Category Archives: historical fiction

Sophie’s Choice: Holocaust Literature as Psychological Fiction

Sophie's_Choice-dvdcover_s

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Sophie’s Choice (New York: Vintage International, 1976) was a best seller in both of its incarnations: as the 1976 novel, written by William Styron, and as the 1982 film, directed by Alan J. Pakula. The movie starred Meryl Streep in her breakthrough role as Sophie. Streep’s performance won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. To Styron’s credit, Streep, as well as Pakula, had a great novel to work with. Written in a literary style filled with irony and highly sensual, lyrical passages reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita, Sophie’s Choice broaches somber themes: the Holocaust; the Nazi occupation of Poland (1949-1945); imprisonment in Auschwitz; tangled, pathological love affairs; post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia and, last but not least, the excruciating choice alluded to in the title.

During the war, Sophie Zawistowska is a well-educated young woman from an upper-middle class Polish family. She’s not Jewish. In fact, her father is a professor with Nazi sympathies famous in Poland for his anti-Semitic treatises; her mother is a mild-mannered musician. When her country is occupied by Nazi Germany, Sophie becomes involved, but only peripherally, with the Polish resistance. She rebels against her father’s patronizing and paternalistic attitude towards her and becomes critical of his anti-Semitic beliefs. Despite his Nazi loyalties, however, Sophie’s father is shot by the occupying German regime for being a Polish intellectual. Soon she loses her husband as well. All she has left is two children: a boy and a girl. Eventually the SS arrests her and sends her, along with her children, to Auschwitz once they discover that she is hiding meat—food rations illegal for Poles and reserved for the German occupiers—under her coat.

Sophie’s choice pertains, first of all, to the selection process—determining prolonged life or instant death–performed by Nazi doctors and SS officers that prisoners commonly underwent once they exited the cattle trains at Auschwitz. Which is to say, the title is ironic because Sophie is deprived of any real power of choice or desirable options. But a sadistic SS officer puts a cruel spin on the usual concentration camp selection process, in which a prisoner has no say. He spares Sophie’s life, despite being a mother of young children, only to make her make confront a fate worse than death: he forces her to choose which one of her kids will live and which one will die. Under the threat that both would be sent to the gas chambers if she doesn’t make up her mind on the spot, Sophie makes a choice that no parent should ever have to make: she chooses to save her son and dooms her daughter.

This choice forms the main theme of the movie, but, despite the book’s title, it’s not the crux of the novel. The novel focuses instead on the recurrent traumas that Sophie experiences, related not only to her difficult life in the concentration camp and the painful choice she had to make but also to her problematic relationship with her father: something that haunts her all her life. Time and time again, Sophie chooses the wrong kind of man.

In Auschwitz, through a combination of skill and luck, she manages to get work in the Kommandant’s mansion. She even has several furtive, one-on-one, meetings with the infamous Rudolf Höss. Depicting Sophie’s ambiguous relationship with Höss, and the manner in which the pretty blonde manages to gain his trust and persuade him to see her son, constitutes one of the most subtle and intriguing aspects of this psychological thriller. In real life, Höss was rumored to have had an affair with a Jewish inmate, which turns out to have been false. In this case, the novel comes closer to the actual truth. The historian Robert Jay Lifton documents that Höss had an affair with a Polish prisoner, Eleonore Hodys, whom he tried to murder when she became pregnant in order to avoid scandal (see The Nazi Doctors, 1986, Harper Collins Publishers, 201) In the novel, however, Sophie’s relationship with Höss could be described, at most, as an emotional affair. It’s really nothing more than a brief exchange of confidences that carried enormous risks under the circumstances. The Auschwitz Commander never fulfills his promise to Sophie to facilitate a meeting with her son. Like in real life, in Sophie’s Choice, Höss is dispatched to Berlin before he has the chance to intervene in Sophie’s life. In Auschwitz, there were rumors circulating that Höss was temporarily replaced with Arthur Liebehenschel because of his affair with a prisoner. This too probably has no foundation in reality. It’s more likely that Höss was transferred because of his implication in a scandal involving the arrest of the Auschwitz political leader Maximilian Grabner. As Robert Jay Lifton elaborates: “Grabner was implicated through an SS anticorruption investigation, originally aimed at profiteering, although it also charged him with murders beyond those authorized, notably of Polish prisoners. Grabner’s exit was supported by Dr. Wirths, with whom he had confrontations over killings. Although implicated in Grabner’s misdeeds, Höss was, in fact, promoted into the central concentration-camp administration” (The Nazi Doctors, 310). Whatever the reason for Rudolf Höss’s hasty transfer, in the novel, Sophie never even finds out if her son lives or died. But the trauma of being drawn to the wrong men repeats itself.

