I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
It wasn’t so long ago that critics were wondering whether the Holocaust could sustain a serious literature of its own after all the original survivors were gone. Primo Levi, Jerzy Kosiński, Paul Celan — all survivors — had written such penetrating, personal accounts of the Holocaust that many questioned whether it was necessary, even morally responsible, to write novelistic accounts second-hand. To be sure, it wasn’t that writers were afraid to try. It was that the many who did often failed miserably. Yet over the past decade, we have seen novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer, with his poignant debut Everything Is Illuminated and Michael Chabon, with The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, breath new life into genre that once seemed either too sacred or too remote to touch.
Ellen Ullman’s psychologically complex and deeply serious new novel, By Blood, doesn’t break the stratosphere of a Foer or Chabon novel, but it does come close. She creates a heart-pounding narrative that circles around an adopted American woman living in 1970s San Francisco, referred to only as “the patient.” Told through a series of psychiatry sessions, which are eavesdropped upon by our narrator — a ghoulish classics professor escaping a murky past of his own — we learn that the patient was raised by a privileged Roman Catholic family, only to discover in adulthood that her real mother is Jewish. And not just any Jew: a highly cultured and assimilated German who finds herself in the maw of Bergen-Belsen.
The mother, later renamed Michal, suffers all the grisly horrors we’ve come to expect from Holocaust narratives. She is raped repeatedly by a Nazi guard, and even at the camp’s liberation, she is nearly shot to death in a battle that breaks out between Jewish Zionists and the former Nazi guards. Devastated by the horrors she’s experienced, Michal gives up her daughter, the patient — whose father may be a Nazi rapist, or perhaps a Zionist hero — to a Roman Catholic adoption agency in the hope that the daughter will escape a Jewish identity entirely. When the patient tracks down Michal years later and confronts her about her adoption, Michal, now living in Israel, responds bluntly: “I wanted to make sure you would not be a Jew.”
In a relatively short book, Ullman manages to pick up a very large, and mixed, bag of a Jewish inheritance. We hear not only about the heroics of Zionist fighters, but also their failure to follow through — one charismatic leader both unifies the Jews in the camp, only to abscond to Switzerland with stolen money. There is also a Jewish doctor who, despite establishing the fact that the death camps existed in a post-war trial, also admits to having kept herself alive by helping Dr. Mengele experiment on Jews. Yet despite Michal’s own generally grim view of Jewish history, there are moments of unquestionable triumph. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, we hear Michal, at last, embrace her Jewish identity at the sound of Bergen-Belsen survivors singing the “Hatikva,” which would become the national anthem of Israel. “I thought: Who are these people?” Michal recounts to her daughter:
What sort of people have such determination and courage, even before all the dead have found their graves? What was giving them such strength, such hope? And the tears ran do my face, this time not with joy but with regret, and heartbreak, and longing…You see, said Michal: At that moment, and for the first time in my life, I wanted to be a Jew.
Scenes like these can be quite moving, but they can also feel like an abridged history of 20th century Jewry. So much of Ullman’s narrative is nestled around the defining issues of Jewish life in the last 100 years — whether Israel is a blessing or burden; what role the Holocaust should play in Jewish identity; the question of assimilation — that you can forget that Judaism has had another 3,000 years of history that has sustained it. Of course, it could be argued that, in the novel’s obliviousness to that longer past, it gives a more accurate depiction of how many Jews today with only a shaky knowledge of their heritage — that is, Jews like the patient — understand Jewish identity. But with a novel so learned about Jewish history (after reading several passages of Ullman’s Holocaust narrative, I was fascinated to learn that much of it was true), you wish that she would have expanded her set of Jewish identity markers. Instead, Ullman has left us with a highly circumscribed view of Jewish identity — defined solely by the nodes of the Holocaust, Israel, and assimilation.
Ullman’s novel isn’t only about Jewish identity. It is the lens through which Ullman explores a larger question: what role should blood-heritage play in anyone’s sense of self? It is here that the structure of her novel — told through talk therapy sessions, and a creepy professor who doubts the psychiatrist’s motives — makes perfect sense. For the psychiatrist, Dr. Dora Schussler, we are given a classic Freudian view of self-understanding. Only through digging up one’s repressed memories from childhood, Dr. Schussler suggests to the patient, can she finally solve all her young adulthood issues — her lesbianism, her chilly relationship with her adopted mother, her constant drive to succeed (she is already a successful financial analyst). Yet since all this is mediated through the professor, whose office sits next to Dr. Schussler’s, there is the constant undercurrent of doubt cast over Schussler’s theory. “Irreparable harm!” the professor shouts to himself at one point, as he eavesdrops on one of Dr. Schussler’s sessions. “How dare you do irreparable harm to my beloved patient!”
