My Year in Reading, 2020

I feel bad saying it, it is a mark of my privilege and comfort, but 2020 was not the most terrible year of my life. In many ways, it was even a good year. I have secure employment, about as secure as can be found these days, and what’s more I spent half the year on sabbatical, and even before then I was working from home from mid-March and didn’t miss my commute for a minute. Thanks to the sabbatical, I avoided the scramble to shift my teaching to a fully online schedule—watching colleagues both at Hendrix and elsewhere do this work I was keenly aware of how luck I’d been to have avoided so much work. I do worry, however, that I’m hopelessly behind the curve, clueless about various technologies and best practices; I expect elements of the shift to virtual will persist.

My family spent a lot of time together last year; among other things, I watched my daughter grow into someone who edits YouTube videos with aplomb. (At not-quite ten she is already the house IT person.) As an introvert, I found staying home all the time the opposite of a burden. (Last week I had to be somewhere relatively crowded, for the first time in months, and boy am I going to be in for a rude awakening when this is all over.) I missed seeing friends, but honestly my social circle here is small, and I continued to connect with readers from all over the world on BookTwitter. Most excitingly, I had a lot of time to read. I’ve heard many people say their concentration was shot last year, and understandably, but that wasn’t my experience. For good or for ill my response to bad times is the same as to good—to escape this world and its demands into a book.

But sometimes, usually on my run, I’ll wonder if I’m mistaken in my assessment of the year. I suspect a deep sadness inside me hasn’t come out yet: sadness at not seeing my parents for over a year; at not being able to visit Canada (I became a US citizen at the end of the year, but Canada will always be home; more importantly, our annual Alberta vacations are the glue that keep our little family together); at all the lives lost and suffering inflicted by a refusal to imagine anything like the common good; at all the bullying and cruelty and general bullshit that the former US President, his lackeys, and devoted supporters exacted, seldom on me personally, but on so many vulnerable and undeserving victims, which so coarsened life in this country.

I think back to the hope I sometimes felt in the first days of the pandemic that we might change our ways of living—I mean, we will, in more or less minor ways, but not, it seems, in big ones. I feel hopelessness at the ongoingness of the pandemic, the sense that we may still be closer to the beginning than the end. And a despair fills me, affecting even such minor matters, in the grand scheme of things, as this manuscript I’m working on—could it possibly interest anyone?

I suppose what most concerns me when I say that 2020 was not a terrible year is my fear of how much more terrible years might soon become. My anxiety about the climate-change-inspired upheavals to come sent me to books, too, more in search of hope than distraction. A few of the titles below helped with that. Mostly, though, reading books is just what I do. I am reader more than anything else, and I expect to be for as long as that’s humanly possible.

For the second straight year, I managed to write briefly about every book I read. You can catch up on my monthly review posts here:

January February March April May June July August September October November December

All told, I finished 133 books in 2020, almost the same as the year before (though, since some of these were real doorstoppers, no doubt I read more pages all told). Of these 45 (34%) were by men, and 88 (66%) by women. 35 were nonfiction (26%), and 98 (74%) were fiction. Sadly—if predictably—I read no collections of poetry or plays last year. I didn’t read much translated stuff: only 30 (23%) were not originally written in English. Only 4 were re-reads; no surprise, given how little I was teaching.

Highlights:

These are the books that leap to mind, the ones I don’t need to consult my list to remember, the ones that, for whatever reason, I needed at this time in my life, the ones that left me with a bittersweet feeling of regret and joy when I ran my hands consolingly over the cover, as I find I do when much moved. These are the books a reader reads for.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

My book of the year. A road novel about a cattle-drive from the Mexican border to Montana around 1870. Thrilling, funny, epic, homely. Characters to love and hate and roll your eyes at and cry over and pound your fists in frustration at. And landscapes to swoon over, described in language that is never fussy or mannered or deliberately poetic, and all the better able to capture grandeur for that. I think about the river crossings all the time. And those last scenes in wintry Montana. Lonesome Dove is good for people who love Westerns. It’s good for people who don’t love Westerns. Recently someone asked me to recommend a 20th century Middlemarch. Crazy, I know, but I immediately thought of this book, which, albeit in a different register and in a different location, is similarly fascinated by the webs that form community, and why we might want to be enmeshed in them. (A goal for 2021 is to re-read Eliot’s masterpiece to see if this comparison has any merit.) If you read novels for character, plot, and atmosphere—if you are, in other words, as unsophisticated a reader as me—then Lonesome Dove will captivate you, maybe even take you back to the days when you loved Saturdays because you could get up early and read and read before anyone asked you to do anything.

Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake

I loved Kassabova’s previous book, Border, and was thrilled that my high expectations for its follow-up were met. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, connected by underground rivers, straddle the borders of Greece, Albania, and the newly-independent North Macedonia. This book is about these places, but as the singular noun in the title suggests, “lake” here primarily concerns a mindset, one organized around the way place draws together different peoples. Like Border, To the Lake is at first blush a travelogue, with frequent forays into history, but closer inspection reveals it to be an essayistic meditation on the different experiences provoked by natural versus political boundaries. Unlike Border, To the Lake is more personal: Kassabova vacationed here as a child growing up in 1970s Bulgaria, as her maternal family had done for generations. But Kassabova seems more comfortable when the spotlight is on others, and the people she encounters are fascinating—especially as there is always the possibility that they might be harmful, or themselves have been so harmed that they cannot help but exert that pain on others. In Kassabova’s depiction, violence and restitution are fundamental, competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) People have been taking the waters in these lakes for centuries—the need for such spaces of healing is prompted by seemingly inescapable violence. I’ve heard that Kassabova is at work on a book about spas and other places of healing, and it’s easy to see how the forthcoming project stems from To the Lake. I can’t wait.

Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me & Antigona and Me

Clanchy first earned a place in my heart with her book based on her life as a teacher, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She is particularly good on how we might teach poetry writing—not by airily invoking “inspiration” but by offering students the chance to imitate good poems. These models will inspire students to write amazing poems of their own, and offer students whose background is from outside the UK (where Clanchy lives) the chance to refract their own experiences into art. Clanchy is committed to the idea that students have things to gain from their education, if they are allowed to pursue one. But she is equally adamant that students have things to give to the institutions where they spend so much of their lives. Thinking about what a child might bring to her school reminds us that education is a public good first and not just a credentialing factory or a warehouse to be pillaged on the way to some later material success. It’s an idea that might begin to redistribute the social and economic inequalities attendant in neoliberalism.

I’m sure I liked Some Kids as much as I did because I’m also a teacher. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think non-teachers (and non-parents) will enjoy it too. But I do think Clanchy’s earlier book Antigona and Me is an even greater accomplishment, with perhaps wider appeal. Antigona is Clanchy’s pseudonym for a Kosovan refugee who became her housekeeper and nanny in the early 2000s. The two women’s lives became as intertwined as their different backgrounds, classes, and values allowed them. Yet for all their differences, they are linked by the shame that governs their lives as women. Antigona’s shame—her escape from the code of conduct that governed her life in the remote mountains of Kosovo, and the suffering that escape brought onto her female relatives—is different from Clanchy’s—her realization that her own flourishing as a woman requires the backbreaking labour of another—and it wouldn’t be right to say that they have more in common than not. What makes the book so great is what fascinating an complex characters both Antigona and Clanchy are. Riveting.

Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

A brilliant historical novel. My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is thin—though having just finished War and Peace I can say it is less thin than it used to be—and I appreciated learning about both the campaign on the Iberian peninsula and the various milieu in England, ranging from medicine to communal living, that were both far removed from and developed in response to that war. (Miller has Penelope Fitzgerald’s touch with the telling detail, conjuring up the mud and blood-spattered viscera of the past while also showing its estrangement from the present.) But what has really stayed with me in this book about a traumatized soldier on the run from both his memories and, more immediately, a pair of contract killers hired to silence the man before he can reveal a wartime atrocity is its suggestion that the past might be mastered, or at least set aside. Reading the last fifty pages, I felt my heart in my throat. Such anxiety, such poignancy. This book really needs to be better known.

Helen Garner, The Spare Room

Garner is a more stylistically graceful Doris Lessing, fizzing with ideas, fearless when it comes to forbidden female emotions. Old friends Helen and Nicola meet again when Helen agrees to host Nicola, who has come to Melbourne to try out an alternative therapy for her incurable, advanced cancer. Garner brilliantly presents Helen’s rage at the obviously bogus nature of the therapy—and Nicola’s blithe (which is to say, deeply terrified) unwillingness to acknowledge that reality. Helen is resentful, too, about the demanding and disgusting job of taking care of Nicola (seldom have sheets been stripped, washed, and remade as often as in this novel). Emotions about which of course she also feels guilty. Nicola expresses her own rage, in her case of the dying person when faced with the healthy. In the end, Nicola has to be tricked into accepting her death; the novel lets us ask whether this really is a trick. Has Nicola gained enlightenment? Is false enlightenment, if it gets the job of accepting reality still enlightenment? What does enlightenment have to do with the failure of the body, anyway? I loved the novella’s intellectual and emotional punch.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future

I’ve grouped these titles together, not because they’re interchangeable or individually deficient, but because the Venn diagram of their concerns centers on their conviction that being attuned to the world might save it and our place on it. These are great books about paying attention. Whether describing summer days clearing a pond of algae or noting the cycles nut trees follow in producing their energy-laden crop, Kimmerer reminds us that “all flourishing is mutual.” We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. The past year has taught us the truth of this claim—even though so far we have failed to live its truth. Jamie observes a moth trapped on the surface of the water as clearly as an Alaskan indigenous community whose past is being brought to light by the very climactic forces that threaten its sustainability. Robinson imagines a scenario in which dedicated bureaucrats, attentive to procedure and respectful of experts, bring the amount of carbon in the atmosphere down to levels not seen since the 19th century. Even though Robinson writes fiction, he shares with Kimmerer and Jamie an interest in the essay. We need essayistic thinking—with its associative leaps and rhizomatic structure—more than ever. These generous books made me feel hopeful, a feeling I clung to more than ever this year.

Best of the rest:

Stone cold modern classics: Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw (autofiction before it was a thing, but with the texture of a great realist novel, complete with extraordinary events and powerful mother-daughter drama—this book could easily have won the Booker); Anita Brookner’s Look at Me (Brookner’s breakout: like Bowen with clearer syntax and even more damaged—and damaging—characters); William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (a sensitive boy, abruptly faced with loss; a loving mother and a distant father; a close community that is more dangerous than it lets on: we’ve read this story before, but Maxwell makes it fresh and wondering).

Stone cold classic classics: Buddenbrooks (not as heavy as it sounds), Howells’s Indian Summer (expatriate heartache, rue, wit).

Thoroughly enjoyed, learned a lot (especially about hair): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

Best deep dive: I read four novels by Tessa Hadley this year, two early ones and the two most recent. Since I’ve read a few of her books before I now only have two more to go before I’ve finished them all. That will be a sad day, though with luck we will get a new one before too long. Hadley has been good from the start, but The Past and Late in the Day show her hitting new heights of wisdom and economy. Her characters are arty types or professionals who learn things they don’t always like about what they desire, especially since those desires they are so convinced by often turn out later to have been wrongheaded (like Proust’s Swann, they spend their lives running after women who are not their types, except “women” here includes men, friends, careers, family life, their very sense of self). I can imagine the future day when young literary hipsters rediscover Hadley’s books and wonder why she wasn’t one of the most famous writers of her time.

Did not totally love at the time, but bits and pieces of which would not quite let me alone: Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail (struck especially by the plight of people joined by contemporary technology when that technology fails: what is online love when the internet disappears?); Henri Bosco’s Malicroix translated by Joyce Zonana (so glad this is finally in English; even if I was not head-over-heels with it, I’ll never forget its descriptions of weather. Do you like wind? Have I got a book for you!).

Loved at the time but then a conversation with a friend made me rethink: Paulette Jiles’s The News of the World. I was a big fan of this book back in the spring—and its rendering on audio book, beautifully rendered by a gravelly-voiced Grover Gardner—and I still think on it fondly. But a Twitter friend argued that its portrayal of a girl “rescued” from the Kiowa who had taken her, years earlier, in a raid is racist. I responded that the novel is aware of the pitfalls of its scenario, but now I’m not so sure.

Maybe not earth-shattering, but deeply satisfying: Lissa Evans’s V for Victory, Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, two novels that deserve more readers, especially in the US, where, as far as I know, neither has yet been published.

Most joyful, biggest belly laughs: Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. That bit in the supermarket! Priceless.

Best Parul Seghal recommendation: Seghal elicits some of the feelings in middle-aged me that Sontag did to my 20-year-old self, with the difference that I now have the wherewithal to read Seghal’s recommendations in a way I did not with Sontag’s. Anyway, I’ll follow her pretty much anywhere, which sometimes leads me to writers I would otherwise have passed on. Exhibit A in 2020 was Barbara Demnick, whose Eat the Buddha is about heartrending resistance, often involving self-immolation, bred by China’s oppression of Tibetans. In addition to its political and historical material, this is an excellent book about landscape and about modern surveillance technology.

Ones to watch out for (best debuts): Naoisie Dolan’s Exciting Times; Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. Have I ever mentioned that Leichter was once my student?

Longest book: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Almost 1500 pages of easy reading pleasure that I look on with affection (perhaps more than when I first finished it) rather than love. Although now that I have finished War & Peace I see that Seth frequently nods to it. Wolf hunts!

Longest book (runner up): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend A mere 900-pager. As I said back in November, “I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully.” Most interesting as a story about “revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.” Happy to have read it, but don’t foresee reading it again anytime soon.

Slow burn: Magda Szabó, Abigail (translated by Len Rix). Bit irritated by this at first but then realized the joke was on me—the narrator’s self-absorption is a function of her ignorance. All-too soon ignorance becomes experience. Not as gloriously defiant as The Door, but worth your time.

Frustrating: Carys Davies, West. Ostensibly revisionist western that disappoints in its hackneyed indigenous characters. I do still think of bits of it almost a year later, though, so it’s not all bad.

Left me cold: James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry; Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (translated by Minna Zallman Procter); Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (translated by Jamie Bulloch) (the last is almost parodically my perfect book title, which might have heightened my disappointment).

Not for me, this time around (stalled out maybe 100 pages into each): The Corner That Held Them; Justine; The Raj Quartet; Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Promise to try these again another time.

Stinkers: Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (translated by Laura Marris); Jessica Moor, The Keeper; Patrick DeWitt, French Exit; Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times

Writer I read a lot of, mostly very much enjoying and yet whose books do not stay with me: Annie Ernaux. I suspect to really take her measure I would need to re-read her, or, better yet, teach her, which I might do next year, using Happening. As I said in regards to the latest Sigrid Nunez, I think I do not have the right critical training to fully appreciate autofiction. I enjoy reading it, but I cannot fix on it, somehow.

Good crime fiction: Above all, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, an impressive inversion of the procedural. Honorable mentions: Susie Steiner; Marcie R. Rendon; Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (awaiting the sequel impatiently); Tana French, The Searcher; Simenon’s The Flemish House (the atmosphere, the ending: good stuff). In spy fiction, I enjoyed three books by Charles Cumming, and will read more. In general, though, this was an off-year for crime fiction for me. What I read mostly seemed dull, average. Maybe I’ve read too much the last decade or so?

