David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2005 (page 1 of 2)

David Grossman: See Under: Love

This is a big book, and when I say big, I don’t mean in page count. It’s a modest 450 pages, but the scope of what Grossman tries to do here dwarfs longer works like Dostoevsky’s lesser works, Christina Stead’s novels, and even things like Cortazar’s Hopscotch. It is, I suppose, the sheer outsizedness of Grossman’s ambitions that renders See Under: Love simultaneously awe-inspiring and messy. Things like that have been said about other modern bookss like The Tin Drum and far too many Latin American novels (where outsized ambition is a stereotype, despite the meticulous focus of authors like Borges and Rulfo), but Grossman’s book is unique as far as I know in bringing the aggressiveness to a resolutely abstract peak. A noted expert on Israeli literature tells me that the book had a massive impact when first published in Israel in the mid-80s, because unlike the strict narratives of authors like Wiesel and Appelfeld, Grossman’s approach was out to contextualize the Holocaust in language and literature.

The book is divided strictly into four parts which are only loosely connected. Characters reappear between them, but in drastically different form. The main character is a child (third person) in the first section and an adult (first person) in the second, then recedes to a background third person narrator in the third section before disappearing altogether in the last. Maybe it will make more sense if I describe each segment:

1. Momik: A child, Momik, grows up in Israel in the 50s, born to Holocaust survivor parents. His parents will not speak about what they call “Over There,” and Momik comes to wonder about what he calls the Nazi Beast. He knows it’s present, but he senses it ignores him because he is not truly a Jew; a Jew is one who knows the story of “Over There.” He plots to take his grandfather, Anshel Wasserman, another surivor, into the cellar of his house to lure the Beast into showing itself. His grandfather tells him enough to send him into paroxysms of fear, from which he does not fully recover. Then his grandfather disappears.

2. Bruno: Momik is now an adult writer in the early 80s, and he’s fairly obsessed with Polish writer Bruno Schulz, a half-mystical, half-imagistic Jew who was shot during the war by an SS man. In “The Mythologization of Reality”, Schulz wrote:

At present we consider the word to be merely a shadow of reality, its reflection. But the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word. Philosophy is really philology, the creative exploration of the word.

And likewise, Grossman presents a fantasia on Schulz’s life that ends with him not being shot, but escaping into the waters, where he communes with the fish. Momik eventually meets up with him, and Schulz takes him to a new world of a new language, one without violence, without the idea of violence. But it’s not what one would expect…

3. Wasserman: Momik is reconstructing a life of his grandfather, who in earlier years was the author of lovable juvenile adventure stories featuring the “Children of the Heart.” Wasserman comes to the camps, and the Nazis find that he cannot be killed; a direct bullet to the head doesn’t do it. They bring him to the camp commandant, Neigel, who makes a deal with Wasserman: Wasserman will tell him new stories, Scheherezade-style, of the Children of the Heart, and for each story, Neigel will attempt to kill Wasserman. So amidst mass death, Wasserman reinvents the Children of the Heart in the present day, in alternately nightmarish and surreal situations. Of particular interest, though not described here, is their parentage of a child named Kazik.

4. The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life: Structured as an alphabetical concordance, though not arbitrarily (there is some structural linearity to reading it from beginning to end), this section interweaves revelations about Kazik and the Wasserman/Neigel situation. Kazik, it turns out, is a child who lived an entire human life in less than 24 hours, whom the Children of the Heart prayed would “know nothing of war.” He grows up, has sex, takes a trip, and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Neigel’s wife leaves him, even though he had been attempting to use Wasserman’s stories, unattributed, to draw her back to him. Neigel too commits suicide. Wasserman lives.

