Literature and War Readalong February 28 2017: Magnus by Sylvie Germain

magnus

Sylvie Germain is a highly acclaimed French author of fiction and nonfiction. She earned a PhD in philosophy and studied with the famous French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Most of her novels have won multiple prizes. The most famous ones are Le livre des nuitsThe Book of Nights, Nuit d’ambreNight of Amber, Jours de colèreDays of Anger and Magnus. 

 

Here are the first sentences of Magnus:

Prologue

A meteorite explosion may yield a few small secrets about the origin of the universe. From a fragment of bone we can deduce the structure and appearance of a prehistoric animal; from a vegetal fossil, the presence long ago in a now desert region of luxuriant flora. Infinitesimal and enduring a plethora of traces survive time out of mind.

A scrap of papyrus or a shard of pottery can take us back to a civilisation that disappeared thousands of years ago. The root of a word can illuminate for us a constellation of derivations and meanings. Remains, pit-stones always retain an indestructible kernel of vitality.

In every instance, imagination and intuition are needed to help interpret the enigmas.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Magnus by Sylvie Germain, 190 pages, France 2005, WWII

Magnus is a deeply moving and enigmatic novel about the Holocaust and its ramifications. It is Sylvie Germain’s most commercially successful novel in France. It was awarded The Goncourt Lyceen Prize. Magnus’s story emerges in fragments, with the elements of his past appearing in a different light as he grows older. He discovers the voices of the deceased do not fall silent. He learns to listen to them and becomes attuned to the echoes of memory.

 

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 28 February 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Imre Kertész: Fateless – Sorstalanság (1975) Literature and War Readalong September 2015

Fateless

Imre Kertész novel FatelessSorstalanság tells the story of fifteen-year old Gyuri Köves, a Jewish boy who lives in Budapest. It starts in 1944, on the day on which Gyuri’s father is sent to a labour camp. What strikes the reader from the beginning is the narrator’s voice and his cluelessness. He’s a young boy, interested in girls and puzzled by his parents strange arrangements (he lives with his father and his stepmother and his parents often quarrel because his mother wants him to live with her). He notices everything that goes on around him but his interpretations are always slightly off. He finds logic in many shocking things, like the yellow star they have to wear, the way they are being treated by non-Jews and many other things. Why? Because they seem logical, from a certain point of view. And because he doesn’t feel like a Jew. His family isn’t religious. They even eat porc during the last dinner with his father. He feels that the star and being ostracized hasn’t really anything to do with him. It’s not personal.

A little later Gyuri is sent to work in a factory and then, one morning, has to get off the bus and wait endlessly for a train to take him and others to another “work place”. Of course, the reader knows it’s a concentration camp. He’s first sent to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald and later to Zeitz.

He still finds logic in everything he sees. In the way they are forced to work, in the way they are punished. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t suffer. He’s cold, dirty and constantly hungry. He witnesses executions and is afraid of being sent to the gas chambers.

Towards the end of the book, he falls ill and is sent back to Buchenwald until the day the camp is freed and he can return to Budapest.

Reading a novel, set to large parts in a concentration camp, filtered through the consciousness of a narrator like this, was a peculiar and eerie experience. It could have gone wrong. It could have felt sensationalist and dishonest like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (I’m referring to the movie not the book), but it didn’t. It’s chilling because we know what he’s talking about but he doesn’t. When Gyuri tells us how everyone stepping off the train is inspected and then either sent to one group or the other, we know that it means that they will either be sent to a labour camp or to the gas chambers. Reading Gyuri’s assessment of what happens, his feeling of being chosen and found worthy – without knowing the real logic behind it all – is almost creepy.

The best novels don’t just follow a character from the beginning to the end but they show a change. And Gyuri does change. The boy who’s leaving the concentration camp is bitter and full of hatred. The days of his admiration for a system that runs,logically, smoothly, and mercilessly are long gone.

