Tuesday, May 11, 2010
A.B. Yhoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn
By Mitch Ginsburg
A.B Yehoshua and Daniel Mendelsohn were at the big tent last night in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, proving to one and all that opposites really do attract, and that they make fascinating conversation while doing so. Yehoshua—short, shlumpy and relentlessly sincere—interviewed the dapper and wry author of The Lost: the search for six of six million.
In 1972 Yehoshua had taught a course on Literature of the Holocaust and one of the class’s main objectives was to figure out why literature failed to artfully render the events. Perhaps the sheer awfulness stifled the imagination, smothered the notion of humor. He was not sure. What he did know was that Mendelsohn’s book, although non-fiction, was a towering achievement, a true work of art.
The author waited for the end of the simultaneous translation and then said, thank you, before I address that I want to say two things. “One, I did not fly all the way around the world and reserve seats in the front row for my mishpucha so that they could now be seated all the way in the back row. So, to the people who took the reserved seats, enjoy the rest of this talk from a standing position. And two, to the woman who gave me these headphones and is worried about the deposit, I promise to return them.”
Then he addressed the issue. Turns out he never wanted to write a Shoah book. If I’d wanted to do that, I’d still be in front of a blank computer screen, he said. What he set out to do, in this book that recounts his attempts to chronicle the lives of his Great Uncle Shmiel Jäger, wife Ester and their four daughters, is to gather as many details as possible about those who were “killed in a way that was meant to deny them specificity.”
Then he told a story: of kids playing in a cemetery in Bolechow, Ukraine. His brother asked if they knew where they were, and they said yes, a Jewish cemetery. Mendelsohn, after some time, had a thought. He asked them if they knew what Jews were. They did not. That, he said, is the meaning of annihilation.
You were obsessed with the details, Yehoshua said, and that obsession of yours, of the protagonist’s, as far as I’m concerned, is what gives this book its literary force. (In an aside Yehoshua wondered if this type of obsession, which he sees in Faulkner and Hemingway, wasn’t very American.) Mendelsohn said he used to joke with his friends that the alternate title of the book was Moby Dick. He said it was true that he was obsessed and that memory was in fact the obsession of the age: not just Jews and not just in Israel but everywhere—computer memory, i-pods etc. But extermination, he said, by its nature erases memory, leaving us only with commemoration. Creating a memory of his lost family members, Mendelsohn said to heavy applause, has been a minor victory.