Swept up in the wave of resignations and mea culpa that rolled through the literary establishment at the height of the #metoo movement late last year was Paris Review editor Lorin Stein. Stein stepped down from his post on December 6, 2017, amid an internal investigation into his treatment of female employees and writers. After he was tapped for the job in 2010, Stein had garnered media buzz as the Paris Review’s “new playboy,” according to a 2011 New York Times profile, a fixture of the glamorous, boozy New York literary life hired to reboot the magazine’s cool quotient. It turned out otherwise.
But in the midst of this very public housecleaning, there emerged a curious erasure that was, if less spectacular than Stein’s ouster, perhaps even more telling as a measure of the uphill work women routinely face in the literary establishment. For Stein, widely cited in the media coverage of the scandal as the third editor in the history of the Paris Review, was in fact its fourth editor. This calculus left out Brigid Hughes, hired as George Plimpton’s successor in 2004 and dismissed just one year later.
How did this error manage to slip through the fact-checkers, become enshrined in print as the official history of a leading literary magazine? A.N. Devers, a London-based novelist and rare book dealer, provided an answer. “I’m going to show you how a woman is erased from her job,” she announced in a thread posted to Twitter on December 7, 2017, the day following Stein’s departure. Devers backtracked through the New York Times’s coverage of the Paris Review leadership, from Hughes’ dismissal in 2005 (a move the board’s female members met by resigning in protest), through the hiring of Philip Gourevitch, through the latter’s replacement in 2010 by Stein. The Times article announcing the changing of the guard failed to mention Hughes’s tenure, an omission that was sealed into the historical record one year later with the running of the “playboy” profile, declaring Stein “only the third to hold the title in the magazine’s 58-year history, and the second to follow George Plimpton, himself a legendary New York social figure.” According to Devers, even after being called out on the omission, the Times failed to retract or amend the error.
It is these kinds of erasures that Michelle Dean’s new book, Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, is meant to remedy. Focusing on the self-styled “New York intellectuals” of the 1940s, but radiating out to include both forerunners and inheritors, Dean documents the intersecting lives and works of ten twentieth-century American literary women from Dorothy Parker to Janet Malcolm. None of the writers on her list can be said, properly speaking, to have slipped through the cracks of literary and cultural history. And yet, as Dean notes, most sweeping histories of modern American letters continue to frame it as a story dominated by men, with women cast in walk-on roles. “The longer I looked at the work these women laid out before me,” she confesses in the preface, “the more puzzling I found it that anyone could look at the literary and intellectual history of the twentieth century and not center women in it.”
Dean’s book is a riposte to this systematic decentering, providing a counter-narrative to the well-worn tales of American literary critical fathers and sons. Along the way, Sharp offers a catalogue of the complex strategies twentieth-century women have adopted, both consciously and unconsciously, in order to navigate a man’s world: to stave off, precisely, being “erased from their job.”
Sharp is divided into fourteen chapters, one devoted to each of Dean’s ten principal subjects individually, with the remaining four chronicling their complex interrelationships. Dean explains that she gathered the women in her study, “under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: they were called sharp.” Some, like Dorothy Parker, were sharp by temperament. Her innate “inability to accept other people’s self-images” at face value, Dean suggests, “haunted her as a critic.” She was dismissed from her post as theater reviewer for Vanity Fair after bruising one too many Broadway egos. Nonetheless she persisted; Parker would spring back to helm The New Yorker’s “Constant Reader” column in the 1920s. Others profiled in the book viewed sharpness as a moral imperative, like Pauline Kael who, according to Dean, believed her role as critic demanded that she “run roughshod over the politics of reputation.” Still others were, if not motivated by it, at least attentive to the promotional uses of sharp criticism. Nora Ephron, who once famously quipped that to the writer, ‘everything is copy,’ would turn her “willingness to anger the people she knew… [into a] professional asset.”
The adjective “sharp” could be bestowed as a compliment, suggesting these were women with wit, brains, smarts. A number wrote manifestos calling for a more robustly critical criticism, bemoaning the milquetoast flavor pervading modern literary reviews (“a chorus of weak cheers… that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger,” Rebecca West charged in a 1914 essay appropriately titled “The Duty of Harsh Criticism”). In this case, sharpness connoted intellectual rigor.
But more frequently, as Dean documents, “sharp” was lodged as a complaint by male writers who claimed that these women’s cutting, acid, venomous (choose your painful adjective) prose belied a failure of femininity, in the best of cases, and a failure of critical seriousness, in the worst. Whether they came to sharpness by temperament or calculated choice, these women’s style provided ample fodder for those eager to dismiss or dilute their seriousness. While declaring Mary McCarthy’s novel The Company They Keep “very serious,” Alfred Kazin went on to dampen the compliment by suggesting the book’s prose was “as maliciously female as one chorus girl’s comments on another.” Pauline Kael’s 1963 take-down of the boys club of “auteur” film critics was met with an acid rebuttal from Movie magazine targeting her “fanatical feminism” as grounds for a blanket dismissal of her views: “When Miss Kael says that there are no female auteur critics, she is right. She could have gone further: there are, alas, no female critics.”
In addition to being trivialized as “catty” or “hysterical,” these women were frequently savaged for their lack of manners—a critique from which male writers were, naturally, exempt. Lionel Abel, a member of the New York intellectual set, famously referred to Hannah Arendt as “Hannah Arrogant” behind her back— an epithet she earned for daring to wade into the traditionally masculine fields of philosophy and politics. When Susan Sontag’s first collection of essays appeared in print, a Washington Post reviewer sniffed that its author was, “hardly a likable person”; her voice “rasps and is rude and strident,” they complained. In the highly gendered responses to these women’s voices, sharpness bled into shrill, and commitment tipped over into crazy.
Dean meticulously traces the intricate webs, both institutional and personal, that bound these women together and kept them afloat. McCarthy and Sontag overlapped at the Partisan Review and were frequently lumped together as critics. “I hear you’re the new me,” an apocryphal story has McCarthy quipping to Sontag when they were first introduced at a literary soiree. McCarthy and Arendt, after a spat upon first meeting, eventually made up one day when forced to wait on a subway platform together, and were lifelong friends ever after. McCarthy delivered the eulogy at Arendt’s funeral, and painstakingly pieced together her friend’s notes for posthumous publication as The Life of the Mind. Not all of the connections Dean unearths are this substantial. She also records these critics’ references to one another that crop up in passing, littered through letters and interviews, such as aging silent-film star Louise Brooks’s comment to Pauline Kael upon receiving a copy of her latest book: “‘Your picture on the dust cover made me think of Dorothy Parker when she was young in a moment of happiness.’” Such off-hand remarks suggest that even when they hadn’t met face-to-face, these women haunted each other’s mental universes. They were icons: whether to be smashed or modeled mattered little. They measured for one another, even if unconsciously, the terrain already covered, and that still left to conquer.
Conspicuously absent from this milieu are women writers of color— an absence Dean addresses, and that is made painfully clear when, in Chapter Three, Zora Neale Hurston makes a cameo appearance that is most notable for its brevity. Where the other writers weave in and out of each other’s lives with predictable regularity and ease, Hurston never penetrated their chummy circle. Dean brings her up in the context of Rebecca West’s 1947 coverage for The New Yorker of the Willie Earle lynching trial in South Carolina. West was shocked by the lynching in the standard way New York liberals always claimed to be shocked by racist violence in the South. But the resulting piece failed to probe the dynamics of American race relations in any substantial way, and Dean notes that West’s offense at the proceedings was “an offense taken on the part of humanity” rather than on the part of African Americans specifically.
Zora Neale Hurston would have been a better choice to report on the trial. But black writers, while their novels were covered by major white literary publications in a tip of the hat to “the Negro problem,” were scrupulously excluded from these same forums in the role of critic, Dean writes. Hurston protested this exclusion. “The fact that there is no demand for incisive and full-dress stories about Negroes above the servant class is indicative of something of vast importance to this nation,” she wrote in a 1950 editorial, entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” for The Negro Digest. The protest was, of course, a cry in the wilderness, unlikely to be read by the very white publishers who were in a position to do something about it. Hurston’s double erasure— as a woman, as an African American— was not an erasure the white women critics in Dean’s study were equipped to, or even particularly interested in, addressing. When Hurston died in 1961, she was buried in Florida in an unmarked grave in The Garden of Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery.
The critics in Dean’s study were not always friends. They could tongue-lash one another just as well as outside targets. Pauline Kael criticized one of Joan Didion’s novels as “ridiculously swank,” claiming to have read it “between bouts of disbelieving giggles.” And Kael was flogged in turn by fledgling critic Renata Adler, who in the pages of the New York Review of Books baldly declared the former’s collection of film reviews, When the Lights Go Down, “worthless.” Feminine solidarity, in other words, was not their strong suit.
This contrarian streak is evident, Dean emphasizes, in her subjects’ general hostility to second-wave feminism. By and large, they viewed feminism as reductive, essentialist, and overly emotional. Arendt was perhaps the most cutting, declaring Women’s Liberation “not serious,” and opining flatly that the “woman problem” had never posed a problem for her (she had “always just done what she liked to do,” she once remarked airily. Didion, Sontag, and Ephron shared her skepticism, with Ephron the most tolerant of the three. Still, even she complained of the pressure she felt to review feminist writers positively which, if it made for “good politics,” decidedly did not make for “good criticism.” Knee-jerk group allegiance worked against truth and honesty, Ephron insisted— a sentiment clearly shared by others in Dean’s group.
Dean is clear-eyed in treating her subjects’ ambivalent relationship to feminism, and honest about the delicacy of her own position as a feminist marshalling these women’s stories in the name of a more gender-inclusive history. (At one point, she imagines Hannah Arendt rolling over in her grave were she to guess at her inclusion in such a book). Yet she defends her choice of subjects, noting she was troubled by the number of feminist critics she encountered during her research who “wanted to cut these women out of history” for failing to turn their talents “to the explicit support of feminism.” This impulse to erase dissenters, she asserts, would be an error. In what comes across as a model of sense and sensitivity in the context of our fractious twenty-first century efforts to construct a workable feminist practice, Dean agrees that while feminism is “supposed to be about sisterhood,” it is also possible for sisters to argue— even to the point of estrangement. “It is not only commonality that defines us,” she remarks in closing. “There is room, in this deep ambivalence about and even hostility toward feminism, to take away a feminist message.”
Within the first few pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion narrates with clinical precision the evening her husband died, of a heart attack, as they were sitting down together for dinner. At the hospital, after his body has been discretely tucked away behind a curtain, she overhears a social worker telling the on-call doctor that he needn’t mince words, as she is “a cool customer.” The phrase is one that Didion retains, bemused by what it might imply: that she has failed in her new role of grieving widow? That she is deficient in the art of feeling?
If “sharp” women fail at femininity by evincing improper or inappropriate feeling, even more egregious are those who fail to feel at all: those who manifest not sharp edges but, to quote Emily Dickinson, “a Quartz contentment, like a stone.” It is this latter quality in the work of female critics that forms the heart of Deborah Nelson’s study, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Dean’s and Nelson’s lists of cutting women overlap, and both center their studies loosely on the post-war New York intellectual scene. But where Dean’s project involves mapping the social milieu of literary New York in order to trace her writers’ interconnected passages through it, Nelson’s work is more theoretical. What critics often deride as the “tough,” unfeeling, or indifferent tone of these writers’ prose, Nelson argues is in fact a conscious ethical choice. A critic for the Washington Post once complained of Sontag that, “there is nothing in this book to indicate that she cares very much what we think of her tone and manners,” and he was absolutely right: these writers’ eschewed thinking about the readers’ “feelings,” not as a matter or oversight, but as a matter of principle.
These artists wrote (or photographed, in the case of Arbus) against the cultural grain for at least two reasons. First, women writers from the nineteenth century onward had been associated with the sentimental style, using emotion in their work in order to bring about social change. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a tear-jerking depiction of the evils of slavery, was intended as political protest, and was largely successful. An apocryphal story tells of Abraham Lincoln greeting the authoress at the White House as, “the little woman whose book started the great war.” If sappiness was somewhat out of style by the 1950s and 60s, the basic premise of sentimentalism was not: sympathy, compassion, and identification with the pain of others was the key to healing collective wounds, as well as to bringing about political and social change. The nascent feminist and civil rights movements, Nelson suggests, looked to leverage such “bonds of feeling and group identification” with the experience of pain in order to bring about social change.
The women artists in Nelson’s study quite simply refused to accept the efficacy of sympathy as a political wedge. In doing so, they ran afoul not only of the gendered conventions for protest, but also the ambient culture of therapeutic healing and shared feeling as the road to progress. These women confronted painful subjects, but refused to do so from the point of view of empathy. In bucking this liberal imperative, they committed an unpardonable sin— for which they were frequently excommunicated, by leftists and feminists alike.
Perhaps the most notorious example of critical heartlessness— which Dean treats at length in her book as well— is the 1963 publication of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a principal architect of the Nazi Final Solution, caused an uproar in the critical community for what Gershom Scholem called the “heartless, frequently almost malicious or sneering tone” with which she treated the topic. Her characterization of Eichmann as almost comically ordinary and “thoughtless” rather than evil incarnate was read by many as levity, a refusal to take the suffering of his Jewish victims at its full measure.
