ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 25 - Students' Choice Novel: Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (cont.)
Professor Amy Hungerford: The exercise of inviting you to choose our last novel, as I think I explained in the very first class of this term, is an exercise in thinking together about what defines a period of literature. So, for all the other books in the syllabus, I came with my rationale for why I included them, and for this book, I’m invited again to think about whether I would, if I were teaching this again, and you had not chosen it. So, today I want to reflect on that, and it will lead directly into my analysis of what the Holocaust is doing in this novel, and then I will have some parting words for you to conclude the course.
When I think about books to include, I have four categories that I think about. One is books that are somehow representative. So, the books in this course that fit that bill, you might think of the ones that feature the Identity Plot. As I argued in that lecture at mid semester, the Identity Plot is a reigning narrative structure in this period, and some of the books in our syllabus culminating in The Human Stain– and I think this book, too, could be included in that group–all are representative of different versions of that narrative structure. So: representative.
Innovative: I include works on the syllabus that I consider innovative in the form of the novel, in the genre of the novel, or for their subject matter. Somehow they think about something in a way that I haven’t known anything else to think about before. I think Lolita fits this model very well, and in its own way The Bluest Eye, at that time in the 1970s, took up a subject that had also been neglected and was innovative in its subject matter.
Is a book widely read? Well, this book certainly meets that criterion, and some of our other books do, as well. Lolita is one; The Human Stain is another, The Woman Warrior, pretty much any Morrison novel you can choose: there are lots of books that fit this criteria. And usually what I’m aiming for is a book that will be both widely read and something else on my list, so that it covers more than one base.
And finally, and this is the most evanescent category, is it somehow excellent or important in some other way? Generally, for me this is an aesthetic category. So, is it an excellent example of writing? is it an excellent example of narrative art? is it important in what it thinks about somehow philosophically, topically, in a way that nothing else quite can match? I talked to you on Monday a little bit about Jonathan Safran Foer’s ambitions for this novel and his ambitions, in general, as he expresses them in interviews. I think, when I consider this novel, I know that this is where Foer’s interest truly lies. I’m sure he wants to be widely read. I’m sure he wants to be innovative, and that’s probably connected with the excellence or importance that he’s aiming at. He probably doesn’t want to be representative. Most writers want to be singular rather than representative. But this is where the investment really is, and it’s in that category that, I think, we find his use of the Holocaust. It’s in the effort to be important, to be writing about something important in this novel, that the Holocaust comes to have such a place in it, or that he chooses a story that has the Holocaust at its center.
Now, I myself am reserving judgment on the excellence or importance of this novel, but I will say that it is certainly representative of two things. One is a version of the Identity Plot. It is a novel of a young person, two young people, coming to seek out their past and somehow gain from that search some sense of themselves; so, it is a version of the Identity Plot. It is also representative of late modernist formal characteristics; so, this is clever in the way that John Barth is clever with language. It is funny in the way that Pynchon and Barth are, just drawing from our syllabus. It makes some of the kinds of moves that The Woman Warrior makes. So, it is representative in that way. I do not think it innovates formally. There’s nothing I see here, formally, that I have not seen elsewhere and before. So, for me, it doesn’t quite meet that criteria, but “representative” and “widely read,” certainly.
Now, there is a way in which I think it could be understood as innovative, and my sort of kernel for thinking about this is on 185. This is in that harrowing scene where the woman they think of as Augustine has told them the story of the murder of the Jews of Trachimbrod, and then afterwards the grandfather confesses to his complicit conduct with that murder. And Alex, as he’s translating for Jonathan his grandfather’s words, he says in the middle of 185:
That phrase, “making them new again,” is loaded for any ambitious writer coming after modernism. “Make it new” was the dictum that Ezra Pound held out as defining literature that could matter formally, aesthetically, innovatively; so, to make it new in writing is very closely allied with the project of modernism, a formal project. To use that phrase in this emotionally loaded moment suggests two things.
One is, it draws on a whole history of discourse about genocide, and particularly about the Holocaust, that could be encompassed under the banner of trauma theory. Now, some of you may have encountered trauma theory. It’s a sort of mix of psychoanalysis and literary criticism that has been powerful in the past couple of decades. Its power is waning, I think, although there is a new interest in Sociology in trauma, now. In the former literary critical version of it, trauma theorists argued that to tell the story again, to tell the story of a trauma again, was to re-experience it. This was a way of understanding representation as human experience, as actual experience unmediated, and the special thing about trauma was that it was the only kind of experience–this is what most trauma theorists argued–that it was really the only kind of experience that had this quality to it, this peculiar quality to it, that it remained real in the sense of remaining experience and not becoming language, somehow.
