November 10, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“Translating books is an odd way to make a living. It is customary to translate from your second language into your first, but among my father’s many friends and colleagues, every possible combination of language and direction is represented.
Gil translates from Portuguese into English. Most translators grow up speaking two or three languages but some speak a ridiculous number; the most I’ve heard is twelve. They say it gets easier after the first three or four.
The people I find disturbing are those with no native language at all. Gil’s friend Nicholas had a French mother and a Dutch father. At home he spoke French, Dutch and English but he grew up in Switzerland speaking Italian and German at school. When I ask him which language he thinks in, he says: Depends what I’m thinking about.
The idea of having no native language worries me. Would you feel like a nomad inside your own head? I can’t imagine having no words that are home. A language orphan.” (pp. 45-46, iBooks on Mac edition, beginning of Ch. 9)
Meg Rosoff’s most recent novel, Picture Me Gone, is hard to summarize succinctly. Perhaps those hoary old descriptors, “coming of age” and “Bildungsroman,” might capture a small facet of the story of young Mila, but the wry observations and wide-ranging perspectives of the narrator are not typically those one might expect to find in a work written for a teen audience. No, there are certain exceptionalities within this book that defeat attempts to place it squarely within a singular category. Certainly Picture Me Gone is not a work that should be read in a rush, as there are layers to the narrative that make a slower contemplation of the characters and their developments a rewarding exercise.
Picture Me Gone first struck me as an introspective novel about how we, especially those of us who are still developing their world-views, try to position ourselves within the larger picture(s) of life around us. The passage quoted above, which is part of a larger series of musings on language and identity, is representative of Rosoff’s excellent characterization. Here Mila struggles to comprehend the possible rootlessness of those who possess multiple loci – in this particular case, “native” language(s) – and for whom life is less a linear journey along a personal timeline and more a series of bifurcating paths that weave in and out of others’ own walks of life. Such an observation does not come from one wedded intimately to one’s own surroundings, but instead seems to belong more properly to those who question the world around them. Another example of this occurs late in the novel, after the English-born Mila has lived some time in the US:
“There are hundreds of channels on American TV and I flick through without paying much attention to anything on the screen. It is mostly commercials. I come to the high numbers, where a topless woman rubs her breasts and starts to ask if I want to get to know her better before I click past. I pause on a nature show where a quiet-voiced man admires a beautiful stag in a clearing, saying, Isn’t he a magnificent creature? and then raises his rifle and shoots him through the heart. The animal staggers and falls to his knees. I want to throw up.
A week ago America felt like the friendliest place in the world but I am starting to see darkness everywhere I look. The worst thing is, I don’t think it is America. I think it is me.” (Ch. 28, pp. 248-249 iBooks for Mac edition)
For someone such as myself who was born and raised in the US, the tawdry mixture of scantily-clad women and casual (hunting) violence may not cause as much consternation as it would for someone for whom such scenes are not typical late-night fare. Mila’s observation that it is not as much America but herself goes straight to the heart of the book: the seemingly quotidian elements of contemporary life, from new schoolmates to divorces to other changes in personal milieu, seem more profound and important as one enters into a more abstract and less concrete understanding of the lives and situations around them. Younger children may interpret shifts in relationships through concrete means: mommy and daddy aren’t in the same bed anymore and there are fewer hug times or toys for Christmas. A preteen or a teenager, however, might conceptualize things such as divorce or death through how each relates to that person’s understanding of the world and matters such as faith, justice, or a sense of fairness. In Picture Me Gone, Rosoff captures that shift in perspective vividly. Mila tries to puzzle out everything around her; it is all new to her. Sometimes this can be frightening, but other times it is exhilarating.
If there is a flaw to Picture Me Gone, it may be that Rosoff is sometimes too subtle. The events that spark reactions from Mila sometimes lack a sense of urgency that can drive readers to move quickly to the next chapter. The external forces that shape Mila’s development are sometimes not as clearly defined as they could have been and this serves to rob the novel of some of its power. Yet despite this, there are many interesting elements developing quietly under the narrative surface that by novel’s end they emerge to provide the story a fitting conclusion. Picture Me Gone may not contain a singularly powerful scene or element that will make an indelible impression upon the reader, but the cumulative effect of Mila’s piercing introspective thoughts is that of a slowly moving narrative river whose silty character deposits build a fertile delta upon which a careful and inquisitive reader can harvest a wealth of impressions. Worthy nominee for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
November 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I remember an old, but very pointed, witticism from my days studying at the University of Tennessee that went something like this: In studying history, we mostly were getting only one side of the story, because her story was too often ignored by those writing down events. There is, of course, much truth to this. History is written by the winners, written records are privileged (until recently) over oral tales. The deeds of men were valued over those of women. Elite culture trumped that of plebeian culture. In each of these cases, however, there were still preserved elements, if not whole-cloth, of the “other” histories. They might be mere whispers, barely audible even those who strain to hear them, but the voices of the downtrodden are beginning to emerge more and more in histories and historical fictions over the past generation or so.