There’s more, much, much more. Especially in the last section, Grossman throws out ideas and images so quickly that there is simply too much of an overload to assemble them into a conceptual structure for the book. I suspect this was consciously intended, for it fits with the themes of the book for the beautiful, focused prose of the first two sections (“Bruno” in particular is viscerally moving) to become more abstract and more incoherent as the subject matter comes to inhabit the Holocaust. It is a strange book where an underwater fantasy adventure with Bruno Schulz is more concrete than scenes in a concentration camp, but that is one of Grossman’s most distinctive achievements.

Four words to describe the novel: violence, love, language, memory. In the same way that Momik, in the first section, is alienated by his lack of memory of “Over There,” Kazik suffers in his lack of knowledge of war. The middle two sections, in turn, show language to be, inseparably, an equal conduit for love and violence. This is an absurd reduction of the novel, but since Grossman is very cagey about giving the reader any one place to start, and effectively gives the reader no place to end (the encyclopedia runs out of alphabetical entries, but that is hardly an ending), I constructed my own, and that is it.

To be continued…

Update: The aforementioned expert, Adriana, corrects me for misquoting her:

But the point that I was making when we talked (while measuring flour for a [sugar-free] peach cobbler) had to do specifically with the novel’s reception in Israel and how it compared to the Holocaust narrative of another Israeli author. Wiesel did not factor in that particular comparison. What distinguished See Under: Love was that Grossman was not a Holocaust survivor, and his novel attempted to imagine the Holocaust from the perspective of the second-generation, particularly (and this is a crucial distinction to keep in mind when reading the novel) the Israeli second-generation.

I admit full culpability for adding Wiesel to the equation, but the first-generation/second-generation distinction (which, to the best of my knowledge, I would agree is keenly apparent in the book) is not all that she mentioned. She also described the reception as also centered around the somewhat shocking experimentalism of the book in dealing with the Holocaust material, as well as its overt anti-narrative tendencies. While Appelfeld uses clearly allegorical and synecdochal techniques, his novels are fundamentally realistic and linear. Adriana says:

Appelfeld skillfully exploits the conventions of realism to create narratives that are deeply concerned with language, history, memory and the looming threat of their breakage.

But I would inquire further as to the difference between a novel that obeys the conventions of realism and a novel that is realistic. (What can realism be besides a convention?) I would point out as an ironic example Appelfeld’s novel The Immortal Bartfuss, where the titular adjective is used to denote his survival; meanwhile, Grossman imagines a truly immortal character in See Under: Love. This is not to deny Appelfeld’s stunning use of narrative ellipsis or his undermining of narrative expectation, but he inhabits realistic techniques thoroughly enough that I am willing to draw a line between him and Grossman. I would also ask where Amos Oz figures in this, since he falls in age between the two authors, and seems to stick to the realist paradigm. Even when uses an epistolary format in Black Box, the story remains quite linear and explicit.

Before the Disaster

I have a long post to write on David Grossman’s remarkable See Under: Love, but it’s not where my mind is now, because I am experiencing a small part of a small sliver of time when a disaster is known to be imminent and inevitable but has not yet occurred. Grossman’s book, which is concerned about the Holocaust, is concerned, as with many other books, with the time during and after the disaster.

In my life in the US, most of the events of mass hysteria and panic occurred with no warning: several earthquakes, the Rodney King verdict riots, and the September 11th bombings. The vocabulary of these events is well-known, even scripted: people are taken by surprise, and all hell breaks loose. The early warning systems we have didn’t exist for much of Southeast Asia when the tsunami hit.

What of this moment of the collective inhale and holding of breath, when there is no doubt and no disagreement as to what awaits (only worries about the severity), when the well-wishing propaganda of public figures seems, for once, inarguably transparent and hopeless? Maybe it gives Americans a little taste of what some Iraqis felt in early 2003, those who knew that the war was inevitable and that from the moment that shock-and-awe bombing began, they would enter a period of far greater chaos and upheaval than many of them had known to date, and that Bush’s rhetoric of post-war democracy and paradise bore little resemblance to their own wishes. (And, somewhat more speculatively, those who are currently convinced that the current constitutional talks can only break down and lead to new sorts of chaos.) This is not to draw equivalencies, only to point out a certain type of experience that requires extreme circumstances. Americans have recently lived in a country where collective anxiety was diffuse and unfocused. Only in these small moments like now is it brought to a focal point.

