Saturday, November 26, 2016

Been somewhere, all this time

    2016's book of the year is 
    a diptych memoir, the first 
    panel written in one language, 
    the second in another, by an 
    historian who thinks in French, 
    writes in English, and speaks 
    at home in a hereditary language 
    he never heard as a child, Hebrew. 

The first panel has just been republished after some 40 years, on the occasion of the appearance of the second, and they have been heralded in the current New York Review of Books by two full-page announcements, sharing a common hinge. The hype, if this is what it is, was only considerate. 

Saul Friedländer’s When Memory Comes and Where Memory Leads set them-selves the implicit task of tracing the formation of a whole mind within recurrences of catastrophe. I can imagine no one who could not be enthralled, and there are many who will be encouraged. Those who reel, right now, beneath the spectacle of the highest office in the world’s most powerful republic’s being seized by only millions of fewer votes than would make that ascendancy legitimate, are now being helpfully led to popular, ad hoc anthropologies of semi-concealed subcultures of resentment, as if to dispose of disbelief in the gaining of understanding. Friedländer’s personal and professional life, at the epicenter of human history’s greatest perversion, has led him instead to anatomize the problem of shock from within, preserving disbelief while portraying the painstaking acquisition of resolution. The effect is to sustain objectivity as well as judgment.

This task, which once knew dignity as borderless, timeless, merciful and unending, may now seem so again; so it may be that literature’s subordination to journalism will one day wane. Still, that work and its text must endure being beautiful, which is to say vulnerable, subject to denial, and patronizing contempt. Friedländer has barred the door against neglect from the social sciences, by first having compiled unimpeach-able histories which leave only a few writhing mullahs and alt-Right skinheads denying the Holocaust. That extraordinary bulwark, although far off in the margins of these memoirs, is such a daunting foundation for this private journey, that metaphor emerges as not only credible, but the optic of everyday life, the irrefutable scale to bring to its perception.

Both volumes traverse time in both directions, as memory is reclaimed and circumstances stand out as essential to Friedländer's gradual progress in accessing his feelings, even his identity as a repeatedly displaced, even renamed person. He elaborates a dictum from one of the great texts of his inheritance - a volume of which his father took with him to Auschwitz - Gustave Meyrink's The Golem - When knowledge comes, memory comes too, little by little. Knowledge and memory are one and the same thing. But there we are: his burden of understanding bears the burden of direst proof. 

Have we met a culture which mocks and humiliates its way to dominance? Have we met a disorder which prospers from bogus terrors? Ignore the paraphernalia of ostracism and familial dismemberment, set aside the disruption and desolation of a continent, and to understand, look at its personal conduct — the howling of abusive chants, the lust for vituperation, the frenzy to destroy, of everyday American civic life, are not unexampled wherever temptation is reinforced as communal protection. Here, the young man Friedländer takes his daily afternoon walk, with a patient at his uncle’s sanitarium in rural Sweden - and he notes, When the Gripsholm slowly pulled away from the Göteborg docks, I knew that this strange stay in Sweden had opened doors for me that would never close again. This, his vision can do for any time.

   On a winter morning about three months after my arrival, I took Arne, a boy of fifteen, for his usual walk. The first snows had already fallen, but the roads had been cleared and I hoped to reach Elsgård, where we could have a hot cup of herb tea before starting back. Arne was very sick: he would pour out an incomprehensible flood of words and gesticulate endlessly as he told himself stories whose meaning only he could understand. As usual, he walked quite a distance ahead of me on the way back and disappeared round a bend at the entrance to a village, waving his arms furiously, deep in the mysterious world of his fantasies. When I again caught sight of him at the end of this village street, he had a gang of youngsters, who had just come out of school, at his heels, mimicking his screams and gestures. Panic seized Arne, who started off at a run, with the youngsters behind him, and me still further behind, trying to catch up with them. We left the village and ran through the pristine white fields. After a few hundred yards, tired out and in tears, Arne threw himself down in the snow; forming a big semicircle around him, the children continued to shout gibberish at him, waving their schoolbags and their caps. Arne's fury then turned against himself. When I finally caught up with him, he was rolling in the snow, the whites of his eyes showing, foaming at the mouth, trying to tear his clothes off. I could only hold him by the shoulders as best I could and try to calm him by talking. A few moments later the youngsters scattered, hurling a few parting insults at him. At that point Arne suddenly gripped one of my hands and raised his face to me. Everything that was locked inside Arne's head, everything that he was never to express, all his howling, dumb suffering was there on the contorted face covered with tears, mucus, slaver, and melted snow. Arne blinked his eyes, trying to tell me everything, but how could he do it? "Herr Friedländer," he burst out, "Herr Friedländer!" -- and could say no more.

Saul Friedländer

When Memory Comes
  Part II, pp 100-101
Helen R. Lane
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979©
Other Press, 2016©

Where Memory Leads
  My Life
Other Press, 2016©

Kathleen Digrado
  dust jacket design

ii, iii  Ryan Schira x Carter Smith

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