A Personal Anthology: 12 (More) Favourite Stories

I recently added my thoughts on twelve favourite short stories to The Personal Anthology. I thank Jonathan Gibbs, the editor of this valuable project, for the invitation to contribute. (Do browse the archives—you’ll find all kinds of things worth reading.) I made my choices based on my experience teaching short fiction. In doing so, I had to leave off many worthy candidates. So even though nobody asked for it, here’s a baker’s dozen more wonderful stories.

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“Nervous” by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton

Walser’s little prose texts, scribbled on bits of paper, published in feuilletons across German-speaking Europe, are one of the glories of 20th century literature. Amazingly, they are finally getting their due in English. But thanks especially to the efforts of poet and translator Christopher Middleton, some of his work already appeared in English in the 1980s, including one of my favourites, “Nervous.” Walser’s writing is characterized by what I think of as a very Swiss mixture of sweetness and snark: its coziness soon goes off the rails. Here, in a text not coincidentally written in the middle of WWI, Walser is more anguished than gentle. But the reversals, hesitations, and self-cancellations of his prose are clearly evident.

I’ve often taught “Nervous” together with Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1983) another bravura exercise in narrative voice (in her case, in the imperative). Both texts undermine the coherence of the speaker, leading us to ask whether the very idea of identity is a fantasy of writing. Because both pieces are so short, they’re ideal for forcing students to linger over details. Students can even read them for the first time in class, which, in my experience, typically generates the best conversations.

First published in German in June 1916 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Published in English in Selected Stories Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1982. You can read an excerpt here and the German (with facing Dutch translation) here.

“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen

It hurt to cut this from my original list, just as it hurt to cut it from my syllabus a few years ago. Students never loved it the way I do, and that disparity was getting me down. To be sure, it’s not straightforward. Bowen’s brilliant ghost story centers on Kathleen Drover, who has returned to London during the first Blitz to check on the house she and her children have left behind for shelter in the country. She finds a letter pushed under the door, a curt missive reminding her that the writer has not forgotten the troth she plighted, the promise she made. “Today is the day we said” it says, ominously. The letter takes her back to the Great War, and the man she fell in love with, the man she promised to marry, a cruel man, a man who returned to the front from leave and never returned. (The students have a hard time distinguishing between the two wars.) The letter sends Mrs. Drover into a panic, and she collects what she came to get as quickly as she can and runs away to hail a taxi. But you can’t outrun the past. This is a story of trauma, about physical and mental stains and strains. I can never shake the image of the weal on Kathleen’s hand when her fiancée presses it hard against the buttons of his uniform. One thing my students and I always agreed on, though: the editors of Bowen’s Collected Stories must have had a lot of fun when they made sure the story ended on p 666.

First published in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945. Available in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Ecco, 1989. Read the story here.

“The Bear Came over the Mountain” by Alice Munro

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, where we are All Munro All the Time—I remember reading “Boys and Girls” in middle school and having “the symbolism of the foxes” drilled into me—but I am lukewarm on our Nobelist. I mean, I recognize her greatness. But for me she’s so cold, and not just because that’s the emotional register of the largely Scottish and English WASPs that comprise a certain idea of “Old Canada,” fictional versions of which populate Munro’s stories. I find the stories themselves chilly, almost clinical in their attitudes to these figures. (No accident that so many of her editions have a reproduction of an Alex Colville painting on the cover.)

They do teach well, though. And this one in particular works for me. “The Bear Came over the Mountain” intertwines two couples: elegant Fiona, whose forgetfulness grows into dementia, and bien pensant Grant, who is not as nice as he thinks he is, on the one hand, and Aubrey, a former sweetheart of Fiona’s who she reconnects with in the facility Grant reluctantly moves her to, and Marian, Grant’s seemingly unsophisticated but in fact defiant and shrewd wife, on the other.

As the couples re-arrange, our suspicion grows that Fiona has orchestrated the events. The story asks: what is true, in the life of a couple and even in life itself? Epistemological uncertainty isn’t just something faced (with terror, stoicism, even grace) by the patients who lose their memories, but by readers as well.

First published in The New Yorker, December 27, 1999. Collected in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage McClelland & Stewart, 2001. You can read the story here.

“The Bad News” by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, by contrast, is another CanLit big shot whose work I do admire. (For whatever reason, her chilliness doesn’t bother me as much as Munro’s.) Although best known for her novels, Atwood’s written plenty of stories; the ones I’ve read are good. For a while I taught this story regularly, highlighting, in particular, its narrative structure and use of time. Like “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” “The Bad News” is about (the fear of) dementia. But I don’t think memory loss explains the story’s structure, which reminds me of a möbius strip. The narrator and her husband live in a dystopic near-future (if I were to read the story now, I’d probably just think it was set in the present) but part-way through the narrator remembers a trip they took to Glanum, the Roman ruins in the South of France. The memory sparks a fantasy that, at some point, becomes the present of the narrative itself. It ends with the couple, living in what to them is simply an outpost of Rome, nothing ancient at all, talking themselves out of worrying about the barbarian invasions (“They won’t be here for a long time. Not in our lifetime, perhaps. Glanum is in no danger, not yet”). We’re left wondering if the modern couple, similarly obsessed with but in denial about bad news, is perhaps a dream of the ancient one, rather than the other way ‘round. “We don’t like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it’s coming our way.”

First published in The Guardian, 2005. Collected in Moral Disorder and Other Stories, Nan A. Talese, 2006.

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“Indian Giver” by Max Apple

Probably the least famous writer on this list, which is a damn shame. Especially as he is probably the nicest (admittedly, the only one I’ve met, but man what a mensch). Apple is a worthy heir to Malamud (which, if you’ve read my original list, you’ll know is high praise). Seymour Rubin owns an automotive junkyard, but the only person who can work the baler that keeps the place going, a man named Alonso Johnson, has just converted to Islam and needs to pray on his lunch hour every Friday. Seymour, incensed at what he sputteringly calls “once a week anti-Semitism,” fires Alonso, which leads to his near ruin. (“Indian Giver” is a take on Malamud’s “The First Seven Years.”) Everyone begs Seynour to take Alonso back, especially Seymour’s son, Chuckie, who calls from the reservation in the South West where he is working with indigenous people. When a rival Jewish recycling firm offers to buy him out, Seymour has no choice but to go back to Alonso. Who, Apple’s story asks, is a Jew? And what does that mean? Are the identities we live by enabling or disabling? Funny, too!

First published in Story and collected in The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories, Johns Hopkins, 2007.

“The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” by Edward P. Jones

Now that I think of it, I briefly met Edward P. Jones at a reading from his novel The Known World. And he too was lovely, so soft-spoken and introverted, clearly a man uninterested in platitudes or bullshit. I warmed to him immediately. Though I’ve yet to read that book, I love his early stories, especially this one, which I use in teaching literary realism. This is a beautiful and very sad story about an angry, vulnerable teenage girl, Cassandra G. Lewis, whose best friend, the Rhonda Ferguson of the title, is about to sign with a record label. Rhonda almost never appears in the story—instead we follow Cassandra and some of her other friends as they spend a flirty, chaste, emotional, ordinary Friday evening that is upended by tragedy. By the time we learn of Rhonda’s death, so much has happened we’ve forgotten all about it, and we’re shocked despite the title. I love how one of the girls, a quiet soul Cassandra hardly knew before the fateful night, becomes the story’s central focus. And its last line is heartbreaking: “She sang on into the night for herself alone, pushing back everything she did not yet understand.”

Collected in Lost in the City, William Morrow, 1992.

“Tapka” by David Bezmozgis

A bittersweet, funny, but ultimately rather ominous story about a family of Latvian Jews who emigrate to Canada in the early 1980s as part of the exodus of Soviet Jews. (In this sense clearly autobiographical.) Mark Berman is in first grade at George Best Elementary School in his new home of Toronto. Together with his slightly older sister, he is tasked with walking a neighbour’s dog every day at lunch. Tapka is spoiled; her owners, also Russian emigres, though of a lower social class than the Bermans, have no children. Tapka is their everything. While the adults struggle through English classes by day, the children learn through osmosis (the narrator likens his brain to a catchment basin, with rivulets of language steadily accumulating into a pool). Pride of place goes to schoolyard insults, like “shithead” and “gaylord” (how it pains me to remember that we used to say things like that). The children love Tapka. But they also hate her, for inscrutable reasons that have to do with their powerlessness and general sense of being lost in a new place. So they start calling her the names they’ve learned, maybe felt the lash of; Mark feels the thrill and shame at having violated something. One thing leads to another, and the kids let the dog off the leash, whereupon it dashes into traffic and is hit by a car. Everything ends okay, except nothing will ever be okay again.

I also use this story to teach my American students the correct pronunciation of Toronto and what a washroom is. I think of it as a duty.

First published in The New Yorker in 2003. Collected in Natasha and Other Stories, Harper Collins, 2004.

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“The Knock at the Manor Gate” by Franz Kafka and translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

My favourite Kafka to teach is “A Hunger Artist” (though I confess I don’t love to teach Kafka—he is too hard, too much about the resistance to interpretation), but my favourite Kafka altogether might be this little text, which is perfectly Kafkan, but, more importantly, for me, comes unbidden to me every time we chant the v’ahavta in synagogue. That’s the prayer in which we name the ways we shall love G-d. Tell them to your children, think of them when you wake and when you sleep. And, finally, “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Kafka would have known this prayer (it comes just after the sh’ma, Judaism’s affirmation of monotheism); every week I wonder if he had it in mind in writing this enigmatic work.

First published posthumously in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer in 1931. Collected in English in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, edited by Nahum Glatzer, Schocken, 1971. You can read the story here.

“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams

Although only four pages long, this story is so rich, it’s easy to spend an hour talking about it and still have plenty to say. Based on Williams’s own experience as a doctor in Rutherford, NJ, it tells the story of a doctor summoned by a poor, terrified couple who suspect their daughter has diphtheria. To confirm his diagnosis—which will lead only to quarantine, there being nothing else the man can do: the story is from the 1930s; there are no antibiotics—the doctor needs her to open her mouth. Which the girl refuses to do. The result is a battle not just of wits but of strength. The title doesn’t just describe the doctor’s actions; it also poses a question: what is the use of force? What purpose does it serve? Can we diagnose a condition without causing harm? And if we think about the similarities between diagnosis and interpretation, we might extrapolate to ask, can we read a text without doing violence to it?

First published in 1933 in Blast and collected in Life Along the Passaic River, New Directions, 1938 and The Doctor Stories, New Directions, 1984. You can read the story here.

“A Family Supper” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rohan Maitzen tipped me on to this story, one of only a few by Ishiguro. Although it would be terrific for any lesson on unreliable narrators, I always teach “A Family Supper” on the second day of the semester to help students begin the semester-long process of learning to support claims with textual evidence. For the central question demanded by this story of a young man who returns after the death of his mother to his home in Japan from a new life in America is whether his father has poisoned their supper of fish soup. (The first thing we learn is that the mother died from eating improperly prepared fugu.) Students always have strong opinions, but they’re not always sure why they think what they think. Ishiguro has a fine way with dread and unease. In addition to everything else, this is good ghost story.

First published in Firebird 2 in 1982. Collected in Malcolm’s Bradbury’s anthology The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, Penguin, 1989. You can read the story here.

“Drown” by Junot Díaz

The narrator’s former best friend Beto is back in town, but the narrator doesn’t want to see him. We learn that Beto once gave him a blow job, which the narrator both liked and hated. “Drown” is a story of repression, confused masculinity, and growing up in a society that has no expectations for you (note the imperative of the title). My students and I often linger on this early passage, where we can already see the rivalrous relationship between the boys. Along with the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood, the boys have climbed the fence at the local pool:

I sit near the sign that runs the pool during the day. No Horse-Play, No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating. At the bottom someone has scrawled in No Whites, No Fat Cbiks and someone else has provided the missing c. I laugh. Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

At night the pool runs by other rules: the difference between no expectorating and a greener by the poolside. Nighttime pool has vitality, but what is that worth compared to the power of daytime rules?

First published in The New Yorker, January 29, 1996 and collected in Drown, Riverhead, 1996. Read the story here.

“The Marquise of O” by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves

A crazy, long story about a woman, the Marquise of the title, who becomes pregnant after being raped during the Napoleonic wars. The scholar Mary Jacobus has a nice essay about how everyone sees the Marquise as an empty O just waiting to be filled (literally or figuratively). The story’s told with Kleist’s characteristic indirection, which means students have a hard time with it—it doesn’t help that the central event is elided in a dash—but they often get into rousing discussions of contemporary slut-shaming that makes them see things haven’t changed as much as they like to think. For me the big question is: can we read the Marquise as having any control over her circumstances? Does she have any agency?

First published in German in Phöbus in 1808. Available in English in The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Penguin 1978.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” by Herman Melville

What is there to say? A stone-cold masterpiece. “I would prefer not to” doesn’t mean no. It’s much more destabilizing (or insidious, depending on how much you side with the narrator). A wonderful story about men at work.

First published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in November and December 1853. Collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856. Read the story here.

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Now you tell me: what would be on your list?

September 2019 in Review

Enervating month. Endless heat, relentless bullshit in the news cycle, demanding semester, various personal and professional irritants. And hardly any time to read, as you’ll see in this meagre list.

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James Gregor, Going Dutch (2019) Recommended to me as literary fiction written in both third person and past tense—increasingly rare!—Gregor’s debut is a strange one. I often said to myself, Why am I still reading this, I don’t really like it. But then I’d read another chapter. Going Dutch is about Richard, a grad student studying Italian Renaissance literature at Columbia whose personal and academic lives are a mess. He’s completely blocked in his writing, and all the guys he meets disappoint him. Then he falls in with a brilliant fellow grad student, Anne, who coaxes him back into academic life (by basically writing his papers for him) just as Blake, a lawyer he’d had a disastrous first date with, comes back into his life. Pretty soon Richard is intimate with both, while trying to keep each secret from the other. I found this scenario crazily stressful. And although the sense of ennui and diffuse anxiety rang totally true, in general the novel’s depiction of grad school is ludicrous. Anne is a great character—I wanted a book about her. Not for me, then, but YMMV.

Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock (1975) I love Endeavour as much as the next PBS-loving, Viking Cruise-aspirer. Watching the latest series this summer, I thought I would give the books that gave us Morse a try. Big disappointment! The first in the series is tolerable enough as a procedural, I guess (nothing fancy: Morse is irascible without being endearing, which could in theory be interestingly against type but didn’t read that way to me), but its casual misogyny is icky and disheartening. Many series start slowly, so I suppose I could always give Dexter another chance. I see no real reason why I should—Last Bus likely my last Dexter—but let me know if you have strong feelings.

