Thursday, March 29, 2012

Night of the Kabbalah

It is difficult to approach Elie Wiesel’s night with a critique.  As memoir, it is unassailable.  At best, we can take it as a piece of literature and then base our analysis on that.  Night is, after all, marketed as a novel.   

I think the literary key to the novel is in the very beginning, where the young narrator studies Kabbalah with the mysterious Moshe the Beadle.  Moshe is a simple man, and hides great learning and mystical erudition.  The young narrator, who cries during prayer, gains the attention of Moshe, and at the tender age of 14, begins to study Jewish mysticism (traditionally, one should only begin such studies at 40).

Night becomes, in a sense, a commentary on how close we can get to God, when the world is so inherently (or seemingly) godless.  When Moshe is deported to the camps, only to arrive back after escaping, the Jews of Sighet will not believe his stories of atrocities.  The Jews of this corner of Hungary refuse to believe that their destruction is immanent.  God's knowledge of human fate is revealed only to be concealed.

The Kabbalah, with its promise of closeness to God, and the destruction of a people, are bizarrely wedded in Night.  Are we supposed to view this story as a punishment for trying to gain knowledge of God that no one should gain?    Is the story of Night a Kabbalistic allegory on the fate of human beings when they overstep their reach?  It is hard to reach a firm conclusion.  Weisel just leaves us with nagging questions.

Ultimately no one listens to Moshe the Beadle and pay with death.  But Night makes us all listen, and we are privy to great secrets of life.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Incomplete Pictures of Rebbe Nachman

This small book, The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy, the Timeless Wisdom from a Hasidic Master contains short sayings by Rebbe Nachman.  We are meant to read them, and find inspiration in the words and maxims.

And many of Rebbe Nachman’s sayings are inspirational.  But the reader should know that this short book only contains part of the story.  Rebbe Nachman is a complex thinker.  He often says multiple, often contractor things about a subject.  And for every hopeful and joyful utterance, there is probably a negative one as well.  

There are many things about Rebbe Nachman that modern, secular people would find objectionable.  His attitude about masturbation in his book Rabbi Nachman’s Tikkun is unfortunate and medieval.  Of course, none of that is in this volume.  We are meant to feel good here, and not guilty.  

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Defiance - Nechama Tec

Nechama Tec’s Defiance: The Bielski Partisans tells the fascinating story of the Bielski brothers, Byelorussian Jews who formed a partisan unit, and in the process saved over 1000 Jewish civilians.  It is the largest “rescue” of Jews by Jews during the Second World War.

Luckily, Tec has a fascinating story to recount.  It carries the weight of her choppy, often inelegant prose.  This is particularly the case in the first two chapters, where Tec inexplicably provides us with one or two sentence paragraphs.  Luckily, this ends after forty pages or so; the reader should stick to the text and not succumb to this bizarre structure.  Defiance tells a riveting story; even if the delivery is a bit choppy, this is still an important book.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Last Days of Anne Frank

Picking up The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank by Willy Lindwer, I was afraid this would be a tacky piece of writing that simply showed the suffering of one person for our voyeuristic “pleasure.”  But Lindwer’s book is an important document in itself.  Indeed he is interviewing women who knew Anne Frank in Westerbork, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belson, but as one reads, we discover that Anne Frank is only one piece in this story.  Lindwer presents (full?) interviews of six remarkable women who not only knew Anne Frank, but also have significant stories to tell themselves.  While it would be too much to say that Anne Frank becomes a bit player in their stories, it is not a stretch to claim that she becomes contextualized in a time and place and in the life of Dutch Jewish women. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Anne Frank's Pantheism

The collection of Anne Frank stories and essays, Tales from the Secret Annex, are refreshingly simple and honest stories, with a glimmer of naivete and hope that shines through in the prose.  The stories like “Kathy” and the “Flower Girl” are particular stand-outs.  Very many writers learn a great deal about the simple wonder of creating a story by reading works like these.  There is a simple yet profound artifice here; there is much to learn about simple expression.

Most surprising for me is to read Anne Frank’s pantheistic leanings in many of the stories.  In “The Flower Girl” the main character’s hard life is mitigated by a few moments in the field, collecting flowers in the evening, while “alone with God and nature.”  In “The Fairy” we are told that the perfect cure for sadness is to “…take a walk through the big forest until you reach the moor.  Then, after a while in the heather, sit down and do nothing.  Only look at the blue sky and the trees, and you will gradually feel peaceful inside and realize that nothing is so hopelessly bad that something can’t be done to improve it --- even a little.”  In the story “Jackie” we read: “Anyone who looks at nature, which is the same as looking into oneself, long and deeply enough, will, like Jackie, be cured of all despair.”  In the short unfinished novel “Cady” the main character finds the full expression of her voice in nature, where she “discovered that she was a human being with feelings, thoughts, and opinions of her own, a being separate from others, a person in her own right.”

