kick her out. She and the children found an apartment in Kassel, where she put up a visiting card next to the doorbell stating “Dr. med. Lilli Jahn.” This contravened laws requiring all Jewish women take the middle name Sara and prohibiting Jews from calling themselves doctor. Someone reported her to Gestapo and in late August 1943 Lilli was arrested and sent to a corrective labour camp in a former Benedictine monastery called Breitenau, about 45 minutes away. Most of her fellow prisoners were Eastern European labour conscripts or else Germans who had violated Nazi laws of decency (usually by having affairs with Jews or so-called Slavs). Breitenau was no concentration camp, but it was harsh and unpleasant. The inmates worked hard, usually in nearby fields, had little to eat, and were often sick.
For the rest of the war, Lilli’s children were left to fend for themselves (their father had been called up and was busy with his new family). This was hard on them all—the youngest was only three—but especially on the eldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Ilse. (Her older brother was manning anti-aircraft stations.) Most of the book consists of heartbreaking letters between Lilli and her children, in which both sides tried to hide the reality of their situations; Lilli was reduced to asking the children for food parcels and advising them how to keep the home together. Ilse and her siblings had to combine school with finding enough to eat—all of this before the allied air raids started in the fall. Eventually the children were bombed out of their house; it was all poor Ilse could do to keep the siblings together.
Lilli, her friends, and the children begged Ernst to work on obtaining her release. It is unclear that he did anything; as always, he equivocated, and if he did make any efforts they were unsuccessful. In March 1944 Lilli was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She managed to write a letter to the children while her convoy changed trains at Dresden, and later, already sick and weak, to dictate one from the camp itself. She died sometime in June.
Martin Doerry, the editor—really, the writer: he hasn’t just compiled the letters reproduced here but written the engrossing text that links them—is one of Jahn’s grandchildren; he keeps himself and the rest of the third generation out of the picture, making his approach quite different to Freeman’s (see above). Historians like Cesarani value the book for its glimpse into the period, specifically its wealth of primary documents unencumbered by retrospection (though even here, as Doerry frequently notes, letter writers were often softening the reality of their situation to protect their addressee). It’s a shame that this book, another of the millions of fascinating stories of persecution under the Third Reich, is out of print.
I took this off the shelf thinking it would be perfect for the end of September, but the title is metaphorical not seasonal, so it’s perfect for any time of year.
Theodore Colville, in his early 40s, has sold his midwestern newspaper and returned to Florence, a city where he spent some formative years in his twenties. And by formative I mean he longed for a girl who rejected him; back in Italy he bumps into Lina Bowen, the girl’s former best friend. Lina, now widowed, is accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Effie (how I loved this character) and her charge, “the incandescently beautiful, slightly dense Imogene Graham,” as Wendy Lesser puts it in her introduction to the edition I read. Imogene is twenty years old and not stupid, as Lesser’s “dense” implies, but emotionally immature, even if well-meaning. One way to read the book, in fact, is as a warning about meaning well, especially when that’s motivated by dishonesty about one’s feelings. Colville is funny, the narration is witty (even making a joke about its author), Lina is extraordinary, the dialogue is sparkling (the whole thing is just waiting to be made into a movie). There’s a wonderful New England cleric who’s not really interested in anyone’s shit. So good!
Indian Summer is a novel that is, although not dismissive towards youth, unimpressed by it: music to my middle-aged ears. For a time, it looks as though things will end terribly, but then they don’t, but Howells reminds us that some wrongs can’t ever be quite righted, persistently irritating grains of sand: “It was a thing that happened, but one would rather it had not happened.”
I’d never read Howells before—I’m shockingly ill-read in 19th-century American literature—but I already have The Rise of Silas Lapham lined up for November. Let me know if you enjoyed any of his 35 other novels.
I usually end these reports by singling out some reading favourites, but that’s hard to do this month. Buddenbrooks, I suppose, but the Howells, the Hadley, the Demick, Doerry’s book about Lilli Jahn were all excellent too. 5780 ended strong, book-wise (though not in any other, unless you’re a coronavirus); here’s to more good reading, and more good things generally, in 5781.
It’s all there in the title: Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901). Impressive, then, that Thomas Mann—who wrote this book in his early 20s, which is really amazing, it does not feel like a young person’s book—keeps things as suspenseful as he does. Buddenbrooks is a page-turner, especially if you are someone whose response to growing up with the values of work, thrift, responsibility, and shame was to flee into hysteria (i.e. me).
Mann is the novelist of hysteria (see Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain for further examples). I mean hysteria in the Freudian sense, not the ordinary one of shrillness or lack of control. Freud defined hysteria as one of three kinds of neuroses (along with phobias and obsessions). Neuroses arise from the contradiction between what we unconsciously want and what we consciously know (through acculturation) we should not want. Neuroses are psychological conflicts. Every “normal” functioning person is neurotic to some extent; neuroses are not psychoses, Freud’s name for severe mental disturbances like schizophrenia in which the sense of a conscious self is gravely threatened or even absent. Neuroses aren’t for “crazy people”; they’re for us.
Neuroses make themselves felt in various symptoms. The hysteric’s symptoms are bodily, unlike those of the phobic or the obsessive; theirs, by contrast, are mental, for example, a compulsion to count to a certain number before doing something, or the need to berate one’s self after thinking something, as if thoughts were actions. The hysteric is plagued, above all, by anxieties over bodily integrity. Hysterical symptoms—to name just a few: otherwise inexplicable loss of voice, loss of feeling in limbs, phantom pains, the conviction that one is having a heart attack—are compromise formulations. They are ways of speaking that circumvent more straightforward but prohibited/dangerous speaking.
One of the aims of psychoanalysis or Freudian-inspired psychotherapy is to turn body into language. When we can tell a story to ourselves about ourselves—when we can acknowledge what previously felt shameful or unavowable—our hysterical symptoms disappear. You can say a lot of things against Freud, but you have to credit that he took hysterical symptoms seriously. Where other (mostly male) physicians said to these (mostly female) patients, “There is nothing wrong with you, snap out of it, stop malingering,” Freud said, “There is nothing wrong in the patient’s physical reality. But there is something wrong in their mental or psychic reality.” Distinguishing these two kinds of reality is perhaps the most consequential idea of psychoanalysis. Hysterical symptoms are real—a sign of great unhappiness, of desires so unavowable to the person and her society that they can only come out in damaging form.
Why am I talking about Freud so much? Mann loved his German intellectual tradition, and Freud is part of the background of his breakthrough book, though less obviously so than Schopenhauer (referenced directly), Wagner, and the Nietzsche who first adored and then repudiated Wagner. Mann’s later books would grapple with this tradition even more obviously: I think Doctor Faustus is the ultimate example, though I’ve never been brave enough to read it. (The musical sections of Buddenbrooks were quite enough for me.) Freud is the least overt of Mann’s intellectual inspirations in his debut novel, but the more intriguing for that, plus he’s the one who means the most to me.
Strikingly, the novel’s hysterics are all men (in the language of the period they would have been called neurasthenics, hysteria being then, as, alas, now, characterized as a “female malady”). Who are these men? They compose four generations of a grain merchant family in an unnamed north German city that everyone knows is Lübeck, in the years 1835 – 1877. Politics matters in Buddenbrooks, but it’s kept to the background—the failed revolution of 1848 is presented as a joke, the unification of Germany under Bismarck is important only for how it affects business and the changes it brings to state education. Instead, the novel foregrounds mental and physical health. Importantly, both are governed by rigid ideas of duty and propriety. (Buddenbrooks is the most Lutheran novel I know.) The first patriarch is Johann Jr.: that suffix denoting unbroken lineage, though the novel in fact begins with a significant change: newly wealthy, Johann and his ménage move into a home that used to belong to a powerful but now bankrupt merchant family, a scenario that will return when a more unscrupulous, energetic, and prosperous merchant eventually takes over the home from the disintegrated and dispersed Buddenbrooks. (Mann, never light with his symbolism, has the new occupant renovate the crumbling outbuildings that had once housed the Buddenbrook firm into a successful retail development. The only thing that never declines in this book is oligarchic capitalism.) Johann, Jr. of course never learns of these events: he unproblematically carries off his belief in the family’s probity and success—these being synonyms in the novel’s worldview—even cutting off his son from a first marriage because he disapproves of the young man’s way of life.
Johann, Jr.’s son by his second marriage, naturally also named Johann, but known to everyone as Jean, a nod to the elder generation’s Enlightenment-inspired Francophilia, is the most conventionally successful figure in the book. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he raises four children: Thomas, Christian, Klara, and Antoinette, known as Toni. As a leader of the community, Jean soothes the brief unrest of 1848 and thrives in business. He grooms Thomas to take over the firm, ignores the niggling reality that he has no idea what to make of “feckless” Christian, vaguely approves of but mostly ignores Klara’s piety, and pushes Toni into marriage with a promising businessman she does not particularly care for by reminding her of her duty to the family. He later regrets this decision, if not the beliefs behind it: the man proves a fraud, and Jean extricates Toni from the marriage (allowing Mann to showcase the northern German states’ comparatively liberal divorce laws), though at the cost of public shame Toni will spend the rest of her life combatting. Always preoccupied with his appearance—something that matters so much in the novel: it is paramount to these characters that they look presentable and decent—Jean dies of a stroke that fells him while he completes his morning toilette.
