September 2019 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Night: A Holocaust Remembrance Reading List

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day; it was on that date in 1945 that Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A powerful way to commemorate the Holocaust is to read its literature: the letters, diaries, memoirs, essays, poems, and fiction created during the events and since. A handful of these texts are well-known: Anne Frank’s Diary, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s memoirs Night and Survival in Auschwitz, Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus. These are rightly famous, and well worth reading (even if Night drives me crazy).

But what if you’ve read them and are looking for more?

Here are 15 less-familiar titles that will deepen your understanding of the Holocaust:

David Albahari, Götz and Meyer (1998) Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (2004)

In this novel, a teacher in Belgrade traces the fate of his relatives, uncovering the circumstances of their deaths in a gas van driven by the SS officers of the title. A novel about the limits of history and the possibilities and perils of the imagination.

Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (2017)

Why read this out of the many fascinating and heartbreaking Holocaust diaries? For one thing, the story is extraordinary: together with a cousin, Applebaum took refuge on a farm near Tarnapol, Poland. For much of their time in hiding, the two young women were buried in a wooden box, about the size of a wardrobe, able to come out only for an hour or two each night. More vexingly still, both women had sex with their protector, events described obliquely yet excitedly by Applebaum, yet which can’t help but lead us to ask questions about consent and abuse. Another quality that distinguishes this diary is that it’s paired with a memoir written much later, in which Applebaum describes her new life in Canada and reflects on her wartime experiences, yet in ways that seem at odds with the way she told them in the diary.

Heimrad Bäcker, transcript (1986) Translated by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling (2010)

Conceptual poetry, writes the scholar Leslie Morris, “seeks to create texts that disavow the very act of creation.” Bäcker’s poems are taken from official documents and eyewitness testimony. Here’s one, taken from a postwar record of criminal proceedings:

whereas he had to prepare breakfast each morning for about 300 prisoners in camp III, he had to provide a midday meal for only about 150.

Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar (1969) Translated by Leila Vennewitz (1990)

Maybe the most brilliant ghetto novel, written by one who survived the Lodz ghetto and two concentration camps. At the beginning of the novel, Jacob happens to overhear a bulletin on German radio describing a Russian advance. Having let slip the news, Jacob, who is too frightened to explain how he came by this knowledge, pretends that he has a radio (strictly forbidden in the ghetto) and invents the news. Amazingly, the book is funny, as well as very, very sad. Jacob’s inventions are an allegory for our own desires as readers of traumatic events.

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (written 1946-48) Translated by Barbara Vedder (1967)

Dark. So dark. These stories are more or less loosely based on Borowski’s own experiences as a non-Jewish political prisoner at Auschwitz and Dachau, most famously about his time as a member of the “Canada Kommando,” the prisoners tasked with separating the new arrivals from their belongings. Desperate.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Translated by Samuel E. Martin (2017)

The bark of the title comes from a birch tree at Birkenau, peeled off by Didi-Huberman on a recent visit. These same trees can be seen in the four famous photographs taken (at great risk and with daring subterfuge) by a member of the Sonderkommando (the “special squad”—the name given by the Nazis to the groups of Jews they selected to take the bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria) in the summer of 1944; these comprise the only images of the Holocaust taken by its victims. In this little book, Didi-Huberman intersperses his own amateur photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site with essayistic meditations on the paradoxes of commemorating mass murder.

Ida Fink, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (1983) Translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose (1987)

Ah, these stories! I’m in awe of how much Fink packs into just a few pages. Plus, she turns each text into a meditation on the stakes of representing and interpreting traumatic events. You would think the allegories of reading would get in the way of the emotional power of the stories. But no, Fink’s genius is to combine self-awareness with heart. Maybe the greatest Holocaust writer.

Imre Kertész, Fatelessness (1975) Translated by Tim Wilkinson (2004)

The most difficult but also the most brilliant Holocaust novel I know. Fourteen-year-old György is deported from Budapest in the summer of 1944 to a series of camps and (barely) lives to tell the tale. He tells his story in a fussy, roundabout style that is more amazed than horrified. What makes the book so challenging is that Kertész never allows his narrator the benefit of hindsight. Which allows us to experience the events of the Final Solution as its victims would have: as bewildering, boring, even at times exciting. An amazing accomplishment.

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

Kluger’s bitter insights spare no one: she’s as scathing about the Vienna of her childhood as of the Jim Crow America she arrived in shortly after the war. And her portrait of her relationship with her mother—together, the two women survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen—is similarly unflinching. The memoir is highly self-reflexive; no surprise, perhaps, for Kluger, who re-wrote the book in English after writing a version of it in German, became a professor of literature.

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

Enigmatic and fragmentary memoir by an eminent philosopher of Nietzsche and Freud about her experiences as a hidden child in Paris after her beloved father, a rabbi, is deported. The heart of the story is the triangular relationship between Kofman, her mother, and the loving yet anti-Semitic woman who took them in. I blogged about it here.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947) Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1991)

Brilliant memoir in which Millu tells heartbreaking stories of life in the women’s Lager in Birkenau. Here we find stories of pregnancy, prostitution, maternal love, self-sacrifice, sabotage, and gossip, told in unshowy, elegant prose. I’ve no idea why this book isn’t much more famous.

Jona Oberski. Childhood (1978) Translated by Ralph Mannheim (1983)

Spare, memorable novel based on Oberski’s own experience: born in 1938 in Amsterdam to German Jewish refugees, then deported first to the Westerbork transit camp and then Bergen-Belsen, where he was orphaned and cared for by a family friend. Much of its power comes from the point of view—we see what the child sees, we know what the child knows, leaving us often in the dark. I wrote about the effects of its style when the book was reissued a few years ago.

Göran Rosenberg, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012) Translated by Sarah Death (2015)

Rosenberg, a Swedish journalist, uncovers his parents’ story: how they respectively survived the war and built a life in Sweden after being miraculously reunited. As the title suggests, though, that life, although successful in many ways, was always lived in the shadow of the Holocaust. Rosenberg, as I wrote here, excels at depicting the scope of the concentration camp system, and the similarity between it and the Displaced Persons camps that replaced it.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter (2017)

Proving that great books about the Holocaust can still be written, Seiffert’s novel has several things going for it: its discrete, matter-of-fact style, which is nonetheless beautiful, even at times incantatory; its focus on an underexamined (at least in the English-speaking world) facet of the Shoah, the depredations of the Einsatzgruppen in the Ukraine in 1941/42; and its braiding together of stories of victims, perpetrators, and so-called bystanders.

Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982, revised 1984)

A recent discovery for me: an absorbing account of Tec’s wartime experiences, in which she lived with a Polish family and passed as a Gentile.

Do you have favourite Holocaust texts? Particular omissions you want to rectify? Let me know! And take a moment to thank the translators of these books; the Holocaust was a multilingual phenomenon: we need translators to understand its true dimensions.