What I Read, May 2020

Finished the semester, was sad about not getting to see students graduate. Hair grew. Won a teaching award, finally something unequivocally good, a helpful validation. Made occasional trips to pick up groceries and the like, and to drive the car a little so my already temperamental battery didn’t complete die, was bewildered by the apparent alternate reality outside my door: no masks, no distancing, no cares. Hair grew longer. Thought about my upcoming sabbatical, worried over how to use this gift of time. Feared failure more than usual. Read too much news, was despondent, angry, grief-stricken. Hair reached crisis point. And, as always, read, quite a lot, most of it pretty undemanding.

EZIlJ48XYAA-tuGSusie Steiner, Missing, Presumed (2016)

When Lissa Evans and Nina Stibbe tell you to read a book, you don’t fuck about. Happily, this was as delightful and engrossing as promised. Manon Bradshaw is getting on for 40. She’s a bit lonely, but she’s a good cop, she’s funny and sarcastic, and she is just ordinarily neurotic, not hell-bent on self-destruction. Steiner manages the trick of putting the investigator’s personal life front and center and writing a suspenseful plot. Above all, Missing, Presumed is a properly female-centered crime novel (there’s more than one important female character, they don’t hate each other, they aren’t pitted against each other by men). Mostly what I took away from the book is that women’s clothes are often extremely uncomfortable. There’s lots of strap-tugging and pushing and pulling.

Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1994) Trans. Ethel Broido (1994)

Twenty-five years on, Gutman’s history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising feels dated. It’s filled with detailed information about an extraordinary moment, and is especially good on the various Jewish political and social groups in both pre-war and wartime Poland. But it has a narrow definition of resistance—namely, the use of force, especially the taking up of arms. I don’t reject this in principle—the power of violent resistance is on display across America as I write—and I get that Gutman is presenting events as the actors experienced them (he quotes various documents in which the handful of Jews left after the ghetto’s liquidation in late 1942 exulted in finally feeling human again, once they were able to shoot a gun or set an explosion, etc.). But Gutman also implicitly validates these statements, in part by underplaying other forms of resistance (he has surprisingly little to say about the Ringelblum archive, for example). His take makes sense when you learn that Gutman actually fought in the uprising himself. But you won’t learn that from his book. In fact, I’d no idea of his role until the students I was reading the book with told me. I can’t imagine a book written today that wouldn’t acknowledge the writer’s involvement in the material. Time for a new history of this moment, I say. One more thing bothered me: I’ve never before seen a book that acknowledged its translated status in a brief aside in the acknowledgements. Reprehensible!

Susie Steiner, Persons Unknown (2017)

DI Bradshaw is back, and her life has become more complicated, more exasperating, more fraught, and more joyful. Part Laurie Colwin, part Tana French, these books are terrific. Forgot to mention that Steiner is worth reading in paperback, because each of the two books so far includes a bonus chapter that bridges the current book to the next. I’ve not seen that before.

Maryla Szymiczkowa, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (2015) Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2020)

Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym of a young Polish gay couple. This is the first of what I imagine has become a series centered on Zofia Turbotynska, a society woman in Cracow in 1893, who feels herself coming alive when she inadvertently begins investigating a series of murders at an almshouse. The novel doesn’t quite avoid the pitfalls involved in stories of amateur detectives, but if like me you can’t get enough of late-19th, early 20th century Galicia, or if you just appreciate a well-drawn character (Zofia isn’t entirely likable, a bit self-satisfied and prim, but we are asked through her to think about our own fascination with investigation, which makes us like her more and ourselves less) you should give this a try. Props to Houghton Mifflin for bringing Szymiczkowa to the US, and to East Bay Books, who put their inventory online for online browsing by section, which is how I stumbled across this.

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

Wonderful essays.