This was a way of imagining language, also, conversely, as being experience. And, for some trauma theorists, this analysis of language spread out to other kinds of language, so that any language could be understood as in some sense traumatic, and this is a far reach of it. Much of this work, I have to say, was done at Yale by two scholars, Cathy Carruth and Shoshana Feldman. Both have now left the institution, but Yale was very well known for trauma theory. It had its applications in Holocaust Studies, in particular in the building of the Fortunoff Archive of testimony which is housed here, I think in Sterling. The effort to make videotapes of survivors’ testimonies was, in part, of course, a historical effort to get that knowledge secure before that generation passed away, to gather as much as could be known of the human experience of the Holocaust. But there was a reason, I think, that it was video. There was a great desire among people who wrote and thought about and studied the Holocaust to have that immediacy that video was thought to give; so, rather than have transcribed testimonies, or written testimonies, you get to see the actual face and expression of the person telling that story.
This is something that scholars have–since the founding of the archive–have spent a lot of time thinking about and theorizing. In the course of that theorizing, the word “witness” has come to have a very specific and powerful meaning. The interviewer was to think of herself or himself as–not a questioner or as an interviewer in the way that we would usually understand that role–but rather as a witness to that person’s story, a witness in the sense of a judicial witness, someone who would be in a court to affirm that something had, indeed, happened. There was a sense that validation was needed, in the context of gathering this evidence. Witnessing was theorized in a much more complex way by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, a psychiatrist who is–I think Dori Laub is still in New Haven. I think he’s still at Yale. But, together they wrote a book called Testimony that had a lot to say about exactly how the witness functions in relation to the person who is testifying. And I think you can see the mark of all of this thought about how the Holocaust is received in the present, stamping Foer’s work. So, you see it, in part, in that little sentence that I just read to you, and saying it again it was “making it new.” It’s as if it’s a moment in which trauma is transmitted through language, and is imagined to be transmitted in an unmediated way; so, the repetition that we experience as readers, all of these horrible things are said twice, because we see Alex translating them, and that’s dramatized for us by the device of Alex as translator. So, its debt to modernism, or the way it has its eye on modernism behind it, is closely allied to this understanding of language and its relationship to trauma.
Now, by the time Jonathan Safran Foer is writing this book, not only has Holocaust Studies established this whole body of thought about language, but there are also many examples of what you might call the American Holocaust Novel, and the one I’m going to use in my lecture today, to think about in relation to this, is Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. How many of you have read it? Okay. Good, a bunch of you. For those of you who haven’t, it’s the story of a character named Art Spiegleman, and you’ll recognize that device of course from Foer. Art Spiegleman is a cartoonist writing a book about his father’s experiences in the Holocaust and in concentration camps. He goes through the novel alternating between scenes of Art interviewing his father, Vladek, and then it sinks in to Vladek’s story, and there are lots of extended scenes where we just see Vladek escaping from camps and making his way through them and so on, doing all the things that he did to finally escape with his wife, Anja. We find out fairly early in the first volume of Maus–it’s a two-volume graphic novel–that Art’s mother killed herself well after she arrived in America as an immigrant, having escaped, and we see her in an inserted cartoon in a different style in the bathtub. She slit her wrists in the bathtub.
What’s striking about that graphic novel–It’s extremely smart in its meditation on the relationship between a son and his father and the relationship between growing up in America and surviving the Holocaust–but what’s really striking is its meditation on the problem of Art’s insignificance. How can his childhood and his child’s problems–being bullied at school or whatever it is–how can those compete with his father’s experience of having survived the Holocaust by his own wits and by luck? That dramatic story is impossible for the son to match, and so there are certain ways–I have argued in print–certain ways that Art appropriates his father’s story and imagines himself as a survivor. So, it’s a way of transmitting the trauma of the Holocaust from one generation to another. And there are lots of graphic devices and linguistic tricks that Spiegelman uses to effect this, and I won’t go into that detail, now, but it’s something that I’ve argued at length.