Len Deighton, Berlin Game (1983) This summer, a question I asked on Twitter about what books to take on vacation sparked an interesting discussion about Deighton and Le Carré. The verdict is in: I’m Team Deighton. Berlin Game was my first Deighton since adoring SS-GB as a teenager in the 80s. And it’s so good! I loved its evocation of late 70s, early 80s Berlin (and London for that matter). (Funny how the 80s now seem like the 60s—so old fashioned.) The spy story is suitably but not overly complicated. (That’s my rap on most spy fiction—I’m not smart enough to keep all the double agents and moles straight.) The final explanation didn’t completely surprise me, but Deighton’s chutzpah in going through with it did. I listened to an old audiobook, enjoyably narrated by someone whose name I’ve forgotten: a perfect commute book. Pity my library only has the sequels in print form. Let the Deighton revival begin!

Kit Pearson, The Lights Go on Again (1993) This summer I enjoyed the first two books in Kit Pearson’s trilogy about two English children sent to Canada during WWII. Since my public library didn’t have the third, I figured I’d either have to wait until my next trip home or find it via ILL. Imagine my delight, then, when my daughter and I, finally tackling the long overdue job of cleaning her room, found this on her shelf! (I think my mom bought it at a garage sale or something.) Anyway, I devoured it that same day, particularly appreciating Pearson’s decision to switch focus from Norah (the elder sibling) to Gavin (the younger). In the final volume, the war is in its last weeks, and a series of terrible events and big decisions make for anxious times for the Stoakes children and their guardians. I was genuinely surprised by the ending, which I imagine the publishers might have resisted. Suitably ambivalent. Can’t recommend this series enough, either for children (probably 10+) or adults.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947) Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1991) I’ve written about this Holocaust memoir before. Fifth or sixth time I’ve read it; with this last reading I feel confident I won’t have to re-read it every semester any more. (Though I see I wrote that last semester too.) Millu’s been a fabulous addition to my class. Students love her, and I keep finding new things to say about her. Of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the female experience of the camp system—and anyone interested in a memoir that has the pacing, structure, and textual grain of a fine short story.

Ngaio Marsh, Death at the Bar (1940) I had this lying around, I’d enjoyed the first couple of books in the series when I read them three or four years ago, and the first pages grabbed me. But before long I was finding it a slog. Not enough Alleyn. Could it be that the only “Golden Age” crime writer I like is Josephine Tey?

Robert Harris, The Conclave (2016) The inimitable Jenny Davidson recommended Harris to me; I started with this one because my local library had a copy of the audiobook. I’ve rarely given the mechanics of how Pope’s come to power a second’s thought; it is one of my failings that I find books on Jewish topics engrossing, but books on Christian topics irritating or, at best, alienating. But I was caught up in this book from the start. It helps that it’s more about politics (gossip, ambition, the use, even manipulation of procedures to get something done) than about religion. But I also appreciated that Harris takes the faith of his characters seriously. He helped me imagined how someone could devote their lives to God in what to a Jew is such an unusual, even off-putting way (cloistering the self from the world, I just don’t get that). But where Harris really excels is in telling a suspenseful story. The Conclave follows Cardinal Lomelli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, (as such, responsible for running Papal elections), from the time he receives the news of the death of the Holy Father until white smoke finally ascends through the Vatican chimney. It should tell you everything you need to know about how much I enjoyed this book that for the week and a half it took me to listen to it, I eagerly awaited my daily commute. No idea whether Harris is always this good, but I’m definitely going to find out.

Andrea Camilleri, The Other End of the Line (2016) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) My first Montalbano since Camilleri’s death, which lent the whole thing extra poignancy: the number of this reliably pleasing series is now finite. This is an especially good installment. It includes the usual shenanigans (great food, amusing banter, clueless supervisors), but an important subplot about the nightly arrival of hundreds of desperate refugees on Sicilian shores lends the book unusual gravitas. Montalbano and his colleagues find themselves on the front lines, working almost every night, in addition to their day jobs, to “process” exhausted and frightened people.

Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet (2010) Amazing that we even have the essays collected in this volume, as Judt wrote them (via, I gather, a difficult process of dictation, having composed them in his mind during many sleepless hours) while his body was inexorably overtaken by ALS. I’ve had his huge history Postwar on my shelves for a long time; I’m daunted just looking up at the thing. These essays were a much more manageable introduction to his work. But I’m guessing a not particularly representative one. Judt is a good memoirist, but not a great one. For understandable reasons, the book is quite fragmented, and some essays are better than others. Being of Swiss background, I appreciated his defense of Switzerland (a small hotel in the Berner Oberland, site of a memorable childhood family vacation, gives the book its title). I especially liked his piece on public transportation, and how much he loved it as a child. Judt rightly marvels that his parents thought nothing of his setting out for day-long journeys across and around London as a child of only 10 or so. And I admired his midlife decision to learn Czech (a language he had no previous familiarity with), thereby launching himself on his way to becoming, in mid-career, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe. But I’m never that impressed by academics who don’t seem to like teaching (which, judging by its almost total absence here, would seem to include Judt). And some of his chapters criticizing the kids today for their snowflake tendencies are downright irritating. Might be hard pressed to remember this one in a year’s time.

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There you have it. Deighton and Harris win the light reading sweepstakes. Millu is a writer for the ages. October’s gotta be better, right?

July & August 2019 in Review

Been a long time since I wrote anything here, and two months since my last reading update. What have I been doing? Took a long vacation back home the end of July and early August. Then school started up again. (We’re through the first two weeks: I’m surviving, but the whole thing doesn’t feel quite real yet. The entering class seems sharp, though, which is heartening.) And my wife and I finally gave in to our daughter’s pleas: we got a puppy (exhausting, even though our older dog is doing a lot of the work). I’ve found it hard to make time to write, but I did do a fair bit of reading, especially on holiday, mostly light stuff. Much of it was enjoyable, but I’m not sure too much here will be on the end of the year list.

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July

Ian Thomson, Primo Levi: A Life (2002) Not especially captivating (the writing was surprisingly pedestrian), but a great way to learn a lot about Levi. He could be joyful, caring, and inquisitive, but the older he grew the more those sides of him struggled to get out from under serious depression. At the end of his life he despaired about the resurgence of fascism. This was in the mid 80s. Think how unhappy he’d be today.

As part of my centenary celebration of Levi’s life and work, I made a list of Levi facts.

Esther Freud, Lucky Break (2011) My summer project to make it through Freud’s backlist (see May and June’s posts) continued with this, her second-most-recent novel. It begins at an acting school in London in the late 70s, early 80s, almost certainly modelled on the one Freud herself attended. (She’s written about this milieu before, most notably in Peerless Flats.) What’s different here is that Freud continues past the adolescent/early-adult years and tracks the fates of several characters into middle age. She moves between perspectives, showing us who makes it, who doesn’t, who never gets over that formative drama school experience, who brushes it off or takes it in stride in becoming their mature self. What is a lucky break? When you get what you want? When you make a narrow escape? Not Freud’s best, but I don’t think she has a bad book in her.

Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers (1946) Trans. Karen van Dyck (1995) You can read my thoughts here. Short version: good!

Inge Auerbach, I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust (1986) Illustrations Israel Bernbaum A Holocaust memoir for young readers (I’d say maybe 9-12). For me, the primary appeal was the unusualness of the writer’s circumstances. Auerbach grew up in a small town near the Black Forest, surprising because Germany had a Jewish population of only half a million before the war, and few lived in the south-west. Auerbach was deported to Theresienstadt, a former military barrack turned Potemkin village, from which she was fortunate not to have been deported to Auschwitz. She was there at the time of the infamous Red Cross visit (the Germans spruced the place up to show the world how much they had the interests of Jews at heart) and she clearly remembered the production of the children’s opera Brundibar. I Am a Star would be a good introduction to the Holocaust (unusually for a book of its time it is not centered on a Gentile child who witnesses events at second hand), but I must confess it hasn’t particularly stayed with me. (I had to look up most of these details.) What is vivid is a scene in which the six-year-old Auerbach has to take the train, all alone, to the not-so-nearby city of Stuttgart in order to go to the only school in the area for Jews. She’s wearing the star, which I believe was instituted in Germany proper only in 1941, which means this was happening when preparations for the full implementation of the “Final Solution” were gaining speed rapidly; the adults around her are hostile, indifferent, or mutely embarrassed.

I’ve just learned I’m going to get to meet her this fall. It will be an honour.

Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments (1987) Impelled to read this by the NYT poll that listed it as the best memoir of the past 50 years. Well, who knows about that, but it’s definitely great. Personally, I found it less fascinating than her much more recent The Odd Woman (crazily underrated), but I still liked it a lot. Even if you’re less fascinated than I am by American (aka Jewish) communism of the 1930s and its long, mostly sad aftermath you’re bound to find much to love here. Who doesn’t love a great tale of generational conflict? Gornick’s mother is a monster, and a delight, and a show-stealer. (Gornick has the grace not to begrudge this.) The book moves between memories of Gornick’s childhood and descriptions of the long walks she takes with her mother in the present (now long past) day. These walks are the venues for a life-long argument about how women should understand their lives. As Gornick explains so usefully in the first half of her book The Situation and the Story (I teach it all the time), good writing doesn’t so much depend on what you’re writing about (the situation) as it does how you frame it, how you tell it, how you organize it (the story). Fierce Attachments gives an old situation (which is why people from all kinds of backgrounds will likely relate to it) a killer story.

Ross Macdonald, The Moving Target (1949) The first Archer novel, notable mostly for showing how much Macdonald improved as a writer over his career. The book has its moments—Macdonald was always terrific with California geography (here best expressed in two harrowing drives, one along the coast in thick fog and one through the mountains at night), and his fascination with misunderstandings between generations is already evident—but on the whole it’s fairly thin. For completists only.

Georges Simenon, The Strangers in the House (1940) Trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury w. David Watson & others (1951) I’ve read a few Simenons (a couple Maigrets, a couple romans durs), but I’ve never really got on with him. My attention wanders, even though they’re so short. But everyone loves them, so I keep trying. With The Strangers in the House everything finally clicked. Hector Loursat has given up: he holes up in his crumbling house, whole floors of which are boarded up, where he lives alone except for some servants and his adult daughter, Nicole, emerging from his room only for meals and trips to the cellar for more Burgundy. Drinking and reading is all that’s left in his life. (Honestly, is that so bad?) His law career is abandoned, his reputation in tatters (not that he cares). But one day he hears a gunshot from inside the house. He investigates: there’s a dead man upstairs. Nicole admits that she and some friends had run over a man during a drunken late-night joyride. Her boyfriend, Emile, was the one driving the car, but the young couple insist they didn’t kill him. In fact, they’d brought him into the house and tended to him in the hopes he would heal. The police don’t believe a word of it, and they arrest Emile. To everyone’s surprise, even his own, Hector decides to defend the boy, which brings him closer to his daughter than he’d been for years.

I loved three things about this book: its atmosphere (perennially foggy, drizzly, and grey); its refusal of redemption (it teases us with the possibility before foreclosing it abruptly); and its hair-raising depiction of a man who just wants to be left alone being brought out into the world. A frightening parable for introverts everywhere.

Alex Beer, The Second Rider (2017) Trans. Tim Mohr (2018) Had high hopes for this Viennese crime novel set in the immediate aftermath of WWI, but, although diverting enough for a plane ride, it’s disappointingly clunky. The series might improve (at least two installments remain untranslated), but doubt I’ll follow up. The more historical crime fiction I read, the more I realize no one can touch Philip Kerr.

Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding (1962) They don’t write them like this anymore. I don’t really know what I mean by that. Maybe it’s the tone—kind of old-fashioned, but not in a bad way. Maybe it’s the self-confidence of the world it depicts (Berkley and a ranch in rural California), even though the main character has no such assurance. Ingeniously narrated in three parts, the first and last by the eponymous Cassandra, and the middle by her twin sister, Judith, the book is set in the days before Judith is to be married. Cassandra doesn’t want her to. She wants to be with Judith forever. Baker’s trying to do something really complex. We have to be drawn to Cassandra, but we have to see that there’s something monstrous about her, too. Yet if we demonize her we risk capitulating to some pretty conventional ideas of what life should be like, especially for women. But we also have to recognize that someone could desire to be conventional without being in bad faith. Baker pulls it off—always keeping us off balance, always make us think further. She ends with a beautiful, vivid, and enigmatic image, a shoe spiraling from the Golden Gate bridge into the water. Intimation of release or premonition of bad things to come? Jacqui has a good review. Please link to others in the comments.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends (2017) I confess I started this as a hate-read. A number of readers I trust had disparaged it (thin gruel, overrated, the kids today). But I loved it. And not just the book, but the reading of the book. Sometimes reading feels like work, or like something I steal from the rest of life. But every once in a while it’s pure pleasure and amazement. I stayed up much too late, as compelled to read just one more chapter as if it had been the most suspenseful thriller. Although initially unimpressive at the level of the sentence—an impression I increasingly questioned and that I look forward to revising when I read it again, as I’m sure I will—the novel really impresses in its depiction of new models of relationships. (I was reminded of Women in Love, which is pretty much the highest praise I can give!) As soon as I finished I started thinking about how well it would fit at the end of my 20th Century Experimental British Fiction course. Rooney’s depiction of relationships would complement Lawrence and Ballard, while her use of narrative voice could be juxtaposed to Woolf (in The Waves) and Beckett (in Molloy). Conversations with Friends is contemporary without being topical. (It’s not the inclusion of text message strings that makes it of our moment.) By all means read this essay by Claire Jarvis: she has so many interesting things to say about Rooney. For example: “She is baring her teeth at the group of female writers she closely resembles. Masochistic elements run through her fiction, not exactly as fully fledged fetishes or desires, more as evidence of the baseline structure of heterosexuality.”

Can’t wait to read Normal People (after three months on the library waiting list I’ve finally cracked the top 20!).

John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) I didn’t love this book, but I did come to admire it. Le Carré tells his story with impressive vagueness. Imagine a spy novel in which all the action is told second or third hand. (In this way, Le Carré is the anti-Lionel Davidson.) As I read I kept seeing Smiley as Alec Guiness—but, since I dozed through most of that lengthy British mini-series when my wife and I watched it years ago (she loved it; I recognized it was good but found it a powerful soporific), the ending hadn’t been ruined for me. And as the book went on (it’s not short) I grew increasingly invested in who the mole in the British service might be, and how Smiley’s duel with Soviet string-puller Karla would turn out. Probably spy stories are not my preferred genre (I’m too stupid—all the double and triple crossing confuses me), but I can see that this is good stuff. And I’m interested enough to read more Le Carré, especially the rest of the Karla trilogy. But not so interested that I’m dropping everything to do so.

