Of Billiards and Buildings

23 12 2010

I have this habit of asking the Germans I meet unpleasant questions. Of course I don’t ask right away. First come the neutral, tentative things that are said when meeting someone new. But there is always the looming monster of the holocaust just under the words. Always the troubling sense, running just under the surface of the conversation like the river Styx, that an entire nation stands behind each of us. It is a situation which evokes a certain amount of anxiety on both sides, and there is often a pressing need to clear the air.

What was it like growing up in a place where all the adults you knew were suspect of being Nazis? (That is, racist, fascist, mass murderers, or their silent accomplices.) That’s the question that interests me, and usually, after a moment’s thought, they tell me that their childhood was more or less normal. Then they launch into an explanation that their own personal family members weren’t Nazis. I suppose that at this point, it doesn’t matter if that’s actually true or not. And I can understand the desire to lie; who wants to tell a Jew that they’re the descendant of a Nazi?

But the place where it does matter, the place where the difficult, disturbing, unsavory truths about one’s time and place are supposed to rear their annoying heads is in literature. Realism, magical realism, surrealism, or dark, post-modern sicko humor; the main thing is that there be some truth on the premises.

Wait – don’t go ; I’m not going to do a survey of German post-war literature. I’m only going to talk about one book, by a really excellent German writer: Billiards at Half-Past Nine . It was written in 1962 Heinrich Boell. He’s not one of those obscure geniuses that die unrecognized. On the contrary, he’s a Nobel –prize winner (1972) “…for his writing which through its combination of a broad perspective on his time and a sensitive skill in characterization has contributed to a renewal of German literature”. So you’re entitled to approach the work with a certain amount of expectation.

Billiards at Half-Past Nine examines modern German history through the prism of the Faehmels, a respectable Cologne family. A talent for engineering and architectural design runs in their genes. If I tell you that the scaffold of the story is of a father who built a cathedral, and the son who helped to demolish it, you can understand how metaphor is busy at work here. In the course of the book, the family is destroyed, both physically and spiritually, by the events of, well, modern German history. The son, Robert, deals with this ruin of his family, his community, his values and his nation not by going to therapy, not by embracing anarchy an becoming a terrorist, not by taking to the streets and calling for a better society, but by adhering to a meticulously scheduled routine which includes playing a daily game of billiards at – you guessed it- half passed nine.

I don’t want to seem facetious here. Robert Faemel is struggling under the burden of a great many tragedies; his brother was a Nazi (though in Boell’s eyes, he too is one of their victims) , his mother went mad, his wife was killed by flying shrapnel, his daughter in law’s Nazi parents tried to kill her when she was a child, and his schoolmates, many of whom rise to respectable positions after the war include many ex-Nazis . All this, together with the fact that he himself was instrumental in destroying his father’s creation make for very troubling mental life. The idea that only the certainty of a strict daily routine, played out in activities of impeccable internal logic such as shooting pool, enable Robert to carry on suggest a very interesting premise. It’s all done beautifully, with great literary effects; changing point of view, vivid, lyric language, wonderfully poetic use of repetition, metaphor and symbolism, and striking interior monologues. The book certainly offers some insights on the German state of mind in the post war period, and yet, for me it was deeply flawed. Both the first time I read it, many years ago, and then again more recently, I was struck by what was, for me, inexcusably absent.

Which is the Jews. Or rather, some mention of the Jews – Jews who once lived in Cologne, for example. And what happened to them. There is but one brief sentence telling that Robert’s mother was committed to an institution following an incident where she tried to save join Jews who were being transported to a concentration camp, but that is really it. If a person who knew nothing about the holocaust were to read this book, they would not learn that the conflicted, suffering Germans ever had a problem with Jews at all. Which seems rather odd, given the generally accepted version of the ostracization , deportation and murder of six million Jews that indicates otherwise.
I was thinking about this when I wrote Interruption, a short story of mine that recently appeared in the online journal, Jewish Fiction (If you click on the link you’ll discover that I’m not really a blond cartoon character.) I have very little in common with Yakov Stiener, the protagonist. He’s a middle aged German Jew who left in time and went to Israel to join a kibbutz. What we do share is a frustrated impatience with the avoidance of the subject in post-war German literature.