As the novel turns its attention to the third generation, it ramps up its theory that hysteria is the primary evidence for societal decline. Christian, who cannot settle to work, and might have been an actor or artist of some kind had he lived in a different family (he is a raconteur par excellence and either a good sport or a ne’er-do-well depending on your take), suffers life-long phantom pains that he talks about at length to anyone who will listen (always concluding that they can’t be described), before ending up in a sanatorium. (He’s “like someone delirious with fever … He has a regular mania for dragging up the most insignificant things from deep within him and talking about them—things that a reasonable man doesn’t even think about, doesn’t want to know about, for the very simple reason that he is too embarrassed to share them with anyone else.”) Klara, always frail and increasingly pious, marries a preacher from Riga; their brief marriage seems happy enough, but she dies of TB before having any children (worse, from the family’s point of view, the preacher keeps the dowry). Thomas, the “good son,” leads the family firm, works nonstop, becomes a macher (the high point of which is his election to Senator), and makes a good living, though never quite to his father’s heights. He encourages Toni to remarry to a Bavarian businessman, an amiable drunk from whom Toni recoils after she, almost at once, delivers a stillborn child and discovers her husband sexually assaulting the maid, leading her to a second divorce. Thomas’s own marriage, to a Dutch schoolfriend of Toni’s—the imperturbable and musical Gerda Arnoldsen, my favourite character, surely symbolically though not actually Jewish—is meant to assert his independence from his milieu (the Buddenbrooks are resolutely unmusical), but he is too in thrall to that world to know what to do with her. She cheats on him, if not with a lieutenant she plays duets with then with music itself.
Thomas doesn’t particularly care about his wife’s literal or metaphorical infidelity: he is preoccupied—obsessed, really—with surviving his responsibilities. Mann’s descriptions of the mask Thomas puts on when he goes out into the world, and the slackness that comes over his body and mind when he can be alone, are harrowing:
How almost unrecognizable his face became when he was alone. The muscles of his mouth and cheeks, usually so disciplined and obedient to his will, relaxed and slackened; the alert, prudent, kind, energetic look, which he had preserved for so long now only with great effort, fell away like a mask and reverted to a state of anguished weariness; his dull, somber eyes would fix on some object without seeing it, would redden and begin to water—and, lacking the courage to deceive even himself, he could hold fast to only one of the many heavy, confused, restless thoughts that filled his mind.
Thomas dies after a disastrous visit to the dentist (there are some terrible scenes in this book with the incompetent Dr. Brecht, who needs to talk himself into the terrors he inflicts on people’s mouths); he his only 48, but had become an old man, increasingly an object of scorn in the community.
Toni’s daughter, Erica, comes to an unhappy end, too: her own marriage ends in shame when her husband is imprisoned for insurance fraud (it is suggested that he has only done what others do all the time but has been made an example of because he is a parvenu). Thomas and Gerda’s only child—the family line’s increasing effeteness indicated by how few children are produced by the third generation—is at the center of the book’s final chapters. Hanno is a delicate child. His teeth, in particular, are always giving him trouble, causing fevers and having, excruciatingly, to be pulled. I take the novel’s depictions of bad teeth as a symbol of the family’s increasing inability to consume, to prey, to swallow—to be businessmen, in other words. Hanno loves music, though he’s no prodigy. What he loves is wallowing in neo-Wagnerian improvisation, a further indication of effete inability. Not only is he artistically inclined—a sure sign of decline, in this novel—but he cannot master that either. There are, however, no prodigies or geniuses in the book; the only “healthy” models of artistry it offers is to treat it as a joke, like a friend of Johann, Jr, who is no poet, but rather a versifier, good for a tasteful toast to a hostess. Poor Hanno is abruptly dispatched by typhoid, an all-too physical disease that nonetheless has a psychological component, for the feverish teen is happy to give up the fight and be taken into a beyond that he has always longed for.
At its end, the novel leaves us with its women—not Gerda (she glides back to Amsterdam to play music with the only man she has really ever loved, her father), but Toni and Erika, and some cousins, and a wonderful bit character, Theresa Weichbrodt, Toni’s former teacher who has remained a family friend, a retainer of sorts, all these years. This ending makes sense, because although the novel focuses on male characters I think it is really a novel about women—the most interesting characters are female, even though they are all minor. On the one hand, the novel denigrates femaleness—the men are increasingly effeminate and hysterical, and that’s a sign of their decline. But on the other, it almost unwillingly upholds femaleness—the women are the ones left standing, and even though their roles are limited, they are the ones who actually uphold the core Buddenbrook values of decency and duty.
There is of course an irony here, since those values have killed the male characters. Of course, women have plenty of experience of living under values that confine, oppress, even kill them; no wonder, then, that they survive, if not thrive. Buddenbrooks made me think about Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”—what happens when something you desire harms you, gets in the way of your flourishing. (Freud made a similar argument, but emphasized the individual over society; Berlant thinks cruel optimism is characteristic of neoliberal precarity, like the internship you want so badly even though it pays you nothing.) Mann’s characters live under the sway of an ideology of probity that both gives them their meaning in life but also kills them.
Mann—or at least his narrator—relishes the irony. In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag fulminated against the “obstreperous irony” of books like Buddenbrooks, which she described as impossible, even embarrassing to the contemporary (1960s) moment. This critique hit me hard when, as an impressionable Young Person, I fell under Sontag’s sway. I agreed, too, with her later claim that irony can lead to laughter so unbridled it leaves one gasping. Now, as a middle-aged reader, I have more time for Mann’s irony. But I’m still not sure what to do with it. It’s easy to see what Buddenbrooks is critiquing: the straightjacket of decorum; ideas of psychological, physical, and financial “health.” But what does the novel value? What is its critique for? When, at the end, the remaining characters wonder if they will be rewarded in the next life with the chance to see their lost loved ones, Theresa Weichbrodt, the former teacher, insists it will be so:
There she stood, victorious in the good fight that she had waged all her life against the onslaughts of reason. There she stood, hunchbacked and tiny, trembling with certainty—an inspired, scolding little prophet.
I can only read this as an at-best bemused dismissal of the woman—her victory against “the onslaughts of reason,” her physical smallness (hinting at fallibility or inconsequence), her similar metaphorical diminution. The “little prophet” can only scold, not thunder. But if the novel makes fun of this viewpoint, while also ending with it, what’s left? I see no Nietzschean transvaluation of values here, no indication that, since all values are contingent, we should abandon the very idea and simply see who and what succeeds. Similarly, returning to Freud, there is no position here that matches the analyst, the one whose task is to help the patient to health (the alleviation of physical suffering by getting to the psychological root of the problem) by helping them to see why they act as they do.
In short, there’s nobody to look to as an alternative point of view, no one who successfully challenges the Protestant merchant ethos. Toni’s second husband, the Bavarian, decides to quit business for a life of leisure, but his physical and emotional grotesqueness (he’s fat and ugly and a lech, if also kind, though I think the latter results more from laziness than genuine feeling) makes him hard to identify with. Toni’s first love, a working-class medical student named Morton Schwarzkopf, at first seems a viable candidate—I definitely wanted him to return and hoped for a late-in-life, gentle reconciliation with Toni—but Mann shrewdly denies this end: it would muck up his portrait of the family as locked into a way of life; there is no synthesis of classes here, no bringing in of new blood to revitalize the old. The novel leaves us at an impasse: the way of life it examines is as impossible as any alternative to it.
This is already too long, so I’ll only mention one of Mann’s most notable ways of representing that impasse lies in his use of leitmotifs, a nod to Wagner, presumably. Epithets and phrases are attached to characters—most often, used by characters themselves. There’s Morton’s phrase “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones,” his way of acknowledging he is not of Toni’s social class, but a kind of passive-aggressive way of marking his absence. There’s Toni’s term “silly goose,” which she describes herself always as having been.
I’ve a hunch these phrases are linked to another of the novel’s interests: pronunciation. Time and again, we are told how characters pronounce their words and expressions, often as indicators of social class, or provincial origin, or of modishness. Perhaps this interest is related to German unification/nationalism, as the novel is set in the decades when Germany becomes a nation and becomes a little more homogenous. But I’m really not sure what to do with this aspect of the novel. It does strike me, though, that the epithets or leitmotifs imply stasis—as if no one ever changes or learns anything. They project consistent identities. Yet this idea contradicts the theory of change, specifically decline and degeneration.
Maybe this contradiction fits a novel poised between realism, even naturalism, and modernism, which might be the kind of novel I like best. Reading Buddenbrooks I thought a few times of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a book published about ten years later. The description of Thomas and Toni’s mother—lingering, horrifying—reminded me of Gertrude Morel’s. As engaged as I was in Buddenbrooks, though, I think it’s a lesser novel that Sons and Lovers. Lawrence’s breakthrough is messier, no question, and its focus is narrower (in some ways, The Rainbow might be a more apt comparison). But it is consistently more interesting at the level of the sentence. (No slight against the translator, John E. Woods; he’s done fine work, except in turning Bavarian dialect into southern American English, that didn’t work for me.) Mann is more about the big picture, about ideas.
It was that philosophical sweep that captivated me the first time I read the book (in the Lowe-Porter translation). I was only 19 or 20; it was one of the longest, most serious books I’d ever read. I remember loving it, but other than the scene of Thomas’s death I remembered almost nothing about it. Thinking back on it now, though, I believe I was in thrall to the novel’s theories—sensitivity is a sign of degeneration; the failure to work hard and thriftily is a sign of moral failure; such failure will first appear through the body; a weak body is the sign of a weak soul. These beliefs were my family’s, too. Thirty years later, I’m still drawn to these claims, but better able to see what is so damaging about them.
Does the novel see it, though? Even after having spent some happy weeks with it, I can’t tell.
Yesterday was the best day because yesterday was the day I read Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, the funniest, kindest, and wisest book I’ve read in a long time. Imagine if Anita Brookner had kept her shrewdness and set aside her fascination for cruelty. She might have written something like the opening sentence to Hession’s first novel:
Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.
It’s all here: the prominence of aloneness (to my ears, a slightly strange adjective, I might have expected something like “only,” and its syntactical position gently emphasizes the mother’s effort as opposed to the child’s situation); the reference to cheerfulness, an important value and not simply a way to paper over unhappiness, even though the novel gives the latter its due too; and not least the zany swerve of the final clause into a joke that doesn’t demean a terrible reality. (Unusually among contemporary novelists, Hession knows how to withhold: we never find out how the father died.) I was reminded of that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry’s rabbi notes with sorrow that his brother-in-law died on 9/11, neglecting to mention that the man perished not in the Towers nor on the planes but in fact in a bike accident uptown. But Curb scorns the rabbi’s sanctimonious piggybacking on a tragedy, whereas Leonard and Hungry Paul, well-meaning to its core, treats the moment as gently absurd.
