Magda Birkmann’s Year in Reading, 2020

the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The seventh post is by Magda Birkmann (@Magdarine). Magda is a full-time bookseller in Berlin and spends all of her free time talking about books on Twitter.

Books have kept me sane during this pandemic (so far), so even by my personal standards as a professional reader (I’m a full-time bookseller) I really read A LOT in 2020—in fact, with 171 books finished, I’ve reached my absolute personal best. Most of those books I enjoyed very much, so it’s hard to come up with a general Best-Of list. But here are ten very good German books (5 new, 5 old) I read during the past year that haven’t been translated to English yet (or if they were, they’re out of print), but definitely should be. Who knows, if enough of you people pester the right indie publishers about it, maybe some of them eventually will be.

Anne Weber, Annette, ein Heldinnenepos (Annette, a Heroine’s Epic, 2020)

This book won one of the most important German literary prizes in 2020, and justly so. In it, Anne Weber—in the form of an epic poem—tells the real-life story of Annette Beaumanoir, a neurophysiologist and heroine of the French communist resistance during WW2 who later received a ten-year prison sentence for her support of the FLN in the Algerian War. It took around 30 pages for me to get used to the unusual form (unlike in English-language YA fiction, novels-in-verse aren’t really “a thing” in Germany), but once I got it, I was completely hooked and often moved to tears by this factual story that Weber (who based her book on several interviews she conducted with Beaumanoir) has transformed into a beautiful piece of literature.

Olivia Wenzel, 1000 serpentinen angst (1000 Coils of Fear, 2020)

The debut novel by Olivia Wenzel, a Black Eastern German writer who has worked in theater for years, should have won all the important German literary prizes but didn’t, which just goes to show how rotten this whole prize business is. The novel, inspired by Wenzel’s own background, switches between a first-person narrative (the protagonist is a young mixed-race German woman who was raised in the GDR alongside her twin brother by a white single mother) and interview-style passages in which the protagonist seems to be both asking and answering the questions, tackling topics like race, sexuality, feminism, motherhood, nationality, and grief. For those familiar with mainstream contemporary German fiction, the book’s innovative style (which clearly betrays Wenzel’s theatrical background) is a much-needed breath of fresh air.

[As far as I can tell, English translation rights to this novel have actually been sold, but I don’t have any information on where and when an English version will be published.]

Deniz Ohde, Streulicht (Scattered Light, 2020)

Deniz Ohde’s debut follows a young woman who, after having moved far away to attend university, returns to her industrial hometown for the wedding of two childhood friends. During her short weekend stay she reflects on her working-class childhood and the rocky road towards a formal education she was forced to follow, all the while struggling to (re)connect with her father, an alcoholic and compulsive hoarder. Ohde’s novel is reminiscent of the work of Annie Ernaux (but in an industrial Western German 90s setting) and since the latter is one of my favorite writers of all time, it’s no wonder that I absolutely loved Streulicht too.

Simone Hirth, Das Loch (The Hole, 2020)

Simone Hirth’s Das Loch is an epistolary novel about a writer trying to confront the mental and physical isolation she’s been suffering from ever since becoming a mother. The protagonist feels like she’s fallen into the eponymous hole because all the reproductive work she has had to do since the birth of her son (her husband rarely being home) leaves her no time or energy for her literary endeavours. In lieu of those, she begins, in what little spare time she has, to write letters to Jesus, Buddha, the Chancellor, Madonna, Snow White, a frog, Ulrike Meinhoff (of Baader-Meinhof Gang fame) and a handful of other addressees. Those little missives are by turns angry, sarcastic, desperate, optimistic and incredibly funny while also offering a sharp analysis of the unfair double load that working mothers, in particular, have to carry in our society. As someone who doesn’t have (or want) children, I found the book eye-opening.

Samira El-Maawi, In der Heimat meines Vaters riecht die Erde wie der Himmel (In My Father’s Homeland The Earth Smells Like The Sky, 2020)

“I know more about the history of Nelson Mandela than I know about my father’s history.” This sentence runs like a chorus through this beautiful debut novel by the Black Swiss author Samira El-Maawi. The book is told from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl who grows up in Switzerland in the 80s as the child of a white Swiss Christian mother and a Black Muslim father from Zanzibar and who tries to assert her own identity amidst everyday racism, family crises, and conflicts of loyalty. El-Maawi, who has used both her own experiences (she herself is bi-racial) and the experiences and life stories of other Black Swiss people in her book, writes very clear and befittingly simple (considering that the narrator is a child) prose that is spiced up by occasional lyrical passages that read like little poems. I hadn’t really read very many Swiss authors before, but this novel definitely made me want to explore that literature further.

Gisela Elsner, Das Berührungsverbot (Prohibition of Contact, 1970)

Contemporary critics called Gisela Elsner’s 1970 novel an “anti-porno,” a Swiss journal that had been printing excerpts was seized by the authorities, and Austrian media attacked it as harmful to children. In truth, though, this caustic satire by an outspokenly communist writer is a ruthless, oftentimes screamingly funny reckoning with both the uptight sexual mores of the 50s and the compulsive promiscuity of the 60s. Admittedly, it’s also a book about several German heterosexual couples engaging in group sex orgies. Most importantly, it lays bare the enduring patriarchal and authoritarian structures of post-war German society. This was my first novel by Elsner, but after I finished it, I immediately went and bought her complete backlist, the devouring of which is going to be one of several big reading projects I have lined up for 2021.

[Although this particular book has yet to appear in English, two of Elsner’s other novels, Die Riesenzwerge (The Giant Dwarfs, 1964) and Abseits (Offside, 1982) were translated into English by Joel Carmichael in 1965 and Anthea Bell in 1985, respectively (although both translations appear to be long out of print).]

Helen Wolff, Hintergrund für Liebe (Background for Love, written 1932, first published 2020)

Helen Wolff, who together with her husband Kurt Wolff had to flee Nazi Germany and in 1942 founded Pantheon Books during their American exile, is mostly known for her work in publishing, bringing some of the most well-known European writers to American readers. Only after her death in 1994 did her descendants find out that she had been quite an accomplished writer in her own right.

Her little autobiographical novel Hintergrund für Liebe, which was written in 1932/1933, was posthumously published for the first time in 2020. Inspired by her own travels to France with her husband, the book tells a slow, gentle (although a sense of foreboding of the sinister things to come runs through the tale), summerly story about the emancipation of a young woman who finally starts standing up for her own wants and needs and finds love along the way. The novel is accompanied by a long and fascinating biographical essay by Wolff’s great-niece, and if this book doesn’t sound like perfect NYRB Classics fare, I don’t know what does. They should really get to it! [Ed.—Amen!]

Lida Winiewicz, Späte Gegend (Late Region, 1986)

Lida Winiewicz was an Austrian writer and translator of Jewish heritage who wrote prose, plays and film scripts and translated works by writers like Graham Greene, Colette, and Georgette Heyer from English, French, Italian, and Spanish into German. Späte Gegend, her first prose work, originally appeared in 1986 and was republished in German only weeks before Winiewicz’s death at the age of 92 in October 2020. The book purports to be a transcript of the oral recollections of an 80-year-old farmer’s wife who describes the arduous life on a farmstead in the Mühlviertel (a region of Austria that lies north of the river Danube) during the 20th century. While it is never made clear which are the actual words of the narrator and which are literary embellishments by Winiewicz, this look at a long-forgotten way of life is gloriously curt and trenchant, but with an underlying melancholy that I found deeply moving.

Margaret Goldsmith, Patience geht vorüber (Patience Passes, 1931)

When Margaret Goldsmith’s novel first came out in 1931, it barely received any critical attention and before its “rediscovery” in 2020 it had never been reprinted. Its protagonist Patience von Zimmern, daughter of a Prussian doctor and an English aristocrat and a thoroughly “modern” woman, fits right in with the heroines of other recently “rediscovered” 1920s/1930s writers like Vicki Baum, Gabriele Tergit, and Irmgard Keun. The book follows its heroine through the great and small woes of everyday life: it tells of her first love and relationship with her (female) best friend, her rash marriage to a young soldier who, against all odds, survives his time at the front during WW1, her challenging work in journalism and later, her second career in medicine, and, most importantly, the conflict in loyalty that she feels as the daughter of two enemy nations. None of Goldsmith’s other books (she wrote both in English and in German) remain in print and even second-hand copies are pretty hard to come by, which is a great shame, because after reading this very entertaining novel I am very much intrigued by her work and life. (Virginia Woolf apparently could not stand her because Goldsmith once had an affair with Vita Sackville-West.) [Ed.—More prime NYRB material!]

Marlene Streeruwitz, Verführungen (Seductions, 1996)

When the debut novel by Austrian writer and playwright Marlene Streeruwitz first came out in 1996, the thing a famous German literary critic found most worth mentioning was how much the book talked about menstruation (too much, in his not very humble opinion). In fact, the question of the book’s literary merit was at the center of a heated argument during one episode of the long-running literary talk show Das literarische Quartett (which was broadcast monthly on German TV from 1988 to 2001), with the male critic refusing to accord it any. Knowledge of that fact alone was enough to make me want to read it, and I was not disappointed. Verführungen is told from the point of view of a woman in her 30s, mother of two, who has recently been left by her husband and now strains to make ends meet with a part-time job in a PR agency while pursuing an affair with a flaky musician. There’s no real plot, the book sort of meanders along following the protagonist’s everyday struggles, but through its close look at what some might deem banalities and through Streeruwitz’s staccato style, a horrifying picture of female lives in a modern patriarchal society slowly emerges. For me, at least, this book was a true punch in the gut and I’m afraid that not all that much has changed in the 24 years since its initial publication.

[An English translation by Katharina Rout was apparently published by Oolichan Books in 1998, but it appears to be out of print.]

Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The sixth post is by Hope Coulter (@hopester99), who I’m lucky to work with. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

2020 stole a lot of things from us. One thing it didn’t steal—the Tiffany box sitting in plain sight on the dresser, which the burglar miraculously forgot to swipe into his pillowcase—was reading. When the pandemic struck and life was suddenly curtailed to the home front, a number of factors that normally compete with reading in my waking day, such as daily commutes and shopping, disappeared. The news was one competitor for my attention that remained, but if I wrenched myself away from updates on the latest case numbers and chaos I could turn, with more time and greater relief than usual, to books. And so the weeks went by and I read: through nights where an uncanny stillness muted my neighborhood, in corners of the house (and the day) that were newly open for visitation, on dog walks with earbuds jammed in my ears.

I discovered several fiction writers last year who were new to me. Dorian had tipped me off to Paulette Jiles, whose gritty historical fiction is a delight. Mostly set in the U.S. Midsouth and West, her novels feature authentic dialogue, grainy characters, galloping plots, and accurately rendered settings (at least as far as my own knowledge of horses and birds can confirm). Her News of the World has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks that just came out. I started with that book and followed up with Simon the Fiddler, Enemy Women, The Color of Lightning, and Stormy Weather.

Another new pleasure was Maggie O’Farrell. I ran into her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, which may be my favorite—especially with the twist that the final section puts upon the whole. While I was devouring her Instructions for a Heatwave, set in London in 1976, I happened to hear an NPR interview of O’Farrell discussing her new book, Hamnet, which came out last year to lots of accolades: it’s a fictionalization of Shakespeare’s family life. I dipped into more O’Farrell through online samples and wasn’t as taken by them as I was with these three books, but I’ll probably try again with other works of hers.

Curtis Sittenfeld is a fiction writer a friend had mentioned in the context of her novel Rodham, about Hillary Clinton. At the time I didn’t follow up. Then late one night, when I was prowling the spotty “available now” shelves of my Libby app, embarrassingly like an addict knocking on doors for a fix, I came across Sittenfeld’s Eligible. The title rang a bell, and I remembered that a favorite podcaster, Liz Craft, had also touted this author. I saw that the book was an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and inwardly rolled my eyes, because I’m often not a fan of Austen adaptations, either books or movies (why not just go back and reread the real thing?). But I was desperate for a hit, and as soon as I plunged into the sample I was hooked. Eligible was my best 2020 read for sheer fun. Set in contemporary Cincinnati, the book reimagines the Bennet family in ways that are both clever and true to our times, and its fidelity to the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy should please even the most stringent of Jane devotees. It’s funny, raunchy, and thoughtful—a romp with depth. I wish I could have made myself enjoy it more slowly, but I couldn’t help racing through.

After that I turned to Sittenfeld’s story collection you think it: i’ll say it, and was underwhelmed. Still hopeful of reexperiencing the Eligible high, I turned to Rodham. Again, I was suspicious: was this book going to be a polemical feminist rant? (Well, kind of.) Was it going to misrepresent Arkansas and Arkansans? (To my surprise, it didn’t.) And the big question: would it shed light on my own complicated opinions of Hillary and Bill; could it embody these two individuals persuasively and give me new insight into their relationship? (Resoundingly, no.) This book receives my Dorothy Parker “not a book to be tossed aside lightly—it should be thrown with great force” Award for 2020. The first part was curiously engrossing, if uncomfortably so, as it nailed Hillary’s voice with cringeworthy persuasiveness and dramatized details about Bill and Hillary’s dating and sex life that only they should know. (Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t read either of their enormous memoirs, and maybe Sittenfeld drew her torrid-romance imagery from their own words—but I doubt it.) The minute that fictional Hillary breaks off with fictional Bill and returns to the East Coast for a solo career, the novel becomes a huge yawn, and I couldn’t make myself finish it. The book could contribute, if tediously, to such eternal questions as the line between fiction and nonfiction, the obligations of the author, whether it’s ethical (or even a good idea aesthetically) to render first-person fiction about a still-living person… but, warning: if you want to use this novel to flog such issues, you may just end up feeling icky.

Other stand-out fiction that I read this year, on the positive side, includes Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside; Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (yes! more about truculent Olive!);and Gail Honeyman’s haunting Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I reread Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and—while waiting for the fifth in the series—re-listened to two of Robert Galbraith’s utterly satisfying Cormoran Strike books. Less happily, I buzzed through Carl Hiassen’s Squeeze Me, which is crummy even for a guilty-pleasure book, and finished off my last four books in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series with the absent-minded “why am I doing this” of someone swallowing stale potato chips. [Ed.–What?? Who could be unmoved by the last book in the series?]

At Hendrix, where Dorian and I are colleagues, I teach only one course a semester, because I also have administrative duties. As it happened, this year I taught the same course back-to-back in spring and fall: a tutorial on Irish short stories. The rereading I did for teaching was that wonderful kind of deep, slow reading that opens window after window into the text. My selection spanned from 1894 to 2017, from folk legends recast into stories by W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge to modern love fables by Lucy Caldwell and Sally Rooney. Along the way we read some dark jewels by James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, and Frank O’Connor; Roddy Doyle’s delicious “The Pram”; and Seumas O’Kelly’s one-hit wonder, “The Weaver’s Grave.” Discussing these works with the students was a rich experience, even in the online format that had so unexpectedly become a norm. I’ll be returning to these stories, and gladly, in future semesters.

In nonfiction, my reading year’s unexpected highlight was Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. As a 747 pilot for British Airways, Vanhoenacker wrote columns for a number of magazines and newspapers, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. In lyrical, exact prose he serves up a cockpit’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly these elegant machines around the globe. Much of the book is terrific description of cloud formations, land patterns, and celestial sights observed on his long flights; I plan to use it as a teaching model. There is also lots of information about the pilot life—what it’s like to cross vast time zones so routinely; how a long-distance crew prepares for flight; and how this long-distance flying affects pilots’ friendships and their outlook on the world. This book was especially good to read during a time when I longed for travel, and when its absence made me see it in a new light. In the long summer hours of 2020 as my husband and I sat on our deck, noticing the planes crossing the sky and speculating as to their destinations, Vanhoenacker’s perspective often came to mind.

Less ecstatically, 2020 prompted me to read on the troubling fronts of race and inequity. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterpiece, compellingly written and somber. It permanently shifted the way I view systemic racism in the United States. Natasha Trethewey’s memoir, Memorial Drive, is—true to her poet’s nature—much briefer, and evocative in its own way of the caste-based divide in this country. I also read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which gave me new understandings of the housing crisis and how deeply it’s enmeshed with other social problems. (I hope Biden and Harris have read it.)

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book has, as Rossini or somebody said about Wagner, wonderful moments and dreadful quarters of an hour. Orlean herself reads the audio version; when will authors learn that, no matter how skilled they are with the pen, they are not trained voice actors? It was only by turning the speed up to 1.5x that I managed to push through her slow, grating voice to the end. Still, the tome includes memorable anecdotes about the history of libraries and L.A. that make it worth the slog.

Early in the pandemic, The American Scholar published a list of recommended food writing from its archives. In our desperation to entertain ourselves my husband and I, like so many others, were lavishing new attention on cooking, so I thought it would be fun to try some of these cookery classics in my reading. Turned out I wasn’t in the mood for How To Cook a Wolf  by M.F.K. Fisher or The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. James and Kay Salter’s Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days had flashes of fun but, as can happen with food writing, the fussiness became downright shrill—This is how you make a martini! This and only this is what the cool people do with the chicken! By contrast, I absolutely loved Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: the story of how she became the New York Times food editor, complete with droll—and insightful—accounts of doing restaurant reviews in disguise.

