Beyond Night: A Holocaust Remembrance Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter (2017)

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

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

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

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

2018 Year in Reading

At first, I thought my 2018 reading was good but not great. But then I looked over my list and I kept remembering books that had left an impression. Maybe not a lot of books for all time, but plenty of high-quality stuff.

I read 126 books in 2019 (and abandoned a lot of others). Of these, 67 were by women and 59 by men; 99 were originally written in English and 27 in translation. 17 were audio books; 14 were re-reads.

Some highlights:

Kapka Kassabova, Border. A book I keep coming back to, and if it weren’t for a certain gargantuan novel (more below) this would be my book of the year. Border, as I wrote for #BulgarianLitMonth, is “about the periphery, places where resistance to centralized authority often succeeds, though usually at the cost of poverty and marginalization.” Kassabova’s journeys through Thrace (the intersection of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) is filled with indelible portraits; it is the rare travelogue that is more about the people the writer meets than the writer herself.

Phillip Marsden, The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. Back in June I described this book as “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.”

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13. I think about this book all the time, even though I listened to the (gorgeous) audio book way back in March. A novel about the passing of time as marked by the rhythms of the natural world. I’m considering adding it to my Experimental British Fiction class for its brilliant use of passive voice (except the last thing that class needs is another book by a white guy).

Laura Lippman, Sunburn. Brilliant noir that subverts the genre’s misogyny. (I think it’s a response to Double Indemnity.) At one point I made a few notes for an essay, abandoned for now, about what life was like before the Internet, when serendipity seemed to structure what we knew, and many things were hard to know. This book is set in the 90s, not just for the backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings, which it uses to good effect, but because not knowing, or barely knowing, or needing to find someone who knows what you need to know is central to the plot.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Michael Hofman’s translation is a triumph (his afterword is fascinating); he makes Döblin’s collage of idioms and styles live for English-language readers. Not a book to love, for me at least, but certainly one to admire. Even more fun than writing about it was reading what Nat had to say.

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina & Liana Finck, Passing for Human. My two favourite comics in a year of good ones. (Honourable mention to Jason Lutes, for his satisfying conclusion to the Berlin trilogy). At first glance, these books have nothing in common, but they’re both dark and troubling, and they use the form in such interesting ways. I wrote about Sabrina here. You’ll hear more from me about Finck.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk. Even though this book felt a bit misshapen and truncated (it was her last and I’m sure her health was bad as she was completing it), it’s stayed with me much more than I expected. I wrote a bit about it here. I’ll read more Dunmore this year, starting with The Siege. If you have other favourites, let me know.

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage & Crooked Heart—One of this year’s many blogging regrets is that I never made time to write about these two novels. I read Old Baggage (2018) on the recommendation of various Twitter friends, and then tracked down Crooked Heart (2014) at my local library. This reverse order turned out just fine, as Baggage is a prequel to Crooked; knowing what has happened to get the child protagonist to the situation he’s in at the beginning of Crooked makes the earlier book even more poignant. If you’re allergic to poignancy, though, don’t worry. Evans is funny (in real life, too—follow her on Twitter) and anything but sanctimonious or sentimental. Which could have been a real risk: each of these books, set in England during the 1920s-40s, describes a boy’s relationship with two older women, ersatz parents. Even though each is in her own way a social misfit, the women have a lot to teach the child, whether it’s how to make a speech or how to pull a con. I loved both books, but preferred Baggage because the child plays second fiddle to the indelible Mattie Simpkin, a former Suffragette leader who, in her declining years, challenges herself to galvanize a generation of young women who are taking for granted the gains made by their elders. (As far as they’re concerned, Mattie and her ilk are just “old baggage.”) What happens, Evans asks, when the movement you’ve devoted your life to fades away? As great as Mattie is, she’s not even the best character: that would be her friend and sometime amanuensis, nicknamed The Flea, so kind, so loving, so long-suffering, so surprising. Old Baggage is a quick read, but it’s packed with things to think about and enjoy. You’ll have to get it from the UK but it’s worth it.

Jessie Greengrass, Sight. Smart novel/essay about the pleasures and pains of making the invisible visible.

Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy. Scott and I wrote about these wonderful books. Maybe not quite as amazing as their predecessors, The Balkan Trilogy, but there’s one scene in the first volume that is such a stunner.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter. I hate almost all contemporary novels about the Holocaust. But Seiffert won me over, partly by emphasizing the Shoah by bullets (the murderous movement of the SS Einsatzgruppen across the Soviet Union in 1941-2), partly by focusing on victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike, and complicating those seemingly separate categories, and partly by her thoughtfulness about the relationship between assimilation and survival. I even forgave the book for being written mostly in first person, a pet peeve of mine. (Long live the past perfect, I say.) I also read her first book, The Dark Room, also about the war years: also good, though not as light on its feet as Boy.

Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance. Seventies books are the best books.

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, translated by Shaun Whiteside. This book is a wonder, so still and careful and joyous. It’s about a woman who survives some sort of apocalypse that leaves her trapped in a lovely, though also punishing alpine valley, with only various animals for companionship. I reveled in the details of the narrator’s survival and the suggestion that it might take a complete rupture for women to find their place in the world. John Self says the rest of Haushofer’s (small) body of work is good, too.

Émile Zola—Some of the year’s greatest reading moments came from the project Keith and I launched to make our way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle. We read three novels this year (at this rate, our kids are going to be in college before we’re done) and it was such a pleasure thinking about them with him. The Fortune of the Rougons was tough sledding, but The Belly of Paris and The Kill were great. I’m obsessed with Zola’s use of description, and how that tendency threatens to derail the aims of the naturalist project (if we in fact take those aims seriously; Tom cautioned me not to) and even the idea of narrative itself. We’re committed to continuing with Zola in 2019—maybe I can get my act in gear to read and write a little faster.

And my reading experience of the year: Jonathan Littel, The Kindly Ones, translated (heroically) by Charlotte Mandell.

I’m sad I never made time to write about this, the longest (900+ pages) book I read in 2018. I read 20-50 pages each day in June, and as soon as I finished we left on our long Canada vacation and the moment for writing about it passed. But I have thoughts! This extraordinary novel of the Holocaust is narrated by Maximilian Aue, an SS officer who experiences most of the significant moments of the war and the Final Solution: he’s in Paris in the summer of 1940, and at Stalingrad two years later. He’s with the Einsatzgruppen as they extinguish Jewish life in the Ukraine (including a horrifying set piece describing the events at Babi Yar), he’s in the Caucasus, he’s in Vichy France, he’s in Pomerania as the Red Army overruns the Germans. It’s amazing how Littel makes Aue’s peregrinations seem plausible rather than a Forest Gump-like gimmick. Early on, I found the novel so grim and distasteful that I could only read 20 pages at a time—I asked Mandell, always so gracious on Twitter, how she could stand to translate it, and she told me it was hard, and even worse when she started to dreamed about it. Aue is not a nice man, but he’s smart and erudite and a compelling storyteller. He’s so much more reasonable, though I shudder to put it this way, in his extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables than most of the men he works with, and he has the decency to make himself sick over what he’s done that occasionally we forget what the hell is really going on and even look on him kindly. Quite a trick how Littel pulls us towards accepting or at least understanding the intellectual underpinnings of fascism while never letting us forget what a failure it would be to really be seduced. There’s an utterly engrossing lengthy section in which Aue and various other officials discuss whether the Mountain Jews of the Caucuses (descendants of Persian Jews) are racially or “only” ritually Jewish; that is, whether they ought to be exterminated or not. The cold-bloodedness and ethnographic hairsplitting of the conversation offer a powerful example of how men can set notions of decency or morality aside.

The Kindly Ones is ultimately a flawed book: alongside the political/ideological explanations, Littel gives Aue another motivation for his actions—his incestuous love for his sister. (This is the strand that references the Orestia, the last volume of which gives the novel its name.) Littel never reconciles these political and personal strands, so that in the end all of his work at showing the all-too-human motivations for genocide is undone by the psychopathic aspects of this second strand. But the accomplishment here is tremendous. I don’t know if anyone less obsessed with the Holocaust than me could ever enjoy—well, let’s say value—such a book, but I was very taken with it, especially because the book wanted me to feel gross about feeling that way.

Some bests and worsts:

Best new (to me) series: Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J. K. Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike & Robin Ellacott books. A little bloated, but Galbraith knows how to tell a story. From the classic meet cute in the first pages of the first volume, Galbraith pushes my buttons and I don’t care. The plots are genuinely suspenseful, and the “will they/won’t they” storyline between the private detective and his temp-become-full-fledged assistant is catnip. I recommend the audio books.

