Thursday, October 29, 2015

My Seventh Room

Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai

                                      "You can come so far, darling, but no further. Here is my seventh 
                                        room. Here, I want to be alone."

If—as James Wood insists—the gift of literature is to teach us to notice, then read this book and see. Set in Budapest between the wars, Portraits of a Marriage is an astonishingly well-wrought tale about the sometimes byzantine complexity of a marriage and its painful—in this case revelatory—dissolution. Told in three parts, first from the husband’s perspective, then from his wife’s, and finally from his mistress’s, the novel probes the depths of this outwardly unremarkable love triangle with a tenacity and precision that makes one feel positively obtuse, as if one has never considered one’s closest relationships at all. 

Of course that is the purview and triumph of great fiction, its ability to condense and refine experience so as to show us more in a minute than we could grasp (let alone assimilate) in a year. Real as it is (for the authenticity of this vision will shake you), the three portraits that comprise this extraordinary novel are too probing, too accurate, too finely distilled to be real. In their meticulous depictions of the warp and weft of human passions, they feel too real to be real, so real, so familiar, in fact, as to seem strange, exotic, as if they were not the studies of people, after all, but of so many crayfish or squid. 

1930s Budapest was part of the decaying cultural heart of the once-great Hapsburg Empire. As Hungary asserted its independence, political turmoil ensued, followed closely by a precipitous drop in the country’s standard of living, so that the general climate of the decade became increasingly defensive, reactionary, and jingoistic. The smugly stable bourgeois life for which the city was known began to unravel at the seams.

There is a certain human process that is more to be feared, that is worse than anything… It’s the process whereby we become cut off from each other, when we become little more than machines. We live according to stern domestic codes, work to an even stricter code of duty, surrounded by a social order governed by a thoroughgoing strictness that produces orderly forms of amusements, preferences, and affections, so our entire lives become predictable, knowing what time to dress, to take breakfast, to go to work, to make love, to be entertained, to engage in social refinements. There is order everywhere, a mad order. And in the grip of that order life freezes about us, as around an expedition that is prepared for a long journey to lush shores, but finds both sea and land icebound, so that eventually there is no plan, no desire, just cold and immobility. And cold and immobility are the definitions of death.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the inter-war years, Portraits of a Marriage, is a beautiful, deeply gratifying examination of the parallel collapse of a quintessentially bourgeois marriage, of that spell and convention we call love.

Sándor Márai was born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1900. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930’s. Profoundly anti-Fascist, he survived World War II, but persecution from the Communists drove him from the country in 1948, first to Italy and then to the United States. The author of some 46 books, he was also the first person to review Kafka's work. Márai committed suicide in San Diego in 1989.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Practice of Hell

The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon 

Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman

The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, Antony Beevor

We ourselves, even if we must rise up from the grave,
will deal with those who break the oath I take -
baffle them with disasters, curse their marches,
send them hawks on the left at every crossing -
make their pains recoil upon their heads. 

(The Eumenides, 779-784, Trans. Robert Fagles)

In his brilliant novel Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman--a Jewish journalist who reported from inside Red Army units throughout the war*--explores the events that surrounded the fateful Battle of Stalingrad with an eye for historical detail that reminds one of Tolstoy while at the same time probing the psychology of cruelty. Every one of the hundred or so characters in his sprawling novel of history's greatest battle is a victim of fate; no one escapes the war, the Holocaust, the enforced starvation imposed by Stalin on the Ukraine, the torture chambers of Beria and the NKVD, or the execution squads of the Sonderkommandos. In the Great Leader's mad dystopia every janitor spies on her building's residents, loyal workers turn in their bosses for off-handed criticisms of the regime, and parents casually consider ratting out their own children when they stray from the Party line. For Grossman, the structure of bureaucracies, the requirement of unquestioning obedience, is what makes mass murder possible. The Party, as a fascist organization, has systematically stripped away the concept of a shared humanity, confiscated the "traitors'" government-issued identification cards, turned ordinary men and women into non-persons, and then--what else?-- killed them. As we know from Antony Beevor's study of the Battle of Stalingrad, even in the midst of the June invasion Stalin was busy ordering the deaths of as many members of the Red Army as  the invading Germans were massacring in the one-sided battles of that first summer. Retreat in the Red Army was punishable by death; capture was treasonous; questioning an order, no matter how insane, was the end of an officer's career and likely his life. Stalin ordered the murder over 36,000 officers in the purges of 1937-1938; what occurred in 1941was simply a continuation of the regime's modus operandi.  Beevor informs us that two million Soviet soldiers and an uncounted number of civilians died during the first three weeks of Barbarossa. (p. 28) Here is a number I cannot comprehend, so I scroll through as many photographs of soldiers and civilians as I can find on the internet (there are many). I force myself to look at pictures that will later keep me awake. But still--two million.

