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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roses big and roses small

Soft as velvet on a wall

But the softest petal part

Is the rose of Lietje’s heart.

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

“Look what the Bolsheviks have done to the horses!”: Philip Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers

Sometime in the mid-90s, Philip Marsden spends a winter in Moscow, researching the Cossacks and the Old Believers—dreaming, in other words, of the Caucasus.

When spring comes Marsden goes to Rostov. There he begins the meandering journey across the land between the Black and Caspian seas that is the subject of The Spirit-Wrestlers. Marsden describes the territory as “Russia’s Vendée, where serfs and schismatics fled to become Cossacks … where the perennial urge to conformity seems at its weakest—the place where the sea-like flatness of the steppe breaks against the Caucasus and all its scatterings of non-Russian peoples.”

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Some of these people are long-vanished, like the Scythians, whom the Cossacks have styled as their forbearers (a claim Marsden dismisses as nonsense), and the Alans, another vanished Steppe group famous for its warrior temperament, and whose descendants are likely today’s Ossetians. In addition to sojourns among Cossacks, Ossetians, Georgians, and Armenians, Marsden also tracks down some more obscure peoples, like the Molokans (the milk drinkers, named after an epistle from Peter that describes believers desiring the Word as babies do milk), whose numbers at one point reached a million and were important in the movement to abolish serfdom in the 19th century, and one of whose subgroups were the first to call themselves “communists” after pooling their resources.

The people he’s most interested in, though, are the Doukhobors (the “spirit-wrestlers” of the title). Their origins—like those of pretty much every group in this book and, indeed, the world—are unclear, but they date to the late 18th century. The sect’s adherents distanced themselves from what they saw as the corruption of the Church; instead they “tried to live in the way most likely to release the spark that lives in each individual.” In the 19th Century their most famous leader was imprisoned in Siberia and the rest were exiled to the southern edge of the empire. Above all it was their pacifism that got them in trouble—they refused to serve in the army—but this was what brought them to the attention of Tolstoy, who donated the proceeds from his last novel, Resurrection, to them, which allowed many Doukhobors to emigrate to Canada in the early 20th century. (They settled in the prairies, and flitted on the periphery of my childhood, but only as a kind of joke: their reputation for espousing a kind of hippie millenarianism stemmed from their tendency to avow nudism. I remember them being portrayed to me as something like grubby Hutterites. It was useful—and not a little shaming—to learn the meaningful context for people and practices I’d only known as derisive.)

Yet as its division into parts named Steppe and Mountain suggests, The Spirit-Wrestlers is as much about landscape—sometimes verdant, sometimes stony, always seemingly inexhaustible—as about the stormy co-existence of religious and ethnic groups.

Last year I read Marsden’s The Bronski House, about a similarly contested border region in Eastern Europe, this time to the north-west of Russia (Poland, Lithuania, Belarus). I loved it. But I think I might like The Spirit-Wrestlers even more. Which surprises me, since the subject matter isn’t immediately appealing to me. I’m not really that religious a person, and non-Abrahamic religions interest me least of all. (Many of the people Marsden interacts with are Christians, but they are typically dissenters: the Doukhobors, for example, do not recognize the authority of the Church.) Yet despite its concern with spiritualism, Marsden’s true interest is ordinary material life, in all its pains and pleasures.

That dogma is his enemy is clear throughout. But in his final pages, Marsden allows himself to editorialize a little. In Armenia he goes looking the Yezidi, a group that recognizes evil as an integral part of creation. He concludes:

Our universe is naturally flawed, they say, and to deny it is to miss an elemental truth. I could not help being drawn to this idea. It was a riposte to all those dreamers—from Christians to Communists—who clog their thinking with the way things should be and ignore the way they are, who gaze for too long at their own glittering visions and fail to see the glories in the twists and bumps that make up the real world.

The Yezidi—the long history of whose suffering took a further, terrible turn a few years ago when they were genocidally persecuted by ISIS—don’t try to purge the world of evil. They just try to avoid it. In so doing, Marsden argues, “they sidestep one of the great paradoxes of our earthly existence. For as any dictator learns, it is precisely what you try to purge that becomes your downfall.”

These conclusions explain Marsden’s epigraph, attributed to Russian villagers, who, when camels were brought to their collective farms, exclaimed: “Look what the Bolsheviks have done to the horses!” The joke might at first seem to be on the villagers, rubes who can’t tell a horse from a camel. But really it’s on the Bolsheviks, and anyone who tries to mash square pegs into round holes. Or, more painfully, on those who take on the role of the pegs, who suffer the murderous grandiosity of conviction forced on life from on high. Can we even call it a joke? So much pain lies behind it: a classic if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry scenario.

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Suffering also explains the importance of food in the book, for food, Marsden suggests, is the preeminent way of bringing people together peacefully. In the steppe and the mountains, food (and peace) has so often been in short supply. When Marsden talks to old people he hears terrible stories of starvation, mostly due to Stalin’s forced collectivism. They remember eating grass and birch bark, boiling leather shoes for a desperate soup, devouring the seed-corn. These stories are from long ago, but they resonate into the present. In Maikop, in the Russian Adygei Republic, a fraught conversation about ethnic nationalism is brought to a peaceful conclusion only when it’s time for lunch:

The whole subject was too serious to be taken seriously in public. They unpacked more food, and with the food the harmless chatter resumed; in Russia there is no anxiety so great that it cannot find relief in a full table.

As this passage suggests, food matters less for its own sake (the book is pre-Foodie, thank God) and more for its ability to bring people together.

Rather unusually for a travel writer, Marsden likes people. He’s curious about everyone and everything, without being credulous. He stays just the right side of folksy in his observations, some of which are quite funny:

I left Fyodor Mikhailovich sitting on a bench outside his gate. He was waiting for something to happen so that he could watch it. Nothing had happened yet and it probably wouldn’t that day.

In South Ossetia he meets a doctor nicknamed Pushkin, “a tireless walker, not fast, but who walked without really being aware he was walking.” They discuss the famously long-lived people of the Caucasus, people who lived not just into their 120s but, apparently, into their 170s. Why aren’t there such people anymore? We eat yeast, Pushkin says, adding, “Everything’s different now.”

The doctor, who visits tiny villages on foot, bringing only the comfort of his presence (he hasn’t had medicine since the fall of the Soviet Union), experiences change only as loss:

To Pushkin, these elongated lives were just one of the vanished riches of the Soviet past, like a full medicine cabinet, like the kolkhoz sheep, like peace between the peoples of the union.

But the Union brought pain, too. In Kidlovodsk, a spa town in the mountains, he rents a room from Natalya Petrovna, a “teacher of ideology” who is at first presented almost as a figure of fun, an eccentric anyway: “She was also an expert on local buses.” He sleeps on her balcony, under “a canopy of fresh walnut leaves.” In the morning he listens to Natalya toss “scraps of bread to the dogs in the yard: ‘Maronchik! Sobachka!’” She spends her days working in the garden at her dacha, which she reaches by taking the Number 52 to the post office, then changing to the Number 10. It’s all gentle and sweet. Then we learn about her two sons, who appear “loose-hipped and laughing” in a photo on the kitchen wall.

They had gone to Afghanistan together. They had written long letters home. They had sent photographs of themselves in uniform. Natalya’s sons had returned separately, each one in a box.

The tone darkens all in a moment. The life of the lonely woman suddenly seems different: the precision of the bus routes becomes a way of salvaging sense from senselessness. And her repeated lament “They’ve drunk Russia away…” becomes not a quixotic railing against the Russian national pastime but fury at the generals who stole her boys.

As these examples suggest, Marsden isn’t a showy writer. But he’s a good one. That “loose-hipped and laughing” is a fine example. “Loose-hipped”: I’d never have thought of it, but I can just see it. Or take this description of a sudden rainstorm: “Women scuttled into doorways with handbags over their heads; dogs ran flat-furred through the water.” I love that “flat-furred.” Marsden’s good with dogs. In Armenia, “warm Asiatic winds were blowing unchecked across [the land’s] grassy tracts, flicking the neck-fur of the dogs.”

Marsden is like his style: impressive but modest. He keeps to the edge of the story. We learn almost nothing about him. (By comparison The Bronski House is practically an autobiography.) He cuts an appealing figure: modest, uncomplaining, able to find a place for himself no matter where he goes. When things go wrong, as they always do, he doesn’t fuss. I especially wondered what language he speaks to the people he meets, many of whom have little formal education. (Which of course isn’t incompatible with the ability to speak several languages.) It’s clear his Russian is excellent, and that’s presumably the language of choice. But did that work in Ossetia, Georgia, and Armenia?

Similarly, I wondered what such a trip would be like now. Even more difficult to accomplish, I assume. Marsden is kicked off a bus by Russian security forces the first time he tries to get to Georgia, and he worries about being shot at night in Tbilisi. But I suspect these places are even more dangerous for Westerners now. I would imagine the rise of Islam in the area has changed things a lot (Marsden only meets one Muslim, a convert who is the source of bemused contempt by his family.) Wherever he goes, he records everyday examples of Islamophobia (plus the casual anti-Semitism you’d expect).

