Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: childhood (page 3 of 5)

Samuel Delany: The Motion of Light in Water

I’ve been thinking for a while about what to say of this book. It’s a personal book, mostly (but certainly not totally) bereft of the hardcore cultural theory that attracted Delany later in his career. It is a relatively straightforward memoir of Delany’s childhood, ending more or less with the end of his marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker, and most of the book chronicles their life in the East Village in the early 60s. As it is a record of what was important to him during the largest developmental stages of his life, and what he remembers of it, the best assessment I can offer is how it differs from what I would expect a recollection of this sort to contain and the conclusion that Delany is a very, very different person from me, and not only in the obvious ways.

The summary: Delany grows up in a somewhat harsh but well-adjusted black family in Harlem, attends Bronx Science, and marries Marilyn Hacker at around age 18 after impregnating her (it ends in a miscarriage). They move into an East Village apartment together and both devote themselves to writing, sometimes taking odd jobs. Delany sells a science-fiction book and quickly writes four or five more over the course of the memoir, books that he implies are precocious juvenilia. He writes a libretto for an opera by an older composer, meets Auden, plays guitar in folk clubs. Delany is already identifying as gay, but there’s no evidence that I could detect that Hacker later would. Delany voraciously explores the world of anonymous and non-anonymous gay sex in New York and struggles with the definition of himself as a gay black writer. He and Marilyn eventually split up and he heads off to Europe and parts unknown for new adventures.

These are the basics, and they make for a unique and historically significant document. Here are the odd bits:

First, despite what a singular figure Delany is (is there another writer anything like him?), he seems so willing–no, compelled–to identify as part of a group. The ideas of blackness, gayness, writerness, etc., weigh very heavily on him, and he pursues them in an realistic (not nominalistic) fashion, as though they were Platonic gestures that he imprecisely embodies. His actions, he points out on several occasions, stem from these identities. They do not limit him, not in the slightest, but he uses them to give definite shape to his existence. He readily heads into this sort of abstraction.

This tendency towards universals is complemented by a visceral physicality. Delany apparently remembers raw sense data from decades previous with a vigor that I can hardly apply to last Saturday’s dinner. This is most apparent in his descriptions of his sexual encounters on the docks and elsewhere, but it pervades every event he describes, until I could imagine the character of the walls in his apartment and

We have the body and the mind. Where is the spirit, Plato’s third component of the individual? For the most part, it feels noticeably absent. I’ll put it this way: were I to write of my life in my late teens and early 20s, it would first off be a lot less interesting than Delany’s life. What it would chronicle would be the intersection of shifting but undoubtedly myopic views of the world with shifting but confused interactions with other people. This is not at the forefront of Delany’s chronicle. When he meets people, he describes their appearance, their demeanor, and what they talked about. If they have sex, he describes that. But there is little emotional introspection or cross-examination, at least not by my standards. Hacker herself remained quite opaque to me; many of her poems are quoted, but even they seem to leave her as an observer more than a subject.

All of this comes to a head when Delany is institutionalized for panic attacks. He suffers from acrophobia amongst a host of other odd phobias, but his approach to them is anything but Freudian. Even in the hospital, his pathologies do not seem to ever touch emotion. In earlier years I would have called this simply impossible; now I can believe it, but it is hopelessly distant from how I interact with the world.

I think of Proust saying that the artist must not waste time with useless conversations and must devote himself in isolation to his art. Proust admits his failure to do this for much of his life and solves his problem but withdrawing from society entirely to achieve the necessary distance. Delany? He appears to have had the distance from the very start, as well as the ability to maintain it even when in intimate physical and verbal contact with another person. No isolation was necessary.

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

This, Bernhard’s last novel, does not, I think, deliver on its title. It may be intentional. It is the title of the novel the narrator, Murau, wishes to write but cannot, and it is what he wishes for his Nazi-poisoned family estate, which he has somewhat unhappily inherited after the sudden deaths of his parents and brother. The word “extinction” promises an uncategorical end and cessation, and a finish in type, not just in instance. It is something that Murau seeks even as he leaves his own tainted legacy.