Well, I’ll stop for now. Thanks, Dorian, for giving me the chance to share. It’s an honor to step into this venue: I’ve added so many recommendations to my to-read list from books mentioned here, both in the main blog and in the guest posts and comments. If any of y’all ever come to Little Rock, post-pandemic, let’s grab a drink and fill in the gaps. I want to hear more about what you think and what’s on your nightstand. The plague will be over and the question will still be germane: Read any good books lately?

What I Read, December 2020

I’m slow at the best of times, but the lag between now and December seems especially long. That was before there was an armed insurrection in the US Capitol, for example. Anyway, December was in large part a slow month, which is really always a good thing but especially now. I wrote steadily, then took time off at the end of the year. The days drew in, the temperature dropped a little, running conditions were good. Inveterate grasshopper, I turned to a series of short, light books, but mostly I was reading a long, serious one. Yes, on my third try I am finally reading War and Peace, and I know now it’s a book I’ll want to return to again. I only made it about 2/3 through in December, so for now I’ll stick with the rest of the month’s reading.

Helen MacInnes, Above Suspicion (1941)

I closed out 2019 with MacInnes’s Decision at Delphi and liked it enough to promise myself I’d keep reading her. So when I saw some titles in one of the recent Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sales, I snapped them up. I started with this, her first, one of those “ordinary people get caught up in espionage” scenarios that seem to have been popular in the 30s and 40s (Ambler, Dorothy Hughes). Here the ordinary people are a young married couple—he an Oxford don, she his intelligent and fashionable partner—who are persuaded by an old friend to use their annual summer hiking holiday in the Alps to test the strength of a ring of British agents in the Reich. After successful rendezvous in Nuremberg and Innsbruck, the couple run into problems in the Austrian Alps.

I wanted to like Above Suspicion, but in the end I did not. It seems to have been written to encourage Americans to get into the war—like Casablanca, from the same year, only not nearly as good. A laudable goal, but one that makes for heavy going today, especially in the conversations between the English couple and an isolationist American journalist whom they befriend and eventually convert to the antifascist cause, though not without dialogue like this:

“I’ll become accustomed to the idea that man is born in pain, lives in struggle, dies in suffering.”

“Well, that’s a better defense against the new Middle Ages than the nice ideas you got from your liberal education.”

MacInnes obviously became a good writer—who can tell me when that happened?

Gary Paulsen, Hatchet (1987)

Now classic middle-grade novel that I am old enough to have missed the first time around. It was assigned to my daughter for school, and we read it aloud together. Brian, whose parents have recently separated, flies to Alaska to spend the summer with his engineer father. On the way, though, the pilot dies of a heart attack. (This happens in the first chapter, so I’m not spoiling anything.) The prop plane crashes on the shores of a lake somewhere in northern Canada. Brian is banged up but, miraculously, alive. Now he has to stay that way. His ingenious efforts at doing so and his diminishing hopes of being rescued comprise the rest of the book. Basically, it’s Robinson Crusoe for fourth-graders. My daughter found the crash really scary, but then she got into the survival story. I enjoyed it too, though I found Paulson’s love of sentence fragments grating, his cod-existential philosophy a Bit Much, and his depiction of Brian’s mother unduly harsh. But he’s good at depicting dramatic events and the painstaking work required to live off the land. A vivid scene with turtle eggs might stay with me forever. Hatchet readers, you know what I mean.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts (2020)

Crime novel set on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is an enforcer on the rez (people hire him to give wrongdoers a doing over when the police won’t deal with them—which is most of the time). He’s also guardian to his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan. Virgil is still grieving the deaths of his mother and sister, and trying to keep things together. But when Nathan nearly dies from an OD Virgil becomes determined to find out who is bringing drugs onto the rez. Some things in the book are conventional (Virgil reunites with an old girlfriend, for whom he tries to clean up his act; he has a funny, goofy friend as his sidekick). Others are not, like the attention paid to what people on the rez eat, versus what other people think they should. Or like the title—winter counts are historical records that use pictographs to convey important events. Personally, I think the events of this particular year make a satisfying arc. But the end of the book clearly sets us up for more of Virgil Wounded Horse. Which, fine, I’ll totally read them. For me, Marcie R. Rendon’s Cash Blackbear books are more interesting, but I’m always here for more crime fiction by indigenous writers.

Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times (2020)

Ava arrives in Hong Kong from Dublin to teach English. She meets Julian, a rich English banker, and enters into a wary, minefield-laden relationship with him. Both are desperate not to show their emotions, channeling that energy into plenty of sex and (genuinely funny) arch conversational volleys. When Julian is sent home for a while by his firm, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong-born, English-educated lawyer. They fall in love. What will Ava—who is living in Julian’s posh flat and has been more than cagey with Edith about him—do when Julian comes back?

The characters are good: Ava frustrated and delighted me in equal parts. Edith is a mensch. Even Julian is in his rubbishy upper-class English way sympathetic. The book is smart: Dolan uses Hong Kong to think about Irish colonialism—primarily through the way both places absorb and inflect the English language. And it’s funny: I started noting passages that amused me but gave up after a while, there were so many. I can’t resist sharing a few examples, though.

Here’s Ava performing some of the mental gymnastics she’s so good at:

I googled the salary range for junior vice presidents at his bank: 137,000 to E217,000 a year, plus bonus and housing allowance. I tried to take heart from this. That he could have that many zeroes and not consider himself wealthy surely showed that material lucre would not make me happy, ergo that I needn’t find a real job. But if money wouldn’t improve my life, I couldn’t think of anything likelier to.

Here’s Ava at the end of one of her regular phone calls with her formidable mother:

She didn’t want me to agree that it was good her younger son no longer needed her. Equally, she didn’t want me conforming that she should feel defunct because he was leaving before he’d finished college. Mam dealt in conversational quicksands where moving would only trap you more.

Here’s Ava with some on-point life thoughts:

You had to pretend to feel sad if you’d been single too long. I hated doing that because there were other things I was actually sad about.

Here’s Ava and Edith reflecting on the British. (Dolan does reported speech/Ava’s conclusions about conversations so well):

We agreed also that the British obsession with dogs was creepy, both because of the volume of animals they ate and in light of their historic and contemporary level of regard for humans.

Here’s Edith offering Ava a home truth:

 “You keep describing yourself as this uniquely damaged person, when a lot of it is completely normal. I think you want to feel special—which is fair, who doesn’t—but you won’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself your especially bad.”

And finally here’s a bit from Ava’s class. I loved these sections; they reminded me of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, another funny and smart novel about young women teaching abroad. Here Ava is teaching the difference between category nouns (vegetable) and exact nouns (broccoli, carrots).

“It was better to use exact nouns because this made your writing more precise and interesting.”

[Ava sets an exercise in which students are to provide three corresponding exact nouns for each category noun.]

Cynthia Mak asked what to say for ‘people.’ Did it mean ‘sister,’ ‘brother,’ ‘father,’ or ‘teacher,’ ‘doctor,’ ‘artist,’ or—

‘They’re all okay,’ I said.

‘But if I put ‘sister,’ ‘father,’ ‘brother’ in ‘people,’ then what about here?’ She pointed to the box marked ‘family.’

‘Okay, don’t do those. Do ‘teacher’ or something.’

‘But what about here?’—signalling the ‘professions’ row.

‘Okay, something else for “people.”’

‘Happy people, sad people?’

‘“Happy people” isn’t an exact noun—it’s an adjective plus a category noun.’

‘So what should I write?’

We looked at each other. It was indeed a challenge to describe people in a way not immediately related to how they earned money or their position in the family unit. I said, ‘How about ‘friend,’ ‘boyfriend,’ ‘colleague’?’

‘I don’t want to write ‘boyfriend.’’

I couldn’t blame her for questioning the exercise. ‘Friend,’ ‘enemy,’ and ‘colleague’ didn’t seem like ways of narrowing down ‘people’ in the way ‘apple’ did for ‘fruit.’ An apple would still be a fruit if it didn’t have any others in its vicinity, but you couldn’t be someone’s nemesis without their hanging around to complete the definition. The same issue cropped up with my earlier suggestions. ‘Family’ was relational, and ‘profession’ was created and given meaning by external structures. Admittedly, ‘adult,’ ‘child,’ and ‘teenager’ could stand on their own. But I still found it depressing that the way we specified ourselves—the way we made ourselves precise and interesting—was by pinpointing our developmental stage and likely distance from mortality. Fruit didn’t have that problem.

I promised myself I’d write this review without mentioning Sally Rooney. Every piece I’ve seen about Exciting Times, not to mention the jacket copy, does. Hell, Rooney first published Dolan in Stinging Fly. Dunno what to say, though. They do remind me of each other. But, good news, there’s room for both in my reading heart.

Uri Shulevitz, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (2020)

Uri Shulevitz’s father named him for “the biblical Uri, father of Bezalel, the first artist of the Bible,” after he noticed the infant, just home from the hospital, staring intently at the flowers on the wallpaper. Indeed the boy loved nothing more than drawing, which Shulevitz presents as an allegory for understanding the complexity of the world, detailing, for example, his amazement when his mother teaches him how to draw his stick figures in profile and not just head-on. Even before he grew to be a teenager, Shulevitz—author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books—would need to shift his mindset many times.

When the Germans invaded Poland, Shulevitz père left his wife and four-year-old son behind in Warsaw and fled eastward, managing to find work painting slogans for the Soviets in Bialystok. Despite this success, fear for his loved ones in Nazi-occupied Poland made him determined to return home. Taking a train to the Soviet-Polish border, he was on the point of crawling through the hole in an abandoned warehouse that served as a makeshift conduit between the two countries, when a man came through in the other direction. In horrified amazement, he ordered Shulevitz’s father to turn back. To return to the Nazis was suicide; he should concentrate on getting his wife and child out. Eighty years later, Shulevitz reflects on this chance encounter. What would have happened had his father ignored the man, or arrived just fifteen minutes later? The same thing that happened to the rest of Shulevitz’s relatives, probably: death in camps or ghettos. Was his family’s escape providence? If so, why did his devout grandfather perish, when his non-religious parents did not? Now an old man, Shulevitz can only conclude, “I have no answers.”

The historian Raul Hilberg famously said he never began with big questions about the Holocaust, because he was scared of arriving at small answers. Better instead to begin with the small things—such as, in this case, a lively and moving account of what one child experienced. Shulevitz even sees the absurd humour in his experiences, like the ridiculous pieties he and his parents encounter in their first months in the Soviet Union. My favourite instance is when a soldier tells a group of refugees about the wonders of their new land:

He said, ‘In the Soviet Union, we have plenty of everything. We have tea and we even have sugar.’

Both were such luxuries in those days.

When one of us asked, ‘Do you have lemons for tea?’ he declared, ‘Sure we do. They’re just now building a lemon factory.’

Even as a small child, Shulevitz was learning that nothing was quite as it appeared—perhaps another reason why he would be so fascinated by art, which at least was honest about being fake.

As Jews, Shukevitz and his parents were refused Soviet citizenship, which meant they could only live in certain areas. When Shulevitz’s father lost his job as a sign-painter, he found one with a theater company. Accompanying his father to work, Shulevitz was amazed by the differences between the sets seen up close—so flimsy—and their splendid appearance from the stalls. Life proved itself similarly unsteady when, in the summer of 1940, the family was suddenly deported with other stateless refugees, almost all Jewish, to a settlement called Yura near the White Sea. (Shulevitz’s experiences there were similar to the ones described by Esther Hautzig in her marvelous autobiographical children’s novel, The Endless Steppe.) 2400 km from Warsaw, the family began a new, hard life: the men cut timber in the forest; the women prepared what little food they could grow or gather. The children played in the snow and loved it, but death lurked all around—the first thing the overseer pointed to when the refugees arrived was a cemetery: “That will be your last resting place.” And it almost was for Shulevitz’s mother, who became dangerously ill and was saved only after an arduous journey to the regional hospital.

She survived, much weakened, and the family’s next piece of luck came with the dissolution of the Hitler-Stalin pact in the summer of 1941. Overnight the refugees were no longer spies or saboteurs but instead victims of a common enemy. Eventually, in 1942, Shulevitz and his parents were allowed to travel to the Soviet republics in central Asia. Two months later, the family arrived in Turkestan in the Kazakh Republic. Shulevitz was finally safe—and yet his troubles were only beginning. His father vanished—to join the Polish army being formed in Iran, it transpired, but he and his mother did not know this until he returned months later, having been rejected for service—his mother had to take any work she could get, and Uri himself fell seriously ill. Even after his recovery he and his mother were hungry all the time. Matters hardly improved after the father’s return: an impractical man, his money-making schemes (building a loom for weaving carpets, smuggling tobacco) came to nothing. Eventually he eked out a living at a shoe repair kiosk in the central market. Shulevitz loved nothing more than coming to work with his father; he describes this part of his life vividly: the mix of Russians, Chechans, Jews, Kazakhs, and other peoples fascinated the boy. And always he found art: a scrap of an old map, a strip of film that he and his friends pored over with the devotion of film students, a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Russian.

Shulevitz never finished the book, though. The war ended and the kid who owned the book vanished with his family from one day to the next. Besides, Uri was on his own adventure now, an odyssey to return home, via Moscow, L’vov, and Kraków, where Shulevitz’s parents soon learned that they, along with other Jewish survivors of the war, were not wanted. The family thus diverted course and made their way into Czechoslovakia illegally before eventually arriving at a DP camp in Bavaria. In December 1946 the family made it to Paris, where they reunited with the father’s brother and his family. Their two-and-a-half-year stay was a mixed blessing for Uri—he hated being a “dirty foreigner,” but he fell in love with the movies and the novels of Dumas. In 1949 the family left for Israel; ten years later, Shulevitz, now a young man, accepted an offer to study art in New York, where he has lived ever since, still drawing.

When Shulevitz says that art saved his life, he doesn’t mean it metaphorically. He and his parents were refused Soviet passports in 1940 because the official who adjudicated their case believed, despite the parents’ protests, that the boy had been named after the Zionist writer Uri Zvi Greenberg, which must mean the parents were anti-Soviet reactionaries. At the time this refusal was a terrible blow, leading to their exile in Yura. But had they stayed in Grodno they would likely have been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen that swept through in 1941/42. A baby fixated on flowered wallpaper; a fanciful father who knew some Torah; a rejection that led, indirectly and dangerously, to safety: no wonder Shulevitz concludes, “It was blind chance deciding our fate.” It is for this clear-sightedness—this refusal to sugar-coat his survival as a function of heroism or cleverness or chutzpah—even more than for its illuminating depiction of the refugee experience in Soviet Central Asia, that sets Chance: Escape from the Holocaust apart from other Holocaust memoirs, whether for children or adults.

In fact, it was difficult for me to tell, as I read the book raptly in a single evening, who the book was for. Although marketed for children—my local library is shelving it in juvenile nonfiction—it never condescends to them, and would in fact, I suspect, be difficult for those under age 10 to follow. For me, this uncertainty was a plus; I love that teenagers and adults can both enjoy it. The book’s illustrations are similarly pleasing, and similarly uninterested in being only one thing. They include photos, maps, and dozens of Shulevitz’s charcoal drawings, in a variety of styles, from comic-book caricature to Käthe Kollwitz-inspired expressionist. Really an excellent book, highly recommended.

Marie Jalowicz Simon, Underground in Berlin (2014) Trans. Anthea Bell (2015) [compiled by Hermann Simon and Irene Stratenwerth]

Fascinating memoir describing Marie Jalowicz Simon’s years living under an assumed identity in wartime Berlin. At one point, an abortionist who has been helping her and other Jews in hiding sends her to a supposed rescuer, a barmaid who sells Jalowicz Simon to a syphilitic Nazi for 15 Marks. You can’t make stuff like this up. I wrote about my experience reading it with students.

Rebecca Clifford, Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust (2020)

Writing about this for another venue, so will only say for now that this study of child survivors of the Holocaust is excellent. Clifford cogently argues that these children—ranging in age from two or three to twelve to fifteen at the time—were continually used and abused by the adults who took charge of them after the war, sometimes stripping them from the families who had cared for them lovingly during the war, projecting on them their anxieties and hopes, and even disputing that they were survivors at all. At times, the children were despaired of as savages whose humanity had been destroyed by their experiences. At others, they were heralded as the vanguard of a virile Jewish future. Using untapped archival records and interviews with twenty survivors, Clifford emphasizes the children’s own wishes and desires, something that none of the (mostly well-intentioned) adults in their lives had ever done for them.

Eva Ibbotson, The Morning Gift (1993)

I was about a third of the way through this novel when I glanced at the copyright page, curious whether it was from the 1940s or the 1950s. Imagine my shock when I learned it was published the same year I started college. I admit this knowledge made the book sink a little in my estimation—what felt sweet and innocent coming from another age felt naïve, even misguided when written with so much hindsight. But its author was from another age—Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925 to talented parents (her father was a fertility doctor, her mother a writer whose work has in recent years been rediscovered). She arrived in England in 1934, landing with her mother in Belsize Park, a London neighbourhood then filled with down on their luck refugees from Hitler.

