The Emigrants – W. G. Sebald (German)
Not fiction, not history, not memoir, though all these forms coexist. Sebald tells the stories of four Jews who left Germany during Hitler’s reign: an elementary schoolteacher (the author was one of his students); a doctor from whom Sebald rents a house; Sebald’s great-uncle, who was valet and traveling companion to a wealthy young man; and a painter Sebald strikes up a friendship with. There’s not always a straight narrative; sometimes Sebald writes about himself, and sometimes, in writing about one of these men, another character takes over (such as the mother of the painter, whose memories make up a section of the book). The author and the painter approach their subject matter in ways that are much alike. Sebald watches as Ferber “constantly erases, smudges, overdraws, as if his goal is to reduce his picture to dust.” Sebald covers hundreds of pages with his “scribble,” of which the greater part is crossed out, obliterated by additions or discarded. The results in both cases are also similar. Of a Ferber portrait: “. . . an onlooker might well feel that it had evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.” What emerges from the disparate events and emotions of The Emigrants is a muted mood of melancholy. Though none of his characters were subjected to life in concentration camps, they were affected psychologically by the holocaust (three commit suicide). Sebald puts forth an overlooked fact: some German Jews believed – before their worlds came tumbling down – that Germany was their homeland; the mother’s account of her youth in the village of Steinach is almost idyllic. The translator, Michael Hulse, deserves praise for giving us prose that is well-nigh perfect in its fluency. The grainy black and white photographs add a documentary touch: these people lived.
A Kid for Two Farthings – Wolf Mankowitz
To write an endearing novel you need a young, appealing main character and a cast of benevolent adults. You must make everything true to real life, but any problems should be offset by a lightness of spirit. Lastly, you can’t be caught trying to be endearing. Mankowitz covers all the bases. Joe is six, and lives in the Jewish section of East London (a colorful, teeming world). The kid of the title is a goat with one underdeveloped horn; Joe buys him thinking he’s a unicorn. He gets his extravagant ideas from an old tailor named Mr. Kandinsky, who owns the house where Joe and his mother live (the father is in Africa, possibly trying to start up a business). Mr. K tells Joe that a unicorn’s horn can grant any wish. Joe has four: that the women at the milliners shop where his mother works will be able to gossip (that one was wasted!); that Mr. K gets the patent presser he needs for his business; that Schmule, Kandinsky’s assistant and a wrestler, will win his match with the dreaded Python; and that Joe and his mother would be reunited with his father. At the end the first three wishes have come true; of the fourth, his mother says that they would never go to Africa, but that his father would come back soon. Then she adds that she needs to see about Joe starting school because he “was growing up knowing nothing about life.” She’s wrong there. Though Joe lives in the imaginative world of a child, he’s perceptive enough to learn much about human nature. Example: When the mother tells Mr. Kandinsky that she’s no longer pretty he clears his throat (which means, to Joe, that he was going to say something important): “You are pretty as long as someone loves you, Rebecca, and so many love you that believe me you are very pretty. Look at me. I am ugly, and old, but even I am pretty when somebody loves me.”
The Cat – Georges Simenon (French)
Simenon was in his mid-sixties when he wrote about two elderly people who marry after their spouses die and soon become engaged in a cat and parrot game of mutual hate. The “master of the psychological novel” (Newsweek) is on shaky ground concerning the motivations of his characters. But when he wanders away from his plot machinations something valuable is to be found. The story is told from the perspective of Emile, a man in his seventies whose existence is aimless and empty. The strife with his wife gives purpose to his days; thus he needs Marguerite and she – for the same reason – needs him. For a short while he leaves her to live as a roomer of an amiable barmaid; this interlude is the most interesting part of the novel, for we’re free of the nonsense about Emile’s cat and Marguerite’s parrot. Yet he returns to his wife, on the same contentious basis as before; hate is as strong a bond as love, though it doesn’t alleviate loneliness. Emile isn’t a thinker, but he’s a feeling man. His memories of his first marriage, which was a happy one, have impact; they quietly evoke a lost world, a lost woman, a lost man. The conflict with Marguerite is ugly and depressing; Emile’s unsolvable predicament is depressing too, but in a moving way. When Simenon gives us this lonely man walking the streets, doing small tasks, drinking too much, trying to fill his days, he had his real subject, which was a grim depiction of aging. I wonder if he knew it.