Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day is not victims’ day

Over at Contentions, I reflect upon Memorial Day by contrasting Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” to Robert Lowell’s thirty-years-later “For the Union Dead.” Twenty years in the South elevated Tate above Lowell in my estimation.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The books we never abandon

Cross-posted from Contentions.

“[T]he end of the physical book may be coming hard upon us faster than anyone ever anticipated,” John Podhoretz warns, reporting the news that Amazon now sells more digitalized Kindle-friendly texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined.

I remain skeptical that the codex, the paper-and-binding book, will disappear completely. For two reasons. First, there is a distinction between books that are consumed and never returned to—consumer books—and books that are collected, treasured, preserved from destruction. If nothing else, there is the Bible. For someone like me, who taught for two decades in the South, it is hard to imagine Christians abandoning their favorite Bible—the one they read at night, the one they carry to church—for an electronic copy. For many Christians, the first Bible is a major event in their lives. (For Jewish children, the equivalent is receiving their first siddur or prayerbook.) The book is often presented to them in a public ceremony, engraved in gold with their name. (Can you even inscribe a Kindle copy?)

But not only Bibles. Every reader has books that are special to him. Randall Jarrell used to say that he owned several copies of Christina Stead’s Man Who Loved Children (1940), because he so loved the novel that he pressed it upon friends (and friends never return books). Books to be used up and discarded—bestselling fiction, self-improvement guides, popular biographies, books on current affairs—belong nowhere else but on the Kindle. There is, however, another class of books altogether.

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and far more often) worth reading at the age of fifty,” C. S. Lewis said. And that brings me to my second reason for doubting the final disappearance of the “physical book.” Namely, children don’t learn to read on the Kindle, but from the pages that they turn excitedly with their parents. “Talk to it, Daddy,” my son Saul used to say when I opened a book to start reading aloud. When he grew older, he began to acquire his own first books—fine printed editions of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The House at Pooh Corner—which he would proudly take to preschool with him, even though he could not even read them.

“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only,” Lewis also said. I am willing to grant that “literary” readers have always been and will remain a minority, but trained in childhood to love the physical qualities of print on paper, the minority will always insist on a few bound books.

Update: The three-way debate on the question “That ebooks spell the end for ‘physical books’ ” was carried on much of the day on Twitter with John Podhoretz and Terry Teachout for the affirmative and me for the negative. Teachout believes the ebook will have entirely replaced the codex in five years, by which time paper-and-binding volumes will be, in Podhoretz’s words, “luxury items.” God willing, we will all live, as Teachout says, to see who’s right.

The Contentions post above started the free-for-all. I’d like to add only one thing to it. As a literary scholar, I too subscribe to the electronic textualists’ motto “Search Is Everything,” and it is undeniable that etexts are easy to search, but I am not convinced that the gain in speed and convenience is not overbalanced by another kind of loss.

Here is a small example of what I mean. Searching for the quotation from Lewis with which I end the post above, I stumbled upon the earlier sentence about books read at ten and again at fifty. Far more elegantly than I, Lewis makes my point about the books a person returns to again and again; and those books, I remain convinced, will be in tangible form for a long time to come.

Using a search-and-find function on an extext, I would have found the one Lewis quotation and not the other. Because I had to thumb an old copy of Of Other Worlds on my bookshelves, I accidentally found a sentence that deepened my own thought. In a single anecdote, that for me is the advantage of the codex over the extext.

Update, II: John Steele Gordon, another COMMENTARY contributor, weighs in here. On my side, more or less.

Black discs and retrieval machines

Even my conservative friends are enamored of the argument that books are going the way of the vinyl LP. (True, the vinyl LP was introduced in 1926 and largely replaced by the compact disc in the mid to late ’eighties—a history of sixty years—while the codex appeared in the first century C.E., giving it a history of two thousand years. But, hey, technology marches on!)

Replying to my argument that the “physical book” (as he prefers to call it) will not be entirely replaced by digitalized texts for the Kindle and iPad, John Podhoretz alludes to the size of my own personal library, and reassures me: “Don’t worry; the fact that new books will no longer be printed except in the way that, say, new vinyl records are still released for high-end stereo fans will make your own collection far more valuable over time.”

