Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die

Chessex, Jacques (2009), Un Juif Pour L’exemple, Grasset
ISBN 09782253129615-4
[English edition: Chessex, Jacques, A Jew Must Die, Bitter Lemon Press
ISBN 9781904738510
translated by W. Donald Wilson]

I’ve long meant to write something about the Swiss novelist and poet Jacques Chessex, whose work I admire greatly. Today’s election pushed me to reread the last novel he published during his lifetime (it’s not his final novel, two additional novels were published posthumously), the searing and quite excellent A Jew Must Die. The sensational English title hides the matter-of-fact nature of the book. In French, its title is Un Juif Pour L’Exemple (~ “a Jew to make an example of”) and while some of the leading characters in the book are indeed subsumed by hate, the murder at the center of the book is based on political calculations, in addition to antisemitic hatred. The story had been told in a book and documentary in the 1970s (“Le crime nazi de Payerne – Un juif tué pour l’exemple”), hence the title of the original novel. The murder and its description is horrifying, but this is not about the murder per se. Chessex wrote a novel about the village he was born in and the social context in which a murder like this could have arisen. The novel shows us the complacent, maybe complicit village population, and a police force that doesn’t particularly care about the fate of this missing Jew. The reaction to the novel’s publication, finally, that treated Chessex with anger and derision, confirms the quiet anger that spurred Chessex to write a book about an event that both anticipates the Shoah and exemplifies much that led to it. Chessex’s writing in the novel is excellent, using a nominally neutral, sober style, but infusing it with passion, with occasional cascades of rhetoric and description. The description of the murder, with its three entrances, like a dark mirror of a fairy tale quest, is terrifying and compelling. Everything about this novel, except for its size, is enormous; towering above it all is the conscience and care of Chessex and his literary and historical conscience. I don’t think it is his best novel necessarily (from the ones I read, I think both L’Ogre and Hosanna are slightly better?), but it is a very good novel and certainly better than most fiction that is published about the Shoah these days. Chessex was a great writer and this novel shows why: a sharp intelligence, sense of style and conscience combined to create this dense but essential book. I have not read the translation, and while the change in titles makes me worry a bit, the novel doesn’t pose obvious linguistic puzzles, so I can’t see why the translation shouldn’t be fine. Read this book in whatever form you can find it. It is very good.

A Jew Must Die is based on a true story which the inhabitants of the village in question would love to forget. It’s ancient history! tells him one of the antisemites he portrays in the book upon meeting him 25 years after the events (though this particular person regrets nothing). An ardent Nazi, an antisemitic priest, and some farmers get together and decide to murder a Jew as a sign to all the other Jews who are sucking the lifeblood from the country, as they see it. Chessex is clear to distinguish between the general opinion and resentment towards Jews, which is generally shared in the area at the time, and the gruesome murder of the specific Jew in the novel, which is undertaken in secret by a small group of people. They decide to make an example of one of the Jews and pick a local merchant. After murdering him (in a spectacularly written scene, as I said), they cut him up and stuff him into milk cans like the one on the cover of the English edition. I’m not really spoiling you here – Chessex doesn’t rely on that kind of suspense. He introduces the Jew who will be murdered pretty late – he’s more interested in the social and psychological description of the murderers. Villages being villages, eventually they are found out, and convicted to jail sentences of varying lengths. The antisemitic priest fled the country and moved to Germany where he was arrested after the war and extradited to Switzerland. Yet there is no sense of relief in that. No jail can erase the tragedy from history – and moreover, the fellow villagers, murmuring assent to calumnies hurled at Jews in bars and casual conversations, have not been jailed or even prosecuted, not having committed a crime in the conventional sense.

