Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander

HOPE: A TRAGEDY opens with Solomon Kugel hearing strange sounds in the attic of the farmhouse he and his wife have recently bought after moving from Brooklyn to the small, rural community of Stockton. Fearing that the scratching sounds he hears in the attic are mice, Kugel goes to investigate. Much to his surprise, he discovers that the ‘scratching’ is in fact typing, and that the typist is an elderly woman who lives in the attic. Rather more surprising is the fact that the elderly woman is Anne Frank, previously, and famously, thought to have perished in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, but who has instead spent her entire life hiding out in attics.
  Being Jewish, Kugel finds himself in a bind. The tattoo on her arm confirms that the woman is indeed a Holocaust survivor, even if she isn’t Anne Frank. Will Kugel be the man to be identified as the Jew who threw a survivor out of his house? And what if the woman really is Anne Frank?
  HOPE: A TRAGEDY has been compared to a wide variety of Jewish writers, including Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but for me the novel was very much in the same vein as Kurt Vonnegut’s work, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.
  Auslander very elegantly, and hilariously, presents the reader with an impossible scenario, that of a man discovering that Anne Frank is alive and well in his farmhouse attic, and working on a novel which she hopes will trump the thirty-two million sales of The Diary of Anne Frank.
  For some, such a scenario may prove too irreverent, especially as it’s the case that Auslander has his characters engage with the Holocaust, and the entirety of Jewish persecution, in a way that few writers would have the courage to do. Essentially, Auslander is questioning the sacred cow of Jewish suffering, and asking tough questions about a culture, and an industry, that has grown up around the unquestioning acceptance of the Jews’ right to claim that their suffering trumps all others’.
  It’s a very tough sell, especially as Auslander is writing in the comic style - although it’s fair to say, I think, that the humour is of a very black pitch. For example, the first chapter is something of a very short prologue, about a man suffocating to death in a house fire. Chapter Two then opens with: ‘Solomon Kugel was lying in bed, thinking about suffocating to death in a house fire, because he was an optimist … Hope, said Professor Jove, was Solomon Kugel’s greatest failing.’
  But Auslander is being quite clever, I think, in his subject matter. While some might object to the irreverent way in which he writes about the Holocaust, for example, Auslander never fails to provide the context of the Holocaust, and never shies away from portraying the horrors, the banality of the evil, the sheer scale of the industrialisation of the attempted murder of an entire race. In other words, Auslander gets to have it both ways, and he copes with the balance remarkably well.
  Kugel himself is a very likeable character, the classically ‘nebbish’ Jewish character who is riven with paranoia and anxiety, and who is too self-aware for his own good. Constantly second-guessing himself, his heart is in the right place - who wouldn’t, if offered the opportunity, give Anne Frank a place to live? - but this clashes with his more immediate responsibilities, to his wife and young son. He is, naturally, in therapy, although Kugel’s therapist, Dr Jove, is a rather bracing man who preaches against hope and optimism. ‘Give Up,’ says the sign in Dr Jove’s office, ‘You’ll Live Longer’.
  Around Kugel, Auslander has created a number of enthralling characters. Chief among them is Anne Frank herself, whom Auslander re-imagines as an elderly crone, shuffling around an attic as she types her never-ending novel. Anne has been poisoned against the human race, as you might imagine, given her experiences, and proves to be a fairly callous, uncaring tenant, one given to pronouncements on the Holocaust that should shrivel the soul. She is a malign, brooding presence in the Kugel attic, and one which drives a wedge between Kugel and his wife, Bree.
  Kugel’s mother is another fascinating character. Abandoned by her husband as a young woman, leaving her to rear Kugel and his sister Hannah alone, Mother is an embittered creature who has learned to foist all of her disappointments in life on the Nazis. She blames the ‘sons of bitches’ for everything, even though she was born and raised long after WWII, in relative comfort in Brooklyn. ‘Ever since the war,’ she mutters whenever something goes wrong, which leads those who don’t know her well to presume that she suffered badly during the Holocaust. For those who do know her, and particularly her family, they learn to accept her self-association with the Holocaust as one of her many quirks and foibles. From pg 107, when Kugel and Mother are talking about when it’s appropriate to tell a three-year-old boy about the Holocaust:
Reason rarely worked with Mother, so Kugel had appealed, as he often did, to her emotions. As destructive as her way of showing it may have been, Kugel believed she loved Jonah deeply, and genuinely cared, first and foremost, for his well-being.
  You’re going to scare him, Kugel said, looking deep into her eyes.
  Somebody has to, Mother replied.
  The novel is a classic novel-of-ideas, with Auslander freewheeling through a variety of concepts, exploring philosophies and putting his very idiosyncratic spin on them. For all the whimsical, irreverent humour, and its apparently ludicrous central concept, the novel has very serious things to say about the human condition, and humanity’s constant ability to generate hope and optimism despite all the evidence to the contrary. Strip away the jokes and Kugel’s self-flagellating mind-set and the story becomes a very bleak tale of the inevitability of death, and the extent to which hope is a self-deluding folly; and more, a dangerous folly, for there is no depth, the novel warns, to which humanity will not sink.
  The novel is also an exploration of the creative process, Anne Frank typing away in the Kugels’ attic being a metaphor, presumably, for Auslander’s struggle to write fiction, even as someone stalks the darkness outside, bent on burning down Kugel’s farmhouse. It is chock-a-block with literary references, from some very pointed and funny comments on Philip Roth’s superstar status in the literary establishment in New York, to throwaway mentions of Zelig, and Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, and a whole range of final utterings by famous people.
  HOPE: A TRAGEDY is a wonderful novel. The writing is wonderfully arch, the humour is brilliantly bleak, and it’s a book bursting with ideas, concepts and notions. It’s subversive, irreverent, scabrously funny and profound - in short, it represents for me everything a novel should be, raising far more questions than it provides answers for, and asking the reader to decide, in the end, if the writer is serious or not. I believe he is deadly serious about the philosophical notions in the book, and that there’s an incandescent anger about the Holocaust burning brightly between each and every line. - Declan Burke


Sheiler said...

Cool that he's got another book out. Have you ever heard his stories read on the radio show called This American Life (available online but not sure if there are licensing rules about Ireland listening to a US show). It's awesome. Can't wait to read Hope: a Tragedy.

seana said...

This sounds great, and in fact it sounds like a book that borders on some edges of Absolute Zero Cool territory. I will look for it.