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Category Archive for 'G – H'

Focusing on elderly teacher Elsa Weiss and her life story, Israeli author Michal Ben-Naftali develops the character of this teacher in Israel into a stunning novel about aspects of the Holocaust and its effects unlike any other that I have read in my many years of reviewing. This novel has surprises on every page, differing from most other “Holocaust novels” in that it does not follow the customary pattern of presenting innocent victims, the horrors they face from the Nazis, their crises, and the new lives developed in the aftermath of the war. Instead, author Michal Ben-Naftali presents in Elsa Weiss, a woman who has hidden her personal details and personality throughout the Holocaust and even afterward, a woman who has become virtually anonymous, someone whose life feels peripheral to the horrors of the 1940s, someone who survives the wartime savagery in part because she blends in. Dramatic and thought-provoking, this novel abandons the traditional visions of Holocaust survivors and their stories, presenting Elsa Weiss in a series of seemingly hopeless situations from which she believes she can escape and does. The aftereffects of her survival on her values and sense of identity, however, show her spending the remainder of her life trying on some level to erase her naive decisions and to atone for her mistakes.

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Author Deborah Levy’s unique and hypnotic character study opens with Saul Adler, a twenty-eight-year-old British historian writing a lecture on “the psychology of male tyrants,” in which he describes the way Stalin flirted with women. It is September, 1988, and in three days Saul will travel from London to East Germany, the GDR, to “research the cultural opposition to the rise of fascism in the 1930s at Humboldt University.” He will leave behind his photographer girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, who is just beginning to be recognized for her artistic photography and is about to have a show in London. Saul will live in a divided country which has only recently allowed albums by the Beatles and Bob Dylan to be released there, the lyrics having been studied by officials and finally cleared of accusations of “cultural corruption.” It is Jennifer’s idea to re-shoot the iconic Beatles photograph of Abbey Road by showing Saul himself crossing Abbey Road, so he can give a copy of it as a present to Luna, the Beatles-fan-sister of Walter Muller, who will be his translator in East Germany. When, during the photo shoot, he is grazed by a car, smashing its outside mirror, he barely avoids catastrophe. Subsequent sections are set in Berlin in 1988 and in London again in 2016, as Saul is forced to examine his previously unexamined life, from which he learns much about reality and man’s place in the world.

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Eric Vuillard’s latest prizewinner opens with the secret arrival of twenty-four wealthy industrialists at the Berlin palace of the President of the Assembly in 1933. When asked by Hermann Goering to donate to the Nazi cause, they do so without hesitation. The Nazi movement grows. Four years later, Hitler is on the verge of entering Austria and taking over. Surprising details emerge throughout this short work which shows how Hitler, an ordinary person with an unalterable goal, could affect the lives of so many other ordinary people through persuasion, fear, and raw power. Guilt, innocence, and ignorance get the full treatment here as Eric Vuillard brings life to the years leading up to the Second World War, and readers will be astonished by the breadth and depth of history which this author achieves within this very compressed work.

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Set in Berlin and Tokyo in the 1930s, Swiss author Christian Kracht’s latest novel offers an unusual fictional vision of the prewar years in Germany and Japan – one in which the primary focus of the author – and ultimately of his two main characters – is not that of reality as much as it is of cinema: Life and the future can be controlled in a film, even if they can not be controlled in real life. Emil Nageli, a young Swiss film director nearing his thirtieth birthday, has been in Berlin talking with the Reich Minister, who believes that a well-made horror film – “an allegory, if you like, of the coming dread” – would attract much attention, even in America. He also wants to involve the Japanese, however, since he believes that they “will sooner or later subdue the Asian continent.” Masahiko Amakasu, a Japanese film maker and admirer of Nageli, hopes to establish a relationship with the Germans. Amakasu, too, envisions film changing the world, hoping that a Japanese film will “counteract the seeming omnipotence of American cultural imperialism.” A thin plot connects some well developed characters as real characters mix with fictional characters and the action fades to a conclusion.

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A caveat. I almost did not read this book. Our current political situation and all the anger generated daily in the news and on TV had me longing for something fun and funny to read, something to break the monotony of our nasty political reality. I started it, however, and as I became involved with the very real – and very naïve – main characters as they faced the terrifying, life-changing situations of World War II in Germany, I found myself emerging from the stupor of TV reality into a much bigger, more comprehensive world view. The subject matter is harrowing, but this sensitively written book generates so much empathy for its very human main characters as they come to terms with who they are, where they are, and how they must cope with a war they know is already lost, that I was able to escape the pettiness of the latest news cycle and appreciate the confidence with which the author develops big ideas for a world audience. Ultimately, I felt the much-needed thrill of having read something that was sadly enlightening and presented on a level way beyond anything I could have imagined if I had looked for something “fun.”

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