These changes notwithstanding The Spirit-Wrestlers didn’t seem dated, despite being written twenty years ago. Not that its concerns are timeless. But the battle between idealism and ordinary life (which I admit I am romanticizing, as, perhaps, does Marsden) is endless. And it’s clear Marsden has influenced later writers. The Spirit-Wrestlers, for example, reminded me of Kapka Kassabova’s Border, a similarly intelligent and sensuous investigation of a place where cultures collide, in that case Thrace and the Rhodope.

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If I haven’t already enticed you to give The Spirit-Wrestlers a try, I’ll add two last notes. One, it’s got a great map. Who doesn’t love a map? Two, it’s a perfect summer book, filled with descriptions of people sitting outside late into the night eating and, especially, drinking. And with a new set of true believers causing trouble all across the world what’s not to like about that?

Primo Levi: A Centenary Celebration

The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi was born 100 years ago in Turin, Italy. He spent his entire life there, except for the months he spent imprisoned by the Nazis in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Buna-Monowitz, and the year it took him to make his way home. Although Levi’s actual birthday is not until next month (he lived from July 31, 1919 – April 11, 1987), I’ve decided to spend much of June reading and writing about him.

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Levi is a writer close to my heart. It would not be wrong to say that I am in love with him. Which is of course a preposterous thing to say. But from the time I first read Levi, in my second year at university, I was smitten with his secular humanism. I admired the way he bridged the so-called “two cultures” (not an idea, I suspect, he would have had much time for). And mostly I sensed that he was a decent, kind person—a mensch of the first order. Of course, I gleaned that sense from his autobiographical writings, and, like all memoirists, the persona Levi offers us in writing is related to but not the same as his actual person. I have long had Ian Thomson’s biography on my shelves, and this seems the perfect time to read that alongside Levi’s own works.

(Thomson is a great writer, and I’m really looking forward to his book, but I know there are at least two other biographies in English, one by Carole Angier and one by Berel Lang. I won’t have time to read them, but if anyone has read one or both, I’d like to know what you think. I’m dimly aware that Thomson and Angier come to different conclusions about Levi, particularly, I believe, about his mysterious death.)

When I speak to groups about the Holocaust, I am often asked what books I would most recommend for people who want to learn more. It’s a question to which there are so many possible, equally worthy answers. There are so many urgent Holocaust books. But I always list Survival in Auschwitz (as it is frustratingly titled in the US: a much better, and more accurate title would be If This is a Man) first. For me, it is one of the most indispensable books of the twentieth century.

Here’s what I have in mind at the moment for my centenary celebrations:

  • A post on Survival in Auschwitz, specifically how I teach it. [Note: this turned into two long posts: here and here.]
  • A post on his genre-defying The Periodic Table, which I read 25 years ago and look forward to revisiting. [Note: Didn’t do this, but my friend Nat did–he’s thoughtful as always.]
  • A post on If Not Now, When?, a novel in which Levi takes on the Eastern Jewish experience that wasn’t his own (it’s about a band of partisans making their way from Russia to Palestine, perhaps loosely based on the Bielski partisans).
  • A post on some of Levi’s non-Jewish writing: I’m thinking Other People’s Trades and some of the stories
  • A post on some of the things I learned from Thomson’s biography

That’s an ambitious schedule, and who knows how much of it I’ll get to. In the meantime, you could check out a couple of things I’ve already written on Levi. Here at the blog I wrote about how I always begin my introductory Holocaust Lit course with a close reading of a passage from the second of Levi’s memoirs, The Reawakening. And a couple of years ago I reviewed an interesting new book about Levi’s time as a partisan in the Italian Alps in 1943. (It was for this resistance work, rather than his being Jewish, that Levi was first arrested.)

I’d be thrilled if anyone wanted to join me in reading Levi—no need to match my choices, especially since I’m not even sure I know what they’ll be yet. And if you feel compelled to write about your responses to those works, I’ll gladly post your thoughts on the blog.

Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall

I wrote about Sarah Moss’s excellent short novel Ghost Wall at The Mookse and the Gripse.

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Here’s a short bit from near the beginning that gives you a sense of what the book’s about:

That story is told by seventeen-year-old Silvie, who, together with her parents and an anthropology professor and three of his students, spends two weeks in the summer of 1991 reenacting the lives of the Iron Age inhabitants of Northumberland. Britons, her father calls them; Celts, the professor demurs, citing the current preferred terminology. In making this distinction, the professor ineffectually pushes back against Silvie’s father’s desire to imagine a purely British origin story. Silvie’s own name is short for Sulevia, a local goddess of springs and pools, or, as Silvie, quoting her father, half-reluctantly, half-defensively puts it, “A proper British native name.” As that “proper” suggests, her father’s idea of authenticity is moralizing at best, overtly racist at worst: describing the Picts’ resistance to the Romans (“the Romans are the end of what he likes”), he says “there weren’t dark faces in these parts for nigh on two millennia after that, were there?” (he’s already rejected Indian food as “Paki muck”). Her father, Silvie concludes, “wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” What he has instead is a job as a bus-driver that supports his amateur archaeology and survivalist escapades, and a wife and daughter whom he terrorizes.

It’s a terrific book, a riposte to today’s rise in nativism.

My thanks to Trevor Barrett, the original Mookse, for the opportunity!

May 2019 in Review

In contrast to last month, May was a good reading month. No surprise: April is the worst month of the year for my schedule; May is one of the best. Plus, I had a lovely few days at my in-laws’ farm, where there’s nothing for me—a person who avoids bush-hogging (it’s a thing, look it up) as if his life depended on it—to do but sit on the porch swing and read.

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David Downing, Diary of a Man on Leave (2019) The new standalone from Downing is about a German-born Soviet spy who is sent back to Germany in 1938 to see if any of the members of the now-suppressed Communist party can be enticed into sabotage or resistance work. As is often the case with Downing, the historical background is more compelling than the writing or the story. But I also didn’t give this book my best. I bet I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read it in a couple of sittings, instead of in dribs and drabs over the last week of the semester.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking (2018) Lots of people have already written about this excellent novel, including Parul Seghal in this very nice essay about #Metoo in fiction. It’s based on a true story: in a Mennonite community in Bolivia, women of all ages were regularly drugged with animal anesthetic and raped by men they lived among and knew well. In Toews’s novel, the men of the community have gone to the city to bail out the culprits. The women have two days to decide what to do: stay, leave, or fight. The novel consists of their debates, as recorded by August, a man who in his younger years left the community (his parents were expelled) and has now returned. August is an educated man, a man useless at farming, and, as such, in the eyes of the women as well as his own, not really a man at all.

I loved this smart, slippery novel, and I suspect I would get a lot more out of it on a second reading. I don’t think I’ve come close to plumbing its depths. I’ll simply note for now that the use of the male transcriber (the women are illiterate) is brilliant—it lets us see how even an ostensibly “good,” that is, sympathetic man, is complicit in patriarchy. When August describes the underside of a woman’s arm as “very smooth and white, like the keel of a new canoe,” my first response was to admire this simple but effective simile. My second was to wonder over the nature of the comparison. Is it neutral? (And what would that even mean?) Appreciative? Objectifying? Can there be appreciation without objectification? Relatedly, can there be forgiveness without complicity? What is forgiveness even for? By evoking these sorts of questions, Women Talking reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, another rhetorically complex investigation into social structures, gender politics, and the uses and abuses of violence.

I’ve a longstanding aversion to Canadian literature that I perceive to be worthy but dull (i.e. most mainstream English-language Canadian fiction of the past thirty years). I’d never read Toews before because I thought she fit that bill. On the basis of this book, anyway, I was totally wrong, and I look forward to looking into her backlist. Anyone have preferences?

Katherine Marsh, The Night Tourist (2007) This one is special to me because my daughter and I read it together (mostly me to her, but sometimes her to me), and it’s a pretty sophisticated book, probably best suited for middle readers or even teenagers. It reworks the Orpheus myth (and as such gave my daughter her first consistent exposure to Greek myth—another milestone). Jack Perdu is a teenager who experiences mysterious visions that eventually lead him to experience a whole New York underworld full of ghosts. These recently and not-so-recently dead people must come to terms with their past before they can, in the language of the novel, “move on” to Elysium. Befriended by a girl named Euri, Jack learns why he, a mortal, can see ghosts and at what cost. In so doing, he uncovers the truth about his mother’s death, about which his father has always been so tight-lipped. And he reenacts his own version of the Orpheus story. Along the way he travels through all kinds of unusual New York landmarks—it’s a good city novel—and meets all kinds of people, like the poet Dylan Thomas and the psychoanalyst and early translator of Freud Abraham Brill. In other words, The Night Tourist was as much fun for me to read as for my daughter. I’m grateful to a colleague who teaches Classics and Children’s literature for turning me on to this book.