                                      "Churchill presenting Stalin with the 'Sword of Stalingrad', 1943"

Look around your peaceful house and yard (or the view from your apartment window). Then try to imagine this world, evoked so devastatingly by Jonathan Littell:

"If the awful massacres of the East prove one thing, paradoxically, it is the awful, inalterable solidarity of humanity. As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife, his sister or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own children in front of him in the pit. Their reaction, their violence, their alcoholism, the nervous depressions, the suicides, my own own sadness, all that demonstrated that the other exists, exists as an other, as a human, and that no will, no ideology, no amount of stupidity or alcohol can break this bond, tenuous but not indestructible." (The Kindly Ones).

When Littell's novel was published to acclaim in France I was eager to read it. When it was translated by Charlotte Mandell in 2009 (the French edition came out in 2006) the American reviews were mostly negative. Famously panned by both David Gates (whom I respect) and Michiko Kakutani (whose literary taste I don't share) in the Times--"obscene," "disgusting," "hopeless," executed by a sadist," and so forth. I wondered if any of the book's severest critics had ever read a Greek tragedy where sadism, incest, and murder are always on the menu. Or if Ms. Kakutani, upset by the graphic depiction of Holocaust atrocities, had ever read Raul Hilberg or Saul Friedlander's meticulously researched histories of the war in the East. Or seen a Quentin Tarantino film.  The Kindly Ones is deeply upsetting, but Littell's literary intelligence should be apparent to any serious reader. Not only has he told in tedious and banal detail (one thinks of Hannah Arendt's ill-considered subtitle, her story of Eichmann, indeed a banal figure, a character who has a cameo in The Kindly Ones) the horrifying story of the massacres of Jewish, partisan, gypsy, and slavic populations across the Eastern front, and then, when you think you can't take any more, goes on to describe the living hell of Auschwitz, the bureaucratic world of the camps so chillingly rendered by Eugen Kogen in his autobiographical Theory and Practice of Hell.  In other words, Littell provides a graphic account of the Rassenkampf on the Eastern front. But that isn't the whole of it. The Kindly Ones is also a deeply moral story--and I'm surprised that most critics didn't see this--for Maximilien Aue, the monster at the heart of Littell's novel, is the mouthpiece for a story that probes the Hobbesian assumption of a "war of all against all." Few of the monsters of Aue's tale are sadists; most are the "ordinary men" of Christopher Browning's books. Though Aue narrates his tale of horror and genocide after the fact, and while he is by no means a credible witness to his own actions, the novel relates the evolution of human degradation in a way that is not so much credible (for we know it's that) but fated. Aue takes mincing steps toward embracing his corrupt soul, or perhaps, better, his authentic self. He is appalled, sickened, by the first murders he witnesses--he vomits continually, drinks to dull the pain, and engages in a ceaseless rationalizing dialogue that invokes duty, honor, philosophy, and history. But never politics. Aue hasn't a political bone in his body; he never speaks of Hitler except in reporting another officer's opinion of the Fuhrer. Gradually, over hundreds of pages and thousand of murders, Aue is able to rationalize his clerk's role in the unfolding genocide. But even this much wouldn't make The Kindly Ones a great novel--there's sadism enough in contemporary literature. At the heart of The Kindly Ones is something worse than depictions of mass murder, serial sodomy, incest, and matricide--this is a novel that succeeds in negating all of the assumptions of Western rationality and Christian morality. Littell sets out to show us that what took thousands of years to build was destroyed in the ravine of Babi Yar on three September days. Aue might have been a character in Mann's Magic Mountain: an educated German bourgeois who one day finds himself stepping over dead people, delivering the coup de grace.