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August

Kit Pearson, The Sky is Falling (1989) While on vacation I read three books by the Canadian children’s writer Kit Pearson. They were perfect choices. (I hadn’t read her before; I was just too old for her books when she started writing.) Pearson doesn’t seem well known in the US. (Or in the UK?) But she should be. The Sky is Falling is the first of The Guests of War trilogy, which focuses on child evacuees from England to Canada during WWII. Norah and Gavin Stokes, ten and five years old in this first book, are sent along with hundreds of other English children in a convoy across the North Atlantic to safety in Canada. Especially for Norah, through whose eyes we experience events, the journey is a mixed blessing. She misses her friends and family, she fears she has been made by her parents to be a coward, and she resents the superiority of the Canadians she meets (she resents their security). The Stokes children are taken in by the old-moneyed Ogilvies, who live in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood. Florence Ogilvie, the family’s matriarch, is bossy, used to getting her way, and blinded by grief at the death of her son in WWI. Florence’s chief victim is her gentle but cowed daughter, Mary—that is, until she shifts her attention to trying to rein in Norah. I was impressed by the profound moral dilemma Pearson considers here: what happens when learning to make your way in a new life comes at the cost of losing the old one? What do children and parents owe each other? Lots to chew on here: I recommend for readers of all ages 10 and up.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Chochar (2013) Trans. Srinath Perur (2017) Wonderful novella about a family in Bangalore who are much richer than they used to be, but who aren’t willing to acknowledge what they had to do to get there. Shanbhag doesn’t judge them for it, but he makes the cost clear. He’s a genius at suggesting something’s wrong without telling us what exactly (like Ishiguro, but less mystical). A friend of mine, talking about college donors, says there’s no clean money. More books today should be about money. If I were Fredric Jameson I might say something about how only a so-called Third World country—only a country that has the particular vexed relationship to capitalism that so-called emerging economies have—could take up the mantle of the 19th century European realists. I’m most left haunted by the untranslated title, an expression made up by a family peripheral to the story to describe something tangled beyond repair. A beautiful, mysterious book. Read Joe’s review for a more detailed take.

Kit Pearson, Looking at the Moon (1991) The second volume of the Guests of War trilogy is set at the Ogilvies’ summer place in Muskoka, the genteelly shabby Gairloch. A couple of years have passed since the first book (it’s now 1943), and Norah is becoming a teenager. The war is more in the backdrop here than in the previous book, but it matters all the same, especially when a cousin of the family, dashing 19-year-old Andrew, arrives for summer vacation. Norah has her first crush, but she can’t understand why he is terrified of enlisting. Even in this perfect summer book—if you want to know about a certain kind of Old Canadian life, real Group of Seven stuff, sort of New England patrician transported to the Canadian shield, complete with lots of canoeing and sailing and fishing and blueberry pies, this is the book for you—difficult problems arise.

Kit Pearson, A Handful of Time (1987) Not part of the trilogy (the last book was checked out at the library: now that I’m back in the States I’ll have to track it down via interlibrary loan), but another enjoyable read from Pearson. Twelve-year-old Patricia’s parents are getting divorced, and her brittle, accomplished mother (a news anchor) sends her West for the summer. Leaving Toronto—where she is used to cooking sophisticated meals with her father and going to art classes she doesn’t particularly enjoy—Patricia arrives in Edmonton and is immediately taken to a nearby lake where her relatives summer. As she fears, Patricia (a more immediately likeable character than Norah) is scorned by her outdoorsy cousins; taking refuge in a disused cabin she finds an old watch that takes her back to the 1950s, and the summer when her mother was twelve. Another terrific summer read.

Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (1969) Trans. Amanda Prantera (2011) Last year I read Haushofer’s The Wall for Women in Translation month. I loved it, and thought I’d follow up with The Loft, Haushofer’s final novel. (She died of cancer shortly before her 50th birthday, leaving only a handful of works.) Maybe it wasn’t the right book to read on holiday. Maybe the translation isn’t quite up to snuff. (Shaun Whiteside did a wonderful job with The Wall; not sure I can say the same for Amanda Prantera here. The book felt awkward to me in ways the earlier one didn’t. The syntax is straightforward enough that I could have a go at the original, just to see.) But in the end, I think it’s that The Wall, despite its post-apocalyptic setting, is simply a more generous book. Haushofer’s subject is the crippling conformity of post-war Austria (she’s a less histrionic Bernhard).

The loft of the title is the narrator’s atelier, where she works on her drawings of insects for children’s books, and pursues her endless quest to draw a bird that doesn’t look as though it is the only one in the world. Mostly, though, it’s the place where she hides away to read entries from her own diaries, which begin arriving mysteriously by post. The diaries are from a two-year period in her life, shortly after the war, when she was sent away by her husband to recuperate in the countryside (with only the company of two differently vexing and surly men, nursemaids and confidantes of a sort) from an unnamed traumatic event and sudden attendant deafness. (Hysterical in the true sense of the term: that is, her deafness is a way to express in bodily form feelings that can’t otherwise come out.) Pleasingly, the arrival of the diaries is just as non-cathartic as the event is undescribed. (It presumably has something to do with the legacy of the war, but I appreciate Haushofer’s unwillingness to spell that out.) Yet the book feels cramped and airless in a way The Wall doesn’t. Which makes sense of course: the conceit of the earlier work is that it would take a vast destructive event (an event even more traumatic than a war) to liberate women. (And even that liberation would be on temporary, on sufferance). In this regard, The Loft is the kind of book it has to be. I just like the kind of book The Wall is better.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Glass-Blowers (1963) Pretty different from the other Du Mauriers I’ve read. Historical, yes, but neither a romance nor Gothic. Written apparently in a fallow time in Du Maurier’s life, when she decided to spend time in France researching the origins of her mother’s family. (While there she became inspired to write The Scapegoat, one of her best books. It’s unclear if Du Maurier really understood what it was to be fallow.) At any rate, this is a book about the years before, during, and after the French revolution centered on a family of glass-blowers. It has always been a shame of mine how poorly I understand the revolution. I’ve never read Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Pimpernel or even Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. In her excellent introduction to this recent Virago edition, Michelle de Kretser (I loved The Lost Dog) uses the term “dutiful” to describe parts of the book. Accurate, but as de Kretser says, not because Du Maurier has written a bad book. Rather, Du Maurier’s interestingly taking on herself here—aiming to write a realist novel different in tone, style, and premise from the books that made her famous. De Kretser suggests that the best parts of the book are the ones in which Du Maurier can’t hold herself to her task, or, to say it another way, when she can’t help but be her herself. (I was particularly struck by the book’s ambivalent exploration—part condemnation, part fascination—with rumour-mongering as a political tactic. Rumours and gossip are presented as monstrous, taking on a life of their own with grim results.) The Glass-Blowers isn’t Du Maurier’s best book, and I’d never suggest anyone start with it, but it’s never dull. It’s more muted than her other work, but still highly readable. I do wish there’d been more actual discussion of glass blowing, though. Du Maurier uses it as a metaphor for shape- and sense-making more generally. Which, when a society moves from a time when meaning is monarchical (fixed and guaranteed) to one in which it is arbitrary (arbitrary and relational), is no small matter.

Adrian McKinty, The Chain (2019) High-concept crime novel that starts fabulously but fades badly. The idea is pretty genius: a shadowy cabal creates a demonic chain letter. The parents of a kidnapped child don’t get their child back until they kidnap another child, and so on down the list. The idea is terrifying, and almost plausible. But the resolution is antic and overdrawn. By the end of the day—yes, I read it in a single day, almost against my own wishes—I felt tawdry and bloated, as if I’d eaten nothing but junk food.

Dervla McTiernan, The Ruin (2018) By contrast, a much quieter and more successful crime novel, an old-fashioned procedural, with echoes of Tana French (partly from the Irish setting, partly from the mistrust among members of the murder squad). A pleasant surprise.

Philip Kerr, Prague Fatale (2010) Not the best Bernie Guenther, but solid nonetheless. Kerr has always included historical figures in the series, but usually in walk-on parts. Here Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Blond Beast, the primary architect of the Final Solution, takes center stage, and this seems to hamper Kerr. The Guenther books are always despairing, but they’re usually leavened with laugh-out loud humour. Here things felt sour.

Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar (2019) The second in the Cormac Reilly series isn’t quite as good as the first, but it’s still better than your average procedural. McTiernan is fleshing out the other members of the murder squad admirably, which promises even better things from the third installment, due next year. (One of the things that made Mankell’s Wallander series so good—aside from their suspense—is that the other cops mattered too.)

Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake (2019) The first audiobook of the semester was a doozy. I loved last year’s Sunburn (still think about it all the time), but Lippman has outdone herself here. True, I’ve only read four or five of her many books, so my sample size isn’t huge, but I can easily imagine this is her best book. Like all her work, it’s set in Baltimore. But it’s also about Baltimore, and, by extension, plenty of other cities that are in fact really more like small towns. She’s so good at showing how various parts of the city—journalism, politics, the police—and various groups, especially Jews and Blacks, intertwine. There’s a sociological or anthropological quality, fascinating in itself, but even better in that it serves a suspenseful and moving plot, about a 30-something Jewish woman in 1966 who leaves married life and sets out to become a newspaper reporter. Added bonus: Lippman writes sex really well.

Georges Simenon, The Train (1958? 1961?) Trans. Robert Baldick (1964) Strange book, from the bibliographic information on down. (The copyright page of my edition has no original pub date, and an online search revealed conflicting information. Any ideas, people?) After enjoying Strangers so much (see above), I thought I’d make my way through some more of my Simenon backlog. (I own a lot of books by him, considering how lukewarm I am on him.) This started promisingly, another quasi-everyman (but maybe a bit of a wrong un) dropped into extreme circumstances. But the circumstance here is the German invasion of France. In June 1940 Marcel Féron escapes his northern French town for points south together with his pregnant wife and small child. But they are soon separated, and his convoy, mostly filled with Belgian refugees, becomes a version of the transports taking Jews to death in the East. Marcel meets a woman on the train, they get involved, they live for a while in a refugee camp in the south. Their relationship ends as suddenly as it began: Marcel gets word of his family’s whereabouts and returns to them. He sees the woman once more, and only then do we learn her full name, Anna Kupfer, and her particular war work. The idea is that’s she’s Jewish, and Marcel’s unwillingness to get involved with her or her resistance work is perhaps a metaphor for French quietism. But the book works neither on its own terms nor as a political allegory. And so my interest in Simenon has waned once again. Maybe we’re just not meant to be.

There you have it. The highlights were Baker, Liberaki, Gornick, Shanbhag, the McTiernans and, above all, Sally Rooney. How was your summer, reading or otherwise?

 

A Centenary of Levi Facts

As part of my efforts to celebrate Primo Levi’s centenary, I read Ian Thomson’s biography. Primo Levi: A Life (2002) is thorough, chilly, occasionally a little plodding. But it’s full of fascinating material. Here are 105 things that struck with me. (Tried to keep it to a round hundred, but the effort defeated me.) After the list I offer brief thoughts on the biography itself.

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1. Bartolo Mascarello, apparently the maker of the best Barolo in Piedmont, described Levi this way:

Primo was a sort of owl, you know, extremely intelligent and observant—but at the same time apparently quite ordinary. Primo had a kind face, laughing eyes, extraordinary eyes—penetrating and sagacious. He struck me then and much later as un uomo allegro, a happy man. He was very measured but not in an aristocratic way, in a human way.

2. Levi was “raised on a mixture of coddling and bourgeois stiffness”

3. His mother, Ester, was formal, reserved, cautious, prudish, fastidious. Passed on many of these traits to her son. His father, Cesare, trained as engineer, sold machinery, fancied himself man about town, a sophisticated roué. In fact, claims Thomson, he was an autodidact and a bit of a bumpkin.

4. Cesare grudgingly joined Fascist party (like so many Italian Jews, though many were enthusiastic); Primo joined fascist youth movement in 1924, as a five-year-old.

5. Levi was a frail boy who grew up determined to overcome this frailty. As a teenager (and for the rest of his life) he was an avid mountaineer.

6. The Torinese have an expression for the fatigue that comes from a strenuous mountain hike, la grande fatica.

7. In August 1932 Levi observed his Bar Mitzvah—later in life he described his religious education as entirely perfunctory: in the milieu he grew up in, boys could read Hebrew just well enough that their family could be congratulated.

8. Levi was drawn to study of science because other learning (especially of classics) was done by rote. Fascist regime valued humanities; devalued science.

9. Entered university in October 1937. His first professor told the entering students, “Chemistry is a bricks-and-mortar trade and you lot are brick-layers. Don’t expect to discover the meaning of life around here.” Levi would eventually set his sights on just that grandiose aim, but he always appreciated the brick-layer role. Nonetheless he Later wished he had studied physics.

10. In 1938 Levi narrowly avoided being thrown out of university along with most Jewish students as Mussolini’s regime acceded to Hitler’s demands for anti-Semitic Nuremberg-style laws. At the last minute, it was decided that those who were already in their second year of study could complete their education.

11. The assimilated Jews of Turin and throughout Italy were blindsided by new anti-Semitic laws. Couldn’t believe they would really be affected.

12. Like so many young European Jews, Levi was intrigued by Zionism, especially its secularism. Encouraged by his English tutor (many Italian Jews belated prepared to leave the country), he even translated the British White Paper of 1939 (which reduced number of Jewish refugees to Mandate Palestine). But the Levis would never have been persuaded to leave Turin: 95% Italian, 5% Jewish, they said.

13. Indeed, Levi had no interest in the Jewish refugees arriving in Turin and other parts of Italy from Eastern Europe.

14. Levi wrote his dissertation on what would eventually be called quantum chemistry, specifically the idea that asymmetry is central to the make-up of the universe: the carbon atom is asymmetrical.

15. In summer 1941, Levi graduated with first class-honours—only the second such degree in 25 years. He was a Dottore, but as a Jew had no career prospects.

16. In summer 1942 Levi was hired by a Swiss film in Milan. His project: to extract anti-diabetes medication from burdock root. Swiss firms could hire Jews but needed to keep them on the down low. Levi was taken on as Doctor Primo.

17. In Milan Levi ate at canteen across from the main newspaper. There he met reporters and editors who knew the paper’s Russia correspondent Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt, The Skin). All of them, Thomson says, knew what was happening in the East.

18. By 1942, when Levi’s father died, Italian Jews were no longer allowed to place obituaries in the newspaper.

19. At this time, Levi began to be involved with the Resistance: wrote slogans (LONG LIVE PEACE) on Lira notes and smuggled propaganda into provinces from Milan.

20. 1 December 1943, Salò regime decrees Jews of all nationalities be arrested & placed in special camps.

21. Levi joined Partisans in the mountains in the high valleys above Turin. His ragtag group was soon infiltrated by fascist spies; he and the others were arrested on December 13, 1943.

22. The night before the arrest, Levi spent the evening discussing the famous Lippizaner horses of Slovenia, said to be able to spell words with their hooves.

23. Levi spent 39 days in jail before being transferred to a transit camp at Fossoli.

24. Life in Fossoli under its corrupt Commissar Avitabile (he demanded sexual favours from women, for example) was relatively good: communal living, packages allowed in, sharing of food and clothes. “Primo is well,” one of his fellow prisoners wrote to her relatives.

