Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Seventeen: Eileen Gunn

Eileen Gunn:

Pleasures (and otherwise) of reading in 2008

These first three books were not necessarily pleasurable, except in the broader sense of being intellectually absorbing. Difficult books to read, undoubtedly painful books for the authors to write, they form a sort of randomly assembled trilogy on the Holocaust and its effects. I acquired them all separately, read them opportunistically, and until I started reviewing my year’s reading for this essay, hadn’t thought of them being particularly related. Considering them now, however, it seems not only that they are obviously related, but that I read them in a meaningful order: that of increasing complexity.

The first, Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memories, is a memoir by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, a Holocaust survivor who was just fifteen at the start of World War II. Her town, on the border between Poland and Ukraine, was invaded in 1939 by the Soviet Union and in 1941 by the Nazis, and her story, a series of harrowing incidents of escalating cruelty and betrayal, is made deeply personal by the author’s memory for dialogue and detail. The author willed herself to remember and testify to events that, although they are familiar in the context of Holocaust memoirs, are horrifying and inexplicable in what they reveal about human beings and their so-called civilization.

Threaded through her account is the story of a young Ukrainian policeman who fell in love with Fanya and risked his life over and over to help her and her family survive, even though she was not in love with him. This is not a sentimental story, and it has no feel-good finale: at the end of the war, pressured by family members, Fanya makes a realistic assessment of what her life would be like if she stayed in Ukraine, quickly marries another survivor, and flees with what remains of her family, leaving her rescuer behind in Eastern Europe as the Soviets close in.

There the book ends, with a brief coda to summarize the next fifty years. What is is, and what was is gone; what happened after the war is another story, and Mrs. Heller does not reflect on it in the book, although it is clear that she continued to be bothered by what happened, and eventually dealt with it via psychoanalysis. She and her husband worked hard, had a family, and were successful. She became a psychologist and is now a well-known philanthropist and a speaker on the Holocaust. Her book was published sixteen years ago, and Mrs. Heller is still quite active: a video of a talk on women and the Holocaust that she gave at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in April, 2008 is available at Thirteen Forum. She covers there, briefly, many of the issues in this book, and admits that, even now, she compulsively carries a piece of bread in her purse in case she is arrested.

* * *

After Long Silence, by Helen Fremont, a fictionalized family memoir by the daughter of Holocaust survivors, is a far more problematic work. Unlike Fanya Heller, who wrote her book at least partly to testify to what happened to her and her entire shtetl, Helen Fremont’s mother and aunt did not want their story told. As young women in Nazi-occupied Lvov, they devised a cover story about their origins and posed as Polish Catholics, which enabled the two sisters not only to escape Lvov, but to survive Nazi-occupied Rome. After the war, they continued in their new identities, at least partly from fear that the balance would shift once again, and it would be dangerous for their children to be Jewish. Fremont’s parents immigrated to the United States and raised their two daughters as Catholics, keeping the truth hidden from the children. This book is their daughter Helen’s story, told in a non-linear fashion that makes it appear to be her parents’ stories as well, although in fact it is not.

Like other children of Holocaust survivors, the two girls, from an early age, had to piece together their parents’ story as best they could, while the parents themselves strove to rebuild their lives in new country, distance themselves emotionally from a dreadful past, and support their family. The sisters, accustomed to silences and inconsistencies in their mother’s reminiscences, didn’t discover their Jewish heritage until they were in their thirties.

For Fremont, a lesbian who had at that point not yet come out to her parents, this additional displacement from the truth seems to have engendered a fierce desire to bring all the secrets out into the open. Her need to openly discuss what happened to her family baffled and angered her parents and her aunt and, as might be expected, they opposed her plans to write a book. Although she writes quite frankly about this conflict, Fremont, who is a lawyer, does not go into any detail about the ethical issues involved in publishing the details of someone’s life against their will; she seems to have reframed the argument, after much thought, as a conflict of loyalties: she could be loyal either to her parents or to herself; she could be an individual or a directionless component in a family that had no tolerance for individuality.

Fremont notes at the beginning of the book that she has changed the names of people and places to conceal their identity, and that she has “imagined details” of her parents lives, presumably because they didn’t want to disclose those details. This is to me the most problematic aspect of the book: the reader cannot trust the facts of the Holocaust account. This part of the book is both fact and fiction –“creative non-fiction,” as it is called -- and the reader doesn’t know which is which.

Memoir and family history provide parallax views of an event, and each has its biases and lacunae, acknowledged or not, which the reader weighs differently when assessing the book and its relation to objective “reality.” Although the author is not trying to deceive the reader, she may easily be mistaken about details, or she may have changed them for reasons of privacy.

The most affecting part of the book, where the author is in command of dialog and tone, is her own story of discovery and rebellion, and the parts of her parents’ story that are imparted in conversation with her parents or aunt, which show the power that horrific memories can wield. She shows an impressive command of the dialog and emotional tenor of conversations in which one speaker casually explodes a verbal bomb in the face of another.

I myself have written a story (as yet unpublished, because I am reluctant to send it out) based in part on my father’s account of his wartime military experience, and I can well relate to some of the problems Fremont encountered in writing this book. Whose story is it? What unsavory parental detail and private information is appropriate – what is optional and what is necessary? Should it be fiction or fact -- there are limitations to each. Is there any such thing as truth and accuracy when it comes to telling someone else’s story? Isn’t is always really your own story that you’re writing, whether it’s a family history or a memoir or a novel? Though I take issue with her solution to these problems, I respect her courage in addressing them.

