A heartbreak novel

An account of the Warsaw Ghetto will have you on the verge of tears; two other books are much less impressive.

Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS)
Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS)
The Nazi era and the Holocaust remain perennial and popular choices as background for fiction. And why not? These topics offer enormous dramatic opportunities, conflict between clear-cut good and evil, and settings that are historical yet not too far remote in time or distant in geography.
Some of the resulting novels, of course, have been exploitative or sentimental rubbish (I won’t name any names, but Melvin and Thane, you know who you are). Others have achieved the status of art (I will name, for one, Primo Levi). Others I suppose we have to slot in between. The three novels under review are a case in point.
In terms of horror and heartbreak, heroism and tragedy, few settings can rival the Warsaw Ghetto, the backdrop of numerous novels, films, memoirs and the like. Few individuals moreover embody this story more pointedly than Janusz Korczak, the Polish pediatrician who, reportedly despite the opportunity to save himself, accompanied the nearly 200 children from his orphanage to their annihilation in Treblinka.
Korczak, the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit (1878-1942), is hardly unknown to literature or to history. He has been featured in at least a half dozen novels, in several plays and films, in an opera. His children’s books – once enormously popular in Poland – and his diaries and other writings have been reprinted and translated for new audiences. Memorials to Korczak have been erected in Warsaw, at Treblinka and at Yad Vashem. He even has had an asteroid named after him.
A focus on Korczak thus would seem all the more daunting for an American novelist and short-story writer whose previous fictions dealt with such subjects as sports, ancient Rome, the French Revolution, and the Alaska earthquake. Even more challenging is to do so through the eyes and in the voice of a child. But against the odds, as it were, in “The Book of Aron” Jim Shepard pulls it off convincingly – and beautifully.
Our narrator is Aron Rozycki, who is around nine when the book begins and who doesn’t meet Korczak until about midway through the novel. Before that Aron has to suffer all the losses that will eventually bring him to the orphanage. Those losses, one by one, include a poor but secure family life before the Nazi invasion of Poland, then his familiar neighborhood, then his cramped quarters in the ghetto, then his family members and friends.
Aron is a scrapper and an avid member of the youthful smugglers and thieves who passed in and out of the ghetto in perpetual search for food. He’s tough and he’s vulnerable; he succeeds and he fails; he suffers horribly and he perseveres; by turns he is tenderhearted, callous and cruel; he understands much beyond his years and he is ignorant of even more. In short, he is a complex character, and compelling for all that.
Shepard creates a Janusz Korczak who is equally complex, at once saintly and foolish, clever and self-deluding, strong-minded and weak, morally upright and subject to doubts, fears, tantrums, and despair. We get no biography of Korczak. We learn little about his prewar career as an eminent writer and broadcaster, nothing of his military service; nothing of his many visits to kibbutzim in pre-state Palestine. What we get instead is Korczak in the here and now, through the eyes of a starved and confused child, and again, all the more compelling for that.
According to his acknowledgements, Shepard immersed himself in the literature of the Warsaw Ghetto. But somehow he has created characters that have a vividness that seems anything but the result of mere research.
Consider this: “It was windy and muddy and cold and everyone who was out early moved around as if fed up with his own exhaustion. Most were beggars who’d been out all night.
We stopped next to a girl with bare arms squatting in front of a little wagon carrying frozen and rotted rutabagas. A younger girl was curled up under the wagon with her feet covered in newspaper wrapped and tied into the shape of shoes. Korczak knelt next to her and put something in her hand. Both girls did everything slowly.”
Archival photos can provide the physical details; only writerly imagination provides such things as found in the first and last sentences quoted.
“The Book of Aron” is thick with horrors made all the more horrific for being witnessed and experienced by a child. Even the occasional flashes of humor have an underlying bitterness. (“My father said he would give me such a beating that it would hurt to raise my eyebrows.”) It is tempting to quote and quote from this little novel; that’s how good it is. So much of it will have you on the verge of tears. The heartbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto tends to do that. So does some art.
Alexis Landau is another American who did a fair amount of research, this time to imagine the life of an assimilated Berlin Jew during World War I and in the ensuing decade. Landau is a graduate of Vassar and has an MFA from Emerson College and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. In her debut novel, “The Empire of the Senses,” Landau happily doesn’t exhibit the usual tiresome sins of classroom-generated fiction. But she’s guilty of many others.
Landau succeeds in filling her novel with admirable period detail, with much emphasis on women’s shoes and blouses and hemlines, and with peekaboo appearances by real figures like Else Lasker-Schuler and Max Beckmann. Unfortunately, all that research effort is chiefly in the service of several hackneyed love stories. So we get a convincing picture of Lev Perlmutter’s service in World War I and his subsequent self-deluding middle-class life and unhappy mixed marriage. Of greater interest is the background, which includes the rise of fascism and the young Jews planning for kibbutz life in Palestine.
But all this pretty much gets swamped by those tortured romances involving Lev, his wife and his daughter. Oh, yes, there’s also the tortured son, who has to reconcile his fascist fervor with his homosexuality. Somebody mention clichés? Well, this is a book in which skies are often “cerulean,” and the waters “crystalline.” Let’s not even get into Landau’s hilarious dangling constructions (“Passing a gourmet butcher, a hulking ham hung in the window.”)
And how to classify “their hot baited breath”? Or consider this candidate for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award: “Suddenly, at what seemed a crucial moment, her back arched and her limbs trembled, as if she hovered over a dark precipice, and some untrammeled force swallowed her whole. After a few suspended moments – Lev watched her intently; her face contorted, her breathing grew shallow, and she made sounds that reminded him of a small wounded animal – she collapsed, turned her head to the side, and smiled. Then she whispered, somewhat ruefully, ‘Thank you.’” I noted that “The Empire of the Senses” covers about a decade. It seemed to take me that long to finish it.
The American architect Charles Belfoure’s first try at fiction, “The Paris Architect,” reads like the work of, well, an American architect. I’ll assume he has the design and structural details right.
He gets just about everything else wrong.
His story of a French architect named Lucien Bernard who sells his soul to the devil, or more precisely to the Germans occupying France, seems made up from watching too many B-grade World War II movies. Bernard, you see, redeems himself by designing hiding places for Jews.
Then there’s the good German officer, highly cultured and conscience-stricken, you know, and, well, as I said, you know.
Strangest thing in the “Paris Architect” is the many dramatic actions that seem to be of no consequence to any of the characters.
Early on, for example, Bernard’s wife leaves him because of his infidelity, and he almost never thinks of her again.
Then Bernard loses his longtime mistress, a fashion designer, to a Nazi, but no matter, Bernard takes up with his mistress’s assistant. A major munitions factory Bernard designed for the Germans is blown up by the resistance, but everyone shrugs it off. Bernard’s adopted son kills a spy, but again, nobody seems to care. Including the reader.
“The Paris Architect” has all the requisite markers of the mindless thriller: short, punchy chapters, improbable coincidences, anorexic characters. And did somebody mention clichés? How did the car engine purr? Like a kitten. How did he stop? Dead in his tracks. How clean was it? Why, as a whistle. How dark? That’s right, as pitch. At which portion of her lungs did she scream? Three times – at the top. Apparently editors are as scarce as, um, hen’s teeth.
None of this of course matters to fans of Nazi thrillers – or their publishers and marketers. That’s why architect Belfoure already has two more novels in the works. Still, my advice is: back to the drawing board.