Inspiring for my work in progress: Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. Mendelsohn excels at structure—and in these three linked lectures he tackles the subject head on.

Best Holocaust books (primary sources): I was taken by two memoirs of Jewish women who hid in Berlin during the war: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin (translated by Anthea Bell) and Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (translated by Jean Steinberg). Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But my Life is worthwhile, with a relatively rare emphasis on forced labour camps. In her novel Other People’s Houses, closely based on her own experience as a child brought from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, Lore Segal takes no prisoners. Uri Shulevitz’s illustrated memoir, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, is thoroughly engrossing, plus it shines a spotlight on the experience of Jewish refugees in Central Asia. Of all these documents, I was perhaps most moved by the life of Lilli Jahn, a promising doctor abandoned in the early war years by her non-Jewish husband, as told by her grandson Martin Doerry through copious use of family letters. My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (translated by John Brownjohn) uses those documents to powerful effect, showing how gamely her children fended for themselves and how movingly Jahn, arrested by an official with a grudge, contrary to Nazi law that excepted Jewish parents of non or half-Jewish children from deportation, hid her suffering from them.

Best Holocaust books (secondary sources): I was bowled over by Mark Roseman’s Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Fascinating material, elegantly presented, striking the perfect balance between historical detail and theoretical reflection. To read is to think differently about our misguided ideas of what rescue and resistance meant both in the time of National Socialism and also today. His earlier work, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany, which focuses on a part of the larger story told in the new book, is also excellent. Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz is another fine example of the particular used to generate general conclusions. Considering the fate of the Galician town of his ancestors in the first half of the 20th century, Bartov uses the history of Buczacz, as I put it back in January, “to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another.” Dan Stone’s Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction does exactly what the title offers. It covers an impressive amount of material—Nazi and Stalinist camps feature most prominently, no surprise, but they are by no means the sole focus—in only a few pages. Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust skillfully combines archival and anthropological material (interviews with twenty child survivors) to show how much effort postwar helpers, despite their best intentions, put into taking away the agency of these young people.

In addition to reviews of the things I read, I wrote a couple of personal things last year that I’m pleased with: an essay about my paternal grandmother, and another about my love for the NYRB Classics imprint.

You can find my reflections on years past here:
2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014

Coming in 2021:

Because my sense of how long things will take me to do is so terrible (it’s terrible), I’m always making plans I can’t keep. I should either stop or become more of a time realist. I do have a couple of group readings lined up for the first part of the year: Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel in February, and L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy in March. I’ve enjoyed, these past months, having a long classic on the go, and will keep that up until the end of my sabbatical. Having just completed War and Peace—guaranteed to be on this list in a year’s time—I might read more Russians. We’ll see. I want to read more Spanish-language literature—though I’ve been saying that for years and mostly not doing it. I want to read more writers of colour, especially African American writers. I took a course in college but have so many gaps to fill. I’m reading more nonfiction with greater pleasure than ever before—the surest sign of middle age I know; I’m sure that will continue in 2021. I read almost no comics/graphic novels last year, unusual for me, but I’m already rectifying that omission. I’ll read more science fiction in 2021, I suspect; it feels vital in a way crime fiction hasn’t much, lately. My two prime candidates for “deep dives” this year are Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison. Now that I am an American I should know the literature better!

What I’ll probably do, though, is butterfly my way through the reading year, getting distracted by shiny new books and genre fiction and things that aren’t yet even on my radar. No matter what, though, I’ll keep talking about it with you. That is, I’ll put my thoughts out here, and hope you’ll find something useful in them, and maybe even that you’ll be moved to share your own with me. Thanks to all my readers. Your comments and reactions and opinions—that connection—means everything to me.

What I Read, September 2020

After initial discontent—how will I write anything when I’m always asking my kid if she’s done her math, especially since I hate writing anyway?—the month turned better, better than better, actually, really good, in fact, like those crisp, perfect days in the Rockies after the first brief snowfall. And to fair, that rise in spirits came about because of Corona-time. Since we’re all working remotely we were able to visit my in-laws for the Jewish High Holidays. Spending those important, soulful, introspective days with family (especially family who will cook for you) was meaningful, even joyous. The joy of seeing our daughter spend time with her grandparents was exceeded, for me, only by the joy of having a lot of extra time to read. Here’s what I got through this month:

Annie Ernaux, Happening (2000) Trans. Tanya Leslie (2001)

Perhaps my favourite Ernaux so far, despite the disturbing subject matter. The writer remembers how she found herself, age 23, pregnant. She didn’t want the child; the father, who was no longer in the picture, expressed neither interest nor responsibility. Fearing her life will end before it has begun, though having to rouse herself from initial paralysis, Ernaux sought out an abortion—then illegal in France. (This was 1963.) The abortion is as terrible and dangerous as Ernaux’s reflections about it are cool and acute. A worthy autofictional accompaniment to Jean Rhys’s classic novel Voyage in the Dark.

Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town (2020)

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never paid attention to China’s occupation of Tibet, beyond vaguely registering it as wrong. Demick—a journalist who has been based in the Balkans, Korea, and, latterly, China—moves between the dangerous present and the bleak history of the 20th Century in describing the experience of Tibetans under Chinese rule. I’m currently reading her first book, about the siege of Sarajevo, so I know that the technique in evidence here—telling a big story by focusing on a handful of individuals—is one she has used from the beginning of her career. (Both Parul Sehgal and Anne Fadiman in their reviews of the book—both good, but if you only have time to read one choose Sehgal’s—note that John Hersey pioneered this form of reportage in Hiroshima.) Eat the Buddha—a reference to how the starving Chinese Communists ravaged Tibet in the 1930s, eating even votive offerings made of barley flour and butter, and thus also a metaphor for what Han Chinese have done to Tibetans—follows a similar path, concentrating above all on a woman whose father was one of the last Tibetan kings and whose subsequent life has been a via dolorosa orchestrated by the Chinese communist party to punish her for those origins.

Demick focuses her study on Ngaba, a city in the eastern plateau of Sichuan, which in the last decade has become a center of Tibetan resistance, most dramatically and tragically by the self-immolation of several monks. (Most Tibetans live not in the Tibet Autonomous Region but in four Chinese provinces.) Reporting there is largely prohibited; Demick is understandably cagey about how she managed to spend as much time there as she did, but I would have liked to hear more about those efforts, which must have been substantial. Security may be tighter in this one-stoplight town than anywhere else on earth: 50,000 officers watch over 15,000 people. Demick ranges beyond Ngaba, as well, offering glimpses into Tibet proper, specifically Lhasa, and Dharamshala, India, where the current Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans live in exile.

I learned so much from Demick’s careful book. Did you know, for example, that traditional Tibetan society had evolved a delicate, necessary balance between those who farmed (barley, mostly, as not much else will grow at that altitude) and those who herded? People needed both skills to survive the harsh climate, and marriages were designed to ensure families included people who could do both. Communism and planned economy destroyed that balance—climate change, exacerbated by rampant capitalism, has put it further at risk.

Finishing the book, I felt even more anger than usual the companies and citizens (i.e. us) so eager for money they readily overlook China’s human rights abuses.

Charles Cumming, A Foreign Country (2012)

Better than average spy novel, more Lionel Davidson (lots of action; interest in the details of how spies do their job) than John Le Carré (more interest in the telling than in the told; labyrinthine).

