The Holocaust in resident memory.
New arrival, Theresienstadt
Judging from these two first novels, authors and publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, conjecturing that both the Holocaust and 20-something women with borderline personalities make for marketable fiction, now calculate that they can double their market niche by combining themes. If only it were that simple.
To begin with praise, Joyce Hackett’s debut novel, Disturbance of the Inner Ear
, is beautifully written, with sentences that shine like gems. “Mr. Pettyward strutted back in, steering Clayton by the shoulder like a vacuum cleaner,” she tells us, and later records a time that was “like an IV of silence, slowly seeping into my veins.” A fully developed scene of an erotic medical examination is exceptional, and the catalogue of the blind choices and uncanny coincidences by which the confused heroine’s father survived the Nazis is a brief tour-de-force. This is a writer who knows how to wield a pen.
But it isn’t only her musician heroine whose musical and emotional imbalance might metaphorically be called a disturbance of the inner ear. The novel as a whole has trouble finding its equilibrium.
The book, set mostly in Italy, tells the story of half-Jewish cellist Isabel, the mid-20s daughter of Theresienstadt survivor and ruined pianist Yuri, who protected her fiercely and trained her to musical greatness, promising her that playing well would guard her from loss and grief. But he was wrong, getting killed in a car crash at the time of Isabel’s best performance, when she was 17, and afterward her gift flagged. When her elderly lover and mentor dies in their Milan hotel room, Isabel is alone, cut off from her past, desperate to pass for normal as she wanders the streets imagining meanings that aren’t there.
The rest of the novel describes her attempt to regain her balance. She secures a live-in job tutoring 15-year-old Clayton Pettyward and falls under the spell of plastic surgeon and gigolo Giulio Salvagente, who offers to save her with sexual healing.
When she accidentally injures Clayton, Giulio ministers to the youth, then undertakes to cure Isabel’s malaise in his “horizontal confessional.” But realizing that Clayton is dying and frantically blaming herself, Isabel escapes in Giulio’s car, driving blindly north through Europe until she reaches Theresienstadt. There, reconnected to the sources of her tragic life, she finally plays her cello fluently again.
But even that’s not so simple. Isabel has previously played just as well for Giulio and Clayton, so the ending is an unexplained anti-climax. Worse, the very literary quality that produces absorbing details and textures blocks easy forward movement of the story the novel is so written that it’s sometimes hard to make out what’s happening in it. The characters, too, seem far away, as if lost in the same fog that envelopes Isabel. They’re interesting
, but it’s hard to care about them.
From author Joyce Hackett, one may hope for something better in the future, but Michael Mail’s Coralena
is hopeless. Set in the early 1970s in “Kussel,” a provincial German capital, it tells the story of a young German woman who goes mad from uncovering the Nazi past of the people around her.
This sounds like a potentially viable plot device, but in Mail’s hands, it fizzles. Pursuing her dream of independence, 25-ish art graduate Sophie moves out of her stodgy parents’ home to an apartment in the city’s picturesque Old Town, where she becomes lovers with kindly old Frau Eckermann’s son Dieter, a radical activist. Exploring her apartment, Sophie discovers an attic room in which a Jewish family hid during the war. Evidence there convinces her that Dieter was the hidden family’s baby, whom the childless Eckermanns raised as their own after betraying the family to the Gestapo.
Meanwhile, she learns that the town’s upscale department store, where she works as a window-dresser, was acquired by its respectable owners via a forced sale from Jews during Hitler’s “Aryanization” campaign. And then she realizes that her pious Roman Catholic parents are also hiding their passive cooperation in the destruction of the town’s Jewish community, as well as their later suppression of responsibility and even knowledge of it. When a political kidnapping in which Dieter appeared to be involved turns out to be a left-wing publicity stunt, everything seems a lie.
Pregnant by Dieter, who broke off their affair when she began to investigate the attic room, Sophie has a mental breakdown. She takes communion, believing that by symbolically ingesting the flesh and blood of Jesus, she will become a Jew like him, threatens her neighbors with the pistol she found in the attic and kidnaps the terrified Dieter in order to proclaim herself his lost mother.
Not only is this story line arbitrary, but the characters are vague, the narration clumsy and Mail’s writing is an English teacher’s nightmare dangling participles, preference for the passive voice and a plodding style that gives new meaning to the word “prosaic.” He likes usages that complicate simple meanings (“The building was situated at 33 Rheingasse although no such indication was actually proffered”) and he tends to misuse words (a “doppelganger” is not quite the same as an “alter ego”). Wasn’t there an editor in the house?
Disturbance of the Inner Ear
may ultimately fail as a novel, but Coralena
revives questions about bad art. Not that it happens bad art is natural enough but why ugly paintings sell for high prices, why major film studios spend millions on movies that everybody knows must sink like stones and why an incompetent novel gets published and hyped. And if the marketeers are right that the Holocaust sells, will we have to endure Coralena
again as a movie?
Though both these novels use the Holocaust as background and plot-generator, neither is interested in exploring Jewish themes. Musician Isabel is tracking a personal story in a non-Jewish context, and author Mail offers us no texture at all of Jewish life, past or present. Maybe the message is that even in the background the Holocaust can drive you nuts. But we knew that already.