Leonard and Hungry Paul are friends in their mid-30s. At the beginning of the novel, both still live with their parents, with whom they have good relationships. They play board games, drink tea, eat biscuits, and occasionally chat. Strong Frog and Toad vibe, though less gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Leonard writes the texts for children’s encyclopedias that appear under the moniker of a self-aggrandizing academic. Hungry Paul (the nickname is never explained—perhaps it is a family joke about his lack of ambition) works as a substitute postman on Monday mornings when the regulars call in sick with hangovers or ennui. Hungry Paul’s sister Grace, a manager for some kind of American conglomerate, is getting married to Andrew, who gives Power Points in Europe’s financial centers and could seem a little blandly good-looking but who gets Grace and softens her eldest child’s tendency to organize everyone. Hungry Paul and Grace’s mother, Helen, still works a couple of days a week in the school system, ostensibly until she is old enough to get a full pension, but actually because she is a bit scared of what it will be like to be at home with her husband all the time. Peter is a retired economist who makes lame, vaguely risqué jokes sometimes, but actually not all that often, and watches quiz shows at which he shouts out answers in rapid-fire bursts, mostly incorrectly. He is writing a speech for the wedding reception and wants it to be terrific.
Leonard works in a mixed open-plan office; like any right-thinking person, he uses noise-canceling headphones to survive this abomination. One day he is pulled out of his work by a girl in a green sweater and cherry-red hair. Shelley, the floor’s fire marshal, is overseeing a fire drill. She dropped out of art school and has an eight-year-old boy and a bike and curlicue handwriting. It’s a lovely meet cute. Leonard thinks she is breathtaking, and one of the plot lines involves their relationship, which hits all the right notes of bittersweet gentleness. A different book would make Leonard abandon Hungry Paul, but, charmingly, the friends continue to get on, Leonard cheering as Hungry Paul finds his own kind of successes: entering a contest designed by the local Chamber of Commerce to find a new send-off for emails (I’d love to share his entry, it’s so perfect, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise); volunteering at the hospital, first at his mother’s insistence but then for the rewards it brings, namely the chance to sit silently with sleeping patients and maybe later have a cup of tea; and finally, through a series of events that are much less implausible in the novel than in my summary, becoming the head of the national association of mimes, which he revives by starting the Quiet Club, half hour sessions at which participants can sit silently. (To get people in the mood, Hungry Paul puts on Cage’s 4’33, which is perhaps a joke too far, but it made me laugh.)
Hession is also a musician (he records under the name Mumblin’ Deaf Ro) and a social worker. There are plenty of acute musical references beyond the one to Cage—Hession never lards these on too much; at one point, he makes a little joke about it: Leonard, driving with Helen and Hungry Paul, thinks to himself that both have good taste in music for people who are so non-pushy about it—but it’s Hession’s other job that has left the biggest trace on the novel. Leonard and Hungry Paul manifests the best elements of social work—it’s interested not in pigeonholing or classifying people, but in showing people (to themselves and to others) how they are who they are. It is a stunningly non-judgmental book, perhaps most apparent in its use of the motif of speeches.
Speeches stand in for everything tiresome about the world: they are noise incarnate, no matter the volume at which they are given: canned, shrill, bullying, essentially coercive. (The people at the Chamber of Commerce don’t know what to do when Hungry Paul is asked to speak about his email signature and instead stands contentedly silent before the crowd—they rush in to fill the void.) Speeches aren’t always formal: they can take the form of joking clichés that save people from having to think, like the IT guy in the office who calls Leonard “Lenster.” (Shudder.) Yet the novel ends with what could be thought of as speeches—long outbursts in which the heroes explain themselves to others, Leonard to Shelley and Hungry Paul to Grace. These aren’t speeches, though, because they are spontaneous and offered as a therapist might, to inform rather than to score points. Hungry Paul, in particular—who in a different novel might be named autistic or neuroatypical, but here is just Hungry Paul (a name his family members sometimes follow with a little sigh)—is so reasonable, so aware of his inabilities in practical matters, so kind in his gentle insistence that he has to do things his own way, and that the things he does are in fact things, even though to the busy world they might not look like it.
You’ll notice how often I’ve used the word “gentle.” You could call Leonard and Hungry Paul sweet, maybe even twee, though these words often get used disparagingly, wrongly in my opinion. Gentle seems just right, certainly better than happy. Reading the novel made me happy, and I think it is a happy novel, but it doesn’t shy away from unhappiness. Besides, couldn’t we all use more gentleness right now? Leonard and Hungry Paul spoke to my soul but without flattering me: it’s not a book about the triumph of the introvert, it never forgets that we are in the world and do ourselves a disservice if we shut it away, although we should always feel free to meet it on our own terms. Hungry Paul’s early claim—“I have always been modestly Hippocratic in my instincts: I wish to do no harm”—is modestly challenged.
Mostly it made me laugh, like real tears-in-the-eyes-might-have-to-pee laughter, which FELT SO GOOD. In the last few years only Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina and Elif Batuman’sThe Idiot have done that. Particularly excellent is a hilarious set piece in which Hungry Paul tries to complain to the supermarket about a tin of expired candy—the scene builds for pages and manages to surprise at the end. Another one finds Leonard, meeting Shelley in town for their first proper date, in dire need of a bathroom and forced into a McDonalds, where he finds himself purchasing a Happy Meal so that he can get the bathroom code and then eating it for lack of anything better to do just as Shelley arrives.
But there are just as many little jokes, slid in as it were unsuspectingly. Here’s Hungry Paul in his new judo get-up:
Hungry Paul emerged from the bathroom wearing a white fluffy bathrobe tied with a white belt, tracksuit bottoms and flip flops with some tissue paper stuck to them. He was shaking his wrists and wore the look of intense concentration that is characteristic of a man with wet hands looking for a towel. The fact that he was in the unlikely position of wearing clothes made from the very material he needed might have tempted a lesser man, but, having already run the risk of doing a sit-down toilet while wearing white, he was not minded to capitulate under a lesser challenge.
(This is Wodehouse-level stuff.)
Here’s Leonard thinking about the man whose name goes on all his work, Mark Baxter, BEd:
Interns from his office just emailed all the changes and feedback, while Mark was away on the conference circuit, presumably sleeping with more interns, the BEd in his title providing a clue as to where he did his best work.
Here’s Hungry Paul trying to get someone to help him in a department store, where he is buying a suit for the wedding:
The shop assistant found a measuring tape from somewhere and started measuring Hungry Paul, using what looked like a self-taught method he had only just invented that second. ‘Eh, I’d say around 36”, short jacket and 38” short for the trousers,’ he guessed, calling out the measurements for E.T.
‘Maybe we’ll just look around. Thanks all the same,’ said Hungry Paul.
The young shop assistant went through some double doors to finish his adolescence.
See what I mean? Gentle.Leonard and Hungry Paul is balm for the soul and smart as a whip too. (Now look who’s using clichés!) It is the most joyful book I have read in this decidedly non-joyful year. Let me know if you would like a copy but can’t afford or find one: I’d like to send you one.
August. Well, it was better than July. After much hand-wringing over safety and ethics, we took a short vacation to Colorado, to assuage some of our sadness at missing our time in the Canadian Rockies. We were amazed at how different Colorado is from Alberta, alternately enjoyed and suffered the long drive from Missouri (where we’d been staying), got in some good hiking, and marveled at how much cheaper holidays are when you don’t go out to eat or buy any souvenirs. Immediately after returning, though, it was right into a new routine: both my wife and my daughter are attending school remotely (Zoom rules our lives); I’m trying to write a little each day and not be too cruel to myself about the quality or quantity or even the topic. Some days I simmer in rage at the needlessness of this all (we didn’t have to experience this pandemic this way); on others I make the best of it. And I get my reading time in whenever I can.
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1993)
Possibly the longest single-volume novel I have ever read (almost 1500 pages, sometimes I laughed just at the side of it). I did not read it all in August. In fact, I’ve been working on it since March or April. I could have read faster, no doubt—I set it aside for long stretches—and that might have made me a better reader. But the book lends itself to slowness—its many parts, divided into short chapters, provide plenty of places to pause, even as they also offer a reason to keep going (“I can read ten more pages”).
The setting is India in the early 1950s, mostly in the cities of Brahmpur and Calcutta (only the latter of which is real), but with forays into the countryside. Lata Mehra needs to be married—at least according to her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (as she is typically named by the gently teasing omniscient narrative voice). But which boy will be suitable? Focused on four interlocking families, the novel offers plenty of possible choices. (The resolution surprised me, but after a moment’s reflection I accepted its rightness.) Sensible, intelligent Lata is perhaps the most sympathetic character in a book filled with them. (I did like its kindness.) A few are caricatures, but most are well-rounded and interestingly changeable. Seth’s vision is heavy on the “foibles of human nature”—if this isn’t your thing, this book isn’t for you. It’s old fashioned, dipping occasionally into free indirect discourse, but more often relying on a wise, almost arch omniscience. That retro quality feels a bit stagey—I’m not sure it has the convictions of its 19th century heart—but that could just be because the 90s now feel a little impossible. (To me, they are what the 70s were to the 90s: embarrassing. Since the 70s now seem amazing, the book, like the decade in which it was published, may age well.)
Something A Suitable Boydoes share with Victorian triple-deckers is a delight in instruction. I learned so much from this book, from all kinds of Indian vocabulary (mostly Hindi but sometimes Urdu words) to the structure of the Zamindari system, the abolition of which forms one of the important subplots.
