Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What Kind of Holocaust Novel Would Kakutani like?

I read with interest yesterday Michuko Kakutani's review of Yann Martel's new novel (which I haven't read yet) which she says "has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, using it as a metaphor to evoke 'the extermination of animal life' and the suffering of “doomed creatures” who 'could not speak for themselves.' The reader is encouraged to see the stuffed animals Beatrice and Virgil — who have endured torture, starvation and humiliation — as stand-ins for the Jews, and to equate the terrible things they’ve witnessed — referred to as “the Horrors” — to the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Last year I reviewed for "The Forward" Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones," a book about the Holocaust told from the perspective of an SS officer, which depicted the horrors and atrocities of the Shoah with documentary detail. It sounds as if "The Kindly Ones" is the polar opposite of Martel's new novel which sounds like it has the treacly sickingly sweet tone of the fable-like The Boy in Striped Pajamas or "The Book Thief", also novels with the Holocaust as their theme.

And yet Kakutani wrote in her February 24, 2009 review of "The Kindly Ones":

"Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, 'The Kindly Ones' — the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise known in Greek mythology as the Eumenides — is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies."

Kakutani seemed disgusted with the "endless succession" of depictions of horrors done to the Jews, but Littell was trying to portray in fiction the endless horrors committed by ordinary men to their fellow men, and did so by writing with realistic detail, and juxtaposing those documentary-style passages with the SS-officer's (Maximillian Aue's) descent into fantasy and madness.

Kakutani wrote in her revew, "When Aue isn’t talking dispassionately about the mechanics of rounding up Jews (spreading rumors that they were going to Palestine so they would not panic) or the difficulty of disposing of bodies ('it wasn’t so much the gassing that posed a problem, but the ovens were overloaded'), he’s describing grotesque scenes of degradation and slaughter: Jews being lashed with a horsewhip; a baby being cut out of its dying mother by Caesarean section, then smashed to death against the corner of a stove; hanged men with 'their tongues sticking out,' streams of saliva running 'from their mouths to the sidewalk'; emaciated prisoners covered in excrement, forced to defecate 'as they walked, like horses.'"

It sounded as if Kakutani attributes this grotesqueness to Littell's writing, when actually, what's grotesque and horrifying is the acts committed in the Holocaust against Jews, which Littell writes about from the perspective of Aue. All these things did happen--the smashing of babies against the wall, the emaciated prisoners covered in excrement, etc. I suppose Kakutani never had to watch "The Holocaust" mini-series on video in Hebrew School as I did, or sit through Claude Lanzmann's Shoah documentary with her parents (again, as I did).

One wonders what kind of novel about the Holocaust Kakutani would find to her liking. Indeed, Kakutani is aware of the oft-quoted problem as originally posed by Adorno. As she ends her 2009 review of Littell's book, she writes, "Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust ('through aesthetic principles or stylization,' he contended, 'the unimaginable ordeal' is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims'), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that 'in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,; we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as 'a staggering triumph.'”

(When one understands how the French have dismissed their role in the Holocaust, one can see that the Le Monde's calling a novel like "The Kindly Ones" a "triumph," is a triumph in its own right.)

Littell was trying to capture the horror of the Holocaust within the pages of the novel. Thanks to Kakutani's review, and others like it, few American readers will actually read Littell's book. The librarian at my temple chose not to purchase it for the temple collection based upon its largely bad reviews in the States. Martel's novel is surely more palatable to readers. Perhaps Kakutani regrets her panning of Littell's book after reading Martel's new novel, which sounds as if it is disturbing in an altogether different way, disturbing in the way it trivializes the horrors committed against Jews in the Holocaust.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Trend of "Re-imagining the Shtetl" and Finding the Authentic

Two weeks ago I wrote on my blog about a theme I've noticed of "returning to the shtetl" that seems a trend in recent films and novels.

I was referring to the Coen Brother's film "A Serious Man" and to Steve Stern's new novel, Frozen Rabbi (to be published in May) which feature portrayals of life in the shtetl.

I was sensing something in the zeitgeist, a striving amongst Jewish writers and filmmakers (okay, just the Coen Brothers) to find the authentic in imagery of the shtetl. Then on Friday I saw the cover of The Chicago Jewish News, an article titled "The Real 'Fiddler', A Northwestern University Professor says the truth about shtetls is not what we think.'" The piece features an interview with Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, an associate professor of Jewish history, who is working on a book to be called "Shtetl as it Was, 1790-1830" which, according to him, will debunk common wisdom about shtetls. Petrovsky-Shtern says in the article, "Most of us think a shtetl is a small Jewish village in the middle of nowhere that nothing ever happens in but pogroms, a ghettoized habitat of Eastern Europena Jews who speak Yiddish and have no rapport with the surrounding culture--a place that is myopic, depressed, moribund." Instead, he paints a picture of shtetls which "were the most economically advanced urban centers in what was then Eastern Poland," which "brought together Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Armenians, Tartars and Jews in a vibrant market town with a very rapid system of exchange and high revenues, which feeds the local population and capitalizes on the contraband and smuggling."