I understand that this is a topic which, if you were a German living in the 1950s and 60s, you might want to avoid thinking too hard about. Because the conclusions you could reach might leave you little room for anything other than giving up your life and identity as a German. (I think positive proof of this suspicion can be found in the example of Sebald – another German writer, but one who saw fit to make his life in England, and was courageous and honest enough to confront the story of the devastation of the Jews head on; without self pity, without arguments about the suffering of Germans, without lame sociological explanations.) Nevertheless, time isn’t standing still, and the questions Germans need to think about these days are easier; less about genocidal tendencies, and more about how to understand the deeds of those older relatives who had the genocidal tendencies.
This summer I spent a few days in Berlin. If you enjoy an environment of metaphysical weirdness, you could do worse than take a trip there. The streets are filled with cheerful, chatty people. The parks and the river add a pretty touch to the urban sprawl. The buildings are a nice mix of stately old and bold-design new. Let the discerning, analytical part mind go to sleep and you could be in a place as innocuous as say, Canada.

But it doesn’t take much to pick up on the uncanny weight of time and place that hangs over the pleasantness. Pay attention and you become aware, as you hop between east and west and back again that these grassy parks, these public squares and these buildings, are in fact the ground zero of the 20th century. There are the little brass plates that appear in doorways, telling you the names of the Jews who once lived there and when they died, and other little brass plates set into streets and sidewalks showing exactly where the Berlin Wall stood not too long ago. There’s the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, purposefully left in its ruined state as a lesson and a warning. There are the white crosses on the fence along the river commemorating the unfortunates who were shot trying to swim to West Berlin. There’s the sculpture of Jewish children outside the Friedrichstrasse train station – one group who went to England on a Kindertransport, and the other who was sent to die. Everywhere you look there’s memorials; the memorial for the murdered gypsies, the memorial for the murdered homosexuals, and of course, the memorial for Europe’s murdered Jews.

At first it appears a strange use of good real estate. 2700 blocks of granite laid out over an area of 19,000 square meters. Whatever one makes of it, its unavoidable, dark presence in the middle of the city cannot be ignored. For people who are used to having everything explained at the click of keyboard, it is annoying, then mystifying, then disturbing that there is nothing explaining just what it is supposed to be. All the perplexed observer is left with is a collective recognition that words will fail.

And there, in the middle of Berlin, amongst the passing traffic and the urban rush of the day, one is struck with the sense of finding, finally, a measure of integrity. I imagine that were they there to see it, both Robert Faemel and Yakov Stiener would be comforted.





Reading Natasha in North York

29 10 2010

Warning:  This post leans toward the autobiographical, and may be somewhat self indulgent.  Think carefully if this is going to be a problem.

Still here?

Ok.  First, two caveats: 1) I’m not in North York.  Not physically.  2) Wikipedia defines North York as “a dissolved municipality within the current city of Toronto.”   So actually, there is no North York.  It did exist at one time and I lived there.  But now all I’m left with the time-frozen flashbacks as they exist in my mind and in the mind of David Bezmozgis as he portrays them in his short story collection, Natasha.

I’m not sure that this would have concerned the collection’s Russian-Jewish protagonist, Mark Berman, and his parents.  They knew that they were in Toronto of course, and they were quite sure that they were in Canada. But they had no reason to know, or even care, that the place where they had found themselves on arriving from Riga via Vienna and Rome was, municipally speaking, North York.  But I knew.  I was born there and grew up there, so that for me, while Riga and Vienna and Rome were as close as the moon, North York was the world.

It’s difficult to convey the jolt of bizarre recognition I felt on reading the book’s opening line Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. Each word of this artful, seemingly innocent sentence seemed all wrong.    A little Twilight Zone moment. Let’s examine it closely:

Goldfinch – The same suburban Goldfinch street that I used to pass on the bus home from school everyday?  Is this street the stuff of literature????  You’ve got to be kidding.

Flapping clotheslines – I don’t remember any clotheslines.

Tenement – Excuse me?

Delirious – In the Toronto I remember, delirious people were hospitalized.

Striving – This sounds much too noble and heroic. Why the pathos?  Who had to strive in Toronto?

It dawned on me then that even though David Bezmozgis and I lived about a ten minute drive from each other (In the early eighties when the first stories of the book take place), we were seeing something very different. What for him and his family was a heady, if challenging adventure was for me, the most boring place in the universe; a place that, given the right weather on the right day, could drive a person to suicide.

