December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely
Published by Pushkin Press, London (2014)
Historical fiction is strange. We approach it with the understanding that what we are reading is and is not true. We contract with the writer to accept his (or her) interpretation of events without requiring he take on the burden of proof. The situation become even more convoluted when we deal with historical figures, versus fictional characters placed in historical settings. For better or worse, Philippa Gregory’s Boleyn sisters have supplanted the historical Ann & Mary in her reader’s minds. Personally, I prefer Hilary Mantel’s versions – but the point is that both portraits are flawed and filled with inaccuracies due to the limits of the historical records. The facts that are represented – dates, portraits, whatever written documentation remains – are true. The mannerisms, the inflections of the voice, the emotions and motivations, events that took place behind closed doors – all this information is fabricated by the author to add depth to the narrative. But it raises the question: if history is, as Voltaire said, “fables that have been agreed upon” what then, are historical fictions?
Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days attempts to understand the last days of the author Stefan Zweig and his young wife Lotte, who will kill themselves at the end of the novel.
During his lifetime Stefan Zweig was one of the most celebrated and translated authors in the world. But while he was commercially successful, he is considered by critics to have been a minor author at best. It was an opinion he accepted, perhaps even shared, showing extraordinary humility. When his books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 he is reported to have called it an honor to see them thrown into the same bonfires as the works of great men like Einstein, Freud and Mann.
The Last Days skips over most of Zweig’s life and goes straight to the year 1942. Stefan & Lotte are attempting to make a home in Petrópolis, Brazil after fleeing from Austria to England, then England to New York. Zweig is presented as a man dealing with middle age (he was 61) and – a bit like the varsity football player who peaked in high school – obsessed with the golden days of a Vienna that no longer existed.* Lotte, half his age and in awe of his celebrity, finds herself living a life of exile and self-imposed isolation that is very different from the glamorous existence she fantasized. The Last Days is a complicated novel – contemplative & thoughtfully written in a way that is uniquely French.
Andre Naffis-Sahely’s translation moves readers towards the couple’s death gently – the cadence of the writing slow and sad and achingly beautiful. Zweig seems aged past his actual years and is actively disengaging from the world. Many of his friends are dead. Those who managed to escape are pressuring him to take a political stand condemning Germany.** His world is shrinking – geographically and intellectually. Something those around him are beginning to recognize.
“It’s funny to notice how the choices you made as a writers reveal your true inner nature. Mann opted to write about Goethe, while you chose to focus on Kleist and Nietzsche. You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country, with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, Meanwhile, Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone else revolves. Whereas you have escaped to a place where nothing happens and have reached a point of no return. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world. Mann is busy building a statue to himself, while concealing his true nature. Mann will never own up to his pederastic inclinations. Mann conceals anything that might compromise his public image. Mann sees himself as peerless. Mann looks for light and finds it in Thomas Mann. On the other hand, here you are doing your utmost to disappear.”
Seksik uses Ernst Feder, as he uses everything in his novel, as an opportunity to psychoanalyze these two people. He has a hypothesis that he is working through on the page. It is fascinating to watch – though I couldn’t help wondering if reality wasn’t as tidy as he would like us to believe. Zweig’s suicide was, in fact. not entirely surprising when viewed in retrospect. He had a history of depression (something his first wife, Friderike Maria von Winternitz, confirmed in her memoir about their life together after his death) and something Seksik only alludes to.*** Lotte, in my opinion, provides much more complicated subject matter. She was hired by Friderike to act as Zweig’s secretary. They began an affair. Zweig eventually convinced Friderike to divorce him, and he and Lotte were married. She was completely devoted to the both the man and the world famous author. But Seksik is insightful enough to understand that a young wife might not have been entirely content with their life in Petrópolis. Seksik’s portrait of Lotte, his interpretation of her psyche, is fascinating and troubling at the same time. She’s a pathetic creature willing to diminish herself in return for his love, and yet there are sparks of rebellion. They amount to nothing, but their brief existence prevents the character from becoming two-dimensional.
On the whole neither Stefan or Lotte Zweig are sympathetic. They are isolated, from society and each other, by the fog of depression. Yet Seksik manages to channel that depression into a semblance of life. His characters are made of blood and bone. When husband & wife venture out with friends to celebrate Carnival Lotte wears a new red dress. In the crowds Stefan loses sight of her and Seksik describes his initial panic and his reaction when he finds her again.