John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (2018) Catnip to me, since I spend much of my professional life decrying the five-paragraph essay, teaching students why it’s boring and awful, and supporting them through the realization that a skill they had to master in order to get to college now means nothing at all.

Warner, who is clear that his teaching discoveries have been possible because he hasn’t had a full-time, secure academic position (which is to say, he is the most common kind of academic there is today), is funny without being cutesy. He’s clear and thoughtful. And best of all, he’s inspiring. I’ll be changing my teaching this Fall based on his suggestions. His practical advice is great—and his sample exercises even better. I could have done without some of the sections demolishing what has passed as educational reform in the last decades—mostly because I already agree with Warner, but also because these sections feel a bit padded—but on the whole this is a book anyone who writes or, especially, teaches others to write should take a look at. It opens with a great bit on the reactions Warner gets when people learn about his job (It’s the phones! It’s that they’re snowflakes!). Warner says, it’s not the phones, and it’s not the snowflakes: it’s that students are doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do.

Andrew Taylor, The Anatomy of Ghosts (2010) My last audiobook of the semester was a good one. I’ve read some of Taylor’s historical fiction before (always crime-ish, sometimes Gothic, a bit pastiche-y), and although some are better than others, he’s always good light reading. This is a story of secrets and corruption in 18th century Cambridge. Some appealing characters, some dastardly ones, some nice twists. Good stuff.

Ben Aaronovitch, Whispers Under Ground (2012) I really liked Midnight Riot, the first book in Aaronovitch’s urban fantasy Rivers of London series. In the first book, PC Peter Grant learns to his surprise that he has an affinity for the supernatural and is assigned to a unit of the Met dealing with all things inexplicable to reason. (I especially like the personification of the various rivers and streams in and under London that gives the series its name.) A while ago, I read the second book, and it was ok. Now I took a flier on the third, and I’m realizing that I like crime a lot more than fantasy. There’s always a climactic bit in these books with some kind of monster or supernatural creature that I find tedious. So maybe these books aren’t really my thing. They’re funny, though. Maybe I’ll pick up the fourth in a year or so.

Nathan Englander, kaddish.com (2019) Englander is the heir to Bernard Malamud, which is some of the highest praise I can offer. My appreciation for his (admittedly a bit uneven) work only grew when I got to host him for a few days several years ago. The man’s a prince.

I liked kaddish.com a lot, but this review in The Nation made me doubt my response. (I respect Nathan Goldman’s taste.) I agree with Goldman that the book (which is really a novella—a form that, happily, seems to be making a comeback: thinking of Moss’s Ghost Wall for example) is more expanded short story than fully-fledged novel. But I don’t think it’s padded or slight or overworked. I appreciated how it used the kind of temporal shifts more common to a story than a novel. There’s a big, and to my mind fascinating, shift about 30 pages in: some readers characterize it as undeserved or ill-explained, but I think it’s important for making sense of the book, which is about persistence or, better, the inexpungable, whether that takes the form of pop up windows or Torah study.

What’s this book about? The eponymous website, of course, which promises to exploit a Talmudic loophole in order for users to hire someone to say kaddish (the prayers for the dead) for a deceased loved one for the year prescribed by Jewish law. Englander’s protagonist, who has taken advantage of this service, spends most of the book trying to meet the shadowy and perhaps unreal person who took on that burden. Like so much of Englander’s work, kaddish.com simultaneously challenges and appreciates Jewish tradition. (Again like Malamud.) It also asks to be read in tandem with his last book, the similarly short The Dinner at the Center of the World: both are about Israel around the turn of the century; the first political, the second religious.

James Sturm, Off Season (2019) Melancholy comic, which I wrote about here.

Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) I’d been thinking about how I first learned about the Holocaust, and I remembered this book, which—along with Anne Holm’s I Am David (does anyone read that anymore? I should track it down)—was one of the first places I got even a hint about the fate of Europe’s Jews under Nazism. (How old was I? 10 maybe?) Re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was a revelation. For one thing, I realized it’s not really about the Holocaust: it’s indirectly about the Nazi persecution of Jews, and directly about exile.

Anna, the protagonist, clearly modelled on Kerr herself, is nine when Hitler takes power. Her father is a well-known writer critical of National Socialism. (As was Kerr’s father, Alfred Kerr, nicknamed the Kulturpapst (cultural Pope) of Weimar Germany.) Just before the fateful elections in January 1933, Anna’s father is tipped off that he should leave the country, as he is likely to be arrested should the Nazis win. What he hopes will be a short vacation turns into a life-long exile, in which he is joined by his family, first in Switzerland, then Paris, and finally London.

Kerr writes piercingly of what it means to have no home other than one’s immediate family (“If you haven’t got a home, you’ve got to be with your people”—lucky for her, and her character, that she could). Being a refugee is hard, the book suggests, but it also has its benefits. (Maybe this is the difference between exiles and refugees. Only the former can look on their experiences so philosophically.)

There’s an especially moving subplot about a family friend, a naturalist and a Luftmensch who laughs off the idea that he should leave Germany. (One of his grandparents was Jewish.) When Uncle Julius is forced out of his job and can only find work as a sweeper in a factory, his only pleasure is his daily visit to the Berlin zoo, where, Anna’s father notes sadly, the monkeys recognize him not just for the peanuts he brings but also for his gentleness. If only the people were as perceptive. When the zoo is decreed off-limits to Jews, Julius swallows a bottle of sleeping pills.

Yet despite such stories, the book is very funny. The family’s pluck is heartening, and their dry wit a pleasurable, if necessarily limited, fuck you to fascism. (The title comes from Anna’s decision to leave behind her favourite stuffed animal, a pink rabbit, with all the rest of the family’s possessions, in favour of a new toy that she later recognizes she doesn’t love at all. The family’s things are sent “into storage,” but of course, none of it is ever seen again.) Reading Kerr’s delightful book, I sometimes laughed out loud, which I really didn’t expect.

Kerr wrote two more books about the family’s experiences, taking up Anna’s story after her arrival in England. These are out of print, but I’ve tracked them down in various local libraries. Just a few days after finishing Rabbit, I learned of Kerr’s death at the age of 95. (Judging from the stories circulating on Twitter, she was a delight.) I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy soon: maybe an essay will come of it.

Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (2019) Contemporary American literary fiction is not my thing, but I like Garth Greenwell, and he’s been saying good things about this book. So I plucked it from the library’s New Book shelf. I almost quit on the first page:

During an uneventful part of my childhood, my mother walked into the room with a plate of loose washed grapes. She collapsed. Grapes thudded dully on the carpet. One rolled under the couch. The plate lay overturned, and my mother’s body was beside it, limbs splayed.

This is just the sort of in medias res, flatly written, and ominously portentous sort of thing I associate with American literary fiction. So annoying. (At least it’s in past tense. Why does everyone feel they have to write in present tense?)

Anyway, I persevered, and I’m glad I did. It turns out the mother is testing her kids, checking to see whether they would call for an ambulance. (They didn’t.) This gives you some idea of the fraught family dynamic at the heart of Lin’s debut novel, which is narrated by a sensitive child, alert to some of the nuances of what’s going on around him, but blind to others, which we glimpse by reading against his limited perspective.

Not a particularly unusual scenario for a literary novel. But who the child is and where he tells his story from is more unusual. Gavin, ten years old in 1986, is the middle child in an immigrant family. His parents are from Taiwan; he grows up in Alaska. His father is a wastewater engineer, but whether from bad luck or incompetence, he makes a mistake and a child dies from a poisoned well. (The motif of poisoning returns at the end of the book, with a reference to the Exxon Valdez disaster/fiasco.) The child who dies barely figures in the book—though the event has consequences for the narrator’s family, which spirals into severe poverty—but that fate echoes in another, significant way: Gavin’s younger sister dies of meningitis, and we see how each member of the family struggles with the repercussions of that terrible event. It’s all made worse in that no one in the family is able or willing to talk about their feelings.

Even though the book’s not especially long I thought it could have been shorter: I think it would have been better as a novella. Especially as Lin is better with set pieces than sustained narration. Two in particular stand out: one in which Gavin and his mother encounter a beached whale (it’s not as crassly symbolic as it sounds), and another in which the family’s youngest child goes missing during a violent storm. (That scene is so suspenseful I could feel my hands clutching the pages.)

As a child of immigrants, I’m captivated by stories of children forced to become the interpreters of a new land for their elders. I was surprised, and interested, to find that racism isn’t central to the story. Gavin’s family is different from most everyone around them, no question, and those differences embarrass and confuse the children, but the white Alaskans in the novel—admittedly few in number: the family is isolated, more by choice than geography—are more puzzled than hostile when they encounter the narrator and his siblings and parents. But then there’s the title, with its ungainly nonce noun, which I can’t quite figure out. Does “unpassing” suggest their inability to fit in? What isn’t being passed? I couldn’t make much of it.