Years later, in Brooklyn, Sophie falls in love with her neighbor, Nathan Landau, a Jewish American man who makes up tall tales about his extraordinary life. She’s drawn to his energy, to his sexual hunger, to his romantic gifts and overtures, to his intensity and even to his lies. When the narrator, Stingo, a novelist and their neighbor, becomes both of their friend, the three of them embark on an exciting but ambiguous friendship fraught with jealousy and triangulation. Nathan’s torrid passion for Sophie gradually turns to abuse, as he insults and even beats her in recurring fits of jealous rage. As Nathan’s brother later reveals, the young man suffers from schizophrenia. Although it’s not certain that he’s a genius, as he claims, he’s clearly delusional, confusing his paranoid fantasies with reality and mistaking lust for love. Their pathological bond is doomed from the start, much like Sophie’s family life was during the Nazi occupation.

Sophie’s Choice is a marvelously narrated historical novel that succeeds, above all, as psychological fiction. Which is only fitting. For how can any novel about the Holocaust—a historical trauma of a depth beyond measure—capture the devastation of that period without delving into the personal trauma of its individual victims?

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, historical fiction, Holocaust Memory, Nazi occupation of Poland, Sophie's Choice, Sophie's Choice Alan J. Pakula, Sophie's Choice Meryl Streep, the Holocaust, William Styron

The Book Thief: Holocaust Literature as Best Seller

Thebookthiefcover

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The Book Thief (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 2007), a novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak, accomplished a rare feat for Holocaust literature: the novel won numerous literary awards and became a long-standing international best seller, including being on the New York Times best seller list for a record of 230 weeks. What’s even more surprising about the novel’s success is not only its somber theme, but also the fact it’s a work of literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction), a style of writing that rarely becomes a mainstream hit. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry—for instance, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Historian, fits both genres–I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique narrative style.  Death characterized the Holocaust, and Death is the real narrator of the novel, which begins with the heroine’s end: Liesel Meminger’s death, many years after WWII, after she’s lived a full life and had children and grandchildren of her own. As Death carries the elderly woman’s soul to the other side, it also takes and narrates her childhood diary.

In the late 1930’s and early 40’s, Liesel is a young adopted girl living in Germany. She has her first encounter with Death when her brother, Werner Meminger, who is also given up for adoption along with her, dies on the train to Molching. He’s buried by the railway station. That day, Liesel’s obsession with books—and death–begins. She picks up The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a book dropped by the funeral director at her brother’s funeral. Shortly thereafter, the distraught girl joins what might be seen as a typical German family, with whom she bonds quickly. Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans Hubermann, is a loyal German, who served during WWI, but is not sympathetic to the Nazi regime. Despite his reservations, Hans is enlisted in the German army during WWII. Artistic and sensitive—a painter and accordion player–Hans probably characterizes the attitude of a vast majority of Germans who were not anti-Semitic yet were forced to participate in the Nazi regime. His wife, Rosa, is a no-nonsense woman with a sharp tongue and a loving heart. She washes people’s clothes to supplement their income but gradually, one by one, her customers fire her.