One recent example of this is Chinese-American graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang’s rendering of the 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion in China. A century later, this popular uprising mystifies and fascinates those who look for parallels with our own times. There certainly are many such elements: resistance to imperialism, both political and cultural alike; varying amounts of personal/cultural adaptation to foreign influences; infighting over what is to be preserved from one’s culture and which is to be adopted from elsewhere; questions of identity and how the past and present can shape a person. Multiple perspectives are necessary in order to understand the tumult of events such as the Boxer Rebellion. How did it start? Who were its targets? In what ways did rebellion manifest itself in the people infected with a desire to purge the land of new influences? Who resisted the call to rebellion? Who were the victims of these purges? How can one determine a “right” or “wrong” when it comes to what one believes and how one expresses those beliefs?
These are the questions that Yang addresses throughout the course of his two intertwined graphic novels, Boxers and Saints. Multiple sides are presented here, with matters of “right” and “wrong” deliberately left open for interpretation. Although the main protagonists of each book, Bao (Boxers) and Vibiana (Saints), present compelling reasons as to why their point-of-view should be most sympathetic to readers, Yang carefully illustrates, both in his drawings and in his scripts, the limits and foibles of each young protagonist. In Boxers, we see Bao’s struggle to find respect and dignity in 1890s rural China, with vivid scenes such as his father’s brutal beating and maiming serving as an impetus for him to turn toward the preaching of itinerant traditionalists such as Red Lantern who urge the countryside to revolt against China’s foreign oppressors and to remove the shame that has visited the country. Inflamed with a passion to restore the glory of China’s past and its “opera” gods and goddesses, Bao seeks (and at first is rebuffed due to his young age) training in the mystical ways of the Righteous Fists, where he learns how to embrace the spirits of the Chinese gods and heroes.
In contrast, Vibiana has rejected tradition and embraced Christianity after being maltreated by her family and cast out. She, like Bao, seeks something greater than herself to anchor herself to, but instead of accepting a menial role demanded of village women at that time, she begins to explore the new faith that has been introduced in the region. Through her views, we see some of the myriad reasons why many Chinese converted to Christianity, not all of which were noble in intent, purpose, or action. Yang has created in these two characters interesting parallels, not all of which are immediately visible upon a first reading. If anything, by having the two books be bound separately, the parallels are slightly obscured as the reader encounters mostly the views of one of the two protagonists (with minor appearances of the other through the eyes of each other). This, however, does not weaken the power of the dual narratives but instead strengthens both, as the understanding one might derive in reading one book first (if it were up to me, I would read Boxers first, as it is the longer of the two and Yang scripted it first) can be deepened (and in some cases, challenged) by a quick reading of the other. Indeed, one could even read the “chapters” in alternating fashion to create an even more composite view, although this would reveal a few narrative surprises in the process.
Bao and Vibiana are flawed young individuals, each seeking justification for his or her actions. Things that one blithely accepts are seen by the other as atrocities. The external forces that drive each can be seen as self-destructive when viewed through the perspective of the other narrator. Yet taken as a whole, their twin narratives tell a powerful story that leads the reader to ask many of the questions I laid out above. The result is a wonderfully realized retelling of an important moment in Chinese history that will engage readers from the early pages of Boxers all the way to the ending of Saints. These two books, when read as a whole, certainly are deserving of their dual nomination for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and they are among my favorite 2013 releases to date. Highly, highly recommended.
