January was a long time ago, I hardly remember it. The reading month started strong, buoyed by the carryover of a modern American classic from December. Things petered out a bit toward the end, but that’s only to be expected, given the start of the semester, which was a cluster from the get-go since we spent the first week online. (Remember when we still believed in covid?) In addition to the reading and teaching, I posted almost daily year end reading reflections from a talented group of readers and writers. Check those out if you haven’t already. Maybe I’ll still do one myself. In the meantime, here are my January reads:
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
What can I say that others haven’t? Titanic both in content and form, Invisible Man is a novel that doesn’t quite want to be a novel, or that wants to see to what limits novels can be pushed. Sometimes I admired the book more than I loved it; my literary preferences are more conservative than I might like to think. I was especially enthralled by the first third—I often like the childhood parts of books best, but this section has so many indelible scenes, especially one about a group of boys, including the unnamed narrator, who are brought to a southern town’s Whites Only Chamber of Commerce event to fight a cage match during which, stripped naked, they scramble to collect money thrown into the ring by the Pillars of the Community. From that electrifying (a word those who have read the book know I use advisedly) beginning, the narrator finds himself in the middle of the issues of the day, from his student days at an all-Black college which requires him to appease white benefactors (and the Black administrators who appease them) to his time in Harlem, where he joins The Brotherhood, an organization inspired by the ideals of Communism and challenged by white racism on the one hand and Black nationalism on the other. Throughout, the narrator remains enigmatic, refusing (or perhaps being refused, I can’t tell) the development we expect to find in a Bildungsroman.
When I said that Invisible Man was only uneasily a novel, I had in mind its essayistic elements, which are more pronounced in its second half. But as I think about it, where it chafes most against novelistic expectation is in its idea of what constitutes an event. It’s a book in which one character after another gives a speech. Whether in barroom yarns, sermons, or street preaching, Invisible Man is about rhetorical persuasion. What the novel itself wants to persuade us of is harder to say. I bet I could be more intelligent about this if I’d read Richard Wright, who Ellison seems to be arguing with throughout. (Is that right?) But one answer might be that the narrator speaks for many more Americans than just himself: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Not that there is no difference between Black and white experience, but that the former knows more than the latter, since its intelligibility must be measured through the tape of the other. But maybe that’s to make Ellison into Du Bois. Help me out here, fam.
How silly to say “a must read”—it is, tho.
I’m grateful to Jules and Anja, who read this with me and kept me on track.
Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (2019)
Brilliant sf novel—I think it’s a space opera, though I’m not really sure what that means—about the subaltern experience. Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the remote Lsel Station to the Teixcalaani Empire, arrives in the metropole to investigate the death of her predecessor, Yskandr. Like all officials from her home, Mahit has an “imago machine” implanted in her brain, containing the memories and reflections of the person who most recently held their post. But the machine malfunctions almost as soon as Mahit arrives in Teizcalaani, which means she loses the benefit of Yskandr’s insight—as well as possible clues to his death. Mahit’s investigation, which turns out to hinge on much larger political events, is exciting enough. But what makes the book so terrific is its worldbuilding. The Empire is so compellingly constructed, its system of intricate poetry so lovingly—but not boringly—detailed, its differences from Lsel so thoughtfully fleshed out. Mahit is a devotee of Teixicalaani culture; like many colonized subjects she knows it better than the colonizers themselves. Yet she can never be accepted by the Empire, she will always be a barbarian, will always feel “the dumb longing of a noncitizen to be acknowledged as a citizen,” which is to say she lives in “a state of simultaneous gratitude and fury.”
Martine is the pen-name for a scholar of medieval Byzantine and Armenian history who is also a city planner and climate activist; some people really do seem to be able to do everything. Her erudition shows on every page of A Memory Called Empire, as she folds the problem of colonial identity into a meditation on how the technology of the imago machine challenges even more fundamental aspects of identity: lifespan, individuality, memory. Exhilarating.
Ross Gay, Be Holding (2020)
I’d never minded gym class in elementary school, it was fun and low-stakes, but then came junior high. Like everything else, gym class got worse. A lot worse. I’d never been bad at sports, but now I was terrible. The kid who loved school hated PE days. The kid who loved every teacher, was confronted by a new phenomenon: coaches. They were the worst—one was suspended for walking into the girls changing room, which I imagine took some doing back in the 80s—and they accordingly fostered a vicious and terrorizing atmosphere. I made it through but high school gym promised to be worse.
But the teacher my tenth-grade year (happily the last year PE was a required class) was Coach Bishop, who had been on the Canadian men’s basketball team. This was not a particularly big accomplishment back then, but he was genuinely athletic, unlike some of my previous PE teachers. Much more importantly, he was kind. He used the respect his accomplishments garnered him to keep the jocks from beating up on the nerds. (Nerd had yet to become a term of respect; it’s still weird to me that that happened.) Nerds still got picked last for teams, though; Coach Bishop was not enlightened enough to have done away with that practice. I don’t think I was ever the actually last one to be picked, but it was always a close thing. Until we came to the unit on basketball. This was a time when the rise of the NBA was permeating even solidly white western Canada—we had some kind of minor league team in Calgary called the 88s, after the Olympics, which my friends and I often went to see, tickets being practically free—and I often shot hoops on my own. I wouldn’t say I was good, but I wasn’t terrible.
Coach Bishop, unsurprisingly, was good at teaching basketball fundamentals. It was a long time before he let us even scrimmage. Because we’d spent so long working on layups, I knew what to do when, in our first game, I was able to pick off a lazy pass and go in all alone for an easy two points. This surprised everyone, me included, but not as much as what happened a few minutes later, when another kid—a jock!—passed me the ball. I stopped at the circle, jumped, and let loose a shot. Nothing but net. I still vividly remember Coach Bishop’s delighted cry: “He stops, he pops, it drops!” To have invested so much in this moment—to have needed that validation so badly—that I think of it thirty-five years later, oof, not awesome.
Next class the two alpha jocks, the captains, so surprise, were as usual in charge of picking teams. I went first. Me! I wasn’t great; not terrible, but now that kids were wise to me I had lost the element of surprise. Plus I always do better without any expectations. My moment passed. We moved on to some other sport and I went back to the end of the line. That was the end of my basketball career. When I think of that brief moment of success—when I look at myself as if watching a film—can I get past the shame I feel at how much that recognition from even people I did not respect (those jocks) meant to me? Can I avow the need to be seen? What life of privilege did I lead that the worst I can imagine happening to me when fixed by the gaze of the other is feeling ashamed?
Ross Gay’s long poem Be Holding is about basketball, sort of. It starts with a brilliant description of Dr. J’s baseline scoop in the 1980 NBA playoffs, a moment that readers, like Gay himself, who stays up too late at the mercy of the YouTube algorithm, will want to watch again and again. Gay is fascinated with how Irving holds the ball, in a swooping cradle that seemed to defy gravity. This is the first of the many instances of holding that comprise the book. Holding as stopping. Holding as enabling. Holding as comforting. What begins as an imperative—always be holding— turns into a warning. Be holding becomes beholding, a much more ambiguous proposition. Freezing the frame on a grainy sports video is one thing; looking intently at an image of suffering—a photo of a young African American boy falling from a burning tenement building, for example—is another. Can we look at others (behold) and care for them (hold)? How do African Americans, especially, traumatized by the middle passage, the rupture of a voyage in yet another hold, respond to this dilemma?
I’m not doing a good job with the details of Gay’s explosive, sinuous leaps and transitions. It’s been a while and I don’t have the book to hand. But I remember glorying in his close readings of images—the book’s a triumph of ekphrasis—and thrilling to his associative leaps, as bravura as Dr. J’s how-did-he-do-that scoop. So grateful to Rebecca for pointing me to this terrific book.
Japanese crime novel, quite famous, I gather. Maybe a new translation could help me get why; this one is painfully stilted. Not sure even that would save the book, though: it’s way too long—dude investigates every fucking detail—and not a patch on Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, which I read several years ago and still think of often. I only made it to the end because I was reading it aloud to my wife and we kept saying to each other, “Well, we’ve read this far…” We’re reading a book about sunk cost next.
Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1948) Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker (1957)
Tremendous novel about four sisters from an aristocratic Osaka family in the late 1930s. Filled with event—hard to know which set piece to single out: that extraordinary and terrifying flood, probably, which makes a similar scene in The Rainbow seem tame—but also leisurely, a little aimless, as if unwilling to commit to anything as definitive and perhaps crass as “action” or “plot.” Fittingly, the book repeatedly returns to the family’s attempt to marry off the third of the sisters, Yukiko, who is thirty and rapidly approaching irredeemable spinsterhood; she declines each laboriously contracted proposal, always finding some problem or other, most of which boil down to her almost Bartleby-like preferring not to.
I just couldn’t get enough of this book—it has all the feels, it considers a world at once accepting of and resistant to modernity, it has scope but is also modest. The last line is justly famous, and you should read Tom’s acute interpretation of it and its relation to Tanizaki’s depiction of violent and traumatic history. The guy wrote a lot of books; I should see what else he was up to. I’m guessing they are mostly not like this.
Last thing I’ll say: I’ve thought of The Makioka Sisters every day since reading it. That don’t happen too often.
Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2000)
I’ve written about this book so many times. It’s still great, in fact, it just keeps getting greater. Every year the students love it more; Kluger’s take-no-prisoners manner gets them where they live. Before long I won’t need to read it any more to teach it, but I’ll probably keep doing so, it’s that good.
S. A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland (2020)
Top-shelf Southern Noir, with enough suspense in the first half alone to merit your attention. It’s long (Cosby is not a minimalist), and it doesn’t balance action with characterization as well as the more recent Razorblade Tears but from the opening scene—late-night drag racing on the back roads of Virginia—you know you’re in the hands of a talent.
Emma Seppälä, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (2016)
Not my usual thing, and I pretty much hate-read it. I’d joined a reading group set up by our Associate Provost for Teaching and Learning (a psychologist, natch) in which participating faculty discussed the book with a student of their choice before we all met together. The best part of the exercise was working with my student—she is my mentee in the First Generation program at my college and an absolute delight—because she too was annoyed that Seppälä overestimates willpower and underappreciates how much privilege is demanded by her rhetoric of self-care. (I’m all for self-care, I just hate when it’s used to make people feel guilty that they have not done the impossible and avoided systemic problems.) Anyway, I learned a few things. Like the way we often think we’re relaxing when in fact we’re doing something mentally taxing. Scrolling through our social media feeds, for example, demands concentration, and leaves us more rather than less tired. So when we “take a short break” from some other task to check Twitter we’re still working, as far as our brain is concerned. Talking with colleagues and students did nothing to accelerate my success—whatever that means, ugh, management speak—but it made for a fun and, yes, happy hour or two.
Pretty good reading month, right? Tell me about books that are exactly like Makioka because that is what I want to read this summer. Which, now that I am caught up with these monthly posts, I might actually have time for…
Ah, November, we hardly knew ye. Wait—November?! What about October? Well spotted, eagle-eyed reader—I know you and many others have been refreshing this page daily in the hopes of getting your EMJ fix. Sorry to disappoint. Trust me, I feel bad about it. A two-year streak of monthly reading reviews broken, just like that. Still hope to catch up, but what can I say, October was a cluster. November was better, which is surprising since it’s usually one of the worst months of the academic calendar. This semester has been one of my lightest ever, though, a blessing since it’s allowed me to keep the rest of my life ticking along, just barely. I had a lot going on. My mother visited, the first time we’d seen each other in two years. There was Thanksgiving to celebrate. And leaves piled up steadily on our tree-lined corner lot, those things don’t rake themselves. But I read some stuff too.
Sarah Hall, Burntcoat (2021)
Preordered this even though the idea of “pandemic novels” doesn’t appeal because I’m a Hall fan. Burntcoat is narrated by Edith Harkness, a sculptor—the resonant title is the name of her studio—who, after studying the Japanese art of shou sugi ban (charred or burned wood) has become one of the UK’s premier landscape artists. Some short flashbacks describe an apprenticeship in Japan, but these moments are underdeveloped, serving more as a metaphor—the technique is counterintuitive, “damaging wood to protect it”—than as detailed reality. There are many damaged people in the novel, mostly those infected by a virulent disease, much worse than a coronavirus, that either kills quickly or lies dormant for years after infection. But the most important damaged person in the novel, certainly one who has been protected by that harm, is Edith’s mother, a writer felled by a brain disease that transforms her personality and, for a time, makes her unable to speak or write. She recovers from the trauma to become an outsider artist, whose experimental works are underappreciated until after her death. Before that she had taken her young daughter, Edith, to live in the Cumbrian fells. As always, Hall is great with northern landscapes, but where Burntcoat really shines is in her other area of descriptive specialty. Hall writes great (cishet) sex scenes—exciting, never cringe-y, hot. Quite a feat. The sex in this novel is between Edith and her lover Halit, a migrant from Turkey who works as a chef in a middle eastern restaurant. Their relationship has no sooner begun, though, than the pandemic hits and Halit gets sick. Burntcoat is about making and healing, about losing and grieving, about the depredations and losses of time’s passing that can also become transformations and developments. It’s a good if not great novel, a bit suggestive, sometimes more a sketch of something than the thing itself. Curious how it will fit in her body of work twenty years on.
Nastassja Martin, In the Eye of the Wild (2019) Trans. Sophie R. Lewis (2021)
In 2015, Martin, a French anthropologist with deep knowledge of the indigenous people of Kamchatka, was mauled by a bear while conducting field work. After initial treatment in Russia, she is flown back to France, and suffers from further, supposedly superior, operations and treatments, one of which almost kills her. She suffers, physically and emotionally. Eventually she decides she must return to Siberia, to learn, as the jacket copy of the newly released English-language translation has it, “what it means to have become, as the Even people call it, medka, a person who is half human, half bear.”
From the time Magda first told me about this book, I’ve been psyched to read it, devoted fan that I am of another book about a woman and a bear. (In that one, incidentally, the main character, a librarian cataloguing the books in a great house in northern Ontario, learns that Kamchatkans use the sharpened shoulder blade of a bear as a scythe.) Nathan Goldman brings the two books together in his terrific essay on In the Eye of the Wild. Even more valuably, he points out the central tension in Martin’s memoir/essay: on the one hand, she resists attempts to explain or understand her experience, whether the lens be therapeutic, medical, or cultural (one of Martin’s Evenk friends, for example says the bear left her, the friend, a gift by keeping Martin alive); on the other, she writes in a language of abstraction that feels quintessentially French, especially that of post-Hegelian (i.e. post-Kojève) philosophy: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, etc., language that values nothing more than explanation and understanding, even if only to resist those very concepts. Take this passage for example:
To be the human who sees the bear (or to be the bear who sees the human) is to embody reversibility: it is to describe a face-to-face encounter in which a necessarily radical alterity is actually revealed as the greatest proximity.
Let’s just say I recognize several tics of my own writing in this sentence. (And, yes, Nathan quotes the same line, but I swear I marked it in my copy before reading his piece!) I was trained as a theorist in the 90s, and I still have a lot of time for its insights, if not always its language (though I’m mindful of what Barthes said: between jargon and platitude, take jargon every time). All of which is to say I think I’d have loved In the Eye of the Wild even more had I been able to read it twenty years ago. The whole books isn’t as abstract as that quote, but it’s pretty abstract. I kept waiting for a description of the attack—the encounter as she styles it—but it never happens, not even indirectly, Grizzly Man style.
Some of Martin’s resistance to explanation stems from her experience on the land: “In the heart of these frozen woods, you don’t ‘find’ answers: first you learn to suspend your reasoning and allow yourself to be caught up in the rhythms of an existence entirely organized around staying alive in a forest in winter.” Some of it comes from her anthropological training. Elaborating on her friend’s idea that the bear gave her a gift of Martin’s survival, Martin writes:
I know that this encounter was planned. I had marked out the path that would lead me into the bear’s mouth, to his kiss, long ago. I think: who knows, perhaps he had too.
That “kiss,” I dunno. Maybe I’m just irredeemably Canadian, and want my bear kisses to be literal, or, like Lou, the librarian in Bear, to realize that however necessary the fantasy has been, when bears get kissed things have gone too far. Kiss feels a little dramatic to me. (Lacan: the word kills the thing. Kills it?) I’ve been presenting In the Eye of the Wild and Bear as opposites, and in their representational strategies and general MO they are. But they agree, fundamentally, that, as Martin puts it, “a bear and a woman is too big an event.” The challenges posed by the female-ursine conjunction aren’t the same in each text—which after all were written in different circumstances and in different genres—but both Engel and Martin consider what it means to be a self, and whether one sealed off from the world is worth anything at all.