What makes Everything is Illuminated different and, I would argue, innovative is that it, for me, represents the third-generation effort to recover the Holocaust. So, by the time Foer is writing, these stories have been told, not only by Spiegelman (His books came out in 1987 and 1991, or ‘86 and ‘91, the two volumes of Maus, so, well before Foer wrote this, when Foer is just a child). That was not the only book on the experience of the Holocaust. Those would include Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, a very famous example, a little later a European writer, a German writer living in England, W. G. Sebald wrote Austerlitz, had a very similar structure of a child of the Kindertransport, someone who had been taken from Prague to England along with all of the other children, Jewish children of his neighborhood, to save them. He discovers this as his own past, and he tries to go back and find the traces of his parents in the concentration camps. And finally he finds a snippet of film from one of the concentration camps where his mother was–his mother was a singer–and he slows it down further and further and further just to try to glimpse her face. This is a story of the hunt for the beloved parent and for the ground of a child’s identity. This story has been told many times by the time Foer is writing this novel. In addition, most of these prior versions in fiction, and some in memoir, have to do with the first-generation American experience.
So, Foer finds himself belated in two ways: one, because the story of the Holocaust and of finding out that secret has already been told; and two, because he’s not second generation. He’s not the child of a survivor but the grandchild of a survivor. So, what do you do to make that story your own? If you are committed to its centrality to who you are, how do you make that into an unmediated kind of experience? One way that that’s done, both in second-generation stories and I think in this third-generation story, is by playing off of and excavating the Jewish cultural veneration for memory. So in Jewish tradition memory of parents, of the dead, of past events, is at the heart of religious practice, but also of secular versions of religious practice. This novel is full of those secular versions of religious practice, and it explicitly talks about children’s relation to the memory of their parents. This is on 268. Oops. I got my page wrong there. Sorry, 260. He’s describing here the itch to remember that the novel imagines as particularly Jewish:
So, you can imagine this story of Jonathan going back to find the woman who helped his grandfather escape as an effort to tie that string to something concrete. The fact that he never can really find that woman suggests that, already internalized here, is something that Holocaust literature coming before this has been intent on examining and questioning, which is: can you ever have that unmediated relation to the past; can you ever tie memory back to the event in a way that feels like it’s a real connection? So, here there is a fairly easy, if also wistful or elegiac, admission that you can’t ever really tie that string up. This is why the hunt is never going to be successful in the novel; we will never tie up all those little details. It’s meant to be that way, because at this late date it’s clear that’s the only way it could be, and that’s not innovative. It’s simply where the genre is right now. However, this novel is loath to part with the drama that earlier stories made from the recovery narrative.
So, for Jonathan, the mystery is not what happened to his grandparents during the Holocaust. That’s the classic question. The parents won’t talk about what happened. The child wants to know. The child knows there’s something back there, and the hunt is to find out exactly what happened, and usually it’s hidden either because the parent left a prior child, lost a prior child, or somehow felt guilty about surviving, either because of explicit acts where they were forced to sacrifice someone in their family in order to escape or in order to help someone else in their family escape; they were forced to choose. And we see that choice thematized in the Holocaust sections of this novel. So, there is that hiddenness of the Holocaust experience. That’s not what’s hidden in this novel. That history is not what Jonathan doesn’t know. He knows his grandmother survived the Holocaust. That’s not a mystery. The mystery is: who helped her? Who helped his grandfather? Sorry. It’s the grandfather. Who helped his grandfather to escape? That’s the mystery. Augustine is the mystery woman. The photograph represents that missing or hidden knowledge. That this drops out of the picture of the novel relatively painlessly–he’ll never find her–is, I think, the mark of how the story of hiding something that’s hidden gets displaced onto Alex.
So, what I see here is the transfer of the story of the hidden past from the hidden past of the victim’s side of the Holocaust to the hidden past of the perpetrator’s side. This is a displacement of that narrative onto the perpetrators; so, now it’s Alex who is looking to find the secret buried in the dysfunctionality of his family. Now it’s Alex who finds, in speaking to his grandfather, some explanation for why his father is such a tyrant. And the same logic of memory and genealogy that you see in the way Jewish families are talked about in their relation to memory and history between generations, that is reproduced as the father says, “You are responsible for your son,” the father is responsible for the son, somehow the father is reflected in the son. So, the choice that Alex’s grandfather made–to point out his friend, Herschel, as a Jew and to thus give him up to the murderous Nazis–this is somehow played out in the dysfunctionality of the family in the present, in the terrible rages and drunkenness of the father.