Stephan Talty, The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia (2020)

The Butcher of Latvia was Herbert Cukurs, an internationally renowned aviator revered in his native Latvia. As late as 1939 his speaking tours included a sold-out event at Riga’s Jewish Club. Two years later, though, Cukurs was one of the most notorious members of the bands of roving Latvian nationalists who gleefully did the Nazis’ bidding after they occupied the country in the summer of 1941. Talty observes that this fury stemmed less from deep-seated antisemitism, though he doesn’t discount that either, and more from hatred of the Soviets who had brutally occupied the country as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Jews were equated with Bolshevism; Cukurs and his ilk saw no contradiction between this claim and the wealth of Latvia’s Jewish bourgeoisie.

Talty’s book purports to explore Cukurs’s about-face, but it’s in fact more interested in the plot the Mossad organized in 1965 to assassinate him. Like many perpetrators, Cukurs fled to Brazil after the war but, unlike them, he lived under his own name. Why the Israelis didn’t kidnap him and bring him to trial, as they had done three years previously with Adolf Eichmann, is never made clear, though the answer seems to be that there was less evidence against Cukurs. There was still plenty, though, some of it recorded by a woman named Zelma Shepshelovich, a Jewish woman hidden in Riga by a Latvian officer. Kept to an apartment the officer shared with two other men, who bragged about the atrocities they had committed, she spent her time committing names, places, and deeds to memory. Escaping to Sweden after a dangerous journey across the Baltic in 1944, Zelma wrote a 50-page memo detailing this information and gave it to the Americans and British, neither of whom wanted anything to do with it.

As you can see, this short book is about many things: Cukurs’s life before the war; the atrocities in Latvia after the German invasion; the plot to kill Cukurs, which took months and required an agent to survive a lengthy, tense cat-and-mouse game with the paranoid and violent Cukurs, who even at age 64 remained a sharpshooter; and Zelma’s life during and after the war, when she and her protector suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviets (the latter was sent to the Gulag; Zelma didn’t know peace until she was able to emigrate to Israel in 1979). Talty tries hard to tie it all together, but it’s tricky because the Mossad team knew nothing of Zelma (her role in the book is to be an exemplary victim).

As if this wasn’t enough, the most interesting part of the book is something else altogether: the reason the Israelis were so keen on getting to Cukurs when they did. The statute of limitations on Nazi perpetrators was about to expire in mid-1965. Two men, one of them famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, led an international campaign to convince the West German parliament to extend the period under which Nazis could be brought to trial. Many Germans wanted to let the statute expire—as one politician put it, “We have to accept living among a few murderers.” But the tide turned, punctuated by a stirring surprise speech in the Bundestag by the Social Democrat Adolf Arndt, who shocked the country by insisting that everyone in Germany had known what was going on in their name.

Talty suggests the assassination of Cukurs turned the tide (Arndt’s speech referenced details that can be connected to Cukurs’s actions), but the connection is strained. The Good Assassin isn’t perfect—at once overstuffed and thin (much of what he presents has been published elsewhere)—but it contains some gripping material, even if a bit breathlessly presented.

Hadley Freeman, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family (2020)

Another third-generation Holocaust memoir, in which a writer uncovers the experiences of their grandparents. I read these obsessively, for professional reasons, but also, I’ve realized, out of an obscure and unfair resentment: I have no similar story, and sometimes I wish I did (which I realize is insane in many ways). It would give me an easy answer to a question I struggle with: why do you study/teach/have such interest in the Holocaust.

House of Glass is like most of these books: the story of the past is fascinating, always heartbreaking and usually unputdownable, but the story of the telling is weak, clunky, uninteresting. The reason that Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost is the ne plus ultra of this genre is that he’s a scholar of narrative, so he knows how to structure a book, making comparisons if not equivalences between the two narrative levels. Holocaust stories, after all, are always as much about finding out what happened as telling what happened.

Freeman, a British-based journalist who has written a lot on fashion, which serves her well in a family story that revolves to a surprising degree on that industry, tells the story of her paternal grandmother Sarah Glass, born Sala Glahs in early 20th-century Galicia. Sala’s three brothers, Jehuda, Jakob, and Sender immigrated to Paris after WWI and the death of their father. There the brothers became Henri, Jacques, and Alex, and to varying degrees assimilated to French culture. Two of the brothers survived the war, one having pioneered a photoimaging technology that the Allies used in fighting the war, and the other having launched himself through sheer force of will into a career in fashion that saw him become friends with Christian Dior and, late in life, Picasso. The third was murdered at Auschwitz. Sarah, as Sala became known, was married off to an American and spent a life of quiet desperation on Long Island.

I really did not care for Freeman’s clunky insertions re: the rise of antisemitism in Europe and America today (as if it ever went away, and as if today’s antisemitism had the same roots and causes as it did in the 1930s); I did, however, liked that she at least imagines why the brother who was deported did not take the opportunities that, in retrospect, could have saved him. (I say “imagine” because she is not immune to the language of passivity that is so often used to blame victims.)

Jacqui liked this book a lot; her take is worth listening to, especially if you are not a grumpy scholar of Holocaust lit!

Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (2019)

Breezy, enjoyable, but also sad novel about a young black British woman looking for love while clinging to a journalism career. I especially liked the group texts with her friends. Various kinds of male shittiness, mostly sexual, are exposed in ways that may or may not have hit home with this reader. Thanks to Berlin bookseller Magda Birkmann for the recommendation.

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901) Trans. John E. Woods (1995)

It’s a classic for a reason.

Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (1910) Trans. Jamie Bulloch (2017)

After Buddenbrooks, I thought I would stay in the Baltic, though this time further east, in the countryside near Saint Petersburg. I like epistolary novels, I’m fascinated by the end Czarist Russia, and I like suspense, so Huch’s novella should have been just my thing. But I found the story—about a family that retreats to their dacha after death threats have been made against the father, the minister for education, only to be infiltrated by an anarchist—thin and dull. I couldn’t understand why all the letters sounded the same, despite ostensibly being from different characters, and I don’t know if the author or the translator is to blame. Bulloch’s translation feels pedestrian, and I know Huch is much loved in her native Germany, so maybe the problem is his. Regardless, the book left basically no impression on me.

Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939 (1978) Trans. Dalya Bilu (1980)

I don’t like Aharon Appelfeld, and I didn’t want to read this, his most famous novel, in which Jews find themselves willingly marooned in a fictional Austrian spa town in the months leading up to their final destruction. I realize this is the worst possible, least charitable reading mindset. I expected to dislike it, and I did, but I thought it would give me material for something I’m writing, and it did, so I guess it was worth it. Nothing about it changed my verdict: Appelfeld’s dream-like style (cod Kafka) irritates me, but his victim-judging is what really pisses me off.

Tessa Hadley, Accidents in the Home (2002)

Hadley’s first novel, and, although it occasionally falters (as in the title, just a little too cute), her particular magic is already evident. We get the complicated families she loves so much, with plenty of step-siblings and remarriages; we get the sudden life upheavals, which people gamely try to surmount, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always without making too much of a fuss; we get that satisfying sense of someone capturing ordinary bits of middle-class life. Catching up with Hadley—only three left to go now—has been a highlight of my reading year.

Martin Doerry (ed), My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (2002) Trans. John Brownjohn (2004)

David Cesarani is bullish on this text in his invaluable history of the Holocaust, and now I see why. Lilli Jahn’s life and fate is both unusual and typical, and terribly moving. Jahn, née Schlüchterer, was born in Köln 1900 to an assimilated, middle-class family. She studied medicine and received her medical degree in 1924. During this time, she fell in love with a fellow medical student, Ernst Jahn, neither Jewish nor, it seems, as gifted a doctor as she. Plus, he couldn’t quite abandon a former girlfriend (my sense from the letters between them is that he liked Lilli a lot but didn’t find her hot). Lilli, a singularly kind soul, babied Ernst through his cold feet; the two married in 1926. The letters between them and between him and his future father-in-law regarding the marriage are fascinating; her parents had understandable reservations, and mixed marriages, though not unheard of, were still not terribly common in Germany.