It’s neither here nor there, but I was also surprised by the affinities between Lin’s novel and David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide (2008). Moral of the story: try not to grow up with emotionally distant parents in Alaska.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand (1969) A great time travel novel! Richard Young is invited to stay at a house on the Cornish coast owned by his friend Magnus Lane, a scientist who has secretly invented a concoction that takes whoever swallows it back to the fourteenth century. Richard, who agrees to test it, experiences a different moment in the lives of the local gentry on each trip. As befits a novel from the 60s, Du Maurier explicitly plays up the analogy between time travel and drugtaking, not least because the professor’s tincture turns out to be addictive. Richard’s visits to the past are momentary, and he cannot intervene in events. But even mere observation is risky.

I happened to read The House on the Strand as I was writing about Sarah Moss’s recent novel Ghost Wall, which concerns an anthropology study course, in which participants try to live as the Celts of Northumberland did in the years before the Roman invasion of Britain. Both novels investigate the power—and danger—of the desire to inhabit the past. Although Du Maurier’s narrator is more generous in his relationship to the past than most of Moss’s characters, he experiences the fantasy of direct connection to the past just as intensely as they do: “Imagination was not enough, I craved the living experience which had been denied me.”

The drug means Du Maurier’s narrator can experience what Moss’s characters cannot. Yet the opportunity comes at great cost. Madness results when the boundary between past and present dissolves. Which is really not that different from what we see in Moss’s novel. Moreover, both writers are equally convinced that the desire to control and dominate the past, rather than just to know it, is particularly male. The most disagreeable thing about The House on the Strand is the way Richard bullies his wife. (I think Du Maurier is critiquing this behavior, but I’m actually not sure. I find her gender politics hard to figure out.)

Anyway, you can read The House on the Strand without reading Ghost Wall. It’s a great book, a highlight in the Du Maurier canon, in my opinion, one I am steadily exploring with great pleasure (six books so far, and not a dud among them).

I read this for Ali’s #DDMreadingweek, which was a big success: I wish I’d been in time to write about it. But she promises to run it again next year, which gives me the excuse to read more Du Maurier!

Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (1898 – 1904, rev. 1918) Trans. Naomi Lebowitz (2010) I made a big deal about asking everyone to read this, and some of you even did. What I haven’t done is written anything about the experience yet. Will rectify this week.

Esther Freud, Peerless Flats (1993) I’ve long been a fan of Freud’s first novel, Hideous Kinky, which I gather is closely based on her own childhood experiences in Morocco, where she and her sister were taken by her clever, free-spirited, feckless, Hippie (choose your modifier) mother. But I’ve never read any of her others, even though I’ve collected most of them. I’ve long had the idea to catch up with them, and I think this is the summer for it.

Peerless Flats (you’ve got to admit, she has a way with titles) is, by all accounts, another fairly autobiographical novel, though this time with an older protagonist. In 1979, Lisa is sixteen and newly arrived in London where she’s just started an acting course. She lives with her mother (a version of the mother in Hideous) and much younger (and hilariously anarchic) brother. She’s also trying to keep tabs on her half-sister, who is into punk and drugs and lousy men; Lisa is the sensible one in the family, with all the travails that entails.

Two passages I liked a lot:

In the first, Lisa is in a pub, waiting for an older man she’s not sure she’s in love with. She’s ordered a drink she doesn’t want because she’s convinced ordering a soft drink would be a tip-off that she’s underage. She thinks about how late it’s getting:

Lisa began to worry about her mother. She imagined her waiting up. Listening for every tread on the stairs. She knew from experience that the more she worried about her mother, the less anxious her mother seemed when she did finally appear. But it didn’t stop her. Maybe this was what people meant by sensible.

In the second, she starts a new term to find that Brecht has replaced Stanislavsky on the syllabus:

Lisa felt completely thrown. For her the whole point of acting was the license it gave you to become another person, protected by a stage set and someone else’s words. … ‘What kind of actress are you going to be, Brechtian or Stanislavskian?’ [her friend] Janey asked Lisa in the canteen.

Lisa wasn’t sure. Really she just wanted to be Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago and wear a fur hat and a tailored coat with buttons down the front.

Right?!?

It seems to me that Freud is the link between a writer like Barbara Comyns and one like Nina Stibbe. All are exemplars of a British tradition of female experience—predominantly realist in expression, but where the Gothic is never far away—in which stoicism is leavened by humour, and competent haplessness is, maybe not a value, but a totally okay way to be. Anita Brookner might fit somewhere here too.

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light (1979) Trans. Geraldine Harcourt (2018) Evocative 1970s Japanese novella about a woman who separates from her husband and lives with her small daughter. As the title hints, the book is as much about patterns and sensations as about emotions: or, rather, the latter are mostly evoked through the former. (The particular territory of light is a fourth-floor apartment, but it’s surely also the psyche.) My sense is that single mothers were unusual in Japan at the time, and the narrator deals with a certain amount of animus and hardship. But the book is really about resilience, about making a life which is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes imprisoning. (I especially loved a bit where the mother loses it on her tantrum-y child in a park and wants nothing more than to leave her behind.) Territory of Light was initially published in a newspaper in twelve monthly installments. No doubt that’s why there’s the chapters repeat themselves a bit, but I liked this: it captured that crushing sense of getting though daily life that characterizes life with small children, even as the change in seasons makes the book more fluid than stagnant. The only thing I wondered at was the portrayal of the daughter, who seemed not so much precocious (thank God, that’s the worst) but developmentally older than I expected. She said and did things I don’t associate with three-year-olds. Regardless, Tsushima is an impressive writer, and it’s great to see her in English: I’ve got Child of Fortune and will read that soon.

Helen Dunmore, The Siege (2001) Last year, I read the late Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. I liked it a lot, and I think about it often. I liked The Siege even better, mostly because it is set in the period of my intellectual interests/obsessions (the 1930s and 40s in Europe). The title refers to the terrible siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, especially its horrifying first months during the winter of 1941-2.

Dunmore sometimes reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald in her use of unusual and vivid details to evoke the foreignness of the past. In the end, she’s a less surprising writer than Fitzgerald (I mean, who isn’t?), but still a very good one. Especially memorable here is her depiction of what prolonged hunger does to bodies, both metaphorical (the body politic, which bends and often breaks) and, most interestingly, literal.

Hearts palpitate after the simplest actions (climbing a flight of stairs, to say nothing of chopping a hole in the frozen Neva or dragging a pailful of its water back to an apartment). Legs swell. Teeth fall out. Short-term memory fades. Breath stinks. Sexual desire evaporates. I’d need to think more about whether the book ignores important political and historical distinctions by emphasizing the body (not in itself an ahistorical concept, but presented here as such), but that focus is certainly powerful.

The Siege isn’t a short book. And aside from some important chapters at the beginning set during the summer of 41, when Germany invaded the USSR, it concentrates on the months between September 1941 and April 1942. That level of detail is impressive—and sometimes hard to take. We watch a family’s precious supplies dwindle (we ache when the very last teaspoon of honey is meted out to a little boy; we wonder how many times tea can be made from the same dried nettles) and we wring our hands in anticipation—in a way I have often considered with my students of Holocaust literature—of an end we know, with the benefit of hindsight, is coming. Just hold out a little longer, I silently urged the characters, even as I worried because there were so many more years of the siege to go. How could they survive?  Dunmore’s decision to elide the rest of the war and leap to its end in the final chapters worked for me. Only a different kind of book—and probably not a novel—could cover the whole event in such detail. Plus, although life remained terribly hard for Leningraders, it was never as bad as that first winter, since the authorities were eventually able to fly supplies in—plus every available inch of the city was turned into a vegetable garden.

More Dunmore is in my future, no question. Maybe I’ll start with her sort-of sequel to The Siege, The Betrayal. Anyone have any other suggestions?

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Judith Kerr’s story of exile & Dunmore’s depiction of the siege of Leningrad aside, I deliberately took a break from all things fascism/Holocaust-related this month. In June, though, I’ll be returning to my regular fare. In particular, I’ll be reading and writing about Primo Levi, as a way to commemorate his centenary. More on that in a separate post soon.

Wearing the Mask: James Sturm’s Off Season

Off Season, the title of James Sturm’s latest comic, refers to New England in winter, as experienced on a trip that the main character, Mark, newly separated from his wife, Lisa, takes with their kids to Maine one blustery November weekend. It’s off season: most of the stores and restaurants are closed; the beach is freezing; the kids hungry and restive. The only place open is a 7-11. Walking past an art gallery, Mark remembers that he and Lisa bought a painting there in happier days. He was shocked, and pleased, to find himself becoming the kind of guy who buys art. But now he wonders if that decision was all Lisa’s. He imagines coming back to the seaside town in the summer, to find out what he really wants. Maybe he is a guy who buys art.