The Morning Gift draws on that background. Ruth, a young woman from an accomplished, loving, slightly eccentric Jewish Viennese family, escapes to England after a hasty marriage to a brilliant British professor of vertebrate zoology. Quin turns out to be one of the most eligible aristocratic bachelors in England. (Think Cary Grant’s character in Bringing Up Baby except this guy always knows where his intercostal clavicle is.) That is, everyone thinks he’s eligible, because Quin and Ruth keep the marriage secret so they can dissolve it without fuss—but of course the real secret (to themselves, not to readers) is that they’re actually crazy about each other. Will they figure that shit out before they pull a relationship Gift of the Magi?

Imagine, if you can, a mash-up of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and a less sinister work Daphne DuMaurier—that’s The Morning Gift. (In her introduction to this reissue, Sarra Manning calls it “the missing link between I Capture the Castle and Jilly Cooper’s early romances.”) Ibbotson apparently said she wrote books for intelligent women who have the flu. I’m no intelligent woman, sadly (actually, not sadly, as then my ideas would get stolen by inferior men and my drycleaning would be more expensive), and, touch wood, I haven’t the flu. But I raced through this romance, despairing at setbacks and cheering for a happy ending. I wouldn’t have minded, though, if the book had been a little less insubstantial. Which has left me of two minds about whether to try Ibbotson again. I will take your advice in the comments.

Nora Ephron, Heartburn (1983)

Enduring yet also dated novel (in an interesting, not bad way: group therapy, was that really a thing?) about a woman responding to her feckless husband’s infidelity. Strong Laurie Colwin vibes (though the master remains unsurpassed in the “young woman for whom cooking is important makes her way in New York” genre). Lots of good lines, sometimes laugh out loud funny. Would have left more of an impression, I suspect, had I not been reading War and Peace at the same time.

Patrick DeWitt, French Exit (2018)

Someone praised this on Twitter and, feeling the need for a break from the Russian soul, I took a quick spin through it. To make a French exit is apparently to leave without saying goodbye—to ghost someone, basically. In DeWitt’s novel a mother and her thirtysomething son, who live together in disquieting intimacy (they don’t sleep together or anything, it’s not like that, instead they make fun of people in the same mean way) escape Manhattan, after their finances finally collapse. (The woman’s late husband made a fortune as a litigator defending exclusively terrible causes, but the money’s been squandered.) They take refuge in a friend’s Parisian apartment, blithely spending the last of their funds on marvelous food and wine and gathering an assortment of characters around them. The vibe is part Arrested Development, part Wes Anderson. Indeed, at first I thought, “This is like a Wes Anderson film in which all the characters are mean.” (Like those awful twins in Rushmore.) By the end, French Exit became like an ordinary Wes Anderson film, complete with celebrations of full-blown idiosyncrasy and plenty of winsome ruefulness. I didn’t feel the transformation was earned, though. DeWitt can turn a phrase, but I don’t see the point of this book. It wants to have it both ways: nasty zingers and hugging and learning. I think DeWitt—whose Robert Walser pastiche I couldn’t finish—is just not for me.

Holocaust stories were December’s winners: the Clifford, the Jalowicz Simon, and, especially, the Shulevitz are moving, valuable works. The light reading was mostly a let-down, and the literary fiction a mixed bag (yay Dolan, boo DeWitt). But everything was overshadowed by the book on which my attention was mostly fixed. (Hint: it’s about Russia.) More about that next month!

Anja Willner’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The fifth post is by Anja Willner (@WillnerAnja). Anja lives in Munich, where she has a running argument with herself about what she likes best: reading books, hunting after books, or talking about both.

In 2020, I read 70 books, which is quite a lot for me and certainly more than in recent years. Probably due to less work-related stress and more inspiration by Twitter folks (thank you, Book Twitter)! As I’m German, I’ve got quite a few German books or books translated into German on my list. I tried to provide the English title whenever possible, but some books unfortunately aren’t (yet?) available in English. I hope you’ll bear with me nonetheless!

•           Toni Morrison: Love

What is there to say about Toni Morrison you do not already know? Not much probably, so I’Il just say I’ve yet to pick up a Morrison novel that is not good.

•           Elizabeth Taylor: Blick auf den Hafen (translator: Bettina Ababarnell) [English original, A View of the Harbour]

Pretty much the same goes for Elizabeth Taylor: how in the world did she manage to write such impeccable novels? It is and probably will remain a mystery to me. Anyway, my plan for the years to come is to read all of her work.

           Angie Thomas: On the Come Up

Great writing here, especially the dialogues. Also, I learned a lot about hip hop and feel I appreciate this genre of music more now. Love her!

•           Marcelle Sauvageot: Fast ganz die Deine (translator: Claudia Kalscheuer; English title, Commentary)

Kudos to Asal Dardan (@asallime) for pointing me towards Marcelle Sauvageot! I’m always thankful for suggestions of female authors to rediscover. In case you are not familiar with this little gem (I hadn’t heard of it until a year ago), the backstory here is quite interesting. It’s Sauvageot’s only published literary work as she died very young. Fast ganz die Deine is a letter to a man that left her – the story goes that it circulated among friends who persuaded Sauvageot to have it published. No wonder everyone who read it was enchanted by this work, given its perfection. (Good book to start your reading year off, if you ask me. Far better than the Bely dungeon I’ve locked myself into this January. Got out recently and will brag about it for years, so there’s that.)

•           Annie Ernaux: Erinnerung eines Mädchens (translator: Sonja Finck; English title, A Girl’s Story)

Okay, no surprises here: everybody seems to read and love Ernaux and indulge in autobiographical/pseudo-autobiographical writing at the moment (the “moment” stretching back several years, I guess?), and I’m no exception.

The reason why I’ve long avoided Ernaux’s works is simply I’m so ashamed of my practically non-existent French that I haven’t read many (translated) French books recently. I remember struggling with French pronunciation and comprehension, but some part of me insists it might be the language of my heart. (Probably not true at all and sorry, Russian. We’re still dating, right?)

•           Chris Kraus: I Love Dick

Forever gender-confused here as there is a German (male, cis) filmmaker who goes by the same name. Similarly, I felt confused at times by I Love Dick, but largely liked it very much. Also, I made a lot of screenshots of the text I will probably never look at again.

•           Павел Санаев: Похороните меня за плинтусом (Pavel Sanaev: Bury me behind the baseboard)

There are some rules in my life. For example, I’ll read anything recommended by my lovely and witty Russian teacher, Rita. If you’re into Soviet culture, especially the films, this small novel will particularly interest you, for the author is the son of the actress Elena Sanaeva and the stepson of famous actor Rolan Bykov.

If you’re not into Soviet culture and the personal dramas between actors and actresses (I learned to care, it’s so interesting once you start), don’t worry: It’s sufficient to be a human being to care for this little book. Bury me behind the baseboard is as heartbreaking as it is autobiographical.

The author, Pavel Sanaev, spent most of his childhood with his grandparents–here comes the heartbreaking part—against his mother’s will. The grandparents simply refused for years to give him back to his mother, while persuading the child his mother, Elena, had abandoned and forgotten him. I really cannot describe the feelings I have about how his grandmother treated him, a then small child. I don’t have kids, but the sheer thought anybody could be like that to a kid makes me sick. (There is no physical abuse, though.)

Everything is told from the perspective of the child. Okay, we’re all familiar with this trick, I guess. And maybe we can agree that telling a story from a child’s perspective can either add strength to your story or make it extra cringy. Here, the former is the case. Have I already said how heartbreaking all this is? It is—but it’s also a very funny and sad and wise book.

•           George Eliot: Middlemarch

I know a thing or two about literature written in German and quite a lot less about 19th century Russian literature, but apart from that, my reading biography consists of gaps I sometimes find hard to forgive in myself. To catch up on classic English literature, one has to start somewhere, so I started here and did not regret it. What a rich book, and so funny! Huge thanks to author, translator, and literature lover Nicole Seifert (@nachtundtagblog) whose enthusiasm made me pick it up.

•           Marlen Haushofer: Die Wand (The Wall)

Should you really recommend a novel about near-total isolation in the wilderness to anyone in a pandemic? Not sure, but it worked for me. One of the greatest texts about nature and the question of what it means to be a human being I’ve come across so far. Also, finally a writer who really, really gets cats! But be warned, cat lovers, you will come across some gruesome scenes. 

•           Marlen Haushofer: Wir töten Stella (We Murder Stella)

Great novella by the same author which sadly doesn’t seem to have been translated yet. The casual seduction and destruction of a young girl is not a new motif in literature, but here it shows post-war Austria (could have taken place in Germany as well in my opinion) at its coldest. The non-communication of the family and the cool tone of the narrator were killing me.

•           Andy Miller: The Year of Reading Dangerously

I’m so thankful for book twitter and about twice as thankful for Andy Miller still/again being on Twitter, because I rely on “Backlisted Pod” recommendations so much. And well, I knew even before I picked it up that there was no way I wouldn’t love The Year of Reading Dangerously!

Personally, I’m a fan of tackling the classics no matter what. They are not being stored in some holy shrine, they are for everyone. Maybe not for everyone to enjoy, but, for me, that’s another matter: one has to learn to appreciate literature as an art. The more you read and think about what you read, the more you get out of your reading. And if you don’t understand everything, what’s the matter with that if you’re enjoying yourself? I’m all for critical debates on how a canon is established and how we can include works by women, people of Color and other marginalized groups better. At the same time, I enjoy discovering the classics and reading them (often this is a critical look back, but mostly it’s enjoyable).

Andy’s book was so much fun to read for me and inspired me to make even more lists of books I love to talk about reading someday. Great inspiration!

•           Theodor Fontane: Der Stechlin (The Stechlin; reread)

I come from Brandenburg, in Eastern Germany, the region Fontane wrote so often about; his works were always around when I was a kid (most households there own at least one book by him). I guess that makes Fontane the most admired and unread author of that part of Germany.

Fontane himself used to joke that in this novel, not much happens. It’s true, at least if you’re reading for the plot, of which there is not much. Der Stechlin really is a novel that for me is the perfect fit for the landscape of Brandenburg. Not much there to entertain the eye. Until you learn what to look out for.

           Olivia Wenzel: 1000 Serpentinen Angst (A Thousand Coils of Fear)

Really strong debut novel dealing with problems such as racism. I liked the novel’s experimental form: at first, the reader doesn’t always get who is talking und what’s going on, but it’s not an annoying l’art pour l’art thing. Just a very fresh approach. I noticed some parts (really not many!) I would have wanted edited in a slightly different way, but that is a matter of taste. Overall, I’d advise everyone interested in contemporary German literature to read this novel and follow the work of Olivia Wenzel closely. (I hope there will be a translation soon!)

           Deborah Levy: Was das Leben kostet (translator: Barbara Schaden; English title: The Cost of Living)

Another “late to the party” entry. I like Levy’s writing a lot; I’m not so sure about some of her political beliefs, but nothing I couldn’t live with. Will probably need to read a lot more by her!

•           Rachel Cusk: Lebenswerk (translator: Eva Bonné; English title: Motherhood)

Until a few years ago, I couldn’t be bothered reading new fiction. I was busy with the classics and my work schedule—at least this is my excuse for having never heard about Rachel Cusk until Asal Dardan recommended her works to me (maybe two years ago?). Since then, I have read nearly everything by Cusk. Yes, she is fashionable, but for good reasons.

I had circled around Motherhood for a while and 2020 was the year I finally got around to it. My hunger for books about having children has been irritating for me initially as I don’t have kids and don’t feel particularly drawn to them. (It’s such a difficult topic.) I just feel that these kinds of stories have been marginalized and silenced for so long I have some catching up to do.

What I loved about Motherhood was how honest it felt to me. I remember sending screenshots to my sister (mother to one of the few exceptions I make when it comes to engaging with children), who agreed with almost everything Cusk wrote, allowing us to share a few socially very-distanced chuckles. (We live more than 300 miles apart.)

•           Simone Hirth: Bananama

The author Saša Stanišić (@sasa_s) recommended this book on Twitter and I’m so happy I didn’t just make a screenshot of the book cover and then forget about it. Instead, I put the author’s name on a list of books of interest on my smartphone (I later discovered I took down her name and the novel’s title about three times), checked it out from my local library and – here it comes! – actually read it!

In the book, a small girl lives a super eco-friendly lifestyle with her parents, with the latter taking things clearly too far. I liked the topic, but what I liked even more is what is hardest to describe: what a writer Simone Hirth is! She builds a world you follow her into, even though you maybe don’t completely understand where she is heading, because understanding is just not what matters. Just stunning, sometimes funny.

•           Marlene Streeruwitz: Verführungen (Seductions)

There don’t seem to be any translations of Streeruwitz’s work into English which is a shame if true. Verführungen was her debut novel and it’s a strong one! At first, I struggled a bit with the “Streeruwitz sound”: she uses a lot of really short sentences. As an editor, I usually tell writers off for this sort of thing, but here it is art and it achieves something. Once you let the text lead you, it’s like a maelstrom and pulls and drags you with it, letting go only after you have turned the last page.

When it first came out, the novel was criticized by some as concentrating too much on “trivial” aspects of a woman’s live: caring for children, menstruation, and so on. One doesn’t have to be a genius to understand at least some of this criticism was fueled by underlying misogyny.

There is a very insightful interview with Streeruwitz (in German, sorry) on Nicole Seifert’s blog. If you read German and are interested in overlooked female authors, I would really advise you to follow Nicole on Twitter (@nachtundtagblog)! (I’m aware I mentioned her before, can’t stop, won’t stop.)

Oh, one more thing about Streeruwitz: she recently compared measures for containing Covid-19 with the “Nuremberg Laws” of the Nazis. It goes without saying I find this comparison as historically inaccurate as it is disgusting. Let’s hope she’ll recognize her mistake and apologize – it really hurts to lose a Feminist icon and brilliant writer to the Corona deniers.

•           Bernadine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other

Very late to the party, I know. But yet: a well written novel offering interesting perspectives – I’d recommend it to (not only) male white friends. Yep, multiperspective narration has been in fashion for ages, but you have to be a really good writer to give it a fresh feeling. Evaristo certainly delivers here.

•           Benjamin Quaderer: Für immer die Alpen (The Alps Forever)

I think this is one of the strongest first novels I’ve read in recent years. Daring and funny, with a narrator that plays around with you. Also, you’ll learn a lot about the tiny, tiny kingdom of Liechtenstein! Minor disadvantage: there are some graphic descriptions of violence I found hard to stomach, but you can easily omit those few pages.

More books I enjoyed a lot in 2020:

  • Franziska Gräfin zu Reventlow: Von Paul zu Pedro
  • Ruth Klüger: weiter leben (English title: Still Alive), unterwegs verloren, Frauen lesen anders
  • Brigitte Reimann: Franziska Linkerhand (reread)
  • Antonia White: Frost in May
  • Fran Ross: Oreo (translator: Pieke Biermann)
  • Marguerite Anderson: Ich, eine schlechte Mutter (translator: Patricia Klobusiczky; English title: A Bad Mother)
  • Candice Carty-Williams: Queenie
  • Inge Deutschkron: Ich trug den gelben Stern (English title: Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin)
  • Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall
  • Sjón: Schattenfuchs (translator: Victoria Cribb; English title: The Blue Fox)
  • Marguerite Duras: Der Liebhaber (translator: Ilma Rakusa; English title: The Lover)
  • Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
  • Mary Wesley: A Sensible Life

Nat Leach’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The fourth post is by Nat Leach (@Gnatleech). Nat has written several posts for the blog over the years, all wonderful. He lives and works on Cape Breton Island.

An Alphabetical Odyssey: Year 3

Like so many things in 2020, my reading did not exactly go according to plan. Readers of my Year in Review post from last year will know that my current project is to work through my shelves alphabetically in order to finish the many partially-read books on them. But while I managed to work my way through almost three letters of the alphabet during each of my first two years of this project, I ended up devoting most of this year to the letter “G”. There are a number of reasons for this: my own tendency to expand this project by creating mini-projects (e.g. exploring 6 translations of Goethe’s Faust or almost 2000 pages of Vasily Grossman) or by adding new books to my shelves thanks to a number of irresistible NYRB Classics titles and some very strong recommendations from Dorian (a Venn diagram of which would basically be a circle), and, of course, my Achilles heel—Twitter read-alongs (Malicroix, Our Mutual Friend, The Man Without Qualities). But if this sounds like complaining, it’s absolutely not—if ever there was a project where the point was the journey and not the destination, it’s this one. After all, what’s going to happen when I reach “Z” (assuming I live that long)? I’m just going to start all over again.

Over the course of the year, I realized something about myself that might help to account for my previous system of rotating my reading between an excessively large number of books: I enjoy beginnings a lot more than endings. A new book introduces us to a new world populated by new characters whom we desire to know better. The potential is boundless. But the closer a book gets to its end, the more it forecloses the possibilities it has opened up, and (often), the more we feel that nothing can surprise us, or, worse, that the ending is not consistent with what went before. Put another way, endings are a lot harder than beginnings; creating the broad outline of a narrative world and its characters is one thing, but sketching in the detail and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion is quite another. Over the years, I think I’ve enjoyed having read only a few chapters of certain books, and having their potential frozen in place like Keats’s urn. But now that I’m getting older, the impulse for completion is getting stronger.