What is the duty of a writer when faced with monumental historical events? Should fiction release us from the discomfort of history's terrible truths or immerse us in them, forcing us to come to terms with the past, to make sense of it as best we can, and if we can't, well, as Michael Korda put it in his review of Littell, "tough shit:" Should we have to squirm and flinch and feel nauseous ourselves? Has Littell gone "too far"?

"[Littell] isn’t trying to make you feel good about yourself, or feel morally superior to the Germans, or come away from the book with the feeling that anything has been gained or proved by the murder in cold blood of six million people. Most of the people who did it got away with it, like the hero of this novel, and didn’t lose a night’s sleep over it, and the people who were murdered are—dead. Deader than dead, actually, because all over the world there are people who refuse to believe that they were ever killed in the first place, not just among jihadists, or in the Arab mainstream press, or in the tattooed ranks of the Aryan Nation, or Catholic bishops, but also among otherwise respectable people and educators who still don’t get it that perfectly ordinary Germans committed mass murder, then, when the war was over, went home and got on with their lives, and even collected their pensions." (Korda, The Daily Beast)

Neither Littell nor Grossman lets the reader off the hook. After two novels totaling 1700 pages the lesson is that...there is no lesson. "We should learn about the mass murders of the Second World War--in Kiev, in Nanjing, or, for that matter, in Dresden and Hiroshima so that events like these don't happen again." Really? I'm afraid I've lost my faith in history's catechism.

Here's Aue:

"Why couldn't an SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer have an inner life, desires, passions, just like any other man? There have been hundreds of thousands of us whom you still judge as criminals: among them, as among all human beings, there were ordinary men, of course, but also extraordinary men....I started out within the bounds of my service and then, under the pressure of events, I overstepped these bounds....Those who kill are humans, just as those who are killed, that's what terrible...I tell you, I am just like you!" 

I applaud Littell for not resorting to Nietzschean nonsense--the Superman above others who must fulfill his romantic destiny by killing a bunch of women and children--and for taking the time to make Aue's monstrosity if not credible at least not trivial. Aue devolves from a man into a demon, but must we accept the moral of the story to be something stupid like "There but for fortune go you and I?" We know that many men refused to participate in the aktions. War is hell, but some wars are more hell than others. Beevor argues that a significant proportion of the Wehrmacht's officers posted to Stalingrad were not in sympathy with National Socialist ideology, and yet they knew about, and did not protest, the "reprisals" undertaken against Ukrainian and Soviet civilians, partisans, Slavs, and Jews. Grossman is especially good on this point. Life and Fate is full of men and women who capitulate out of a terrible fear of not doing so. Party members sell their souls to Stalin; Soviet commanders sent thousands of men to their deaths rather than question an order; Germans and Red Army soldiers alike ignored the suffering of civilians. Not life and fate, but life against fate. Here's a lesson: it isn't a fair fight.

Many years ago, when I first began to read serious books, I was hoping to discover a unique form of enjoyment, one that bound my reason to my feelings. As I got older I read serious books in order to "understand" something that I could never pin down. Now, in my late age, I read to be confounded, nothing less. Here are four books to do just that.

*A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, ed. Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, New York, Pantheon Books, 2005.

George Ovitt (10/20/15)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

That Within Us


Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems by Aleš Debeljak

                                              With all, that within them finds Room,
                                              even without
                                                                               Paul Celan

“According to German translator and poet Paul Celan, one of Debeljak’s major influences,” writes translator Andrew Zawacki in his introduction to this intriguing collection, “a poem is always en route, moving ceaselessly toward a possible reception by someone else.” I thought about this idea as I read each of Debeljak’s poems, impressed both by the poems themselves and by the simple fact that I was reading them at all, given that they were originally written in Slovenian by a man whose life experience, whose frame of reference, could hardly be more different than my own. Of course what his poems insist, what all poems (even the cryptic scribblings of his hero Celan) insist, is that we—all of us—have more in common than we know. This is no mere platitude, for we, as humans beings, are also profoundly, even irreconcilably different, depending on our culture, nationality, politics, race, faith, class, creed, education, and particular fate. In my travels around the world, and in my wide-ranging hunger for books, nothing has been made clearer to me than the fact that people, people with the same number of limbs, with the same number of fingers and toes that I have, men and women who fall in love, work hard, raise children, watch television, pray to their god(s), and die, are often radically different in their essential conception of the world—of truth, of beauty, of the nature of reality itself. What the best writers in every language tap are the links within those very real, not-be-neutered  distinctions that make us who we are. See how the content of this poem is both familiar and decidedly, enticingly strange:


You see everything: the breath flies, a teapot
whistling, a cartridge recklessly shot off at daybreak, a pattern
on the wallpaper, the gloom of a concert hall, dusty violins left
in haste on the floor, an inscription in the language of the two

prophets who came to the Slavs, things drowning in infinite
light, a scream tearing suddenly across the sky, gleaming metal,
a column of children and women carrying newborn babies, the scent
of basil in a garden, a trickle of plum juice oozing into the rutted

tracks left by retreating armies. Everything. You see graveyards.
And metastases of white-hot pyres. Here the world we know lets out
Its final gasp. The ancient order of violence is returning to the hearths.
The magic of words is dying out. And a girls’ choir stands in silence.
A trail points east, across a snowy pass. Nothing erases it.
Now you know the bell tolls for you and us.
One feels the weight of history here, a history at once general and localized, discrete. An no wonder: in Debeljak’s homeland the wounds of history are deep:

Debeljak’s earlier poems, composed when his homeland of Slovenia had just emerged form Josep Broz Tito’s reign as Marshal of Yugoslavia, are marked by solitude and acute metaphysical anxiety—not fear per se, but worry that knows no object. This anguish, a fracturing of identity as global as it was personal, seemed to eerily presage the Third Balkan war… The traumas of that conflict’s  ethnic cleansing and sniper-fire, international pussyfooting and eventual disintegration, erupted on the edges of Slovenia in 1991. After centuries of dominance by foreign powers (Hapsburg, Austro-Hungarian, Napoleonic, Axis) and subsequent autonomy within the Socialist Federal republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia finally gained independence after a Ten Day War…

 Here, too, the weight and illumination of the past:


Banks, flags, ships, holidays, cock fights, epaulets,
copper engravings of English horses, dead guards
and elite divisions. All this slides by. Disappears
like talk during an afternoon slumber.—

Face it. Arrival and desolate scenes are the same thing.
Instead of a planted tree an d pages of a will only a name
remains, which someone enters in a dictionary. Nothing
more. Oh, perhaps someone for a moment remembers

the metamorphosis from pale to purple: like old times with
lords. Otherwise it is really nothing.—Rip the crumpled
carnation off the chest, lean over the geometric granite
cubes, exhale. Now. Like those in the Stammheim Prison.

Finally, a mediation:

        The Émigré Writer on the Dragon Bridge

An open suitcase, they used to say,
hides destinies unknown out here:
from hotel to the central station and farther,
through the many years of wind, the passengers
touch Orion above, looking for comfort
in rituals down here, in a sleep countryside,
a consolation  they no longer get
from photographs and books about
the lives their ancestors led. The everyday
favor could now be a prayer, a cup of herbal tea,
patience with endless explanations,
and a silent handshake when language will not obey,
like scattered coins, or a ceiling so low
it suffocates, big things putting fear
in little souls. From the the south,
an alluring heat brings whiffs of memory,
for everyone, of course, is guiltiest
when love’s at stake.
The one thing they still hunger for
rises without a sound from the waiting-rooms
and chairs too stiff for mercy,
and hangs, deceptively, like haze above
a fence which groans and splits beneath him
and allows him, for a second only, to rise—
why would he be an exception?—
before he vanishes in the river’s waves
which swell against the banks and over,
taking with them the suitcases, carrying off
the books, toward a delta,  a false reprieve,
a song that’s poorly sung.

                                           Ljubljana, summer 1994

Aleš Debeljak is a poet, literary essayist, cultural critic, and translator. Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems is published by Persea Books.

Peter Adam Nash