Dervla McTiernan, The Good Turn (2020)
The third book in Australian McTiernan’s Irish-based Cormac Reilly detective series is skillfully done—less engrossing as the first but absolutely engaging. (I spent a happy Saturday on the couch with it.) Yet the police procedural is a genre in crisis—books about heroic inspectors and their harried, money-conscious superiors just don’t cut it any more for readers faced with the violence and racism of the police-incarceration complex. McTiernan isn’t immune to this crisis. She circumvents it by placing the two investigations at the forefront of the book against the backdrop of a larger narrative arc concerning police corruption. But then a wise and trustworthy superintendent of police has to step in last minute to save the day, which keeps intact the myth of rogue agents within a sound system.
Charles Portis, The Dog of the South (1979)
Ray Midge leaves Little Rock, Arkansas for Mexico, on the trail of his wife, Norma, and her ex-husband, with whom she has taken up again. Before she split, Norma palmed Ray’s credit card. Using the receipts, he tracks the pair south of the border all the way to Belize, which at the time had only recently changed its name from British Honduras. (I’d no idea.) Along the way Ray meets Dr. Reo Symes, a hard-luck case/charlatan whose medical license has been revoked for fraud and who has since poured his energies into grandiose dreams of developing an island in the Mississippi owned by mother. All he needs is for her to give him the deed. To this end, he’s on his way to Belize, where the woman runs a Christian charity, but the old school bus he commandeered somewhere along the way has broken down, and Ray is his only hope for completing the journey. Classic odd couple stuff: unlike the disreputable and excitable conman Symes, Ray is a pedant with strong opinions about Civil War strategy and plenty of observations about human behaviour (“Most children are close with their money”); the men squabble about most everything, including, hilariously, who invented the clamp—a guy from Louisiana or the Sumerians? Finally they fetch up in Belize, where a lot of dramatic things happen quite suddenly before events trail off meekly, in the way of many foolhardy adventures.
The Dog of the South is not a long book, but maybe because the quest itself never feels urgent (we get little sense of Norma until the end, except that she is both long-suffering and careless—the Midges are anything but a match made in heaven) the book drags at times. The first third is comic gold, though, real laugh-out-loud stuff, including some loving disparagement of Little Rock. Plus, Portis’s way with bit characters is unbeatable. My favourite was Melba, a friend of Symes’s mother who helps run the orphanage. A real hoot, that Melba. An insufferable Canadian hippie in Mexico runs a close second.
I listened to the audio book narrated by Edward Lewis (which is different from the version on Audible, FYI), and his intonations and pacing were perfect. Really hits that strange note between smart aleck and stick-up-the-ass that characterizes Ray. I only wish Lewis’s accent were more Arkansan. He avoids generic Southern (it feels specific, though I can’t pin-point it) but that weird Arkansan combination of flatness and drawl escapes him.
Andrea Camilleri, The Cook of the Halcyon (2019) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2021)
Grete Weil, Aftershocks (1992) Trans. John S. Barrett (2008)
Grete Weil née Dispeker was born to a privileged bourgeois intellectual household near Munich in 1906. Her father was a well-known lawyer, her elder brother a hero of the Great War; the family believed profoundly, tenaciously, unrequitedly in German-Jewish togetherness. As a Young Person, Grete palled around with Erika and Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s children, and climbed a lot of mountains. In 1932 she married the dramaturg Erich Weil; he was arrested shortly after the Nazi takeover and fled to Holland on his release to found a branch of his father’s chemical company. Grete followed in 1935: the couple settled in Amsterdam, where Grete opened a photography studio. Their circle included fellow émigrés Max Beckmann and Bruno Walter. After Holland was occupied, the Weils tried but failed to get to England. They turned their efforts to Cuba. The night before Edgar was to pick up their visas, he was arrested in a roundup and deported to KZ Mauthausen, where he was murdered in September 1941.
Weil was forced to give up her business—she lent her photography skills to the underground, helping to forge documents—and took a job in the Dutch Jewish Council, which helped her evade deportation. When her notice finally came, in summer 1943, she and her mother, who had been with all this time. went into hiding. For almost a year and half they lived on a mattress in a small space behind a bookshelf in a friend’s apartment. There Weil took up writing again—it had been one of the passions of her childhood. After the war, she felt comfortable neither in Holland nor in England, where her brother had settled. To the consternation of Klaus Mann, who tried to talk her out of it, she returned to Germany in 1946. She received her husband’s family’s pharmaceutical company as restitution (one of the only instances I know of in which that process actually did anyone any good) and devoted herself to writing, including opera libretti and translations from the English (including John Hawkes). She published various novels, collections of short prose, and memoirs in the years before her death in 1999.
Before coming across this book, I’d never heard of Weil, which surprises me, given my research and teaching interests, plus the fact that Godine published three of her books in the early 2000s. Aftershocks is the third, a collection of stories and memoiristic pieces about the long afterlife of the Shoah. I was not always gripped by the book, Weil does not seem the most graceful writer (that may be down to Barrett, the translator, not sure), but I admired her unwillingness to ingratiate herself with her audience. In this she reminded me of Ruth Kluger, a writer I also did not fall in love with straight away but who has since become a lodestar. I plan to keep reading Weil, not to mention (the ultimate test) teaching her, so look for a more informed opinion in several years.
Like Kluger, Weil was willing to think the Holocaust together with American state-sponsored racism. In a text called “The House in the Desert,” the narrator, a figure much like Weil herself, arrives in Los Angeles to visit an aunt and uncle who, having settled in America, are determined to laud the place as the land of milk and honey. Walking through the city—her first mistake—she thinks that if she were Black she would rather live in the desert. Even if the chances of getting away “if things really got bad” were slim, they would be better than in LA itself; the desert would be an easier place to run from. For she is an expert in running away. Even though the war’s been over for years she isn’t likely to ever forget:
As if you could simply put aside a habit that had gotten into your very fiber. Once a body’s picked up momentum, it doesn’t just stop suddenly. It doesn’t matter that there are no more Gestapo agents asking for your papers, that no trucks are driving through the streets to pick up people [her husband’s fate]; that no one’s ringing your doorbell at night, that the concentration camps have been turned into museums where cut-off hair and knocked-out teeth are displayed in glass cases, that there’s no reason to run away any more. The running away goes on. Running away from the name. when Auschwitz wasn’t yet a name, you didn’t need to run away, but who’s going to take the name back? Who’s going to tell me it’s not my hair, my teeth. They meant it for me.
She proceeds to eviscerate the white people, her relatives among them, who inform her, with useless regret, that “it’s not possible to solve the race problem from one day to the next.” Weil is nothing if not clearsighted, speculating, in a final text, almost an afterword, which is clearly about her own experiences, that “maybe I’ve remained alive simply because I didn’t witness enough. I witnessed the persecution, but not the deportations, really, let alone the horrors of the concentration camps.”
I’ve got another of Weil’s books here, and I’m on the lookout for her (as-yet-untranslated) autobiography.
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (1987)
Two couples arrive in 1930s Madison where the men, an aspiring poet from money and a newly-minted scholar from nowhere, have landed jobs at the university; the women meet and the four become lifelong friends. The framing action takes place in the 70s, when they gather in Vermont, as they regularly did for many years, to say farewell to one of their number, who is dying, furiously, of cancer, though that hasn’t stopped her from orchestrating their time together the way she always has. The narrator, Larry Morgan, the scholar, though he has left that behind and become a novelist, moves between the present and the past, unfolding the story of the couples’ lives together.
I read Crossing to Safety because Paul spoke of it so enticingly on The Mookse and Gripes podcast. I’m afraid I didn’t love it as much as he does (though I love how much he loves it) but I did appreciate a lot of things about it. The book really is about both couples, the women as important as the men (though I wanted more about Larry’s wife, Sally). Each marriage matters on its own, of course—maybe the most moving thing in the novel is the disconnect between what the poet’s wife wants for her husband and what he wants for himself, compounded by his deeply held wish not to disappoint anyone, her most importantly—but it’s really a novel about friendship: between two men, two women, and between two couples. As Larry notes (he talks to us, his readers, regularly), you’d expect a situation like this to get derailed by sexual desire: by someone falling in love with someone else, maybe an affair, a great smash of hurt and regret. But that’s not what happens: the book is much quieter, though there are plenty of things to grieve amid the joy they take in each other’s company. Stegner is good on the rituals of comfortable WASP American life. He’s even better on the natural world: though he is known as a writer of the West, he must have spent a lot of time in Vermont; he clearly loved the place. And he can do a fine dramatic set-piece: a difficult birth; a boat-ride in the Wisconsin winter that almost ends in tragedy; a last family bonfire, with delightedly screeching children sheering in packs through the summer night.
Why then, after offering such praise, do I say I didn’t love the novel? (I read it over a weekend, after all: it definitely kept my interest.) Not sure, but it might have something to do with the WASPs I mentioned earlier. Despite its insistence on maintaining connection and husbanding memory—the title comes from a Frost poem in which the speaker exults in protecting the things that “while the Customs slept/I have crossed to Safety with”—the novel felt remote. The characters tend to be arch and gay with each other—in this world, to be heartfelt is to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable for these characters is never good. I think it’s the complacent assumption of how life is supposed to work for (certain kinds of) Americans that grated on me, though this isn’t a Boomer novel, the characters are a generation older. And I definitely did not love the depiction of Jewishness (part and parcel of its chilliness IMO). There’s a disturbing scene early on where a striving Jewish husband and wife embarrass themselves at a faculty party—reflecting on how he and the others treated Marvin Ehrlich, Larry says, “Maybe we were all anti-Semitic in some sneaky residual way, but I don’t think so.” Well I do! Especially when he adds, “I think we simply felt that the Ehrlichs didn’t permit themselves to be part of the company.” I don’t see the novel putting much distance between itself and Larry here. Later there’s a Jewish son-in-law, a kind economist (natch) who stutters, literally tripping over himself to ingratiate himself into the family. Not crazy about any of that.
This was the second Stegner that left me ambivalent: he might just not be my guy. Haven’t tried Angle of Repose yet, though, which I gather is the masterpiece, so if I do go back to the Stegner well, that’ll be the one.
Garry Disher, Bitter Wash Road (2013)
Constable Paul Hirschhausen, known to all as Hirsch, has been demoted and sent to the middle of nowhere, three-hours’ drive from Adelaide, because he blew the whistle on some corrupt cops. No one likes him for having done this, himself included. Now he’s enduring the petty hazing of his new colleagues and keeping an eye on a mysterious person who is trying to frame him as bent. Then there’s a crime to solve, a murder made to look like a hit-and-run. That’s on top of the regular work he does: stopping desperate farmers from beating their wives and children, checking in on invalids, keeping the town quiet on football nights. Hirsch is a pleasingly ambivalent figure (he gets nicer toward the end: disappointing); Disher’s prose better than serviceable, with plenty of great Australianisms. He’s no Peter Temple, but who is? Recommended.
Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)
The writer Olivia Sudjic bizarrely describes this debut novel as Mrs. Dalloway mixed with Citizen. The Rankine, yes, definitely (the poet is cited in the novel’s end notes—yes, you read that right). But the Woolf? Makes no sense. The action does not take place over a single day, various characters do not intersect by passing one another, the narration is not even in close third person (with the exception of a short initial section). Who cares about blurbs, I know, but my reaction to this description was like my reaction to the novel itself: I don’t get it. Bits of Assembly are really good: the descriptions of aggressions, some micro, some decidedly not, faced by people of colour will make you wince; the narrator’s boyfriend, able to be dedicated to a meaningful life thanks to great wealth, inherited wealth, wealth that comes in part from England’s colonization of places like Jamaica, which to the consternation even of immigrants the narrator is not from, knows only from family stories, is perfectly delineated: that foppish, well-meaning, smart-but-mustn’t-be-too-obviously-smart, knows-his-way-about-a-wine list insouciance that characterizes many English men of a certain class. The narrator, though, who works hard in finance, doing things with data, making a lot of money, more money than her boyfriend, he likes to joke—she is harder to pin down. She’s just been promoted, an event she has to share with another member of the firm, a white man, who is spiteful about it, muttering about “diversity.” Not even he can tarnish the good news completely, though, and she allows herself a moment to take a break from the endless climb up the ladder, a brief respite from the fear of having nothing beneath her. But only for a moment: even when she receives some lifechanging news, she can’t stop doing and worrying and putting her head down. Most immediately, there’s a party to attend, it’s not hers, though, she isn’t Clarissa, it’s a party being given by a Clarissa, her boyfriend’s parents, who are grudgingly tolerant in a way, I suppose, not dissimilar to the Peter Walshes and the Richard Dalloways.
Assembly is fine, interesting enough, but too short to make a real impression, not nearly as formally innovative as critics are making out.
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (2020)
Most everybody loves this book, and most everybody is right. Or, I am like most everybody. My experience matches Rohan’s almost exactly: failed at reading Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange, donated it to the library sale, gave the new book a whirl, was captivated by it and convinced I should try her doorstopper again. As to Piranesi, I won’t say much about the plot, for that would ruin it, but I will say how much I loved the descriptions of the world inhabited by the narrator—called by The Other, the only other person he knows, Piranesi, a name he has adopted for himself, even though he is convinced it is not really his—a lonely place of sea and stone and shrieking seabirds that felt joyful and sustaining rather than bleak and damp (though it’s those things too).
In its unraveling of unraveled minds, Piranesi reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy but the better, if at first glance stranger, comparison might be to J. G. Ballard’s wonderful little story “The Autobiography of J.G.B.” (which you can read here if you can get the damn New Yorker site to work). Ballard’s text and Clarke’s novel are happy Robinson Crusoe stories, in which solitude is pleasurable and plenitude rules the day. Piranesi’s plenitude takes the form not of the physical things that wash ashore, as in Defoe, but of experiential connection: he speaks to his world and his world speaks to him. In the end, this communing is, indirectly, what does eventually bring loss into the story.
I’m not explaining this well, you really have to read the book for yourself. Piranesi lends itself to allegorizing, but it warns readers against doing so. It challenges the separation of human and world enacted by science qua knowing without romanticizing the numinous. It describes the life of those, like its author, who are shut off from the world (Clarke suffers from a chronic illness), yet who have gained something from that experience even if it doesn’t mitigate what they have lost. Mostly, though, it tells the story of a man who is alone but not lonely, a distinction it preserves even when the man’s life is, once again, turned inside-out.
Georges Simenon, My Friend Maigret (1949) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2016)
Getting the hang of these Maigrets. The crime hardly matters, the outcome certainly doesn’t. Mostly Maigret just vibes. My Friend Maigret is pleasingly meta about this state of affairs. Maigret is tasked with showing an English colleague how he solves crimes, which incites some embarrassment on his part—he doesn’t actually want to conduct any interviews, or do any deducting, he just wants to hang out on the island in the Mediterranean he has escaped rainy and cold springtime Paris for on the flimsiest of rationales. For a while he does what he thinks the Scotland Yard inspector would want him to. But he quickly realizes that guy just wants to swim and drink and vibe too. It’s all very entertaining, and I am thankful to John Wilson for recommending it to me as an especially good installment in the series.
Charles Cumming, The Moroccan Girl (aka The Man Between) (2018)
Cumming takes on Eric Ambler’s favourite gambit—ordinary guy tumbles into espionage—and gives it a twist: his ordinary guy, C. K. (Kit) Carradine, is a successful spy novelist who is recruited to run an errand for the Service. All he has to do is pass an envelope to a woman while he attends a literary festival in Marrakesh. Of course, Kit gets more than he bargained for, and proves himself, in his naïve way, good at spying. Cumming has fun with the differences between espionage in fiction and in fact. At its best. The Moroccan Girl is pleasantly dizzying and self-referential while still offering the thrills and other pleasures of the genre. I’ve noted before that Cumming is great with tradecraft; I love how exciting his action scenes are without being flashy. (Every car chase takes place in a taxi.) Without being heavy-handed about it, Cumming makes us think about what we do when we read spy stories: Kit is never sure if what’s happening to him is ordinary or suspicious, whether an event is coincidental or conspiratorial. He’s an endless reader of events, just as spy novels ask us to be. Unfortunately, not everything succeeds in this stand-alone (though Cumming leaves himself the chance to write more if he chooses: this would be a mistake). The woman Cumming meets—and of course falls in love in, though at least that’s discreetly and non-cringingly handled—has been involved in an anarchist leftist Occupy-type group called Resurrection, which leads to a number of tedious scenes in which characters debate whether violence is ever necessary. In the end, the novel is ploddingly middle-of-the-road liberal, aghast at “excesses.”