Not that he can afford any. Lisa has, as he sourly puts it, “the house, the rich parents, and plenty of time to volunteer for ol’ crooked Hillary” (he supported Bernie). Mark, a contractor who can fix anything, has had to sell his truck, which means that instead of being independent, he now works for a shady guy named Mick, a Bernie Bro with a BMW who does good work when he gets around to it, but gives Mark the runaround, writes bad checks, and eventually spreads lies about him. We don’t know enough about Mick to say for sure, he’s probably a shit all the time, but Mark’s hard time, at least, is an aberration from the life he thought he had been living.

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Which brings us to the second meaning of Sturm’s title.  Not the off-season, but an off-season. A spell of bad luck and despair that can happen to anyone, anytime. And not just anyone: even countries can have off seasons. Mark’s trip with his kids to the shore doesn’t happen in any old November. It’s November 2016. Trump, seen only once in the book, haunts the book: his oleaginous, bullying, smug, thoughtless bluster seems at once a threat to some basic American decency and a confirmation that the very idea of decency was a fantasy, told by a few for a few. (We can’t just console ourselves by thinking that Trump and the selfishness and hatred he’s emboldened is an aberration.)

Sturm draws Trump as a piggy-faced dog–everyone in the book is a dog. Or a person-dog. Sturm’s choice nods to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where the characters are humanoid animals, one for each ethnic or national group. The use of animals in place of people will always prompt questions of empathy and identification—and those are important questions to ask in a time when difference is even more demonized than usual. (Sturm alludes to the issue in a chapter showing how Mark and Lisa met: they worked backstage at a summer theater on the Cape, helping with a production of Orwell’s 1984 in which the actors wore masks: from off-screen, as it were, we hear the director and actors participating in a Q & A with the audience: “Using animals as human stand-ins is as old as storytelling…” one says; another asserts, “As an actor, it’s liberating to wear the mask.” Here Sturm at once acknowledges and ironizes what he’s up to.) But where Spiegelman’s conceit is tied to the world view of his father, a Holocaust survivor, Sturm’s feels less subjective. That is, the dogs don’t symbolize Mark’s views. It’s pretty amazing how much variety Sturm gets from his dog characters, and if I knew my breeds as well as my daughter does I could hazard some connections between how the characters look and what they’re like. But that would be to miss the point. The book isn’t schematic—most of these dogs aren’t pure breeds, I don’t think, they’re mutts.

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Off Season is unhappy about American politics. But it has nicer, and more nuanced, things to say about Americans. This comes up in its depiction of parenting, which might be its real subject. (Perhaps the idea is that Trump’s America is an unruly, even monstrous child, and good-enough—sympathetic but firm—parenting is what it needs.) The book is filled with parents trying to do their best, and mostly but of course not always succeeding. Mark and Lisa try hard not to take out their marital problems on their kids, though they sometimes fight through them. The best parent in the book is a minor character named Kirsten, the mother of a friend of Mark and Lisa’s son, and who, it is intimated, voted for Trump. In a memorable chapter, Mark and his daughter drive through a blizzard to pick the boy up from his friend’s house. The car spins off the road: they are unhurt but by the time they’ve trudged through the snow to the shelter of the house they’re cold and wet. Mark spends an enjoyable evening playing board games and eating chili with Kirsten and the various neighbourhood children who’ve gathered at her house, while he waits for her boyfriend to get home from work.

Barry gets Mark out of the ditch: when Mark thanks him, he replies, “Thank Jesus. He has our backs whether we know it or not.” That feels a little much (it’s not a totally implausible response, but in my experience people who think like this are usually more circumspect when first meeting someone—they will, however, say “Have a blessed day” to you all the time), but the point, maybe not subtle but also not wrong, is that we shouldn’t reduce people to their political convictions or opinions, shouldn’t be so quick to pigeon hole them. Maybe Mark is, after all, both a builder and an art lover. What would be so weird about that? (Or maybe the point is that we should consider the material and social conditions that allow people to live in cognitive dissonance: generous to individuals, even ones they don’t know, but hostile to groups. Or, maybe, hostile to individuals who don’t look like them.)

Apparently Sturm first published the book serially online in the wake of the 2016 election. But his concerns here aren’t only topical; he’s been thinking about them for a while. Sturm wrote one of my favourite comics, Market Day, set in the Pale of Settlement in the early 20th century, I. B. Singer, Sholem Aleichem territory, but shorn of anything folksy or sentimental. Its Yiddishkeit is as somber as Sturm’s palette—and as moving. I disagree with the Times reviewer who finds Off Season more vibrant than his earlier books because, unlike them, it’s set in the present. That’s a spurious distinction. It’s been several years since I read Market Day, so I may be misremembering, but both it and Off Season want us to think about how people—men, really: Sturm isn’t bad with women, but they are never center stage in his books—can make a living in economies that don’t value them. (Market Day is about a rug maker who can’t sell his work anymore; machine-made rugs cost a lot less.) In both books, the main characters respond to their precarity with violence, directed at others and at themselves. When Mark loses his cool, he doesn’t hurt anyone (at least not directly) but his response (he vandalizes the house he’s been building with Mitch) is disturbing. My criticism of Sturm is that he’s not sure what to make of violence. Is it an understandable, if regrettable, response to an intolerable situation? An intolerable response? Secretly exciting and laudable?

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Off Season ends in oblique, low-key optimism. Which is maybe the best we can hope for right now. It’s a beautiful, pensive, involving work: you can read it in an hour but you’ll want to linger longer. My only wish is that in his next book Sturm thought a little more about violence, frustration, anxiety, loathing, all kinds of bad affects. Are they what’s off this season? Or are they with us all the year long?

April 2019 in Review

April is always the worst month of the year, work-wise, with end of semester assignments added to the administrative work that’s been pushed off all year. (Step away from that Eliot joke.) For various reasons, this year was worse than usual. Which is a shame, as April is also the loveliest month in Little Rock, weather-wise. No surprise, then, that my reading suffered. Few standouts here.

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Jacqueline Winspear – The American Agent (2019) I’ve been a dedicated reader of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, which emphasizes character over mystery. From the beginning, Winspear has presented post-WWI England as a traumatized culture (an idea that sometimes works and sometimes grates). Now that the series has reached WWII, Winspear seems to be casting about for a new idea; the result is the weakest book so far, not least because the author seems to have become famous enough that she no longer gets much editing. The book’s too long: the first third, especially, drags. I’ve read a lot of books on the Blitz: you have to be doing something special to get me interested. I’m no fan of Maisie’s new love interest, either. I’ll be back for the next installment, but Winspear’s now on notice.

Tadeusz Borowski – This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (1959) Trans. Barbara Vedder (1976) Although I teach the title story every semester and can practically recite it from memory—a dubious pleasure, if you know it: I mean, it is one of the extraordinary texts of the Holocaust but it is so dark—I haven’t read the entire collection in several years. This time I read it with the small group of students I’ve spent the past year teaching how to be Holocaust educators. Even though they, like me, weren’t at their best this late in the school year, they still taught me things. For example, it was instructive to see how shocked yet riveted they were by a story like “Silence,” which shows the prisoners in a DP camp paying lip service to their American liberators’ insistence on due process before taking more visceral and irrevocable revenge on a collaborator. In a way, their surprise should have come as no surprise: Borowski is a genius at overturning our received view of the Holocaust.

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March (1932) Trans. Eva Tucker revising Geoffrey Dunlop (1974) The best book I read this month by a mile, a genuinely great work of art. I read it for the group reading hosted by Caroline & Lizzy. My thoughts here.

C. J. Tudor – The Chalk Man (2018) I listened to this first book by Tudor on my commute, which is probably a good way to experience it. The story switches between the present and 1986 when Eddie, the narrator, was a young teenager. The dramatic events of that time in his life—a violent accident, an untimely death, and a body found in the woods (a young girl’s, natch)—return in the present. The scenes in the past are better than those in the present: they have a “Stand by Me” vibe. Tudor isn’t much of a writer (check out this take-down of her infelicities); not even the audiobook narrator could smooth things over. Diverting in its way, but the stinger at the end feels a bit cheap and I haven’t been tempted to try Tudor’s second book.

John Williams – Stoner (1965) Sorry, everyone, I am not a fan of the book. I say that even though “formalist precision” and “the letter-perfect novel,” are absolutely my jam. These terms come from yet another Stoner encomium, this one a New Yorker essay that imagines a counter-factual US literary tradition in which William Maxwell, Richard Yates, and Jean Stafford and not Pynchon, Barth, and Robert Coover are the acknowledged postwar American literary masters: frankly this seems a straw argument: Pynchon, perhaps, aside, who reads these guys anymore?