If I think about it more, I could probably draw a connection between newly-independent India and self-made men, at least one of which is important to the novel’s plot, but A Suitable Boy is not a book that asks us to think much. It kept me pleasantly diverted through the first months of the pandemic; I felt fondness for it and its characters. I didn’t quite shed a tear at the end, but I definitely let out an almost risibly satisfied sigh on reading the final pages. A month later, though, I rarely think of it (much less than I do Lonesome Dove, the other chunkster I’ve read this year), so I can’t say it’s a book for the ages. Apparently, Seth has been working for decades on a sequel, A Suitable Girl. I’ll read it, if it ever comes to pass.
Jessica Moor, The Keeper (2020)
The title, a nice pun suggesting how little separates the ideal man from Bluebeard, is the best thing about this book. A procedural centered on a domestic abuse shelter is a good idea. The slick trick the book plays at the end is not.
Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (2020)
Ever since I fell in love with Kassabova’s travelogue, Border—you can read my rave here—I’ve been eager for her next book. To the Lake didn’t disappoint. The earlier book was about Thrace, the lands where, today, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet. The new one is about another place that borders both do and do not separate. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa—joined by underground rivers—lie at the intersection of Albania, Greece, and the newly-independent Republic of North Macedonia, where, back when it was Yugoslavia, Kassabova summered as a child. Because it is about the Balkans, the book is about history, specifically, about violence. It is also about the possibility of overcoming that violence (as symbolized by the tentative rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia). To that end, Kassabova considers the lakes as a place of healing—people have taken their waters for centuries, for both physiological and psychological relief.
But as dialed into a century’s worth of political upheavals as Kassabova is, she is even more interested in war and peace, violence and restitution as fundamental human qualities, as competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) The personal parts of To the Lake concern her mother’s family, and certain unhappy psychological traits that seem to have been passed down through it. These might, however, be social rather than genetic. As she writes:
Like many ambitious women in a patriarchy where they don’t have full expression in society but absolute power in the family, [Kassabova’s great-grandmother] Ljubitsa inhabited the destructive shadow archetype of the mother-queen: needing everyone to remain small and needy, looking up to her and infusing her with importance (after all her sacrifices, it’s the least they could do). Like a poisoned mantle, this psychological imprint was taken on by my grandmother and then by my mother, and sometimes I feel it creeping up behind me too, ready to enshroud me and make me mean.
As you can see here, Kassabova is really smart (no one gets off lightly in that passage), which is what I love best about her, even more than descriptions of outings to the lakeshore to pick cherries. (Though I am a sucker for that Chekovian shit too.) I gather Kassabova is working on a book about healing more broadly. I’ll miss the Balkans, but I can’t wait.
Incidentally, To the Lake pairs terrifically with Antigona and Me; interesting, how two of the best books I’ve read this year are about women from the Balkans.
Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008) Trans. Alison L. Strayer (2013)
I finally read Annie Ernaux! Even though it is the surest way to jinx myself, I want to write an essay about her, so won’t say too much about either this book or the other three I read this month. (They are very short.) Many readers seem to think this is Ernaux’s masterpiece. That is wrong. In fact, I thought about abandoning this book a couple of times. I didn’t because I sensed Ernaux’s intelligence. And I’m glad I didn’t; her other work is more to my taste.
Ernaux is upfront about her challenge in The Years—she wanted to write about herself as part of a generation. But what voice to use? “I” wasn’t right—first-person legitimates or values the individual in a way she didn’t want. (Intriguing, given her masterly use of it in her other books.) But “she” wasn’t right either: third-person coalesces phrases and descriptions into character (Barthes wrote brilliantly about this in S/Z). She turned to “we” to write the story of French Boomers. (Technically, she is an earlier generation, having been born in 1941, but still.) My decades-long feud with Boomers is surely influencing me here, but I didn’t think Ernaux was as careful as she should have been (and that she is in her other work) to note how her “we” is the story of a particular class. I mean, I get that the upper-middle class of intellectuals or other white-collar worker—the generation that turned conservative after 68 and, having benefitted from the thirty glorious years made possible by the destruction of WWII, proceeded to dismantle all its good things, specifically its attempts to undo inequality—think that their experience simply is experience. But I didn’t sense that Ernaux was critiquing that tendency. I dunno, The Years feels a little smug to me—which her writing otherwise never seems to be. Read Ernaux, but start somewhere else.
Georges Simenon, The Flemish House (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)
Finally, a Maigret that worked for me! (Admittedly, I’ve only read four.) Some Maigret-loving friends suggested many of the best books in the series send the detective out of Paris. Maybe that’s the trick. Here Maigret travels to the border with Belgium, called by a young woman who wants him to save her brother, who is under suspicion when the woman who fathered his child is found dead. Lots of rain, lots of barges, lots of hot toddies, and a damn good ending.
Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Blood and Sugar (2019)
Historical crime fiction centered on the British slave trade, set in one of its hubs, Deptford, in the 1780s. Unexceptionable but forgettable.
Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place (1983) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1992)
Concerns the life and death of Ernaux’s father, a man unsure what to do with his daughter’s life, so different from his own.
Concerns an affair Ernaux carried out with a younger, Eastern European man. Begins with a description that might be familiar to people who remember the 80s, of watching a scrambled porno on TV. As so often, Ernaux is brilliant at creating metaphors for what she wants her writing to do without writing texts that are tediously metafictional.
Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)
Annie Ernaux, The Possession (2002) Trans. Anna Moschovakis (2008)
Concerns the dual meaning of possession. Does the lover own the beloved? Or is she owned by him?
Bessora, Alpha: Abidjan to the Gare du Nord (2014) Trans. Sarah Ardizzone (2018) Illus. Barroux
I learned so much from this beautiful and sad comic, not least how huge Mali is, to say nothing of Algeria. Alpha Coulibaly, a cabinet maker in Abidjan, the biggest city in the Côte d’Ivoire, has heard nothing from his wife and son since they set off to Europe. They hoped to make it to her sister, who has a hair salon near Paris’s Gare du Nord. In search of them, he sells up and heads north, an epic journey first to Mali, then to Algeria, and then 1800 miles across the desert to the Spanish enclave at Ceuta, where he fails to gain EU entry, forcing him to try a dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands. Along the way, he is guided/abused by smugglers, and even becomes one himself: it’s the only way to make the money he needs. He meets many fellow migrants, all of whom are well aware of the dangers—though some, like an extended family that has pooled all its resources to send a young man to Spain, where they are convinced he will play for FC Barcelona, are more naïve than others. All know, however, that there is nothing for them at home. The desperation is as real as the risks they confront trying to escape it. Alpha and the others are both physically and psychologically damaged: this is not a book with a happy ending. Paradoxically, it’s a beautiful one: Barroux’s illustrations are washes of greys, whites, blacks, and reds.
Laurie R. King, The Game (2004)
It felt like time for another episode of Mary Russell’s adventures with Holmes, so I pulled this one from the shelf. In The Game Mycroft sends the pair to India, near the border with Afghanistan (this is in the 1920s), where the Russians, newly Soviets, are threatening Britain’s prize colony. I might have enjoyed this more had I read Kim—Kipling’s hero is a minor but important character—but I liked it anyway. As always, King is better at setting up her scenarios than in resolving them. The books always feel both slow and rushed at the same time, it’s weird, but I find enough in the series to keep plugging along.
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)
Deserving of its current popularity. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grow up in rural Louisiana in a town founded by a freed slave (the girls’ great-great-great grandfather) as an enclave for Blacks as light-skinned as himself. When they turn sixteen, in 1952, the sisters abscond to New Orleans to begin a new life. It’s hard to find work that isn’t badly paying and dangerous, so Desiree convinces Stella to take a secretarial job—which requires her to pass as white. Soon their paths diverge. Stella abruptly disappears, leaving Desiree bereft, her belief that she and her sister shared everything shattered. Stella marries her white boss—who has no idea of her background—which locks her into a life of both material privilege and constant anxiety over her secret. Desiree flees to DC, where she eventually marries the darkest man she can find, but returns to her hometown with her small daughter to escape his domestic abuse.
Years later, that daughter, Jude, moves to Los Angeles to attend college on a track scholarship. On a catering job she sees a woman she knows immediately must be her aunt. She becomes close to Stella’s daughter, an aspiring actress. Family secrets are revealed, to ambiguous ends.
Stories of racial passing often take the form of melodrama—Sirk’s film Imitation of Life is a classic example—and Bennett embraces that quality. In fact, I think she could have made more of it. The Vanishing Half is fascinated by acting-pretending-dissembling: both the many forms they can take and their consequences. For example, there’s a great trans subplot, and another important minor character is enmeshed in the 1970s/80s LA drag scene. But the book is about acting more than itself an example of it. I sometimes wanted Bennet to do more than depict impersonation; I wanted her to perform it through her style. Although, even as I write this, I wonder whether Bennett’s straightforward prose is itself a kind of acting—a way for her novel to pass as “respectable” literary fiction. (Hmm, the novel may be savvier than I credit!)
My favourite novel about racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance masterpiece, a real literary touchstone for me. And for Bennett, too, who references Larsen in shrewd ways (a smashed wine bottle echoes a smashed teacup from an important scene in Passing; the queer subplot gestures to the unavowed love between Larsen’s female protagonists). I loved how lovingly Bennett responded to Larsen’s novel. (If you haven’t read either, I recommend reading Larsen first.) And I admired her portrait of Stella, whose consciousness we often inhabit, in a way we don’t with the analogous figure in Passing. Bennett leaves unanswered whether Stella suffers from false consciousness or whether she simply wants the anonymity that white people can take for granted in a world that sets them as the default. This line haunts me: “She could think of nothing more horrifying than not being able to hide what she wanted.”
Ernaux’s works are an elegant rabbit-hole, and Ohler’s book taught me a lot. But this month’s winner was without question Kassabova’s terrific essay-travelogue. We’re lurching to the middle of September already, but if you had good reading in August, let me know. Lately my reading has taken me to north Germany in the 19th century, among other places. More on that in a few weeks. In the meantime, stay as safe and well as you can, everybody.
