Tuesday 27 March 2012

Hope: A Tragedy - Shalom Auslander

'the past is the present'

Oh, what joy to read a book and laugh. And laugh. And laugh again. Just the title alone of Auslander's previous book, the memoir Foreskin's Lament, was enough to raise a titter but his first novel provides laugh after laugh and has an audacious but simple concept at its heart: a man discovers an old woman living in his attic. She claims to be Anne Frank. He obviously wants her out of his house but who wants to be the man to rat on Anne Frank? Especially if you're Jewish! That man is Solomon Kugel, a man who has moved his wife, two-year old son and ageing mother out of New York and into a farmhouse in the anonymous rural town of Stockton, a place 'famous for nothing' (although a spate of arsons recently threatens to undo that), in order to protect them all from the horrors of the modern world. He is a man who makes note of the famous last words of others in his constant search for a fitting bon mot for his own demise, a man whose mother, despite being born in America the year after the Second World War ended, believes that she is a survivor from the Nazi concentration camps, a man who will find himself neglecting his own family in order to protect the old woman in his loft who has subsisted on a diet of rodents whilst also relieving herself in his air-vents.

It's a brave idea, to make comedy from the Holocaust's poster girl ('Thirty-two million copies..that's nothing to sneeze at!') but the sheer audacity of it, not to mention the confidence with which he sees it through, means that Auslander gets away with it. He's not the first writer to imagine Anne Frank as a survivor, Philip Roth did so to great effect in The Ghost Writer (his first Zuckerman novel), but to imagine it with such black comedy is the mark of a brave humorist. Frank has remained captive in that loft for good reason of course, those thirty-two million copies didn't sell because of a happy ending, and her agent has very simple advice about the best way for things to continue: "stay dead". Up in the attic she remains, working on her next book, the pages piling up around her. Kugel too is trapped by the situation, whether that woman in the attic really is Anne Frank or not, the weight of history means there is very little he can do.

Pity was a funny thing: it would be easier to throw out the real Anne Frank than it would be to throw out a Holocaust survivor so fucked up by the Holocaust that she thought she was Anne Frank. Can you imagine the headlines?

Kugel's experience of the modern world provides plenty of genuine belly laughs whether that be the American obsession with getting bigger and bigger cars ("it was no longer a matter of keeping up with the Joneses; it was a mater of not getting crushed by them") or the increasing fad of foods free of one harmful thing or another, and somehow being more expensive as a result, conjuring a nightmare scenario when followed through to its logical conclusion:

A box of nothing - free of poisons, toxins, pesticides, a box that needed no warnings, no list of possible side effects and adverse reactions, a box that didn't harm unborn children or require checking with your physician before opening, a box of fucking air - would require a second mortgage.
Staying alive was costing them a fortune.
What kind of monster brings a child into this world?

And this of course is a world peopled by the survivors of previous tragedies, a better world, one in which the hope remains that we can improve things for our children. But as Kugel's therapist, Professor Jove , makes clear, hope might just be the most dangerous thing of all, the guiding force behind the previous century's greatest monster.

Hitler was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years. That's why he was the biggest monster. Have you ever heard of anything so outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution? Not just that there could be a solution - to anything, mind you, while we have yet to cure the common cold - but a final one, no less! Full of hope, the Fuhrer was. A dreamer! A romantic, even, yes? If I just kill this one, gas that one, everything will be okay...Here's a good rule for life, Kugel, no matter where you happen to live or when you happen to be born: when someone rises up and promises that things are going to be better: run. Hide. Pessimists don't build gas chambers.

Wincing slightly? Auslander doesn't pull his punches. 'Anne Frank' is a decaying woman driven to depravity, infuriating her host to the point where he can think the most appalling things ('Six million he kills, thought Kugel, and this one gets away.') and we cannot stop ourselves laughing. But his greatest creation is Kugel's mother. Every morning she wakes the house screaming (having read somewhere that this is something Holocaust survivors do), and her conversation often ends with the muttered phrases 'ever since the war' or 'those bastards.' Kugel himself has long ago learnt not to challenge her on her status as a survivor. The lampshade that she placed by his bed as a child and which she claimed was his grandfather was impervious even to young Solomon's observation that it had 'Made In Taiwan' stamped on the bottom - "Well, they're not going to write Made in Buchenwald, are they?"

There is a slight problem with a novel like this however and that's that it needs to progress. The slow disintegration of Kugel's life is great to read (similar to that of the protagonist in Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets) but perhaps Auslander felt that he couldn't just keep making Holocaust jokes and so the injection of plot inevitably comes and it is only partially successful. That is a small quibble however and if the worst thing you can say about this book is that it is merely an entertainment then it seems to me that that is not such a bad thing at all. Few books in recent memory have been so entertaining and none have managed to combine that with the puncturing of the pomposity of those who would use the Holocaust or survival as currency.


Sarah 27 March 2012 at 12:17  

I heard Shalom Auslander interviewed as part of a Guardian Books podcast recently (http://bit.ly/yYquRh) that focused on Anne Frank. I have to admit, he sounded hilarious, as did this book, but I just wasn't sure I could really justify buying it to laugh along - I thought it might be a bit distasteful and I would feel bad about it. Thank you therefore for reviewing the book and making me think differently.

William Rycroft 27 March 2012 at 22:58  

My pleasure Sarah, thanks for commenting. With the book like this the question of whether it stays within the boundaries of good taste is bound to be asked. Auslander succeeds I think because of the way Solomon views his house guest and also because of the barbed comedy provided by his mother. I'd definitely encourage you to read it (I've already passed my copy onto someone, so convinced am I that it's a worthy read) and to come back and let me know what you thought once you've finished.

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