In old Irwin Allen disaster movies, the script is different: maybe one or two people know what’s coming, but they’re dismissed as cranks. The window of time between the mass recognition that disaster is inevitable and the occurrence is tiny; it’s the post-disaster moment that holds interest. But when it’s stretched out, I imagine it must give people ample opportunity to turn the anxiety in on themselves, and to take stock of who they are before circumstances may draw out, uncontrollably and unpredictably, the best or the worst of them. Some are capable of blithely ignoring the issue until the point of crisis. Others spring instantly into action in any and all possible directions the second they realize the impending crisis. For others (and I suspect I would be one of them), the moments of speculating on what they may become, or may be reduced to, must be excruciating.

Comfort and strength to those from the moment that they need it.

Alain Resnais: Night and Fog

I don’t have a lot to say about Resnais’s 1955 Holocaust documentary, but 50 years later, these are the things–next to the horror–that stood out to me.

Jews are mentioned exactly once during the thirty minutes of the film. Writer Jean Cayrol, the author of the voiceover narration, gives three examples of people being deported to the camps, one named by occupation, one by nationality, and one by religion. Jews are not mentioned when Cayrol describes the “arbitrary hierarchy” of the camps;he only names resistance members and foreigners. Cayrol was himself a resistance member who was brought to the camps; I know little else about him. The yellow triangles, however, are much more prominent in the images than any of the other indicia.

I don’t have the background to know the particular reasons for this: this was 1955, before, as Peter Novick observed, the Holocaust had come to be defined as it is commonly thought of today. But I find James Leahy’s explanation unconvincing at best:

Like Robin Wood, Roger Michael rejects the generality of the film’s message:

If Night and Fog can work in French Resistance fighters and Spanish Republicans unjustly deported from France and cruelly murdered at Mauthausen, why can it not identify the special and prime targets of the Nazis–the Jews, who died their deaths not in the hundreds or in the thousands, but in the millions?

Knowledge and memory change with time (coincidentally, this is one of Resnais’ thematic concerns, here and elsewhere). When the film was made, a decade after the end of the war and the discovery of the camps, nobody needed to be reminded who had been “the special and prime targets of the Nazis,” even if, perhaps guiltily, officialdom was reluctant to talk about all that had happened.

I think not; people’s memories can be very, very short. This is not to find Resnais and the other historic figures who worked on the film–Chris Marker, Sacha Vierny, Hanns Eisler–complicit, but there is an untold story here that nagged at me.

One story that is told is that the French authorities censored one bit of the film:

Night and Fog, cited by Roberto Rossellini as the most important film of the post-war years, ran into trouble with the French censors. They forced us to mask the cap of a French policeman who was supervising the deportation of the Jews who had been herded into the Vel-d’Hiv’. The cap–the unmistakable characteristic of the French police–was proof of institutional collaboration in the Holocaust.

And it’s not hard for me to imagine that Marcel Ophuls heard this story and that it only added fuel to the fire when he was making The Sorrow and the Pity.

pica on Roberto Bolano

The always brilliant pica has an entry up on Roberto Bola&#xf1o&#x92s La literatura nazi en America, soon to be translated for us non-Spanish speakers. What with the recent fuss over Bolano, I’m glad that the rest of his work has been deemed worthy of translation. I was much impressed by By Night in Chile, and indications are that his work was extremely heterogeneous, so a number of surprises await. One unifying thread, however, seems to be literature’s complicity in mortal crimes and political horrors. As English, French, and West German writers seem often to have dealt with this theme from too theoretical a standpoint (see Coetzee, Blanchot, Grass, etc.), the visceral approach of Latin American writers like Bolano and Augusto Roa Bastos makes a necessary counterweight.

