Friday, August 29, 2014

Silent Lies The Lake

Efraim's Book by Alfred Andersch

The Homecoming

All the great voyagers return
Homeward as on an arc of thought;   
Home like a ruby beacon burns
As they crest wind, scale wave, soar air;   
All the great voyagers return,

Though we who wait never have done   
Fearing the piteous accidents,
The coral reef sharp as the bones   
It has betrayed, fate’s cormorant   
Unleashed, whose diving’s never done.

Even the voyager of mind
May fail beneath behemoth’s weight;   
Oh, the world’s bawdy carcass blinds   
All but the boldest, rots the sails
And swamps the voyaging of the mind.

But all the great voyagers return
Home like the hunter, like the hare
To its burrow; below, earth’s axle turns
To speed their coming, the following fair
Winds bless their voyage, blow their safe return.

                              Barbara Howes

“Silent lies the lake,” remarks the narrator at one point in this troubling, digressive, often oddly humorous 1967 novel by German author, Alfred Andersch. “What have I come here for?  I have no news story, no feature for the news telephones. Then what am I doing here?” Set largely in post-war Berlin, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Efraim’s Book tells the story of English newspaper reporter, Georg Efraim, a disaffected German Jew who, having been sent into exile during the war, has finally returned to the scarred, still-haunted city of his birth. Ostensibly sent to Berlin to find out if morale there was high or low, he also returns there to search for clues as to the whereabouts of a Jewish girl gone missing during the war, his former Berlin neighbor and current London editor’s estranged and illegitimate daughter, Esther Bloch.
The city Georg finds is drably, un-poignantly familiar to him: the river, the rain, an old synagogue in ruins. Even his return to No. 12 Bismarckstrasse, the house in which he was born and had lived as a boy, is profoundly anti-climactic. Hoping, without malice (‘I didn't come here to look for murders. I don’t hate anybody.’), to meet the people who took possession of the house after the arrest and deportation of his parents, he is disappointed when the woman of the house, the wife of a geologist and professor named Heiss, declares frankly, as if she’d been expecting him all along, “You’d like to visit the house. Do come in.” Of course the Heiss family is not the family that displaced his own, having taken possession of the house only years later—after a string of tenants and refugees—in 1948. Embarrassed, indifferent somehow, Georg feels compelled to reassure her:

“Don't take it to heart,” I say in an attempt to smooth things over. I almost manage to laugh. “It’s always been that way, in every period of history, people losing their homes, their property being divided up as spoils, other people moving in as victors, and so on.”

While surely Frau Heiss is surprised by his reaction of his, the reader herself is not, as even by this early stage in the novel she knows this hero well, at least well enough to appreciate, if not expect, such anguished and cynical twists. Still, and for all the narrator’s candor in these pages, this ‘man without qualities’ remains elusive—difficult, if not finally impossible to know. While a naturalized British subject, Georg Efraim feels neither English nor German nor Jewish even, except to the extent that he is bound to the race by recent history, by the murder of his parents at Auschwitz as Jews. His is a world governed by chaos, a world ruled not by God or fate or logic but by randomness alone. There is not a trace of history or faith in him, nothing but the cold, blunt recognition of chance:  

It’s pure chance twenty years ago Jewish families were exterminated, and not  other families twenty years before that, or later, or now, for example… In half an hour Frau Heiss and her daughters will be sitting down to lunch. They could just as well be dragged out of their house and murdered…

Or so it seems. Not long after this scene, and despite his friends’ insistence upon the very particularity of Hitler’s dream, its stringent, naked rationality, Georg reflects, “It makes no difference where one lives, what one does, who one is.” Of course—and this proves one of the virtues of this novel—it is a cynicism without passion, too wooden, too hollow to believe. Sure enough the motives for his return to Berlin are more complex, more muddied than even he himself seems willing to believe. A newspaperman on assignment, yes, a friend determined to discover the fate of his editor’s daughter, surely, yet his return to Berlin is motivated first and foremost, so the reader learns in time, by his vexing desire to write a book, which he does—a novel about his life, no less! Were that not enough he is writing it (the very story the reader is reading, what the narrator belittles as ‘a certain arrangement of signs’) in German, a language he hasn’t spoken, let alone written, in years. And so the plot thickens. 

