April 2019 in Review

April is always the worst month of the year, work-wise, with end of semester assignments added to the administrative work that’s been pushed off all year. (Step away from that Eliot joke.) For various reasons, this year was worse than usual. Which is a shame, as April is also the loveliest month in Little Rock, weather-wise. No surprise, then, that my reading suffered. Few standouts here.

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Jacqueline Winspear – The American Agent (2019) I’ve been a dedicated reader of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, which emphasizes character over mystery. From the beginning, Winspear has presented post-WWI England as a traumatized culture (an idea that sometimes works and sometimes grates). Now that the series has reached WWII, Winspear seems to be casting about for a new idea; the result is the weakest book so far, not least because the author seems to have become famous enough that she no longer gets much editing. The book’s too long: the first third, especially, drags. I’ve read a lot of books on the Blitz: you have to be doing something special to get me interested. I’m no fan of Maisie’s new love interest, either. I’ll be back for the next installment, but Winspear’s now on notice.

Tadeusz Borowski – This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (1959) Trans. Barbara Vedder (1976) Although I teach the title story every semester and can practically recite it from memory—a dubious pleasure, if you know it: I mean, it is one of the extraordinary texts of the Holocaust but it is so dark—I haven’t read the entire collection in several years. This time I read it with the small group of students I’ve spent the past year teaching how to be Holocaust educators. Even though they, like me, weren’t at their best this late in the school year, they still taught me things. For example, it was instructive to see how shocked yet riveted they were by a story like “Silence,” which shows the prisoners in a DP camp paying lip service to their American liberators’ insistence on due process before taking more visceral and irrevocable revenge on a collaborator. In a way, their surprise should have come as no surprise: Borowski is a genius at overturning our received view of the Holocaust.

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March (1932) Trans. Eva Tucker revising Geoffrey Dunlop (1974) The best book I read this month by a mile, a genuinely great work of art. I read it for the group reading hosted by Caroline & Lizzy. My thoughts here.

C. J. Tudor – The Chalk Man (2018) I listened to this first book by Tudor on my commute, which is probably a good way to experience it. The story switches between the present and 1986 when Eddie, the narrator, was a young teenager. The dramatic events of that time in his life—a violent accident, an untimely death, and a body found in the woods (a young girl’s, natch)—return in the present. The scenes in the past are better than those in the present: they have a “Stand by Me” vibe. Tudor isn’t much of a writer (check out this take-down of her infelicities); not even the audiobook narrator could smooth things over. Diverting in its way, but the stinger at the end feels a bit cheap and I haven’t been tempted to try Tudor’s second book.

John Williams – Stoner (1965) Sorry, everyone, I am not a fan of the book. I say that even though “formalist precision” and “the letter-perfect novel,” are absolutely my jam. These terms come from yet another Stoner encomium, this one a New Yorker essay that imagines a counter-factual US literary tradition in which William Maxwell, Richard Yates, and Jean Stafford and not Pynchon, Barth, and Robert Coover are the acknowledged postwar American literary masters: frankly this seems a straw argument: Pynchon, perhaps, aside, who reads these guys anymore?

You could say that reading a book about an introverted college professor with a quietly undistinguished career is too much of a busman’s holiday for me, and it’s true that I don’t like campus novels (when they engage with anything that actually happens on a campus, it’s usually interpersonal politics: i.e. animosity). But I’m always on the lookout for good novels about teaching (do you know any?), which the titular character of Williams’s novel claims to have a vocation for. I appreciated that Williams was willing to show his protagonist as not especially capable—there’s a mismatch between what he wants to convey to his students and what he actually can—but that criticism gets erased by the novel’s repeated avowals that Stoner experiences teaching as transcendent. But we only ever hear this: we don’t feel it. Yet at the same time, we are asked to sympathize so strongly with Stoner, to feel indignant at the way the world treats him, that we can never take the telling rather than the showing of teaching as ironic (that is, there is no suggestion that we should wonder at Stoner’s overestimation of himself—the idea is that he is great, it’s just that the world can’t realize it).

But none of this is what’s awful about the book. Stoner’s wife, Edith—or, rather, the book’s treatment of her—is what’s awful. Edith is a monster—a fact explained only through crudely misogynistic pop-psychology (she is frigid and alcoholic because she was abused by her father). Worst of all, Stoner rapes her without the novel commenting on the fact, or even seeming to recognize it as such. Had I not been reading the book for professional reasons (see below) I would surely have abandoned it.

