This is the war that never ends.
Its publisher and some reviewers seem to think there's something controversial about Gwen Edelman's poignant and well-crafted debut novella. But aside from so slender a tome costing 22 bucks, it's hard to make out what the debate might be about.
In "War Story," Kitty Jacobs, an aspiring writer of 32, lets herself get picked up in a New York bookstore by Joseph Kruger, a 60-year-old Holocaust survivor, goes home and to bed with him and begins a passionate, claustrophobic, infuriating and ultimately transformative year-long affair with him. In fragments, she recalls this relationship and its effect on her as she journeys by train from Paris to Amsterdam ten years later to attend Joseph's funeral.
Joseph, by far the more interesting character in this two-person drama, is a famous playwright and novelist whose bleak, brilliantly imaginative work about the Nazi years has made him famous. He is demanding, loving, volatile, arrogant, cynical, sentimental, bitter, manipulative, egotistical, emotionally armored and, a lot of the time, plain terrified by his memories of the Holocaust. He is also ravenous, for both sex and food, and his main activities (in addition to talking) are making love to Kitty and solicitously feeding her thickly carved slices of dark bread slathered with jam, goose fat or liverwurst and washed down with schnapps. It's to the author's praise that she renders so wildly varied a character so seamlessly, creating a striking portrait of a tormented man running to keep two steps ahead of madness.
Kitty, on the other hand, as an assimilated American Jew - well-brought-up, polite, naive, slightly passive - seems a symbol of American Jewry's choice to forget its Jewish past. Her survivor parents kept silent about the Holocaust and never even took her to synagogue. But Kitty wants to possess the history which obsesses Joseph, knowing it is hers, too. Joseph has many stories to tell, and since (as he tells her) she has none, he talks and she listens.
His tales are compelling, but he is obnoxious. He patronizes Kitty with accounts of his worldly knowledge, wide experience and literary success; he antagonizes her by boasting in detail about all the women he's had. Just about the time that the reader begins to get fed up with Joseph, Kitty does, too. Soon their love affair, though still steamy, skids downhill. His instinct is to flee from attachment, which his whole life has taught him is dangerous. He has even warned her. "Forget everything you learned at your mother's knee…. Be ready for any madness. Be ready to hate. And most important, travel alone. Maybe then you'll have a chance to survive."
Kitty, understanding solidity and commitment as love's logic, at last becomes weary of Joseph's reminiscences, his emotional cruelties, his bad manners, his dark, airless apartment, even the stains on his robe and the old postcards tacked to the wall. "Everything here is old and useless," she barks him at last, and she means him, too. Finally, Joseph decides he must go back to Europe, the source of both his torment and his creativity, and they separate forever.
As a character, Kitty is a bit of a blank. We can understand how deeply she wants to experience the war years through Joseph. But has she never spoken with a Holocaust survivor before? Has she never read the histories and literature of the Holocaust? Is she, for that matter, accustomed to getting picked up in public places by older men? And doesn't she have to work for a living? And exactly why does her year of passion with Joseph serve, as we are told, to unlock her ability to write?
Sparely and evocatively written, the novella resembles a fable or allegory, though of what is less sure. But if the novella has a "message," perhaps it is encoded in the fact that Joseph cannot believe - in some underlying sense does not really know - that the war is over. Still obsessed with his own survival, he pleads with Kitty in bed to hide him from the predators: "She felt the beating of his heart against her. But the war's over, she panted, trying to enclose him, the war is over. My poor darling, he said sorrowfully, the war will never be over."
That perception may now cut deep, not only for Holocaust survivors and their children, but for all of us. The world did not suddenly change on September 11, it only became clearer. The anti-Semitic "anti-racism" conference in Durban, South Africa, the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe, the collapse of the hopes generated by the peace process and the undisguised hatred of Jews espoused by Israel's neighbors provide additional helps in focusing. "War Story" seems to be suggesting what Paul Goodman told us a generation ago in his novel The Empire City
: "This time the duration is going to last longer than the war." One wishes this idea were more controversial than it currently seems.