Best Holocaust texts: Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (beautiful essay on some photographs the author took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau); Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (the story of how Applebaum survived the war is incredible, as is the cognitive dissonance between that text and her postwar memoir, also included in this volume); Nechama Tec, Dry Tears (I will be writing about this memoir soon).

Best book by Dorothy B. Hughes: I read four Hughes novels this year. The Expendable Man, her last, was my favourite, and I think it’s a genuinely great book because it implicates readers in its cultural criticism. I enjoyed the more famous In a Lonely Place, but I preferred the first half of the earlier The Blackbirder. Hughes isn’t a conventional suspense writer: plot isn’t her strength. What she’s brilliant at is describing how people deal with threats they know about but can’t escape. That skill is evident from the first page of The So Blue Marble, her first and mostly utterly preposterous novel. Even though Hughes’s protagonists aren’t always women, she writes from a position women know only too well: being victimized not by some unknown person, but by someone close to them—someone the rest of the world is slow to suspect. This accounts for the atmosphere of desperation and fear that characterizes her work. I’ll hunt down more Hughes in 2019.

Best essay about prison libraries hiding inside what pretends to be a crime novel: George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown.

Best crime discovery (I): Anthony Horowitz, who I’ve in fact been enjoying for years as a longtime fan of (a.k.a. total suck for) Foyle’s War. The Word is Murder is pure genius: Horowitz puts himself in the story, uses the oldest odd-couple idea in the book, and still makes it work. Clever and fun. Afterwards, I read the earlier Magpie Murders, similarly clever and fun, though not quite as genius as Murder, which, I am delighted to see, looks like it will become a series.

Best crime discovery (II): Lou Berney, who lives just down Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City and isn’t afraid to write about it. The Long and Faraway Gone was good, but November Road is great, and I say that as someone allergic to anything to do with the Kennedy assassination.

Book I had to stay up all night to finish: Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves. Indigenous Canadian dystopian YA—will follow her career with interest.

Best thriller—Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights, by a mile. His first, The Night of Wenceslas, is weaker, but the guy can write a chase scene.

Best SF-alternate history-who knows what genre this is and who cares: Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land. Tidhar hasn’t always been to my taste, but he’s always worth thinking with, and here he delivers a compelling story that imagines a Jewish homeland in Africa. (Modelled of course on one of the many such plans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) A thoughtful book about borders, as sad as any book about that topic must be, and as such relevant to everyone.

Most vexing: P. G. Wodehouse, Thank you, Jeeves. It is delightful! But can it be delightful with a minstrelsy sub-plot?

Interesting, but I don’t quite get the fuss: Oyinkan Brathwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer; Anna Kavan, Ice. I wrote about my struggle to teach the latter.

Books I liked at the time but have sunk without a trace: Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a good dog book and a book about a good dog. As I recall, it seems to be suggesting autofiction is intrinsically good at portraying grief, which is interesting. But although I enjoyed it a lot at the time, I never think of it now. I should be the target audience for Maybe Esther (Trans. Shelley Frisch), Katya Petrowskaya’s investigation into and speculation about the fate of her family in the Ukraine during WWII. And it really has its moments (there’s a great bit near the beginning about a ficus plant). But somehow it didn’t add up for me. I might like it a lot more on a re-read—do you ever feel that way about a book?

Disappointments: Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (not terrible, and on the face of it the sort of thing I like best—Gothic country house, unreliable narrator—but underwhelming; maybe Our Endless Numbered Days was a one-off?); Ian Reid, Foe (fair bit of buzz about this quasi-SF, quasi-philosophical novel concerning humans and replicants, but I didn’t think it was as smart as it seemed to think it was).

Lousy: Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny (histrionic); Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (overwrought); Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow Killer (losing his way, I fear).

Reliable pleasures: Tana French (Witch Elm deserves a better fate: it’s typically gorgeous and tricksy, but for the first time French concentrates on an individual rather than a relationship; I’ve read some grumbling about it, and I don’t get it); Jeanne Birdsall (Penderwicks 4eva!); John Harvey (the new book is his last and it is very sad); Ellis Peters (check out Levi Stahl’s lovely piece); Ian Rankin (came back to Rebus after many years away, and am catching up—sometimes the writing is bad, but he’s good at weaving subplots, and at knowing when a book is long enough); Phillip Kerr (making my way through the Bernie Guenther’s and they’re evocative, suspenseful, and damn funny: hard to pull off).