Yet what others diagnosed as a failure of feeling in Arendt was in fact a conscious choice to exile sentiment from politics. Arendt’s prodigious body of political philosophy and criticism is, in Nelson’s analysis, one long meditation on the dangers of bringing feeling into the public sphere. For Arendt, political rhetoric which shifts attention away from an event to feelings about the event is liable to lead to precisely the kind of murderous “thoughtlessness” she diagnoses in Eichmann. For Eichmann is so dangerous not because he is unthinkably evil, but because he fails to think at all: in the place of imagining plurality, the possibility of other points of view, he substitutes cliché, oceanic “feeling,” commitment to a utopian ideal that necessarily runs roughshod over any fact (or person) whose particularity resists it. “The answer for her,” Nelson concludes, “is to refuse to translate the horrors into emotion rather than into language.”
The other writers in Nelson’s study follow a similar logic, insisting that the saturation of public life by “feeling” and spectacles of suffering ironically leads to numbness and inaction rather than a true understanding of the sources of suffering. Sontag included rigorous critiques of sympathy as a useful response to art in her writing on photography and on the Vietnam War. Sympathy, she claimed, was a way of stroking our egos (we congratulate ourselves on our capacity to feel for others, or “feeling good about one’s capacities for feeling bad,” as Nelson writes) while sanctioning political inaction and immobility. The “moral drama of helplessness” is intensely seductive, she argues—and for that reason must be resisted. It is only by exiling feeling from the portrayal of suffering, eliminating the possibility for a sham ethics of what Nelson calls “consolatory distraction [or] moral vanity,” that a writer is true to her subject and to the lived, irreducible experience of pain.
If Dean’s study is an effort to rectify a certain erasure of critical women from the annals of American literary history, Nelson’s project is also, at some level, a work of restitution. She resurrects a strain of distinctly feminine political engagement that, in refusing the gendered polarity of masculine stoicism and feminine feeling, quite simply failed to register as a tradition at all. The fact that these women critics so obviously fell short of expected modes of feminine ethical response—soft, sympathetic, emotionally expressive—not only brought censure upon them individually, but contributed to the historical erasure of emotional detachment as a legitimate alternative to the politics of empathy.
Finally, Nelson’s study clarifies a question left open by Dean’s book: why Sontag, Arendt, Didion and McCarthy were so lukewarm on feminism. Their commitment to the concrete, the individual, the “fact” made them suspicious of abstract principles generally, especially group identity or what today would be called “identity politics.” They could only see such blanket categories as, in Ephron’s words, constricting and “dishonest.” They saw their fierce commitment to the value of the individual and particularity as a bulwark against the political and historical dangers of abstraction— not to mention the aesthetic pitfalls of didacticism.
These women fought, tooth and nail, against the harassment, wrath, dismissal, and erasure that waited for them around every corner as they sought to secure a place for themselves in male-dominated literary institutions. They were subjected to this treatment because they belonged to a class of humans long held incapable of critical genius. And it was because, perhaps, their membership in this class (“women” writers) had so little to do, in their own minds, with what they were capable of or who they were in the fullness of their humanity, that they were reluctant to use their successes as a political lever on behalf of other women. To do so would be to acknowledge and even reinforce the very group-based prejudice they felt was so arbitrary a barrier to their own voices being heard. It should be possible to do both.
You don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a horribly misbehaved cat of a year, careening after poltergeists, tearing up the furniture, and generally knocking over the usually steady water glasses of your soul. The tumult didn’t leave me with as much space for reading as I would have liked. I suspect I’m not alone in that.
The upside is that the books I did manage to read, the ones that briefly unscrambled my brain, stuck in my mind a bit better this year than they would in most. It’s only a small blessing, but you can’t have everything.
I try, mostly, when I am not being paid to read something, to read only old books. Books born before 1990, for example. Time has a way of sifting out much of the crap that humanity publishes. What’s left are only the more interesting artifacts of what writers are writing, some books more successful at being art than others. Plus: old books remind you that we have been through bad things before, and will go through bad things again, and we will live through the tiny interstitial moments of joy that we get in dark times. Not because it is fair, but because we have to.
I am not talking about famous famous books, per se. I tend to pick up odd little artifacts just for the hell of it. For example, in September I ended up with a copy of Calvin Trillin’s Killings, at the suggestion of a friend and by the good graces of the folks at Abebooks. (Though now out of print, mercifully the book will reappear in a Kindle edition sometime this April.) This is a book of Trillin’s articles about random murders around the country, all filed as New Yorker pieces in the 1960s and 1970s, during the tenure of William Shawn, who believed in letting writers do what they loved.
“Reporters love murders,” Trillin writes. He is right. But not all reporters can write them up the way Trillin can. These stores all have the kind of careful narrative construction you don’t see much of anymore, not in the sprawling “investigations” of a Serial or a Making a Murderer. Trillin believes in beginnings and middles, though not in clear-cut Hollywood endings, which is something that was on my mind when I did some of my own murder reporting. The lack of an ending is starting to haunt me a bit, if I’m honest. I am beginning to wonder if anything is ever really, truly over.
In a single evening in May, at a point in my life where I was beginning to wonder if my attention span would ever return to me, I consumed the whole of Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson’s memoir of, among other things, being married to John Berryman. Spoiler: he was a difficult man. I had read bits of the book before, in service of other research projects, but never had I sat down to read through the whole thing. It was delightful.
Fair warning: I am more susceptible than the average person to the intrigues of mid-century-poet gossip. I like them, even the drunk, dissolute, and occasionally abusive ones: in between royally fucking up, they seemed to be doing such meaningful work. They were not constantly publishing, of course, but also they were not tweeting. They were not debating the end of tweeting. They were not participating in whatever passes for the “cultural conversation” at all. Instead, they were trying to live lives that allowed them to write whatever the fuck they wanted. This, I have decided, should be a mission statement for me going forward in 2017. I am trying to make arrangements for the freedom to write what I really mean to write.
Which brings me to Hannah Arendt. I spent a good chunk of this year completing a book manuscript for which Hannah Arendt is something like an organizing principle. So for most of the year, I had her entire body of work at my side. Obviously she is a popular choice right now. People on Twitter claim to be reading her constantly, though sometimes it looks like they’re just scanning for quotes to tweet, particularly quotes from The Origins of Totalitarianism or Eichmann in Jerusalem.
But rather than tell you about the content of Arendt’s arguments — some of which map onto our current moment better than others — I want to make an observation about the attitude that underwrote all of them.
To brutally oversimplify her for a moment (and sweep all the arguments about the factual underpinnings of her arguments in Eichmann aside): Arendt worried most, in authoritarian regimes, about people who could not think. Thinking, for her, was both a function of intellect and a quality of attention. It was not mere ordinary stupidity. She had, in her lifetime, watched both very stupid people and very smart ones fall prey to the delusions and lies. She had known some pretty dark times. But still, she’d write in the preface for one of her books, that she believed:
That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth…
Pulled out of context, that also seems to me a brilliant reason to keep reading in a time that threatens to upend almost everything the world thought it knew about itself.
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The day after the Brexit referendum, British writer Bim Adewunmi wrote a beautiful piece in Buzzfeed about her pain, her frustration, and her fear. It took in the scope of British history — “Am I being dramatic? This feels like a dramatic moment” — and her upbringing in East London; the child of Nigerian immigrants, Adewunmi wrote that the result confirmed things she had long suspected about her home country. The line that stuck with me, that day and all the other days of 2016 that followed, was, “Can you be unsurprised but still quite shocked at the same time?”
Shocked but not surprised. This is the 2016 that I’ve struggled to reconcile with. In my reading life, it wasn’t a year of discovery; it was a long, protracted struggle to find clarity in things I knew — or things I thought I knew. As an American recently booted out of England by the Home Office, the consecutive earthquakes of Brexit and Donald Trump are invariably my two pillars of this garbage fire of a year. But even the smaller points in my life needed reorientation. Sometimes books show me new worlds; this year, I needed books to expose parts of the worlds I already knew.
It started with Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, which I finished in the earliest, bleakest days of the year. I am from a place that gets extra bleak in January, and Hunt’s novel is set near my hometown, across the broad stretch of New York state from Albany to Buffalo. Mr. Splitfoot, partly about a foster child raised in an abusive, fundamentalist family, is exquisite, both literally and physically haunting, and it tapped into my long-held fascination with the “burned-over district,” that broad stretch of central and western New York that saw wave after wave of religious fervor in the 19th century. As I read it, I thought about those endless drives to see my family in Buffalo growing up, vast stretches of flat brown land, ripe for true belief.
In the spring, I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a book that was incredibly meaningful to me, but one I know has been fairly controversial in the past few years, so I won’t discuss it at length here. (I’m a bit gun-shy after last year’s YiR, when I dove into a list of books I loved and a man asked why I hadn’t read any Thomas Hardy.) If you’ve read it, you’ll be unsurprised to know it left me regularly weeping on the R train — luckily the best possible train for weeping. I was knocked off my axis, but I found my bearings again not in any published novels, but in fanfiction, my oldest and most well-documented love.
I haven’t read much fic the past few years, despite building a career writing about it, but I fell back in over the final weeks of 2015, and this big, complicated, highly emotional book pushed me deeper into fanfiction, a realm where emotionality — affect, scholars call it — is king. I’ve long held a rule that I won’t recommend fic in the context of being a literary critic — one could argue it violates the contract between largely amateur writers and the assumed audience — but that’s a shame, because I read stories this year, many of them novel-length, that were as good as anything I encountered that was traditionally published. (I said something similar in a previous YiR, but I’m doubling down, because some of the stuff I found this year was extraordinary.) If you’re curious, there’s my fanfiction newsletter, co-authored with Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. It was born in January 2016, and it remains one of the small and steady joys of the year.
I spent the first few months of the year listening to various David Bowie albums on repeat, a response to his death that was part maudlin, part joyful, part “when I start listening to a certain album I just play it over and over again for longer than is probably healthy.” If everyone had a celebrity death that hit them hardest this year, this was mine. Even within the legions of Bowie-ites, the stuff people wallowed in served as an interesting Rorschach to see where or how they came to David Bowie, or which of his many personas spoke to them. I lingered with Ziggy, and in the final days of spring, I purchased a pair of books to try to get a little context. The first was the one I intended to buy after a bit of research, The Man Who Sold the World by Peter Doggett. The second was the one I stumbled upon, Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust by Simon Goddard. The former was grounding, but the latter shot me off into the stars.
But in late June, earthquake number one. I haven’t written much about Brexit, even though as someone who was stymied by Britain’s increasingly hostile immigration policies — and as someone who spent college studying British imperial history — I, unsurprisingly, have fairly strong feelings about what went down. (Though it’s always worth mentioning that while I was a foreigner living in the United Kingdom, I was a white, well-educated American; I didn’t face the discrimination most foreigners battle in the country.) To process the results, I found comfort in looking backwards rather than trying to wrap my head around an extraordinarily uncertain future. I spent the summer steadily working my way through When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett, and I watched Britain join the EEC — and all the conflict that surrounded the move — to try to understand its departure.
In August I got a concussion; all reading was put on hold save slogging through Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I had some…strong feelings about. But by September, it was impossible to think about anything other than November 8th. I envied friends who could compartmentalize, who weren’t consumed by the uncertainty hanging over us. I campaigned for Hillary Clinton within my own sphere — reaching out to millennials in fannish spaces, trying to push past the apathy and disillusionment. (Yeah, I’ve seen the numbers, definitely feels like we failed on this front.) And in the final days before the election, I picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, one of a long list of extraordinary books I really should have read by now. I read it on the train on my way to the Javits Center on election day, where I would wait with a few friends for hours, amongst a vast, diverse crowd of nervous but hopeful people. And then.
I am still envious of those compartmentalizing friends, of the people who take comfort in fictional worlds during times of strife. Books have never helped to distract me; in the darkest moments of my life, they are absent. The trouble with using reading to help focus on the things we’re seeing around us is we have to keep looking, eyes wide open, and it’s a brutal task as every day unveils fresh horrors. In the weeks after the election, multiple people in my feed were posting passages of Hannah Arendt, so I looked back to a little cluster of books on the very top shelf in my apartment, stuff from school I thought I might revisit some day. My freshman year of college, I took a very liberal artsy course called “Evil,” which straddled philosophy and political science. We spent about a week talking about how the image of the devil changed over the centuries, and I remember I did my final paper on the dearth of female serial killers, but the bulk of the course was about the Second World War — not about the Nazis, but about the German people. Up on my top shelf, I realized I’d kept most of the syllabus. Friedrich Nietzsche, W.G. Sebald, Arendt.
I’m desperate to understand, as I have been all year. That desperation is obviously about control, feeling like you’ve lost something that, in all honesty, you probably never even had. I’m trying to keep a hold on a world that feels like it’s made up of a mass of delicate threads, this close to snapping. So that’s me, reading Eichmann in Jerusalem on the subway in the days following the election of Donald Trump. In the dark corners of the R train, I’m not weeping anymore. People look up at my book and do a double-take. It feels hyperbolic, but like, maybe not? And also, it helps.
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Renata Adler’s new collection, After the Tall Timber, which spans 40 years of her reporting, essays, and criticism, has a distinctly valedictory purpose. It is startling to be reminded that Adler is now 76 years old — a product, as she calls herself, of World War II and the Dwight D. Eisenhower era. Her voice on the page is ageless; never that of a young writer precisely, it is even now not the voice of senescence. From the start, Adler’s work has been sophisticated, well-defended, and willfully provocative. The strong tendency of her career has been to resist the received idea — to unpack that idea, disprove it, and remind the reader whose interests the false account serves. After the Tall Timber implicitly argues for a particular view of Adler as a writer, the bomb thrower-aesthete. But as the title of her 1970 collection, Toward A Radical Middle, suggests, Adler is a bomb thrower of a curious sort, a Jean-Pau Marat figure in the service of what can seem distinctly like ancien regime values: erudition, critical distance, a restrained elegance of style.