Kiku Hughes, Displacement (2020)
YA comic about a teenager, Kiku, who travels back in time, finding herself interned in a camp in Utah. One of the other prisoners is her grandmother. Before this Kiku had known almost nothing about what her relatives had gone through—which means readers learn a lot, too: I now know where the expression “no-no boy/girl” comes from, for example. In the book’s most interesting development, Kiku tells her mother about her experience, expecting to be disbelieved, only to learn that the same thing happened to her. The mother calls them “displacements,” and thinks of them as a way to correct the shame and silence experienced by Japanese Americans in the decades after the war, responses displaced into the dive to become “a model minority.” (The book is good at explaining intergenerational trauma.) The comic is beautiful, evocatively illustrated—a cloud of cigarette smoke as enervated as the man who’s breathed it out; Kiku’s mother, eyes glued to the television as Trump stampedes to the Republican nomination, a study in disdain, all crossed arms and silent judgment. I must admit that even as I devoured Displacement I did say to myself, well this is all well and good but it’s no Kindred, only to be chagrined when I read Hughes’s hymn to Butler in her acknowledgements. Anyway, worth reading, even if you’re no longer a young adult.
Some perfectly good things this month, but not many standouts. Piranesi was the winner, I’d say. Here’s hoping for a more memorable December. I have several exciting things lined up, including some group reads. How about you? Did your November reading make an impression?
My personal essay on teaching Holocaust literature in the South has appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of The Oxford American.
Regular readers of this blog know how much I love Ruth Kluger’s memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. In the essay, I begin by describing how differently Kluger’s shocked response to segregation in 1950s Texas registered for me once I started teaching her work in a classroom filled with students from Texas and across the South.
“Cutting across Lines,” as the essay is titled, is about belonging. I consider three times and places that have shaped me–the Canada of my childhood, the Eastern and Central Europe before, during, and immediately after the Holocaust, and the South today. I reflect on how each of these worlds shapes my understanding of the others. I worked hard on the essay, helped by stellar editing from the folks at the OA and my wife, who helped me see what the essay was really about.
You can read it here, but I encourage you to subscribe to support this valuable magazine.
In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.
The fifth post is by Anja Willner (@WillnerAnja). Anja lives in Munich, where she has a running argument with herself about what she likes best: reading books, hunting after books, or talking about both.
In 2020, I read 70 books, which is quite a lot for me and certainly more than in recent years. Probably due to less work-related stress and more inspiration by Twitter folks (thank you, Book Twitter)! As I’m German, I’ve got quite a few German books or books translated into German on my list. I tried to provide the English title whenever possible, but some books unfortunately aren’t (yet?) available in English. I hope you’ll bear with me nonetheless!
• Toni Morrison: Love
What is there to say about Toni Morrison you do not already know? Not much probably, so I’Il just say I’ve yet to pick up a Morrison novel that is not good.
• Elizabeth Taylor: Blick auf den Hafen (translator: Bettina Ababarnell) [English original, A View of the Harbour]
Pretty much the same goes for Elizabeth Taylor: how in the world did she manage to write such impeccable novels? It is and probably will remain a mystery to me. Anyway, my plan for the years to come is to read all of her work.
• Angie Thomas: On the Come Up
Great writing here, especially the dialogues. Also, I learned a lot about hip hop and feel I appreciate this genre of music more now. Love her!
• Marcelle Sauvageot: Fast ganz die Deine (translator: Claudia Kalscheuer; English title, Commentary)
Kudos to Asal Dardan (@asallime) for pointing me towards Marcelle Sauvageot! I’m always thankful for suggestions of female authors to rediscover. In case you are not familiar with this little gem (I hadn’t heard of it until a year ago), the backstory here is quite interesting. It’s Sauvageot’s only published literary work as she died very young. Fast ganz die Deine is a letter to a man that left her – the story goes that it circulated among friends who persuaded Sauvageot to have it published. No wonder everyone who read it was enchanted by this work, given its perfection. (Good book to start your reading year off, if you ask me. Far better than the Bely dungeon I’ve locked myself into this January. Got out recently and will brag about it for years, so there’s that.)
• Annie Ernaux: Erinnerung eines Mädchens (translator: Sonja Finck; English title, A Girl’s Story)
Okay, no surprises here: everybody seems to read and love Ernaux and indulge in autobiographical/pseudo-autobiographical writing at the moment (the “moment” stretching back several years, I guess?), and I’m no exception.
The reason why I’ve long avoided Ernaux’s works is simply I’m so ashamed of my practically non-existent French that I haven’t read many (translated) French books recently. I remember struggling with French pronunciation and comprehension, but some part of me insists it might be the language of my heart. (Probably not true at all and sorry, Russian. We’re still dating, right?)
• Chris Kraus: I Love Dick
Forever gender-confused here as there is a German (male, cis) filmmaker who goes by the same name. Similarly, I felt confused at times by I Love Dick, but largely liked it very much. Also, I made a lot of screenshots of the text I will probably never look at again.
• Павел Санаев: Похороните меня за плинтусом (Pavel Sanaev: Bury me behind the baseboard)
There are some rules in my life. For example, I’ll read anything recommended by my lovely and witty Russian teacher, Rita. If you’re into Soviet culture, especially the films, this small novel will particularly interest you, for the author is the son of the actress Elena Sanaeva and the stepson of famous actor Rolan Bykov.
If you’re not into Soviet culture and the personal dramas between actors and actresses (I learned to care, it’s so interesting once you start), don’t worry: It’s sufficient to be a human being to care for this little book. Bury me behind the baseboard is as heartbreaking as it is autobiographical.
The author, Pavel Sanaev, spent most of his childhood with his grandparents–here comes the heartbreaking part—against his mother’s will. The grandparents simply refused for years to give him back to his mother, while persuading the child his mother, Elena, had abandoned and forgotten him. I really cannot describe the feelings I have about how his grandmother treated him, a then small child. I don’t have kids, but the sheer thought anybody could be like that to a kid makes me sick. (There is no physical abuse, though.)
Everything is told from the perspective of the child. Okay, we’re all familiar with this trick, I guess. And maybe we can agree that telling a story from a child’s perspective can either add strength to your story or make it extra cringy. Here, the former is the case. Have I already said how heartbreaking all this is? It is—but it’s also a very funny and sad and wise book.
• George Eliot: Middlemarch
I know a thing or two about literature written in German and quite a lot less about 19th century Russian literature, but apart from that, my reading biography consists of gaps I sometimes find hard to forgive in myself. To catch up on classic English literature, one has to start somewhere, so I started here and did not regret it. What a rich book, and so funny! Huge thanks to author, translator, and literature lover Nicole Seifert (@nachtundtagblog) whose enthusiasm made me pick it up.
• Marlen Haushofer: Die Wand (The Wall)
Should you really recommend a novel about near-total isolation in the wilderness to anyone in a pandemic? Not sure, but it worked for me. One of the greatest texts about nature and the question of what it means to be a human being I’ve come across so far. Also, finally a writer who really, really gets cats! But be warned, cat lovers, you will come across some gruesome scenes.
• Marlen Haushofer: Wir töten Stella (We Murder Stella)
Great novella by the same author which sadly doesn’t seem to have been translated yet. The casual seduction and destruction of a young girl is not a new motif in literature, but here it shows post-war Austria (could have taken place in Germany as well in my opinion) at its coldest. The non-communication of the family and the cool tone of the narrator were killing me.
• Andy Miller: The Year of Reading Dangerously
I’m so thankful for book twitter and about twice as thankful for Andy Miller still/again being on Twitter, because I rely on “Backlisted Pod” recommendations so much. And well, I knew even before I picked it up that there was no way I wouldn’t love The Year of Reading Dangerously!
Personally, I’m a fan of tackling the classics no matter what. They are not being stored in some holy shrine, they are for everyone. Maybe not for everyone to enjoy, but, for me, that’s another matter: one has to learn to appreciate literature as an art. The more you read and think about what you read, the more you get out of your reading. And if you don’t understand everything, what’s the matter with that if you’re enjoying yourself? I’m all for critical debates on how a canon is established and how we can include works by women, people of Color and other marginalized groups better. At the same time, I enjoy discovering the classics and reading them (often this is a critical look back, but mostly it’s enjoyable).
Andy’s book was so much fun to read for me and inspired me to make even more lists of books I love to talk about reading someday. Great inspiration!
• Theodor Fontane: Der Stechlin (The Stechlin; reread)
I come from Brandenburg, in Eastern Germany, the region Fontane wrote so often about; his works were always around when I was a kid (most households there own at least one book by him). I guess that makes Fontane the most admired and unread author of that part of Germany.
Fontane himself used to joke that in this novel, not much happens. It’s true, at least if you’re reading for the plot, of which there is not much. Der Stechlin really is a novel that for me is the perfect fit for the landscape of Brandenburg. Not much there to entertain the eye. Until you learn what to look out for.
• Olivia Wenzel: 1000 Serpentinen Angst (A Thousand Coils of Fear)
Really strong debut novel dealing with problems such as racism. I liked the novel’s experimental form: at first, the reader doesn’t always get who is talking und what’s going on, but it’s not an annoying l’art pour l’art thing. Just a very fresh approach. I noticed some parts (really not many!) I would have wanted edited in a slightly different way, but that is a matter of taste. Overall, I’d advise everyone interested in contemporary German literature to read this novel and follow the work of Olivia Wenzel closely. (I hope there will be a translation soon!)
• Deborah Levy: Was das Leben kostet (translator: Barbara Schaden; English title: The Cost of Living)
Another “late to the party” entry. I like Levy’s writing a lot; I’m not so sure about some of her political beliefs, but nothing I couldn’t live with. Will probably need to read a lot more by her!
• Rachel Cusk: Lebenswerk (translator: Eva Bonné; English title: Motherhood)
Until a few years ago, I couldn’t be bothered reading new fiction. I was busy with the classics and my work schedule—at least this is my excuse for having never heard about Rachel Cusk until Asal Dardan recommended her works to me (maybe two years ago?). Since then, I have read nearly everything by Cusk. Yes, she is fashionable, but for good reasons.
I had circled around Motherhood for a while and 2020 was the year I finally got around to it. My hunger for books about having children has been irritating for me initially as I don’t have kids and don’t feel particularly drawn to them. (It’s such a difficult topic.) I just feel that these kinds of stories have been marginalized and silenced for so long I have some catching up to do.
What I loved about Motherhood was how honest it felt to me. I remember sending screenshots to my sister (mother to one of the few exceptions I make when it comes to engaging with children), who agreed with almost everything Cusk wrote, allowing us to share a few socially very-distanced chuckles. (We live more than 300 miles apart.)
• Simone Hirth: Bananama
The author Saša Stanišić (@sasa_s) recommended this book on Twitter and I’m so happy I didn’t just make a screenshot of the book cover and then forget about it. Instead, I put the author’s name on a list of books of interest on my smartphone (I later discovered I took down her name and the novel’s title about three times), checked it out from my local library and – here it comes! – actually read it!
In the book, a small girl lives a super eco-friendly lifestyle with her parents, with the latter taking things clearly too far. I liked the topic, but what I liked even more is what is hardest to describe: what a writer Simone Hirth is! She builds a world you follow her into, even though you maybe don’t completely understand where she is heading, because understanding is just not what matters. Just stunning, sometimes funny.
• Marlene Streeruwitz: Verführungen(Seductions)
There don’t seem to be any translations of Streeruwitz’s work into English which is a shame if true. Verführungen was her debut novel and it’s a strong one! At first, I struggled a bit with the “Streeruwitz sound”: she uses a lot of really short sentences. As an editor, I usually tell writers off for this sort of thing, but here it is art and it achieves something. Once you let the text lead you, it’s like a maelstrom and pulls and drags you with it, letting go only after you have turned the last page.
When it first came out, the novel was criticized by some as concentrating too much on “trivial” aspects of a woman’s live: caring for children, menstruation, and so on. One doesn’t have to be a genius to understand at least some of this criticism was fueled by underlying misogyny.
There is a very insightful interview with Streeruwitz (in German, sorry) on Nicole Seifert’s blog. If you read German and are interested in overlooked female authors, I would really advise you to follow Nicole on Twitter (@nachtundtagblog)! (I’m aware I mentioned her before, can’t stop, won’t stop.)
Oh, one more thing about Streeruwitz: she recently compared measures for containing Covid-19 with the “Nuremberg Laws” of the Nazis. It goes without saying I find this comparison as historically inaccurate as it is disgusting. Let’s hope she’ll recognize her mistake and apologize – it really hurts to lose a Feminist icon and brilliant writer to the Corona deniers.
• Bernadine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other
Very late to the party, I know. But yet: a well written novel offering interesting perspectives – I’d recommend it to (not only) male white friends. Yep, multiperspective narration has been in fashion for ages, but you have to be a really good writer to give it a fresh feeling. Evaristo certainly delivers here.
• Benjamin Quaderer: Für immer die Alpen(The Alps Forever)
I think this is one of the strongest first novels I’ve read in recent years. Daring and funny, with a narrator that plays around with you. Also, you’ll learn a lot about the tiny, tiny kingdom of Liechtenstein! Minor disadvantage: there are some graphic descriptions of violence I found hard to stomach, but you can easily omit those few pages.
More books I enjoyed a lot in 2020:
Franziska Gräfin zu Reventlow: Von Paul zu Pedro
Ruth Klüger: weiter leben (English title: Still Alive), unterwegs verloren, Frauen lesen anders
Brigitte Reimann: Franziska Linkerhand (reread)
Antonia White: Frost in May
Fran Ross: Oreo (translator: Pieke Biermann)
Marguerite Anderson: Ich, eine schlechte Mutter (translator: Patricia Klobusiczky; English title: A Bad Mother)
Candice Carty-Williams: Queenie
Inge Deutschkron: Ich trug den gelben Stern (English title: Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin)
Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall
Sjón: Schattenfuchs (translator: Victoria Cribb; English title: The Blue Fox)
Marguerite Duras: Der Liebhaber (translator: Ilma Rakusa; English title: The Lover)
“You’re Jewish. You must let the world know that that doesn’t mean you’re not every bit as good as they.”
So begins Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (1978; translated by Jean Steinberg, 1989). The memoir mostly concerns her time as a so-called U-Boot—a Jew in hiding during the war—but it begins on March 31, 1933 with these words, urgently spoken to her by her mother. Hitler has taken power the month before; being Jewish suddenly matters a lot. At the time, ten-year-old Deutschkron knew neither that she was Jewish, nor what that meant. She doesn’t ask, either: “I sensed that it would upset [my mother], and me too.” Deutschkron, who honed her sense for when people were equivocating during her nerve-wracking hears of hiding in plain sight, must have caught the hesitancy, even the internalized prejudice in her mother’s command: “You must let the world know that that doesn’t mean you’re not every bit as good as they.” However unconsciously, the mother’s double negative frames the experience of being Jewish from the perspective of the antisemite.
But the world wouldn’t let Deutschkron ignore her newly revealed identity. The upshot might be good for the writer, but it’s hard for the person. She is positioned as an outsider and an observer. Turning away from her mother’s demand, the child directs her attention to the world outside her window:
What interested me was what was going on outside in our corner of Berlin, on our quiet street. I liked looking out of the window of our apartment on Hufelandstrasse. It may have been nothing more than a sleepy little corner, yet for a ten-year-old there was much to see. I could watch the other children play. I was not allowed to play outside, my parents thought it wasn’t safe. I, of course, didn’t agree. I knew all the children by name, but I wasn’t allowed to play with them. All I could do was watch. It hurt.
This passage is typical: neither showy in style nor demonstrative in tone. Deutschkron is smart, capable, forthright, gently ironic. She often holds her feelings in reserve. Perhaps she thinks that although her experiences were exhausting, frightening, debilitating, and risky they weren’t representative of the persecution of the time. It’s true, this is a Holocaust story without trains, camps, or ravines (even though these elements hover at the margins of her tale, where lurks the suffering she knows she is always only one step away from, even if she can’t quite fathom its exact form). Yet one of the salutary aspects of Outcast is to expand our sense of what the Holocaust was, and what we expect of those who survived it.
I said reserve is characteristic of Deutschkron’s self-presentation. But I don’t mean she’s unfeeling. Look again at that opening anecdote. Yes, her separateness gives her a certain power: where others might see nothing, she sees a whole world, the better for being barred from it. But turning suffering into wisdom isn’t much fun. Deutschkron first says she liked to look out the window. But she ends by reversing course and admitting the harder truth: “It hurt.” The emotion stings the more for the effort of trying to hold it in check.
