Archive for December, 2014

In Paradise

December 29, 2014

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Early in Peter Matthiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, the central character, Clements Olin comes to the conclusion that he

“…tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and efforts at interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.”

Yet this is the territory Matthiessen enters, in a novel that focuses more on how we come to terms with the Holocaust in its aftermath than on recreating it in fiction once again. Olin is a university professor who specialises in Slavic literature, particularly relating to the Third Reich, whose ostensible reason for visiting Auschwitz for a ‘spiritual retreat’ is as research for his study of Tadeusz Borowski, author of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Olin’s doubts are echoed more abrasively by ‘Earwig’, a caustic loudmouth who challenges all around him, a sort of conscience without manners:

“You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?”

Earwig is just one of a varied group of participants – a priest and two Catholic nuns among them – who have come to the retreat for different and often opaque reasons. Olin’s own reasons are more complicated than he at first admits. His grandfather was a Polish Baron from the very area he has now returned to (the first member of his family to do so) who left for America in 1939. Olin hopes to unravel the mystery of his own childhood ties to the nearby village while he is there. In part he wants to understand his father’s suicide, which is linked in his mind to that of Borowski.

The novel, then, is constructed of various strands. The retreat is described in some detail, with its participants voicing their stories and reactions, often interrupted by the crass yet necessary comments of Earwig, without which the novel would lack balance Olin’s own search is recounted as he grows closer to admitting the truth about his origins. Finally, there is a romance of sorts as Olin falls for one of the nuns, Catherine, and must decide how honest to be about his feelings as clearly any reciprocation would end her vocation. There is one moment of epiphany when many of the participants begin dancing during one of the ceremonies:

“Then transcendence fades and the singing dies, until all at once, hands are cast away in a rush of self-consciousness, and the dance subsides into itself like a circle left on the still surface of a pond by some large form only dimly seem as it withdraws below.”

Even this, though, is frowned upon by others.

Paradise is mentioned more than once in the novel. After their first visit to the camp, they are described leaving “like the first sinners fleeing paradise in a medieval painting…they cannot in this moment face the shame they see reflected in the eyes of other human beings.” Strangely, this apparently apt image seems to accidentally pair the camp with paradise – but this will reoccur. A flower garden for the Commandant’s wife is also described as paradise, and Olin later tells of an alternative version of the story of the Crucifixion where, when the thief asks Christ about being with him in paradise, he replies, ‘This is paradise.’ Matthiessen’s intention seems to be to prevent us from isolating the Holocaust as some version of hell, separate from other human experience, as indicated by the poem by Anna Akhmatova which prefaces the novel, including the lines:

“And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined dirty houses.”

In Paradise is not an easy novel – it seems jagged both in its construction and the effect it has on the mind, posing questions without answering them – but also without suggesting there are no answers. This applies not only to doubts about how we comprehend and react to the Holocaust, but to the novel’s characters. What, for example, are we to make of Olin’s feelings for Catherine? Is Earwig the voice of truth or cynicism? It is a difficult novel not in the sense we would normally use that word in literature – difficult to read, difficult to follow – but difficult in that it unsettles. And that is entirely the point.

The Notebook

December 22, 2014

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Whatever or whoever convinced CB Editions to reprint Agota Kristof’s The Notebook earlier this year, that decision was a stroke of genius. Originally published in 1986 and quickly made available in English by Alan Sheridan, it had long fallen out of print in the UK. As Kristof was hardly prolific after this first novel, and died in 2011, it seemed likely that her work would fade from memory here, but instead it would be reasonable to claim that she is the rediscovery of 2014. This is all the more surprising when we take into account the unredeemed bleakness of the novel’s vision.

The novel is set during wartime – which war is not mentioned, it doesn’t matter to the poor and dispossessed of the novel, but Kristof’s birth in 1935 and various other clues make clear that this is the Second World War and we are in Eastern Europe (Kristof was born in Hungary). The novel is narrated in the first person plural by twin boys who are taken by their mother to stay with their grandmother in the countryside where it is safer and there is more food. The grandmother is a figure of unrelenting bitterness; her daughter has not spoken to her in years and only desperation has driven her back for her children’s sake. The grandmother asks her what she has done with the other children:

“Bitches have four or five puppies at a time. You keep one or two and drown the others.”