Liesel also meets Max Vandenburg, a Jew hidden by the Hubermann family from the Nazis, whose father fought during WWI alongside Hans Hubermann. Liesel befriends him. When Hans becomes ill, she reads to him. He eventually recovers, in part, the novel suggests, because of the power of friendship transmitted through the act of reading. Liesel and her family have a close call with the Gestapo, as soldiers search their house to see if they can use their basement as a shelter. Fortunately, they deem it too shallow and they leave.
In all respects, Liesel blends in with her adoptive family. Their hardships and struggles become hers as well. She becomes especially close friends with Rudy Steiner, a blond “Aryan” boy a few months older than her, who develops a crush on her. Although the girl refuses to kiss him, together they embark on many adventures, which bond them to one another. Together, they become book thieves when the Mayor and his wife also fire Rosa. Their love of books and of the forbidden, representing a kind of protest against the Nazi regime and against injustice in life in general, binds the two children even more. e murders perpetrated by the Nazis, but it is not sympathetic to them. Rather, Zusak depicts Death as a kind of Humanist, philosophical character: humane and disapproving of senseless violence, hatred and destruction. In parts, Death touches upon the comic and the absurd, needing “a vacation” from its job during the war.
I think the strength of this novel lies in its complex characterizations: the German characters in particular are nuanced and multifaceted, not stereotyped in any way. They too struggle with the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime and try to help victims, as much as they can. In the end, however, they too become victims of Hitler’s war, as Rosa, Hans and Rudy all die when the Hubermann house is bombed. Rudy doesn’t even get to experience Liesel’s first kiss, dying seconds before she finally declares her love for him and kisses him. Only Liesel survives and gets the chance to have a full life.
If I were to identify any weakness in the novel it would be in the narrative style. Since style functions as a kind of author’s unique fingerprint in literary fiction, it’s largely dependent upon each reader’s subjective taste. The choppy, short sentences and disjointed, subjective structure of the novel weren’t to my personal taste, particularly since I usually look for a dense, sweeping and well-informed description of lived history in Holocaust literature. This novel, however, is impressionistic in both style and structure. But these stylistic features also made The Book Thief popular with readers of all ages, particularly with young readers, who could identify with the characters and appreciate its accessible form. Due to its literary success, The Book Thief was recently made into a movie directed by Brian Percival, released in November 2013. The movie, however, unlike the book, received mixed reviews.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Isaac Babel, the Great Terror and The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

 

Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

 

“I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…” Isaac Babel

The Stalinist purges assumed monstrous proportions with an opportunity: Sergei Kirov’s assassination. Eugenia Ginsburg begins her memoir about her arrest in 1937 and experience in labor camps, Journey into the Whirlwind (Mariner Books, 2002), by stating as much: “That year, 1937, really began on December 1, 1934,” the day when Kirov, the head of the Communist party organization in Leningrad, was murdered. This assassination, which some suspect was facilitated by the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), provided Stalin with the perfect pretext to launch “the Great Terror”. The Soviet leader started a witch hunt for traitors, Trotskyist conspirators, saboteurs, and “enemies of the people” that would culminate in the spectacular show trials, incarceration, torture, enslavement in labor camps and often death of leading cultural, military and political figures. Like Ginsburg herself, the notable short story writer Isaac Babel also fell prey to Stalin’s purges of the intelligentsia. Best known for his collections of short stories Red Cavalry and Tales of Odessa, Babel is considered to be one of the best Jewish Russian authors. Although he knew both Yiddish and Hebrew, Babel most admired the nineteenth-century French classics: particularly Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert’s works. He was arrested in May of 1939, tortured, then shot on the standard made-up charge of being a Trotskyite terrorist and spy, in January 1940.

Isaac Babel was well known both for his fiction and for his adventurous romantic life. In the 1930’s he made the mistake of becoming romantically involved with Nikolai Yezhov’s second wife, Yevgenia Feigenberg. She was a sensual and promiscuous woman notorious for her intrigues that ran a popular literary salon in Russia. Babel would pay for his transgression, as well as for his lack of enthusiasm for the communist regime, with his life. Yezhov himself, the head of NKVD from 1936-1938, was dubbed the “bloody dwarf”. Under his leadership of the secret police, Stalin began the Great Terror, staging show trials that relied upon forced confessions and purging millions of people from all strata of society. Leading cultural figures, particularly those known for independence of mind, were favorite targets of the regime. Having a liaison with Yezhov’s wife, however, put Babel in a particularly vulnerable position. The NKVD began closely monitoring the famous writer right up to his arrest on May 15, 1939, by which time Lavrenty Beria, Yezhov’s equally bloodthirsty successor, had taken over the secret police.
In a last, desperate note to Beria, Babel famously wrote: “I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…”

Archivist'sStory

It was not only Babel’s life that was threatened with extinction, but also his writing, which would be burned without a trace by the NKVD. The contemporary American writer Travis Holland masterfully captures Isaac Babel’s last days in prison in his critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story. This novel offers a window into the Great Terror. Without scenes of graphic violence, only through strong characterizations and vivid descriptions, The Archivist’s Story reveals the palpable fear and great strain weighing upon all human relationships during the Stalinist purges. Even the most intimate bonds–between mother and son or among friends and lovers–are threatened by suspicion, fear and forced denunciations. Incredibly, and to his credit, Holland is able to humanize even the employees of the NKVD. He reveals some of them not as Stalin’s heartless marionettes, but as complex human beings, with their own inner struggles and family bonds. Prisoners and prison guards, writers threatened with not only death but also extinction and archivists in charge of destroying their works, are all entrapped in the same totalitarian system where nobody is safe or free.

