What I read, March 2020

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.

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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.

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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.

Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.

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.

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Ruth Kluger

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.

—Ruth Kluger

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.

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Nechama Tec

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.)

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Sarah Kofman

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.

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My annotations

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.

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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?

 

 

 

Beyond Night: A Holocaust Remembrance Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter (2017)

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

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

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

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

Miscellany (3)

I knew it would be hard to return from sabbatical, but I’d forgotten how quickly the semester becomes relentless, each day an exhausting headlong rush. I’ve missed writing here. But I’ve managed to carve out enough time to say a few words about some of the books I read at the end of the summer and even one or two I’ve squeezed into the semester.

Rennie Airth, The Reckoning (2014)

Superior if self-consciously solemn installment of superior if self-consciously solemn crime series centered on the aftermath of WWI in England. The good guys are all a little too good (worse, worthy), but the prose is better than average, and the plot suspenseful. Hard to know where the series can go from here, though I’d have said that after the last one too. I appreciate Airth’s deliberateness: only four books in fifteen years.

Karin Slaughter, Cop Town (2014)

I haven’t read Slaughter before, though she seems awfully popular and prolific. (Is that seriously her last name? It’s a bit like the inventors of cinema being named Lumieres.) I enjoyed this stand-alone, even if I found the resolution of the crime itself tedious. Like too many crime novels, Cop Town is too long. The interesting stuff concerns the introduction (I was going to say integration, but that’s just what it wasn’t) of women into the Atlanta police force in the mid 1970s. I assume the depiction is accurate: it’s awfully compelling, at any rate, without being self-congratulatory (“Look how far we’ve come”; “Can you believe what people did or said back then?”). I also enjoyed the surprising—and surprisingly successful—Jewish subplot. I’d read more of her stuff, especially if anyone has any recommendations.

Georges Perec, W., or The Memory of Childhood (1975, English Translation by David Bellos, 1988)

I read this several months ago in preparation for a course on the Holocaust and what Marianne Hirsch calls postmemory: the “memories” of the missed event that haunt child survivors and the children of survivors. I planned to write about it at length here, but never got around to it. At first I decided not to include the text in the course. Then, at the last minute, when I was finishing the syllabus, I decided I needed to include at least a short selection. The book just wouldn’t quite let me go.

W. switches between two layers: a memoir of Perec’s wartime experience as a child evacuee in rural France, and a fictional tale—half boys’ own adventure story, half anthropological treatise—about a man who discovers the remote island of W., a place organized entirely around the pursuit of competitive sport.

It’s obvious the two are related, in that the second is an allegory for what cannot be described or even referred to in the first: the concentration camps that swallowed up Perec’s mother, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and died there, probably the following year. The whole exercise becomes more moving, more uncanny when we learn that the story of W. is based on one written by Perec when he was only twelve or thirteen, that is, in the years just after the war. David Bellos, the book’s translator, explains that the letter “w” in French is the double-vee, le double-vé, in which it’s hard not to hear an echo of the double life, la double vie, which Perec lived as a young child in Vichy France.

I initially decided not to assign the book because I worried students would get caught up in untangling the allegory, in making the connections between the two halves explicit, even though the book never hides those connections, indeed advertizes them. I wondered if I could get them past thinking that, having done so, their interpretive task was done. And I didn’t know what I thought about the book, couldn’t decide whether I liked it. (Which is actually a good reason to assign something.) I’m probably selling my students short; at any rate, I’ll see how they do with the excerpt. The section I’ve chosen is a remarkable description of Perec’s uncertainty about his parents and their fate, centered on descriptions of absent photographs. In that regard it will complement our discussions of photographs in Maus and Austerlitz.

Although I prefer Kofman’s Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, a text which also deals with a child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to France who was hidden during the Occupation, mostly because Kofman is more interested in the psychic and affective aspects of her experiences, I think about Perec’s book often, all these months later, one of the truest signs that a book is important to me.

Jorn Lier Horst, Dregs (2010, translated into English by Anne Bruce, 2011)

Dreadful Norwegian procedural. Really felt let down by this since I’d heard it praised to the skies by a number of generally reliable bloggers. Wooden translation, leaden plot, the always-irritating detective’s-child-in-harm’s-way subplot: really the full nine stinker yards. File under: title, accurate.

