“Peddle your philanthropic bullshit to someone else”: Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation

As Hannah Arendt tells it, Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem for his role in organizing the Final Solution, was given a copy of Lolita by one of his jailers. The gift did not go over well. Two days later, Eichmann, “visibly indignant,” returned it, unfinished. His verdict? “‘Quite an unwholesome book’—‘ Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch.”

I’m baffled by this story. What motivated the Israeli official? Was he making a joke? Setting a test? Teaching a lesson? (Lolita is framed as a jailhouse confession, after all.) Why did Eichmann reject the book? Did he take Humbert Humbert’s tale at face value—that is, did he fail to see the book’s critique of pedophilia? Or on the contrary did he see his own evasions in the narrator’s? Was he rejecting the joke, test or lesson? Above all, why “unwholesome”? (Unerfreulich can also mean unpleasant.)

Arendt offers no explanation for her inclusion of the anecdote. (It’s literally a parenthesis.) But she places it in a discussion of what she calls Eichmann’s aphasia—his inability to wield language without resorting to cliché. The man himself apologized for his inarticulateness to the court, saying that his only language was Amtsprache, bureaucratese. According to Arendt, anyway, Eichmann had no critical faculties. He saw the world through ready-made phrases and shopworn ideas. No wonder wholesomeness was his recourse. He knew what he liked because he liked what he knew.

But maybe in this case he was on to something. Lolita is disreputable. It relishes that designation, of course, asking us to decide what we mean when we reject something as immoral. The point of that challenge isn’t to expand what counts as acceptable behavior but to make us realize how easily we accept, even condone abuse. The novel’s glittering language—the fancy prose style Humbert warns us about in its first pages—only exacerbates the sordidness of its subject matter, so that even our pity and horror for what happens to twelve-year-old Dolores Haze comes to seem tainted by having to be earned from reading against the grain.

I thought about Eichmann and Lolita as I wondered how to respond to Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation (1979), certainly the most unpleasant and maybe the most unwholesome book I’ve read in a long time.

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It’s all the publisher’s fault. When I read the promotional copy—which also appears on the dust jacket—describing Deviation as “a seminal work in Holocaust literature” I was immediately intrigued. (“Seminal” should have tipped me off—I thought we retired that word.) I even managed to convince Scott—who knows Italian literature much better than I do—to read it with me. (Sorry, Scott!)

But Deviation is not about the Holocaust. About fascism, yes, about forced labour camps, definitely, about the relationship between industry and Nazi expansionism, quite interestingly, and about moral equivocation most definitely. But not about the Holocaust, and to suggest this is, frankly, disgusting and disrespectful.

The publisher’s bait and switch has certainly coloured my view of the book, but even without that aggravation I think I’d be hard-pressed to know what to make of Deviation. I’ll let D’Eramo—in the guise of her narrator, basically a version of D’Eramo herself—explain what the book is about. Lucia, like her author born and partially raised in France before returning to Italy as a teenager, is an ardent Fascist. With the establishment of the Republic of Salò in September 1943 and the rise of partisan resistance to fascism, believers like Lucia were left “feeling as though their earlier ideals were crimes” (they were!). Eighteen-year-old Lucia comes to a decision:

I realized that the only way to learn the truth for myself about Fascists and anti-Fascists—many said that they could no longer figure it out [note the resemblance to Trump’s pet expression “People are saying”]—was to ascertain it firsthand. Understanding this, I had to go to the places about which the most outrageous stories were told: the Nazi concentration camps. That’s why I ran away from home on February 8, 1944, and went to Germany as a simple volunteer worker, with pictures of Mussolini and Hitler in my backpack, sure about what I was doing. But after spending a few months in a labor camp near Frankfurt am Main, my comrades organized a strike at the factory, the IG Farben, where I worked in the Ch 89, the chemical division. As a result, I was jailed, then later transferred and detained in Dachau. In order to survive, I escaped from there in October, and for a couple of months I remained hidden in Munich. Then I left, following the death of the friends who were helping me … I headed back to my first Lager [the IG Farben camp at Frankfurt-Höchst], travelling partway by train without a ticket, crouched in the toilets of the cars, partway on foot, spending the night in bomb shelters, in abandoned cattle cars, in foreigners’ barracks … in mid-February [1945] I arrived in Mainz.