Terry Teachout joins in. He says that John is right. “One generation from now,” he predicts, “the physical book will be for antique collectors only—like black discs.” In a later tweet, he adds: “[T]he same pattern of technological adoption has taken place repeatedly over the past quarter-century.” My problem, he says, is that I am “confusing the container with the thing contained.”

I don’t think so. Several years ago, in an essay on Holocaust writing in Comparative Literature, I began by contesting a bedrock presupposition of serious and thoughtful readers like Teachout:

The study of literature is widely presupposed to be the interpretation of texts. As an object a book can sit around for years, resting comfortably on a library shelf, but as a text it does not exist at all unless it is read, interpreted, understood. A book is printed and bound; a text is worded and meant. The problem, then, is to discover the meaning beneath the words.What Holocaust writing teaches us, I argued in dissent, is that a “literary text makes a claim on its readers that is logically prior to meaning.” And what is that claim? The claim of a person.

Much mischief is caused by disembodying a text from the person who created it. And something similar, I think, is happening among those who prematurely celebrate the “end of books.” The mistake in both cases is to disregard the materiality of reading.

Although I have advanced this argument before, I have been hesitant to make it the centerpiece of my case against electronic texts, because it relies upon empirical research—and not enough research has been conducted into the effect of different reading platforms upon understanding, retention, the ability to immerse oneself in a text. What research there is, however, suggests that print enjoys certain advantages over electronic media. Anne Mangen, a reading researcher at Norway’s University of Stavanger, has found that the “phenomenology of reading intangible text” suffers by comparison to reading from a printed-and-bound book. She writes:The tactility of a mouse click, of touch screen page turning or of a click with the e-book page turner bar, is very different from that of flicking through the print pages of a book. The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions—clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens or scrolling with keys or on touch pads—take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone.Because the printed text is tangible, “physically, tactiley graspable,” as Mangen puts it, the difference in reading is enormous. While we scan the text on a screen, we read a paper-and-binding book with our hands and fingers in addition to our eyes. Reading, Mangen observes, requires manual dexterity. It is not merely an activity of mind.[1]

Every parent knows this. Children fall in love with books as physical objects long before they experience them as meaningful texts. As I have noticed before, children’s books celebrate their materiality: there are board books, touch-and-feel books, lift-the-flap books, pop-up books, musical-sound books. These are not the precursors to hypertext; they are early training in the handling of books. Or, as Mangen says with rather more scholarly rigor, they are reminders that reading is a multi-sensory experience.

Older readers know this too. Reading a book requires intense concentration, but it also leaves a physical memory. We recall a passage as falling on a left- or right-hand page, at the top or bottom or in the middle. We thumb the remaining pages and place an incident or argument in a spatial context, not just in time. The multi-sensory aspect of reading a book is an aid to memory, just as language instructors (who teach their students to write and read and speak and listen and pick up objects while translating their name) have always suspected.

And not merely “older readers” in the sense of having grown up in pre-Kindle days. In a recent survey by the Book Industry Group, nearly seventy-five percent of college students—the same youngsters who started using cell phones and iPods from an early age—said they prefer to study textbooks in print rather than on a screen. They too must share the intuition that reading a “physical book” gives them a better chance to understand, retain, and immerse themselves in their reading.

Books are nothing like vinyl LP’s. In reality, the black discs differ only marginally from compact discs or even MP3 files. What Podhoretz and Teachout overlook in their joyful analogy is that the different media simply require different retrieval machines. The hardware has changed—from “high-end stereo equipment” to CD players to iPods and iTunes—but the fundamental mechanism of playback is unaltered.

Indeed, technological progress has made retrieval of the music on the earlier formats increasingly burdensome. I own about a hundred vinyl LP’s that have never been rereleased in another format, but I no longer own a turntable. Without the right machine, I have no way of getting to that music. (I wonder too if Teachout himself has not confused the music with the performance. I’d be eager to learn how scores are being treated in the electronic age.)

At all events, this is a problem that I have worried about when it comes to ebooks, and despite reassurances, I remain worried. Perhaps it is only my personal experience—I am an Orthodox Jew who cannot use electronic devices on Saturday, and I lived through Hurricane Ike and the sixteen-day power outage that followed—but I don’t think it is outside possibility that the loss of a retrieval machine could mean the permanent loss of a text.

But a paper-and-binding book requires no retrieval machine beyond a human being, who reads it with his whole person. The end of mankind’s two-thousand-year adventure with books might be of concern, then, to more than book collectors.