Impossible to read the book and not wonder what might have happened had Lilli given up on Ernst. Maybe she would have gone to England with her younger sister, a chemist. Instead, the couple settled in a town near Kassel, where Ernst had taken a practice. (Lilli gave up a much better opportunity to do so.) They briefly practiced together but soon the first of their five children arrived and that was the end of Lilli’s medical career.

Life for the growing family wasn’t always easy, but they were close, and we get the full panoply of German (Jewish) bourgeois life: hiking holidays, evenings with the one or two educated families in town, an almost painful belief in the power of literature and culture more generally. Lilli suffered from being apart from her family, and from city life. The children were raised Lutheran, but as National Socialism took hold life even for them became more complicated. They couldn’t, for example, join the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls.

Although Lilli was more protected than most German Jews, thanks to her marriage, by the late 1930s she rarely left the house. Her life got even worse when Ernst fell in love with the female doctor who become his locum in the summer of 1939. For a while the three lived unhappily together, but eventually the woman became pregnant and Ernst travelled back and forth between two households. In 1942 he asked Lilli for a divorce, which she granted despite the risks it opened her too. By now she was the only Jew left in the town, and the Nazi mayor, who had long wanted her gone, took her divorced status as an opportunity to kick her out. She and the children found an apartment in Kassel, where she put up a visiting card next to the doorbell stating “Dr. med. Lilli Jahn.” This contravened laws requiring all Jewish women take the middle name Sara and prohibiting Jews from calling themselves doctor. Someone reported her to Gestapo and in late August 1943 Lilli was arrested and sent to a corrective labour camp in a former Benedictine monastery called Breitenau, about 45 minutes away. Most of her fellow prisoners were Eastern European labour conscripts or else Germans who had violated Nazi laws of decency (usually by having affairs with Jews or so-called Slavs). Breitenau was no concentration camp, but it was harsh and unpleasant. The inmates worked hard, usually in nearby fields, had little to eat, and were often sick.

For the rest of the war, Lilli’s children were left to fend for themselves (their father had been called up and was busy with his new family). This was hard on them all—the youngest was only three—but especially on the eldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Ilse. (Her older brother was manning anti-aircraft stations.) Most of the book consists of heartbreaking letters between Lilli and her children, in which both sides tried to hide the reality of their situations; Lilli was reduced to asking the children for food parcels and advising them how to keep the home together. Ilse and her siblings had to combine school with finding enough to eat—all of this before the allied air raids started in the fall. Eventually the children were bombed out of their house; it was all poor Ilse could do to keep the siblings together.

Lilli, her friends, and the children begged Ernst to work on obtaining her release. It is unclear that he did anything; as always, he equivocated, and if he did make any efforts they were unsuccessful. In March 1944 Lilli was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She managed to write a letter to the children while her convoy changed trains at Dresden, and later, already sick and weak, to dictate one from the camp itself. She died sometime in June.

Martin Doerry, the editor—really, the writer: he hasn’t just compiled the letters reproduced here but written the engrossing text that links them—is one of Jahn’s grandchildren; he keeps himself and the rest of the third generation out of the picture, making his approach quite different to Freeman’s (see above). Historians like Cesarani value the book for its glimpse into the period, specifically its wealth of primary documents unencumbered by retrospection (though even here, as Doerry frequently notes, letter writers were often softening the reality of their situation to protect their addressee). It’s a shame that this book, another of the millions of fascinating stories of persecution under the Third Reich, is out of print.

Rónán Hession, Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019)

Balm for the soul. See my reviews here and here.

William Dean Howells, Indian Summer (1886)

I took this off the shelf thinking it would be perfect for the end of September, but the title is metaphorical not seasonal, so it’s perfect for any time of year.

Theodore Colville, in his early 40s, has sold his midwestern newspaper and returned to Florence, a city where he spent some formative years in his twenties. And by formative I mean he longed for a girl who rejected him; back in Italy he bumps into Lina Bowen, the girl’s former best friend. Lina, now widowed, is accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Effie (how I loved this character) and her charge, “the incandescently beautiful, slightly dense Imogene Graham,” as Wendy Lesser puts it in her introduction to the edition I read. Imogene is twenty years old and not stupid, as Lesser’s “dense” implies, but emotionally immature, even if well-meaning. One way to read the book, in fact, is as a warning about meaning well, especially when that’s motivated by dishonesty about one’s feelings. Colville is funny, the narration is witty (even making a joke about its author), Lina is extraordinary, the dialogue is sparkling (the whole thing is just waiting to be made into a movie). There’s a wonderful New England cleric who’s not really interested in anyone’s shit. So good!

Indian Summer is a novel that is, although not dismissive towards youth, unimpressed by it: music to my middle-aged ears. For a time, it looks as though things will end terribly, but then they don’t, but Howells reminds us that some wrongs can’t ever be quite righted, persistently irritating grains of sand: “It was a thing that happened, but one would rather it had not happened.”

I’d never read Howells before—I’m shockingly ill-read in 19th-century American literature—but I already have The Rise of Silas Lapham lined up for November. Let me know if you enjoyed any of his 35 other novels.

I usually end these reports by singling out some reading favourites, but that’s hard to do this month. Buddenbrooks, I suppose, but the Howells, the Hadley, the Demick, Doerry’s book about Lilli Jahn were all excellent too. 5780 ended strong, book-wise (though not in any other, unless you’re a coronavirus); here’s to more good reading, and more good things generally, in 5781.

Slackened: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks

It’s all there in the title: Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901). Impressive, then, that Thomas Mann—who wrote this book in his early 20s, which is really amazing, it does not feel like a young person’s book—keeps things as suspenseful as he does. Buddenbrooks is a page-turner, especially if you are someone whose response to growing up with the values of work, thrift, responsibility, and shame was to flee into hysteria (i.e. me).

Mann is the novelist of hysteria (see Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain for further examples). I mean hysteria in the Freudian sense, not the ordinary one of shrillness or lack of control. Freud defined hysteria as one of three kinds of neuroses (along with phobias and obsessions). Neuroses arise from the contradiction between what we unconsciously want and what we consciously know (through acculturation) we should not want. Neuroses are psychological conflicts. Every “normal” functioning person is neurotic to some extent; neuroses are not psychoses, Freud’s name for severe mental disturbances like schizophrenia in which the sense of a conscious self is gravely threatened or even absent. Neuroses aren’t for “crazy people”; they’re for us.

Neuroses make themselves felt in various symptoms. The hysteric’s symptoms are bodily, unlike those of the phobic or the obsessive; theirs, by contrast, are mental, for example, a compulsion to count to a certain number before doing something, or the need to berate one’s self after thinking something, as if thoughts were actions. The hysteric is plagued, above all, by anxieties over bodily integrity. Hysterical symptoms—to name just a few: otherwise inexplicable loss of voice, loss of feeling in limbs, phantom pains, the conviction that one is having a heart attack—are compromise formulations. They are ways of speaking that circumvent more straightforward but prohibited/dangerous speaking.

One of the aims of psychoanalysis or Freudian-inspired psychotherapy is to turn body into language. When we can tell a story to ourselves about ourselves—when we can acknowledge what previously felt shameful or unavowable—our hysterical symptoms disappear. You can say a lot of things against Freud, but you have to credit that he took hysterical symptoms seriously. Where other (mostly male) physicians said to these (mostly female) patients, “There is nothing wrong with you, snap out of it, stop malingering,” Freud said, “There is nothing wrong in the patient’s physical reality. But there is something wrong in their mental or psychic reality.” Distinguishing these two kinds of reality is perhaps the most consequential idea of psychoanalysis. Hysterical symptoms are real—a sign of great unhappiness, of desires so unavowable to the person and her society that they can only come out in damaging form.