As, like a virtual tourist being led through my own home, I read the stories, I often had to pause in incredulity. Bezmozgis had taken the suburban, concrete and neon landscape of my childhood and turned into the scene of heartbreaking drama (Tapka) sly tales about the meaning of Jewish identity (An Animal to the Memory), the subtle ambivalences of immigrant experience, (The Second Strongest Man) and suburban basement sex and drugs (Natasha ). Where was I when all this was happening, under my nose as it were?

But the story that I found most troubling was Roman Berman, Massage Therapist.   The story describes how Mark’s father passes an exam allowing him to work as a massage therapist. After father and son distribute advertising flyers, the family is invited for Friday night dinner at the house of the Kornblums. The experience is a bitter one.  Everything about the Kornblums reminds the Bermans that in this new life they are outsiders; poor, shabby, and relegated to the role of charity seekers.

As I read that story, I remembered how, on more than one occasion, my family also invited “Soviet Jews” for Friday night dinner.   That’s what we called them. Soviet Jews. All I knew of them was that they had lived in the worst place in the world, a place that bad as it treated them, didn’t want to let them leave. We had worn fake gold chains with dissident’s names on them. We remembered them at our Pesach Seders.   We had gone to rallies when Soviet diplomats came to town.  (I was seven when my parents took me to my first demonstration.   It was a cold fall night, a night when we would normally be at home watching All in the Family, but on that night we had gathered beside a hotel where an official named Kosygin was staying.  3,000,000 is half of 6,000,000 read one of the signs and I, at seven, I puzzled over what this cryptic slogan could mean.  Clearly there was something that Kosygin knew, that everyone knew, that no one had  told me about).  When they finally started to get out it was like recovering long lost family. After all weren’t my great grandparents also Russian Jews?  Weren’t they also thankful for a chance to get out of the most evil place in the world?

Except that it wasn’t.  They hardly spoke English.  They were wide eyed and awkward, and a little stunned, as if we and our Friday night routine were exotic and puzzling.  Though Jews, they seemed to know nothing of Jewish history or language or ritual.  How on earth, I wondered, were these people going to manage in Canada?

Reading Bezmozgis’s stories, I can only hope that we appeared kinder and less patronizing the Kornblums.  But the gulf between us and them was in some ways unbridgeable. We had lived lives of freedom and prosperity, and they were seeing our world through eyes that we couldn’t even imagine.

Several months after I finished reading the stories, my writing program at Bar Ilan held a literary convention. I was thrilled to find out that the guest writers were Nathan Englander (of The Twenty Seventh Man fame, see my post on this story) and David Bezmozgis.  (Never mind that I embarrassed myself by approaching Nathan Englander and asking him if he were David Bezmozgis, but that’s another story).  At a dinner held in their honor, I  couldn’t resist the opportunity to let Bezmozgis (having ascertained who he was) know that he was in the presence of a fellow Torontonian.  “How,” I asked him, “are you able to take such a dull place and use it as a backdrop for such moving stories?  When I was growing up, Toronto seemed like the most uninspiring  place on earth.”

“Yeah,” he nodded sympathetically.  “I can see how you might have felt that way.”





A Riddle and an Experiment

24 09 2010

Do you like riddles?  I don’t, except for the ones that trick you into not seeing the obvious.  Like this one:  Who is always present but never mentioned?  Most definitely a participant but rarely acknowledged?  Who’s voice, though essential and vital, is almost never heard?   

The answer, my friends, is Jewish women up until say, the 20th century.   Before you jump with a few examples of great Jewish women and their achievements, I want to stress that I’m not talking here about the exceptional, the unusually bright and charismatic, the rare meteors who burst out of orbit and explode into the atmosphere, but the regular, ordinary, unremarkable women.   

Jewish history is filled with texts which seek to organize and regulate everyday life, but you’d be hard pressed to find a woman’s voice, even in quotation, coming out of any of them.  What this tells us is that in the distant and the not so distant past, the reality of individual women’s lives as they themselves might have told it was of little interest to the society they lived in.   Their position, it seems to me, was similar to that of slaves in ancient Greece; indispensable for the smooth running of everyday activity, but otherwise irrelevant.  (And clearly, the sympathetic, benevolent (though patronizing) approach to women in Judaism did little to mitigate this reality).  Though this seems unacceptable to contemporary sensibility, it has been the norm for all human societies, a sort of universal law.  It is we who have broken the spell; we are the rebels, endowed with the ability to see the potential of women’s lives with different eyes.