Basically, the book is about Lucia’s attempt to come to terms with the evasions and lies in this story. What she first tells us is that on December 4, 1945 she finally returned to Italy, and did so as a paraplegic, her legs having been paralyzed when a wall fell on her as she was helping to dig survivors out of the rubble of a bombed-out building. But this first return was in fact her second.

It’s true, Lucia was involved in the brief and ultimately unsuccessful strike led by both volunteer and forced labourers at the IG Farben camp. And it’s also true that she was arrested. But after a failed suicide attempt—she took rat poison, and only survived because she took too much too quickly, and vomited it up: a nice metaphor for her life, where excess always turns in her favour—she was repatriated by the Italian consul and sent back to Italy.

As far as Lucia is concerned, the only good thing about this outrageous bit of good fortune is that her father, a bigshot in Fascist Italy whom she hates, had nothing to do with it. In fact, he refused to pull any strings for her. But in Verona, waiting for the train that will take her to Como, and home, she rebels. (That’s not the right word. She does something remarkably stupid.) She throws away her papers and arranges to get arrested by some SS men taking a convoy of political prisoners to the station. In this way, she is sent to Dachau, from which she eventually escapes after she volunteers to be part of the shit commando—a work detail sent around Munich to unclog sewage pipes (there are some memorable descriptions of this work in the book’s first pages). When the work detail is caught in an air raid, she slips off into the pandemonium, eventually ending up at a makeshift transit camp for displaced foreigners located in an old brewery. And from there she makes her way, in the manner described in the long quote above, to IG Farben and later to Mainz, where she has her accident.

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The novel—it’s really autofiction avant la lettre—was written over a period of about 25 years, and its distinct sections are dated to show us this progress. D’Eramo usually tells the story in first person, but sometimes switches to third person, suggesting, as translator Anne Milano Appel suggests in her introduction, how foreign to D’Eramo that person now seems to her. (I’m using author and narrator interchangeably in a way I normally never would, but D’Eramo invites the equivalence.)

In the second half of the book, D’Eramo asks why she repressed the memory of returning voluntarily to Germany. But what she presents as an attempt at self-understanding reads as delusory exculpation. Even her big theory about Nazism and its camp system (she regularly distinguishes between Fascism, by which she means Italian Fascism, and Nazism; this distinction is her most interesting idea) fails to make us think better of her. In D’Eramo’s view, the camp system was a form of class warfare, in which only the working classes were made to suffer. Her evidence is that she never met any rich people in her various forms of voluntary incarceration. (Leading her to offer an anti-Semitic canard about Jewish wealth: “The big financiers, the truly wealthy were sheltered abroad.” Bollocks.)

Here and indeed everywhere in the book, D’Eramo comes across as a terrible person, describing “defenseless masses [that] huddle like sheep,” remembering concentration camp inmates as “a swarm of horrible, wonderful insects” (what the hell is “wonderful” translating here?), and criticizing an old woman’s desperate grief at the realization of her impending death as “a kind of greediness that was more irritating than moving.”  She is revolted by the coarseness of her fellow inmates, repulsed by their way of eating, and eventually driven to exclaim, “I despise victims.”

Readers will surely agree with Martine, one of the narrator’s co-conspirators in fomenting the IG Farben strike, who sees through D’Eramo’s political awakening: “So shut your mouth and peddle your philanthropic bullshit to someone else. Why do you try to excuse yourself? You are who you are.” Specifically, she’s someone who, Martine adds, wants the privileges of being a fascist student in the camp (better food and living conditions) without any of the drawbacks (D’Eramo is hurt that others hate her so much).

The most generous reading of Deviance I can muster is that at least D’Eramo is honest enough to show herself in a bad light. But that honesty feels so self-serving. She’s proud of it, like the student who thinks that his honesty in admitting he hasn’t done the reading for class is enough for him to be excused from any consequences. After all, at least he hasn’t tried to bullshit the instructor. But the fact is he’s merely swallowed his own bullshit. So too D’Eramo, whose great struggle in life—the thing she wrestles with for decades—is the lie she tells anyone who will listen, mostly herself, that she was sent to Dachau for her part in organizing the IG Farben strike, when in fact she chose to be sent there. Finally acknowledging that lie, she seems to think, is a courageous thing to do. (Amazingly, she never refers to her real courage, which consists of living with constant pain from her injury, and refusing to use her disability as an excuse for not doing what she wants to do—having a child, writing her books, etc. Except maybe that doesn’t take courage, just determination.)