I recently read two books about resistance to fascism:
Norman Ohler, The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)
Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)
I learned from both, but I didn’t learn what I most wanted to, namely, why do some people resist when most do not? Both books privilege historical detail over theoretical analysis. Still, the experiences recounted in these texts are interesting; setting them down, I found I had a lot to say, so I have divided this post into two parts. Notes on Justus Rosenberg’s The Art of Resistance are below; those on Norman Ohler’s The Bohemians are here.
Justus Rosenberg began setting down his memoirs at age ninety-eight. (I do love a late bloomer.) Published on the eve of his centenary, The Art of Resistance emphasizes Rosenberg’s wartime activities—its subtitle is “My Four Years in the French Underground”—but its most interesting sections concern the author’s childhood in the Free City of Danzig. This political anomaly was a compromise reached after WWI that balanced Allied intentions to grant Poland independence with the reality that 75% of the port city’s inhabitants were German. Danzig (today Gdańsk) and surrounding areas were made into a semi-autonomous city state; oversight was provided a high commissioner appointed by the League of Nations who sought to ensure that the rights of Poles (20% of the population) and Jews (5%) were respected in this new parliamentary democracy. In the early 1920s, almost 100,000 Jews from Russia and Poland passed through Danzig on their way to America. Others, though, especially those cultural affinities were with Germany, stayed on.
Among these were Rosenberg’s parents. Bluma Solarski and Jacob Rosenberg grew up in a shtetl only a few miles from the East Prussian border. Danzig was their haven—they eloped there to avoid familial disapproval (the Rosenbergs were rich; the Solarskis were not), and Justus was born soon after, in January 1921. The young couple rejected Zionism, attended a highly reform synagogue (and that irregularly), and hired a German nanny for their only son. (He barely mentions his sister, it is curious, even a little disquieting.) Like most of the rest of the Jews in the Free City, the Rosenbergs prospered. Not that the place was entirely idyllic; it wasn’t immune to developments beyond its borders. The local Nazi party won the most seats in the elections of 1932, yet the city’s international nature (its economy depended on the port) made them much more circumspect than their sister parties in Germany.
But by 1937 the gloves were off. Rosenberg witnessed a frightening attack on Jewish-owned businesses and homes to which the authorities turned a blind eye. After this, Rosenberg’s parents looked for a way to send him abroad, eventually arranging for him to study in Paris. Before leaving Danzig for good, he spent three weeks with his grandfather’s family in Poland, getting a crash course in Jewishness (Rosenberg was amazed to learn that not all Orthodox Jews were Chassidic). Still the sixteen-year-old was more interested in losing his virginity to a friend of his mother’s and reading French novels, which experience, admittedly, served him in good stead in Paris.
His trip to France was broken up by a stay with his paternal uncle in Berlin, a socialist, laryngologist, and composer (who had studied for a time with Schoenberg). Wandering the streets, sixteen-year-old Rosenberg saw posters advertising a rally where Hitler would be addressing the nation. Curious to know what sort of man could elicit such hatred in so many, Rosenberg ignored the signs blaring NO JEWS PERMITTED. His blond hair and blue eyes made him inconspicuous; before he knew it, he was in the middle of a fourteen-thousand strong crowd, watching with queasy fascination as the little man whipped up his audience.
This was the first of many times in his life when Rosenberg found himself in the presence of famous figures of the era. He had a knack for ending up at the centre of things. That Zelig-like quality manifested in full after three unremarkable, if satisfying, years in Paris. In the spring of 1940, his studies at the Sorbonne were interrupted by the invasion of France. By this time, Rosenberg was following events keenly. Already in 1938 most of the Jews of Danzig had left the city, most for Poland, but some, like Rosenberg’s parents, for Palestine. They wrote to say they had made it to Bratislava, and were embarking down the Danube to Romania in the hopes of reaching a ship. Rosenberg would not hear from them again until after the war.
When Paris fell, Rosenberg decided he need to do something. Like so many others, he left the city on foot; his destination, the barracks of the Polish army in exile, in Brittany. But he ended up south of the city instead, and when he finally, weeks later, made his way to Bayonne, near the Spanish border, where the British navy had agreed to take any remaining Poles to England, he found he had missed them by hours. By chance, he ended up in Marseille where, through friends of friends, he was taken on as a courier by an American who had recently arrived in the city with pockets full of money and orders to secure exit visas for prominent refugees. This was Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee; through him, Rosenberg met luminaries like Victor Serge, Andre Breton, and Max Ernst. He procured blank identity cards for forging, delivered sealed messages, laundered money through the Marseilles mafia, and even accompanied Franz Werfel, Alma Mahler, and Heinrich and Golo Mann on a nighttime trek over the Pyrenees. He played Exquisite Cadaver with Breton, took a message to Marc Chagall, and was given $500 by Peggy Guggenheim, “for an emergency.” See what I mean? Crazy stuff.
After Fry was expelled from Vichy France, Rosenberg tried to escape to Spain himself, but was arrested by the authorities. After a number of close shaves, he joined the French Resistance, who sent him to Grenoble to live undercover, but he was arrested again, in the summer of 1942, and interned in a camp near Lyons from which, a sympathetic guard told him, he and the others would be deported to Poland. (The map in this New York Times piece is excellent.) Chance intervened again—“Sometimes chance itself occasions good fortune,” the book’s epigraph explains—in the shape of the sister of a friend from his student days in Paris. Before being arrested she had been a medical student in Lyon, and she counselled Rosenberg on how to fake the symptoms of peritonitis. Before long, the “violently ill” Rosenberg was sent from the camp to hospital in Lyon where he was operated on. (Rosenberg speculates with pleasure about the surprise the surgeons must have felt when they found nothing wrong with his abdomen.)
In recovery from what was a dangerous operation, even if it was fake, Rosenberg befriended a nurse who, it turned out, had studied with the medical student and, putting two and two together, put him in contact with the Resistance. A friendly priest hid a change of clothes in the hospital bathroom and a bicycle near the exit; clutching his stitches, the woozy Rosenberg wobbled his way to a safe house from which, after recovering for good, he was sent into the countryside, where he monitored Swiss radio. Later, he joined a cadre of resistance fighters and laid mines for German truck convoys. In the summer of 1944 he was swept up by an American battalion and became their interpreter. On leave in liberated Paris in late 1944 he learned of a new organization, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), set up to respond to what the Allies knew would be an unprecedented refugee situation after the war. Rosenberg, who as a child had wanted to be a diplomat and spoke several languages, was a natural fit. When mediating between the victorious Americans and the vanquished Germans paled, Rosenberg jumped at the chance to take a US military ship to America, where he began a new life that led him eventually to become a professor of literature at Bard. (He’s been emeritus for almost 20 years but still teaches, or did until recently anyway.)
The Art of Resistance is as odd a book as its subject’s life has been eventful. Its tone is strangely cheery, which certainly fits the story of a man who seemed always to have landed on his feet, but which to me only highlights the grief that routinely goes unmentioned. In an epilogue detailing what happened to the various people referenced in the book, Rosenberg offhandedly notes that sixty-four of the sixty-eight members of his extended family alive at the start of the war were murdered in the Holocaust. Rosenberg, it is likely, did not know many of these people well (of the few that he did, his grandfather’s family died, as best he can tell, in the Warsaw Ghetto and the uncle in Berlin was killed at Auschwitz, but not before he organized a clandestine choir in the camp at Sachsenhausen where he was first interned). It is also true that, miraculously enough, his entire immediate family survived. His parents and sister made it to Haifa; his sister, now 92, still lives in Israel. All of which might explain why this is not a book about loss. And why should it be, I suppose? My sense, however, is that despite the fluency of the narrative, there is something blocked about it. I was regularly surprised that Rosenberg was not more forthcoming about his feelings, or reflective about his situation. How does he feel about his survival? He says only:
Time and time again, there was what I call a ‘confluence of circumstances’ that presented me with a window of opportunity, or a moment to be seized. At each juncture, a combination of factors enabled me to seize that moment or slip through the window. That’s my best explanation for how I survived.
He names some of those circumstances—he didn’t look stereotypically Jewish; he appeared younger than he was (people often took him for a 14-year-old), which inclined them to look kindly on him; he knew five languages and had had parents who arranged for a wonderful education—but the awkward, passive syntax of the passage tells a truth. Survival wasn’t only—wasn’t even primarily—a function of ability, but of chance. Rosenberg was plenty clever and resourceful, don’t get me wrong. But The Art of Resistance shows more clearly than many memoirs of Jewish WWII experience that the Bildungsroman imperative of the memoir as a genre sits uneasily with the realities of the period.
It’s fascinating to read an excerpt from a letter Rosenberg received, decades after the war, from a woman who had also worked with Varian Fry, a woman who “shrieked with joy” to learn of his survival. Rosenberg, she writes, was “just another kid, a Jew, a ‘nice boy, but there’s nothing we can do’ (as Fry said to me when I pressed him to help you).” (Fry is someone I need to learn more about; Rosenberg’s portrayal is ambivalent at best.) The woman says she and Rosenberg and the others who worked on the team are “a people apart,” but Rosenberg doesn’t seem to think of himself that way. He is a competent writer, but not an especially good one (he explains in plodding detail what it means to be a flaneur; gives a capsule definition of the Folies Bergère; writes of his student days, “I came to be of the opinion that eating is culture on a plate!”). He even gets a little sententious when, describing the sad fate of Walter Benjamin, who died attempting to cross the Pyrenees, on one of those missions of the sort Rosenberg himself helped lead (though not that one), he notes that gifted people have their weaknesses too, like anyone, before lauding his own habit of “thinking seriously about what was happening along the way,” as if others who died didn’t think seriously, too. And he can be a little boring: the last part of the book reads like a series of testimonials—he quotes from various commanders who extolled his work with them.
But the man’s had a hell of a life, and who cares if he’s a little complaisant. You won’t learn what the art of resistance is from this book, or even if it has an art—Rosenberg’s claim about chance seems to suggest no—but you’ll hear an amazing story. That might be enough to compensate for book’s inability to be clear about what it means to have such a story.
