2019 Year in Reading

Looking back, I see that January to June was much better to me than July to December. I read all but one of the nine books that meant the most to me in 2019 in the first half of the year. It could be they’ve had the longest to marinate. It could be I was more tired, distracted, and at times distraught in the second half of the year (I was). It could just be the luck of the Book Gods.

Whatever the reason, I’ve a better record of my reading than ever before because 2019 was the year I started to write monthly reflection pieces. To my own surprise, I was able to keep this strategy up, which means I wrote at least a sentence or two about everything I read this year. Links to the monthly roundups are at the end of this post. If you want to know more about any of the texts I reference below you can always search by author. If you want to see previous year-end reviews, you can find them here: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018.

For those who like that kind of thing, a few stats: I read 136 books in 2019. 74 (54%) were by women; 62 (46%) were by men. 104 (76%) were originally written in English; 32 (24%) were translated. 16 were audiobooks. 7 were re-reads. (I include books I re-read for teaching in my list only if I re-read the whole thing, not if I dip into, skim, or speed re-read it.)

And now some thoughts on the books that made a particular impression on me, for good or ill.

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Best of the Bunch

Katherena Vermette, The Break. My Book of the Year. I think about The Break all the time, especially now that I am learning about the violence and injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Canadians, not just in the distant past, but in my own lifetime. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that Canada was a Good Place that has mostly been on the right side of history. It is in ways a good place. But the way its colonial violence (itself inexcusable) continues into the present, the way that violence was happening all around me in my childhood, the way that I was nevertheless able to remain blissfully ignorant—that really gets to me. (I know, I know, “Thanks a lot, privileged White Dude, for all your well-meaning soul-searching.”)

Anyway, I love how Vermette takes my favourite genre, crime fiction, opens it up and turning it inside out, enabling her to write about systemic racism and (sexual) violence while still using fictional conventions (such as strongly developed characters and a keen sense of place) that were developed to propagate ideas of individuality and willpower—ideas that largely shunted the people who experience structural violence to the margins.

I love too that Vermette is able to imagine an affirmative, even joyful ending to her story.

Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. On first reading I actually wasn’t sure how well this worked, but fortunately I’d been given the chance to write about it for The Mookse & the Gripse, so I read it another couple of times. (It’s really more novella than novel.) And now like everyone else I recognize its brilliance. Timely—it addresses climate change, misogyny, fantasies of national purity—but not didactic. Plausibly harrowing without being a total downer. A book that will last.

Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End. So smart and so sad. Parents in particular might find this tough going. But I also found it joyous. Li isn’t showy, but her style is so compelling.

Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex I/II. Didn’t think these would be my thing (being into neither pop music nor post 68 radicalism curdled into conservatism), but I fell for them in a big way. I’ll be ordering the third volume from the UK when it’s published there later this year. An indictment of neo-liberalism with the pleasures of a soap opera.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking. Another super-smart book that sneaks up on you. Dramatic events—the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia find out that for years many of the men they live with have been drugging them at night and raping them—play second fiddle to the attempt to come to a collective response to trauma. The genius of the book lies in its narration: the largely illiterate women recruit the local schoolteacher, a man who grew up in the community but lived apart from it for years, to record their deliberations. Toews shows us, however, that every description is also an interpretation (recording isn’t just a neutral act), leading us to wonder how the self-understanding of an oppressed group (and the efforts of those not in that group to understand them) is affected by disparities in privilege.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand. Fascinating and suspenseful story of time-traveler. Postulates that identity is a form of addiction. As in Rule Britannia, her final novel, written just a few years after House, Du Maurier here questions the continuity of Englishness.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (Translated by Thomas Bunstead). Fragmentary essayistic auto-fiction-type thing of the sort I usually admire more than like. But Gainza’s book won me over, particularly her use of ekphrasis to connect representation and political violence.

 Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey. The most joyful book I read last year concerns Marsden’s journey through the Caucasus in the early to middle 1990s, a place that fascinates him as a historical refuge for dissenters and schismatics of all sorts. Marsden is a good traveler, respectful of those he meets and their beliefs. But in the endless battle between idealism (which always curdles, murderously, into ideology) and humble materialism (the struggles and pleasures of surviving everyday life) he’s always on the side of the latter.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Thoroughly enjoyable and really funny story of two young women in Dublin, best friends, and the older and much richer married couple they get involved with. Great dialogue. Doesn’t go where you think it will. Lots of darkness at its heart, mostly concerning the narrator’s fraught relationship to her own body.

Other Awards

Best backlist deep dive: I read six novels by Esther Freud, all great. I think I still love her first, Hideous Kinky, best, but the next six were all good, some of them excellent, especially Summer at Gaglow and The Wild. Whether she is writing about the late 19th or early 20th centuries or about the 1970s and 80s, Freud always creates characters who know that they don’t know as much as they need to. She reminds me of Anita Brookner, who is really only now getting her due. Will Freud have to die to achieve similar respect? More pressingly, will she write another novel? (It’s been a while.)

Best ending: Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (Translated by Naomi Lebowitz). The only big 19th century novel I read in 2019 was actually written in the early 20th century. Per is a frustrating, vacillating character (even more than Pantoppidan knew, I think), but what happens to him, the kind of person he becomes, in the book’s final chapters is really moving. Don’t give up on it, is what I’m saying.

Most indelible: Helen Dunmore, The Siege. Literary critics are always saying that books are haunting. But Dunmore’s depiction of the cold and hunger suffered by the people of Leningrad during WWII might actually qualify. Dunmore’s painstaking descriptions are almost physically painful to read, so vivid are they. Turns out, if you boil leather shoes for a really long time you’ll get “broth” with a little nutritional value. Dunmore was a really good writer and I’m glad I have plenty more of her books left to read.

Best portrayal of parenting a small child: Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light. First published in the 1970s, this book is having its moment in the English-speaking world. And deservedly so. I appreciated Tsushima’s willingness to admit that parenting toddlers in particular can be terrible & enraging.

Most important classic in my field that I only just read: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning uses the example of one particular battalion of the Order Police (the Orpo—not members of the SS, but often sent to work alongside them during the eastern campaign) to draw far-reaching conclusions about what makes men do terrible things. Many have found those conclusions too far-reaching, but to me it seems that history offers corroborating examples all the time. Important evidence for challenging the still-prevalent idea that perpetrators must be monsters.

Book that most influenced my teaching: John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Music to my ears. I was already a convert to Warner’s way of thinking before reading his book, but he phrases his objections to conventional writing pedagogy so well that I gained lots of new ammunition for my beliefs. More importantly he offers practical ways to break free of old teaching habits. That’s what made this book so important to me. When we challenge students to write about things that matter to them we let them take the first step to realizing that for writing to be good at all, no matter the genre, the writer needs to have a stake in it. Students need to become thinkers. To do so they need to become writers. To be writers they need to be thinkers. We can make this recursive loop productive by teaching writing as a process. Even readers who are not teachers will gain a lot from this book.

Books I forgot about but when I saw them on my list again I thought, Oh yeah, that was really good: Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind; Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar.

Book Twitter loved it but I didn’t: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman; Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy, Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl.

Most irritating: Luce D’Eramo, Deviation; John Williams, Stoner (Hello! He rapes her!).

Creepiest: Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (true crime is weird); Georges Simenon, Strangers in the House (finally a Simenon that totally worked for me).

Lousy: Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins; C. J. Tudor, The Chalk Man, Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock; Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger.

Tawdry (felt gross for being as drawn into it as I was): Adrian McKinty, The Chain

Best comics: James Sturm, Off Season; Gengoroh Tagame, My Brother’s Husband (sweet, gentle).

Best crime: Jane Harper, The Lost Man (sometimes it pays to stick with an author: Harper’s third book a huge leap forward, an indelible story of the outback; would read again); Dervla McTiernan (best new procedurals I read this year); Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake (Lippman goes from strength to strength); Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (can wrongs ever be made right?). Men, step up your crime game!