Why am I talking about Freud so much? Mann loved his German intellectual tradition, and Freud is part of the background of his breakthrough book, though less obviously so than Schopenhauer (referenced directly), Wagner, and the Nietzsche who first adored and then repudiated Wagner. Mann’s later books would grapple with this tradition even more obviously: I think Doctor Faustus is the ultimate example, though I’ve never been brave enough to read it. (The musical sections of Buddenbrooks were quite enough for me.) Freud is the least overt of Mann’s intellectual inspirations in his debut novel, but the more intriguing for that, plus he’s the one who means the most to me.

Strikingly, the novel’s hysterics are all men (in the language of the period they would have been called neurasthenics, hysteria being then, as, alas, now, characterized as a “female malady”). Who are these men? They compose four generations of a grain merchant family in an unnamed north German city that everyone knows is Lübeck, in the years 1835 – 1877. Politics matters in Buddenbrooks, but it’s kept to the background—the failed revolution of 1848 is presented as a joke, the unification of Germany under Bismarck is important only for how it affects business and the changes it brings to state education. Instead, the novel foregrounds mental and physical health. Importantly, both are governed by rigid ideas of duty and propriety. (Buddenbrooks is the most Lutheran novel I know.) The first patriarch is Johann Jr.: that suffix denoting unbroken lineage, though the novel in fact begins with a significant change: newly wealthy, Johann and his ménage move into a home that used to belong to a powerful but now bankrupt merchant family, a scenario that will return when a more unscrupulous, energetic, and prosperous merchant eventually takes over the home from the disintegrated and dispersed Buddenbrooks. (Mann, never light with his symbolism, has the new occupant renovate the crumbling outbuildings that had once housed the Buddenbrook firm into a successful retail development. The only thing that never declines in this book is oligarchic capitalism.) Johann, Jr. of course never learns of these events: he unproblematically carries off his belief in the family’s probity and success—these being synonyms in the novel’s worldview—even cutting off his son from a first marriage because he disapproves of the young man’s way of life.

Johann, Jr.’s son by his second marriage, naturally also named Johann, but known to everyone as Jean, a nod to the elder generation’s Enlightenment-inspired Francophilia, is the most conventionally successful figure in the book. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he raises four children: Thomas, Christian, Klara, and Antoinette, known as Toni. As a leader of the community, Jean soothes the brief unrest of 1848 and thrives in business. He grooms Thomas to take over the firm, ignores the niggling reality that he has no idea what to make of “feckless” Christian, vaguely approves of but mostly ignores Klara’s piety, and pushes Toni into marriage with a promising businessman she does not particularly care for by reminding her of her duty to the family. He later regrets this decision, if not the beliefs behind it: the man proves a fraud, and Jean extricates Toni from the marriage (allowing Mann to showcase the northern German states’ comparatively liberal divorce laws), though at the cost of public shame Toni will spend the rest of her life combatting. Always preoccupied with his appearance—something that matters so much in the novel: it is paramount to these characters that they look presentable and decent—Jean dies of a stroke that fells him while he completes his morning toilette.

As the novel turns its attention to the third generation, it ramps up its theory that hysteria is the primary evidence for societal decline. Christian, who cannot settle to work, and might have been an actor or artist of some kind had he lived in a different family (he is a raconteur par excellence and either a good sport or a ne’er-do-well depending on your take), suffers life-long phantom pains that he talks about at length to anyone who will listen (always concluding that they can’t be described), before ending up in a sanatorium. (He’s “like someone delirious with fever … He has a regular mania for dragging up the most insignificant things from deep within him and talking about them—things that a reasonable man doesn’t even think about, doesn’t want to know about, for the very simple reason that he is too embarrassed to share them with anyone else.”) Klara, always frail and increasingly pious, marries a preacher from Riga; their brief marriage seems happy enough, but she dies of TB before having any children (worse, from the family’s point of view, the preacher keeps the dowry). Thomas, the “good son,” leads the family firm, works nonstop, becomes a macher (the high point of which is his election to Senator), and makes a good living, though never quite to his father’s heights. He encourages Toni to remarry to a Bavarian businessman, an amiable drunk from whom Toni recoils after she, almost at once, delivers a stillborn child and discovers her husband sexually assaulting the maid, leading her to a second divorce. Thomas’s own marriage, to a Dutch schoolfriend of Toni’s—the imperturbable and musical Gerda Arnoldsen, my favourite character, surely symbolically though not actually Jewish—is meant to assert his independence from his milieu (the Buddenbrooks are resolutely unmusical), but he is too in thrall to that world to know what to do with her. She cheats on him, if not with a lieutenant she plays duets with then with music itself.

Thomas doesn’t particularly care about his wife’s literal or metaphorical infidelity: he is preoccupied—obsessed, really—with surviving his responsibilities. Mann’s descriptions of the mask Thomas puts on when he goes out into the world, and the slackness that comes over his body and mind when he can be alone, are harrowing:

How almost unrecognizable his face became when he was alone. The muscles of his mouth and cheeks, usually so disciplined and obedient to his will, relaxed and slackened; the alert, prudent, kind, energetic look, which he had preserved for so long now only with great effort, fell away like a mask and reverted to a state of anguished weariness; his dull, somber eyes would fix on some object without seeing it, would redden and begin to water—and, lacking the courage to deceive even himself, he could hold fast to only one of the many heavy, confused, restless thoughts that filled his mind.

Thomas dies after a disastrous visit to the dentist (there are some terrible scenes in this book with the incompetent Dr. Brecht, who needs to talk himself into the terrors he inflicts on people’s mouths); he his only 48, but had become an old man, increasingly an object of scorn in the community.

Toni’s daughter, Erica, comes to an unhappy end, too: her own marriage ends in shame when her husband is imprisoned for insurance fraud (it is suggested that he has only done what others do all the time but has been made an example of because he is a parvenu). Thomas and Gerda’s only child—the family line’s increasing effeteness indicated by how few children are produced by the third generation—is at the center of the book’s final chapters. Hanno is a delicate child. His teeth, in particular, are always giving him trouble, causing fevers and having, excruciatingly, to be pulled. I take the novel’s depictions of bad teeth as a symbol of the family’s increasing inability to consume, to prey, to swallow—to be businessmen, in other words. Hanno loves music, though he’s no prodigy. What he loves is wallowing in neo-Wagnerian improvisation, a further indication of effete inability. Not only is he artistically inclined—a sure sign of decline, in this novel—but he cannot master that either. There are, however, no prodigies or geniuses in the book; the only “healthy” models of artistry it offers is to treat it as a joke, like a friend of Johann, Jr, who is no poet, but rather a versifier, good for a tasteful toast to a hostess. Poor Hanno is abruptly dispatched by typhoid, an all-too physical disease that nonetheless has a psychological component, for the feverish teen is happy to give up the fight and be taken into a beyond that he has always longed for.

At its end, the novel leaves us with its women—not Gerda (she glides back to Amsterdam to play music with the only man she has really ever loved, her father), but Toni and Erika, and some cousins, and a wonderful bit character, Theresa Weichbrodt, Toni’s former teacher who has remained a family friend, a retainer of sorts, all these years. This ending makes sense, because although the novel focuses on male characters I think it is really a novel about women—the most interesting characters are female, even though they are all minor. On the one hand, the novel denigrates femaleness—the men are increasingly effeminate and hysterical, and that’s a sign of their decline. But on the other, it almost unwillingly upholds femaleness—the women are the ones left standing, and even though their roles are limited, they are the ones who actually uphold the core Buddenbrook values of decency and duty.

