June 2019 in Review

Kid in day camp; working from home; weather more than tolerable for Little Rock summer: June was a pretty big reading month. Some work stuff, but a few other things too, including a satisfying run of Esther Freud novels.

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Dorothy Sayers, Have his Carcase (1932) The opening line kills, and I loved seeing the development of Wimsey and Vane’s relationship, but I do find Sayers a bit frivolous. That’s the point, I get it, I’m just starting to think I’m not the right reader for these books. All the code-breaking stuff went right over my head. I guess I am more for suspense than puzzles. Better as a romance than a crime novel. Rohan’s review is unimprovable.

Peter Gay, My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin (1998) I owe this recommendation to Alok (@alokranj): a while ago, he wrote up a great thread on memoirs by German historians. Very glad I read this, even if I did find it a bit oh I don’t know withholding maybe. Born Peter Fröhlich in Berlin to assimilated Jewish parents, Gay (the name he took after emigrating to America: frölich means happy or cheerful) went on to become a prominent historian of 19th Century Europe and, in particular, psychoanalysis. I like psychoanalysis much more than the average person, but I wished Gay’s interpretations of his own behaviour wasn’t quite so orthodox. He’s much less interesting than Freud himself (which makes me wonder about his biography of Freud, generally, I believe, considered his masterpiece). Anyway, Gay’s is a fascinating story, and his eventual escape from Germany is hair-raising (the family made it out very late, in 1939, first to Cuba and then to America, thanks to the support of a paternal uncle who lived in Florida). They were booked on the infamous St. Louis (the ship that was not allowed to dock in Havana, that FDR refused to give sanctuary to, and that had to return to Europe), but his father had something like a premonition and found a way to get on an earlier ship. Gay spends a lot of time combating the accusation that German Jews of his milieu should have known better and left earlier (a ridiculous contention, and one that’s largely abated, but hasn’t completely vanished). Anyway, I’m not sure I’m in love with Gay as he presents himself (a little pompous), but I’d have enjoyed this even if I hadn’t been reading it for work.

Esther Freud, Summer at Gaglow (1997) The UK edition is called simply Gaglow, a weirder, better title. Gaglow is a house in Germany  . The first of Freud’s novels with a dual narrative, Gaglow switches between two generations of a family, one around the time of WWI and the other in contemporary London. The protagonist in the present is having her first baby; ostensibly she’s an actress, but she’s not especially committed to it. To make ends meet she sits for her father, a famous painter clearly modelled on Freud’s own father, Lucian. (Freud sat for him in her younger days.) Gaglow is the Bellgards beloved summer home. Or it was: as they are Jewish it was eventually taken from them; in the post-unification present, the house may return to the family. Freud’s themes of belonging and transience are evident here, explored on her widest canvas yet. Very satisfying.

Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (2018) Clever and amusing, but not as clever and amusing as The Word is Murder.

Esther Freud, The Wild (2000) We’re back in Hideous Kinky/Peerless Flats territory, with more children caught between absent fathers and overwhelmed mothers, with the added interest of complicated blended family dynamics and an amusing portrait of a 1970s Steiner school, where the only subject seems to be Norse mythology. Freud’s up to her classic “this is funny but also you will have your heart in your mouth because surely something terrible is about to happen” shtick. (That’s a compliment.) I don’t think this was ever published in the US, and that’s a damn shame.

David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (2017) A study of the so-called Paper Brigade, a Jewish work commando tasked by the Nazis to sort through the precious manuscripts of Vilna, Lithuania, once known as “the Jerusalem of the North.” The Nazis wanted material for their planned museum of murdered Jewry; they pulped the rest. At great personal risk, members of the Brigade smuggled documents into hiding in the hopes they would survive the war; surprisingly, some did. One of the remarkable people conscripted into this heartbreaking work was Avrom Sutzkever, probably the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th Century. Although Fishman’s style sometimes grates, the material is fascinating, and gave me some ideas about the comparison of people to written documents that I’ll try to work out in a future post.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (2014) Trans. Thomas Bunstead (2019) What a pleasant surprise! I’ve wanted for some time to become better versed in the recent tidal wave of Spanish-language writing, especially from Central and South America, but haven’t really known where to start. I’ve no idea what Spanish-language literary traditions Gainza fits into, if any (she reminded me of Sebald/Berger/Bernard—autofiction-y writers who are smart about art), but I was completely taken with these quasi essayistic quasi fictional pieces, each of which centers on a painting or sculpture that the Gainza never shows us. A triumph of ekphrasis, then. (And there’s always Google.)

Smart, witty, engaging:

“Not for nothing did it say on my seventh grade report: ‘When she applies herself, she excels. Only she hardly ever applies herself.’”

“It is my view that any artist too dependent on either seeking or presenting new and astonishing experiences will cease to be effective once he or she succeeds in, as it were, apportioning that sense of discovery.”

“I listened in as the adults held forth. It was like the soothing sound of rain on windows, my favorite lullaby, reassuring confirmation that the world was still going on even as I turned away from it.”

“Anytime I believe I recognize a fellow renegade, something in me instinctively draws back.”

“I have also realized that being good with quotations means avoiding having to think for yourself.”

Translator Bunstead seems to have done a marvelous job. Highly recommended.

C. R. Lorac, Murder by Matchlight (1945) There are always several of these reissued British Crime Classics on the New Books shelves of my local library. I’ve read a few, but abandoned more. Turns out I’m more drawn to the covers than the content. A Blitz mystery ought to be up my street, but this didn’t engage me.

Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey (1998) Loved it. You can read more here.

Isabella Leitner, Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz (1978) That’s me, reading all the Holocaust memoirs so you don’t have to.

Reminds me in some ways of Night. Both are constructed in short fragments, emphasize the Death March, and focus on importance of family. Leitner and Wiesel both lived in the Hungarian countryside, and were deported about the same time (early 1944). Their tone is similar, too, and frankly it drives me nuts: portentous sacralizing. Like all survivor stories, Leitner’s is remarkable: she was able to stay with three of her sisters in Auschwitz, later a work camp called Birnbaumel (where they dug anti-tank traps against the coming Russian invasion), and finally on a death march to Bergen-Belsen, where one of the four sisters got separated from the others. Like Wiesel in Night, Leitner offers no context: works like these are responsible for the common understanding of the Holocaust as a terrible thing characterized by cattle cars, barbed wire, gas chambers, and the triumph of the human spirit. The most interesting aspects of her experience go unspoken—for example, Leitner’s father had left the family behind to go to America early in the war; after the war they were reunited. What was that like?

The afterword is the most interesting part of the book. It’s written by Irving Leitner, her husband, not because it is better written (though it’s more ordinarily competent, he having been a professional writer) but because of an anecdote about a visit to Paris in 1960 where the Leitners and their two teenage children are surrounded by tables of German tourists, retirees old enough to have participated in the war. Leitner has a panic attack: she writes the names of various camps on a piece of paper, intending to give it to them; later, her husband slips back into the café and delivers it to the table in the guise of the check. Lots of things going on there: panic, rage, revenge, none of which we see in the memoir itself.

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (2018) Competent, compelling. But not “inside baseball” enough for me. My thoughts here.

Esther Freud, The Sea House (2003) Something of a companion to Gaglow, in that it’s also set in the present (2000: cell phones are still clunky and annoying and largely useless outside London—I miss those days) and the past (1953). Once again, Freud mines her remarkable family history: one of the characters, Klaus Lehmann, is an émigré architect closely modelled on her grandfather Ernst Freud (Sigmund’s fourth child). Lehmann appears mostly through the letters he wrote his wife during their various periods of separation in the 1930s. He is paired in the novel by a similarly absent Nick, an architect in the present, and the sometime boyfriend of Lilly Brennan. Lily has come to a village on the Suffolk coast to work on her dissertation on Lehmann in the town where he summered. Got all that? While she learns something about Lehmann, we learn more, because the “past” half of the novel is centered on Max Meyer, an émigré painter who mourns both his lost family home in Germany and his sister, who escaped the Nazis with him but who has just died after a long illness. (In this way, the novel is also an investigation on the difference between history and fiction.) Max is invited to Suffolk by a friend of the family, an analyst in the mode of Melanie Klein, who has plans to help the man work through his traumas, but whom he largely avoids in favour of an affair with Lehmann’s wife.

Probably the most plotty of Freud’s novels, but like the others its real power comes from its investigation of domestic space. Do homes center us or do they imprison us? Do we in the end prefer to mourn their passing? Can we appreciate the natural world if we don’t have a home to return to? Totally engrossing.