Reliable pleasure: Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series is my jam: my preferred historical period (about which Kerr has taught me a lot), my preferred tone (ironic, a little despairing). I only have three Bernies left and am feeling sad about it.

Best surprise: Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras. Would never have read this had it not been assigned me as part of my duties for the Arkansas Literary Festival. Learned a lot about tornadoes—of which I am especially mindful today, as Arkansas sits under a tornado watch—and was gripped by Hargrove’s description of how the best storm chaser of them all lost his life.

Had its moments: Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a couple of scenes have stayed with me, but it’s a bit self-consciously “literary novel” for me).

Disappointing: Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (fine, but without the magic of its predecessor); Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (The Wall is an all-time fave; this one was ok, but I struggled to finish: too dour, I missed the earlier novel’s joy); James Gregor, Going Dutch (could have been in the lousy category TBH; one great character, but a preposterous view of graduate school); Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (better as an essay).

Best spy novel: Len Deighton, Berlin Game (pleasant surprise—nice take on grimy 70s/80s Berlin, which it avoids romanticizing). Honorable mention: Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (Starts off like Highsmith, turns into Lionel Davidson). Plan to read more of both in 2020.

Light reading discovery: Robert Harris (have listened to three so far, all winners).

Best book nobody’s ever read: Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann.

Best memoirs: Fierce Attachments (not my favourite Gornick, but, hey, it’s Gornick, she’s a genius); Tara Westover, Educated (believe the hype); Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (family history with a surprise ending); Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (believe the hype II). Men, step up your memoir game!

Best Holocaust books (memoirs): Primo Levi, The Reawakening (a.k.a. The Truce) (didn’t expect a picaresque from Levi, but there you go); Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (more people should take heed of the sentiment expressed in Eisen’s title); Solomon Perel, Europa, Europa (every Holocaust survival story is implausible, but this one might take the cake).

Best Holocaust books (history): David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. The publisher must have wanted crossover success, but the attempts to narrate from the viewpoint of the historical figures flop; fortunately, they make up a small part of the book, which details the remarkable efforts of Jewish prisoners to rescue sacred and profane texts from the Vilnius ghetto. I started a post on this last summer and really should finish it.

Best Holocaust books (for children): Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe; Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (plus Rabbit’s two sequels, which aren’t really for children but are fantastic and really deserve to be in print; we lost a giant, not to mention an amazing human being, when Kerr died last May).

Books I wrote about elsewhere: Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall; Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers; Mihail Sebastian, Women.

Classic that revealed itself to me in a totally new way on re-reading: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the impetus.

Monthly Review Posts

January, February, March, April, May,  June, July/August, September, October, November, December

Coming in 2020

More of the same, probably. These days, with blogging seemingly on the wane, just keeping the lights on feels like an accomplishment. I think the monthly posts worked well, and I plan to keep them. When it comes down to it, I prefer the deep dive (basically: posts that involve close reading), but that takes a lot of time and effort. At least this way I have some kind of record of my responses.

In the spring, I’ll be reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, suggested by its publisher as being perfect for fans of Jean Giono. That made me want to get back together the group who read Giono’s Hill a few years ago. Most everyone is enthusiastic, so look for that in May. I welcome all readers to join us, whether you blog or not. In general, I’m always keen to post pieces by other writers, so if you’re looking for somewhere to share your work hit me up.

One of the pleasures of last year was finding a set of kind and thoughtful German book folks on Twitter. Thanks to them, I may find the courage to start reading more in German in again. I’ll definitely keep reading Holocaust literature; and I’ll definitely keep writing about my teaching.

As to what else I’ll be reading, I suspect I will continue to want to be a person who reads only difficult, demanding, and serious books, but who in fact is someone who reads a few of those and lots of relatively undemanding (but still engaging and valuable) ones. I’ll aim to read more widely, in more genres and from more languages, and I probably won’t. I’ll chip away at the frighteningly large number of unread books filling my little house, and undo that good work with new purchases. (Though I did rein my book-buying in a lot last year.) I’m aiming to be less drawn to new or newly published books and concentrate on older titles. But in the end, as always, I’ll go wherever my fancy takes me.

And thanks to all of you who have read my posts and engaged me in dialogue about them I will continue to write about those readerly peregrinations. I wish you all a good year in these dangerous times. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping to sustain me.

December 2019 in Review

December brought the end of the semester: busy, but less oppressive than the lead-up to it. Which meant more time for reading. And I spent the last week on Hawai’i, which, though not exactly my scene, is lovely and a good place to inhale undemanding thrillers.

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Robert Harris, The Fear Index (2011) Thriller about a Geneva-based hedge fund that makes spectacular profits thanks to an algorithm so complex it starts running itself. As I’ve reported before Harris can’t do female characters, but, given that he’s rewriting Frankenstein, a novel famously about men plotting to do away with the need for female reproduction, that’s kind of fitting. This book could have turned out hokey or lousy, but it’s quite good.

Philip Kerr, The Lady from Zagreb (2015) Another fine addition to the Bernie Guenther series, this one taking in events in the Balkans.

Peter Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust (2017) I read this with four students I’m working with on a year-long Holocaust education project, and we found it an excellent introduction to the subject. It benefits from being organized around the questions Hayes has most often come across in his decades of teaching about the Holocaust, meaning that its history is as much of ideas as events (as in, for example, his lucid explanation of the differences between different generations of European antisemitism). Hayes is an economic historian (the next time someone tells you how complicit IBM, say, was in the Holocaust, you’ll know exactly what to tell them); unsurprisingly, then, anecdotes, memories, and individual experiences are notably absent. But since we’re studying just those things in our project on Holocaust literature, that fact was more useful complement than omission. Others might think differently.

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (2014) As wonderful as everyone says. A hybrid of memoir, literary criticism, and nature writing—a proper essay—the story of how Macdonald trained a goshawk (appealingly named Mabel) is woven around the effect on her life of two men: her father, by all accounts a lovely man, a photojournalist and champion of his daughter’s passions, whose sudden death sends Macdonald into deep, violent grief; and the midcentury writer T. H. White, by all accounts, not least his own, an unlovely man, unable to accept his own queerness and desperate to prove his competence no matter what the cost, but whose books, especially an account of his own experience keeping a hawk, have been important to Macdonald from childhood. I learned lots about hawks, the English countryside, ideas of wildness, and plenty of good words (when hawks try to jump off their owner’s fist while tethered—with thin strips, usually of leather, called “jesses”—they are said “to bate”).

I listened to this book: Macdonald reads it herself, wonderfully, but it’s a bit more demanding than my usual audiobook fare and I found myself skipping back a lot. Probably better read in print, or at least not while you’re trying to drive.

Andrzej Szczypiorski, The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (1986) Trans. Klara Glowczewska (1989) Back in the day, when trade paperbacks were new and the Vintage International series ruled the shelves of better bookshops across North America, I used to see this book all the time. I’m glad I didn’t read it then, though, because I didn’t have the background to understand its oblique take on Poland from the 1930s to the 70s. With the benefit of experience and study I was able to appreciate Szczypiorski’s achievement here, though I still had the sense that the book was aimed at the Poland of the post-1968 period rather than of the war years with which most of its events are ostensibly concerned. And because my knowledge of postwar Poland is fairly schematic I still wasn’t the most informed reader. Yet I didn’t mind this—my ignorance somehow fit with Szczypiorski’s indirect treatment. (By this logic, my young, ignorant self would have been an even better reader…) I read the novel thinking it would foreground the Holocaust—the Mrs. Seidenman of the title is a Jew who passes as Gentile in Warsaw during the war—yet despite references to the Ghetto the novel has the self-knowledge to avoid writing what it doesn’t know intimately.

The most eye-catching stylistic feature is the regular use of flash forwards to show us the (largely futile, depressing, and deadly) futures of its characters. (Like Sparks’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) But this isn’t a flashy book. Its tone is elegant, cerebral, hushed, rather like its opening sentence: “The room was in twilight because the judge was a lover of twilight.” Not that he loved twilight, but that he was a lover of twilight. Nice.

Cathleen Schine, The Grammarians (2019) Wrote about this here. It’s ok.

Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (2019) Crime fiction is going to have to think about what it wants to be in an era characterized by the need to think more systemically (structural racism, inequality, “stop and frisk” profiling, etc.). Can its individualistic model (the dogged PI, the obsessive cop, the intrepid journalist) translate to our world? Your House Will Pay is an intriguing answer to this question. It sidelines the police, turning its attention instead on those affected by violence, inequality, racism, without being perpetrators or victims in the conventional sense. Modelled on the riots in LA’s Koreatown in the 90s, Cha’s novel follows two well-developed characters, an African American ex-con and a Korean American pharmacist, who are forced to grapple with what it means to forgive the wrongs of the past. I’m excited to see what Cha will do next.

Émile Zola, Pot Luck (1882) Trans. Brian Nelson (1999) Swear to God I’m going to write about this soon. Disagreeable, but compelling.

Philip Kerr, The Other Side of Silence (2016) Not my favourite Bernie novel, but a very agreeable way to pass a long plane trip.

Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (1960) My first MacInnes, but not my last. I was impressed how she kept the plot going without flagging (it’s over 600 pages). As a smart Twitter correspondent pointed out, MacInnes can be a little buttoned-up—amazing how much chasing through the mountains happens in heels and suits & ties—but her representation of place is acute, and her use of point of view interesting. Delphi centers a male character, yet regularly dips into the consciousness of the female lead, which makes the relationship that develops between them more compelling than usual for the genre. Because the book features artists and photographers who accidentally are enmeshed in political plot by a terrorist cell it is also smart about what it means to represent places, people, and events. Not sure why MacInnes isn’t talked about the way Le Carré, for example, is, though I guess sexism is the likely answer.

That brings my reading year to a close. In a day or two I’ll reflect on what and how I read in 2019.

Enervated: Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians

“Twin” is one of those wonderful hinge words in English, that mean two opposite things. Like the more celebrated “to cleave,” to twin means both to join and to divide, to double and to halve. As a noun, twin refers to one of a couple. As a verb it means to part, sever, sunder, deprive (of).

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Cathleen Schine offers these definitions of “twin” as the epigraph for her enjoyable new novel, The Grammarians. Its plot charts the move from noun to verb. Laurel and Daphne are identical twins, born seventeen minutes apart. As the girls age, those minutes loom ever larger, symbolizing the differences they are surprised to discover open up between them. As small, very precocious children, the girls invent a private language. They listen to a record of My Fair Lady over and over, swanning about the house singing “Ah-wooo-dent it be loverly.” They are fascinated by words. The most significant event of their childhood is the day their father comes home with a lectern and a giant book he places on it in his study; they watch him wrestle it out of his trunk “like a doctor delivering a baby.” Their new sibling is the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language; even as five-year-olds the oversize volume with its “cliff of compressed pages notched with steps the size of a fingerprint” becomes the centre of their world. Their mother contemplates forcing them to watch television to get them away from the damn dictionary for a while.

The girls become adults in the New York of the 80s, reviling Reagan but like plenty of comfortable white people not really suffering from him. Daphne makes a good living at a thinly disguised version of The Village Voice—perhaps this was possible in that lost world, though I’m not sure. Even more implausibly, she becomes famous as the author of a disapproving, sarcastic grammar column called “The People’s Pedant,” later turned into various books. Meantime, Laurel becomes first a kindergarten teacher, then a stay-at-home mother, and eventually a poet, assembling the often agrammatical expressions she finds in a collection of letters written by the relatives of soldiers to the Department of War—she “hear[s] their voices through the grammar”—into texts that are lauded by critics as generous but disparaged as appropriation by Daphne.

In other words, the sisters explore different ways of being women, of becoming creators, and, most importantly, of understanding language. Daphne is prescriptive, Laurel descriptive. Daphne believes that rules govern usage, Laurel that usage should shape rules.

Schine isn’t particularly subtle about her theme. At a deli, awaiting their blintzes, Daphne asks Laurel which is better, the way sour cream looks or tastes. Her sister calls it a tie:

Daphne thought about that as they ate, looking at the beautiful, shimmering sour cream, tasting it cool and smooth against the warm, buttery blintz. Could anything really be a tie? Was anything really equal to any other thing? She and Laurel were twins, eggs of a feather, so to speak, but were they tied? Tied together, yes. But tied?

The sentiment if expressed even more pithily early in the novel, ostensibly (but unconvincingly) from the POV of the young girls: “Identical twins, dressed in identical outfits—are they half or double?”

At the end of the blintz passage, Daphne turns from meditating on equality to thinking about words:

“‘Tie’ is a funny word,” she said.

“Sometimes,” Laurel said, “I think all words are funny.”

But funny ha ha or funny peculiar? Are words—and language more generally—something to marvel at, something that can be used in all sorts of peculiar ways, giving rise to new meanings, new uses? Or are they something that instills discipline and order? Is grammar truth or just the naturalized prejudices of rich people?

Most of us probably slide unreflectively from one position to the other. Sometimes sanguine about the seemingly infinite flexibility of language, especially English (think of all the ways we can use “fuck”). And sometimes grumpy about the decline of linguistic decorum, usually when it comes to uses that we for whatever reason hold dear (our particular crochets).

You’d think that how readers feel about language would be reflected in how they feel about the sisters. That is, prescriptivists will prefer Daphne while descriptivists will prefer Laurel. The problem, for me, is that Daphne is insufferably priggish, and it’s hard to imagine anyone liking her. (But I’m a pretty unreflective descriptivist, so I suppose I would say that.) Though, on reflection, Laurel is rather vague, so maybe what Schine has done is created characters that epitomize the stereotypical complaints about each philosophy.

The sisters eventually reach a version of détente (as the novel might put it, the ties that blind become, once again, the ties that bind), but not until after a years-long row in which they don’t speak. (The book is oddly structured, with a short opening chapter that references the feud, before sending us back to the beginning to find out how the twins got to that point, but then bursting past the opening frame, even ignoring it altogether, at the end.) In the end their love is reaffirmed—they remember that they are albumen and yolk and shell together.” But I found myself caring more for the novel’s minor characters than the grammarians themselves. Their cousin, Brian, turns in just a few deft scenes from bewildered child to snotty teen to sage adult. Their husbands, Michael and Larry, long-suffering and genial, are even more appealing, even though they really have bit parts. After the sisters break off relations, the men, whose initial forced friendship turns genuine, continue to meet in secret. In the end, I found their life-long affair more moving than the twins’ relationship with language.

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In the end, how much you enjoy The Grammarians depends on how much you enjoy its almost aphoristic riffs on bits of language usage. Here’s Daphne, talking about her job:

Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.

And here’s Laurel, expressing a thought I’ve often had:

“I’m enervated,” she said after soothing and congratulating her sister. “I like that word because it sounds like it means the opposite of what it means.”

The Grammarians is a quick, fun read. Maybe more miss than hit, though. It’s definitely too schematic. And its evocation of 80s New York is glib, an exercise in nostalgia that makes it different from books actually written in that period. (There’s a brief reference to the AIDS patients Michael treats when almost no one else will, a discussion about how you can get avocados and radicchio at Fairway, the sort of period detailing that tv shows set in the past spend enormous amounts of time and money getting right and which the shows of the period effortlessly exude.) In this regard, The Grammarians made me want to return to the works of Laurie Colwin, another low-key Jewish writer specializing in relationship stories set in arty bourgeois New York. Colwin was both warmer and more bittersweet than Schine, a better writer altogether, and one whose reputation seems sadly to be at rather a low ebb just now. Schine’s novel is perfectly enjoyable, but I doubt I’ll remember it in a couple of months, whereas Colwin has stayed with me for decades.

Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.

Earlier this semester, I presented for the third time at the annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. In addition to giving the keynote talk (“Holocaust 101”), I also taught a session (basically, a class). The conference has an unusual format and remit. It is designed for high school students, their teachers, and interested community members. In a single busy day, participants hear two plenaries plus a presentation from a Holocaust survivor, and attend two breakout sessions from a selection of about six or seven.