* * *

Art Spiegelman’s new large-format art book, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, forms the third in this unlikely trilogy. In part, this is a full-size reprint of Spiegelman’s first published book, Breakdowns (1978), which was a collection of some of his most memorable work from the previous six years. It included a three-page comic entitled “Maus,” a predecessor to his ground-breaking graphic novel of the same name, and the searing “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” an account of his mother’s suicide, as well as a number of other ambitious, experimental works of comic art in a diversity of styles.

Spiegelman’s remarkable graphic-art memoir, Maus and Maus II, like After Long Silence, tells both the tale of the author’s parents in the Holocaust and selective parts of the author’s relationship with those parents. Unlike in Fremont’s book, however, Spiegelman’s father told his story willingly for his son to recreate as a comic, and, although the story fades cinematically back and forth between the Holocaust and the late 1970s, it is always clear which part is the father’s testament and which part is the son’s memoir. The use of cartoon mice and cats to portray the Jews and the Nazis somehow heightens the reality, rather than ameliorating it, catching the reader unawares, with her defenses down. When I first read it, serialized in Raw magazine in the early ’80s, it seemed to me somehow pornographic in its directness. The underground comix of the ’60s and ’70s had certainly liberated funny animals from sweetness and light, but Maus plucked them from fantasy in its entirety and used them to depict a very grim reality from which most Americans have shielded themselves.

The new edition prefaces Breakdowns with a lengthy autobiographical essay in comic form that gives a whirlwind tour of the artist’s childhood, his psyche, and his artistic roots. Its allusive and episodic nature no doubt puts demands on readers unfamiliar with Spiegelman’s personal story, but the author’s informatively rueful afterword adds context to the comic. Readers who find it hard to track the graphical narrative at the beginning of the book are advised to read the end first.

Taken as a whole – autobiographical comic, Breakdowns, and final essay -- this is a dynamic documentary of the origins, synthesis, breakdown, and re-synthesis of a remarkable artist who is the child of Holocaust survivors, and who has used both his own experience and that of his parents in creating his lifework.

These three books seem to be written with an intent to tell the truth about certain matters, and Spiegelman especially focuses on telling painful truths that may not reflect well on himself. I found them all compelling reading; considering them now, they form a progression: starting with the stories of the Holocaust and the survivors’ prodigious efforts to recreate their lives, proceeding to the effect the Holocaust had on the children of its survivors, who try to tell their parents’ stories, and finishing with the survivors’ children telling their own stories. Through all of this, the telling of stories is both a way of testifying to horror and a means of gaining some control over it.

* * *

A novel I especially enjoyed this year was Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which is both an engaging, kid-wise young-adult thriller and an excoriating critique of the current state of surveillance technology and its potential for abuse. Perhaps because it is aimed at kids and has a realistic, present-day setting, it takes a kinder view of the human potential for cruelty than, say, 1984 or any of the holocaust narratives mentioned above. Many of the grim government enforcers who pursue the protagonists seem, upon examination, to be motivated merely by a misguided authoritarian desire to protect the US: they are more like abusive parents than like the KGB. But then, even under the Bush administration, the US has not achieved Nazi or Stalinist levels of demented cruelty, at least to its own citizens.

Two exceptional short-story collections that I read this year were Leslie What’s Crazy Love, and Nisi Shawl’s Filter House. Since I provided a promotional blurb for Crazy Love and wrote the introduction to Filter House, I will not repeat myself here. Each is available on Amazon and in a few select bookstores, despite getting enthusiastic critical attention. This is the reality of short-story publishing.


Finally, I would like to call attention to Farah Mendlesohn Rhetorics of Fantasy, a work that calls to mind Susan Wood’s distinction between academic writing and scholarly writing. Mendlesohn’s scholarly book is rich in its thinking and juicy with ideas. She is interested here in examining how fantasy plots are constructed, so as to provide tools for further thought on the matter. I have not read the whole book, and I probably will not read it end-to-end, forming a clear picture of the author’s intent and argument. But I will continue to dip into it at random, for its wonderful effect of having a series of thoughtful conversations with Mendlesohn about whatever is on her mind at the moment.

In writing fiction, I avoid overly rigorous planning. I am, however, always looking for ways to think about what I am revising – work that I have written but not published, work that is still becoming whatever it will be. I am not a believer in rules and categories – if I see a rule, I want to break it; if I am put in a category I want to claw my way out – but I believe in tools and techniques, and I believe in thinking about what I have done while it is still malleable. Most academic work does not provide me with the means to do this, but I think, after dipping into it and finding intriguing observations on every page, that Mendlesohn’s book could prove very useful in opening my mind to possibility without making me claustrophobic. I am not saying that it will do this for you, or that it will always do this for me, but do recommend to other writers that they get their hands on it and dig in.

* * *

Books discussed:

Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memories by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. (KTAV Publishing House, Hoboken, 1993) [republished as Love in a World of Sorrow by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. (Devora Publishing, Jerusalem, 2003)]

After Long Silence by Helen Fremont. (Delta, New York, 1999)

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! , by Art Spiegelman. (Pantheon, New York, 2008)

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. (Tor Teen, New York, 2008)

Crazy Love, by Leslie What. (Wordcraft of Oregon, LLC, La Grande, 2008)

Filter House, by Nisi Shawl. (Aqueduct Press, Seattle, 2008)

Rhetorics of Fantasy, by Farah Mendlesohn. (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 2008)

Eileen is the author of the collection Stable Strategies and Others (2004) and the co-editor of The WisCon Chronicles, Volume Two, which Aqueduct published in 2008. She is the editor/publisher of the Infinite Matrix and in the dead of night can hear it stomping around in the attic. She has been a member of the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop for the past twenty years, and she thinks it’s time for someone else to step up to the plate.

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