Friday, November 19, 2010
As civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines.
Graffiti under the fire escape of the Theatre Royal. Campbell Street, Hobart. November 2010.
Kaddish for a Child Not Born by Imre Kertész is one of a series of four novels which examine the life of a man who survives the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. I wrote about the first, Fatelessness, a few weeks back.
If Fatelessness offered a relatively conventional narrative approach, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, written fifteen years later, is anything but. It is a difficult novel of repetition and ambiguity, the narrator acknowledging all his uncertainty, and constantly reminding the reader of the difficulty of exact expression. In many respects, it’s an artist’s attempt at public self-flagellation.
Broadly, the novel is a meditation on the narrator's failed marriage, and in particular, his refusal to have children. Identity is fixed firmly to the present perspective, with the narrator constantly reminiscing yet always acknowledging what was to happen: history is fixed, even if, at the points he returns to, anything seemed possible. So he writes repeatedly of the woman he was to marry: "my wife (who at that time was not yet and is now no longer my wife)".
It’s an interesting text, a (self-) analysis of a state of being that is, in turn, deliberate and emotional, troubled by the inadequacy of the written word (and of human reaction). The author cannot rise above his inadequacies, but can only try to give them expression. As such, it is a jarring read. This is not a fluid narrative, but there is purpose to the careful locutions and the doubling back and emphasis on the contradictory.
It’s not easy going, and one best reserved when your strength of concentration is high!
The second book this week is Harry Mulisch’s Siegfried.
It begins as the story of Rudolf Herter, an internationally renowned Dutch author (funnily enough, he bears a striking similarity to one Harry Mulisch). Like Mulisch, Herter has an Austrian heritage behind his Dutch citizenship, a father who was too close to the Nazis in occupied Holland, and high esteem as an author. More importantly for this tale, both share preoccupation with the phenomenon of Hitler.
Mulisch/Herter feels he hasn't grasped the subject of Hitler. Indeed, it is clear that he believes that all attempts to explain Hitler have failed completely. In Siegfried it occurs that perhaps fiction is the net in which to catch his elusive subject. Not historical fiction, but using some very unlikely (but still fundamentally plausible) idea and building a fiction around it. So in this way, we have a philosophical thesis trapped within novel within trapped within a novel.
Do you follow?
As I usually do when reflecting on a book, I had a bit of a look at the reviews of Siegfried. And oh my critics didn’t like it. It got mauled.
I'm not sure why. As a story, I found it gripping. As a philosophical treatise, interesting enough. Sure, the self-reflexivity is a little smug at times, but like Kaddish for an Unborn Child, this is more self-mutilation than adoration.
Does it answer the riddle of Hitler? Of course not, but that is kind of the point. What’s more important is the reflection along the way.
Very much worth the effort.