I’m not surprised that Stoner’s return to print in the US was spurred by huge sales in Europe: it seems like one of those cultural products that speak more to European fantasies of America than anything real (c.f. Janis Joplin, Blue Velvet, “The House of the Rising Sun”).) I’m grateful, however, that its success has underwritten the many delightful oddities published by my beloved NYRB Classics.

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Benjamin Dreyer – Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) Entertaining, even stylish guide to language use. Neither dogmatically prescriptive nor airily descriptive. Recognizes everyone has their linguistic crotchets. A book to dip into, but be warned: once you start, it’s hard to stop. It’s pretty damn funny.

Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras (2018) Not a book I would ever have read on my own, but I’m glad I did. As a member of the Talent Committee for the Arkansas Literary Festival, I sometimes get asked to moderate panels at the event. This year it was a session on biographies. Hargrove was immediately recognizable at the author party the night before: he was the only one wearing a Stetson. He’s affable, soft-spoken, good-looking, smart: he could play himself in the movie version of the book. Except that one of the great things about the book is that Hargrove plays almost no role in it. (Swimming against the tide, that is.) Even though he learned to chase storms as part of his research (he shared some hair-raising footage with the Lit Fest audience), he keeps himself out of it. Instead the focus is on Tim Samaras, a self-educated tinkerer who parlayed his engineering work for a defense contractor into a position as one of the world’s foremost tornado researchers (he designed probes that could withstand the force of tornados and managed to deploy them in the very heart of storms; thanks to Samaras, for the first time, researchers were able to understand what actually happens inside a tornado).

Hargrove structures his book effectively, mixing comprehensible summaries of meteorological research, a narrative of Samaras’s life (yes, he did fall in love with tornadoes watching The Wizard of Oz as a child, a film he always turned off once Dorothy got to Oz), and an exciting yet never voyeuristic reconstruction of Samaras’s last chase. Samaras and two members of his crew, including his oldest son, were killed in a tornado (the widest ever recorded) near El Reno, Oklahoma in 2013. (I was amazed to learn that they are the only storm chasers who have ever died in action, as it were.)

Tornadoes are a feature of life in the American South (in Central Arkansas, they test the sirens every Wednesday at noon). They terrify me, a transplant who did not grow up with them (although the climate has changed such that they are pretty common in Canada now). (It does not help that there are no basements in Arkansas.) I worried the book would only increase this fear, but actually it’s allayed it: not that I find them safer or less random than I did before, but now I’m more interested in them as a phenomenon. If extreme weather or extreme passion interest you, you might enjoy this book too.

Jane Harper – The Lost Man (2018) Excellent novel about a fascinating place, outback Queensland, Australia. Two brothers, Nathan and Bub Bright, meet for the first time in months, even though their cattle ranches share a fence-line: the cause of their reunion is the death of their elder brother, Cameron. As befits a psychological mystery, plenty of family secrets come out over the course of the book, which doesn’t feature a detective per se. Instead, Nathan becomes the investigator of his family’s past—and in the process of himself. (Almost everyone in the book is a lost man.)

I read Harper’s first book, The Dry, a couple of years ago: it was good but not so terrific that I raced out to get the sequel. The new book is her first standalone, and a giant leap forward in sophistication and ability. A suspenseful character study with a satisfying ending that can rightly be said to be devastating, the book cleverly combines vast outdoor spaces with the closed world of a country house murder mystery. Above all, it offers an absorbing depiction of a difficult way of life in a place where children attend school via Skype, generators cut out at 11 p.m., the skin doctor flies in once a month to excise cancers, and every house has something called a “cold room” (I never did figure out how that works when the generator’s off). Stephen Shanahan reads the audiobook beautifully.

Charles J. Shield – The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life (2018) The other book on the Arkansas Literary Festival biography panel. (Or as I liked to think of it: The Men Who Did Shit panel.) This biography did not further endear me to Williams, a man who was careless of women (though unaccountably attractive to them) and blessed (admittedly after surviving dozens of dangerous flights over the Himalayas in WWII) with the prosperity postwar America gave to white men, especially those who found their way into the rapidly expanding public university system. (Churlish to resent those who were lucky in their birth, but I do.) Shield’s telling of the life (he has previously written biographies of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, and is completing one on Lorraine Hansberry: he told some good Vonnegut anecdotes at the festival) is workmanlike. He doesn’t quite apologize for Williams, but he doesn’t take much distance from him either.