[1] Ann Mangen, “Hypertext Fiction Reading: Haptics and Immersion,” Journal of Research in Reading 31 (2008): 404–19.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Philip Roth and the politics of literary prizes

Cross-posted from Contentions.

The American novelist Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International Prize, a British award handed out every other year for a writer’s entire body of work. Now, literary prizes are nothing more than a means to sell books; only fools confuse them with the recognition of literary merit. There is no shortage of fools in the Republic of Letters, however.

Plans are under way in Australia, for example, to engender a down-under version of Britain’s Orange Prize for fiction by women. Not that the prize itself should be sneered at. The Orange Prize has done what it was intended to do, bringing attention to terrific novels like Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times. Perhaps the Australian prize will have similar good luck.

No, what is foolish are the reasons given for the prize. “What we are concerned with is the systemic exclusion of women writers over several decades,” the novelist Sophie Cunningham told the Guardian. The very idea that the literary marketplace is capable of a system of any kind is crack-brained. Nor is it immediately obvious why publishers would tolerate the “systemic exclusion” of books that appeal to at least half the reading public (and probably, given women’s reading habits, far more than half). Nevertheless, Cunningham went on to say that the new Australian women’s prize would not be needed “if writing by women was rewarded and valued on its own terms, with equal merit to the way that work written by men is.”

All the women’s prizes in the world will not change the fact that literary merit is not equal, nor is it assigned by sex. Those who seem to be calling for a Title IX regime in literature, where praise and prizes and even book recommendations must be split 50-50 between men and women, are not really interested in literature. For them, literature is merely the jurisdiction in which they happen to seek power and privilege.

Such a person is Carmen Callil, the British publisher who founded Virago Press in 1973. Declaring that she does not “rate him as a writer at all,” Callil quit the Man Booker International Prize jury in a huff when it became clear that the other two judges would not bend to her will and award the prize to someone else than Philip Roth. “Emperor’s clothes,” she sniffed. “In 20 years’ time will anyone read him?”

Whether anyone reads Roth in 20 years will not be decided by a literary prize. Perhaps what will decide the question—and perhaps what her colleagues wished to honor Roth for—is the very commitment to literature that Callil rejects so bitterly. In a career that began 53-and-a-half years ago with the story “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” in COMMENTARY, Roth has exemplified what I have elsewhere called the moral obligation to write well, which distinguishes the great writer.

Not the end of books

Over at Contentions John Podhoretz warns that “the end of the physical book may be coming hard upon us faster than anyone ever anticipated.” I don’t think so.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Defending Philip Roth

Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International Prize, and a judge on the prize jury has quit in a huff. “Emperor’s clothes,” says Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago Press. “In 20 years’ time will anyone read him?”

I try to answer her question here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The paradoxical politics of creative writing

Note: Blogger went down some time on Thursday, May 12th, taking down everything posted since the previous evening along with it. To date the missing posts have not been restored. So I am republishing my little essay on the politics of creative writing. And I’ve used the occasion to add a sentence or two.

It took him eight months, but Wednesday in the Los Angeles Review of Books Mark McGurl finally replied in print to Elif Batuman’s widely read onslaught against academic creative writing, “Get a Real Degree,” which appeared in last September’s London Review of Books. As McGurl puts it, Batuman “unloads as many charges against the discipline of creative writing as one can easily pack into 8000-plus words. . . .” But he isn’t particularly exercised by her critique. After all, Batuman writes from the perspective, he says, of a “cultural conservative, reanimating a whole herd of dead horses from the 1980s Culture Wars, when the right began a long, twilight struggle against the ‘tenured radicals’ of the university.”

I’m not at all sure that any such description of Batuman is accurate, and I am more than sure that she herself would find it off-target. One minute McGurl is criticizing her “snarky slurs” against Beloved, the very next minute he is calling her literary journalism’s Ann Coulter. Snark is, like, acceptable only when it comes from one side of the political aisle? When an academic wishes to dismiss a writer from serious consideration, he calls her a right-winger.

Over at The Suburban Ecstasies, Seth Abramson does a good job of exposing McGurl’s errors “great and small” (and says some nice things about me), but he merely hints at the political incoherence of McGurl’s critique.

