Schindler's List (Widescreen Edition)

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So, Nu?: Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy

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What is Jewish life, if not unanswered questions and unending struggles? Please don’t take offense — I say this as a Jew and as, more problematically, a Jew in post-Holocaust America. I do not, in general, find myself plagued by religion; I grew up fairly lapsed and secular, absorbing more in the context of Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, and Barbra Streisand than of the Mishna and Gemara, Rashi or Rabbeinu Tam. But even a modern Jew lives under the cloud and the baggage of the past — the loaded history of a people so put upon that all subsequent actions seem fraught with meaning, with responsibility, and with obligation to honor…something bigger than our daily experience. It’s a duty I feel stirring whenever I dip into the story of the Golem, interrogate one of Philip Roth’s many kvetching young men, or lose myself in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, a film about the futility of finding happiness in a world defined by doubt. The story of Job, the righteous yet put-upon recipient of God’s trials, remains ever-present in all these narratives, and like it or not, becomes the central problem in every piece of contemporary Jewish fiction. Why, despite our best efforts to avoid trouble, does it follow us everywhere?

In Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, the trouble that plagues us is history itself — and history’s cue to make itself felt is our desire to run away from it. Auslander’s version of Job, the amusingly named Solomon “Solly” Kugel, moves to an old farmhouse in the town of Stockton, N.Y., with his wife and young son. This town promises a clean slate, for it is a place “famous for nothing, presumably untouched by history, entirely unburdened by the past.” Solomon does bear one burden with him to Stockton: his ailing mother, who clings to memoirs of her time in the concentration camps despite having been born after the war’s end (and in Brooklyn, no less). For her, history gives her a story to tell, a reason to live; for Solomon, it is a story to escape, and he is more obsessed with his potential last words than any words of the past. Yet when he goes up to the farmhouse attic to investigate a rotten scent, he is confronted with history made flesh, in the form of a skeletal, craven, and crabby old woman claiming to be Anne Frank. And claiming to be her is enough — for now Solomon cannot toss her out, and she becomes his albatross, a millstone of history that he must hear, smell, and fight to forget.

Shalom Auslander has always been a prime candidate for the position of the contemporary Isaac Bashevis Singer: he writes about the struggle to find something to believe in while wanting to shirk the stuff you can’t stand — and there’s no religion like Judaism (save for maybe Roman Catholicism) that is so much about the conflict between tradition and modernity. Auslander has his finger on this very particular kind of Jewish anxiety — the desire to start over, and to never find oneself unprepared for the world’s challenges. Solomon’s obsession with his last words is borne out of self-preservation: “He didn’t want to be caught by surprise, speechless, gasping, not knowing at the very last moment what to say…Anything but an ellipsis.” Yet how could one be anything but surprised at the appearance of dear old Anne? For Auslander’s Anne isn’t so much a character as she is a collection of reminders — the sound of her talon-like fingernails on the keyboard, her hacking cough and noxious smell trickling through the air vents of the house. What sympathy we have from her is based on our idea of her virtuosity, both as a Holocaust martyr and a preconscious yet emotionally transparent young girl. She never fully grows up, which is why Solomon never fully throws her out. Anne snarls, “It’s a lot easier to stay alive in this world if everyone thinks you’re dead.” And for Solomon, the good Jew, to toss out one of the most famous Jewish storytellers of all time on his doorstep would be beyond sacrilege. It would be a shanda fur die goy, a scandal for the goyish as well as the Jews. And Anne knows how to capitalize on Solomon’s guilt just so — “you feel guilty for not suffering atrocities,” she says. It stings, with the same acidity as that classic Seinfeld episode about making out while watching Schindler’s List, and with the same message: that if you’re not moved to tears by your history, you might as well be a denier.

This is heavy stuff for a comic novel, which begs the question: does the joke work? If you’re willing to sacrifice history’s most sacred cows, and to let your imagination wander far enough to contemplate the Holocaust’s signature martyr as a squirrel-eating, bottle-throwing old crone, then yes, you’ll chuckle at Solomon’s dilemma. It’s a cheap trick of a comedic conceit, but Auslander builds the hilarious frustrations set upon Solomon like a well-stewed brisket. As Anne-as-attic-dweller becomes worse and worse, he becomes more and more frenzied even as his compassion grows. “If you don’t learn from the past,” Solomon thinks, “you are condemned to repeat it. But what if the only thing we learn from the past is that we are condemned to repeat it regardless? The scar, it seems, is often worse than the wound.” It is the scar of history, and the subsequent hope that we can heal, that makes tragedy out of modern life, and makes Anne an unmovable part of Solomon’s life. Early in the novel, Solomon’s friend Professor Jove argues that Hitler was history’s greatest optimist, and that only optimists change the world for the worst:
“Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution? Not just that there could be a solution…but a final one, no less!…I tell you this with absolute certainty: every morning, Adolf Hitler woke up, made himself a cup of coffee, and asked himself how to make the world a better place. We all know his answer, but the answer isn’t nearly as important as the question…Pessimists don’t build gas chambers.”
The monsters are the ones that think you can actually revise and improve upon the past — and so to be a virtuous person, the argument follows, you must live in the past’s shadow. Such a classically Jewish problem was never so depicted, a problem created by a sense of both despair and inevitability. And therein lies the brilliance of Auslander’s novel: Hope: A Tragedy is about the fact that you can’t escape your own legacy, no matter how great your desire for a better world. Though some might argue that any book that suggests Anne Frank survived, even satirically, should be deemed verboten, the feeling you get at the close of Auslander’s novel is one of responsibility, not horror or disdain. The most famous line from Anne’s Diary, the one affixed to her image for all eternity, has been this: “In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart.” That’s all very well, but there’s a second line to that quote: “I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” Perhaps Anne wanted to leave a little bit of the past behind as well — for denial of the past allows us to steamroll ahead into the future. Blindly, maybe, but still galvanized with optimism.

It brings me back to a phrase uttered over and over by my grandparents growing up — they were the children and grandchildren of immigrants, just barely out of the Holocaust’s grasp and still with enough proximity to feel its devastation. Over and over again, I’d hear them say, “So, nu?.” It can mean “what’s new?”, or it can mean “What can you do?” An expression to suggest change and stasis, hope and resignation, all at once.

Ask a Book Question: #72 (Books on the Silver Screen)

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Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:

The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!

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