Discussed in this essay:
• Soul of Wood, Jakov Lind (trans. Ralph Manheim). NYRB Classics. $14.95. 208 pp.
• Landscape in Concrete, Jakov Lind (trans. Ralph Manheim). Open Letter. $12.95. 190 pp.
• Ergo, Jakov Lind (trans. Ralph Manheim). Open Letter. $13.95. 150 pp.
When Jakov Lind died in 2007, The Guardian hailed him as a writer who was a consummate survivor, an odd, sort-of Jew who had lived through the peak of Nazi power “inside the lion’s mouth” where he did not “have to feel the animal’s teeth and claws.” The author wrote some decidedly odd books, books that his publisher once said “never made a profit,” though “it was an honor to publish him,” and when he died he left behind a brilliant body of work that was largely out of print. Thanks to the efforts of an enthusiastic few, this work, translated by the legendary Ralph Manheim, is now experiencing a resurrection.
Lind is not only a major post-Holocaust writer; he is also a modernist of extraordinary talent and vision. His writing shows an intriguing, Beckettian dissolution of reason, and it owes a clear debt to the absurdists, whose themes of obsession and the perversion of reality closely resemble Lind’s work. Born in Vienna a decade before the Anschluss, Lind also owes something also to the Austro-Jewish literary tradition exemplified by Stefan Zweig—there’s a humanist regard that colors his work and tinges his cynicism with a smirking regret. This sort of weeping giddiness characterizes all of Lind’s writing, from his excellent dramatic efforts like The Silver Foxes Are Dead to his short stories and his extraordinary dark novels.
Originally published in 1962, Soul of Wood (Eine Seele aus Holz) is quite simply one of the finest short story collections I have ever read. In keeping with their extraordinary good taste, New York Review Books is reissuing it in November 2009.
Holocaust themes pervade Soul of Wood; fittingly, the title story satirizes the SS rank and file, and characterizes them as opportunists without ideals of any kind. In this story, Wohlbrecht, a disabled veteran of the first World War, must find refuge for Anton Barth, the paraplegic and mute son of his Jewish employers. Once safely away, Barth is largely forgotten (though he undergoes an extraordinary transformation), and Wohlbrecht is locked away in an institution by an extortionate local SA official. When the Reich falls, however, every Nazi in town needs Barth—or rather, they need him as an exculpating “proof” of their rescue of a Jew. This sudden change in human value is characteristic of several stories in this collection—evidence apparently of the unpredictability of human behavior and self-interest.
Another outstanding story from this collection, “Journey through the Night,” concerns two men in a train compartment: a mad cannibal and his prospective victim-meal. That this is a comic story about how to value life becomes obvious, but what feels even more true is how the story shows that nothing in life is actually very funny. (Incidentally, cannibalism, Lind’s tongue-in-cheek metaphor for human relations, appears often in these beautiful stories.) “All is vanity,” Lind writes in this tale reminiscent of Witold Gombrowicz. “You’ve got to die, only you don’t want to. You don’t have to live, but you want to. Only necessary things are important. Big fish eat little ones, the lark eats the worm and yet how sweetly he sings. . .” For Lind, the Holocaust wasn’t about the Nazis killing the Jews. It wasn’t about personal persecution at all. It was people madly slaughtering other people and, in the process, teaching them to love life.
Lind’s preoccupation with the basic human morality of the Nazis continues in his 1963 novel, Landscape in Concrete (Landshafte in Beton). Reprinted last March by the excellent Open Letter Books, Landscape tells the story of Gauthier Bachmann, a man of such ambiguous morality and obvious insanity that he could only be a soldier. Declared psychologically unfit for duty, Bachmann roams the Reich’s conquered territories desperate to prove to himself two things: first of all, that he is a man, and secondly, that he is a brave one. Not only is this robust and prototypically Aryan giant insane, he is a coward, clinging to ideals of Manhood and Fatherland that he can never hope to fulfill. But here Lind’s basic humanism arises again—cruelly abused by a legion of venal and self-interested monsters from Voroshenko to Norway, Bachmann’s confused and hopeless pursuit of Life and Love is the only thing left to admire in a world gone to the dogs.
Reading Lind, it becomes clear that he—like so many of his fellow Jews—never recovered from the Shoah that he somehow missed; his books are stuffed with the madness of that time, of hiding in plain sight, of those dark circumstances. Somewhere in life’s meaninglessness, through LSD and hashish and stunningly good humor, Lind tried to find some structure, something beneath the insanity to cling to and make real. He found logic, because logic exists even divorced from reason. It’s from this bizarre worldview, from this confusion of ideas, that Lind wrote some of his best work.
Such sublime confusion is readily apparent in Lind’s masterpiece, Ergo (Ein Bessere Welt), a story of two middle-aged men matching questionable wits across an abyss of misunderstanding and madness. Originally published in 1966 and slated for reprint in January by Open Letter, Ergo tells the story of Roman Wacholder, who lives in a customs house overflowing with three tons of paper and in the company of two men. The first, Aslan, is deferential and sweet and devotes his time to filling the paper with the words of others:
“Wacholder: Leo, is Aslan Goethe? I’ve known him a long time, and this is the first I’ve heard of it.
Leo: You didn’t know? I’m amazed. Aslan has lots of pseudonyms . . . Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Heine . . . he wrote them all.”
A second “housemate,” Leo, is a philosopher who spends his days elaborating on his Placental Theory of Existence, an idea that’s perhaps best described here:
“It began as a pseudoquestion with Spinozist propositions. It started out scientifically, perhaps to avert suspicion, and gradually became its own principle. The principle was termed: the rediscovery of sense without nonsense.”
The three occupy themselves with two pursuits: the use and abuse of their inexhaustible supply of blank paper—what seems today an apt indictment of the publishing industry—and the attempted existential destruction of Ossias Würz, a childhood friend of Wacholder’s who lives with his wife, his two sons, and his personal obsessions in a hermetically sealed home.
Though this sufficiently outlines the plot, this is not a book about its plot. It is with Ergo that Lind truly matures as an artist and writer: he departs from the basic novel form, he abandons literary norms, and he embraces still experimental minimalist techniques. In Ergo, Lind finally lets his formidable imagination run wild through existentialist thought, endowing his characters with perverse nightmares and a sexuality only occasionally hinted at. In the antagonistic relationship between two old men, Lind finds two mad extremes, and he fills in every point in between with a bizarre cast of philosopher-bums, filthy-minded teenage prostitutes, and incorruptible government ministers. Moreover, Lind finds his genius.
There is still much to reclaim and revive from Lind’s out-of-print body of work—notably, a novel in letters titled The Inventor; another short fiction collection called The Stove; The Silver Foxes Are Dead (a wonderfully grim collection of short plays); and two volumes of autobiography. That these works go unread is criminal. In a time when Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum is seeing a revival in an inspired new translation by Breon Mitchell, and when other lost post-Holocaust literature is reemerging (for example, the recently published, gorgeous Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada), there is no better time for the reading public to reengage with this scarred, deeply alone survivor of tumultuous times. A writer who blended the deranged freedom of the 1960s and the death of reason in the 1940s into an extraordinary understanding of humanity in all its hopeful and idealistic depravity, Jakov Lind wrote the kind of books that are not to be missed. Certainly not this time around, and if justice and good taste aren’t too foreign to us still, these new editions of Jakov Lind’s work will not be lost again.
Jeff Waxman is a bookseller with the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago and the editor of their webzine, The Front Table. His book reviews appear regularly in Three Percent and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and just as often elsewhere.
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