That moment when Primo Levi, naked and holding an index card with his number on it, squirmed forward with other naked men and women. He says he had a choice to make. Should he pray for his life? A little man, a chemist, in 1943 he’d joined the partisans up in the mountains but he hadn’t been so gung ho about it. He and his friends surrendered not long after to the fascists without firing a shot. And since Mussolini had begun deporting Italian Jews, soon enough there he was, filing past “the commission” that would, with one glance, decide whether he went to the gas chambers or was strong enough to go on working. All around him, his companions, many of whom may have been beseeching God out loud because by that point they’d have been beyond terrified and so no longer silent. Amid all this Levi is having a monumental battle with himself. A nonbeliever, he’s tempted by the idea of God: “For an instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum.” Yet he resists. The moment passes. “You don’t,” he says, “change the rules at the end of the match or when you’re losing.”
I pray to the God I’ve never believed in during mild to moderate turbulence. Please, God, land this rattling piece of zillion-dollar junk in one piece. And I lie here on my back, on the floor, in the half dark of an idea-less late afternoon and I think, Holy fuck did Levi have balls. He told this decades later, with the benefit of hindsight, in his last book, The Drowned and the Saved. The problem is that the anecdote fits almost too neatly into his argument. It nearly makes him, so un-Levi-like, the hero of the story. He hardly wavered more than a moment. Pray? No, never, not me. Even so: I believe him. That the man somehow transcended what I think would have been the hardest thing—simply putting one bare foot in front of the other and moving forward—to defiantly refuse to throw in with God. What did he have to lose at that point? This is the thing: everything. He had everything to lose. To pray, Levi told himself, would have been as offensive to unbelief as it would have been to belief. I wonder if this is what saved him. If it was something in his face that “the commission” saw. Or rather in his body, because they would never have bothered to look into his face or into his eyes. Still, maybe a single glance at his body would have been enough to catch a glimpse of the force he’d just asserted. Here’s a guy with at least another day of work in him.
Somebody in Bolinas leaves old magazines outside the bookstore. I find them Sunday mornings. I like to imagine whoever it is in a house packed to the rafters with books and magazines and newspapers, a fantastical house, a wonderful house, a house I want to live in. In order to make room for some new find, my mystery hoarder takes a few things from the bottom of a stack and, late Saturday night, carries them down to the bookstore and, sadly, parts with them. A miniature funeral for discarded reading matter. The things I pick up are often decades old. This morning I snagged a yellowed New York Review of Books, dated August 9, 1973. August ’73, the first summer of Watergate. It’s got an essay by Norman Mailer about what it was like for Joe DiMaggio to be married to Marilyn Monroe. Who cares? I sat down on the bench outside the bookstore and read a Joseph Brodsky piece about the difficulty of translating Anna Akhmatova. Pretty much anything beats reading Norman Mailer.
Anna Akhmatova’s real name was Anna Gorenko. Her father said, “Sure, go ahead and write your little verses, just don’t sully the family name.” So she anointed herself Akhmatova, which does signal a kind of grandeur even to a non-Russian. Absurd to try to quantify, but I wonder if—even among her great contemporaries: Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, Pasternack—she didn’t suffer the most because she lived the longest and was left so alone. A goon of Stalin, repeating the judgment of a literary critic, called her a nun and a whore, and therefore of no use to the new Soviet society. Yet she refused exile. In “Requiem,” a five-page elegy, three decades in the making, sanity’s answer to insanity, she wrote: “I was with my people in those hours.”
In the essay, Brodsky alternately praises and excoriates Stanley Kunitz for his new version of Akhmatova’s poems, new in 1973, anyway. (Kunitz died a few years ago at a hundred and something.) Brodsky is especially incensed by Kunitz’s translation of “Imitation from the Armenian,” a short poem Akhmatova wrote in honor of her son who was arrested and sent to the gulag. His crime: being Akhmatova’s son. In it, the poet imagines herself a black ewe who visits a great shaw (Stalin) in a dream. She asks the Padishah: Was your dinner a tasty one?
The original poem is eight lines long. Brodsky is aggravated that Kunitz needed two extra lines, in spite of the fact that English words are generally two or three times shorter than Russian ones. But what sends him off the rails—and rightly so, it seems to me—is an omission Kunitz makes in the final line.