This tug-of-war between the professor and Dr. Schussler serves Ullman’s purposes on several levels. Both characters have their own psychological baggage, thus denying us the certainty that any one character is right. In addition to the professor’s expulsion from his university, perhaps for sexual misconduct with his students, Dr. Schussler is herself German, and is quite possibly is using the patient to expiate for “the sins of my own Nazi bastard father,” as she says at one point. But by setting the novel well after the Holocaust itself, in 1970s San Francisco, Ullman has also employed a critical narrative device that has enabled the Holocaust novel to survive, even flourish, well beyond the survivor-written testaments. The Holocaust is quickly becoming something no writer will have ever had direct experience with. So rather than create simple works of historical fiction, fashioning narratives set solely in war-ravaged Europe, Ullman, like Chabon and Foer, has ushered in a fecund new phase of Holocaust fiction. It is not only necessary that we try to recapture the morally-starved world of the actual Holocaust — something Ullman has done extraordinarily well — but that we take up the question of how much that bleak history should define our present-day lives.
Ullman is savvy enough an author to avoid giving a definitive answer, but she does offer some quite plausible ones. When the patient, tormented over the issue of who her real father is — a killer, or hero — asks Dr. Schussler for advice, she answers: “What does it matter which one your father is?” “Yes,” the patient answers, “But you can’t help but thinking. Can’t help but wonder who he was.” To which Dr. Schussler responds:
Of course…You will always think about it and wonder over it. It is part of your history, and quite an unusual history at that. I imagine you will tell many stories about it as you meet people over the course of your life. But I don’t think you necessarily have to feel too much about it, if you understand my distinction.
I think I do [says the patient].
It is an interesting and distinctive fact about you, but says nothing—
About who I am now.
Wise advice indeed.
My father in law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and several years ago he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 1980s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite essayists, New Yorker staffer and renowned baseball writer Roger Angell.The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor, but when I listened to the tapes, I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, a former economics professor at NYU who died in 2004. Ritter was also a big baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years, Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s oldest living veterans, men who played in the decades leading up to and after World War I. The result, first published in 1966 and updated and expanded in 1984, is among the most cherished baseball books around.With the baseball season hitting its sweet spot, I cracked the spine of my tattered copy of Ritter’s compilation, and what I found within was a look into a lost period of time – before radio, before TV, and before even the prevalence of still cameras – brimming with color about the game’s rough beginnings as America’s national pastime.To give just a sample of the gems contained within the Glory of Their Times, this is what I learned reading Fred “Snow” Snodgrass’ chapter, a representative sample of the sorts of details in the book that are sure to amaze any fan of today’s game:Christy Mathewson “never pitched on Sunday, or even dressed in uniform,” but “he made a good part of his expenses every year playing poker.”Snodgrass wore a baggy uniform to try to increase the chances of getting hit by pitches, and, failing that, he would dive for the ground on an inside pitch and pinch his arm to raise a welt so he could show the ump where he got “beaned.”There was more than one deaf and dumb ballplayer during this era, and, judging by this book, they were all nicknamed “Dummy.” Dummy Taylor, who played on the Giants with Snodgrass, “took it as an affront if you didn’t learn to converse with him,” and consequently everyone on the team learned sign language.A mysterious man named Charles Victory Faust emerged from the stands before a game in 1911 and told the Giants that a fortune teller had told him that if he pitched for the team, they would win the pennant. Superstitious manager (and baseball legend) John McGraw took Faust on the road with the team, and “every day from that day on, Charles Victory Faust was in uniform and he warmed up sincerely to pitch that game.” Of course, he never actually pitched, but the Giants did win the pennant in 1911. Faust joined them again in 1912, and again the Giants won the pennant. By 1913, Faust had become a fan favorite and McGraw let Faust come in and pitch an inning, much to the fans’ delight. Needless to say, the Giants won the pennant again in 1913.In 1908 Fred Merkle lost the pennant for the Giants because of a famous, “bonehead” play. He was on first and Moose McCormick on third in the bottom half of the ninth inning in a 1-1 ballgame against the Cubs in the last week of the season. Al Bridwell hit a single to center and McCormick scored from third. The fans rushed the field and Merkle sprinted to the clubhouse to avoid the madness – without stepping on second. Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (of the famous Tinkers, Evers, Chance infield) noticed this, found the ball in the crowd, got in a tussle with the Giants third base coach, tagged second base for the force out, and then convinced the umps to come back out onto the field to reconsider the play. The umps overturned the win, ruling in the Cubs favor.There was a rumor that as a nervous habit, Phillies pitcher Harry Coveleski, “always carried some bologna in his back pocket and chewed on that bologna throughout the game.”In 1914, the Boston Braves went from last place on July 4th to contending for the pennant by season’s end. Interest in the team was so great that “they put ropes up in the outfield and thousands of people were sitting and standing and standing behind the ropes, right on the playing field.”Snodgrass, playing the outfield, got into a shouting match with the Boston fans, and the incensed mayor of Boston got out of his box seat and marched onto the field and demanded that the umps remove Snodgrass from the game.There is a sense that the modern game has lost much of its charm, that it is all spectacle. The game 100 years ago was certainly charming, but, as The Glory of Their Times makes clear, it was perhaps more the spectacle back then, a game of colorful characters and nicknames, brawls and backroom dealings, and fights over money with capricious owners. Some things just don’t change. It’s also true that for a game that we seemingly know so much about, the book shows just how little we know about professional baseball’s formative days.Ritter’s amazing chronicle of the early years of baseball is essential for anyone with a deep interest in the game.
