Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Reality and imagination

By chance, I read recently three books by Jewish writers about the persecution of Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II. One was written as a factual account of the author’s own experience, one as fiction and one as fact and fiction combined.

The first was Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, which provoked some thoughtful responses at the meeting of the book group for which it was the chosen work. Everyone agreed that it was a book of which it would be inappropriate to say that you had enjoyed it. Enjoyment was the wrong word and the right word was hard to find. Everyone commented on the detached, almost impersonal way in which the author described his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Some thought that this was the only way in which an experience so inhuman as to be unimaginable could be conveyed to anyone who had not themselves experienced it: present the facts and leave the rest to the reader’s own imagination. Others thought that it reflected the response of the prisoners to the situation in which they found themselves: the only way to survive was to treat the abnormal as if it were normal. A reality so deformed negates imagination. Primo Levi the story-teller is the writer we meet in his later books, in The Wrench, for example, which I enjoyed re-reading after the book group meeting. Auschwitz, even after we have read about the time Primo Levi spent there, remains unimaginable.

The second was Mr Emmanuel by Louis Golding, a British writer who was well known in the last century but whose books are now almost all out of print. It is one of a series of books about the inhabitants of a street in a northern city where Jewish families live on one side of the street and non-Jewish on the other. There is no animosity between the two sides, even the occasional marriage. So when Isaac Emmanuel comes home from work one evening and finds a swastika chalked on his door, he is surprised and distressed.

‘A lump rose in Mr. Emmanuel’s throat, and he had some difficulty in swallowing it. It must be those new people, he said to himself, who had come to live opposite at number ten. It was said of them they were black-shirts. What harm have I done them they should make a swastika on my front door? There was a funny taste in the back of his mouth, like he had eaten something bitter.’

The story is told from Mr Emmanuel’s point of view and in his own language (of which the extract above gives a taste) and Jewishness is at its heart. Briefly, it is the story of what happens when, in 1935, following the death of his wife and his retirement as Secretary to the Board of Guardians, he befriends a refugee from Nazi Germany, a boy separated from his Jewish father, who is known to have been arrested and killed by the Nazis, and his non-Jewish mother, whose whereabouts are unknown. When letters from his mother stop arriving, the boy is convinced that she too has been killed and attempts suicide. Mr Emmanuel promises to find out where his mother is. Against the advice of his friends, he travels alone to Berlin, determined to keep his promise. In Berlin, he arouses the suspicions of the authorities, who arrest him and torture him. He survives the torture, which is caused by his Jewishness, because of his Jewishness.

‘He was certain that the limits within reason of his own resistance and fortitude had long been overpassed; he felt he was strong not only with his own strength, but the strength of his race accumulated over many times and lands; and with more than that – with the strength of God, without which all else is as a straw in the wind.’

Louis Golding’s novel, published in 1939, when the author was at the height of his fame, with one novel already made into a film and the same to happen to Mr Emmanuel before the war was over, is a work of imagination. It reminded me in some ways – style, structure, narrative voice – of the kind of children’s book that I used to read when I was growing up in the 1950s. It is not sentimental, nor does it over-simplify, but it is, on one level, an adventure story. The same could be said of Graham Greene’s novels. Enjoyment is not out of place when, as in all works of fiction, reality is transformed by imagination.

The third was Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, the latest European novella, the first from Poland, to be published in translation by Peirene Press. Written by a Polish Jew, it is the story of a young Jewish woman’s determination to rescue her husband from whichever concentration camp the Nazis have put him in. The only way she can survive is by hiding her Jewishness. What that means is a question that Hanna Krall asks indirectly, but to which she offers no answer. Unless perhaps there is an answer in the last chapter, when Izolda, now an old woman, is in Israel with her family, all of them speaking Hebrew, a language she does not understand.

This novel is nothing like a book for children. The story is told in very short chapters, none of them much more than a page long, recounting events more or less in the order in which they happened, but with occasional jumps forward or back. The narrative is sometimes confusing, made up as it is of these fragments. The reader shares both the experience of remembering, like Izolda, and the experience of piecing together someone else’s story, like the author.

Chasing the King of Hearts is a true story, told as if it were fiction. It comes as a surprise, at various times throughout the book, to turn a page and see a photograph of one of the characters. There are no captions, but you recognise them at once because you have met them already. The novel becomes for a moment a family album, the novelist a family historian. The dividing line between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, grows blurred.

The French historian, Laurent Binet, deliberately crosses and re-crosses that line in Hhhh, which tells the story of the plot to assassinate Heydrich, Himmler’s right-hand man in Prague in 1942. ‘Gabčik’ Binet states at the outset, ‘is someone who really existed.’ He wonders whether, lying alone in his apartment, Gabčik heard the sound of the trams outside his window. I would like to think so, he says. I know Prague well and it’s such a common sound that I think he must have heard it. But to say that he did is to cross the line between fact and fiction. This is legitimate for the novelist, he says, but not for the historian. Binet the historian and Binet the novelist stand on opposite sides of the line, which is in part what his novel is about.

The relationship between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, is fundamental to all forms of artistic expression. It is not so surprising that the Nazi era should have presented writers, especially those who lived through it and experienced its worst atrocities, with such a challenge. How do you make your readers believe that these things really happened?

Primo Levi

Primo Levi

Coming soon – Samuel Beckett’s Debt to Maurice Maeterlinck – read it here on 16 October.

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This entry was posted on October 2, 2013 by in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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