Admittedly, D’Eramo does wrestle with the hold that the concept of willpower has over her—she sees this as a legacy of her upbringing and she believes more than anything in the need to overcome the prejudices of her bourgeois milieu. Not because she regrets her commitment to fascism. Nor even because she sees the terrible ends to which a belief in willpower can be put (demonizing anyone unlucky in any way or lacking the advantages of her class position as weak and second-rate). Only, as far as I can tell, because she hates her family so much.  And even that rejection relies on the attributes of her middle-class childhood: she wills herself to overcome the idea of willpower. This is akin to the fetishization of toughness that the philosopher Theodor Adorno called one of the most damaging attributes of the fascist mindset. Even if D’Eramo regrets her past beliefs (and I’m not clear she ever does), she maintains the very attitudes that undergirded that belief.

One of the prisoners in the train taking her to Dachau, a partisan (that is, someone brave enough to resist the regime), tells her, after he finds out how D’Eramo came to be in the freight car with the rest of them, “The performance is over. You can go home.” As much as I sympathize with the man, he’s wrong. D’Eramo’s performance, aimed at much at herself as us, is never over, even when she later acknowledges her own act. Because in the end the acknowledgement is the performance.

And I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of that performance. When she calls herself “an inveterately elite worm,” should we applaud her self-awareness? When she describes how she failed in turning what she thinks could have been the most socially aware moment of her life (choosing to be sent to Dachau) into a mere moral act, adding that, even if she can be excused for what she did at the time, given her youth, her upbringing, etc., can she be excused now, are we supposed to admire the question?

No way. After all, she never gets beyond asking it. D’Eramo regularly points out her mistakes—yet she keeps making them. She offers what she knows is a false analogy between her own experience in the hospital after her accident, waiting for the paperwork to come through so she can leave Germany, to the travails of deportees in the cattle cars. But saying it’s a shitty analogy doesn’t make it less shitty.

Nor is she winning me over when, writing in the mid 1970s, she explains that she “agonized retroactively for the children of the Osten [Slavic prisoners of war, both military and civilian, mostly Russian, whom she encountered in the IG Farben camp] and Jews whom I could see clustered behind the barbed wire when I skirted the transit camps in search of shelter, and who, in my distorted memory, stared at me with the dark eyes of my son.” Thanks for nothing, lady. It’s almost as bad as the anti-Semitism and historical inaccuracy in her description of a gold necklace she continues to wear for decades after the war, which she “snatched from a body, like the Jewish Sonderkommando [the prisoners forced to operate the crematoria] did at Auschwitz.”

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Really, the only thing that didn’t make my gorge rise while reading Deviation is D’Eramo’s use of scabrous details: she tells us of men aroused in the disinfection shower; of the chest burns she suffers when she’s assigned to carry blocks of sulfuric acid in the IG Farben camp, as punishment for demanding equal food for Eastern and Western prisoners; of the aftermath of her injury, when her buttock splits open, “emitting copious putrid matter with an unbearable stench”; and of a nurse in the hospital where recovers from that injury who, receiving a letter from a man asking for money to start up a toilet paper factory, since it is sure to be in short supply in post-war Germany, uses the letter to wipe herself.

These details are the only things in this book that don’t stink. They’re gross, but honestly so. They’re not bullshit. The unwholesomeness of the book lies in D’Eramo’s mental gymnastics not her bodily suffering. Adolf Eichmann was wrong about Lolita: the unpleasantness of its events is not something readers are invited to pat themselves on the back for navigating. But his judgment wouldn’t be inappropriate for Deviation. Who do I give my copy back to?

 

“As Long as We Both Should Live”: Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (Review)

This year I read three novels by Daphne Du Maurier. They’re all terrific. The Scapegoat, which I wrote briefly about, is the best of the lot—a completely satisfying book likely to feature in my year-end list. I also enjoyed her final novel, Rule Britannia (1972), a strange and compelling little book that I suspect was greeted with bemusement or even hostility at the time but that is uncannily prescient now: England has left the EEC and is on the brink of financial ruin (sound familiar?) and is taken over by the US. A once-famous actress features prominently; she turns out to have one more great role in her. Rule Britannia is a late work, with more than a touch of The Tempest in it. A bit ramshackle, no question, no one’s going to say it’s her best, but it’s absolutely worth reading.