I’ve thought a lot about this, and about the fundamental differences in consciousness that these changes imply.   How, I wondered, did the perception of women in our society differ from that of most of other societies in history?  The writing of my first novel, The Wayward Moon was sort of a thought experiment.   I imagined the lives of women in 9th century Babylonia.  (Why that time and place?  Well, that’s a subject for another essay).   It seemed to me that the major differences between our society and theirs could be clustered around three issues:

1)Freedom of Movement  – This varied from place to place, and depended to some extent on socio-economic status  (the higher the family’s status, the more the women were expected to conceal themselves and stay put)  but generally speaking, women of the middle east in the 9th century  could not just get up and go.  I’m not only talking about danger of being attacked, which in the days before police forces was a real possibility.  The mere idea of a woman travelling anywhere on her own was unthinkable.   Women’s movements were monitored and curtailed under the anxious eyes of their parents, husbands and brothers.   The entire issue of when and how a woman might show herself in public was a going concern.  In some places, the only women who would walk freely in a public space was a prostitute.  No wonder it was considered a shame for the entire family if one of its female members was out unchaperoned.

 2) The Right to Education – A very modern right, which even today, in some parts of the world, cannot be taken for granted by either men or women.   Up till a few generations ago, education was a rare luxury.   Still, in the Jewish community throughout the ages, and most certainly in 9th cen. Babylonia, most boys did receive a biblical/Talmudic education, with some learning to read Hebrew/Aramaic.  Not the girls.  Although Islamic society (and this includes Jewish society within the Islamic society) at this time was interested in exploring and expanding on the knowledge of other cultures, you can be sure that the girls were not included in the fun.

3) Mastery of One’s Own Physicality-  Throughout history, various religions and philosophies have argued that the physical is entirely separate from the spiritual, but modern psychology tells us that it’s all about the body.  The body is where we experience the world, and our place in it.   In this light, the fact of women’s powerlessness over their own physical destiny is particularly nefarious.   But the facts are these:  in most societies, a women’s sexual life was closely managed by others, with her virginity not merely a physical detail, but a state of being which had serious ramifications for her entire family.  A woman was not at liberty to choose the person she was to marry, or her age at her marriage, or the time in her own life that she was to marry.   Consequently, her first sexual experience was generally her wedding night, at a time and with a man not of her own choosing.  Likewise, no one asked her if, when and how often she wanted to get pregnant.    Outrageous as all of this seems now, the price for rebelling against these norms was dangerously high.   Women were not owners but slaves to their own biology, and they were expected to put their physical being at the disposal of the needs, plans, and wishes of others.

From our perspective, these limitations sound pretty miserable.   But how, I wondered, did they seem to the people who had to live with them?   While it’s tempting for us to insist with our enlightened, self-righteous certainty that each woman would have her own unique opinion on the subject, the answer has more to do with the nature of the society in question than individual personality.    As David Foster Wallace has pointed out, society is like water – so ubiquitous that we scarcely know it’s there, chiseling our perception and shaping our consciousness.*   

When I was writing The Wayward Moon, I was imagining what life might be like for a young woman living in a society that denies her freedom of movement, education, and mastery of her own body.   And what I came to realize was that generally speaking, these limitations were no problem at all.  No freedom of movement?  Who wants to go anywhere, when life is best at home.   No education?  Books are only interesting to a few really smart men, silly!  No deciding who to marry?  Why should I decide when there are others who are so much better equipped to make a good choice?  No control over who I sleep with?  What am I, a whore?  A decent woman sleeps only with her husband. 

The Wayward Moon was kind of a thought experiment.  I imagined an ordinary Jewish woman, entirely at home in her time and place, which in this case, was a thriving Babylonian town at the height of the Islamic empire.    And then I imagined what would happen if she had to leave that place, and make her way in the world alone.   She would, I knew, be incredibly vulnerable, easy prey for anyone who took notice of her.  But what if, on the other hand, fate forced her to experience freedom of movement?  What if she were taken under the wing of a mentor and given instruction in theology and philosophy?  And what if, after having been raped and abused, she allowed herself to discover her own sexuality, on her own terms?  

These are the questions that I wanted to explore.   I wanted think about what happens when a consciousness expands, so that it sees wider and farther and deeper than others, but lacks the language with which to express what it sees.

