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.

Literature and War Readalong 2017

house-made-of-dawnmagnusclosely-observed-trainsthe-warpoems-of-the-great-warvoices-from-stone-and-bronzeconvoymemorandumceremonysuite-francaisethe-oppermanns

Some Literature and War Readalong lists took a long time. Not this one. The only thing that took some time was deciding whether I wanted to choose twelve books like I used to or only five like I did in the last two years. In the end, I decided for a compromise and that’s why this year’s list has ten titles, three of which will be the readalong books for May. Usually the summer months and the end of December have never been ideal dates, so I’m skipping those.

Now to my book choices. As you will see, with one exception, they are all focussing on WWII. I always strive for diversity and this year is no exception. There are books from five different countries on the list. Every year I include American novels, this year, to make a statement, I chose two Native American writers. Three of the other novels are French, one is Czech, and one German. May’s choice(s) are special because, for the first time, I decided to include poems. We will be reading and discussing British war poems. Some from poets who wrote during WWI, some from contemporary poets like Vanessa Gebbie and Caroline Davies. I’d like to thank Caroline for suggesting I include poems.

Here are the books and their blurbs.

house-made-of-dawn

January, Tuesday 31

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, 208 pages, US 1966, WWII

The magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a stranger in his native land

A young Native American, Abel has come home from a foreign war to find himself caught between two worlds. The first is the world of his father’s, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, and the ancient rites and traditions of his people. But the other world — modern, industrial America — pulls at Abel, demanding his loyalty, claiming his soul, goading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of dissipation and disgust. And the young man, torn in two, descends into hell.

magnus

February, Tuesday 28

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.

closely-observed-trains

March, Friday 31

Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky by Bohumil Hrabal, 96 pages, Czech Republic 1965, WWII

For gauche young apprentice Milos Hrma, life at the small but strategic railway station in Bohemia in 1945 is full of complex preoccupations. There is the exacting business of dispatching German troop trains to and from the toppling Eastern front; the problem of ridding himself of his burdensome innocence; and the awesome scandal of Dispatcher Hubicka’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the telegraphist’s anatomy. Beside these, Milos’s part in the plan for the ammunition train seems a simple affair.

the-war

April, Friday 28

La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras, 217 pages, France 1985, WWII

This 1944 diary of a young Resistance member, written during the last days of the French occupation and the first days of the liberation, is only now being published – Duras says she forgot about it during the intervening years, and only recently rediscovered it in a cupboard. The loneliness and ambivalence of love and war have appeared in Duras’ work before, from The Lover to Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which a Frenchwoman reveals to her Japanese lover, after the bomb, that she was tortured and imprisoned in postwar France for her affair with a German soldier. In the first section of The War, Duras the heroine waits for her husband to return from the Belsen concentration camp. When De Gaulle (“by definition leader of the Right – “) says, “The days of weeping are over. The days of glory have returned,” Duras says, “We shall never forgive him.” It’s because he’s denying the people’s loss. When her husband returns, she has to hide the cake she baked for him, because the weight of food in his system can kill. (We are spared no detail of his physical degradation, even to being told the color of his stools.) When he is stronger, she tells him she is divorcing him to marry another Resistance member. In the second section, set earlier, at the time of her husband’s arrest, a Gestapo official plays a cat-and-mouse game with Duras, to whom he’s attracted, preying on her desperation to help her husband. In the third section, post-liberation, she switches roles, becomes an interrogator as Resistance members torture a Nazi informer. She also half-falls in love (with characteristic Duras dualism) with a young prisoner who childishly joined the collaborationist forces out of nothing more than a passion for fast cars and guns. In her preface, Duras says it “appalls” her to reread this memoir, because it is so much more important than her literary work. Certainly, like everything she has written in her spare, impassive voice, the book is at once elegant and brutal in its honesty: in her world, we are all outcasts, and the word “liberation” is never free of irony. A powerful, moving work. (Kirkus Reviews) –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

poems-of-the-great-warvoices-from-stone-and-bronzememorandum

May, Wednesday 31

Poems of the Great War

Published to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Armistice, this collection is intended to be an introduction to the great wealth of First World War Poetry. The sequence of poems is random – making it ideal for dipping into – and drawn from a number of sources, mixing both well-known and less familiar poetry.