While the events have happened as described, and all the people in the novel go by their real names, Chessex never makes the documentary character of the novel into a character in the book that competes with the horrifying events described within, in stark contrast to the vain self-reflections in books like Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which I like less with every year that passes. My too favorable review is here. There are a few asides, some conversations with the reader about plausibility but they don’t serve to undercut the story, they just underline the authorial urgency that powers the whole novel. Chessex never discusses or cites his sources, but since he was a boy when the murder happened, and the principal actors all went on trial, he has access to both firsthand knowledge and an obvious source of documentation. Yet by not discussing this, we are not asked to admire his skill or ability to research or present the information, we are free to deal with the nature of what happened. He devotes one single chapter to reflections about himself and his motivations in writing the book, but he closes with remarks on the murder victim’s funeral. The self-reflections are primarily meant to assuage the writer’s guilt – not in inventing details, but in writing fiction about the Shoah at all. “Je raconte une histoire immonde et j’ai honte d’en ecrire le moindre mot,” he writes, and it is a testament to his writing that we fully believe that he feels conflicted and shameful about writing this book. In Binet’s book, an assertion like that would have smelled of a performance of shame, and yet in Chessex writing, it becomes part of the urgent fabric of the book. Writing about the events makes the author complicit, in a sense, but coming from the same village, going to school with the children of the murderers already puts the author in a difficult situation. The novel ends on a prayer for forgiveness and we understand. There are people who are able to shrug off the way they are complicit in the horrors of this world, and it never fails to stun me. Chessex goes down a different path: understanding what happened and why it happened is step one to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

I may have reread the book today because of the possibility of Marine LePen becoming President of France, in connection with the French language of the book and the rural support of the FN in France. It seemed fitting. However. Chessex is a Swiss writer and the two books that most came to mind upon rereading this one are also Swiss. They are two plays by Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, two of Switzerland’s best writers in all of that country’s literary history. Both spent a good deal of their writing life criticizing Switzerland, and criticizing the Swiss role during the Third Reich. Frisch’s play Andorra, read by practically all German high school students at some point, focuses on the mob mentality of hate, as does Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit. Frisch doesn’t name anyone, in fact, his play is a thought exercise, not even naming Jews as the persecuted group, and Dürrenmatt’s play is even further removed from the historical background. Both, however, manage to describe with remarkable skill how volatile villages and small towns can be if given the right ideology and the right solution to perceived problems. However, their playful distance to historical events, the authorial insistence on cleverness and skill over historical urgency has always felt a bit off to me. If you look at Frisch’s reaction to and treatment of Celan, you should feel an even stronger sense of unease. Jacques Chessex wrote a novel that insists on the historical and local roots of the events that happened; you can’t abstract from the facts without losing some vital elements. Both Frisch and Dürrenmatt’s plays are important, but the extraordinary quality of Chessex novel becomes more pronounced when you compare it to the work of fellow French writers.

Chessex’s novel caused outrage in his home village. Insults rained, ranging from articles, speeches to a carnival float showing the writer pulling a bunch of milk cans out of which bones poked, in essence confirming much the author didn’t make entirely explicit. Payenne, even many decades after the murder, is still Payenne. There is a straight line leading from the events of the novel to us today, the contingency of history, and this book, quiet and angry, gruesome and sad, offers us a link. As a German, this link between 1940s hate and today’s population rings true, as does the wish to forget about history. My East German grandmother’s village used to have a small, but infamous concentration camp but nobody in the village ever mentions it or likes it being mentioned. It’s a village full of people complicit in unbelievable crimes against humanity where nobody ever talks about it, except to discuss tales of being sometimes hungry during war time. Today, the village’s youth is full of current or former neo-nazis and nobody sees the connection. German culture and literature performs shame, dishonest, with a slight self-righteous twist. It is what makes so much of German literature not written by immigrants so dull, as I’ve noted here and there. Care and honesty in this literature is rare these days. So as someone feeling the need for an écriture like that, Jacques Chessex’ achievement shines even brighter. Jacques Chessex was a fantastic writer and Un Juif Pour L’Exemple is an important, a great novel – and I’m not sure the title and layout picked by Bitter Lemon Press are entirely appropriate, but my misgivings are entirely overshadowed by the gratitude I feel for the fact that they translated this book to begin with. There’s also a movie out, directed by Jacob Berger. I have not been able to get my hands on a copy, virtual or physical, yet, but as far as I can tell, Berger includes the reaction to the novel as part of the movie’s story, which is an interesting and laudable decision. I cannot vouch for the movie but I can vouch for the novel. Read it. That is all. PS. If you have an idea how I can get my fingers on that dang movie, please tell me.