Bernhard’s career divides into three rough, overlapping segments. There are the early, more surreal works like On the Mountain and Gargoyles; the hermetic, philosophically engaged works like Correction, The Lime Works, and perhaps The Loser; and the late works such as Woodcutters, Old Masters, and Extinction which take place much more specifically in the real world. Extinction, Bernhard’s last novel, fits squarely in the last category, and Murau shares with the other late narrators his complaints about modern Austria and Catholicism, as well as an alternately comical and nightmarish tone of incessant ranting. Where Old Masters and Woodcutters were content to examine the objects of their narrators’ wrath (painters and actors, respectively), Extinction is Bernhard’s attempt to transmogrify the anger of his late work into an elusive, self-reflective statement. Because the fury is mostly unrelenting, and because Bernhard is hellbent on letting no one, readers or characters alike, take the easy way out, Extinction‘s depth is not obvious, but there is far more method here than in any other late Bernhard work.

Murau has cut himself off from his family and sought to establish an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome. In the first half of the novel, he reflects on the spiritual, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of his family to his student Gambetti. He only has respect for his Uncle Georg, who similarly cut himself off from the family and helped Murau to save himself. In the second section, he returns to his family’s estate, Wolfsegg, for the funeral, as well as to determine the disposal of the estate, which is now in his hands.

Murau’s intense dislike of his family is immediately apparent, but even as Murau complains, he employs a strategy of postponements. It is not until the end of the first half that we learn that he thinks of his family (and indeed, all of Austria) as Nazis, and even here he is vague and rhetorical:

For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era: in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element of their existence; they could not live without it…By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. (144)

The generalities, the conflating of Catholicism and Nazism, the uncategorical dismissals: it is not until he arrives at Wolfsegg that we find out what he neglected to tell Gambetti. He is irritated with his sisters and brother-in-law, but then he changes tack:

The people I was afraid of were the two former Gauleiters who I knew had announced their intention of attending the funeral, and the fairly large contingent of SS officers, whom I had once believed to be long dead or at least to have received their due punishment, but who, as I learned some years back, had gone underground and remained in contact with my family for decades, with my parents and many other relatives. They’ll use this funeral, I thought, to appear publicly again for the first time…I was actually afraid of the Gauleiters, not knowing how I should greet these friends of my father’s–first of all his school friends, or lifelong friends as he called them, and then those he remained in close touch with after the war, knowing them to be informers and murderers. Despite this knowledge he supplied them with a hiding place and food and everything they needed to make ends meet, as he would have put it. For years, it seems, he hid them in the Children’s Villa, though at the time we children had no inkling of this. I later recalled that for years we were not allowed in the Children’s Villa. There was a simple explanation for this: in the postwar years our parents used it to hide their National Socialist friends. (221)

For a few pages Murau drops Catholicism, drops the rage, and lets through fear and claustrophobia, and a good deal of specifics. The funeral turns out to be magnificently ghastly, Nazis in full regalia saluting their brethren, with Murau’s mother’s lover, a high-ranking archbishop, delivering empty words of praise. Murau is powerless and complicit. The wish for extinction is not met; rather, Murau has been avoiding truths and associations which discomfit and frighten him. The funeral is not so much an extinction as a coming-forth, as the Nazis and Nazi governors spring forward from Wolfsegg once more, out of hiding. For all the complaints of Murau, he has only touched on the horror of this climactic scene.

Murau’s guilt and repression and its relation to Austria and his parents is the central theme of the novel, but I want to focus on only one aspect of it, which is how Bernhard analyzes his own writing techniques to reveal their own evasions. As far as I know, Bernhard did this nowhere else in his work. And his foremost technique is that of exaggeration. After a rant about the utter falsity of photographs:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear. (65)

It seems like a throwaway line, but later–much later–it returns. After the funeral, he stops by the open grave, and, now speaking to himself instead of Gambetti, he confronts himself:

The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void…You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood, I thought. (302)

[Or read the whole thing.]

