A Year in Reading: Merve Emre

I have a hard time remembering the books I have read without also remembering who I have read them with or where. Increasingly, since so much of my reading is done out loud to my children, it seems natural to me that all reading should be shared reading of one sort or another. Sifting through text messages, chats, emails, and the letters and envelopes scattered around my office, I have pieced together a calendar of the books I have read and the people who made them matter.

January, February: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, “stories that show how the momentary convergence of yearning and surrender can make time hang still,” I shout first at Stephanie, then at the bartender serving us, before putting the thought in an essay on Williams; Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach (“one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” Len writes to me after reading a draft of my essay on Garner)—novels built out of beautifully Brechtian tableaux. My calendar reminds me that most of February was spent at festivals and talks, reading on freezing trains. On a train to Harrogate: Dasa Drndić’s Doppelganger, which features an old lady giving an old man a hand job beat out to a Nazi alphabet primer. On a train to Cambridge: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, the best anatomization of how one person can colonize another’s thought after a break up. During a long weekend in New York: Drndić’s Belladonna, EEG, and Trieste for an essay about Drndić’s novels of unsuccessful self-annihilation. On a flight to Glasgow, Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, about an inexperienced, neurotic, young man seduced by a wry, charismatic, older woman.

March, April: Nightwood, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Giovanni’s Room, Housekeeping, Beloved, novels I re-read during the term with my students. (“Is modernism inherently depressing or do you just like depressing modernist novels?” one asks.); Siri Hustvedt’s fine and predictable Memories of the Future for a review. Obsessed with telescopes and other instruments of sight after scientists release the first image of a black hole, I read Margaret Cavendish’s mind-blowing The Blazing World and Poems and Fancies and Danielle Dutton’s enchanting novelization of Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. I chase down some seventeenth century scholars, all of them named Katharine (why?), so I can learn how old telescopes work.

In mid-April, my friend Sarah comes to visit Oxford. A sense of civility and calm descends on my loud, disordered home. She airs out the cottage, opens a bottle of wine, roasts a chicken, and makes a salad, the likes of which my children have never seen before because I feed them only frozen peas, still frozen. We read together. The kids—The Jolly Postman, Each Peach Pear Plum, Julián Is a Mermaid, Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug. She—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, interrupting her reading every ten minutes to groan at me. (I prefer Conversations with Friends.) Me—The Last Samurai, the pages of which have stiffened into little waves after I laughed so hard at DeWitt’s mad, philological genius that I dropped the book into the tub. To make Sarah happy again, I take her to Blackwell’s and make her buy her own copy of The Last Samurai, which has a nicer cover than mine because it’s the U.K. edition. She reads it in a single sitting the next day, draped over the couch in my office, and complains that Jonathan Safran Foer ripped off Helen DeWitt when he wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Only his version was squishier,” she says.

At the very end of April, someone—I wish I could remember who, but I can’t—recommends Olive Moore’s Spleen, a forgotten modernist novel, painterly and queer, about the fearful eroticism of maternity. In Paris for work, I do an interview with British Vogue about “serious erotic fiction,” trying hard to convince the wide-eyed editor that Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is full of practical sex tips. On the flight to Guernsey for a festival, I read the first half of my friend Rachel’s forthcoming book On Compromise: Essays on Art and Democracy, which is bracing and sensitive and funny.

May: a month consumed by gradually escalating illnesses. A sniffle, a cold, a sinus infection, bronchitis. I am bravely preparing to die of tuberculosis in a garret somewhere when I receive a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death from Nicholas at the New York Review of Books. How does he know nothing heals me like a novel about French aristocrats and artists behaving badly? Convalescing, I blow through Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the urging of Sarah, who is convinced that my life is always one punch in the face away from a Murdoch novel. The recommendation is seconded by our friend Gloria. “When I gave this book to my roommate when we were twenty-two, she said she felt like bread that just discovered butter,” Gloria writes. “I have never forgotten that.” On the train to Cardiff for a talk, I read Adam Sach’s debut novel The Organs of Sense, which is extremely funny on seventeenth-century telescopes, blind astronomers, and the temporary luminosity of love.

June: Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (cold, gleaming), then to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (eddying, frantic), poolside at Cliveden House where I burn badly, convinced that the English sun is too puny to warrant sun screen; Fran Ross’s Oreo after swimming the Thames, flanked by unarousable cows; Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, one of only three non-fiction books I will read this year and the inspiration for the bookish tattoo I get at the end of the month.