Emiliano Monge, The Arid Sky (2012) Trans. Thomas Bunstead (2018)

Young Mexican novelist plays with temporal order and the relation between narrator and character in telling key events (dire or violent or, most often, both) in the life of a criminal turned priest turned criminal. (At least, I think that’s what’s going on; it’s not always easy and I read it in snatches, when immersion would probably be better, given the style.) Bunstead, I sense, is a great translator (I thought his translation of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve was terrific), and there are some resonant, Bernhardian sentences here. My sample size is small, to be sure, but so much Latin American literature seems to come out of Faulkner, who I don’t much care for. Are there Spanish-language equivalents of Barbara Pym or Tessa Hadley, or is that simply a misguided/stupid question?

Marcie R. Rendon, Murder on the Red River (2017)

Don’t sleep on this one. Jenny Davidson recommended it as the best crime fiction she’d read this year. Cash Blackbear is a nineteen-year-old Anishinabe woman in the Red River Valley in the early 1970s. (The war in Vietnam is a repeated touchstone.) Cash does farm work, mostly driving grain trucks. She adds to that income by hustling pool. And she drinks pretty steadily. She has a close relationship to the local sheriff, who watched over her when she was taken into care as a child, keeping her away from the worst of the foster parents. (They were all pretty bad, and Rendon slips in glimpses of those microaggressions throughout the book.) Cash has an ability to listen to the dead (this dreaming isn’t particularly well-developed, and I’d have liked to hear more about it). So when a native man is found stabbed to death, the sheriff brings Cash in to give him a hand. The resolution of the crime is anticlimactic; suspense is not the reason to read the book. Cash, though, is a great character, dogged and smart and torn apart by her love of a place that has no love for her. As an indigenous woman, Cash has suffered a lot, but the suffering is more constant low-level trauma rather than singular overwhelming moment. When I complained to my wife, who’d already read the book, that the hard-drinking investigator was a cliché, she pointed out that what Cash was doing was medicating. Rendon is good with action scenes (and I appreciate how modest those are—this is not Jack Reacher stuff). The reason they’re so good is that Rendon’s descriptions of Cash’s actions are fascinatingly detailed (yet the book is a short, quick read). We learn about every bath Cash takes in futile attempt to rid herself of wheat chaff, every trip to the bar, every cigarette she smokes, every meal she eats (when she remembers to), every route she takes through the isolated towns of the valley. I wondered about this, and finally it dawned on me that the prose was mimicking Cash’s need to control what she can in life. The repetition, the circumscribed life—these are the analogues of a person always at risk of losing a sense of self.

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (2003) Trans. Anthea Bell (2003)

My daughter and I read this together over a couple of months (it’s like 500 pages), and I’ve been badgering her to write a review, but so far without luck. Inkheart has a good premise—what if you could read yourself into a book?—and then complicates it by adding the caveat that, every time you did, something from the world of the book came into our own. Meggie lives with her father, Mo, a bookbinder; when a stranger arrives at their door one night and Mo becomes shifty, even frightened, Meggie learns a lot of things, including, eventually, what really happened to her mother. Bell’s translation of Funke’s German text is excellent, and although I didn’t find this as breathtaking as, say, The Golden Compass, I loved how much my daughter loved it. It was too scary for her to read alone, but manageable with me reading it. It’s the first of a trilogy and we’re on the second book now—seeing my daughter’s joy and fascination with the map at the front of the second volume has been a joy in itself.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Flight of the Falcon (1965)

Even second-tier Du Maurier is worth reading.

Marcie R. Rendon, Girl Gone Missing (2019)

Cash returns, and the big development from the end of the first book means her life is different—that change is both an opportunity and a challenge to her always fragile stability. When several young women from different farming communities go missing, Cash follows the trail to Minneapolis, where she has never been before. In my favourite scene she visits the Grain Exchange, walking around the imposing stone building, amazed to find that this name, from which the all-important commodity prices come through farmers’ radios each day, is attached to a physical place where people actually work. Rendon brings Cash into contact with the American Indian Movement (AIM), which allows her explore the idea of whether a loner like Cash, at once attached to her native identity and frustrated by it, can find any meaning in an identity-based movement. A significant hanging thread from the first volume is reintroduced, which I appreciated. Rendon’s going to have to step up the crime aspects of these novels (the plots are thin), but I want many more books about Cash. Great midwestern farm neepery, too. During beet season, the local roads develop “a sheen of mud. This close to the Red River, the mud was mixed with river clay that was slicker than ice if a rainfall or early frost or, god forbid, an early snow coated the road.”

Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day (2019)

It’d been a while since I’d read Hadley, a writer I’ve always liked, but who has exceeded herself here. Late in the Day tells the story of four friends whose lives have been connected since student days. It begins with the death of one of them and goes both forward and backward from this traumatic beginning. Hadley is great with character—she sketches them so clearly (they are among the few literary characters I can actually picture) and lets them change and surprise us. She’s also adept with narrative voice, changing perspective regularly and using omniscience to its potential. There’s a scene when the four friends, drunk and high after celebrating a big accomplishment, almost exchange sexual partners, only to have the moment interrupted by one of the children, who can’t sleep; later, that child, now grown up, tells a sibling about a dream—which we know was real. I found this misunderstanding moving, somehow.

What does it mean to create something? Is a relationship or a friendship a kind of creation? Is middle age the time when creation is most fruitful? These are Hadley’s questions; in her answers I got a strong To the Lighthouse vibe. Hadley is warm, almost fond of her characters, but never indulgent with them. Fittingly, I stayed up late with the book, willing myself to the end but sad to reach the final page. Read Catherine Taylor’s piece in The Financial Times, it’s very good.

Dan Stone, Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (2019)

Historian Stone has written an amazingly lucid and useful book, which covers much historical ground and asks big theoretical questions, all in only a little more than 100 pages. Stone looks at late 19th-early 20th century camps in South Africa, Cuba, and the Philippines, noting how they were designed for non-combatants. He of course considers the camps of the Third Reich (his own area of expertise), which clearly distinguishes the various Nazi camps and, even more interesting, compares them to the institutions set up to create and validate the Volksgemeinschaft (Hitler Youth camps and the like). Camps, Stone argues, were for the Nazis as necessary to those “drilled into” the community as to those excluded from it, given that the regime’s aim was a society modelled on the barracks. To that end, “inclusion and exclusion went hand in hand.” Stone adds a chapter on the Gulag (really helpful to someone like me who knows too little about it), and on camps around the word (in colonial scenarios, within so-called liberal-democracies, under Communism). He concludes by casting a critical but not unsympathetic eye on theorists who make the camp a metaphor for modernity, and then tackles the difficult issue of comparison. In the end, although he says there is no clear line between camps and other sites of incarceration, Stone doesn’t think, for example, the migrant camps at the US border are concentration camps because they offer at least the possibility of the rule of law. I disagree, but I think he’s absolutely right in concluding, “Concentration camps are the compressed and condensed values of the state when it feels itself most threatened.” As if this wasn’t enough, his bibliography is excellent. The book’s a keeper, and I plan to start assigning it in all my Holocaust-related courses.

Ariana Neumann, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (2020)

A frustrating book that tells a gripping story in undistinguished prose. Neumann grew up in Venezuela in the 1970s and 80s with a father, Hans Neumann, who was a magnate of industry, a patron of the arts, and a general force of nature. Hans had a past in Europe—specifically in Czechoslovakia—that he rarely addressed. As a child, Neumann once found a box of papers that included what looked like a passport written in a language she couldn’t read. It had a photo of a man who was clearly her father at a much younger age. But the name underneath the photo was someone else’s. When she asked about it, her parents put her off. The box disappeared. But it came to her after her father’s death, along with some other family papers, which launched Neumann on a years-long project to uncover her father’s story, and to relate what she discovered to otherwise unexplained moments in her past—like when a fellow student in college asserted that she must be Jewish (first Neumann ever heard of it), or when she accompanied her father on a trip back to Prague after the fall of the Wall, a trip in which he refused to visit places from his past. When Time Stopped, in other words, belongs to the genre of the second-generation Holocaust memoir, like Maus or Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost (third generation, actually) or Bart van Es’s The Cut-Out Girl.