The incoherence comes through most clearly when McGurl interrogates Batuman’s claim that “Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical.” In reply, McGurl repeats the word democracy several times, as if that will do the trick. Creative writing’s ambition to establish an “aesthetic democracy” can sometimes seem like a “sentimental gesture,” he allows, but it really is a noble ambition. While her elitism would confine most Americans who might otherwise prefer the writing life to “working at the register,” Batuman is not troubled by such economic conditions. According to McGurl, she feels “only contempt for those who have dared to think and act otherwise, in case a more democratic culture turns out to be possible.” (By contrast, his own contempt for commerce is so deeply embedded into his thinking that he barely notices it.) Still, the two of them have something in common:

As even Batuman concedes, creative writing represents something “wonderful about America,” though I don’t think, as she does, that it’s the idea that that “all forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch.” That sounds good, but in practice it is so often a sadistic or self-loathing desire. Rather, I think the best thing about America is the idea of democracy upon which it was imperfectly founded, and I’m happy to see any signs, however conflicted, that we can still imagine, and even facilitate, greater social access to the high pleasures of excellent writing.McGurl is a canny and profoundly learned scholar; I’m a bit embarrassed for him that he would carelessly repeat such phrases without any recognition of their historical provenance. (It also never occurs to him that the difference between them on what is most wonderful about this country may owe more to differences in personal circumstance than politics: Batuman is the daughter of Turkish immigrants, who must have reinvented themselves from scratch in America.) Nevertheless, the politics on display here derives from the same source as creative writing itself. Both are classic expressions of American progressivism.

Although he knows it very well, McGurl did not write The Elephants Teach; I did. He can’t be expected to overhear the echoes of creative writing’s progressive origins, which I detail in Chapter 5 (“The Sudden Adoption of Creative Work”), as readily as I do. Hughes Mearns, a progressive educator who founded it as a school subject, conceived of creative writing as a progressive reform along the same political lines as the enactment of child-labor laws and the uprooting of municipal corruption. His plan was to democratize literary culture—to make it more responsive to more people—because Mearns was every inch the anti-elitist. In an article written for the Saturday Evening Post in 1912, Mearns ridiculed the elitist attitude toward culture:Culture is an incommunicable communion with Nature; it is clean hands and a pure collar; it is the possession of great-grandparents—white, Christian pre­ferred; it is the achievement of tolerance; it is the proper use of “shall” and “will”; it is a knowledge of Hegelian philosophy; it is Greek; it is Latin; it is a five-foot shelf of books; it is twenty thousand a year; it is a sight of truth and a draught of wisdom; it is a frock coat and pearl gloves. . . . No one ever saw it; it cannot be measured or chemically analyzed; the fellow that claims it loudest never has had it; the chap that really has it never mentions the matter; and it can be obtained only by a studious cultivation of one kind of education—my kind!As I have pointed out before, scholars routinely get creative writing wrong through ignorance or neglect of its original conception as a progressive school reform. To treat it as an epiphenomenon of American higher education—as even Batuman does—is to grab a shovel to hammer a board.

Progressivism is encoded in creative writing’s DNA. What is more, this progressive legacy also explains what is at issue in the debate between McGurl and Batuman, and why neither has achieved a victory over the other. Both democracy and elitism belong to the progressive inheritance—their mismatch, as Peter Berkowitz wrote recently in a brilliant analysis in the Policy Review, “reflects an enduring paradox with deep roots in the progressive tradition.” On the one hand, American progressives espoused democratic reforms; on the other hand, these reforms were formulated and installed by an undemocratic elite—the progressive reformers themselves—sometimes against the will of the people. Berkowitz goes further:The paradox of American progressivism, old and new, is rooted in the gap between its professed devotion to democracy, or the idea that the people legitimately rule, and its belief that democracy consists in a set of policies independent of what the people want. The paradox may not inhere in every single progressive utterance or program, but it typifies progressivism as a whole. It certainly receives expression in the disjunction between official progressive aims. On the one hand, progressives proclaim their intention to democratize American politics by making it more responsive to the will of the people and giving the people greater say in government. On the other hand, progressives favor the steady enlargement of the national government’s responsibilities, which increases the distance between the people and government, while supporting the expansion of an educated administrative elite, which reduces government’s accountability to the people.This account will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has eavesdropped on the debates over creative writing. The positions have changed little over the years. As I described them fifteen years ago:On one side are those who blame [creative writing] for an astonishing array of ills: the collapse of literary standards; an overproduction of homogeneously bad writing, the decadence of the age. . . . On the other side are those who defend creative writing as a democratization of culture and a happy awakening of interest in literature and the literary life.If, however, creative writing is recognized as an institutional representation of the paradoxical politics of progressivism, the debates begin to seem beside the question. Suddenly metaphors like Donald Justice’s “pyramid scheme” (quoted in my book) or McGurl’s “Ponzi scheme” begin to seem shrugging guesses; the expansion of an educated administrative elite, enlarging its turf from coast to coast, accounts for the amazing boom in graduate writers workshops over the past half century. And except when they are advanced to justify what Batuman calls “writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum”—progressive aims explain the knowledge vacuum—the democratic slogans of the nationalized bureaucracy that staffs America’s creative writing programs can be seen for what they are. Namely, rhetorical cover for their own privilege.