You could say that reading a book about an introverted college professor with a quietly undistinguished career is too much of a busman’s holiday for me, and it’s true that I don’t like campus novels (when they engage with anything that actually happens on a campus, it’s usually interpersonal politics: i.e. animosity). But I’m always on the lookout for good novels about teaching (do you know any?), which the titular character of Williams’s novel claims to have a vocation for. I appreciated that Williams was willing to show his protagonist as not especially capable—there’s a mismatch between what he wants to convey to his students and what he actually can—but that criticism gets erased by the novel’s repeated avowals that Stoner experiences teaching as transcendent. But we only ever hear this: we don’t feel it. Yet at the same time, we are asked to sympathize so strongly with Stoner, to feel indignant at the way the world treats him, that we can never take the telling rather than the showing of teaching as ironic (that is, there is no suggestion that we should wonder at Stoner’s overestimation of himself—the idea is that he is great, it’s just that the world can’t realize it).

But none of this is what’s awful about the book. Stoner’s wife, Edith—or, rather, the book’s treatment of her—is what’s awful. Edith is a monster—a fact explained only through crudely misogynistic pop-psychology (she is frigid and alcoholic because she was abused by her father). Worst of all, Stoner rapes her without the novel commenting on the fact, or even seeming to recognize it as such. Had I not been reading the book for professional reasons (see below) I would surely have abandoned it.

I’m not surprised that Stoner’s return to print in the US was spurred by huge sales in Europe: it seems like one of those cultural products that speak more to European fantasies of America than anything real (c.f. Janis Joplin, Blue Velvet, “The House of the Rising Sun”).) I’m grateful, however, that its success has underwritten the many delightful oddities published by my beloved NYRB Classics.

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Benjamin Dreyer – Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) Entertaining, even stylish guide to language use. Neither dogmatically prescriptive nor airily descriptive. Recognizes everyone has their linguistic crotchets. A book to dip into, but be warned: once you start, it’s hard to stop. It’s pretty damn funny.

Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras (2018) Not a book I would ever have read on my own, but I’m glad I did. As a member of the Talent Committee for the Arkansas Literary Festival, I sometimes get asked to moderate panels at the event. This year it was a session on biographies. Hargrove was immediately recognizable at the author party the night before: he was the only one wearing a Stetson. He’s affable, soft-spoken, good-looking, smart: he could play himself in the movie version of the book. Except that one of the great things about the book is that Hargrove plays almost no role in it. (Swimming against the tide, that is.) Even though he learned to chase storms as part of his research (he shared some hair-raising footage with the Lit Fest audience), he keeps himself out of it. Instead the focus is on Tim Samaras, a self-educated tinkerer who parlayed his engineering work for a defense contractor into a position as one of the world’s foremost tornado researchers (he designed probes that could withstand the force of tornados and managed to deploy them in the very heart of storms; thanks to Samaras, for the first time, researchers were able to understand what actually happens inside a tornado).

Hargrove structures his book effectively, mixing comprehensible summaries of meteorological research, a narrative of Samaras’s life (yes, he did fall in love with tornadoes watching The Wizard of Oz as a child, a film he always turned off once Dorothy got to Oz), and an exciting yet never voyeuristic reconstruction of Samaras’s last chase. Samaras and two members of his crew, including his oldest son, were killed in a tornado (the widest ever recorded) near El Reno, Oklahoma in 2013. (I was amazed to learn that they are the only storm chasers who have ever died in action, as it were.)

Tornadoes are a feature of life in the American South (in Central Arkansas, they test the sirens every Wednesday at noon). They terrify me, a transplant who did not grow up with them (although the climate has changed such that they are pretty common in Canada now). (It does not help that there are no basements in Arkansas.) I worried the book would only increase this fear, but actually it’s allayed it: not that I find them safer or less random than I did before, but now I’m more interested in them as a phenomenon. If extreme weather or extreme passion interest you, you might enjoy this book too.

Jane Harper – The Lost Man (2018) Excellent novel about a fascinating place, outback Queensland, Australia. Two brothers, Nathan and Bub Bright, meet for the first time in months, even though their cattle ranches share a fence-line: the cause of their reunion is the death of their elder brother, Cameron. As befits a psychological mystery, plenty of family secrets come out over the course of the book, which doesn’t feature a detective per se. Instead, Nathan becomes the investigator of his family’s past—and in the process of himself. (Almost everyone in the book is a lost man.)

I read Harper’s first book, The Dry, a couple of years ago: it was good but not so terrific that I raced out to get the sequel. The new book is her first standalone, and a giant leap forward in sophistication and ability. A suspenseful character study with a satisfying ending that can rightly be said to be devastating, the book cleverly combines vast outdoor spaces with the closed world of a country house murder mystery. Above all, it offers an absorbing depiction of a difficult way of life in a place where children attend school via Skype, generators cut out at 11 p.m., the skin doctor flies in once a month to excise cancers, and every house has something called a “cold room” (I never did figure out how that works when the generator’s off). Stephen Shanahan reads the audiobook beautifully.

Charles J. Shield – The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life (2018) The other book on the Arkansas Literary Festival biography panel. (Or as I liked to think of it: The Men Who Did Shit panel.) This biography did not further endear me to Williams, a man who was careless of women (though unaccountably attractive to them) and blessed (admittedly after surviving dozens of dangerous flights over the Himalayas in WWII) with the prosperity postwar America gave to white men, especially those who found their way into the rapidly expanding public university system. (Churlish to resent those who were lucky in their birth, but I do.) Shield’s telling of the life (he has previously written biographies of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, and is completing one on Lorraine Hansberry: he told some good Vonnegut anecdotes at the festival) is workmanlike. He doesn’t quite apologize for Williams, but he doesn’t take much distance from him either.

By the way, if you, like me, were wondering how the hell the tornado book and the Stoner book were ever going to work together, the answer is: quite well! Both writers were professional, courteous, and thoughtful in their responses to an enthusiastic crowd. And we made some interesting connections between the works, especially concerning whether there is any meaningful distinction between passion and obsession.

That’s it! A paltry nine books. The tornado book was interesting, but the only ones likely to stick in my mind are The Lost Man and The Radetzky March. (Plus the Borowski, but I hardly count it, since it’s practically ingrained in me.)

May’s reading has already proven much more fruitful. More on that in a couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

March 2019 in Review

March is a long time ago now, but I wanted to say a few words about my monthly reading. A better than average set.

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Yiyun Li – Where Reasons End (2019) Sad, funny, wise, painful. I quoted bits here.

Christopher R. Browning – Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992/98) This Holocaust scholar could have won plenty of rounds of Humiliation for not having read Browning’s classic microhistory of the actions of Order Police Battalion 101 near Lublin in 1942. Sometimes books you feel just have to have read disappoint. Not Ordinary Men, which remains as eye-opening now as then. (Browning has written a thoughtful essay for the 25th anniversary edition, bringing the latest research, especially concerning the photograph record of the unit, to bear on his original conclusions.)

The book begins with a sobering statistic: in March 1942, 70—80% of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive, and 20—30% had been murdered; by February 1943, the proportions were reversed. 1942 was the darkest year in Jewish history; Browning examines one example of the men who perpetrated that darkness. The average age of the 500 men in the battalion was in the upper 30s, meaning that they had come of age before the Nazis came to power, and they were working- and lower middle class men from Hamburg, an area and the social classes famously antipathetic to National Socialism—facts which, taken together, suggest these men would have been among the least likely to be drawn to fascism. Yet they readily participated in mass executions, round-ups, and deportations.

Browning notes that 10—20% refused to partake in atrocities (and they had the benefit of a commander who actually asked before the first action if anyone wanted out—rather than a death sentence or a transfer to the front, these dissenters were moved into clerical positions or even sent back home); 20—30% participated avidly in atrocities; while the majority (50—70%), although reluctant, participated anyway. For the men in this last category, it was easier to follow along, and too unpleasant to risk the scorn of their more hateful colleagues. These are sobering numbers, with implications beyond Browning’s specific example. What makes us think we wouldn’t number among the majority in a similar scenario?

Leslie Morris, The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture Outside the Margins (2018) I had a realization as I reviewed Morris’s book on the idea of translation in postwar German Jewish culture: academic monographs make me grumpy and I should stop writing about them. Thus, I’ve given up reviewing books for Choice, a publication designed to help libraries decide what to buy. (I wrote for them for 10 years.) Morris, whom I have not met even though the field we work in is small, probably deserves a more charitable reviewer. I did my best to point out the inspiring range of her material—ranging from a defunct Berlin sculpture park to Jewish body art to the poets Raymond Federman and Rose Ausländer. But her insistence, so typically academic, that we think, read, or engage “in new ways,” without explaining how or why, grated on me. As I concluded: “her description of Jewishness as an endlessly deferred cipher, at once spurring and spurning interpretation, is as unexceptional as it is unexceptionable.”

Andrea Camilleri – The Overnight Kidnapper (2015) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) Of course, the crime itself has vanished from my memory, but I recall the latest Montalbano as a decent effort. I didn’t want any surprises, and I didn’t get any.

Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 2] (2016) Trans. Anne Ishii (2018) I read Volume 1 last month; happy to say that the conclusion doesn’t disappoint. It plays a trick on us, but a fair one: leading us to believe in an impossible ending, then gently showing us why the all-too-possible one, however melancholy, is the right choice.