Neumann’s book is better than van Es’s and not as good as Mendelsohn’s. (No one’s as good as Spiegelman.) I was so irritated by the laxness of Neumann’s descriptions of her own life (I especially wanted to know more about Venezuela) and her trite meditations (on receiving an important letter, for example, she writes, “There is a moment of connection in receiving an object, a physical link, that is lacking in the virtual instantaneity of email”). But if you can get through this stuff, the story Neumann tells about her father and his family is incredible. Plus the book is well-structured, the slow unfolding of the story deftly and engagingly arranged.

Hans was one of only nine people in an extended family of 34 to have survived the war. He did so by having papers that declared him an essential worker at his father’s expropriated paint factory as well as a network of friends who risked their lives for him. The two most incredible stories involve clandestine forays into the world of the perpetrator. His brother’s sister smuggled herself into the ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt twice in order to bring packages to her in-laws. (Neither survived the war.) And Hans himself, once it was clear that no Jew, no matter how “essential,” would be permitted to live in Prague after a certain date, hatched an insanely audacious plan to use a friend’s passport to travel to Berlin in the fall of 1943, where he posed as a Gentile Czech willing to offer his services as a foreign worker. He obtained an identity card and work permit under the assumed name of Jan Sebesta and was hired at a paint factory that made protective polymer coating for German warplanes. It is amazing that Hans was never found out (fortunately for him, he had not been circumcised); it is amazing he did not die in the Allied bombing raids, especially as he was conscripted into the civilian firefighting service; it is especially amazing that he did not go crazy from cognitive dissonance. Except that he kind of did—as is true in so many second-generation stories (Maus again being the great example), “survival” is shown to be an ongoing project that is often incomensurate with a “happy ending.”

Laurie R. King, Justice Hall (2002)

I blow hot and cold on the Mary Russell—Sherlock Holmes series. Not sure what brought me back after not particularly enjoying the previous installment, but this one is better. Russell and Holmes are tasked with finding out what happened to the heir of a grand family fortune in the Great War. It’s an open secret he was court-martialled and executed by firing squad for disobeying an order, but what led to that terrible moment has been a secret until now. Jacqueline Winspear wrote a book on the same topic at about the same time; I wish I’d read King’s first, as she’s a better writer. Anyway, diverting enough, especially if you’re into English country houses, but nothing spectacular.

William Trevor, After Rain (1996)

My first collection of Trevor stories, and, yes, he is as good as everyone says. There are two kinds of stories in this book—New Yorker stories (resonant, rueful, wise, maybe a bit perfect) and uglier ones, which remind me of early Ian McEwan (grubby, a bit horrible). A couple of these stories mix both modes—I liked those best, especially “A Friendship,” which I found shocking (a man discovers his wife’s infidelity: he forgives her but forces her to break with the lifelong friend who had helped her arrange the logistics of the affair) and “Lost Ground,” set in a Protestant farming family in rural Ireland in the 1980s, which I at first took to be an ingenious reworking of Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” but which takes a darker turn. Friends extoled “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and “The Potato Dealer,” both excellent. I could imagine teaching any number of these stories and learning much more about them that way. (Just great: the last thing I need is another white guy to teach.) I thought Trevor would be nicer than he is. He reminded me a bit of Alice Munro. Both are cold writers, and I can’t warm to them, much as I admire them. For a sense of the whole collection, Jacqui’s overview is really good.ETrQo6eWAAITlxPIn summary: Trevor’s good—no surprise there—and I’ll be reading more of him in the next few months. Jamie is a brilliant essayist; I’m finding her especially enlivening in these times when distancing is our reality rather than our fantasy. Neumann’s book is at once clunky and captivating. But the pick of the month was Hadley’s Late in the Day; a great book of middle age. I hope June brings more good reading, but events being what they are right now—I don’t know if I’m more thrilled or scared that people are finally saying enough is enough—I’ll settle for any reading at all.

 

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Holocaust Lit 2016 Week 10: Art Spiegelman’s Maus

In Holocaust Lit, we’ve devoted the past week and a bit to Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus. For me, Maus is one of the essential books of the 20th Century. There is no praise too high for it. Getting to meet Spiegelman a few years ago was a highlight of my life.

