I just finished The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. It's one of many books I've consumed concerning the murderous 30s and 40s of the last century.*
The Lost is as good as the reviews say; I wholeheartedly recommend it. It's also a source of frustration.
To my way of thinking, there's a contrived naïvete in Mendelsohn's writing. He does full justice to the importance of his subject but he indulges too much in showing his own uncertainties and the difficulties he faces in telling the story. He foreshadows overmuch and he tells us too frequently that he doesn't believe in the magical significance of coincidences as he's revealing yet another one of them. As one critical reviewer puts it the book shows a bit too much self-absorption, is a bit too dismissive about the victims apart from his six relatives, builds itself into a bit too much a bloated memoir.
Mendelsohn took Proust as a model and this was not a wise decision. As Beckett found when he came to write about Proust, the man adored making what seem to be loose-ends but are actually stylistic foreshadowings, setting off on what seem to be meaningless excursions away from his subject, and mapping these side trips into what one writer calls "clinching and resonant conclusions." Beckett did not allow his respect for Proust's writing style to keep him from mocking it. Mendelsohn seems too much to give it untempered reverence.
Beckett's Proust comes to mind because I happened recently to be reading a book about Beckett's writings. There was no forethought in this. We went to the Easter Vigil service this year and arrived early to be sure of decent seating. To pass waiting time I brought with me the smallest book that came to hand which happened to be Richard Coe's Samuel Beckett. During the wait I managed to get through most of the second chapter, "Baroque Rationalism," which is mostly about Murphy's self-annihilation.
I think the accident of this reading was fortuitous. I'd brought pocket books to Mass on other occasions when we'd arrived early and, having once before left my book behind, I tried not to forget my Coe this time. When I found I'd done so, I thought first I'd just let it go. The book had fallen to the floor of our sometimes wet basement and gotten water damaged. I said to myself I'd replace it some day, but a little checking showed that would not be easily or cheaply done. Having decided to get it back, it took two tries before I succeeded. When located at last, it was not in the usual lost and found place, but in the priests' robing room. There's something to think about: my little Beckett book in its Grove Press Evergreen Black Cat edition** and me seeking help from robing priests before Mass in order to retrieve it.
The book impressed me more this reading than it has before. Coe brings out Beckett's fascination with many sages, mystics, and above all philosophers of past millennia, for example, Arnold Geulincx, he, the man of celestial clocks, whose "ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis" Beckett quotes as a "beautiful Belgo-Latin."
And Coe also makes plain that Beckett's exploration of the metaphysical and philosophic problems associated with Murphy's contemplation of a blindingly opaque, infinite, nothingness are, to Murphy anyway, "of little interest."
The Sunday after Easter we were introduced to a newly ordained deacon, and, being new, he was empowered to give his first homily to us. He got through it just fine, but managed early on to startle a woman standing a row in front of me and a bit to the right. He used a strong image to show how the Jerusalem mob which condemned Jesus would, following his death and resurrection, come to praise and worship him. The image was out of Nietsche: "God is dead." When he uttered these words and began to explain what they meant to him the woman gasped and said something I couldn't make out. I'm pretty sure she was distressed at the deacon's misuse of the reference. Nietsche was not writing of an unthinking mob, out for blood. Nor was he exulting in the conquest of a supposed religious superstition, but rather he was declaring that the abandonment of religious beliefs carried with it a dreadful burden. Without religious certainties to guide life, people would, he believed, find it almost impossible to lead ethical and fulfilling lives. With Ralph Waldo Emerson before him, Nietsche saw the assertion of an individual, transcendent morality to be both an unavoidable responsibility and an extremely heavy one.
The men and women in Beckett's works can be seen as grappling with the trauma that descends upon them from this state of affairs. Quite unlike them, Beckett found in himself the will to rise above it. He himself was not a victim of doubt-induced immobility, indecisiveness, and confusion. He persevered in his art although first publication and then recognition were long in coming. He was a good companion to his friends and strove to be helpful to them. He opposed Fascism, Stalinism, and other forms of repression. Although citizen of a neutral country and not subject to military draft, he chose to fight Germans in France as member of a Resistance cell.*** Although his writings are rigorously anti-romantic, he himself formed and over 50 years maintained a close relationship with a woman Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil and, ultimately, was interred next to her, as her marriage partner.**** He loved sports and the outdoors. Most surprisingly, to me anyway, he enjoyed the pleasures of bourgeois life in upscale Paris and his suburban retreat. As one brief biography has it: "Unlike his tormented characters, he was distinguished by a great serenity of spirit."*****
The people whose lives Mendelsohn researches are dissimilar from one another in the way Beckett was unlike the fictional characters he brought to life. Some are decisive, confident in their ethical judgments, and heroic in their resistance to an overwhelmingly powerful combination of evil forces. Others are passive by-standers, passive victims, informers, or collaborators.