Voices from Stone and Bronze by Caroline Davies

A moving, honest and never sentimental collection that gives a voice to London’s many war memorials.
In her second poetry collection Caroline Davies turns her attention to the War Memorials of London. Voices from Stone and Bronze brings to life those who fought and died and those who survived, including some of the sculptors who had themselves come through trench warfare to a changed world.
Meticulously researched and deeply humane, these narrative poems apply a lyrical sensibility without sentimentalism; a deeply affective collection.

Memorandum by Vanessa Gebbie

Memorandum is a haunting collection of poems that summons voices from the shadows of the First World War. Vanessa Gebbie transforms prosaic records of ordinary soldiers, and the physical landscape of battles, war graves and memorials, into poignant reflections on the small and greater losses to families and the world. Vanessa Gebbie is a writer of prose and poetry. Author of seven books, including a novel, short fictions and poetry, her work has been supported by an Arts Council England Grant for the Arts, a Hawthornden Fellowship and residencies at both Gladstone’s Library and Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat. She teaches widely. http://www.vanessagebbie.com “From the idea of a shell reverting to its unmade, peaceful state to dead men buried in Brighton and France being mourned by their mother in Glasgow … heartrending images such as the Tower of London’s ceramic poppies seen as callow recruits, doubts about a corpse’s identity and how dregs at the bottom of a cup can be reminiscent of the deadly Flanders mud. This is a modern view, wise and compassionate, of Europe’s fatal wound.” Max Egremont, author of Siegfried Sassoon and Some Desperate Glory, The First World War the Poets Knew “Vanessa Gebbie is that rare breed of poet who understands the trials and tribulations of the ordinary Tommy.” Jeremy Banning, military historian and researcher, battlefield guide “The dead who linger around memorials and battlefields slowly step again into the light. History may remember them collectively, but Gebbie’s achievement is to present, with sensitivity and without sentimentality, lives rooted in the particular rhythms of hometowns, families, and memories.” John McCullough, author of Spacecraft and The Frost Fairs “These poems rise like ghosts from a scarred landscape.” Caroline Davies, author of Convoy

ceremony

September, Friday 29

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, 243 pages, US 1977, WWII

The great Native American Novel of a battered veteran returning home to heal his mind and spirit
More than thirty-five years since its original publication, Ceremony remains one of the most profound and moving works of Native American literature, a novel that is itself a ceremony of healing. Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed ancestry, returns to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. He is deeply scarred by his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese and further wounded by the rejection he encounters from his people. Only by immersing himself in the Indian past can he begin to regain the peace that was taken from him. Masterfully written, filled with the somber majesty of Pueblo myth, Ceremony is a work of enduring power. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition contains a new preface by the author and an introduction by Larry McMurtry.

suite-francaise

October, Tuesday 31

Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky, 432 pages, France 1942, WWII

Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Française falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Française is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.

Irène Némirovsky began writing Suite Française in 1940, but her death in Auschwitz prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the novel would be discovered by her daughter and hailed worldwide as a masterpiece.

the-oppermanns

November, Wednesday 29

The Oppermanns  – Die Geschwister Oppermann by Lion Feuchtwanger, 416 pages, Germany 1934, WWII

First published in 1934 but fully imagining the future of Germany over the ensuing years, The Oppermanns tells the compelling story of a remarkable German Jewish family confronted by Hitler’s rise to power. Compared to works by Voltaire and Zola on its original publication, this prescient novel strives to awaken an often unsuspecting, sometimes politically naive, or else willfully blind world to the consequences of its stance in the face of national events — in this case, the rising tide of Nazism in 1930s Germany. The past and future meet in the saga of the Oppermanns, for three generations a family commercially well established in Berlin. In assimilated citizens like them, the emancipated Jew in Germany has become a fact. In a Berlin inhabited by troops in brown shirts, however, the Oppermanns have more to fear than an alien discomfort. For along with the swastikas and fascist salutes come discrimination, deceit, betrayal, and a tragedy that history has proved to be as true as this novel’s astonishing, profoundly moving tale.

 

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I’m looking forward to reading these books and hope that some of you might be tempted to join me and join the discussions.

For those who are new to this blog – you can either read the book and just join the discussion or you can post a review on your blog/Goodreads  . . . as well. I post my review on the announced date and will link to anyone else’s review. The discussion normally begins that day and lasts several days.