This then prompts him to remember two reflections he made to Gambetti (who has rarely been mentioned in the second half of the novel) in close succession. The first is a rant against three-ring binders. The second is a return to the subject of exaggeration.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise…With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it. On my way to the Farm, I went up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations. (307)

Coming as it does after the funeral scene and his memories of the villa, this passage is easy to ignore, but it is the revelatory moment of the novel, when everything folds back upon itself. Murau has realized that he has been living in denial of his own implication in his family’s history, but here it dawns on him (but not on Gambetti) exactly how it has driven him to art, and poisoned him further. To Gambetti, and to Murau himself at the time, it must have seemed like another passing remark, an exercise in rhetoric, but Bernhard here gives it a far more sinister hidden meaning. Murau says, “it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations”, and even in the double use of the word “absurd” he backs away from what he is saying. But he is talking about the void that he has created for himself, how, in the absence of confronting the activities of his family, his childhood has been made a void. And the technique he has used has been exaggeration combined with understatement. He has ranted about small things, about vague things, about petty things, and he has done it to survive, to spare himself the torture of his own self. Murau then incriminates all of art in this role of unjustified exculpation. To Gambetti, the “great” of “great art” was just that; when he thinks on the Villa, “great” comes to mean something new: criminal. I.e., art that has the power to make people pardon themselves for mortal sins. For example, an amusingly trivial rant about three-ring binders.

The presence of Gambetti, who laughs at his words and jokes with him, is crucial. Gambetti is Murau’s collaborator. His presence provides the mirror to the society of his parents, and reveals that Murau too has established an audience for himself (Gambetti says very little over the course of the novel) that unknowingly endorses his obfuscatory tactics. He stops speaking to Gambetti in the second half of the novel because Gambetti has been an agent in Murau’s self-deception, and it is at the very end of the novel that Murau realizes this, in reflecting on his past conversations with Gambetti. And this in turn allows Murau to write his Extinction, which is the book we are reading. In the light of this paradox, Murau’s very final gesture in the novel concerning the disposal of Wolfsegg (which I will not reveal), is a conflicted afterthought.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Hardly a novel, and not a novella either, this short book has Hrabal straining beyond the reach of the light/serious allegory of I Served the King of England to something more personal and confused. It’s the story of Hanta, an old man who has worked for decades compacting waste paper, books especially, in his press, selecting a couple to take home with him and read. The beginning of the book describes his mostly solitary existence, the noises and sights of the press, and it’s beautifully personal and focused.

From there the book grows circular, since there is little to do but flesh out the situation. As Hanta says:

And so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.

Hanta finds that he is becoming obsolete. He has books stuck in his head, bits and pieces that repeat uncontrollably, but a new industrial machine is coming and he can’t stand to be taken away from his own little press. In the end he seals himself up in his house with his salvaged books, turns inward, and goes the way of Socrates and Seneca, as he puts it, chasing after a lost love who died in the war.

It’s tempting to draw all sorts of symbols out of the narrative, given the Communist backdrop and the frequent mention of all sorts of classical thinkers. But I resisted this because Hrabal isn’t one to let symbols dominate a fable. Just as the story of I Served the King of England illustrated the rise and fall and rise of a small man through his nearly myopic view, Too Loud a Solitude is worth seeing in its most immediate context.

There are two points to draw on. The first and most obvious is Hanta’s age. He has happy with his life, but his life is over just as the narrative begins. While the narrative dwells on how books survive in people’s minds, it’s not quite permanence. Hanta’s death and replacement by a greater industrial machine shunts him even more quickly into the solitude of the title. The books are his friends, occupying his house, but it’s a solipsistic sort of friendship. Hanta remembers bits and pieces of his books, but there is little to suggest that he has done much with them except use others’ words to reflect his own thoughts. He has processed the books as his press has.