In Brodsky’s literal translation, the last four lines go like this:
You hold the universe in a bead,
Protected by the radiant will of Allah….
And did my son suit the taste
Of you and your babies?
Here’s the Kunitz version of the same four lines:
You who hold the world in your hand
as if it were a cold bright bead….
But what about my boy,
did you enjoy his taste?
Brodsky wants to know: what happened to the babies? The translation makes it all about Stalin, which is a total distortion of the upshot.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about cowardice, how bottomless it seems to be. And how it’s not the tyrants but the babies. The babies—too many to name—which is why so many of them always seem to vanish into the crowd when it’s all over. Babies who gorge, happily, side by side their Padishah. An unknown baby arrested Akhmatova’s son. Another unknown baby sent him away.
Even old anti-Semites were young once and sometime in his twenties Louise-Ferdinand Céline made his way to the United States, broke and meandering. From New York he took the train to Detroit and got himself hired at Ford. He’d heard they’d take anybody. They did. He did some job for ten hours, what it was he wasn’t exactly sure. When he proved too incompetent at whatever it was, they gave him a little cart with tools in it to push around. He wrote, “At six o’clock, when everything stops, you carry the noise away in your head.” He finds a brothel, because when you’re Céline you find a brothel. He becomes a regular. When there are higher-paying customers around (baseball teams, he says), he retreats to the kitchen and writes short stories. It’s a nice image, the young Parisian medical student writing his little stories at the whorehouse kitchen table. He falls in love with a prostitute named Molly. Falling in love isn’t the right term, but maybe he came about as close as he could to it. There are sentences of actual tenderness. Plus, he says, Molly had amazing legs. Legs, Céline says, are the mark of aristocracy in humankind. Molly, saintly Molly. She pays him—not the other way around. She can afford it. She rakes in at least a hundred bucks a week. They take trips together to the outskirts of the city, to tiny lakes. Molly suggests, gently, that they could make a go of it. They could buy a little business. We won’t be unhappy, she says. We’ll be like other people. As repulsive as this sounds, he’s tempted. Molly, sweet leggy Molly. She goes back to work in the house. He meanders some more, not needing to go back to Ford, because now Molly’s footing the bill for even his rent. He rides the tram through the night. He leans his forehead against the window. “On pavements sticky with the small rain of dawn the daylight glistened blue.” The piece of shit he became—always was—might deserve a spoonful of forgiveness for this phrase, “The small rain of dawn.” But it’s the people Céline notices, the people who’ve been working all night cleaning stores and offices. He understands that they’re too tired even to complain, because they’ve been reduced to meat. “They didn’t seem as anxious as us day people,” he writes. “Maybe because they’d been to the bottom of things.”
The morning Ingrid Jonker drowned herself, she walked into the Sea Point police station and told a cop she’d been forsaken. Later, they found her body in the sea at Three Anchor Bay. At first a group of writers tried to plan a nonreligious service in her honor, but Jonker’s parents refused to allow it. The fact that their daughter didn’t belong to any church wasn’t the issue. They weren’t about to let a bunch of Cape Town commies take over the funeral. Her father was a nationalist member of Parliament. That there were nonwhites at the funeral made news. Names were named. Peter Clarke and Amos Langdown, Jerry Mathews and Adam Small were there, along with many other writers of the day, including Uys Krige and Jack Cope, Ingrid’s lover. There’s a photograph of Cope crumpled by the side of her grave. “The atmosphere,” The Johannesburg Sunday Times reported, “was tense.”
Stories about her abound. They call her South Africa’s Sylvia Plath. She’s been the subject of movies. She was brilliant. She was a rebel. She was promiscuous. She was a barefoot hippie before South Africa knew there was such a thing. She left wreckage wherever she went. She had a serious mental illness. She had guts is what she had. Thirty years after her death, in 1994, Nelson Mandela himself read Jonker’s “The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga” at the opening of Parliament. He called her an Afrikaner and an African. You can listen to him intone on YouTube: “The child is not dead / not at Langa nor at Nyanga / not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville / nor at the police station at Philippi / where he lies with a bullet through his brain.”