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Anyway, I recently spent a few pleasant evenings reading My Cousin Rachel, an earlier novel (1951) that is often reckoned as one of her best. The narrator is Philip Ashley, who at the beginning of the novel lives alone on the Cornish coast on the estate of his guardian Ambrose. Some twenty years earlier, Ambrose had taken the orphaned Philip in and raised him in his idiosyncratic fashion. But now he has left the young man, who is recently down from Oxford, to his own devices, in order to travel in Italy in search of relief from his rheumatism.

In Florence Ambrose meets a cousin of theirs, a young widow. Some months later he writes Philip to say they have married and have no plans to return to England. But the idyll doesn’t last: Ambrose’s increasingly scarce letters are filled with complaints of poor health and grievances with the Italy he had previously extolled. Eventually Philip is alarmed enough to travel to Italy himself, but he finds only a grave: Ambrose has died, his wife has closed up their villa and gone away, and no one seems to want to tell him anything. An otherwise unsatisfactory meeting with her lawyer reveals that Ambrose never changed his will: Philip remains heir to the estate.

Shortly after returning to England, Philip learns that Rachel has arrived in Cornwall for a visit, and here the novel really begins. An intricate dance between the two follows. Philip, who has learned that Ambrose believed he was being poisoned, is initially suspicious and hostile to Rachel. But Rachel is charming and his attitude to her changes so much that he eventually decides to sign over the estate to her, even to marry her. A lot happens in the last third of the book, as Du Maurier forces us to wonder whether Rachel is a murderer who has insinuated herself into an inheritance that should never have been hers or a victim of two generations of the Ashley family’s misogyny and paranoia.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I read the novel, and I’m trying to keep these posts shorter, so I encourage you to read Rohan’s review; she articulates many of my feelings about the novel clearly and elegantly.

Like her, I was ensnared by Du Maurier’s clever narration: not until late in the novel did I realize how adroitly she had controlled my responses, from my initial disparagement of Rachel, through rising frustration at what I took to be the novel’s misogyny, to my final realization that I had taken aligned myself much too closely with Philip’s perspective. For even as I struggled with the novel’s portrayal of Rachel—it seemed so vindictive towards her—I was still assuming that she was in fact up to no good, a real femme fatale. I was, in other words, far too beholden to Philip’s point of view. At the end we are left unsure less about who did what to whom but about our own complacency as readers. Philip is no obviously untrustworthy narrator—he’s no Humbert Humbert, no Stevens—but he ends up being more disturbing for that.

Every time we think we’re ahead of the book we’re made to learn the error of our thinking. Apparent deficiencies reveal themselves to be carefully constructed traps. For example, if we find ourselves frustrated by the lengthy scenes in which Philip falls for Rachel without realizing it—why is it taking him so long to figure out what’s happening to him?—we are only thinking what the novel wants us to think. We have to feel superior to the narrator so that our later realization that we’ve been blind to his delusion and violence is that much more painful and powerful.

So we get a passage like this one, typical of the novel’s play with tone:

I went indoors and up to my room, and dragging a chair beside the open window sat down in it, and looked towards the sea. My mind was empty, without thought. My body calm and still. No problems came swimming to the surface, no anxieties itched their way through from the hidden depths to ruffle the blessed peace. It was as though everything in life was now resolved, and the way before me plain. The years behind me counted for nothing. The years to come were no more than a continuation of all I now knew and held, possessing; it would be so, forever and ever, like the amen to a litany. In the future only this: Rachel and I. A man and his wife living within themselves, the house containing us, the world outside our doors passing unheeded. Day after day, night after night, as long as we both should live. That much I remembered from the prayer-book.