When I graduated from high school, my English teacher and advisor gave me The Berlin Stories, a New Directions paperback, with a note inside. The note said the book seemed right for me. It was written on the back of a Wallace Stevens poem.
I was very lucky, and I had a great many fine teachers in high school. But this teacher glowered and stalked and had an ancient cat. He assigned The Whitsun Weddings. He was empathetic and caustic and kind. I was a difficult student (a terrible student), but he was always on my side. I think of him often.
Largely because of this teacher, Philip Larkin is the only poet for me. Philip Larkin puts his finger in an aching, adolescent spot and presses just hard enough to leave one with a lingering delicious pain. Even so, I love that Wallace Stevens poem, the one tucked inside my graduation gift. It’s called “The Poems of Our Climate.” Here’s how it goes:
Clear water in a brilliantbowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
A the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations–one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged.
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
I’m so impatient, I’m a bad reader of poetry. I read poems like I read novels, rushing to find out what happens. A poem is what happens, though, and I usually arrive at the end of one breathless and flummoxed. It’s like sprinting to the flight gate, heart bursting, only to find you’ve got the wrong day. The wrong month, even. So I read this poem a number of times before I understood that it had been written especially for me.
I keep the note inside the book. They go together. They go together because I got them together and because “The imperfect is our paradise” could be the book’s epigraph. It would make a hell of an epitaph, too.
The Berlin Stories is two short novels, published separately in the 1930s. New Directions put them together in 1945. It was an inspired pairing. The novels support one another. Together they flesh out the world Isherwood describes: Berlin of the very early 1930s, imperfect in the extreme, but a paradise for Isherwood’s hitherto uneven talent.
The first novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, is an affectionate panegyric to an old reprobate. Mr. Norris is into petty crime, BDSM, and poorly written porn. He wears an almost-convincing wig, and has two doors to his apartment: “Arthur Norris. Private” and “Arthus Norris. Import Export.” A most unlikely communist, he’s also an inveterate double-crosser, fooling no one but himself (and, sometimes, Isherwood). The details the novel provides about the Communist Party of the period are interesting, but mostly they lend to the farcical aspect of Isherwood’s story. It’s almost as silly as Travels With my Aunt, but it feels real. Perhaps it is.
Goodbye to Berlin provides fine counterbalance. Its subject is the city, as it was gearing up to participate in one of civilization’s greatest horrors. On the first page Isherwood tells us, in an rare meta moment, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
This novel is something like the first cantos of Inferno. Pre-war Berlin is the outskirts of hell, and its people, through Isherwood’s lens, are its lesser sinners–the lustful, the slothful, the avaricious. In the Nowaks’ cramped attic flat, Isherwood seems literally to inhabit a part of hell, what with the suffocating stove and the freezing draughts, Frau Nowak coughing out her lungs, fat Grete and piggish Otto and Nazi Lothar and Isherwood’s suspicious rash and the sounds of the tenement all around him. They eat lung hash, cooked by the consumptive Frau. I don’t know what lung hash is, but it sounds like hell. Even Bernard Landauer, the doomed department store scion, is something out of the first circle–a gentle, urbane philosopher, damned only for falling outside Jesus’ jurisdiction.
Like Dante writing Inferno, Isherwood knew the worst as he wrote. If Otto and Peter and Sally Bowles (later of Cabaret fame) are Isherwood’s lesser criminals, there are intimations of the coming inner circles: the violent, the treacherous, the Devil himself. Isherwood left Berlin in ’33. The writing was on the wall.
But for all that these stories anticipate an onslaught of death, they celebrate life. Isherwood celebrates the lowlifes of Berlin, the bizarre modes of sex and romance, the vicissitudes of fortune, the indignities of poverty, the shabby glamor of his writer’s life. I love when he gets a five mark piece from a wealthy pupil, tosses it in the air to celebrate, drops it, and scrambles to find it in a pile of sand. I like how he goes to bed drunk and worries about his rash. I like how he speaks German and listens to his landlady lament her large bosom.
I read this book every year. It is a good book for the end of December. It is piquant and sad, like New Year’s Eve. Bittersweet is not the right word, it’s too pat and saccharine for Isherwood and for this Berlin. When I began to think about the book for this essay, I wondered if there is something awful in enjoying a story that heralds the death of millions. But I don’t think of it as a holocaust novel. (It’s my privilege not to, I understand; it was Isherwood’s privilege to leave Berlin, too.)
No, I think of it as marking time. It’s about storytelling and memory, for all it is about hell. It is a story about time and how it passes, and it reminds me of time that has passed. Isherwood used his story to call out to friends long-disappeared, to remember a part of his life that was gone. It was a way to remember a time when everything was uncertain, and better for that uncertainty. The worse had yet to happen.
This book is one of my most treasured gifts. For me it is the dear memory of that teacher, and leaving school, and leaving adolescence. When I first read it, this book was a harbinger of freedom, even if freedom turned out to be different than I expected.
I can’t say it right, what it means to me. The imperfect is so hot in me, lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.