Yet there is still another layer to the complexity of this novel, one far from intentional. In the end, what is perhaps most intriguing about this engaging, if imperfect tale, is author Alfred Andersch’s often bumbling and transparent struggle to come to terms—long after the fact—with his own complicity as a German during Hitler’s reign. While briefly interned in Dachau for his Communist sympathies, he—like his fellow Group 47 members, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass—spent the war years living comfortably in Germany, if perhaps grudgingly, working and writing unmolested in what, following the war, Andersch defined dubiously as a state of ‘internal emigration’: “I could have emigrated,” he said, “but I did not. To go into internal emigration under a dictatorship is the worst alternative of all.” It was an assertion, a claim, that did not sit well with many of his compatriots, most notably the writer W.G. Sebald who takes him to task in his illuminating essay “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” At the heart of Sebald’s criticism is what he views as Andersch’s all-but-blind ambition as a writer during the war, a literary avariciousness, a moral and artistic failure, that is only highlighted, compounded, by his efforts in Efraim’s Book. If indeed Andersch was opposed to the Nazis, particularly to their treatment of the Jews, what, wonders Sebald, could have induced him to stay?

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Talking to Ourselves, But Who Is Listening?

Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves

"It's true, pleasure brings hope."



The photogenic, talented, and prolific Andrés Neuman--born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and currently living in Granada--has created a wrenching series of disjunctive voices in Talking to Ourselves. Mario is married to Elena and dying of cancer; Lito is their ten-year-old son. The novel reprises monologues by each character, though the strongest and clearest voice belongs to Elena, a complex, literate woman who both grieves for and betrays her dying husband. I was reminded of operatic recitative as I tried to fit together the contrasting voices: it is as if the trio were standing on stage at the same time, but, in the conventional manner of operatic performance, none of the three is at all aware of the presence, never mind the feelings and actions, of the other two. Mario appears to have no awareness of his wife's unhappiness; Elena'a sorrow for Mario's dying is genuine, but it also disguises the disappointments in her own life; and poor Lito, shunted about like a loyal poodle, is deceived by both his mother and father. Near the end of the novel, Lito is effectively written out of the story, which seemed to me an unsatisfying way to deal with a character who had no real role in the story's unwinding.  Neuman is a fine stylist--but I was puzzled by the story's premise, by the notion that three people could have so little knowledge of one another's hearts, and, frankly, so little interest in knowing anything at all about those whom they purport to love.

Then again, why should I have been surprised by the isolation and loneliness of the characters? Isn't this the rule--in families, among friends, between strangers? We talk, but who listens? Perhaps in my summer stupor I've misjudged Neuman's book and misunderstood the novel's core contention: it isn't that we speak to ourselves, it's that we only speak to ourselves.

This next part is about sex.

Apart from the plot--its deficiencies or illogic--I was struck by the fact that Neuman writes about human sexuality better than any writer I've read in a long time, maybe ever. I won't name the couple so as not to spoil the story, and I won't quote the loveliest blue passages, but I will say that at the heart of the novel are long erotic meditations that are both raw and aesthetically stirring. I confess that when I read the "older American stylists" (Roth, Mailer, Updike, and their ilk) I am embarrassed by the ham-handed way in which they depict the sex act--I won't have been the first to notice how phallocentric, laughable, and unbelievable the lovemaking or just plain fucking are in any number of novels, and not only those by older men.  Let's face it, writing about sex without producing pornography is difficult--Henry Miller was, of course, a lecher, but at least Sexus was joyful; coitus in P. Roth often seems like hard work and seldom is erotic, at least to my way of thinking. 

On vacation this past month, and on a whim, I picked up a Gillian Flynn novel to get me through an airplane ride.  I thought, "How bad can it be?" Here's page 12; the speaker is Amy Elliott: "He is the kind of guy who carries himself like he gets laid a lot, a guy who likes women, a guy who would actually fuck me properly. I would like to be fucked properly!...The Fitzgerald fellows tend to be ineffectually porny in bed, a lot of noise and acrobatics to very little end. The finance guys turn rageful and flaccid. The smart-boys fuck like they're composing a piece of math-rock...I sound quite slutty, don't I?" How bad? Very.  Does this passage sound realistic? Probably. More to the point, does it sound literary? I've just met Amy and already I think: she's seen too many movies, is too fond of stereotypes, is too full of herself.

But Neuman: here's someone who knows his way around a human body: "Tradition has it that sex results in the little death. I now believe those who say [they] haven't experienced the pleasure of harm. Because with [x] I find the opposite is true: each fuck results in resurrection. We insult each other. We tear into each other. We cause each other pain in order to make sure we are still here. And each time we reaffirm the other's presence, the other's suffering, we are as moved as if it were a reunion. Then I have orgasms that stretch the limits of my existence. As though my existence were a vaginal muscle. I want to avenge myself on my own flesh." There's much in these pages that is raw, even shocking--but also real and beautiful. Neuman's novel, ultimately, is about the body--its decay, its death, its resurrection.