I’ve taught Maus so many times, in so many different contexts, that I no longer need to read it. (Even after almost 20 years of teaching, I can only say this of a handful of texts.) Yet I still look through it each day before class. Looking up a specific moment, I’ll find myself having read 20 pages without even knowing it, it’s that wonderful. But it’s quite nice to know a text that well, not least because it makes the day-to-day life of my semester a lot more manageable.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek. We learn of his experiences as a young businessman in pre-war Poland, his marriage to Spiegelman’s mother, Anja Zylberberg, and the devastation wrecked upon their lives by the war. When the Nazis invade Poland, Vladek and Anja go into hiding, after sending their young child Richieu to spend the war with a relative.

The boy doesn’t survive but, amazingly, both Vladek and Anja do, after having been betrayed in 1944 by smugglers who pretended they would get them to Hungary and then deported first to Auschwitz and then later, separately, to various other camps. Reunited in Poland after the war, the couple are able to get to Sweden and then eventually to the US, where Anja has a brother and sister-in-law who had been visiting the New York World’s Fair when the war broke out. Anja commits suicide in 1968, shortly after her brother’s death in a car accident, and after Art himself has suffered a nervous breakdown. Much of the text details Art’s efforts in the late 1970s and early 80s to learn more about his father’s wartime experiences.

The books—Maus is published in two volumes—thus range between the past (1930s & 40s) and the present (1970s & 80s). They are as much about the way Art gets his father’s story as they are about that story itself. And indeed over the course of its pages Maus becomes ever more aware of this process. The sophistication of its textual layering and its interest in the mediated quality of storytelling make this a crucial text for any class on Holocaust Literature.

The most immediately striking expression of that mediation is the book’s governing conceit: Jews are drawn as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and other nationalities and groups as various other animals. Actually, this isn’t quite true: characters are drawn as people with animal heads, leading to much speculation about Spiegelman’s reclaiming Nazi portrayals of Jews as vermin and playing with the ban on visual representation in Jewish tradition.

Because Maus is so rich—and because students like it so much—I spend a lot of time on it. In the past I’ve devoted as many as six 50-minute classes to it. Over time I’ve settled on four as the optimal number. Here’s how I divided up the classes this year:

Day 1: Close reading of the opening two pages of volume 1, a story from Spiegelman’s childhood in which ten-year old Artie, having been left behind by his friends, seeks comfort from his father, who disproportionately and devastatingly replies, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… Then you could see what it is, friends!”

We spent a lot of time not only identifying and clarifying the relationships between past and present and the way that this relationship complicates our sense of what it means to survive and who even counts as having survived (we can read Artie, too, as a survivor, and we already see in this opening scene how our deeply-held but ultimately falsely pious and in fact pernicious belief that survivors must have been ennobled by their experience will be challenged). We also considered the grammar of comics, exploring the relationship of words and images that are crucial to the genre, learning about formal terms like panels and gutters (the white areas between panels that are the way comics express time).

Day 2: We continued the formalist discussion of the first class by looking at Spieglman’s careful combining of words and images. We look at an early panel in which Artie, first suggesting to his father that he tell him his story, is framed, enclosed, perhaps even imprisoned between his father’s arms, the Auschwitz tattoo clearly visible on one, as Vladek dutifully follows his doctor’s orders to get some exercise by riding an exercise bike.

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The care with which individual panels are constructed—Spigeleman once said in an interview that the main thing he learned from his father was how to pack a suitcase: his panels are similarly jammed with information—is mirrored by the attention to arranging those panels. Noting how important the page is as a way of structuring the book’s material, I had us compare two pages that are similarly composed, one showing Vladek and Anja on their way to a spa in Czechoslovakia in 1938, where they first see evidence of Nazi rule, and the other showing their arrival by van at the gates of Auschwitz.

We considered Spiegelman’s style of representing and made a continuum ranging from realism to expressionism. As an example of the latter, we looked at a panel showing Vladek and Anja on the run, having been driven from yet another hiding place, running along a pathway whose branches form a swastika. Finally, we looked at a two-page spread halfway though the first volume where an almost subliminal story is told in the images that ends up reinforcing the one discussed in the narration and dialogue (Vladek is describing how food began to grow scarce in occupied Poland and how heavily the wealthy Zylberbergs had to rely on the black market; in the images, of a large family dinner that attempts to recreate pre-war life, Richieu overturns his bowl and is first punished and then consoled by various family members).