Mendolsohn tries not to takes sides, tries himself not to judge others based on the evidence of their good or bad actions that he uncovers. This approach has the appearance of scientific detachment, but, in context, makes no sense. Historians, genealogists, memoirists all have moral attitudes and their attitudes suffuse their writings whether they will or no. When the subject is something as morally charged as the Holocaust, it is not only impossible to be dispassionate, it is wrong to try.
Their subject matter is similar and Beckett shared with Mendelsohn a deep concern with clear expression, but they are stylistically at odds. Beckett wrote spare prose, verse, and dialogue. He used gestures, allusions, symbols to express what he, rightly, found language inadequate to express. He wasn't concerned with plot or the mechanics of story-telling. Mendolsohn constantly worries the reader with his uncertainty about the unfolding of his story and how it should be told. Beckett's silences are emphatic and informative. Mendelsohn tells us what he's telling, reviews what he's told, foreshadows what's coming, and even tells us that there are things he's not telling. Where Beckett is dignified and reserved, Mendelsohn seems to lower himself on occasion to gossip about the characters he's researching.
This is Beckett.
These photos from Mendolsohn's family photo albums appear in his book. I've reproduced them from an Italian web site — Daniel MENDELSOHN, Gli scomparsi — and will take them down if their appearance here is inappropriate.
Le Temps de Proust: About reading In Search of Lost Time, associated Proust criticism, and other secondary literature.
Beckett’s ‘Proust’ John Pilling
Samuel Beckett Is Dead at 83; His 'Godot' Changed Theater
Samuel Beckett and the Philosophers by John Fletcher in Comparative Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1965), pp. 43-56 — you need a Jstor account to read this.
Beckett in the French Resistance
* From the catalog of books I've read that I keep in my LibraryThing account:
- Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, by Robert Solomon Wistrich, 1994
- The Journal of Hélène Berr, by Hélène Berr, 2009
- Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler, by Anne Nelson, 2009
- Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945 (Social Studies: History of the World), by William Allen, 1984
- The Third Reich at War, by Richard J. Evans, 2009
- Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946, by Debórah Dwork, 2009
- Resistance: A Frenchwoman's Journal of the War, by Agnes Humbert, 2008
**Grove Press is celebrated as an avant-garde publisher of works that formerly would be found on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum as well as many that used to be illegal to send through the US mails.
*** "Although Samuel Beckett rarely if ever spoke about his wartime activities, during the two years he stayed in Roussillon, he helped the Maquis sabotage the German army in the Vaucluse mountains. While in hiding, he continued work on the novel Watt, started in 1941, completed in 1945, but not published until 1953. For his efforts in fighting the German occupation, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government. Even to the end of his life, Beckett would refer to his laborous efforts for the French Resistance as 'boy scout stuff'." -- Samuel Beckett
**** Beckett's romance with Dechevaux-Dumesnil was not a fairy tale love story, as the wikipedia article says: "In the 1930s, Beckett, an avid tennis fan his whole life, chose Dechevaux-Dumesnil [also a tennis player] as his lover over the heiress Peggy Guggenheim. Six years older than Beckett, Dechevaux-Demesnil was an austere woman known for avante-garde tastes and left-wing politics." They stuck together and nurtured each other though Beckett is known to have taken at least one other lover during their long association with each other.
***** Another: "All in all he had a good life, was loved by those around him, honored by the world, read and performed with deep admiration and attention by admirers and interpreters, always his own man, who, after initial pains and confusions, found his genuine self and was true to it to the end. There was sorrow at the close, but is it otherwise for any of us? He was modest but richly gifted: he worked hard, and the work repaid him in consummate artistic achievement."