(Which brings up a point I can’t answer: there is an English pun in the book, which I would guess is intentional, of the two meanings of the word “press.” In the book it is that which destroys books; it is also that which creates them. It is entirely suited to the narrative of metamorphosis and transubstantiation that creation and destruction are equated in this way. Is there a similar pun in the Czech?)

And that is the second point. Hanta is not an intellectual in the least; his view of books is explicitly non-academic and non-critical. He remembers little phrases and names the way we remember flavors of ice cream from childhood. He fixates sentimentally on some, like Lao Tse and Seneca, with a concerted arbitrariness. The books he saved from the press were chosen with great indeterminacy; his attachment to them is with no idolatry of their contents. Rather, he has completely internalized these books and converted them into part of his life. They have provided the social context in his later years that the social realm usually does. This, I believe, is the crux of the novel. How many people take in books so closely that they have no need to articulate their sense of the book–or moreover, cannot articulate it? How many people live with books like that?

Thomas Frank: What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Is there anything left to say about this book? Maybe not, but I wanted to try to provide some context for the book, both in Frank’s own background and his historical precedents.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? is less a study than a memoir and a polemic smashed together. It’s not just a memoir the middle chapter, where he describes how he was a strident, Randian Republican as a teenager who turned into a liberal in college, but throughout the book. The first big tipoff comes early on, when he salutes the amazing Embarrassment for no real reason other than that they were from Kansas, then quotes “Sex Drive” (I think I would have picked “Wellsville”). They deserve every word of praise, but they don’t fit with the book: the Embarrassment were one hell of an anomaly. But Frank quotes them because he loves them, and the book is a disguised memoir of his childhood and adolescence. It’s not a polemic, it’s a travelogue.

And it works better as one, because when he’s dissecting the Great Plains, he overstates his case. Much of the evidence given is in the form of people he’s run into in his life, people he interviews on the street. I have no question they’re as bad as he paints them, but he paints in very broad strokes. He identifies large, abstract trends, such as white male resentment against minorities, and uses them to characterize Kansas and environs in toto.

Frank goes out of his way to paint Kansans as non-racists and non-fundamentalists. I believe him on this point, since Brown v. Board was provoked in Kansas precisely because the schools were “separate but equal.” Frank then argues for a chiefly economic (but also social) form of resentment that keeps Republicans in power.

That was what Frank’s childhood told him. Frank was raised a Republican of the libertarian Ayn Randian sort, but not as a social conservative or as a Christian. And this informs his take on so-called red America: Republicans are campaigning economically, not socially. So most of his arguments rely on Republicans’ anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-welfare state strategies.

The problem is that he paints this argument as exclusive and total. Frank does not talk about the South, and the economic view is clearly not true in the South. The South is deeply Republican at this point, but it is not reflective of any shift of views on Southerners part; in 1994, Southerners finally got over their resentment of the Republicans enough to realize that the ultra-conservative Democrats they had been electing had not been doing them any good.

Yet further west, things are less clear. Frank explains away the election of Kansas’s Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius as a trivial side effect of a fight between two sects of Republicans, moderate and ultra-conservative. Fine, but why has Montana been trending Democratic lately?

The answer is pluralism. The Republicans do not use anything close to a unified, monolithic strategy. They have built a tenuous coalition of voters by appealing to every voter they can scrape up in whatever way they can, which is why Bush could not have managed more than a narrow victory. American conservatism, as it stands today, is such a weird amalgam (compare it to Israel, England, etc.) that it seems unlikely to be an endemic phenomenon. It’s arisen through careful planning, and does not exist as a monolithically native sensibility. That’s why a uniting figure like Bush or Reagan is so important.