*

My big regret for 2018 is that I wrote almost nothing for publication. I was tired after a few very busy years. And I was scared to pitch new venues after some of the journals I’d been most associated with folded in 2017. I’m aiming to write more in 2019. Here on the blog, I would love to write more frequently and less longwindedly, but I’m coming to realize that over-long, close-reading analyses are what I do best (or what I do, anyway). I’m going to try something new, though, as a way to say a little something about more of the books I read: at the end of each month, I’ll write a round-up post, something like Elisa Gabbert’s magnificent year-end piece. I don’t have her lightness or ease, but I think it will be an exciting challenge.

As always, I’ve loved reading and writing with friends this past year. For the first time I even included a post about a book I’ve never even read (thanks, Nat!). I’d love to have more contributions from other readers and writers. If you want to suggest something to read with me, just let me know. And if you just want a place to share your thoughts about a book, say the word. I do have one concrete suggestion: join me and others to read a long Danish novel about canals and Jews! And I know I will be avidly reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad when it comes out this summer. And I will make it back to Anniversaries, I promise. Other than that, I’ll probably keep reading as waywardly and haphazardly as always. Although a hedgehog in personality, I am a fox when it comes to reading.

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting in 2018—I hope you’ll stick around for more in 2019. After all, the blog is turning 5 next month! And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015, 2016 & 2017.

 

Short Fiction 2015 Week 5: Rachel Seiffert

Earlier posts can be found here, here, here, and here:

Week 5 was another short week because I was observing Yom Kippur on Wednesday. I warned the class that their string of Jewish holidays had run its course and we’d resume meeting for our allotted three times a week. (Actually it’s now the harvest festival of Sukkot, in some ways an even more important holiday than the High Holidays, but I’m not cancelling class for it.)

We discussed two very good stories this week: Malamud’s heartbreaking “The Lady of the Lake” on Monday and Rachel Seiffert’s “Field Study” on Friday.

Since we’ll be returning to Malamud later in the semester, I’ll concentrate here on “Field Study.” I can’t remember how I came across this story. I think it was when, newly hired at Hendrix, I was preparing a course on contemporary British Fiction. (I taught that class a couple of times but gave it up. Too dispiriting to find that books I’d really liked didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of teaching.) Seiffert was listed in the 2003 version of the Granta Best Young British Writers. Born in Australia, she grew up in England and lived for a while in Germany. Her first novel is about fascism in Germany and meant to be quite good. She has a few other novels now, too, though my sense is she’s fallen off the radar a bit. The only thing of hers I’ve read is the collection to which “Field Study” gives its name (2004). From the first I liked this story, drawn to it in some way I couldn’t explain. And now I’ve taught it probably four or five times, and it’s always a winner, by which I mean both the students and I like it.

“Field Study” came through for me yet again, even though this group continues to be reticent; it’s always just the right side of pulling teeth with them. There was a point about a third of the way through the class period when I thought, Jesus, it’s like I’m just doing this for myself, good thing I like the damn story, but then something broke, some resistance melted, and I felt good will and, more importantly, that hard to define but highly desirable sensation of things falling into place, light bulbs going off, you name the cliché.

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“Field Study” is about Martin, a graduate student researching water pollution in a country next to his own. As he methodically takes samples from a river, he sees a young woman and her eleven-year-old son bathing. Later at the restaurant in his guesthouse, he recognizes the woman as his waitress. Her son is doing his homework at the bar. He strikes up a friendship with them, the boy, Jacek, translating between Martin and the mother, Ewa. The next day the boy comes to the river to help with the samples. The initial results show high levels of a dangerous chemical. Martin warns the pair not to swim in the river anymore. On the last night of the field study, Ewa invites Martin for dinner. Jacek translates until the wine loosens Martin and Ewa’s tongues; it gets late; the boy falls asleep at the table. Martin leans forward to kiss Ewa, but she says no, apologizes, covers her mouth and laughs. The next morning, as he is packing up, the final results come in from the lab back home. The new data contradicts the old. The chemical’s concentration is normal. Martin thinks about telling Ewa and Jacek it’s ok to swim again, but then he doesn’t. The road home follows the river; soon he is at the border. “His chest it tight with shame, but the border guard is waving him through now, and he is driving on again.”