25. A minimum number of prisoners was needed for a deportation train: to meet this quota, Italian officials raided a Jewish old folks home. Numbers in the camp began to swell. On February 22, 1944, Levi and the other prisoners in Fossoli were deported to Auschwitz.

26. Levi later described the assimilated Italian Jews who arrived with him at Auschwitz as “eggs without a shell.”

27. Levi sent as slave labour to a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Monowitz-Buna, run by the chemical company IG Farben. The rubber-producing plants at Buna, which came online in mid-1944, consumed as much electricity as all of Berlin. It gave Levi satisfaction that the plants never produced any useable rubber.

28. Buna was short for Butadiene and Natrium (Latin for sodium).

29. The SS & I. G. Farben sabotaged each other: former wanted to kill prisoners as quickly as possible; latter needed them for labour. SS ordered Jews to bring back 40 bricks every day from Buna to delay construction; Farben allowed Levi to sell blankets he stole from barracks.

30. In Buna Levi met Alberto Dall Volta, also an Italian chemist—Alberto spoke German well, and was a genius at “organizing” (finding ways to steal and otherwise get ahead in the camps). He and Levi became inseparable—eventually dividing their rations. Alberto died in the so-called Death March just before liberation.

31. Levi also met Lorenzo Perrone, a Piedmontese mason, a volunteer worker in the Third Reich (i.e, he was not Jewish), who smuggled an extra soup ration to Levi every day for six months. His help contributed immeasurably to Levi’s survival. As a civilian, Perrone received packages from home and had a reasonable ration. The soup wasn’t pleasant—it “might contain a sparrow’s wing, prune stones, salami rind, even bits of La Stampa newsprint reduced to pulp”—but it gave Levi an extra 500 calories a day. Perrone suffered upon returning home; he became an alcoholic, which Levi understood as a form of suicide. He died in April 1952.

32. Thanks to his training, Levi was conscripted into a work commando in the lab at Buna. It was in the relative warmth of the lab during the winter 44-45 that Levi began to secretly record his experiences. His notes never amounted to 20 lines, and he destroyed them after committing them to memory. But If this is a Man born already in camp.

33. Caught scarlet fever in January 1945. When admitted to Infektionsabteilung (the camp infirmary) on January 11th, Levi weighed 80 lbs.

34. In the weeks before and after liberation, Levi formed a close friendship with Leonardo De Benedetti, a Turinese doctor who was appointed head of surgery by the Russians after they took over the camp. Benedetti: “I’m like a beggar who has lost everything—except life.” They would be lifelong friends, although they never quite recovered from an argument over Israel late in their lives.

35. On June 6, 1945, Levi—at this point halfway through the six months it took him to make the journey home—wrote a letter to his mother and sister. Here is the PS, which Thomson rightly calls extraordinary:

Maybe I’ll come home shoeless, but in compensation for my ragged state I’ve learned German and a bit of Russian and Polish, I also kjow how to get out of many situations without losing my nerve, and how to withstand moral and physical suffering. To economise on the barber I’m sporting a beard. I know how to make a cauliflower or turnip soup, cook potatoes in a hundred different ways (all without seasoning). I know, too, how to assemble, light, and clean stoves. And I’ve been through an incredibly variety of careers: assistant bricklayer, navy, sweep, porter, grave-digger, interpreter, cyclist, tailor, thief, nurse, fence, stone-breaker. I’ve even been a chemist!

36. Levi reached Turin 19 October 1945. Of the 650 Jews on the transport from Fossoli, 24 returned.

37. At the end of 1945, beginning of ‘46 Levi began buttonholing strangers on trams and on the street to tell them of his experiences. He was in the grip of a compulsion.

38. At Rosh Hoshanah 1945, Levi met Lucia Morpurgo, who would become his wife. A coup de foudre, but although their marriage was lifelong, it wasn’t especially happy. A big reason was the fact that they lived with Levi’s mother for their entire marriage.

39. In January 1946 Levi began to work at a paint factory (DUCO) near Turin. Train service was still so poor that Levi roomed there during week. That’s when he began writing If this is a Man.

40. He began with the last chapter, “The Story of Ten Days.” The famous and brilliant “Canto of Ulysses” chapter was composed in a single half-hour lunchbreak!

41. That chapter describes an experience with a fellow prisoner, the Alsatian Jean Samuel. He also survived, and the two men stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. Levi to Samuel: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.”

42. The hardest thing for Levi to deal with in writing If this is a Man was his anger.

43. Lucia was an exacting editor of the manuscript.

44. The book was turned down by Little, Brown in 1946 on recommendation of a well-known American Rabbi.

45. Even earlier, it had been turned down by Einaudi, the most prestigious Italian publisher. A huge blow to Levi. The novelist Natalia Ginzburg, a reader at the publisher, liked it but thought it not right for their list. Rejected by 5 other Italian publishers too.

46. Levi’s classical style was paradoxically a reminder of Fascist times.

47. Franco Antonicelli, a former leader of the Resistance, agreed to publish the manuscript with his (valiant but small) press. The working title was In the Abyss. Then Drowned and Saved. Antonicelli decided on the final title.

48. Levi was asked to testify at the trial of Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz, but couldn’t get the time off work.

49. Levi married Lucia Morpurgo 8 September 1947; on 11 October If this is a Man was published.

50. Levi frustrated by being labelled as a witness. Thought of himself as writer first, witness second.

51. This now canonical book was indifferently reviewed (except by the writer Italo Calvino). Sold less than 1500 copies.

52. The Levis’ daughter, Lisa Lorenza, born 31 October 1948; their son, Renzo Caesare, born 2 July 1957.

53. SIVA (the paint and varnish company Levi moved to in the late 1940s and spent the rest of his career at) moved to new head office about 20 miles from Turin. Levi would choose the wines for the canteen. Employees enjoyed a 2-hour break, complete with, depending on season, snowball fights and bicycles rides.

54. Levi received a reparation payment from I. G. Farben worth about $12 000 today.

55. In 1955 Einaudi agreed to republish If this is a Man but the press’s financial problems meant it wouldn’t appear until 1958. In meantime, Levi revised and added a new chapter (“Initiation”). He also changed the opening sentence, added the section on the WWI vet he names Steinlauf. Steinlauf was modelled on a man named Eugenio Gluecksmann, but also, apparently, on Otto Frank, who Levi had seen at Auschwitz and then met later in Turin (1952 or 53). He also added material on Alberto, but misrepresented him, saying, for example, that he couldn’t speak German.

56. Einaudi’s first printing sold out; Levi began to become a spokesman of the Holocaust.

57. Met Stuart Woolf, who would translate If this is a Man into English. Levi worked closely with him. One day, Woolf gave Levi Tolkien to read. He hated it, returning it the next day.

58. Samuel Fischer bought German rights, with Heinz Riedt as translator: remarkable man who had grown up in Italy where his father was consul in Palermo, got himself exempted from Wehrmacht, fought with partisans in Padua. His father-in-law imprisoned in Auschwitz as a political prisoner. “Perfect collaboration” between two.

59. US reviews middling; UK better.Germany different: 20,000 sold immediately. Levi spoke to Germany’s young.

60. Began writing The Truce in 1961—important moment in his writing career because it was the first time Levi consciously turned his experience into literature. Published in 1963, it was an immediate success in Italy—but more with ordinary readers than critics. Where If This is a Man had not been neo-realist enough in 1947, The Truce in 1963 was criticized as too neo-realist.

61. At the end of 1963 Levi suffered his first serious depression. He feared he had said all he had to say about his experiences and that he was finished as a writer. This fear reappeared regularly for the rest of his life.

62. In April 1965 Levi returned to Auschwitz for 20th anniversary of the end of the war. Felt nothing at Auschwitz. Saw Birkenau for the first time (!). Amazingly, the plant at Buna was still operational.

63. Levi published two collections of science fiction. Neither was a success. Later he would virtually disown them.

64. Levi wouldn’t tolerate anyone who made fun of others, even children playing together: “The moment the defenceless are derided is the moment Nazism is born.”

65. In late 1966, entered into what would become sixteen-year correspondence with Hety Schmidt-Maas, a German who came from an exemplary anti-Nazi family. As a child, she had refused to join the League of German Women (v unusual). Her ex-husband had been a chemist for I. G. Farben. Schmidt-Maas was on a one-woman mission to understand Germany’s recent past. Levi asked Hety if she had any contact information for the German chemists he had worked under at Auschwitz. Most were dead or had disappeared. But Ferdinand Meyer, who had treated Levi as an equal more than anyone else, was still alive—she offered to put them in touch. Meyer wrote to Levi in 1967. Levi was wary, especially of Meyer’s platitudes of working through past.

66. Meyer (wrongly) saw in If this is a Man the spirit of forgiveness. (Surprisingly, the survivor and philosopher Jean Amery also saw this trait in Levi.)

67. Levi decided not to meet Meyer. He didn’t want the responsibility of forgiving him: not his place. The survivor and historian Hermann Langbein called Meyer a “spineless grey creature.”

68. Later in 1967 went to visit Hety. Successful visit. She called Meyer while Levi was there; the two men spoke by phone. It is not known what they said. Levi confessed to Hety his great fear of seeing Meyer again. Meyer died in December 1967. Thomson’s verdict: “Meyer was less infamous than inadequate.”

69. In 1968 Levi made his only trip to Israel. Not a success. Levi couldn’t square Israel with his preference for the diaspora. Levi was only published in Hebrew in 1988, after his death.

70. In late 1971 Levi wrote to Hety about his depression:

We are not masters of our mood, of our reactions, of our very personality: a slight disturbance in one’s hormonic [sic] balance, and you are turned into somebody else; and you are liable to revert to this obnoxious state again and again, and each time you will stubbornly be persuaded that this is your ral and final condition, that you will have no future…

71. Neither of his children wanted to hear of his past experiences. Thomson concludes Levi had neighbourly but not affectionate relationships with them.

72. In early 1973 Levi began writing The Periodic Table.

73. This was a time of serious neo-fascist violence in Turin: gangs prowled the streets with knuckledusters. Later in the decade, businessmen would take tourniquets with them when going to work in case of being shot.

74. Levi retired from SIVA on December 1, 1974. Had long wanted to do so. Not a good manager, the responsibility tormented him. He felt like a Kapo. At his retirement party, the staff urged him to make a speech. He said, in full: “I believe I have always tried not to get on anyone’s nerves.”

75. Both he and Lucia’s mothers were in poor health. Levi walked his mother around the block twice a day. The only time in their life they were separated for any length of time was the 22 months he was deported.

76. The Periodic Table published in 1975—big hit, much feted, Levi by now a literary legend in Italy. The book expresses the tension between the writer he was becoming and the writer he was taken to be (invention v documentation).

77. Hety visited the notorious Nazi Albert Speer in prison and gave him If this is a Man. Speer didn’t read it, saying he didn’t want to “disturb” Levi by reading it (?!?!)

78. In the late 70s, Levi was indicted on two counts of ‘personal injury’ for causing involuntary injury to workers at the SIVO plant. In the end, no evidence was found and he never stood trial. But the incident shook Levi. The investigating magistrate did find Levi to have been careless of others’ safety—perhaps, Thomson speculates, because of his Auschwitz experience.

79. After retiring, Levi took German lessons diligently for several years at Turin’s Goethe Institut: enjoyed being “their oldest student.”

80. Levi’s literary taste was conservative: found Proust boring, Beckett “annoys me terribly.”

81. In 1979 Levi began to research what would become If Not Now, When. Thomson thinks it a bad book, embarrassing even. (Crude rhetoric, schematic, mouthpieces, over-researched: that was the US critical consensus too.) Began writing in October 1980—wrote the novel quickly in what he called eleven blissful months.

82. On 7 November 1980, the remains of the Holy Virgin St Lucy stolen in Levi’s name from a church in Venice. The thieves left an anonymous ransom note: “St Lucy will be returned on condition that a page of If this is a Man be read each day in all secondary schools and lycèes in the Veneto area.” A local criminal eventually claimed responsibility.

83. Levi thought the natural world was inimical to language, not a human phenomenon like Auschwitz.

84. In 1982 Levi accepted a commission to translate The Trial. He didn’t like the book—“revived his disquiet about Jews and Judaism.”

85. Levi met regularly with students who were writing about him. He was very patient. One student telephoned him about his school essay on If this is a Man, which he hadn’t read: “I promise to read all your books soon,” he told the bemused Levi. (See under: chutzpah)

86. Visited Auschwitz again in summer 1981. Flinched at the sound of a passing freight train.

87. Levi: “Sometimes I wonder if I belong to the Jewish people at all.”

88. The US had been largely uninterested in Levi. If Not Now, When published only reluctantly. The Periodic Table had been published only when Saul Bellow offered a rave blurb. But when Levi met Bellow on his US tour in 1985 Bellow snubbed him.

89. Levi met Elie Wiesel in summer 1981. He had no fondness for Wiesel. The latter had claimed to have had a friendship with Levi in Buna. Levi denied this, saying he had no memory of him.

90. In the fall of 1981, the doctor and survivor Leonardo de Benedetti Nardo died. Levi, as he put it, “became a lonely survivor.” De Benedetti’s maid claimed she never saw Levi smile again.

91. In summer 1984 Levi bought a personal computer. Became a “Mac bore”—convinced the American translator of Italian William Weaver to buy one. Talked about it all the time.

92. The Periodic Table published in the US in the fall of 1984. Finally, Levi received praise and recognition in the US, and he accepted his publisher’s request for a US tour the following year. In America, Levi was always a survivor first and a writer second. Indiana UP had accepted Periodic Table in 1981 but on the condition that only the Holocaust parts be published. (Levi declined.)

93. Einaudi had shorthand for his two Levi writers, Primo and Carlo: “Levi Man’ and “Levi Christ” (Carlo Levi’s most famous book is Christ Stopped at Eboli.)

94. The US trip was a mixed success at best. When Levi met Nahum Glatzer, the publisher of Schocken Books, he left his prosciutto and melon untouched; he didn’t want to offend the observant Glatzer. Thomson claims Levi was puzzled by how much Americans emphasized his Jewishness, complaining that they had “pinned a Star of David” on him. Yet he was very glad to have the US market open to him; his publishers thought he would be back within a year.

95. At the end of June 1985, Esther Levi turned 90. Levi felt increasingly imprisoned by her. He even likened her to “the drowned” of his famous Holocaust metaphor.

96. Jean Samuel visited in the fall and found his friend in very low spirits. In particular, Levi worried about the rise of revisionism; feared all his writing would one day fall on deaf ears.

97. Writing to an Englishwoman who thought she had recognized her uncle in The Periodic Table (it turns out she was right), Levi said “I preserve absurdly precise memories of that period.”

98. In response to an interviewer who asked if he ever dreamed of Auschwitz, Levi told of a dream he occasionally had. He was being driven back into the camp, but protested: “Gentlemen, I have already been here. It is not my turn.”