I’ve seen this novel called “shocking” and, if you’ve read my review until now, you may think, you know why. Because of the distortion. But that’s not the shocking part. What may seem odd is the end of the book. It’s not a plot element, therefore, I don’t consider it to be a spoiler to reveal the end. When Gyuri returns to Budapest, people refer to the horrors he must have seen or ask him whether it was like hell. He tells them that he hasn’t seen hell and therefore he doesn’t know how to compare. And  he finds it absurd when people tell him to start a new life, leave what has happened behind. But it’s not likely he will ever forget. What he doesn’t tell them is, that there were moments of great happiness in the concentration camp. And that’s the shocking thing of the novel. It shows us that we cannot imagine something we haven’t experienced. Whether we think, like some,  it wasn’t all that bad or whether we assume it was “hell” – we have no clue. Both assumptions are equally faulty. And there’s a certain arrogance in a assuming that we can picture what we don’t know.  And there can always be happiness. This reminded me of one of my favourite books – Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

The end also reveals the meaning of the title. The novel describes many instances in which the Jews let the oppressor handle them like cattle. They never fight back. This, as Gyuri says, was a choice. Everything was a choice. There’s no such thing as “fate” – everybody is ultimately free, free to choose how to act. Always.

I wish this review was more eloquent but I’ve got the flu since Monday and my head is fuzzy. I’m sorry for that. It’s a book that would have deserved a careful review because it’s stunning. I really liked it a great deal and, for once, “like” isn’t a badly chosen word, even though I’m writing about a Holocaust novel.

I have watched the movie as well and found it powerful. It stay’s close to the novel, with the exception of the last parts. In the movie Gyuri is offered to go to the US when the camp is freed by the Americans. Going back to Hungary means going to the Russian sector. Nothing to look forward to. This isn’t a topic in the book.

The book is based on Kertész’s own experience. As a fourteen-year old he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald. Interestingly he says that the book is far less autobiographical than the movie.

 

Other reviews

Emma (Book Around the Corner)

 

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Fateless is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2015. The next book is the German novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die – Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben by Erich Maria Remarque. Discussion starts on Friday 27 November, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2015: Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész

Fateless

The third book in this year’s Literature and War Readalong is Imre Kertész’ Holocaust novel Fateless. Kertész is a Hungarian author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. As far as I know, he’s the only Hungarian author who has won the prize.

As a boy of fourteen, Kertész was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and later brought to Buchenwald. Although the book is based on some of his own experiences, it is by no means autobiographical. The movie based on the book, and for which Kertész wrote the script, is much more autobiographical as the novel.

Here are the first sentences

I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to “family reasons” my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the “family reasons” might be. I told him my father had ben called up for labor service; after that he didn’t raise a further peep against it.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész (Hungary 1975), Holocaust,  Novel, 272 pages.

The powerful story of an adolescent’s experience of Auschwitz by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész.

Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, gets the day off school to witness his father signing over the family timber business to the firm’s bookkeeper – his final business transaction before being sent to a labour camp. Two months after saying goodbye to his father, Gyuri finds himself assigned to a ‘permanent workplace’, but within a fortnight he is unexpectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the start of his journey to Auschwitz.

On his arrival Gyuri finds that he is unable to identify with other Jews, and in turn is rejected by them. An outsider among his own people, his estrangement makes him a preternaturally acute observer, dogmatically insisting on making sense of everything he witnesses.

I’m planning on watching the movie soon. I’m interested to see the differences. If you don’t get the time to read the novel, but still want to join the discussion, you could just watch (and review) the movie.