Maybe the lesson of books like The Art of Resistance and The Bohemians is that if we’re looking for a lesson, something like a manual for resistance we won’t find one. We just have to do it.
I recently read two books about resistance to fascism:
Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)
Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)
I learned from both, but I didn’t learn what I most wanted to, namely, why do some people resist when most do not? Both books privilege historical detail over theoretical analysis. Still, the experiences recounted in these texts are interesting; setting them down, I found I had a lot to say, so I have divided this post into two parts. Notes on Norman Ohler’s Bohemians are below; those on Justus Rosenberg’s The Art of Resistance will follow.
The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis is better than its grandiose title—which contains at least two errors. First, and most importantly, Germany didn’t resist the Nazis. Second, yes Harro Schulze-Boysen and Libertas Haas-Heye—the lovers of the title—were remarkable people, and it’s weird how little has been written about them so far. But they didn’t lead in any established or organized way. The inside flap is a bit more circumspect, calling them the leaders of “Germany’s largest anti-Nazi resistance group,” but this too obscures what Ohler is at pains to show: the resistance in question succeeded (if it even did, definitely an open question) because it never cohered. The “movement” Schulze-Boysen and Haas-Heye “led” was shaped like a rhizome, not a root or branch, that is, it was an association of more or less like-minded individuals many of whom never knew each other.
For that reason, Ohler references a lot of people in the book—I couldn’t always keep track of the minor players. The book works best as a two-handed biography of Schulze-Boysen and Haas-Heye. They definitely merit the attention.
Harro Schulze-Boysen was born in 1909 in Kiel, where his father served as a naval officer. The family’s most famous relative was Harro’s great-uncle Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who built Kaiser Wilhelm’s navy. (I’ll follow Ohler’s direction and call Harro and Libertas by their first names: much easier!) Harro’s father, Erich-Edgar, was an old-school conservative, “almost otherworldly in his rigor.” He would tell his son not that he could cry but that he should (to show feelings), but that he should never shed more than a single tear (to demonstrate composure). Erich-Edgar wanted to raise “free-thinking conservatives”; Harro, his eldest son, was certainly the former, though increasingly less the latter. Yet his father’s teachings remained engrained: Harro would be tortured several times in his life, leading, in the beginning, to chronic pain and, at the end, to his death, but he forbore it with shocking stoicism.
Harro was a serious person. He moved to Berlin as a young man and began to study law and political science. Before long, though, he drifted from his studies, preferring to spend his time writing and editing a publication called Der Gegner (the opponent, the adversary). In 1932 he became its publisher and transformed the journal into a social movement highlighted by Gegner evenings in cafes and bars across Germany. At these public debates people of different political beliefs were encouraged to air their beliefs, listen to arguments, and move beyond party lines. Like many others, Harro saw Weimar Germany on the verge of splintering; unlike many, quoting Abraham Lincoln (“A house divided cannot stand”), he sought to keep it together through independent thinking.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Harro was excited, not because he supported the Nazis (he had read Mein Kampf in the late 20s and dismissed it as nonsense) but because he assumed the coalition would soon fall, allowing the energy unleased by the Nazis to be harnessed to create “a genuine social revolution.” If only he had been right. As the Nazis consolidate power and suppress dissent, the Gegner came under scrutiny. On April 26, Harro and his number two, Henry Erlanger, were arrested by the newly-empowered SS. The friends were beaten and tortured, forced to run lap after lap around a prison yard. Erlanger, whose father was Jewish, died from the beatings; Harro had a swastika carved into his thigh by an SS thug, a reminder he would carry with him for the rest of his life. (Along with lifelong kidney problems; Ohler is grimly eloquent on the consequences for Harro’s ruined body.) By the time Harro was eventually released—thanks to the heroic efforts of his mother, who came to Berlin and, trading on her family’s military connections, browbeat the SS into giving Harro up—he had given up on the idea of common ground and different viewpoints. Instead he nurtured hatred for the Nazis and vowed revenge for Henry’s death.
To do so, Harro was willing to play the long game. He now believed that only a Trojan horse mentality would defeat the regime. He would “appear outwardly unsuspicious in order to change the system from within.” He abandoned journalism and signed up for the German Air Traffic School. (As part of the Versailles Treaty, Germany wasn’t allowed to have an air force; the school was a thinly disguised way to flout international law.) Harro was a good pilot—he said that only in the air did he feel free of rage—but he gave it up when the Gestapo, who had been hectoring him to sign a false report saying Henry committed suicide, told him point-blank that plane crashes are easy to arrange. In a sign of his newfound tactical prudence, he signed on as a lowly clerk at the newly-reconstituted Air Ministry in 1934 with the hope of being promoted to a position in which he might learn state secrets.
In the meantime, something much more consequential happened to him that summer. Sailing with some friends (Berlin is surrounded by lakes and waterways), he met a girl sunbathing in a two-piece suit—an outfit that had been banned since 1932. This, of course, was Libertas; for both, it was love—and lust—at first sight. The latter is important to their story: the injuries he’d suffered at the hands of the SS made sex difficult for Harro; later in their marriage, Libertas would look elsewhere for sexual satisfaction, with Harro’s reluctant approval. He eventually had an affair as well. These relationships mattered, Ohler argues, because the couple valued sexual fulfillment without regard to procreation. (Totally at odds with Nazi ideology, obviously.) Harro and Libertas and their bohemian friends were for free love, creativity, expressiveness, openness. As Ohler puts it, their resistance
proceeds from life itself; [it is] the natural impulse, unstoppable in some people, to profess unconventionality, to be unconventional.
An interesting way of putting it—professing isn’t the same as being, and Ohler’s clear implication is that his subjects walked a walk that others could only talk. But if the impulse is so natural, why wouldn’t everyone have been like them? Are others just “better” at stopping natural impulses? (More self-control, more highly repressed, take your pick.) This would be a very Freudian/Lawrentian, and thus fittingly early 20th-century, way of thinking about repression. But whose sentiments are we getting in this passage? Ohler’s? Harro and Libertas’s? I was sometimes frustrated with the book’s uncertain voice. (There is no note to this page, for example.) Tellingly, this is one of only a handful of times when Ohler offers anything close to an analysis of his material. He almost never tells us anything about the nature of resistance, or, perhaps more appropriately, of this resistance. And when he does, it’s hard to tell if he’s making his own argument, or if he’s simply transcribing their beliefs.
But back to the girl on the boat. Born in Paris in 1913, Libertas Haas-Heye grew up on her family’s estate, Schloss Liebenberg, fifty kilometers north of Berlin. Her family was even more well-connected than Harro’s. Kaiser Wilhelm had been her maternal grandfather’s closest friend—in fact, had been his lover, a fact eventually revealed in all the newspapers of Europe. The Fürst, as her grandfather was titled, was made to stand trial, rather like Oscar Wilde, but unlike the writer the Fürst was eventually declared unfit to stand trial for health reasons and the trial was adjourned. The stain, however, never quite left the family, a state exacerbated when Libertas’s parents, rather unusually for the time, divorced in the early 1920s.
Her father, a fashion designer and art professor, made the rounds of glamorous cities and resorts. Her mother holed up at the Schloss, isolating herself from the world. Libertas, uprooted many times as a child, had been educated at boarding schools across Europe, which, Ohler speculates, turned her into a person always ready to charm, always seeking to fit in. That tendency, plus the family’s desire to put scandals behind them, might explain their turn to fascism. The head of the family and manager of the estate, Libertas’s uncle, had supported Hitler even before his ascent to power. Libertas herself joined the party in March 1933, though professed herself uninterested in politics. Later that year she moved to Berlin and got a job with MGM’s press department (the film companies needed lots of workers, because they had just fired their Jewish employees). But she wanted to make films, not publicize them. Before long she realized her job wouldn’t lead her to the director’s chair. And she found herself unable to attend university because the Nazis had passed a law lowering the number of students. On the day she accompanied a friend—who happened to know Harro as well—for a day’s sailing on the Wannsee she was, Ohler concludes, at loose ends.
Harro and Libertas were young, good looking, unconventional. (They were, for example, completely uninterested in the gender norms of the time. Neither wanted kids; Harro liked that she worked.) In the months that followed, they bought a car, weekended at Liebenberg, lived communally with friends. But such carefree unconventionality was hard to sustain. Their families put pressure on them to marry. Besides, being together for so long without marrying attracted the wrong kind of attention at Harro’s work. They were married in the summer of 1936, went away on honeymoon, seemed the perfect rising Aryan couple. Libertas even sweettalked Göring into giving her husband a promotion when the Reich Aviation Minister attended a stag hunt at Liebenberg. All this time, though, Harro was collecting information—in 1936, he learned about plans to send German fighter planes to support Franco in Spain, but the English journalist he passed the secret on to didn’t want to know about it—and biding his time. After Harro’s promotion, the couple rented a big apartment that would become a gathering place for artists and intellectuals. The held raucous parties every other Thursday, at which they would cautiously sound people out on their feelings about the regime.
Gradually, they organized a series of resistance actions: some were more minor than others, but even the most innocuous was risky. Harro, Libertas, and their friends sang French songs, took photos of battleships (Libertas got caught and was picked up by the Gestapo; it almost ended badly), and wrote pamphlets they mailed anonymously to likeminded souls (one was titled Concern for Germany’s Future is Spreading Among the People). In an especially audacious plan, they covered the advertisements for a big propaganda exhibit with stickers reading “War Hunger Lies Gestapo” (Harro had the bright idea of asking men and women to work together, so the graffiti artists could disguise the stickering by making out). Most seriously, they got in touch with the Allies and passed on information to them. Harro managed to contact a Soviet agent based in Brussels, who provided him with a radio transmitter. But most of their messages failed to get through, because the machines were notoriously hard to work. Which was too bad, because Harro and Libertas knew a lot.
Already in the fall 1940, the German command was making plans to invade the Soviet Union. In January 1941, Harro saw photographic evidence of reconnaissance flights over Leningrad. A few weeks earlier, he had noticed that all Russian books (including Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) had been withdrawn from the Air Ministry library. (I am amazed not that the regime decided the books were propaganda, but that the Air Ministry had a library containing Tolstoy.)