The novel follows the life of Pavel Dubrov, a former teacher in the prestigious Kirov Institute who was demoted to the position of Lubyanka prison archivist following a political scandal.  His new job is to classify and destroy “deviationist” literature. Risking his own safety, Pavel attempts to save some of Isaac Babel’s short stories from being obliterated by the NKVD. In a sense, the protagonist has little to lose. Although young, he’s already lost much of what made life meaningful. His beloved wife, Elena, died in a suspicious train accident. His best friend, Semyon Borisovich Sorokin, was demoted and wanted by the NKVD for criticizing a popular Soviet professor, a puppet of the regime.  His mother, to whom Pavel used to be very close, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and suffers, increasingly, from blackouts. He, himself, languishes in a position antithetical to his former profession and principles. As Pavel’s world crumbles around him, he continues to fight the regime in the only way he can. He tries to help those around him threatened with imprisonment to escape to safety and attempts to save some of Babel’s fiction as a record of literary value; as pages of living history.

Before the NKVD has the chance to arrest him, Pavel manages to stow away a few valuable things in the wall, hidden behind a brick: Babel’s short stories and an anonymous postcard from his mother telling him that she loves him. “If he can save Babel’s story, save some remnant of his work, perhaps he can redeem himself, if there is anything in him left to redeem. Perhaps it is not too late” (The Archivist’s Story, Bantam Bell Publishing Group, 2007, 159).  Although, like millions of others taken away by the NKVD during the Great Terror, Pavel has little chance of survival, he manages to salvage what matters to him most: his own humanity.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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An Unlikely Hero: On Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Slavery is perhaps the most debasing system in human civilization. It degrades human beings to the status of property. Slaves are bought and sold like objects. They are forced to work for free or for flimsy compensation, often in grueling and inhumane conditions. Sometimes they are raped and beaten by their owners. Slaves are deprived of all human rights and of their dignity. With the exception of the Holocaust, I don’t know of any other period in human history when slavery was desired by the slaves themselves and when forced labor became a saving grace for the victims. In such a dark epoch, when everything conspired to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the Earth, enslaving over a thousand of them in an enamel factory became an act of courage and heroism.

As incredible as this topsy-turvy perspective may seem to contemporary readers, this is the story of Thomas Keneally’s great historical novel, Schindler’s List. The novel is based upon the eyewitness accounts of several of the Jewish survivors saved by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler. It is a biographical fiction in the strict sense of the term. In fact, Keneally states, “most exchanges and conversations, and all events, are based on the detailed recollections of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews), of Schindler himself, and of other witnesses to Oskar’s acts of outrageous rescue”. (New York: Touchstone, Schindler’s List, 1982, Author’s Note, 10)

Oskar Schindler is, by the author’s own account, an unlikely hero. As Keneally acknowledges in the Prologue, Oskar Schindler “was not a virtuous man in the customary sense of the term”. (Schindler’s List, 14) We tend to think of heroes as virtuous individuals: people with extraordinary character and moral fortitude. Yet Oskar Schindler was an average man, with ordinary human foibles. He was a sensualist and an honest womanizer: if that’s not a contradiction in terms. He openly cheated on his virtuous wife, Emilie, with both long-term mistresses and countless casual lovers. He loved carousing with his friends, business partners, acquaintances and escorts. Worse yet, he was a member of the Nazi party, initially joining its ranks out of genuine political conviction, of his own free will.

Though quickly disillusioned by the Nazis, Schindler nonetheless hopes to profit financially from the new regime. An ethnic German from the Sudetenland, he moves to Krakow Poland to set up an enamelware factory that will employ the slave labor of local Jews. The large Jewish community in Krakow was isolated from the rest of the population by the Nazis in a ghetto, which was formally established in March 1941 in the Podgorze district. Schindler witnesses the incredible cruelty manifested by the SS towards the 15,000 helpless Jewish civilians as well as the random acts of violence of his sociopathic country mate, Amos Goeth, who regards the captive Jews as his personal property and prey.

This biographical novel presents a slice of history and a study of contrasts: between times of normalcy and the mass insanity of the Nazi era; between the humane  actions of Oskar Schindler and the savage inhumanity of Amon Goeth. Without the dark figure of Goeth, it would be more difficult to appreciate Schindler’s heroism and humanity.