By the way, if you, like me, were wondering how the hell the tornado book and the Stoner book were ever going to work together, the answer is: quite well! Both writers were professional, courteous, and thoughtful in their responses to an enthusiastic crowd. And we made some interesting connections between the works, especially concerning whether there is any meaningful distinction between passion and obsession.

That’s it! A paltry nine books. The tornado book was interesting, but the only ones likely to stick in my mind are The Lost Man and The Radetzky March. (Plus the Borowski, but I hardly count it, since it’s practically ingrained in me.)

May’s reading has already proven much more fruitful. More on that in a couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

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.

Holocaust Lit Fall 2016: Week 6 Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

This fall, I’m blogging about my course on Holocaust Literature. You can catch up on the first two installments here.

We’re already through six weeks of the semester, and if you’re keeping track at home you know I’ve missed three weeks. I hope to get to those later, but don’t hold your breath. It’s hard to keep up, and even harder to reconstruct. The headlong pace of the semester sweeps all before it, but I’m delighted to say that I’m having so much fun teaching this group. They are the best class I’ve taught in years. After six weeks, almost all students still participate regularly in discussion, and most of the ones I suggested come meet with me after less-than-distinguished early papers actually did so. Unheard of!

This week we faced our toughest challenge yet: Imre Kertesz’s novel Fatelessness (1975). Kertesz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, insists the novel is not especially autobiographical, though its protagonist, György Köves, shares some of Kertesz’s wartime experiences. Like Kertesz, György grows up in Budapest to divorced parents, is deported to Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 14, and is later transferred to Buchenwald.

Fatelessness is a hard book. It’s not only a lot longer but also far more conceptually complex than anything we’ve read so far. (Which is saying something, since Primo Levi, in particular, is no slouch when it comes to intellectual sophistication.) I teach the newish translation by Tim Wilkinson; it seems to me admirable though by no means easy or always elegant, which I suspect is true of the original too. There’s an earlier English translation by Christina and Katharina Wilson, which goes by the slightly but significantly different name Fateless. I’ve not read it, so can’t compare them. If anyone has, I’d love how the translations match up. I’d especially like to hear from anyone who has read Kertesz in his native Hungarian.

It’s been several years since I taught Fatelessness. Students tended to resist it, and although I could tell it was remarkable, I didn’t have a good handle on it myself. The ending in particular is hard to make sense of. I took it off the syllabus for a couple of years, but I never found anything that satisfied me more and the book kept calling to me, so back on it went. Third time’s the charm, I guess. I’m still not entirely clear on what Kertesz wants to say, exactly, in the last chapter, but I feel more confident with it than before and this group of students tackled the book cheerfully and with good will, which made me like the book even more.

So it was a good week in the classroom. (Really, the book deserves even more than a week, but sometimes less is more.) Here I’ll concentrate on the first day’s discussion and allude occasionally to some of the things we covered during the rest of the week.

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We began, as I like to do, at the beginning. I read the opening paragraph:

I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to “family reasons,” my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the “family reason” might be. I told him my father had been called up for labor service; after that he didn’t raise a further peep against it.

What’s the tone here, I asked the class, and how can you tell? It’s straightforward. What does that mean? Is “straightforward” a tone? It’s simple, you can tell already he’s young. How can you tell? Well, he is supposed to be in school. Right. But can you tell by his way of speaking? His sentences are simple—they’re not complicated and they almost all start with “I.” That’s mostly true, here, about the syntax, though that third sentence is a bit more complex. And we’ll see that his sentences are actually often rather hard to parse, clotted as they are with seemingly unnecessary qualifications and hesitations, the most apparent of which is the term “naturally.” But let’s stick with your other observation—the sentences almost all start with “I.” Does that suggest anything about him?

Maybe he only cares about himself, came the tentative reply. Is he selfish elsewhere? Maybe not selfish, but he doesn’t know how to deal with other people. For example? Well, later he’s embarrassed about all the emotion around his father leaving. And he always seems to be astonished by other people’s reactions. We considered a couple of examples from the first third of the book. Then I brought us back to the opening paragraph. Are there other things you notice about his way of speaking or the kinds of words he uses? He says, “peep.” That’s a young word. A young word? I teased. Like, we just invented it? The student blushed, became more precise. A word a young person would use. Immature. Right, this instance of slang seems important. It suggests something about this person. Neither Levi nor Wiesel would have said “peep.”

