A few weeks ago, someone recommended the book Spectral Evidence to me, which, among other things, includes World War II photos from the Łódź Ghetto, the Nazis’ Jewish quarter in this major Polish city. I wrote the book title down on the front page of the novel manuscript I am revising, Countries of Lost Things. I have been eschewing thoughts for this blog in order to focus on said revisions. But wait, sometimes a stray thought (yes, a moment of procrastination) starts off a journey through familiar territory, but offers new sights, sites, and insights.
Library Journal writes of the book, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma:
Traumatic memory, like the camera, freezes the moment and removes it from the forward motion of linear time. Instead of sensational images, as the title might suggest, Baer uses seemingly commonplace photographs to illustrate his ideas, thus placing the viewer in the role of witness instead of innocent onlooker.
The book indeed looked interesting. And, its author, Ulrich Baer, previously edited an earlier book with a title that demanded my pursuit, No One Bears Witness for the Witness: The Culture of Memory and Historical Responsibility after the Shoah. Amazon, despite offering up the title, showed nothing for the book. Same result on google. Hmmm. But—
Google proffered other interesting results. Baer’s ghost anthology, on memory, trauma, the Holocaust, took me to a professor I knew from graduate school, Jared Stark, whose recent publications include “Suicide After Auschwitz” in The Yale Journal of Criticism and “After the Witness,” on Holocaust testimonies at Yale (co-authored with Michael Rothberg) in the journal History and Memory.
Back in the late ‘90s (god that now sounds distant), Professor Stark, then teaching at NYU, had somehow heard that I was writing a thesis on suicide and suicide narratives, also at NYU. Professor Stark, co-author of the haunting book No Common Place: The Holocaust Testimony of Alina Bacall-Zwirn, was teaching a class on suicide narratives and asked me to guest lecture. I did. The students’ responses suggested I had interesting things to say. But I felt like a fraud. Why? I wonder now. And yet, somewhere inside I know.
There I sat, speaking of suicide and survivors’ grief as something abstract, even though I was, in part, speaking of my own experience with the subject, even though I read from a memoir portion included in said thesis, recounting parts of my father’s experience, his death and its aftermath. I spoke of emotion. It is likely the narrative I shared even conveyed emotion. But I did not show emotion. At least this is how I remember it now.
It was so difficult to speak of—suicide. Still, it is.
And yet I do it with frequency, with ease.
Back to the current coincidence trail. Jared Stark, still teaching, still publishing, while I nested (married) and hatched (two children, and various writings), had also translated a book with an intriguing title, The Era of Witness, by Annette Wieviorka, a French Holocaust historian. (There’s that word witness again. By now it must be quite apparent how taken I am with the importance of the witness role, with trauma, with the Holocaust, all subjects deeply connected to questions of memory. Memory itself is essential on both an individual level and a historical one. And memory only exists because of a witness; history too. Both necessitate some form of participation, whether as audience—viewer—or as an actor.)
Wieviorka, I saw, had written another book, Auschwitz Explained to My Child.
Circling the same themes. Wieviorka’s daughter, the interlocutor of the book, was thirteen. My son is just turning six. Vast differences in emotional and intellectual maturity span the distance between them. And yet here was the other project on my mind, How Did Dziadek Get Around the Bombs, the result of the interviews my son J and I undertook with his grandfather.
Back to Countries of Lost Things, the narrative I set out to plunge into as Spectral Evidence lured me away. Thinking of a character’s loss (David in Countries of Lost Things), thinking of a Holocaust survivor (Miriam, his mother) and suicide (a recurring spectre in the book), I had somehow stumbled across these same themes in a literary cyber-world; my own memories intertwined with them. Echoing questions: How does one bear witness? How do we remember, as individuals? How does history grasp, hold, contain and extend the past?—a too-simple word standing in for events and memory…. Memory is so much larger than its parts.
Wieviorka’s thirteen-year-old daughter saw the blue number etched onto her mother’s friend’s arm. In an instant, something new sunk in. In an instant, so much became unclear and incomprehensible. There are events, when we try to explain, they become all the more inexplicable.
And yet we continue to try. We must. And in the trying, we understand the circle of understanding, in which what we understand is that some things cannot be understood and yet we must understand.
When J’s grandfather gets back from Poland, I told myself, we will do another interview. And then he became ill. Some time passes; and now he is feeling better. I am reminded: our expectations rest on such frailty.
Memory starts as something minute and individual. Private, easily inconsequential. And yet memory forms what was, and what was forms memory. We need it to survive.
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On my bookshelf…
~ Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s new memoir about her daughter’s illness and death, mortality and grief, picking up threads from her wonderful previous memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about her husband, John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death. Rachel Cusk writes an interesting review in The Guardian. Food for thought. ▪▫▪ Cusk is working on a second memoir (this one about divorce, the first about becoming a mother), an excerpt from which was published in Granta this spring and written about here. ~
~ Blueprints for Building Better Girls, the new collection of linked stories by Elissa Schappell (author of Use Me, a collection of stories I should already have read), so tightly written and convincing, a reminder of the depth of experience available in the everyday lives of girls and women, and how the everyday is exceptional. Pen Parentis hosted a wonderful reading and discussion earlier this month featuring Elissa Schappell and Greg Olear, whose new novel, Fathermucker, brought the catharsis of laughter, as it held a mirror up to the trying, often ridiculous, routines of parenthood, while promising a touching story to boot. ~
~ The Pen Parentis Literary Salon, one of my favorite events, runs regularly on the second Tuesday of the month in Lower Manhattan. Each month features a different set of writers who are also parents. The events are open to all, no active parenting credential required, and podcasts are available online. This is a fantastic and intimate venue with wonderful authors! ~
~ I should have marked this earlier, but I’ll at least mention it now: November 19th was the 13th International Survivors of Suicide Day. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a wonderful resource. ~
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~ Posts will continue to be irregular for a while as I try to keep my nose to the grindstone. So browse around…come back for more! ~