Literary writing may or may not be inherently elitist, but the creative writing faculty sure is.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

When I Lived in Modern Times

The British novelist Linda Grant is in the States today to tout her new novel We Had It So Good, but with her royal-wedding tweets still chirping in my ears (see here and here and here and here and here and here), I returned to the novel that first caused me to fall in love with the sound of her voice. When I Lived in Modern Times (London: Granta, 2000) was Grant’s second novel (she has now written five). It won the Orange Prize in 2001 for the best work of fiction by a woman, which is the only reason that it came to my attention. I was teaching my annual course on the contemporary novel at Texas A&M University. Every year I would assign the previous year’s award winners. The reading list for spring semester 2002 included Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Pulitzer Prize), Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin (Man Booker Prize), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (James Tait Black Memorial Prize), Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (Governor General’s Award), Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (Whitbread Prize), and Philip Roth’s Human Stain (PEN/Faulkner Award). I later included three of those titles on my roll of the decade’s best English-language fiction, but my favorite was When I Lived in Modern Times.

Grant’s subject is the “great transformation” that occurs in the months after the end of the Second World War—“the world itself,” she writes, “was metamorphosing into something else. . . .” Evelyn Sert, the twenty-year-old daughter of a single Jewish mother—her grandparents emigrated to Great Britain from Latvia—decides to journey to British Mandate Palestine. She is filled with the spirit of Zionism (“Only the birth of our own country can avenge the death of six million,” she cries. “That’s the resurrection”). But the truth is that her mother’s death leaves her feeling even more homeless than before:

Inside my head the kings and queens of England were stacked like pancakes in chronological order going back to the Wars of the Roses but no one I was related to had ever set foot on English soil until forty-five years ago. What could an immigrant child be, except an impersonator? I felt like a double agent, a fifth columnist. And I knew that as long as I lived in this country it would always be the same. I walked among them and they thought they knew me, but they understood nothing at all. It was me that understood, the spy in their midst.Perhaps if she had been a third-generation Jew in America, where everyone feels like a double agent—these days, even the WASP’s—Evelyn might not have felt so out of place. But she knows better. “I was a Jewish child in a country where, unlike America, there was no contribution I could make to the forging of the national identity,” she sighs. “It was fixed already, centuries ago.”

And so to Palestine. Evelyn enters the country illegally, lying to a customs agent that she is a Christian tourist, not a Jewish settler. Her surname is “odd” because her father was from “the Outer Hebrides.” At the Jewish Agency, Evelyn is less successful at passing herself off as something she is not. She has come to build the new Jewish state, she announces; but she has neither military nor agricultural experience; nor has she studied engineering, nor architecture. She is not totally useless, she protests. She is a hairdresser! She gets a laugh and is packed off to a kibbutz.

On the kibbutz she is introduced to sex and hard labor, but she remains a city girl at heart. She misses the chaos of urban life. After a few weeks she leaves for the “white city” of Tel Aviv—“a new Berlin,” as a German Jew later says to her, “a city for the masses and for the intellectuals, where we would build a modern life for ourselves.” Evelyn arrives on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a demobilized British soldier, a native-born Jerusalemite named Levi Aharoni. “But since your Hebrew isn’t so good, and we’re going to be talking in English,” he says, “you can call me Johnny.” He joined the British army to fight fascism, but now that the British have become the enemy of Jewish immigration, Johnny has joined the Irgun, the military wing of the Revionist Zionist movement.