What else can we tell about him based on his way of speaking? Think especially about the first and second sentences. What’s the relation between them? After a minute we concluded that the second sentence reverses the first, or, rather, qualifies it. Qualification of this sort is everywhere in the book. It’s the most obvious characteristic of György’s narration. (Later we looked at a famous, grotesque example. György gets inflamed wounds on his hips—phlegmons—that burst and become infected with the lice that are everywhere in the camp. Contemplating the voraciousness of the parasites he comments: “In the end, I realized that, to some extent, and taking everything into account, I could see it their way.” Three qualifying phrases in one simple sentence—typical of his way of speaking.) What kind of person might he be then, given these incessant qualifications and hesitations? Here I was pushing a particular line, and the students could sense it. That always make them clam up—they get scared of giving the wrong answer. Someone ventured: he wants to get things right?

Interesting. Yes, accuracy matters to him. He can’t cut any corners, someone said, he has to tell it exactly. He likes rules, I added. Can we think of any examples? He worries about being with his father on the day of his deportation because that’s the day of the week he’s supposed to be with his mother, according to the court ruling in his parents’ divorce. And he worries about the star on his jacket, someone added. Oh yeah, remind us about that. It’s on page 5—he’s walking and decides not to take his coat off in case his star gets covered up: “It was a clear, balmy morning, considering it was still just early spring. I was about to unbutton myself but then had second thoughts: it was possible that, light as the head breeze was, my coat lapel might flap back and cover up my yellow star, which would not have been in conformity with the regulations.”

The stakes of following rules are high for someone like György, I said. But he’s also shallow, someone said. How so? He doesn’t want a home made star. He thinks those are embarrassing. Yeah, he’s really immature, someone else piled on. But he’s only 14, another student said. He doesn’t know anything other than the rules the Nazis made for him. (Here I gave a brief clarification about the relation of the Hungarian and German governments during the war, but the student’s point still stood.)

So thinking about this rule following and then going back to the opening paragraph, we can see that there is something both fussy and oddly accepting about György’s attitude to his experiences. Fussy is the word I always come back to for György’s style, with its endless qualifications and circumlocutions.

All of this had taken a while, so I also didn’t mention the two uses of euphemism in the opening paragraph—one quoted (“family reasons”), the other not (“labor service”). But they are significant because of a tendency we remarked on later—the way György accepts, even takes on and unthinkingly uses, the language of his oppressors.

Over the course of the week, we saw that tendency ever more clearly and worried a lot over what it suggested. Is it a sign of how thoroughly he’s been duped, how unable he is to escape from the ideology that vilifies him? Or is a sign of something more nefarious—is he a traitor to his people? (A people he has little to do with—an early scene shows how assimilated the family is, serving pork at the father’s farewell supper, stumbling through prayers in a language almost none of them speak. György falls in with the other Jewish kids in his building, but only because they have all been singled out as Jewish, something that never meant anything to them before.) Is György an idiot? Totally clueless? Self-hating?

I reminded students of the extraordinary, ten-page long description of György’s arrival at Auschwitz, where, among other things, young György admires the SS officers spotless uniforms and observes with interest but also revulsion the prisoners who unload them from the train: “It was quite a shock, for after all, this was the first time in my life that I had seen, up close at any rate, real convicts, in the striped duds of criminals, and with shaven skulls in round caps. Dude, I shouted, shamelessly mugging for the students, that’s you!

The best way to understand György in moments like these, I suggested, is to think about the novel’s unusual use of time. When is György telling his story? A hard question, met with silence. As they’re happening to him, someone finally ventured. Is it in present tense? The student had to admit it wasn’t. So not quite as it’s happening, but you are basically right, I said. It’s very close to the events, from some imaginary, impossible to pinpoint position that is after the events but not much after.