Amos Goeth, the SS Second Lieutenant in charge of liquidating the Krakow ghetto and of overseeing the Plaszow concentration and labor camp, is a malicious sadist. He savagely beats his Jewish servant, Helen Hirsch, and kills Jewish inmates, randomly, just for sport. As the narrator states, “No one knew Amon’s precise reason for settling on that prisoner—Amon certainly did not have to document his motives. With one blast from the doorstep, the man was plucked from the group of pushing and pulling captives and hurled sideways in the road” (192).

By way of contrast to Goeth’s predatory cat and mouse games, Schindler exhibits compassion, courage and character. He uses all his connections, resourcefulness and wealth to save as many Jews as possible during the Holocaust.  Threatened by the advance of the Russian army on the Eastern front, the Nazis dismantle the Plaszow labor and concentration camp. When he finds out about their plans to send most of the prisoners to their deaths in Auschwitz, Schindler promises those who worked for him that he would save them. He sets up a small munitions factory in his hometown of Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia, where he eventually manages to bring over 1500 Jews.  In these horrific times, slavery becomes the Jews’ only salvation. “Oskar’s list, in the mind of some, was already more than a mere fabulation. It was a List. It was a sweet chariot which might swing low” (277).

The Nazi regimes brought out the worst in many people throughout Germany and occupied Europe: at best, a cruel indifference to the enslavement and massacre of Jews; at worst, various degrees of collusion with the local Nazi administrations. Yet these evil times also brought out the best in some, like Oskar Schindler. His acts of courage and resourcefulness have inspired the blockbuster movie, Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg. Perhaps this is why we still know of Oskar Schindler to this day. But the greatest homage to this ordinary man who did his best to protect fellow human beings from the Nazi savagery remains that he will be forever remembered and honored by generations of Jews as an extraordinary hero.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction

 

Geli Raubal and Hitler

Geli Raubal and Hitler

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

If you want to know about Hitler’s life, then read Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: A Biography (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). If you want to find out as much as possible about the history of the Nazi movement and Hitler’s role in it, then read Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock (Knopf, 1992). But if you want to get a sense of who Hitler was a human being, I encourage you to read a very well written historical novel by Ron Hansen called Hitler’s Niece (Harper Collins, 1999).

Hansen traces Hitler’s abnormal psychology from the perspective of Angela Maria (“Geli”) Raubal (1908-1931), his half niece. Geli is intelligent, beautiful, full of joie de vivre and untouched by the political obsessions and anti-Semitic hatred of her uncle and his cronies.  She maintains an ironic distance from Hitler’s fanatical followers—Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg and others—who also appear in the novel. Compared to her, however, they’re wooden characters in a farce, much as they were in real life. These vain men are fawning and obsequious, hungry for power and always ready to not merely follow, but also anticipate Hitler’s orders and wishes.

By the author’s own admission, however, the novel doesn’t adhere strictly to historical facts. It is only inspired by them, particularly by Bullock’s book Hitler and Stalin, which Hansen states provoked his fascination with Geli Raubal. (Author’s Note, 307-308) The novel describes Geli’s life, from beginning to end; from birth to tragic death. We find out that her father died at the young age of 31, leaving her mother, Angela, to take care of three kids (Geli, Leo and Elfriede) with almost no source of income. After seeing that Geli, at seventeen, had bloomed into a lovely young woman, Hitler invited her to be his housekeeper and companion. Her mother gladly accepted this unorthodox arrangement, in the hopes of making possible a better lifestyle for their family.

Becoming Hitler’s companion, caretaker, maid and eventually his mistress, Geli catches a glimpse of the inner workings of the Nazi party and its key players’ rise to power. Above all, Hitler’s Niece shows us, up close and personal, how a psychopath capable of genocide “falls in love.” Even after her death, Hitler called Geli the love of his life. Neither Eva Braun, his doting life companion, nor any other woman could compete with his obsession with Geli.

GeliRaubal

Geli Raubal spent six years either living with Hitler or being in frequent contact with him. For a period of time, she lived in his Munich apartment while she studied medicine and took music lessons. She also accompanied him to the opera, cinema, and the many other social functions he attended. The plot of the novel hinges on their sexual tension and on Geli’s psychological trauma as she becomes, increasingly against her will, his sexual partner in a sordid, sadomasochistic relationship that sickens her and intoxicates him. The more she tries to escape, the more possessive, dependent and desperate he becomes. As the narrator states, “She was his escape, his torpor, his surrender to the vacillation and passivity that were increasingly part of his nature” (220).