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Day 3: Now, having read both volumes, we were ready to tackle the animal conceit, working through why Spiegelman chose to represent the different groups in the way he did. I asked the students to consider the limitations or questionable implications of the metaphor—if Germans are cats and Jews are mice does that mean it’s natural for Germans to hate Jews? But cats don’t’ hate mice: they just eat them. Is Spiegelman suggesting the Germans weren’t really responsible for their actions? Eventually I had them consider the subjective quality of the metaphor, that is, the idea that this is Vladek’s perspective, and not some objective claim about the merits or foibles of different groups of people. In the process I had us track how the metaphor changes as the book goes on. Tellingly volume 2 starts with Artie wondering how he should draw his wife, Francoise. As a frog, because she’s French? As a mouse, because she converted to Judaism? Does Speigelman’s conceit work with non-esentialist or fluid/hybrid notions of identity? After all, we do eventually see a mixed German-Jewish couple whose children are striped tabby mice.

More significantly, we see Spiegelman switch from animal heads to animal masks as he includes in his story the experience of making of the text. Earlier, he had used masks when characters tried to pass as something other than themselves (as Vladek does in the streets of occupied Poland, for example). But in a key section entitled “Time Flies” Spiegelman describes his creative block after the success of volume 1 and the death of his father. Here he and the other characters are clearly humans wearing what are clearly visible as animal masks. Referencing the work of the scholar Erin McGlothlin, I explained that our initial distinction between past and present needs to be complicated by the addition of what Spiegelman himself has called “the super-present,” a time even more recent, more present, than what has passed as the present so far in the narrative. In this way, the animal metaphor is ironized and destabilized, made to seem the relics of a past way of thinking about identity—though, tellingly, they are not abandoned altogether. After all, in Maus the past never lets go.

Day 4: I told the class I had three topics I wanted us to consider: (1) gender, especially the text’s presentation of women; (2) photographs; and (3) the last page of volume 2 and the idea of endings more generally.

I started by referring to a line quoted by the brilliant scholar Sara Horowitz in an influential essay on gender and Holocaust literature. Artie asks his father what his mother experienced when they were separated from each other upon arriving at Auschwitz. Vladek, anxious to keep Artie from finding out that he has burned Anja’s diaries after her death, tells Artie: “I can tell you… She went through the same what me: Terrible.” As Horowitz notes, Vladek here speaks for a larger tendency in Holocaust studies to efface gender or other indications of subjectivity in the victims. If the Nazis didn’t discriminate among their victims then why should we?

Yet men and women didn’t experience the Holocaust the same way, and the absence of Anja is a specter that haunts the book from its first pages. (I reminded the class that the first thing Artie says to his father when he asks him to tell his story is: “Start with Mom… tell me how you met.”) I had the class tell me what Anja was like. We soon concluded her character is quite complex. She is both mentally and physically frail, relying on Vladek to jolly, even bully her into health. Yet she is also strong: highly intelligent, beloved by her teachers, and politically active in ways that might surprise us given her family’s wealth. Vladek explains how he discovered shortly after their marriage that Anja had for some time been translating secret documents into German for a Communist group, a clandestine and illegal activity that she narrowly escaped being arrested for. Vladek was livid when he found out—“I always kept far away from Communist people”—and made his wife an ultimatum: “I told her ‘Anja, if you want me you have to go my way’… And she was a good girl, and of course she stopped all such things.”

Who knows how Anja felt about this and whether she really did give them up or whether the war intervened. The point, I suggested, is that Vladek seeks to make her life conform to his, just as he does retrospectively when he tells Artie that her experiences at Auschwitz were the same as is. Thus when Vladek later paints Anja as a saint, as the only woman of his life, we don’t quite believe him. Maybe his depiction of how much she relied on him is just another instance of his seemingly insatiable need to be in control, to be the consummate fixer, a trait that saved his life on more than one occasion in the camps.