Compare this, I said, to the texts we’ve read before. Borowski also used a first person narrator in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” but he told the story in present tense. Even more characteristic is the first person voice of Wiesel’s Night and Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (these are the missing three weeks’ worth of blog posts). Remember that Levi and Wiesel regularly used retrospection. They narrated from well after the events. We noted how Levi liked to move from narrative to essayistic mode (typically noted by a shift from “I” to “we”), as he stepped back to consider, for example, how the Germans’ thoroughgoing utilitarianism was at work in the “selection” process. We noted how Wiesel regularly castigated the Jews of his hometown of Sighet for not seeing what was about to befall them. These attitudes can only be offered in retrospect, through a hindsight that, in Wiesel’s case in particular, is pretty dubious. (Hindsight 20/20, etc.) Kertesz’s novel, by contrast, is never retrospective. It sticks so closely to its events, because it believes that is the most honest way to represent them, especially for its young protagonist, who lacks any context to make sense of what’s happening to him and his world.

At the end of our last class on the novel, I would wrap up the week’s discussion by reading an excerpt from Kertesz’s Nobel Prize address in which he takes up this method:

But the hero of my novel does not live his own time in the concentration camps, for neither his time nor his language, not even his own person, is really his. He doesn’t remember; he exists. So he has to languish, poor boy, in the dreary trap of linearity, and cannot shake off the painful details. Instead of a spectacular series of great and tragic moments, he has to live through everything, which is oppressive and offers little variety, like life itself.

But the method led to remarkable insights. Linearity demanded that each situation that arose be completely filled out. It did not allow me, say, to skip cavalierly over twenty minutes of time, if only because those twenty minutes were there before me, like a gaping, terrifying black hole, like a mass grave.

What Kertesz here calls linearity is linked to a scene at the end of the novel that we considered, in which György returns to Budapest at the end of the war and is asked by a reporter to share his stories with the world. The reporter seems to have his heart in the right place: he wants to avoid platitudes, he wants to mobilize citizens’ attention to what happened, he wants to fight the apathy the world threatens to sink into even though the war has only just ended. (He’s a lot more sympathetic than the family who has taken over György’s father’s apartment, and refuses to let him in or even to acknowledge his existence.) But he also sees György as a symbol of the times rather than as an individual, and he presses him to describe what it was like in “the hell of the camps.” György responds firmly that he is “not acquainted with hell and couldn’t even imagine what that was like.”

Here we see the outcome or even payoff of the extreme literalism that characterizes György’s way of expressing himself from the beginning of the book. He refuses to speak grandiosely of atrocities, not out of some kind of perverse admiration for the camps, but because he never experienced anything grandiose, only boredom and pain and hunger and even pleasure, the pleasure of still being alive, a sensation that never abandons him even when he is reduced to the most minimal sentience. The reporter give György a slip of paper with his address and urges him to come see him but György lets it drop into the street as soon as the men take their leave of each other. Why does he do that I asked one student, a really smart kid who saves everything for his writing and is unaccountably quiet in class. He hadn’t been expecting the question and struggled a little and then said, simply, I don’t know, I was wondering that too. How did it make you feel, I asked. Upset. Frustrated. That seemed to me a completely understandable response and many students agreed. Despite the novel’s first-person narration, we’re much closer to the reporter than to György, who we have a hard time identifying with. But then another student piped up to say that she was glad György dropped the paper, because the reporter just wanted to exploit him. (Indeed. And that should make us think hard about what our relation to the works we’ve been studying might be. What do we want from them?) I agreed, even if the exploitation was more metaphysical than financial (the reporter admits that neither of them is likely to make much money from any articles they would write together.)

Our insistence that survivors return to tell the world about the atrocities they suffered through is a version of the retrospection that Kertesz contests. What Kertesz wants instead is to present the experience of the survivor from within, which is to say, from the position of someone who is merely surviving, not yet a survivor. Some of the power of Fatelessness comes from the dramatic irony that arises when we compare our knowledge of historical events with György’s—we know what it means to have been “selected,” whereas Györy can only, disquietingly, exult in the clear physical superiority of those in the group he’s been sent to when the people in his transport are separated out. But most of its power comes when we allow ourselves to think about what that disquiet implies: an utter refusal to make of the events something other than what someone going through them might have experienced.