Before she learns this much about him, Evelyn becomes Johnny’s lover. In the mean time, she finds an apartment and a job as a hairdresser, introducing the wives of British colonial officers to the newest styles. Recognized by one of them as the Christian tourist who came over with her on the same boat, Evelyn dyes her hair blonde and takes on a new identity. She becomes Priscilla Jones, married to a soldier posted to Tiberias. As a British policeman complains to her about Palestine, “It’s the worst bloody place for getting people’s identities straight.” Johnny sees her value as a “spy in their midst,” and manufactures a false passport in the name of Priscilla Jones. Information that she passes on enables the Irgun to kidnap a British official.

Thus she enters “the dark center of our struggle against the colonial masters.” The Irgun bombs the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. And Evelyn is whisked to safety underground before the British can arrest her. Johnny is not so lucky. Implicated in the deaths of twenty, he is arrested and quickly convicted and sentenced to death—one of the olei hagardom to be hanged under British rule. Evelyn is suddenly not so excited to be “moving through history.” As the British begin to withdraw from Palestine, she realizes that “Priscilla Jones would have to be folded up and put away,” but with the arrest of Johnny, she realizes that she has no clear and distinct Palestinian individuality either. “The British imperial identity was disintegrating in front of us, the new Jewish one was being born,” she says, “but I was nameless and invisible and my little ego couldn’t bear it.”

Just days before Johnny’s arrest, she had resolved:Whatever happened, I would never leave Palestine, this strange, violent, mixed-up place where things were not always pleasant, indeed rarely so. Where people’s manners were bad and they spoke roughly, but to the point. Where everyone came from somewhere else and everyone had a story to tell and these stories were not always inspiring or lovely. Where life was chaotic, because that is what life is. Where the past was murky and tragic and the future had to be grasped by the throat. Where Europe ended and the East began and people tried to live inside that particular, crazy contradiction.But in the end, she is unable to do so. Evelyn is swept up in the British counter-exodus and borne back to the country of her birth. She leaves Palestine just as the Jews are taking command of their own history and their own political fate. She understands what is happening, even if the British evacuees do not: “They’ve been Jews for absolutely centuries,” one says to her, “and most of that has been spent in exile, one way or another. Why do they want to change their tune now?”

There is perhaps no better book for explaining why—and for recreating the terror and exhilaration of the British Mandate’s final days—than Linda Grant’s brilliant and absorbing When I Lived in Modern Times.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The rhetoric of triumph

Over at Contentions, I use a little literary criticism to compare President Obama’s speech last night reporting the death of Osama bin Laden to President Bush’s speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln eight years ago on the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

Like a trampled corpse

They who behold you stare;
They peer at you closely:
“Is this the man
Who shook the earth,
Who made realms tremble,
Who made the world like a waste
And wrecked its towns,
Who never released his prisoners to their homes?”
All the kings of nations
Were laid, every one, in honor
Each in his tomb;
While you were left lying unburied,
Like loathsome carrion,
Like a trampled corpse
In the clothing of slain gashed by the sword
Who sink to the very stones of the Pit.

                                          Isaiah 14.16–19 (NJV)

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

                                          W. H. Auden
                                          January 1939

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Reading the Holocaust

Today is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jean Améry once said that he would like to “introduce certain Auschwitz books into the upper classes of secondary school as compulsory reading,” although he never named the books he would assign. (His own Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, published in German in 1966 and translated beautifully into English by Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld in 1980 under the title At the Mind’s Limits, would have to be among them.)

On Thursday the Forward published its version of such a reading list. Organized in alphabetical order and consisting of twenty-two items—starting off, in fact, with Améry’s book—the Forward bibliography is a convenient listing of essential titles.

I have few quarrels with it. I would not have included Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which has never impressed me as anything more than a derivative account of the Holocaust (its only claim to originality is to narrate Auschwitz in cartoons), but otherwise the list is pretty good. I’d like to re-do it, however, by putting the books in order and making a few different and additional recommendations. The literature of the Holocaust is so vast that newcomers to the subject are disheartened from beginning.

(1.) Elie Wiesel, Night (Yiddish [longer version], 1955; French, 1958; English, 1960). Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge that Wiesel is not a great writer. Nevertheless, there is no better book for introducing first-time readers to the horrors of Auschwitz. Wiesel’s lack of finish—even his occasional “corniness,” for lack of a better word—contribute to the book’s immediacy and lasting effect.