July: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, before a flight to Turkey to drop the kids off with my mother at her summer house on the coast. On the flight there, I read them the animal books they love: Just So Stories, Where the Wild Things Are, The Elephant and the Bad Baby. My last night at my mother’s, I stay up too late reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena, which I find on the shelf of the guest bedroom. I am mesmerized by how Frank—Milena calls him Frank; I will too—burdens this woman with his torment, yet how real and irreducible that torment seems. I am sad that Milena’s side of the correspondence has not survived. I like her voice as I encounter it in the appendix to the book, in a letter to Max Brod. It’s a voice that seeks reality and clarity and, glimpsing both, bends toward compassion. There’s an excellent description of how annoying it is to accompany Frank to the post office. I reread Lydia Davis’s short story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to hear the echoes of that voice, mined for its comic potential: “I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t.” On a flight to New York, I read over a dozen applications for the Whiting Non-Fiction Grant, though the one that I remember best, because it feels fated somehow, is a haunting new translation of Kafka’s diaries by Ross Benjamin.

August, back in the U.K., reunited with the kids: Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, because I have decided to include a chapter in this book I’m trying to finish writing on the short story and close reading; Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, because it’s “the new Ben Lerner” and because I used to be a high school debater. In the passenger seat on a drive to Cornwall, I pivot to read backwards to the kids—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon, Julia Donaldson’s Tabby McTat, all of which I have memorized, so I can recite instead of reading—until I start to feel car sick. While they nap, I finish Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and begin Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, recommended by Claire, who describes Mosely as a “bloodless D.H. Lawrence”—lots of shadowy evil, too little golden sex. On the ride home, I write a short, exorcising essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, a grim, anti-Romantic novella about a woman who murders her cheating husband. The week after in Paris, everyone gets a 24-hour stomach bug, only no one gets it in the same 24 hours. The trip becomes a relay race of illness. The kids are listless, filthy. I read them their favorites: Lost and FoundUp and DownHow to Catch a StarStuckThe Incredible Book Eating Boy, all by the magnificent children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. I read chapter 42 of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady on my phone about a dozen times because his sentences stave off nausea. 

September: On a trip to Boston and New York: Deborah Levy’s calm, aphoristic The Cost of Living—Sarah’s copy, a re-read from last December; Fleur Jaeggy’s S.S. Proleterka. Three Lives, and I Am the Brother of XX and Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, all courtesy of Mieke who invites me to raid her bookshelf at New Directions; the proofs for The Ferrante Letters with Kat, Jill, and Sarah, which I read aloud to us around Sarah’s kitchen table because I always read proofs aloud, though it is slow and excruciating. At a conference in South Bend, Nan recommends Susan Choi’s My Education, about a graduate student who sleeps with her literature professor’s wife, a literature professor too but also—shocking and confusing to all involved—a young mother. I read it on the plane home, and find that, like most relationships, the novel is fun and full of possibility in the first half, turns stale and falls apart in the second.

October: Len, who is on a one-man crusade against what he calls the “New Piety” in literary criticism, convinces me to read Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire. It starts out funny—Roth is trying hard to retool Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” as a comic novel—but Roth makes compulsive sexual desire into such a sad, annihilating thing that my laughter runs out quickly. In an afternoon, I read Isabel Waidner’s propulsive We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, a Brexit novel that manages to write about the present without making the present feel dated; in a night, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s Correspondence, which, though not as intense or agonized as Letters to Milena, still crackles with Celan’s despair and Bachmann’s self-possession. On a flight to Stockholm at the end of the month: Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, for a talk I’m supposed to give preemptively titled “Critical Love Studies.” (What does this mean? I don’t know yet.)

November is frantic with reading to crowd out the holidays, which leave me bored and melancholy. There is Hermione Lee’s engrossing biography of Virginia Woolf and Volumes 2 and 3 of Woolf’s diaries for the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway I am annotating and introducing; John Berger’s sexy, phenomenologically attentive G., on Len’s recommendation, and Alison Light’s compassionate memoir about marriage and communism, A Radical Romance, on Pam’s; The Complete Gary Lutz for an essay on the un-erotics of art and sad literary men; all of Benjamin Chaud’s gorgeously illustrated Bear books to my children and the new Oliver Jeffers book The Fate of Fausto, a parable about an angry, possessive man for whom nothing in the world is enough. “What is enough?” my younger son asks. I do not know how to answer.

In mid-November, Diane Williams, who I have dinner and drinks with after a reading she gives in London, tells me to read John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce.” I do, ending the year more or less where it started. Though by the time this piece goes up, I may finally finish Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I have been reading at a disciplined snail’s pace of 20 pages a night for the past several months.