I love being able to teach such a wide range of ages and experiences: a typical session will include as many retirees as 15-year-olds. The unusual format comes with its own challenges, of course: keeping the students from feeling intimidated by the adults; making sure the older participants really listen to the younger ones. By making participants work together to close read something, I seek to put everyone on the same footing and build a sense of community.

My session this year was called “Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.” As I’d like eventually to turn it into a more formal piece of writing, I thought I’d transcribe my lesson plan here.

RuthKluger

Ruth Kluger

The handout that we used for our exercise was headed by two quotations; together, they offer a condensed version of what I was hoping the participants would learn:

I had found out, for myself and by myself, how things stood between us and the Nazis and had paid for knowledge with the coin of pain.

—Ruth Kluger

To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

—W. E. B. Du Bois

At first glance, Kluger—the Viennese-born survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, and a death march—and Du Bois—the legendary African American sociologist and writer—might seem an unusual pairing. I argued that, on the contrary, they share the same way of thinking about the vicissitudes of being a member of a persecuted minority. For persecuted minorities, to know is to hurt, to exist is to be a problem.

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Nechama Tec

I began by explaining my title, which I adapted from an anecdote in Kluger’s brilliant memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. In 1937—Kluger was about to turn six—her family summered in Italy. They had a car, rather unusual for the time, especially in Italy. Driving through the rural South, they pass another car with Austrian plates. The tourists wave to each other. Kluger is taken by the experience. She thinks, We wouldn’t have done that at home; we don’t even know each other. Writing many years later, she reflects:

I was enchanted by the discovery that strangers in a strange land greet each other because they are compatriots.

But this comforting nationalism, in which strangers become acquaintances by virtue of calling the same place home, would soon prove false and alienating. Kluger learned, along with the rest of Europe’s Jews, that being Jewish trumped being Austrian (or German or Polish or French or whatever). On her prewar holiday, Kluger enjoyed the experience of being a stranger in a strange land; just a year later, after the Anschluss, Kluger became a stranger in her own land.

To realize you are not at home in your home is shattering. The experience is powerfully ambivalent one, at once harmful and helpful.

To show how that might be the case, I referenced three Holocaust survivors: Kluger, Nechama Tec (born in Lublin in 1931 and hidden together with her family in a series of safe houses across Poland), and Sarah Kofman (born in Paris in 1934 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and who survived in hiding with a family friend she learned to call Mémé). Interestingly, all of these women later became academics: Kluger a professor of German, Tec of sociology, Kofman of philosophy.

(I’ll skip the potted bios, but I’m happy to say more in the comments if you’re interested.)

That brief orientation over, I divided the class into three and assigned each group one of the following passages, which we first read aloud together:

I found a small opening in the wall from which, unobserved, I could watch the girls at play. To me they seemed so content, so carefree, and I envied them their fun. Did they know that a war was on? At times, as I watched them, I too became engrossed in their games and almost forgot about the war. But the bell that called them back to class called me back to reality, and at such moments I became acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever. The girls in the boarding school were so near and yet so far. The wall that separated us was thick indeed, and eventually I could not bear to go near it.

—Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84)

(Before we read, I explained the context. The scene takes place in 1940 or 41. Tec and her family are living in hiding in a disused part of a factory formerly owned by Tec’s father. The factory abuts on a convent school, a source of fascinated longing for Tec.)

In 1940, when I was eight or nine, the local movie theatre showed Walt Disney’s Snow White. … I badly wanted to see this film, but since I was Jewish, I naturally wasn’t permitted to. I groused and bitched about this unfairness until finally my mother proposed that I should leave her alone and just go and forget about what was permitted and what wasn’t. … So of course I went, not only for the movie, but to prove myself. I bought the most expensive type of ticket, thinking that sitting in a loge would make me less noticeable, and thus I ended up next to the nineteen-year-old baker’s daughter from next door with her little siblings, enthusiastic Nazis one and all. … When the lights came on, I wanted to wait until the house had emptied out, but my enemy stood her ground and waited, too. … She spoke firmly and with conviction, in the manner of a member of the Bund deutscher Mädchen, the female branch of the Hitler Youth, to which she surely belonged. Hadn’t I seen the sign at the box office? (I nodded. What else could I do? It was a rhetorical question.) Didn’t I know what it meant? I could read, couldn’t I? It said “No Jews.” I had broken a law … If it happened again she would call the police. I was lucky that she was letting me off this once.

The story of Snow White can be reduced to one question: who is entitled to live in the king’s palace and who is the outsider. The baker’s daughter and I followed this formula. She, in her own house, the magic mirror of her racial purity before her eyes, and I, also at home here, a native, but without permission and at this moment expelled and exposed. Even though I despised the law that excluded me, I still felt ashamed to have been found out. For shame doesn’t arise from the shameful action, but from discovery and exposure.

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

(The passage offers its own context; but I reminded participants that by 1940 the situation for Jews in Vienna was increasingly dangerous. Kluger’s father, a doctor who had already been arrested for seeing Aryan patients, had just fled for France (from where he was later deported to the Baltics and murdered); Kluger’s own deportation was less than two years away.)

Knowingly or not, Mémé had brought off a tour de force: right under my mother’s nose, she’d managed to detach me from her. And also from Judaism. She had saved us, but she was not without anti-Semitic prejudices. She taught me that I had a Jewish nose and made me feel the little bump that was the sign of it. She also said, “Jewish food is bad for the health; the Jews crucified our savior, Jesus Christ; they are all stingy and love only money; they are very intelligent, no other people has as many geniuses in music and philosophy.” …

My mother suffered in silence: no news from my father [arrested and deported]; no means of visiting my brothers and sisters [in hiding in various places in the French countryside]; no power to prevent Mémé from transforming me, detaching me from herself and from Judaism. I had, it seemed, buried the entire past: I started loving rare steak cooked in butter and parsley. I didn’t think at all any more about my father, and I couldn’t pronounce a single word in Yiddish despite the fact that I could still understand the language of my childhood perfectly. Now I even dreaded the end of the war!

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

(The passage, set in 1942 or 43, describes how Mémé, the woman who saved Kluger, also abused her.)

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Sarah Kofman

Each group worked together to discuss the passages and answer two questions. The first was the same for everybody: Do we see self-awareness in this passage? If so, how?

The second was particular to the excerpt. I asked the Tec group to track the passage’s verbs. What can we learn about Tec’s experience when we pay attention to those verbs?

I asked the Kluger group to track the word “home” and its synonyms in this passage. What can we learn about Kluger’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

I asked the Kofman group to track two repeated words in the passage: “detach” and “nose.” What can we learn about Kofman’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

As the participants worked on their assignment, I wandered the room, eavesdropping and cajoling if the conversation seemed to falter. After seven or eight minutes, I brought the class back together and asked each group to report their findings (after reminding everyone that, since we’d all read the passages aloud, anyone could feel free to chime in at any time).

They did well! If you like, you can take a minute to think about how you’d answer the questions.

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My annotations

Here are some of the things we noted:

Tec shows us both the appeal of fantasy and its cost. Spying on the children lucky enough to still be living ordinary lives takes her out of her situation, allows her to remember another life, even to almost forget the war. But the school bell that rings for them but not for her recalls her to reality. And that reminder is painful: she feels even worse than before, to the point where she eventually gives up her voyeurism. I’m always struck by “these small excursions”—such striking and unusual phrasing. What does an excursion imply? A vacation, a trip, a holiday, students will say. An adventure, but a safe one. Yes, I’ll add, an inconsequential one (a sense furthered by the adjective “small”). Tec is an explorer, but not, in the end, a successful one. She can’t keep going back to look at the childhood she no longer has. Excursion implies choice; yet this fantasy too fails her, just as the active verbs of the beginning of the passage (to find, to watch, to envy—things Tec herself chooses to do) are replaced by the experience of states of being (become engrossed, become acutely aware—things that happen to Tec).