Ostensibly a moment of calm and happy anticipation, this passage in fact reveals the narrator to be deluded, and more than that, creepy in his unearned confidence. (Look at the way he equates his present state of knowing and holding with “possessing”: recall the title, My Cousin Rachel.) Instead of seeming relieved and at rest, the narrator is empty, almost vacuous. This is a passage not just about the surfaces it references but also about superficiality. I simply don’t buy the narrator’s description of “blessed peace.” His responses seem to be governed by the half-remembered phrases of the Anglican wedding service; he’s a kind of automaton, and so it’s fitting that a few pages later he finds himself putting his hands around her throat without a clear sense of how he got there. We can take him at his words, but what do those words actually mean? And how is it that we could have been so sympathetic to him for so long?

 

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It’s quite a trick Du Maurier pulls off here in forcing us to ask questions of this sort. (And I don’t mean that disparagingly: the trick’s magic, not dirty.) But even her masterful manipulation of our response isn’t the best part of that book. That would have to be the portrayal of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather, a woman everyone, even sometimes she herself, seems to think is destined for Philip. Louise is unexpectedly steely and resourceful. I loved that Du Maurier didn’t feel the need to pair her with Philip at the end. She suffers at his hands, but she’s no victim. I wouldn’t have minded a novel all about her.

In the end, though, as in all Du Maurier novels, as best I can tell, the real love affair isn’t with a person but with a property. No one loves anyone in this book as much as the book itself loves the estate. (Surprisingly, it is unnamed. No Manderley here. Or maybe that’s the point: we’re supposed to think of Du Maurier’s most famous novel and lay it over this one. Could this lack of definition be connected to the novel’s refusal to tell us when it is set? It’s presumably Regency, but it would have been so easy to make clear. Why didn’t Du Maurier do so?) Philip even acknowledges the power of houses—he tells Rachel soon after he meets her, “If it’s warmth and comfort a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well”—but where he is mocking the novel is serious: it loves the house and its demesne well indeed. No real estate porn here, though. Rather, a completely unsentimental belief—which, based on my limited sample size, is one that Du Maurier held dear—that places are better than the people who merely pass through them.

 

Short Fiction 2015 Week 3: Nabokov & Malamud

Labour Day made for a short week. Wednesday saw us conclude the first unit of the course on narrative event with Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful, too-little known story “The Fight” (1925). Today saw us begin a unit on character with the first of several stories we’ll be reading by Bernard Malamud, the enigmatic “The Mourners.”

Once again I’ve assigned Malamud’s third book, The Magic Barrel (1958), one of the few story collections ever to win the National Book Award. We’ll be returning to it regularly this semester. I love this collection and I was really pleased last time I taught the course that students liked it a lot too. I really wasn’t sure that would be the case. They’re very Jewish, these stories, and my students are not. That last group was much more Humanities oriented than this one seems to be, but at least reading a single author in some depth will help them as they prepare for the final essay, in which they’ll examine the formal and thematic preoccupations of an author as they are manifested in four or five stories from at least two collections.

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I spent some time at the beginning of class telling the students a little about Malamud. Normally I don’t do this, we just don’t have time, but it seemed worth doing today. The result, however, was that, after describing Malamud’s childhood in Brooklyn with parents who had escaped Tsarist Russia—real Fiddler on the Roof stuff, I said, and was shocked by the sea of blank faces: only two students had ever seen it—a childhood that was poor, the parents working long hours at a small grocery of the sort that appears so often in Malamud’s fiction, and difficult, the mother institutionalized after a failed suicide attempt (she was found by Malamud himself) and a brother similarly plagued by schizophrenia, a childhood that Malamud escaped by becoming a teacher, an occupation he continued through his marriage to a Catholic (bitterly contested by both families), a stint at a land-grant university in Oregon, and a fellowship year in Rome before landing a permanent gig teaching college writing at Bennington College in Vermont, where he painstakingly worked on his highly polished sentences, a determined, almost monastic life made famous in Philip Roth’s lightly fictionalized, and overtly hostile representation of Malamud in The Ghost Writer (1979)—after saying all this we only had about 40 minutes left to discuss the story.

Moreover, we spent so long analyzing the first sentence—“Kessler, formerly an egg candler, lived alone on social security”—that we didn’t have time to say everything I wanted to about the story. But I thought it worth lingering on that sentence for two reasons: one, I always love beginnings, and two, I think this one is quintessential Malamud. His economy is evident, as is his lack of patience with extended exposition. We considered two things in this sentence that are present at the beginning of almost all his stories: the use of last names, and the reference to occupations.