I started by asking the class: What’s a field study? That was easy: It’s a way of researching where you collect data outside the lab and where the subjects are in their natural habitat. Why then is this story called “Field Study”? The guy is on a field study. And what is the guy studying? Pollution. Levels of a chemical that builds up in the human body and causes mortality. Right, I said. What else is Martin studying? A slight pause, but not too long. He’s studying another culture.

Good, I said. What is that culture? In other words, where is this story taking place? Pause. Then: Russia. How do you know that? The names. They’re like Russian. Also, there used to be Communism there. Not bad, I said. The names sound Slavic, don’t they? And the Communism is important. We’ll come back to that. Then I added: What do we know about Martin’s country? There’s a university there. Okay, what else? Silence. What about its geography, I prompted. It’s on a river. What river? The same river he’s studying. Okay, so Martin’s country is next door to Ewa and Jacek’s. That’s important, I said, because the story is very interested in the ideas of connection and interdependence. The factory that produces the chemical as a byproduct and flushes it into the water is in Ewa and Jackek’s country, but the river runs into Martin’s. We know Martin’s university has lots of sophisticated equipment. It seems prestigious, wealthy. What’s a big, prestigious country in Central Europe? (Here I was really leading them along, not especially jolly work or good form, but I had somewhere I wanted to go with all of this.) Germany, said a rising, tentative voice. Right. So if Martin’s from Germany, and the country with Slavic names is right next to it, Ewa and Jacek could be from the Czech Republic or, more likely, Poland.

But then why doesn’t Seiffert ever name these countries? It would be easy to do. Why make it at once fairly obvious and yet still obscure?

Now there was a longer pause. Finally one student—one of those smart but careless students that are for me the hardest kind to teach—said something like: The place doesn’t matter, it could be any place. I’d anticipated this response—“it makes it more universal” being a favourite of undergraduates everywhere—but I found it as unsatisfying here as I usually do. But if that’s true, I said, then why do we learn about post-Communist life, the difficult transition to capitalism exemplified by the “cartons of cigarettes and cake mix piled high along one wall” in the entrance to Ewa’s building. (Jacek explains the landlord gives them a break on the rent in exchange for letting him store goods that have presumably come from further west: “Every week is something new coming for him to sell.” Why the names pointing to a particular geographic and linguistic region, if not an exact place?

The story’s reticence, I suggested, is part of its exploration of cross-cultural communication. Borders in this story are at once porous, meaningless (they can’t stop pollution) and impermeable, effective. Jacek tells Martin about his Tata, who is in Martin’s country: “He is illegal. Too much problems at the border, so he don’t come home.” The father never appears in the story, but his effects are felt, both in the Jacek’s physiognomy (studying him, Martin realizes he doesn’t look much like his mother) and in Ewa’s memory (presumably he’s one of the reasons she rejects his overture). As the scenes of refugees from Syria and Iraq playing out on the news each day remind us only too vividly, borders are meaningless or artificial only for the privileged. For others, they are all-too powerful, able, for example, to separate families.

It’s a luxury to be waved through borders, as Martin is in the story’s final sentence. And in the end it suits Martin rather well that the border effectively shuts out Ewa and Jacek (who is learning Martin’s language as a way to better himself, and presumably become someone like Martin). That sentiment fits with Martin’s other attempts to seal himself off from the world, as in his insistence on wearing hip waders and rubber gloves while collecting samples and in his predilection for voyeurism. When Ewa and Jacek first come to the river, he keeps himself hidden, even abandoning the protocols of the study, which say he should take a sample every hundred meters, so that he can give them a wide berth. Of course, he can’t avoid them, on the contrary, he runs into them at every turn, until eventually he wants to encounter them—until he doesn’t.

Halt_hier_grenze

But Martin’s wish to keep himself apart—to be only the perceiving eye, an image for the idea of scientific detachment—is continually foiled. (We looked at a scene in which Martin takes a day off from collecting samples to organize data; he is calling his lab from a phone booth when a distraught Jacek finds him and presses his face to the glass.) The difficulty of sealing oneself off from the world fits with the idea that borders don’t matter. But the motif of watching in this story isn’t simply directed outwards, at others. It’s also directed inwards, at the self.

