An Empty Coffin: H. G. Adler - Souls

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays - Cynthia Ozick 2016

An Empty Coffin: H. G. Adler

Of Homer we know nothing, of Jane Austen not enough, of Kafka more and more, sometimes hour by hour; and yet Achilles and Elizabeth Bennet and Joseph K press imperially on, independent of their makers. Lasting works hardly require us to be acquainted with the lives of the masters who bore them—they have pulsing hearts of their own. Still, on occasion there emerges a tale that refuses to let go of its teller, that is unwilling, even in the name of art, to break free; or cannot. This is less a question of autobiographical influence or persuasion than of an uncanny attachment: call it a haunting, the relentlessly obsessive permeation of a book by its author. Or imagine a man condemned for the rest of his days to carry, and care for, and inconsolably preserve his own umbilical cord.

In this way The Wall, the final novel of an exilic trilogy by H. G. (Hans Günther) Adler, is inseparable from the lacerating fortunes of the writer’s life; the chronicle he gave birth to continues to claim him. It matters, then, that Adler was reared in a linguistically fraught Prague, and that like Kafka before him, he was a Jew steeped culturally in German within a society vigorously Czech. At Charles University he studied musicology, but as poet, scholar, historian, philosopher with a theological bent, and novelist above all, he subsequently encompassed far more. On February 8, 1942, three years after Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, he and his family were, as we have learned to say, deported—a Nazi palliative, with its elevated aura of Napoleon on Elba, for violent criminal abduction. He endured two and a half years in Theresienstadt, and in 1944 was sent by freight car to Auschwitz, where his physician wife and her mother were promptly gassed. His parents and sixteen relatives were similarly dispatched. Liberated in 1945, Adler returned to Prague, only to find it under rigid Soviet influence. In 1947 he escaped to London, where, buffeted by the forlorn displacements of a melancholic exile, he nevertheless completed a comprehensive and searingly definitive sociological study of Theresienstadt.

Arthur Landau, the voice and central consciousness of The Wall, traces a nearly identical trajectory, but so powerfully and strangely transfigured as to drive history into unsettling phantasmagoria. Names and habitations are veiled: Prague is “over there,” London is “the metropolis,” Jews go unmentioned, Germans and their deathly devisings the same; yet grief and terror and wounding memory beat on, unappeased. And meanwhile, in his modest new household in an unprepossessing neighborhood of the metropolis, where he lives quietly with Johanna, his sympathetic second wife, and their two children, Landau is laboring over an immense work of historiography, The Sociology of Oppressed People. He turns for support to an earlier wave of refugees from “over there,” who by now are well situated either in business or as an established intellectual cohort. At first, remembering old friendships, they rally round him with bright promises of funding, then fail to follow through, until finally he is rawly rebuffed. The scholars disdain his ideas. The entrepreneurs scoff at his elitist impracticality, and offer inferior jobs in wallpaper and artificial pearls. “Unfortunately,” he reflects, “it was too late for me. The time for refugees was past; they had all attached themselves to something or someone, and there was nothing left for foreigners… . I soon appreciated that there was one too many people in the world, and that was me. I simply couldn’t be allowed to exist.”

Existence, often as straightforwardly spoken as here, but more frequently mournfully eloquent, is the great clamor that tolls through the undulating passages of this wild-hearted novel. “I have ceased to exist,” Landau laments, “called it quits, am completely spent, the vestige of a memory of who I no longer am… . I never even rise to the level of a dubious existence, the fragile bearing of a single nature, because I am homeless in every sense, belonging nowhere, therefore expendable, never missed.” And again, in the voice of God to Adam: “You have eaten of the fruit; that cannot be undone. Your mistake is this: that you wish to exist; what’s more, that you have done so from the very beginning and forevermore. You concern yourself much too intensely with that. Your will to be is inexhaustible.”

The will to be becomes manifest in grotesque scenes and gargoyle-like figures thrown up by intimations of an elusive history of atrocity. And always an insinuating image, in the guise of a wall, stalks and oppresses Landau, now representing the unremitting ache of exile and loss, now the anguished past (although no more than a single paragraph in more than six hundred pages hints at the explicit reality of Auschwitz). Steadily encroaching, the wall is sometimes almost palpable, sometimes hidden. Even when it is absent, its influence is tormentingly theatrical, as when a pair of pallbearers come with a hearse to take Landau to be cremated. He refuses to go, though Johanna, out of courtesy, urges it, while politely inviting the pallbearers to eat dinner with the family beforehand. When the two return at a later time, promising a trip to a sociological conference, Landau agrees to sit uncomfortably on top of the empty coffin while Johanna and the children follow the hearse in a neighbor’s vegetable truck. The conference turns out to be a street fair organized in honor of Landau himself, where all his old scorners and adversaries are selling tickets to the booths and bumper cars.

So it is that fantasy alternates with panic, and panic with sardonic realism. How to classify a work so circuitously and exhaustively structured? Adler’s prose is tidal, surge after narrative surge rushing forward and then enigmatically receding, the moment displaced by memory, and memory by introspective soliloquy. In Peter Filkins’s patiently loyal rendering, all these movements of telling and withdrawal are joined by smaller eddyings in the form of participle clauses that coat Adler’s serpentine sentences with a Germanic otherness. The translator, or his publisher, has also appended a dramatis personae accompanied by a chapter-by-chapter summary. Rather than a help, these additions are a disservice, as if this majestic novel could not breathe on its own.

But it does breathe, and with a secret knowledge of untrammeled capacities. Adler has the courage of his idiosyncratic art, and though The Wall has been acclaimed a modernist masterwork, it is perversely premodern in its lavish freedom to go whither it will, and to ponder, and to linger, and to suffer felt experience to the lees. The ruined scenes of “over there” are visited again and again, the ghosts together with the remnant of the living. Landau, returned to his native city, searches for his father’s shop and finds desolation. The apparitions who are his parents (his mother is seen sewing his shroud) shun him and drive him off. His old teacher, turning on him, reports him to the authorities. He toils in a museum of the doomed, collecting the cherished properties of a vanished population: paintings of family members, masses of abandoned prayer books. He is warmly befriended by Anna, the sister of a schoolmate who, like so many others, has not returned. Wandering with Anna along once familiar mountain trails, he remembers earlier excursions with the lost wife of his youth. And then the nervous flight across the border to attain, finally, the foreign metropolis. All this in disregard of sequential chronology; instead, time’s elastic wooing, Now melting into Then, Then devouring Now.

In his richly authoritative introduction, Filkins refers to The Wall and the two novels that precede it, The Journey and Panorama, as Adler’s Shoah trilogy. “However,” he notes, “what is often most missing … is particulars.” And here is a poignant conundrum. Fifty years on, encountering a narrative frame made purposefully abstract, where cities go nameless and horrors are loosened from their history, who will have the means to recognize Landau’s wall for what it is? Or, at so increased a distance from the Europe of the last century, will Adler’s universe, lacking in identifiable specificity (Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Nuremberg Laws, Wehrmacht, SS, abductions, gassings, shootings, refugees, survivors), have fallen by then into piteous yet anodyne myth? A name is in itself a concrete history; namelessness is erasure. Even so universalized an image as hell has a name. It is called hell.