A few pages later, Deutschkron admits that she has not even especially been looking at the neighbourhood kids. In fact, she’s not looking at anything. She’s pretending to look as a cover for her real activity: waiting. Her father is late, should have been home long ago. Word has gone around that the Nazis will be boycotting Jewish-owned businesses the next day. People talk of arrests and violence. Deutschkron’s worry is fueled by her sense that her mother, too, is worried. She keeps sticking her head out the door and looking down the stairwell. The doorbell rings. A friend has come with a warning: “‘Your husband must get out of town immediately.’”
Eventually the anxiety subsides—for now. He is safe with friends for the night, mother and daughter learn, and returns the next day full of laughter: the man he stayed with, a doctor, put him up in his office, where he slept under the watchful eye of a skeleton. But Deutschkron’s mother doesn’t think it’s funny. All day she burns papers and sorts books. The Deutschkrons are committed socialists, everyone in the neighbourhood knows this, including the child herself, for whom socialism was her earliest identity. (If she’d been born in the US a decade later, she would have been a Red Diaper baby.) And it is being a socialist, more than a Jew, that, for the time being, is most dangerous. The family takes precautions, but they feel they are safe enough, things will blow over. They spend a few nights with relatives across town, and later move to a different neighbourhood where nobody knows their political affiliation, but they don’t pursue emigration. Even a couple of years later, when the father has the chance of a job in Australia, he doesn’t leave: “‘After all, I’m a Prussian civil servant; I can’t just run away.”
Claude Lanzmann, who interviewed Deutschkron for three hours during the making of his epic film Shoah (1985), sadly leaving all but a few minutes of their conversation out of the final nine-and-a-half-hour cut, notes that by equating leaving with running away the father reveals how much he felt he belonged to Germany. Like so many assimilated German Jews, the Deutschkrons story is a story of betrayal, of failed belonging. In this sense, the memoir’s English title is quite accurate. Germany’s Jews were indeed cast out. (The original title, Ich trug den golden Stern, I Wore the Yellow Star, references this exclusion more obliquely.) In this regard their persecution was different from that of Jews elsewhere, especially in Eastern Europe, who had never been allowed to feel they belonged.
As Deutschkron grows up, she responds to her increasing feelings of alienation by resisting however she can, saying Aufwiedersehen instead of Heil Hitler, declining to give to “the countless collections for various national and social causes.” But even though she is undoubtedly correct when she tells Lanzmann that she is “a fighter,” her resistance can opnly go so far. Little things get to her. Sitting for a portrait at a photography studio, she is asked to tuck her hair behind her ear. The photographer had no ulterior motive, Deutschkron says, but the girl bursts into tears anyway: Nazi “race science” claimed you could tell a Jew by their ears. (I’m reminded of Carlo Ginzburg’s brilliant essay “Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method,” which takes the study of ears as an index for modernity’s various ways of knowing, among which, Ginzburg would surely insist, we must include phrenological racism.) Deutschkron doesn’t tell her parents what happened, fearing that they will only laugh (shades of her father’s return from his night at the doctor’s office) and retell the story, which circulated among Jews at the time, about the man pulled from the crowd at a Nazi rally to demonstrate Aryan typology: unbeknownst to the Nazis, the man with the perfect German ears is a Jew. No one cared if the story was true: “Jews loved it because it helped them bear the humiliation of this particular indignity.” Deutschkron is unconvinced, though—just as she is unimpressed by the tenderness of the policeman at her local precinct as he wiped her fingers when the family are forced to comply with a fingerprinting decree. Yes, the officer might have been more embarrassed than her by “this demeaning procedure,” and, yes, the ear joke is a way for those who have suffered to claw back a brief moment of control over their lives, but Deutschkron implies that these moments don’t amount to anything significant.
They don’t, for example, keep the family together. In April 1939, her father leaves for England. After Kristallnacht, England eased its immigration policy slightly, granting visas to those who had relatives in England and could prove they had applied for admission to other countries. Her father had a cousin in England, and he had applied to go to Palestine. But the cousin could only sponsor him; Deutschkron and her mother would have to stay behind. Fitting, then, that she’s alone with her mother in the book’s opening scene, for this will be their fate throughout the war. The father is absent from the rest of the book (his story too must have been interesting); even when they are eventually reunited, Deutschkron says almost nothing about him. Hard for me to read this elision as anything other than judgmental.
From the time the war begins, Deutschkron’s memoir might have taken the title of Lore Segal’s own description of her wartime experience, Other People’s Houses. For the next five years, Deutschkron and her mother will shuttle through a series of rooms and other, less orthodox, hiding places. Their experiences support Mark Roseman’s claim that those who survived relied mostly on a network of helpers, some of whom they knew, and others they didn’t, some of whom provided long-term assistance, and others who helped spontaneously or briefly. The Deutschkrons relied on their friends in the socialist movement. One man had a grocery and gave the women fruit and vegetables; another, a butcher, sold them cuts of meat without ration cards. Still others offered places to stay or let them work off the books.
Deutschkron’s formal education had ended in April 1939 when the Nazis closed all Jewish schools. Her options were either to work in a Jewish household or in a factory. But for some reason the Jewish training school for kindergarten teachers had not yet been closed, and so she enrolled for the one-year course. The school was run by a highly educated woman who offered her students a much more wide-ranging humanistic education than would have been expected. Deutschkron appreciated the opportunities, yet she did not find early childhood education to be her métier the way one of her fellow students did. This a beautiful girl from the Ruhr valley was Marianne Strauss, the subject of two books I’ve recently been reading—this connection impressed me in a spooky, almost mystical way, as if even in the midst of destruction all manner of connecting webs still existed.
After graduating from the course, Deutschkron took a job in the household of Dr. Conrad Cohen, head of the welfare department of the Reich Association of Jews in Germany. As such, he and his family still lived in relative privilege. Deutschkron did cleaning, laundry, childcare for the family until April 1941, when a new edict declared that Jews could no longer keep household help. That left only compulsory factory work. Through her connection to Cohen, Deutschkron was sent to see Otto Weidt, who ran a workshop in which blind and deaf workers, most of them Jewish, made brooms and brushes for the army.
Weidt might be the most remarkable person in the memoir, which is saying something. Legally blind, at times reliant on an oxygen machine, active before the war in pacifist circles, aided by his competent and shrewd wife, Elise (regrettably absent from Deutschkron’s account), Weidt routinely defied the Gestapo. “He was a gambler and a risk-taker and liked a good fight.” Thanks to his army contracts Weidt had been deemed essential to the war effort. He obtained extra materials on the black market (paying policemen to cut hair from their horses’ tails, for example) so he could exceed his production quota and sell the extra illegally. That allowed him to hire more workers, almost all of them Jewish. Contrary to regulations, he even let able-bodied Jews work in the office as secretaries and accountants. Weidt offered one such place to Deutschkron, where she worked closely with Alice (Ali) Licht, a young woman with whom she became close and who, thanks to Weidt, would survive the war in the most extraordinary way. The 60-year-old Weidt became a surrogate father for Deutschkron, though one more kindly and less threatened by his daughter’s sexuality than most. When Deutschkron fell for a man named Hans Rosenthal, who worked as a purchasing and distributing agent of the Jewish Community (which meant relying on black market connections), Weidt would facilitate meetings between them. He even arranged dinners for his favourites at the factory. When the Gestapo descended on the workshop, as they regularly did, Weidt would pretend to curse his employees for their laxness, though always ending by noting to the Nazis that he could never fill his army orders “without these Jews.”
Outside the workshop, the situation got worse and worse. The first deportations left Berlin in October 1941. Over a thousand people, one of whom had for a time lived with Deutschkron and her mother in a shared apartment, were corralled in a synagogue before being shipped east. Deutschkron and her mother walked by the building in case they could catch a glimpse of their friend. Thinking of the mostly elderly people inside, they felt at once relieved and guilty: “We breathed a sigh of relief that we were still able to work, and we felt ashamed.” Deutschkron knew there was no good reason why they were outside the building and not with the others inside.
That conviction was reinforced when Deutschkron herself received a notice. Her mother insisted that she would voluntarily register so that they won’t be separated, an idea Deutschkron furiously rejected. At their wits’ end, they went to see Dr. Cohen for advice, who angrily tore up the notice. There had apparently been a mix-up; it was meant for someone with a similar name. “For a while I was haunted by the thought that someone else was going to take my place,” Deutschkron says. Note the temporariness of her feeling (“for a while”); it was difficult to worry about others.
By mid 1942 the Deutschkrons moved into a Judenhaus, apartments in which Berlin’s remaining Jews were crowded together—eleven of them in a five-and-a-half-room flat. Friends disappeared; even the Cohens were deported. Hans Rosenthal escaped deportation by a hair’s breadth—a Gestapo officer familiar with his contacts thought it would be better to make use of them than to send him away.
Deutschkron movingly describes visiting her aunt and uncle (her father’s sister) on the day of their deportation. She and her mother consoled the couple as best they could, slipping out of the house just before the Jewish police arrive:
To this day I can hear the squeaking of the stairs. As we stepped out from the dark hallway into the wintry street we saw a police car approach. We stopped to watch. Two Jewish orderlies wearing the yellow star went into the house. They reappeared minutes later behind my aunt, who was lugging the heavy backpacks. She walked quickly, as though eager to get it over with. My uncle followed haltingly. They didn’t look back as they stepped into the car, not a single backward look at the city that had been their home for almost thirty years. I cried. My mother, although just as moved, warned me to control myself. “Suppose somebody were to see us?” We had gone out without our stars. We were the only ones on the street. Strange how the Berliners knew when to make themselves scarce so as not to have to see what was happening on their streets. It is anybody’s guess how many watched from behind their curtained windows.
It’s as though Deutschkron were a little girl again, forced to watch the neighbourhood from her apartment. Yet what she watches now is more terrible. Is her looking compensation for the backward look her relatives can’t bring themselves to give? As in the earlier scene, there is here an us and a them, yet unlike the moment a decade earlier, when “they,” the children at play, were visible in the street, here, they are invisible. They are hiding now. Notice that they are “the Berliners,” not ‘our fellow citizens.’ Notice too how Deutschkron, in a reverse synecdoche, substitutes the city for their apartment building: “not a single backward look at the city that had been their home.” It’s as if she is accompanying them all the way to the station, and beyond, as the train departs for the East. This is telling, because Outcast is more than most memoirs I’ve read, even of Jews who lived there, a Berlin story.
All the more amazing, then, what a select few of its inhabitants were willing to do. Weidt, in particular, continues to perform miracles—when his disabled workers are taken in a raid, he marches to the Gestapo and somehow gets them back. But he mutters he won’t be able to do it again. Death is all around. A friend tells Deutschkron that their neighbour’s son has come back from the east with news about what is happening there to the Jews. This corroborates what she and her mother have heard on the BBC, which they listen to in secret whenever they can: “There’d been vague allusions to gassings and executions that none of had believed, or, rather, wanted to believe.” The friend insists they must not let themselves be deported. This is January 1943. Almost no Jews are still living in Berlin; the last will be taken in February. Deutschkron and her mother will have to go underground.
The U Boots move frequently, from place to place, all uncomfortable and risky, sleeping for a while even on the floor of a stationary stop owned by Socialist friends, and, later in their boathouse outside the city. They never stay anywhere long. If they are introduced by their hosts as friends on a visit, neighbours soon say, “They’re staying a long time, aren’t they?”
In the summer of 1943 the Gestapo finally “cleans out” Weidt’s workshop—everyone is deported, though Weidt manages to get Ali Licht and her parents (who he had been hiding in a false room at the back of the shop) sent to Theresienstadt. He didn’t know that the so-called model camp was just a station on the way to Auschwitz, though Ali managed to get a note to him when she was deported there. Ali’s story is remarkable: Weidt actually travelled to Oświęcim, the town where the camp was built in a former army barracks, found out that Ali was in fact in Birkenau, and bribed a Polish worker to smuggle a letter to her explaining that he had rented a room in town and left civilian clothes there, should she ever be able to escape—which she did in the chaos of the camp’s evacuation in January 1945. Ali Licht returned to Berlin and was hidden by Weidt for the rest of the war.
Deutschkron’s path to survival was less fraught than Ali’s but still harrowing. In the fall of 1943 the Allies begin bombing Berlin regularly. A terrible time for the city’s non-Jewish citizens is a boon for Deutschkron (though still dangerous, especially since she can’t go to the bomb shelter when she is hiding in someone’s apartment). She is able to get help at the NSV (National Socialist Welfare Agency) like any other bombed out victim; she even gets a new ID, after claiming that hers was lost in a raid. That doesn’t mean she is in the clear, though. After all, she has to worry about death from above as much as denunciation from those around her. Friends take the Deutschkrons to Potsdam, just outside Berlin, where they rent a meager shed, a “former combination goat shed and laundry room.” With only a few interruptions they spent the rest of the war there, scraping together enough to eat (while foraging for mushrooms, Deutschkron dreams of being able to take a walk without having to think of survival) and dodging identity checks. Once Deutschkron is even recognized by an old acquaintance on the subway, which is almost her undoing. Later she is threatened with denunciation by a woman jealous of her husband, who is hiding Inge and her mother. Even when the war shudders to a close and the Russians appear in Berlin, Deutschkron isn’t safe. Now she needs to dodge “the Ivans,” narrowly avoiding several assaults and attempted rapes.
After the war, hungry and weary, Deutschkron falls ill; moreover, she is depressed about the news out of Belsen and Auschwitz. She finally hears from her father, but she and her mother can’t get to the UK until August 1946. The last pages of Outcast are more concerned with the machinations between socialists and communists in immediate postwar Berlin than with her feelings. The shell Deutschkron has offered readers from the beginning of the book seems to have hardened. Even her final references to Israel, where she eventually settles, are perfunctory, giving nothing away. But why should we expect anything different? Deutschkron doesn’t owe us tears. Besides, the descriptions of how the communists repressed the socialist movement she and her parents had so identified with, and her concomitant claim that Israel is the only place she can be safe (ironically the book was written just at the moment when, with the election of Menachem Begin, Israel was abandoning its socialist past) do in fact get at what eats at her most: her exile from her home, Berlin.
Describing the roundup that swept up the city’s last Jews, Deutschkron declares: “A Berlin without any Jews was inconceivable.” She was living proof that such a city in fact never existed, but not for lack of trying. Jewish Berlin persisted only in hiding, in stealth, on the other side of a window or around a corner away from the invisible prying eyes of those who did everything they could to make the inconceivable a reality. Less bitter than Ruth Kluger in her postwar response to Vienna, less ambivalent than Marianne Strauss’s postwar attempts to identify with a new Germany, Inge Deutschkron is the clear-eyed, composed, yet wounded fighter who appears not just in this fascinating memoir but also in that interview with Lanzmann, which you can watch here. (Highly recommended; she’s amazing.)
Lanzmann likely cut Deutschkron from his film because she didn’t fit the story he wanted to tell. He wanted to focus on those forced to do the Nazis’ evil work in the extermination camps; his is a more lachrymose tale. I doubt Deutschkron cared that Lanzmann had no use for her. Well, maybe she did. But she might have expected something of the sort. She was used to being on the outside, looking in. She answered her mother’s demand—she proved herself as good as the ones who wanted to kill her—but it left a bad taste in her mouth.
I read this for Caroline and Lizz’s tenth annual German Literature Month. Lots of other great posts here.
Busy month. I kept to a schedule, writing at least a few paragraphs most days, and reading something Holocaust-related every morning. (Useful, fascinating, bit wearing.) I wrote a chapter of this book manuscript or whatever it’s going to be. I rejoiced in cooler weather which turned my runs from grim duty to joyful endorphin-fests. I counted the Biden signs in the neighbourhood and felt incautiously optimistic (not that he would win Arkansas, as if, but that he would win overall, and bigly). I studied for my US citizenship test and drove to Memphis to take it. And on the weekends I treated myself to Our Mutual Friend, which I didn’t quite finish, but will soon. (It’s good!) Here are my thoughts on the rest of my reading:
Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle (1957) Trans. Roy Edwards (1960)
Minco, born Sara Menco, was a twenty-year-old Jewish newspaper journalist when the Germans conquered her native Holland. Shortly thereafter she was fired by the paper’s pro-German leadership. That was the first of many losses. When the rest of her family was rounded up she escaped—slipping out the back door, diving through a gap in the hedge, and running breathlessly in search of safety—and spent the rest of the war in hiding in a series of safe houses.