Maybe this is all pretty obvious, but this year really brought it home to me, as I was enticed by the openings of a number of books only to find my interest lagging in the second half. If I could have stopped reading at a certain point, my memories of some of these books would be fonder. Fortunately, I still had mostly positive reading experiences this year; I read 33 books from 11 countries (including 6 from France, making me wonder if there is something about the letter “G” and French surnames), and enjoyed most of them. Here are some short synopses:

Ford, Richard- The Sportswriter (1986)

The only thing I learned from this book is that this middle-aged white guy has no patience for the angst of other middle-aged white guys. The protagonist of this book, Frank Bascombe, is divorced because he has been horrible to his wife, continues to be horrible throughout the entire book, and somehow I’m supposed to care about his faux-profound reflections on life? I could have tolerated this book if there was some sense of distance between its author and his protagonist, but from the light way the book tosses off Frank’s casual sexism and racism to (spoiler alert, if anyone cares) the way he is rewarded at the end of the book with an incipient relationship with a seemingly interesting, intelligent, and attractive 20-year old woman, I can’t help feeling that Ford is thoroughly endorsing Frank’s perspective. I hate to use sophisticated literary-critical terms, but this book was just too “icky” for me. In fairness, Dorian warned me not to read it, but would I listen? I know it’s a bad start to be this grumpy about my first book of the year, but at least if I get a bullet in the mail, I’ll know who it’s from.

Garner, Hugh– Cabbagetown (1968)

Another book from my list of Canadian classics, this novel focuses on the life of an impoverished community in Toronto during the Great Depression. The book’s strength comes from its powerful, vivid depiction of the struggles of its characters as each of them attempts to come to terms with the reality of the Depression in a different way. Here’s a typically great descriptive passage, of a chocolate factory at which one character is fortunate enough to be employed:

The mixing room was heavy with the smell of chocolate. The walls, the floor, the machinery, even Billy, reeked of it. It permeated his clothing, hair, and even his comb, nailfile and wallet, so that he was a permanent olfactory advertisement for Besty-Tasty products. His appetite for chocolate had been satisfied forever during his first week in the mixing room. He had imbibed his fill, not only by mouth and gullet but by absorption through his pores. Now he could no longer even smell chocolate, for it was his own body odour.

It’s far from the bleakest passage in the book, but given the unfortunate fate this character suffers in the mixing room, it appropriately attests to the way in which characters are victims of their concrete circumstances.

Genet, Jean- Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) (trans. Bernard Frechtman)

Usually, when an author has a reputation for being shocking, I find myself highly disappointed when I actually read them. Genet, however, completely lives up to his reputation. Written clandestinely in prison, the book challenges all conventions and taboos. But, going beyond Genet’s detailed and explicit attention to bodily emissions and his multiple slang terms for “penis,” two things particularly struck me. 1) The guy can write. Given his subject matter, it’s hard to call his writing beautiful, but it has a rhythm and flow that captivates, even as his digressive style is continually shifting narrative tracks. 2) At the root of the narrative is actually a very sensitive story of someone who would today be called a trans youth, told without embellishment or censorship.

Gide, André- The Immoralist (1902) (trans. Dorothy Bussy)

Call this Exhibit A of the phenomenon I mentioned above; this book captured me at the beginning, but lost much of my interest by the end. It’s an appropriate book for this year, I suppose, insofar as it is concerned with the way that illness—and recovery—test relationships. I enjoyed this book, but I somehow expected it to go further than it did. Maybe I’ve just become jaded by subsequent anti-heroes, but the climax of the book did not particularly shock me, nor did it inspire much moral reflection. In his Preface, Gide says, “I have not tried to prove anything, but only to paint a picture well”; he does that much, but I couldn’t help wanting something more.

Ginzburg, Natalia- Family Lexicon (1963) (trans. Jenny McPhee)

Call this one Exhibit B: I liked this book a lot, but I loved the first half of it and felt it ran out of steam a little bit towards the end. It opens in a really interesting way, exploring how a family’s language constructs its own particular place in the world. This thread carries through the book, of course, but at a certain point, Ginzburg becomes much more informational, describing what happened to each member of the family and its associated friends. Not coincidentally, this point is the outbreak of World War II, and the various traumas and divisions in the family are noted without being extensively described. Given that Ginzburg notoriously recommended the rejection of Primo Levi’s seminal Holocaust memoir, If This is a Man, because of its subject matter, it is perhaps not surprising to find that she is reticent about describing her own war experiences, including her husband being tortured to death by the Nazis. I liked it enough to give the book to my mother for her birthday, and her take was that the book starts from a child’s perspective, so you don’t expect very much interpretation, but once it shifts to an adult’s perspective, we feel that absence of context a lot more. Which I thought was a good point. All of this is by way of explaining why I felt the latter half of the book somewhat flatter than the first part, but I still enjoyed it a lot.

Giono, Jean- Hill (1929) (trans. Paul Eprile)

This was a late addition to my list, thanks to the recommendation of Dorian, and others on Twitter, and was certainly one of my favourite books of the year. Written in 1929, it reads in a very contemporary way because of its treatment of environmental concerns. I jokingly referred to it as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” meets Picnic at Hanging Rock because it involves a violation of nature that is punished, but in a mysterious, uncanny way. The events take place in a tiny village in Provence, where the inhabitants struggle with the forces of nature, and the book wonderfully illustrates the precarious coexistence of the human and natural worlds.

Gissing, George- The Odd Women (1893)

This book had been sitting on my shelf for some 20 years, and now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it I could kick myself for waiting so long. Another book that feels very contemporary despite its age, and that rarest of things, a book that deals with social issues (in this case, the Victorian “woman question”) without sounding preachy. Clearly, there are characters we are expected to identify with more than others, but Gissing brings great sensitivity and understanding even to the characters who are clearly shown to be ideologically flawed. My one criticism of this book would be its use of implausible coincidences to move the plot along; for example, when complete strangers meet and realize that they live in exactly the same building in the huge and bustling city of London, you just know that plot complications are going to follow. (On the other hand, I forgive Dickens for stuff like this ten times in a single book, so I guess I can’t really complain.) This is one of the exceptions to my tendency of the year, since it actually gets the ending just right, which is especially difficult for novels about social problems; a happy ending is liable to make readers complacent about real social ills, while an overly tragic ending makes them feel hopeless. Gissing strikes just the right balance between hope for the future and mourning for what might have been.

Godwin, William- Deloraine (1833)

Having read all of Godwin’s “mature” novels (I haven’t read his three “juvenile” novels) except this, his last, I figured it was time. It’s far from his best, and might be accused of being a re-tread of Godwin’s dominant themes: social alienation, class injustice, the haunted perspective of a pursued criminal, and an abrupt reversal of philosophical perspective at the end. He does, however, also do a characteristically good job of using conventional melodramatic situations to raise deeper philosophical questions. Is it worth saving your life, Godwin asks, if you lose your identity in the process?

Gogol, Nikolai- The Inspector General (1836) (trans. B.G. Guerney)

Sadly, this nineteenth century satire on political corruption and deceptive appearances is just as relevant now as it was then. A buffoonish but minor civil servant is mistaken for an important government inspector in disguise; hilarity ensues as local officials seek to conceal their misdeeds and appease the fake inspector, but as the play’s conclusion reminds us, the subject is not all that funny.

Goethe- Faust, Parts 1 and 2 (1808, 1832) (various translators)

I embarked on an ambitious project of beginning 6 translations, and ended up finishing 2 (the Bayard Taylor and Charles Passage versions). Part of the reason for this is that Part 1 has been much more frequently translated than Part 2; two of my translations were of Part 1 only. To summarize briefly, Part 1 was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be (Faust makes deal with Mephistopheles, seduces Gretchen, lots of witches and devilish imagery et cet.), and Part 2 was utterly and completely not (complex allegory about everything from contemporary politics to poetry to geology). I would say that it completely changed my view of Goethe, but now that I think about it, I had a similar reaction to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, so maybe I should just admit that I have no idea what to expect from him.

Goethe- The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) (trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Brogan)

When I was an undergraduate, my classmates and I created a list of “big idiots of English literature,” to which virtually every character in every book we read would be added for one reason or another. Werther would probably have earned his own category on that list. I actually suspect that undergraduate me would have totally loved this book, but given the suicide craze that it sparked in Germany on its publication, it’s probably just as well that I did not read it until I was older and wiser. Now, I’m more inclined to say that it’s a good book, but man, that guy is a big idiot.

Gracq, Julien- Chateau d’Argol (1938) (trans. Louise Varèse)

I had heard such wonderful things about Gracq that I was very keen to read one of his books. Having received this one (his first, as it happens) as a gift some years ago, I chose it, which may not actually have been the best place to start. The writing is gorgeous, the plot minimal—a  man buys a remote castle in Brittany, his frenemy comes to visit, and brings a woman, leading to a love triangle of sorts—and some of the chapters are utterly compelling. One in which the three protagonists swim too far out into the sea and struggle to return to shore was particularly gripping. Given my interest in the Gothic, I was also intrigued by the exploration of the castle and the vivid, often grotesque, imagery, but, finally, I wasn’t sure if the book adds up to much. It gave the impression of housing some hermetic secret, but search me what that might be. But the writing itself is enough to make me want to explore Gracq further.

Grass, Günter- The Tin Drum (1959) (trans. Ralph Manheim)

Exhibit C? At least I’d been warned that the first half of this book is much better than the second. And having seen Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation three times, I certainly had some vivid memories of the beginning: Oskar Matzerath—unreliable narrator extraordinaire—tells the improbable story of his mother’s conception, eventually arriving at his own birth, and the novel’s pivotal event: he is given a drum for his third birthday and decides to stop growing. I was a bit puzzled that I had no recollection of any events from the second half of the book, but after watching the film for a fourth time, I realized that Schlöndorff only adapted the first 2 of the novel’s 3 books. Probably a wise choice since the third book is pretty forgettable, and Schlöndorff ends his film by foregrounding the Holocaust context that Grass himself has been accused of minimizing. As Ernestine Schlant puts it, “there is an ingrained obtuseness and insensitivity to those who suffered and died, evident in a language where silence is veiled in verbal dexterity and a creative exuberance rooted in pre-Holocaust aesthetics.” Schlöndorff does a much better job of addressing this context in his film, foregrounding German anti-Semitism; having Charles Aznavour sympathetically portray Sigismund Markus, the store owner who supplies Oskar with his drums, and one of the few Jewish characters in the book; and, finally, ending with the arrival of Fajngold, a camp survivor who displaces Oskar’s family. I liked the book well enough, but I think Schlant has a point: Grass loves his own creativity in a way that overshadows his book’s troubling subject matter.

Gray, Alasdair- Poor Things (1992)

A playfully postmodern riff on Frankenstein in particular and nineteenth century fiction more generally, this book starts with “Alasdair Gray” discovering and surreptitiously pocketing a manuscript written by a Victorian physician and gets progressively wilder from there. Impossible to write too much about without giving something away, but brilliant in the way that each successive level of documentation works to throw into question what has come before.

Green, Henry- Loving (1945)

This book bucked the trend of the year: it grabbed me from the beginning and never let go. The plot concerns the servants in an Irish manor during World War II, and depicts their lives with a remarkable fullness, rarely showing much of the lives of the upper-class characters at all. Highly recommended to anybody except those who can’t stand when adjectives are used as adverbs.

Greene, Graham- The Heart of the Matter (1948)

This was my third Greene novel (after The Power and the Glory and A Burnt-Out Case) and certainly the one I enjoyed the most. I suspect this has as much to do with my age as anything else; I read those first two in my 20’s, but Greene’s heroes always seem to be world-weary and cynical, a position with which I am becoming increasingly sympathetic. I could certainly feel for Scobie, a morally upright but generally insignificant colonial policeman whose conscience gets tested both in his public and his private life. The other challenge I find with reading Greene is the centrality of the Catholic beliefs of many of his characters; in this case, the entire final third of the book hinges on Scobie’s Catholic definition of sin, and even though one of the women in his life points out the inconsistency between his actions and beliefs, it is clear that readers are supposed to be aligned with Scobie’s views. George Orwell disliked the book for this reason, dismissing Scobie’s character as implausible (that, and the fact that the book is set in Africa, but is exclusively concerned with “white people problems”). So, I did enjoy the book, but also felt that I couldn’t sufficiently engage with its moral problem.

Greenwood, Walter- Love on the Dole (1933)

Another very fitting book to read this year, this account of life in a Northern English city during the Great Depression is filled with simmering, impotent frustration with the system, and one very explosive protest. Greenwood does an excellent job of showing the texture of life within the limiting constraints of “Hanky Park,” the slum neighbourhood where the characters live, from the cradle to the grave. We see highs as well as lows, but are always reminded that the system is designed in precisely this way, as the lows get progressively lower.

Grossman, Vasily- Stalingrad (1952) (trans. Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler) and Life and Fate (1960) (trans. Robert Chandler)

I bought Life and Fate on Dorian’s recommendation, but before I could read it, I heard about NYRB’s publication of Stalingrad. I tried to decide which to read first, as there seem to be many opinions on that question. In his introduction to Life and Fate, Robert Chandler says that it is “better seen as a separate novel that includes some of the same characters,” but in his Introduction to Stalingrad, he refers to the two novels as a closely connected “dilogy.” I can certainly see the logic in both claims; one does not need to have read Stalingrad to appreciate Life and Fate. As a stand-alone novel, the latter can simply be seen as opening in medias res, and its ideological perspective is markedly different from the earlier novel anyway. However, I ended up reading the “dilogy” in sequence, which did help me to feel the continuity of Grossman’s intricately depicted world. In fact, Life and Fate begins with characters who had been captured by the Germans about halfway through Stalingrad, and whom I had almost forgotten already, so I’m sure that if I had read them separately, I would have missed many of the connections between them. I enjoyed both books, although Stalingrad is much more ideologically orthodox than Life and Fate, which is more complex (and subversive) in its exploration of the dynamics of totalitarianism, both in Germany and in Russia.

Grushin, Olga- The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2005)

This was a wonderful follow-up to Grossman, exploring the history and psychology of the Soviet era with a specific lens on visual art. The novel positions surrealism as an imaginative artistic movement repressed by the official dictates of socialist realism; that repression returns with a vengeance in the psyche of the main character. The book is narratively breath-taking and deftly switches from third-person to first-person at significant moments, building to a remarkable crescendo.

Haasse, Hella- The Scarlet City (1952) (trans. Anita Miller)

Normally, I’m a sucker for all forms of historical fiction, but this one gets mixed reviews from me. Its central narrative revolves around Giovanni Borgia, who is searching for answers to the mysteries of his birth (Is he really a Borgia? And if so, through which member (or members!) of the Borgia line can he trace his lineage?) It’s interesting to note that this character does seem to be based on a real historical figure, albeit one who was murdered before the events of this narrative begin, and who does not seem to have had such mysterious parentage; so the narrative is counter-factual, but not in a way that an average reader would recognize. Giovanni explains that he writes his narrative because there is nobody in Rome he can trust. So far, so good—and this part of the narrative was quite enjoyable—but interspersed with Giovanni’s narrative are the stories of a number of other related characters, presented in a weird combination of omniscient third person narrative and unmotivated first person reflections. The fact that Giovanni’s narrative situation is explained, but these others are not, was confusing enough, but to top it off, Haasse breaks the Sir Walter Scott rule, and makes actual historical personages central figures in a way that feels very jarring from a historical point of view (Michelangelo is the focus of two segments, and we also read letters supposedly written by Machiavelli). Those parts really did not work for me, nor did the whole thing come together in any meaningful way at the end, as I had hoped, although the vivid and brutal depiction of the Sack of Rome of 1527 was a powerful segment.

Hamsun, Knut- Hunger (1890) (trans. Robert Bly)

This book does exactly what it says on the tin: there really is an awful lot of hunger in it. It is psychologically gripping, as the narrator attempts in various ways to get money for food and very often finds reasons to reject it or give it away when he is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get some. I took issue with the translator’s Afterword, in which Bly claims that the trajectory of the narrative is one in which the narrator comes to learn what he needs. I question whether any learning takes place in this book at all; the last event seems like yet another in a series, not a resolution. One interesting note from the Afterword, though, is that Hamsun apparently cured himself of tuberculosis by riding on the roof of a train to fill his lungs with air; I wonder what he would have done if he were alive this year.

Haushofer, Marlen- The Wall (1963/1968) (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

Possibly my favourite book of the year, but I’m not sure how to do it justice. It’s impossible to write a plot summary that doesn’t make it sound a little bit boring: woman thinks she is the last person on earth, tries to survive along with her animals. But it is absolutely riveting to follow the narrator’s thought processes, which are both practical in nature (how to accomplish the necessary tasks to survive) and very human in her need for affection and interaction (provided mostly by her dog, but also cats and cows) and in her reflection on her past life, thrown into perspective by her current situation. I knew I wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s a fantastic book.

