One reason for the foolishly deplored lack of great new novels is not, perhaps, the absence of great talents but that the great subjects are now too large. Tolstoy could, with one campaign, encompass the whole idea of war as he knew it, but could even Tolstoy have dealt with thermonuclear fate? If that is true of a bomb that would merely end the world and thus end all responsibilities, what shall be said of the act that withered a civilization’s ethos but left it with responsibilities? What is a writer of fiction to do with the German mass murder of the Jews?
Leave it alone, if he can. Besides the magnitude of the matter, there is the familiar and usually true observation that fiction cannot equal the facts themselves. Further, the processes of art, no matter how holily employed, must contain (as artists know) a secret hand-rubbing glee of achievement and, always, some artifice. And shall a writer select and arrange these facts in order to make them more effective and take pleasure in it? Artists have of course been making art out of horror for two thousand years; but it seems profane here, not only because of the size of the atrocity as such, but because of its date in the Christian calendar A.D.
So, at least, it would seem. But all dicta of art must, happily, yield to the practice of artists. What if the writer cannot leave this subject alone, as many have not been able to do? All the fiction written about it divides obviously and immediately: reconstructions by those who were not personally involved and distillations by those who—one way or another—were involved. The atrocity as such, but because of its Hersey’s The Wall to the mud of Leon Uris, with a niche well on the way down (as we shall see) for Meyer Levin.
Of the latter group, there have been two more examples in recent months: Herod’s Children by Ilse Aichinger and The Terezin Requiem by Josef Bor. The first, although often poignant and always delicate, diminishes in effect as it proceeds because it has only one effect: a child’s attempt to understand and deal with homicidal madness, a nursery picture of persecution. The second novel never makes an effect because it takes an anomalous and moving fact—the performance of Verdi’s Requiem in a concentration camp—and treats it with no fictional art whatsoever.
To date, the outstanding work in this latter group has been André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just. It is now joined and, in my view, surpassed by Piotr Rawicz’s Blood From the Sky. Schwarz-Bart used a lovely Jewish legend as armature for a story that wound through history to the 1940s and that sang essentially of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God. Rawicz’s novel, in addition to its mute, stony grief, its oblique but overwhelming rendering of the terror, is also in fact (if incredibly) humorous; is also lustful, lyric, clever, exciting. Indeed it has many of the textures of (shall we say) a fine secular novel. In short, Rawicz has not been prevented by his feelings from transmuting the source of those feelings into ruthlessly truthful art.
The novel deals with a certain Boris, a Ukrainian Jew who looks more the former than the latter, a flâneur, a poet, an amorist, a contriver who undergoes the terrors of the German occupation of his country as if they were a test of his ingenuity. We know from the start that he survived because his story is told mostly by him, with manuscript additions, to an unidentified listener in a post-war Paris café. In fact, the general tone of the book is of a café conversation, genial, reminiscent, commenting, discursive. (“I have opened this story as one would open a shop.”) The conversational ease of the narration allows the iron to enter tangentially; the indignities, tortures, executions are often observed somewhat dryly, almost as if they had to be expected by those not smart enough to evade them. The Germans, and their stooges and informers, are handled as if they were just honest fellows doing their jobs, which included such acts as hanging a dozen Jews from a balcony. (“They swung as the wind willed, like twelve black overcoats on invisible hangers.”) The gouging out of Jewish children’s eyes is given no special emphasis, it is related simply as a step in the narrative. It is the same voice that Babel uses for the mutilation in The Road There. (The reminders of Babel throughout are frequent.)