He had lost hold of Lotte’s hand. He looked around frantically. The thought that she might have drowned in that human flood terrified him. Pushing his way through the pandemonium, he began screaming out her name, a cry that was lost in the midst of that racket. Everyone around him was lost in jubilation. A man wearing a skeleton costume and a skull mask roared in his face. He felt oppressed by the crowd and began thinking he’d lost her for good. A group of women wearing open bodices surrounded him, their bodies dripping with sweat as they shook in a sort of primitive dance. He saw himself as rather grotesque, lost in a ragged crowd wearing a white linen suit. A man wearing a fake beard jumped towards him and stole his Panama hat from his head. He stood motionless, petrified. Then, just as quickly as the crowd had assembled, it dispersed. All of a sudden, he caught sight of her, covered in ticker tape, swaying her hips in front of a man playing maracas. He lingered for a while observing the scene, in the middle of that frenzied outburst, keeping his gaze obstinately fixed on his wife. She appeared to be floating before his eyes as if in a dream. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
While Zweig’s popularity has waxed and waned in the decades since his death, European additions of his books have continued to be widely read. He is currently experiencing a revival – the beneficiary of the public’s nostalgia for the Edwardian period fueled by the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, as well as films like Atonement and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson’s film was, in fact, inspired by Zweig’s novels). The New York Review of Books & Pushkin Press have recently reissued, between them, almost his complete catalog of books – translated into English to moderate success. There have been reviews and articles in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The NY Times Book Review, to name a few. His suicide has been of particular interest, we humans are by our nature somewhat morbid. Seksik has managed to elevate the conversation, gleaning beauty from tragedy. Discovering truth in the absence of facts.
*The Youtube video below provides a sense of what that lost world was like.
**Fellow Jews who had fled the Third Reich took Zweig’s pascifism in life & eventual suicide to be an almost personal betrayal. Mann wrote after learning of Zweig’s death: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.”
***I can’t help seeing parallels to Virginia Woolf’s suicide at the beginning of the war. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, in his amazing biography tells how the Woolfs planned to commit suicide should there be a German invasion. Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and rumors had already begun to spread on the fate of the Jews under Hitler. Bell attributes the stress of a possible invasion, along with the loss of their London home and the Hogarth Press offices during a Blitz as contributing to her final breakdown.
November 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
Léon & Louise by Alex Capus, translated by John Brownjohn, is a sweet story where a lot occurs without seeming to. It touches on both World Wars and follows a fairly typical plot of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy (now married with children) finds girl again eleven years later. The two go their separate ways and… well the “and” is what make up a good chunk of the story.
This is a love story in which the lovers spend most of their lives apart. Léon believes Louise dead after the two stumble (well, actually, bicycle) into a battlefield after an idyllic day at the beach. Louise, discovering that he survived his injuries, believes Léon indifferent. Léon eventually marries, has a loving and successful – if not always comfortable or passionate – relationship with his wife (the most interesting character of the book). Under the Vichy government he survives – as many Parisians must have – committing only the smallest acts of resistance. As his grandson tells us,
“…like many families, we firmly believe that, although we’re nothing special, we’re unique notwithstanding.
This illusion cannot be substantiated and is wholly unfounded. To the best of my knowledge, no Le Gall has ever achieved anything worthy of remembrance by the world at large. This is attributable first to our lack of any outstanding talents, secondly to indolence, thirdly to the fact that as adolescents most of us develop an arrogant contempt for the initiation rites of a conventional education, and fourthly to the strong aversion to Church, police and intellectual authority that is almost invariably handed down from father to son.”
Louise takes a more unconventional path in life. She remains single, drives a fast sports car and works for the Bank of France. The author appears to be placing the tacit question – which life is the more fulfilling? – without expecting an answer. Capus’ has created two quirky characters and a narrator with an ironic sense of humor to tell their story. He more or less succeeds in building a convincing picture of the lives of normal people under the Vichy government in WWII. My criticism is that Capus’ doesn’t take his “quirky” sensibility far enough. I picked up this novel hoping to discover something along the lines of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. It never succeeds in becoming that.