Uwe Timm: In My Brother’s Shadow – Am Beispiel meines Bruders (2003)

in-my-brothers-shadowuwe-timm

Maybe you’ve never heard of Timm’s novella The Invention of Curried Sausage. If you haven’t, do yourself a favour and get it because it’s marvellous. Possibly because I loved that novella so much, I stayed away from In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders, although I’d been keen on reading it since it came out in 2003. There’s not one reader or critic who doesn’t think it’s essential reading. But we all know how it goes – everyone praises something, and one has read another book by an author that one loved  . . . I’m glad I finally overcame my reluctance because if ever a book was essential reading – then it’s this one. And for many reasons, not only as a brilliant WWII and post-war memoir.

In his memoir In My Brother’s Shadow, Timm doesn’t only try to reconstruct his brother’s life and find out who he really was, but examines his own family and the German post-war society. Timm was born in 1940, the third and last child of his parents. His sister and brother were both over sixteen years older. His brother Karl-Heinz was his father’s favourite. When Karl-Heinz was severely wounded and later died in 1943, on the Eastern Front, in the Ukraine, his father was devastated. The older son was everything he’d wished for. He would take over his business. He was courageous and heroic, unlike little Timm who’s squeamish and dreamy.

Although soldiers weren’t allowed to write a diary, Karl-Heinz did and after he died of his wounds, it was sent back to his parents.

When he’s almost sixty and both of his parents and sister dead, Uwe Timm, rereads the diary and the brother’s letters and decides to write this memoir.

It is clear from the beginning that he doesn’t consider his brother to be a hero. He’s too shocked by some of the diary entries. They are cold and devoid of any compassion with the soldiers and civilians he kills. Karl-Heinz is a member of the SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (Skull and Crossbones). One of the SS’s notorious elite divisions. But what shocks Timm even more, and that’s because it’s also part of the post-war mindset, are the omissions. He knows his brother was present when some of the most horrific extermination operations went on, but he doesn’t mention anything. And in the end, he even stops writing his diary because, as he writes, it doesn’t make sense to write about awful things.

Reading Timm’s account, you can feel that he was ashamed and horrified that he had a brother like this. And he’s ashamed and horrified because of the way people spoke right after the war. Many found it perfectly OK that Jews were killed and were only angry about losing the war. Many others said they “didn’t know” but it was clear they had only chosen not to know.

The silence and passivity of the masses disgusted Timm. He also found out that many soldiers were given a choice whether they wanted to be part of a firing squad or not. Hardly anyone said no. Interestingly though, saying no, had absolutely no consequences. They didn’t choose to fire people because they were scared but simply because they wanted to.

Timm also explores his father’s authoritarian education methods which were pretty typical for that time. Kids had to obey and if they didn’t  they were slapped, hit or worse. Psychologists have found out a long time ago that this “black pedagogy” as it is called was one of the reasons why Hitler and Nazism were so successful.

While the book is harsh on his family and many other Germans, it still captures the suffering. His family, like so many others, lost everything when Hamburg was destroyed in ’43. For many years they lived in a cellar.

In My Brothers’ Shadow is also amazing as a book about writing a memoir. What it means to dig deeper and find family secrets. It’s not surprising, he was only able to write about everything so honestly, after his parents and sister were dead.

Uwe Timm is a wonderful, stylish writer that’s why this memoir has many poetic elements. It is a fascinating and touching story of a German family.

One thing that Timm’s elegant and poignant memoir illustrates admirably well – silence is political. Looking the other way is not innocence it’s complicity. This should be self-evident, unfortunately, it wasn’t then and it’s still not now. I’m glad I finally read this memoir. Especially just after Kempowski’s novel. They are great companion pieces.

Walter Kempowski: All for Nothing – Alles umsonst (2006) Literature and War Readalong November 2016

alles-umsonstAll For Nothing

Until not too long ago, even Germans thought it was in bad taste to write about German suffering during WWII. The feeling of guilt ran too deep. I still remember the discussion when the movie Anonyma came out in 2008. It’s based on the diary of a German woman who was in Berlin when the Russian army arrived. She was one of 2,000,000 German women who were raped many times by the Russian troops. We may look at the war any which way we want, there’s no denying that the Germans suffered too. We just have to think of the bombing of Dresden, the mass rapes of German women by Russian troops and – of course – the huge number of people who were forced to flee from the East towards the West, when the war was lost. Many of these Germans would never be able to return because the place they came from wouldn’t be part of Germany anymore.