Esther Freud, Love Falls (2007) It’s the summer of 1982. As England prepares for Charles and Diana’s wedding, Lara is invited by her father—a figure straight from an Anita Brookner novel: European, Jewish, displaced, intellectual, vague, a bit ruthless—to holiday in Italy, specifically to visit an old friend of his who, it turns out, is dying. (The father, an historian, is apparently modelled on Lucien Freud.) Lara gets taken up by a louche expat set, falls in love, grows up a little, and is terribly hurt. (There’s a shocking scene that resonates even more today—at least for me, clueless cis male reader—than it would have ten years ago.) Probably the weakest of the Freuds I’ve read (a long set piece on the Palio involves some unusually clunky exposition), but it’s still pretty great. The title is the name of a dangerous waterfall and a description of what happens to all of us. Worth reading.

Judith Kerr, The Other Way Round (1975) The second of Kerr’s autobiographical trilogy. (I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit last month.) Her stand-in Anna is 15 and living in London during the Phony War and then the Blitz. She’s desperate to help her family stay afloat and to gain some independence, and enrolls in a secretarial college, which leads to a suitably eccentric job in an organization that collects donated fabric to be made into new uniforms and, more somberly, donates the clothes of soldiers who have died to other young men. Anna begins to separate herself from her family, plunging with joy into night classes in painting and a love affair. But what does this ordinary teenage distance mean for an refugee family whose motto has been something like “Home is wherever we are when we’re together”?

Judith Kerr, A Small Person Far Away (1978) In the final volume of Kerr’s trilogy, we jump ahead to 1956. Anna is married to a coming screenwriter and starting herself to become a writer. But her efforts in this regard are interrupted by a phone call from Germany. Her mother’s lover, an official with a Jewish relief agency in Berlin, tells her that she has attempted suicide. Anna flies to her mother’s bedside—for most of the short novel she is in a coma—and grapples with her guilt over her own reluctance to be there, her mother’s long shadow over her life, the uneven responsibilities assigned to her and her brother, and, in addition to everything else, her mixed feelings about being back in Berlin, where things are at once familiar and unfamiliar, and it doesn’t take long for officially repressed anti-Semitism to reappear.

One reason the last two parts of the trilogy have fallen out of print, I suspect, is that they aren’t quite children’s books (without being anything like what we know as YA). But with the benefit of hindsight we can read the novel as a contribution to the burgeoning phenomenon at that time (70s/80s) of second-generation stories. A Small Person Far Away isn’t the same as, say, Maus, because Anna’s mother hasn’t experienced the Holocaust directly. But she is still traumatized by her wartime experiences as a refugee, and Anna, like Art Spiegelman, has to cope with the fallout. I probably should write an essay about this. Reprint these books dammit!

Cressida Connolly, After the Party (2018) Did you know many followers of Oswald Mosley (the leader of the British Union of Fascists) were held without charge in 1940 and eventually interned on the Isle of Man for much of the war? I didn’t, and one of the tricks of Connolly’s novel is the make us feel sympathy, almost outrage, at this suspension of habeas corpus and the rule of law. It helps, as it were, that her protagonist is a seemingly apolitical family woman who gets pulled into the Union through her sisters. (The family isn’t quite modelled on the Mitfords, but it’s that social set.) I enjoyed After the Party about as much as I found it distasteful. I think Connolly’s going for the Ishiguro Special: a protagonist whose cluelessness we are meant to read against, and find sinister in a way they cannot. But unlike his books, this one is (mostly) in third person. Which left me unsure if it’s Phyllis who misreads her own life, or whether it’s Connolly. I honestly couldn’t tell how much distance Connolly wants us to take from her protagonist. If anyone’s read it and has any ideas, do share.

So that was June. Esther Freud is great. Judith Kerr is great. But the book that won my heart this month was Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers. I’ve got two weeks until the big annual Canada vacation. Before then I’m going to try to read this. My only vacation reading plans are to avoid everything Holocaust for a few weeks…

 

 

“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?

 

 

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.

Hiding in Poland: Two Holocaust Texts

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

The Journey, Ida Fink, Translated by Joanna Weschler and Francine Prose (1990)

Here we have two books about Jews living in hiding during WWII. Dry Tears is a memoir; The Journey is a novel, yet one based on its author’s experiences. I read them back to back, which people who don’t feel compelled to study the Holocaust probably shouldn’t do. But both are well worth reading, especially if you believe Holocaust survivor stories must include cattle cars, barbed wire fences, and concentration camps.

Tec was born in 1931 in Lublin to Roman Bawnik and Esther (Hachamoff) Bawnik. Her father—maybe the most important person in her life—had been groomed to become a rabbi, but suddenly broke with religion around the time he turned 14, around the same time he was orphaned. A period of hard years followed; eventually he found work in a candle factory, where he began, rather audaciously, given their class and religious differences, to court the owner’s daughter. Tec’s mother was from an Orthodox family and they looked askance at Bawnik, but he had excellent business sense, and it wasn’t long before he was running a factory himself. His shrewdness, tact, and measured approach to situations helped the family many times over during the war.

Tec begins her memoir with the invasion of Poland in September 1939. Rather than military defeats and political upheavals, however, she focuses on education. With the beginning of the war, school was interrupted, never to be resumed for Jewish children. The family engages a tutor for Tec and her older sister, a young woman named Hela Trachtenberg, who they nickname Czuczka (“piglet”) because they love her so. Czuczka engages Tec’s interest and sparks in her a desire to learn, if only because she dotes on her tutor. Tec, who became a sociologist and academic in America after the war, clearly spent a lifetime learning. Yet Dry Tears, like most Holocaust stories, details an unusual, perhaps more pragmatic but certainly more drastic education; once the Jews of Lublin and the surrounding areas are forced into a ghetto, the formal education stops. Tec will learn many things over the course of the book, but they will be of the order of how to lose herself in another identity, how to sell on the black market, and how to ingratiate herself with people who are taking a risk in hiding her and could turn on her at any moment.

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Lublin, 1940

Where Dry Tears is unusual in the corpus of Holocaust memoirs is in describing life before the war. We don’t see these in the canonical texts by Levi, Millu, Wiesel, etc., which either begin with deportation or imprisonment. This difference might be because Tec’s reminiscences came later than those others (it was first published in 1982 and then reissued with a new epilogue in 1984). But the more important reason is that the ruptures in Tec’s life weren’t quite as drastic as the ones experienced by those other survivors. Amazingly, everyone in her immediate family survived the war.

Don’t get me wrong, though: Tec suffers plenty of trauma. Like any book about the Holocaust, Dry Tears is full of terrible, indelible images, ones that Tec assures us she has spent a lifetime haunted by. Some of these are terribly poignant, like this early scene, when the family is hiding in their factory, and Tec finds a hole in the wall separating their hideout from the convent school next door:

I found a small opening in the wall from which, unobserved, I could watch the girls at play. To me they seemed so content, so carefree, and I envied them their fun. Did they know that a war was on? At times, as I watched them, I too became engrossed in their games and almost forgot about the war. But the bell that called them back to class called me back to reality, and at such moments I became more acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever.

Here we have in miniature the tension that will structure Tec’s life for the next several years. Her ability to become engrossed in the lives of others will help her when she needs to become someone else. But such loss of awareness carries risks, not least the threat of losing one’s self. Or of becoming careless—though of course her identification with others can never be fully complete; she is never just a Pole. The bell doesn’t toll for her. She is always marked by difference, yet her life depends on not showing it.

Other images are more violent. Tec hears about the children of her father’s business partner, forced to cut their father’s body into pieces in order to smuggle it out of their hiding place, when the man takes a cyanide pill in the mistaken belief the Nazis are at the door. Even more viscerally, a family friend describes the death of Czuczka, murdered in a raid:

she was lying on the ground beside the house in which she had been hiding, her hair disarrayed, her glasses missing, and without eyes. The birds had attended to her body. The picture he drew was vivid and merciless. We were spared no details.

Don’t forget, Tec is 11 years old. How merciless that verb “attended,” which only reminds us of the attention she and millions of other victims didn’t get—the ritual observances that ought to have attended their bodies in the hours after death.

Maybe most terrible of all, for me at least, is the description of the partial liquidation of the Lublin ghetto in summer 1942. Tec’s mother rouses her in the middle of the night and as they make their way to a new hiding place, Tec sees baby carriages in the almost abandoned streets. But the carriages aren’t empty: “There was no place for them [the babies]. No one would allow them in to hiding for fear they would cry and lead to the discovery of others.” The next day, Tec looks into one of the carriages and sees “an unrecognizable bloody mass, that seemed strangely alive.”