In imagining Rahel Bat Yair, I tried to give voice to a character who would seem both entirely imaginary and very real.   I created certain conditions for her, and then envisioned what might happen.   Would Rahel come to think a little more like we do?  Would she somehow find a new way of being in the world?   Or would she find that the world could not contain what she had become?

Happily, I’m not a scientist but an author, with an author’s freedom to create my experiments’ results.    

*If you’re not familiar with David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005 it would be worth your while to read the whole thing.   Others have considered it so worthwhile that it’s been published as a book, but here are some links where you can read it online.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/20/fiction

http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words





Bolano’s 2666, plus a comment from Ozick

24 09 2010

Innocent women are being murdered.  Many of the murders are gruesome, including horrible mutilations.  Although this has been going on for years, the police seem unable to track down the perpetrators.  The victim’s names (when they are known) are published in the press, and from time to time, a prominent personality or concerned social action group will bring up the subject and berate the authorities for not putting an end to it.  But still the killing goes on.  Since 1993, there have been over 1000 unsolved murders. 

The above paragraph is not the plot of a crime novel.  It is real*, and it is happening in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city of 1,500 000 that lies on the border with Texas.  What are you, as a reader of these lines, to do with this?  Well, probably nothing.  After all, chances are that you’re pretty far away from Ciudad Juarez.  Even if you live close by, say in Texas, this is obviously something for the Mexicans to deal with.  And even if you live in Mexico, you’re not about to take on the famous narcotics cartels who are suspected of having a hand in this.  And even if you yourself happen to go to Juarez, as a tourist for example, the last thing you would want to do is get involved.  After all, it’s hardly relevant to you or to your life.

This is the issue that Roberto Bolano sets up in his novel 2666.  It is, on the face of it, a confusing book; it presents us with numerous unrelated lives and stories, and then fails to provide the satisfying closure of a conventional novel.  Though mere fiction, it has the enigmatic, open-ended feel of lived life.  All that’s left for a reader to do is ponder the elements Bolano has glued together and wonder what he was thinking.

On the face of it, like parts of a toy that won’t fit together, the book’s five sections don’t seem to make anything.  In the first section, we get a long, chatty description of four European literary critics − their academic careers, their entanglements with one another, and their search for an elusive German writer, which takes them to the fictional city of Santa Teresa (an obvious stand-in for Juarez).  The second section is about a Mexican academic living in Santa Teresa and his daughter.  The third tells of an African-American journalist who goes to Santa Teresa to write about a boxing match.  The fourth gives a long (300 pgs), detailed description of the murdered women’s corpses as they’re discovered, and the circumstances surrounding their discovery.  And the fifth, suddenly, as if from another world, offers the biography of Hans Reiter, a German writer born in 1920, who lives all of his life in Europe.  This is a skeleton summary; the book has almost 900 pages filled with often superfluous detail that doesn’t seem to further what could be considered a plot.

So, what was Bolano thinking?   In my opinion, the key here is in the structure.  As a writer, I’m a big believer in juxtaposition.  Writers don’t randomly put unrelated things together in the same work.  Really they don’t.  Even if they say it’s random, it isn’t.   It’s no coincidence that Bolano, a Spanish language writer of Chilean decent, chose the works of a German born in 1920 as his four critics’ elusive literary idol.   He wanted a writer who was born just in time to experience the sweep of fascist ecstasy and live with its consequences.  He wanted that writer to struggle under the weight of his country’s crimes, to always be chasing after a bearable mode of existence.  And he wanted that writer to have to deal head on with the Holocaust.  Unlike many other fiction writers who write about Europe in the 20th century, Bolano devotes some thought to the Holocaust, or more specifically, to the notion that European Jews were targeted and killed by otherwise ordinary Europeans.  He wants his writer to have to deal with the problem of evil, not as an abstract question, but as something that jumps into in your face and demands your attention.

As a Chilean who lived through the Pinochet regime, Bolano was deeply troubled by the corruption and violence of South American society in general, and by the ongoing murders in Mexico in particular.  They fed into his more universal concern about what it means to create and enjoy art in the presence and aftermath of atrocity.  I think that in 2666, as in his other works, Bolano was thinking about evil and art and how the two can easily thrive right beside each other.