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies (2018) The latest Rebus—once again improved, I suspect, by the audiobook’s excellent narrator—is one of the best in a while, featuring a rich set of storylines, plus better use of Brillo the dog (see my February complaint). The détente between Rebus and Edinburgh crime boss Big Ger Cafferty suggested in the previous installments is gone. This despite the fact that Rebus is coming to terms with a COPD diagnosis. Has anyone written about the pathos of ailing detectives?

H. F. Heard – A Taste for Honey (1941) I admit, I did not do this book justice. I read it on a Friday night when I was exhausted and should have gone to bed. But even in a better frame of mind, I think I would have found this tale of Holmes in retirement thin gruel. You better like Holmes a lot more than suspense if you’re going to enjoy it.

Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex I & II (both 2015) Trans. Frank Wynne (2017 & 2018) Not sure how long they’ll stay with me, but I liked these books a lot. I tried to articulate why—and the issue I take with the conclusion they seem to be coming to—here.

Mihail Sebastian – Women (1933) Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh (2019) More anon.

Solomon Perel – Europa, Europa (1990) Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo (1997) Almost on a whim, I decided to teach Agnieska Holland’s adaptation of Perel’s extraordinary Holocaust memoir this semester. It went well—I’m finding the movie more interesting the longer I spend with it (always a good sign). The film is plenty unusual, but Perel’s memoir even more so. His story is stranger than fiction: after escaping the Nazi advance by fleeing east of the Bug river (the part of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union in the Hitler—Stalin pact) and finding refuge as a Komsomol in an orphanage in Grodno, the Jewish Perel passed himself off as an Ethnic German when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. (He had been born in Germany before moving to Poland with his parents as a child.) Perel found himself honoured for fighting at the Front and then shipped to a boarding school for elite members of the Hitler Youth, where he spent most of his time worrying someone would notice his circumcision. (Tonally, both book and film are crazy: sort of funny, sort of campy, sort of moving.) Remarkably, Perel survived the war surrounded by Nazi true believers, and at war’s end found himself reunited with his elder brother, the only other member of the family to survive. Perel’s story is even more unlikely than most survivor tales. What is most interesting is the way his cognitive dissonance features in odd switches between first and third person. At heart there seems something fundamentally incurious about Perel. An effect of his experiences? Or a predisposition towards surviving them?

Michelle McNamara — I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018) I don’t read much True Crime. But I do read a ton of crime fiction. So, I naively assumed, when I started listening to McNamara’s acclaimed description of her pursuit of the serial rapist she named the Golden State Killer, that I knew what I was in for. Nope. I was shocked by how visceral, graphic, and uncomfortably voyeuristic this book—and, I suspect, its genre—turns out to be. It’s creepy as shit. To her credit, McNamara is aware of these difficulties, and doesn’t shy from highlighting her obsessive interest. Sadly, McNamara couldn’t finish her book: she died about three-quarters of the way through, and the finished version has been pieced together from notes. (The editors clearly describe when and how they’ve reconstructed.) Still, I did find the book repetitive and confusingly structured—perhaps a fitting response to the relentlessness of the crimes, dozens and dozens of them, perpetrated over a decade all over California. (If I had a better sense of California’s geography I might have had an easier time of it.) The tension between what we know—the killer was finally caught (in part thanks to McNamara’s efforts—and what she didn’t gives the book a macabre poignancy. Not for the faint of heart.

Lissa Evans — Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) Read my take, if you like, but be sure to read this novel. There’s a dog that understands Yiddish!

David Bezmozgis — Immigrant City: Stories (2019) Bezmozgis is one of my favourites, the heir to Bernard Malamud. I snapped up his new collection on a recent weekend in Canada (why no US pub date?) and finished it before I was even home. I’m not sure Bezmozgis has ever written anything as rich as his first novel, The Free World (the great novel of the emigration of Soviet Jewry), but most of these stories are the equal of those in his terrific first collection, Natasha and Other Stories. Of course, some stories are stronger than others. “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” for example, is a bit travelogue-y. But “Immigrant City” breaks new ground for Bezmozgis (not sure the attempt to juxtapose earlier generations of Jewish immigrants to newer ones from Syria and Somalia completely works, but it’s thought provoking—I suspect it would hold up to rereading). And “Little Rooster” is a classic that is going straight onto the syllabus of my course on postwar representations of the Holocaust.

More before too long, I hope, about April reading, which is proving decidedly more unavailing.

The Radetzky March Readalong

Caroline and Lizzy have organized a group reading of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. The novel has three parts: they posed questions for each section. (Not something I’d seen done before for an online readalong. Such a good idea!) Rather than responding each week, I’ve chosen the questions that spoke to me the most and answered them in one shot.

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Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to read along with us?

Many years ago I spent part of a summer at my uncle’s vacation house, in a remote valley of northern Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. The house, a tiny thing of stone and wood built in the seventeenth century, was, as we’d say now, off the grid, even more so than most everything was in those days. A bakery van came by each morning, and once a week a grocery truck would come up from the main valley and stop in the little mountain villages. The villages were mostly empty then, filled with old people and some summer vacationers. I haven’t been there in decades: God only knows what they’re like now.

Along with my backpack, I had an old briefcase—I think it had been my grandfather’s—that I’d filled with books I was determined to read. Hard books: Proust, Broch, Faulkner, Malaparte. Of course, I didn’t read them all. The Broch was too hard, the Proust I didn’t get to until decades later. I did, however, read The Radetzky March. Did I like it? No idea. It left no big impression. I suspect I found it difficult. I didn’t know anything about the Hapsburg Empire then. And it’s slow. I remember the Malaparte much more vividly. Malaparte is not slow. Where Roth foresees the apocalypse, Malaparte is already in it. Which is perhaps to say that Roth is wasted on the young.

The older I get the more I’m interested in what we mean when we say we’ve read a book. If I’ve read it but can’t remember much of anything about it (a vague sense that, well, it’s about Hapsburgs, ends of empires, nostalgia), then have I really read it? I’m always caught between an insatiable drive to read everything and a wish to read books the way I read the books I teach—to have them seep into my soul, to be able to recall them fully, to have them totally at my fingertips.

When I heard about the readalong, I thought back to that summer, which, certainly with the glow of passing time, and from the position of middle-aged worries and responsibilities, stands out in a shimmer of pleasure. When I sat out in the sun on a stone terrace and read all day long, with breaks only for walks and coffees and wine in the evenings.

Here’s a chance, I thought, to pay homage to that past self, and to get a little closer to soaking up this book, assuming I still thought it warranted such close attention.

And I was curious what I would make of it now that I spend much of my time thinking about Eastern Europe (admittedly, the events twenty or thirty years later). Plus a year or two ago I read The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth’s sort-of sequel to Radetzky, and liked it very much.

That’s probably more than you wanted to know!

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

A Penguin Modern Classic, first published in 1984. (The sticker on the back says I bought it Bei Morawa and paid 4,99 for it—I don’t know in what country and with what currency.) Eva Tucker translated it, revising an earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop. Part of me wanted to get the Michael Hofmann translation, because he handled Emperor so beautifully, and I thought he might offer easier, less syntactically difficult reading. But in the end I didn’t mind Tucker’s revision of Dunlop. A bit formal—Tolstoy and Zola are in the background—but that suits the book, and may in fact be an accurate reflection of the original.

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How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

Compare Tucker:

The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder’s title had been conferred on him after the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene and chose the name of his native village, Sipolje. Though fate elected him to perform an outstanding deed, he himself saw to it that his memory became obscured to posterity.

(As best I can tell, Hofmann follows Roth’s sentence length more closely; Tucker combines short sentences into longer ones by using conjunctions not present in the original.)

As to whether the opening is effective: absolutely. It gives us so much to think about.

We could start with the difference between “not an old family” and a young one, which, to me, suggests the book values continuity and tradition (interestingly, the English versions contrast Roth’s text: “Die Trottas waren ein junges Geschlecht”— I’ve no idea why Hofmann & Tucker made the change. Maybe because it would sound weird to say something like “The Trottas were a young lineage). But if we think this is going to be a story about upstarts, the next few sentences set us straight. In fact, the reference to Solferino, where French and Italian troops defeated the Austrians, already hints at failure. That’s followed by the information that the first von Trotta sought to undo the rise in station that accompanies ennoblement. Or at least, that he tried. (Tucker is more definitive than Hofmann.) Given that he’s fighting against fate, we might wonder whether this surprising attempt to fail—to avoid the spotlight, to fall in the world—will itself be a failure.