The family realizes they cannot continue to hide in the factory. From summer 1942 they leave Lublin—the girls to a village called Otwock, and the parents to the city of Kielce. The girls can pass as Poles because of their looks and their fluency in Polish. The parents, whose Polish is heavy accented (their language is Yiddish), cannot be in the open.

Tec takes on new identity: her name is Christina, nicknamed Krysia, and like all Poles she is Catholic. She must learn to think of herself as Krysia, even with her family. The girls study up on Catholic ritual. Most importantly, they learn to behave like a Christian, which means, Tec tells us, to move with assurance. In hiding, her father explains, they no longer have the luxury of being afraid. They must be cautious, but they must be assured. No easy task for a young child, especially since her parents are unable to leave the house which puts a huge amount of responsibility on her. After several months in which the family is separated, the girls are able to join their parents in Kielce, where a family named Homar has taken them in, in exchange for which risk the Bawniks will pay the rent and all the food. Tec becomes entwined with the Homars and their extended family, as she is sent out first to work the black market and later to sell the rolls her mother makes in their hidden annex. (Her sister has a good but risky job in the canteen of a club for German officers.)

Time and again, Tec is faced with the anti-Semitism of her hosts, which is general rather than personal (“Don’t be a nosy Jew,” “Don’t be clumsy like a Jew,” they tell her, responding to her hurt looks by assuring her, “You are not really Jewish.”) Her father explains that this cognitive dissonance is useful, even essential for the family: were the Homars to realize they really were sheltering Jews they would likely be unwilling to continue taking the risk.

The Homars can live blissfully in contradiction, but Tec can’t. The most fascinating parts are the discussions of the psychological toll of living openly in hiding:

An extra layer of secretiveness, combined with a fear of discovery, became part of my being. All my life revolved around hiding; hiding thoughts, hiding feelings, hiding my activities, hiding information.

Everything has to be held in—when the girls are finally on the way to being reunited with their parents, her sister orders Tec: “Cry quietly!” Ideally these tears would be as invisible as the dry ones named in the book’s title. But dry tears aren’t the same as no tears. Complete repression is impossible—and undesirable.

Sometimes it almost seems to work, though:

And eventually I grew oddly accustomed to anti-Semitic remarks. A slow transformation was taking place in me. It was as if in certain circumstances I lost track of who I really was and began to see myself as a Pole. I became a double person, one private and one public. When I was away from my family I became so engrossed in my public self that I did not have to act the part; I actually felt like the person I was supposed to be. … I never talked about these changes to anyone. I was not proud of them. I felt guilty and embarrassed. I felt like a traitor. It was as if, as I gave up my old self, I was giving up my family as well.

There’s that word again, “engrossed,” the same one she used in describing the experience of watching the convent girls. But this is no war-time Stockholm syndrome. It’s more complicated. Tec needs to become a part of the Homars. And she even enjoys it. But she also doesn’t want to, and even recoils from them. That distance becomes complete when, at the end of the war, when everyone has to hide as low from the conquering Russians soldiers as they have from the Germans, the Homars ask them to leave, and moreover not to tell anyone that they hid a Jewish family for almost three years. Not out of modesty, but out of fear and shame. The Homars are worried what their neighbours and friends would say.

No wonder, then, when, in the last pages of the book, Tec returns to Lublin, pressed in the back of a military truck, she refuses to look, afraid that what she sees would confirm her sense that she no longer belongs there. The last sentence reads, “I closed my eyes instead.”

That liberation isn’t liberatory is a common conclusion in Holocaust texts. In the epilogue added two years later, Tec shows that her teenage self was right. Home wasn’t home any more. The family realized they would have to leave Poland and set off on another dangerous journey, this time into defeated Germany in order to reach the American sector. The details of that trip, and what happened after, remain untold. Even happy Holocaust stories are shattered, governed by silence, evasion, and elision.

Fragmentation is even more apparent in Ida Fink’s The Journey. I’ve written about Fink before. If you’ve never read her, start with her two volumes of short stories, especially A Scrap of Time. Fink has been called the Chekhov of the Holocaust, which sounds like a terrible, nonsensical description, but is actually quite apt. She has his mixture of poignancy and acidity, and she works so well with a short form. (She’s actually much more of a miniaturist than Chekhov, many of whose stories are really long. I doubt Fink ever wrote one more than 20 pages, and most are well under ten.) When I teach her stories, as I regularly do, I follow the scholar Sara Horowitz’s suggestion that Fink is perhaps the most brilliant writer of the Holocaust when it comes to showing what literature can do that history cannot. She plays with the order of events, mimicking how hard it is to narrate a traumatic experience, and she jumps from one perspective to another, allowing us to see what individual characters cannot, even to tell us the experiences of those who were murdered.

Because I love Fink’s stories so much, I came to The Journey with high expectations. It tells, as is to be expected, an extraordinary story. (All stories of survival are extraordinary. There were not supposed to be any such stories.) And I was fascinated by it as a guide to what Fink went through in the war. (I don’t know exactly how autobiographical it is, but it is always presented as such. Details about Fink’s life are hard to come by. That mystery, plus the fact that she was a very late starter as a writer, which I always find endearing, exert a strong pull on me. If I had any Polish, I would drop everything and write her biography.)

But I also found it a difficult book. Fink’s stories are, not warm exactly, that would be crazy, but poignant and pathos-laden, in the best possible sense. I am so moved by them. The Journey, by contrast, is distant, as if guided by the unconscious decision taken by the narrator and her sister (like Tec and her sister they are teenagers, but a few years older) not to let themselves be emotional with each other:

I said “Lie down, try to sleep. And don’t start bawling like an idiot,” I added, even though she wasn’t crying at all; she just had a pained expression on her face. And that’s how it would be between us from now on: no gestures of tenderness. The more we needed to be tender to each other, the colder and more distant we were.

Unlike Tec, the narrator uses her false papers to leave Poland, by joining a convoy of Ostarbeiter, Workers from the East, basically slave labourers used by the Germans to prop up the war effort, both in factories or on farms. What follows is a journey through Germany in wartime, not the crazed Germany of the Nuremberg rallies nor the bombed-out Germany of the end of the war, but rather a rural, almost bucolic, but poor, hardscrabble, and suspicious Germany. At every turn the girls (and the others they encounter who are like them) fear being taken for Jews. Perhaps because they experience that fear—that is, perhaps because they can’t follow the advice of Roman Bawnik—they are continually found out, sometimes by people sympathetic to them, but more often not. It is a life on the run, and it is always very, very dangerous, even though it is mostly characterized by boredom and backbreaking work.

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The narrator never really knows where she is—we have references to the Ruhr and the Rhine, but nothing concrete, nothing like the certainty Tec has about at least her geographic, if not her emotional whereabouts—and she starts losing her sense of who she is. Unlike in Tec’s book (and here we see the difference in genre playing a role), the narrator doesn’t reflect on how this loss makes her feel. Instead Fink makes us feel that confusion, by calling the character sometimes by her real name but sometimes by her (shifting) aliases. Even more complicatedly, Fink mostly narrates in first person but sometimes switches to third, so our perspective on events is also undermined. I’m pretty good at following complicated texts, but I often lost track of who was who in this novel. And it’s not like it has a thousand characters.

The Journey, in other words, is a confusing book, but, again, this confusion is performative, offering us some semblance of the characters’ experiences. The paradox here is that even though the narrator must inhabit her new identity as fully as possible, she is never in Tec’s situation. She can’t ever really pass. Despite her Aryan looks, remarked on by almost everyone she meets, people sense her Jewishness, which is ineradicable in a way Tec’s doesn’t seem to be. And even more than Tec, Fink emphasizes luck, especially in a climactic scene when she on the point of being sold out to the Gestapo when a chance, banal occurrence intervenes and saves her life. Like Tec’s memoir, Fink’s novel ends with an epilogue, in which the narrator returns to the scene of that moment, only to find it as impossible, as meaningless as the first time.

If I could put it this way, I would say that Dry Tears is realist and The Journey modernist. But a realist Holocaust text is a contradiction in terms. Still, Tec’s memoir was a lot easier to get a handle on than Fink’s novel. I suspect if I read The Journey again I’d get more out of it, but I can’t imagine teaching it. Much too hard. Dry Tears, on the other hand, would probably teach well, and I’m thinking of adding it to my class. (Though then I’ll need to figure out what to cut to make room…) Taken together, though, these texts, no matter how difficult and desperate, expanded my understanding of what happened in those terrible years, and how writers have found ways to describe them.

“The Life We Knew Here Is Gone”: Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House

In the years after the fall of communism, Zofia Illinska, an elegant, erudite Polish woman, an émigré who at that point had lived in England for fifty years, returned to the estate she and her mother fled in 1939 when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland. Zofia was accompanied by an Englishman half her age, the author of this remarkable book; having befriended him when, as a boy he stayed with his family in her hotel in Cornwall, the two stayed in contact ever since. The Bronski House A Return to the Borderlands (1995) is a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.