Bear with me.  I’m going to make a little jump.  In 1979 Cynthia Ozick published an essay entitled Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom, which appears in her collection, Art and Ardor.   The piece is mostly about the work of the critic Harold Bloom as read from the perspective of Jewish theology, but ultimately, it is a sober, dark, reckoning on the nature of artistic creation.   The essay is complex and fascinating; to summarize it would take another essay.   So I’m going to refer to a part of her argument which is relevant for the issues Bolano is dealing with in 2666.   

She writes:  Literature, one should have the courage to reflect, is an idol.  (You may agree or disagree, but to better understand Ozick’s argument, you need to read the whole essay).  In Ozick’s terms, this is not a trivial accusation.  She characterizes idols with these traits:

  • An idol is a system sufficient in itself.  It is indifferent to the world and to humanity…dead matter rules the quick.
  • Every idol is by nature an ideal.
  • Idols are inert; they cannot imagine, create or alter history.
  • The power of the idol, or rather, the powerful imaginations of its devotees, can root out human pity…every idol suppresses human pity.  The deeper the devotion to the idol, the more pitiless in tossing it its meal will be the devotee.

Often enough, Ozick writes, the answer an idol gives is a workable answer…but they are exceptionally poor at urging the moral life, because to understand the moral life, one must know how to pay attention to, and judge history- and at this idols are no good at all.

Which brings me to Bolano’s critics.   They seem like nice people.  There’s the Frenchman, Jean-Claude Pelletier.  There’s the Spaniard, Manuel Espinoza.  And an Italian, Piero Morini.  And the Englishwoman, Liz Norton.  They meet at a literary convention in Amsterdam, and discover that they all share a love for the work of the elusive German writer, Benno von Archimboldi, and have devoted their professional lives to researching his works.  Being serious people, three of them are willing to go all the way to Santa Teresa to track him down.   (Morini, the Italian, would join them but cannot because he is confined to a wheel chair).   Yes.  The same Santa Teresa where the women are being murdered.  But they aren’t too troubled by that.  For one thing, the murders have become so commonplace that it takes a while for them to even learn about them.  And for another, they are outsiders, each pursuing what catches his/her fancy.  What catches Espinosa’s fancy is a local girl who sells hand-made rugs in the market.  Pelletier spends his days by the hotel pool re-reading his Archimboldi books.  Norton soon leaves Mexico in a sort of disgust. 

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Hans Reiter is Benno von Archimbaldi.   The same boy who grew up to become a German soldier is the writer whose work the four critics, well, idolize.   They are willing to travel across the world to find him− Because he’s dying, the critics explain when asked why they are searching for a writer who wants to remain unidentified, and it isn’t right that the greatest German writer of the twentieth century should die without being offered the chance to speak to the readers who know his novels best.   Though they are self professed humanitarians, they remain unmoved and unaffected by the fact that something horrendous is happening in that very place, (though the reader has to read on for several hundred pages to know just how horrendous).

The fact is, Bolano seems to be saying, is that we, all of us, are able to live very well alongside atrocity.  And art, the great dream of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Romantics and the Modernists, is a mask and an indulgence, as cold and pitiless as an idol; it may feed our aesthetic needs, but usually fails to evoke real outrage and meaningful action.  This, apparently, is Bolano’s vision of the human condition.   

It’s a dark vision, and it’s tempting to dismiss it as unreasonably pessimistic.   You could probably find a more balanced view of human nature.   You could, for example, turn to one of the great works of humanist literature.   Or you could call up the ghosts of the murdered women of Ciudad Juarez and ask their opinion.

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_homicides_in_Ciudad_Ju%C3%A1rez





The Metafictive Brilliance of Englander’s The Twenty-Seventh Man

23 09 2010

When presented to him the next morning, he signed the warrant anyway, though there were now twenty- seven, and yesterday there had been twenty-six.  No matter, except maybe to the twenty -seventh.

Short stories have to work hard.  Unlike novels, their big unruly cousins, the words, sentences, and paragraphs of a short story have to provoke, flirt and entice even as they speak.  Englander’s Twenty-Seventh Man is, in my opinion, a masterpiece; a short story that brings the genre to its idealized potential, a polished jewel that takes us to a forgotten corner of the universe.