She resumed writing after the war, achieving success with this, her first book, in 1957. The old Penguin edition I read describes it as a novel, but its events track her own experiences closely. I prefer Minco’s more accurate subtitle: the book is indeed a little chronicle, modest in size, if not in scope, its mode of telling disjointed, eliding important connective tissue. Not a narrative, then, but rather a text struggling how to best represent time. Bitter Herbs is made up of discrete (and discreet) units that offer flashes of Minco’s experience before and during the Nazi occupation.
Readers are likely to calibrate the bits of the story to the historical timeline—”it must be 1944 by now; the Allies have arrived”—but Minco challenges that practice, preferring instead to perform, and thus make us in some small way feel, the dislocation of life on the run. Minco survived, or we would not have her book, but her story doesn’t end happily. The final chapter describes her paternal uncle, the only other person in her family to have survived (in his case thanks to his marriage to a non-Jew). Every day the uncle waits at the tram stop near his house, fruitlessly searching out familiar faces. No one else ever comes back.
Minco’s chapters are little essays. In the one that gives the book its title, as she reflects on her split-section decision to run when the SS arrived to take her and her parents away, Minco describes how, briefly reunited with her brother and sister-in-law in a safe house, the three take turns bleaching their hair, causing their landlady to become suspicious and kick them out. She compares the door of the no-longer safe house she passes through into an uncertain future to the one she fled through, which reminds her, in turn, of the custom at the end of the Passover Seder to open the door for the prophet Elijah. Instead of dwelling on this messianic moment—Elijah never comes, at least not yet—Minco remembers the last of the Four Questions, which, as the youngest in the family, she would always be the one to ask: Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs? Her memory concludes:
Then my father would chant the story of the exodus from Egypt, and we ate of the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, in order that we should taste again of that exodus—from year to year, for ever and ever.
Am I right to hear a note of disdain here? As if the ritual were an impotent reveling in pain? (That repetition of “year to year,” “for ever and ever”—the endlessness seems as bitter as the herb.) Yet Minco can’t help but remember the moment, which could also be read as an invocation of an unbreakable tradition. But any idea of permanence is belied by both the form and content of her book. Minco is keen, at the end of the book, to take the tram and not look back—to be different from her uncle.
Roy Edwards’s translation seems a bit dusty; I gather a new version is forthcoming in the UK. The old edition was, however, graced by beautiful, jagged drawings by Herman Dijkstra. I wonder if those were present in the original Dutch, or whether they were added by Penguin. Minco celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year; it would be nice if an English-language publisher would follow Germany’s Arco Verlag in releasing a lovely centenary edition of this underappreciated writer.
Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (2020)
I was talking with a friend on Twitter the other day about autofiction: I enjoy it, but I find it doesn’t stay with me, maybe because I’m not trained to read it the way I am, say, realism. And maybe the problem is with Nunez: I remember delighting in her previous book, The Friend, and then, months later, having no memory of it, and even a few weeks later I’m hazy about What Are You Going Through? Maybe I read her too quickly; maybe her style is too lucid. (Is that a thing?) Maybe I should read the book again; maybe she’s one of those writers who only blossom when re-read. I do know, though, that I much preferred Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, which similarly considers the emotional and physical caretaking of a dying friend. That I read in January and still think about all the time. Maybe because Garner’s book is filled with rage, and rage scares me. Nunez, though pointed—her tone reminds me of a perfectly plucked eyebrow—is calmer, less likely to push my buttons.
Hilary Leichter, Temporary (2020)
The first time I saw Hilary Leichter I was terrified of her. I was just beginning a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College. (It sounds much fancier than it was: people would often politely ask, “Where are you visiting from?” not knowing that this is academic speak for “We have hired you on a full-time basis but only temporarily; do not expect to stick around.”) The night before the semester started my wife and I and some similarly temporarily employed friends attended a student production of David Mamet’s Oleanna, a two-hander about a young woman who, under the auspices/prodding of an ominously named “Group,” accuses a professor of harassment. I have not seen or read this play since; I strongly suspect it now reads as regressive and dismissive of accusers, but at the time it seemed evenhanded and smart. Anyway, as a newly-minted instructor I was terrified by the play’s suggestion that students could turn on one. And mostly I was in awe at the actor who played the student, who transformed, even physically, becoming taller, more present, from the first to the second act. (I mean, the transformation is in the script, but the actor seemed to become someone wholly other, through her carriage, posture, intonations, etc.)
When I stepped into the classroom the next week I didn’t even recognize that actor in Hilary Leichter, pleasant student ready to tackle Virginia Woolf. And when I did I had a moment of alarm—what would this student do to me? Nothing, it turned out, but good, by ably and generously contributing to the life of the seminar. Eventually she graduated and went on her way, and I did something similar, being very lucky to get my current job. I believe that all teachers really want is for their students to thrive, in whatever way best suits them. Imagine then my pleasure when I learned about Hilary’s first novel. And my joy and pride—you’d think I’d written the damn thing myself—when it got a rave New York Times review (it has since also appeared on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best of the Year list). I was excited to be able to convince the other members of the talent committee to invite Hilary to the Six Bridges Literary Festival; alas, our reunion was spoiled by COVID, but we finally got to reconnect when the festival went virtual last month.
In preparation for her appearance, which I agreed to moderate, I sat down to finally read Temporary. I was nervous. What if I didn’t like it? But my fear quickly vanished. The book is smart and engaging: just like Hilary herself. Temporary concerns a young woman who works a series of unusual temp jobs. In the world of the novel, though, which is both ours and not quite, such precarity is not a shitty fact of how we’ve decided to organize society but an identity position. Some people, like the narrator, are temps; they long for the permanence that Leichter calls “the steadiness.”
In reimagining economic reality as existential situation, Leichter critiques the cruel optimism of so-called late capitalism. The narrator’s jobs are like extravagant, explosive versions of what you’d find in Richard Scarry: she directs traffic, delivers mail, fills in on a pirate ship while someone is on leave, opens doors, robs banks, and even assassinates people to order. Throughout, Leichter literalizes the anodyne language of business management, giving it new life—“completely underwater” means something different when you work on a pirate ship. (The narrator concludes, perhaps offering Leichter’s own credo: “You can turn a phrase only so many times before it turns into something else.”)
Temporary could at first seem, like its title, slight. The publisher seems to be marketing it as charming, even zany (bright yellow cover featuring a delicate masked figure). And no question, the novel is fun and often laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly like the subplots involving the narrator’s 18 boyfriends, differentiated only by Homeric epithets: pacifist boyfriend, handy boyfriend, earnest boyfriend. When the narrator leaves the city for her pirate gig, the boyfriends move into her apartment, fixing it up for her and, as she learns on regular phone calls home, getting along famously: “‘We stayed up all night working!’ my caffeinated boyfriend chirps.”
But Temporary is serious business: its fantasy lets us imagine a world beyond precarity. “No one is outwardly harmed, but there’s harm everywhere”—this sentence encapsulates both capitalism’s false cheer and the novel’s stealth design. Will our protagonist find the steadiness she desires? Or will she tap into the power of temporariness, which has, after all, been handed down to her as a matrilineal inheritance, like the Jewishness that suffuses the novel without ever being named. Like Jewishness, at least in its exilic form, temporariness longs to be accepted by the fortunate steady, but, because such acceptance would undo its very identity, also rejects it. Temporary is a novel of resistance, not assimilation; as such, it’s a novel we need. Best of all, I can say I knew the author before she made it big, back when I was temporary too.
GennaRose Nethercott, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (2019) Illus. Bobby DiTrant
Cootie catchers are those folded paper fortune tellers you made as a kid to dare your friend to do something gross or to find out who you would marry. Nethercott’s book comes in a sleeve about the size of an LP filled with sheets you fold yourself and use to tell the story. In some version of late 19th early 20th century America, filled with trains and burlesque dancers, at an ominous plantation-like cranberry farm, terrible things are happening: every month a young woman goes missing, lost to the bog. Will Lianna escape? Where to and to what purpose? Will she bring justice to her sacrificed comrades? Depending on the vagaries of chance—i.e. how you play with the cootie catchers—any number of outcomes are possible.
I wouldn’t have read this had it not been for that lit fest panel I mentioned above (Nethercott appeared with Leichter). Which would have been a shame. I confess, though, that I found Lianna a little too cute—at least I did until I heard Nethercott’s (and Leichter’s) impassioned rejection of “whimsey” as a response women writers face more often than men; that dismissal, moreover, neglects the power of the fanciful to help us imagine a world that might be different than our own. As serious as a children’s game, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog is indeed a story of forced labour, violence against women, and the possibility of escaping those terrible material realities.
Charles Cumming, A Colder War (2014)
The follow-up toA Foreign Country. I enjoyed the glimpses of Istanbul. The love interest is a little too hetero-guy wet-dream-y, though.
Charles Cumming, A Divided Spy (2016)
The Thomas Kell trilogy comes to a satisfying conclusion. The last scene is especially good; unusual in spy fiction. I’ll read more of Cumming.
Barbara Demick, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (1996, revised 2012)
As I mentioned last month, Demick likes to use the experiences of a few individuals to illustrate larger political-historical situations. Here she offers a single street in Sarajevo as a microcosm for the siege of 1992—95. The six blocks of Logavina Street offer, for Demick, the best of the place, a city where, as the jacket copy puts it, “Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, lived easily together, unified by their common identity as Sarajevans.” I know Demick didn’t write that descriptions, but it speaks the strengths and weaknesses of her approach: light on history, good with character. The families Demick lives among experience the strains of life lived under threat of mortar and sniper: often cold, mostly hungry, always at risk.
Unfortunately, the capable storytelling isn’t matched by comparable analytic sophistication (her most recent book is better). I winced when Demick misread Primo Levi, dubiously compared Sarajevans under siege to inmates of a subcamp of Auschwitz. But in an introduction written for this second edition, Demick recognizes the book’s flaws, regretting its naivete. I don’t think she’s renounced her belief in the beauty of a multiethnic, cosmopolitan polity, but she no longer thinks this ideal is coterminous with freedom and democracy. The whole book is, no surprise, redolent of the 1990s, a time that now seems impossibly quaint and infuriatingly smug. But Demick is right to have left the text as it was written (even as she has added a welcome post-script updating readers on her subjects). And I still learned a lot. Logavina Street allowed me, who didn’t pay much attention to the events as they occurred—they were part of life’s grim background noise, inexplicable other than through lazy, and totally bogus, nostrums about age-old ethnic hatreds—to start remedying past ignorance.
Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1963)
Reader extraordinaire and Backlisted podcaster Andy Miller named Segal’s novel My First American as his best read of October. Hearing this, I resolved to take down my copy of this, her first novel, which, like Minco’s Bitter Herbs, could certainly be called a memoir, as it follows her own experiences closely.
Segal (née Groszmann) left Vienna in 1938 on one of the Kindertransports. In England she was billeted with various families who, although well-meaning, simply couldn’t understand her, mistaking her reserve for stubbornness instead of trauma. Segal’s vividly portrays her family in pre-Anschluss times (especially her charming uncle, Paul, part wastrel, part mensch), the new “families” she is plunked among, and herself, always tracking her own reactions. She has an eye for psychological complication—in the hours before her desperate parents send their only child off alone to a foreign country, for example, they buy her a sausage, which the girl has said she wants, but only because she sees they want to get her something special to prove their love; on the journey to England and in the first weeks there, spent in a freezing holiday camp hastily made over as refugee center, the sausage, which she cannot bring herself to eat and is in fact disgusted by but which she also cannot bear to throw away, begins to rot, its smell an unshakable stain symbolizing terrible misunderstanding and conflicted emotions.
Through force of will the child helps her parents get British visas (she writes begging letters to the authorities, trading on her position as lost and vulnerable child), though the visas only allow them to work in domestic service, so the family remains separated except for occasional visits. Segal’s mother takes to the work, even though in Vienna she had had servants herself; she is an unstoppable force. Her father does not, he is helpless, his training as an accountant hasn’t prepared him for his new role as a gardener. His health declines; Segal’s mother spends her scarce private time and energy to attending to him; Segal, now a teenager, condemns him as a burden. All very fraught. Eventually she moves to London, attends a women’s college, and, after the war, accompanies her mother to the Dominican Republic, where her uncle was hopelessly attempting to become a farmer (at the Evian conference on the Jewish crisis in 1938, the DR was the only country willing to take Jewish refugees). In 1951, her American visa finally comes through, and the last part of the book tells the story of her finding her feet in New York.
Other People’s Houses is like a mashup of Kluger’s Still Alive, Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In other words, extremely my shit. In tone it is most similar to Gornick—unsparing, but less harsh than Kluger and less sweet than Kerr. It’s terrific. I will say, I did find it a bit long, especially in its second half (the childhood parts of autobiographical books are always the best). In fact, I had the same feeling finishing this as I did when I first read Still Alive. I liked it, I knew it was good, but I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It took me several readings of Kluger’s memoir to really get a handle on its genius, and I suspect the same will be true for Segal’s. (No surprise, by the way, that Segal wrote the introduction to Still Alive.) I plan to teach Other People’s Houses; that’s when I’ll really get a handle on it.
Mark Roseman, Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany (2019)
As I say in my precis, this is the most consequential book I’ve read this year. A work of history both deep and accessible with important implications for how we think about resistance.
Liz Moore, Long Bright River (2020)
Moore’s title is lifted from Tennyson and works both literally—this is a great novel of Philadelphia; the Delaware recurs frequently—and metaphorically—the subject is the release and suffering users of races and classes find in the river of opioids deluging the country. Like Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, which I keep singing the praises of, Moore’s novel upends the conventions of the procedural. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a cop; her sister is an addict. Every call sends a spasm through Mickey: will this Jane Doe be Kacey? So far so compelling—but also so far so cliched. What’s really great here is how the shifty first-person narration (which is very subtly done, it takes a long time before we realize Mickey is, not exactly untrustworthy, but certainly prey to her own demons) forces us to consider what it means to value socially acceptable forms of addiction (to work, to control, to order). Long Bright River fillets the genre of the procedural, turning it inside out. I loved it—I stayed up until almost 4 to finish it and didn’t even regret it the next day—but I did wonder, Where can we go from here? Is the procedural simply impossible now? Smart book; looking forward to more from Moore.
Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar (1949)
Tey’s novel about a man who claims to be the long-lost scion of a pedigreed horse-owning English family, unseating his twin brother just days before the latter was to come into his inheritance, is plenty ingenious. We know from the beginning that Brat is an imposter, coached by a vindictive cousin who seizes upon the man’s uncanny likeness to the brother to split the inheritance two ways. (Shame Tey quickly gets bored of the cousin.) So the question isn’t “Is he for real?” but “Will he be uncovered?” Tey pulls a nice surprise at the end, and asks questions about identity and belonging. (There’s a lotta horse neepery, which I could takle or leave.) I liked it well enough—though less so, I think, than Rohan, whose take you should read—but not as much as her earlier novel of unsettlement, The Franchise Affair, and not as much as another novel from the period concerning an uncanny imposter, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, a more suspenseful book which has, it seems to me, wider ambitions.
Gerda Weissmann Klein, All But My Life (1957, revised 1995)
Memoir recounting, first, Klein’s childhood in a prosperous Jewish merchant family in the Silesian town of Bielitz (today Bielsko-Biala), a textile center near the Czech border that until WWI had been part of Austro-Hungary; the destruction of that world with the German invasion of Poland; her family’s subsequent dispersal and persecution; and eventually the story of her wartime suffering, first as a weaver in a series of slave labour camps and finally, most harrowingly, as one of only a handful of survivors of one of the longest and deadliest of the so-called Death Marches. Four thousand young women left the Gross-Rosen camp system in January 1945; after a 350-mile trek through that terrible winter, only 120 were still alive when the war ended in May.
Particularly interesting is the story of Klein’s rescue, at the point of death (she weighed 68 pounds at liberation), by an American GI, whom she subsequently married. I was struck by the differences between Klein’s experience and Ruth Kluger, who similarly survived a Death March but who memorably describes her first encounter with a GI who put his fingers in his ears when Kluger’s mother started to tell him what they had gone through. Kluger would go on to marry a GI too, though that marriage did not last. That Klein’s husband was Jewish, had been born in Germany, and emigrated with his family in the 1930s must have contributed to that difference.
Klein’s happily-ever-after contrasts with the other striking strand of her wartime experiences: her relationship with Abek Feigenblatt, a young man she met in a camp in 1941, when she and her parents were some of the only Jews left in Bielitz, and when it was still possible for people to visit those incarcerated. This was a work camp, not an extermination camp, and Abek’s job was to restore paintings, most of which had been stolen from Jewish homes, so he came and went with a great deal of freedom. The Bielitz ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and everyone left was sent either west, like Klein, to work, or east, like her parents, to be murdered.