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Speculative Evidence: Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration

Adolf Hitler loved Mickey Mouse. Mickey’s Fire Brigade, Mickey’s Polo Team, Pluto Outwits Mickey — for Hitler, Mickey Mouse was magic. Hitler loved Mickey Mouse so much that, in 1937, Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Reich Ministry of Popular Entertainment and Propaganda, sent the Führer 12 Mickey Mouse films (plus “a wonderful art album”) for Christmas. The box set was a gift that Goebbels hoped would bring his dictator “much joy and relaxation” as Hitler proceeded with his plans to conquer Europe, systematically annihilating two-thirds of its Jewish inhabitants along the way.

Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler begins with this startling juxtaposition. It is the unholy alliance of Hitler and Mickey that tees up Urwand’s central claim: from 1933 to 1939, the Jewish moguls who ran Hollywood’s studio system “collaborated” with the Nazi regime, censoring and even quashing films that represented the German state in a negative light.

According to Urwand, the studios were motivated by profit, pure and simple. In 1932, Germany represented Hollywood’s biggest foreign market, a business opportunity complicated by the fact that the German Foreign Office claimed the right to deny import permits to any film whose “tendency or effect” was “detrimental to German prestige.” It was no accident that Germany’s tightening oversight of its film imports came at precisely the same moment that writers and directors — ranging from Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz to Hitler parodist Charlie Chaplin — sought to expose Nazi evil on the silver screen. But markets trumped morals. Films like The Road Back (1937) and Lancer Spy (1937) were hacked up according to German demands, while anti-Nazi films like The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here were relegated to dustbins on Hollywood Boulevard.   

Urwand finds evidence of “collaboration” (Zusammenarbeit) everywhere. He finds it in the letters of studio heads, like Universal Pictures’ Carl Laemmle and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who allegedly pulled films that alluded to Germany’s “Jewish Problem.” He finds it in records of meetings between the Hays Office, Hollywood’s chief censorship organization, and a revolving door of German diplomats, each more unctuous than the last. And crucially for Urwand’s purposes, he finds it in Hitler’s incoherent scribblings on film and propaganda in Mein Kampf (1926). If Hitler “derived a lot of pleasure” from Mickey and friends, “he was also seduced by them. He believed that they contained a mysterious, almost magical power that somehow resembled his own abilities as an orator.” And so Urwand claims that “Hitler himself” sits “at the center” of the studio system’s complicity with the Third Reich, dictating from his private screening room in the Chancellery which movies were “good,” “bad,” or needed to be “switched off.”

Armed with an embarrassment of archival riches, Urwand draws a conclusion that would make Hannah Arendt sit up and pay attention were she alive today. Indeed, it seems impossible to read The Collaboration without hearing echoes of Arendt’s reasoning in Eichmann in Jerusalem — her indictment of the “Jewish ‘collaborators’” who “had cooperated [with the Nazis] because they thought they could ‘avert consequences more serious than those which resulted.” While Hollywood studios “had the chance to show the world what was really happening in Germany,” he argues, they were too busy kowtowing to the bottom line to “expose the brutality of the Nazi regime” in action. Although Urwand stops just short of offering his readers a full counterfactual history, his implication is clear. There is blood on Hollywood’s hands.

Since word of The Collaboration got out this past June, the hype surrounding it has given way to a firestorm of personal and professional trash talk. Perhaps it began with the cover letter that Urwand’s publicity team at Goldberg McDuffie Communications, Inc. sent to reviewers, which talks up The Collaboration while simultaneously dissing film historian Thomas P. Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, a strikingly similar account of the Third Reich’s dealings with the studio system that came out only six months earlier. “Whereas Doherty relied on flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers, Urwand discovered a vast array of primary source materials,” wrote Urwand’s publicist, seeking to undermine Doherty’s far milder claim that, when it came to Nazism, “the motion picture industry was no worse than the rest of American culture in its failure of nerve and imagination, and often a good deal better in the exercise of both.”

But Urwand’s team seems to have forgotten that all publicity is good publicity, especially where academic historians are concerned. So baited, Doherty struck back in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter. Urwand’s charges of collaboration were “scandalous and ahistorical,” Doherty argued, an irresponsible retro-projection of the Vichy and Soviet government’s political collaboration with the Nazis onto the Hollywood studio system. He was, however, much nicer in print than Hollywood heiresses Cass Warner and Alicia Mayer, the latter of whom attacked Urwand’s “sickening claims” on her blog Hollywood Essays. “I need your help,” Mayer begins her petition to blacklist Urwand’s book. “Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis…How could one book destroy the amazing legacies left by my family and those of the Warners, the Goldwyns and others?” Spurred on by her outrage, Mayer calls on Doherty along with film historian Michael Greco and director Quentin Tarantino to strike down Urwand’s “terrible libel.”