The story of Kluger’s clandestine, dangerous trip to the movies (itself a salutary reminder for participants of how thoroughly Jews were shut out of ordinary life) centers on exposure. The “ex” prefix here, as in her use of “expelled” and Tec’s “excursion,” gestures to a desire, expressed at the very level of phonetics, to get out, to escape. Kluger tries to hide in plain sight, but the effort fails. Significantly, it is her next door neighbour who finds her out, showing us both how intimate persecution is, and how much, in this context at least, it functioned through an undoing of everything home should stand for. (To sell the point, Kluger uses many variations of the word home: I’m especially struck by her decision—not unidiomatic, but also not typical—to describe the theatre as a “house.”) Just as persecution makes home foreign, so too does it pervert justice. The baker’s daughter is right when she scolds Kluger for breaking a law: it’s easy for us to forget that Nazi persecution was legal. Kluger’s world has been turned upside down (her use of “naturally” is thus ironic); only she herself, her personality, her determination, offers the possibility of continuity. She is forbidden to go to the movies, so “of course” she goes. That’s just who she is. But the consequences of that persistence (nearly being turned over to the police) suggest that the idea of being true to one’s self is for Kluger as much a disabling fantasy as Tec’s spying.

Kofman similarly struggles to understand who she is. The figurative nose in her first sentence (and I’m cheating here, since we were working with a translation, and I don’t know the original) is echoed, then amplified by the literal one that Mémé so disparages. As a group we marveled, if I can put it that way, at Kofman’s anguished situation: out of a complicated mixture of gratitude, internalized self-hatred, and adolescent rebellion against a difficult mother, who, to be sure, is herself in an unbearably difficult situation she falls in love with a woman who turns her against herself. Mémé teaches Kofman to hate her own body and her own identity, by making her experience herself as others do. In that sense, she turns Kofman into someone who must live in bad faith. Yet, as we noted, the repetition of “detachment” inevitably carries with it a reminder of attachment: in describing what she has lost Kofman indirectly reminds us of what she once was. And we speculated that Kofman’s similarly indirect presentation of Mémé’s litany of anti-Semitic canards (where even the compliments are backhanded) implies a kind of resistance on her part to the older woman’s actions. It is unlikely, I suggested, that Mémé said all of these things at once, in a single sentence, as Kofman presents it. Which implies she has arranged the material: by piling the attacks on, she is inviting us to see them as ridiculous, contradictory, unhinged. But Kofman’s critique is retrospective. At the time, her position is utterly confused. Witness her (classically hysterical) aphasia—able to understand her mother/father tongue, but no longer able to speak it. Years later, Kofman eventually throws Mémé over, even refusing to go to her funeral. The “good mother” in the memoir—well worth reading—turns out to be neither of the two women she is caught between but rather Frenchness itself: the language & culture Kofman becomes so adept in, able to wield rather than submit to.

Having facilitated discussion, and with time drawing short, I emphasized that resistance and rejection are intertwined in these passages. Resistance takes the form of self-knowledge.

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W. E. B. Du Bois

To understand the implications of that double position, I had us turn to a thinker from a different tradition. I read aloud the last passage on the handout:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him [sic] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Then I defined that consequential term double-consciousness: it’s what results when we have to define the self through the eyes of others. (I always use the example of Canadian identity, because it’s relatively low stakes and I can try to be funny with it: when Canadians think about what it means to be Canadian, as they often do, they usually begin, “Well, we’re not Americans…” In my experience, Americans seldom think about what it means to be American. They certainly don’t say, “Well, we’re not Canadians…” Which is because in geopolitical as well as cultural terms, America is dominant; they set the terms of understanding. The tape Americans use to measure themselves has been made to measure them.)

Minorities, Du Bois argues, typically define themselves in terms set by the majority. A significant result of this claim is that there is something valuable about that position of double-consciousness, for it is by definition a critical position. As Kluger explains in her memoir, her earliest reading material was anti-Semitic slogans, which gave her “an early opportunity to practice critical discrimination.”

The position of the majority or the dominant is properly speaking stupid, because it never has to translate its experience into terms given by someone else. It need never reflect. That is the definition of privilege.

But double-consciousness isn’t just enabling. To be in that position, to be a minority, specifically a persecuted minority like Jews in fascist Europe or Blacks at any time in American history, including the present, is to be at risk. Critical positions are precarious, dangerous, even intolerable—not just psychologically but also bodily. Think of Du Bois’s resonant, pained conclusion: to inhabit double-consciousness (to be at home in the idea of never being at home) is to feel “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Torn asunder. How can we read that and not think of lynching, or gassing, or any of the myriad ways minority bodies have been and continue to be made to suffer?

We were out of time. So I could only end by saying that the reason I had us to read Du Bois alongside Holocaust survivors was to think intersectionally. In terms of double-consciousness, minority experiences are more similar than different. And I wanted participants to think about the lesson for us today from these (to them) very old texts. To ask these questions: If we are a member of a minority, can we harness the power of double-consciousness and not be crushed? If we are a member of a majority, can we become self-aware enough not to harm, whether knowingly or unknowingly, minorities?

Can we be at home without being smug? Can we be self-aware without being strangers?

 

 

 

November 2019 in Review

O grim November. The semester at its most grinding. Thousands of leaves to bag. Even the Thanksgiving break busier than usual with several grant and conference applications sadistically due in the same week. On the plus side, crisp, even cold weather (at least for Arkansas). Which would have to console me, since I sure didn’t get much from my reading.

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Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger (2002) Trans. John Brownjohn (2004) I’d had this around for ages and took it from the shelf thinking it would be a quick read to ease me into German Literature Month. And it was quick. But it was also terrible. Ostensibly a crime novel about a cabbie who falls into lawlessness when he picks up a woman running away from her Russian Mafiosi husband, whom she has just defrauded of a lot of ill-gained money. I knew this novel was really going to stink when the pair (they never really get together, which is kind of interesting) head to San Francisco, the city that incarnates a certain European idea of American chic that I can’t stand (the way Europeans go bananas for Blue Velvet: ugh). I guess Ohnemus has pretentions to “exceed” the genre, because the last third of the book is about the guy’s rekindled relationship with an American woman he loved as a teenager (he was either on exchange or his family moved to SF for a bit: I forget, and I gave the book away, and who cares anyway). A ho hum thriller, a tedious relationship novel: stay far away.

Lee Child, The Affair (2011) It wasn’t until I was most of the way through that I realized this is sort of a Reacher prequel. Having only read two or three of this vast series so far, I wasn’t the right audience. Underwhelming.

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008) Manguso’s memoir of the seven years she suffered from an autoimmune condition that attacked the myelin around her nerves, rendering her numb, weak, even (fortunately temporarily) paralyzed, is worth reading. I was a fan when it came out, and subsequently taught it a few times, to good effect. (Manguso was an undergrad at Harvard when she fell ill: students relate to her life situation and her subsequent efforts to (over)compensate for the years her younger self thought of as missed—i.e. sleeping around a lot.) A few years ago I even had the privilege of meeting her and having her teach one of my classes (this was around the time of Ongoingness, her book about her diary): she was thoughtful, patient, wonderful with the students. I’ve been teaching introductory composition this semester for the first time in several years, and so I decided to assign it again. Although the students weren’t great at discussing the book (to be fair, it’s a writing course, not a literature course, so they hadn’t had much practice), but judging from their essays they enjoyed it well enough. I, on the other hand, found it less compelling this time. I wonder if Manguso would too. Definitely a young person’s book.

Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (2013) Terrific novel about the Dreyfus Affair. The audiobook—wonderfully read by David Rintoul—kept me enthralled for a couple of weeks’ worth of commutes. Many, many, many years ago, in my Grade 11 History IB class, I wrote a term paper on the injustice done to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused (in no small part because of his Jewishness) of passing secrets to Germany. So the story wasn’t exactly new to me. But I’d forgotten a ton, and it was fun to hear a name—Major Henry or General Boisdeffre, say—and wonder, Now, is that the really bad guy? (Not spoilt for choice in this business.) Harris’s narrator is George Picquart, the army officer who unwittingly began the slow and costly process of exposing the corruption and mendacity that had led to Alfred Dreyfus’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Picquart is an interesting character: we thrill to his persistence in uncovering Dreyfus’s innocence, but in Harris’s careful rendering we aren’t allowed to forget that he was never motivated by strong feelings for Dreyfus (he never liked the man, and was pretty antisemitic himself, though nothing like the main conspirators). That leads to a bitter concluding scene when the two men finally meet in which Picquart proves himself to have been telling the truth all those years in avowing that his search for the truth was prompted by his total commitment to the French army. Harris has found another milieu in which he can pretty much avoid writing female characters altogether, which sucks but given what we see here probably for the best. (Picquart’s love interest isn’t a cliché, she’s actually quite interesting, but she’s definitely underwritten.) The guy’s a genius, though, with suspense and back story. He knows how to pace. I even forgave him the present tense narration (a bête noire). Highly recommended.

Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann (2000) Trans. Jean M. Snook (2009) Actually wrote a post about this! Tl; dr: not perfect, but impressive, with a few nice Yiddish jokes.

Friedrich Gorenstein, Redemption (1967) Trans. Andrew Bromfield (2018) Difficult but fascinating book set in the immediate aftermath of WWII (opens on New Year’s Eve 1945/6) offering a rare description of the Holocaust from the Soviet perspective. (Rare to those of us in the so-called West, but also rare in the former USSR, as the topic was pretty much forbidden (“do not divide the dead”).) This first English translation—from what I can tell, beautifully handled by Andrew Bromfield—is in Columbia UP’s newish Russian Library series. It has a useful but frustratingly narcissistic introduction by Emil Draitser, who cites his own memoir repeatedly, but nonetheless explains pertinent background and details Gorenstein’s life. Best known in the West at any rate for his film scripts (including Tarkovsky’s Solaris), Gorenstein left Russia for Germany in the 1980s.

After a fair bit of mental back and forth, I decided to assign Redemption for my course Literature after Auschwitz next semester. I know already that my students are going to find it hard: it’s very Russian, bits of it remind me of Dostoyevsky, and a lot of it isn’t about the Holocaust, at least not in the ways they’re used to thinking about it. (Which is the point of assigning this text.) But I decided to go for it. Not only is a challenge a good thing, but I’m bringing in a ringer to teach it. My friend, Marat Grinberg, who teaches at Reed and has written at the blog before, will be visiting campus next semester and I know he’ll be able to contextualize the work much better than I can.

Anyway, read this book to learn more about the prevalence of American goods in Russia just after the war, the vicissitudes of denunciation, and, above all, the way in which someone who lived for years next door to someone else could suddenly up and murder them, and the way the Soviet government did and didn’t want to know about it afterwards.

Philip Kerr, A Man Without Breath (2013) I complained a little about the previous installment of the Bernie Gunther series. But here Kerr’s back in form. Dark and absorbing, A Man Without Breath has Bernie sent to investigate the Katyn massacre (the murder of over 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in a forest near Smolensk by the NKVDS, the Soviet secret police, in the spring of 1940). The Nazis hope to use the discovery of the giant mass grave as a way to galvanize international outrage and drive a wedge between the Allies. Pretty rich, of course, given the atrocities they themselves were busily pursuing. Sordid events, but the book doesn’t feel that way. Kerr was just brilliant with historical thrillers. I’m starting to feel keenly how few of these books I have left.

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In sum: two good thrillers, and two good novels about the Europe’s terrible 20th century. But a totally underwhelming month, and it is clear to me that the problem is that I read way too many books by men. Will see what I can do about that in December.

Not Sleeping, Speculating: Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann

Longtime readers will know how much the stories of Central and Eastern European Jews in the years from 1880-1945 mean to me. (In addition to my posts on Holocaust-related topics, too numerous to link to here, you might look at this piece on Roth’s Radetzky March or this one on Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost.) Less clear might be how seduced I am by literary late bloomers, but as an inveterate late bloomer in all things I confess: it is so.

Imagine my delight, then, when I plucked from my shelves Hans Eichner’s novel Kahn & Engelmann. I’ve had this book—published in a nice-looking edition by the outstanding folks at the Canadian publisher Biblioasis—lying around for ages; I can’t even remember where I first learned of it. Not only is Kahn & Engelmann an absorbing saga of a family of Hungarian Jews who make their way to Vienna in the late 19th century and succeed in the clothing business as much as the vicissitudes of antisemitism allow them to, but it was also published when its author was 79 years old. Eichner was born in Vienna in 1921 and escaped to England after the Anschluss (that escape didn’t exempt him from being interned as an enemy alien in a camp in Australia). He taught at various Canadian universities for many years, and wrote the novel in his first language, German, in his retirement. It was about to be published in this English translation (nicely rendered by Jean M. Snook) when Eichner died in 2009 at age 87: the first copies arrived from the publisher just days after his death.

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I have the feeling no one knows this book (I’ve never heard anyone mention it). But they should! Kahn & Engelmann offers both the immersive pleasures of a 19th century family saga and the self-reflection of the modernist reaction against that kind of storytelling. Reading it, I was frequently reminded of Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb, which offers a similar balancing act, though Eichner is more sweeping. As he mentions in an afterward, the novel is based on his own experiences, yet everything is modified: “there is little that didn’t actually happen, but also little that happened as it is reported here.”

Eichner was born in Vienna, in the predominantly Jewish district of Leopoldstadt; he was of that generation of Viennese Jews who felt particularly betrayed by Austria’s greedy embrace of Nazism. (Ruth Kluger would be another such writer, though she was ten years younger.) It is said that Eichner, who spent his career teaching German literature and philosophy, was tormented by the fact that he made his living through the language and culture of those who had tried to murder him, his family, and his people.

The novel begins with the narrator, Peter Engelmann, rummaging through a box of photographs. He alights on one of the oldest, from 1880, which shows his grandmother wearing a pair of beautiful boots made for her by the shoemaker she would soon marry against her family’s wishes. This is in Talpoca, near Lake Balaton in Hungary. Sidonie Róth persuades her mild, unambitious, but loving husband Jószef Kahn to move to Vienna; after various trials, their children become established in the garment industry, but not without many quarrels, the most consequential and long-running of which is between the narrator’s uncle Jenö (the Kahn of the title) and his father, Sandor (the Engelmann). We learn too of the narrator’s escape from Europe and a little about how he established his postwar life, which eventually leads him to Israel. Eichner does not, however, relate these stories chronologically: the logic is much more associative, even essayistic (“since the chronology of this account is any case completely confused, I’m going to leave telling about my childhood years for another time, and continue now with how it really was in 1938.”).

I read somewhere a review that rightly observed how the Holocaust hangs over the text like a terrible threat. Interestingly, though, the characters largely manage to avoid it, whether through intermarriage, emigration, or death. The reckoning with its devastation doesn’t come until later. Unfortunately, that belated recognition is the least compelling part of the book; Peter (unlike his creator) gives up his academic career as a result of a crisis over teaching the language of his culture’s oppressors, and makes Aliyah, becoming a veterinarian in Haifa, but the decision is presented hastily; indeed, the scenes of Peter as an adult are the weakest in the book, filled with tedious womanizing. Luckily, they occupy only a few pages.

In one sense, then, the novel is less dire than it might seem. (It’s not a Holocaust text by any means.) Yet in another, it is surprisingly dark. The richly textured depiction of Peter’s ancestors, especially the generation of his parents and their siblings, is larded with hostility, petty aggression, and misunderstanding, the regular bullshit of family life which, as is so often the case, is more consequential than its usual minor beginnings suggest it should be. At the heart of the novel are a series of exquisitely polite but increasingly bitter business letters between the narrator’s father and uncle, leading to the former’s suicide, an action surely modeled on Eichner’s father’s similar fate.

All of which is to say, yes, opera and Sachertorte make obligatory appearances, but the novel is more than just kitsch. Especially fascinating are its descriptions of how to make clothes into fashions, how to arrange space to get customers to buy, how to turn soiled or poorly cut outfits into pieces people are eager to wear. Without making a big deal of it, the novel makes an implicit comparison between the coaxing, dealing, and passing off of one thing as another needed to succeed in the shmatte business and the similar contortions forced upon Jews even in the openness of the last decades of the Hapsburg Empire.