Herewith follow some observations on one of the more unusual careers in American journalism.
1. She Is a Cautionary Tale
Adler has spent much of her career ridiculing her fellow journalists, and she has generally aimed high, repeatedly attacking The New York Times for what she views as its complacency and self-regard, lamenting the decline of The New Yorker following its sale to the Newhouse family, and suing Vanity Fair for libel. That all of these institutions employed her before, during, and/or after becoming the objects of her scorn tells us something about Adler’s self-conception; she is perennially Will Kane in High Noon, flinging her press pass into the dirt. Adler is a celebrity journalist who has decried celebrity and careerism as the dominant impulses of her peers. She has also walked the walk, consistently biting the editorial hand that feeds, frustrating the commercial motives of her publishers by producing uncategorizable work ranging across genres, and taking several years away from journalism at the height of her fame to earn a Yale J.D. Adler has written to please herself, and for posterity; and everyone else be damned. This has periodically left her unpublishable, or nearly so. These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.
2. She Was Right About The New Yorker — Before She Was Wrong
Adler’s 1999 book, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, asserted that the magazine was “dead” and that “not a single element” of the enterprise created by Harold Ross and carried forward by William Shawn remained. Adler had by then worked for The New Yorker for 35 years and was strongly identified with the magazine, though she had published elsewhere and had even left for 14 months to be The Times film critic. Shawn had, in effect, given her life as a writer, hiring her in 1963 while she was still a graduate student, and Gone is the work of someone who has taken her boss perhaps a little too seriously and the purported betrayal of the great man’s standards a bit too personally. It is also marred by a disconnect between its high-minded tone and a good deal of what amounts to score-settling with colleagues at the magazine with whom Adler had clashed either personally or in the internecine fights for editorial favor for which The New Yorker is famous. Gone is distinctly inside baseball, as one of its targets, Robert Gottlieb, noted in a New York Observer essay-review after the book was published, remarking of the web of interconnections among the main antagonists, “Small world, isn’t it?”
Still, Adler had a point. The New Yorker, at the moment she was writing, seemed to be badly adrift. The Newhouse family, owners of the glossy Condé Nast empire, had taken over in 1984, and the editorial direction signaled by the 1993 hiring of Tina Brown was not promising. Adler argued that the magazine under Brown and her predecessor, Gottlieb, had changed from being one that created its own audience through the integrity of its editorial product to one that sought a kind of commercial mean driven by a finger-to-the-breeze sense of what was hot or trending in the culture. As Gone went to print, David Remnick had just taken over from Brown as editor. How could Adler have predicted that The New Yorker under Remnick would become the consistently excellent publication that it is today — a New Yorker to rival the A.J. Liebling/Joseph Mitchell Golden Age?
3. Her Legal Journalism Is Especially Distinguished
Adler was part of a vanguard, including Lincoln Caplan, James Stewart, Steven Brill, and others, who brought to legal journalism a new rigor, technical competence (each of the foregoing had a legal education), and understanding of the law’s disciplinary tensions and limitations. Adler was a trained lawyer, but she brought a philosopher’s fine attention to the subtlest processes of discourse — to the vigorous fakery, really, of much legal argument. In this, Adler’s model seems to have been Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann In Jerusalem is one of the first and most famous trial books.
In her writings on the law, as elsewhere, it can be difficult to tell whether Adler is a cynic or a scandalized idealist. From Reckless Disregard (1986), Adler’s great book about two high-profile libel trials of the early 1980s:
[T]hough the First Amendment has been held, since [New York Times v.] Sullivan, to tolerate a certain category of inadvertently false statements, in the name of freedom of debate and of expression, it cannot be held to license wholesale violations of the Ninth Commandment, or to abrogate a profound system of values, which holds that words themselves are powerful, that false words leave the world diminished, and that false defamatory words have an actual power to do harm. Nor can it be that any Constitutional or journalistic interest is served by these stages of resolute insistence (first, in the world, after the moment of publication; then, under oath, in the courts) that the story, the “witness,” as published, is true; and of resolute refusal to inquire (first, for reasons largely of public relations; then, when suit is brought, on the advice of lawyers), all for the sake of “winning,” and without care, at any point after publication, whether the story, the witness (now even in the literal, legal sense) is, quite simply, false.
“Decoding the Starr Report,” her attack on the goals, the methods, and the honesty of Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, is some of the best work of the later part of her career. Adler argues, through her customary method of close reading of sources and materials, that Starr’s investigation of the Clintons — for whom Adler also has no great regard — was lawless, self-serving, and entirely motivated by politics and personal enmity.
The six-volume Report by Kenneth W. Starr to the U.S. House of Representatives — which consists, so far, of the single-volume Referral and five volumes of Appendices and Supplemental Materials — is, in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganized, unprofessional, and corrupt. What it is textually is a voluminous work of demented pornography, with many fascinating characters and several largely hidden story lines. What it is politically is an attempt, through its own limitless preoccupation with sexual material, to set aside, even obliterate, the relatively dull requirement of real evidence and constitutional procedure.
“Decoding the Starr Report” is a confluence of Adler’s signature strengths: her Robert Caro-like doggedness with source materials; her vast rhetorical resources; her capacity, by no means common among journalists, for abstract thought; and finally — and this has served her well and at times not so well — her capacity for indignation.
Adler never practiced law, and she seems to have developed a hearty dislike for lawyers, for their self-importance, their ingrained relativism, and their combination of grandiloquence and syntactic clumsiness. It is easy to imagine, however, Adler having become a very powerful First Amendment lawyer in the Floyd Abrams mold — if only she could have behaved herself, even by the modest standards of contemporary law practice. But then, if she could behave herself, in the sense of not giving offense to judges and to her law partners and clients, she would not be Renata Adler, and “Reckless Disregard,” Speedboat, and the rest would never have been written. And how much does the world need another corporate lawyer, anyway?
One note of reservation. Adler’s editors have not served her well by reprinting “Searching for the Real Nixon Scandal,” her look back at the impeachment case presented by the House Judiciary Committee she served as a staffer. She argues, not entirely implausibly, that the articles presented against Richard Nixon were legally deficient, but also, startlingly, that Nixon should have been impeached for an entirely different crime: accepting bribes from South Vietnamese officials in 1972 to keep the U.S. in the war, leading to the needless deaths of U.S. soldiers. This is the sort of thing that should not be written in a magazine like The Atlantic (where the story was published, in December 1976) without substantial evidence, and the evidence, in my view, is not there. It is not that one is reluctant to believe the charge; at this point, one imagines the Nixon White House capable of almost anything. But Nixon, as Adler herself points out elsewhere, has the same right as anyone else to be convicted on the basis of evidence rather than innuendo. The inferential leap between the Nixon campaign’s notably opaque finances and the conclusion that blood payments from the South Vietnamese were thereby concealed is simply too great.
4. She Is an Exemplary Modern Novelist, But Not a Great One
Adler published two mid-career novels, Speedboat (1978) and Pitch Dark (1983), slender volumes about intelligent but neurotic women tossed by the roiling sea of New York media culture. Speedboat in particular owes a good deal to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970), in which Maria Wyeth is a human seismograph, an instrument delicate, responsive, and finally inert. Adler’s novels are characteristic of the period in American fiction to which they belong, many of whose major figures (John Barth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Didion) enacted a calculated distance from the traditional aims of narrative faction. Speedboat states its author’s position quite clearly:
There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots…Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta, they are shuffled and dealt then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls flat on the floor.
Speedboat and Pitch Dark are back in print from NYRB, the publishing imprint of The New York Review of Books (the publication where Adler has perhaps belonged all along), and their virtues have been warmly extolled by a new generation of readers (“for sheer linguistic pleasure, fierce intelligence, and a vivid picture of seventies New York, look no further”; Sadie O. Stein, Paris Review blog). It seems almost inevitable that Adler’s novels, which have been passed hand to hand, samizdat-style, for decades, should be enjoying a renaissance now, at a moment when the privileged status of the traditional novel, and even the very basis of its claim on our attention, have been called into question. Critics like David Shields, who cites Speedboat approvingly in his manifesto, Reality Hunger, regard the imposition of order upon experience that has been the basic genre-work of the novel for 200 years as suspect, a dead letter, a mannerist exercise, in light of the way we live now.
I will admit to being a bit impatient with this claim, though not necessarily with the claimants. It is certainly true that one might find the order imposed by a given novel unsatisfying. More fundamentally, one might reject the entire Western enterprise of self-construction through narrative, preferring radical acceptance, or religious submission — some form of permitting the flow of experience to sluice over and around oneself rather than damning it up in the service of order; in this view, narrative is almost a form of technology, another wrongheaded Western means of taming nature. And I do understand the frustration of readers with the synaptic familiarity of novelistic plot, the patting down of loose ends that so often makes the last third of a novel so much duller than what preceded it.
And yet I think the smart money is on the novel to survive in the age of Twitter and beyond. Jonathan Gottschall has argued (The Storytelling Animal), to my mind persuasively, that narrative has an essential evolutionary function. Making meaning is as endemic to our nature as our biological functions. The revanchist argument for the traditional novel is deeply unfashionable just now; one risks being cast as stodgy, middlebrow Arnold Bennett to the brilliant, gossamer-like Virginia Woolf — and we know how that fight turned out. Still, we should not mistake the aesthetic exhaustion of a few writers, even very gifted ones like Adler, for the exhaustion of a genre as a whole. The novel has been a remarkably flexible and capacious form, adapting easily to the most jarring shifts in the social order, taking in Western and non-Western, advanced and relatively primitive societies. Perhaps the pure novel of consciousness, the lightly fictionalized, largely shapeless, one-damned-thing-after-another novel, of which Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle is the latest instantiation, is simply one more adaptation. The fact that Adler published only two short, episodic novels in a long career (she told The Believer in 2012 that she had completed the manuscript of a third novel, but no announcement has since appeared) suggests that, for her at least, what seemed like a new pathway ended in an infernal grove.
This is not to deny the elegance and conviction of Speedboat and Pitch Dark, which have, perhaps, a small place in the history of the American novel. When I say that Adler is an exemplary modern novelist, I mean simply that she has any aesthetic agenda — that her work is self-conscious, the product of thought, as so many novels are not. That I have yoked her into service in an argument over the future of the realist novel is perhaps even a little unfair. Fitting, then, to conclude with a reminder of how well Adler the novelist actually wrote. From Speedboat, the toxic party we have all attended:
Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together. Exchanging phone numbers, demanding to have lunch, proposing to share an apartment — the escalations of fellowship had the air of a terminal auction, a fierce adult version of slapjack, a bill-payer loan from a finance company, an attempt to buy with one grand convivial debt, to be paid in future, an exit from each other’s company that instant.
5. She Embodies a Paradox of Gender Politics
Some of the bitterest criticism of Adler has been heavily gendered. She has been accused of shrillness, vindictiveness, excessive self-regard — qualities that would not necessarily be disqualifying in a male journalist. The irony here is that Adler is in some ways an ambivalent feminist, an assertive woman writer who “reads male.” She is by no means reliably liberal in her politics, and she has demonstrated no excess of sorority in her treatment of Pauline Kael, Monica Lewinsky, and some other female subjects. For the most part, she has chosen to dwell within the largely male precincts of politics and law and has eschewed the “domestic” subjects toward which women writers are often steered. She has refused to be ghettoized, which can be read either as a feminist position or as a rebuke of the feminine sphere, or both. Like Hillary Clinton, she has been too “masculine” for some and can never be masculine enough for others. It is embarrassing even to invoke these categories; my point is that for a writer of Adler’s generation they were inescapable. This is one fight she never chose.
6. Her Work Was Made to Last
Most journalism is written quickly and is meant to be digested in the same way. One is reminded of the old Jay Leno joke about his being informed while flying that he could take the in-flight magazine with him when he landed: “No, thank you. I don’t think I’ll be wrapping any fish today.” Adler does journalism to a different tempo and with very different goals in mind. She aspires to write not just the first draft of history, but the last. She is justly praised as a stylist, but her work reminds us that elegance of style cannot be separated from elegance of thought. There can be no mere lacemaking for the author of “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing,” her critique of The Times’s handling of the Jayson Blair affair:
[T]he Times, as an institution, believes what has been published in its pages. To defend this belief it will go very far. The search, the grail, the motivating principle for individual reporters has become, not the uninflected reporting of news, but something by now almost entirely unrelated: the winning of a Pulitzer Prize. In the interim, some other prize will do. But once won, the Pulitzer turns into both a shield and a weapon — a shield in defense of otherwise indefensible pieces by Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, a weapon in the struggle for advancement within the hierarchy of the Times. The paper still has some fine editors and reporters, with highly honorable concerns. But a five-year moratorium on the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes to journalists at powerful publications might be the greatest service to journalism the Pulitzer Committee could now perform.
In the puncturing of pretensions, this paragraph does double duty, letting some air out of The Times and the Pulitzers both. I suspect that I think more highly of The Times than does Adler; in a media age in which mere talk truly is cheaper than ever before, The Times is still slugging away in Aden and Caracas and Nairobi, trying to do honorable work on beats most journalistic organizations have long abandoned. The fact that a Times staffer may be reporting virtually alone in these places is, however, cause for more editorial vigilance rather than less. Like any other institution at heightened risk of dangerous self-regard, The Times needs critics like Adler, even if it cannot be expected to appreciate them.
“After the Tall Timber” is the kind of writing that ought to speak for itself, and perhaps one day it will. For now, every conversation about Adler’s work will also be a conversation about her controversies, her rages, her silences, and her enemies. Renata Adler has not been clubbable. She has picked fights. She has generally been eager both to take offense and to give it. And once the battle has been joined, she has always had to have the last word. For this, and for the great embarrassment of her irrepressible talent, she has not been forgiven.