It’s interesting to me that this novel is about making the relationship between grandchildren and grandparents as immediate as possible, and so I think it’s really interesting that we have Alex disowning his father. “You are not my father,” he says at the end of the novel as he throws his father out of the house, essentially. It’s a way of getting the second generation out of the way and hopping into that space, so you can see it in the second- and third-generation structure. You swipe the parents out of the way, and you hop into their place, as immediately descended from the people who experienced these events.
A problem for Americans writing about the Holocaust is that, even if you immigrated here as a survivor, this is not the land of those events, and so I think this gives us some insight into the use of the European setting. Europe is where the important history happened. That’s why a novel trying to be important in these terms has to be set there. So, if you set out looking for an important subject matter, you need that historical grounding, and it’s not in America; it’s in Europe. On 117, you can see very clearly how the story of Augustine and Alex picks up the trope of witnessing, and it’s of course accomplished through Alex’s butchered English. This is on 117, where he holds the photograph out to Augustine and he says:
Here that effort, through witness, to come to an unmediated connection with the past and with the violence of the Holocaust, it’s acted out. It is, as Alex said, performed by that almost liturgical repetition of the question and the answer, and the way that Augustine’s body gets closer and closer to the photograph; she touches the faces; she finally merges herself and the photograph by letting her tears fall on it. So, the question is: have you ever witnessed for these people? She has not, yet, because no one has come to hear her witness, and I’m reminded, then, of the structure of those survivor testimonies on video, where a witness is required in order for the story to be told. And so, Augustine, now, she has not witnessed, because she did not have a witness. Now she has her witnesses, and she will witness to them.
And so Alex comes to be undone by what he finds about himself, what he finds out about his grandfather and his family. In the second-generation story, often it is the family of the second generation, the child of the survivor, who is undone by what they find out about their parent. So here, again, the structure of the narrative is transferred to the perpetrator’s side. And who is lying in the bath with their wrists cut? Not the survivor but the perpetrator. So, you get that image from Maus transferred into the perpetrator’s family. What I find quite remarkable about the formal techniques of this novel is how they finally reflect on that transfer of the narrative from the Holocaust literature to the perpetrator’s story, and if you look on 160 we can begin to see how this works. If you’ll recall, they are sitting in the silence and darkness together peeling corn for Augustine, and Alex takes Jonathan’s diary and opens it and he says on 159:
So, in this scene Alex begins to understand that Jonathan is using him as a character, and moreover that Jonathan has penetrated right into the most intimate and painful part of his family life, his relationship with his father, and is fictionalizing that. And of course if you turn to the end, I hope you recognize this, on 274. This is, in fact, this passage from his diary, what we are given as the letter from the grandfather to Jonathan, and there it is. This is what happened.
And so it goes, on to the end of that paragraph, and you can see culminating, as in the diary, with “Say it to my face, not to the floor,” and Sasha said, “You are not my father.” What are we to make of this? So, this is a bit of postmodern cleverness, if you will, raising questions as have been raised in The Human Stain about who exactly is writing this account, whether it’s Coleman or Nathan in that novel, how it is that Nathan knows what Coleman thinks, how he knows all that happened, all that he says he knows that happened in Coleman’s life.
Well, here at the very end of the novel, when Foer brings out this passage that has been provided much earlier in Jonathan’s notebook, we are led to question the authorship of all the letters in the book. Now of course we know it’s a novel, we know it’s all written by Jonathan Safran Foer, but in the logic of the novel its self-awareness now verges towards this question. It’s not just the reader who’s meant to question this, but the novel asks us directly to question it. So, what does it mean that Jonathan is revealed to be the author of this letter? Well, there are a couple ways of looking at it. There are those passages in the Book of Antecedents–remember the Jewish book of memory that the Trachimbroders write over time–some of those entries are prophetic. They tell the future, and we’re given an excerpt from that book that describes the disaster, and so we know that something like prescience is a quality of Jewish writing, imagined in this way as a kind of religious practice. So, either we can understand Jonathan as carrying on that tradition, that what he writes in his diary is similarly proleptic, it looks towards the future and transcribes the future, or we can see it as constructing the future itself. So, we can see it either as imagining what will inevitably happen, or as making the future out of those words.