Harro had the more prominent position, but Libertas learned the more terrible things. In the summer of 1940, the Ministry of Propaganda formed the Germany Documentary Film Institute, aimed at producing 10-minute shorts extolling the war effort to be screened before feature films. Impressively for someone who had taken the unusual and dangerous step of renouncing her party membership, Libertas got the job of approving or denying these projects. She was a censor—but an unusual one, sidelining projects that she deemed too close to the party line (always using finances as an excuse) and encouraging any she thought had even the slightest subversive potential. But soon she was reviewing more than propaganda films. For reasons neither Ohler nor other researchers can explain, her office began to receive photos sent willingly by soldiers on the Eastern front which clearly showed atrocities against Jews. Libertas pilfered many of the photos and assembled them into scrapbooks which she hid in the apartment. (They were later destroyed by the SS.)
Then their luck ran out, done in by the carelessness of others. The radio assistant of the Russian agent in Brussels was arrested and, under torture, revealed their codes. Among the messages the Gestapo were able to decipher, one, which the agent had foolishly not destroyed, included Harro and Libertas’s address. A formal (secret) investigation was launched into First Lieutenant Harro Schulze-Boysen, that rising star in the Luftwaffe. A friend of Harro’s—a co-conspirator—worked in the encryption office and frantically sought to warn Harro the minute he learned of the investigation. What followed was a deadly game of telephone tag. The man left a message for Harro, but happened to be away from his desk when Harro returned the call. Worse luck, the leader of the investigation happened to answer the phone. Worst of all, Harro happened to give his own name. After that, things happened fast—first Harro was arrested, then a few days later Libertas, and finally other members of the “organization” the Nazis had come to call “The Red Orchestra” (under the mistaken impression the participants were all communists; in fact, pretty much none of them were).
The resisters were tortured, mentally and physically. They held out through terrible suffering, at least for a time. It didn’t help that Libertas had unknowingly spilled secrets to a secretary who pretended to be sympathetic. Ohler describes an amazing scene, during the ensuing trial, when the conspirators are able to be together for the first time since their arrest—during a lunch break when the guards connive to give them some time together—and they collectively decide together to forgive Libertas, even though her indiscretions have hurt their cause.
In the end, the bohemians of Ohler’s title are convicted and sentenced to be executed. They write moving letters to their parents; Libertas one to Harro. Harro writes a poem that he arranges to have the kapo of his cellblock, a former bricklayer, hide in the wall, asking him to recover it after the war and send it to his parents. Which actually happens. The poem concludes:
The world will be our judges/Not the judges of today. (Harro’s italics)
That judgment has been mixed, though. After the war, the “Red Orchestra” was celebrated by the East German government as a home-grown ring of spies working under the leadership of Moscow to destroy fascism from within. (This ignores the reality that the carelessness of Moscow’s agent basically got them killed.) The West Germans were uninterested. Harro’s brother, who became a diplomat, even asked Helmut Kohl to acknowledge the dead man’s actions, but he received nothing more than a dismissal: the real legacy of resistance, the brother was sententiously told, was a state devoted to the rule of law. (Ohler points out that Harro would have agreed.) West German reticence stemmed from a belief that the group were in fact in league with the Soviets, but surely also was connected to the fact that many of the people who persecuted Harro, Libertas, and the others were rehabilitated, avoided trial, or traded between east and west. Many of them ended up working for secret services in the US, UK, and Germany. In sum, the legacy of the “gang” was nothing but misrepresentation all around—a typical irony.
Ohler has done fine work in telling this exciting, tragic story in a compelling way. I’m impressed how elegantly he has organized the book: it is as tightly structured as the thriller it could have been. Readers of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin will find a similar inexorable, terrible narrative here. Ohler has a light touch with his own writerly persona—almost too much so, as I’ve suggested in my complaint about the uncertainty regarding his own point of view—but the book’s impetus was clearly personal. The summer he was twelve, newly shaken by what he had recently learned in school, Ohler asked his grandfather what he had done during the war. The man, who had worked for the Reichsbahn, the state railway, reluctantly tells a story about a train he once saw, on a tour of duty in northern Bohemia. The long freight train was shunted to the side outside a little station. He felt uneasy about the train. He walked alongside its silent cars; suddenly a tin cup was lowered on a strong from an opening near the roof of one of the cars into a nearby snow bank. Just as suddenly, the cup, now filled with snow, was pulled up until a small hand reached out to grab it. There were people in there! The train, grandfather learned, was going somewhere called Theresienstadt; he’d never heard of it. His bad feeling only grew when some SS men came and ran the grandfather off. He told himself the people must have been prisoners of war and willed himself to forget what he’d seen. I was scared, he tells Ohler. After a while the man goes into his house and returns with an envelope, which he wordlessly hands to his grandson. Inside is his party membership. Please. Take it. I can’t have it in the house anymore.
The envelope turned into this book: a man lying to himself in Bohemia begat a story resurrecting rebellious bohemians. Ohler has the good sense not to claim this is a fair trade, or that restitution has been achieved. But he’s written a valuable book. I’m unconvinced his grandfather was the kind of person to have been proud of that—nor was he in a position to be, in my opinion. But it’s a good thing Ohler has done. After Harro and the others were hanged, Hitler vowed the Nazis would wipe even the memory of their names from the earth; for many years they effectively did so. The Bohemians begins to right that wrong.
Life got to me this month. Days passed in a haze, routines crumbled, mosquitoes and heat kept us inside, a foot injury sharply curtailed my running. No endorphins, no Vitamin D, no hope. US politics even more of a cluster than usual; COVID everywhere, no end in sight, no good options for our daughter’s schooling next year. In theory, I had nothing but time on my hands. In practice, I split my time between Twitter and playing increasingly intricate/soul-destroying games devised by my nine-year-old. Our annual trip to Canada fell through—not a surprise, but a source of real sadness. Not everything was bad: I wrote a short essay on my grandmother; I enjoyed a resurrected reading group; I slowly made my way through David Cesarani’s 1000-page history of the Holocaust (amazing, though not cheering). And I read some other things, namely:
Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (2019)
New series by Cleeves (of Vera and Shetland fame) set in north Devon featuring DI Matthew Venn, methodical, gay, married, alienated from his religious family. Totally solid procedural (Cleeves knows what she’s doing); I’ll read more about Venn and his colleagues, who Cleeves delineates with care, even managing some surprising character developments without stinting the mystery. It’s not going to rock your world, but it’ll absolutely scratch your procedural itch. Read Kay’s review (though we disagree on Venn’s husband: I liked him a lot more than she did).
Sarah Moss, Cold Earth (2009)
Moss’s first novel isn’t as brilliant as her more recent work, but it’s absorbing and unsettling. The setting is Greenland; the scenario is a haunted archeological dig. The isolation and harsh conditions start getting to the team, especially when one of its members becomes convinced someone or something is upset about the dig. Things get even more freaky when the team loses contact with the outside world, where a pandemic is raging. (Might have seemed a bit far-fetched on the book’s release, but not anymore…) Reading Cold Earth after most of her other books, I realized how much of a piece Moss’s concerns have always been. Her great subject is the intersection of physical and mental extremes, and how women experience those extremes differently than men. Here, though, that interest is more academic than felt; the book more schematic than alive. Except in the description of the landscape: there it sings. If you love wild northern places as much as I do, though, you’ll find enough to like here.
Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019)
Powerful book about teaching and learning and writing. Won the Orwell Prize just recently. I had more to say here.
Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)
Like many well-meaning leftists, I wanted to read more about race in the wake of the George Floyd/Breonna Taylor protests. (For me, reading is the most comfortable way of doing—a fact I’m ashamed of, though I do translate reading into teaching, which, my therapist keeps trying to tell me, is also doing.) Lucky for me, then, that a colleague organized a group reading of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. 80 faculty and staff signed up (!); we discussed the book via Zoom in small groups. Hard to imagine a better introduction to the task of becoming anti-racist. By race, Oluo, born to a Nigerian father and a white American mother, mostly means “black,” but she also includes Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous concerns. At first, I found the book a little simple. But as I read on I was impressed by how much material Oluo covers so accessibly without sacrificing nuance. For example, Oluo explains that when it comes to racist speech and actions impact matters more than intention; what microaggressions are and how pervasive and abrading they are; how to understand important terms like intersectionality and equity (vs. equality); and why white people need to do everything they can to avoid centering their own feelings of discomfort when they talk about race.
I moderated one of the Zoom sessions: it was disheartening to see some of the expected sticking points arise (it’s not easy to accept that white people who live in a racist society are in fact racist, even though they’re good people and personally think the Klan is terrible; it’s not easy to realize that even though plenty of white people are poor they’re still privileges when it comes to race; it’s amazing how pernicious and powerful the idea of meritocracy remains); on the other hand, it was heartening to see that the conversation about race on our campus seems to have shifted in the past months (before the meeting we read a report compiled last semester by students of colour about their experience of the college: what to many of us had seemed hectoring now felt simply just).
Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows (2020)
Second novel from Addison (who also writes as Sarah Monette), following the much-loved The Goblin Emperor (which I was in the middle of listening to when I stopped commuting; I haven’t found the energy to return to it, though it’s very good). The Angel of the Crows is a steampunk Holmes novel—it started as “wings fan fiction,” which, I learned, is a subset of fan fiction about angels—starring one Dr. Doyle, recently invalided out of the war in Afghanistan after being attacked by a fallen angel, who knocks aimlessly and in increasingly precarious financial straits around London until he meets an angel named Crow who needs a roommate for his flat at 221B Baker Street, from where he, Crow, helps Scotland Yard solve impossible crimes, not least the murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel.
