Saturday, May 2, 2015

Blissless Ignorance

Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld

Books about endings, written in what Edward Said called "late style"--endings not of romances or of nations, but of epochs, of entire cultures: Joseph Roth, The Radetzkey March; Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh; Pat Barker, Regeneration (and the others of this trilogy); Lampedusa's The Leopard; John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga; Howard's End by E.M. Forester; Andrei Bely's Petersburg; and, the greatest of them all, Mann's Magic Mountain. Central to each of these novels (and there are many others) is a sense of cultural exhaustion, a mood of nostalgia and reminiscence, and a style that is deeply ironic. Each of these novels was written with retrospective knowledge of the disasters that they recount--the end of the Hapsburgs, the Great War, the Revolution of 1905, the long decline of the Ancient Regime. The novel in late style is a European and, with a writer like Oe and Kawabata, a Japanese phenomenon: I can't think of a single example of an American novel that fits the model unless one counts James as an American writer rather than as an English novelist who happened to have been born in Boston. (There's also Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools, but I hesitate to include this unwieldy and, ultimately, failed seaborne Magic Mountain with such august company.)  I have heard it said that Hawthorne is a novelist of cultural (Puritan) endings, but the genre that I am thinking of excludes allegory by definition--its focus is on human beings in their historical condition. Hemingway and Fitzgerald? No: fecklessness doesn't count--The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby have the moral depth of On the Road.

Anyway, among the very finest novels of endings, written in a perfect version of late style, is Aharon Appelfeld's remarkable Badenheim 1939.  On the cusp of the disaster that is about to overtake Europe's Jews, a group of dilettantes gathers in the German resort town of Badenheim for the annual arts festival organized by the impresario Dr. Pappenheim. There's not a word of politics spoken: all talk is of culture, pastries, romance, and, of course, past festivals (always the past). At the same time, and with the ominousness of a Biblical portent, a team of "Sanitary Inspectors" gathers in the town--nameless and indistinct representatives of the State--and, little by little, they enclose Badenheim in a cocoon of bureaucratic repression--they build a ghetto. With brilliant strokes whose power is cumulative rather than apparent, Appelfeld intimates the doom that is descending over the resort and its oblivious inhabitants. From a mere "sanitary inspection," to the closing of buildings, to the isolation of the town, Badenheim, like Warsaw or Lodz, is shut off from the outside world:

"Since one day ran into the next and the sentries [just now mentioned--they've materialized out of thin air] at the gate informed [the salesman] that there was no intention at present of opening it to free traffic, he came to the conclusion that there was no point in living like a thief in the back quarters of the hotel, and he took himself a proper room, as befitting the representative of a well-known firm. The other guests were as delighted with him as if he were a messenger bringing glad tidings from afar...[the waiter] never stopped talking about his two sons who had been imprisoned in a barracks by a General. 'They must be exercising now,' he would say. 'They must be running.'"

Pride in appearances; wishful thinking; a focus on empty gestures; deadened curiosity; days that lack the texture of change and that fold into one another so that time disappears (Mann evokes this sense of timelessness better than any other novelist); ominous persons, unnamed and unknown, come and go, causing ripples of unease; the volition of the characters is sapped by the weight of boredom. There is only indifference--no happiness, no bliss, only numb acceptance. Appelfeld's gradual evocation of a sense of dread is brilliant, unsparing. No one can choose or judge or even feel:

"...their amazement was cut short. An engine, an engine coupled to fifty freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. 'Get in!' yelled invisible voices. and the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog--they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel."

The train, naturally, is headed for Poland--for the Generalgouvernment, where most the killing would be done. The summer residents of Badenheim, the pleasure-seekers and connoisseurs, have been eagerly anticipating the journey to Warsaw--they've been told, not commanded, that Jews must register with the Sanitary Commission (they register eagerly, thanking the registrar for the good order of the process), and that they will be allowed to travel to Warsaw. The Polish musician Samitzky insists that "In Poland everything was beautiful, everything was interesting."

One of the most powerful stylistic and thematic devices found in novels like Badenheim 1939 is the evocation of yearning, the desire for something that cannot be named or described. This yearning is, of course, the psychological recognition that meaning has been emptied from the world--a fact that is the source of all literary irony. "The people were being driven out of their minds by their desires." But for what? There's art and love and Bienenstich and disjointed conversation, but something is missing. If it isn't to be found in Badenheim, then perhaps one will find it in Warsaw. Besides, "In Poland there are lots of Jews. The Jews help one another you know."

Which brings me to Hannah Arendt. You will perhaps recall her 1963 report on the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a book whose title and contents inflamed a remarkable debate, a debate intense enough to incite a library of rebuttals--see especially The Ambiguity of Virtue by Bernard Wasserstein. Is Appelfeld "blaming the victim," as Arendt was accused of doing?

Is the obtuse acceptance of the creeping repressions of the "Sanitary Commission" more than satire--is Appelfeld's melancholy novel lamenting, or mocking, the naive refusal of European Jews, especially German and Austrian Jews, to see what was coming? Certainly not. Who could know, even in 1939, the extent of the murderous intentions of the Nazis and their allies? Who could believe that the filthy train carrying Dr. Pappenheim to the East was carrying him not to another arts festival, but to his doom? When I read Amos Elon's The Pity of It All: The History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 I finally understood how deeply Jews were assimilated into German life, and therefore how natural it would have been for the denizens of Badenheim in 1939 to ignore the signs.

In light of recent events--you may fill in the blanks--I have had Yeats' great poem of cultural exhaustion very much in mind. You know the opening stanza well: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 
It is ever so. The best do still lack all conviction, and the worst, alas, periodically redouble their passionate, and malicious, intensity. The irony of irony is that there is nothing more important to our survival than imaging a world we cannot imagine. Appelfeld's genius was to see clearly what most of us never see at all. He warned us. We should pay attention.

George Ovitt (5/2/15)

1 comment:

  1. George, thank you as always for making me think deeply. Heading to the library...