The twenty-two-year-old Abek immediately falls for the teenaged girl (Klein was 17 at the time) and presses his suit. She is flattered but also unhappy; she does not love him and is both put off and frightened by his persistence. For the next few years their lives are painfully intertwined: Klein is briefly sent to Sosnowitz, forty-five miles away, where Abek’s family lives, and he urges them to arrange an essential worker permit for her, which she rejects for fear of being bound to him; later they write each other regularly from their respective work camps; and he eventually arranges to be transferred to a camp near her own, even though it is notoriously dangerous, so that, with the connivance of a kindly German overseer, they can occasionally see each other. Abek’s eventual fate—but also his disagreeable love—haunt Klein.
Some might say Klein’s experiences were too unusual, indeed too privileged, to count as representative. But all stories are particular, and all survivor accounts contain remarkable elements. After all, all survivors are anomalies. I am pretty amazed that Klein first published this in 1957; that it was revised in the mid 90s, as a result of a successful documentary film, makes sense: it feels of that Holocaust museum opening in DC/Schindler’s List Oscar winning moment. But to my mind it seems unusual for the 50s. I’d like to find out about its reception. Was it a success? How did its first readers take it? What framework did they place it in? One story often told is that that the Holocaust doesn’t coalesce as a concept until the Eichmann trial in the 60s, or the famous miniseries in the 70s. Klein’s book might challenge that. I do note that the back of my edition categorizes it as “Memoir/Judaica,” the latter an old-fashioned, exoticizing term. (I’d expect something like “Holocaust Studies” instead.)
Klein is a good writer, but not an extraordinary one. I missed, for example, Kluger’s analytic reach and sharp tone. Klein’s story is more triumphant, though certainly not without its bitterness. In general, she seems a more establishment figure, if I could put it that way. Her humanitarian work cannot be denied: Clinton appointed her to the USHMM governing council; Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom; as recently as 2008, in her 80s, she started a 501C3 that educates students about citizenship. Anyway, All But My Life is maybe not the only Holocaust memoir I’d want people to read, but I can recommend it.
Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)
Dillon has chosen 27 favourite sentences—from prose works ranging from Donne and Browne to Mantel and Jaeggy—and written a short essay on each. I have only three objections to this exercise. One, I’m deeply envious that I am not smart enough to have thought of this or good enough & well connected enough to pull it off. Two, Dillon loves to qualify and hesitate—and not just because nuance requires it. He speaks of “a certain kind of exposure,” “a certain fragility,” “a kind of care, and a kind of fury.” What he says about Janet Malcolm—“Malcolm’s own resistance to the same qualities [of permanence, order, closure] involves her in an orgy of provisionality and tentativeness”—is too often true of him too. Three, he is irritatingly fond of rhetorical questions, which is a shame since his real questions are excellent.
But even my envy and grumpiness give way before Dillon’s accomplishment. He’s a great celebrator, a quality I admire in a critic. And he’s a terrific close reader. My copy is filled with appreciative check marks and exclamations—he notices so much about his material, and develops those observations into suggestive insights. He’s really good on verbless sentences and on commas, especially those that are expected but elided. His choices are pleasingly unexpected; even the usual suspects are represented by obscure material. Joan Didion, for example, honed her craft writing captions for Vogue, and Dillon convincingly argues that his example—a sentence accompanying a photo of Dennis Hopper’s home—lost its power when Didion later revised and repurposed it in a published essay. Most importantly, he has good taste. He gets how amazing Elizabeth Bowen is, which is always going to win someone over in my books. He makes me want to read Maeve Brennan and Anne Boyer. And above all, he has sent me in search of Claire Bennett, about whom he writes brilliantly.
There you have it. Not quite the riches of September, but a better than average reading month. Mark Roseman’s book stood out above the rest, but Lore Segal, Hilary Leichter, Liz Moore, and Marga Minco impressed too. Not sure November will match up—I’ve spent most of it so far in a fog of election paralysis—but check back in a month to see.
The month began in full mid-semester throttle. I taught a colleague’s class at a university at the other end of the State—preparing for that was a lot of work. Then I organized a visit to campus from a friend who presented on his work in progress. And almost the minute I dropped him at the airport, things started being canceled: our daughter’s school; then mine; then we were hunkering down for the foreseeable. And the month kept on going, stretching out endlessly, a disorienting expanse of fear and stress and, strangely, intimacy and, oh I don’t know, not languor or relaxation, but time. (To be able to experience is a sign of our privilege.) During all of it, I was reading, I hear a lot about people being unable to read at the moment. I get that, but since reading, for me, is a way to keep the world at bay I’ve been struggling with the opposite problem. I need reading even more than usual, but life (switching to remote teaching, figuring out how to handle our daughter’s homeschooling) is making that harder. Still, my family and I are safe, we’re mostly enjoying our time together, our dogs think this is the best thing that’s ever happened.
Louise Erdrich, The Round House (2012)
The narrator of Erdrich’s novel, thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts, lives on a rez in North Dakota in the late 80s. At the beginning of the summer during which the book is set, Joe’s mother is violently attacked and raped, plunging the family into a tailspin from which it recovers only at great cost. Frustrated at the lack of progress in finding and arresting the perpetrator—a frustration that has much to do with the disparity between Federal and Tribal law, and the insufficiencies of the latter as enshrined by the callousness of the former: a frustration felt even more strongly by Joe’s father, a judge on the rez—Joe and his best friends try to solve the crime. That could sound cute, but although often funny and filled with a large and sometimes larger than life cast of characters, the novel is sorrowful, especially when two more instances of unexpected violence bring matters to a chastened conclusion. I was surprised at Erdrich’s decision to narrate this story of violence against indigenous women from the point of view of a teenage boy, but one of her points, I think, is that such violence is everyone’s problem. I listened to the audiobook—the last of this semester’s commuting, as it turned out—and another pleasure was the actor Gary Farmer’s reading: I loved his cadence and emphases. My first Erdrich, but not my last.
Paulette Jiles, Enemy Women (2002)
You may remember me rhapsodizing over Jiles’s News of the World. I didn’t quite like this earlier novel as much, but I still liked it a lot. I’m so ignorant about the Civil War (I’m Canadian, sue me), but I bet even many American readers might not know that women from Confederate families (or even families who supported neither side) were jailed for (supposedly) abetting the enemy. Enemy Women is set in Missouri, especially the hills between Rolla and the Bootheel, land I’ve driven through plenty of times on my way from Little Rock to St. Louis, which I’ll now never think of in the same way. (Usually I try not to think of it, finding it incredibly dull. It certainly wasn’t in the 1860s.) Missouri wasn’t just swept across by the Union and Confederate Armies; it was also ravaged by militia on both sides. The women of Jiles’s title were mostly arrested by the Missouri Union Militia. As The New York Times reviewer resonantly put it, “the Ozarks became a wilderness of free-floating entrepreneurs of violence.” 18-year-old Adair Colley is arrested and sent to a jail in St. Louis after her family’s farm is burned, her father taken away, and her siblings scattered. In prison Adair draws the attention of her interrogator, Major William Neumann. The two begin a romance but are soon separated: Neumann is reassigned to Alabama while Adair escapes and tries to return to what’s left of her farm. Jiles switches between the storylines: Neumann is interesting, but Adair is the star. I found the first part of the novel slow, but I read the last third in a long rush that left me tired (but unrepentant!) the next morning. (There’s a bit in which she shakes off a dangerous pursuer that’s real heart-in-the-throat stuff.) This was Jiles’s first novel (she had published several books of poetry before that) and she’s certainly improved a lot since then. Even so Enemy Women is definitely worth your time.
Rennie Airth, The Decent Inn of Death (2020)
Latest installment of a crime series that (a) does not have too many books in it and (b) is worth reading even though later books don’t reach the heights of the first ones. Interestingly, Airth has let the characters age: their inabilities are central to this case, which riffs on the classic country-house murder.
Friedrich Gorenstein, Redemption (1967) Trans. Andrew Bromfield (2018)
The last text I taught in person before we switched to remote learning. A few months ago, I worried students might find this novel of postwar Russia difficult and off-putting. Proving once again that even twenty years into the gig I know nothing about teaching, they loved it. Many said it was their favourite text so far. (And we’d read Ruth Kluger and Art Spiegelman!) Students were rightly fascinated by Gorenstein’s ambivalent portrayal of his teenage protagonist, Sashenka, who veers between cruelty and kindness and isn’t sure what she wants, just that she feels everything a lot. (The word the book most often uses about her is “spite.”) Gorenstein veers between realism and religious/philosophical abstraction; to me, he’s more compelling when writing in the former mode. What’s hard to figure out is how Gorenstein would have us reconcile psychology with sociology. His presentation of the Holocaust is strikingly non-ideological. On the one hand, he acknowledges the murder of Jews (rare in Soviet literature); on the other, he presents those murders as personal and local rather than systematic and genocidal. He’s good, though, on the terrible intimacy and physicality of such killing.
Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird (2017)
Set on and around Highway 59 in east Texas—the very route we were planning to take on a canceled Spring Break trip to Houston—the first in a new series for Locke is atmospheric and interesting. (She’s writing about Texas, but it could easily be Arkansas. Normally I’m allergic to all things Southern/Arkansan, even though I’ve landed here; that Locke kept me engaged with this material says something.) Darren Mathews, her hero, is a black Texas Ranger who grew up in east Texas, left as soon as he could, but was drawn home again. He’s got a complicated family background that Locke uses to good effect and a predictably failing marriage that is less interesting. The book is best on race relations in the South (less straightforward than many non-Southerners like to imagine). It is weakest in hewing to conventions of the procedural (renegade cop, troubles with alcohol). According to her bio, Locke has been writing for TV a lot. More power to her—it’s where the money is—but the book manifests a certain sheen or glibness, an unwillingness to let scenes linger, that smacks of the more disappointing qualities of television pacing. I found Steph Cha’s recent take on how to write crime fiction that challenges the institutional racism of policing more compelling.
Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home (2019)
Sequel to Bluebird (they could be read as a single novel). Competent, but I’m not convinced Locke has yet figured out what she wants to do with the series. Most interesting when it addresses how quickly life changed for minorities—including those in the police—after Trump got elected.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975)
Cool, even icy, novel about a woman who travels to India to learn about her grandfather’s first wife, who left him for an Indian prince in the 1920s. I didn’t care for it, but Tom’s review made me appreciate it more. He really helped me think about the novel’s narration. The 1970s material takes the form of the narrator’s diary; the 1920s material is in third person. Where’s it coming from? Is the narrator writing it? If so, why/how does it include material the narrator surely couldn’t have known? Or is it omniscient? If so, what’s the relationship between the two timelines? What information should we trust? Is the narrator any different than the hippies surging through India on the hunt for spiritual enlightenment? Is she any different than her not-quite grandmother? What does it mean that her life begins to imitate her ancestor’s? These are interesting questions, but they’re more interesting than the novel itself. You certainly can’t accuse it of romanticizing India. If anything, it dislikes the place. In that sense, it’s still a colonial text—India observed from the outside. And I found the willingness of both female characters to have sex with men despite having no real interest in doing so troubling. (Quite a strange aspect of the novel: sex isn’t about liberation or pleasure or, conversely, violence or trauma. It’s a blank.) In the end, Heat and Dust gave off more dust than heat—I like my fiction warmer. But those with different tastes might feel differently. Not sure I’d try any of Prawer Jhabvala’s other novels. Are they all like this?
Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing (2019)
I loved this essay collection, which Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Books, who sold it to me, said is not even her best. (Naturally, I ordered her first two from him immediately.) I read most of it outside on the back porch in those days after face-to-face teaching stopped and before remote learning started—a dead, anxious, weird time that happened to coincide with that short time in Arkansas when the weather is gorgeous, the humidity low, and the mosquitoes not yet swarming. With less traffic on the roads (but not that much less: shamefully, Arkansas still does not have a Stay at Home order), the birds were louder and more frolicsome than usual. The azaleas in full bloom, the irises coming out, the redbuds just moving from that gorgeous pink blossom to their ordinary ugly leaves. I mention all this because Jamie is so attuned to place; reading her essays helped me be more so too. What made this an especially good book to read now is that many of its essays are about sojourns Jamie made to remote, isolated places that are nonetheless characterized by strong senses of community. We see that in a remembrance of travelling to the Chinese border with Tibet during the time of Tiananmen, a three-part piece on the excavation of a Neolithic settlement in the Orkneys, and, especially, in a long, magnificent essay about a summer spent in a Yup’ik village on the Alaskan coast, where the thawing tundra is bringing forth revelations about the area’s ancient hunter gatherer culture. (I am a sucker for all things northern, dream of traveling north of 60, so this essay was Extremely My Shit, but I also think it’s just objectively gorgeous and moving.) In all cases, Jamie shows that for things to surface, change has to happen, and that change isn’t always good. In the case of climate change, it’s terrifying. But these are hopeful, not hopeless essays. Not naïve, but sustaining. And boy that is what I need right now.
Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Trans. Ann Smock (1996)
A book I’ve read many times. Even though I stand by most of the things I say here, my sense of the memoir has evolved over the years. And it changed yet again this month: students always like it, but this was the best experience I’d had with it, all the more astonishing because we studied it together remotely. This group helped me see how obviously Rue Ordener is a traumatized text, so different, for example, from self-reflective Holocaust texts like Kluger’s Still Alive or Spiegelman’s Maus. Kofman forgoes retrospection, making it hard to decide how she feels about her experiences, especially what it was like to be torn between her mother and the casually antisemitic Frenchwoman who hid her in occupied Paris. Yet as a student pointed out the very raw, unprocessed, or traumatized quality of the text might itself be an illusion, a stealth way of exerting control by challenging us not to interpret. Highly recommended.
Surfacing was my book of the month, followed by Enemy Women and The Round House. Rue Ordener I know so well I can’t even rank it here. Maybe I’ll read a little more in April. Or maybe not. At any rate, I’ve finished a very long cowboy novel that’s been keeping me entertained. Let me know what you’ve been reading during the pandemic, if you’ve been reading at all. And most importantly stay well, friends.
February. When was that? Oh yeah, when we were stressed and run into the ground by daily cares. Part of me wants that life back so much. But part of me thinks the world that generated those cares wasn’t all that great. I swing between terror (about illness and death, about financial and economic collapse, about those lines around the block at the gun shop) and hope (maybe things could be different on the other side of this). Mostly I feel paralyzed, with many things to do but little incentive to do them.
So what was happening in that long-ago time? The treadmill of the semester, mostly. Rumblings of the disease. (Would my students and I be able to take our trip to Europe? Long since canceled, of course.) The hockey playoffs drawing ever nearer. (Amazing how much time I spent on that stuff.) And, of course, some reading. To wit:
Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001) One of thegreatest Holocaust memoirs, no, a fucking great book, period. Ruth Kluger is one of the original badasses. Unlike many Holocaust memoirs, Still Alive (even the title is a spit in the face of her persecutors) focuses as much on postwar as prewar and wartime life. Kluger’s persecutors are legion: the Nazis, of course, and all the silent Germans who acquiesced to them. But also all those who insist on minimizing or relativizing her experiences. And then there are the oppressive systems she’s had to live under, not least racism and patriarchy. (Kluger was one of the first to insist that the experience of the Holocaust was thoroughly gendered.) And, most painfully, the people closest to her: her first husband; an old friend (the well-known German writer Martin Walser); a great-aunt who, in prewar Vienna, took away Kluger’s streetcar ticket collection from her, deeming it dirty and vulgar; the distant familial connections in America who wanted little to do with her when she and her mother landed there in the late 1940s. (Kluger is a great hater and knows how to hold a grudge.) But of all these persecutors the greatest is her mother, the woman with whom she experienced the Anschluss, the depredations and degradations of Nazi Vienna, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, a death march, the DP camps, and finally postwar life in America. A woman who saved her and protected her, yet also tormented her, dismissed her, ignored her, even, it’s fair to say, hated her.
The more times I read Still Alive the more towering I find its achievement. I think this might be the fourth time I’ve taught it. Plus, I did the best job I’ve done with it yet, which was satisfying and solidified my love for the book. I sense readers are catching up to it. In the past, students have felt intimidated by it, even a little shocked. The new generation, angrier, eats it up.
Paulette Jiles, News of the World (2016) Charming without being cloying. News of the World is one of my finds of the year, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be on my end-of-year list. (Look at me with the optimism.) I’d never read Jiles before, only vaguely been aware of her, but now I’m making my way through the backlist.