99. In April 1986 Levi met Philip Roth in London. The two men got on very well: “With some people you just unlock—and Levi was one of them,” Roth later said. In the fall, Roth and his then-wife Claire Bloom visited the Levis in Turin. Roth insisted Levi take him to the paint factory. They shared an emotional farewell: both men cried. Levi: “I don’t know which of us is the older brother, and which is the younger brother.”

100. In an interview, Levi rejected the interviewer’s claim that he wrote from the experience of an underdog:

Levi: I was never an underdog.

Interviewer: But you were in Auschwitz…

Levi: The ones below me were the underdogs. I kept my human abilities. I never sank that far. Underdogs lose the capacity to speak, to articulate. An underdog would never be likely to write anything.

101. Levi’s essay collection The Drowned and the Saved was published in June 1986. Levi planned to write a sequel investigating the German industries involved in the camps. Would that this had come to fruition.

102. Levi’s “unidentified antagonist” in his last book was Bruno Vaari, survivor of Mauthausen, who believed ex-deportees survived thanks to their virtue.

103. Levi fell into a particularly dark depression in the winter of 1987. In February he wrote to a friend: “I know that this phase will pass, just as others have done, but I’m aware of this only at the rational level; my overriding impression is that it will last for ever and that I will never find an exit out.”

104. On the morning of Saturday, April 11, 1987, Levi fell from the landing of the stairwell in front of his third (in the US, fourth) floor apartment. He died immeditely. Ever since, people have debated whether he jumped or fell. (He was on medication that made him dizzy.) Thomson plumps for suicide. To my mind, it doesn’t matter. What is more instructive is our desire to want to make sense of the event. At any rate, news spread quickly in Turin and respectful crowds gathered in front of the building.

105. Levi had said he wanted words Homer uses to describe Odysseus, pollà plankté, much erring, driven to wander far and wide, as his epigraph.

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I don’t read biographies much, so it’s hard to say how good this one. My sense is it’s ok. Thomson is a pretty pedestrian writer, which surprised me, as I read a fabulous essay about his father’s death in the TLS a couple of years ago. The last third of the book feels like a grim, plodding forced march, but, then, Levi’s last years were not easy.

Thomson doesn’t seem to know much about Jewishness. And he has the attitudes of the time regarding depression and mental health. (I gather he did most of the research in the 1990s). He’s not exactly judgmental, but says, for example, that Levi “abandoned himself to black moods.” Just a little dubious, and unsympathetic.

He’ll also occasionally say something silly, as when he writes, apparently with a straitght face, that in Los Angeles Levi “saw no evidence of the murderous gunplay that defines the City of Angels.”

But Thomson, who knew Levi and interviewed him, knows Italian well, and seems very sound on the politics of the 30s and 40s as well as the terror of the Years of Lead in the 1970s. Most importantly, I learned a lot about Levi from this book, which is the point. It reaffirmed by love of him, but also usefully tempered it. Levi wasn’t a saint, and he didn’t want to be one. He was endlessly frustrated at being known as a witness first and a writer second. But witnessing matters. And he can rest assured that he is both a great witness and a great writer.

 

“Antidote to Fascism”: Primo Levi, Chemist and Writer (Guest Post, Nathaniel Leach)

“Ah, yes, you’re the fellow who wrote a book,” a customer tells Primo Levi in The Periodic Table, Levi’s third memoir, a book about his first career, chemistry. Levi stifles his annoyance at this comment under his professional exterior in a way that reminds us that Levi, too, sees his career as a writer as secondary, a historical accident that sometimes either interferes with or assists his professional endeavours. Despite these occasional self-deprecatory references, The Periodic Table invites us to see connections between his two “careers,” both of which require careful observation and an inquiring mind that is willing to revise its initial hypotheses about the world.

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Of course, the book being referred to is his first memoir, Se questo è un uomo, notoriously translated in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz, but literally If this is a Man. Levi notes that if it had not been for his deportation to Auschwitz, he may never have become a writer in the first place, but the book’s careful descriptions, thoughtful analyses and avoidance of simplistic explanations or judgments anticipate a long writing career that would only gradually start to supplant his life as a chemist. The title of this first book, in fact, provides an appropriate orientation towards The Periodic Table; the question posed by Auschwitz, Levi suggests, is whether its victims (or its perpetrators) have been completely dehumanized, reduced to the level of mere physical matter, or whether something ennobling or redeeming persists in the midst of such horror. In The Periodic Table, this question is taken up in its descriptions of the human attempt to come to terms with the materiality of the world.

In each chapter of The Periodic Table Levi presents this struggle via an anecdote related to one of the elements of the periodic table. The chapters are arranged in a loose chronological order, starting with Argon, the “inert” or “noble” gas used as a metaphor for Levi’s Jewish-Italian ancestors and ending with Carbon, a seemingly whimsical “micro-history” of an atom of carbon. In between, most chapters are autobiographical, describing an incident in the life of Levi, the chemist, although he includes two short stories written in his youth and two brief stories in which Levi does not appear (and which therefore seem to be fictional). In describing these experiences, Levi suggests resonances between the rulebound world of chemical interactions and the less predictable world of human interactions. At the heart of these parallels lies the question of Levi’s earlier book, the question of humanity; are human beings simply physical matter composed of the chemical elements discussed in the book, or something more? And in what might that something more consist?

It is characteristic of Levi that there are no simple answers offered; from the outset of the book, he calls attention to the complexity of the “human condition, since man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust”. Chemistry itself becomes emblematic of this division, as Levi’s chapters illustrate both the human desire for scientific knowledge, mastery and overcoming of the physical world and the recalcitrance of matter to even the most inspired human stratagems. As an example of the former, the chapter on “Chromium” is structured much like a detective story in which a problem (the production of faulty paint) presents itself and Levi must use his powers of deduction to solve it. In this case, Levi does indeed come up with an ingenious solution, but many other chapters describe dismal failures—explosions, escaped rabbits, chicken shit that refuses to give up its valuable chemicals, to name a few—that remind us of the limits of human science.

While Levi describes his younger self’s attraction to chemistry as idealistic (if confused), the book’s seemingly disconnected chapters illustrate many different perspectives on this science. His initial attraction to chemistry, Levi says, came from a sense “That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves…” And later, in the “Chromium” chapter, he asks: “It is the spirit that dominates matter, is that not so? Was it not this that they had hammered into my head in the Fascist and Gentile liceo? I threw myself into the work with the same intensity that, at not so distant a period, we had attacked a rock wall; and the adversary was still the same, the not-I, the Button-Molder, the hyle: stupid matter, slothfully hostile as human stupidity is hostile, and like it strong because of its obtuse passivity.”

Levi himself points out the fascist undertones of this rhetoric of conquering and domination, which is perhaps softened by his equation of “conquering” with “understanding,” but the book raises the question of whether understanding can take place in a way that does not equate to such a violent metaphor. As his schooling progresses, he changes his position: “Matter was our ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to Fascism, was our enemy; but, having reached the fourth year of Pure Chemistry, I could no longer ignore the fact that chemistry itself, or at least that which we were being administered, did not answer my questions.” Levi criticizes the apparent alliance between the fascist and the scientific spirit, but also holds out hope that science may be thought of in other terms by noting that it is “that which we were being administered” that is harmful, not chemistry in itself. Indeed, Levi’s book presents the sciences as tentative, speculative pursuits, often quixotic in their aims, and alternately satisfying and disappointing.

In fact, one of the dominant threads that can be traced through this book is the idea that chemistry is fundamentally anti-fascist both in its humbling of the human spirit and in its illumination of the disproof the material world offers to fascist rhetoric. He notes that the sciences may be seen as an “antidote to Fascism… because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers”. Chemistry, above all, is not “fake news”; its results will always reveal truth at an elemental level, even if this truth is not the desired result.

But Levi values chemistry for reasons beyond its factuality; in an early passage describing his study of chemistry in fascist Italy, he suggests that the lesson we can learn from chemistry is that the natural world itself resists the simplistic, uniform ideals that fascism stands for: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed… Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.” Levi uses chemistry to form a positive metaphor for “impurity”; rather than the Nazi metaphors drawn from the field of biology that compared Jews to a virus or to vermin, he identifies his own otherness with the catalysts in a chemical reaction. In this metaphor, difference and diversity are needed in order to propel progress forward.

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Levi (foreground, right) during his study of chemistry at the university in Turin, 1940

From this point of view, then, perhaps it is most useful to see The Periodic Table as the place where Levi’s two careers collide, and produce something original. Levi describes his early, idealistic self as feeling that “Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed! That if one looked for the bridge, the missing link, between the world of words and the world of things, one did not have to look far: it was there in our Autenrieth [textbook], in our smoke-filled labs, and in our future trade.” Chemistry, like writing, Levi suggests, is the transformation of the material world into a communicable form, a means of making some kind of harmony or understanding out of the raw “world of things”. In The Periodic Table, Levi is both a chemist who writes, as in “Chromium,” and a writer who uses chemistry as a metaphor, as in “Argon,” or to examine minutely the nature of the world, as in “Carbon,” which ends the book on a point that quite literally fuses the fields of chemistry and writing.

Or, as in the case of “Vanadium,” the penultimate chapter, to explore the complex relationships between Levi’s lives as professional chemist and author, and between his present and his past. Levi’s professional activities bring him into contact with a Dr. Müller, whom he confirms that he met in Auschwitz. Levi assesses him with his characteristic clarity of vision: “Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.” Levi is reluctantly drawn into a personal correspondence while trying to resolve a professional problem, and the chapter suggests both the power and the limitations of writing as a means of making human connections and resolving the issues of the past. As with chemistry, so with human relations; imperfections and failed connections are an inherent part of the process.

Levi suggests towards the end of the book that “matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatever.” This is what much of the book, and especially the final chapter on “Carbon” seems to suggest; the power of the chemist, like that of the writer, is to transform things, change them from one state to another without ascribing to them a single stable value. This, perhaps, is the great skill exhibited by Levi in both his careers: the power to transform matter into meaning without the hubris of claiming to have ever spoken the final word.

2019 Mid-Year Review

Here we are, halfway through the year. It’s a quiet 4th of July here in Little Rock, hot and sticky as usual. I’m trying to get over a sinus infection and feeling beaten down by the news—arctic melting in the hottest June ever, children interned in camps across the US, xenophobia and inequality everywhere. I’m switching between three books–Grossman’s Stalingrad, Liberaki’s Three Summers, and Esther Freud’s Lucky Break–and reflecting on the reading year so far.

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I’ve read quite a bit—76 books so far: increased time being one compensation for my growing daughter’s growing tendency to eye-roll—and enjoyed most of them. (Do you ever worry you’re too easy to please? I do.) Inspired by other bloggers, I vowed this year to write monthly recaps of my reading. I’m surprised—and proud—that I’ve actually kept up with this. If you want to catch up with my reading, you can read these updates here:

January

February

March

April

May

June

The books that have stayed with me so far the most are:

Moss’s Ghost Wall (which I wrote about here), Vermette’s The Break, Despentes’s Vernon Subutex, DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand, and Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers.

The next tier includes Li’s Where Reasons End, Toews’s Women Talking, and all the Esther Freud. Favourite re-read: Roth’s The Radetzky March.

Most influential work stuff (Holocaust/fascism related): Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, Judith Kerr, Browning’s Ordinary Men, Dunmore’s The Siege, and Fishman’s The Book Smugglers.

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So here’s to more good reading in the second half of 2019, not as an escape from these enervating (when not terrifying) days, but as an aid to practicing the habits of attention and mindfulness that might help us survive them.

June 2019 in Review

Kid in day camp; working from home; weather more than tolerable for Little Rock summer: June was a pretty big reading month. Some work stuff, but a few other things too, including a satisfying run of Esther Freud novels.

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Dorothy Sayers, Have his Carcase (1932) The opening line kills, and I loved seeing the development of Wimsey and Vane’s relationship, but I do find Sayers a bit frivolous. That’s the point, I get it, I’m just starting to think I’m not the right reader for these books. All the code-breaking stuff went right over my head. I guess I am more for suspense than puzzles. Better as a romance than a crime novel. Rohan’s review is unimprovable.

Peter Gay, My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin (1998) I owe this recommendation to Alok (@alokranj): a while ago, he wrote up a great thread on memoirs by German historians. Very glad I read this, even if I did find it a bit oh I don’t know withholding maybe. Born Peter Fröhlich in Berlin to assimilated Jewish parents, Gay (the name he took after emigrating to America: frölich means happy or cheerful) went on to become a prominent historian of 19th Century Europe and, in particular, psychoanalysis. I like psychoanalysis much more than the average person, but I wished Gay’s interpretations of his own behaviour wasn’t quite so orthodox. He’s much less interesting than Freud himself (which makes me wonder about his biography of Freud, generally, I believe, considered his masterpiece). Anyway, Gay’s is a fascinating story, and his eventual escape from Germany is hair-raising (the family made it out very late, in 1939, first to Cuba and then to America, thanks to the support of a paternal uncle who lived in Florida). They were booked on the infamous St. Louis (the ship that was not allowed to dock in Havana, that FDR refused to give sanctuary to, and that had to return to Europe), but his father had something like a premonition and found a way to get on an earlier ship. Gay spends a lot of time combating the accusation that German Jews of his milieu should have known better and left earlier (a ridiculous contention, and one that’s largely abated, but hasn’t completely vanished). Anyway, I’m not sure I’m in love with Gay as he presents himself (a little pompous), but I’d have enjoyed this even if I hadn’t been reading it for work.

Esther Freud, Summer at Gaglow (1997) The UK edition is called simply Gaglow, a weirder, better title. Gaglow is a house in Germany  . The first of Freud’s novels with a dual narrative, Gaglow switches between two generations of a family, one around the time of WWI and the other in contemporary London. The protagonist in the present is having her first baby; ostensibly she’s an actress, but she’s not especially committed to it. To make ends meet she sits for her father, a famous painter clearly modelled on Freud’s own father, Lucian. (Freud sat for him in her younger days.) Gaglow is the Bellgards beloved summer home. Or it was: as they are Jewish it was eventually taken from them; in the post-unification present, the house may return to the family. Freud’s themes of belonging and transience are evident here, explored on her widest canvas yet. Very satisfying.

Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (2018) Clever and amusing, but not as clever and amusing as The Word is Murder.

Esther Freud, The Wild (2000) We’re back in Hideous Kinky/Peerless Flats territory, with more children caught between absent fathers and overwhelmed mothers, with the added interest of complicated blended family dynamics and an amusing portrait of a 1970s Steiner school, where the only subject seems to be Norse mythology. Freud’s up to her classic “this is funny but also you will have your heart in your mouth because surely something terrible is about to happen” shtick. (That’s a compliment.) I don’t think this was ever published in the US, and that’s a damn shame.