Best of the Rest

Bosco, Henri- Malicroix (1946)(trans. Joyce Zonana)

It feels like a long time since I read and wrote about this book, but it still ranks as one of my favourite reading experiences of the year.

Dickens, Charles- Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865)

I had read this in my youth and was very pleased that it held up as well as I remembered. I know some people complain that the ending comes off as artificial and contrived, but as someone with a great fondness for melodrama, I appreciate a good melodramatic revelation scene when it is well done, and Dickens does indeed do it very well.

Musil, Robert- The Man Without Qualities (trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike)

Technically, I haven’t finished this book yet, but any time I read 1053 pages of a book, I’m going to mention it. Very good so far.

Smith, Charlotte- The Young Philosopher (1798)

Charlotte Smith is a Romantic period author who never seems to get the recognition she deserves. She thought of herself as a poet (and her 1784 Elegiac Sonnets enjoyed a great deal of popularity) but she wrote novels to pay the bills. Her novels combine radical politics and melodrama; the “young philosopher” of the title is George Delmont, who offends society by believing that a person’s merit can be determined by their actions not their status. But the novel’s focus is on his beloved, Medora Glenmorris, and her mother, embattled heroines relentlessly pursued and tormented by representatives of patriarchal culture. The melodramatic situations may be conventional, but the political use to which they are put is pointed.

NancyKay Shapiro’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The third post is by NancyKay Shapiro (@NancyKayShapiro), who blogs at Reading Up. NancyKay has terrific taste, and I’m not just saying that because we agree on most everything. She lives and reads in New York City.

Reading is (a huge part of) my life. My choices are always spontaneous, and always include new books, old books, and revisits to books I’ve read before.  More and more in recent years I’ve loved audiobooks, initially as a way to reread old favorites in a fresh way, then as a way to read books such as long histories that in printed form would end up sliding away from me. My intention at the start of the year, before the epidemic was thought of, was, amidst whatever else appealed to me, to tackle Proust.

Strong influences on my books choices in 2020 were: A) The Backlisted Podcast, and B) Book Twitter. At any event, the part of book twitter that I found mainly through following the Backlisted people and then following the people they follow, etc. I’m very susceptible to the enthusiasm of friendly enthusiasts. (That said, DO NOT bother trying to recruit me, Scientology.)

In 2020 between reading and listening, I read 105 books, which for me, may be a record, but doesn’t feel like much of one given how high and dry I was all year. I completed 87 books in ’19, and 91 in ’18. About 20% of the 2020 books were rereads.  (I almost always finish books I begin, because I tend to reject a book very quickly; if I read more than 50 pages, I’m going to see it through even if I’m not in love with it.)

Looking over my list to pull out the things that I liked most, I’m struck by the sense, unique to this year, that a lot of stuff just rolled through me; I read these terrific books, one after the other, and at the same time I was emotionally kind of flat. I’m sure NO ONE ELSE knows what I’m talking about, so let’s leave that there.

A few fiction standouts in 2020:

Proust—I read volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Swann’s Way, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, The Guermantes Way). When the lockdown began, I’d just started Vol 2, and I put it down for a few months, because though my life didn’t change very much, especially compared to a lot of other people, my emotional tenor did, and there was a while when it felt like what had been going on had to stop and other things take their place. Anyway I was delighted with Proust, whom I’d tried a few times before but felt now, in my late fifties, I was really ready for, in terms of the patience I could bring to reading him, my ability to appreciate rather than endure, and all the training I’d had from repeat readings of Henry James to deal with huge paragraphs, digressions, insanely long sonorous sentences, and so on. Sometimes I found myself feeling sorry for the narrator for how obsessed he was with people who really weren’t … uh, very worthwhile.

High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes. I’m not sure what prompted me to read this; I’d read one of Hughes’ other novels a year ago, and I had this one, but it must’ve been something from a podcast or writer interview that made it suddenly needful to grab it. An English child and her siblings are sent by their parents from Jamaica towards England for boarding school in the late 1800s; along the way they are, by misadventure, transferred to a pirate ship, where they spend many months in the custody of rather hapless pirates who aren’t having a splendid time of it. Our little girl, who has a large sensibility and ability to accept circumstances, experiences it all with curiosity and an admirable lack of concern for how her parents’ plans have been overturned: through her eyes the extraordinary things that happen before the children return to civilization are never extraordinary in the way the staid adult reader believes them to be. (Though there are strong hints that her older sister, who doesn’t enjoy the immunity of pre-adolescence, is having a much darker shipboard experience.)

I was reminded that Katharine Anne Porter’s story about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic was timely again, and so good was “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” that it led me to read her entire collected stories. Her profile should be higher. Marvelous writer.

The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth by David Stacton. What it says on the tin. The lead-up to the Lincoln assassination from the point of view of, among others, Booth’s older brother, a noted stage actor whose difficult career wasn’t made any easier by his kid brother being a white supremacist terrorist.

Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin, which is a novel about Dostoyevsky. After initially finding Dostoyevsky baffling and off-putting in my young adulthood, I’ve come to revere and spend a lot of time with him, with accompanying interest in his life as well as the work. This small novel written by another D enthusiast, is a little gem of the sui generis variety, using the occasion of D’s travels to the gambling spa with his second wife, and their other adventures abroad, to both tell his story and invoke, very powerfully, the mood of his writings and what it feels like to read him. (Honorable mention to JM Coetzee’s novel The Master of Petersburg, which I also read this year, another fictional take on the Great D, but found not so rich and strange, for me, anyway.)

Other novels I read that I won’t elucidate but would push into your hands if your hands were here to be pushed into:

The New House, by Lettice Cooper, Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy, A Pin To See the Peepshow by J Tennyson Jesse, A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau. The latter are all green Virago Modern Classics, which I collect, shelve for years and years, and then occasionally rediscover and read. One Last Look by Susanna Moore; The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing (thanks to Dorian Stuber for that tip); Days Without End and its sequel A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry; Disappearing Earth by Julia Philips

Authors I reread this year include: Lore Segal, Shirley Ann Jackson, Colette, Carson McCullers, Henry James, JD Salinger (entirely due to Backlisted’s sudden craze for; I was glad to be prodded back to a writer whom I’d thought myself entirely done with 25 years ago).

Novels I read that everybody seemed to adore but which I did not: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession [Ed–harumph]. Not telling you not to read these. Just if you did and also didn’t like them, come sit by me.

A few nonfiction standouts:

  1. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family by Richard Kolker, in which an American family of some 10 children has 5 of them succumb to galloping schizophrenia.
  2. Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land by Julia Blackburn, in which the author explores the old Doggerland, or Heligoland, the part of England now submerged beneath the North Sea.
  3. American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps and the Marriage of Money and Power by Andrea Bernstein, a reporter for WNYC radio whose extraordinary work I’ve followed by 2 decades.
  4. Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, a history that positions the Native Americans as a powerful preexisting nation dealing with global politics and an influx of aggressive white settlers.

The Google spreadsheet of all 105 of my 2020 reads (and all my annual reads for the last 11 years) is available here: https://bit.ly/3njPjah

Paul Wilson’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The second post is by Paul Wilson (@bibliopaul), one of the nicest folks on Book Twitter. (Which is saying something.) Paul lives with his wife in a small house in Colorado filled with boys, books and a Basset.

In spite of everything, 2020 turned out to be a great reading year for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to come across some books this year that will stick with me for a long time. Here are my favorite reads of 2020.

Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym has become one of my favorite authors in recent years and her first novel, detailing the lives of two sisters in a small village in post-war England, was a perfect read amidst the chaos and uncertainty of 2020.

Sons And Lovers – D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s ability to capture the complicated tides and eddies of family lives and relationships is staggering. I read and admired Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years ago, but this book is on a whole different level. I’m already contemplating which of his books I’ll read next. Perhaps The Rainbow? [Ed—yes!]

My Ántonia – Willa Cather

I wish I could travel back in time and tell my slacker high school self to actually read this instead of skimming the CliffsNotes version. Then again, given its wide lens on the cycles of nature and of human lives, maybe this is one of those books you only truly appreciate with age. [Ed–Makes sense.] I plan to read it often in the coming years and I’m sure I’ll discover something new every time.

The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley       

In the wrong hands, a child narrator can be disastrous. But when done well, as in The Go-Between, it can perfectly capture the magic, mystery and confusion of being young in a world you don’t fully understand. I’ve heard people rave about this book for years, and now it’s my turn to join the chorus. Don’t ignore it any longer.

The Mountain Lion – Jean Stafford

Speaking of stunning childhood narrators… A pair of siblings get a reprieve from their cloistered routines and protective mother when they spend a summer in the backcountry of Colorado. The descriptions of landscape and pitch perfect immersion into the tenderness and brutality of childhood blew me away. This book is devastating.

Weather – Jenny Offill

There’s always a mix of excitement and foreboding when one of my favorite authors comes out with a new book. For years now, I have recommended Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation as often as any other book I can think of, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her follow up. Let’s just say I’m now more of an Offill evangelist than ever. Have you heard the good news?

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

Few books have made a larger impact on me than Susanna Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I still remember certain scenes and images I read 10+ years ago far more vividly than those from books I’ve read in the past few months. As with Offill, I was both thrilled and a bit queasy when I heard Clarke had a new one on the way. Again, I needn’t have worried. Piranesi is very much its own book, but it contains the magic, mystery, and spectacular settings that are everything I could have hoped for. It was definitely worth the wait.

The Unreality Of Memory – Elisa Gabbert

I’ve found myself reading more essays in recent years, and this is one of the best collections I’ve come across. Given the subject matter—“disaster culture, climate anxiety, and our mounting collective sense of doom”—I was afraid that 2020 might be the wrong time to pick this one up. Instead, it was strangely cathartic to stare directly into the sun, guided by Gabbert’s masterful hand.

Winter Morning Walks – Ted Kooser

I first came across Kooser through Braided Creek, a wonderful “conversation in poetry” between Kooser and author Jim Harrison that often left me feeling like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between friends. Winter Morning Walks is made up of 100 poems that Kooser sent to Harrison on postcards after Kooser developed cancer in the late 90s. Written and sent over the course of 12 months, these early morning ruminations are by turns elegiac, humorous, and contemplative. Accompanying Kooser during his year of doubt, fear, and hope made for perfect 2020 reading.

Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Over the past 10 years, I’ve begun to collect a handful of treasured nature writers: Robert Macfarlane, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, Rebecca Solnit. This year, I added Kathleen Jamie to the list. This collection displays an impressive range, focusing on everything from microscopic cellular landscapes to mammoth whale skeletons hanging in the rafters of museums. As with the other authors on my list, I plan to slowly parcel out Jamie’s remaining books to make them last, despite the strong temptation to gobble them up as quickly as I can. 

Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor

This is one of several books I read this year that felt like jumping into a raging river and holding on for dear life. Dark, grimy, violent and incredibly compulsive, it refuses to provide the reader with any relief, even once you’ve turned the last page.

Ulysses – James Joyce

As I get older, I am increasingly drawn toward what Roberto Bolaño describes as “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown.” Ulysses is all of those things and more. What can I say? It’s breathtaking. I highly recommend reading it while simultaneously listening to Jim Norton’s incredible narration.

Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellman

How can a book that has received so much attention and hype still deserve more? I have never read anything like it. Even after nearly 1,000 pages, I didn’t want to leave the narrator’s troubled, compulsive, and familiar head. She was a much-needed companion during the darkest parts of this year. The fact that I can’t stop thinking about this book. The fact that I may just read it again in 2021. The fact that you should, too.

In Search Of Lost Time – Marcel Proust

Like many others, I’ve spent years warily circling Proust’s masterpiece, simultaneously fascinated and intimidated. I should have started sooner. Spending the last few months making my way through the first four books of In Search Of Lost Time has been wonderfully immersive. As I make my way through the last two volumes, I find myself slowing down, savoring every word, reluctant to see it end.

“Life is Complicated”: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin

Marie Jalowicz Simon (1922—1998) was the only child of accomplished, elderly parents. Her father, a lawyer interested in jurisprudence but uninterested in the day-to-day aspects of being a lawyer, let his brilliant wife run the practice. Jalowicz Simon’s beloved uncle, perhaps her closest confidante, a man seriously committed to silliness, was both a communist and a deeply Orthodox Jew who basically starved to death once Nazi regulations prohibited kosher slaughtering practices. Her mother died of cancer in 1938; her father in 1941, possibly of a stroke. In the last few months of his life he had unwillingly become involved with a woman named Johanna Koch, an old family friend, who, together with her husband, Emil, would later help Jalowicz Simon survive, despite complicated mutual hate-love.

In 1940 Jalowicz Simon was sent to Siemens as a forced labourer. She became close with many of her coworkers, both Jewish and not, and was even accepted into a saboteurs’ ring at the armaments factory. She avoided deportation in 1941 by telling the postman who brought her notice that the woman under that name had disappeared, and then, in June 1942, dressed only in her petticoat, slipped past the two SS men who had been sent to pick her up. At that point she “went under,” becoming, like Inge Deutschkron and about 1500 other Berlin Jews, a so-called U-Boot.

Marie Jalowicz Simon, circa 1944

She was briefly engaged to a Chinese man (they could not speak to each other), and later went to Bulgaria with another man she had fallen in love with; in Sofia a sympathetic German official gave her a false pass to enable her to return to Berlin rather than be arrested. A family friend, a doctor who performed abortions and together with his hated wife helped out many Jews in hiding before himself disappearing in mysterious circumstances, placed her in various safe homes, but she could never stay in any of these places for long. For a time she stayed in a villa outside the city with a former circus performer. In the most grotesque and extraordinary moment of these dramatic years, she was sold for 15 Marks by a scurrilous associate of the abortionist to a syphilitic ardent Nazi who boasts of his ability to sniff out a Jew and who paid handsomely for a hair from Hitler’s dog, which he framed and hung on his walls. (Even as I write this I can’t believe what I’m saying, but it’s all true!)

Through Hannchen Koch Jalowicz Simon was introduced to an important player in the communist resistance; this woman, Trude Neuke, in turn passed her on to a Dutch volunteer worker with whom she shacked up in an apartment owned by an old woman. Jalowicz Simon came to both love and loathe this woman, a “repellent, criminal blackmailer with Nazi opinions”; as she later put it, with characteristic insouciance, “life is complicated.” Jalowicz Simon stayed in this curious ménage—the Dutchman would occasionally beat her, but she was grateful for the bruises as they helped her blend in to the neighbourhood—from late 1943 until early 1945. She spent the end of the war and the months immediately after it in far-eastern Berlin, at great risk from the Russian soldiers who had ostensibly liberated her, not to mention the increasingly paranoid fantasies of Hannchen Koch who was convinced the young woman was out to steal her husband.

After the war, Jalowicz Simon decided to stay in what became East Germany. A member of the Communist party, she became a professor at the prestigious Humboldt University, where she taught classics and the history of philosophy. She almost never spoke of her wartime experiences to her son, the historian Hermann Simon, until the very end of her life, when she recorded 77 tapes’ worth of reminiscences, which came out, her son tells us in his foreword, in elegantly phrased lectures, with almost no uncertainty. Hermann Simon was able to confirm almost everything in her story; together with the writer Irene Stratenwerth, he turned the tapes into a memoir, Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany, capably translated into English by Anthea Bell. (It has a wonderful map of the city, showing the locations of all her safe houses; I wish more books did this.) The book is particularly valuable for its frankness on sexual abuse, which is only now becoming a significant topic in Holocaust Studies.

I recently read and discussed Underground in Berlin with some students who are working with me on a Holocaust education project. Before we talked I circulated some questions about the text—which, I hope I’ve made clear, is well worth reading, both a fascinating and suspenseful narrative—and I’ve copied these here, in case they are of interest.

  • Most of you have read at least some Holocaust memoirs. How does Underground in Berlin compare? You might answer this question by thinking about material you expected to find but didn’t, or, conversely, material you didn’t expect would be included but is.
  • Jalowicz Simon grew up in mostly left-wing circles at a time when one’s political affiliations really mattered. She later spent most of her life in a communist country (East Germany). No surprise, then, that class is so important to her memoir. But what about cultural background? (I’m thinking of what the sociologist Pierre Boudieu called “cultural capital.”) What is the relation, for Jalowicz Simon, between cultural capital and class? Take a look at pp. 258 & 308 for just two examples.
  • I’m interested in Jalowicz Simon’s interest in excretion—what she with bracing directness calls shit and piss. Finding somewhere to relieve yourself is a big deal in the memoir. And on a couple of occasions, excretion is disgustingly related to eating, like the chamber pot that becomes a dish. How do such moments contribute to our understanding of the text? (Some examples: 100, 142, 151)
  • Sex is central to Jalowicz Simon’s wartime experiences. Sometimes she uses sex or its promise (flirting, etc.) to get something she needs (72, 87, 143). Sometimes sex is a price she has to pay for staying alive (25, implied on 326, the whole Galecki experience). And sometimes sex is violently forced upon her (i.e. rape on 99, 314, 323-4, or the threat on 125). Sometimes it is replaced by violence (238). When she meets a man who has no sexual interest in her she finds it noteworthy by virtue of being so unusual (192). What did you make of Jalowicz Simon’s portrayal of sex? When is she overt and when is she covert? When does she tell us straight out, and when do we need to read between the lines? What difference does this difference make?
  • You surely noticed how many places (apartments, cottages, sheds) Jalowicz Simon stayed, and, correspondingly, how many people were responsible for her survival. You also doubtless were struck by the varying motives of her helper/rescuers. (Is that even the right term?) Her experiences support the historian Mark Roseman recent claims that we like to think of rescuers as being altruistically motivated, and clearly motivated (not changing their minds, not being ambivalent); we similarly like to think of victims as being helped by a single person over a sustained period. (Think Oskar Schindler.) These fantasies are not borne out by the historical record. To save a life required a network of actors, many of whom did not know each other or think of each other as being involved in a common enterprise. What are the consequences of rethinking rescue?