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.
In 2006, a young American expat named Jonathan Littell published one of the most audacious literary debuts in recent memory: a 900-page novel about the Holocaust, narrated by an aging ex-SS Officer. It was called Les Bienveillantes, and except for a few German bureaucratic terms, it was written entirely in French. (Littell had produced a cyberpunk novel in English at age 21, but subsequently renounced it as juvenilia.) Given its choice of protagonist, Les Bienveillantes might have seemed to be what marketers call “a tough sell,” but it went on to win the Prix Goncourt – France’s most prestigious literary award – and to move some 700,000 copies. It was subsequently translated into 17 languages, including English, where it became The Kindly Ones.
Meanwhile, a young Frenchman named Laurent Binet was tearing his hair out. Binet had been toiling away on a work-in-progress that turned out to have striking similarities with Littell’s succès de scandale. Where The Kindly Ones featured cameos from Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich and concluded with a physical assault on the person of the Führer, Binet’s novel-in-progress focused on many of the same characters, and culminated in Heydrich’s assassination. These resemblances were superficial, of course. Littell’s nervy postmodern update on the historical novel had affinities with William T. Vollmann’s blend of research, pastiche, and hallucination. Binet’s owed more to W.G. Sebald…and maybe Jacques Roubaud, insofar as he had already taken the step of writing himself into the book. Still, he seemed to have landed in a writer’s nightmare, akin to that of the studio exec who realizes in postproduction that a version his movie Armageddon has just appeared under the title Deep Impact. What’s a good postmodern to do? Well, write that into the novel, too.
Among chapters devoted to the plot against Heydrich and chapters devoted to his own research and aesthetic anxieties, Binet began to interpolate passages covering, in real-time, his reading of The Kindly Ones and his fears about what it meant for his book. These fears would prove unjustified; in 2010 his novel was published under the title HHhH (an acronym for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” – “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). But his French publisher, Grasset, redacted all passages concerning The Kindly Ones, apparently for fear of offending Littell’s admirers in the public, the press, and the académie Goncourt – which awarded HHhH its prize for first novels.
This month, an English translation of HHhH arrives in U.S. bookstores, trailing blurbs by the likes of Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, and Wells Tower. This edition, too, is missing the Littell material. But Binet and his translator Sam Taylor have graciously allowed The Millions to publish the lost pages of HHhH for the first time anywhere. Their tone of comical anxiety and competitive ardor – of wishing at once for a colleague to succeed and to fail – will be familiar to many writers. Unsurprisingly, Binet ends up judging Littell harshly, as did many American critics, including this one (although I should confess that I still think about The Kindly Ones often). More important than their literary judgments, though, or their portrait of the artist as a young man, are the still controversial questions about representation and the Holocaust these pages candidly take up. Even relegated, as it were, to the margins of the published work, these questions transform the historical thriller at the heart of HHhH into a powerful meditation on the ethics of storytelling. — Garth Risk Hallberg
The Kindly Ones
Next to me on the sofa is Jonathan Littell’s weighty tome The Kindly Ones, which has just been published by Gallimard. The (false) memoirs of an old SS veteran, it is nine hundred pages long. Having created a massive buzz in the press, and sold out in most bookstores, this novel is crushing all its competitors on the bestseller list. Not only that, but its success is apparently causing problems for the entire publishing industry, as it is so long that it is lasting readers from September to Christmas, so they aren’t buying any other books.
There is a savage review of the book in Libération, with the headline “Night and Mud.” But even this review hails the author’s depth of research simply because Jon Littell uses SS ranks. Apparently, if one writes “I caught a Scharführer by the sleeve: ‘What’s happening?’ — ‘I don’t know, Obersturmführer. I think there’s a problem with the Standartenführer ,’” that is enough to produce a “heady feeling of realism.” I’m not sure if the journalist who wrote this is being ironic or not, but I’m afraid he isn’t. I remember having made a joke on this subject in one (invented) line during one of my chapters on the Night of the Long Knives. But anyway…
One of the book’s severest critics is Claude Lanzmann (although he also recognizes its good qualities), but according to his detractors, that’s because he believes himself to be the only person in the world (along with Raoul Hilberg) with the right to talk about the Holocaust. I met Lanzmann once: he is, in the flesh, a courteous man with an impressive presence. If you judge him solely on his public statements, though, you might easily regard him as narrow-minded. In this case, however, I think he shows great judgment when he criticizes Littell for his character’s “invasive psychology.” Not a good sign. But he, too, acclaims the author’s research: “Not one error; flawless erudition.” Well, all right, if you say so.
Apart from these examples, everything else is ecstatic. In Le Nouvel Observateur: “A new War and Peace”; in Le Monde: “one of the most impressive books ever written about Nazism.” And so on.
But the highest praise comes on the back cover of the book, where Gallimard has not skimped on the name-dropping: Eschyle, Visconti, even Grossman’s Life and Fate. Talk about bringing out the big guns.
Obviously, the book is up for every literary prize in the galaxy.
So I begin to read it, feeling simultaneously suspicious and excited. After three pages, my feelings have turned to puzzlement. It is quite badly written, and yet at the same time it is so very literary. This is not at all how I imagined an eighty-year-old SS veteran speaking or thinking. And, of course, I am allergic to interior monologues, at least when we are supposedly talking about history.
I am saying all this now, before continuing with my reading, because I am sure that, when it comes down to it, I am going to devour this book.
Let’s begin with the first line of Jonathan Littell’s novel: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.”
I don’t like this line. But the point here is not, for once, my personal tastes. Let’s look more closely at that opening: “Oh my human brothers.” With these first four words, we already know the book’s thesis. By beginning in this way, Littell deliberately places his novel in the lineage of Hannah Arendt. He is proposing the idea that evil is not the prerogative of monsters, but that it emanates from people like you and me. I subscribe to this thesis, of course, but I fail to see how its validity can be demonstrated in a novel. Even a nine-hundred-page novel.
From the moment when you create an imaginary character — a character who belongs to you, whom you can make say anything you want (“Oh my human brothers,” for instance), a puppet whom you are able to manipulate in any way you wish — it is easy and all too artificial to use this character to illustrate whatever theory you have in mind. A character may illustrate, certainly, but it cannot demonstrate anything. If you wish to suggest that the SS were sickened by the horrors they committed, you make your protagonist vomit at inconvenient moments. If you wish to suggest that the SS loved animals, you give him a dog. And then, to make it more real, you give the dog a name. Fritz?
But what interests me about the SS — if I wish to understand something about that troubled era, if I wish to extract something from all of that which can help me understand man and the world — is what they did, not what Jonathan Littell thinks they might have done.
The problem with this type of historical novel is that it shamelessly mixes the true with the plausible. That’s fine if I know about the episode in question. But if I don’t, I am left in limbo: perhaps this is true, or perhaps it’s not.
I wonder how Jonathan Littell knows that Blobel, the alcoholic head of Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C in Ukraine, had an Opel. And I wonder whether Lanzmann, before deciding that The Kindly Ones did not contain “a single error, a single flaw,” checked this detail. If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before Littell’s superior research. But if it’s a bluff, it weakens the whole book. Of course it does! It’s true that the Nazis were supplied in bulk by Opel, and so it’s perfectly plausible that Blobel possessed, or used, a vehicle of that make. But plausible is not the same as known. I’m talking rot, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.
Perhaps Blobel had an Opel, or perhaps he had a BMW. And if Littell has invented the make of Blobel’s car, perhaps he has invented all the rest. The dialogue, for example. I find it surprising that an SS officer could exclaim: “Il a pété les plombs!” [“He’s blown a gasket!”] Littell’s entire book can teach me only one thing: how this writer imagines Nazism. And I am not really interested in that, particularly when the depiction is so dubious. I want to know how things really happened, so I expect him to tell me — at the very least — when an episode is true and when it is his invention. Otherwise, reality is reduced to the level of fiction. I think that is wrong.
So, irrespective of the Opel question, Jonathan Littell’s novel — as compelling as it may be (I am still at the beginning) — lost all credibility as a reflection on history from the moment its author chose to use a fictional protagonist. Which is a shame because, after all, it does seem quite well-researched.
I will, of course, apologize if it turns out that Blobel really did drive an Opel. But fundamentally, it wouldn’t change a thing.
Littell’s Portrait of Heydrich, p. 58
You might have guessed that I was a bit disturbed by the publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel, and by its success. And even if I can comfort myself by saying that our projects are not the same, I am forced to admit that the subject matter is fairly similar. I’m reading his book at the moment, and each page gives me the urge to write something. I have to suppress this urge. All I will say is that there’s a description of Heydrich at the beginning of the book, from which I will quote only one line: “His hands seemed too long, like nervous algae attached to his arms.” I don’t know why, but I like that image.
More on The Kindly Ones
Just a few more words. Let’s agree on this: an interior monologue, if designed to reveal to us the psychology of an imaginary character, is at best an amusing farce. If it is supposed to allow the reader access to someone’s thoughts, it becomes downright risible. An interior monologue can only ever reveal the psychology of two people: the author and the reader. And that is already quite a lot, let me tell you!
Having said that, I must admit something: I did not know that most of the cars used by the SS were Opels. Did they sign a contract with the firm? That is what I would like to ask Jonathan Littell. Or Lanzmann.
But, to return to the interior monologue, there is a real problem with The Kindly Ones: the tone of the imaginary SS veteran’s supposed confession is unbelievably neutral, almost like a history book. It is the kind of tone I myself try to adopt when I describe horrors, in order to avoid the twin traps of pathos and grandiloquence (not that I always succeed). But what is the point of writing in the first person if you are going to erase practically all trace of subjectivity? From time to time, it’s true, the narrator reminds us of his existence with little, discreetly ironic remarks. These don’t seem very plausible to me, but still. Interior monologues are everywhere! But it is not even the psychological implausibility that bothers me; it is just the pointlessness of the procedure. Putting an idea, no matter how interesting, in the head of an invented character… I cannot bring myself to do it; I find it completely puerile, even if it is a dramatic convention.
One Last Word?
All right, this is my last word on this, I promise. I have just read my chapters about The Kindly Ones to my half brother. He pointed out that many historical novels use fictional inventions, sometimes with interesting results. Of course, I cannot deny that. For Alexandre Dumas to use historical material for its novelistic possibilities, and for him to mix it with his own invented stories, does not shock me at all. Everything depends on the author’s intention. If it is to tell a beautiful and exciting story, without any other pretention, then that is perfectly fine; I would happily surrender to the pleasure of the novel. But I heard Jonathan Littell speaking on the radio, and apparently this was not his intention: he really did want, as I’d suspected, to understand evil. As Alexandre (my brother, not Dumas) put it, tackling a speculative question with a supposedly historical angle by way of an invented character (and, I repeat, even with solid research as backup) is “entropic.” I don’t really understand that word, but I know I agree with him. In fact, I think that what he means by “entropic” is something between “centripetal” and “tautological.” So, upon closer examination, the term is inappropriate, which is a shame because it struck me as quite eloquent. But never mind, the idea remains the same. What I am saying is that inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, as my brother says, It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.
I am not saying that all invented characters are worthless. I would happily swap Napoleon, Kutuzov, Julius Caesar, or Heydrich for Josef K. Or even the real Mark Antony for Shakespeare’s Mark Antony. As soon as fictional characters are loosened from their historical roots, they are able to become universal — even if (and perhaps because) they differ from their historical models: Richard III, Rameau’s nephew, Zaitsev in Life and Fate, Edison in Tomorrow’s Eve, and so on. But in all these cases, we are not interested in what kind of car they drive.
A Littell Mistake, p. 209
Despite all this, I did end up getting into The Kindly Ones. In other words, I finally managed to abandon myself to the innocent pleasures of reading, except for my brain’s never-ending production of critical and metacritical thoughts.
But, while lazing in the bath, book in hand, feeling vaguely guilty about the idea of spending my weekend in this way when I have a thousand things to do, what should I read, on page 209? In the course of his story, Littell writes that Heydrich “was wounded in Prague on May 29”! I cannot believe my eyes. Okay, okay, it’s only a date. But for me, it’s a bit like being told that the Bastille was stormed on July 12, or that the United States declared its independence on July 6.
I had been so close to trusting Littell that, when I saw this, I even came up with an excuse for him: it is possible, after all, that news of the assassination attempt was not divulged until two days afterward, and that even members of the SD, such as the narrator, were not informed immediately. But that doesn’t make sense, because the story is supposedly being told by an SS veteran, years later, when the facts and dates are well known.
Of course, this doesn’t discredit all of Littell’s work. In the context of his book, it is a small and inconsequential error, probably nothing more than a simple typo. But I think again of Lanzmann: “Not a single error,” he said! And I had believed him. This makes me think about the way we accept — daily, constantly, unthinkingly — the arguments of authority. I truly have a great deal of respect for Lanzmann, but the moral of this story is that everyone — even the world’s most authoritative specialist — can make a mistake.
This makes me think of a specialist on the life and works of Saint-John Perse (the most famous specialist in France and, I imagine, in the world) who declared on the radio, with the learned assurance typical of French universities, that the poet was a “hardline” anti-Munich campaigner in 1938 when he was working at the Quai d’Orsay. This seems somewhat surprising, given that he was one of the two diplomats who had accompanied Daladier at the agreement’s signing! Open any history book that mentions Munich, and you can check just how deeply Alexis Léger, the Foreign Office’s general secretary, was implicated in this infamous agreement. But evidently this great specialist did not consider it useful to consult even one book, preferring to rely on a biographical note written by . . . the subject himself! According to Saint-John Perse / Alexis Léger,
In spite of his personal opposition to the so-called policy of ‘appeasement’ and to Hitler’s well-known hostility towards him, the general secretary [talking about himself in the third person!] reluctantly agreed to attend the Conference as the Quai d’Orsay’s representative, as the Foreign Secretary had not been summoned to this meeting of government heads.