Fatelessness is the only novel I know of that attempts to portray the experience of what was known in camp slang as the Musselmänner, the Muslims, those who were unable through bad luck or poor constitutions or mere inability to find a way to finagle, through some kind of position or job, a few scraps more to eat than the allotted rations and who quickly wasted away. These figures are present throughout Holocaust literature, sometimes as objects of fear, sometimes of contempt, sometimes, as in Levi, as the representatives of the truth of the entire genocidal project, a truth no survivor can be said to share. Here we see one reason why Kertesz needed to write a novel rather than a memoir. By definition, we have no testimony from within that experience, since no one survived it. But Kertesz makes it palpable and plausible how one could be reduced to this state, and how within this zero-degree of human sentience there could still exist, however minutely, the desire for life. It is in this sense that György, transferred to Buchenwald, nothing but a sack of skin and bones who can no longer walk and is left for dead on the ramp until through the most contingent action—he happens to blink just as he is about to be carted to the charnel house and is instead taken to the camp infirmary, it is suggested because the prisoners sorting the living from the dead are so amused at the sight of one so obviously far gone attempting to announce his connection to the living—only in this sense can we understand what otherwise seems only ironic or deluded, György’s breathtaking statement. “I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.” In the same vein, György, who survives by being taken on as a kind of pet prisoner in a hospital unit manly for non-Jewish prisoners, for reasons that are obscure to us because they are unclear to him, can also think, back in Budapest, fondly on the camp: “I was seized by a sharp, painful, futile longing for it: nostalgia, homesickness.” This feeling too must somehow be accepted as part of what Kertesz woudl doubtless shudder to call “the Holocaust experience.”

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There’s so much more to say about Kertesz’s remarkable—and still too little appreciated—novel. But I’ve already said a lot. Suffice it to say that the class did terrifically well with this demanding novel. Next week, after a break for Rosh Hoshanah, we’ll spend several days working on the first long essay. I’m crossing my fingers that when we return to the course texts, this group will continue to keep on bringing it the way they have so far.

 

 

 

Holocaust Literature Week 2: Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka”

This semester I’m blogging about my class on Holocaust literature. Here is the first installment.

Vasily Grossman (1905-64), who we studied at the beginning of Week 2 of the course, is not nearly as well known in the canon of Holocaust literature as someone like last week’s author, Primo Levi (or some of the other writers we’ll study this semester, like Elie Wiesel and Tadeusz Borowski).

I can think of at least two reasons why. First, the reception of Holocaust literature in North America has been biased towards texts written in Western European languages. At least in part, this preference was a function of the inaccessibility of documents and archival material in Soviet-occupied Europe during the Cold War. Second, Grossman was not a survivor, per se, though his mother was murdered by the Nazis along with more than 20,000 other Jews in the family’s hometown of Berdichev in the Ukraine.

Grossman was born to an assimilated Jewish family. He did not have a Jewish education. It is unlikely he knew Yiddish. Berdichev, an important banking center, had one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a prosperous, cosmopolitan world quite unlike the shtetl world made famous in Sholem Aleichem’s work and depicted in the early parts of Wiesel’s Night.

Grossman studied to be an engineer, but turned to writing in the 1930s. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Grossman was assigned to the Red Army newspaper. He became one of the most famous Soviet war correspondents, taking on many dangerous assignments, including a posting in Stalingrad. He accompanied the Red Army on its march westwards, where he reported on what has been called “the Shoah by bullets” (the death meted out by the Einsatzgruppen—mobile units or death squads—across Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine. These firing squads murdered approximately tow million people in the years 1941-44, 1.3 million of them Jews, among them Grossman’s mother). Later, in 1944, he also reported on “the Shoah by gas.” He was with the Red Army when it arrived at the extermination camp Treblinka in August 1944.

Immediately he set about writing an essay called “The Hell of Treblinka.” Published in November 1944, it is one of the earliest accounts of the death camps. After the war, it was submitted as evidence by the prosecution during the Nuremberg trials. This extraordinary work is readily available—translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler together with Olga Mukovnikova—in an invaluable collection of Grossman’s essays, stories, and journalism called The Road (New York Review Books).

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I began by asking the class to recall the question I’d given them at the end of the previous meeting as a way to guide their reading: What does Grossman value?

Hands shot up. I was relieved to see it, since, on the face of it at least, this is an easy question. Grossman is a passionate writer, not shy to render judgment and lay blame. And since that is what students want to do too, at least when it comes to the Holocaust, they take to him immediately. Of course, Grossman also gives us the tools to complicate what seem like straightforward categorizations.