Now, who’s going to translate Dmitry Galkovsky?

Update: My admin informs me that comments have now been repaired. In the meantime, Posthegemonic Musings takes issue with quite a bit of what I’ve said here. I’ll say more later, but I still believe there is a difference between works like Coetzee’s dry statement of colonialism, Foe and Grass’s endlessly discursive The Rat, and the much more immanent horror displayed in Bolano’s By Night in Chile. There are more exceptions (Lins, Cortazar, Lispector, for example) than there are exemplars, but Bolano and Roa Bastos still share more with the Eastern European trend of authors like Vaculik and Krleza than they do with the political literature of many other regions. Not that they aren’t theoretical, but they seem to be more talented at not letting the theory overwhelm the story.

Albert O. Hirschman: The Passions and the Interests

Subtitled Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph, this is one of those econ books, like Polanyi and Schumpeter, that grabbed me by taking a historiographical approach to thinkers past. It’s a short book and its arguments are narrowly drawn and keenly observed: namely, how the long-condemened sin of avarice (or people’s “interests”) came to be seen as a utopian savior of people from their own worst instincts (i.e., “passions”). Hirschman sums it up with a quote of Montesquieu’s:

And it is fortunate for men to be in a situation in which, though their passions may prompt them to be wicked, they have nevertheless an interest in not being so.

Hirschman traces this line of argument through Steuart, Smith, Quesnay, and so forth. The unifying strand is that economic efficiency and rationality, in the form of Smith’s “invisible hand” or somesuch free market, will act as a stabilizing force for society to counteract the whims and crazes of the sovereign. For some (Montesquieu, Smith), these forces are embodied in capitalists and capitalist institutions; for others (the Physiocrats), they are embodied in the rulers themselves.

Ironically, it is in Tocqueville that Hirschman sees a viable counterargument. Tocqueville worries that by sublimating themselves to their interests, people come to ignore all but law and order, and will all too willingly subjugate themselves to a ruler who promises them pursuit of their private interests. Says Tocqueville:

These people think they follow the doctrine of interest, but they have only a crude idea of what it is, and, to watch the better over what they call their business, they neglect the principal part of it which is to remain their own masters.

And this sounds to me like a prescient prediction of the death of the American Dream, later described in graphic detail by C. Wright Mills. Hirschman bemoans the fact that the polar positions have not progressed; that rather, we still see people arguing from the naive points of view for or against the “interests.” He singles out Keynes and Schumpeter in particular for having offered the same rationalistic defense of capitalism as Montesquieu, hundreds of years earlier, without bothering to address Tocqueville’s criticisms.

Aside from the fact that the left-right political distinction seems not to apply cleanly to the thinkers Hirschman considers, it’s worth noting what a desiccated tradition has been left us by modern psychology in considering economic issues. Today it is little more than greed that is considered as a “passion” itself, aside from the religious fervor of much of the country, which does not qualify as an emotional passion per se. Hirschman points out the concerns that an exclusive focus on economic gain as a core value of society could lead (pace Weber) to the decaying emotional life of the country. The lack of focus on the true passions leads to the fabled “nation of no imagination.” Yet it’s not Marxism that suggests an antidote, as Marx remains firmly focused on “interests” in simply other forms. I think that you must go back to Greece and Rome to find thinkers who attempted to find a successful integrated societal model of the “passions.”

I wonder, however, if the study of the passions are making a slight return now in the form of evolutionary psychology, in the repeated articulation of the naturalistic fallacy. (I should say, however, that economists like Amartya Sen, who wrote the introduction to the edition of the Hirschman book that I have, have probably made the most impressive integrative approach in working out models of irrational behavior.) As with Social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology makes it tempting to explain away irrational behavior and its consequences as hopelessly endemic, only to be tempered by appealing to other innate drives. One of these is greed, and from that we return to the free market arguments Hirschman considers. We seem to live in more fatalistic times when our options are to ignore the passions or to surrender to them as robots.

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