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Few of the places that mattered in Zofia’s life exist anymore. She was born in 1921 in Polish Wilno, today Vilnius in Lithuania, and grew up at a house called Mantuski, in modern-day Belarus. Her story, like that of so many people in the past century (and in our own), is one of enforced change, driven by the violent dreams of others. The results of those dreams, more often than not, are sickness, death, and misery. As Marsden puts it, describing Minsk in the fall of 1917:

Stooped figures shuffled about, collecting water from puddles. Illness hung over that place like the thunder-clouds. Everyone was ill—ill from dysentery, ill from typhus, ill and widowed from other people’s war, other people’s ideas, other people’s revolutions.

Although the words are Marsden’s, it’s unclear whose sentiments these are. I’ve been speaking of Zofia, but the book is not only or even primarily hers; it’s at least as much the story of her mother, Helena. Helena is the one who experienced Minsk at the end of the First World War; Zofia, undreamed of by her mother, wasn’t yet born. The bulk of the book is based on diaries, letters, and notebooks Helena kept over the years, but for the most part Marsden is telling the story. (We are given excerpts from the diaries, allowing us to see that Helena was a gifted, if somewhat exuberant writer; little surprise that her daughter became a poet.) Marsden hews closely to Helena’s viewpoint—he tells us what she experienced and what she felt—but at times we sense his perspective.

In the Minsk passage, for example, the terrible, indelible image of the stooped figures and the puddles must come from Helena. The simile of illness hanging over the city like thunder-clouds is likely hers as well. (It fits with the language we find in her diaries.) But the final sentence, with its anaphora and its ringing condemnation of the harm done to blameless victims by ideologies and governments, feels like Marsden’s.

Indeed, if Marsden has a philosophy, a take on the material he is describing, this is probably it. There is nothing as damaging as an idea: ideologies are experienced by those who live under them primarily as violence and deprivation. To be sure, the 20th century gave us more than enough evidence to support this idea. I’m reminded of Primo Levi, who, describing Hans Biebow, the Nazi in control of the Lodz ghetto—“a small jackal too cynical to take seriously the demonizing of the race”—concluded that a pragmatist is always preferable to a theorist.

Marsden’s humanism has a lot to recommend it, though it skirts sententiousness. As I read the book—utter catnip to me; I swallowed it in a single day, and loved every minute of it—I wondered a little uneasily what is at stake when we read about vanished worlds, and about the suffering of others. It’s easy to romanticize lost worlds. They have a pathos and a dignity that our own seems to lack. (Here’s hoping someone eventually says that about us—though God only knows what that will mean for the present they are feeling bludgeoned and degraded by.) But we oughtn’t to forget that these lost worlds weren’t just the victims of history. They contained, even perpetrated, suffering too. (Zofia’s parents’ families were landowners on both sides, not tremendously wealthy, but privileged. On her mother’s side, she was an O’Breifne, descended from an Irish Catholic who came to fight for the Czars in the 17th century.) The Bronski House gives us a few indications of that inequality. One such moment is a brief standoff in 1926, when the local peasants refuse to allow the Bronskis’ timber carts to pass through the village, claiming that the wood belongs to them. The situation almost turns violent, before Zofia’s father exerts his landowning privilege and the villagers back down, for the moment anyway. In general, though, the book hews to the landowners’ perspective, which doesn’t so much disdain or disparage the peasantry as ignore them.

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Marsden, however, is too smart a writer not to have thought about these questions. Early on, he describes two photographs of Helena, one a studio portrait from 1919, taken in Warsaw, showing an almost twenty-year-old young woman in “a white high-collared dress,” and the other a candid from 1936, taken on the estate of Mantuski. (Curiously, there are no photos or other images in this book, other than a helpful map on the endpapers. Unlikely that would be true in a book released today. I’m puzzled by the omission; likely Zofia wanted them kept out. Whatever the reason, the absence of images increases the mystery of the lives retold here.)

Marsden wonders why these photos cast such a hold on him:

It was the way this woman, Helena O’Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated—exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering—lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena’s was a bigger world, a crueler world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

This is beautifully—but also slyly—put: as the sentence amasses its clauses it veers into cliché (the half-mad nobles, the noble peasants), and knowingly so. For as Marsden goes on to admit, the truth is simpler: Helena is beautiful and he has fallen a little in love with her, as so many men will do in this book. (Helena’s lack of interest in men, until she wanders haphazardly into a marriage that to her own surprise brings her much joy, is interesting, and more might have been made of Helena as a desiring (or, often, non-desiring) being, though that would have meant speculating in a way Marsden typically refrains from. This is no psycho-biography.)

Marsden’s love for Helena is of course connected to his love for Zofia. It is refreshing to see how much respect he has for this much older woman. Zofia can occasionally be eccentric—she loves to sail, though she doesn’t know how, and often needs to be rescued—but primarily she is characterized by intelligence, mildness, and remarkable good sense. The trip she and Marsden undertake is quite fraught, especially given what she finds in a newly-independent and terribly impoverished Belarus: Mantuski, her childhood home is gone, burned to ground in the early days of the war; Klepawicze, her husband’s childhood home, has become a communal farm, complete with an alarming Geiger counter that continually tests the air for radiation (Chernobyl happened not long before and not far away); worst of all, the Bronski chapel, containing her father’s grave (Adam died of complications of scarlet fever in 1936), has been ransacked and looted.

But Zofia is never bitter; she never displays rancor to those who chased her family away. (Yes, the past is past, but some of the people she meets were alive at that time, making her forbearance all the more impressive.) After returning to England, Zofia begins raising money to repair and reconsecrate the chapel. Two years later she and Philip return to dedicate it. At the ceremony, Zofia makes a speech extolling her father’s love of the land he spent working and fighting for. Then she adds:

‘But there is one thing you must understand. For more than half a century now, no Bronski has lived here. Once this was our home, but not any more. The family is scattered around the world and the life we knew here is gone. The restoration of the chapel is not for us; it is not for my family, but for you, for all of you—Belorussian and Pole, Orthodox and Catholic. You must look after it as your own home. You must use it. Come here and pray whenever you want, whenever you can—even if there is no priest to officiate; you must say the rosary and in the spring cut back the forest around the building.

‘And be warned,’ she smiled, ‘that if the chapel again falls into disrepair, it will be my ghost that comes back to haunt you.’

It’s a generous gesture, a superb acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and all that is lost. It doesn’t dig up old grudges or wounds. Yet it also ends with a sting—a gentle one, but a sting nonetheless. The past never does fully go away; it always threatens to haunt us.

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Before I end, a few scattered observations:

Marsden makes himself scarce in the book, and it’s all the better for his restraint. He is a translator, a Sherpa, sometimes a dogsbody; he is not the main attraction. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Zofia visit an old woman, Pani Wala Dobralowicz, Zofia and her mother’s former dressmaker, who lives with her chickens in a small cabin near the place where the great house once stood. The three have lunch—there are plates of potatoes and kielbasa and herring, and a bottle of vodka. Afterwards, the three sleep off the lunch “in the close heat of the afternoon—the two widows on beds behind a screen, me on an old sofa next to the stove.” Later he “hears the two women talking behind their screen long into the night.” A sweet moment, from which we, like Marsden, are quite properly barred. Their conversation is private.

So sweetness and gentleness, yes, but that isn’t the whole tone of the book. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how dramatic, even exciting it is. The family’s escape from Poland at the beginning of the war, across the border into Lithuania and eventually to England, is the stuff of a spy novel. And the book is shrewd enough to admit that traumatic upheaval can be the making of a person. Here is Marsden’s description of Helena’s escape eastwards to Minsk and eventually Saint Petersburg with her mother and their servants and livestock during the First World War:

The forest banished all thoughts of war. Helena felt happy, exhilarated. Each day was different. Her mother withdrew the barbed constraints that normally surrounded her. She relaxed; the progress of the convoy imposed its own loose authority and, in years to come, Helena looked back on those weeks in the forest, seeing the horses’ twitching ears, the arc of the wooden hames, hearing the creak of carts, and knew that this was the closest she ever came to any sort of freedom.

It’s a melancholy conclusion (which is belied by the contentment she finds later in life at Mantuski—though of course contentment isn’t the same as freedom), which captures just how confined life could be for a gifted young woman in that time and place.

