Thursday, February 11, 2010

Finishing the Trip: Lev Raphael's Germany

I knew slightly an Englishwoman once, a regular customer, who surprised me by asking if I had any recommendations for her, despite the fact that she knew I didn't read her favorites. As we talked, in explaining to me her reason for reading only contemporary romantic thrillers, of the Jayne Ann Krentz and Amanda Quick type, she summarized the pleasure of most popular genre fiction:

"All the right people die," she said.

She blushed a little at her own "bloodymindedness," and went on to say that she also enjoyed seeing virtue survive, if not triumph, that the heroine almost always found love along the way, but also a measure of self-reliance, that the hero was as likely, nowadays, to be the one needing rescue at the end, that the stories were exciting, but that the actual violence was usually antiseptic enough to be thrilling without being sickening, etc.

I pointed out that she might as easily have been describing Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho or Jane Eyre. She said she hadn't read either of those, though she remembered liking the Merle Oberon movie of the latter (-- an easy mistake I did not bother to correct, as being no great fan of the Brontes myself, I too tend to get the sisters confused.) She told me she didn't care for "the classics," though she admired people like me who did. Like most people, she'd had to read some such in school and had found them boring: the language too ornate, the plots too slow, the women too passive. She said she really wasn't much for "period details" and that "all those hoop-skirts" seemed to slow everything down too much. She said all this apologetically, but with a finality that was meant to spare us both embarrassment I suppose, but which only made the bookseller in me try harder to come up with a books and authors not likely to be already on her list. When I suggested she might really enjoy some of Daphne du Maurier's weird thrillers, or possibly some early Graham Greene, she smiled patiently and asked,

"But are the right people punished?"

My usual reasons to stop reading a book are boredom or frustration. This can take the length of a sentence or a chapter or half a book or more, but I've learned to trust my reluctance to continue. There are also books I forget to finish because too many other books have displaced them on my nightstand. I read too many books for this not to happen often. I've finished reading books I started years before. I'm sure there are a dozen unfinished by me now that I still intend someday to pick back up. Mood, mine and the book's, determines most such decisions. Having put a book down, the only reason to take it back up is because it is time.

When Lev Raphael's latest book, My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped, was announced last year, I eagerly anticipated reading it. I should explain that I have been reading Raphael since the publication of his first book of short stories, Dancing on Tisha B'av. I believe I've read everything he's written since. I met the author many years and bookstores ago, we've corresponded and recently have gotten back in touch. I can't quite claim him as a friend, but certainly an acquaintance of whom I am proud. So when his new book came into the bookstore, I bought it, straightaway, and started reading it, as I've done with all his books; fiction, mysteries, essays, memoirs, the same day. Nearly one hundred pages in, roughly half way through it, I stopped.

This wasn't a case of having been bored, or frustrated with either the writer or the book. Raphael is a consummate professional in everything he does as a writer. I've never read a less than satisfying sentence from him. From his entertaining academic mystery series, to his literary and cultural criticism, to his most complex and serious explorations of his religious and sexual identities, and the conflicts and cohesion he's found in moving through life as a gay, Jewish man, he has consistently written honestly, and interestingly. As the son of Holocaust survivors, and one of the first writers of that generation to address the unique difficulties of that experience, he has written some very important, and moving, work. I trust him, and respect him enormously, as a writer and a person.

So why then did I only just finish reading his new book, months after I started? I have finally made myself a little platform, here, from which to shout my opinion of books, among other things, into the void. I finally have a way to communicate my enthusiasms beyond the bookstore where I work. I am fond of Lev personally, and, as I mentioned above, proud to know him. My intention, from the moment I heard of this book's existence, was always to write about it here. Why haven't I until now?

It wasn't because of the Germans. The book tells the story of Raphael's first contact with Germany, as a successful writer, some of his books only recently translated to German, invited for the first time, on first one, then a second book tour in Germany. "The Germans" is a phrase that recurs throughout the book, as it continues to echo from Raphael's childhood, for obvious reasons. Nothing good could be associated with such a phrase, and for most of the author's life, nothing was. Yet, he went. The opportunity such a trip represented: to research the experience of his parents and his people, to explore his own feelings about Germany, and even the German language, to experience for himself, for instance, what it would mean to stand, with Germans, at the very spot where his mother had been a slave, I understood immediately, beginning the book and knowing something of its author's character and curiosity, I knew he would not be able to let such an opportunity pass. What's more, this book, and the journey it records, I knew, would in some ways be the culmination of a story he started telling me, as a reader, almost twenty years ago. That has its own satisfactions for me, as a reader, and as someone who has come to wish Raphael every happiness and success. I knew before I'd finished the first chapter, that this author was meant to write this book. What's more, I knew, not just from the title, but from my previous reading and experience of the author, that whatever actually happened when he came to Germany, and to know something of "The Germans" for himself, Lev's honesty, his gifts as a writer, and his capacity to be, as Isherwood was, for example, before him, both an observer and a participant in the narrative, would make the reading of this book among the most satisfying of all my experience of Raphael's writing. I was not wrong. It is a beautiful book.