The German translator John Brownjohn also translates Walter Moers’ Zamonian fantasy novels which (as you might know) are favorites of mine. In fact, Brownjohn has translated more than 160 books and I wouldn’t be surprised if a good deal of the quirkiness of the language in Léon & Louise are attributable to him. He never seems to shy away from the odd – whether it be literary dinosaurs or French women stranded in the Congo. He is a master at understatement – achieving subtle effects using the minimum of words. I’d like to reiterate that I do not read or speak German. But I am familiar enough with this translator’s work to recognize his signature. (For more on John Brownjohn, follow the link to an interview with The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf & Book Reviews blog).
This is a quiet book which I, on the whole, enjoyed. But, it isn’t the type of novel that changes your life. Closing the covers a reader takes nothing away other than it is possible to live an ordinary, unassuming life even in extraordinary times. Perhaps Capus didn’t realize he was writing a tragedy.
Publisher: Haus Publishing, London (2012)
ISBN: 978 1 908323 13 2
June 14, 2012 § 4 Comments
The Hunger Angel was my introduction to the work of Herta Müller. First published in 2009, the same year that she received the Nobel Prize, it is (like much of her work) deeply political. Romania was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1958. Müller’s novel deals with the time immediately following WWII when, as she explains in the book’s afterward: “In January 1945 the Soviet General Vinogradov presented a demand in Stalin’s name that all Germans living in Romania be mobilized for “rebuilding” the war-damaged Soviet Union. All men and women in between seventeen and forty-five years of age were deported to forced labor camps in the Soviet Union.”
These laborers suffered under conditionals comparable to those of the German concentration camps. Starvation, deprivation, exhaustion and humiliation were constant states of being. But it is the starvation on which Müller focuses. It is an all consuming thing – embodied by and given shape as the hunger angel of the title.* The angel is a construct of the novel’s teenage narrator. It functions alternately as a metaphor and as a powerful visual.
Unloading [coal] was always a job for two or three people. Not counting the hunger angel, because we weren’t sure whether there was one hunger angel for all of us or if each of us had his own. The hunger angel approached everyone, without restraint. He knew that where things can be unloaded, other things can be loaded. In terms of mechanics, the results can be horrifying: if each person has his own hunger angel, then every time someone dies, a hunger angel is released. Eventually there would be nothing but abandoned hunger angels, abandoned heart-shovels, abandoned coal.
If you’ve read Martin Amis’ House of Meetings – a typically merciless novel which tells the story of two brothers imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag – you may find yourself (like me) making the inevitable comparisons. Amis’ description of camp life is slightly different, or perhaps it is in his focus where the differences lie. There seems to be less fraternization between male and female prisoners in House of Meetings; the inmates are Russian political prisoners rather than German; and the violence is endemic. Müller and Amis are in agreement over the lack of food (I found it interesting that both books contain scenes where prisoners scrabble for potato peels) but hunger isn’t the focus in House of Meetings. It is a prop. Amis is telling a story about violence, jealousy and its aftermath – his writing lacks any hint of the feminine. (I don’t mean this as a criticism, just as a statement of fact). The Hunger Angel, in contrast, is about survival. It is instructive where House of Meetings is dramatic. Müller’s prose may appear gentler than Amis’, but it’s just as effective in conveying the brutal toll camp life takes on the individual. Leo Auberg (the narrator from The Hunger Angel) and Lev (the younger brother of the narrator in House of Meetings) have similar reactions after their release. Both men are too broken to return to the people they loved in their old lives.
Müller chose to write The Hunger Angel as a series of self-contained anecdotes versus a continuous narrative, exploring every aspect of camp life – the work details, the inmates, the capos, relations between men and women, relations to the Soviets, etc. It was planned as a joint venture between herself and her friend, the poet Oskar Psatior. His experiences as a teenager are the basis of the story. He died before the book came to fruition, but Müller had taken copious notes during their conversations. A year after his death, still grieving I’m sure, she began writing. The structure – written in short chapters that often run tangential to eachother – creates an emotional proximity between the teller and the reader. Müller has recreated the experience, the intimacy, of listening in to a conversation. I was emotionally engaged despite the restrained tone in which the stories are told… often becoming outraged, upset and heartbroken by what I was hearing/reading. It was as if Leo was someone I knew personally. I responded as if we were friends.