The plot is deceptively simple: Stalin has ordered for the arrest and execution of twenty-six Yiddish poets and writers.  Somehow a twenty seventh name appears on this list, and he is detained and thrown in jail along with the others.  This twenty seventh man, a youth by the name of  Pinchas Pelovitz who has retreated from the world and spends his days scribbling stories at his desk, has never published a word.   Though he has no idea why he’s been arrested, he is amazed, and even a little flattered to find that the he has been imprisoned together with the writers.  In the brief time between interrogations and other abuse, Pinchas composes a story, and then recites it to the writers.  The story wins their esteem and approval, just before all of them are taken out and shot.

Though I’ve summarized the story, don’t think for a minute that this is any substitute for actually reading Englander’s original.  Because what Englander has achieved here is a combination of superior structural and technical design and a sublime reading experience.  I’ll try to explain why, starting with the basics and moving out from there:

Choice of historical period: When Stalin initiated the campaign in 1952, Yiddish was already a dying language.  By the time Englander stepped up to write the story, it was a dead one.  Though he was just a nineteen year old American, something about the event sparked Englander’s imagination, and led him to envision this unique, singular meeting of minds.  In doing this, he takes us to the site of a generally forgotten cultural atrocity, as devastating as burning the actual books, and with that, bestows on the murdered Yiddish writers a new kind of immortality.

Historical Sweep:  There’s us, reading this story at the end of the 20th century (or now, at the beginning of the 21st).  There’s the Yiddish writers – the culture they came from is gone, and the cultures that persecuted them are also non- existent.   And then, through the story that Pinchas composes, we get a link back to a time when Jews lived in shtetls and the study of Talmud was the most exalted activity imaginable.  In this way, we look back even further, to the Talmud itself.   So this story isn’t only about one particularly unfortunate group of men.

Characterization: In a few short lines, Englander manages to depict his characters both as men and as writers.  I’d much prefer books to shoes, Pinchas tells his captors.  In the summer I sometimes take walks without shoes but never without a novel.  I f you would have seat while I organize my notes.”  Or There was Moshe Bretzky, a true lover of vodka and its country of origin.  One would not have pegged him as one of history’s most sensitive Yiddish poets.  He was huge, slovenly, and smelly as a horse.   The subsequent behavior of the poets when they are rounded up and put together in one room is briefly but telling described.  There was the present situation to discuss, as well as old rivalries, new poems, disputed reviews, journals that just aren’t the same, up-and-coming editors, and of course, the gossip, for hadn’t they heard that Lev had used his latest manuscript for kindling?

Imagery: We’re in Russia in 1952.  Who knows what it was really like there?  The answer is that it doesn’t matter.  Like Babel, who also knew how to describe an complex reality with a single image, Englander gives us a few striking, singular descriptions, which plant the scene firmly and believably in mind.  Here he describes how Bretzky, the drunken poet, is moved from a whorehouse to the agents’ car: Twelve of the houses strongest companions, in an array of pink and red robes, froufrou slippers and painted toenails carried the giant bear to the waiting car amid a roar of giggles.  Or later, in the prison:  The bulb glowed.   And with light came relief.  What if they had been left in the darkness?  They hated the bulb for its control, such a flimsy thing.

Tone: This is a tragic story, but the tone isn’t tragic.  It’s matter-of-fact, detached and ironic, in a way that allows us to perceive the depth of the tragedy on our own.   This is, after all, a story about the end of Yiddish writing, against a backdrop of the end of Yiddish culture, against a backdrop of the end of European Jewry.  The story is permeated with death, but the tone is nonetheless light.

Metaficiton: Who is Pinchas Pelovitz?  To the Russian agents who come to arrest him and take him to his death, Pelovitz is a name on a list.  To the other twenty-six Yiddish poets who will share his fate, he is an unknown boy from nowhere.  But Pinchas Pelovitz, the dreamy introvert who spends his days in his room building a fictitious world, is the quintessential writer.  The fact that he has never published a word doesn’t matter.  When he’s thrown into a cell with Zusner, his idol, he behaves like an ecstatic fan.  And when he calms down, he begins to compose a story in his head.  Step by step, we see him develop and polish every sentence.  Neither the certainty of death, nor the fact that he is taken to be tortured can stop the flow of his imagination,  In the final moments before they are all to be executed, he recites the story to the writers.   Zusner pronounces it a good story.  Pinchas has won the praise of his idol.   When he is shot, it is with a smile on his face.  He has, in the space of a few hellish hours, realized the fondest hopes of every writer, and experienced, in distilled form, the trajectory of imagination, creation, publication and recognition. 