Sound familiar? If you enjoy Holmes, you’ll love the way Addison reworks some of the most famous cases (Copper Beeches, Baskervilles, Speckled Band, etc.) in a world peopled by angels, vampires, and hellhounds. Addison eschews exposition, which I found both satisfying and confusing. I’m still not quite sure how angels are meant to function in this world. (They are good, because anchored to a building or other place, which they protect, unless they are fallen, in which case they are bad, but there’s also a vast stratum of nameless angels—used by Crow as Irregulars—who have neither a domain nor malign intentions. Or something like that). Anyway, it’s good fun, made even more interesting by a nice twist halfway through that I won’t reveal.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) Trans. Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (2020)
Got the Proust and Flaubert band back together to tackle this strange and funny 19th century Brazilian novel, out in a brand-new translation. Brás Cubas has died: he tells us about his life, riffs on what it means to tell a story, generally has a zany old time. Part Sterne, part Kafka. Hope to write more about this soon.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (2013)
Ifemelu, the protagonist of Adichie’s third, splendid novel, comes to the US for college and stays for fifteen years, making it sort-of-big with a blog about race, written from the perspective of an NAB (Non-American Black). Even though Ifemelu has a fabulous gig at Princeton, a (recently-ended) longtime relationship with a hip Ivy League professor, entrée into intellectually and socially elite worlds, and even US citizenship, she decides to return to Nigeria, where she finds herself an Americanah, not fully a foreigner but not a native anymore either. She’s torn between relief and distress, even disdain at what has happened to the country (which is to say, what has happened to her) during her absence. Americanah is a sprawling novel, with dozens of characters, mostly brilliantly realized, even the walk-ons. It’s also a straightforward two-hander: the real reason Ifemelu returns is to reconnect with her first boyfriend, Obinze, whose own travels to the West, in his case a much more difficult and less successful sojourn in the UK, take up about a third of the book.
At first I didn’t think much of Ifemelu’s blog entries (included at the end of many chapters), but I liked them more as I read on and eventually I realized Adichie had pulled a clever trick on me—the posts improve as Ifemelu does as a writer. The blog’s didactic elements sometimes spill over to the novel itself—Adieche’s portrayal of academics and other professionals during the Obama campaign is the least convincing part of the book, though I too, with a stab of pain when I compare then and now, remember dancing with joy the night of the election. (Not that I want another Obama; I want more; I don’t want a slightly nicer status quo plus respect for rule of law (although I do want that too!); I want change: I want AOC.)
Ifemelu isn’t always likeable—being “nice” isn’t something she learned while in the US; her impatience is bracing—and Adichie doesn’t feel the need to redeem her, but the novel does have a satisfyingly happy ending, made even more compelling because it doesn’t let us forget that one person’s happiness is usually someone else’s unhappiness.
I learned a lot from the book—what it’s like to be the kept woman of a high-ranking official with largesse to dispose yet who lives in constant fear of being deposed; what jollof is and why it’s delicious but why one could also get used to being able to choose to eat anything from anywhere; what kind of work illegals do in the US versus in the UK; how one generation’s accomplishments and pride in a nation become another’s confinement and shame. And I learned a lot about hair: about weaves and braids and afros and how to take care of hair (wrapping it in a satin handkerchief overnight is key) and how much it hurts (like, physically) to do so, which is to say I learned that hair is politics.
I’m planning to read Adieche’s other books, especially her epic of the Biafran war, Half of a Yellow Sun. The legacy of that conflict, especially as it’s shaped the relationships between Igbo and Yoruba, seemed important background to Americanah that mostly passed me by.
Kate Clanchy, Antigona and Me (2008) (first published as What is She Doing Here?)
I loved Clanchy’s book on teaching (see above), but I really, really loved this earlier work of narrative nonfiction. One day, walking through her neighbourhood with her young son, Clanchy meets a woman and her three children. The children get to playing, the women to talking. Antigona (Clanchy’s appropriate pseudonym for the woman, whose story involves plenty of defiance) is a refugee from the recent war in Kosovo. The story of how she and the children made it to the UK, which comes out, like all stories of trauma, in confusing bits and pieces over a long time, is remarkable, and, again like all stories of trauma, nigh-on implausible.
The women become friendly, and Clanchy hires Antigona as a cleaner (and later as a nanny), and rounds up a bunch of her middle-class professional friends to do the same. Antigona is a remarkable worker—in addition to all the domestic work she also has a job as a waitress—who does her best to get ahead, making a good life for her children at the cost of rarely seeing them. (She also has debts to people smugglers and the debts of family members to pay off.)
There are two reasons Antigona is so good at cleaning: one, she knows how to do manual labour in a way Clanchy and her friends, and probably most readers of this book, don’t (though Antigona never lets her romanticize that experience, casting scorn on Clanchy’s preference for old things, and reminding her the backbreaking work she and all women in her part of the world grind away at has no redeeming quality); and two, her life has been organized around ideas of cleanliness, as much metaphorically as literally. In the Malësi—“the highlands,” the mountainous region where Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia meet—the rules that matter are neither legal nor religious (her family is nominally Muslim, but it means nothing to her) but rather cultural, specifically a complicated, unwritten, but clearly codified set of values and behaviours called the Kanun. To break the rules of Kanun is to feel shame—for yourself and for everyone in your family. The Kanun, Clanchy argues, is way of controlling women, a way to keep them “clean.” Cleanliness isn’t just a temporary state in the face of the endless messiness of life—not just a matter of vacuuming or scrubbing things that will soon once again be dirty—but a state of being that must be maintained at all costs.
As you can see, Clanchy’s memoir gets into thorny and abstract issues. But it’s written with verve, clarity, and ease. It’s about how women get along, with other women, with their children, with their families, with their careers and aspirations. Men barely make an appearance: the ones that do are clueless, wastrels, or violent. Antigona is the star of the show—physically and emotionally she’s built to be a star, and she knows it (qualities that make life hard for her children): when Clanchy proposes the idea of a book, she nods her head, and immediately suggests a movie, or a miniseries, that would be even better. She’s not selfish, though: she recognizes her story is also the story of many: “There are a thousand women behind me in this country, having shit lives, ‘scuse my language. No one can understand their lives, here. They are stuck, they cannot move forward. It takes one to break the ice.”
But Clanchy is important too, and not just as the one with the skills and resources and nous to interpret for Antigona, with all the ethical dilemmas that position holds: her no-nonsense personality is so appealing, and her willingness to butt heads with Antigona fills me, a person who flees from conflict, with awe. Clanchy recalls Betty Friedan writing in the 50s about “the problem,” which in the new century has morphed into a different one: “The ‘problem’ in 1959 was women’s shame over their wish to work outside the home, whereas ours in 2001 was same at our inability to work outside the home or even inside the home without the home collapsing.” “Our” here refers predominantly to middle-class white women, but whatever differences might exist between these women and women in the Malësi, they are linked by the experience if shame. What does it mean, Clanchy asks, for her flourishing to be possible only at the cost of another woman’s constriction (“I benefit from her stunting”)?
Seems like Antigona and Me went largely unnoticed when it first came out. That sucks, and I’d love to see it get another chance. People might be readier to read it now than they were in 2008, since memoir is read so much more widely now. The concerns of what those of us in safe, stable countries owe to those on the run from unsafe, unstable ones (which in many cases we made unsafe) has only become timelier. Antigona’s appreciation for the rule of law feels so poignant at a moment when we see that breaking down, at least in the US. And Clanchy’s thoughtful account of difference—how do you love someone with whom you have fundamental disagreements—is perennially relevant.
Clanchy told me on Twitter that this is her best book—or at least the one she likes best. I believe it. I stayed up until three in the morning to finish it; I regretted nothing the next day. It’s going to be on my best of the year list no question, and I urge you to track it down.
Irmgard Keun, Gilgi, One of Us (1931) Trans. Geoff Wilkes (2013)
Got a jump start on WIT month with an old favourite. Gilgi has neither the joy of The Artificial Silk Girl nor the anguish of After Midnight, but it’s an impressive debut. In his excellent afterword, translator Wilkes tells the story of how Keun chose a publisher from the phone book, dropped off the manuscript, then returned the next day to see if they would buy it. It kept us up all night, the publisher admitted. And a star was born. Of course, fate got in the way, specifically having her books banned by the Nazis. And in this regard—the Hollywood glamour story of success; the crumbling of that success by forces larger than any individual—the anecdote fits the trajectory of many of Keun’s heroines, not least the eponymous Gilgi.
When the story begins, twenty-one-year-old Gilgi is a go-getter in late Weimar-era Köln (passing reference is made to street battles between communists and Nazis). She exercises every morning, takes language classes, saves money to travel, and spends an hour or two in a rented room every evening improving herself. She’s also a little conformist/prissy, though her skill at deflecting male attention is amusing—and depressing. It sucks how carefully she must deflect the fragile male egos that have so much power over her. The book has strong Rhys/Comyns vibes, not least in its use of “you,” a technique Rhys especially used to create distance between her female protagonists and themselves. Gilgi often laments her inability to express herself, to speak in anything other than “grey words,” unlike the men in her life. Her language is as constricted as her life possibilities—fitting, then, that she is a typist, transcribing the language of others. (I’m reminded by the theorist of technology Friedrich Kittler’s point that typewriter—like computer—originally meant the young woman who typed or computed, and only later named the tool she used to it.)
In addition to the matter of language, Gilgi is a book about mothers—at least four are important to the young woman—and what other roles, if any, women can fill. It’s also about how being with another person both enriches and shrinks your life: in this regard, it has an unconvincing, although open happy ending. (It’s interesting to compare the end of After Midnight, which depicts the same scenario, but packs a much more powerful emotional punch.) Still, I loved the novel’s roving point of view, and the way Keun used that play with perspective to make her gender critique even clearer (as when we see into the minds of the men who only want one thing from Gilgi, for example).
If you’re new to Keun, I’d start with those other two books, but Gilgi is absolutely worth reading.
That was July. Clanchy was the clear winner, with Adiechie coming second. And August promises better, including a vacation with some uninterrupted reading time, which will, I hope, prepare me to launch into whatever the new year promises.