What I Read, November 2020

November: as long as three regular months! Did the mood swings of the US election and the relative calm of Thanksgiving happen in one four-week stretch? The rest of the world might have been busy, but at my writing table all was at a standstill. I felt blocked, uninspired, guilty, anxious, ashamed. A late-month breakthrough—apparently this manuscript wants to be both about teaching the Holocaust and teaching writing?—made me feel a little better; here’s to more of that in December. On the reading front, though, things hummed along.

Philip Kerr, Metropolis (2019)

The last Bernie Guenther book, a prequel, is set at the end of the Weimar Republic when Bernie is first promoted to Detective. He solves a crime that gives Thea von Harbou—Fritz Lang’s sometime wife and collaborator—the plot for M. I’ll miss Bernie; he was all right.

Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (2017) Trans. Laura Marris (2020)

Journalist Schwarz grew up in France to a French mother and a German father. Summers were spent in Mannheim; the schoolyear in Paris. In the first part of this sort-of-memoir, she researches what her grandparents did during the war. She starts on her father’s side. In the mid 1930s, Karl Schwarz took over a petroleum company, which gave him not only his livelihood but protected his life. (He avoided being conscripted because his products were deemed essential to the war effort.) Karl’s wife Lydia, though no fanatical Nazi, was impressed by the Führer’s dedication and would later regularly mourn his absence. After the war, a letter arrived from an American lawyer representing Julius Löbmann, whose brother, Siegmund, had been forced to sell his company to Karl at a cut-rate price. Siegmund and his immediate family were later deported to Gurs, a camp in Vichy France, then later to the transit camp at Drancy, and from there, on April 15, 1944, to Auschwitz, where they were gassed on arrival.

Löbmann’s desire for reparation incensed Karl, but the fallout of the affair wasn’t just economic. Karl’s already stormy relationship with his son, Volker, Schwarz’s father, disintegrated, as Volker joined the student movements determined to call their elders to account. Seeking a “European” identity, Volker traveled to France, where he met Schwarz’s mother. Josiane grew up next to Drancy, site of the notorious transit camp from which so many, including the Löbmanns, were deported to the killing sites of the East, a fact that interested no one in her postwar childhood. As Schwarz investigates her maternal family she learns about France’s denial of its complicity in German crimes, which persisted at least into the 1980s and 90s, but really, she maintains, to this day. Schwarz argues Germany’s “memory work” has been superior to France’s: hardly contentious.

Inspired by the example of her family, Schwarz wants to understand those who after the war became known in Germany as die Mitläufer, people who went along with the regime. A worthy topic, to be sure, but instead of, for example, exploring the effort the Nazi regime put into generating such connivance and considering how that effort worked on her ancestors, Schwarz leaves us with op-ed caliber banalities:

By our opportunism, by our conformity to an all-powerful capitalism, which places money and consumption over education, intelligence, and culture, we are in danger of losing the democracy, peace, and freedom that so many of our predecessors have fought to preserve.

There’s plenty more armchair pontificating in the book—“We Europeans have come a long way”; “the most dangerous monster is a not a megalomaniacal and violent leader, but us, the people who make him possible, who give him the power to lead”—leading to a risible ending in which Schwarz makes a tour of European countries, dispatching the failure of memory work in Italy, Hungary, Britain, and Austria in a couple of pages each, often invoking as her evidence a friend’s statement or an experience she once had on vacation.

I learned a few things from this book, of course. I didn’t know, for example, that at the end of the war the French brought several hundred German scientists home with them: their work laid the foundation for the still-flourishing French aviation and weapons industries. Nor, still more fascinatingly, did I know about the prosecutor Fritz Bauer, a Jew who spent the war in exile in Denmark and Sweden after having his legal career destroyed by the Nazis, returned to Germany and, as the general prosecutor of Hesse, doggedly pursued cases against many mid-level perpetrators, leading to the Auschwitz trials in the 1960s. (I want to read a book about him.) But such moments are rare. Most of the stuff in Those Who Forget is introductory and uninspiring. Schwarz has neither the analytic chops of a historian or the panache of an essayist. Her title, referring to those who went along with atrocity, unwittingly describes her readers, who, if they are anything like me at least, will quickly forget this book and its nostrums.

Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (2015) Trans. Minna Zallman Procter (2017)

Everyone loves Jaeggy, but I’m not sure I get the fuss. I was led to this little book by Brian Dillon, but I think I prefer him on Jaeggy to Jaeggy herself. Three short essays—on De Quincy, Keats, and the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob—emphasize unusual biographical details. Quirky and poetic, I guess, but not really my scene. I’ve forgotten almost everything about it.

Tana French, The Searcher (2020)

Still the champ.

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865)

What can I say, it’s a classic for a reason. I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully. Dickens is, in the end, not my guy. I’d rank Our Mutual Friend below Great Expectations and Bleak House in my own list (though I’ve only read 5). The story’s ambitious, maybe too ambitious, seems to have run away at the end, relying on hasty/convenient thread-tying. On further reflection, though, I feel something about the story does not want to—maybe even should not—end, because it’s a book about revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.

For this reason, Our Mutual Friend is best when describing in-between states: a famous example, which I’d read about years ago in an essay by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and was delighted to finally encounter in the flesh, as it were, concerns the resuscitation of man no one likes, a river scavenger and a meddler, who has fallen overboard into the Thames in an accident. (Book III, Chapter 3.) A group of bystanders work diligently to restore the rogue to life: their attention is fixated on the unconscious man’s body, so much so that in addition to their CPR it’s as if the men were willing him to life. (The man’s daughter watches “with terrified interest”—the phrase describes the onlookers too.) When the man splutters to, when the “spark of life” rekindles, they are relieved, even briefly exultant. But then they return to disparaging him, and drift away. A brilliant, vivid scene–and a useful comment on the title. Just how much mutuality is there in this book?

I spoke above of in-between states. This concerns the novel’s form as much as its content. I liked best those bits where the novel threatens to become full-on Gothic. (Wilkie Collins’s influence? Or was their friendship over by then?) Any scene with Bradley Headstone (that name!) counts—that guy could be out of a novel from Hamsun or Dostoyevsky—but especially the one where he tries to kill Lightwood. Yowza!

Assorted other thoughts:

Appreciate the attempt to rehabilitate the Jews, Charles, but Riah did not do it for me. (Tip: next time, avoid having your Jewish character regularly cite the New Testament.)

Sloppy, on the other hand! Sometimes it is easier to thrash the mangle than to say what’s in your heart. What a dear.

Boffin, you had me worried there!

The Lammles, oof hard core, reminded me of bits of Collins’s No Name.

Pa and Bella—cute, but also creepy.

Mr. Venus, terrific, that first scene with him and Wegg is 10/10 Dickens. Must be a connection, though not sure how, between his taxidermy and Jenny Wren’s dolls. (Maybe also Sloppy’s newspaper-reading?) Model making, alternative modes of reproducing the world, etc.

Not the first person to say it, sorry for the banality, but sucks that Dickens didn’t write better women characters. Has anyone tried to argue against this? I’d like to see how—I guess Mrs. Lammle is the most interesting here—because this inability really stops me from liking him more.

Thanks to Alok Ranjan for prompting me to read this. Totally don’t regret it.

Inge Deutschkron, Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (1978) Trans. Jean Steinberg (1989)

Very good.

Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times (2020)

Not good. Read the print version and wondered whether I’d enjoyed the previous Rebus novels more because of the audiobook narrator than because of the text. The narrator brings out a curt elegance in the writing that seems inert or clumsy on the page. Feels like a series at risk of losing its way.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

At the beginning of Robinson latest novel, a terrible heatwave blankets India. Wet bulb temperatures reach 35 C; at this point, the body can no longer regulate its temperature by sweating and basically boils. Twenty million people die. Frank May, a young American aid worker, is almost one of them. Like everyone else in town, he seeks refuge in a nearby lake; many are burned alive even in the water, but rescue workers find Frank still alive, but barely conscious. He returns to health, but never returns to America, partly because he’s furious at his home country’s response to climate change, and partly because he gets panic attacks anywhere it’s warm. Eventually he settles in Zürich, which brings him into contact with the novel’s real hero, Mary Murphy, the Irish-born head of a UN subsidiary organization developed at the Paris climate talks, The Ministry for the Future.

Mary is a fitting hero for Robinson’s novel—capable, no-nonsense, politically savvy, but without extraordinary powers, charisma, or superhuman intelligence. She is instead a damn good bureaucrat. She knows experts need to be listened to without being allowed to run the show. Someone needs to intercede between them and politicians and power-brokers, especially the most powerful people on the planet, the unelected heads of the world’s central banks. Mary also knows that big problems are solved by plugging away at lots of small solutions. And the problem her ministry has been tasked with is the biggest one of all: lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Starting from basically our own present (I think the first events are in 2025, though I’m not sure—it’s a big novel, I might well have missed something) and extending for thirty years or so, The Ministry for the Future imagines how this seemingly unimaginable task could be accomplished. The solution is to think 100 years out—the whole seven generations thing—but such thinking must be incentivized, both by carrot and stick. Mary presides over a team with various departments (legal, computing/AI, agriculture, etc.), all of which are needed to solve the problem, even though economics is first among equals: Mary’s world-saving legacy is to finally convince those central bankers to create a new currency, the Carboni, that has its eye on the long term (it pays out in hundred-year installments) and can only be earned by carbon sequestration, whether by leaving fossil fuels on the ground (as Saudi Arabia is eventually forced to do), or by offsetting emissions (planting trees, rethinking agriculture, etc.). Carbon quantitative easing, she calls it.

The bankers only get there, though, after many other changes have been made. India, furious at the mass death brought on by the heatwave, organizes a “double Pinatubo”—it fires enough sulfur dioxide into the air to equal two times the amount released by the volcanic explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the early 1990s, which lowered the world’s temperature by about a degree for a couple of years. India leaves the Paris Accords to do so, and begins detaching from the rest of the world, tired of providing its service workers. Various radical political movements—including the decisive rejection of the BJP, who presided over the wet bulb fiasco—and progressive social movements, especially in the realms of agriculture, make India a world leader.

These changes are spurred by terrorist acts (some of which may be orchestrated or even perpetrated by a rogue element within the Ministry of the Future; Mary doesn’t want to know, though she silently acknowledges that terrorism will be central to changing hearts and minds). The Children of Kali, for example, inject bioengineered parasites into the world’s beef supply and shoot down most of its commercial air traffic in a single day through massive coordinated drone attacks, which kill the meat and airline industries, respectively.

There’s also geoengineering (even though the scientists in the book scoff at it), notably, pumping out water from underneath the great Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves to slow their movement. It costs a fortune, but when looked at in terms of the survival of civilization, it’s cheap (and it works). The glaciologists and Antarctica heads want to help, but mostly they are just psyched that someone is paying them to work and play in the part of the world they’ve become addicted to. (Robinson plays a double game here—at once admiring scientists’ cynicism about their bureaucratic masters and critiquing their claims to disinterestedness.)

While all this is going on, the novel’s more personal plot grinds on, too. Frank and Mary meet up in Zürich, under circumstances I won’t get into, and a lifelong pas de deux ensues. Robinson doesn’t stint their relationship—it’s not romantic, it’s more interesting than that—but in the end he cares about other stuff more. Like setting. Zürich in particular and Switzerland in general serves as more than its typical role as an anonymous backdrop for espionage or banking. One way to read The Ministry for the Future is as a hymn to this little country’s biggest city, which might seem ridiculous—who cares about Zürich, for God’s sake—but it’s precisely Zürich’s dull practicality, its unshowy livable-ness, that the novel values. Robinson clearly knows Switzerland. He includes some exciting set pieces in the mountains (one of them invoking Frankenstein, natch), as well as lovely evocations of lake swimming and Zürich’s Fastnacht (carnival), but what he really loves is the Swiss insistence that when the world is secure, Switzerland is secure. If we help others, we help ourselves. That’s the kind of thinking we all need.

I could go on, but my basic point is: I loved this book. It’s a page-turner about extremely undramatic but highly consequential decisions. It’s also only sort of a novel: yes, it has central characters, but it also considers other beings, only some of which are human (short chapters are narrated from the POV of caribou, the sun, carbon atoms: not especially convincing, but the idea is good). It’s really an essay-novel hybrid, desperate to cram into its pages as many possible solutions to a lower carbon world as possible, like the 2000-Watt club (if you divided all the people in the world by the amount of energy we consume, you’d get 2000 watts per person per year—or 48 kilowatt-hours per day—which the club’s members demonstrate is really quite achievable and doesn’t require that many changes, at least in many parts of the world). Reducing inequality, learning to share, valuing security as a good that arises when everyone has enough—these goals will be needed to help us survive. Rewilding, the 50% project (grouping people into half the world’s territory), worker cooperatives based on the Mondragón model pioneered by the Basques, new technologies, new legal realities (in which nonhumans have rights), new economies—all are ways in which we can work to solving the climate crisis.

What’s amazing is that Robinson shows how it could happen. He is optimistic but not naïve. He heaps special scorn on economists, which I found satisfying, and points out that it’s when the shit hits the fan—like when water stops coming out of the taps—that’s when you need society. Neoliberalism has always been full of shit. The Ministry for the Future is at times an alarming book—I won’t soon forget that grim opening scene—but more often it’s a rousing one. It offers what we collectively need: “An earthquake in the head.” Since reading it I’ve felt more hopeful than I have in ages, and I’d love for it to get many, many readers.

Lissa Evans, V for Victory (2020)

The trilogy that started with Crooked Heart and continued through the marvelous Old Baggage comes to a satisfying close. Noel Sedgewick, the character who connects the books, now 15, struggles with his identity. To whom does he belong—the parents he never knew, or the women who raised him, in such different but mutually compatible ways? Evans takes tropes from WWII British literature—the female warden both hardened but given purpose by war—and ruffles them a little, making them fresh—the warden’s clueless socialite sister, who has written a surprise bestseller based on lurid fantasy, becomes her defender. Ne’er-do-wells prove at the last minute to have surprising self-knowledge or unexpected reasons for their actions. And as always Evans is drawn to the ridiculous aspects of life: a reporter, suddenly pressganged into running the tombola at a church fair with strict instructions to keep back some of the best prizes to the end lest people stop buying tickets, thinks of “the article he could squeeze from this (‘Fraud Allegation Shatters Methodist Merriment’).” The novel’s final vision, of a London just after VE day, when, for a brief moment at least, no one is waiting for anything, neither falling bombs nor barked orders, is beautiful in its swooping energy: the moment feels fully earned. Probably Evans has set these characters aside, but they’re so lovable, we can always hope for more. And if not, dayeinu, it would be enough.

Mark Roseman, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany (2000)

From 1989 – 1996, Mark Roseman spent much of his time in an “intimate, respectful, wary, guilty clinch” with Marianne Ellenbogen née Strauss, who, as a young woman in 1943, had slipped out of her family’s home as it was being searched by the Gestapo. Her parents, her younger brother, her uncle and his wife and her mother—among the last Jews left in the city of Essen at that time—were deported, first to Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz. Marianne, the only person in her immediate family to survive, spent the rest of the war passing as Aryan, dodging both officials who would have seen through her flimsy false ID and the increasingly devastating Allied bombing raids. She was aided in this feat by members of a little-known organization called the Bund, whose members resisted what the Nazis had made of their beloved Germany.

I recently wrote about Lives Reclaimed, Roseman’s most recent book, which complements this, his first, by telling the story of the Bund. (Tl; dnr: brilliant.) The books overlap, of course, but I was surprised how little Roseman repeats himself. A Past in Hiding (note the subtle difference between this title and the more commonplace A Life in Hiding) provides background on the Bund and introduces some of its main players, but it’s only incidentally about that. Indeed, inasmuch as Marianne was convinced to work with Roseman only because she wanted the world to know about the Bund’s achievements, which extended beyond saving her life, then it’s really Lives Reclaimed that fulfills her desire.

Here Roseman concentrates on Marianne. And why not? Her story is amazing, and she herself is extraordinary. He freely admits that Marianne would have hated the result. She wouldn’t have wanted him to spend the years after her death in December 1996 interviewing with surviving friends, acquaintances, relatives, and lovers, and combing through her exhaustive archive of written documents. But she might have been surprised—not in a good way, maybe, but in an interested way, doubtless—by Roseman’s conclusion. Her own story, as told to Roseman in lengthy interviews, doesn’t quite align with the story told by these external sources, not because Marianne lied or even because memory is fallible, but because the life we life and the life we remember aren’t the same.