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I would say the novel’s tone is best mirrored in the Jewish jokes it’s so in love with. How you get on with the novel can be predicted by how you feel about this sort of thing:

If a Jewish peasant gets chicken to eat, either he is sick, or the chicken is.

Or this, in which a rabbi and a priest are alone in a carriage:

The priest asked, “Tell me, Colleague, have you ever eaten pork?”

“To tell the truth, yes,” said the rabbi.

“Good, isn’t it?” said the priest.

“Tell me, colleague,” asked the rabbi, “have you ever slept with a girl?”

“To tell the truth, yes,” said the priest.

“Better than pork, isn’t it?” said the rabbi.

Or this, probably my favourite, about the rabbi of Tarnopol and the trip he made to Warsaw in 1782. Halfway home, he stops at an inn for lunch while the coachman Moische keeps an eye on the horses:

After a while the rabbi looked out the door, which was standing open because of the early onset of summer weather, and noticed that Moische was asleep.

“Moische, are you asleep?” called the rabbi.

“I’m not asleep, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?” asked the rabbi.

“I’m speculating, if you drive a stake into the earth, where does the earth go?”

“Moische, don’t sleep, so the horses won’t be stolen.”

A while later, when the rabbi had just finished eating his borsht, he looked out the door again and saw that the coachman was doxing.

“Moische, are you asleep?”

“I’m not sleeping, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?”

“I’m speculating, if you drive a stake into the earth, where does the earth go?”

“Moische, don’t sleep, so the horses won’t be stolen.”

When the rabbi was finishing up his meal with his coffee, the coachman had already shut his eyes again.

“Moische, are you asleep?”

“I’m not asleep, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?”

“Rabbi, I’m speculating how we can get to Tarnopol without a horse.”

It’s all a bit Leo Rosen’s Hooray for Yiddish, but I’ve a very high tolerance for this sort of thing. If you do too, and if you want something unsung but good, something part Proust, part Roth, part Mann, then you’ll like Kahn & Engelmann as much as I did.

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I read Kahn & Engelmann as a contribution to German Literature Month. Thanks to Lizzy and Caroline for hosting for the ninth (!) year running.

October 2019 in Review

A busy month, the semester grinding away, an invited lecture to prepare and deliver, the puppy growing more Clifford-like by the day. Yet also, finally, some relief from the heat. Unseasonably cool, even; some of the best fall weather I can remember in Arkansas. And along with it some decent reading.

b6bcfe645b912607d81ca0905c9cffa8Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84) I’ve written before about this memoir of the author’s time in hiding in Poland during WWII. I re-read it because I’ve added it to my Holocaust Lit syllabus. Although I missed Imre Kertesz’s brilliant Fatelessness, which I had to cut in order to fit Dry Tears in, I’m glad I made the switch. It was useful for students to read about a Holocaust victim who avoided the camps (plus it gave them a glimpse into life in the ghettos, although Tec and her family did not spend long there). It’s leading nicely into our current discussion of Agnieszka Holland’s film Europa, Europa. And it’s a great book pure and simple. Tec’s style is low-key, but that just heightens the impact of the psychological abuse she suffered. Pretty sure I’ll keep this memoir in my teaching rotation for a while.

Andrew Taylor, The Fire Court (2018) Second volume in Taylor’s series set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, featuring James Marwood, a Whitehall clerk whose father supported Cromwell and is now is disgrace, and Cat Lovett, similarly at odds with the new Court and her family as well, who is beginning to pursue her dream of becoming an architect. The books are nominally crime stories, but more interestingly they are about rebuilding: London itself, and the lives destroyed by both the fire and the Restoration. This one was better than the first, and I look forward to future installments.

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996) Trans. Stephen Snyder (2010) A few days before the awarding of the Nobel Prize, someone on Twitter was speculating that Ogawa might win. This piqued my interest and reminded me I had one of her books on my shelves. At first, I was engrossed in this story of a teenage girl, Mari, who helps her domineering mother manage a down-at-heel hotel in a Japanese seaside resort. One night they have to kick out a man who becomes violent with a woman he’s hired for sex. Mari is unaccountably intrigued by the man, and when they later meet on a ferry to a nearby island—where the man, who is a translator from the Russian, lives in regimented solitude—they begin a relationship that at once frees and imprisons the girl. In ordinary life, the translator is courtly, snobbish, a little nebbish-y. In his sex life, he is violent, abusive, domineering. Mari, it turns out, perhaps to her surprise, it’s hard to tell, loves it.

Hotel Iris made me uncomfortable because, even though narrated from Mari’s point of view, it’s unforthcoming about what Mari might be getting out of the affair. Eventually it’s hard to see it as anything other than abusive. Yet the novel offers no clear signals that it wants us to see things this way. There’s a subplot about a nephew of the translator, rendered mute after a childhood accident: also enigmatic, but in a way that felt clumsy rather than intriguing. In the end the book left a sour taste in my mouth. I could feel quite differently on another reading—it’s clear Ogawa is a writer of interest: she’s brilliant on atmosphere—but I don’t really feel like visiting that world again. Any thoughts, hive mind?

Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2018) Much fêted, but in the end forgettable novel about an African American couple who seems to have it made—recent graduates from terrific HBCs, they have interesting jobs and a nice life in Atlanta—until one night everything they know is overturned. Roy is falsely accused of raping a woman; he’s convicted and begins a lengthy sentence. Celestial supports him, but her need to forge her own life, and the distance between them (both literal—he’s in jail in Louisiana—and figurative—they can’t imagine each other’s lives) drives them apart. And yet not quite apart. A bond between them persists.

Mass incarceration is one of the issues in the US today—I’ve been heartened by how strongly students now feel about this, many of them rejecting the idea of incarceration tout court, thinking of it (rightly IMO) as just a form of torture: I’m reminded of how strongly students 5-10 years ago felt about LGBTQ issues, especially gay marriage. Jones ably depicts the psychological brutalization that incarceration is deigned to cause. And she makes you feel strongly for all of the major characters, even when their desires conflict. But in the end, I was annoyed by how “literary fiction-y” the book was. This is the kind of book that feels the need to introduce, apropos of nothing, ¾ of the way through, Roy’s childhood hobby: collecting keys. A lyrical aria on Roy’s keys follows, what they look like, where he found them, what he did with them. But keys, get it? He’s in prison. (Celestial’s career—she makes dolls, all of which are uncanny variations of Roy, that become collectors’ items—is similarly freighted, though at least Jones develops it more than the key business.) Give me an essay or non-fiction study of incarceration instead, thanks.

Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow (2018) The second Canadian Indigenous post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read in the last year or so. This one isn’t a patch on Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves—the writing clunkier, the characterization blunter, the idea that Indigenous people have resources to survive dark times that Whites don’t less developed—but Rice has a nice hand with suspense, and he offers a pleasingly enigmatic ending My wife read it before me and, as she predicted, once I’d read the first 30 pages or so I had to read the rest with as few breaks as possible. Pretty sure this is a first novel; curious to see how Rice develops as a writer. He’s got potential.

Jane Gardam, Old Filth (2004) Late to this party, but better late than never. A really fine and moving novel, a bit old fashioned, but so well done. You have to write for a lifetime to write a novel like this, I think. I pretty much agree with Daniel Polansky’s take entirely. (His reading log is pure joy. So punchy. Check it out.) Old Filth—as every review will tell you, the name stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”—is Edward Feathers, a Raj Child (a history totally unknown to me: fascinating and sad) who has, in fact, never failed at anything, except perhaps making emotional connections with others, yet even this judgment, which comes from the ways his childhood failed him, proves to be premature. I was captivated by the book from the beginning, in which an old man locks himself out of his house on a snowy Christmas day and is forced to ask his neighbour, also his oldest enemy, for help.

