Friday 22 May 2009

'the vast effort to be human'

The Seventh Well
by Fred Wander

It may only have been March when Mr Self proclaimed this to be 'the best new book I have read so far this year' but that, and the trusty name of Michael Hofman as translator, is good enough for me. As well as providing excellent translations Hofmann often writes brilliantly helpful afterwords as well, which for a reader like me, who is often approaching the author as a novice, are invaluable. Fred Wander was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and eventually liberated from Buchenwald in 1945 but it wasn't until 25 years later, after the tragic death of his 10 year old daughter, that he sat down to commit his memories to paper and give extraordinary voice to the people he had lost.

Not only is Wander a new author for me but I have read very little 'Holocaust literature'. As an enthusiastic A-Level History student I spent almost a year studying the Nazi era and one of my documentary readers was filled with personal testimony from inmates, guards, and liberators. I found the immediacy of those real accounts electrifying and perhaps because of that have seldom been tempted by the wealth of memoir and fiction inspired by one of the most notorious periods of history. As John points out in his own review there is always a problem of preconception and twinned with that the question of how to respond. I'll never forget going to watch Schindler's List at the massive Empire cinema in Leicester Square and the shock of being rendered speechless along with the rest of the full audience as we filed out after it had finished. What is one supposed to say after that? We had been brutally silenced by becoming witnesses, a feeling I was reminded of when Wander describes the silent compliance of his comrades when they were ordered to board the transports to certain death.

Although this is described as a novel it still contains that immediacy of non-fictive testimony. Wanders begins with a chapter called How To Tell A Story, where he learns from Mendel the camp's master storyteller what is important when recreating for others. Wander's stories are in part so successful because they don't follow a linear timeline but instead are grouped thematically with chapters like Faces and Bread.

To eat bread, all you need is a little slab of fresh wood. You can find wood like that pretty much anywhere. Wood stands for forest, clearing, underbrush. It signifies house, shelter comfort. All that's lost. Put it on the ground, on a pallet, on your knee, and you have a clean table. It signals to you that you're home, where you live. And now the bread: divide it up into three thick slices, break the slices into cubes. Chew each cube long and thoroughly. Taste the grain in it, the rain, the storm. Let the taste of the sun dissolve on your tongue.

What this means is that as you read through the book characters that had died earlier will come back into the narrative, which can leave you with the feeling of having lost them twice. There are even times when a character will be referred to as 'a dead man' whilst he still lives, capturing the man whose spirit has already left, his body soon to follow. Up until the last few pages you are struck by the fact that of course almost everyone died, these are the important words of a survivor.

As you can see above the other aspect which makes his stories work so well is the quality of the writing. In a comparatively short book there is a great variety of style. The ritual of camp life means that there are several moments where the language takes on a religious tone. There are clear biblical references as when Tadeusz Moll, a youngster with a rebellious streak, is placed at the stake with other delinquents to stand perpetually through the night as a punishment. Only one of them is tied, the others have the freedom to attempt escape but of course none of them do. Moll stands there and finds himself thinking of Jesus, the Jew who preached love, and as his body suffers from the cold and exposure the language extends into something rapturous as he realizes the miracle of life.

There are moments of poetry and even of comedy too. From starving inmates comes the perverse comedy of food when a sketch is performed; a waiter and diner in a restaurant the onlookers left helpless by the ordering of increasingly extravagant food. Those moments which risk being too beautiful are often brought into relief by the cold snap of reality. The night that is underscored by the operatic singing of Antonio leads to the morning when he is found dead. Again that reminder that this is a testament to those that didn't make it. The storyteller gives voice to those that cannot speak.

This is where Hofmann's translation is so skilful, the idiomatic speech comes through so clearly that you gain a really vivid portrait of each character. Those small details which can make a character live in your memory are preserved making it all the more affecting when they are taken away, each death still coming as a surprise in spite of the inevitability. Like John I could happily quote passage after passage, Wander has created a fiction which genuinely illuminates the facts, his experience washed by the water of the seventh well which in Rabbi Loew's words '...will cleanse you, and you will become transparent, like a well yourself, made ready for future generations, so that they will climb from the darkness, with a pure and a clear eye, and a light heart.' The years he spent not writing the book have also lent a perspective to the writing which makes it more accessible to those who aren't Jewish. As well as asking himself what keeps a man alive he is witness to what happens when that fight is lost, reflected in the face of a Ukranian peasant.

Everything falls away from such a face. Everything studied and habitual drops from it, like a husk. And what remains? I watched the transformation, I had previously only seen this spiritualization in the dead. A strange luster suddenly lies on the face, and you can't recognize even your own friend anymore. You've never seen so much accumulated earnestness and dignity and purpose in him. How was he able to hide it from you before? Before then you realize: a man's face is thousands of years old. The few years of his own life have fallen from it, everything weak and unfulfilled. What's left behind is the face of his fathers and mothers. The expression of the vast effort to be human.


John Self 24 May 2009 at 22:38  

The Seventh Well has won the Wingate Prize - as the egregious Julie Burchill writes here.

William Rycroft 24 May 2009 at 22:59  

egregious? - miaow!
That's great to hear John. Thank you for drawing my attention to this book in the first place. I see you're reading August at the moment, dare I ask if you're enjoying it?

Anonymous,  25 May 2009 at 04:29  

Let's see then. Five longish paragraphs about me, two about the book. That would seem about right.

Egregious? Hardly. Just a well developed sense of what really matters.

John Self 26 May 2009 at 09:28  

Yes I am enjoying August, Will. As you may recall I read the second book, I'll Go to Bed at Noon first, and I don't think it would be controversial to say that this one doesn't quite have the scope or reach of that one. However it's still very good indeed. I do wonder how I would have felt if I'd read them in the right order. Nonetheless the trilogy, even without knowledge of the third part, is clearly one of the high achievements in British fiction of the past decade.

Incidentally, keep an eye on my blog later this week for a book which more or less escaped attention when it was published a couple of years ago (I only knew of it from one brief mention on one blog), but which I think is quite brilliant.

William Rycroft 26 May 2009 at 10:33  

Oh, you tease!

Reading the trilogy in order was certainly a rewarding journey but the middle book remains for me the best of the three. My reading of them was further enhanced by living in the area in which they're set of course.

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