Specifically, in Marianne’s case, the guilt she felt about surviving distorted her memory in particular ways: she accentuated the suffering of her loved ones (claiming that her father was imprisoned in a concentration camp for six weeks after Kristallnacht when it was three, or that the love of her life, deported a year before she went into hiding, was blinded in a medical experiment rather than in an accident); she minimized her own suffering; and she dramatized the most traumatic moments of her life (claiming she accompanied her boyfriend to the station the day he was deported when in fact she said goodbye to him the evening before, or telling Roseman that she learned on her birthday, via a BBC broadcast, that her parents’ transport has been gassed, when in fact that terrible knowledge came to her some weeks later).

(How the fate of that particular transport came to be broadcast on the BBC—and how by amazing coincidence Marianne happened to be clandestinely listening to it—is a story in itself, having to do with the Czechoslovakian resistance within Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Nazis’ creation of the so-called “family camp” at Birkenau, where for six months in late 1943/early 44 families who had been at Theresienstadt were allowed to stay together, with their hair and clothes, and given better rations. The Nazis were worried that the Danish Red Cross, who had “inspected” Theresienstadt, would do the same at Auschwitz, and wanted these prisoners in case a “show camp” was going to be necessary: in the end it was not, and almost all of the prisoners in the family camp were gassed.)

In finding discrepancies in Marianne’s story, Roseman isn’t arraigning her or asking us to doubt her. He’s using painstaking research to prove that the stories we tell ourselves in order to live aren’t quite the stories we lived. Instead, we interpret the past through concepts developed only in hindsight. For example, Roseman thought of Marianne as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, a position she herself espoused late in life, but at the time she thought of herself as a German victim of the war. He is aided in this revelation by some remarkable documents: a diary Marianne kept while on the run in 1944, and the correspondence between Marianne and her boyfriend from the time her was deported in April 1942 (to a camp-ghetto in Lublin province called Izbica) until his ominous silence that fall. Reading these documents Roseman notes differences between what Marianne said at the time and what she said later—even as he acknowledges that the primary documents themselves must be understood not as a record of unmediated truth but as traces of a fluid experience, in which Marianne was trying out ideas, changing her mindset, and struggling with the identity crisis brought on not only by being made into a Jew by the Nazis (true for so many victims) but in juggling different identities while on the run.

A Past in Hiding is thus both theoretical and particular. It both analyzes what it means to interpret the past and offers a portrait of an extraordinary person—capable, clever, charismatic—who was both amazingly fortunate and terribly unhappy. Highly recommended.

Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures (2020)

Satisfying novel that makes much of a preposterous scenario. In 1950s suburban England, The North Kent Echo receives a letter to the editor replying to an article about parthenogenesis. The writer admits she knows nothing about science, but she does know that her daughter was born without the involvement of a man. On a lark, the paper sends, Jean Swinney, its only female journalist, to interview the woman, Gretchen Tilbury. No one expects anything of the Virgin Birth lady, but Jean is captivated by Gretchen, amazed at the daughter (Margaret, ten, looks exactly like her mother), and is unable to find anything in her initial reporting to dispute the outlandish claim. Before long scientists get involved and Jean is on to a big story. But the novel veers into more interesting territory, becoming the tale of how Jean, lonely and tired of being saddled with her claustrophobic mother, is drawn into the Tilburys’ orbit, especially by kind Howard, the husband who came along when Gretchen was already pregnant. In this regard, Small Pleasures is a bit like Brookner’s Look at Me—retiring young woman drawn out of herself by another couple, to the dismay of everyone else in her life—except everyone is much nicer. You might say, well, then that’s no Brookner novel at all, to which I can only say, fair enough. Chambers’s is a more muted work, and not as brilliant. But I found it absolutely engaging, and was surprised at the directions it took, especially at the end. (Devastating!) A thoughtful novel about the ambivalent consequences of taking your pleasures, however small, wherever you can find them. Nina Stibbe put it on her best of 2020 list; if you won’t take my word for it, take hers.

Tessa Hadley, The Past (2016)

Reading Hadley’s backlist—only two more to go now—has been one of the year’s pleasures. Here, three sisters and a brother spend one last holiday at their grandparents’ former home, an increasingly dilapidated place in the English countryside. There’s some pretty serious drama—Hadley has a Gothic side she mostly but happily never quite fully keeps under wraps—but the manner of telling makes big events seem ordinary—which only amplifies the weight of the revelations on offer. (I was led to think about the difference between her mode of approach and, say, the early Ian McEwan; he’s so much more histrionic.) What is it like, Hadley asks, to spend a life with someone? And what is it like to spend one without the person we wanted? (She’s good at making us experience the passing of time.) As usual, Hadley is a master of roving omniscience, teasing us with free indirect discourse, so that we wonder how much of what we learn about the characters they themselves know. Consider this description of a nine-year-old discovering an abandoned cottage:

Ivy wasn’t brave, she was a coward when it came to sports or party games, the kind where you ran in a team and had to burst a balloon by sitting on it. But she also had a greedy curiosity which was like a hunger; she wanted to get clear, all by herself and without the shame of other people knowing she was doing it, the truth of what could happen.

So much psychological acuity in such a short space! And so much ambivalence. Are we to admire Ivy? That “greedy curiosity” feels so double-edged. “The truth of what could happen”—not just the world as it is, but the world as it might, secretly, desperately, be.

In a passage that seems more heartfelt, I appreciated this description of a couple’s reading habits:

Sophy and Graham devoured their books: reading was a freedom torn out of the day’s regulated fabric. Without ever having spoken of it, each knew that the other approved their habit of having the face of their alarm clock, set for seven, turned away from them, so that they couldn’t know how much time passed while they sat up awake and turning pages, couldn’t know how rash they were or how much they would pay for it next day.

But don’t be fooled. Hadley is no nice chronicler of middle-class moeurs (though, yeah, that too). Even the most bourgeois habit of all, reading, is offered in terms of rashness. Everyone pays for everything.

Daniel Mendelsohn, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (2020)

When I think about the book I’m trying to write I keep coming back to Mendelsohn, not because he wrote maybe the best book about uncovering a family’s Holocaust history (I have no such history) but because he is so good at structuring nonfiction narratives. Indeed, structure is the subject matter of this little book, originally given as lectures at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Mendelsohn begins with the acedia that overcame him after finishing The Lost (the Holocaust book) and his subsequent struggle to improve the manuscript of his next book, An Odyssey (about the time when his father, near the end of his life, enrolled in Mendelsohn’s Homer class), beyond his editor’s initial verdict: interesting in parts yet fundamentally dull. The solution, he eventually realized, lay in the source material itself, specifically in Homer’s use of “ring structure.”

The classic example of nested narration of this sort is the moment when Odysseus, returned to Ithaca but disguised, is found out by Eurycleia, his childhood nursemaid, who, in the process of washing the feet of a man she believes to be a traveling beggar, recognizes the hero because of a distinctive scar. Homer flashes back in time to tell us the story of how Odysseus got the scar (in a boar hunt), first explaining how he had been on the hunt in the first place, necessitating yet another digression about the man hosting the hunt, Odysseus’s grandfather, who had been enjoined by this very same Eurycleia to name the child; thus, after beginning with a seemingly insignificant moment Homer offers the in fact consequential history of the hero’s very identity, before looping back to the present moment, the scene of the foot washing. Recognition, Homer teaches, implies a toggling between past and present. (In this sense, his most skillful disciple was Proust.) Narratives similarly shuttle between the essential and the inessential, eventually compromising, even undoing that distinction: “In ring composition, the narrative appears the meander away into a digression… although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed.”

The reason I called this scene the classic instance of anagnorisis—a moment of revelatory (self) recognition—is not because Homer is the “founder of Western literature” but because it was presented as such in a book of literary criticism written by a German Jewish refugee in Istanbul during WWII, famously without the benefit of the comprehensive library he had been used to having at his disposal. The man was Erich Auerbach; the book was Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Its most famous chapter is the first, “Odysseus’s Scar,” in which Auerbach juxtaposes the Greek mode of telling to the Hebrew: the former offers transparency and clarity (the ring structure allows Homer to give us the backstory of the scar); the latter offers obscurity and uncertainty, privileging unknown—perhaps unknowable—psychological motivation. (The example Auerbach chooses is the Akedah—G-d’s (batshit-insane) demand that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.) The difference, Mendelsohn says, summarizing Auerbach, is between a story that leaves nothing out and a story that leaves almost everything out. And the philosophical debate underpinning this distinction is whether reality is knowable. And the stakes of that question concern nothing less than interpretation itself. What is it for? Are we constrained to its endless approximations?

In thinking about the oscillation between these two beliefs—reality is transparent; reality is obscure: events can be represented; events will always exceed being represented—Mendelsohn is led to think about an at-one-time influential 17th-century text, an early novel by a French archbishop named François Fénelon. The Adventures of Telemachus, a sequel to the Odyssey, made its author famous, but the book’s too-overt criticism of Louis XIV led its author to be banished to northern France. The book’s influence lived on, though, delighting readers across Europe and, later, America, including Thomas Jefferson, who would found the University of Virginia where Mendelsohn would centuries later begin his study of the classics.

Three Rings is a book about “that deep connectedness among things which, for the optimist at least, is detectable in history as well as literature.” Thus, Mendelsohn moves from discussing Proust’s work—his use of ring composition to create oppositions (bourgeois vs aristocrat, hetero vs. homo, Swann vs. Guermantes) that eventually undo themselves—to considering his life, specifically the revelation that the model for the character of Saint Loup in Proust’s epic work was a diplomat named Bertrand, posted, to Proust’s unrequited frustration, to Constantinople, whose ancestor happened to be none other than François Fénelon, the former archbishop of Combrai—a name Proust adapted as the town where his alter-ego spent his formative childhood summers.

How are we to understand such connections? Mendelsohn ends by reflecting on the work of W. G. Sebald, that great writer of inconclusive digressions. Mendelsohn considers some of Sebald’s monomaniacal solitaries—not least the figure of Sebald himself who, in The Rings of Saturn, wanders through abandoned landscapes picking up intimations of former grandeur—as in his encounter with a man obsessed by making a model of the Temple in Jerusalem, a lost, enigmatic structure: the more the model maker learns of it the less he understands; the same is true of Sebald in relation to the model maker. Mendelsohn is reminded of his own childhood obsession with model making, one he abandoned but later transformed into his writing practice, through which he has learned to make the most of insoluble dilemmas. Pondering Sebald’s melancholy digressions—in which every possible link seems to fall to pieces, and destruction is the fate of all creativity—Mendelsohn turns that failure into success, as in his final section where he considers the most influential book in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, a translation of Fénelon’s sequel to the Odyssey by Yûsuf Kâmil Pasha, the Empire’s Grand Vizier, one of many examples in this short book of how “Western” literature would never have existed had it not been “returned” from the East. In the end, perhaps the greatest digression of all is that the “foundational” texts some like to laud as essential to the “western mind” required saving by its too-often maligned “other.” Made rich by the success of his translation, Kâmil Pasha gave part of his wealth to the university in Istanbul—in this way, imitating however unknowingly Jefferson’s gesture—a center of learning that decades later, in the middle of the 20th century, would welcome scholars fleeing yet another auto-da-fe in the heart of so-called civilization, among them a German Jewish literary scholar named Erich Auerbach.

Three Rings is brilliant essayistic narrative, which satisfies and surprises in its series of historical connections; it is also brilliant interpretation, as it shows every story of destruction to be one of creation, every moment of obscurity one of clarity, every Jewish moment to be Greek—provided, of course, we realize that Greek ways of storytelling always also need Jewish ways of storytelling. It is only through interpretation that we can imagine a literature that wouldn’t require it.

Three Rings didn’t solve my problem of how to structure my book, but it did remind me—exhilaratingly, dismayingly, vertiginously—of the accomplishment I can only hope to imitate.

Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs (1984)

Read this just a few days before learning of Lurie’s death. Judging from Twitter reaction, her work is loved by many, this book especially. Must say, alas, I was not seduced. You know how for a long time everything associated with the 70s was reviled but is now cool as hell? Maybe we’ll get there for the 80s eventually but now it just feels dated. In her story about two American academics on sabbatical in London—they work at a not even thinly disguised version of Cornell, where Lurie taught for a long time; come to think of it, someone once pointed her out to me in Olin library, though I think she was emerita even then—Lurie quotes Eliot and riffs on Austen, not to mention children’s literature and John Gay (the subject of their respective projects) but I’m not sure why. What is the relation of this book to the English literary tradition?

One protagonist starts by hating England, swings to reveling in it (as he enters into a dalliance with a well-known actor), and finishes with a clear-eyed recognition that he doesn’t belong there. The other is Anglophilic to the extreme, convinced of the place’s superiority, but learns a chastening lesson when she falls in love with a countryman, a loud American businessman. Is Lurie arguing a version of Wilde’s line about America and England having everything in common but the language? Telling us that people belong where they come from? Or that you can only know what home means when you’ve left it? None of these suggestions are inspiring, but I’m out of ideas. Lurie lovers, help!

I admired Lurie’s willingness to make her female lead plain, crotchety, supercilious, and matter-of-fact in her sexual desires. She gets a comeuppance that doesn’t require her to change herself. (The story of the male lead is a lot less interesting.) But it’s not an especially kind book, and its meanness isn’t used to any particular purpose (it feels generalized and diffuse, not pointed or critical). And the portrayal of the American businessman—a lumpen aw shucks gee willikers giant from Oklahoma, much the nicest person in the book—is grating. Maybe from the novel’s preferred mid-Atlantic viewpoint, nothing could be more risible than being from Tulsa, but when it’s, say, four hours’ drive from where you live it’s just a town, no better or worse than anywhere else. I’m willing to give Lurie another chance, but she’s on a tight leash.

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (1937)

Despite an intense Maxwell phase in my mid-twenties—I was as weird and twee then as now—I somehow missed this one. Maybe my unconscious knew to wait, certain it would resonate so much more strongly during a pandemic than in the glib 90s. They Came Like Swallows is set in the fall of 1918. The armistice might be signed in Europe, but in small-town Illinois what matters is the influenza outbreak, which in a few short weeks will utterly transform the Morrison family. Just as devastating illness plays with our sense of time, the novella’s structure shapes our understanding of events. Each of its three sections focuses on a different character: eight-year-old Bunny, sensitive, in love with his mother and in dread, in different ways, of his father and older brother; the brother, Robert, who suddenly appears to us in a quite different light, diffident at best to Bunny, yes, (I mean, the kid’s five years younger, how can you take him seriously?), but sympathetic for his drive to ignore his disability and his being so prey to feelings of responsibility he cannot be expected to take on; their father, James Morrison, distant, yes, and when uncertain inclined to turn to conventionality instead of kindness, but baffled and buffeted by terrible events. I thought it a missed opportunity that Maxwell never foregrounded any of the female characters—they are many: Elizabeth Morrison, the woman these men revolve around, but also her sisters and sister-in-law; and they are much the most interesting figures in the book—but then I realized it had to be that way. The book is about its absent center, about the uses men put women to, about their consequential bafflement toward women. That it makes its men as sympathetic as it does, and the women as vital as they are is the book’s art. The title, from Yeats’s “Coole Park, 1929,” is perfect:

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air

There’s more dreaming than certainty in the book—impressive how Maxwell doesn’t just depict illness but, more ambitiously, suffuses every page with the estranging, eye-opening quality illness sometimes offers—and we’re never allowed to forget that the woman’s powerful character, as Yeats has it, is a function of male fantasy. But both poem and novel are elegies, fascinated with the paradoxes of loss, how survivors have the power to recall the dead, but only because the dead have given them the power of recall.

Amazing how wise and good this is for a young man’s book (Maxwell was only 29 when it was published). Obviously time to read his novels again, and to tackle his stories.

Big month! More hits than misses! Death of American democracy staved off for at least two years! Dickens, Robinson, Hadley, Maxwell—all winners. Deutschkron, Roseman, Mendelsohn—inspiring! I hope you found even half as much to enjoy in your reading month. Leave a comment with your favourite.

“A Berlin Without Jews”: Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast

“You’re Jewish. You must let the world know that that doesn’t mean you’re not every bit as good as they.”

So begins Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (1978; translated by Jean Steinberg, 1989). The memoir mostly concerns her time as a so-called U-Boot—a Jew in hiding during the war—but it begins on March 31, 1933 with these words, urgently spoken to her by her mother. Hitler has taken power the month before; being Jewish suddenly matters a lot. At the time, ten-year-old Deutschkron knew neither that she was Jewish, nor what that meant. She doesn’t ask, either: “I sensed that it would upset [my mother], and me too.” Deutschkron, who honed her sense for when people were equivocating during her nerve-wracking hears of hiding in plain sight, must have caught the hesitancy, even the internalized prejudice in her mother’s command: “You must let the world know that that doesn’t mean you’re not every bit as good as they.” However unconsciously, the mother’s double negative frames the experience of being Jewish from the perspective of the antisemite.