Life, people, humanity, came the answers. Each student who spoke—and I reminded students that if they hadn’t yet said anything in class this was absolutely the day to chime in because soon, maybe already by the next class, their identity would be sealed: they would be a person who doesn’t talk in class—had to point to a specific passage to support their claim. “The most precious valuable in the world—human life.” “The epitaph history will write for [the victim] is: Here Lies a Human Being.” “Killing turned out to be supremely easy… This must be unflinchingly borne in mind by everyone who truly values honor, freedom, and the life of all nations, the life of humanity.”

These were all good examples. I pointed to another quintessentially Grossman-ian formulation: the victims, he says,

were caught up in a single flood, a flood that swallowed up reason, and splendid human science, and maidenly love, and childish wonder, and the coughing of the old, and the human heart.

The list of attributes and qualities here is typical; Grossman loves lists. (At one point in the essay he simply names, for almost ten lines, the belongings the new arrivals would have left scattered on the ground, commenting only, tartly, “It requires real skill to sort out, in the course of only a few minutes, all these thousands of objects.”) This particular list is a strange one. Ranging from physiology (the coughing) to emotion (love and wonder) to human accomplishment (reason and science), it seems to want to encompass everything that might go under the name the human condition in a single sentence.

Grossman absolutely believes in the idea of the human condition. This emphasis on common humanity is at least in part a political and ideological choice. In the course of this forty page essay, Grossman only mentions once that most of the victims were Jewish. That decision is a function of the Soviet insistence that only the suffering of Mother Russia rather than any individual group of people be commemorated. Grossman’s insistence on a kind of universal brotherhood of mankind is also evident in his insistence that the victims looked out for each other. Solidarity of this sort did exist in the camps, but so too did its opposite. Many of the course texts, I noted, will offer a quite different view of affairs.

Grossman was no doctrinaire Marxist—in the essay he even obliquely criticizes Stalinism; after the war he fell into disfavour and his great masterpieces Life and Fate and Everything Flows were written “for the desk drawer” and only survived because they were smuggled to the West in the Krushchev period. But he also insists in classic Marxist fashion that “what engenders a particular regime is the material and ideological relations existing among a country’s citizens… the nature of these relations is what should appall us.”

Yet Grossman never interprets Nazi Germany this way. Instead, as the students noted, he regularly describes them as demonic monsters, purveyors of “bestial madness.” They are refused any redeeming qualities; indeed, they aren’t even human: “The beast that triumphantly kills a man remains a beast.” What, I asked the class, is the effect of Grossman’s rhetoric? What is implied by this way of thinking and talking? (To offer compelling interpretations, students need to be able to draw out the implications of their observations, so I wanted them to practice drawing out the consequences of their ideas.) It’s like they’re not real people, someone said. Exactly, I responded. And why does that matter? Well, they were people, said another. Yes, I added, people like us.

It’s easy for us to imagine that these events have nothing to do with us. It allows us to approach the Holocaust as a kind of macabre spectator sport. But if we treat the Nazis as monsters, we effectively let ourselves off the hook. We don’t need to think of ourselves as in any way implicated in their way of viewing the world. In this way, Grossman risks devaluing the idea of humanity he values so much. In an oblique way, this risk is evident too in his treatment of what the historian Raul Hilberg would later call bystanders, in this case the local Poles who Grossman uses as mere neutral evidence for German actions. He doesn’t’ consider more complicated questions of implication or degrees of guilt, concepts that someone like Primo Levi would develop in his essay “The Grey Zone,” which we’ll read in a week or so.

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Whenever I teach “The Hell of Treblinka,” I work towards a close reading of a single passage. This time, I left it too late and we didn’t have the time to really do justice to it. But that’s okay. The work the class did in pointing to specific passages to support each claim, although time-consuming, was worth it. I want students to see that they can’t just go with their gut, can’t just offer a vague sense of what the text is saying (which often amounts to what they wish it were saying). They have to work with what’s there. Only then will their readings convince.

