On the Bookshelf
Jews and Germans, ghosts and golems, comedians and clowns
From Düsseldorf to Dresden, from Munich to Hamburg, people tipsily wished one another “Einen guten Rutsch!” on Friday night. Internet language enthusiasts declare that this traditional phrase has less to do with the German “rutschen,” “to slide,” and more with the Hebrew “rosh,” meaning “beginning,” which Germans inherited from Yiddish speakers. Whether that linguistic anecdote turns out to be true or not, the claim itself testifies to a collective fascination with Germany’s cultural debts to its Jews. Cathy Gelbin, a German scholar at the University of Manchester, offers another set of claims about the influence of German Jewish culture. The promotional copy for her The Golem Returns: From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808-2008 (Michigan, December)—in which Gelbin addresses instantiations of the golem in the work of Gustav Meyrink, Paul Wegener, and others—proposes cheerily that “the Hulk, Superman, the Terminator … are all modern popular culture echoes of the golem … a sort of friendly Jewish version of Frankenstein’s monster.”
Jews played many less well-known roles in modern German popular culture. Marline Otte surveys Jews’ performances in Germany’s circuses, Yiddish-language theaters, and revue theaters in her study—soon available, as a print-on-demand paperback, for a whopping $73 off the 2006 hardcover price—titled Jewish Identities in German Popular Entertainment, 1890-1933 (Cambridge, February). Otte takes farces and pratfalls seriously, “exploring the astonishing subtlety in the humor and art of the barely literate, of those German Jews who spoke in unfamiliar ways, turning their bodies into metaphors.”
While Otte’s clowns and comedians are long forgotten, their literary counterparts earned worldwide attention. Franz Werfel, the expressionist playwright who attended school with Kafka in Prague, has now had his final untranslated novel rendered into English as Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand (David R. Godine, December). Werfel started writing this tale of a married Austrian diplomat and the Jewish girl he once loved in 1940, after anti-Semitism forced him to flee Vienna; by year’s end, he found his way to—where else?—Hollywood. Werfel’s contemporary, and fellow adoptive Californian, Thomas Mann, likewise inspires a perpetual frenzy of translations, scholarly studies, and critical reevaluations. For example, Todd Kontje’s Thomas Mann’s World: Empire, Race, and the Jewish Question (Michigan, December) reconsiders Mann’s Jewish characters in the context of his engagements with German imperialism and racism and in light of some nasty remarks that have surfaced in the Nobel laureate’s letters and diaries.
It is a tragic irony, but no surprise, that German literary postmodernism likewise takes Jewishness as a core concern—especially because that postmodernism can be understood as originating in the Nazis’ concentration camps, where, somewhat astonishingly, a few brave souls found the energy to write verse. Now available in an affordable paperback, Andrés Nader’s Traumatic Verses: On Poetry in German from the Concentration Camps, 1933-1945 (Camden House, December) not only offers sharp analysis of such poetry but also includes an appendix with the full text of these poems in both German and English.
It didn’t take very long, after the war, for aesthetic experimentalism and the trauma of the Holocaust to coalesce into postmodernist fiction. What has taken longer is for American critics to accept this as a fact of literary history: As recently as 2009, a New York Times reviewer evinced surprise that H.G. Adler used “the instruments of 20th-century literature to depict the dislocations of spirit and consciousness caused by the genocide against the Jews” in a style that “could be called Holocaust modernism, an improbable formulation if ever there was one.” Improbable? In what sense is that improbable? Adler—a Prague native who unlike Werfel did not manage to escape and spent years in Theresienstadt and two weeks in Auschwitz—embraced such a literary approach not only in 1962’s The Journey (the subject of that Times review), but even earlier in Panorama (Random, January), which he began to write in 1948, though it went unpublished until 1968.
By now, Holocaust postmodernism is ubiquitous not only in the form of novels but also in big-budget movies. William Donahue’s Holocaust as Fiction: Bernhard Schlink’s Nazi Novels and Their Films (Palgrave, December) explores one of the most widely circulated examples, Schlink’s The Reader (1995), tracking its reception—it earned Oprah’s seal of approval, cementing its status as a massive international bestseller even before Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes signed on to star in the Hollywoodization—and contextualizing it among the author’s other works.
The colossal sales of books like Schlink’s must be one of the primary reasons that translations from the German continue to appear in the United States with unusual regularity. Among the latest such publications is Johanna Adorján’s An Exclusive Love (Norton, January), a fictionalized memoir by the granddaughter of Jews who survived the war. Like several recent books written in English, the book tells the tale of Hungarian Jews—in this case, a couple who, having survived Nazism and communism, committed suicide in 1991. “Is it typically Jewish,” the author wonders, “to kill yourself after you have survived the Holocaust—so then you determine for yourself how you want to die?” And, one could add, is it now typically Hungarian Jewish to reimagine into literary prose the lives of one’s forebears?
With her debut novel, The Cosmopolitans, Nadia Kalman expands the boundaries of Soviet-Jewish immigrant fiction