David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (2017) A study of the so-called Paper Brigade, a Jewish work commando tasked by the Nazis to sort through the precious manuscripts of Vilna, Lithuania, once known as “the Jerusalem of the North.” The Nazis wanted material for their planned museum of murdered Jewry; they pulped the rest. At great personal risk, members of the Brigade smuggled documents into hiding in the hopes they would survive the war; surprisingly, some did. One of the remarkable people conscripted into this heartbreaking work was Avrom Sutzkever, probably the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th Century. Although Fishman’s style sometimes grates, the material is fascinating, and gave me some ideas about the comparison of people to written documents that I’ll try to work out in a future post.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (2014) Trans. Thomas Bunstead (2019) What a pleasant surprise! I’ve wanted for some time to become better versed in the recent tidal wave of Spanish-language writing, especially from Central and South America, but haven’t really known where to start. I’ve no idea what Spanish-language literary traditions Gainza fits into, if any (she reminded me of Sebald/Berger/Bernard—autofiction-y writers who are smart about art), but I was completely taken with these quasi essayistic quasi fictional pieces, each of which centers on a painting or sculpture that the Gainza never shows us. A triumph of ekphrasis, then. (And there’s always Google.)

Smart, witty, engaging:

“Not for nothing did it say on my seventh grade report: ‘When she applies herself, she excels. Only she hardly ever applies herself.’”

“It is my view that any artist too dependent on either seeking or presenting new and astonishing experiences will cease to be effective once he or she succeeds in, as it were, apportioning that sense of discovery.”

“I listened in as the adults held forth. It was like the soothing sound of rain on windows, my favorite lullaby, reassuring confirmation that the world was still going on even as I turned away from it.”

“Anytime I believe I recognize a fellow renegade, something in me instinctively draws back.”

“I have also realized that being good with quotations means avoiding having to think for yourself.”

Translator Bunstead seems to have done a marvelous job. Highly recommended.

C. R. Lorac, Murder by Matchlight (1945) There are always several of these reissued British Crime Classics on the New Books shelves of my local library. I’ve read a few, but abandoned more. Turns out I’m more drawn to the covers than the content. A Blitz mystery ought to be up my street, but this didn’t engage me.

Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey (1998) Loved it. You can read more here.

Isabella Leitner, Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz (1978) That’s me, reading all the Holocaust memoirs so you don’t have to.

Reminds me in some ways of Night. Both are constructed in short fragments, emphasize the Death March, and focus on importance of family. Leitner and Wiesel both lived in the Hungarian countryside, and were deported about the same time (early 1944). Their tone is similar, too, and frankly it drives me nuts: portentous sacralizing. Like all survivor stories, Leitner’s is remarkable: she was able to stay with three of her sisters in Auschwitz, later a work camp called Birnbaumel (where they dug anti-tank traps against the coming Russian invasion), and finally on a death march to Bergen-Belsen, where one of the four sisters got separated from the others. Like Wiesel in Night, Leitner offers no context: works like these are responsible for the common understanding of the Holocaust as a terrible thing characterized by cattle cars, barbed wire, gas chambers, and the triumph of the human spirit. The most interesting aspects of her experience go unspoken—for example, Leitner’s father had left the family behind to go to America early in the war; after the war they were reunited. What was that like?

The afterword is the most interesting part of the book. It’s written by Irving Leitner, her husband, not because it is better written (though it’s more ordinarily competent, he having been a professional writer) but because of an anecdote about a visit to Paris in 1960 where the Leitners and their two teenage children are surrounded by tables of German tourists, retirees old enough to have participated in the war. Leitner has a panic attack: she writes the names of various camps on a piece of paper, intending to give it to them; later, her husband slips back into the café and delivers it to the table in the guise of the check. Lots of things going on there: panic, rage, revenge, none of which we see in the memoir itself.

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (2018) Competent, compelling. But not “inside baseball” enough for me. My thoughts here.

Esther Freud, The Sea House (2003) Something of a companion to Gaglow, in that it’s also set in the present (2000: cell phones are still clunky and annoying and largely useless outside London—I miss those days) and the past (1953). Once again, Freud mines her remarkable family history: one of the characters, Klaus Lehmann, is an émigré architect closely modelled on her grandfather Ernst Freud (Sigmund’s fourth child). Lehmann appears mostly through the letters he wrote his wife during their various periods of separation in the 1930s. He is paired in the novel by a similarly absent Nick, an architect in the present, and the sometime boyfriend of Lilly Brennan. Lily has come to a village on the Suffolk coast to work on her dissertation on Lehmann in the town where he summered. Got all that? While she learns something about Lehmann, we learn more, because the “past” half of the novel is centered on Max Meyer, an émigré painter who mourns both his lost family home in Germany and his sister, who escaped the Nazis with him but who has just died after a long illness. (In this way, the novel is also an investigation on the difference between history and fiction.) Max is invited to Suffolk by a friend of the family, an analyst in the mode of Melanie Klein, who has plans to help the man work through his traumas, but whom he largely avoids in favour of an affair with Lehmann’s wife.

Probably the most plotty of Freud’s novels, but like the others its real power comes from its investigation of domestic space. Do homes center us or do they imprison us? Do we in the end prefer to mourn their passing? Can we appreciate the natural world if we don’t have a home to return to? Totally engrossing.

Esther Freud, Love Falls (2007) It’s the summer of 1982. As England prepares for Charles and Diana’s wedding, Lara is invited by her father—a figure straight from an Anita Brookner novel: European, Jewish, displaced, intellectual, vague, a bit ruthless—to holiday in Italy, specifically to visit an old friend of his who, it turns out, is dying. (The father, an historian, is apparently modelled on Lucien Freud.) Lara gets taken up by a louche expat set, falls in love, grows up a little, and is terribly hurt. (There’s a shocking scene that resonates even more today—at least for me, clueless cis male reader—than it would have ten years ago.) Probably the weakest of the Freuds I’ve read (a long set piece on the Palio involves some unusually clunky exposition), but it’s still pretty great. The title is the name of a dangerous waterfall and a description of what happens to all of us. Worth reading.

Judith Kerr, The Other Way Round (1975) The second of Kerr’s autobiographical trilogy. (I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit last month.) Her stand-in Anna is 15 and living in London during the Phony War and then the Blitz. She’s desperate to help her family stay afloat and to gain some independence, and enrolls in a secretarial college, which leads to a suitably eccentric job in an organization that collects donated fabric to be made into new uniforms and, more somberly, donates the clothes of soldiers who have died to other young men. Anna begins to separate herself from her family, plunging with joy into night classes in painting and a love affair. But what does this ordinary teenage distance mean for an refugee family whose motto has been something like “Home is wherever we are when we’re together”?

Judith Kerr, A Small Person Far Away (1978) In the final volume of Kerr’s trilogy, we jump ahead to 1956. Anna is married to a coming screenwriter and starting herself to become a writer. But her efforts in this regard are interrupted by a phone call from Germany. Her mother’s lover, an official with a Jewish relief agency in Berlin, tells her that she has attempted suicide. Anna flies to her mother’s bedside—for most of the short novel she is in a coma—and grapples with her guilt over her own reluctance to be there, her mother’s long shadow over her life, the uneven responsibilities assigned to her and her brother, and, in addition to everything else, her mixed feelings about being back in Berlin, where things are at once familiar and unfamiliar, and it doesn’t take long for officially repressed anti-Semitism to reappear.

One reason the last two parts of the trilogy have fallen out of print, I suspect, is that they aren’t quite children’s books (without being anything like what we know as YA). But with the benefit of hindsight we can read the novel as a contribution to the burgeoning phenomenon at that time (70s/80s) of second-generation stories. A Small Person Far Away isn’t the same as, say, Maus, because Anna’s mother hasn’t experienced the Holocaust directly. But she is still traumatized by her wartime experiences as a refugee, and Anna, like Art Spiegelman, has to cope with the fallout. I probably should write an essay about this. Reprint these books dammit!

Cressida Connolly, After the Party (2018) Did you know many followers of Oswald Mosley (the leader of the British Union of Fascists) were held without charge in 1940 and eventually interned on the Isle of Man for much of the war? I didn’t, and one of the tricks of Connolly’s novel is the make us feel sympathy, almost outrage, at this suspension of habeas corpus and the rule of law. It helps, as it were, that her protagonist is a seemingly apolitical family woman who gets pulled into the Union through her sisters. (The family isn’t quite modelled on the Mitfords, but it’s that social set.) I enjoyed After the Party about as much as I found it distasteful. I think Connolly’s going for the Ishiguro Special: a protagonist whose cluelessness we are meant to read against, and find sinister in a way they cannot. But unlike his books, this one is (mostly) in third person. Which left me unsure if it’s Phyllis who misreads her own life, or whether it’s Connolly. I honestly couldn’t tell how much distance Connolly wants us to take from her protagonist. If anyone’s read it and has any ideas, do share.

So that was June. Esther Freud is great. Judith Kerr is great. But the book that won my heart this month was Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers. I’ve got two weeks until the big annual Canada vacation. Before then I’m going to try to read this. My only vacation reading plans are to avoid everything Holocaust for a few weeks…

 

 

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (II)

In my first post on teaching Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, I discussed the conclusions I help students come to in regards to what I take to be the two most important chapters in the book. In this post I’ll list some of the other aspects I address. I never get to all of this material; there just isn’t enough time. Take this then as a menu of options, from which I choose based on our conversations:

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1. Levi’s aims—reading the preface:

Survival in Auschwitz begins with a short author’s preface. It’s easy to skip, but you shouldn’t. It tells us interesting things about what Levi thinks he is up to in his book. The first phrase—“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944” and the last sentence—“It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented”—offer good opportunities to think about tone and rhetoric (the irony of the opening, the preterition of the closing). More than that though I want students to think about Levi’s aims. As the final line suggests, Levi is at least in part motivated by the impulse to document. The things he will relate really happened. Levi was often asked whether the Holocaust could happen again. His response: it happened once, thus it can happen again.

But Levi isn’t only a documentarian. Yes, he wrote the book, he explains, not to accuse but rather “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” Yet in the very next paragraph, Levi apologizes for “the structural defects of the book,” which date to his time in the camp, where the need not just to tell his story to others but to make them participate in it had already taken on “the character of an immediate and violent impulse.” On one hand, Survival is sober and reasoned (that quiet study of the mind: Levi refers to syllogisms and logic); on the other, it’s an emotional outpouring. This isn’t some kind of failure on Levi’s part; it’s typical of the fractured quality of so much Holocaust literature. These texts struggle with its very textuality. Every text has some kind of shape or form. But what happens when the subject matter of that form is destruction, terror, violence, in a word, formlessness? Each work of Holocaust literature answers this question in a different way, but, I tell my students, it’s one we’ll come back to again and again.

2. Author as character:

I’ll often start our second session, by which time students have read most of the book, by asking these questions: Who is Primo Levi? How does he present himself? What do we learn about him from his memoir?

He’s Italian. He’s Jewish. What does Jewishness mean to him? He doesn’t seem to be very Jewish. How can you tell? He’s not religious. (This is a useful place for a mini-lecture on Jewishness as both religion and culture: my students, almost none of whom are Jewish, often have many questions.) How does he end up at Auschwitz? That is, what brings on his deportation? He’s arrested. For what? For fighting as a partisan. (Mini-lecture on the partisans, and the situation in Italy before and during the war, especially 1943-44.) Right, he’s arrested as an anti-fascist. And when he is arrested, he prefers to admit, as he puts it, his “status of ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race,’” believing, wrongly as it turns out, that it would be more dangerous to confess to being a partisan. To me this suggests that he thinks of his Jewishness as a kind of bargaining chip: not that he doesn’t care about it, but that it isn’t central to his sense of self.

What else do we know? How old is he? 24. Why is that important? He tells us that he was neither too old nor too young—adducing as an example of the latter a teenage prisoner known simply as Null Achtzehn (Zero Eighteen, the last digits of his tattooed number). No one likes to work with Null Achtzehn because he has no sense of proportion. He doesn’t husband his strength. He works flat out until he collapses, invariably bringing trouble on whomever happens to be his partner that day. (Their job in this particular anecdote is moving “sleepers,” railway ties frozen into the Silesian mud.)

What about Levi’s background? Can we tell anything about who he’s been before deportation? I’ll often have us look at a passage where Levi mentions how, for days after his arrival at Auschwitz, he would reflexively look at his wrist, and find, instead of a watch, a tattoo. What does this anecdote suggest? Dehumanization, of course—his name has been taken away (along with his clothes, his hair, his belongings, his dignity), he has been entered into a vast bureaucracy. (Which requires us to complicate the consoling idea that the Nazis are monsters, irrational, barbarians, etc. They are efficient, methodical, all-too-human.) All true. But what else? What kind of person looks at their watch? (Tricky question, getting more abstruse every year, as watches fade from memory.) Students will offer hesitant replies. An anxious person? A punctual person? A detailed-oriented person? (Levi was all of these things.) How about, I say, a person who understands time in a certain way: a person who doesn’t work in the fields. Levi is bourgeois, a middle class professional. The Italian Jews—secular, assimilated—are known throughout the camp for being professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.). What do other prisoners think of them? They laugh at them, think of them as useless, hopeless. Right. Levi notes they can’t do anything practical, they are not long for this world.

What is Levi’s own training? He is a scientist, a chemist. Why is that important? It saves his life: he is transferred to a work detail, a chemical unit, which gets slightly better rations and, just as importantly, works inside, out of the worst of the cold. Some students will suggest that we can see Levi’s scientific background in his style. I am always a little resistant to this idea, which always seems to me based on a crude idea of science, but they adduce his matter-of-factness, almost brusqueness, the absence of showy stylistic flourishes. I admit they have a point, especially when we think of how thoroughly Lei effaces himself in the text, and, more generally, how much he downplays agency, that is, willpower.

But I want us to get back to the matter of Levi’s style as a function of his background. Does Levi only know about science? Does he have other knowledge that appears in his writing? Those questions don’t always go anywhere right away. So I’ll point to the passage about the guard on the truck taking the “lucky” prisoners from the ramp to the labour camp at Monowitz: Levi calls him “our Charon.” We discuss who Charon is, and briefly consider the implied comparison of Auschwitz to the underworld. My point, though, is that this is a classical allusion, an example of Levi’s humanist education, which we will consider in detail when reading the Canto of Ulysses chapter. Levi is as much a humanist as a scientist. He is well-rounded, a real liberal arts guy. Levi is interested in everything pertaining to the human.

3. Levi’s style:

An exercise that always gets good results is to ask students to find a passage they consider representative of Levi’s style and to free write why. I’ll choose a few students to share their examples, selecting students who’ve been quiet so far. (This is usually in the second week of the semester.) I always have my own example in reserve. Depending on how much time we have, we sometimes work through it. (Sometimes students even select it: always a happy occasion.) Levi is describing the arrival of his transport at Auschwitz:

The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit by reflectors. A little beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train. In a moment the platform was swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper.