I noted earlier that Marsden helps us consider the risks of romanticizing the past. His point well taken, but I am a sucker for this particular past, and The Bronski House is filled with swoony period details, like this one that seems super Slavic and wintry and almost nineteenth century novelistic: in defiance of everything that has just happened, Helena’s aunt holds a ball on a December evening in Wilno at the end of the war. There are no horses in the city; they have all died in the war. So there are no sledges, no carriages; the guests arrive on foot. Marsden gives us this grace note: “In the portico of Aunt Marynia’s home, a great puddle spread out around the rows of felt boots.” (It’s the kind of detail you’d find in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. No accident that hers is the only blurb on my edition.)

One last thing—and quite a different note: I found it extraordinary to read a book about this time & place that has almost nothing to say about Jews. (They are referred to once or twice, but only in passing, it’s really minimal.) I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s a relief to have a break from those particular terrors, especially given my academic work on the Holocaust. On the other hand, it feels like a huge effacement. Notice that Zofia doesn’t mention Jews in her speech at the chapel. Even she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not because they couldn’t pray there, but because there aren’t any of them around to address. Even in a story filled with loss, then, there are even further layers of despair, even more ghosts who don’t get their due. In the end, I prefer to think of this as a sign of the book’s modesty on the part of the book (Jews simply didn’t factor much into Zofia’s daily life—but could this be true?—and of course the worst atrocities against Jews happened after she and her family fled) rather than a sign of its values.

Too bad The Bronski House is out of print. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it. It would pair terrifically well with the NYRB Classics edition of Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost (hint, hint). I’ll even volunteer to write the introduction. In the meantime, search your library or AbeBooks. This one’s a keeper.

A Little Henry Green for Remembrance Day

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, as I persist in calling it; I’ll never get used to Veterans Day. About some things I am immune to cant, unable, for example, to clap for our men and women in uniform on airplane flights (that was a thing for a few years after 9/11, not so much any more), but about others I’m terribly sentimental. And always at this time of year I think about the deliciously solemn Remembrance Day assemblies of my Canadian childhood, the lusty intoning of “In Flanders Field” (how I loved that poem), the reveling in the myths of Vimy, the crucible that forged a nation, etc, etc. I know there’s pious and even pernicious hooey surrounding the holiday, but I miss wearing a poppy, I really think that’s a beautiful tradition, and I also miss the weather, which in my memory anyway is blustery and miserable with a little sleet or snow in the air.

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My feelings about Canada are especially turbulent this week, after the US election debacle. As someone who really could go to Canada, but who can’t figure out what he’d do once he got there, I’m at once even more susceptible than usual this week to nostalgic feelings for home and yet not entirely convinced that it still is home. Indeed, there’s nothing like finding out that half of the electorate is fine with overt misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, Islamaphobia and hatred of of people of colour generally to make you question what home really means.

At any rate, in honour of Remembrance Day, here’s a passage from the incomparable Henry Green’s memoir Pack my Bag, published in 1940 when, he notes, he was only thirty-five, because he was convinced he would die in the coming war. (He served in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz, dangerous work described vividly in Caught, one of his nine beautiful and elliptical novels.) About a third of the way through the memoir, Green describes how his wealthy family’s estate was turned into an officer’s convalescent home during the First World War. Twelve-year-old Green is fascinated by the men, especially a shell-shocked Australian:

Unattractive in every way, small, ugly, with no interests one could find, he had haunted eyes as though death to which he was still so close and which walked arm in arm with him through our meadows could be a horror worse than what he was still suffering. He did not sleep, he hardly ate, he shook all day and he was like an old specimen jar which is cracked and irreplaceable, others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same, so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces, so that if one laughed he always screamed. If forty yards away you banged the door he screamed.

Green’s amazing, idiosyncratic, and amazingly idiosyncratic syntax is on full display here. The soldier isn’t exactly appealing—the use of “ugly,” which at first seems redundant, suggests that the opening modifier is about something more essential than his looks, though they’re clearly not up to much either. Yet by the end of the passage we sympathize with him, partly through the upending of the pastoral tradition (et in Arcadia ego), in which death is intimately present (walking arm in arm with him though the meadows) yet nonetheless subordinate to a trauma of such magnitude it can only be described indirectly (“what he was still suffering”). I can’t quite figure out how “still” is being used in that first sentence. It appears twice—does it mean the same thing each time? He’s still so close to death—which presumably refers to the battlefields he’s ostensibly convalescing from—but he’s still suffering from shell shock. Death and horror are differentiated from, even opposed to, each other, but the soldier nonetheless seems to experience both at the same time.

If anything, the next sentence is even harder to parse, offering a fine example of the wayward rhythms of Green’s prose, which sometimes seem to replicate speech, or more accurately a particular kind of associative logic that characterizes speech rather than anything one might actually say. The old specimen jar is presumably an antique jar, but it could be a jar for an old specimen, which is what the solder seems to be to the boy Green. Specimen is from the Latin “to look”—it’s a jar you’d put moths or plants or other living things into. In this sense the soldier is said to be preserved but also stifled or entombed, as if the jar were a mausoleum, yet a broken one that is nonetheless valuable (“cracked and irreplaceable”). The almost parenthetical observation “others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same” suggests both outmodedness and singularity, assuming that “the same” means “the same as the cracked but irreplaceable specimen jar that the soldier is like” and not “the same as each other,” which admittedly would be weird since it would suggest the newfangled models are unique rather than mass-produced.

This clause—“others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same”—is even harder to figure out because we can’t at first be sure of its relationship to the next one, which reads “so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces.” At first I thought this clause modified the one about the other jars that might be better but aren’t the same, as if the reason they aren’t the same, that is, the reason they seem to have something wrong with them even though they’re supposedly better is that they’re cracked and ready to break at the mere sound of a shout. But if that were the case, Green ought to have said “enough to shatter them in jagged pieces.” I realized, then, that this clause is actually connected to one before the one before it, namely, the original description of the man as a cracked but irreplaceable specimen jar. That’s what’s “so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces,” the echo or half-rhyme of the double consonants in “shatter” and “jagged” imitating the sharp, abrasive quality the words are describing.

All of which leads us to the final clause, “so that if one laughed he always screamed.” Initially we might take it to be parallel with the previous one—after all they both start with “so”—but we soon see isn’t. “So” means something different in each case. The first “so” (“so cracked that a shout”) is an intensifier (the jar is very cracked); the second (“so that if one laughed”) is a coordinating conjunction meaning “such that.”

After this extraordinary sentence—which like many others in Green’s books must be read several times before they can be parsed—the passage’s concluding sentence is much simpler but no less moving for that. It’s an extension of the previous sentence, which has told us that a laugh, which apparently is felt by the man as a shout, makes him scream. Even something as simple and distant as the banging of a door does so too. We’re left with the image of a man so raw, so broken that ordinary life has become terrifying and intolerable.

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Of course we already know this, because in the sentences just before the passage I’ve focused on here Green tells us: “He was no longer human when he came to us. He committed suicide when he left to go home [to Australia], he found the bustle on board ship to much for him.”

To you from failing hands we throw the torch, etc, etc.

A Pattern of Magical Balances: Doris Lessing’s In Pursuit of the English

I just read In Pursuit of the English, a wonderful memoir-of-sorts by Doris Lessing. I think I liked it more than almost any of her books (and I’ve read quite a few, though by no means all, even most). I wonder why it’s not better known.

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It’s about Lessing’s first year or so in England, where she arrived in 1950 with her little boy Peter from her home in Rhodesia. The English, we soon learn, are a fantasy or mirage that differs depending on one’s perspective. The English in Africa are one thing entirely—a unified presence with mores that puzzle Lessing even before she arrives—but the English in England are something else altogether. Especially since Lessing arrives in London, and Londoners, she learns, at least the East End Londoners she lives among, don’t consider themselves English.

Most of the book is about the boarding house she finds a room in. Which isn’t an easy to do in bombed-out London—even some of the floors in the place she ends up in are closed off and filled with rubble. Lessing becomes involved with the people who live in the house, especially the couple who own it. Although the welcome is for the most part warm, she finds she has to learn what the English novelist Henry Green once called “the half-tones of class.” As a colonial subject, she doesn’t quite know how to navigate in this new world

Throughout I kept thinking about the Maison Vauquer from Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot. Especially because perhaps even more than in Balzac the physical qualities of the building itself are important to Lessing—almost as much as the people who live in it.