Here I returned to the question of what Martin is studying. To the list of pollution and a foreign culture we had to add Martin himself. The story is full of examples of second-order awareness on Martin’s part. Here he is, catching himself staring at Ewa in the bar: “He looks away. Sees his tall reflection in the mirror behind the bar. One hand, left, no right, moving up to cover his large forehead, sunburned, and red hair.” Or here he is packaging up samples after the first results have come in: “His fingers start to itch…. He knows this is psychosomatic, that he has always been careful to wear protection, doesn’t even think that poisoning with this metal is likely to produce such a reaction.” No matter how objective Martin tries to be—reminding himself that what he sees as his left is really his right—no matter how clinically he diagnoses his own reactions, he can’t overcome his body or his emotions. Awareness doesn’t stop feeling. Martin is often flushing and blushing, lowering his eyes, feeling the tightness of shame well up in his chest.

Seiffert doesn’t believe in the so-called objectivity of science, but her point isn’t to discredit science as cold or dehumanizing. Rather it’s to undermine the certainty of those, like Martin, who persist, against the evidence of their own bodies, to believe in that objectivity. The story pursues this criticism through its use of the motif of measuring and observing. (One of the first things we learn about Martin is that he “has a camera, notebooks, and vials.”) These activities seem neutral, the “mere” description of the world. But as Martin’s data suggests, measuring tells contradictory stories. It can also be influenced by confirmation bias, as when Martin, knowing Ewa and Jacek swim regularly in the river, thinks they look healthy enough, but “perhaps a little underweight.” Even a seemingly healthy person, he adds, can carry malignancy hidden inside, the toxins imperturbably doing their sinister work: “nothing for a decade or two, then suddenly tumors and shortness of breath in middle age.”

This criticism of what we can call a scientific world-view so long as we agree that this is a naïve definition of science might make us wonder about how we’re supposed to feel about Martin. In the last part of class, students considered their feelings about him. Why doesn’t he tell Ewa about the new, inconclusive results? Why, when he remembers the expression of sadness on her face at the river, later explained when Jacek says his mother often used to go there with his father, is Martin “shocked at the satisfaction the memory gives him”? Is it, as some students suggested, simply that he’s angry with her for “shutting him down”? (Students tittered a little the first time one of them used this expression; they repeated it as often as they could.) Is he revenging himself on her, and by extension on her country? Is this why he feels shame for at the end? Would that shame be a sign of remorse? If so, would that make us feel better about him? And what, at the climactic moment in the apartment, does Ewa laugh about? Is she laughing at him? If so, would that legitimate his otherwise petulant revenge? Or is she laughing with him, at the absurdity or bittersweet piquancy of the situation? (The story sympathizes strongly with Ewa, making a joke of the possibility that she could be a temptress: she sends Jacek to Martin with a present of apples.)

I left the students with one last thing to think about, pointing out five examples of the story’s most characteristic stylistic quirk. Here’s one of them; it’s the story’s first sentence: “Summer and the third day of Martin’s field study.” Students correctly noted that the examples were all sentence fragments. (Interestingly, they didn’t note the present tense narration, which was fine with me; we’ll study that soon enough with Nathan Englander’s story “The Wig.”) Often these fragments are quite obstreperous, separated from the previous sentence by a period when they could easily, and more correctly, have been added to it with a comma. Sometimes they are disorienting, as in this description of the boy’s shoes when he mother carries him piggyback through a field: “Brushing the ears of rye as she walks, bumping at her thighs as she jogs an unsteady step or two.” These seem at first like dependent clauses, the beginning of a description of Ewa’s action, but then we realize they’re fragmentary descriptions of what the shoes are doing.

Why are there so many fragments in “Field Study”? It’s like a lab report, one student immediately said That’s how you write them, in shorthand. Direct. To the point. Indeed, I agreed. That would make the story itself a kind of field study. And its conclusions would be as provisional as Martin’s. By eliminating “to be” from so many of its sentences, the story reminds us of the very thing it is questioning: the notion of identity. I can’t decide, I told the class, as the hour came to an end and the murmuring of the calculus students waiting to come into the room grew louder, whether the fragments break up the text or actually, paradoxically, only tie it together more cohesively, by reminding us of what they separate. This consideration of connection and disconnection returned us one last time to the idea of borders and separations, communication and miscommunication. The story can’t seem to decide which of these opposed terms is more powerful. But it’s much more at ease with that uncertainty than its protagonist.

There was more to say—there always is—but it was time to stop. So I will too. Next week: Kay Boyle, Elizabeth Bowen, Nathan Englander.