Despite Grandmother’s harsh treatment, the twins seem to have a built in survival instinct (one of Kristof’s aims seems to be to make us think about what it takes to survive): they sabotage the ladder to the attic so only they can get there and then make holes to spy on the rooms below; when they find a dead soldier in the woods they take his gun and cartridges and hide them. They take this one step further when they begin to train themselves to cope with all that life might throw at them:

“We decide to toughen our bodies to be able to bear pain without crying.
We start by hitting and then punching one another.”

Grotesque as this is, there is a logic to it that comments on the life they must live rather than their desire to be fit for it. Later ‘exercises’ include insulting each other, begging and fasting. They reject self-pity, telling a soldier who has deserted, “Crying is no use, you know. We never cry.”

The twins have each other, but other characters suffer a desperate loneliness that can only be temporarily assuaged through sexual contact in a world where affectation no longer exists. Kristof writes about sex and children through the twins’ objective lens, neither repulsed nor prurient. When the Priest’s housekeeper bathes them she cannot resist touching them and getting them to touch her: “Oh! How nice it is, how nice it is to play with you!” This scene seems positively homely, however, compared to the neighbour’s daughter enticing a dog to penetrate her, or the army officer who rents a room in Grandmother’s house asking the boys to urinate on his face. Shocking as these moments are, they demonstrate a world where appetite is all as the future is too uncertain to even be thought of.

Are the twins, then, amoral? In fact, they often show kindness in the novel, for example when they take food to a neighbour. When they see the housekeeper taunt a passing prisoner (part of the ‘human herd’ being transported through the village) with bread they punish her by placing one of the soldier’s cartridges in the firewood they take to the Priest. When a girl is housed with them for protection and they fear their Grandmother intends to kill her, they protest:

“We promised the old gentleman to look after pour cousin. So nothing must happen to her – either through accident or illness. Nothing.”

The twins may in some ways exist beyond good and evil, but they live by rules, and it is the unrelenting logic of those rules that makes the novel so terrifying. Usually child narrators are used for irony or sentimentality, but here they provide an unnerving clarity. I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s reply when he was asked about his unusual childhood in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. It was not unusual, he said, most children in the world experienced much the same.

Lost Books – Retreat to Innocence

December 12, 2014

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In 1956, in the middle of writing her Children of Violence series, Doris Lessing published her now neglected novel, Retreat to Innocence. Reprinted in 1967, it has never reappeared, largely as result of Lessing’s own dismissal of it as ‘shallow’ and ‘soft-centred and sentimental.’ Perusing the substantial list of Lessing’s works which often preface her books, including poetry, operas and drama, you will find no trace of it. This, of course, raises the general question of whether writers should be able to censor their own canon, and the more particular one of whether Lessing was correct in allowing the novel to vanish like a disgraced comrade from a photograph.

Retreat to Innocence works with a small cast of characters to tell a love story where the political dimension is as important as the emotional. Julia is the innocent, a young woman from a privileged background who is now making her own life London. Quite by chance she meets a middle-aged Czech refugee, Jan in a café; he has experience in excess. She, of course, dismisses any idea of being attracted to him, but later finds she cannot forget him:

“She shut her eyes to feel the happiness; and clear against her lids came the picture of the man in the coffee-house. She saw his mouth, tense and quivering; his eyes, shadowed – tormented. She had not seen them then: now she could see nothing else.”

Soon she finds herself heading back to the café without entirely admitting to herself that is her destination. Their relationship follows the traditional path of initial dislike and distrust to love and passion. Just observe the description of their second conversation: “she frowned”; “she bit her lip and gazed furiously at him”; “she said aggressively.” Lessing, however, is interested in more than a young girl’s infatuation with an older man; Jan is soaked in politics, with a background as an active Communist in his own country. Julia, on the other hand, dismisses politics entirely:

“We don’t plot and dream about the future and carry on an intrigue – …My generation…I tell you, if we’re ever tempted to have anything to do with politics, we’ve only got to look at you and that’s enough.”

Lessing is keen to point out that this is a generational rather than an individual contrast, and characters frequently refer to differences between the generations. Her father, clearly a pillar of the British establishment, also observes a similar difference:

“A more self-centred, selfish, materialistic generation has never been born into this unfortunate old country.”

