Schlepics: The Fiction of Angel Wagenstein
In Joshua Cohen's "Untitled: A Review," the opening story of his brilliant but unheralded debut collection, The Quorum, a critic from "one of our more respected publications" is stunned into submission by a mammoth box appearing on his doorstep. Inside the package our hero discovers a book of more than 6 million blank pages--"pure, virgin white, like the snow around Auschwitz"--lacking pagination, footnotes, author credit, introduction, copyright, dedication, colophon or any other identifying marks. The necessity (and impossibility) of a response to this monumental blank--a nothing that is not and a nothing that is--drives the critic into a paranoid raving fit, but in his review of the untitled tome he steers himself toward a confident conclusion:
In intent and execution this history without a title, this Untitled by Anonymous, is the best record of, and commentary on, the Holocaust this reviewer has yet encountered, the best in or out of print produced by, and in, the last half-century. Just as that noble laureate Elie Wiesel filled the need for a new word (holocaust: complete consumption by fire) for a new horror (the Holocaust), this anonymous author--if this massive thing even has an author--has found the only way to write about the event, the idea. Or not.
There's no only way to write about the Shoah--but there are many ways one shouldn't write about it. Cohen's imagined nonfiction chronicle is the perfect antithesis of the now-traditional Holocaust narrative, the kind that focuses on great escapes, improbable heroes, loathsome villains and superhuman acts of kindness. "It is not mawkish. It is not patronizing. It's not insulting." This masterpiece by Anonymous provides a textbook definition of negative capability, as direct as a math equation: n6,000,000 = x. "The word is sacred," writes the critic in his review. "Words strung together are not."
The attempt to find new words for a new horror aptly summarizes the past sixty years of Jewish fiction, and is the obverse of the stark, unapproachable purity of Untitled by Anonymous, or of T.W. Adorno, who declared in 1949 that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Nearly every modern Jewish writer of merit has contested Adorno's judgment. And once poetry is fair game, is commerce ever far behind? On a recent visit to the local multiplex--to see a popular mainstream entertainment about the death of God, no less--I counted four movie trailers about the Nazis. One was a vigilante movie, another a spy thriller, the next a May-December romance, the last a sentimental product for children.
Creating a book of 6 million blank pages, or a movie of 6 million frames of unexposed film, seems untenable, and not every Jewish author (or director) has the imagination or inclination to mint forms unique to this Subject of Subjects. World War II and its aftermath is the Jewish historical narrative of the past century--in a sense the only story worth telling--and its myriad channels of significance have proven to fit any plot, any genre, mostly without causing awkward ethical misgivings. As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott grimly noted, in a cautionary essay about this winter's slate of Holocaust movies, the Oscar sweep of Spielberg's Schindler's List helped to "domesticate" the Shoah for middlebrow audiences, making "the Holocaust...more accessible than ever, and more entertaining." We are now bearing the low-hanging fruits of this entertainment--such as Angel at the Fence, the sickly sweet, Oprah-approved Holocaust romance memoir recently exposed by The New Republic as a fabrication, the logical endgame of this cultural development.
But we are also reaching a crucial stage in modern Jewish storytelling, when the survivors of the Jewish people's defining struggle are issuing their final missives. Witness and its interpretation are giving way to a reckoning. Those last few testaments are landing on our doorsteps--the next sentences are waiting to be written. Former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, in his recent disquisition The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes, argues that--for the purposes of peacemaking--letting go of the past is preferable to misappropriation. "We have pulled the Shoah out of its historic context," he writes, "and turned it into a plea and generator for every deed. All is compared to the Shoah, dwarfed by the Shoah, and therefore all is allowed.... All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave."
Aside from the indisputable value of witness testimony--each new tale an essential accrual of evidence, a bulwark against organized forgetting--the richness of World War II literature is that every survivor story is a universe of drama unto itself, and no two survivor stories are the same. There is a survivor story--and here I blanch at what already sounds like a genre--to elicit every possible response, all valid except apathy. To lift the Shoah out of its historical context is a mistake, especially since that context remains so overwhelming and so incomplete. One cannot rise from the ashes without bearing their smudge.
In the annals of war, the biography of Angel Wagenstein, an 86-year-old Bulgarian Jewish novelist and screenwriter whose books are just now making their way to the United States, is noteworthy only for its convoluted narrative. Returning to Bulgaria as a teenager after his family's brief sojourn in France, he joined an underground antifascist brigade, was sent to a Nazi labor camp, escaped the camp, rejoined the Bulgarian partisans, got arrested again and then was condemned to death just as the Red Army stormed Bulgaria in 1944, saving his life. Wagenstein's debut novel, Isaac's Torah: Concerning the Life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld Through Two World Wars, Three Concentration Camps and Five Motherlands--written in 2000 but published in English last year--offers much of the same absurdist (and seemingly arbitrary) historical sweep as the author's saga.
A mock epic set in unambiguously epic times, Isaac's Torah embodies the humanistic notion that even the most unprepossessing life story should be bound like a Bible. Buoyed by a knockabout levity, like a shtetl cousin to Forrest Gump or Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, Wagenstein's picaresque story portrays Jewish humor and Jewish wisdom as inextricable twins and time-tested agents of survival. If Isaac, the narrator, has trouble getting from point A to point B, and if his countless jokes and Hasidic fables (nimbly translated from the Bulgarian by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova) sometimes seem beside the point... well, isn't digression just another way of molding oneself in God's image? After all, "the Holy God, glory to His name, has more than once deluded you and promised things that He might have intended to fulfill, but was then distracted by other things and forgot. But you haven't even for a second come to doubt His glory, you've searched for extenuating reasons or consolations of the God-delays-but-doesn't-forget or God's-mills-grind-slow variety. Or don't you think so?" Unlike God's brilliant but unfocused Pentateuch, Isaac's Torah--for all its fits and starts--is mostly Exodus. And like his biblical namesake, Isaac finds himself singled out by the heavens as a human sacrifice, only to be saved from the chopping block through the same divine providence.