But in the face of a Bush win and a poisoned administration doing a power-grab, it’s tempting to see the end of the nation at hand, driven by 50% of the populace. None of the trends Frank mentions explains anywhere close to 50% of the nation. Each of them, from anti-regulatory capitalists to religious fundamentalists to angry white men, make up a 5-10% segment of the population amidst the great unwashed masses.

People like Paul Weyrich and Donald Wildmon have made careers out of blowing up these conservative population to appear larger than they really are, from the original “Emerging Republican Majority” to the “moral majority” onwards. And they have tricks up their sleeves to convince the media and other suckers that they wield great power, like mailing many identical copies of decency complaints to the FCC. I worry that Frank may help their cause by painting Kansas as having a single sensibility that is hostile to the better instincts of people. And he drastically undersells the more situational aspects of the last election, described expertly by Mark Danner in How Bush Really Won:

The fact was that though President Bush was personally popular, many of his major policies were not. The problem for the Bush campaign was how to turn attention away from policies voters didn’t like–particularly the President’s decisions on Iraq and his conduct of the war there–toward policies they approved of&#x97particularly his conduct of “the war on terror” (into which Iraq would be “folded”)&#x97and toward his personal qualities.

None of this is to say that Frank isn’t right about how Kansas and other states have gradually shifted from economic populism to libertarian corporatism in response to right-wing agitprop. But that’s not Frank’s ultimate message, though. He has an agenda to push: he wants the Democrats to embrace class warfare and become anti-corporate.

Yet to advocate an anti-corporate policy as a political platform based on these observations seems unjustified, simplistic, and insufficient. Frank constructs a narrative that appeals to the compelling and partially accurate prejudices of his target readership–the liberal intelligentsia–but just like those who trumpeted the narrative “moral values” as the deciding factor in the election, Frank exaggerates. The weakness in this approach becomes apparent when Frank goes after Ann Coulter. Now, Ann Coulter is truly horrible, but her constituency is not large enough for her to be an exemplar of a trend. She is more a product of the right-wing think tank machine, designed to put guests on political talk shows, than she is a popular phenomenon (as Rush Limbaugh distressingly is). But because her views are insane and frightening even by Limbaugh’s standards, Frank can alienate readers further from Kansans by quoting her.

Frank’s aggressive tactics become most clear at the very end of the book, where Frank turns prophet of doom:

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world–for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness–blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge…Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

As a social system, the backlash works The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one.

It was the corporations the whole time! Note how government falls out of the equation, reduced the role of a puppet of the big corporations’ huge plot to advance capitalism and screw the proletariat. And it is mass culture that is the culprit.

The chief antecedent for this mode of thinking is Thorstein Veblen, who attacked the products of luxury culture and its consumers in The Theory of the Leisure Class and coined the term “conspicuous consumption” for the demonstrative decadence of these people. Veblen’s dour, astringent philosophy left hardly anything untouched: one would have to be an ascetic to avoid the pollution of the culture industry. (In this, he also anticipated the sociological work of Erving Goffman, who paints society as a system in which we have no choice but to take on socially constricted, prescribed roles.) With Veblen, and with Frank, the economic origin and intent of a product is the indicator of its moral worth.

The journal Frank edits, The Baffler, I read in college. I haven’t read it for years, but a look at the contents doesn’t reveal much change. It focused nearly exclusively on cultural capitalism. It excoriated every cultural movement that came down the line (Edge City, Donna Tartt, Wired, etc) as a meaningless product of consumerist culture. That which was acceptable–Steve Albini, John Cassavetes, Weldon Kees– were those that were aggressively, polemically independent, but also curiously middlebrow, as though intellectual pursuit for its own sake was not valid, only that which served the greater struggle against corporatism.

