Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust’

Book #83: Austerlitz

W.G. Sebold’s Austerlitz blindsided me.

I’d been looking forward to reading it for several years. I knew it dealt, somewhat, with the Holocaust, Jews, and memory. It shouldn’t be any secret by now that I’m pretty interested in those things. I’d heard great things about Austerlitz and was really looking forward to a little meditation on memory and a very artistically-written book.

I was not expecting a book chock-full of memory and nostalgia wherein the storyteller spends most of the time recounting his attempt to rediscover is completely forgotten past in PragueAnd there were pictures.

I wanted to enjoy Austerlitz. I did. But reading it was a chore. The writing was beautiful, the story was good, the conflict was painful and real. But I think the vivid descriptions of Prague were distracting. Often I knew exactly what Austerlitz was talking about when he described strange Czech quirks or oddities characteristic of Prague. Several times I knew where he was talking about, even when it wasn’t a “touristy” part of Prague. If I read this a year ago, when I was living in Prague, I would have adored it. I would have tried to find everywhere he mentioned. I would have gone to such-and-such street to see if there really was a certain store there. I would’ve walked around Malostranská and the islands on the Vltava that he mentioned. I would have gone to the parks he mentions frequenting.

If I’d read this book in a few years, when I’m more removed from my time in Prague, it would have been fine. I would have read it as it was meant to be read, but it would have had an added sweetness, because I also would have been looking back on Prague and meditating on things.

But reading it now, when every other day I miss Prague and regret leaving? Torture. Especially since Austerlitz is remembering a life he briefly lived and thinking about the life he would have had if he hadn’t left. I couldn’t get around myself enough to get to the point of the novel, which is a shame, because I’m sure I would have really appreciated Austerlitz if I hadn’t been too focused on the PRAGUE!!! part of it.

I think I’m going to add this to the list of books I need to revisit in five to ten years. It was very much “too soon.”

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Glass Bead Game

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Book #56: The Drowned and the Saved

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Primo Levi. I spent the whole spring of my senior year picking apart his first memoir, If This Is A Man (American title Survival in Auschwitz), for my senior paper.

I’ll probably give a more in-depth bio of Levi when I review that book, but here’s the short version for context:

Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist. In World War II he joined the Italian resistance movement. He was captured and sent to an internment camp in Fossoli. From there he was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. He survived there until the camp was liberated in 1945.

The Drowned and the Saved is much different from If This Is A ManIf This Is A Man was Levi’s first book, and he wrote it in the first few years after he’d left Auschwitz. At that point, he would have been focusing more on writing what happened and getting the memories on paper and trying to make sense of what happened. It’s very disjointed, and you get the sense that Levi just wants to get the book out of him. It’s beautiful and there are some good reflections, but at its core, If This Is A Man is more musings than analysis.

By the time Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved, he’d had time to process Auschwitz a little more. This, I think, is why it’s so much more philosophical and so much less of a memoir. In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi mostly talks about  trauma and how we think about things that have happened to us. He talks about the different ways people survive trauma, and how survivors of trauma both remember and deal with what happened to them.

In this way, The Drowned and the Saved is much more a meditation on memories and how we remember them than a recounting of Levi’s memories. This was interesting. Anyone studying Holocaust memoirs in any depth at all will quickly come up against this question of memory and trauma. What does trauma do to our memories? How do we make sense of a traumatic event after it happens (because really, we can’t understand traumatic things as they’re happening; only in the aftermath)? How accurate are our memories of these things and what purpose do they serve?

These questions apply not only to Holocaust literature, but also to everyday life. It’s an interesting and disconcerting thing to think about memory, and Levi addresses this topic, through the filter of perhaps one of the most traumatic events in history, very adeptly.