There is of course an irony here, since those values have killed the male characters. Of course, women have plenty of experience of living under values that confine, oppress, even kill them; no wonder, then, that they survive, if not thrive. Buddenbrooks made me think about Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”—what happens when something you desire harms you, gets in the way of your flourishing. (Freud made a similar argument, but emphasized the individual over society; Berlant thinks cruel optimism is characteristic of neoliberal precarity, like the internship you want so badly even though it pays you nothing.) Mann’s characters live under the sway of an ideology of probity that both gives them their meaning in life but also kills them.

Mann—or at least his narrator—relishes the irony. In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag fulminated against the “obstreperous irony” of books like Buddenbrooks, which she described as impossible, even embarrassing to the contemporary (1960s) moment. This critique hit me hard when, as an impressionable Young Person, I fell under Sontag’s sway. I agreed, too, with her later claim that irony can lead to laughter so unbridled it leaves one gasping. Now, as a middle-aged reader, I have more time for Mann’s irony. But I’m still not sure what to do with it. It’s easy to see what Buddenbrooks is critiquing: the straightjacket of decorum; ideas of psychological, physical, and financial “health.” But what does the novel value? What is its critique for? When, at the end, the remaining characters wonder if they will be rewarded in the next life with the chance to see their lost loved ones, Theresa Weichbrodt, the former teacher, insists it will be so:

There she stood, victorious in the good fight that she had waged all her life against the onslaughts of reason. There she stood, hunchbacked and tiny, trembling with certainty—an inspired, scolding little prophet.

I can only read this as an at-best bemused dismissal of the woman—her victory against “the onslaughts of reason,” her physical smallness (hinting at fallibility or inconsequence), her similar metaphorical diminution. The “little prophet” can only scold, not thunder. But if the novel makes fun of this viewpoint, while also ending with it, what’s left? I see no Nietzschean transvaluation of values here, no indication that, since all values are contingent, we should abandon the very idea and simply see who and what succeeds. Similarly, returning to Freud, there is no position here that matches the analyst, the one whose task is to help the patient to health (the alleviation of physical suffering by getting to the psychological root of the problem) by helping them to see why they act as they do.

In short, there’s nobody to look to as an alternative point of view, no one who successfully challenges the Protestant merchant ethos. Toni’s second husband, the Bavarian, decides to quit business for a life of leisure, but his physical and emotional grotesqueness (he’s fat and ugly and a lech, if also kind, though I think the latter results more from laziness than genuine feeling) makes him hard to identify with. Toni’s first love, a working-class medical student named Morton Schwarzkopf, at first seems a viable candidate—I definitely wanted him to return and hoped for a late-in-life, gentle reconciliation with Toni—but Mann shrewdly denies this end: it would muck up his portrait of the family as locked into a way of life; there is no synthesis of classes here, no bringing in of new blood to revitalize the old. The novel leaves us at an impasse: the way of life it examines is as impossible as any alternative to it.

This is already too long, so I’ll only mention one of Mann’s most notable ways of representing that impasse lies in his use of leitmotifs, a nod to Wagner, presumably. Epithets and phrases are attached to characters—most often, used by characters themselves. There’s Morton’s phrase “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones,” his way of acknowledging he is not of Toni’s social class, but a kind of passive-aggressive way of marking his absence. There’s Toni’s term “silly goose,” which she describes herself always as having been.

I’ve a hunch these phrases are linked to another of the novel’s interests: pronunciation. Time and again, we are told how characters pronounce their words and expressions, often as indicators of social class, or provincial origin, or of modishness. Perhaps this interest is related to German unification/nationalism, as the novel is set in the decades when Germany becomes a nation and becomes a little more homogenous. But I’m really not sure what to do with this aspect of the novel. It does strike me, though, that the epithets or leitmotifs imply stasis—as if no one ever changes or learns anything. They project consistent identities. Yet this idea contradicts the theory of change, specifically decline and degeneration.

Maybe this contradiction fits a novel poised between realism, even naturalism, and modernism, which might be the kind of novel I like best. Reading Buddenbrooks I thought a few times of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a book published about ten years later. The description of Thomas and Toni’s mother—lingering, horrifying—reminded me of Gertrude Morel’s. As engaged as I was in Buddenbrooks, though, I think it’s a lesser novel that Sons and Lovers. Lawrence’s breakthrough is messier, no question, and its focus is narrower (in some ways, The Rainbow might be a more apt comparison). But it is consistently more interesting at the level of the sentence. (No slight against the translator, John E. Woods; he’s done fine work, except in turning Bavarian dialect into southern American English, that didn’t work for me.) Mann is more about the big picture, about ideas.

It was that philosophical sweep that captivated me the first time I read the book (in the Lowe-Porter translation). I was only 19 or 20; it was one of the longest, most serious books I’d ever read. I remember loving it, but other than the scene of Thomas’s death I remembered almost nothing about it. Thinking back on it now, though, I believe I was in thrall to the novel’s theories—sensitivity is a sign of degeneration; the failure to work hard and thriftily is a sign of moral failure; such failure will first appear through the body; a weak body is the sign of a weak soul. These beliefs were my family’s, too. Thirty years later, I’m still drawn to these claims, but better able to see what is so damaging about them.

Does the novel see it, though? Even after having spent some happy weeks with it, I can’t tell.

Not Sleeping, Speculating: Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann

Longtime readers will know how much the stories of Central and Eastern European Jews in the years from 1880-1945 mean to me. (In addition to my posts on Holocaust-related topics, too numerous to link to here, you might look at this piece on Roth’s Radetzky March or this one on Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost.) Less clear might be how seduced I am by literary late bloomers, but as an inveterate late bloomer in all things I confess: it is so.

Imagine my delight, then, when I plucked from my shelves Hans Eichner’s novel Kahn & Engelmann. I’ve had this book—published in a nice-looking edition by the outstanding folks at the Canadian publisher Biblioasis—lying around for ages; I can’t even remember where I first learned of it. Not only is Kahn & Engelmann an absorbing saga of a family of Hungarian Jews who make their way to Vienna in the late 19th century and succeed in the clothing business as much as the vicissitudes of antisemitism allow them to, but it was also published when its author was 79 years old. Eichner was born in Vienna in 1921 and escaped to England after the Anschluss (that escape didn’t exempt him from being interned as an enemy alien in a camp in Australia). He taught at various Canadian universities for many years, and wrote the novel in his first language, German, in his retirement. It was about to be published in this English translation (nicely rendered by Jean M. Snook) when Eichner died in 2009 at age 87: the first copies arrived from the publisher just days after his death.

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I have the feeling no one knows this book (I’ve never heard anyone mention it). But they should! Kahn & Engelmann offers both the immersive pleasures of a 19th century family saga and the self-reflection of the modernist reaction against that kind of storytelling. Reading it, I was frequently reminded of Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb, which offers a similar balancing act, though Eichner is more sweeping. As he mentions in an afterward, the novel is based on his own experiences, yet everything is modified: “there is little that didn’t actually happen, but also little that happened as it is reported here.”

Eichner was born in Vienna, in the predominantly Jewish district of Leopoldstadt; he was of that generation of Viennese Jews who felt particularly betrayed by Austria’s greedy embrace of Nazism. (Ruth Kluger would be another such writer, though she was ten years younger.) It is said that Eichner, who spent his career teaching German literature and philosophy, was tormented by the fact that he made his living through the language and culture of those who had tried to murder him, his family, and his people.