(Interesting how this has been said by every generation of the next since). Julia’s innocence is, as the title suggests, willed, a refusal to look beyond her own happiness. Her relationship with Jan forces her to leave her comfort zone and engage with a wider world. This does, of course, mean that much of the novel is taken up with Jan talking patiently to Julia, interspersed with her often inane interruptions. When he says, a few moments after they have slept together for the first time, “Now listen, Julia, I shall give you another little lecture,” it’s not a euphemism.

However, the novel does not entirely lack complexity. As usual with Lessing, all the characters are presented with some sympathy, even stiff upper lip types like Julia’s father and her boyfriend, Roger. Lessing is particularly good on the relationship between Julia and her room-mate Betty, one minute best friends, the next resenting some slight or bad habit. This relationship allows us to see Julia as a more rounded character; with Jan she is inevitably diminished, particularly as Lessing at no point describes the physical aspect of their relationship, or presents it from his point of view outside of what he tells her. Jan, too, has depth. His certainty is not all-encompassing: he cannot decide whether to return to Czechoslovakia or not – his brother lives there, but he also has friends who have been imprisoned or executed.

The novel’s main weakness seems to originate in the feeling that the relationship between Jan and Julia has been created only to explore particular themes: the difference between the generation which fought the war and that which came after; between East and West; between youth and experience. Jan is apparently based on a man whom Lessing did have a relationship with, but Julia is not Lessing and her attraction to Jan never entirely convinces. This is not the same, however, as saying that the novel deserves to be consigned to oblivion. When Julia asks:

“Are you quite sure that even in your half of the world people want what you want, and not just comfort and being able to get out the rain?”

she is asking a question as pertinent to politics now as then. Whether it should be reprinted is an economic question (though it will soon have been out of print for fifty years – fairly good publicity, I would have thought). It does seem, though, the kind of novel that should be available electronically, now that we have that option.

The Buddha’s Return

December 10, 2014

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In Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf the narrator reads an exact account of an event in his own life written from the point of view of the only other witness, a man he believed dead. Such double lives are everywhere in The Buddha’s Return (translated again by Bryan Karetnyk), with each character having experienced some transformative event much like Wolf’s apparent demise. For the narrator, like Wolf, his journey begins with death: “I died,” the novel opens, with the narrator going on to describe plummeting to his death as the branch to which he finds himself clinging breaks (a literal cliff-hanger).

“Such was my recollection of death, after which I mysteriously continued to survive, if I am to assume I remained myself.”

So powerful is the illusion of his death, that the narrator becomes convinced of the illusory nature of reality afterwards:

“I could now sense the strange illusoriness of my own life everywhere – an illusoriness that was many-layered and inescapable…For me the world consisted of objects and sensations that I recognised – as if I had experienced them all long ago and only now were they coming back to me, like a dream lost in time.”

One of Gazdanov’s purposes is to use the novel itself to make the reader feel likewise, taking the narrator down a dark alley where he is attacked and, in defending himself, kills his assailant. This crime sees him imprisoned, not in France where he resides, but in some unrecognised foreign country – this, too, seems to be an “attack of mental illness.” Strangely, it also foreshadows the novel’s main event, the murder of the narrator’s friend, Pavel Alexandrovich.

Alexandrovich’s two lives form a more coherent whole. The narrator first meets him when he is begging for money, giving him a generous ten francs – a fact that explains Alexandrovich’s desire to befriend him when he inherits his estranged brother’s wealth. More than once, the rich Pavel is not recognised by those who knew the poor Pavel, suggesting that in some way he is not the same man. He is murdered and a golden statue of the Buddha is stolen. The narrator is the prime suspect: the last person to see him alive and the man to which he leaves everything – and, once again, he is imprisoned. If the Buddha can be found, however, his innocence can be proven.

The Buddha, of course, is deliberately chosen as the novel’s McGuffin to suggest the illusory nature of truth in the novel’s philosophical heart while at the same time representing the search for a different kind of truth in the crime fiction narrative. Just as in The Spectre of Alexander Wolf Gazdanov superficially uses the thriller format, here he uses the whodunit, with the investigation of the crime taking second place to the novel’s philosophical investigations.

While imprisoned, the narrator considers other possible suspects: Alexandrovich’s mistress, Lida, and her Tunisian lover, Amar (her time in Tunisia is Lida’s other life). Though clearly incriminating them would be in his interest, he remains doubtful:

“The first hypothesis to enter my head was that Amar was the murderer. But I failed to see why he would do this. There could be no question of jealousy.”