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Laurent Binet: HHhH

Laurent Binet (2010), HHhH, Livre de Poche
ISBN 978-2-253-15734-2

[English translation: Laurent Binet (2012). HHhH. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Sam Taylor
ISBN 978-0374169916

Georges Didi-Huberman (2011), Écorces, Editions de Minuit
ISBN 9782707322203

DSC_0582Listen, I don’t think it’s just me. There has been a surfeit of novels about the Second World War in recent years. It’s always quite a popular topic, but the amount of high profile literature on the topic has been staggering. Three of the most well known novels are the recent new translations of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein in 1947, translated by Michael Hofmann in 2009), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (originally published as Les Bienveillantes in 2006, translated by Charlotte Mandell in 2009) and Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies (Originally published in Sweden in 2009, translated by Sarah Death in 2011). And it’s no surprise that this (admittedly short) list of very well received publications largely consists of translations. French literature especially keeps producing prize-winning work about the Shoah. Littell’s novel, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt upon publication, was followed by Frabrice Humbert’s fascinating L’Origine de la violence, which won the Prix Renaudot in 2009, Yannick Haenel’s Jan Karski, winner of the Prix Interallié in 2009 and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH, winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010. If that list seems long and exhausting, well, that’s because it is. There is no way one can keep up with high profile, prize-winning novels about the Shoah without going a little mad, I think. This enormous amount of literature also leads to writers exploring odd angles or experimenting with different techniques, trying to find something new to say about a topic that doesn’t appear to offer new insights.

HHhH 4Then again, writing about this topic can come with great rewards, as even horrible books like John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (see my review here) are received well and sell indecent amounts of copies. The Shoah as a topic is so deeply ingrained in our perception of modern history, and is imbued with such a sense of tragedy that even halfway competent books can powerfully pull at our heartstrings. On the other hand, there’s a certain fatigue now and we demand more and new pleasures from new entries in the genre. Les Bienveillantes attracted a lot of attention for being (or appearing, rather) both well researched and madly readable. HHhH, Laurent Binet’s debut novel, translated by Sam Taylor and published in April 2012, is both interesting as an attempt to do something new, as well as pretty dull as a novel, and dubious regarding its moral stance. It’s hard to recommend a book that bored me this much, but it is deeply fascinating on several levels, and if you are interested in the topic and endowed with more patience than me, go ahead and read it. And if you start reading, I suggest you keep reading. The book gets better and somewhat more interesting. Even its flaws, and obnoxious navel-gazing end up becoming part of the book’s structure.

Foto 0326Since the last major publication by a French writer in English translation was Jonathan Littell’s brick of a Shoah novel, it seems like the most relevant point of reference for Binet’s book, especially given the fact that both writers are almost the same age (Littell was born in 1967, Binet in 1972), and both books have been published in English to great acclaim (Binet’s novel was praised by writers like David Lodge, Martin Amis and Vargas-Llosa, and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Both have been written by authors who have not witnessed the atrocities of the Shoah themselves and both have a very unique, and very specific angle. This is all they share, however. The novels themselves couldn’t be more dissimilar. The Kindly Ones is a mad look into hell. Self-consciously literary, it eschews the idea of the banality of evil, introducing a flamboyant character, who is perverted, mad and highly educated, following him through the horrors of the Second World War. Reviewers have pointed out that, while an accurate portrayal of a historical figure, it’s hardly an accurate portrayal of the typical Nazi mindset, and that it’s hardly helpful to support the idea that the Nazi mentality is a wild kind of hateful madness. As Robert Merle’s classic La mort est mon métier stunningly demonstrated, the horror of a regular, orderly mind, coldly evaluating the practicality of mass murder is far more shocking, most Nazis being, as Merle termed it, “moraux à l’intérieur de l’immoralité, consciencieux sans conscience”. Littell decided to exchange that kind of horror for a more intense, bloody kind of horror. The excesses of his book owe much to the brilliant thesis of Klaus Theweleit on the role of male sexuality in the Third Reich (translated by Chris Turner and Stephen Conway as Male Fantasies, a book that everyone should read), and there is a kind of second-degree accuracy to the bath of blood and sperm that is Littell’s novel. As a variety of stuck-up German reviews pointed out, Littell isn’t very concerned with providing accurate details (the novel was heavily corrected between the original French publication and the 2010 paperback, see this review for an enumeration of incorrect terms and phrases), but reading it in conjunction with Susan Sontag’s famous essay on Fetish and Theweleit’s extraordinary book does provide a great reading experience. And this is possibly its main point: it’s a wild ride. For a book that’s 1400 pages in my edition, its pages just fly by. The fact that Littell uses an exaggerated caricature of a Nazi leader helps the book slip into a mad/delirious narrative that has more in common with the brilliant surreal frescoes of Edgar Hilsenrath than with Imre Kertesz’s or Primo Levi’s books. It also explains the amount of copies the book sold in France (it didn’t sell well in English translation though, surprisingly). And while the exaggeration, and the reliance on theory rather than experience has led to some criticism, the novel’s splatter-inspired realism owes much to the author’s time spent in various war zones around the world. The depiction of Max Aue may lack a certain sincerity, but the book itself is driven by an obviously sincere distaste with the horrors that man unleashes upon man.