Then a couple of days ago Tablet Magazine featured on its virtual cover a story by Editor Alana Newhouse on how curator Maya Benton discovered that photographer Roman Vishniac's famous photos of Jews in shtetls were a distortion of reality, expanding upon her piece in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Newhouse argues that Vishniac and others were part of a post-war "nostalgia industry" and that "the victims of the lost world of Eastern European Jewry deserve to be remembered in the fullness of the life they led." She doesn't go into detail about what this fullness looks like, perhaps because there isn't a lot of information out there about the reality of shtetls, research that Professor Petrovsky-Shtern (and others, surely) is working on, and a fuller exhibit of previously unpublished Vishniac photographs will be exhibited in 2012. In a brief description of some images that have not been shown to the public, Benton suggests that these photographs show how some shtetl inhabitants were well-off and fashionable, not poor and backwards. This corresponds with Professor Petrovsky-Shtern's argument as well. Though surely there was a multitude of types of Jews in the shtetls, just as there is variety of Jews in contemporary America.

Newhouse writes that "[b]y misrepresenting our ancestors as backward and unsophisticated, American Jews have managed to create communities that are less Jewishly diverse—and consequently, in some real ways, less sophisticated—than the fabled shtots and dorfs and shtetls of Eastern Europe." This is a interesting, yet charged statement. Vishniac does portray these shtetl subjects as very poor, but not necessarily as unsophisticated.

Indeed, in an interview with Tablet, novelist Steve Stern talks about his own imagining of the shtetl: "a marriage between the exquisite mysticism Jews from Eastern Europe managed to incorporate into their experience, a world that is timeless, defined by Torah, by the text, almost to the extent of being able to live in that text, a Jewish dream time, while simultaneously suffering incursions of a very cruel history-and you can't separate the history and violence from the transcendence."

It seems that what is captivating to writers/filmmakers today is how we do we, assimilated Jews, reach this transcendence, enter into this magical "Jewish dream time," those of us not well-educated in Torah or Kabbalah. Come to think of it, Noah Baumbach's very much-assimilated Greenberg in the film of that name is also grappling with this: how does Greenberg reach transcendence? Is a pseudo-transcendence (not a Jewish one) only possible through drugs, as in the last frames of the film?

The main character, young Bernie, in Stern's new novel Frozen Rabbi does find a meaningful transcendence, a literal and figurative one, as he buries himself in Jewish texts, self-educating himself, and studying Kabbalah, and experiences another literal transcendence at the end of the novel (as the pub. date is a month away I do not want to ruin the ending).

As I wrote two weeks ago, "It's this quintessential theme in Jewish-American literature and drama of the struggle between remembering and forgetting our past. In 'Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination,' Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes that the appeal of Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing "came not from his refugee stories but from his reinvention of the shtetl....and what is transpiring in this shtetl of the mind, at its most fundamental level, is a creative resolution of the struggle between remembering and forgetting."

This is a struggle that these new works reflect, as do Vishniac's photographs, as well.

As I wrote, perhaps the pendelum has swung and that now as Jews we have reached a certain point of comfort (arguably, too much comfort) on the continuum of assimilation into American society, now we feel the desire to reach back and find a sense of authenticity, to reach back and connect with our shtetl past, and as curator Maya Benton is doing, trying to figure out what is authentic about our shtetl imagery. It's the same reason that the Coen Brothers start "A Serious Man" with a reanimation of the shtetl, to try to forge a creative resolution to this struggle between remembering and forgetting that Jews in America, the Jews of the midcentury on the midwestern prairie as represented by Larry Gopnik in the Coen's film, and Jews today, are grappling with. It's an attempt, as Ezrahi put it in describing Yiddish writers in America in the 1950s, to "'reclaim a lost Jewish place and an interrupted Jewish story.'"

The Coen Brothers, and Steve Stern in A Frozen Rabbi, are also attempting to reclaim a lost Jewish place, the shtetl, but with the darker tones of irony and satire, looking from the disconnected perspective of the postmodern early twentieth century, grappling with the question of what it means today to be an authentic Jew.

How we re-imagine the shtetl, what we deem important, what we deem authentic, in turn acts like a mirror held up to ourselves, and says a lot about us, and how we see ourselves as American Jews.