Need and obsessive desire, however, don’t imply love. For love to exist, the lover has to be able to consider, empathize with and fulfill the beloved’s own needs, as a separate individual. Hitler can’t do that. He “loves” his niece like a man who is incapable of real love. His idea of flirtation is bragging incessantly about himself. His idea of “affection” is engaging in perverse and demeaning sexual rituals. His idea of respect for women gives way to a fundamental misogyny and traditionalism that require them to serve him. His idea of passion is possession and control of the object of his desire.

Hitler demands to know at all times where Geli is, what she is doing and with whom. He retains the freedom to see other mistresses—including Eva Braun—but keeps a tight leash on Geli, discouraging other suitors. Once Emil Maurice, Hitler’s good-looking Corsican chauffeur begins dating Geli, Hitler finds a pretext to dismiss him. “She is with me,” Hitler snarls when another man, Schirach, asks his permission to take out Geli on a date. (244)

Caught in the vortex of her uncle’s overpowering addiction to her, Geli cannot escape the misery that dominates her life. When she expresses her distress, her friends turn their back on her and even her mother would rather, essentially, prostitute her to “Uncle Alf,” “the patriarch” of the family, rather than face poverty again. At the end, Hitler’s Niece adds an interesting but largely speculative twist to the story. Although the official version is that Geli committed suicide in 1931, in the novel, Hitler, realizing that he can no longer master his niece, beats her, breaks her nose, and then shoots her. His entourage quickly covers up the murder and presents it to the police and the press as an act of suicide. This adds an intriguing element of mystery to the plot, turning Hitler’s Niece into a detective story. But the novel’s main strength remains the psychological aspects of the drama. Hansen helps us see that there is not much difference between Hitler the public man, who could order the murder of millions of innocent people, and Hitler the private lover who could destroy the object of his desire rather than risk losing her.

Given this novel’s many strengths, it’s surprising to me that Hitler’s Niece received some scathing reviews, particularly from The New York Times. In “Springtime for Hitler, in love with his niece,” Michiko Kakutani offers a lengthy plot summary and then dismisses the novel as a poor representation of history which takes away from the gruesome reality of Hitler’s “public crimes, crimes that tragically were not speculative imaginings of a novelist, crimes that have been consigned to the margins of this inept and voyeuristic novel” (NYT, September 7, 1999).

http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/09/05/daily/090799hansen-book-review.html

I completely disagree with Kakutani’s harsh assessment and standards of evaluation in this case. The role of historical fiction is not to convey history accurately or in great detail. That is what (nonfiction) history books do. In my opinion, the role of historical fiction is to do exactly what Hitler’s Niece does so well: namely, find inspiration in real historical events to imagine the mindset, emotions and desires of its key figures. Often only more marginal characters, such as Geli Raubal, or Hitler’s niece, can give us a three-dimensional picture of the monster whose acts have marred the pages of history.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Review of Saints, Winds and Other Happenings by D. R. Popa

Saints, Winds and Other Happenings by D. R. Popa

After the Soviet occupation of Romania and the establishment of communism, the Secret Police (an organization developed from the Securitate in 1948, a kind of Romanian NKVD), committed many attrocities against the Romanian people. To offer just one example among many, they began a whole-scale oppression of religious institutions and individuals, particularly those affiliated with the Greek Catholic church. Having instituted an atheist empire in Eastern Europe, Stalin couldn’t tolerate a religion deferent to the pope in Rome in a neighboring country.

However, religion couldn’t be stomped out completely in Romania. Greek Catholics were tortured and forced to convert to the Romanian Orthodox Church, an institution that was already controlled by the Romanian Workers’ Party and the Securitate. Those who refused to submit spent many years in the communist prison camps in Sighet, Gherla, Jilava. Many were forced into into slave labor, to construct the infamous Canal of Death, called so because thousands of people died in unspeakably harsh conditions.

Dumitru Radu Popa’s new novel, written in Romanian under the title Sfinti, Vinturi si Alte Intimplari (Saints, Winds and Other Happenings), narrates these historical events in a personalized fashion, from the perspective of a family caught in the unforgiving gusts of history. Of course, this is not a history textbook, but a work of fiction, embellished by the author’s rich imagination. Although the novel has elements of realism–including the dialogue, which reads as spoken and natural, and the poignant descriptions of human suffering–it also incorporates elements of magical realism.