9780374169916This sincerity can also be found in Laurent Binet’s novel, but unlike The Kindly Ones, HHhH is more similar to great works of Shoah literature like Jorge Semprun’s Le Grand Voyage, without attaining the same literary brilliance. HHhH is a novel about “Operation Anthropoid”, an assassination attempt on SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Here is the wiki page which I highly recommend reading. Binet’s work is very well researched and his appetite for showing us every wrinkle of the operation is very impressive. Even if you know a lot about the period, you’re bound to learn something new. The central character of the book is Heydrich, and Binet is adamant about presenting us a plausible psychological portrait of one of the most brutal and terrible men in modern history, a man central to the early Nazi atrocities. The low point of his gruesome career was when he chaired the Wannsee Konferenz, the infamous conference where the organized murder of up to 11 million Jews was conceived and implemented. 6 months later, through the actions of two brave Czech men (and multiple other brave supporters), Heydrich died. Those two men were Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, and Binet offers us convincing portraits of them as well. While the book takes a bit to get off the ground, the author gets more and more caught up in the tumultuous events and with him, so do we, his readers. However, to get to that point, the author drags us through more than 400 pages of an amazingly self-indulgent monologue. The fact is that the book is as much a book about the process of writing this book, as it is about the historical events it purports to be focusing on. Every other chapter that deals with the historical facts is followed by a chapter (almost like a diary), discussing the dangers and pitfalls in what Binet just wrote. There are numerous chapters that involve his girlfriend commenting on the preceding chapter and Binet discussing (and defending), in great detail, the choices he made). There is no character that Binet lavishes as much attention on as he does on himself. At times, you feel as if you are at a dinner party and the person sitting next to you, on their fourth glass of wine, involves you in a narrative that is half complaint, half grandiose explanation of facts. We’ve all been to those parties, haven’t we?

THE-KINDLY-ONESAbout 15 pages into the novel, he is still debating how to begin his narrative. There’s a lot of “I could do this…but should I?” And this is, generally speaking, fine. Binet’s self-reflexive discussion of precision has a long tradition in the genre, not least the aforementioned novel by Semprun. The danger of falsifying events you’re discussing by imbuing them with imagination rather than facts is always present, especially with a topic like the Shoah, where witnesses are of such central importance. Writers like Semprun have opened a discourse about how reliable they are as witnesses and how representative their experiences are of the broader historical event. Semprun would go on to revise his memory in later books, driven by the urge to get the facts absolutely right. So Binet’s obsession with being not just plausible, but absolutely accurate is something that makes immediate sense. There is an important literary tradition for it, and we can all understand why it would be important. Semprun’s work engages an audience because he needs an interlocutor, he needs to talk to someone. In a similar vein, Binet discusses his work with us, but also with people in his life. The whole book is unstable. Chapters in the novel that discuss events in the past are followed by chapters discussing the use of metaphors in the very preceding chapter. Binet is obsessed with not describing anything that he can’t verify or source. The main question is: can I know this? And just like that, Binet replaces the discussion about “unsayable” things, with a discussion about “unknowable” things, which is an interesting shift and certainly worth discussing, but at the same time, one can’t help but think that the whole of HHhH is really not about the Shoah or Heydrich or Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, but about Mr. Laurent Binet. Semprun had a character say, insistently, when offering a reason for offering testimony: “il faut que je parle au nom des choses qui sont arrivées pas au mon nom personnel”. This is, really, what we expect a good book on the topic to do, but Binet turns this around in what left more than just a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