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Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938) I’ve read Woolf’s extended essay on violence and gender many times: it never gets easier or less thrilling. A difficult book to master—the conceit is that Woolf is responding to a letter from a man asking her how we can best prevent war, but there are letters within the letters, imagined responses to an imagined response, so it’s hard to stay oriented—Three Guineas always seems relevant, especially in its gender and class politics. As always, I was fascinated by the violence of Woolf’s own rhetoric, as if to suggest that violence cannot be expunged even in an investigation into its dangers. But this time I was particularly struck by how cynical (realistic?) my students were about how far their own college is from the ideal (women’s) college Woolf imagines in the second letter. The shift from Millenials to Gen Z has happened.

Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (2016) Even though it won a big recent prize in Canada I had no great expectations for By Chance Alone. Yes, it’s my personal mission to read every Holocaust memoir, but sometimes the ones written many years after the event can be forced or pious. But even though Eisen is by his own admission no stylist, the book is fascinating, of interest to specialist and general readers alike. Eisen’s experience was amazingly wide-ranging: he lived through almost every facet of the Holocaust.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 in a small town near the Hungarian border—in territory which was in fact given to Hungary in 1939, a fact which played a part in his survival—Eisen grew up in a close-knit family under almost idyllic circumstances. But in August 1942, together with his mother and siblings (his father has already been conscripted into forced labour), Eisen was deported to the Ukraine where he miraculously escaped death in the infamous killing fields near Kamenets-Podolsky (their transport was turned back at the last minute). Because after this short series of deportations Hungary dragged its feet in persecuting its Jewish population (at least from the Nazis’ perspective), after that narrow escape Eisen was able to live in relative freedom under Passover 1944, at which time he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  There another extraordinary turn of events led him to get a (coveted) position in the medical unit at Auschwitz I, where he became the assistant of the remarkable Polish surgeon Tadeusz Orzeszko.

Many Holocaust memoirs speed up at the end, stopping at liberation and alluding only vaguely to the difficulties that came afterward. But Eisen describes at length his experience on one of the notorious Death Marches in the freezing winter of 1945, and his long odyssey through a series of work and displaced persons camps in Austria, his journey home to Slovakia, and the events leading to his emigration to Canada in 1949. Eisen is an appealing character; I was moved by and engrossed in his book. (And it has great maps—something most Holocaust texts lack.)

Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) More about Filth and friends, this time focusing on Filth’s wife, Betty. On Twitter, Teresa suggested that the second and third volumes are good but not quite as good as the first, and I agree. But Gardam has a nice line in revelation, managing to keep surprising us without seeming manipulative.

Jane Gardam, Last Friends (2013) In some ways, the slightest of the trilogy, but Gardam has tricks up her sleeve even here. Here she focuses on Filth’s rival and Betty’s lover Edward Veneering, whose upbringing is, as the publisher rightly says, as Dickensian as his name. But two minor characters from the other volumes end up stealing the show: the trilogy ends with on a ramshackle but joyous note. Gardam knows what she’s about, and I’m curious to try some of her other stuff.

Tara Westover, Educated (2018) I confess that when I saw this on several best-of lists last year my not-so-secret-inner-snob thought, “Not for me.” But a couple of colleagues recommended it, and when I was looking for a new audiobook there it was on the New Shelf. And now I’m so glad I got over myself. By now probably everyone knows the deal: Westover grew up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. Like most of her six siblings, real didn’t go to school. Now way was she going to succumb to the godless socialism of the Government. Westover wasn’t immunized, visit doctors (charlatans all, at best, according to her father), own a birth certificate, or participate in any of the milestones of middle-class American life.

Instead she spent her childhood working in her father’s junkyard and, later, on his crew building barns. Dangerous work. One of the many extraordinary things in this book is its description of bodily harm. Westover herself narrowly escapes falling into a crusher. One of her brothers burns his legs terribly, and her father nearly dies (suffering permanent disfiguration) from burns suffered while preparing a car for the crusher. (He’s removing the gas tank with a welding torch but he’s forgotten to drain it.) Another brother falls off a roof on to his head and later smashes it again in a motorcycle accident. Her mother suffers a traumatic head injury in a car crash. Westover is regularly abused, even tortured by one of her brothers, who bends her wrists until they threaten (and once, actually do) snap. I winced many times while listening to the book. I was struck by Westover’s depiction of the head as the vital part of the human being: the damage to the brain is juxtaposed to the development of the mind.

In some ways the arc of the book is conventional: Westover escapes her upbringing and thrives; she seems to be amazingly good at almost everything she tries, from musical theater to writing a dissertation; after getting into BYU by scoring well on the ACT, she attends Cambridge on a Gates Fellowship (insanely hard to get) and scores a fellowship to Harvard. Yet in other ways, she is permanently damaged by her upbringing: unable to accept help, ungrateful to the people who go out of their way to help her, terrified of being ostracized by her family to the point of being willing to recant what she knows to be true. She is abused in so many ways. Yet she never makes fun of her family. I wasn’t left thinking, Wow, what a bunch of nuts. Westover’s mother, in particular, is a compelling, complicated, even tragic figure, at once highly competent (she is a midwife and herbalist who grows her kitchen business into a million-dollar concern) and terribly deluded about the abuse perpetrated in the family.

As a teacher, I was struck by how relatively little time Westover spends talking about the kind of learning that goes on in and around a classroom. Which suggests how many different ways to learn there are. And Educated was a salutary reminder that we don’t know and shouldn’t take for granted what our students have experienced before they come to us. It would be interesting to compare Educated to Rousseau and Mill’s autobiographies (Westover ends up specializing in social thinkers like Locke, Mill, Smith, and Bentham, so she is undoubtedly referencing those texts in ways I missed).

One scene in particular I’ll want to come back to. (Almost every piece on the book seems to refer to it: I want to think more about why.) In her first semester at college, Westover takes an Art History class. She sees an unfamiliar word in the textbook and raises her hand to ask about it. The room falls silent. The Professor winces and cuttingly says, “Well, thanks for that.” The girl who sat next to her, with whom she has struck a tentative friendship, berates her at the end of class: “Some things you don’t joke about.” No one in the class speaks to her again. At the end of the period she runs to the library and searches for this mysterious word: Holocaust.

Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (2019) (a.k.a. On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons) The US title isn’t a patch on the UK original, a much better reflection of this slow-burning memoir centered on the author’s mother, who was taken from a Lincolnshire beach in 1929 before being returned to her adopted parents five days later, unharmed. (Though there is plenty of harm in this story.) At first, I wasn’t sure how much it was working for me. (Reading it right after Educated was probably unwise: the former so brash, the latter so muted.) But the more I read, the more I appreciated, and by the end, which is amazing, I was well under its spell. Cumming is an art critic (her book on Velasquez awaits me on the library hold shelf) and she folds interpretations of various images into the story of her mother to surprisingly good effect. She’s a brilliant close reader: the book particularly comes alive when she considers family photographs. And she’s just really smart. I’ll close with a few choice quotes:

  • What is my mother’s own true nature, and what is the life she has been dealt, the tide of daily events that knocked her back and forth, that she swims in, or tries to swim in?
  • In the great democracy of family albums we all have photographs upon which, disastrously, nothing is written. Identities drift in a sea of unknowing. We have no idea who they were, these people smiling, frowning, or resisting the camera’s tyrannical hold. Each may be somebody, or nobody, of importance to the past or future story.
  • The lives of even quite recent generations might almost disappear from our understanding if we did not think of their aspirations.
  • Home is where nobody ever says anything by way of explanation about loss, death, or tragedy; where it is possible for George and Veda [her mother’s parents] to explain nothing about anything, for a whole childhood to pass, with all its racing school weeks and Sunday longeurs, its endless summer holidays and cyclical autumns, without anyone ever telling her anything—for the secret of her own origins to be kept entirely from her. The catastrophe is happening and everyone is looking away.

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There you have it, another month gone. Of the books new to me, the Gardams were satisfying, but a trio of memoirs, by Eisen, Westover, and Cumming, carried the day.

 

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?