Seeing how important it is for Vladek to control his portrayal of Anja, we might wonder if Artie does something similar. Yes, he arraigns his father as his mother’s murderer when he finds out what happened to the diaries, and he presents her as a softening influence on Vladek’s brutalizing parenting (she would let him get leave the table without finishing all of his food, as Vladek would insist). But earlier, in the wake of her suicide, he describes her as needy and smothering, in fact, as having murdered him.

Note, I added, how similar ambivalence characterizes the book’s portrayal of its other main female character, Mala, Valdek’s long-suffering second wife, herself a survivor. Mostly we see her berated and belittled by Vladek and it’s hard to know what keeps them together. Is it really, as Vladek repeats over and over, that she wants his money? Mala seems particularly hard done by in the book, and not just by Vladek. I pointed to a scene in which Artie, leaving his father winded after another long session on the exercise bike, comes across Mala in the kitchen. He mentions the round up in Sosnowiecz that Vladek has just been telling him about. Mala, who had experienced it as well, begins to tell the story of her family, including what sounds like an extraordinary feat of her own, in which she managed to smuggle her mother out of the ghetto. Artie doesn’t engage in any way with this fragment of what must be a remarkable tale. He jumps up to leave, having just remembered somewhere else where he might continue his vain search for Anja’s missing diaries.

I think this response is really surprising given how much Artie and Mala have in common. For example, both pale in Vladek’s affections in comparison to their dead precursors (Anja for Mala and Richieu for Artie), but this secondariness never amounts to any kind of solidarity or affection between them, at least not on Artie’s part. To recognize Mala might have required Artie to recognize the strange way in which he and his father attempt to control and even efface women by subordinating them to their various quests. After all, in their own ways, Artie and Vladek are equally controlling.

We could have kept talking about the text’s portrayal of gender for much longer, but I wanted to move us along and so was glad that someone mentioned the photo of Spiegelman and his mother, a holiday snap from 1958, that Spiegelman includes in volume I. I took the opportunity to segue to the topic of photographs, both actual and imagined. How many real photographs are reproduced in the book, I asked. Three. Who are they of? One’s of Artie and his mother, one’s of Vladek, and one’s of Richieu. Why are these photos included? It’s the family, someone replied. Yes, though a family photograph, that is, of all of them together, is naturally impossible. So the book performs a double movement: it reunites the family but in so doing only reminds us of the family’s fragmentation.

But why include the photos? Why reproduce them in the text? I got the predictable responses: photos are more realistic, they remind us that the events really happened, they show us what the people really looked like and remind us that they are people and not just mice. But were we ever in doubt of that? Don’t we identify with these figures so strongly, whether animals or humans or something in between? Why do we need to be reminded that these figures are really people? And why are we so convinced by the authenticity of photos? In this age of photoshop and snapchat and instagram, how can we forget how open to manipulation photos are?

Think of it this way, I said. What’s the photo with Vladek of? He’s posing in a concentration camp uniform that he found in a photo shop after the war, on his way home to Poland. Right: it’s the craziest photo—we don’t know why the photographer would have something like that and why anybody, not least someone like Vladek, would ever want to pose with it. So here the text challenges our beliefs in authenticity. The sign that Vladek was in the camps is a photo taken of him after the camps.

Besides, I added, we still haven’t figured out why Spigelman would include the photos rather than draw them. After all, he does that more than once. I quickly referenced a couple of examples from earlier in the book and then had us look at a sequence near the end of volume II in which Vladek brings out a box of old family photos for Artie to look through. The photos are mostly of Anja’s family, almost all of whom were murdered by the Nazis: “Anja’s parents, the grandparents, her big sister Tosha, little Bibi and our Richieu… All what is left, it’s the photos,” Vladek concludes, adding, when Artie asks about his own side of the family, “So only my little brother, Pinek, came out from the war alive… from the rest of the family, it’s nothing left, not even a snapshot.”

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Why, I asked the class, would Spiegelman choose to draw these images, which are presumably based on real, extant photographs, rather than using the photos themselves? This was a real question. I’ve never been able to come to an answer about this question that satisfies me.