I was relieved that most students had found out what an egg candler does. (I hate it when students don’t look up words.) When I asked them what images came up in their google searches, they described various machines, devices, or contraptions that involved a light source. Not, I observed, any pictures of guys looking at eggs. This led them to conclude that egg candling must not be done by people any more. Which might mean what? Maybe that it’s boring, repetitive, the kind of thing people don’t do as well as machines. Kessler, on that reading, would be a superfluous man. That proves to be true, in a way, yet we also learn, in the next sentences of the story, that Kessler had been fired by “more than one egg and butter wholesaler” not because he was a bad worker—“he sorted and graded with speed and accuracy”—but because he was “a quarrelsome type and considered a trouble maker.” There are plenty of quarrels in the story (one reason I wanted to pair it with the Nabokov), but Malamud’s phrasing leaves open the possibility that he might not really be a troublemaker, he might just be mistaken for one, and thus perhaps not a bad guy, or as bad a guy as he seems.

At any rate, we learn here in passing something important: that the job of egg candler, which might seem dull and repetitive, actually requires discernment, even finesse (all that sorting and grading). Those qualities are important to keep in mind, since they might make us feel more kindly towards Kessler later on. For our opinion of Kessler quickly takes a nose dive, since we learn that thirty years ago he suddenly abandoned his wife and children, merely because he is “unable to stand” them—they had been, the story chillingly tells us, “always in his way.”

The distance we soon feel towards Kessler is intimated already in the use of last name, which students pointed out removed the characters from us—and from each other. Through my prompting, they noted that this story—set almost entirely in a single tenement building in which people live on top of each other—is filled with characters who hardly know each other, and don’t seem to like each other much when they do.

Kessler gets into a fight with the janitor in his building; the janitor tells the landlord, one Gruber, a big sweaty man with high blood pressure caused from his desire to wring as much money out of his run-down building as possible. Gruber gives Kessler notice, but Kessler won’t leave. Gruber has Kessler evicted, but Kessler sits in the snow on the sidewalk until his neighbours take pity and file the lock off the door and carry him back upstairs. Kessler asks Gruber plaintively, “‘What did I do, tell me? Who hurts a man without a reason? Are you a Hitler or a Jew?’” As he does, he is all the time hitting his chest with his fist, an allusion to the prayers of atonement Jews offer on Yom Kippur, the striking of the chest with the fist metaphorically suggesting how much we must take the task to heart.

The next day—after the landlord spends a restless night worrying over how to get Kessler to leave, just one of several references in the story to Melville’s marvelous “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853)—Gruber ascends the stairs of the building only to find Kessler still in the apartment. Now Gruber sees Kessler as a mourner, and indeed we learn that Kessler is thinking about what he has apparently been thinking about ever since being evicted to the sidewalk, namely, his having abandoned his family.

At the end of the story, Gruber, who has a sudden vision of falling down the stairs that are referenced so often, becomes convinced that Kessler is mourning him. The final paragraph reads:

At last he could stand it no longer. With a cry of shame he tore the sheet off Kessler’s bed, and wrapping it around his bulk, sank heavily to the floor and became a mourner.

What exactly the two are mourning, and why they mourn rather than, say, repent, is just one, though perhaps the most important, of the story’s many enigmas.

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As a way to solve those mysteries, I asked the students to free write for a couple of minutes in answer to the question: “Who does the story ask us to sympathize with?” (I later introduced the term “identification”—a fancy way of describing our tendency to model ourselves on others, which involves looking for others that we want to be like.) I thought this was a good question to ask of “The Mourners” because it has no obvious answer. I’ve often found that asking students to write for a bit half way through class leads to good results: sharper thinking, more nuanced answers. That was true this time, too, as became evident when I asked a few of them to read their responses. Most answered Kessler, one Gruber. No one, I noticed, but only to myself, there just wasn’t time, though I see now it would have been helpful to bring it up, said the old Italian woman, Kessler’s neighbour, who shrieks and shrieks when she sees Kessler on the street without pause until her grown sons carry him back up to the room. I don’t understand this moment, really, but it’s one of the only times when someone in this story cares for somebody else.

