Other People’s Houses
The Burnt Ones
The effective literary treatment of violence is never easy; and it is particularly difficult for those who are obsessed with a violence of which they themselves have had no direct experience. Such an obsession can be rationalized in a number of ways: we live in a violent age, goes the argument, so the writer must, if he is to be honest, be aware of public and private cruelty and do his best to portray it. Both the justifying argument and the literary practice tend to get confused at this point; we are given a faithful reproduction of stark acts rather than a transmutation of feeling, for it is simpler to aim directly at the reader’s nervous system than at his moral sensibility. (A related phenomenon: why has “disturbing” become a term of unqualified approbation in recent criticism?) The results are familiar: for instance, the use of the name “Auschwitz” as a quick-response literary term in a way that is deeply insulting both to the victims and the survivors. One can understand the pressure of guilt—combined with an imaginative fascination—that feeds this obsession in those who have never undergone terror themselves. But it often leads to a kind of prurience as unpleasant as the obsession with sex of those who have never had sexual experience. It might be more modest, if harder, to conclude that there can be no adequate literary response, at the moment, to some of the enormities of recent history.
Most of these reflections apply with some force to the three stories about the Second World War and its aftermath that comprise George Steiner’s Anno Domini. Mr. Steiner was, I presume, too young to have been through the war himself, but he has read about it and has let his imagination dwell on its beastliest details: he insists, in calm, sophisticated tones, on pointing out how the Gestapo would crush a prisoner’s fingers in the jamb of a door, or how the S. S. repeatedly immersed a man’s head in a vat of urine. He is particularly interested in showing us what it is like to be burnt alive (such incinerations occur in each of the three stories). I can take it, Mr. Steiner seems to be implying, in his worldly manner; how about you?
The first of the three stories is about a decent, guilt-ridden German officer who returns after the war to the Norman farm house where he had been billeted in 1944. The officer had had one of the sons of the family shot as a spy, and he is received with sullen hatred, but by degrees they come to tolerate him, and eventually he even courts and marries one of the daughters. Speeches are made at the marriage feast about reconciliation between former enemies. Finally the German is invited to join in a ritualistic dance to round off the procedings; he protests that he is unable to dance—he is badly crippled from a war wound—but he …