The other important element in this opening paragraph is the reference to the first von Trotta’s ethnic/national identity. Although very little will be made of that origin—none of the characters ever visit Sipolje—The Radetzky March is a book about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as this fact becomes more evident the early reference to a minority identity—“He was a Slovene”—seems in retrospect especially telling. And all the more so because it’s not accurate. Or not in any meaningful sense. The first von Trotta shows no connection to or interest in his Slovene-ness. We learn that in the recent past his father—a vivid and delightful bit character who, after losing an eye fighting Bosnian smugglers, has been pensioned off as a caretaker of a palace about ten miles from Vienna—would address him in Slovene, even though his son can hardly speak it. But after Trotta becomes a “von” and is elevated to the rank of Captain (he takes a bullet intended for the Emperor: Solferino was one of the last battles in which heads of state fought), his father resorts to “the ordinary harsh German of army Slavs.”

Although the von Trottas identify themselves almost to the point of pathology with the Empire, this early reference to ethnic minorities, along with later ones to class unrest, unionization efforts, and strikebreaking, points to the fissures that will undo that Empire. In the opening pages, the Captain is shown writing up his weekly inspection of his regiment’s sentries: he “scribble[s] his bold, forceful None under the heading UNUSUAL INCIDENTS, thus denying even the remotest possibility of such occurrences.” The line is telling because, most of the time, nothing much happens in the book. But even the most seemingly serene status quo doesn’t just maintain itself. And the book shows first the fraying and then the destruction of a way of life that had seemed as unchanging as the entries in the regimental logbook.

In sum: not a flashy opening, but a telling one.

BTW do any other German speakers hear Trotta and think Trottel (idiot)?

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Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.” What is the effect of this impartiality? (I changed this question a little.)

Put differently: if the book is about decline, does it judge that decline? At times, I compared the novel to Lawrence’s The Rainbow, another modernist novel about three generations of a family. Lawrence is pretty clear that the changes that happen to the family are bad. Or, at least, he regrets the way the second and third generations are forced to come to terms with history. They lose touch with a peasant, premodern, prelapsarian timelessness. Lawrence also changes his style rather dramatically from beginning to end: from an amazing King James Biblical richness to a much flatter description of modernity. Roth, by contrast, writes about the Captain, the District Commissioner, and Carl Joseph in the same way. His style remains consistent. And I’m unconvinced he really thinks that the third generation is more decadent, less vital, more helpless than the first one.

Maybe, then, the Captain’s crusade to return to obscurity is analogous to Freud’s description of what he termed “the death drive,” by which he meant not a suicidal longing, but rather the way each organism seeks to return to the nothingness from which it came. In this regard, maybe these generations are equally modern.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

I was moved by Jacques death, especially his insistence on working even in his last hours. Similarly moving, though less consequential, is the effect of this perverse dedication on the district administrator (the Captain’s son).

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

I think he’s great. He brings energy to every scene. I suspect Roth liked him. He’s almost but not quite cynical. He knows the Empire is coming to an end: he doesn’t look forward to it (after all, he stands to lose a lot), but he doesn’t mourn it either.

He reminded me of Proust’s Charlus (less louche—maybe it’s the baldness that made me think them alike—but also the change that comes over them during the war). That late scene when the District Commissioner visits the mad Chojnicki, invalided out from the front, is pretty intense. (It’s a nice touch to turn the femme fatale Frau von Taussig into a nurse: that shift in our sense of who a character is also feels Proustian.)

Chojnicki’s fate makes me think that he and Jacques are more similar than different. Duty to the Empire does them both in.

By the way, this isn’t the same Chojnicki as in The Emperor’s Tomb, right?

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

Yes, but it worked. I’ve written about this strategy before, in one of my posts on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, where I quoted the bit in S/Z where Roland Barthes says realist fiction can only mention historical personages in passing, lest they risk absurdity. Maybe it is a function of how little I know about Franz Josef (merely that he lived to be very old, a doddering stand-in for his Empire: Roth doesn’t exactly disagree, but he embroiders on this outline, and I found the Emperor’s brief moments of decisiveness among his general fog quite touching), but to me he appeared as a fully realized character. And maybe Roth’s decision to include Franz Joseph’s POV is a sign that he isn’t writing a realist novel, but instead a modernist one.

There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel—the friendship between district administrator von Trotta [the Captain’s son] and doctor Skowronnek. Would you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

I would. And I found it surprising and touching. Since women are basically absent from this novel—its most striking failure: the two or three female characters are clichés, and I’m unconvinced Roth is offering any kind of critique of, say, the limited possibilities for women in the Empire—intimacy must take place between men. The relationship between Von Trotta and Skowronnek’s also bridges a class barrier, making it even more telling, and unusual. I appreciated the delicacy of their regard for each other.

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What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

The greatest scene in this great novel. So portentous and symbolic—a great storm breaks weeks of sultry, oppressive heat, throwing the party into disarray, but also egging it on to greater, more debauched heights, a hectic state that only becomes more intense when the news arrives that the heir to the throne has been shot. Half of the guests dance in drunken, ignorant abandon; the other half work themselves into nationalistic frenzies. You can see the Empire splintering; you can admire/pity/condemn the ignorance of those who waltz along the abyss.

It’s all so obvious; it shouldn’t work at all. But it does. (Like the later references to the wild geese who migrate south earlier than ever before that summer: the natural world, like the empire that pretends to be similar unchanging, is out of kilter. We get it! And yet those geese are great.) How? Why? Maybe because Roth has a way of being both ironic and sincere. Take the party scene: it’s knowing (look at the decadent empire!) but not too knowing (the emotions are big, heartfelt, I was totally captivated).

Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front.  What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict? How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s [the son of the district administrator: the third of the three von Trotta generations] death?

Pleasingly oblique. Carl Joseph is shot by a sniper while filling up water buckets for his men. The difference between this death and the near-death of his grandfather at Solferino is clear. One saves the Emperor, one dies for his men, doing a dangerous but mundane job. The novel is obvious about that difference—“Lieutenant Trotta died, not with sword in hand but with two buckets of water”—but I didn’t find that obviousness offputting or heavy-handed. (Roth is not Mann.)

The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire.  Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

It’s so tempting, but I’m suspicious. Too easy, surely. See what I wrote above about decline. Characters talk about it all the time, worry over its apparent inevitability, but the book doesn’t necessarily agree. Not that the present is better (by “present” I mean the time of WWI—by the time Roth wrote the book, that already seemed like the distant past) . Roth isn’t a liberal, or a socialist. There’s no belief in progress here. But neither is he conservative, reactionary. (Well, except maybe when Dr. Skowronnek and the District Commissioner bond over the ridiculous of that new fad, meat-eating contests. They’re not wrong, though.) He’s dispassionate, but not in that Olympian way that bugs me about Flaubert and some of Nabokov. Roth is warm, accepting, enlightened. I suspect he’s talking about himself when he says of Skowronnek: “He liked people as much as he despised them.”

What struck you the most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?

I dislike its lack of interest in women, as I said before.

I like its slow burn. So much of the novel consists of people doing the things they always do (the descriptions of the District Commissioner’s Sunday meals are mouth-watering, especially those cherry dumplings), and being bored and irritated but also fiercely insistent on that repetition.

And there are some lovely, lyrical passages, whether a deft turn of phrase (a man exhales to reveal “a surprisingly powerful set of teeth, pale-yellow teeth, a strong protective fence guarding his words”) or an indelible set piece. I was especially taken with the Emperor’s encounter with a Jewish delegation. Or this snippet, coming just after Chojnicki tells Trotta war has been declared:

Never, it seemed to Trotta, had nature been so peaceful. At this hour you could look straight into the sun as, visibly, it sank westward. A violent wind came to receive it, rippled the small white clouds in the sky and the wheatstalks on the ground, caressed the scarlet face of the poppies. A blue shadow drifted across the green meadows. Toward the east the little wood disappeared in deep violet. Stepaniuk’s low house, where he lived, gleamed white at the edge of the wood, its windows burnished with evening sunlight. The crickets increased their chirping. The wind carried their voices into the distance; there was silence and the fragrance of the earth.

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

Absolutely. I want to read so many other things, so I’ve no idea whether I will. Probably not anytime soon. But I’m so glad to have read it a second time, and grateful to Caroline & Lizzy for providing the incentive.

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Reminder! Lucky Per Readalong

Tomorrow is US pub day for the Everyman Library edition of Henrik Pontoppian’s Lucky Per (1904) in Naomi Lebowitz’s translation.

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A while ago I wrote about why I want to read it, and how much I hope others will join me. At the time, lots of you said yes. Here’s hoping you’re still interested! Whether you’re drawn to canal building, Jews, the influence of Thomas Mann on Danish literature, or the sheer delight of saying (and typing) “Pontoppian,” I encourage you to read and share your thoughts.

As a reminder, here’s what the publisher has to say about it:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

Given the exigencies of the end of the semester, I’ll have to wait until next month to encounter Per.

So the plan is to read and write about Lucky Per anytime in May. Do join in. Write one post or several. As short or as long as you like. I’ll gladly run guest posts from anyone who doesn’t have a blog. Or you can make your contributions in the comments.

Let’s use the hashtag #LuckyPer2019 for Twitter conversations. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to make one of those emblem things participants can add to their posts.