I used to find these views terribly compelling, and I’m not sorry they’re out there. But people looking for a book on “Red America” get something quite different with Frank’s book: an emotional travelogue through his childhood and adolescence that ends with the angry cry of a detractor to tear it all down. I don’t think it’s a useful approach; cultural crap tailored to the lowest common denominator has always existed and will always exist, and the liberal struggle can accommodate it. And I no longer wish to sign on with cultural critics that seem eager to shred all that is corporate, because I’ll go down with it. To quote the Embarrassment:

A self-proclaimed master for my education You said it was for my own good Then lit up the matches I gave you And aimed at the ground where I stood

I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy. I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy.

The Embarrassment, “Careen”

Just kidding, Dr. Frank, but the Embarrassment were a great band.

Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939

Aharon Appelfeld’s great achievement is in presenting the mind of a survivor; not that of a “Holocaust survivor” per se, but that of a person who has been through such severely dehumanizing and existentially threatening experiences, and the permanent damage done to their psyches.

My favorite of his works are The Immortal Bartfuss and The Iron Tracks, which in turn present two very different personalities, one obsolescent, one vengeful, both beset by the same sense of pointlessness, that they have outlived whatever meaning could be ascribed to their lives, and that their meaning should have come in death. (Alexander Kluge has occasionally treated this theme with great success.) The Holocaust looms in their memories, but hardly ever articulates itself; it is shown through who they currently are, not by what happened in the past, and Appelfeld’s talent in this is acute. Arnost Lustig and Imre Kertesz have achieved similar portrayals, but Appelfeld’s has always been for me the most immanent. And not without reason. Compare this quote from a Lustig interview:

CER: It must be difficult to forget your experiences from Holocaust.
LUSTIG: No, not at all. I’m not thinking about it. I’m writing about it. It’s very different. It’s like you had two lives; one “literature&#x85life as a writer” and one real, existential.
CER: So when you write about the Holocaust, it isn’t a process of coming to terms with your experiences?
LUSTIG: I’m not writing about it. I write about a lot of other things. It’s only set at that time. Look, every writer can write only about what he is familiar with, what’s under his skin. So I write about what I really know. I could write about anything. But why would I write about everything when I can write about something in-depth? Literature tries to discover something that is invisible in a man, something mysterious: his impulses, his incentives, the causes of his actions. Why he is acting the way he’s acting. Unexplained things. In that case it doesn’t matter if you write about a concentration camp.

with this quote of Appelfeld’s, from an interview shortly after Badenheim 1919:

Q: What is your main difficulty as a writer?
APPELFELD: You see, first of all, to be a Jewish writer is a heavy obligation. My close family was killed. My natural environment, my childhood, my sweetest memories were killed. And so it&#x92s a kind of obligation that I feel; I&#x92m dealing with a civilization that has been killed. How to represent it in the most honorable way&#x96not to equalize it, not to exaggerate, but to find the right proportion to represent it, in human terms.

For Lustig, the experiences become background for literature; for Appelfeld, they are the literature. It may make Lustig the more imaginative writer in that regard, but Appelfeld at his best has a styleless immediacy that I have never seen Lustig reach.

But this is not Appelfeld’s only theme. Badenheim 1939 is one of his more famous works, and deals with vacation resort housing the bourgeois of Austria. Many of them are Jewish, and at the end, when they are taken off to the camps under the pretense of being separated and relocated, many of them are still oblivious to their impending doom. A late speech by a sick, crippled rabbi, dismissed by all the book’s characters, explains the theme:

“What do they want? All these years they haven’t paid any attention to the Torah. Me they locked away in an old-age home. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Now they want to go to Poland. There is no atonement without asking forgiveness first.”

The rabbi’s voice took the column of people by surprise. He spoke in a jumble of Hebrew and Yiddish. The people could not understand a word he said, but his anger was obvious.

The problem is that Appelfeld is not an ironist. Superficially, the novel appears to be the mirror image of many of his other books: the great unspoken tragedy in the past in The Iron Tracks becomes the great unforeseen tragedy in the future in Badenheim 1939. But the symmetry is not so simple. Appelfeld moves the locus of his representation out of the Jews’ minds (they are, in general, portrayed as unsympathetic victims) and into the setting itself.