Rating: *****

Up Next: Great Expectations 

Meaningless(ness): The Question of Trauma

Gosh. It’s so hard to write about Holocaust literature sometimes. (Says the girl who wrote a 30-page paper on Holocaust literature) It’s just that even though they are all different and they’re all unique, Holocaust memories/stories are generally all the same (like I said before). What I’ve noticed is that (hopefully without this turning into the start of some thesis/analysis of common themes in Holocaust literature) many Holocaust writers deal with the question of trauma: how to deal with its aftermath, how to describe it to outsiders, and what to do with the traumatic experience.

What sets Fatelessness apart, I think, is how Imre Kertész has his narrator deal with trauma. The whole time he is a prisoner, the boy muses on what has put in him the concentration camp and what is happening to him. I think the most powerful part of the book is when he returns home. He begins to encounter people who have only heard of the “horrors” of the concentration camps. They can’t understand him.

A rhetoric-driven reporter wants him to tell all about the “hell” he lived through. Basically, what the boy winds up saying is, “What hell?” Further, the family and friends he returns to also can’t make sense of what has happened to him. They want to know if he is going to move, or how he will start a new life and move on from the Holocaust.

In Which I Go On A Senior Paper-Related Tangent

This seems to be a common thing in the Holocaust books I’ve read. The writers are always struggling with how to tell their stories, to whom to tell their stories, and which stories are best left untold and, eventually, forgotten. Further, there is the trouble that no one can truly know what the Holocaust was like unless they lived through it. No story, narrative, picture, or visit to a concentration camp can give someone who wasn’t there any inkling of what it is like.

Primo Levi wrote that the words we have are not adequate to describe the Holocaust. He argues that if the camps had lasted longer, “a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing near” (If This Is A Man). So, really, nothing Kertész’s narrator could have told the reporter would have given the man the glimpse into “hell” that he wanted.

Further, the narrator’s family, who wants to help him move on and find a new life, does not understand that he can’t just leave his experience behind. Just like Levi, Elie Wiesel, and many other Holocaust memoirists, writers, and survivors, Kertész’s boy knows that he will have to live with the concentration camp inside him forever. Like the other writers who talk about this and doubt their ever understanding or making sense of it, Kertész has his narrator reflect on understanding. However, he comes out at an interesting place in which he realizes that he must gradually reflect on what happened to him, but without trying to make sense of it:

“As we pass one step, and as we recognize it as being behind us, the next one already rises up before us. By the time we learn everything, we slowly come to understand it. And while you come to understand everything gradually, you don’t remain idle at any moment. . . you act, you move, you fulfill the new requirements of every step of development. If, on the other hand, there were no schedule, no gradual enlightenment, if all the knowledge descended on you at once right there in one spot, then it’s possible neither your brains nor your heart could bear it.”

With this passage, right at the end of the book, I think Imre Kertész very, very eloquently sums up the aftermath of trauma. Understanding must come gradually. Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, I don’t think. But maybe it does help us to understand things a little bit more.

Rating: ****
Up Next: A Tale of Two Cities (which I’ve already finished. Yay being behind on blogging!)

Book #32: Fatelessness

I’ve just started Fatelessness by Imre Kertész.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertész book cover

It’s a Holocaust book, which means I’ll be pretty absorbed by it. I’ve mentioned this on here before, I think, but I’m really interested in the Holocaust.

Basically, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew who winds up in Auschwitz. He’s really only a Jew by heritage. He doesn’t exactly believe in God and he doesn’t speak Yiddish. This leads other Jews in the concentration camp to shun him and claim that he isn’t really a Jew.

I’m wondering if this will be a big part of the book. It sounds like it could wind up being a great commentary on the randomness and senselessness of the persecution of the Jews. The boy is, for some reason, identified as a Jew by outsiders, but actual Jews don’t completely consider him one. What, then, is identity and what makes a person who they are?

Hopefully this book will reflect on that a little. But otherwise, I’m just going to enjoy (in the way that one usually “enjoys” Holocaust literature) reading about the Holocaust again. I haven’t really done that since my senior project in college.

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