Sunday, April 01, 2007

Still Alive by Ruth Kluger

One major problem with Holocaust literature, or at least with the readers of holocaust literature, is the tendency to reach to conclusions before thinking through what it all means. It doesn't matter whether the conclusions are life-negating or life-affirming, it is the same thing. One wants to summarise the whole thing in some abstraction, like, say, human life has no meaning, or the ideas like the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful God or the idea of the historical progress are preposterous, even insulting and morally reprehensible. There are readers who find life-affirming lessons about how love or "human spirit" always triumphs in the end or how human beings are essentially good, just make them read a few poems and make them listen to a piece by Beethoven and then they will recover their conscience (as shown in the recent award winning film The Lives of Others). It is not that any of these conclusions are not valid or empirically wrong, but rather the whole process reveals this deep-rooted desire to externalise the horror and distance oneself from it. It is as if it were some horror film! One of the main running themes of Ruth Kluger's Holocaust memoir is I think about this. She deeply detests all short-cuts -- sentimentality, emotionalism, cliches, easy comparisons or analogies -- anything which "impedes the critical faculty," as she puts it. That's what sets this book apart from conventional memoirs or works of documentary history. It is a work of literature, and a very serious, provocative and powerful one at that.

Kluger was seven years old in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria. Most of her early childhood memories are of the progressively increasing discrimination she and her family had to face in the viciously anti-semitic Vienna. Not that she understood what was really happening. One time when the school principal came to teach the kids in her class the Hitler salute which the Jewish children were not allowed to do, this is what she says:

The class dutifully imitated him, while we five or six Jewish kids got to sit in the back. Because the principal was friendly and the teacher visibly embarrassed, I was unsure at first—such is the touching optimism of the young— whether our special status was a privilege or an insult.
Soon after her father, who was a practicing gynaecologist, was arrested by the Nazis on some charges. On returning he fled to Italy and then to France, never to be heard of again. He was believed to have died in the concentration camp, only later did Kluger and her mother came to know that he was instead shot somewhere in the Baltics. Her elder step-brother, who was Czech and who she was very devoted to, met a similar same fate. In 1942 she and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt—-neither a work camp nor a concentration camp, she explains, but a prison ghetto, "the stable that supplied the slaughterhouse." She describes her daily life in the camp in matter-of-fact style interspersed with musings about how she feels about that time from the perspective of her later life.

Two years later they were moved to the Auschwitz-Birkenau which was a real extermination camp with gas chambers and chimneys. After witnessing the horror there her mother suggested that they should commit suicide by running into the electrified fence. She refused without understanding why and her mother accepted it "nonchalantly" as if it was just another proposal in day-to-day life. Then came the selection for life and death. Women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five were chosen for slave labour in a different camp. She had to fudge her age by three years in order to escape the gas chambers. She was initially reluctant and rejected at the first roll call but then after her mother's persistence and the benevolence of a female SS clerk she managed to escape from Auschwitz.

The rest of the memoir is about her life in a slave labour camp in Silesia (in Poland) where soon the Russians arrived and they had to flee again. After the war they spent some time in Germany and then immigrated to US where after lots of initial struggle she pursued a career in studying and teaching literature and retired as a professor of German studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

There are lots of events that she writes about which I haven't mentioned in my summary. Almost everywhere her descriptions are padded with her acerbic and sharp comments from the present perspective. The tone throughout is very aggressive. In fact she writes about how she was reprimanded many times because of her "manners" and herself says that she is very hard to satisfy. She has problems with both left and right, both zionists and anti-zionists. One of the consistent theme of the book is her questioning of these categories and labels again things which shortcut the critical thinking process.

I think there are three main threads in her narrative which stand out however. The first is the holocaust and its legacy. She is bitterly critical of the museum culture which has grown up around the camps. She also deeply resents all easy comparisons and analogies, naive and sentimental symbolisms. She also writes about her relationship with Germany and how the present day Germans are coming to terms with their past. She generally writes approvingly about it with occasional misgivings. She herself was a visiting professor at the University of Gottingen. There is no doubt about Vienna though -- she still hates it. She says it is still highly anti-semitic and deeply fascistic. The second thread and perhaps the most alarming and differentiating feature of the book is how she talks about her mother. She is full of bitterness, anger and rage towards her mother and her feelings are well-reciprocated too (or at least that's what she says)! In fact she mentions in the afterword that the reason why this English edition was written after more than a decade of the publishing of the original German book was that her mother was furious when she read, from a copy someone sent to her from Europe, what her daughter had written about her in the book. After a lot of mutual recrimination she promised her mother that she won't allow any translation to appear in English so nobody around her will know what she had written about her. The rewritten (not translated) version appeared one year after her mother died at the age of 97 in 2000. The book is dedicated to her.