The novel begins with the narrator, Peter Engelmann, rummaging through a box of photographs. He alights on one of the oldest, from 1880, which shows his grandmother wearing a pair of beautiful boots made for her by the shoemaker she would soon marry against her family’s wishes. This is in Talpoca, near Lake Balaton in Hungary. Sidonie Róth persuades her mild, unambitious, but loving husband Jószef Kahn to move to Vienna; after various trials, their children become established in the garment industry, but not without many quarrels, the most consequential and long-running of which is between the narrator’s uncle Jenö (the Kahn of the title) and his father, Sandor (the Engelmann). We learn too of the narrator’s escape from Europe and a little about how he established his postwar life, which eventually leads him to Israel. Eichner does not, however, relate these stories chronologically: the logic is much more associative, even essayistic (“since the chronology of this account is any case completely confused, I’m going to leave telling about my childhood years for another time, and continue now with how it really was in 1938.”).

I read somewhere a review that rightly observed how the Holocaust hangs over the text like a terrible threat. Interestingly, though, the characters largely manage to avoid it, whether through intermarriage, emigration, or death. The reckoning with its devastation doesn’t come until later. Unfortunately, that belated recognition is the least compelling part of the book; Peter (unlike his creator) gives up his academic career as a result of a crisis over teaching the language of his culture’s oppressors, and makes Aliyah, becoming a veterinarian in Haifa, but the decision is presented hastily; indeed, the scenes of Peter as an adult are the weakest in the book, filled with tedious womanizing. Luckily, they occupy only a few pages.

In one sense, then, the novel is less dire than it might seem. (It’s not a Holocaust text by any means.) Yet in another, it is surprisingly dark. The richly textured depiction of Peter’s ancestors, especially the generation of his parents and their siblings, is larded with hostility, petty aggression, and misunderstanding, the regular bullshit of family life which, as is so often the case, is more consequential than its usual minor beginnings suggest it should be. At the heart of the novel are a series of exquisitely polite but increasingly bitter business letters between the narrator’s father and uncle, leading to the former’s suicide, an action surely modeled on Eichner’s father’s similar fate.

All of which is to say, yes, opera and Sachertorte make obligatory appearances, but the novel is more than just kitsch. Especially fascinating are its descriptions of how to make clothes into fashions, how to arrange space to get customers to buy, how to turn soiled or poorly cut outfits into pieces people are eager to wear. Without making a big deal of it, the novel makes an implicit comparison between the coaxing, dealing, and passing off of one thing as another needed to succeed in the shmatte business and the similar contortions forced upon Jews even in the openness of the last decades of the Hapsburg Empire.

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I would say the novel’s tone is best mirrored in the Jewish jokes it’s so in love with. How you get on with the novel can be predicted by how you feel about this sort of thing:

If a Jewish peasant gets chicken to eat, either he is sick, or the chicken is.

Or this, in which a rabbi and a priest are alone in a carriage:

The priest asked, “Tell me, Colleague, have you ever eaten pork?”

“To tell the truth, yes,” said the rabbi.

“Good, isn’t it?” said the priest.

“Tell me, colleague,” asked the rabbi, “have you ever slept with a girl?”

“To tell the truth, yes,” said the priest.

“Better than pork, isn’t it?” said the rabbi.

Or this, probably my favourite, about the rabbi of Tarnopol and the trip he made to Warsaw in 1782. Halfway home, he stops at an inn for lunch while the coachman Moische keeps an eye on the horses:

After a while the rabbi looked out the door, which was standing open because of the early onset of summer weather, and noticed that Moische was asleep.

“Moische, are you asleep?” called the rabbi.

“I’m not asleep, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?” asked the rabbi.

“I’m speculating, if you drive a stake into the earth, where does the earth go?”

“Moische, don’t sleep, so the horses won’t be stolen.”

A while later, when the rabbi had just finished eating his borsht, he looked out the door again and saw that the coachman was doxing.

“Moische, are you asleep?”

“I’m not sleeping, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?”

“I’m speculating, if you drive a stake into the earth, where does the earth go?”

“Moische, don’t sleep, so the horses won’t be stolen.”

When the rabbi was finishing up his meal with his coffee, the coachman had already shut his eyes again.

“Moische, are you asleep?”

“I’m not asleep, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?”

“Rabbi, I’m speculating how we can get to Tarnopol without a horse.”

It’s all a bit Leo Rosen’s Hooray for Yiddish, but I’ve a very high tolerance for this sort of thing. If you do too, and if you want something unsung but good, something part Proust, part Roth, part Mann, then you’ll like Kahn & Engelmann as much as I did.

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I read Kahn & Engelmann as a contribution to German Literature Month. Thanks to Lizzy and Caroline for hosting for the ninth (!) year running.

Reminder! Lucky Per Readalong

Tomorrow is US pub day for the Everyman Library edition of Henrik Pontoppian’s Lucky Per (1904) in Naomi Lebowitz’s translation.

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A while ago I wrote about why I want to read it, and how much I hope others will join me. At the time, lots of you said yes. Here’s hoping you’re still interested! Whether you’re drawn to canal building, Jews, the influence of Thomas Mann on Danish literature, or the sheer delight of saying (and typing) “Pontoppian,” I encourage you to read and share your thoughts.

As a reminder, here’s what the publisher has to say about it:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

Given the exigencies of the end of the semester, I’ll have to wait until next month to encounter Per.

So the plan is to read and write about Lucky Per anytime in May. Do join in. Write one post or several. As short or as long as you like. I’ll gladly run guest posts from anyone who doesn’t have a blog. Or you can make your contributions in the comments.

Let’s use the hashtag #LuckyPer2019 for Twitter conversations. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to make one of those emblem things participants can add to their posts.

Lucky Per (May 2019 Readalong)

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The only thing I do more than read–and honestly I do it much more–is to trawl the internet looking for new books to read. This is insane, because I have hundreds of unread books. And more are coming into and through the house all the time. My problem, I’ve recently learned, is that I am a time fantasist. I have a poor sense of how long things will take or what I can reasonably accomplish. (My wife, by contrast, is a space fantasist: for example, she thinks there’s always room for everything in the house, her car, etc. Luckily, she is a time realist and I am a space realist. Of such balances are happy marriages made.)

Anyway, one way I’ve found to commit to a reading project is to invite others to join me, so that I’m accountable to them. The strategy doesn’t always work: I’ve flaked out on plenty of group readings. But sometimes it does.

All of which is to say that I recently learned that Everyman’s Library will be publishing what I think might be the first English translation of Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per. Published in installments between 1898 — 1904 (which seems a long time; there must be a story there), the novel was lauded by the likes of Thomas Mann and Ernst Bloch. Naomi Lebowitz has brought it to English; I gather a film version was recently made, though I’ve no idea if it was released in the US/UK.

Here’s what the publisher has to say:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

I’m always intrigued by what the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari called “minor literature,” whether that be literature from less well-known languages or languages written by minorities within a well-known language (their example is Kafka’s German, inflected by Yiddish and written in a predominantly Czech-speaking city). And the idea of a doorstop always appeals to me (it’s almost 700 pages). But mostly I am curious about the (lamentably unnamed) love interest, the Jewish heiress. I’m especially curious to compare Pontoppidan’s portrayal of Jewishness to George Eliot’s in Daniel Deronda, which I read about ten years ago.

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Why am I telling you all this? Because I want you to join in! If you have experience with and knowledge of 19th century literature, Danish culture, Jewishness, novels of development, or either luck or happiness, so much the better. But no worries if you don’t!

The book comes out in April; I plan to read it once my semester ends in early May, with a view to discussing it in late May. So check your calendar. Are you game? Are you free? Can you help me a time realist here? Let me know in the comments!