A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Postmodern Holocaust Literature
The Holocaust is a tricky subject for any novelist, weighted as it is with sorrow, guilt, and a desperate desire not to cause offence. It seems impossible to even recount documentary evidence of Nazi practices and concentration camp statistics without being accused of propaganda. There are, of course, many wonderful first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, including The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman, A Garden of Eden in Hell (a biography of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor) by Melissa Muller and Reinhard Piechocki, and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. Yet there seems to be great danger inherent to referencing the Holocaust in fiction. How to convey the horrors without trivializing or sentimentalizing the past (Sophie’s Choice by William Styron), and without thoroughly depressing your readers (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne)?
The past few decades have brought some remarkable postmodern approaches to Holocaust literature. (‘Postmodernism’ is one of those words that everyone bandies about without really understanding it, but here I refer to qualities such as irony, self-referencing, skepticism, the questioning of absolute truths, and a radical reappraisal of the past.) One of the first novels to do this was Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991), in which the action went backwards, so that the main character, a Nazi doctor involved in the Final Solution, brought people ‘back to life’, ‘healed’ them, and returned everything to the status quo. Critics reacted against Amis’s unconventional approach – with some even accusing him of anti-Semitism. Amis reflected on the furor in a 2010 interview, recalling that the writing process involved “daily struggles with a sense of profanity and panic (by what entitlement could I address this sepulchral subject, and from such an apparently ‘playful’ vantage?).”
Is it still the case that the Holocaust is a sacred subject, never to be approached in a critical or humorous manner? Yann Martel, celebrated for his wonderful Life of Pi, hit a sour note with critics in 2010 when he published Beatrice and Virgil. It again has an allegorical element played out with a cast of animals – one character has written what is essentially a dramatic dialogue between a donkey and a monkey – but this time the theme is the Holocaust. The novel earned Martel some amusingly vituperative reactions; one of the kindest reviews described it as “strangely trivial and narcissistic.”
Yet, when done well, the experimental Holocaust novel is a wonder, adding to readers’ understanding of and sympathy for the tragedy while also raising questions about the ways we receive and analyze history. Here are my favorite five:
This dazzlingly inventive docu-novel (flawlessly translated from the French by Sam Taylor) recounts the real-life assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Nazi Secret Service, in Prague in 1942. What makes it stand out from the spate of World War II history books is its constant self-questioning: Binet obsesses over how much he can really know, how much his conscience will allow him to invent details he cannot corroborate. Though he renounces fictional strategies such as dramatic recreation, imagined dialogue and interior monologues, he ends up relying on them just the same: “My story has as many holes in it as a novel.” While offering an utterly gripping tale of bravery and resistance, the novel also forms a solemn meditation on the ethics of reanimating the past when faced with a simultaneous superfluity and paucity of information.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, published when he was just 25, is a virtuosic delight told in two distinct voices. It’s partially a fictionalized account of the author’s journey through Ukraine to find his ancestors – as depicted through the witty and malapropism-rich letters of his translator cum tour guide, Alex. But it’s also a magical realist history of Foer’s ancestral village of Trachimbrod, from the late eighteenth century through the start of World War II and the expulsion of the Jews. The use of multiple voices, interrupted narratives, and the self-insertion of the author as a character all place Everything is Illuminated squarely in the postmodernism camp. For all its upstart talent, though, it remains a thoroughly charming and funny tale, toying with the fixedness of history and the possibility of ever discovering the truth.
Auslander’s first novel is ferociously funny. He imagines a world in which one tiny historical detail is altered: Anne Frank is alive and dwelling in Solomon Kugel’s attic, where she is frantically tapping out her endless magnum opus, a novel. Kugel is a deliciously clichéd schmuck, exasperated with his Holocaust-obsessed mother who just won’t die, falling behind in his job as a compost system salesman, and trying to provide some semblance of a sane household for his longsuffering wife and son. What ensues is an absurdist battle between optimism and pessimism, momentous tragedy and mundanity. Nothing is sacred for Auslander – not the presidentially mandated virtue of hope; certainly not the Jewish idols Anne Frank and Alan Dershowitz; not even aesthetic standards for metaphorical language (“the sun was in the sky like a something. The breeze blew like a whatever”). Hope: A Tragedy is an iconoclastic marvel, as hilarious as it is horrific. It was my very favorite novel of 2012.
The Reader is an unusual Holocaust novel in that it opens a decade afterwards, has only German characters, and seems (at least at first) to be about a boy’s sexual awakening with an older woman. It’s not until over a third of a way through the text that we become aware of the deeper story. The protagonist’s former lover is a defendant in a Nazi war crimes trial, charged with condoning an atrocity. The chief virtue of the book is its simplicity: as both a novel and a film (which I probably prefer) it centers on just two characters and one linear narrative with a flashback. Nevertheless, Schlink is unafraid when it comes to considering Hanna’s motives. She seems to have been under the same mass delusion that led three-quarters of German intellectuals to ally themselves with Hitler: she saw her prison guard work as any old job and never truly considered the humanity of the prisoners and the inhumanity of their treatment.
Like Hope: A Tragedy, Englander’s short story collection is an excellent reflection on contemporary Judaism and how it defines itself in relation to the memory of the Holocaust. Indeed, a central message of Englander’s stories is that everything has to be understood in its historical framework, from a perspective of compassion. In “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” a father tells his son he can even justify a fellow soldier’s murderous rampage “because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.” Along with the title piece, my favorites are: “Sister Hills,” beautifully and almost biblically written with its matter-of-fact prose style and fable-like content; “Peep Show,” a very funny piece of absurdist fantasy, redolent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint; and “Camp Sundown,” a deceptively weighty tale about a group of elderly Holocaust survivors who harass one of their fellow summer campers – with the kind of chilling ending you might find in Flannery O’Connor.
An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing. Check out all my articles.