But the world wouldn’t let Deutschkron ignore her newly revealed identity. The upshot might be good for the writer, but it’s hard for the person. She is positioned as an outsider and an observer. Turning away from her mother’s demand, the child directs her attention to the world outside her window:

What interested me was what was going on outside in our corner of Berlin, on our quiet street. I liked looking out of the window of our apartment on Hufelandstrasse. It may have been nothing more than a sleepy little corner, yet for a ten-year-old there was much to see. I could watch the other children play. I was not allowed to play outside, my parents thought it wasn’t safe. I, of course, didn’t agree. I knew all the children by name, but I wasn’t allowed to play with them. All I could do was watch. It hurt.

This passage is typical: neither showy in style nor demonstrative in tone. Deutschkron is smart, capable, forthright, gently ironic. She often holds her feelings in reserve. Perhaps she thinks that although her experiences were exhausting, frightening, debilitating, and risky they weren’t representative of the persecution of the time. It’s true, this is a Holocaust story without trains, camps, or ravines (even though these elements hover at the margins of her tale, where lurks the suffering she knows she is always only one step away from, even if she can’t quite fathom its exact form). Yet one of the salutary aspects of Outcast is to expand our sense of what the Holocaust was, and what we expect of those who survived it.

I said reserve is characteristic of Deutschkron’s self-presentation. But I don’t mean she’s unfeeling. Look again at that opening anecdote. Yes, her separateness gives her a certain power: where others might see nothing, she sees a whole world, the better for being barred from it. But turning suffering into wisdom isn’t much fun. Deutschkron first says she liked to look out the window. But she ends by reversing course and admitting the harder truth: “It hurt.” The emotion stings the more for the effort of trying to hold it in check.

A few pages later, Deutschkron admits that she has not even especially been looking at the neighbourhood kids. In fact, she’s not looking at anything. She’s pretending to look as a cover for her real activity: waiting. Her father is late, should have been home long ago. Word has gone around that the Nazis will be boycotting Jewish-owned businesses the next day. People talk of arrests and violence. Deutschkron’s worry is fueled by her sense that her mother, too, is worried. She keeps sticking her head out the door and looking down the stairwell. The doorbell rings. A friend has come with a warning: “‘Your husband must get out of town immediately.’”

Eventually the anxiety subsides—for now. He is safe with friends for the night, mother and daughter learn, and returns the next day full of laughter: the man he stayed with, a doctor, put him up in his office, where he slept under the watchful eye of a skeleton. But Deutschkron’s mother doesn’t think it’s funny. All day she burns papers and sorts books. The Deutschkrons are committed socialists, everyone in the neighbourhood knows this, including the child herself, for whom socialism was her earliest identity. (If she’d been born in the US a decade later, she would have been a Red Diaper baby.) And it is being a socialist, more than a Jew, that, for the time being, is most dangerous. The family takes precautions, but they feel they are safe enough, things will blow over. They spend a few nights with relatives across town, and later move to a different neighbourhood where nobody knows their political affiliation, but they don’t pursue emigration. Even a couple of years later, when the father has the chance of a job in Australia, he doesn’t leave: “‘After all, I’m a Prussian civil servant; I can’t just run away.”

Claude Lanzmann, who interviewed Deutschkron for three hours during the making of his epic film Shoah (1985), sadly leaving all but a few minutes of their conversation out of the final nine-and-a-half-hour cut, notes that by equating leaving with running away the father reveals how much he felt he belonged to Germany. Like so many assimilated German Jews, the Deutschkrons story is a story of betrayal, of failed belonging. In this sense, the memoir’s English title is quite accurate. Germany’s Jews were indeed cast out. (The original title, Ich trug den golden Stern, I Wore the Yellow Star, references this exclusion more obliquely.) In this regard their persecution was different from that of Jews elsewhere, especially in Eastern Europe, who had never been allowed to feel they belonged.  

As Deutschkron grows up, she responds to her increasing feelings of alienation by resisting however she can, saying Aufwiedersehen instead of Heil Hitler, declining to give to “the countless collections for various national and social causes.” But even though she is undoubtedly correct when she tells Lanzmann that she is “a fighter,” her resistance can opnly go so far. Little things get to her. Sitting for a portrait at a photography studio, she is asked to tuck her hair behind her ear. The photographer had no ulterior motive, Deutschkron says, but the girl bursts into tears anyway: Nazi “race science” claimed you could tell a Jew by their ears. (I’m reminded of Carlo Ginzburg’s brilliant essay “Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method,” which takes the study of ears as an index for modernity’s various ways of knowing, among which, Ginzburg would surely insist, we must include phrenological racism.) Deutschkron doesn’t tell her parents what happened, fearing that they will only laugh (shades of her father’s return from his night at the doctor’s office) and retell the story, which circulated among Jews at the time, about the man pulled from the crowd at a Nazi rally to demonstrate Aryan typology: unbeknownst to the Nazis, the man with the perfect German ears is a Jew. No one cared if the story was true: “Jews loved it because it helped them bear the humiliation of this particular indignity.” Deutschkron is unconvinced, though—just as she is unimpressed by the tenderness of the policeman at her local precinct as he wiped her fingers when the family are forced to comply with a fingerprinting decree. Yes, the officer might have been more embarrassed than her by “this demeaning procedure,” and, yes, the ear joke is a way for those who have suffered to claw back a brief moment of control over their lives, but Deutschkron implies that these moments don’t amount to anything significant.

They don’t, for example, keep the family together. In April 1939, her father leaves for England. After Kristallnacht, England eased its immigration policy slightly, granting visas to those who had relatives in England and could prove they had applied for admission to other countries. Her father had a cousin in England, and he had applied to go to Palestine. But the cousin could only sponsor him; Deutschkron and her mother would have to stay behind. Fitting, then, that she’s alone with her mother in the book’s opening scene, for this will be their fate throughout the war. The father is absent from the rest of the book (his story too must have been interesting); even when they are eventually reunited, Deutschkron says almost nothing about him. Hard for me to read this elision as anything other than judgmental.

From the time the war begins, Deutschkron’s memoir might have taken the title of Lore Segal’s own description of her wartime experience, Other People’s Houses. For the next five years, Deutschkron and her mother will shuttle through a series of rooms and other, less orthodox, hiding places. Their experiences support Mark Roseman’s claim that those who survived relied mostly on a network of helpers, some of whom they knew, and others they didn’t, some of whom provided long-term assistance, and others who helped spontaneously or briefly. The Deutschkrons relied on their friends in the socialist movement. One man had a grocery and gave the women fruit and vegetables; another, a butcher, sold them cuts of meat without ration cards. Still others offered places to stay or let them work off the books.

Deutschkron’s formal education had ended in April 1939 when the Nazis closed all Jewish schools. Her options were either to work in a Jewish household or in a factory. But for some reason the Jewish training school for kindergarten teachers had not yet been closed, and so she enrolled for the one-year course. The school was run by a highly educated woman who offered her students a much more wide-ranging humanistic education than would have been expected. Deutschkron appreciated the opportunities, yet she did not find early childhood education to be her métier the way one of her fellow students did. This a beautiful girl from the Ruhr valley was Marianne Strauss, the subject of two books I’ve recently been reading—this connection impressed me in a spooky, almost mystical way, as if even in the midst of destruction all manner of connecting webs still existed.

After graduating from the course, Deutschkron took a job in the household of Dr. Conrad Cohen, head of the welfare department of the Reich Association of Jews in Germany. As such, he and his family still lived in relative privilege. Deutschkron did cleaning, laundry, childcare for the family until April 1941, when a new edict declared that Jews could no longer keep household help. That left only compulsory factory work. Through her connection to Cohen, Deutschkron was sent to see Otto Weidt, who ran a workshop in which blind and deaf workers, most of them Jewish, made brooms and brushes for the army.

Weidt might be the most remarkable person in the memoir, which is saying something. Legally blind, at times reliant on an oxygen machine, active before the war in pacifist circles, aided by his competent and shrewd wife, Elise (regrettably absent from Deutschkron’s account), Weidt routinely defied the Gestapo. “He was a gambler and a risk-taker and liked a good fight.” Thanks to his army contracts Weidt had been deemed essential to the war effort. He obtained extra materials on the black market (paying policemen to cut hair from their horses’ tails, for example) so he could exceed his production quota and sell the extra illegally. That allowed him to hire more workers, almost all of them Jewish. Contrary to regulations, he even let able-bodied Jews work in the office as secretaries and accountants. Weidt offered one such place to Deutschkron, where she worked closely with Alice (Ali) Licht, a young woman with whom she became close and who, thanks to Weidt, would survive the war in the most extraordinary way. The 60-year-old Weidt became a surrogate father for Deutschkron, though one more kindly and less threatened by his daughter’s sexuality than most. When Deutschkron fell for a man named Hans Rosenthal, who worked as a purchasing and distributing agent of the Jewish Community (which meant relying on black market connections), Weidt would facilitate meetings between them. He even arranged dinners for his favourites at the factory. When the Gestapo descended on the workshop, as they regularly did, Weidt would pretend to curse his employees for their laxness, though always ending by noting to the Nazis that he could never fill his army orders “without these Jews.”

Otto Weidt, left, with Alice (Ali) Licht, and Gustav Kremmert, whom Weidt was unable to save

Outside the workshop, the situation got worse and worse. The first deportations left Berlin in October 1941. Over a thousand people, one of whom had for a time lived with Deutschkron and her mother in a shared apartment, were corralled in a synagogue before being shipped east. Deutschkron and her mother walked by the building in case they could catch a glimpse of their friend. Thinking of the mostly elderly people inside, they felt at once relieved and guilty: “We breathed a sigh of relief that we were still able to work, and we felt ashamed.” Deutschkron knew there was no good reason why they were outside the building and not with the others inside.

That conviction was reinforced when Deutschkron herself received a notice. Her mother insisted that she would voluntarily register so that they won’t be separated, an idea Deutschkron furiously rejected. At their wits’ end, they went to see Dr. Cohen for advice, who angrily tore up the notice. There had apparently been a mix-up; it was meant for someone with a similar name. “For a while I was haunted by the thought that someone else was going to take my place,” Deutschkron says. Note the temporariness of her feeling (“for a while”); it was difficult to worry about others.

By mid 1942 the Deutschkrons moved into a Judenhaus, apartments in which Berlin’s remaining Jews were crowded together—eleven of them in a five-and-a-half-room flat. Friends disappeared; even the Cohens were deported. Hans Rosenthal escaped deportation by a hair’s breadth—a Gestapo officer familiar with his contacts thought it would be better to make use of them than to send him away.

Deutschkron movingly describes visiting her aunt and uncle (her father’s sister) on the day of their deportation. She and her mother consoled the couple as best they could, slipping out of the house just before the Jewish police arrive:

To this day I can hear the squeaking of the stairs. As we stepped out from the dark hallway into the wintry street we saw a police car approach. We stopped to watch. Two Jewish orderlies wearing the yellow star went into the house. They reappeared minutes later behind my aunt, who was lugging the heavy backpacks. She walked quickly, as though eager to get it over with. My uncle followed haltingly. They didn’t look back as they stepped into the car, not a single backward look at the city that had been their home for almost thirty years. I cried. My mother, although just as moved, warned me to control myself. “Suppose somebody were to see us?” We had gone out without our stars. We were the only ones on the street. Strange how the Berliners knew when to make themselves scarce so as not to have to see what was happening on their streets. It is anybody’s guess how many watched from behind their curtained windows.

It’s as though Deutschkron were a little girl again, forced to watch the neighbourhood from her apartment. Yet what she watches now is more terrible. Is her looking compensation for the backward look her relatives can’t bring themselves to give? As in the earlier scene, there is here an us and a them, yet unlike the moment a decade earlier, when “they,” the children at play, were visible in the street, here, they are invisible. They are hiding now. Notice that they are “the Berliners,” not ‘our fellow citizens.’ Notice too how Deutschkron, in a reverse synecdoche, substitutes the city for their apartment building: “not a single backward look at the city that had been their home.” It’s as if she is accompanying them all the way to the station, and beyond, as the train departs for the East. This is telling, because Outcast is more than most memoirs I’ve read, even of Jews who lived there, a Berlin story.

All the more amazing, then, what a select few of its inhabitants were willing to do. Weidt, in particular, continues to perform miracles—when his disabled workers are taken in a raid, he marches to the Gestapo and somehow gets them back. But he mutters he won’t be able to do it again. Death is all around. A friend tells Deutschkron that their neighbour’s son has come back from the east with news about what is happening there to the Jews. This corroborates what she and her mother have heard on the BBC, which they listen to in secret whenever they can: “There’d been vague allusions to gassings and executions that none of had believed, or, rather, wanted to believe.” The friend insists they must not let themselves be deported. This is January 1943. Almost no Jews are still living in Berlin; the last will be taken in February. Deutschkron and her mother will have to go underground.

The U Boots move frequently, from place to place, all uncomfortable and risky, sleeping for a while even on the floor of a stationary stop owned by Socialist friends, and, later in their boathouse outside the city. They never stay anywhere long. If they are introduced by their hosts as friends on a visit, neighbours soon say, “They’re staying a long time, aren’t they?”

In the summer of 1943 the Gestapo finally “cleans out” Weidt’s workshop—everyone is deported, though Weidt manages to get Ali Licht and her parents (who he had been hiding in a false room at the back of the shop) sent to Theresienstadt. He didn’t know that the so-called model camp was just a station on the way to Auschwitz, though Ali managed to get a note to him when she was deported there. Ali’s story is remarkable: Weidt actually travelled to Oświęcim, the town where the camp was built in a former army barracks, found out that Ali was in fact in Birkenau, and bribed a Polish worker to smuggle a letter to her explaining that he had rented a room in town and left civilian clothes there, should she ever be able to escape—which she did in the chaos of the camp’s evacuation in January 1945. Ali Licht returned to Berlin and was hidden by Weidt for the rest of the war.

Deutschkron’s path to survival was less fraught than Ali’s but still harrowing. In the fall of 1943 the Allies begin bombing Berlin regularly. A terrible time for the city’s non-Jewish citizens is a boon for Deutschkron (though still dangerous, especially since she can’t go to the bomb shelter when she is hiding in someone’s apartment). She is able to get help at the NSV (National Socialist Welfare Agency) like any other bombed out victim; she even gets a new ID, after claiming that hers was lost in a raid. That doesn’t mean she is in the clear, though. After all, she has to worry about death from above as much as denunciation from those around her. Friends take the Deutschkrons to Potsdam, just outside Berlin, where they rent a meager shed, a “former combination goat shed and laundry room.” With only a few interruptions they spent the rest of the war there, scraping together enough to eat (while foraging for mushrooms, Deutschkron dreams of being able to take a walk without having to think of survival) and dodging identity checks. Once Deutschkron is even recognized by an old acquaintance on the subway, which is almost her undoing. Later she is threatened with denunciation by a woman jealous of her husband, who is hiding Inge and her mother. Even when the war shudders to a close and the Russians appear in Berlin, Deutschkron isn’t safe. Now she needs to dodge “the Ivans,” narrowly avoiding several assaults and attempted rapes.

After the war, hungry and weary, Deutschkron falls ill; moreover, she is depressed about the news out of Belsen and Auschwitz. She finally hears from her father, but she and her mother can’t get to the UK until August 1946. The last pages of Outcast are more concerned with the machinations between socialists and communists in immediate postwar Berlin than with her feelings. The shell Deutschkron has offered readers from the beginning of the book seems to have hardened. Even her final references to Israel, where she eventually settles, are perfunctory, giving nothing away. But why should we expect anything different? Deutschkron doesn’t owe us tears. Besides, the descriptions of how the communists repressed the socialist movement she and her parents had so identified with, and her concomitant claim that Israel is the only place she can be safe (ironically the book was written just at the moment when, with the election of Menachem Begin, Israel was abandoning its socialist past) do in fact get at what eats at her most: her exile from her home, Berlin.

Still from Deutschkron’s interview with Claude Lanzmann

Describing the roundup that swept up the city’s last Jews, Deutschkron declares: “A Berlin without any Jews was inconceivable.” She was living proof that such a city in fact never existed, but not for lack of trying. Jewish Berlin persisted only in hiding, in stealth, on the other side of a window or around a corner away from the invisible prying eyes of those who did everything they could to make the inconceivable a reality. Less bitter than Ruth Kluger in her postwar response to Vienna, less ambivalent than Marianne Strauss’s postwar attempts to identify with a new Germany, Inge Deutschkron is the clear-eyed, composed, yet wounded fighter who appears not just in this fascinating memoir but also in that interview with Lanzmann, which you can watch here. (Highly recommended; she’s amazing.)

Lanzmann likely cut Deutschkron from his film because she didn’t fit the story he wanted to tell. He wanted to focus on those forced to do the Nazis’ evil work in the extermination camps; his is a more lachrymose tale. I doubt Deutschkron cared that Lanzmann had no use for her. Well, maybe she did. But she might have expected something of the sort. She was used to being on the outside, looking in. She answered her mother’s demand—she proved herself as good as the ones who wanted to kill her—but it left a bad taste in her mouth.

I read this for Caroline and Lizz’s tenth annual German Literature Month. Lots of other great posts here.