I think we’re meant to feel both resonances to this formal trick, or this formal device, but the resonance of control, of making it happen, leads us to I think quite an interesting place, and leads me to wonder whether this is not a novel of revenge. To transpose the story of a survivor of the Holocaust who later, much later in their life, finally comes to terms with that terror and commits suicide, to transpose that well-worn story, well-known story, into the perpetrator’s life and family is a way of giving back to the complicit the pain of the victims. So, I think this is quite interesting. Even though there are so many moments where that sense of fault is mitigated: “would you not do the same?” That question gets asked: Who would do differently? How would you decide what to do? We’re given examples of Lista’s father, who won’t spit on the Torah even though he is not a religious man and watches as his entire family is killed and then finally spits so that he can be killed too. We’re given all kinds of morally ambiguous, impossible situations, situations really where moral machinery isn’t appropriate or possible to think through. But still, there is that sense that a controlling author has scripted this future for this particular family in the present.
So, that makes it quite interesting to me, and I just want to look on 262 at another way that transposing the story outside of the Jewish community radiates out in this novel, and maybe mitigates that suggestion of a revenge plot, and this is on 262 when suddenly the first-person plural appears. I don’t know if you noticed it when you were reading. I found it quite striking. This is talking about the people of the shtetl in their last months of life. “They waited to die. And we cannot blame them, because we would do the same, and we do do the same.” They ask that question implicitly, “Would you do anything differently? Would you go about your normal life? What would you do?” And he says, “We would do the same,” but he also says, “We do do the same,” as if mortality, the fact of mortality, the fact that we all are, all of us, waiting to die–and in the meantime not thinking about that inevitable end, going about our daily life with joy and play and all the range of human experience and emotion–he says that that is analogous to what these people were doing, even though their end looked so different from the one that Jonathan Safran Foer, the character in this novel, expects to have for himself.
So, the Holocaust story and the reflection that it causes back on the activities of life radiates out in a universalist sense. It doesn’t just impose its narrative on a new set of participants in the Holocaust, that of the perpetrators or those who are complicit, but it radiates out to all people past and present. So, it becomes a quality of the human condition. This is a softening move I think. It suggests the tragedy involved in all sides of this story, the tragedy of the simple man trying to save his wife and child and in doing so becoming complicit to the murder of his friend. So we see that moral complexity, and it feels like tragedy because of these softening moves. Now, I want to stop there and say that it’s in this innovation, this change to an established narrative about genocide and its relation to literature and writing, that I find this to be an innovative novel, and if I were teaching a course, which I used to teach regularly, on genocide in literature, I would probably be very happy to end with this novel. For that line of analysis of this period, it’s very appropriate as an innovative ending. I think, though, in this novel, it is partly there as a way of taking on something really hard.
So, I talked a little bit on Monday about the quality of this novel as a campus novel, as the product of a young person, and I was joking with you a little bit about the bar being set high for the achievements one can pull off by the age of twenty-two. I want to use that fact about Foer–that this is a first novel, that it’s especially an overtly ambitious novel–to reflect on something that’s closer to life, and this is I think something that I’ve earned because literature is about its address to life. After all, that’s why we read it, because it strikes us as a comment on things that are important to us. If we read that’s one reason why we read. So I want to use that question of ambition, also, to address something that comes up in the advising that I do here for students year in and year out, and to get at that question I want to read you something, as a good postmodernist, from the nineteenth century. This is from Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. So we have read a lot of books together. This little part I’m going to read to you from Walden comes after Thoreau has talked about the pleasures and the virtues of reading, and then this is in a section called “Sounds.” The last section was called “Reading.” This section is called “Sounds.”
I hope that your summer will have a lot of time like that. I hope that that time might also have latitude for reading, and that reading will be not only what you have been now trained to do, which is reading that is informed–if it’s contemporary novels you’re reading–informed about where these writers come from, what kinds of projects they might be busy with, what kinds of questions they might be responding to, but also that it will give you time to enter into and pretend with Nabokov–and remember back to the beginning of the course–to pretend with Nabokov that you can climb a mountain of the imagination and meet a reader there and forget all the kinds of context that I’ve been teaching you to pay attention to. Because it’s in that meeting in the imagination that I think literature can most powerfully speak to you. So, I hope you will go and have that kind of summer.
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