Apparently, our specialist did not wonder what Saint-John Perse / Alexis Léger meant by “reluctantly.” Was he dragged to Munich against his will, surrounded by policemen? Was his family threatened? Was it really impossible to contemplate resigning in protest of a policy that went so strongly against his personal beliefs? Was there really no choice, once the agreement had been signed, than to adopt that contemptuous, arrogant attitude toward the Czechs? Did he at least have the decency to resign after the agreement was signed in order to register his disapproval? Clearly, French literature specialists do not feel any great obligation to study history in much depth. But this does not prevent them sounding categorical. The end result is that this myth is taken up and spread by all the country’s literary authorities. And the students swallow it. In any case, literary types rarely differentiate between fable and reality, so when it comes down to it, they couldn’t care less about Alexis Léger’s diplomatic career. But this does not prevent them from repeating, with the perfect assurance of those in the know, that Saint-John Perse, this great Nobel Prize winner, was a “hardline” anti-Munich campaigner. If he was anti-Munich, you have to wonder what a pro-Munich campaigner would look like. A German.
So anyway, Saint-John Perse, Littell . . . you must always be suspicious, of everybody! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It’s not my fault, but well-intentioned friends send me everything they can find about Jonathan Littell, and I am yet again forced to return to the subject. Things are not going well at all. I have just read the account of a speech he gave at a Normale Supérieure school, where he said: “Evil is committed by people like us, people who sleep, who shit, who fuck, and who have the same relationship as we do to the body and to the fear of death, with thought coming afterwards. All killers are like us.”
Fair enough. In fact, I agree completely. Here again is Hannah Arendt’s thesis, and here, again, I cannot deny its truth. But it is a very strange speech to justify his book, precisely because Littell seems to have done his utmost to invent the most singular character possible. Let us recall, for those few unfortunates who have not been able to read The Kindly Ones, that the SS veteran Aue is an intellectual who sleeps with his sister, kills his parents, actively participates in genocide, sucks off Robert Brasillach, survives a bullet in the head, is never separated from his Flaubert, and enjoys rolling in his shit from time to time. For a guy who is just like you and me, that is quite a list!
Do you often carry your Flaubert around with you?
The vise is tightening around my book. The warning shot was in fact a nuclear attack. The atomic bomb was Littell, his Prix Goncourt, his million copies sold, and all the newsprint he’s generated in reviews and exegeses. (Only this week, a reading guide called The Kindly Ones Decoded has come out.) What publisher of any kind of renown would want to publish a book on roughly the same theme in the decade to come? What publisher would be prepared to look like a follower, while taking the risk of publishing someone who is more or less unknown? There is more to lose than to gain: unsold copies if the book is a failure, being accused of opportunism or even cynicism if it’s a success. And that’s without even considering that the horde of critics who’d decreed that The Kindly Ones was the novel of the century will not want to go back on their decision (although, knowing them, this problem is surmountable).
My editorial problems don’t end there. For years, I have been writing to the tranquil rhythm of my own erratic inspiration, but no one warned me that I was in a race against the clock. The longer I wait to finish my book, the greater the risk that I will arrive after the battle has ended. Someone told me on the phone the day before yesterday that a biography of Heydrich has just come out, written by a German whose name I have never heard, Mario Dederichs. It is translated into French and is already on the bookshelves at Gibert. I felt both excited and slightly ill. I was thrilled at the chance to learn new anecdotes and facts about Heydrich, but at the same time, I have to admit, it gets on my nerves a bit. And today, in a bookshop in Normandy, I discover a novel by Georges-Marc Benamou, entitled The Ghost of Munich, featuring frequent appearances by Alexis Léger / Saint-John Perse. If this continues, everything I have to say will already have been said! I am avidly reading Benamou’s book: in literary terms, it has no merit, but it is pleasant to read all the same, and I am learning new things. At least, I think I am. No matter what, I know I have to stop reading. I need to hurry up and finish telling my story because I am convinced, probably irrationally, that I am the only person capable of writing it. This could seem pretentious, obviously. But I do not want my story to be wasted — it’s as simple as that.
A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue “rings true because he is the mirror of his age.” What? No! He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age: a postmodern nihilist, essentially. At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism. On the contrary, he is often critically detached from National Socialist doctrine — and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time. On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts… but of course! How did I not see it before? Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.”
Yesterday, I met a young woman who works in a library. She told me about an old lady, a former Resistance fighter, who regularly borrows books. One day, the old lady took home Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Soon afterwards, she brought it back, exclaiming: “What is this shit?” When I heard this, I thought straightaway that it would require a great deal of willpower not to put this anecdote in my book.
While sending out calls for contributors, one writer responded to my email with the observation that these lists “seem to be the new fashion.” True. In the past few weeks, on Twitter and Facebook and wherever else I went to play hooky, these lists — 100 Notable Books, 10 Best Novels of 2011, 5 Cookbooks Our Editors Loved, etcetera — were lying in wait, or rather, Tumblr-ing all over the place. Of course, as an eternal sucker for the dangled promise of a good book, I had to read this one, to see what was on offer, and that one, to get it out of the way, and oh yes that one, because . . . just because. I’m not complaining, far from it. I’m just establishing that I have read a lot of these lists, in only the past few weeks, and shared them myself on Facebook and Twitter, usually at times when I should have been working; and now, since I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of seeing the same books on list after list after list, lists drawn up by respected, respectable folks in the same circles of influence, I have reached out to a band of fresh voices (some new, some established, some you know, some you will soon) and compiled the alternative, the underground, the “oh-yes-that-one” list of favorite books of 2011.
Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun: When Precious Williams was three months old, her neglectful, affluent Nigerian mother placed her with elderly, white foster parents in a racist, working-class neighborhood in West Sussex, England. Precious: A True Story by Precious Williams tells this wrenching story. I kept reading for the clean, wry, angry prose. Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is a brilliant example of how poetry can resurrect history and memory. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered 150 Africans thrown overboard so the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money. Philip excavates the court transcript from the resulting legal case — the only account of the massacre — and fractures it into cries, moans, and chants cascading down the page. I was tempted to recommend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, since it came out in 2011. It does a lovely job capturing Kenya on the verge of independence, but read side by side, Wizard of the Crow demands attention. A sprawling, corrosive satire about a corrupt African despot, filled with so-called magical realism, African-style. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen. Rwanda-based Belgian expat Stassen employs beautifully drawn and colored panels to tell the tragic story of Deogratias, a Hutu boy attracted to two Tutsi sisters on the eve of the genocide. After the atrocities Deogratias becomes a dog, who narrates the tale.
Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou is, despite its misogynistic tendencies in parts, a brilliant book. A biting satire about desperate conditions and characters who hang out at a slum bar called Credit Gone West, it should make you cry, but you can’t help but laugh bitterly.
Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City: If a novel is a pint, short stories are like shooters: they don’t last long, but the good ones hit you hard and linger in your chest after. I loved African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala, a wonderful collection of township stories loosely inspired by Can Themba’s Sofiatown classic “The Suit.” In novels, Patrick DeWitt’s wry western, The Sisters Brothers, was fantastic, but I think my favorite book of the year was Patrick Ness’ beautiful and wrenching A Monster Calls, a fable about death and what stories mean in the world.
Margaret Busby, chair of the fiction judges for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature: White Egrets by Derek Walcott is a superb collection of poetry. Using beautiful cadences and evocative, sometimes startling images, Walcott explores bereavement and grief and being at a stage of life where the contemplation of one’s own death is inevitable. How to Escape a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique is a very accomplished collection that delivers thought-provoking themes, nuanced and vibrant writing, an impressive emotional range and a good grasp of the oral as well as the literary. Also I would mention Migritude by Shailja Patel. Patel’s encounters with the diaspora of her cultural identities — as a South-Asian woman brought up in Kenya, an Indian student in England, a woman of color in the USA — give this book a vibrant poignancy. “Art is a migrant,” she says, “it travels from the vision of the artist to the eye, ear, mind and heart of the listener.”
Nana Ayebia Clarke, founder of Ayebia Clarke Publishing: Deservingly selected as overall winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Best Book Prize, The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna tackles the difficult subject of war and its damaging psychological impact. Set in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war, Forna’s narrative brings together the good, the bad, and the cowardly in a place of healing: a Freetown hospital to which a British psychologist has come to work as a specialist in stress disorder. The story that unfolds is a moving portrayal of love and hope and the undying human spirit.
Jude Dibia, author of Blackbird: There are a few novels of note written by black authors that I read this year, and one that comes readily to mind is Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. This was a story that was as beautiful as it was tragic and revelatory. It told the tale of two childhood friends living in a country marred by military coups. Striking in this novel is the portrayal of friendship and family as well as the exploration of cult-driven violence in Nigerian universities.
Simidele Dosekun, author of Beem Explores Africa: My favorite read this year was The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Aminatta Forna. Set in Freetown, Sierra Leone before and after the war, it tells of intersecting lives and loves thwarted by politics. I read it suspended in an ether of foreboding about where one man’s obsession with another’s wife would lead, and could not have anticipated its turns. As for children’s books, I have lost count of the copies of Lola Shoneyin’s Mayowa and the Masquerades that I have given out as presents. It is a colorful and chirpy book that kids will love.
Dayo Forster, author of Reading the Ceiling: It is worth slogging past the first few pages of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, to get to a brilliantly captured early memory — a skirmish outside his mother’s salon about the precise placement of rubbish bins. Other poignant moments abound — as a student in South Africa, a resident of a poor urban area in Nairobi, adventures as an agricultural extension worker, a family gathering in Uganda. With the personal come some deep revelations about contemporary Kenya. Read it.
Petina Gappah, author of An Elegy for Easterly: I did not read many new books this year as I spent most of my time reading dead authors. Of the new novels that I did read, I most enjoyed The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, who writes once every decade, it seems, and is always worth the wait. I also loved Open City by Teju Cole, which I reviewed for the Observer. I was completely overwhelmed by George Eliot’s Middlemarch and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, both of which I read for the first time this year, and have since reread several times. I hope, one day, or maybe one decade, to write a novel like Middlemarch.
Maggie Gee, author of My Animal Life: I re-read Bernardine Evaristo’s fascinating fictionalized family history, the new, expanded Lara, tracing the roots of this mixed race British writer back through the centuries to Nigeria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland — comedy and tragedy, all in light-footed, dancing verse. In Selma Dabbagh’s new Out of It, the lives of young Palestinians in Gaza are brought vividly to life — gripping, angry, funny, political. Somewhere Else, Even Here by A.J. Ashworth is a stunningly original first collection of short stories.
Ivor Hartmann, co-editor of the African Roar anthologies: Blackbird by Jude Dibia is a deeply revealing contemporary look at the human condition, yet compassionate throughout, well paced, and not without its lighter moments for balance. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, spans 61 years of his short stories and shows a clear progression of one of the kings of Sci-Fi. The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa is a vast, powerful, and masterful work, which focused on Paul Gauguin (and his grandmother).
Ikhide R. Ikheloa, book reviewer and blogger: I read several books whenever I was not travelling the world inside my iPad, by far the best book the world has never written. Of traditional books, I enjoyed the following: Blackbird by Jude Dibia, Open City (Random House, 2011) by Teju Cole, One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf, 2011) by Binyavanga Wainaina, and Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson. These four books bring readers face-to-face with the sum of our varied experiences — and locate everyone in a shared humanity, and with dignity. They may not be perfect books, but you are never quite the same after the reading experience.
Eghosa Imasuen, author of Fine Boys: American Gods (William Morrow; 10 Anv ed., 2011) by Neil Gaiman is a novel of hope, of home, and of exile. It superbly interweaves Gaiman’s version of Americana with the plight of “old world” gods, many of them recognizable only by the subtlest of hints. We watch as these old gods do battle with humanity’s new gods: television, the internet, Medicare, and a superbly rendered personification of the sitcom. Read this book, and see the awkward boundaries between literary and genre fiction blur and disappear.
Tade Ipadeola, poet and president of PEN Nigeria: An Infinite Longing for Love by Lisa Combrinck. The voluptuous verse in this stunning book of poetry is a triumph of talent and a validation of the poetic tradition pioneered by Dennis Brutus. I strongly recommend this book for sheer brilliance, and for how it succors the human condition. Desert by J.M.G Le Clézio emerges essentially intact from translation into English, and it weaves a fascinating take of the oldest inhabitants of the Sahara. It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower by Michela Wrong tackles endemic corruption in Africa and the global response — a powerful book.