This may seem a lengthy introduction but it’s essential to understand not only the importance but the scope of Walter Kempowskis’ powerful and chilling novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst .

All for Nothing is set in East Prussia, in the winter of 45. In January, to be precise. The story mostly takes place on the Georgenhof estate, located near Mitkau, not too far from Königsberg. Königsberg which was once famous was almost completely destroyed and is now called Kaliningrad. For further understanding, I’ve added two maps.

east-prussia

The map above shows East Prussia in red. The other one below, is a map from 1945. It is more detailed and shows other territories. It’s easy to understand when you look at the maps, how precarious the situation was for the civilians in East Prussia when the Russians started to advance.

germany-1945

At the beginning of the novel, people already start to flee in the direction of Berlin, only the people on Georgenhof, the von Globig’s, behave as if nothing was happening. This is mostly due to Katharina von Globig’s character. She’s the wife of the estate owner who is serving in Italy. Together with her twelve-year-old son, her husband’s elderly aunt and Polish and Ukrainian servants, she lives a life of carefree ease. She’s someone who likes to withdraw from the world, into her own realm. She lives in an apartment inside of the large estate where nobody is allowed to enter. Here she reads, dreams, smokes, cuts out silhouettes, and thinks of an affair she had some years ago. Possibly the only time in her life in which she was really happy.

The aunt is a typical old maid. In the absence of her nephew, and knowing how little Katharina cares, she is in charge of the estate. Peter, the son, who should be with the Hitler Youth, pretends he’s got a cold and, like his mother, flees to other realms in his imagination.

When the first refugees arrive, the small household welcomes them. They feed and entertain them, just as if they were ordinary guests. Katharina may be distracted but she’s kind and generous. Even though her husband calls her occasionally and urges her to leave, she stays put.

But some of the refugees tell horror stories and even Katharina and the aunt realize that falling into the hands of the Russians might prove fatal. Only their life is so comfortable, so enjoyable, how can they leave everything behind? This is an incredible dilemma, and one can easily understand how so many waited far too long before they finally fled.

In the case of the von Globig’s it needs a tragedy that finally pushes them to make a decision.

The first half of the book tells the story before they flee, the second half, tells the story of the flight.

It was so strange, but reading the first almost peaceful part was really stressful. The reader knows what’s coming but the character’s don’t. It takes so long until it sinks in that all is lost.

The descriptions of the flight, those long, endless treks of refugees is harrowing. Not only are the Russians pushing forward, but the refugees are bombed and dead people and horses are piled up to the left and the right of the roads.

Kempowski did a great job at describing in a poignant way how this must have been without traumatizing the reader. We read, breathlessly, but it’s not too graphic and the characters are held at arm’s length. That doesn’t mean the book left me cold. Not at all but it never felt like it was manipulative and trying to shock and disgust.

People often say “Why didn’t they leave earlier?” when speaking of people who are trapped in a war zone. When you read this, you get a good feeling for the reasons. Not only do they have to abandon everything, but they have no idea whether it will be better where they are going. Besides, back then, all they had was accounts of a few other refugees and British radio. Their own radio told them that it was negative propaganda, that all was well, the frontline still secure. How would you have known for sure?

The luckiest thing may have been that they fled back to their own homeland and could stay on territory in which their own language was spoke. While many didn’t make it and many had a very uncertain future, they had at least that. Unlike the refugees that come to Europe from the war zones in the Middle East.

Before ending, I’d like to say a few things about the characters and Kempowski’s style. He does something I’ve never seen before. Almost every other sentence ends in a question mark. It’s really bizarre and I’m surprised it didn’t annoy me. Interestingly, it felt like we hear the characters question themselves all the time. I read a few reviews and apparently he tried to show the general confusion. I’d say he was very successful but it takes some getting used to. His characters are very well drawn. Even minor characters come to life. Most of the time he uses indirect speech but you can still hear the different mannerisms. People repeat the same stories again and again. Just like in real life. Sometimes that’s quite funny. People can be so absurd. Petty. Self-absorbed. Ridiculous. Under the circumstances it’s tragically comic. As I said, Kempowski keeps the reader at arm’s length, that’s why there isn’t a character I loved but there were two I genuinely disliked. One of them was Peter. I would love to know if anyone who read this had a similar reaction. The more I approached the end, the more I disliked this kid. Such a cold fish.