All of which made me think about what kind of a book this is. For the most part it’s written in a realist mode, almost ethnographic. Calling it a memoir doesn’t really seem right, since Lessing is so reticent about herself. But at times it slips into a different mode, something more fantastic or magical. Here’s a passage that really struck me. Lessing has taken a cramped room in the attic—only later does she realize it’s really a garret—and she has her eye on a much better room three floors below. She enters into a tense war of nerves with the landlady. In the midst of these negotiations comes this surprising and beautiful description:

Under the roof it was like sitting on top of an anthill, a tall sharp peak of baked earth that seems abandoned, but which sounds, when one puts one’s ear to it, with a continuous vibrant humming. Even with the door shut, it was not long before the silence grew into an orchestra of sound. Beneath my floor a tap dripped softly all day, in a blithe duet with the dripping of the tap on the landing. Two floors down, there the Skeffingtons lived, was a radio. Sometimes she forgot it when she went to work, and, as the hours passed, the wavelength slipped, so that melodies and voices flowed upwards, blurring and mingling. This sound had for accompaniment the splashing water, like conversation heard through music and dripping rain. In the darkening afternoons I was taken back to a time when I lay alone at night and listened to people talking through several walls, while the rain streamed from the eaves. Sometimes it was as if the walls had dissolved, and I was left sitting under a tree, listening to birds talking from branch to branch, while the last fat drops of a shower spattered on the leaves, and a ploughman yelled encouragement to his beasts in the field over the hill. Sometimes I put my ear to the wall and heard how, as the trains went past and the buses rocked their weight along the street, shock after shock came up through brick and plaster, so that the solid wall had the fluidity of dancing atoms, and I felt the house, the street, the pavement, and all the miles and miles of houses and streets as a pattern of magical balances, a weight-less structure, as if this city hung on water, or on sound. Being alone in that little box of ceiling board and laths frightened me.

I love the way this passage slips between dream and reality, between present and past, between Africa and London, between gentleness and fear. Sometimes Lessing is a gruff writer, so matter of fact that her prose can be boring. But she’s so smart and sometimes that acuity is transferred to her prose. Everybody in London at this time knew only too well how solid building could dissolve, become as fluid as dancing atoms. The sociological despair of a very slowly rebuilding London is here transmuted into a psychological or private fear. I don’t know if that’s progress, but I like the way Lessing keeps things unsettled in this book. Houses, places to live in, are important in many of works, now that I think about it: The Fifth Child, The Good Terrorist, even her wonderful first novel, The Grass is Singing.

Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home—Nina Stibbe (2013)

This is such a funny book and in this season of short days and enforced cheer you owe it to yourself to read it.

In 1982 the twenty-year-old Nina Stibbe moved to 55 Gloucester Crescent in London to become a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmer and her sons. Wilmer was and is the editor of the London Review of Books. Her sons Sam and Will (from her marriage to the film director Stephen Frears) were ten and a half and nine years old, respectively. The playwright Alan Bennett lived across the street and came over most nights for dinner. The biographer Claire Tomalin and the writer Michael Frayn lived down the road. They had a helper, a sort of personal assistant, called Mark Nunney, who Nina likes but can never quite seem to get involved with.

Love, Nina collects the letters Stibbe sent her sister Victoria, who stayed behind in Leicestershire where she worked as an aide at an old folks home. One of the small pleasures of the book lies in piecing together the other half of the conversation. (“Sorry to hear about the gum bite… good job she had no teeth, but horrible anyway.”) Victoria didn’t like London and rarely visited, but Stibbe kept her sister apprised of all the exploits of the residents of Wilmer and her circle (everyone always dropping in on each other, like a big extended family).

These are wonderful letters: gossipy but not long-winded, punchy, dry, quick-witted, and very, very funny. (As I asked recently, what are the memoirists and biographers of the future going to do without letters?) Stibbe, who later takes a course on drama at university, is at her best transcribing bits of dialogue.

Describing a day out with her friend Misty in Brighton:

The best bit was when we went into an antique shop and Misty picked up a pickle fork with a pretty green jewel on the end.
“How much is this pickle fork?” she asked the antique man.
The man said it wasn’t a pickle fork but a runcible spoon.

Misty: What’s a runcible spoon?
Man: One of them in your hand.
Misty: But what’s it for?
Man: Pickles and such.

Later she tells Misty about Mary-Kay:

Me: She’s just very unusual.
Misty: Is she a bit mad?
Me: God, no, she’s 100 percent sane.
Misty: That’s unusual.
Me: That’s what I mean.

Mary-Kay (MK in Stibbe’s shorthand) comes across very appealingly: open-minded, smart, funny, kind to Nina, dedicated to her children but keenly aware of their faults. But Stibbe also makes gentle fun of her sometimes snooty, sometimes spacey intellectual friends, and her yuppie tastes. (It’s the early 80s, after all, and people with money are discovering eight-grain bread and balsamic vinegar.) What Nina loves most in MK is her dry wit. One letter starts “Good news! Mary-Kay has pranged the car at long last—a relief after all mine (prangs).” (Stibbe is not much of a driver, though she gives plenty of advice to her sister, who is taking lessons: “not sure Mr. T is the best instructor. He never sleeps and he’s eighty-nine.”) She goes on to fill Victoria in on the conversation at 55 later that evening:

Sam: It’s mum first time crashing.
Me: Yeah, but it’s worse than any of mine—in terms of damage done.
MK: Hmm.
Me: Mine never required any action to be taken.
MK: Only the untangling of deception and denial.
Me: You dented the number plate—irreparably.
MK: True, but my credibility remains intact.

Another time she and MK discuss the latest fad:

Me: Do you ever do yoga?
MK: No, but I hear it’s very good.
Ne So why don’t you go?
MK: I expect I shall at some point.
Me: Me too.

(This perfectly gets the sense that yoga or things like it—pilates, say, or whatever the next thing is that all right-thinking people who love themselves and want to live forever absolutely must do—will come to us all, even those of us who have absolutely no intention of ever doing them.)

Sam & Will are just as appealing, especially since they have such a foil in their nanny, who often wants to be more immature than they are. Both Nina and Mary-Kay love to banter with them. At one point, Stibbe’s brother visits and gives Sam a “sexy pen”:

Press the top and the woman’s bra disappears. We all like it and keep pressing the top to see the bra disappear.

MK: Don’t take it to school.
Sam: Why not?
MK: Your teacher will confiscate it.
Sam: What do you mean?
MK: She’ll take it from you.
Sam: She won’t want it.

I could go on quoting from the book all day. Instead, just read it for yourself. It’s not that life at 55 is perfect or even idyllic. It’s that Stibbe narrates it with such good-humour, such lack of mean-spiritedness (which doesn’t mean she isn’t judgmental, grumpy, frustrated, etc.).

Love, Nina is a joy because Stibbe has no problem laughing at her own foibles. People like this—my very best friend in the world is one, and it’s undoubtedly one of the reasons I’m so drawn to him—emanate a kind of ease that makes everyone feel good, a gift that I, irredeemably prickly and too-quickly offended, can only admire.

All of which is to say that Stibbe comes across, even in her child-like qualities, as mature and wise. Which is impressive since the book is really a coming of age story. (Hard to believe Stibbe was barely in her 20s when she wrote these letters.) The predominant narrative line tells the story of Stibbe’s acceptance into a Polytechnic where she studies literature. Stibbe becomes a proficient if not brilliant literary reader but never loses the skepticism that makes her immune to the most self-satisfied and airless qualities of the discipline. (Her struggle to complete her thesis on Carson McCullers—she soon decides she didn’t want to write about her—will be familiar to anyone who has embarked on a research project.) But Stibbe is cleverer than she likes to let on. She even allows herself a meta-moment about the best quality of her own book:

Me: Is the book OK?
Will: It’s hilarious.
Me: But you look so serious.
Will: I’m laughing on the inside.
Sam: I hate it when people laugh out loud when they read.
Will: Me too, that’s why I hide it.
Sam: They’re showing off about reading a funny book
Will: About finding it funny.
A[lan] B[ennett]: (from kitchen table) I think you’re allowed to laugh if something amuses you.
Sam: Not a book.
AB: I think one’s allowed an involuntary snort… or two,
MK: One.

When you dissolve into helpless laughter, as I did any number of times reading this book, you can decide if Sam & Will are right and you’re just showing off.

When I mentioned Stibbe’s “best quality” just now I meant her humour, of course. As I said, her book had me laughing out loud to the point of tears. My wife, who lovingly said it did her good to see me enjoying myself so much, and after asking me to read bits to her, which made me gasp further, kindly but firmly kicked me out of the bedroom. You can’t read this book just anywhere.

But in retrospect Stibbe’s best quality isn’t her humour. Nor is it her keen editorial eye. (She always knows exactly where to stop her transcriptions.) Instead, it’s her kindness, which appears in her openhearted respond to the gruff but loving Bohemianism of life at 55. She knows she was lucky to have landed with Wilmer and her sons, and even when she moves out, just around the corner, to go to school full time, she keeps coming back, like AB himself.