David Kaiza, essayist: The Guardian voted The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm as one of the top 100 books of the past century. I don’t care much for these listings, but there is a lot of truth to that choice. Hobsbawm is a Marxist historian, and his insight into the 200 years that re-shaped man’s world (and, as he says, changed a 10,000-year rhythm of human society) is transformational. In 2011, I read 10 of his books, including the priceless Bandits which put Hollywood’s Western genre in perspective and, among others, made me appreciate The Assassination of Jesse James as much as I understood Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. There must be something to a historian who makes you take animation seriously.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes, author of Tail of the Blue Bird: This year I finally managed to read and fall in love with The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, which had been sitting on my shelf since last year. It draws on the little-known true incident of a ship of European Jews forced into temporary exile in Mauritius close to the end of the Second World War and weaves around it a simple, compelling story of friendship between two boys — one a Jewish boy in captivity, the other an Indian-origin Mauritian who has already known incredible trauma at a young age. The friendship ends in tragedy, but in the short space of its flowering and the lives that follow, Nathacha Appanah manages to explore the nature of human connection, love, and endurance, and the place of serendipity in ordering lives. A great read. My plea to my fellow Africans would be to pay more attention to writing from the more peripheral countries like Mauritius and the Lusophone countries; there is some great work coming out of the continent from all fronts. Given my fascination with language, especially sparsely-documented African languages and the stories they can tell us, I have been enjoying Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, which is a fascinating re-examination of the assumptions language scholars have made for years. Drawing on examples from Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, he argues that contrary to popular lore, languages don’t limit what we can imagine but they do affect the details we focus on — for example, a language like French compels you to state the gender if you say you are meeting a friend, whereas English does not. Brilliantly written and accessible, I’d recommend it for anyone who has ever considered thinking of languages in terms of superior and inferior.
Adewale Maja-Pearce, author of A Peculiar Tragedy: Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Her argument was the presumed complicity of Jews themselves in Hitler’s holocaust, which necessarily created considerable controversy. Eichmann was a loyal Nazi who ensured the deaths of many before fleeing to Argentina. He was kidnapped by Israel and put on trial, but the figure he cut seemed to the author to reveal the ultimate bureaucrat pleased with his unswerving loyalty to duly constituted authority, hence the famous “banality of evil” phrase she coined. Arendt also notes that throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, only Denmark, Italy, and Bulgaria resisted rounding up their Jewish populations as unacceptable.
Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: I couldn’t put down Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and wondered what took me so long discover it. The story follows a young man who returns to his village near the Nile in Sudan after years studying aboard. There is startling honesty in these pages, as well as prose so breathtakingly lyrical it makes ugly truths palatable. With a new introduction by writer Laila Lalami, even if you’ve read it once, it could be time to pick it up again. What more can I add to the rave reviews that have come out about the memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place by Binyavanga Wainaina? I found myself holding my breath in some parts, laughing in others, feeling my heart break for him as he tries to find his way in a confusing world. Wainaina’s gaze on his continent, his country, his family and friends, on himself is unflinching without being cruel. The writing is exhilarating. It explodes off the page with an energy that kept me firmly rooted in the world of his imagination and the memories of his childhood. By the end, I felt as if a new language had opened up, a way of understanding literature and identity and what it means to be from this magnificent continent of Africa in the midst of globalization. It’s been hard to consider the Arab Spring without thinking about the African immigrants who were trapped in the violence. The Italian graphic novel Etenesh by Paolo Castaldi tells of one Ethiopian woman’s harrowing journey from Addis Ababa to Libya and then on to Europe. At the mercy of human traffickers, numbed by hunger and thirst in the Sahara desert, Etenesh watches many die along the way, victims of cruelties she’ll never forget. Thousands continue to make the same trek today — struggling to survive against all odds. Her story is a call to remember those still lost in what has become another middle passage.
Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death: Habibi by Craig Thompson is easily the best book I’ve read this year. It is a graphic novel that combines several art forms at once. There is lush Arabic calligraphy that meshes with unflinching narrative that bleeds into religious folklore that remembers vivid imagery. Every page is detailed art. The main characters are an African man and an Arab woman, and both are slaves. Also, the story is simultaneously modern and ancient and this is reflected in the setting. There are harems, eunuchs, skyscrapers, pollution. I can gush on and on about this book and still not do it justice.
Chibundu Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter: The Help by Kathryn Stockett struck all the right chords. The plot was compelling, the characters were sympathetic, and the theme of race relations is ever topical. If you’re looking for a gritty, strictly historical portrait of life as a black maid in segregated Mississippi, perhaps this book is not for you. But if you want to be entertained, then grab The Help.
Shailja Patel, author of Migritude: In this tenth anniversary year of 9/11, the hauntingly lovely Minaret by Leila Aboulela is the “9/11 novel” I recommend, for its compelling story that confounds all expectations. Hilary Mantel’s epic Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, had me riveted for a full four days. It shows how a novel can be a breathtaking ride through history, politics, and economics. Everybody Loves A Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts by P. Sainath should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in the missionary enterprise of “development.”
Laura Pegram, founding editor of Kweli Journal: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley is “the most comprehensive treatment of Monk’s life to date.” The reader is finally allowed to know the man and his music, as well as the folks who shaped him. On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe. In this novel, the reader comes to know sisters with “half-peeled scabs over old wounds” who use sex to survive in Antwerp. Winner of this year’s National Book Award for poetry, Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney is a stunning work of graceful remembrance.
Henrietta Rose-Innes, author of Nineveh: Edited by Helon Habila, The Granta Book of the African Short Story is a satisfyingly chunky volume of 29 stories by some of the continent’s most dynamic writers, both new and established. The always excellent Ivan Vladislavic’s recent collection, The Loss Library, about unfinished/unfinishable writing, offers a series of brilliant meditations on the act of writing — or failing to write. And recently I’ve been rereading Return of the moon: Versions from the /Xam by the poet Stephen Watson, who tragically passed away earlier this year. I love these haunting interpretations of stories and testimonies from the vanished world of /Xam-speaking hunter-gatherers.
Madeleine Thien, author of Dogs at the Perimeter: Some years ago, the Chinese essayist, Liao Yiwu published The Corpse Walker, a series of interviews with men and women whose aspirations, downfalls, and reversals of fortune would not be out of place in the fictions of Dickens, Dostoevsky or Hrabal. The Corpse Walker is a masterpiece, reconstructing and distilling the stories of individuals — an Abbott, a Composer, a Tiananmen Father, among so many others — whose lives, together, create a textured and unforgettable history of contemporary China. Liao’s empathy and humour, and his great, listening soul, have created literature of the highest calibre. My other loved books from this year are the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s story collection The Foxes Come at Night, a visionary and beautiful work, and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street: Contemporary Chinese Women Writers II has got to be one of my favorite books of the year. I recently picked it up in a delightful bookshop in London. When I was growing up in Enugu, I was lucky to live very close to three bookshops, and I would often go in to browse, and sometimes buy books. It was in one of those bookstores that I discovered a dusty copy of Chinese Literature — and I flipped through and became thoroughly enchanted. I bought the copy and had my father take out a subscription for me. For the next few years the journal was delivered to our home, and I almost always enjoyed all the stories but my favorite was a jewel by Bi Shumin titled “Broken Transformers.” I never forgot that story and was thrilled to discover it (along with five other fantastic short stories) in this anthology.
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, author of God of Poetry: Search Sweet Country by B. Kojo Laing is a great novel that curiously remains unsung. Originally published in 1986, and reissued in 2011 with an exultant foreword by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, Search Sweet Country is a sweeping take on Ghana in the years of dire straits. As eloquent as anything you will ever read anywhere, the novel is filled with neologisms and peopled with unforgettable characters. B. Kojo Laing is sui generis.
Zukiswa Wanner, author of Men of the South: On a continent where dictators are dying as new ones are born, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beast to Vote remains for me one of the best political satires Africa has yet produced. I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a rib-cracking book highlighting a situation that everyone with an email account has become accustomed to, 419 scam letters. The beauty and the hilarity of this book stems from the fact that it is written — and written well — from the perspective of a scammer.
Michela Wrong, author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower: Season of Rains: Africa in the World by Stephen Ellis. It’s rare for a book to make you think about the same old subjects in fresh ways. The tell-tale sign, with me, is the yellow highlighting I feel obliged to inflict upon its pages. My copy of Ellis’ book is a mass of yellow. It’s a short and accessibly-written tome, but packs a weighty punch. Ellis tackles our preconceptions about the continent, chewing up and spitting out matters of state and questions of aid, development, culture, spirituality, Africa’s past history and likely future. The cover photo and title both failed to impress me but who cares, given the content?
Harry Mulisch, the Dutch novelist, passed away late last year. Mulisch, born in 1927, was the child of a Jewish mother and a Nazi collaborator father whose pro-German efforts during the Second World War almost certainly saved his young son’s life. Probably due to this fateful if unusual personal history, the patina of the Holocaust and the question of who was truly guilty in the war continually find their way to the center of his work.
Mulisch grew up in the town of Haarlem, about twenty kilometers west of Amsterdam but at the same time a world away. Pre-war Haarlem was a far cry from the economic and political hub of Amsterdam, and Mulisch, whose parents divorced in 1936, spent a relatively quiet childhood there.
While Haarlem may not have been a major city for the Dutch, during World War II it became an important locus for the Germans, due to a simple fact of location: the city, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the closest spots on the European continent to England. The young Mulisch’s life would doubtless have quickly become unpleasant under Nazi rule, had his father, Karl Mulisch – who had been born in Austria and had served under the Germans in World War I before moving to the Netherlands – not taken a position with the Lippman-Rosenthal bank. Despite (actually because of) the Jewish sounding name, this “bank” was in fact a Nazi enterprise: by Nazi decree, all Jewish valuables were to be deposited there. All of these valuables were then appropriated by the Germans. Most of the Jews whose moneys were taken were sent to concentration camps. Mulisch’s father became one of the Lippman-Rosenthal’s directors.
Because of his father’s intense collaboration with the Nazis during the war, Mulisch and his mother were spared. All of the rest of his family on his mother’s side was killed.
Knowing that he would most likely have died had his father not collaborated with the Nazis must have been tormenting for Mulisch. It certainly produced fine, conflicted writing in novels that convey something unique about the nature of guilt and survival.
The Assault, probably Mulisch’s most well known work, is to my mind the best account ever written of being a non-Jew in an occupied Nazi territory. The Assault tells, in an episodic fashion, the story of Anton, a non-Jewish Dutchman who is a child living in Haarlem when the novel begins. In the first, heart-wrenchingly painful episode, a Dutch Nazi collaborator is shot and killed by unknown assailants in the middle of the night in front of the house next to Anton’s. As Anton’s horrified family looks on, their neighbors – an aging father and his adult daughter – run from their own house, drag the body in front of Anton’s dwelling, and quickly run back inside. Before Anton’s family can react, the Nazi police have arrived.
A little history is in order here. The events recounted in this first episode take place in January of 1945, when almost all of Europe had already “been liberated and was once more rejoicing, eating, drinking, making love, and beginning to forget the War.” Due to a number of tactical errors by the Allied forces, though – culminating in the tragedy of Operation Market Garden in which many British, Canadian and American troops and a great many Dutch partisans were slaughtered – the Nazis were to control the bulk of the Netherlands until the very end of the European war.
While the Nazis by this time knew they would almost certainly lose the war, that did not make any of their retaliatory policies less harsh. This is what makes the event related in the opening pages of The Assault so awful. Because the dead Nazi was found in front of Anton’s house, the house is incinerated and the rest of his family is murdered. Anton survives mostly because he is forgotten. The event, told like the rest of the novel in a beautifully direct close third-person, is tear inducing:
Anton had the feeling that by doing something which was within his power but which he could not quite think of, he could undo everything and return to the way they had been before, sitting around the table playing a game. It was as if he had forgotten a name remembered a hundred times before and now on the tip of his tongue, but the harder he tried to recall it, the more elusive it became. Or it was like the time when he had suddenly realized that he was breathing in and out continuously and must make sure to keep doing it or else suffocate – and at that moment he almost did suffocate.
The agony of an only somewhat comprehending child watching everything he cares for literally go up in flames is told here in evocative and painfully precise prose. One wonders whether it mirrors the pain Mulisch must have felt when he realized how many Jews his father let die so he could live.
The rest of the novel details Anton’s growth into maturity and adulthood as well as his attempts to simultaneously understand and forget what happened that cold January night. On one level, the book is a riveting mystery, if mystery novels could be considered as frightening and evil as the reality of the final months of the Second World War. It is also, though, a strong and poignant look at the question of civilian guilt.
I will not do you the injustice of revealing the particulars of the fascinating and deftly told story of what actually happened in front of Anton’s house that night. Suffice it to say that by the end of this great, great novel, it is very hard to say who is evil and who is good. Having met many of the protagonists who lived through that awful night – the killers of the Nazi collaborator, the collaborator’s son, the daughter who moved the dead man’s body – Anton, with the reader, ultimately realizes that nobody’s hands are truly clean. “Was everyone both guilty and not guilty?” an adult Anton asks, near the end of the novel. “Was guilt innocent, and innocence guilty?” In war, you are a victim, a persecutor, or both. There is no such thing as a civilian.
With The Assault, Mulisch did not simply question the nature of civilians in war. He also confronted the very real question of Dutch complicity in the Holocaust. The idea that the Dutch – widely considered to be victims of the Germans – could also have been facilitators of Nazi crimes, was anathema for many in the immediate post-war years. It was arguably Mulisch who forced his countrymen to face the consequences of their inaction, to realize that their victimization tells only a portion of the story of what happened during the war.
Anne Frank is a case in point. While Anne Frank was hidden by a sympathetic Dutchman, it was another Dutchman that informed the Nazis of her hiding place, which led to her murder. While there were many Dutch who were sympathetic to the Jews, many more turned a blind eye toward the deportations and murders, and a large minority of the Dutch actively participated in the Nazi regime.
Over seventy percent of Dutch Jewry died during World War II, a far higher percentage than in all Western European countries other than Germany. The question of why so many Dutch Jews died, and whether more of them could have been saved is one that the Dutch continue to grapple with today.