His tone is, as always, measured, perfectly modulated, controlled. Raphael has always been a very careful writer. His style, particularly when dealing as directly as this with his own story, is reassuringly sensitive; he seldom confronts the reader directly, never preaches, never indulges emotion without questioning its actual, or at least exploring its potential, source. For a man who has made much of his personal life and history an open book for two decades, there is always an admirable modesty, what could even be characterized as reserve, to his best writing. He respects the sympathetic contract between reader and writer, never demands attention to himself, but rather invites an almost indelicate intimacy, without, somehow, ever embarrassing himself or the reader. It is no easy thing to write this personally, even revealingly, without either pandering or playing too much the hero. He does neither, and yet reading this book, one never has the sense that Raphael is anything less than in it. He is never superior to his own experience. He is never cold. To read My Germany: A Jewish Writer's Return to the World His Parents Escaped, is to be there, with him.

That, I think, is why I stopped. That may be why, having put the book down half way through, never intending not to go on, I let months pass before I picked it up again. I stopped, I think, because I knew what his father would say.

By the time described in this book, the painful decline of Raphael's brilliant, difficult mother, is already nearing its sad end. In researching and reclaiming something of the time his parents had taken from them, the past they never escaped, the horrors they experienced and seldom talked about, or rather spoke of only in bitter, cryptically familiar injunctions against all things German, or with a mournful terseness meant to spare their son something of their own despair and resentment, Raphael's personal writing has always been, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the particulars of his immediate subject, about continuing and extending the conversation he was never allowed to have with his parents. Now, as his mother fades further away from him and finally leaves him entirely, and his father continues in a kind of silence both obstinately, and even lovingly protective and maddeningly unsatisfactory, the writer, in going to Germany, to the place from which the brutality and inhumanity that silenced his family came, clearly anticipates not only an opportunity to speak for himself, and his parents, and the dead, but also to this absence. Germany then, for a man of Raphael's experience, is not simply a place, or even history, but the void. As the reader approaches this with him, the writer is always careful not to look away, and not to abandon the reader, but I found, the closer he drew me with him to the edge, that I was not willing to go.

What Raphael found in Germany, and in "The Germans," of course was not what his parents had known. His hosts were uniformly kind and enthusiastic. Much that he saw of the modern Germany, and some of the old, was beautiful. Even the food was good. (Just as a rather shallow aside, I did wonder that he seemed never to have encountered a single, sexy man in his travels, German or fellow tourist, or that he at least -- always discreet -- never made more of the gay boys he saw there. Quite beside the point, I suppose, but still.) What the writer did find in Germany was an engaged and enthusiastic new public for his writing, keen and attentive audiences for his readings, and an interesting and unexpectedly warm appreciation not only for his work, but a surprising sense of personal appreciation for the language, the place and the people. He also found much that put him in better touch, as I've already mentioned, with, as he put it, "the world his parents escaped."

The sadness for me at the heart of this book, the probably unanswerable ache that I think made me not want to finish reading it until today, is that even by now having answered so many of the questions he has had about his parents experience, and his own experience of his parents, so shaped, as we all are, by the people our parents were before we ever come to know them, for Lev Raphael, and perhaps for all of us, there will never be the answer back, no matter how close we come, how far we travel, or how careful and respectful we are in the asking. I know what his father has said, and what he hasn't, about the war, about the genocide, about "The Germans," and what Lev's mother said and wrote, and didn't, because he has shared all this. But there is no possible response perhaps, other than what Raphael has done in this book, to "I don't remember." Lev Raphael has written as far past that denial as he possibly can. What he has found has been fascinating, but also heartbreaking in its incompleteness. That he has survived himself such a silence, that he has given voice to not only his own experience, but that of a generation, as well as become someone I trust to speak to me honestly, about not only what we have in common but all that we do not, makes him a truly remarkable writer, and a man. I should have trusted him to take me safely through. I hesitated. I stopped. He waited for me. In this book, now I've found the courage to finish it, I know even what isn't said is survivable. I am grateful for the writer's generosity, more now than ever, but more than this, I'm grateful for his survival. Now I've finally read the book, I am grateful he went. I am the better for his going, and taking me, however reluctantly, with him.

In answer then to the reader of all those contemporary romantic thrillers, no. In the best books, the right people do not always die, the right people are not always punished, virtue not only does not always triumph, but sometimes, all too often, does not even survive. Sometimes it does. Love as well, though not always in recognizable or satisfactory ways. We must take what we find, I think, of that, and make the best we can of it. That is how we survive, don't you think? I completely understand why we would wish things to be otherwise, why we might avoid stories that remind us that this is so, but what the best books do is not avoid life, or death, or make either more easily, or more antiseptically palatable or harmless, but felt. Reading, like life, is worth whatever it costs us. Be brave.


  1. Thank you.

    This review, your story, is as rich and complex and touching as Lev's original.

  2. Brad, I've never read such a richly described account about a book that one does not finish. Very nice. I also liked the personal aside you tossed in there :) Be well. CB

  3. Beautiful commentary. Any book that can move us is a wonderful book. If it can move us to write about it so lovingly, even moreso.

  4. But, Charles, I did finish it! Did you not finish this piece? Love.

    Thank you, David, moreso.

  5. As one with several "stalled" books on my nightstand, at least two from favorite authors, I admire your clear understanding of why you needed a time out from Lev's book. Your personal connection must have added an unusual dimension to the anxiety that such a journey, made by Lev's side and in company with known and unknown ghosts from the past, might possibly end in tragedy at the bottom of cliff you stepped off of together. Your description of coming out safely on the other side with your newfound knowledge of your good acquaintance is a gorgeous tribute to the bond we make with each exceptional author we choose to read. Take us there; but bring us back. Not unmarked, but whole so that we might journey again.

  6. Now why is it, my anonymous friend, you could say that so much more succinctly than I could?