News of the World centers on one Captain Jefferson Kidd, who travels through post-Civil War Texas offering readings from a collection of newspapers that he periodically replenishes whenever he reaches a larger town. (Audience members drop their dimes into an old paint can.) He’s a performer, knowing just how much political news he can offer before tempers flare (Texas in these days is roiled by animosity between those supporting the current governor and those opposed) and offering enough news of far-off explorers and technological inventions to soothe, even entrance the crowds. At one such gig near the Oklahoma border an old friend begs him to take charge of a ten-year-old girl who had been stolen from her family by the Kiowa four years earlier and has now been retaken by the US Army. Kidd is prevailed upon to take the girl to her nearest relations, in the country near San Antonio, four hundred dangerous miles south.
Johanna has forgotten English, has no memory of her parents, is devastated by the loss of her Kiowa family and its culture. The novel considers such matters as cultural difference (which it is much more sensitive about than most of the Westerns I’ve been reading lately) and U.S. history (the Captain has fought in three wars, going back to the war of 1812—he’s in his 70s and his great age is part of the story’s poignancy) and the question of whether law can take root in the wake of years of lawlessness. It’s an adventure story and a guide to the Texas landscape. But mostly it’s the story of the bond that arises between the old man and the young girl. And all of this in less than 250 pages. The Captain becomes ever fonder of the child (not in a creepy way, it’s totally above board in that regard), but the feeling hurts him. He senses nothing but heartbreak can come of the situation, and his heart doesn’t feel up to it. I was moved and delighted and recommend it without reservation—could be just the ticket when you’re stuck inside feeling anxious.
Apparently they’ve made a movie and it stars Tom Hanks and probably everyone’s going to love it but I bet it’ll be as saccharine as shit.
Philip Kerr, Prussian Blue (2017) Regular readers know I’m marching though Kerr’s series. This one is especially despairing and cynical, which for this series is saying something. Moving between 1938 and 1956, it finds Bernie Guenther on the run and reminded of an old case in which he was dragooned into finding out who shot a flunky on the balcony of Hitler’s retreat at Bechtesgaden. Set as they are amid the Third Reich, all of these novels are about corruption, but the stink is especially pervasive here. Not the series’ best, though as always Kerr is great at dramatizing history: in this case he particularly nails the Nazi reliance on amphetamines.
Sarah Gailey, Upright Women Wanted (2020) “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” Tell me you don’t want to read the book that accompanies this tagline. Yet the problem is that the former seems the product of the latter instead of the other way around. Gailey’s novel of a future run on Handmaid’s Tale lines is engaging but slight. Gailey doesn’t much go in for world-building: it’s unclear what happened to make the former western US states technologically poor, violently misogynistic, hardscrabble and suspicious (not really a stretch). Instead, she focuses on the role of the librarians who make their way by wagon-train through the western desert, officially bringing state-sanctioned propaganda to fortified settlements but unofficially acting as couriers for a fledgling resistance. The librarians are women who get to shoot and ride and swear and live, enticing exceptions to the rigidly prescribed gender roles of the times. Upright Women Wanted is a queer western that includes a non-binary character; its most lasting legacy might be its contribution to normalizing they/them/their pronouns. In the end it was too casual/slapdash for me, but I enjoyed reading it well enough for the hour or two it demanded of me.
Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Apparently the amateur who falls into an espionage plot is Ambler’s stock in trade. I’ve actually read one or two of his books, but so long ago that I’d forgotten this description, if I ever knew it. Anyway, the machinery of this formula hums along at high efficiency in this finely executed story of a schoolteacher who gets mistaken for a spy and then has only days to find out who among the guests at his Mediterranean pension is the real culprit. The way states use the precariousness of statelessness (the fate of many of the book’s characters) remains painfully timely. For more, read Jacqui’s review. (I know other bloggers have reviewed this too. Please tag yourself in the comments.)
Magda Szabó, Abigail (1970) Trans. Len Rix (2020) The back cover of this new translation of Hungarian writer Szabó’s most popular novel hits the Jane Austen comparisons hard. At first I found this idea both implausible and annoying (it used to be that publishers and reviewers compared books to Austen when they meant “this is set in the 19th century and includes a love plot” but now it seems to have expanded to mean “this book is by a woman”), but as I read on I started to see the point. For Abigail, like Emma, is focalized through a young woman who thinks she knows more than she does. Yet where Austen’s protagonist misunderstands love, Szabó’s misunderstands politics. Gina is the willful teenage daughter of a general in the Hungarian Army during WWII. She is baffled and hurt when her father abruptly sends her to a convent school far from Budapest. The first half of the book is classic boarding school story—Gina is a haughty outsider, she alienates the other girls, she struggles to become part of their cliques—but, after a failed escape attempt, as the political situation in Hungary changes drastically (the Germans take over their client state in early 1944; Adolf Eichmann is sent to Budapest to oversee the deportation of what was at that point the largest intact Jewish community in Europe), Gina learns how much more is at stake than her personal happiness. That realization is marked in her changed understanding of the book’s titular character, which is, in fact, not a person but a statue on the school grounds with whom the girls leave notes asking for help or advice. Eventually it becomes clear that Abigail—the person who answers those notes—is a member of the resistance, and in real danger. But who is it? Throughout Szabó juxtaposes our knowledge with her heroine’s ignorance—in the end, the effect is like that of her countryman Imre Kertesz’s in his masterpiece Fatelessness. Both novels challenge our reliance on what psychologists call “hindsight bias” (reading the past in light of the future).
Téa Obrecht, Inland (2019) Another one for my little project of westerns written by women (specifically, ones I can get on audiobook from my library). Like a lot of literary fiction today Obrecht’s novel goes all in on voice. She alternates between two first person narrators. Lurie, the son of a Muslim immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, ends up after a picaresque childhood on the lam and is rescued from lawlessness by joining the United States camel corps (a failed but surprisingly long-lasting attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American west). Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona Territory whose husband has gone missing when he went in search of a delayed water delivery, teeters on the verge of succumbing to thirst-induced delirium exacerbated by her guilt over the death of a daughter, some years before, from heat exhaustion. Lurie tells his story to Burke, and it takes a long time before we figure out that Burke is his camel. (I confirmed with some other readers that this wasn’t just an effect of my listening to the audiobook, which, I find, makes it easy to miss important details.) Nora tells her story ostensibly to herself but really to the ghost of her daughter. So the stories—which of course ultimately intersect in a surprising way—are similarly structured as confessions. Nora’s is the more successful—her combination of intelligence and wit and hurt and delusion comes through powerfully. She’s just a great character. Lurie has his moments, too, especially near the end, but I was always a little disappointed when we left Nora for him. The book has a hallucinatory quality—in this it reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film Dead Man—that works the hysterical realism angle more successfully than most. I don’t regret listening to the book and by the end I was pretty moved by it, but I also found it too long and too unsure of itself. In her excellent piece, Rohan really gets the book’s betwixt and betweenness. But boy if you want to feel anxious and thirsty, Obrecht is your woman. Never has the watery juice of a can of tomatoes seemed such a horrible relief.
Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader (2020) In this short book about re-reading, Gornick presents re-reading as a way of thinking about our self over time. Unfinished Business begins with an autobiographical chapter about Gornick’s life as a reader, which riffs on and is itself an example of the distinction between situation and story she articulated in a brilliant book of that title several years ago (situation is something like experience, the raw material of our lives; story is the way we articulate that experience, the way we transform it through reflection/writing: I use this distinction in my writing classes all the time). The book then offers several case studies of writers who have meant a lot to Gornick. I found the chapters on D. H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bowen especially good; not coincidentally these are writers I’ve very familiar with (which bodes well for her readings of writers I don’t know, like Colette and Natalia Ginzburg). Gornick combines the history of her own reading (what she first loved in Sons and Lovers only later to disavow as misguided, what she emphasized in her second reading, and so on) with succinct summaries of what makes each writer tick.
Here she is, having re-read Adrienne Rich’s conclusion about Dickinson—that extreme psychological states can be put into language, but only language that has been forged, never in the words that first come to us—thinking about Bowen:
She had created stories and novels meant to acquaint the reader with the power of the one thing—the extreme psychological state—that she deeply understood: namely, that fear of feeling that makes us inflict on one another the little murders of the soul that anesthetize the spirit and shrivel the heart; stifle desire and humiliate sentiment; make war electrifying and peace dreary.
For years this [buried events, hidden feelings] was Duras’s mesmerizing subject, inscribed repeatedly in those small, tight abstractions she called novels, and written in an associative prose that knifed steadily down through the outer layers of being to the part of oneself forever intent on animal retreat into the primal, where the desire to be at once overtaken by and freed of formative memory is all-enveloping; in fact, etherizing.
Ginzburg’s abiding concern, like that of any serious writer, has always been with identifying the conflicts within us that keep us from acting decently toward one another.
If what Gornick calls the Freudian century is not for you, then give this book a pass. But if the idea that the self we so identify with is only a small part of what we are rings true to you, you’ll find Gornick’s readings sympathetic. I loved the short final chapter describing her shame and bewilderment, on taking up a favourite (unnamed) book, at the passages she had marked in earlier readings. How could that have interested her? Didn’t she see how obvious or trite or embarrassing this aspect of the text was? But then: “My eyes drifted to a sentence on the page opposite where nothing was underlined, and I thought, Now here’s something really interesting, how come this didn’t attract your attention all those years ago.”
May such a life of reading be given to us all.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) A book about reciprocity and solidarity; a book for every time, but especially this time.
In sum, a good month: Kluger, Jiles, Szabó, Gornick, and Kimmerer all excellent. Which is good because so far, social distancing is not given me the promised bump in reading time. Until next time I send you all strength, health, and courage in our new times.
Earlier this semester, I presented for the third time at the annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. In addition to giving the keynote talk (“Holocaust 101”), I also taught a session (basically, a class). The conference has an unusual format and remit. It is designed for high school students, their teachers, and interested community members. In a single busy day, participants hear two plenaries plus a presentation from a Holocaust survivor, and attend two breakout sessions from a selection of about six or seven.
I love being able to teach such a wide range of ages and experiences: a typical session will include as many retirees as 15-year-olds. The unusual format comes with its own challenges, of course: keeping the students from feeling intimidated by the adults; making sure the older participants really listen to the younger ones. By making participants work together to close read something, I seek to put everyone on the same footing and build a sense of community.
My session this year was called “Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.” As I’d like eventually to turn it into a more formal piece of writing, I thought I’d transcribe my lesson plan here.
The handout that we used for our exercise was headed by two quotations; together, they offer a condensed version of what I was hoping the participants would learn:
I had found out, for myself and by myself, how things stood between us and the Nazis and had paid for knowledge with the coin of pain.
To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
—W. E. B. Du Bois
At first glance, Kluger—the Viennese-born survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, and a death march—and Du Bois—the legendary African American sociologist and writer—might seem an unusual pairing. I argued that, on the contrary, they share the same way of thinking about the vicissitudes of being a member of a persecuted minority. For persecuted minorities, to know is to hurt, to exist is to be a problem.
I began by explaining my title, which I adapted from an anecdote in Kluger’s brilliant memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. In 1937—Kluger was about to turn six—her family summered in Italy. They had a car, rather unusual for the time, especially in Italy. Driving through the rural South, they pass another car with Austrian plates. The tourists wave to each other. Kluger is taken by the experience. She thinks, We wouldn’t have done that at home; we don’t even know each other. Writing many years later, she reflects:
I was enchanted by the discovery that strangers in a strange land greet each other because they are compatriots.
But this comforting nationalism, in which strangers become acquaintances by virtue of calling the same place home, would soon prove false and alienating. Kluger learned, along with the rest of Europe’s Jews, that being Jewish trumped being Austrian (or German or Polish or French or whatever). On her prewar holiday, Kluger enjoyed the experience of being a stranger in a strange land; just a year later, after the Anschluss, Kluger became a stranger in her own land.
To realize you are not at home in your home is shattering. The experience is powerfully ambivalent one, at once harmful and helpful.
To show how that might be the case, I referenced three Holocaust survivors: Kluger, Nechama Tec (born in Lublin in 1931 and hidden together with her family in a series of safe houses across Poland), and Sarah Kofman (born in Paris in 1934 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and who survived in hiding with a family friend she learned to call Mémé). Interestingly, all of these women later became academics: Kluger a professor of German, Tec of sociology, Kofman of philosophy.
(I’ll skip the potted bios, but I’m happy to say more in the comments if you’re interested.)
That brief orientation over, I divided the class into three and assigned each group one of the following passages, which we first read aloud together:
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 acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever. The girls in the boarding school were so near and yet so far. The wall that separated us was thick indeed, and eventually I could not bear to go near it.
—Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84)
(Before we read, I explained the context. The scene takes place in 1940 or 41. Tec and her family are living in hiding in a disused part of a factory formerly owned by Tec’s father. The factory abuts on a convent school, a source of fascinated longing for Tec.)
In 1940, when I was eight or nine, the local movie theatre showed Walt Disney’s Snow White. … I badly wanted to see this film, but since I was Jewish, I naturally wasn’t permitted to. I groused and bitched about this unfairness until finally my mother proposed that I should leave her alone and just go and forget about what was permitted and what wasn’t. … So of course I went, not only for the movie, but to prove myself. I bought the most expensive type of ticket, thinking that sitting in a loge would make me less noticeable, and thus I ended up next to the nineteen-year-old baker’s daughter from next door with her little siblings, enthusiastic Nazis one and all. … When the lights came on, I wanted to wait until the house had emptied out, but my enemy stood her ground and waited, too. … She spoke firmly and with conviction, in the manner of a member of the Bund deutscher Mädchen, the female branch of the Hitler Youth, to which she surely belonged. Hadn’t I seen the sign at the box office? (I nodded. What else could I do? It was a rhetorical question.) Didn’t I know what it meant? I could read, couldn’t I? It said “No Jews.” I had broken a law … If it happened again she would call the police. I was lucky that she was letting me off this once.
The story of Snow White can be reduced to one question: who is entitled to live in the king’s palace and who is the outsider. The baker’s daughter and I followed this formula. She, in her own house, the magic mirror of her racial purity before her eyes, and I, also at home here, a native, but without permission and at this moment expelled and exposed. Even though I despised the law that excluded me, I still felt ashamed to have been found out. For shame doesn’t arise from the shameful action, but from discovery and exposure.
—Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001)
(The passage offers its own context; but I reminded participants that by 1940 the situation for Jews in Vienna was increasingly dangerous. Kluger’s father, a doctor who had already been arrested for seeing Aryan patients, had just fled for France (from where he was later deported to the Baltics and murdered); Kluger’s own deportation was less than two years away.)
Knowingly or not, Mémé had brought off a tour de force: right under my mother’s nose, she’d managed to detach me from her. And also from Judaism. She had saved us, but she was not without anti-Semitic prejudices. She taught me that I had a Jewish nose and made me feel the little bump that was the sign of it. She also said, “Jewish food is bad for the health; the Jews crucified our savior, Jesus Christ; they are all stingy and love only money; they are very intelligent, no other people has as many geniuses in music and philosophy.” …
My mother suffered in silence: no news from my father [arrested and deported]; no means of visiting my brothers and sisters [in hiding in various places in the French countryside]; no power to prevent Mémé from transforming me, detaching me from herself and from Judaism. I had, it seemed, buried the entire past: I started loving rare steak cooked in butter and parsley. I didn’t think at all any more about my father, and I couldn’t pronounce a single word in Yiddish despite the fact that I could still understand the language of my childhood perfectly. Now I even dreaded the end of the war!
—Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Translated by Ann Smock (1996)
(The passage, set in 1942 or 43, describes how Mémé, the woman who saved Kluger, also abused her.)
Each group worked together to discuss the passages and answer two questions. The first was the same for everybody: Do we see self-awareness in this passage? If so, how?
The second was particular to the excerpt. I asked the Tec group to track the passage’s verbs. What can we learn about Tec’s experience when we pay attention to those verbs?
I asked the Kluger group to track the word “home” and its synonyms in this passage. What can we learn about Kluger’s experience when we pay attention to those words?
I asked the Kofman group to track two repeated words in the passage: “detach” and “nose.” What can we learn about Kofman’s experience when we pay attention to those words?
As the participants worked on their assignment, I wandered the room, eavesdropping and cajoling if the conversation seemed to falter. After seven or eight minutes, I brought the class back together and asked each group to report their findings (after reminding everyone that, since we’d all read the passages aloud, anyone could feel free to chime in at any time).
They did well! If you like, you can take a minute to think about how you’d answer the questions.
