Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pesach In A Dark Wood

I don’t own a Kindle or a SONY E-reader or a Barnes and Noble Nook, nor do I have any specific plans to acquire any of the above. Or at least I don’t have any such plans as of yet. But I do love books and, even more than books themselves, I love reading. I don’t suppose that will come as any sort of great surprise to people who read these letters regularly, but perhaps it will come as one to know that I can actually chart the events of my life in terms of the books involved.

I remember, for example, reluctantly putting down Mario Puzo’s The Godfather when my parents announced it was time to leave for my high school graduation. And I very clearly recall that I was reading, more than just a bit grimly, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song during my mother’s shiva week in 1979. In 1981, Joan and I were reading his and hers copies of James Clavell’s fabulous book Noble House on the plane as we were flying to Israel for our honeymoon. And I especially vividly remember reading Hermann Hesse’s underappreciated book, Beneath the Wheel, while our oldest child Max was being born in 1984. (In Jerusalem in those days, fathers were excluded from the O.R. when a child was being delivered via Caesarian section. So what was I supposed to do—just sit there in the hallway on the stool they thoughtfully provided for expectant fathers and look at the ceiling? It’s still my favorite of Hesse’s novels.) Sometimes these reading choices have not been the wisest ones possible—for some inexplicable reason I found myself reading Thomas Harris’ Hannibal during my father’s shiva in 1999—but sometimes they have been (usually accidentally) perfect choices, for example when I fortuitously ended up reading Wally Lamb’s truly great book, I Know This Much Is True, as I drove south on the I-5 through Washington and Oregon on my way to what was eventually to become our three-year stay in California. Except for Hannibal, I would warmly recommend any of the above-mentioned titles to my own readers. (You have to be in a certain mood to read any of Thomas’ Hannibal Lecter novels and even then they’re creepier than my literary tastes usually run. Still, they were all bestsellers, so maybe it’s just me. I doubt it, however.)

And now I’ve just finished reading Marcel Möring’s novel In a Dark Wood precisely in the course of these last few weeks’ effort to get our house ready for Pesach and I would like to recommend it to my readers as a kind of advance present for the holiday. Möring will be an unknown quantity to most American readers, including most Jewish ones, but he is one of Holland’s leading contemporary authors and, at that, one who often writes books with profoundly Jewish themes. His earlier books, The Dream Room and In Babylon were both elaborate midrashim on the concept of Jewish survival in post-Shoah Europe, but this latest novel, published in Dutch under the title Dis, will occupy its own category of relevance for Jewish readers interested in coming to terms with the legacy of survival. It is a rich, intelligent, disturbing but also endlessly fascinating meditation on the meaning of Jewishness in the world, something no Jew involved in celebrating Pesach as the foundational moment from which the Jewish people emerged as a nation will want to miss enjoying. (Dis is the name of a specific neighborhood in the city of the dead described in detail in Dante’s Inferno. Located in the sixth ring of hell, Dis serves as the permanent posthumous home for active sinners of all sorts, including heretics, murderers, blasphemers, hypocrites, thieves, false counselors, and traitors. It’s a cool title, but I suppose HarperCollins must have considered it beyond the reach of ordinary American readers and so opted for an utterly banal title instead, one that absolutely fails to convey anything at all of the novel’s richness and flavor.)

The basic plot outline is almost simple. A man named Jacob Noah escaped the round-ups that sent almost all the Jews of his Dutch hometown of Assen to their deaths in the camps by taking refuge in a local farmer’s bog where he remained hidden underground for several years, surreptitiously fed by the farmer but otherwise totally alone. When the war finally ends in 1945, Jacob emerges from his subterranean hiding place and walks back to Assen only to find that his father’s shoe repair shop has been transformed into an “Aryan Bookshop” featuring such works as Mother, Tell Us About Adolph Hitler in its show window. Vowing revenge, Jacob undertakes a successful legal campaign to regain control of his parents’ property and turns it into, of all things, a lingerie shop. One thing leads to another as his relentless hard work makes him richer and richer. Eventually he begins to purchase real estate and then by the 1970s he actually owns most of downtown Assen. Yet for all his wealth he has no joy in his life, not from his marriage to the daughter of the farmer who hid him or even from their three daughters whom he loves in theory but cannot even begin to understand. Partially this is because he can’t come to terms with the legacy of his own Jewishness, but the man is also suffering from a severe case of survivor’s guilt and a general sense of disconnectedness from the world. Even his sex life is burdened by the tortured legacy of a survivor uncertain why or for what purpose he survived or, worse, if it goes without saying that there even was some specific point to his survival in the first place.