Here, God, nature, and the inner self are all treated as equals.  The only way to get at the real self, is to search for it in nature.  And since nature is equated with God and one’s inner self, the key to unlocking one is the other.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Ponzi Scheme of Praise

Nathan Englander is reckoned a great writer now, and it shows in the constellation of literary stars who have endorsed this book of short stories with a blurb. Jonathan Franzen calls this work a "fine-grained comedy and large scale-tragedy." Jonathan Safran Foer, Englander's friend, says the work "overflows with revelations and gems." Michael Cabon sums it all up when he calls this collection a "Certifiable masterpieces of contemporary short art." Other no less brazen blurbs are provided by Jonathan Letham and Gary Shetyngart, completing the Ponzi pyramid of admiration.

Unfortunately, this collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, does not nearly meet up to his hyperbole of acclaim. These stories as a whole are weak. It would be hoped, in a collection eight stories, there would one or two which could redeem the collection, but in this case it is not so. Englander misses the mark again and again, producing a collection that can be called embarrassing on the one end and a failure on the other.

What goes wrong? First, there is language. Englander's previous work had daring sentences, interesting syntax, and bold juxtapositions of words. These stories are flat and dry on the level of language. Englander is not doing anything real or new with his words. He is just producing them with no sense of the poetry of language. Second is character development. Almost to a story, Englander fails to provide a living, breathing portrait of a person. His characters dance around the fringes of believability, making bad jokes and common observations about life that do nothing to enliven the reader. By and large they are stereotypes, not characters. Finally, the structure of the stories fall well short of being masterpieces of short art. There is no sense, in reading them, that some great mystery is being unfolded. The stories end without great fanfare; the themes he develops in them are treated and then dismissed without any deep import. Englander wants to say profound things about the human and the Jewish condition, but these stories are terrible vehicles for doing so. The profound just becomes silly.

Nathan Englander has proven himself to be a great writer. This collection, however, gives no evidence of this.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Long Sutra

Gene Reeves did an excellent job in translating The Lotus Sutra from the Chinese into English.  It is here, the entire work, not abridged.  The translation is clear and easy to read.  He made concessions to English speaking audiences in certain places, making the text more accessible. 

That is the both the virtue and vice of this work.  It is ALL here, and for readers simply interested in the flavor of the work, this is not the book for you. The Lotus Sutra  is structured around individual sutras, usually speeches in prose by the Buddha.  Following the prose, there same ideas are presented in verse.  This pattern is more or less replicated for over thirty sutras.

So, for a reader wanting to immerse herself in The Lotus Sutra, this is the work for you.  For those who wish to get the flavor of the book without wading into its repetitions, look elsewhere.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, The Afterlife

Francine Prose’s book:  Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, The Afterlife, is essential to read to gain an understanding of Anne Frank’s diary as literature.  Usually examined as a historical document, Prose makes a convincing case that Anne Frank was creating a conscious piece of art, a kind of epistolary memoir.  She offers abundant proof to support this, walking us through the book's compositional history.  

For anyone interested in the diary for the first time, or coming back after not having read it for years, Prose’s book is a great key to a new understanding of the seminal work.

Prose also gets into the broad picture of Anne Frank’s work and her image.  She explores the plays and movies, the lawsuits and controversy, as Anne Frank became in the years following her murder, as she says, Hitler’s most famous victim.

But all the time Prose is respectful.  It is obvious that the diary of Anne Frank (and her other works) are a serious issue; and that stance comes through in this book in the refreshing, kind, and strong positions Prose takes regarding Anne Frank and her written legacy.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Two Films with Fighting Jews

It is so informative to watch the Israeli film Kippur, and then the American movie Defiance.  Both show Jews fighting for their lives in very different contexts.

Kippur is a low budget Israeli film that depicts soldiers whose task it is to retrieve the wounded during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Without the large budget and the significant expectations of making a major profit, Kippur unfolds quickly, but smartly.  We see soldiers struggling to make sense of a chaotic battle.  We see their exhausted faces, their clipped and incoherent speech, their fear, and dogged but exhausted spirit.  In one scene, the team tries in vain to carry a wounded soldier in a stretcher through a mud caked field in the Golan Heights.  They are filthy and exhausted.

Defiance depicts the life of Jewish partisan fighters in Belorussia.   A trio of brothers leads the band, who in the process of fighting the Germans, also save a significant number of women and children from the Nazi death machine.  The film is based on a true story.  There are scenes depicting suffering, hunger, brutality, but it is all within a rather safe range.  Hope and despair needed to be handed out unevenly, with a heavy lean toward hope, the film makers seem to say.  We can never handle seeing war from the flat, exhausting angle of Kippur.   Could an American audience sit through ten minutes of men struggling to get out of waist deep mud?

The film they make implies we can’t.  So we get speeches, heroics, pain that can be overcome, and most of all, we are not allowed to despair too much.  The rather clumsy allusions to the partisan leader as Moses (he leads the band across a Sea of Reeds to escape the Germans!) shows us that there is no need to fall into despair.  We can climb through any muck and mire to redemption.  When watching a movie, Defiance tells us, it is important for us to not feel too bad.