In literature, magical realism is associated with the works of Nobel-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) play with myth and fantasy in their representations of reality. The critic Matthew Strecher defines magical realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” In Marquez’s fiction, the depiction of everyday human lives takes on allegorical, and even mythic, proportions. Trespassing the boundaries between reality and imagination, magical realism taps into myth and fantasy to offer a deeper version of reality.

This is precisely the effect D.R. Popa achieves in his newest novel. The author states in our recent interview: “We’re not talking about a realist story, since I’m missing many historical elements which I was obliged to invent under the form of magical realism. So certain natural forces contribute to the plot, just as certain imaginary, symbolic characters give an epic dimension to the historical fiction.” (interview of December 17, 2011)

Hence, the twisted tale of Judge Anton Pasca (Uncle Toni), who pretends to be crazy to save himself and his family; the prolonged sufferings of the Catholic nuns Vianeea and Cornelia (based on the author’s aunt); the tragic death of Bubi (based on his uncle) and the illness and death of Professor Iosif Lewandowsky (inspired by his grandfather) all seem to be the products of a greater destiny, epitomized by symbolic charcters (such as the Nightman and Forrest Girl), not just names in the pages of a fragile human history that risks being forgotten or erased.

In the realist tradition, fiction is grounded in fact. In Dumitru Radu Popa’s magical realism, however, we see the opposite process at work. History is raised to a higher plane by a spell-binding tale that offers a passionate testimonial of survival through faith.

The author informs us that Romanian edition of Saints, Winds and Other Happenings (Sfinti, vanturi si alte intimplari) will be launched at the Libraria Bastilia (Piata Romana, Bucharest) on September 14, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. (http://www.curteaveche.ro/Sfinti_vanturi_si_alte_intamplari-3-1472). 

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Seducer-Novel-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/0761858075/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326297451&sr=1-1


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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, D. R. Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa, Editura Curtea Veche, historical fiction, Love in the Time of Cholera, magical realism, Romanian fiction, Saints Winds and Other Happenings, vanturi si alte intimplari

Dystopic Utopias in Speculative Fiction and Art

There are several great novels associated with the dystopic utopia tradition, but without a doubt four of the most notable are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Such novels distinguish themselves from both fantasy and science fiction. In an interview, Atwood stated that she prefers the name “speculative fiction,” a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein, to describe A Handmaid’s Tale (NY: First Anchor Books Edition, 1998): “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen.” (“Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction,” The Guardian, June 2005). Speculative fiction has become an umbrella term that includes utopian and dystopic fiction as well as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, some of which may also be considered to be science fiction or fantasy. The best speculative fiction, I believe, reveals what has already begun to happen and extrapolates with amazing lucidity how social and political ideals can turn into our worst nightmares. Every utopic ideology, from Marxism to eugenics and from primitivism to technocracy, has within it the seeds of its own dystopic undoing. Each one shows part of what has happened in our cultures and how things could get a lot worse.

Margaret Atwood’s novel illustrates what could take place in any culture or society where the women’s movement joins forces with the radical right to create a “purer” society.  In such a world, “freedom to” (dress as one wants, choose one’s profession and life partner) becomes “freedom from” (being a sex object, having too many choices of partners, location or profession). But “freedom from” is only a euphemism for lack of civil rights, for constraint, for invisibility itself (as women are enshrouded in a veil and even wear blinders on top of their heads, so they can’t see or be seen). It is a dystopic utopia; a contradiction in terms. Some societies have already implemented such a “freedom from” in the name of various religious or political ideologies. However, as Atwood underscores, no society—even the most seemingly open-minded and liberal–is immune to it. Totalitarian constraints can happen anywhere, even in the U.S, which, in fact, is the setting for her novel.

While Margaret Atwood envisions a danger that could happen, George Orwell describes a social experiment that did happen.  To many who have lived through the totalitarian phase of communism in Eastern Europe, as I have, Orwell’s 1984 is, in many respects, a historical novel: one that goes hand in hand with Robert Conquest’s monumental history, The Great Terror.  Newspeak, thought police, brainwashing; the physical and psychological torture of political prisoners to confess to nonexistent crimes and the show trials were all part and parcel of how the NKVD and other Secret Police organizations ruled  with an iron fist during communist dictatorships. O’Brien, the Thought Police agent in the novel, states the open secret of totalitarian regimes: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (1984, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949,  p. 272)

Perhaps the only speculative aspect of Orwell’s utopic dystopia is, as O’Brien himself points out, that those put on show trials die purified of their thought crimes and convinced of the righteousness of the new regime. They often are not, as were the victims of Stalinist purges, the embittered martyrs of a lost freedom. O’Brien promises Winston: “I shall save you, I shall make you perfect” (251). Perfection in 1984 is a world with no objective parameters of truth and falsehood or of right and wrong. It is a world in which the past is a convenient fiction for the present; a world where the difference between fear and blind trust is obliterated.  The Thought Police aims not merely to oppress man, but also to gaslight him: to get him to accept relativism without question. “We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him,” states O’Brian (263). He pursues: “We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him… Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation” (263).