Meta-meta fiction: This in itself is a metaficitve story of transcendence.   But Englander didn’t leave it at that.  The story that Pinchas composes, thereby establishing his identity as a writer, is a tale of the supernatural.   It tells of a young man waking one day to find all the inhabitants of his village gone except for the Rabbi, whom he finds sitting alone in his study amongst his books.  The two established that they are the only two men left alive.  I wanted to know, Pinchas tells the Rabbi, which one of us is to say the prayer, (for the dead).

The writers, hovering between torture and death, nonetheless recognize that the story is about them.  It’s like a shooting star, one of the writers tells him, a tale to be extinguished along with the teller, and for one brief moment, the horror is vanquished. 

Even as we read it, we know that no reader will ever read Pinchas’s story. It will indeed be extinguished.  And perhaps we understand, as Englander does, that in losing what the Yiddish writers had to offer us, we’ve lost untold treasure.   The poets Stalin hunted down and murdered were the among the last Yiddish writers.  Who will say the prayer for them?  Who will say the prayer for Yiddish itself?

In spite of the tragedy, I think that Englander ultimately meant this to be a story of transcendence;  Pinchas Pelovitz is a fictional character, but the smile on his face at the moment of his demise is real.





Born Too Early for the Revolution

23 09 2010

I think I was born too early for this.   It feels weird to be communicating with untold millions.  Or with no one.   I keep trying to get my head around this blogging thing, to find something to compare it to.  It’s a little like standing on a mountain and hollering with a megaphone that reaches every corner of the earth.   But it’s also like self-publishing a book; after all, I don’t have to pretty it up for an agent, or even put a proper sentence together.  In fact, the really odd and liberating thing about this is that I don’t need to get any kind of approval, or to labor under any regulations in order to share my self-indulgent ramblings with the entire world.   This blogging thing is truly a radical concept – it has the power to overcome almost every physical, moral, legal and logistical limitation.  I don’t feel like much of a rebel, yet it appears that all of us have been taking part in a revolution without leaving our homes, or more to the point, our desks. 

Funny how things have turned out.  Those of us who grew up in the 1970’s liked to imagine the future, but it usually had something to do with cars that drove to the moon and colonies on Mars.  Even the skeptical would have agreed that the future was going to be about working toward world peace and putting an end to hunger.   It wasn’t supposed to require sitting and typing; we were supposed to  become cooler, not turn into geeks.    

And it wasn’t supposed to be about the written word.   Sometime back in the 19th century, there were many who believed that the pen was mightier than the sword.  It was only in the 20th that we finally perceived what our most primitive idol-worshiping ancestors knew all along:  that the pen was a laughable wimp, a whimpering rival to its dazzling and sexier sister, the image.   But, now, at the dawn of the 21st century we’re beginning to understand that the little flashing metal box that sits on our desks, or our laps, or perches in our palm like a fluttering bird is much, much mightier than a pen.   And its cold heart holds nothing more exotic than… a keyboard.   Apparently, the written word has made a colossal comeback. 

Where is the fluttering bird leading us?  No one knows.  But in the meantime, it looks like we’re here together – you and I.   I’m going to overcome the weirdness of this and…well, sit at my desk and type.  It’s mostly going to be short essays about things that occur to me as I drive to work in the morning (it takes about 40 minutes).   Nothing earth shaking.  Just thoughts about what I’m reading, or writing, or whatever.  And even though I have no idea who I’m sharing with, I promise to try and keep it coherent.  

And what about you?   You don’t even know me.  Didn’t anyone ever tell you to be careful around strangers?   I might poison you with subversive, perverted ideas.   Or more likely, I might bore you.   Isn’t your time valuable to you?  Don’t you have anything better to do?   I mean, just what is that nature of our relationship?

I think that is actually the heart of the matter.  

Here I am, metaphorically light years away from the Star Wars seventies, given the opportunity to speak to the world.  I don’t have to worry about pandering to advertisers or trying to be liked.  Like a lunatic at Speaker’s Corner, I can just do my thing.   But this is even better than Speakers Corner, because I don’t have to compete with other, weirder speakers for your attention.  I  may try to get you to stay, but I know that you can move on whenever you want.   

That’s ok.   The revolution allows you to leave without feeling embarrassed.   I won’t even know you’re gone.