Henning Mankell, An Event in Autumn (2013, translated into English by Laurie Thomson, 2014)

Melancholy because apparently absolutely, definitely, unquestionably final installment of the Wallander series. (Though we know how reliable those sorts of claims can be: cf Reichenbach Falls.) Set before the events of the brilliant, distressing The Troubled Man, this work, slight even for a novella, will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Newcomers shouldn’t start here. Basically it’s a throwaway, as Mankell himself admits (he wrote it as a charity exercise to support Dutch booksellers, or something of the sort). But for me Wallander is one of the great detectives. I always love how irritated and grumpy he is about little things without ever becoming a caricature (curmudgeonly, endearing, gruff exterior but gentle interior, etc).

Jean-Patrick Manchette, The Mad and the Bad (1972, translated into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2014)

One of my character flaws is a weakness for nice packaging. I’ve always judged books, and other things, by their covers, and I’ve often been led astray by doing so. (And yet I keep doing it.) I’ve long been utterly seduced by the NYRB classics series—and they’ve republished some marvelous, deserving works. (I wouldn’t know Olivia Manning without them, and a world without her is no world at all.) But just because a book has got those fancy full-color inside covers doesn’t mean it has to be good. This is only the third Manchette I’ve read (the others several years ago, I remember them only dimly) but it’s time to call Emperor’s New Clothes on this guy. I’m all for writing that pushes the conventions of a genre, either in order to invigorate another genre or to contest the very idea of genre, but you can’t do it if, like Manchette, you disdain the genre to begin with.

Many have written about the fundamental conservatism of the crime genre (even when it gets put to liberal ends, supports good causes, etc), but Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, and Macdonald (Manchette’s obvious models) are more radical than Manchette’s pretty ham-handed, self-satisfied critique of capitalism. Consider the book’s set piece: a hit man on the trail of the gang who kidnapped the nanny of the nephew of a wealthy industrialist (is there any other kind?) tracks the bad guys into a department store. The ensuing shoot-out gets out of hand: the store is set aflame and looted by euphoric customers whose frenzied lust for consumer goods spills over into the streets of a provincial French town. J. G. Ballard would have made this both funny and ominous, a tonal instability we wouldn’t quite know what to do with. Manchette makes things clear: there’s no difference between the thieves and the customers. Manchette reminds me of late 60s or early 70s Godard: they’re both tediously earnest, but Manchette has none of Godard’s expressive range, the delirium of style that makes the films work despite themselves. His idea of style is a pretty one-note imitation of the hardboiled. I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Laurie R King—A Grave Talent (1993)

Although the early 90s now seem what the 70s were to me as a young adult (embarrassing, quaint, hopeless), King’s novel, the first in her Kate Martinelli series, doesn’t feel dated. It impressed me with its intelligent and subtle representation of a queer relationship, and its vivid description of the forests of Northern California. I wish the book were shorter—it has its longeurs—but it cemented my appreciation for King’s talent. (I really liked her first Holmes pastiche.)

Sarah Waters—Tipping the Velvet (1998)

Having unaccountably stalled out a hundred pages into this book last year, I started over again and read the whole thing in just a few days. It’s a wonderful debut, and I bet people will be reading it for a long time. It’s not perfect, especially when it seems designed to illustrate a caricatured version of Judith Butler. But at its best it impresses with sinuous, incantatory sentences and exciting narrative reversals (which Waters would perfect a few years later in Fingersmith). Sometimes the book is boisterous, but mostly it’s sad. The queer melancholy that returns in full force in The Night Watch is already evident here.

Maybe I’m just an unrepentant modernist, but what’s really stayed with me is the ending, with seems like an homage to and queer rewriting of the end of Forster’s Howards End: in both cases a new kind of non-nuclear, even non-biological family is imagined in a pastoral setting. Forster’s novel is famously anxious about how modernization/development threatens that idyll, complete with class snobbishness about middle-class redbrick spreading like a stain on the countryside. I was left wondering whether Tipping the Velvet, on the face of it so progressive and generous, might not be similarly conservative (if not about class). When Nan, the protagonist, steps in at the end to give the rousing speech that her lover’s brother, a socialist, cannot articulate, showmanship seems to trump politics. Yet Waters is nothing if not knowing: one of her aims is to redeem performance as something other than “mere” appearance, as substance itself. So maybe I am off target here. But something still niggles at me about the book. I liked it best when it’s least in control of itself, least amenable to allegory.

I want to write more extensive posts on some other books I’ve read: two by Nathan Englander and three by Tove Jansson. We’ll see whether the semester lets me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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