 

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The discussion starts on Wednesday, 30 September 2015.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Aharon Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim (1999) Literature and War Readalong August 2012

In his memoir The Story of a Life acclaimed author Aharon Applefeld tells the story of his childhood and how he came to be a writer. He starts by describing his earliest memories, the beauty he experienced, the love he received from his parents and grandparents. Most prominent in his memories is his last summer holiday as a child of five when he and his parents visited the grand parents in the Carpathians. Little Aharon’s parents are quiet people. They don’t talk a lot and Aharon learns early just to observe, be in the moment and absorb everything around him, the light, the scents, nature. These sensory memories will haunt him all his life. But this idyllic summer is the last peaceful moment of his childhood. Hitler comes to power, war breaks out. At first the family lives in a ghetto, later on they are transported to the camps. Both his parents are killed, his mother right at the beginning of the war. After having lost his father as well, Aharon escapes into the forest where he lives for years until he joins others. Together they first walk from the Ukraine to Italy and from there to Palestine, their new home.

The memoir is a book of a rare beauty. It taps into the deepest recesses of the soul where vague and sensory memories are stored. Because he was a child and a taciturn child at that, he is lacking words for what has happened to him. This makes this memoir so amazing, it’s like watching someone feel around, probe and slowly approach the right words to convey what it was like. Fleeting memories and strong impressions are mixed. Some people, some stories stand out but a lot is just like shadows on the wall.

The loss of his mother tongue leads to further fragmentation. In his family they spoke three different languages, on his long escape to Italy and from there to Palestine, there are more languages spoken and when he finally arrives in Palestine he has to let go of all of them and learn a new one, Hebrew. This is all painful.

I’ve read all sorts of WWII accounts and novels but they never focussed on orphaned children. It’s hard to imagine what it means to lose your parents, your home, your mother tongue. And Palestine wasn’t as welcoming as one would think. Especially not when you felt you wanted to talk about what happened and later to write about it.

Applefeld had to overcome an incredible amount of obstacles before becoming the writer he is today. He had to dig out his memories from where they were buried, find the right words, find the right language. He had to fight hostility too. Every single one of his books is an attempt to capture what happened to him and how it felt.

The Story of a Life is in part exactly that, the story of one man’s life, but more than that it’s a meditation on language and how to put into words, make palpable what is just a fleeting sensory impression. No wonder the cold, the wind, the rain are things which catapult him back to the war years. The war, he writes, is stored in his body, his bones. Because he was so little at the time, lacking the ability to fully comprehend and put into words what happened, the memoir and most of his novels, it seems, are more like a search, a quest almost for what once was, an attempt at conjuring up what was lost.

This is a book I can highly recommend even to those who are tired of reading about WWII and the Holocaust. It is a rich, inspiring and very meditative book about life and how to tell one’s story.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

 

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The Story of A Life was the eighth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Richard Bausch: Peace. Discussion starts on Friday 28 September, 2012.

Literature and War Readalong August 31 2012: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim by Aharon Appelfeld

I haven’t read a lot of literature written by Israeli authors which is one more reason why I was keen on including Aharon Applefeld’s The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim. But that’s not the only reason. The Literature and War Readalong is also an opportunity for me to read some highly acclaimed authors I haven’t read before. The first time I read something about Aharon Applefeld I was surprised to find out that some poeple think he is one of the finest writers alive. An exquisite writer with a sense for language and style.

The Story of a Life is a literary memoir, one of my very favourite genres. At the outbreak of WWII Aharon Appelfeld was living in Romania with his parents, middle-class Jews. His memoir tells about a boy coming-of age during one of the worst periods in history. Applefeld had to endure a lot – the loss of his mother, the ghetto, escape, traversing many countries – until he found a new home in Israel. The book tells this story. If the whole book reads like the quote below I think we are in for a treat.

Here are the first sentences

At what point does my memory begin? It sometimes seems to me as if it only began at four, when we set off for the first time, Mother, Father and I, for a vacation into the heart of the shadowy, moist forests of the Carpathians. But I sometimes think that memory began to bud from within me before that, in my room, next to the double-glazed window that was decorated with paper flowers. Snow is falling and fleecy soft flakes are coming down from the sky with a sound so faint you cannot hear it. For hours I sit and gaze in wonder, until I merge with the white flow and drift to sleep.

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The discussion starts on Friay, 31 August 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.