I recently bought a book called More Afrikaans Short Stories, and it includes the last thing she ever wrote, a short untitled sketch. It’s about a little girl and her grandmother. The first lines are lucid and beautiful:
It was a morning like all the other mornings of that winter. I heard the upper half of the door open softly and saw her enter, with her black shawl over her shoulders and the greyish light behind her. I pretended to be asleep. But I knew how the grey light was falling on her grey hair, and I heard her open the paper bag with the fish-heads and put them on the table in the middle of our room.
Her eyes are closed and yet she can see the light in her grandmother’s hair. And those fish heads on the table.
Lamed Shapiro went to see Peretz at his house in Warsaw. “I. L. Peretz receives visitors at four in the afternoon.” This must have been in 1896 or 1897. Shapiro was eighteen or nineteen and already writing stories about pogroms. The author of “Bontsha the Silent” opened the door himself. Shapiro just about fell over. Peretz and Shapiro spent the next few hours talking about the bright future of Yiddish literature. The absurdity of their conversation may not have struck them at the time. It must have later. How could it not have? The future? What future? Did they suddenly think the pogroms were behind them? In any case, a little while later, Shapiro went back to his little village in the Ukraine and drank iodine. Despair over a woman. He failed and lived. He wrote more stories about pogroms. He sailed to New York with his mother. In New York, he met Freydl. She was married at the time with two kids. Didn’t matter. She loved Shapiro. Shapiro, Freydl—and Shapiro’s mother—moved to Chicago, where Shapiro and Freydl opened a restaurant. This was in 1909. I haven’t been able to find the address of this restaurant, but it’s possible it was in West Rogers Park, and that my grandfather may have rubbed shoulders with Lamed Shapiro without knowing it. Not that he would have been impressed. Yiddish? A famous Yiddish writer? Is he a blacksmith also?
In Chicago, Shapiro wrote “The Cross,” about an old Jew killed in the street by a sixteen-year-old wielding an ax.
Years later, in 1921, Shapiro, Freydl, and Shapiro’s mother moved to Los Angeles. There he declared he would no longer write. He said he didn’t want to write any more stories about pogroms. What he didn’t say but may have meant is I don’t want to write pogrom stories anymore, but if I don’t write pogrom stories, I’ve nothing else to say. He concentrated instead on inventing a new kind of color photography. This didn’t pan out. Apparently, the Germans had already invented whatever he was trying to invent. His mother died. Two years later, Freydl. When a friend asked him what Freydl died of, he said that she died of poverty, of squalor, and of her compassion for him, of all people, Shapiro. Considering his grief and his subsequent suicide attempts, it’s a wonder the man remained alive. Alone, he went back to New York. He was in his early fifties by then. Always an ardent communist, Shapiro put his hopes in the Soviet Union, in particular Stalin’s plan to resettle the Jews in Manchuria. His sense of optimism about a possible future in the treeless wastes of Asia apparently stirred him to begin writing again—about the dangers of America. Eventually, he published a new collection of stories called New Yorkish. Yet still he lived, for the most part, off of friends’ handouts. Shapiro, the great Yiddish master. There are some who say (though most of these people are long dead) that he was the greatest of all. How you prove such a thing is beyond me. Yet maybe we can call him, among the forgotten, the most forgotten? Leafing through Irving Howe’s The World of Our Fathers, a history of Yiddish culture in America, a ubiquitous and unread book that lived on the shelves of American Jewish households throughout the late ’70s and ’80s (we proudly displayed our own never-read copy), I found that poets H. Leivick, Mani Leib, and Jacob Glatsein get a lot of airtime. Isaac Bashevis Singer, of course, gets pages, but where’s Lamed Shapiro? He’s a footnote. Howe compares him to Flaubert, but still, he’s a footnote. He died, drunk, in a friend’s garage in Los Angeles. He’s buried next to Fredyl.