*I thought it would be interesting to point out the significance of titles, both their connection to the text and their influence on the reader. The Hunger Angel was originally published in English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me (the German title was Atemschaukel). These two titles convey carry and convey completely different meanings. For example: the former implies poetry and the latter disassociation. In my opinion the gap in this case is so large as to possibly change how a reader might perceive/decipher the author’s intent. Am I alone in finding the differences between the two titles jarring?
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8050 9301 8
March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
The title Daniel Stein, Interpreter is loaded with meaning. The novel’s namesake and hero is a Polish Jew gifted with languages. He survived WWII by acting as an interpreter for the Germans, the Belorussians and Soviets. Each time the city of Emsk changed hands, so did Daniel. At times re-translating the same documents over again for each new occupier. It was through his position that he was able to save the lives of hundreds of men, women & children – both Jews and non-Jews.
After the war Daniel converted to Catholicism and immigrated to Israel as a monk in the Order of Barefoot Carmelites. There he built a sometimes controversial congregation that embraced both the Christian & Jewish faiths. He took on a new role as interpreter – elucidating church doctrine and dogma. He taught that Christianity is an extension of Judaism. He lobbied and eventually sued to gain Israeli citizenship as a Christian Jew. His teachings, while not entirely unique (we’re told there were rabbis who felt the same), were revolutionary.
People wrote denunciations against him. I had one sad little paper here for a long time which Daniel brought. He was summoned one time by the abbot and given a notice to attend the Office of the Prime Minister. Daniel came and sowed it to us, wondering what it was all about. This was after his court case. All that fuss in the press seemed to have died down. I looked at the paper and the address there was not the Prime Minister’s Office at all but the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet. Something along the lines of your CIA. I told him not to go. He sat there, said nothing, scratching behind his ear. He did that when he was thinking.
“No,” he said. “I shall go. I’ve been dealing with these services the whole of my life. I worked in the police, and I was in the partisans. By the way, I have two medals, one with Lenin on it and one with Stalin. I even worked for the NKVD for a couple of months before I ran away.”
In case there’s any doubt – Daniel Stein, Interpreter is about religion. As such the text sometimes takes dense, philosophical tangents. I’m not particularly religious, yet I found the book fascinating. It might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with either the Jewish or Christian faiths to understand all the nuances of the story being told. I think other readers will shy away specifically because of the religious subject matter. They shouldn’t. Because it is an interesting, well-written and – though it might seem a contradiction – accessible. A story that is also about the difference a single person can make in the world by (forgive the cliché) doing what they believe is right. In a way, Ulitskaya redeems both these religions by demonstrating in Brother Daniel what they might represent.
Ludmila Ulitskaya is an award-winning (most recently France’s Simone de Beauvoir Prize in 2011) Russian author. She was nominated for the Man Booker International in 2009. She’ll be speaking at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in NYC. Daniel Stein, Interpreter celebrates the life of the real Brother Daniel Stein by piecing together a fictionalized history of letters, recorded interviews, diary entries and transcripts spanning a period from 1960 up to almost the present day. She numbers and dates them (i.e.-the letters, interviews, etc.) like items in an auction catalog. She even inserts her own correspondence about the writing of the novel in a post-modern twist.
I am not a real writer and this book is not a novel but a collage. I snip out pieces of my own life and of the lives of other people and glue together “without glue” (pause…) “a living tale from fragments of days.”
Ulitskaya’s prose is consistent and she establishes strong identities for each of her characters. Their voices remain interesting – though at times some of the female characters become a little homogeneous. Regardless, we get to see Brother Daniel’s life through multiple lenses. As he sees himself – in unvarnished, practical, matter-of-fact terms. And also a more complicated figure – as viewed by his friends, family, colleagues and the institutions whose lives he touched. It is a life interpreted for the reader.
The plot and portrait are developed with subtlety, forming a story that has no arc other than what can be found in the life of this man. Ludmila Ulitskaya accomplishes this – without emphasizing the emotional peaks or valleys. She minimizes the drama, breaking Brother Daniel down to a series of anecdotes and burying the significant events amongst the trivialities of her characters’ daily lives. This author chose to leave a good portion of the ‘boring bits’ in the book. The overall effect, once you realize what she is doing, is startling in its breadth and accomplishment.
Publisher: Overlook Duckworth, New York (2011).
ISBN: 978 1 59020 320 0