(2.) Otto Friedrich, The Kingdom of Auschwitz (1994). Originally a 1982 article in the Atlantic, the book version is expanded but still astonishingly short at just over one hundred pages. It is an explicitly third-hand account of the Nazi Vernichtungslager, which aims to synthesize an enormous amount of historical and literary knowledge.

(3.) Tadeusz Borowski, The Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Polish, 1946, 1948; English, 1967). The greatest writer of Holocaust fiction was not even Jewish. Borowski was a Polish Communist who was condemned to Auschwitz for political crimes, and witnessed the extermination of European Jewry first-hand. Unlike Wiesel, he does not inflate his language or heighten the emotional appeal. The very flatness of his reporting, in words that could have been chiseled in stone, makes his stories unforgettable. Yale University Press will release Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories translated by Madeline G. Levine in October. Borowski’s stories invented Holocaust literature.

(4.) Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War against the Jews (1975). The fourth English-language history after Gerald Reitlinger’s Final Solution (1953), Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of European Jewry (1961), and Nora Levin’s Holocaust (1968), Dawidowicz’s book is still the best introduction to the history of the Holocaust. At 353 pages, not counting the back matter, it is relatively short and manageable; more importantly, it is well-written; most important of all, it advances a provocative thesis, implicit in the title, which has influenced the study of the Holocaust ever since. Having got this far, the reading can become more focused and intense.

(5.) Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942 (2004). As I have written elsewhere, there is a fundamental distinction between the Holocaust and the Final Solution. The former is the Jews’ name and represents the victims’ point of view; the latter, the Germans’ and the perpetrators’ point of view. No one is better than Browning at tracing the development of the German Nazis’ policy of genocide, although Saul Friedländer’s two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997, 2007) is another compelling historical account of events from within the thousand-year Reich. Browning also champions an influential and provocative position on the Shoah, which stands in opposition to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). Browning’s position is summed up by the title of his earlier book about a police battalion that murdered Jews in Poland: Ordinary Men (1992).

(6.) Primo Levi, If This Is a Man (Italian, 1958; English, 1960). Now available under the misleading title Survival in Auschwitz, Levi’s is an Auschwitz memoir for adults. Unlike Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, Levi does not try to find a “meaning” in the Lager; he does not believe that suffering ennobled the Jews who were gassed and burned there. A chemist by training and profession, Levi turned an objective and analytical eye upon Auschwitz. He became the greatest memoirist of the Holocaust.

(7.) Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits (German, 1966; English, 1980). His position is best summed up by the title of one of the five essays in the book: “The Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew.” Améry is best known, however, for examining the fate of the intellectual in Auschwitz. Primo Levi replied in a chapter of The Drowned and the Saved (1986), his last book.

(8.) David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction (1996). A great Jewish scholar who pioneered the source-critical analysis of the Talmud, Halivni is an Auschwitz survivor who, like Elie Wiesel, grew up in the Transylvanian town of Sighet. His memoir, published when he was sixty-nine, might have been called “Survival After Auschwitz”—survival not merely of one individual, but of an Orthodox Jewish modus vivendi the German Nazis threatened (but failed) to wipe out.

(9.) Yitzhak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Hebrew, 1990; English, 1993). A gripping memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by one of its leaders—“Antek.” Edited and translated by Barbara Harshav, the book is also enormously informative. It is nearly a reference work in addition to a narrative reconstruction of the most important act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

(10.) Chaim Kaplan, Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary (written in Hebrew from September 1, 1939, to August 4, 1942; published in English translation in 1965). The diary that everybody knows is Anne Frank’s, but Chaim Kaplan’s is the single most important diary to come out of the Shoah. Kaplan lived in the Warsaw Ghetto and participated in the Oyneg Shabes collective history project. A Hebrew teacher and Orthodox Jew, he watched the approach of the German destruction through the lens of Jewish concepts and categories. Bearing witness through his diary was, for him, as for all of the “ghetto scribes,” a holy obligation. Abraham Lewin’s ghetto diary, published in English under the title A Cup of Tears (1988), and Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (English, 1958), fill out the picture. If you can find it, Joseph Kermish’s collection of documents from the ghetto’s underground archive, To Live and Die with Honor (1986), belongs in every library. If you can’t find it—or even if you can—Who Will Write Our History? (2007), Samuel D. Kassow’s study of Oyneg Shabes, is an indispensable work of scholarship.