At any rate, here’s the passage that to my mind gets to the heart of Grossman’s enterprise. Having described the chaos new victims would have experienced on arrival—separated from loved ones and possessions, shaved and otherwise physically humiliated, herded along a path lined by high fences towards an imposing brick building—Grossman explains what would have happened next:

The door of the concrete chamber slammed shut […] Can we find within us the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt, what they experienced during their last minutes of life? All we know is that they cannot speak now… Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat, packed so tight that their bones cracked and their crushed rib cages were barely able to breathe, they stood pressed against one another; they stood as if they were a single human being. Someone, perhaps some wise old man, makes the effort to say, “Patience now—this is the end.” Someone shouts out some terrible curse. A holy curse—surely this curse must be fulfilled? With a superhuman effort a mother tries to make a little more space for her child: may her child’s dying breaths be eased, however infinitesimally, by a last act of maternal care. A young woman, her tongue going numb, asks, “Why am I being suffocated? Why can’t I love and have children?” Heads spin. Throats choke. What are the pictures now passing before people’s glassy dying eyes? Pictures of childhood? Of the happy days of peace? Of the last terrible journey? OF the mocking face of the SS man in that first square by the station: “Ah, so that’s why he was laughing…” Consciousness dims. It is the moment of the last agony… No, what happened in that chamber cannot be imagined. The dead bodies stand there, gradually turning cold. (Ellipses in original unless bracketed)

Here Grossman imagines the ground zero of the Holocaust, the centre of what the French political prisoner David Rousset, a survivor of Neuengamme and Buchenwald, called l’univers concentrationnaire. He takes us into the gas chamber. What happened there? Historians and forensic researchers can tell us a lot: we know that people were so desperate to escape that they clawed at the walls. We know from the evidence of the piles of corpses that those who were bigger and stronger climbed over those who were smaller and weaker to get the last bit of air. But the desire to enter into that scene—to turn it into a scene—is both taboo and inescapable in Holocaust literature.

Remember this passage, I told the students, when we read Maus: we’ll see how self-consciously Spiegelman points to the limits of eyewitness testimony. Remember this scene when we watch Schindler’s List: we’ll see how dubiously Spielberg flirts with exploiting our dark compulsion to enter into this space.

For now, I want us to see that when Grossman wonders whether we can “find the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt” he is asking a real question. This vivid passage aims to make us feel present—we see that most clearly in its use of physical and corporeal details: the clammy sweat, cracked bones, and crushed rib cages.

It even imagines how people might have acted and thought in those final moments. What kind of actions are these, I asked the students. They’re kind actions, caring. An old man shouts “Patience,” a mother seeks to make space for her child. The people evoked are vulnerable: that old man, that woman with her child, the young woman who wants to live. There’s even the intimation of revenge and resistance—someone, the only person here who isn’t described in any way, shouts out “a holy curse,” which he or she, as well perhaps as Grossman himself, insists, which is to say, hopes, must be fulfilled. These aren’t just victims; they are also resisters, not least in their staunch avowal of basic human dignity. They resist by maintaining solidarity with each other: “they stood as if they were a single human being.” Here we have Grossman’s credo in a phrase.

With only a minute or two left, I asked the class to tell me what happens in the passage between the sentence starting “Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat” and the one starting “Someone, perhaps some wise old man.” A moment’s silence: the students were tired but still game. They hadn’t packed up their stuff yet. But they knew there was an answer I was looking for and it made them wary.

Look at the verbs, I prompted. They shift from past tense to present, someone said, half-hesitantly, half-triumphantly. Yes, I said, pointing out examples: someone makes an effort; a mother tries to make more room for her child; heads spin; throats choke. What’s the effect of this shift? It’s like replacing statistics with stories, one student said. Yes, but that doesn’t explain this particular choice on Grossman’s part. What does the shift to present tense suggest? It makes it more intense, another said. Normally, I would have payed out this suggestion further, getting the student to expand on what she meant by intensity. But I was in a hurry, so I finished the thought. Right, it makes the scene immediate, vivid. In a way, it undoes what happened in the chamber, bringing the dead to life.

And yet, I concluded, these attempts at immediacy fail. The dead don’t live. Even if the passage returns to present in the final sentence (suggesting an ongoing duration—these bodies are in some way still standing there) the penultimate sentence, like the rest of the essay, is in past tense. In that sense, the key statement here is: “No, what happened in the that chamber cannot be imagined.” We are left only with a statement of absence: “All we know is that they cannot speak now.” Grossman has tried to do that for them, but ultimately refuses the possibility.

Grossman’s passionate desire to do justice to the victims and his equally ardent disgust for the perpetrators is matched by his modesty and reserve. He speaks for them only inasmuch as he rejects that speaking.

We’re returning to Primo Levi next class, I said, as the clock showed two minutes past the hour and the next group of students milled around outside the room. Think about Grossman’s humanism as you read Survival in Auschwitz. Will Levi’s humanism look like Grossman’s?

Class dismissed.