By now, Urwand has surely realized that someone had blundered by riling up Doherty, who proves a far better critic than Urwand. Hollywood and Hitler is a tighter, more riveting read than The Collaboration, and Doherty displays the methodical prowess of a historian who doesn’t have to scandalize to sell his story. More importantly, Doherty’s unwillingness to stretch the limits of interpretation throws into relief The Collaboration’s many sleights of hand, the dark magic of a historian’s misreadings across a series of otherwise fascinating archives.

At its best moments, The Collaboration covers ground well tread by Doherty and others, offering by-the-book sketches of the Nazi riots at the 1933 screening of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the failed anti-Nazi film The Mad Dog of Europe, and the proto-fascist spectacle of films like Gabriel Over the White House (1933). At its worst, The Collaboration proceeds by insinuation rather than proof, clumsily contorting its archival findings to fit Urwand’s agenda of character assassination. Consider, for instance, how Urwand treats Twentieth Century Fox’s Oscar nominated movie The House of Rothschild (1934), an attempt to allegorize the rise of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century by narrating the history of Mayer Rothschild’s banking empire. Politically incorrect by today’s standards, The House of Rothschild was praised at the time of its release by rabbis and Jewish affiliates of B’nai B’rith. Six years after The House of Rothschild premiered in the U.S., the Nazis spliced footage from The House of Rothschild into The Eternal Jew (1940), a vicious piece of anti-Semitic propaganda directed by Fritz Hippler. From this, Urwand concludes that The Eternal Jew was “unthinkable without The House of Rothschild,” as it “provided structure to what otherwise would have been the regime’s usual anti-Semitism.” But Urwand fails to tell us how long this footage lasts — a mere 4 minutes — nor does he draw attention to the long history of “The Eternal Jew” as a folklore figure, a Yiddish-language play, a British film, a 1937 anti-Semitic book, or a Nazi art exhibit, all preceding or contemporaneous with the American film. If the actual details of The Eternal Jew deflate much of Urwand’s overblown rhetoric, they’re also beside the point. To label Hippler’s cut-and-paste job an act of collaboration between Hollywood and the Nazis is a little like calling shoplifting collaboration between a thief and a shopkeeper.

The Collaboration is littered with such analytic missteps. Pick a page, and read it carefully, and some thread of Urwand’s argument is bound to unravel in your hands. There are conclusions that feel shaky the instant you land upon them — for example, his claim that Germany’s ban on Warner Brothers’ film Captured! (1933) somehow scared the other studios into “collaborating with Nazi Germany” seems both vague and implausible. There are instances where Urwand cites anecdotal evidence only to undercut it, only to rely on it in pushing his argument forward. His introductory chapter “Hitler’s Obsession with Film” is especially troubling in this regard, as he introduces his sustained analogy between Hitler’s oratorical skills and movie magic on the testimony of Hitler’s friend Reinhold Hanisch, an account he first flags as “dubious in several respects.” And finally, there are whole chapters in which Urwand’s fascinating and contradictory strands of evidence are muted by an overly pat conclusion. When, for instance, Urwand can’t find any solid proof that Louis B. Mayer personally pulled Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist film It Can’t Happen Here for fear of the Third Reich, he reads Mayer’s “no comment” as an obvious admission of his guilt. Of course, this ignores Urwand’s earlier evidence that Mayer repeatedly “decided to push ahead with It Can’t Happen Here” despite the German government’s protests.  

All of this is simply to say, if you only read one book this year on Hollywood and the Nazis, don’t read this one. And it’s a shame, really, because there’s an extraordinary book to be written using the evidence that Urwand extracted from his German and American sources. As a critic, the best part of reading The Collaboration is fantasizing about the book it might have been — something less sensational, but more patient and responsible with its raw materials. I was beckoned time and again by flashes of archival mystery: Hitler’s childish fascination with not just Mickey, but the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy and the sentimentality of musical theater; the genesis of national typecasting in Howard Hughes’s World War I film Hell’s Angels; the unspecified and fluid relationship between the studio centers in Hollywood and their foreign branches. The list goes on, but it matters little. After all, critics can’t be collaborators.