Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

One of the tangential bonuses to having this blog is that I feel fairly free to write up some of my more unfinished thoughts about a book. I recently wrote a review for Necessary Fiction of Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which is the latest novella published by Peirene Press.

I really enjoyed Chasing the King of Hearts – as I have enjoyed almost everything Peirene has published. But when I started to write my review, I realized that I wanted to be able to talk about the book as an example of Holocaust literature and how it resisted some of what has become stereotypical about that kind of novel. So I started to write something and I came up with this rough bunch of sentences:

There is a moment when reading the first few pages of a Holocaust novel that a kind of uneasy wariness sets in—is this going to be exciting? is it going to start to feel like a film? It’s unfortunate that graphic depictions of human misery in literature can become exciting once they start to feel familiar, like a good thriller, or once it becomes easy to sort out the bad guys from the good guys and just exactly how many characters a reader will accept for random destruction before deciding the narrative has lost all of its beauty. Do not misunderstand me, these narratives—of all genocides, of all our horrific collective failures—must be told and retold and told again, even at the risk of becoming a kind of kitsch industry for both the heroes and the martyrs. Literature reminds, literature explores, literature reveals and unveils.

But this is also why it is such a relief to experience a novel that carefully resists this drive toward a recognizable cinematic cliché and cathartic memorialization.

When I got to the final draft of the review, I realized that I had to cut these sentences out of it. Mostly because I haven’t actually read enough Holocaust literature to make this kind of claim – and those that I have read tend to do exactly what I was claiming for Chasing the King of Hearts.

I’m thinking of books like Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report or Martin Amis’s Times Arrow, Maureen Myant’s The Search and Arnost Lustig’s Lovely Green Eyes. I have not read Thomas Keannely’s Schindler’s Ark (but I have seen the film) and I’m curious to see how I might consider it – whether it might even be possible to experience it on its own, without Liam Neeson’s face popping in. A book that I might hesitantly put into the other category is Jonathan Saffran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, which struck me when I read it as using more superficial shock than meditative depth. After cutting those lines from my review and thinking about the idea some more, I am curious where I’ve gotten the notion that there are proper ways to handle novelizing the Holocaust (and other books about horrific historical events) as opposed to ways that are inherently cliché.

I’m not sure, but I will leave my half-finished thought up there –in the hopes that it might generate a little discussion and some book suggestions.

The other thing I wanted to mention when writing about Chasing the King of Hearts was how fitting it was that Peirene brought this book into English, especially as Peirene’s publisher, Meike Ziervogel, has herself written a remarkable novella, Magda (Salt Publishing, 2012) that also tells a WWII story from an extremely unique perspective – it is a short but brutal story going over parts of the life of Magda Goebbels. It is both fascinating and horrible (not just the poisoning of the children but the way Ziervogel illuminates the Nazi psychosis) and while I really admire Ziervogel’s work and research and narrative skill, I have found it a little difficult to write about the book. It’s a remarkable book – it is subtle and straightforward and resists cliché in the same way as the books I mentioned above. I found it devastating. From my own perspective as a woman and a mother, I think that Ziervogel was incredibly brave for working within such a story, for getting as close as she does to such a difficult series of events.

Ziervogel recently wrote about the experience of writing Magda and her thoughts add a nice filter through which to look at the book – I found her comment on why she chose to write the book’s most difficult scene from a specific character’s POV very interesting. As I was reading the end of Magda, I wondered whether the scene might actually have been easier to face – as a writer – from the perspective she chooses, but she adds some historical nuance to her choice that is very appropriate.

2 Responses to “Chasing the King of Hearts & Magda”

  1. Biblibio

    As someone who has read a lot of Holocaust fiction, I think there’s still something to what you wanted to say. There are many types of Holocaust novels. There was a period in which most fit a certain archetype and applied very specific tropes, but I think the current trend is exactly to view the Holocaust from different angles (Brodeck’s Report is the only one you mention that I’ve actually read, but it’s a prime example).

    If you’re looking for examples of other views, Primo Levi’s novel If Not Now, When? is actually quite interesting because Levi – himself a survivor – chose to novelize a different story. As a novel it may be somewhat flawed and lacking the immediacy and punch of Levi’s autobiographical works, but it’s interesting and well written and decidedly different.

    Israeli fiction, meanwhile, has started in recent years to unravel the impact the Holocaust had on later generations. I haven’t actually read yet what is one of the most famous examples – Our Holocaust by Amir Gutfreund – but I’ve read a couple of his other books (he’s an incredible writer) and I’ve understood that this is one of the cornerstones of post-Holocaust fiction. There are a lot of Israeli authors viewing the Holocaust through this prism, looking at how Holocaust survivors were as parents, as grandparents, as immigrants in this new country, and as a struggling, disappearing group today.

    • Michelle

      This is such a useful comment – thank you. I would very much like to read Levi’s work. I haven’t read any of it. I will get a copy of If Not Now, When.

      It is interesting that you mention the trend in Israeli fiction to unravel the impact of the Holocaust on later generations. Chasing the King of Hearts actually does do this to some extent, in the smaller and brief sections that mention Isolda’s life after the war, where she is living in Isreal, and her relationships with her granddaughters. I found these sections very moving – and curious, I wanted to know more. There are questions of language and culture, and how she will tell her story to these girls. I’ll have a look for Amir Gutfreund – thank you!

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