Think about Rudy Bloom. What if he lived? Would his father have become such a wanderer? That morning, before Mr. Bloom even leaves the house, he thinks about how he’d run to fetch the midwife, Mrs. Thorton, in Denzille Street. “Jolly old woman. Lots of babies she must have helped into the world. She knew from the first poor Rudy wouldn’t live. Well, God is good, sir. She knew at once. He would be eleven now if he had lived.” Mr. Bloom is chewing kidney for breakfast. And, well, God is good, isn’t he? Mr. Bloom tosses the uneaten grizzle of the burned kidney to the waiting cat. Soon, after reading on the toilet, Mr. Bloom will begin walking his city. He’ll look at women. He’ll lust after women. He’ll attend Paddy Dignam’s funeral. He’ll think about his daughter. He’ll think about his father. He’ll eat again. He’ll lust after his wife. He’ll hustle to place an ad. He’ll declare himself an Irish patriot and a Jew. In response, the citizen will throw a biscuit tin at him. He’ll walk and walk and walk. He’ll think. He’ll wonder. He’ll masturbate on the beach while staring at Gerty MacDowell. He’ll pontificate. He’ll lust after his wife some more. He’ll haunt Stephen Daedalus in order to fulfill an author’s grand ambitions. And more, so much more, and shit, I’m only on page 374. (I put it down, read something else; meanwhile, Bloom walks, Bloom talks.) And so, even with another 400 pages to go, I’ll bet this house I don’t own (serial renter) that what propels Bloom forward—sideways, backward—is grief. Isn’t it Stephen’s father, Mr. Daedalus, who calls Mr. Bloom the most December man as ever wore a hat? And isn’t it Gerty MacDowell who thinks that the foreign-looking gentleman, wan and strangely drawn, but nonetheless quite excited-seeming at the moment, is the saddest man she’s ever seen? And every once in a while: Rudy. “See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in an Eaton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling it would be.” Mr. Bloom, eleven years mourning, carries that boy across every step he takes.
anne frank duly reported to Kitty, the name she’d given her diary, that she and Peter stole the dentist’s cushion from the divan on the second floor. They wanted something to sit on up in the attic. Borrowed, not stolen! It wasn’t like they weren’t going to return it. Where could they have gone with it? But when the dentist, Dr. Dussel, noticed it was missing, right away he told Mr. Van Daan, who whistled up to Anne and Peter. “You two take a cushion?” So they promptly ran downstairs and put the damn cushion back. But this wasn’t the end of it, because it turned out it was a special cushion, the one the dentist used as a pillow. Now he was worried it might have fleas. Later that afternoon, Anne and Peter retaliated. They put hard brushes in Dr. Dussel’s bed. But the hijinks didn’t last long, because that night, April 11, 1944, was the night of the burglary. Two men stole a plank off the warehouse door on the first floor. Anne’s father, Peter, and Mr. Van Daan went down to investigate, but they risked being seen. Amid the commotion, everyone fled to the third floor. The door to the landing and the swinging bookshelf were both closed. A long night of whispering, fear—stench. Without access to the bathroom, all they had was Peter’s tin wastepaper basket. Anne told Kitty that her feet got so cold that Mr. Van Daan had to come and lay across them. In the morning, they decided to call Mr. Koophuis and tell him what had happened, because they were sure the hole in the door would attract the attention of the police. They did that, but when they heard footsteps downstairs, Mrs. Van Daan was absolutely certain it was the police. The woman turned white as a sheet. But it was Miep and Henk! Of course they were greeted with shouts and tears. Everybody was so exhausted that they all went to sleep for a while. A couple of hours later, though, she met Peter by the bathroom and the two of them agreed, once again, to meet in the attic. Up there they put their arms around each other and listened to the sirens. The weather, she told Kitty, was glorious.
Seems so pointless and obvious to say she was just a kid.
A bookish kid writing in a diary, but also to an audience that in her mind maybe did include you and me, because she’d always intended the diary to become a book. The plan all along was to become a famous writer. Italics hers. So, yes: she was talking to Kitty and beyond Kitty. And yet. Also: a kid in an attic, falling in love.
Five days later, on April 16, a first kiss. “…through my hair, half on my left cheek, half on my ear.”
April 18, another kiss: “Just about beside my mouth…”
On May 11, 1944, three months before the last time she’ll report to Kitty, she reminds herself that she’s got to finish the book on Galileo because it’s due at the library.