In 1961, already a rising star as a novelist, Mulisch became fascinated by the upcoming trial of Adolf Eichmann. He arranged to cover the trial for an Amsterdam newspaper, and the resulting articles became a necessary book, Criminal Case 40/61, the Trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Mulisch’s account of the Eichmann trial and its relationship to the nascent state of Israel, world Jewry, and civilian guilt, bears a necessary comparison with Hannah Arendt’s famous work Eichmann in Jerusalem. Given similar tasks and with similarly articulated goals, Mulisch’s book comes out as both more thoughtful and far less defensive than Arendt’s. In many ways, it was the work that woke up the Dutch to Nazi atrocities and called out to the world the world’s indifference. “The opinion could be heard” he writes, a mere four days into Eichmann’s trial, “that the Jews had better stop talking about their misery; we knew already.”
But the point is that the world did not know, and it was Mulisch who was telling them. Unfortunately this book, published in Dutch in 1963, was only translated into English (with a wonderful forward by Deborah Dwork) in 2005. One wonders how prominent Mulisch’s account of Eichmann’s trial would have become in relation to Arendt’s had it received contemporary American attention.
One of the great minor tragedies of the Netherlands, a small country – about twice the size of Israel – with a language spoken by fewer than thirty million people, is that the rest of the world often overlooks great Dutch writing. So it is that Harry Mulisch, who in the Netherlands was considered something of a national treasure and a fitting candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, is still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.
Mulisch’s relative obscurity outside of the Dutch-speaking world for a long time was unavoidable. Now in large part accessible to the English speaking public, his corpus should be embraced by it.
“You couldn’t tell that story in the same words that Americans used to order pizzas, let alone in little pictures.” – Jay Cantor, Great NeckI.Last fall, a preview for a movie called The Boy in The Striped Pajamas began running in American theaters. The film’s marketing team had no doubt noticed that October offered their picture a bit of an open market: the summer blockbusters had just blasted 2008 Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters from collective memory, and 2009 contenders The Reader and Defiance (and Good and Valkyrie and Adam Resurrected) had yet to be released. What bound The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to these competitors was its historical backdrop: the near-extinction of the European Jews. Harder to assess, from the preview, was the use to which that backdrop was being put.Exterior: CONCENTRATION CAMP. A YOUNG GERMAN stumbles upon a JEWISH BOY, who sits behind a barbed-wire fence. JEWISH BOY is gaunt, shaven-headed.JEWISH BOY: “The soldiers…they took all our clothes away.”GERMAN BOY: “My dad’s a soldier, but not the sort that takes peoples’ clothes away.”Cut to: David Thewlis, looking every inch the Nazi officer.Cut to: Montage of the two boys, the child of Nazis and the child of Jews, chatting and playing chess, forging a FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIP from opposite sides of barbed wire.The solemn dialogue and sumptuous cinematography suggested noble cinematic aspirations. And yet it was hard not to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, compressed to two minutes and sandwiched almost parenthetically between teasers for the latest James Bond and the latest Judd Apatow, as merely a variation on an equally generic Hollywood product: the redemption flick. By the time it appeared on the marquee of my local theater, the movie’s title had been shortened to BOY IN PJs (to fit between Saw 5 and The Secret Life of Bees), and every time I walked past the marquee, it nagged at me, as the preview did. People died, I thought – real people – and this is the best you could do?I can see now that I was overreacting; film is itself, of necessity, a form of abbreviation. Even Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary, Shoah, left things out. BOY IN PJs was merely the next logical step in the journey that begins whenever we put history onto the screen or onto the page: a metonymic drift in which pajamas stand for prisoner’s garb, which stands for the loss of freedom, which stands for the loss of life.Then again, the theater was less than a block from the synagogue. And so, though it seemed a little late in the day to protest the muffling of history under the dead hand of costume drama, I waited in vain for someone at least to ask the theater owners to restore the missing letters to the movie’s title. Didn’t anyone care about this stuff anymore?II.After the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno declared in 1949, writing poetry became “barbaric.” Like many of Adorno’s pronouncements, this one was best understood as a provocation to think, rather than as a doctrine demanding fealty. A generation of writers including Primo Levi and Paul Celan found ways to violate the letter of Adorno’s law, and seemed more like heroes than barbarians as they did so. Still, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, those who would represent the Holocaust – and those who would consume those representations – at least had to contend with Adorno’s spirit. For fifty years, almost instinctively, we extended to the 6 million dead a reverence that was disappearing from the rest of the culture.Among the constituent gestures of this reverence – among its rituals – was an effort to hold the Holocaust separate – separate from language, separate from cliché, separate from the always already compromised field of aesthetics, separate from other mass murders. Or to connect it only to very specific historical narratives: about the sufferings of the Chosen People, about the evils of appeasement. Those who failed in their observances were widely condemned. In 1963, for example, when Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem portrayed its subject not as a transhistorical and theological monster, but as a morally deficient human being, the Anti-Defamation League asked American rabbis to decry the book before their congregations. A group of touring intellectuals-for-hire dubbed Arendt “The Rosa Luxembourg of Nothingness.” Three decades later, when Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful inaugurated the genre of Holocaust kitsch, the Cahiers du Cinema refused to review it.For committed free-thinkers, the limitations of reverence as a philosophical position appeared obvious. (“Piety,” once a virtue, tends to carry exclusively negative connotations among those who don’t like to be told what to do.) But, on balance, it created a productive anxiety for the arts. The supreme difficulty of doing justice to so much suffering and so much death before such a tough audience inspired more than one writer’s finest work; anxiety is what gave productions as reticent as W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and as scabrous as Mel Brooks’ The Producers their ethical charge. (Not, anxiety compels me to add, that it was any consolation.)That anxiety endures to this day… at least in the pages of our leading periodicals. In The New York Times and The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and Slate, bright and engaged critics such as Jacob Heilbrunn, Ruth Franklin, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Ron Rosenbaum regularly consider whether new novels and memoirs and movies about the Holocaust are worthy of their grave subject. But the current superabundance of aestheticized Holocausts beggars our capacity for judgment, to say nothing of our capacity for outrage. The controversy over Angel At The Fence – a concentration-camp memoir revealed last December to be fraudulent – burned itself out in a week.In fact, in 2009, reality has again outrun the intellectuals, as it tends periodically to do. As the youngest survivors of the Nazi era enter their eighth decade, the apposite question is no longer the ethical one – how should we represent the Holocaust – but the anthropological one – how do we. And it appears that, for better or worse, we have begun to represent the Holocaust the way we do everything else.Jonathan Littell’s mammoth new novel The Kindly Ones, is not only a case in point; it is an apotheosis. In a single coup, the book erases the lines that held the Holocaust apart from other literary subjects and bound it to its own standards of representation. And so, more than any other recent cultural event – more than The Reader, more than BOY IN PJs – it affords us a measure of what we gain, and what we lose, when we drag the supreme example of human suffering into contact with the great muddy stream of mass culture.It may seem unfair to front-load a reading of a single novel with so much historical baggage. Upon the book’s publication in French, Littell himself reminded Pierre Nora in Le Débat that his main concern was that the book “work… as a literary vehicle.” But it is Littell who, by writing a 975-page novel from the point-of-view of a sexually damaged S.S. officer, has invited the burdens he must now carry. His work can achieve its totalizing ambitions only to the extent that it exhausts every facet of its monstrous subject. That Littell manages to embody so completely the difficulties of finding a new literary approach to his subject thus testifies, perversely, to some degree of success. For The Kindly Ones, which seeks to drag readers through the heart of historical darkness, does us at least this kindness: it brings us valuable news about the way we live now.III.Some of the The Kindly Ones’ success in France can be attributed to the sheer improbability of its existence. Written from the point-of-view of an S.S. officer, in French, by the retiring, American-born son of the spy novelist Robert Littell – a descendent of European Jews – the book offered the press a multiplicity of hooks and angles. And there was the matter of its sheer size. If Moby-Dick represents the exhaustive aspirations of a certain strain of American fiction, contemporary French writers have tended to labor in the more streamlined shadows of Duras and Camus. French readers received Littell’s 2.5-pound book with the ecstasy of liberated prisoners, snapping up something like 750,000 copies and awarding him the 2006 Prix Goncourt.For all of its idiosyncrasies, however, The Kindly Ones is, in its narrative arc, an almost archetypal first novel. It traces four years in the life of a young man named Dr. Maximilian Aue, who in that time journeys from innocence (of a sort) to experience. While still in law school, Aue is pressured to join the S.S. As an officer, he becomes a kind of Zelig figure, managing to get himself entangled in many of the war’s most significant events. Flashbacks recording Aue’s growing up, and his early ambivalence about his military career, are at first apportioned sparingly. In the main, narrative time marches arm-in-arm with history. Aue is attached to the einsatzkommandos that conduct mass shootings at Babi Yar and elsewhere; gets transferred to the Caucasus at the apex of Hitler’s Russian campaign; is injured in the Battle of Stalingrad; travels on leave to Vichy Paris; inspects Auschwitz; dines with Eichmann; takes orders from Himmler; and ultimately fulfills his destiny in a bunker as the Allies take Berlin.Compacted into a single paragraph, this synopsis tests the bounds of credulity. Yet one of the book’s remarkable achievements – likely its finest – is the way it re-connects the most thoroughly documented pieces of the Holocaust to an almost incomprehensibly vast historical whole. Over the hundreds of pages covering the Eastern Front, Littell allows the signal events of Aue’s biography to mingle with the quotidian: meals, illnesses, boredom, trauma, politics. At this human scale, the horrors Aue participates in loom even larger than they do from the bird’s eye of history. Death registers in a way that transcends statistics – not only as the end product of the Final Solution but as a condition of existence. It haunts the footsoldiers on both sides of the Eastern Front, and the officers, and the partisans, and the Jews. Exposed to forced marches and disease and rape and murder in something approaching real-time, we come to feel – as opposed to intellectually acknowledging – the pervasive grimness of total war.Presenting the Holocaust in this context also affords readers a deeper understanding of the ideological mechanisms of genocide. We are allowed to see how appeals to military necessity lay the groundwork, in the minds of the S.S. men and in the language that they speak, for the Final Solution. Littell exposes us to a dizzying range of anti-Semitisms, from the apoplectic to the anti-Communist to the somewhat resigned.The Jews themselves, alas, seem mostly like an unindividuated mass, but perhaps this is how they seem to our narrator. Littell allows room for this interpretation early on by giving us several moments that run counter to it, as when Aue personally supervises the execution of an elderly Jew, a theologian, who has turned himself in in the Caucasus:The old man fell like a marionette whose string has been cut all at once. I went up to the grave and leaned over: he was lying at the bottom like a sack, his head turned aside, still smiling a little. . . I was trembling. “Close that up,” I curtly ordered Hanning.After several pages of conversation with his victim, Aue has come to see him as a person, rather than as a part of a mass, and has hesitated. And why only hesitated? The gap between “trembling” and “curtly” contains the mystery that the book should be seeking to unravel.IV.What we don’t get, in the half of the novel devoted to the Eastern Front, is enough attention to that mystery. Or at least, not as much as we’ve been led to expect by the book’s prologue. There Aue, elderly and living under an assumed identity in postwar France, addressed us directly, defiantly… intimately. Now, on the Front, he has acquired the flat address of the camera.This movement away from interiority complicates Littell’s attempt to do for morality what he has managed to do for history: that is, to bring the Holocaust into view not as a singularity, but as part of a larger whole. And this is arguably the more crucial of Littell’s projects, as it is the only one for which the novelist’s tools surpass the historian’s. The essential unanswered question about the Holocaust – presumably one of the reasons for this novel’s being – is not how, but why.Littell knows that cordoning evil off from history lets us off the hook. (I am not like you, Stalin thinks, looking at newsreels of Hitler. I have reasons.) And so The Kindly Ones seeks to suggest the incredible complexity and variety of forces that add up to genocide, and how they embed themselves in the daily life of human beings. “I am just like you!” Aue insists at the end of the prologue.Yet, at the moments when this identification matters most, our narrator becomes inaccessible. The first time we see Aue kill with his own hand, he speaks of “an immense, boundless rage, I kept shooting at her and her head exploded like a fruit, then my arm detached itself from me and went off all by itself down the ravine, shooting left and right.” And then we get this:A sentence of Chesterton’s ran through my head: I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous. Is that what war was, then, a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child who breaks his toys and shouts with laughter, gleefully tossing the dishes out the window?How are we to interpret these trite metaphors? As a form of intellectual dissociation? As the falsification of memory by the latter-day narrator, looking back with the benefit of hindsight? Certainly not as a credible psychological account of a man “just like us” who has just killed for the first time. And what of the lurid cinema of that “exploded fruit?” Is Aue actually a sadist? A schizophrenic? An aesthete? A fraud? These are not mysteries, they are problems. Generally, we would look to style resolve them, but in the passage above, this is hardly possible.Indeed, style itself is a problem – one that grows as The Kindly Ones rumbles on. Acronymic Befehlsprache bleeds from dialogue into narrative. Descriptions of nature and weather, presumably meant to startle us by their incongruity, never rise above the anodyne: cows low, bees buzz, snow blankets the countryside. And the gray laziness of Littell’s descriptive mode ripens to a Koontzian purple in the presence of death. “The skull was resting against a stone,” Aue tells us at one point,quite clean, its empty sockets swarming with beetles, its gnawed lips baring yellow teeth, washed by the rain: and the skull had opened, revealing the intact flesh of the mouth, a thick, almost