George Ovitt 8/21/14

Monday, August 4, 2014


The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H. by George Steiner

On April 30th, 1945 Adolph Hitler and his newly married bride, Eva Braun, had a quiet lunch, then met with Hitler’s inner circle in the anteroom chamber of his personal bunker in Berlin to say their farewells. Included among the staff members were Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels. Earlier, Hitler had given instructions to his personal adjunct, Otto Gunsche, that once he and his wife were dead their bodies were to be burned to ashes. Despite Hitler’s claim that the war would “one day go down in history as the most glorious and heroic manifestation of a people’s will to live,” he’d known by then that the German cause was lost and had ordered two hydrogen cyanide capsules to be prepared for him and his wife. As a typical precaution, he first had the dosage tested on his beloved dog Blondi and her puppies, all of which died. At round 14:30 that day, Hitler and Eva retreated to his sitting room and closed the door. Staff witnesses report hearing a single shot. When they entered the room they found Hitler slumped on the sofa where he sat, blood dripping from his right temple where he had shot himself with his own pistol, a Walther PPK 7.65. On the sofa beside him, his young wife Eva sat slumped away from him, dead from the capsule she had swallowed. In the air was the telltale scent of burnt almonds.

As per Hitler’s instructions, their bodies were carried outside, doused with gasoline and burned to ashes. What little remained of them was covered up in a shallow bomb crater just hours before the advancing Soviet Army seized control of Berlin. 

Stalin, wary about accepting the news that his nemesis was dead, indeed sensing a trick, was the first to suggest the possibility that Hitler was still alive and in hiding somewhere. In the years to follow, the Soviets helped to spawn a variety of international theories regarding Hitler’s fate, most of them ridiculous, some of them cynical Cold War ploys: that he was given refuge by Western allies bent on destroying the Soviet Union, that he and Eva had escaped to Argentina or Brazil, that the Nazis had a secret moon base, that Hitler was an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu and could never—no matter the weapon—be killed.

Now imagine yourself one of the many Jewish Nazi-hunters who went to work after the war. For there were dozens of them (most notably the relentless and successful Simon Wiesenthal), each of them hell-bent on tracking down such infamous Nazis as Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and Josef Mengele. Imagine yourself one of these men, these hunters, at your wit’s end deep in the Brazilian jungle where you have been wandering for months with little contact with the outside world. Imagine one morning—hungry, delirious, stung to madness by the midges and gnats—stumbling upon a clearing in the swamp through which you’ve been slogging for days, a ring of charred stumps, a sudden blue break of sky, and suddenly finding yourself face to face with him, an old man now, der Führer himself, in the flesh.

Such is the engaging premise of George Steiner’s 1979 novel, The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H.. Yet Steiner is no conspiracy theorist, to be sure, but uses the idea of Hitler still living as a means of getting at more pressing, more philosophical things. A Jew himself, he was more interested in the larger implications of what it would mean to find Hitler, capture him, and bring him to justice. While not the least bit didactic, the novel raises an array of compelling and provocative questions: What would you feel when you first saw him, this butcher, this monster, this all but mythical man? How would you react to the sight of him before you? Would you kick him, curse him, punch him in the face? What, if anything, would you say? And what about justice, revenge? What, once you’d found him, caught him, and seen him tried, would be the significance of your efforts—to Jews, to History, to humanity at large? Would it have any real impact at all? Finally, the novel presses one to wonder how, if ever, a person, a people can comes to terms with such profound and extraordinary grief. Would the killing of Hitler be enough?

As one might imagine, the novel gave rise to instant and bitter controversy, so that for a time its translation into Hebrew and German was strictly forbidden. Clearly Steiner’s aim was to be provocative, to complicate (for Jews especially) what already threatened to become a fixed, hidebound understanding of Hitler and the horror he’d wrought. “The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H is a parable about pain,” explains Steiner himself in his 1999 Afterword to the novel, “about the abyss of pain endured by the victims of Nazism.” If as a parable it pushed the limits of what was acceptable at the time, it did  so with a wisdom, courage, and conviction we could stand to see more of today.

George Steiner is a French-born American polyglot and polymath philosopher, literary critic, academic, and writer who has taught Comparative Literature and Poetry at Oxford, Harvard, and the University of Geneva. He now lives in Cambridge, England where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. His best known works include Heidegger, The Death of Tragedy, Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky, Language and Silence, and the extraordinary After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. 

Peter Adam Nash