And then he dies in a terrible car accident on June 27, 1980. Or maybe he does. When he comes to, he finds he is in the company of a mysterious character called only the Jew of Assen, who proceeds to take him on a tour of his hometown. Whether this is a posthumous journey into the great night that awaits us all or merely a hallucination experienced by the unconscious Jacob, or for that matter if we are supposed to understand simply that he eventually comes to and, still very much alive, meets up with the Jew in the context his own ongoing life, we never quite find out. But as he wanders into town on the eve of this huge motorcycle race called the Dutch Tourist Trophy race—a race that really does take place every June in the real Assen—he finds himself on something more akin to a tour of hell than a stroll through the familiar streets of his home town. As he traverses the bars and brothels and gambling dens of his town, each one described less appealingly than the previous one, he eventually crosses paths with one Marcus Kolpa, a deeply disenchanted Jewish intellectual who once was in love with Noah’s daughter Chaya and who is still pursuing her for reasons even he himself cannot quite pinpoint. In a sense, Noah and Marcus represent the two halves of the Jewish world in all its neurotic dysfunction: the former unable to come to terms with his past and the latter unable to come to terms with his future. And Chaya is there too, although not in a major role, as are her sisters and their long-suffering mother.

Möring’s novel not the easiest read. You have to be in the right mood to take on a book that has the occasional three- or four-page paragraph, that slips here and there into graphic mode (there are six or eight pages in the middle of the book that are presented precisely as a graphic novel with the characters depicted as cartoon figures with dialogue balloons coming out of their mouths, and that is as filled with extremely frank and unguarded descriptions of its characters’ sexual experiences (including one remarkable scene featuring only Kolpa and a television set). I have no idea if the book reads more easily in Dutch, but I doubt it and Shaun Whiteside’s translation really is quite elegant and very readable. And then there is also the author’s literary legacy to consider: Möring’s book has a lot to do with Homer and Dante, but even more to do with James Joyce. (Readers will easily see Möring’s June 27, 1980, as his homage to Joyce’s June 16, 1904, the day on which the entire novel Ulysses takes place. But no one will need first to read or re-read Dante or Joyce to appreciate what Möring has accomplished.)

I came to the book accidentally by noticing it on a shelf at Barnes and Noble. Why it called to me, I can’t say exactly. But it did…and now that I’ve read it I have to say that I feel transformed by the experience. Like I said, reading In a Dark Wood is not an undertaking for the timid. This is a dense, thick book filled with gorgeous prose that needs to be read slowly and savored thoughtfully before being digested. But it has more to say about the essence of Jewishness in the modern age than most books I’ve read that address the topic far more formally or directly.

As we prepare for Pesach, our minds should at least partially be on the larger questions lurking just behind those clouds of chametz dust rising from everybody’s kitchens. It’s so easy to get lost in the forest when preparing for a holiday that demands as much in advance as does Pesach! My own house is only slowly turning back into a place of some order after having been turned on its head for more than a week now. But there also has to be time for contemplating the deeper truth that the whole chametz thing is meaningful precisely because it creates a context for us to contemplate the origins of Jewishness as focused through the birth narrative of an entire nation. And so…for those who already know the Haggadah by heart, I offer you Marcel Möring. As noted, In a Dark Wood is not a book for children nor is it a book for people unwilling to give a serious work of art the time it requires. It is a dense, powerful book about what it means to wander the landscape of the world without quite being able to decide if what you see all around you is or isn’t hell and what it means to be a survivor of the Shoah not merely in the conventional sense but in the broader sense in which the Jews of our generation are all in some ways survivors.

I almost put down the book at least half a dozen times, but in the end I kept with it and I think all my readers will find it as richly rewarding a book as I finally did. Believe me, you could prepare for the seder evenings a lot less productively than by reading Möring's book and contemplating its implications.

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