Perhaps the old woman sees her own fate in Kessler’s. After all—and I regret that I didn’t say this in class—the other piece of information in the story’s opening sentence is that Kessler lives on social security, an unremarkable fact to readers today, especially eighteen-year-olds, but more remarkable given the time of the story’s writing and its setting, which is never directly named but seems to be a few years earlier. But social security only dates to 1935, and it wasn’t offered as a regular monthly sum until 1940. This historical fact connects to the story’s interest in what it means to care—or not to care—for others. One way to understand social security is as an affirmation that we will all care for each other, even those we don’t know (by “all” I mean Americans: proving one’s bona fides as an American is an abiding concern in these stories, filled as they are with Jewish immigrants). It’s a way of generalizing responsibility. I don’t think the story disputes that social security is good, even very good, but I think it might be suggesting it’s not enough. Maybe the idea is that each of us must take responsibility for our friends, loved ones, and neighbours. Perhaps this failure is what is mourned. For the accusation Kessler levels at Gruber—“Who hurts a man without a reason?”—could be asked of Kessler himself. After all, that’s what he did to his family.

Things got rushed at the end of class, just as they are here. We didn’t have time to really grapple with these ideas of responsibility. The period didn’t feel wasted, but it didn’t feel as satisfying as I’d have liked. “The Mourners” is remarkable, though, and I urge you to read it, especially now, on the eve of the Jewish High Holidays.

I haven’t time or energy to say much about “The Fight,” the other story we read this week. It too is wonderful. Nabokov’s stories are underrated, especially the ones from his time in exile in Berlin in the 1920s. “The Fight” has an odd structure. It begins with a lengthy description on the part of the first person narrator—an émigré in Berlin, presumably someone like Nabokov himself—of the excursions he regularly makes to a lake on the outskirts of Berlin, perhaps some place like the Wannsee, which would later take on such a sinister associations because of the decision taken at a villa there in 1942 by top Nazis to exterminate European Jewry. At the period of Nabokov’s story, though, the lake is merely a place to swim and sun. The narrator regularly sees an older man there, a man with whom he can only haltingly converse, but who seems genial and pleasantly anarchic. For example, he warns other bathers of the arrival of the hated dogcatcher with a piercing whistle and a glint in his eye.

Only later does the narrator discover more about the man, when he happens to enter a bar in an unfamiliar part of the city that turns out to be owned by him. The narrator begins to drop in regularly, watching the goings on of the regulars, especially the love affair between the daughter of the man—his name, we learn only relatively late in the story, is Krause—and a young electrician. The last part of the story tells what happens one day when the weather is sultry and a storm just about to break. The electrician stops by the bar, pours himself a drink, and makes himself on his way. Krause demands that he pay; the man refuses, saying that, after all, here he is at home. Matters escalate rapidly and in a matter of a sentence or two the men are fighting with bare fists on the street, to the glee of a crowd that has gathered seemingly from nowhere. Krause knocks the electrician out. The narrator vainly, rather heartlessly, attempts to comfort the girl with a kiss. And that’s it. The story’s over.

For me, “The Fight” is a parody of the chart known to every high school student, the one that details initial exposition followed by gradually rising action that leads to a climax and then comes down to a resolution. Instead of those hoary conventions, this story asks instead: In what way does a climactic action need to be prepared for? What happens if that action isn’t resolved?

Wednesday was the first rainy day of the semester, and I knew the students would be listless. So I divided the students into groups and gave each a question I’d prepared beforehand. In lieu of any interpretation of the story—read it, it’s about five pages, and fabulously Nabokovian with its disturbing first-person narrator, you won’t be disappointed—I’ll simply list them here. I’ll take your answers in the comments below.

  1. Why is this story called “The Fight”? After all, the fight doesn’t take up much of its length. What is the fight like? What does it lead to? What is the story telling us about it?
  2. We could divide the story into three parts: pp 141-3//143-4//144-6. What do the parts have to do with each other? Why all that stuff about swimming at the beginning?
  3. What is the narrator like? What do we learn about him, even if indirectly?
  4. What does the story tell us about bodies?
  5. How does the anecdote about the dogcatcher function? What’s it doing here?
  6. How does the final paragraph affect our understanding of the story?

Another short week next week, what with Rosh Hashanah. And the demands of the semester are really tightening. But I’ll do my best to report back here again when we turn our attention to two much more recent stories.