There is a forced allegory with two groups of fish in a tank, one of which massacred the other, and the question of whether they should be separated. There is much gaiety while they ignore the increasing anti-semitism in Austria and Germany. And most directly, there is this passage, about the cloistered, stuffy Professor Fussholdt:

Professor Fussholdt read the proofs of his book. At one time his lectures had given rise to quite a controversy in academic circles. It was he who had called Theodore Herzl “a hack writer with messianic pretensions,” and his associates “petty functionaries who jumped on the golden bandwagon.” Martin Buber too did not escape his barbs. It was Fussholdt who had said that Buber couldn’t make up his mind if he was a prophet or a professor. If anyone deserved the title of a great Jew, according to Fussholdt, it was Karl Kraus: he had revived satire. And now the professor was sitting and proofreading his latest book. Who was he attacking now? The journalists, the hacks, so-called “Jewish art”? Perhaps his book was about Hans Herzl, Theodore’s son who had converted to Christianity. Or perhaps it was a book about satire, the only art form appropriate to our lives.

It is too leaden for irony. Appelfeld writes as though he is not just impatient with his own characters, but furious at them. He has internalized the material so deeply that these people can only be portrayed as fatally misled suckers, who have bought into the notion of civilized Germany so deeply that they have forsaken the roots and the only other people whom they can really trust: their own. It’s not that Appelfeld is off the mark here; just ask Walter Rathenau, who considered himself as much German as Jew, and was assassinated by right-wing extremists. The problem that his view is so closely identified with the viewpoint of his survivors that he comes off as moralizing. There is little to be learned from the people he portrays, other than that in his opinion, they were wrong. They followed their country, not their people.

Kraus is a fascinating example, though, since he represents an anti-authoritarian voice, but a wholly secular one. I wish that Appelfeld had said more about Fussholdt and, by way of him, Kraus, since while there is little surprise in seeing the idle classes disregard warning signs, seeing the intellectuals do so is far more interesting (if ultimately not too surprising either). Does Appelfeld find Kraus and satire to be falsely sanitizing forces while evil storms are brewing? He’s not the sort to answer this question, but the anger comes through. But when spoken in the voice of the author, attacking these future victims, the book loses its poise.

Appelfeld emigrated to Israel very early on, and in the interview above, he speaks as though he were a follower of Ben-Gurion, a forceful but pragmatic Zionist. (It’s worth remembering that Zionist founder Theodore Herzl wasn’t interested in Jerusalem.) The recent Ha’aretz interview with Appelfeld seems to have disappeared from the archive, but via a tip from The Elegant Variation, I located an copy of Ari Shavit’s interview with Appelfeld. It’s difficult to summarize, since he doesn’t articulate a clear political standpoint, and I recommend reading the whole thing. There are two things that stand out. First is that this is a man who is more concerned with intra-Jewish struggles than with anything else: Zionism vs. Europeanism, settlers vs. land-for-peacers, internalized self-hatred, etc. Second is the constant turning back on his own thoughts:

I am careful to keep things in proportion. Precisely because I went through terrible things. But in the past two years I have stopped using the bus and I am ashamed of it. I am afraid that the bus will blow up and I am ashamed that I am afraid the bus will blow up. And when I sit in a cafe in Jerusalem, I am not relaxed. The cafe could blow up, too. And when my granddaughter goes to school, we ask whether she came back or not. Maybe something happened. Now the emotional side is something interesting. Because in the Holocaust I was a boy who lost his parents and lived the life of an animal, I should have been taken to a madhouse immediately afterward. Or to a hospice.

This form of servitude to one’s own emotions is what Appelfeld has lived with and expressed in all his work. It does not express itself in ideology; when he attempts to do as much, as in Badenheim 1939, the effect is muted. But in his chronicles of survivors, it is precisely the right tool.

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