A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment, they moved among us, and in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian. They did not interrogate everybody, only a few: “How old? Healthy or ill?” And on the basis of that reply they pointed in two different directions. […]

In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich; we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.

Here is Levi’s version of a scene central to so many Holocaust memoirs—the scene of arrival at the camp, with its sudden shift from limbo to hell. One of the most surprising things about Levi’s depiction is how calm, almost silent is a scene that other writers describe as a cacophonous tumult. After the opening crash of the transport doors and the barked orders, there is only silence. This is matched by the casualness, even indifference of the SS, their legs akimbo. There is no sadism here. And the scene is the more terrible for its absence. (Though Levi will certainly experience that later, not least in a famous scene when, tormented by thirst, he has tried to grab an icicle from a window only to have it snatched away. Why? he asks. The guard responds, chillingly: Here there is no why.)

The unexpected calmness is further conveyed by Levi’s unadorned, modest prose. In this passage (as elsewhere), he is chary with metaphor. The SS men have faces of stone, the night swallows up those sent to the gas chambers, but those are the only examples. The description in the first paragraph of the ramp swarming with shadows is probably literal, given the glare of the lights.

I suggest the scene is more report than narrative. Notice Levi’s pronouns. He doesn’t use I at all here, and quite seldom in the text, which is surprising since he’s writing a memoir. That effacement of the self by the group reflects Levi’s wish to consider the event in its larger significance. It’s not just about him. Sometimes students want to take is use of “we” as a gesture of solidarity, which is a fine thought, though neither here nor elsewhere is that a real possibility. Besides, the “we” doesn’t, in fact, just refer to the deportees. In the excerpt’s last sentence, it expands to refer maybe not to everyone but to all who have studied these events. And Levi makes it clear that each of us must take up the task.

Perhaps for this reason—his desire to record the truth about an experience the significance of which extends beyond himself—Levi often writes in the kind of judging, assessing, almost omniscient style we might find in Balzac, or, more pertinently, Manzoni. Look at the end of the first sentence: orders are uttered in “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” The orders aren’t just barked; they are barked the way Germans bark them, expressing a thousand-year-old rage. (Maybe there is a buried reference to the thousand-year Reich here, too.)

What most concerns Levi in this passage is the speed with which human beings can be turned into what the philosopher Martin Heidegger, himself seduced by Nazism, called “standing reserve”: an inability to see anyone or anything in anything except for their use value. Levi and his fellows are so many kilojoules, units of work to be extracted before their bodies are discarded as useless husks.

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Arrival records from Auschwitz. Levi’s name is seventh from the top.

4. Kraus, or, Friendship in Auschwitz:

I often devote time to short chapter called “Kraus.” Unusually, Levi is at the center of the action. Kraus is one of the thousands of Hungarians who flood Auschwitz and its sub-camps in the summer of 1944. By now it is November and it is raining. The veterans, like Levi, who counts as one after having survived nine months, fear the onset of winter. Kraus, though, is still a newbie. Kraus can’t march in step and he risks bringing the Kapo’s ire on the rest of the work detail. For some reason, which he cannot or will not explain, Levi suddenly addresses the man in pidgin German. He tells Kraus he dreamt about him. In the dream, the war was over and Kraus visited Levi in Italy, bringing a warm loaf of bread with him. Levi puts him up for the night, introduces him to his family, they share good fellowship.

Then comes this:

What a good boy Kraus must have been as a civilian: he will not survive very long here, one can see it at the first glance, it is as logical as a theorem. … Poor silly Kraus. If only he knew that it is not true, that I have really dreamt nothing about him, that he is nothing to me except for a brief moment, nothing like everything is nothing down here, except the hunger inside and the cold and the rain around.

Why, I’ll ask the class, does Levi include this moment? He wants to show a full picture of himself, that he’s not just good. What, is he bad? Well, no, not bad. The situation is bad. So that’s what he wants to show? The whole book is about that. Why this moment? Discussion ensues. He’s mean to Kraus, someone will say. Yeah, the way all the veterans are mean to the new arrivals, retorts another. I don’t know if he’s mean, he’s trying to encourage Kraus. But he doesn’t mean it, it’s just a trick, cynical even. I’ll jump in: so is this like “bless your heart”? I always ask this question, because I can’t help playing to the gallery and it always gets a laugh. (I lived in the South for several years before I realized just how double-edged this expression is, which mostly means something like “What an idiot,” but can sometimes mean “Poor you.”) Then I’ll add: has Levi become like the prisoners he condemned in an earlier chapter, people who’ll use anyone in any way to aid their own survival? Depending on time, I’ll juxtapose this scene to Levi’s descriptions of two people who were really like friends, as much as possible in that place, anyway. Alberto was another Jewish deportee from northern Italy; Leonardo a civilian worker sent from Italy to support the war effort. As a non-Jew, he lived in a different kind of camp, had access to food parcels, and received a much greater ration. The two encountered each other by chance one day and realized they were both Piedmontese. For six months Leonardo left a pint of soup each day for Levi.

By comparing these descriptions of friendship to the example of Kraus we can think further about whether solidarity is a meaningful concept in the world of the camp. Since everything in the book goes back to the concept of the human, we can think about how solidarity might preserve humanity.

5 “The Story of the Last Ten Days”: The end of Survival in Auschwitz:

Why does the book end as it does? Why is the last chapter presented as a diary, unlike anything else in the book? (Even though it is clear that the diary is fake—that is, written retrospectively. Interestingly, Levi wrote this chapter first.) Why does it end so abruptly? The last entry concludes by stating the fate of two Frenchmen with whom Levi formed a trio dedicated to helping each other in the newly-liberated camp: “Arthur has reached his family happily and Charles has taken up his teacher’s profession again; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.”

The students and I note that liberation is presented neither as a triumph nor an invitation to resume life. The abrupt ending suggests that something has ended, but nothing has yet replaced it. (Levi would write another book about the many months it took him to return home.) The only hint that humanity will be a part of whatever that new state turns out to be is the fact that Levi’s last lines reference communication and connection. The last chapter describes the stages by which the prisoners slowly inch towards becoming human again, the best evidence of which is their willingness to help each other.

As part of the process of reawakening, the dated “entries” reintroduce ordinary time to the text. Which is where the book begins: the first line is “I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943.” But that’s one of the last references to time. Survival in Auschwitz is organized thematically, not chronologically. This decision is a function of Levi’s interest in structure, in analysis, in the big picture. As we’ve already noted, he isn’t just telling his own story. But it is also a function of the way time changes in the camp. The days are all the same, only the weather is a little better or a little worse. The linearity we attach so much importance to in thinking about our lives is gone. There is no beginning, middle, and end. The final chapter, then, is important as a marker of change. Liberation returns Levi to time.

That’s hardly everything there is to say about this important book. But we return to Levi throughout the semester. He becomes our touchstone, not so much the arbiter of how to think about the camps, but the one most interested in documenting it as scrupulously as possible. Levi sometimes bridled at the term “witness.” In the book’s first reviews—basically uninterested: the book was not initially a success—Levi is often called a witness, a term explicitly contrasted to writer. As if Levi were merely transcribing, rather than also shaping experience. But Levi came more and more to embrace the term. As he wrote to Jean Samuel, immortalized in the book as the Pikolo in “The Canto of Ulysses,” who remained a close friend after the war: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.” Studying Survival in Auschwitz is one of the first ways my students learn what it might mean to bear that weight.

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (I)

This month I’m reading and writing about Primo Levi. Here’s the first of two posts on my experience teaching his most famous work.

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Along with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the only book to have remained constant on my Holocaust Literature syllabus is Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. It sounds grandiose, but Levi’s memoir is one the most important books in my life. It drew me to the field of Holocaust literature in the first place, but it would be a desert island book for me even if I didn’t do what I do for a living. One of the key testimonies of the 20th century, it is the book I recommend when people ask me what they should read to learn about the Holocaust.

I’ve taught the book often enough (12-15 times, I’d say) that I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a sense of how I teach it, usually over three 50-minute class periods. Not enough time, but what can you do, there’s so much other material to get to, plus I typically spend two more days on two important essays by Levi, which gives me some extra time to squeeze in a few more bits of the memoir. By the way, the book I am calling Survival in Auschwitz is really called If This is a Man. (Readers in the UK know it under that title.) Unfortunately, for all the predictable reasons (sales, expectations of what American readers want from a text, etc), Levi’s US publishers changed the title. It’s one of the great publishing travesties, but since that’s what it’s come to be known in the US, that’s the title I use in class. Plus we can have a useful conversation about the differences implied by the titles.

What follows is likely more useful for those who have read the book. If you haven’t, I hope you will. It’s not long, and it’s really powerful.

Over the years I’ve varied my teaching approach, partly to keep things fresh and partly because my ideas about the book have changed. (Not fundamentally, but the more time you spend with a book the more clearly you see how its parts fit together.) But despite those refinements, I’ve always spent a lot of time on two chapters. They are central to Levi’s project, and they’re what I’ll talk about in this post, adding a second one about some of the other topics I like to get to.

The first of the two chapters is called “The Drowned and the Saved,” which is Levi’s way of distinguishing between two types of prisoners. For whatever reason, the alpine Levi, born and raised in Turin, always used water metaphors to conceptualize the fate of the Nazis’ victims. He uses the terms sinking and touching bottom when speaking of death in the camps. He gives the name “the drowned” to those who are not dead yet, but will be soon. Even if physiologically alive they are mentally and spiritually dead. They are barely human. In the argot of Auschwitz, the drowned are Musselmänner, Muslims. (The term in no way refers to actual Muslims; scholars still don’t know where the term came from, though some speculate it is connected to the concept of submission that is one of the pillars of Islam. But this would be a terrible distortion of what Muslims mean by that term.) No prisoner could live much more than three months on the rations they were given without succumbing, without drowning. Only those who could find a way to cheat the system, to gain some small privilege that will result in an extra half slice of bread, an extra ration of soup had a chance of surviving.

When he talks about “the saved,” Levi does not mean the elect. The saved are not better than the drowned. In fact, in an essay written much later, Levi argued they were in fact worse, because they had to have compromised their morals in some way. He does not exempt himself from this charge. (Students struggle with this. They really want Levi to be saying that the saved are morally superior: in this way, they reflect our culture’s poor understanding of Darwin, who was describing not prescribing when he spoke of the survival of the fittest.)

We spend a long time on Levi’s distinction, not least because it preoccupied Levi his whole life. I want students to figure out Levi’s attitude to the drowned. To that end, I ask them to close read this sentence:

All the musselmanns who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea.

I’ll begin by asking, What are the implications of this metaphor? If that doesn’t generate anything useful, I’ll break it down. Why do streams go to the sea? Gravity, someone will say. That’s just the way it is, says another. It’s the nature of the universe. It’s natural. What, then, is the implication of these answers for our understanding of the drowned? Is it in their nature to drown? Is Levi describing something like fate? Is the universe just made for them to succumb? If so, what about Levi’s many claims that chance was the main determination of who survived? Is Levi judging the drowned?

Later passages make it clear that he is not. Take this resonant, stern assertion:

If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

What he judges is the universe in which it is natural for the drowned to sink to the bottom, which is to say, the universe of the camps. That last sentence is further evidence of a tendency we will by this point in our conversation already have talked about, namely, how highly Levi values thought and reason. To be able to reason is to be human. But to reason in the camps is painful—it reminds the prisoner of all he has lost. That is the ambivalence of the camp infirmary: it spares prisoners from the back-breaking labour for a time (assuming they recover), but it gives them the opportunity to reflect on what has happened to them.

An even more complex consideration of the double-edged quality of reason lies at the heart of the book’s most magisterial chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses,” the second I emphasize. (In recently learned from Ian Thomson’s biography of Levi that he wrote it in a single 30-minute lunch break at his first job after returning home to Turin.) Here Levi submits reason to the most intense and consequential scrutiny.

“The Canto of Ulysses” concerns Levi’s relationship with his work kommando’s Pikolo, a young man named Jean. A Pikolo (also known as a Pipel) was a kind of messenger boy/mascot selected by the Kapo or head of the commando. (Kapos were themselves prisoners, but almost always criminals or sometimes political prisoners.) A Pikolo was typically a teenage boy, who was often used sexually by the Kapo; either way, he had a higher status than ordinary prisoners and received certain privileges. Jean’s full name was Jean Samuel: after the war, he and Levi maintained a decades-long friendship. Jean, an Alsatian, speaks French and German equally well. Mindful of the importance of languages in the camps, he asks Levi, on a day when he has selected the older man to accompany him from the work site to the kitchen to fetch the day’s cauldron of soup, to teach him some Italian. The chapter describes what counts as an idyll in Auschwitz. The task takes about an hour, in which the two men are free from hard labour and the threat of punishment.

Levi makes the unusual decision—which Samuel later said bemused him at the time—of granting Jean his wish by reciting for him a canto from Dante’s Inferno. He readily admits he does so more for himself than for Jean: being able to turn his mind to the foundational text of Italian literature imbues him with new life. But the canto Levi chooses—in class I pass out a copy of the relevant section, as only some lines are quoted in the chapter, and in the process offer a quick summary of Dante’s aims and achievement in the Divine Comedy—is surprising.

In the poem, Dante is surprised to find Ulysses in Hell (as opposed to in Limbo with other virtuous pagans). What, he wonders, has Ulysses done to deserve this fate? Ulysses answers by telling the story of how, having escaped the enchantments of Circe, he goaded his men into sailing across the Mediterranean, through the straits of Gibraltar and past the edge of the known world. He trespassed the boundaries of human accomplishment—and was punished for that audacity. Levi makes a clear parallel between the expedition he and Jean are making and Ulysses’s own, which the wily Ithacan launched in a rousing speech: you are men, and thus made for wisdom, he tells the sailors, mere beasts of burden. The canto matters to Levi because the story it tells “has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulder.”

They are not the oxen they appear to be. In using the phrase “dare to reason,” Levi echoes the Latin sapere aude, dare to know, the credo of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Even this early in the semester, students hunger for a positive moment. They welcome the message that humanity can’t so easily be destroyed.

To complicate this wishful thinking, I assign an activity in which half the students make connections between the excerpt from Dante and Levi’s chapter, and other half close the chapter’s final paragraph in order to figure out how it’s related to what’s come before. In pushing them past the obvious comparisons between the rousing Ulysses and the valiant camp inmates, I focus on how Ulysses gets his men to do what he wants. (They are rightly reluctant.) The poem says that his speech about how knowing is central to being human is an example of zeal. We consider the ambivalence of this word, which can be used as much to condemn as to praise. Zeal is almost always too much. It’s irrational (think of the way we use “zealot”). What I want students to see how reason is compromised by the very intensity with which it’s upheld. Ulysses is irrational in his praise of reason. Think about our own culture’s unreasoning and often unreasonable belief in the importance of science and technology, of progress, of improvement. It’s not that these are fictions. It’s that they are hollowed out when they are fetishized. This contradiction is important, because too often the Holocaust is taken to be an aberration from Western culture, when it is, if not its logical conclusion, completely in keeping with the way the West has thought about the world.