wriggling tongue, pink, obscene.Those last two hectoring adjectives turn whatever effect the sentence was to have had into parody. Littell seems eager enough to tell us what Aue feels – “boundless rage,” “vague anguish,” – or, in the venerable tradition of undergraduate fiction, to register those feelings in the form of intestinal discomfort or loss of consciousness, but he never develops a vocabulary for showing us, in modulations of the point-of-view, how Aue is changing or being changed by his work.The conspicuous opacity of the narrative voice Littell has settled into by the novel’s midpoint makes it impossible to understand the frequent lapses into hamhandedness as conscious effects. Perhaps something has been lost in Charlotte Mandell’s translation – or perhaps the lapses betoken a commitment to the poetics of Maurice Blanchot – but one comes to wonder whether they are simply bad writing, of a sort we’re unaccustomed to seeing in connection with the Holocaust. We might even be willing to overlook it, were we operating in the genre of historical novel. But Littell is after bigger game. (I’m just like you!) And because literature cannot avoid having an aesthetic dimension, Littell’s weaknesses of style will have grave consequences for the second half of The Kindly Ones, where he concentrates the book’s most obviously aesthetic elements: its plot, its exploration of character, and its self-negating elaboration of its themes.V.The entire novel – thus far powerful in its scale, but uneven in its portraiture – is supposed to turn, I think, on the scene, 400-odd pages in where Aue gets shot in the head in Stalingrad. The careful reader will notice that this is the precise point at which Aue’s copious, and copiously chronicled, bowel problems – his chronic diarrhea and literal nausea – begin to abate. It also marks an inflection point in his career prospects. Aue’s sensibility changes, too. Whatever has attenuated his appetite for violence – and for self-disclosure – has apparently been amputated. And so, after a long fever-dream fantasia on his incestuous love for his twin sister, he goes home to see his hated mother and stepfather. At the end of his visit, they’ve been hacked to death. With an axe.The title The Kindly Ones is an allusion to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and with this murder, the previously subtle parallels come jostling to the foreground. In the last 450 pages of the novel, set largely in Germany and Poland, Max’s flight from his own “Kindly Ones” – a.k.a. his pursuing Furies – will take center-stage. Daniel Mendelsohn, who knows from Aeschylus, has mounted a credible argument that the novel constitutes is a meditation on two very different conceptions of justice: the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian. Yet Littell’s approach to evil in this second half of the book – one part phrenology, one part fatalism, one part Freud – explains away the very mystery that drew us into Aue’s exploits on the Eastern Front: the mystery of why. Also overlooked by Mendelsohn is the slackness that now pervades every paragraph. Even if the Oresteian parallel were to justify the inclusion of Aue’s masochistic homosexual encounters and his sadistic incest fantasies, would it necessitate treating them in such tedious detail? An onanistic orgy at a deserted country house goes on for 40 pages:The mattress was as clean as the sheets. So I set about soiling it myself, squatting with my legs wide apart, the ghostly body of my sister open beneath me, her head turned slightly aside and her hair pulled back to reveal her small, delicate, round ear that I loved so, then I collapsed in slime and abruptly fell asleep, my belly still sticky. I wanted to possess this bed, but it was the bed that possessed me.This isn’t transgression; this is an embarrassment.The embarrassment need not extend from author to narrator. After Stalingrad, we are meant, I think, to see Aue’s poisoned conscience leaking out and poisoning his world, and some of what Aue presents as fact is surely fantasy. Perhaps, like us, Aue is not capable of living with his crimes short of a complete mental breakdown. But the plot depends upon other, equally clumsily rendered elements (again, elements from The Oresteia). To dismiss the cartoonishness of the prose as simply an index of Aue’s grip on reality is to introduce an Escherian instability into the text.Rather, what I think we discover, in the second half of The Kindly Ones, is the inevitable dark side of our new era of Holocaust discourse. Artists young enough to ask interesting questions about, say, the eating habits and family lives of the Nazis, are artists whose aesthetic standards have been formed, not in the charnel-house of history, but in our fluid, polymorphously perverse popular culture. Littell may see himself as a student of Parisian deep-thinkers, but he’s learned at least as much from Hollywood. For where else but in the town that originated the terms “shock value” and “money shot” does the gross-out gag register as an end-in-itself? And where but in the movies would Littell’s commercial autoeroticism – insert sausage into rectum, insert penis into pie – register as shocking?VI.It seems we cannot erase the line of reverence that held the Holocaust apart from the rest of history without also eroding the line that kept it unpolluted by the rest of our culture, with its increasing shamelessness and ephemerality. Indeed, they were the same line. In 1995, William H. Gass’ monumental The Tunnel committed far less outré, and far more disturbing, discursive violations; ultimately, though, the book was still tethered to Adorno-esque notions of “the fascism of the heart,” and so it added to the common store of literature, even as its claims to departure from that literature collapsed. Fifteen years later, The Kindly Ones, authentically escaping from literary precedent, loses its bearings in the stylistic fog of horror movies, pornography, and advertisements. By the laughable last pages, Littell’s scatology registers mostly as shtick. Which is, you’ll notice, an anagram of kitsch.Notice also that we are miles away from talking about the concentration camps – Aue’s professional concern in the second half of The Kindly Ones. Under the old dispensation, writing about the Holocaust was seen as brave precisely because one owed it to one’s subject to also be good. Under the new one, you can dedicate your novel to “the dead” and still have your readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies. If no one will honor your bravery, it’s only because you’ve managed to annihilate the source of any risk you might have run.Such is our current situation. We’ve moved from the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy to the Angel at the Fence kerfuffle, from The Drowned and the Saved to BOY IN PJS. We’ve crossed the great divide between reverence and “meh.” This movement is called postmodernism, and in abler hands than Littell’s, it may yet prove itself capable of finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable. And yet it’s worth remembering that its direct forerunner, Friedrich Nietzsche, called not for the abandonment of all values, but their revaluation. The example of The Kindly Ones suggests that that revaluation becomes more difficult, not less, in the absence of something to rebel against. When nothing is sacred, there can be no sacrilege.We might say, of Littell, après lui, le deluge, but of course the deluge has already begun. Ethically, The Kindly Ones’ mash-up of Life and Fate and American Psycho represents no worse an offense than this season’s crop of Oscar movies, which give us the Holocaust as The Magnificent Seven, as The Green Mile; as “Hot for Teacher.” Harper Collins paid around a million dollars for the translation rights to The Kindly Ones, no doubt anticipating a wave of profitable outrage from prudish American reviewers. Indeed, the novel’s jacket copy promises “provocation and controversy.” In the end, though, the only meaningful provocation is how little controversy this intermittently powerful, sloppily written, and morally incoherent book is likely to cause: how commonplace it now seems.Is it too late to ask for our anxiety back?
It’s been a while since we’ve done an “Ask a Book Question” at The Millions, but Kirk from Texas left a good one in the comments of a recent post:You write a lot about your obsession with The New Yorker… Can you tell those of us that are unfamiliar with the publication more about it, and why you like it so much.I love The New Yorker for many reasons. I prefer to know a little about a lot of things rather than a lot about a few, and so I find the wide range of topics the magazine takes on is appealing. It’s a surprising unpredictable magazine. I also like that the magazine has history, and that it has stayed true to itself by changing only incrementally over the years and for the most part taking pains to make sure any changes made sense. Generally speaking, The New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. By that measure alone it beats any other magazine I’ve ever picked up.I could go on about The New Yorker for pages, but instead, I thought I’d let some others spill some ink on their love for the magazine. We’ll start with Emily Gordon, who heads up Emdashes, a blog devoted to a single magazine. I’ll let you guess which one.When I tell people I write a blog about The New Yorker, they’re either excited and ask for the url, or freaked out. The people in the second group get that funny look so familiar to elementary-school students and poets, and say with withering irony, “Wow, you must really LOVE it.” Being an unfashionable enthusiast and advocate of the New Sincerity, I answer simply that I do.In his email asking for my thoughts about the magazine, Max called me “the Web’s pre-eminent NYer expert.” I wish! I’m reminded every time I go to a New Yorker-themed event–especially on the Upper West Side–that there are far more fanatical and expert readers out there, and they usually have a couple decades of subscribership on me, too. In my paying work life, I’m a magazine editor and a book and media critic, so that’s the spirit in which I write the blog. At the same time, I sometimes feel like a roving preacher from a quirky sect, with all the attendant longing for clarity and community, and possibly some of the narrow-mindedness and naivete, too. Meanwhile, perhaps also like an evangelist, I get to experience moments, collectively and alone, of overpowering delight and that spooky but real phenomenon called “flow.” (Also, the blogosphere being what it is, moments of derision, bafflement, and the sound of stone silence.) Man, I sound like Garrison Keillor. My real point is, I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends who feel the way I do, and despite moments of overextended self-doubt, I’m grateful for all of this.But back to the reason for reading it in the first place. I read Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” recently, and wrote down this line: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” That’s probably at the heart of it. I’m a third-generation New Yorker reader, and the magazine’s writers and artists are essential to both sides of family language and lore. When I was at the Daniel Alarcon and Zadie Smith reading at the most recent New Yorker Festival, in a beautiful church-like space called the Angel Orensanz Foundation, I had the strange thought that I was in the only church my parents (who are long-divorced atheists) would ever have attended. I got a little teary thinking about them, in the Church of The New Yorker with its Chastian or Steinbergian heaven, and hey, I was the one who said I was an evangelist. “This isn’t a magazine–it’s a movement.” Harold Ross said that.So what do I preach? That the magazine, far from a bastion of elitism and snobbery, is the site of the most hardworking and stirring journalism available in English, about essential subjects like New Orleans, the global environmental crisis, American poverty, education, and the war in Iraq. Some people will never agree; they think the whole thing is foolish. “Tell me why your project is so compelling or should be to someone like me who DESPISES the culture of writing that the NEW YORKER inspires and finds literary glomming to be complete bullshit,” an acerbic fellow blogger once wrote me, sneeringly. He thinks the publishing-industrial complex needs taking down, not celebrating. I defended myself in the lengthy email exchange, but afterward I felt like my soul had been slapped to the floor, as in that scene in Amelie. I was so outraged but so suddenly unsure of my mission that I thought of shutting down the site entirely, taking my ball and going home, as my friend Tom would say; it’s a little like the way I felt when I heard, just recently, that a New Yorker film critic (for the Goings on About Town listings, which contain some of the sharpest and wittiest writing in the magazine) refers to me as “the New Yorker groupie.” Ow.On the other hand, there are lots of worse things to be. Steve Martin wrote in the magazine this week that he sometimes feels nostalgic for the “high spirits and high jinks” of his early career, “before I turned professional, before comedy became serious.” Maybe The New Yorker, too, is best viewed from one’s childhood coffee table, before it becomes a media outlet, a buzz-worthy blog topic, an online brand, a symbol of what one has, in some senses, lost: the life of Pauline Kael; the grandparents who understood fewer and fewer of the cartoons and became sorrowful about it; the vast possibilities of a future full of limitless writing and reading opportunities. But for now, I’ve got a way of broadcasting my–let’s face it–devotion. Want to be saved? Subscribe. I’m only half kidding.Millions contributor Garth also weighed in with his thoughts on the magazine:I was trying to explain to a friend the other weekend why The New Yorker is the greatest magazine in the history of American magazine journalism. I can think of a few reasons.First, I love The New Yorker for the assumptions it makes about its readership. It assumes that we are bright, literate, patient, and curious about the world. (Okay, it also assumes that we’re well-off and liberal, but that’s less important). It assumes that I, who loathed biology in high school, will be fascinated and moved by 8,000 words on the redwoods…and lo and behold, I am. Rather than tailoring itself to the marketplace, which is how we now think of the publishing place, The New Yorker recognizes that it CREATES its marketplace. Which is why I hate to see it stoop to puff-pieces on Cate Blanchett or Mariah Carey.Second, I find the history of The New Yorker, and its attendant myths, endlessly fascinating. One example: Jamaica Kincaid was doing odd-jobs for editor William Shawn when he decided that she should write for the magazine. She and George Trow and Ian Frazier became an inseparable, and eccentric triumvirate. Later, she married Mr. Shawn’s son Allen.Third, The New Yorker has subsidized a staggering (surprising) number of canonical writers. E.B. White? New Yorker. J.D. Salinger? New Yorker. The Fire Next Time? First ran in the New Yorker. Silent Spring? Likewise. Eichmann in Jerusalem? You guessed it. Oliver Sacks, Joseph Mitchell, Alistair Reid, Janet Malcolm, Calvin Trillin, Philip Gourevich, Pauline Kael, A.J. Liebling, James Thurber, William Steig, the Addams Family, John Cheever, Saul Steinberg… Among the current writers, Elizabeth Kolbert, Georges Packer and Saunders, Nick Paumgarten (the new Ian Frazier), Peter Schjeldahl, Mark Singer, and James Wood (as of last month), are all doing work that may still entertain and instruct years from now. This is not even to mention the art.Each week, The New Yorker delivers a multi-course meal (about four-hours worth) of reporting, opinion, reviews, cartoons, and humorous “casuals” to my door. Sometimes the meal is mediocre, but it’s always sustaining.And finally, Millions contributor Noah brings us home:I don’t have a subscription, though I once did. It started sort of piling up on me, making me feel like an arch procrastinator. I’d like to renew but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. But one thing about The New Yorker: you can pick up an issue, be it this week’s, last week’s, or one from 1987, and it always reads. This is surely a testament to the quality of the writing, but also to the editorial sensibilities that drive the magazine. My most memorable New Yorker article was about Rafael Perez, disgraced and incarcerated LAPD officer, who testified for the state in the prosecution of numerous other LA cops who were part of the Rampart Crash unit, a renegade police outfit that committed numerous crimes. Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Training Day was based on Perez. Perez has also been rumored to have had a hand in the murder of Biggie Smalls. Great article. The cartoons are fun too.