I was cleaning out my attic the other day. There, behind the stack of National Geographic magazines I had inherited from my grandfather, was the writer Shalom Auslander. He was lying backside down on the floor.
“Shalom,” I said. “What are you doing in my attic?”
“I wanted to know,” he said. “If it happened again, would you hide me?” I knew he was talking about the Anne Frank sort of hiding.
“I don’t know,” I said. “That’s a lot to ask of someone. I’ll have to think about it.”
It just so happened Auslander had a pile of manuscript pages. He pushed them over to me. “Hope: A Tragedy,” it said on the cover.
“It’s a comedy,” Auslander said. “About genocide. Read it.”
So, with nothing better to do, I picked up the manuscript pages and started to read.
Hope: A Tragedy is Auslander’s first novel. It’s about Solomon Kugel, a man diagnosed by his psychiatrist, Professor Jove, as having too much hope. The problem with hope, Jove says, is the problem of the chicken trying to cross the road: The other side just ain’t any better (and, in fact, the chicken will probably be run over trying to get there).
According to Jove, the hope delusion is the root of the problems of the 20th century: “Hitler was the most unabashed optimist of the last 100 years. … Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution? Not just that there could be a solution … but a final one, no less!”
The novel tests this idea of hope as delusion. Addicted to hope, or clinging to what remains of it, Kugel and his wife buy an old farmhouse in Stocktown, a town with no history, no claim to fame, the “birthplace of nothing,” as one bumper sticker reads.
But soon after his family moves in, Kugel finds his desire to escape history, culture and the burdens of identity challenged by a certain presence in the house. No, the clawing in the ceiling is not mice, nor the local arsonist. It’s Anne Frank, and she’s living in Kugel’s attic.
It’s not the first time Anne Frank has entered literature (Philip Roth fantasizes a much sexier, younger version of Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer). But Auslander presents an Anne Frank we perhaps don’t want to see: She’s old, she smells, she belches and farts, and she eats only matzo. She’s also desperately trying to write the follow-up to her bestselling memoir. The aging, attic-addicted author has a legitimate concern: Who will want to read the story of the post-Holocaust Anne Frank? Won’t her audience prefer her dead, the young and beautiful Anne Frank, martyr of Bergen-Belsen?
Kugel and his wife, Bree, want Anne Frank out, but this is complicated by the presence of Kugel’s terminally ill, live-in mother, a New York Jew who, since her husband left her about 30 years before, has spun the story that she herself is a survivor of the camps. Kugel remarks: “Mother had never been in a war. She’d never been anywhere near a war unless you count the holiday sales at Bamberger’s the morning after Thanksgiving.” With her framed photograph of Alan Dershowitz above her bed, mother condemns Kugel when he considers calling the police to get rid of Anne. “What’s the matter, you didn’t have Dr. Mengele’s number?”
The book is dangerously funny, and the rants are fierce and pointed. In another writer’s hands, the Anne Frank conceit might seem gimmicky, but Auslander is a masterful comedian and talented stylist. Where Hope starts to grind its gears is in the story; Kugel wants Anne to leave, but he also wants her to stay; his ambivalence presents a tediousness and repetition to the action. But the tediousness is more Beckett than boring, and the serious moral and existential questions that this allows Auslander to consider are the real payoff to Hope.
Auslander is concerned – critical, damning – about how we sanctify suffering. Anne Frank says: “Me, I’m the sufferer. I’m the dead girl. I’m Miss Holocaust, 1945. The prize is a crown of thorns and eternal victimhood. Jesus was a Jew, Mr. Kugel, but I’m the Jewish Jesus.”
If the novel begins with, “Can we escape our suffering?” It ends with, “Is our suffering enough?” Which raises more questions: Do we need to experience trauma on the scale of Anne Frank to be deemed worthy? What do we – those who haven’t lived through Auschwitz, Rwanda or Cambodia – do with the knowledge of the recurring tragedy of genocide? And what is it with this neurotic obsession with remembering, anyhow?
“If you don’t learn from the past,” Kugel muses, “you are condemned to repeat it. But what if the only thing we learn from the past is that we are condemned to repeat it regardless? The scar, it seems, is often worse than the wound.”
I finished the manuscript in one sitting. By the end of it, Auslander was pleasantly dozing on my attic floor.
“Sure,” I said. “You can stay here. Just promise to write the next one soon.”
NOTES ON SHALOM AUSLANDER
Originally from Monsey, N.Y., Shalom Auslander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community, which he documents in his hilarious and controversial memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, a New York Times Notable Book in 2007.
Playing chicken with God He wrote a book of short stories, Beware of God, in which God is imagined as a giant chicken.
Magazine work Auslander contributes regularly to NPR and This American Life, and has written for The New Yorker, the online magazine Tablet, GQ and The New York Times Magazine.
On Anne Frank Regarding using Anne Frank in his first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, Auslander says, “Sacred cows make the best burgers.” (source: theRumpus.net)
Jonathan Garfinkel is the author of Ambivalence: Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide and numerous plays, including The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret. He divides his time between Toronto and Berlin.