Here are some of the things we noted:
Tec shows us both the appeal of fantasy and its cost. Spying on the children lucky enough to still be living ordinary lives takes her out of her situation, allows her to remember another life, even to almost forget the war. But the school bell that rings for them but not for her recalls her to reality. And that reminder is painful: she feels even worse than before, to the point where she eventually gives up her voyeurism. I’m always struck by “these small excursions”—such striking and unusual phrasing. What does an excursion imply? A vacation, a trip, a holiday, students will say. An adventure, but a safe one. Yes, I’ll add, an inconsequential one (a sense furthered by the adjective “small”). Tec is an explorer, but not, in the end, a successful one. She can’t keep going back to look at the childhood she no longer has. Excursion implies choice; yet this fantasy too fails her, just as the active verbs of the beginning of the passage (to find, to watch, to envy—things Tec herself chooses to do) are replaced by the experience of states of being (become engrossed, become acutely aware—things that happen to Tec).
The story of Kluger’s clandestine, dangerous trip to the movies (itself a salutary reminder for participants of how thoroughly Jews were shut out of ordinary life) centers on exposure. The “ex” prefix here, as in her use of “expelled” and Tec’s “excursion,” gestures to a desire, expressed at the very level of phonetics, to get out, to escape. Kluger tries to hide in plain sight, but the effort fails. Significantly, it is her next door neighbour who finds her out, showing us both how intimate persecution is, and how much, in this context at least, it functioned through an undoing of everything home should stand for. (To sell the point, Kluger uses many variations of the word home: I’m especially struck by her decision—not unidiomatic, but also not typical—to describe the theatre as a “house.”) Just as persecution makes home foreign, so too does it pervert justice. The baker’s daughter is right when she scolds Kluger for breaking a law: it’s easy for us to forget that Nazi persecution was legal. Kluger’s world has been turned upside down (her use of “naturally” is thus ironic); only she herself, her personality, her determination, offers the possibility of continuity. She is forbidden to go to the movies, so “of course” she goes. That’s just who she is. But the consequences of that persistence (nearly being turned over to the police) suggest that the idea of being true to one’s self is for Kluger as much a disabling fantasy as Tec’s spying.
Kofman similarly struggles to understand who she is. The figurative nose in her first sentence (and I’m cheating here, since we were working with a translation, and I don’t know the original) is echoed, then amplified by the literal one that Mémé so disparages. As a group we marveled, if I can put it that way, at Kofman’s anguished situation: out of a complicated mixture of gratitude, internalized self-hatred, and adolescent rebellion against a difficult mother, who, to be sure, is herself in an unbearably difficult situation she falls in love with a woman who turns her against herself. Mémé teaches Kofman to hate her own body and her own identity, by making her experience herself as others do. In that sense, she turns Kofman into someone who must live in bad faith. Yet, as we noted, the repetition of “detachment” inevitably carries with it a reminder of attachment: in describing what she has lost Kofman indirectly reminds us of what she once was. And we speculated that Kofman’s similarly indirect presentation of Mémé’s litany of anti-Semitic canards (where even the compliments are backhanded) implies a kind of resistance on her part to the older woman’s actions. It is unlikely, I suggested, that Mémé said all of these things at once, in a single sentence, as Kofman presents it. Which implies she has arranged the material: by piling the attacks on, she is inviting us to see them as ridiculous, contradictory, unhinged. But Kofman’s critique is retrospective. At the time, her position is utterly confused. Witness her (classically hysterical) aphasia—able to understand her mother/father tongue, but no longer able to speak it. Years later, Kofman eventually throws Mémé over, even refusing to go to her funeral. The “good mother” in the memoir—well worth reading—turns out to be neither of the two women she is caught between but rather Frenchness itself: the language & culture Kofman becomes so adept in, able to wield rather than submit to.
Having facilitated discussion, and with time drawing short, I emphasized that resistance and rejection are intertwined in these passages. Resistance takes the form of self-knowledge.
W. E. B. Du Bois
To understand the implications of that double position, I had us turn to a thinker from a different tradition. I read aloud the last passage on the handout:
The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him [sic] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Then I defined that consequential term double-consciousness: it’s what results when we have to define the self through the eyes of others. (I always use the example of Canadian identity, because it’s relatively low stakes and I can try to be funny with it: when Canadians think about what it means to be Canadian, as they often do, they usually begin, “Well, we’re not Americans…” In my experience, Americans seldom think about what it means to be American. They certainly don’t say, “Well, we’re not Canadians…” Which is because in geopolitical as well as cultural terms, America is dominant; they set the terms of understanding. The tape Americans use to measure themselves has been made to measure them.)
Minorities, Du Bois argues, typically define themselves in terms set by the majority. A significant result of this claim is that there is something valuable about that position of double-consciousness, for it is by definition a critical position. As Kluger explains in her memoir, her earliest reading material was anti-Semitic slogans, which gave her “an early opportunity to practice critical discrimination.”
The position of the majority or the dominant is properly speaking stupid, because it never has to translate its experience into terms given by someone else. It need never reflect. That is the definition of privilege.
But double-consciousness isn’t just enabling. To be in that position, to be a minority, specifically a persecuted minority like Jews in fascist Europe or Blacks at any time in American history, including the present, is to be at risk. Critical positions are precarious, dangerous, even intolerable—not just psychologically but also bodily. Think of Du Bois’s resonant, pained conclusion: to inhabit double-consciousness (to be at home in the idea of never being at home) is to feel “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Torn asunder. How can we read that and not think of lynching, or gassing, or any of the myriad ways minority bodies have been and continue to be made to suffer?
We were out of time. So I could only end by saying that the reason I had us to read Du Bois alongside Holocaust survivors was to think intersectionally. In terms of double-consciousness, minority experiences are more similar than different. And I wanted participants to think about the lesson for us today from these (to them) very old texts. To ask these questions: If we are a member of a minority, can we harness the power of double-consciousness and not be crushed? If we are a member of a majority, can we become self-aware enough not to harm, whether knowingly or unknowingly, minorities?
Can we be at home without being smug? Can we be self-aware without being strangers?
Short month, short books. Verdict: plenty of decent reading, some even better than that. Here’s what I read in February 2019.
Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 1] (2014) Trans. Anne Ishii (2017) Gentle manga about Yaichi, a single parent raising a delightful, rambunctious daughter, Kana. Their lives are interrupted by the arrival of Yaichi’s brother-in-law, a white Canadian named Mike Flanagan, who visits Japan in the wake of his husband’s (Yaichi’s brother’s) death. Yaichi spares no effort to welcome Mike—aided by Kana’s joy in the sudden appearance of this unexpected uncle—but his not-so-latent homophobia keeps getting in the way. Lots of secrets, lots of emotion, but all handled lightly. I was engrossed and moved and have the sequel from the library ready to go. Plus, who doesn’t like a hunky Canadian hero?
Ken Krimstein – The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth (2018) I enjoyed this comic, which combines Arendt’s biography with her political philosophy. Maybe I found the experiment so compelling because I don’t really know my Heidegger. (I’ve been avoiding him since college; my undergraduate institution was regrettably besotted by the thinker of Being.) At least that’s how I felt after reading the TLS review, which called out Krimstein for his misleading summary of Arendt’s erstwhile lover’s philosophy. I agree that Krimstein rather hurried over Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, and maybe he does spend too much time offering potted biographies of the many intellectuals, artists, and otherwise famous people Arendt came across, but Three Escapes gave me a clearer sense of Arendt’s life, especially the years before the war, and made me thrill to the capacious generosity of her ideas. A book could do worse.
Hana Demetz – The House on Prague Street (1970) Trans. Hana Demetz (1980) Score another one for open stacks. While at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archive earlier this year, I was browsing the shelves when my eye was drawn to the cornflower blue spine of Demetz’s book, written in German and later translated into English by the author herself. Happily, my local library had a copy, which, I suspect, no one had checked out for years. Which is a shame: The House on Prague Street is really good. It tells the story of Helene Richter, who grows up in eastern Czechoslovakia in the 1930s but whose life revolves around the summers she spends in the small town in Bohemia where her maternal grandparents live in the house that gives the book its title.
Her mother’s Jewish family are successful industrialists, the classic success story of Austro-Hungarian emancipation. (The first pages might have come from a Joseph Roth novel.) Imagine their unhappiness when Helene’s mother marries a law clerk from a Sudeten German family. This makes Helenka, as she is affectionately known, half Jewish, which has important consequences for her after 1938. Unlike the rest of her mother’s family she is not deported to Theresienstadt or further east. Instead she comes of age in wartime Prague, where she experiences plenty of privations but nothing like those suffered by her mother. Imagine her mother’s anguish when Helenka falls in love with a German soldier, on leave for a few days from the eastern front. That Gerd seems to be a genuinely kind person, and no Nazi, does nothing to assuage the mother’s hurt. These scenes are riveting—the tone is different from, say, the bitterness of Ruth Kluger’s fights with her mother in her memoir Still Alive; Demetz’s bitterness is always mixed with sweetness—and only become more poignant in light of the traumas that descend upon the family.
The mother dies of a sudden illness because she cannot be taken to the Jewish hospital after curfew. Gerd is declared missing, presumed dead. The father survives the war, only to be murdered in a street fight between German sympathizers and communists in the weeks after armistice. At the end, Helene returns to her grandparents’ house, which has been taken over by Orthodox Jews returned from the death camps. They are suspicious and resentful of her; she respects their claim on the house, but has no respect for them, describing them as uncouth, even primitive. Not even genocide, we learn, will necessarily bring people together. Demetz offers no vision of Jewish solidarity. And why should she? After all, it was the perpetrators who defined the victims as much as or even more than the victims themselves.
The neatness of the book’s narrative structure—it ends with Helene on the station platform, awaiting the train back to Prague, standing under the same swaying begonias that so imprinted themselves on her mind as a child—reminds readers that The House on Prague Street is a novel, not a memoir. Yet it reads more like the latter than the former. It has the feeling of coming directly from the life of the author. It’s not perfect, sometimes it strains a little for effect, but it’s captivating and moving. Some enterprising publisher ought to reissue it.
Anthony Horowitz – The House of Silk (2011) (Audiobook) Enjoyable Holmes novel, improved by Derek Jacobi’s peerless narration. It’s true, I did guess the ending (a subplot fooled me, though I also found it a bit silly), but the book’s real pleasure lies in its subtle characterization of Watson, nothing like the “sack stuffed with straw” so derided by Virginia Woolf. As always, Horowitz brings the stuff.
Hana Demetz – The Journey from Prague Street (1990) After so enjoying Demetz’s earlier novel I had to read its sequel, which sees Helene and her husband escape Czechoslovakia and build a life in America. Unfortunately, Journey isn’t a patch on its predecessor. Maybe the problem is that Demetz wrote it in English. But I think it’s more that the situations—infidelity, divorce, the trials of starting over in mid-life—are tired and their handling uninspired. Maybe Demetz only had one book in her. (I believe, actually, she wrote some others before House, but I don’t think they’ve been translated.)
Sarah Moss – Ghost Wall (2018) I’m writing about this for another outlet, so will only say: I liked it, sometimes quite a lot, but I wasn’t as crazy about it as so many people on Book Twitter seem to have been.
Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947/1986) Trans. Sharon Lynne Schwartz (1991) Brilliant, evenhanded, non-judgmental and unsparing narrative memoir (what I mean is that Millu tells her experience in Birkenau through a series of stories about other inmates, stories that have the texture of fiction—not that their made up, but that their telling is literary). I’ve written about Smokebefore. How good is it? Well, this is the fourth or fifth time in the last couple of years I’ve read it, and it gets better and better. I now know it well enough that I won’t have to read it from cover to cover each semester, but I’ll look forward to dipping into it.
Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins (2011) Trans. Peter Millar (2015) My high hopes for this mystery, set in the rubble of immediate postwar Hamburg, were dashed almost immediately. The writing is pedestrian, and the murderer pretty obvious. The use of the setting is good, and I learned what people did to survive the brutal winter of 1947. I’d have been better off reading a history, though. I believe it’s a first novel, and it might be that Rademacher improves (there are two sequels plus a whole other series), but I’m not inclined to give him a chance. (Especially since I got the book from the UK.) No Philip Kerr, let me tell you.
Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem (1999) My third audiobook of the semester was the fifth in the Holmes/Mary Russell series. It looks back to the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (still the best so far), and expands upon an interlude referred to there in which the leads find themselves in Mandate Palestine. I’m really interested in that time and place, and I enjoyed learning about General Allenby, who seems to have been quite a character, but this book is much too long and much too dull. King hasn’t lost me entirely, Russell is still a good character, and I’ll continue with the series, but plan to take a break for a while.
Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016) Not only the book of the month, but the book of the year so far, and one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I want to write a proper post about it, so for now will just say that it’s about an indigenous family in Winnipeg, specifically its female members, and their response to the countless aggressions (micro and macro) they endure. (The Break is a strip of land, a hydro corridor, in the city’s North End). The highest praise I can give books is that I still remember them weeks later, and The Break passes that test easily.
Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy (2018) Wilkinson’s debut novel, conversely, does not. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, and I found its central conceit—that African Americans are like spies in enemy country, nicely formulated in an epigraph from Ellison’s Invisible Man—fascinating and timely. Marie Mitchell is an African American woman in the FBI in the late 1980s. She ends up working for the CIA in the then-newly renamed Burkina Faso on a mission to ingratiate herself with its charismatic President, Thomas Sankara. Until reading this novel I was completely ignorant of Sankara’s revolutionary Marxist and anti-imperialist program, which seems to have transformed life for the country’s poor. In the novel—and I suspect in life—the CIA wanted him gone; when Marie is sent on a mission of the kind she has always wanted she is forced to reconcile her love of the work with her feelings that the country she is working for isn’t really her own.
The sections in Africa are nicely handled: the book never feels like a travelogue. Yet even though I was impressed by what Wilkinson was trying to do I didn’t feel she quite pulled it off. There are two reasons for that: one, she’s trying to do too much, and, two, she doesn’t do the genre justice. In addition to everything I’ve mentioned the book also tells a family story, involving Marie’s divorced parents (one a cop and one, it turns out, a former spy) and her sister, who had tried to forge a path into intelligence work and couldn’t. Wilkinson ties this together with the political story, but it’s too much. As Wilkinson admits in this interview, she isn’t that well versed in spy fiction. I appreciate her efforts to queer/diversify the genre—it needs it!—but I want that effort to be accompanied by a better sense of suspense, pacing, etc. For me, a fascinating misfire.
Primo Levi – The Reawakening (1963) Trans. Stuart Woolf (1965) (The proper title is The Truce.) Although I have taught a short excerpt from this for years in my Holocaust Lit class, I’d never read the whole thing. I read it with some students, and their appreciation of it increased my own. It’s a picaresque, describing the eleven months it took Levi to return to his home in Turin from Auschwitz-Birkenau. We enjoyed comparing The Reawakening to the much more famous Survival in Auschwitz (a.k.a. If This is a Man: Levi’s American publishers didn’t do him any favours). The sequel is markedly different in style, tone, and structure. It is ordered chronologically, for one thing, unlike its much more essayistic predecessor. “Picaresque” is misleading: it suggests scrapes and hijinks and ne’er-do-wells (all of which feature here), when in fact the book contains at least as much that is somber as triumphant. But it’s a book about coming back to life: hard, painful, but ultimately affirming. Levi is sometimes even funny, especially in his appreciation for Soviet organization, or lack thereof. At one point, describing a Soviet DP camp, he says something like (I don’t have the book in front of me), “There was no organization, but we got fed every day. It was a perfect system.” At moments like this, my students and I were reminded of the well-known encounter between Levi and a man named Steinlauf in Survival in Auschwitz. Steinlauf, a WWI veteran, perseveres even in the Lager he with a diligent regime of personal cleanliness, even though in those conditions hygiene was impossible. The point, he explains to Levi, urging him to wash in the ice-cold dirty water provided the prisoners, is to maintain one’s self as a human. Levi sees the man’s point, but he admits himself incapable of following another man’s system. This is the Levi we see in The Reawakening, a man who is finally free yet not forced to navigate the chaotic, ramshackle, uncoordinated but ultimately inescapable Allied bureaucracy.
Although short, The Reawakening is full to bursting with vivid characters and outlandish scenarios. Through a series of misadventures, Levi and the handful of Italian deportees who survived with him are sent east, through the Ukraine and almost up to Minsk, before making their way back down through Romania, Hungary, Austria, even Munich (where Levi refuses to leave the train station) and finally home to Italy. Maybe the thing that made the biggest impression on my students was how fraught the immediate months after the war were. We tend to think that liberation brought a return to normal life; Levi makes it clear, however, that this concept didn’t survive the war.
Looking back, February’s highlights were The House on Prague Street, The Reawakening and, above all, The Break. Anyone read them?