The third important theme of the book is her feminism. She is very conscious and alert about the discrimination she continued to feel even in the so-called free world and not surprisingly she sees this as an extension of the same fascism that she experienced in the camps. At one place she says:
While Germans had to revise their judgment of Jews, however reluctantly and sporadically, they didn't even try to revise their Nazi-bred contempt for women.
Her tone is also remarkably aggressive and straight-forward when she talks about these things. I was reminded of other Austrian women writers like Ingeborg Bachmann and Elfriede Jelinek who have a similar confrontational and strident style and who also see women's oppression as fascism continued via other means. It was in this regard that I found this review in the new york times strange. It is somewhat negative, which can only be explained if the reviewer had some personal grudge with Kluger (Which wouldn't be surprising, she is not of the pleasing type). The reviewer says:
Yet interspersed throughout are strange, sometimes incoherent remarks on feminism. For example, Kluger's bizarre defense of the female guards at Christianstadt on feminist grounds -- she says that ''Nazi evil was male, not female'' and that ''the SS was strictly a men's club'' -- is a wild distortion. This reflexive, outdated feminism, which regards anything male as suspect and all women, even Nazi women, as essentially powerless sisters, seriously mars the book and threatens to undermine its credibility.

I haven't read enough history or sociology but I think it is a well-established fact that all fascist systems have this cult of "masculinity" (so-called) and contempt for "femininity", which they see as a sign of degeneracy, in common. Nazism was no different. Also I don't know what this "outdated" and "reflexive" feminism is that she talks about.

Surprisingly I couldn't find much, reviews or otherwise, about the book on the Internet. This doesn't seem to be a very popular book which is a great shame. It is undeniably a major literary achievement and deserves much wider renown. Very highly recommended!


Antonia said...

great post alok.

Szerelem said...

Did you see Lives of Others?

Vidya said...

Loved this post and the observations about H.Literature.Already have placed a copy of this book on hold, thx Alok!

tom said...

fascinating. will definitely look into this. thanks

nico said...

How great that more people are getting interested in Kluger's book! Thanks for posting that thorough post. I really don't understand that reviewers opinion, almost offensive. I've been reading some of her poetry, also highly recommended.

Alok said...

antonia: thank you!

szerelem: yes I saw it, it was very good, though i didn't like it as much as you did. I found that "spiritual transformation" that is at the center of the story a little banal and predictable, though it is saved by his performace in the role. He looks tortured enough to have us believe in those sequences. will try to post in more detail sometime.

vidya: you will definitely like it, it is a very thought-provoking book. and it raises lots of difficult questions about holocaust and how we should deal with its legacy too.

tom: thanks! I am sure you will like it.

nico: I should thank you (and antonia) for alerting me to this book. It was really great. and yes that review is bizarre -- not just incompetent but rather malicious, insensitive and dishonest. I wonder how it got published in the new york times.

Aishwarya said...

Interesting. I've been looking at a lot of Holocaust art recently and it's fascinating in all sorts of worrying ways.

As for the cult of masculinity thing, you're right. But around the same time, the women's movement was growing and certain sections of it used the opportunity to play up the cult of masculinity that had led to all the madness and suggest that maybe less people would have died had women been involved. It's an interesting argument, because it assumed a lot of stereotypical notions about women to be correct and uses this for women's lib. Quite odd.

Alok said...

I don't think she ever takes the "men bad, women good" line and I don't think any sensible feminist can. as always it is rather these idealized and theoretical constructions of gender identity that is problematic. fascist systems feed on repression, self-denial and sublimation through violence and aggression, and so many other things too, and then these personality traits are glorified as virtues... this is all obvious and in fact present in our society too, though in much muted forms. a feminist critique of fascism makes perfect sense to me.

by the way, I will strongly recommend the documentary Father, Son and the Holy War. It is very revealing and indeed shocking the way it connects this cult of masculinity to the rise of hindu right in india.

Antonia said...

alok, just now that we speak about good books of the holocaust, from philosophical side the memoir-book 'My Life in Germany Before and After 1933' by Karl Loewith is very good, it has a brilliant critique of Heidegger's use of language and there are no sentimentalities as well.

Alok said...

thanks antonia. I heard of him only recently, I was reading some essays about Heidegger's life and his relationship with Nazism and his name cropped up somewhere. I didn't know about this book, will try to look for it.

My library has got another literary memoir by German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki called The Author of Himself (Mein Leben in German). Have you read it? It looked good too.

Antonia said...

oh Ranicki. I hate him, he is shit.
Well he is very famous and he has this jewish-bonus and love in the common mainstream culture, but in general he sucks, for instance said to Bachmann she better should have sticked to her poems than to write suhc things as Malina. Ranicki is the most arrogant critique of literature I ever got to know. Oh I already said too is better to say as little as possible about him...