One student ventured that these people didn’t survive the war, thus they were consigned to the past, which Spiegelman indicated by drawings rather than photos. This was a nice theory, but as others quickly pointed out, not one that held up. After all, some of these people, like Vladek’s brother Pinek, who was hidden by peasants before making his way to Palestine, did survive. And others died in ways other than at the hands of the Nazis, like Anja’s brother Herman, hit by a car in Norristown, PA, or her brother Josef, a commercial artist who killed himself after an unhappy love affair.

We had reached a dead end in our conversation and I had no idea how to move us past it to consider the end of the book. There were ten minutes left in class: we had both too much and too little time. But then a student, one whose points are usually a little too obvious, saved the day by pointing out that the image of the pile of photos, seemingly having floated down from the sofa where Vladek and Artie are studying them and arrayed in great despairing drifts, went all the way to the edge of the page. We’d looked at some similar instances earlier in the week, and I’d suggested a connection between these images and the subtitle of Volume I: My Father Bleeds History. The images that couldn’t be constrained by a border—that bled to the edge of the page—suggested themselves as especially significant inasmuch as they pointed to the uncontainable nature of history, the inability of the past to stay safely in the past.

And then something really great happened. A pretty quiet student, smart but not always able to express himself clearly, said: It doesn’t matter when these people died or even if they are still alive. They are still victims of the war, of the things that happened during that Holocaust. That’s why the picture goes to the edge of the page. The war doesn’t stop.

I thought this was brilliant and I seized on it as a life raft. Exactly! I cried, repeating the student’s point so that others would be sure to have heard it. The war doesn’t stop. That’s exactly what we see happening on the last page. At this point we only had 5 minutes left and I often spend 20 minutes talking students through that last page. So all I could do was tell them what I most wanted to say about this ending.

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As Spiegelman himself has pointed out, the end just keeps on ending. First we have Vladek’s description of his dramatic reunion with Anja, which, as we considered in our earlier discussion of his relation to women, we know to be self-serving and false: “More I don’t need to tell you. We were both very happy, and lived happy, happy ever after.” The repetition of “happy” belies the true state of affairs, which is that much unhappiness followed them after the war: Vladek’s reluctant move to the US (he wanted to stay in Sweden), Anja’s depression and eventual suicide, the estrangement between father and son; Vladek’s increasing ill health. I noted that the circle against which the couple embrace might remind us of the circle in the movie poster in Volume I of Rudolph Valentino, who the young Vladek was said to resemble. It might also remind us of the spotlight cast on the young couple as they dance at the spa in Czechoslovakia in the last happy days before the war. It might even remind us of the wheel of the exercise bicycle from which Vladek tells much of his story. The circle is a sign of futility and circularity as much as perfection, and, in its connection to image-making and Hollywood stars, it intimates the fabricated nature of Vladek’s conclusion.

This ending is immediately followed by another: Vladek’s wish to stop speaking, to stop creating the story. His fading powers, even the death that we know is not far off, is suggested by his confusion between his sons: “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now…” he tells Artie. Right below this row, even forcing its way into it, is yet another ending, an image of Vladek and Anja’s gravestone. The fact that the book ends three times, as it were, suggests that it can have no definitive end, an idea further supported by the image of the eternal flame on the gravestone. And what about Spiegelman’s own signature below that? The dates that accompany it are of course the dates of the creation of the work, but it’s hard not to think of them as the dates of his own life. After all, one of these endings includes his own erasure and replacement by the sibling he never knew, the one he had a weird ghostly rivalry with, as he tells Francoise at the beginning of Volume II.

Thus we ended this class much as we began the first one more than a week earlier, with an assertion of the ongoingness of events, the persistence of the past into the present. But our understanding of that claim was a lot more complex now than it had been then. I was really pleased with the work we’d done. In fact I continue to be amazed by this class. They’re still bringing it every single day. Usually, this late in the semester the conversation is being carried by a core group of actively engaged students while the rest follow limply along. But in this group almost everyone still talks every class period.

I really think they are the best group I’ve ever taught. I’m trying to enjoy every minute.

If you want to catch up you can read earlier posts about the course here, here, and here.