I’ve just finished reading Shalom Auslander’s first novel, Hope: A Tragedy. I liked this book a lot, especially Auslander’s unique sense of humor, which is in many ways a no-holds-barred attempt to find humor regardless of any “sacred” context. The context, in this case, is the Holocaust and the figure of Anne Frank. Auslander certainly doesn’t make light of the Holocaust, nor does he disrespect Anne Frank or any of the victims or survivors. What he does do, however, is something akin to what Roth does in The Ghost Writer: create a “what if” scenario with Anne Frank–what if she had, in fact, survived?–and what that might mean to his protagonist. Whereas in Roth’s case, Zuckerman could fantasize about falling in love with Frank and, perhaps more significantly, use her to preempt any accusations of being called a self-hating Jew, Auslander uses Frank in a different way. His Anne Frank, a dying woman that resides in the attic of the book’s protagonist, Solomon Kugel, is a symbol of the burden–at times problematic, unattractive, and unwanted–that American Jews bear when it comes to the Holocaust. It’s something that’s always there, whether you want it to be or not, and passed on like an inheritance. In fact, Jews aren’t the only ones who have inherited this burden, according to the novel. The man whom Kugel bought his house from, a non-Jew of German origins, took on his share of Frank’s “maintenance.” And what’s significant about the book’s Anne Frank is that, despite what seems to be her perpetual state of dying, she nonetheless is the one to survive. (Spoiler alert.) It’s Kugel who doesn’t make it to the end of the book and who goes up in flames. At first that fact bothered me a bit. Kugel is such a memorable protagonist, and being with his so closely throughout the book, it was a bit jarring at first to see that he lost his family and his home, and that he died in the penultimate chapter. But upon reflection, I’m okay with that ending. And the way that Auslander wraps up the novel in the final chapter helps to make up for that loss. At times I wondered if perhaps Kugel wasn’t written as too paranoid, too neurotic, too passive. But I don’t think that he is. He’s assertive in his own way, although those ways seem to be when he’s inside of his own head and debating with himself (those are some of the funniest parts of the novel, when Kugel’s mind wanders and the narrative becomes one of internal dialogue and debate). What’s more, his neuroses make him the memorable character he is. Some might see this as an almost stereotypical Jewish American character, in the mold of the best from Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bruce Jay Friedman. And perhaps he is, although I prefer to see him not as a stereotype, but as type that carries on in the tradition of these earlier writers.
The novel gets its title, at least in part, from a philosophy that is interwoven throughout the book. Kugel’s therapist, Professor Jove, is a staunch believer in hope as a debilitating force. This sounds counterintuitive–after all, shouldn’t hope make life worth living, giving us something to look forward to and decide to live out the next day?–but Jove believes that hope is nothing more than an illusion that masks the reality surrounding us. Hope is what causes us to lose our taste for living, since we’re always looking beyond the present and become fixated on what could be. Hope is what compels people to commit the most heinous acts, all for the sake of a brighter future and a better world. Adolph Hitler, according to Jove, was the ultimate optimist. We never directly see Jove, his philosophy and his time with Kugel appear only in flashback, memories of the protagonist. The fact that it’s filtered through the protagonist tells us much about Kugel, whose paranoia and uncertainty propels the narrative. And Jove’s whacked out philosophy also contributes to the novel’s humor.
There is one part of the book that I think could have been developed much more and where Auslander missed an opportunity. In chapter 24, when Kugel is in town and sees a “For Rent” sign in a house window in town, he goes to see if this might be a place where he can dump this unwelcome attic guest. What happens, instead, is that no one is at home, he walks through the unlocked doors, finds the house attic, and goes up there to look around. He lays down in an out-of-the-way spot, and then falls asleep, amazed at the relatively comfort and safety he feels while being up there hidden away (much like his own Anne Frank). He awakens late afternoon to the sound of the older owners below who have just come home. When began to read this section, I thought that Auslander would make much more of it than he actually did, using this scene as a way for Kugel to not only connect to Frank, but in essence to become her. But this scenario was quickly wrapped up, with Kugel not waiting long before the elderly couple falls asleep and then he sneaks out of the house. So much more could have been done with this scene, something Beckettian–there are many references to Beckett in this novel, especially his famous “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” quote from The Unnamable. But no, Auslander just lets this scene drop into relative insignificance. Despite this narrative oversight, I still really liked the book.
Lately I’ve been wanting to read more recent examples of Jewish American writing–I haven’t done much since I wrote my essay on the short-story cycle in recent examples of Jewish Russian émigré narrative back in February–and after picking up Auslander, I’ve been of the mind to get back to that. After all, Jewish American fiction is what I cut my teeth on in graduate school and my first several years as a professor. I certainly don’t want to neglect my readings in that kind of fiction now, even though lately I’ve been focusing more attention on comics and comics scholarship. There are several books that I have lined up to read, including Thane Rosenbaum’s new novel, The Stranger within Sarah Stein (which I just started today), Nathan Englander’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank: Stories (although I also need to finally get to The Ministry of Special Cases), Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, and Adam Levin’s behemoth The Instructions and the brand new collection of stories, Hot Pink. Then there are Paul Auster novels I want to get to, and more of the Russian émigré writers. And there are others as well. So many wonderful examples that will keep me occupied for the foreseeable future.