The narrator retains his equanimity while the crime narrative follows through to its conclusion, but the novel’s conclusion turns to an old love affair, a woman he promised to return to “as soon as the clarity of your mind is no longer obscured.” She, too, is now leading a new life, as the narrator also promises to do:

“From the next day onward I began a new life, completely different from the one I had been leading until now.”

The Buddha’s Return is a novel about chance and change, about facing fate without expecting to understand or reason with it. Its main character is neither a hero nor a villain. It’s a more frustrating novel than The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, but, for that very reason, makes Gazdanov a more interesting writer.

Soul of Wood

December 5, 2014

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Soul of Wood by Jakov Lind is a late addition German Literature Month (well, technically only my review is late as I did read it in November). During Spanish Lit Month I located a forgotten copy of The Family of Pascal Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela after a review by Stu at Winstonsdad reminded I might own it. Soul of Wood comes from the same neglected pile of books shivering in a corner of my attic, united only by the fact that I have picked them up without knowing anything about their authors. This time I proactively searched for anything originally written in German and unearthed the Austrian exile Lind’s first collection in a 1964 translation by Ralph Manheim (though in an edition published in 1985 by Methuen). I have since discovered that Lind has been subject to a recent revival, with Soul of Wood (the same translation) available from New York Review of Books and two other titles reprinted by Open Letter – though this does make my ignorance even more shameful.

Lind was born in Vienna in 1927 and survived the Second World War by adopting a Dutch identity. Afterwards he lived for some time in Israel but later moved to England, writing his early books in German and then later in English. Soul of Wood was his first publication in 1962 – the titular novella taking up around half the book, with a further six stories following. Soul of Wood tells of German war vetreran’s attempt to hide a Jewish paralytic, Anton Barth, from the Nazis, but of the other stories only one deals directly with the Holocaust. All are told with a macabre humour and flashes of surrealism.

Lind is a master at sudden shifts of tone within his stories. It is difficult to imagine a more solemn opening sentence than:

“Those who had no papers entitling them to live lined up to die.”

Yet, as soon as Lind has dealt movingly with Barth’s parents’ death, we find Barth being placed in a crate marked “Caution Do Not Drop – Fragile” by his protector, Wohlbrecht, “wedged in between the preserved fruit (guaranteed nutritious), the cans of sardines and the loaves of bread.” An argument with the cab driver follows as Wohlbrecht attempts to get Barth to the safety of the countryside. Soon the bleak realism of the beginning is left behind as Barth describes his childhood:

“When I came into the world I was nothing but a head…When I was five, my neck grew, when I was six, my shoulders, when I was seven, my right and left arm; by the time I was nine I had hands. Barth has hands, the newspaper screamed. They sold standing room outside my windows.”

By the tale’s end we are not far from farce as various Nazis attempt to locate Barth (who, having miraculously gained full movement, is living wild in the woods) as proof of their anti-Nazi sympathies, all intending to claim they have saved him. If this makes Lind sound like one of those writers who is entertaining and inventive from page to page but lacks coherence, this is not the case. Soul of Wood has a clear moral centre, exploring the dynamic between good and evil actions, the focus being on Wohlbrecht rather than Barth. The fact that Barth’s father is a doctor, and that Wohlbrecht spends some time in an insane asylum further add to the story’s unity.

Lind’s ability to carefully construct his narratives can be seen to even greater effect in the short stories that follow. Though only the final story, ‘Resurrection’, relates directly to the Holocaust (it is about two men sharing a hiding place), death is never far away. In ‘Journey through the Night’ the narrator finds himself locked in a railway carriage with a man who intends to kill him:

“Very slowly he opened the little suitcase. He took out the mallet and closed the suitcase. He held the mallet in his hand.
Well, how about it?”

In ‘The Judgement’ a murderer asks to see his father one last time before he faces execution; in ‘Hurrah for Freedom’ a medical student, Leonard, finds himself invited to spend the night with a family of naked cannibals. Yet, even within this world where death seems to be waiting to meet us round every corner, characters retain a certain amount of good humour, as is shown above, and when Leonard flees the flesh-eaters:

“The naked Balthasars waved after him, long after he had vanished in the woods.”

Jakov Lind is yet another delightful find of German Literature Month. It makes me wonder what other instinctive acquisitions await upstairs.