That’s why the chapter’s final paragraph, which is set off from what’s come before by a break, is so important. Levi and the Pikolo have reached the kitchen before their language lesson can be completed. Their idyll is over; the reality of camp life returns:

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. ’Kraut und Rüben? Kraut und Rüben.’ The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: ’Choux et navets. Kaposzta és répak.’

‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’

The last line is Ulysses’s description of his expedition’s fate. This language resonates with the references to sinking and drowning I mentioned earlier. Levi’s language (“sordid, ragged”), his description of the crowd that swallows the two men, putting paid to their conversation about Dante, and his use of foreign languages to talk not about poetry but about food combine to return is to reality. What matters is what’s in the soup today. But what about that final line from Dante. Should we read it as a final irony, a dismissal of what Levi and Jean have achieved? Or as an insistence, however faint, that poetry (and human accomplishment more generally) can persist? What does it mean to describe the press of starving men in the language of Dante? Does it elevate the scene? Does it denigrate Dante? Does the scene even need elevation?

Our difficulty in answering these questions—a result of the text’s complexity, nuance, and appreciation of paradox—challenges any consoling beliefs about the human spirit.

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Next time, notes on some of the other questions I ask in teaching Survival in Auschwitz.

“Without Families You Don’t Get Stories”: Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl

In The Cut Out Girl (2018), the Dutch-born English academic Bart van Es investigates his family’s past. At its heart is Lien de Jong, who in August 1942 was given into the safekeeping of van Es’s grandparents by her desperate Jewish parents.

Van Es’s title refers to a paper silhouette that Lien pastes into an album that surprisingly survived the war. Such albums were common in Holland (the famous diary Anne Frank received for her 12th birthday, less than two months before Lien joined her new family, was probably an album of this sort). Friends, family, and neighbours would fill the pages with well-wishes, typically phrased as achingly sententious poetry.

But the title also refers to Lien herself, who is sliced away from life as she has known it—and then, many years later, cut out again, this time by her adopted family. Van Es’s detective work is prompted by the confusion and resentment, the whole no-go zone that surrounds Lien’s place in his family. Is Lien his aunt or not? What happened between her and his grandmother? Most families suffer from blights of this kind: some fight or hurt the causes of which no one is even sure any more but the effects of which persist through the generations. In this case, though, that ordinary event is complicated by war, displacement, and trauma.

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In their first meeting, Lien tells van Es, “Without families you don’t get stories.” For Lien, stories are important because they ensure continuity. They let you make sense of yourself by connecting you to those around you. Van Es would agree, but for him the act of telling is as important as the substance of what’s told. After all, the word Lien uses is stories not story: stories compete with but also complete each other. The plural implies richness, motivation, complexity.

Midway through his researches, van Es is shown a book called Bennekom: Jewish Refuge, detailing the fates of the 166 Jews who were hidden in the town, more than 80% of whom survived. (This is particularly remarkable, since the death rate for Jews in Holland was the exact opposite of Bennekom’s—80% were murdered, higher than anywhere else in Western Europe.) With trembling fingers, van Es finds the entry for Lien:

At Algemeer 33 with Gijs van Laar there was a Jewish girl, Lientje [a diminutive of Lien], in hiding. Lientje belonged to the family and was a total part of it. She attended the Reformed School. She survived the war.

The Cut Out Girl is an attempt to replace this brusque—and, we learn, misleading—narrative with a fuller picture; to take this quasi-official story and to show what it doesn’t or cannot tell; to expose what is self-serving or misguided in it. For van Es also recognizes that stories can blind us. They can confer a false sense of mastery. Which is why he aims to be as self-aware as possible in reconstructing Lien’s story.

That story begins in 1933 in The Hague, when Lien is born to Charles de Jong and Catharine de Jong-Spiero. In the handful of surviving photos, Lien’s parents are attractive, sporty, carefree. That can’t have been the whole story: there was some sort of trouble between her parents when Lien was very small, and she was sent to live with relatives for a year. But her parents reconcile, and Lien grows up an ordinary child living an ordinary life, even after Germany invades Holland in May 1940. But by the next year life is more difficult for Dutch Jews, even ones like the de Jongs who do not identify as such. By 1942, deportation notices are widespread. Lien’s parents look for a way to send her into hiding; in August they entrust her to a resistance organization headed by a couple named Heroma (who seem absolutely heroic and deserve a book of their own). Mrs. Heroma brings Lien to the van Es home in Dordrecht, and later ferries her to the many safe houses she passes through.

Despite some initial difficulties—Lien has always been a finicky eater and her new family has no patience for that sort of thing; she has never slept in a room with other people; her upbringing has been more sheltered and more emotional than the world she now enters—Lien fits in well with the family, who have children close to her age. At first she calls Jans and Henk van Es Auntie and Uncle; later it will be Ma and Pa. Van Es includes heartbreaking letters smuggled from Lien’s parents to their daughter congratulating her on her ninth birthday. By the time she receives them, both have been deported to Auschwitz. Neither survive.

Lien does, though it is a near thing. One day in early 1943 two policemen arrive at the house, looking for Jews. (Holland was the only country to offer cash rewards to those who turned in Jews.) Lien narrowly escapes: Auntie sends her to a neighbour where she cowers in the unused sitting room). Thus begins the most difficult phase of her time in hiding. She is moved from one safe house to another, often staying only a day or two in any one place. Eventually, she is placed with a family in Bennekom. The van Laars are pious and self-righteous. Yes, they have taken a risk by accepting Lien into their home, but they also treat her as a servant. Lien spends the rest of the war with the van Laars. By this time, events have taken a toll on her. She loses a clear sense of who she is: her life was on low heat, she tells van Es. She lived in a dreamworld, she sometimes felt herself flying over her surroundings. She regresses, wetting her bed, losing weight. She becomes numb, disassociated, feelings that only intensify when Gijs van Laar’s charismatic but violent brother, a man she has also learned to call Uncle, sexually abuses her. The van Laars turn a blind eye—it is understood that Lien and her Uncle have a special friendship. What this means is that the man takes her into the forest and rapes her.

Lien is desperate to escape. When the war ends, Mrs. Heroma asks her what she wants to do. She wants only to return to the van Esses. At first they refuse. It is a great blow. In the time Lien has been away they have had another child; Henk is increasingly involved in socialist politics and the postwar reconstruction effort; bringing Lien back into the house would just be too much. But Mrs. Heroma senses it is a matter of life and death, and eventually the family relents.

A happy ending? Not quite. Lien is happy, she becomes one of the family again, even more so than before. But she never fully fits in. There’s an unhappy incident when the van Esses basically browbeat her into not applying for the gymnasium, the academic high school: the practical school was always good enough for them. But Lien finds her way. She trains to be a social worker, specializing in troubled children. Unsurprisingly, she is perfectly suited to the work. One day, in 1953, she is at home for a few days from school and falls ill. Dozing on the sofa, she is awakened by Pa kissing and stroking her. It is yet another terrible hurt, but, amazingly, this incident, which Lien keeps to herself, doesn’t separate her from the van Esses. That happens later, around 1980, after Lien has married and had children and gotten divorced. The ostensible reason for the falling out is banal, but presumably it’s just a stand-in for the sense both Lien and Ma have long felt that she never quite fit with them. Ma writes Lien an icy letter: she doesn’t want to see her again. Lien becomes part of murky family lore: thirty years pass until Bart van Es reaches out to her.

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I certainly enjoyed The Cut Out Girl, reading it in a single day, drawn into the mystery van Es sets out to solve. But I wasn’t only reading for the plot. I had another agenda, another question in mind. Would I teach this book? On the face of it, The Cut Out Girl fits perfectly with the concerns of a course I teach called Literature after Auschwitz, which explores “postmemory,” Marianne Hirsch’s influential term for the experience of those who did not live through the Holocaust but whose lives have nonetheless been strongly shaped, often disfigured, by what those close to them (usually their parents) did experience.

Van Es’s memoir would usefully add a third-generation perspective to the class, plus one that isn’t Jewish. My interest in it as a teaching tool lies elsewhere, though. Ever since Helen Epstein first wrote about the children of survivors in the 1970s, the language of generations has dominated scholarship on the after-effects of trauma. Last year I was at a conference where Erin McGlothlin suggested that we retire or at least question this language, which she finds unnecessarily biologizing, as if there were a genetic component to trauma. Recent neurological research suggests this might in fact be true, but we should consider the relationship between these findings and the racism and biological essentialism of fascism. And what do we lose if we emphasize neuroscience? What happens to history, personal or otherwise, if we think about generations in a primarily genetic sense? What would be narrative’s place in understanding trauma? What would happen to Lien’s stories?

The Cut Out Girl adds to this conversation by advocating a non-biological sense of family. Movingly, at the end of the book Lien introduces van Es to her friends as her nephew, the man who is going to tell her story. (Too bad van Es dilutes this moment by adding an epilogue, though it’s lovely to read that in her 80s Lien has formed a relationship with a man she knew briefly as a child.) I think the book’s expansive, generous definition of family (or at least its willingness to challenge the dominance of biology in our thinking of family) will interest students.

As will its unflinching portrayal of sexual abuse during wartime, which emphasizes how easily victims can be re-victimized. This aspect of the book is so relevant to our own time, as we finally begin to acknowledge the scope of abuse and assault in society writ large. Van Es’s frankness fits with a sea change in Holocaust studies: in the past many Holocaust stories would have passed over such material in silence, though we are learning how common such experiences were. (I could usefully contextualize this material by assigning an Ida Fink story and brief selections from Molly Appelbaum’s diary that also depict the sexual abuse of Holocaust victims.)

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As you can see, then, there is a lot to like from both a readerly and a pedagogic perspective about The Cut Up Girl. Yet I also have reservations, particularly about its style and structure. I found it pedestrian at the level of the sentence, and I’m always nervous about teaching texts that I don’t think are especially amenable to close reading. (I’ve barely quoted from the book, because it’s the content much more than the expression that’s interesting.) In terms of structure, van Es does a few things well. At times, he doubles back when narrating Lien’s experiences, explaining that she has no memory of the events he’s just told. He’s forthright about how he put the story together, how he supplemented Lien’s telling with other sources, where he is speculating, etc. His telling is self-aware, which is an essential component of Holocaust literature. (But why oh why must he write in the present tense? I hate that it’s become the default narrative mode.)

But van Es’s own story is not very interesting. Of course, it’s never going to match Lien’s, nor should it. But his exercise routine, his trips to the archives, his nights clubbing with his cousin, they are all so prosaic. The point of including his own story, I think, is to assert how easily familiar terrain can become unfamiliar. How could this village have been filled with hidden people? How could this pleasantly anodyne fitness center have been the home of a family dispersed and destroyed? Sudden revelations—where what you think you know vertiginously reveals a hidden face—are as much a part of family history as of geography.

But for this conceit to really work the book would need more of van Es’s past. We would need to know more about his childhood memories, more about his own (much more modest) dislocation, between England and Holland, more about what being Dutch means to him. And we would definitely need to know more about his relationship with his stepdaughter Josie, which has been fraught in ways that, he hints, resonate compellingly with Lien’s experiences. (Not the abuse part; the having a hard time accepting someone who is thrown into your life part.) I totally get why he won’t tell us more, but it’s frustrating to be asked to imagine these connections.

But if in talking about himself van Es is too elliptical, in telling Lien’s story he uses indirection to good effect. He ably delays the big reveal (what happened between Lien and Ma?) And, more interestingly, when the answer turns out to be pretty underwhelming, he is smart about the significance of what it means that we feel let down. In other words, he has a lot to say about our desire to explain and understand. On the one hand, order is central to self-understanding. As Lien says, once she understood her own experiences as part of a pattern (a sentiment she thinks of in Buddhist terms) she was able to live more fully and freely. But on the other, we can value order too much. Patterns can become templates, sense can become cliché. The villains in The Cut Out Girl—aside from the obvious ones of the Nazis, who, true to the experience of most of their victims, barely figure in the story, or the Dutch collaborators (and there are quite a lot of these)—are those, like Mother van Laar and even Ma, who live with unshakeable conviction about how the world works. Rigidity can be a way to handle the troubles the world throws at you, not least when you’re risking your life to hide someone in your home, but it can also cause further trouble. (This paradox is similar to the one van Es proposes when he considers the Dutch tradition of tolerance, which has involved staying out of other people’s business, leading to the creation of a siloed society comprised of “pillars” (Protestants, Catholics, liberals, etc.) that seldom overlap. Could that very separateness, he asks, have been what allowed the Germans to act as they did in Holland?)

In this regard van Es’s use of the poems from Lien’s album is interesting. At first I wondered why he felt the need to include so many of them. They’re objectively terrible. Here’s one:

Roses big and roses small

Soft as velvet on a wall

But the softest petal part

Is the rose of Lietje’s heart.

But the contrast between the sentiments they express—the things Lien’s loved ones wish for her: health, happiness, success, long life—and the reality of her experience is important, and not just because of their ironic juxtaposition. Instead van Es explores an analogy: conventional form is to idealized (that is, false) sentiments as unconventional form is to accurate experience. The clunky poetry of the well wishes is so kitschy because it can’t express actual experience. To do so, especially in a time of war and disruption, would require a more unconventional way of telling.

In the end, I’m unconvinced van Es has found such a form. His book is nothing like those poems, but neither is it like the daring comparison of the story of a family and the story of a people that structures Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million or the elegant prose of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes, to name two books doing similar work to The Cut Out Girl. In the end, van Es’s book reminds me a bit of the doggerel that Lien’s friend Lily, who copied the lines I cited above, added at the bottom of the page: “I lay in bed and mucked about / so mum got cross and started to shout.” A lot better than the canned poem, and an engaging and daring act of non-conformism in a conformist society, but not exactly great art.

Still and all, I think I’ve talked myself into assigning the book. Do you agree? A couple of years ago I did something similar with Sara Kofman’s memoir of her time as a hidden child in Paris, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. And Kofman has been a staple of the class for years. Students love it. Indeed, I might describe it as the book Lien might have written. That is, it is totally fractured, cryptic, and fragmented. It’s like an expression of trauma, whereas van Es’s book is a consideration of trauma, if that makes sense. The latter is less striking, but also, perhaps, more necessary. Certainly more healthy.

 

Rohan’s post on The Cut Out Girl is well worth reading. She liked it more than I did, but in general we agree about its merits. She also mentions an important sub-plot, as it were, when van Es visits the street where Lien first lived in Dordrecht, which has now become public housing inhabited mostly by Muslim immigrants. A man gets upset at him for taking pictures—van Es agrees that coming to look and not to tell is a problem. Which leads me to wonder: when does a story end? What would happen if we juxtaposed that man’s story with Lien’s?