hhhh-by-laurent-binet-485-pThe important thing, for him, is to write a good book, and an original book, as well. There is a bit of Mean Girls attitude to Binet’s continuous discussion of other books in the genre. He keeps reassuring himself. Reading the novel by Alan Burgess, Binet is relieved to discover that “il n’a pas écrit le livre que je veux écrire”, reading a book by David Chacko, Binet declares him a “tricheur habile”, an able cheater, a title Chacko apparently earns for being a novelist. The strangest moment however is reserved for Jonathan Littel. Binet writes on Littel: “J’avoue que sa documentation est supérieure à la mienne. Mais si c’est du bluff, cela fragilise toute l’oeuvre.” So what is the “bluff” that fragilizes Littel’s book? It’s a statement about a historical character driving an Opel. Binet offers his question: can I know this? And without offering any kind of basis for his doubts or facts to the contrary, he goes on to declare this a bluff. This thing goes on for three pages, there is a whole (short) chapter devoted to the possibility of him being discouraged by the publication of Littel’s book. Boo. This serves no purpose but to flatter Binet, who, near the end of the book, has the stones to offer, as a justification for writing his book, the fact that the assailants Gabčík and Kubiš were not able to convince themselves that their actions served a higher purpose: “J’écris peut-être ce livre pour leur fair comprendre qu’ils se trompent.” There is no “au nom de choses” here, no pretense even of caring about the facts. There are plenty of these odd tone deaf moments where Binet inserts himself in the moral framework of the novel as well as the narrative. Like one, roughly 80 pages into the book where he recounts troubling events from his personal life that involve him not being invited to a wedding and his girlfriend being pissed at him, you know, IMPORTANT STUFF, and muses whether this was how Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a Soviet general, felt when he was defeated by the Polish army in 1920.

„Je me demande s’il a cru qu’il était cuit, fini, lessivé, s’il a maudit le sort, l’adversité, ceux qui l’ont trahi, ou s’il s’est maudit lui-même. En tout cas, je sais qu’il a rebondi. C’est encourageant, même si c’était pour se faire écraser quinze ans plus tard par son pire ennemi. La roue tourne, c’est ce que je me dis. Natacha ne rappelle pas. Je suis en 1920, devant les murailles tremblantes de Varsovie, et à mes pieds s’écoule, indifférente, la Vistule.“

Mind you, Tukhachevsky was a brutal murderer and ended up being murdered by Stalin, but it’s really not that different from your girlfriend giving you the stinkeye, right? Right?

DSC_0594There is an unpleasantly defensive three page excursus about how Binet can write well about Prague because he has no chip on his shoulder like exiled writers, so he’s free to imagine whatever, like, in his case, Prague, the city „vers où tout mon être aspire“. The inspiration for this chapter is an interview by Marjane Satrapi who points out that for herself and for exiled writers like Kundera, home is the place that rings most true in their writing, and the parisian novelist Binet makes sure no-one would suspect him of being in any way indebted to the place he lives in and comes from even though half the book is about the author’s work in the present tense (not clear, some link word is missing, I think). I’m sorry if I sound snarky or mean, but it’s just so hard to discuss this book. The project is commendable, a lot of its concerns of it are, as well, and I do understand the difference between being a survivor and someone born many decades after the war. Binet is right to be uneasy about writing about things he did not experience and thus preferring to cling to the facts. But he ends up too defensive and too tone deaf and too self-congratulatory. The book as a whole is horribly bloated and undisciplined, which is not helped by the fact that the author is no master of prose.

HHhH 6I want to close this review by recommending a third book that touches on the topic: it’s Écorces by Georges Didi-Huberman. Didi-Huberman’s books are books about observing the world, about making sense of smaller parts of it aesthetically and morally. He wrote an utterly amazing book about ballet, and several books that touch on the Shoah. Écorces is a series of observations centered on objects that he himself photographed on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2011. It’s a short book, but I feel that Didi-Huberman managed to succeed where Binet failed: writing persuasively and selflessly about being so far removed from the events he is attempting to write about yet attempting to still write about them. What’s more, Didi-Huberman is a fantastic writer of lean, precise, luminous prose. Yes, Écorces is about the person Didi-Huberman who walked through what’s left of that horrible place, but he clearly talks to us about – to use the earlier Semprun quote – „au nom des choses qui sont arrivées”. Didi-Huberman values the silence that allows us to remember. To quote Shoshana Felman: „the Holocaust [is] the very figure of a silence […] which our very efforts at remembering […] only reenact and keep repeating, but which a certain silent mode of testimony can translate and thus make us remember”. Of the three books that this review has discussed, only Écorces really offers the space and thoughfulness for remembrance, the opportunity to let history and our moral understanding of it fill the darkness of memory. Littel’s loudness is just as shocking as Binet’s effete ponderousness is annoying, but Didi-Huberman finds the right notes to make history sing. His project, however, is also much, much smaller in scope, and there is someting to be said for loud, powerful statements as well. The mere fact that all three books are vocal and upfront about the problems inherent in writing about atrocity is encouraging. And all three books are well worth reading, though for different reasons.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)