Late in the book she describes one of those evenings. The family is watching England play Germany on TV:

Sam: (speaking to Bobby Robson [England’s manager]) What do you go and pick two bloody Ipswich players for (taps the screen)?
MK: Stop tapping the screen.
Sam: (to Bryan Robson [team captain, no relation to Bobby]) Come on, Robbo.
MK: Stop putting your hands all over the screen.
Sam: Come on, England.
Sam: I can’t watch. I hate football.
Will: It’s only a friendly.
Sam: (to Bobby Robson) It’s only a friendly, Bobby (taps screen).
MK: Sam, stop touching the screen.
Sam: I can’t watch.
MK: Neither can we—all we can see is your hands.

I felt sad at the end. But I didn’t say anything.
I don’t think Mary Hope & co [her new landlords] watch much football whereas MK and S&W watch as much as possible. So I’ll have to come round here for it. Not that I like it much, but I like watching it with them. MK mentions if a player has nice hair and Sam puts the Vs up to the ref and Will covers his face at the tense bits. They’re just themselves watching football only more so.

As the title suggests, the letters all end “Love, Nina.” It’s a very loving book. Just the thing for this time of year, or any other.

Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father—Alysia Abbott (2013)

I enjoyed Alysia Abbott’s memoir of growing up with an openly gay father in 1970s and 80s San Francisco, racing through it in a couple of evenings. But I didn’t like it as much as some people I know. Can’t say for sure how it will stay with me, but I’m guessing most of it will vanish as thoroughly as the sometimes gritty, sometimes gossamer world it depicts.

Steve Abbott met Barbara Binder when both were graduate students in Atlanta in the late 60s. His declaration of his bisexuality didn’t get in the way of their relationship, at least not at first. They married and soon had a daughter, Alysia. In a complicated story of which the young Abbott knew almost nothing, Barbara, perhaps pushed by Steve’s regular relationships with other men, entered into a relationship of her own. Her lover, Wolf, is a suicidal, drug-addicted patient she had treated in her job as a social worker. He is arrested in Michigan trying to run drugs across the border; when the charges are dropped, Barbara hurries to get him. On the way back to Atlanta they are in a terrible car accident. Barbara dies instantly. Alysia is three.

Father and daughter move to San Francisco, where they eke out a precarious, semi-nomadic existence as Steve struggles to succeed as a writer. Alysia’s grandparents help out, taking the girl for summers to their home in the mid-west and paying tuition for a private school. (Hers is a story of only partial, yet still real deprivation.) Steve begins to publish and makes his name as an editor and activist in the burgeoning gay community.

As the 70s become the 80s more and more of his friends become sick. Abbott’s ordinary story of teenage rebellion is complicated by the advent of AIDS, especially when her father is diagnosed as HIV positive. By the time she goes to college in New York he has full blown AIDS; eventually he asks Abbott to return home to nurse him. Abbott’s ambivalence about this request—which means putting the life she has painstakingly carved out for herself on hold—make up the central dilemma of the last part of the book. Most interesting is the way Abbott delays the moment of reckoning, how for years she ignores the severity of her father’s situation, even complaining, in a letter she reproduces in the book, about how his recitation of illnesses is getting her down.

Abbott makes good use of her father’s journals and the many letters they wrote to each other. (Side note: I’m old enough to experience today’s instant, omnipresent communication as a loss. I remember when long-distance phone calls were expensive and rationed, and letter writing was common. Those letters were exciting. You could revisit them in different lights and moods. I guess future memoirists will consult their emails or texts or something, but it’s hard for me to see how that ephemera will persist. I’m also jealous of Abbott: I’ve only ever received a handful of letters from my father.) Abbott is also willing to show herself in an unflattering light. Her college-age narcissism isn’t unusual, but it’s made more vexing, more compelling because it masks her fears for her father’s heath.

Yet Abbott’s self-presentation is disappointingly detached, almost affectless. That could be a function of the denial that characterized her response to the illness. But the effect is to keep readers from fully engaging with her story. This flatness infects Abbott’s prose, too. Her sentences tend to be baldly declarative, syntactically and conceptually simple even when Abbott is engaging in self-reflection. Through a combination of inability or preoccupation or refusal of bourgeois norms, Steve Abott was sometimes a neglectful father, failing, for example, to instruct her in certain ways of social being. Her school friend Niki took up the burden, advising her to start wearing deodorant, reprimanding her when she blithely finishes someone else’s leftovers in a restaurant. Abbott writes: “Though I didn’t exactly see what the big deal was, I suspected Niki was right, and I felt overcome with that familiar feeling of confused shame.” She adds, in the only sentences that reflect on that complicated emotion (“confused shame”),“Why was it still so difficult to contain my weirdness, to hide my dirt and mask my scent? These are painful memories to revisit, even now.” So painful, it seems, that the equivalence between weirdness, on the one hand, and dirt and scent, on the other, that is, the desire of someone who has led a non-normative life to efface not just her distinctiveness but her very self is simply posed as a question and then dropped. Here pain precludes analysis.

Similarly underdeveloped is the opening anecdote, in which the five-year-old Abbott, the only child at a party her father has taken her to (she is often the only child), is left alone in the pool. She is entranced y the water (“I’ve uncovered a secret pathway to a magic pace, a mermaid sea”) but doesn’t know how to swim. Before long she is splashing frantically in the water. Someone notices and alerts her father, who pulls her out. Abbott’s commentary reads, in full:

My father notes this day in his journal with the headline “Alysia’s Swimming Accident,’ and beneath it a small scribbled drawing showing my arm flailing above wavy water. When I later find the journal entry, I smile with delight.

It’s unclear how much later this later is, but at least the final sentence has the virtue of being surprising. That’s not how I expected Abbott to respond—I expected her to say something like, “I can’t believe what a narrow escape that was, and how causally my father turned it into anecdote.” Is she so happy simply to be noticed by her father that she doesn’t care? Or was the moment not really that traumatic? (It’s certainly set up that way.) Why even begin with this story? Is it that, for Abbott and her father, at least, experience had to be recorded to become real? Perhaps the strangest thing about this moment is how idyllically it’s figured—disaster is averted, recrimination avoided. But then Abbott adds that she didn’t learn how to swim until she was in college, “a source of secret shame.” And there’s that shame again, running through the book like a livid thread, always unexplored.

Like her father’s poems, liberally included in the text, which are of primarily historical interest regarding both the gay scene in pre- and early-AIDS era San Francisco, and the Abbotts’ father-daughter relationship, Abbott’s book has more historical than intrinsic interest. Fascinating, for example, to see how much more casually people understood parenting in the 70s. That’s true even when we set aside Abbott’s father’s Bohemianism. For example, from the age of three onwards Abbott travels alone to spend summers with her grandparents. Her father coaches her to say she is four, since that’s the minimum age to fly as an unaccompanied minor. What amazed me was not her father’s little subterfuge but the airlines’ policy. I can’t imagine sending my daughter on a plane by herself next year. Yes, I realize this doesn’t necessarily reflect well either on me or on today’s culture of extreme, immersive parenting.

Where the book did hit home for me was in prompting these sorts of considerations of my own parenting. What kept me reading was its portrait of an intense father-daughter relationship to which I brought all my own complicated and overflowing feelings about being a father to a daughter. I was moved almost to tears by Steve Abbott’s evident love for his daughter, even though or perhaps because that love was sometimes so clumsily expressed. It says something about me (beyond the mere fact of me being a man, I mean) that I identified more strongly with him that with his daughter, the narrator of the story. Yet at the same time, I was surprised that the book didn’t distance my identification by presenting her father’s parenting as in any way distinctively queer. (In fact, I don’t think the book ever uses the word “queer” until the last line of the epilogue.) For all the ways Abbott records the strangely simultaneously loving and dismissive upbringing she received from the gay community she grew up in, she seldom considers what this has meant to her. She tells us what it was like to learn that she needed to dissemble about her father’s sexuality, before later embracing it, then reacting against it, then simply taking it as a given. But she doesn’t think about what queerness could bring to our understanding of family; indeed at the end of the book she casually announces that she realizes she never gave her father’s boyfriends a chance because they could never replace her mother, a surprising avowal of what I can only awkwardly call heteronormativity.

But maybe what I’m reacting to in Abbott’s writing is in fact a success not a weakness. Maybe what I’ve read as flat is in fact dispassionate, a sign of her ability to present a turbulent and unusual past evenhandedly. That’s a genuine accomplishment of the book. But I’m still disappointed in the lack of reflection on the part of the adult Abbot in relation to her childhood and adolescent sense. She rarely reflects on the past from the position of the present: I can understand wanting to keep her present life private, and I realize that the Fairyland of the title is a vanished world, such that part of the point of the book is to portray it as sealed off. Not everything needs to be Proust (though even as I write that I don’t think I really believe it), but this absence of a change in register between child and adult voices, or of a switch in temporal position makes the book less analytical, thinner somehow. Evenhandedness too easily shades into monotony.