Boris looks so little like a Jew that he can for long times escape German harassment, so he is indeed an observer, able to reflect, to divert his tears into wryness, to admit bitter paradox. (Of a girl forced to work in a Jewish hospital and who comes to love nursing: “All in all, the few brief months before the liquidation were the least distressing in her life.”) He can admit the terrible hot truth to himself when he sees a line of young girls being led away to execution. (“I was overcome by a feeling of jealousy at the thought of their end, of the flame that was to usurp my place and lick these breasts and hips to death. A jealousy fiercer than that which I felt for their lives…”)
His penis figures in the book symbolically and literally. His affair with the voluptuous, jealous Naomi is in a sense his life-line through his travails, travels, escapades, and final escape; his circumcision is a constant threat and, at last, very nearly gets him killed. Further, one of the most off-handedly cruel passages is about electrical torture of the privates. Rawicz describes how the steel ring is slipped on, describes the room (“well furnished and newly painted, preferably pale gray. The portrait of some leader, on the wall, is extremely apposite—I would even say indispensable. His mustache absolves all sins, even before they are committed.”) Then the officer at the desk moves his hand toward the button:
You clothe yourself, in anticipation, in your thickest armor. You bid agony come and set it at nought. He can pluck the living heart from me, and I won’t cry out, I won’t confess to anything. I’ll pull through. You have summoned all your resources: huge they are, haughty as a mountain. All the same, you take a peek at the switch. And then: click! The figure at the desk has pressed his button. The shock! Where is the shock…?! It hasn’t come. You have expended yourself in anticipation, your resistance has been whirring away to no avail. You were as strong as a lion, as steadfast as a martyr of the Church, and all for nothing. And then just as you are saying to yourself: “What a pity. I’d have been splendid!” the shock arrives, savage and excruciating, too much for your resolutions, too much for you. “You” no longer exist. Then, but only then, you start to scream and after that…it’s cards on the table.
There are several quite extraneous tales in the book, most of the hero’s poems do not arrest, one wonders why during a long term in prison he has no thought of Naomi with whom he has undergone so much. Yet these flaws almost seem organic to a work whose mode is impressionistic, informal, self-protectively egotistical.
Rawicz was born in the Ukraine in 1919, spent three years in concentration camps, and has since lived and studied in Poland and France. He writes in French (and the English provided by Peter Wiles is often neatly turned). What he has tried to do with his experience and with his knowledge of the larger experience is to pretend in a deliberate, grim way—to smile at it, to let Boris recount his life something like a twentieth-century Gil Blas, not really demanding that anyone believe what he says yet treating it as commonplace. This game with reality serves to give his subject another dimension of horror because we supply for Rawicz the missing steps of his progress to this view: viz., everyone knows what happened and no one can really comprehend it, not even those who were there; so why not treat it as if it were only one more of the many tribulations of man? This shrugging, sometimes even light acceptance of hell makes the depth of the abyss even clearer; it gently but pitilessly illuminates the many hidden deaths—of Jews, of others, of worlds—that are contained in it. Sitting at his café table, Boris tells us as easily as he might have commented on a passing girl that two thousand years of history may have ended up in six million graves.
Rawicz has kept the promise that his hero makes. At one point Boris sees a group of Jews with hammers being forced to break up tombstones in an old Jewish cemetery. (“An aleph would go flying off to the left, while a he carved on another piece of stone dropped to the right.”) Himself temporarily safe from the Germans, he thinks:
I must escape…I must rescue the old cemetery…Shall I ever be able to take it upon my shoulders like a black cloak? Muffled up in the old cemetery, as though in the sky, I must start on my journey toward distant lands, and may we not be recognized! May nobody recognize us!
He has carried out the old cemetery, past those who might have recognized it and stopped him. But the price he has paid is disconnection. His quietness is not philosophical calm; it is numbness. He sits cold now among the living, disbelieving in their life.
In Rawicz’s novel there is a dialogue between an old rabbi and God on the perennial question of the existence of evil. There is an exchange on the same subject in Meyer Levin’s new novel, The Fanatic, and the difference is that between art and perspiration. The differences persist. One book is the work of an artist who has seen, knows what he does not understand, and can create the necessary silences; the other is the work of an ambitious mechanic who thinks he can bruise and shove his way through reams and reams of paper to Apocalypse.
Some years ago Mr. Levin was the plaintiff in a lawsuit concerning a dramatization that he had made of The Diary of Anne Frank. His novel deals with a young American rabbi-writer who brings a lawsuit about a dramatization he has made of a posthumous book by a (male) Jewish concentration-camp victim. There is the usual disclaimer of resemblances in a preface—no, it is unusual: it goes on longer than most, and with Levinesque weight implores us to confine our thoughts to his characters.
Confine them, then, and you find yourself listening to the dead hero-author, narrating the story in the first person from beyond the grave, as he watches the dramatist (now married to his ex-sweetheart) deal and bicker with theatrical agents and producers and lawyers, testifying in court, all of which Levin believes would be of interest to the dead man. The ghost even keeps an eye on a radio program in a Broadway restaurant. Hic et ubique? Then we’ll shift our ground—to spare ourselves criticism of this clumsily earnest but eventually spurious novel. For Levin is the kind of author whose sententiousness and poor writing derogate his doubtless sincere work to the level of the big books on “important” subjects cynically contrived by fiction-mongers.
February 20, 1964