Alok said...

okay, so what I read about him is true. but i read that he hates Gunter Grass too, who you hate too :)

Antonia said...

yes but he hates Grass for the wrong reasons :)

what did you read about Ranicki?

Alok said...

from a review of his autobiography: (I will send you the essay if you want, it is not available online for free)

"He has been misleadingly called the pope of German literature. But Ranicki is a lonely figure with no Vatican and—dogmatic as he can be in judgment—no particular theology. He is an old-fashioned, pragmatic critic, phenomenally well-read, whose standards are his own subjective opinions about what is "good" or "bad." He represents no particular branch of literary theory; he is "post"-nothing, but impenitently "pre-" all contemporary canons of French or Anglo-Saxon literary theory. But he is also the opposite of those traditional German mandarins who used to be revered by everybody and understood by nobody. Ranicki is a vigorous popularizer, whose television program on new writing—Literary Quartet—has reached millions and no doubt persuaded them into adventurous reading. He can praise, sometimes lavishly. But his fame rests on his fearsome acts of demolition, often salted with searing irony, which can be annihilating to a luckless author. This reputation pains Ranicki, a witty and charming old man who refuses to consider himself a destroying angel. Nonetheless, Ranicki in hanging-judge mood is the most merciless arbiter of writing in Europe"


"The last section of his book is a list of friendships or intellectual intimacies that almost all turned sour in the end: with Böll, with Walter Jens, with the journalist and historian Joachim Fest, with Martin Walser, even with Max Frisch, whom Ranicki loved and revered as a "great European writer." Sometimes the problem was about the German past. Ranicki owed much to his friend Fest, who had ended his "rejection" by making him literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He was incredulous and then outraged when Fest, a central figure in the 1985 "Historians' War," refused to condemn Ernst Nolte for the notorious FAZ article in which he suggested that the Holocaust had not been a unique German crime but a mere response to worse crimes in the Soviet Union.

Sometimes, though, Ranicki's friendships were wounded by the sharpness of his criticism. A few writers were big enough to cope with their resentment; Heinrich Böll, after a long estrangement, came up to Ranicki at a reception, whispered "Arsehole!" in his ear, and then embraced him. But many others could not forgive him, like Peter Handke, who referred to Ranicki's "killer lust," or Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, who called for a machine gun to mow him down, or the poet Christa Reinig, who wrote fantasies about his death from cancer.

Nothing excuses hysteria like that— not even telling a writer that he or she has written trash. But what had Reich-Ranicki done to provoke it? The trouble is that his bad reviews are so spectacularly nasty, and that he has been tempted to flaunt his media reputation as a "literary executioner." He was unwise when he let a publisher persuade him to issue a selection of his most damning pieces under the title of Nothing but Drubbings. No examples are quoted here. But the drubbing I remember best is a review—sometime in the 1980s—of a Günter Grass novel. Reich-Ranicki, not content with tearing the book to shreds, went on to picture a pathetic, blocked Grass sitting at his typewriter and facing the fact that although he had lost his talent and had absolutely nothing new or original to say, he still had to deliver the semblance of a work of fiction.

That was sheer sadism. And it conceals the surprising fact that the two men have a complicated respect for each other. Grass used Ranicki's tale of Bolek and Genia in his 1972 novel Diary of a Snail. And although The Author of Himself is full of mocking descriptions of Grass drunk or panicking about his royalties, Ranicki has been known to praise at least some of his work. As one might expect from a lover of the German classics, he detests the sprawling, ranting, muddy torrent of Grass's writing and its shockingly variable quality. And yet he is plainly fascinated as well, a fascination tinged with something like fear. In this autobiography he describes a meeting in Warsaw with the composer Hanns Eisler, who launched into a violent diatribe against Wagner; Ranicki listened, but concluded that Eisler was attacking his own insubordinate feelings. "He probably owed Wagner a lot. He was linked to the person he attacked, if only by love-hate." There may be something of this in Ranicki's frantic reaction to Günter Grass.


Antonia said...

that's a good description of him...
he is like a mean old teacher in a subject that you hate, but that you have to do and you ask yourself all the time what this is good for.

Anil P said...

That is the whole point of survival, right? Externalise the horror to distance from it. Conversely the very act of externalising to shield oneself from the pain it would inevitably bring is the truest indicator how acutel painful the horror is.

Alok said...

Yes that's true if you talk of survival mechanism. I was talking of viewers and readers interested in the holocaust. If you do the same with books you read, you are basically trivializing the experience of people who actually had to go through it. you are treating it as a thriller, in fact this book will then turn out to be a version of prison escape story... Kluger explicitly says that she doesn't want to give that impression, and you really can't read it that way even if you want to.