I’m so glad that I chose this novel for the readalong because it’s not only powerful but important. It tells a story that needed to be told and does so masterfully. Raising awareness for a tragedy, making characters  come to life on the page, but not bang your readers over the head or traumatize them – that’s no mean feat.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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All For Nothing is the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong will be published in December. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including 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.

Stanley Meisler: Shocking Paris (2015)

Shocking Paris

It’s rare that I accept review copies these days, but a book about the so-called School of Paris wasn’t something to pass up. I don’t regret accepting Shocking Paris as I’ve read it in a couple of days, something I rarely do with nonfiction. I really liked it a great deal. It was as fascinating as it was informative.

Stanley Meisler is a distant relative of Chaim Soutine, which may explain his interest in a painter who isn’t as well-known in the US as in Europe. Soutine isn’t the only writer Meisler writes about. His topic is the School of Paris – a group of influential, mostly Eastern Jewish painters, who were living and working in Paris from the years just before WWI until WWII. Most of them lived and worked in Montparnasse in the famous La Ruche residence. Back then Montmartre had already lost its importance for painters and was slowly turning into the tourist trap it still is.

While Chaim Soutine is his main topic, we read about many other painters, notably Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian Jew, and Marc Chagall, still one of the most famous painters.

The early chapters were particularly interesting because they describe how revolutionary it was that young Jewish men and women became artists and the struggle they faced because painting was against their religion. That certainly explains why so many left for Paris where important artists like Picasso resided. It also explains, as Meisler states, why there are no important Jewish painters prior to the 20th century.

Soutine

Soutine

Above—two paintings by Chaim Soutine

I’ve never been a fan of Soutine’s paintings, but it’s obvious that he was influential. You can see his influence in the works of painters like Francis Bacon and even Jackson Pollock.

The landscapes he painted were always distorted, the people made ugly. And he had a special fondness for depicting bloody meat. Another typical trait was how thick the paint is on his paintings. Many appear three-dimensional thanks to those thick layers of paint.

Modigliani

Above—painting by Amedeo Modigliani

Modigliani, who was his close friend until he died too early in 1920, was a much more colourful person. Soutine was not only notoriously shy but awkward. He didn’t know how to make friends. According to Meisler, he rarely washed or changed his clothes and must have been rather revolting at times. He was also peculiar in so far as he destroyed many of his paintings. Either because someone said something he didn’t like about them or because he wasn’t satisfied anymore.

Chagall 2

Chagall1

Above—two paintings by Marc Chagall

Shocking Paris was a fascinating book for many reasons. It was interesting to read about the School of Paris and the anti-Semitism they were facing, long before WWII. Chaim Soutine is one of only a few Jewish painters who didn’t change his name. It was equally interesting to read about the war and how Soutine managed to escape deportation. There’s a long chapter about Varian Fry, a young American, who helped many writers and painters to escape to the US. I’ve come across his name several times before. Some of the most famous people he helped were—Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Max Ernst, André Breton, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler and many more.

Soutine spent parts of the war, hidden in Paris. Later he fled to the country with his lover Marie Berthe Aurenche, the ex-wife of max Ernst. His health had been bad for many years. He suffered from stomach ulcers and finally died in 1943 because he couldn’t be treated in time. He’s buried on the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris.

Early in the book Meisler writes that he avoided conjecture. Soutine was a complicated man and many of the things people say about him are contradicting. He wasn’t someone who spoke or wrote about his art or himself, like Chagall did. Nor was he good-looking and larger than life like Modigliani. Nonetheless, it’s always tempting to try to spice up a biographical account by adding anecdotes and using conjecture. Meisler doesn’t do that. The account is interesting but sober that’s why I wished the book had another title. I find it lurid. And misleading. At the time people were shocked that so many foreigners, especially Jews, occupied such an important place in the Parisian art scene, but there’s nothing truly shocking between these pages. I’m afraid the wrong reader might pick up this book. That’s too bad because it’s engaging and well-researched and focusses on painters and a movement which isn’t well-known outside of France.

I highly recommend this book, not only to art fans and people interested in Soutine and Chagall, but also to those interested in WWII, Paris and the history of France (there’s a lot – highly critical parts – about Vichy France).

Thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for the review copy.