It’s probably not fair, they’re not the same kind of book, and it’s not as though we have so many stories about gay parents that I should be pitting one against the other, but I couldn’t help comparing Fairyland to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, her remarkable comic about coming to terms with the untimely death of her closeted bisexual father. Fairyland comes off badly in this comparison, Bechdel’s prose (to say nothing of her drawings) so smart and funny and poignant, her book so much richer than Abbott’s. Fun Home is a book I’ve read and re-read, and taught, and pressed into other people’s hands. I don’t think I’ll do any of those things with Fairyland even as I have affection for the father who imperfectly did what he could with a child he always loved and admiration for the child who chronicles that love so even-temperedly.

Rue Ordener, Rue Labat–Sarah Kofman (1994, 1996 English Translation by Ann Smock)

I think the French have a word for the genre of Sarah Kofman’s next-to-last book: the récit, an account. Perhaps that implies more of a narrative through-line than this book offers. It could be called a memoir, though it is too fragmentary to be one. It is autobiographical without being an autobiography. Maybe sketch is the best term? There’s always that useful term the French like to use: the text.

Rue Ordener, Rue Labat asks us to think about what to call it because it is always pushing against the very idea of form, as if it were a pure manifestation of the unconscious, of its author’s deepest recesses.

I first read this intriguing little work when it came out in English translation in the late 1990s. I returned to it yesterday as part of my efforts to create the syllabus (or at least the reading list) for a new course I’m teaching in the fall, Literature after Auschwitz. Lately I’ve dipped into lots of books, looking for ones that will fit the story I want the course to tell and that will be effective pedagogically. All the while I know that I won’t really know what I want from the course until I’ve taught it at least once.

My first thought was that Rue Orderer, Rue Labat probably won’t serve my purposes. But I’ve found myself returning to it over and over again in the twenty-four hours since finishing it. So maybe there is something in it I need to listen to.

In eighty pages and twenty-three chapters Kofman tells us about some of the things that happened to her as a child in and around Paris during the war and its aftermath.

Her father was arrested in the infamous roundups of July 16th, 1942, when the French police brought 13,000 Jews to a velodrome on the outskirts of Paris before deporting them, via the transit camp at Drancy, to Auschwitz.

The book begins with that day, the last time Kofman ever saw her father. More precisely, it begins with a description of his fountain pen, which Kofman kept with her throughout her life. The pen, she suggests, was the impetus for all her subsequent work, not least these pages.

I’ve been dipping into Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist lately and I thought about “the squat pen” in “Digging.” That pen, though, is so much more ambivalent, so much more a weapon (however ambivalently wielded) than Kofman’s father’s. Her book is full of ambiguity, but none of that attaches to her father, an Orthodox, unassimilated rabbi who had arrived in France in 1929 and who Kofman clearly adored. He appears in the book only through his traces—that pen, a photo, a single postcard written from Drancy asking for cigarettes and sending love to the baby, presumably the one Kofman’s mother pretended to be pregnant with in a futile attempt to save her husband from deportation, though perhaps Kofman herself—and his daughter’s memories. She remembers his inveterate smoking: because he kept Shabbat he couldn’t smoke until sundown on the Sabbath and so, towards the end of the day, he would soothe his cravings by humming melodies with the family. Kofman later recognizes one in Mahler symphony.

The father is gentle, wise, capable. The mother is another story. Most of the book is about her, and her substitute. From that day n July when so many were disappeared, life got harder for the remaining Jews of Paris. Kofman describes wearing the star, suffering abuse at school, living in increasing fear. Her mother tries to save her six children. (Interestingly, Kofman tells us almost nothing about her siblings.) Each is given another, Gentile name. Together they are sent to the countryside. But Kofman makes trouble. She loves her new school—her love for her teachers before and after the war is a repeated theme in the book—but hates everything else. She won’t eat pork, she cries for her mother. Her eldest sister writes home to say that Kofman can’t stay, she’ll give them all away. Her mother tries to hide her in other places, both outside and inside Paris. Kofman always cries, and her mother always has to take her back. One day in February mother and daughter receive word that they must leave their apartment immediately; the police will be coming that night. Desperate, Kofman’s mother visits “the lady on Rue Labat,” a former neighbour with whom she had become friendly, largely over the woman’s affection for Kofman and her siblings.

Rue Labat is two metro stops from Rue Ordener. Kofman vomits repeatedly on the way there. In fact, she vomits over and over again in these memories. The restrictions on eating in Leviticus, the laws of kashrut, symbolize Kofman’s refusal to incorporate otherness, to accommodate to situations beyond that of the family. This bodily instability is a sign of Kofman’s resistance, a refusal to compromise her identity. It is also dangerous, the result of an intransigence and recklessness to herself and to others, even or especially those who want to help her, who are in fact risking their lives for her. And of course it is also, perhaps primarily a sign of her conflict with her mother, which intensifies over time.

As a child Kofman had been so attached to her mother that she could hardly bear to part from her for even a short time. Now, hidden in the apartment in Rue Labat, devouring the books she finds there, eventually eating the foods the lady is convinced she needs for her health, Kofman repudiates her mother and becomes attached to this other maternal figure, who she calls “Mémé.” Mémé saves Kofman from deportation, but that doesn’t mean she particularly likes Jews. She disparages Kofman’s Jewish nose, for example. Under her care, Kofman forgets her Yiddish (the language she spoke with her mother).

The liberation comes. Unlike many wartime memoirs, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat doesn’t end here. One of the things I like about the book is that the war is really the least of it, here. Which isn’t to say that the events depicted here are simply universal psychological dramas. Here is a Holocaust memoir in which the Holocaust as we usually consider it barely figures. Without the heavy-handed language of “second generation” or “postmemory” created at around the same time by critics like Marianne Hirsch, Kofman tells a story of the psychological ambivalences of assimilation in which the war is necessary but not sufficient.

Kofman’s mother takes her back to live with her. Kofman doesn’t want to, she wants to be with Mémé. She runs away to her repeatedly. Hard to imagine Kofman’s mother’s frustration and despair; Kofman doesn’t try to. Instead she lists the mother’s responses: beating the child, negotiating desperately with her: she can have one hour a day with Mémé. Nothing works, the child always wants the surrogate. Eventually the mother takes the other woman to court. But the court sides with Mémé. The mother hires two strong men who lay in wait for the child and steal her back. But some time later, the mother must go to the country for an extended time to collect her other children. Remarkably, she entrusts Kofman to Mémé. The back and forth between the women continues for some time. In a brief moment of theoretical reflection, Kofman refers to Melanie Klein to explain the situation, using Klein’s distinction between the good and bad breast to speak of her experience of these two mothers. (The breasts are just a metonymy: the “good” one is bounteous, plentiful, always ready whenever the child needs anything; the “bad” one is unavailing, desiccated, not there when the child wants it. The child—an infant—has no sense yet that the mother is an independent person. Some people never learn this, to their peril.) But in the Kleinian narrative of development, the child must learn that the good breast and the bad breast, the good mother and the bad mother, are the same; in other words, the child must learn how to handle ambivalence. (The one you love can—and will—be the one you hate.) It’s unclear whether Kofman does, though she eventually exits the orbit of both women, once again through books and education, the things that had most sustained her during the war.

We sense, more than see, because the end of the book is particularly fragmentary, that Kofman comes to dislike both women. The enigmatic, almost perfunctory last lines are:

I was unable to attend her funeral. But I know that at her grave the priest recalled how she had saved a little girl during the war.

How ironically should we understand this? Does it matter that Kofman killed herself the year after writing them?

 

In her otherwise admirable introduction, Ann Smock says something you would never expect from a translator. Contrasting this autobiographical writing with Kofman’s other, philosophical works she says: “That splendid mask of feminine brilliance is not apparent at all in Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, which, I would say, does without literary qualities,” adding that “It is simple, but it does not have a simple style or any style.” Surely Smock of all people—trained in the French intellectual tradition of Barthes & Blanchot—doesn’t imagine that there could be such a thing as writing without style. The style is unadorned, definitely, and the book is not obviously patterned. But its qualities are certainly literary. The sense that there is so much more at work here than its author can understand is one of its chief attractions.

The more I think about Rue Ordener, Rue Labat the more I think it would pair interestingly with Sebald’s Austerlitz. Maybe I will teach it after all.