By their very nature, utopias are ideological and dogmatic. They often represent a reaction to one form of constraint or dogmatism with an equally strong reaction in the opposite direction.   Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (NY: HarperCollins, 1932) probes another aspect of ideological dreams that could easily turn into nightmares: the social experiments of eugenics and the supposed biological justifications for social hierarchies and castes. Written during a time when the Nazi party was already starting to implement eugenic policies—described, in some ways, in the novel–Brave New World doesn’t spare democratic societies its sharp social critiques either.   Huxley describes the dangers that capitalism and industrialization, if left unchecked, can pose for humanity. Human beings are reduced to little more than automatons, consuming mood altering drugs and engaging in ritualistic sexual activities to compensate for lack of thought and the superficial and impersonal nature of their emotional ties.

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Random House, 1953) issues a powerful warning against censorship: books are burned because of their dangerous, potentially conflagrating ideological effects. However, as the author states in an interview in the late 1950’s, the novel also touches upon the alienation among people caused by an excess of information and too much exposure to the mass media: “But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog… The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. … There she was, oblivious to the man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction” (quoted by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, NY: Ayer Co. Publishing, 1975). Obviously, the author’s critique can be exponentially multiplied today, when most of our human contacts are mediated by ipods, computers, twittering, Facebook and other technological gadgets and social/mass media networks.  The future is already here. Each of these speculative novels not only predicted it, but also critiqued it in a way that remains very current.

Why are these speculative novels still relevant and important today? I’d like to explore this question by using as my point of departure a few famous quotes by leading writers and intellectuals.

1.“Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world.” H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia

Any society is flawed; any political institution, no matter how inclusive or democratic, has some corruption, inequality and unfairness in it. Utopian visions hone in on those weaknesses and injustices to imagine a better world, a world without these flaws. They function, in some ways, as a magnifying glass that allows us to see better the problems with our societies and institutions and as a mirror to imagine their obverse side.

2. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Almost every speculative novel is, in many respects, more multidimensional and more lucid than any political ideology was or ever could be. It captures both sides of the coin: the utopic vision and its dystopic, more realistic downsides. As Hawthorne puts it: both the ground you build a better society upon and the place you segregate its outlaws and its casualties.

3. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison, Online NewsHour interview, March 9, 1998

Utopic visions offer the best vantage point for social critiques. As Morrison points out, they are almost always correctives for hierarchies and injustices in the real world of the have’s from the perspective of the have not’s.  Since each society has so many distinctions and hierarchies, the have’s and the have not’s are not a binary dichotomy (between races or classes), but more of a fractal of many social and cultural dichotomies.

4. “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache… Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell, Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun

Utopic visions will always exist because nothing in our world can ever be perfect. We will always suffer from the “toothaches” Orwell alludes to. There will always be something wrong with our social and political institutions, no matter what they are. The need to imagine a world without whatever specific flaws we choose to focus on in our societies is therefore also inevitable. We will temporarily see in those utopic visions a better society. However, as Orwell points out, in reality, we might only be exchanging a toothache for a headache, or one problem for another.

5. “In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality… We can no longer hope to save everything, but… we can at least try to save lives, so that some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)

As a counterpoint to Orwell’s cynicism, we can safely say that not all utopias (or dystopias, depending upon your perspective) are equal. Some hells are hotter than others; some political and social structures worse than the next. Utopic visions offer a horizon of possibility. They enable human beings to at least try to aspire to creating better social institutions and governments.

6. “Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness.” E. M. Cioran, History and Utopia

A world without utopic visions is a world deprived of imagination, where one only sees what is and remains blind to what could be. Utopias enable us to dream and envision another way of life, perhaps a better world. They are healthy fantasies and necessary regulative ideals: as long as we remember their dangers and undersides, as each of these great writers reminds us.

 Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1

 

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