(11.) Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Sacred Fire (written in Hebrew from September 14, 1939, to July 18, 1942; English, 2000). The weekly divrei Torah of the “Piacezna rebbe,” delivered to his Hasidic followers in the Warsaw Ghetto, were first collected and published as Esh Kodesh in Israel in 1950 and quickly became a classic of Orthodox Jewish religious literature. The critic David G. Roskies distinguishes between literature of the Holocaust and literature from the Holocaust. Shapira’s sermons are a unique example of the Jewish response to the monstrous events as they unfolded. Nehemia Polen’s study The Holy Fire (1999) places Shapira in the context of both the Warsaw Ghetto and Jewish thought.

(12.) Etty Hillesum, Etty: The Letters and Diaries, 1941–1943 (written in Dutch from March 8, 1941, to October 13, 1942; English translation, 2002). Hillesum is beloved by Christian readers, who are deeply touched—and reminded of their own religious commitment—by her willingness to be a servant. She is largely unknown to Jewish readers, who avoid her as if she were the exclusive property of Christians. The unabridged edition of her diary was published in this country by Eerdmans, a Protestant publishing house in Grand Rapids. Yet Christians are keenly aware of the dangers of “appropriationism,” showing a respect for her that she has been denied by the Jews. She is one of the best writers to come out of the Holocaust, and among the most deeply moving—even if her religiosity is not traditionally Jewish.

(13.) Moshe Flinker, Young Moshe’s Diary: The Spiritual Torment of a Jewish Boy in Nazi Europe (written in Hebrew from November 24, 1942, to after September 1943; English translation, 1965). The diary of a seventeen-year-old Dutch Jew kept while his family was in hiding from the Nazis in Brussels. Less practical and detailed, more conscious of the approaching end and its place in Jewish history and thinking, Flinker’s diary is more representative of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust than Anne Frank’s.

(14.) Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944 (written in Yiddish from September 6, 1939, to September 17, 1944; English translation, 2002). A monumental and comprehensive first-hand account of the destruction of Vilna, the cultural center of Eastern European Jewry, which records not merely the Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews, but also its war against Jewish culture.

(15.) André Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just (French, 1959; English, 1961). Although the first American novel about Auschwitz was Meyer Levin’s Eva (also published in 1959), the first Holocaust bestseller in America was Schwarz-Bart’s Prix-de-Goncourt-winning novel, based on the legend of the thirty-six just men who, unknown to themselves, keep the world alive.

(16.) Piotr Rawicz, Blood from the Sky (French, 1961; English, 1964). The autobiographical novel of a Ukrainian Jew from Lvov who passes as a Gentile to escape the Nazis, but is captured and imprisoned in an extermination camp.

(17.) Jiri Weil, Life with a Star (Czech, 1964; English, 1989). A slim hard-headed graceful novel about a Jew who pretends to kill himself, then hides from the Nazis in occupied Prague.

(18.) Henryk Grynberg, The Jewish War (Polish, 1965) and The Victory (Polish, 1969; English translation in one volume, 1993). Two short novels about a Jewish family that survives the Holocaust by moving through a series of hiding places, finally pretending to be the family of a Polish officer captured by the Nazis. In the second volume, they desperately await the advance of the Red Army.

(19.) Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939 (Hebrew, 1974; English, 1980). A novel about Austrian Jews gathered in an Alpine resort, unaware of the approaching Holocaust.

(20.) Tova Reich, My Holocaust (2007). A ferocious satire on Holocaust kitsch and possessiveness among American Jews. Not to every taste.

(21.) Miklós Radnóti, Foamy Sky (Hungarian, 1946; English, 1972). Written in pencil in a small exercise book, Radnóti’s posthumous collection Tajtékos ég contains odes to his wife, letters, and poetic fragments.

(22.) Abraham Sutzkever, Di festung: lider un poemes geshribn in vilner geto un in vald, 1941–1944 (Yiddish, 1945; English, 1981). The definitive English-language edition of Sutzkever’s work was published in 1991 under the title Selected Poetry and Prose by the University of California Press. In addition to his ghetto poems, the volume contains pre- and post-Holocaust poems and prose.

(23.) David G. Roskies, ed., The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe (1989). A masterful anthology which places the “literature from the Holocaust” in a tradition of Jewish writing about political evil.