November 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
257 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Printze txikia (Basque; read for linguistic comparison, but story is a personal fav)
258 Joan Silber, Fools (longlisted for the National Book Award; short fiction collection; very good)
259 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Quyllur llaqtayuq wawamanta (Quechua; see note above)
260 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, El principe picinin (Venetian; understood it more unaided than others above)
261 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Mažasis Princas (Lithuanian; see above note)
262 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Inkosana Encane (Zulu; see above)
263 Jésus Torbado, Las corrupciones (1965 Premio Alfaguara winner; very good)
264 Dacia Maraini, Donna in guerra (Italian; very good)
265 Jean Stafford, Collected Stories (short fiction collection; good, but some stories were dated)
266 Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (2013 Booker Prize and National Book Award finalist; review forthcoming)
267 Donna Tartt, The Secret History (excellent)
268 Elsa Morante, Arturo’s Island (excellent)
269 Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction; already reviewed)
270 John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March: Book One (non-fiction; graphic novel; outstanding)
271 J.M. Sidorova, The Age of Ice (good)
272 Al Gore, The Future (non-fiction; decent but could have been stronger in its presentation of ideas)
273 Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (National Book Award finalist in Fiction; review forthcoming)
274 László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below (may review fully in future, but this was a great read)
275 Therese Anne Fowler, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (very good)
276 Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City (non-fiction; very good)
277 Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club (excellent)
278 Mircea Cărtărescu, Nostalgia (Romanian; very good)
279 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Malý Princ (Czech; see above note)
280 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, O Pequeno príncipe (Brazilian Portuguese; better than the continental Portuguese translation)
281 Walter Siti, Resistere non serve a niente (Italian; Premio Strega winner; very good)
282 Andrzej Sapkowski, Il Sangue degli Elfi (Italian; already reviewed in English)
283 Andrzej Sapkowski, Le Sang des elfes (French; already reviewed in English)
284 Andrzej Sapkowski, Das Erbe der Elfen (German; already reviewed in English)
285 Dacia Maraini, Darkness (excellent)
286 Jyrki Vainonen, The Explorer & Other Stories (short fiction collection; review later this month)
287 Tiziano Scarpa, Stabat Mater (Italian; Premio Strega winner; very good)
288 Adrian Matejka, Big Smoke (National Book Award finalist in Poetry; review forthcoming)
289 Gene Luen Yang, Boxers (National Book Award finalist in Young People’s Literature; graphic novel; review forthcoming)
290 Gene Luen Yang, Saints (National Book Award finalist in Young People’s Literature; graphic novel; review forthcoming)
291 Mary Szybist, Incarnadine (National Book Award finalist in Poetry; review forthcoming)
292 Leena Krohn, Datura (review forthcoming)
293 Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz (uneven but often good)
294 Liliana Bodoc, Los días de la sombra (Spanish; re-read; good)
295 Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion (National Book Award finalist in poetry; review forthcoming)
296 Andrzej Sapkowski, La sangre de los elfos (Spanish; re-read; already reviewed)
297 Andrzej Sapkowski, Blood of Elves (re-read; already reviewed)
298 Andrzekj Sapkowski, Tiempo del odio (Spanish; already reviewed)
299 Maria Bennedetta Cerro, La Congiusa degli Oppositi (Italian; poetry; very good)
300 Natalia Ginzburg, Lessico famigliare (Italian; good)
301 Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (review forthcoming)
302 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vuelo nocturno (Spanish; very good)
303 Andrzej Sapkowski, The Time of Contempt (already reviewed)
304 Andrzej Sapkowski, Il tempo della guerra (Italian; already reviewed)
305 Andrzej Sapkowski, Le Temps du mépris (French; already reviewed)
306 Andrzej Sapkowski, Der Zeit der Verachtung (German; already reviewed)
307 Andrzej Sapkowski, Bautismo de fuego (Spanish; re-read; already reviewed)
308 Andrzej Sapkowski, Le Baptême du feu (French; already reviewed)
Update on Yearly Goals:
Total: 308/366 – 4 books ahead of pace
Women writers: 108/308 (nearly 35%, above 33% minimum goal; 20/52 in October)
Foreign Language: 120/100 (exceeded goal, which now will be extended to 150)
Spanish: 43/50 (ahead of goal by 1 book; 6/52 in October)
Italian: 17/25 (roughly on pace; 6/52 in October)
October 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I speak of that which has never existed, of a state between people, the continuance of which everyone, every human being has desired with inconceivable yearning for the whole duration of these bloody millenia, but which precisely because of him, because of this yearning human creature, indeed, directly because of the scandalous equivocation of his desire, has never been attained. A mere human is a destructive being, a mere artist is not. In every one of his creations, even if it is often abhorrence that motivates him, a joyful pain may make itself felt, a joyful pain, yes, that what he is bringing to life, the work, is capable of giving a form to that which truly cannot be uttered here, a mere word – comprised, altogether, of five letters in English, and in Hebrew of four – a word in connection with which I should like ot make a recommendation: that for the duration of this festival we remain silent and do not utter it, that we remain profoundly and mutually silent, but with such strength that our entire Festival will only be about that, about this silence: so that it may be present without having to be pronounced; because silence, silence mutually maintained about something has its own intensity, and grants to a word a mighty weight, a word, which of course is still just a word; a word evoked, with my counsel, in silence; and the broken fragments, the components of which now, with your permission, I would like to show to you. (pp. 3-4)שָׁלוֹם
– from a speech given at the May 2012 Jerusalem Book Fair. Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
The second passage is from an interview conducted by Noémi Aponyi and Tibor Sennyey Weiner:
Not long ago, an interview appeared in which you stated that it would be best if “only writers and poets occupied themselves with literature again.” Does this imply that such writers who have “put themselves up for sale” should not talk about literature, and neither should such critics?
No. I was speaking of a desire, namely, that it would be beautiful, really and truly beautiful, if Hungarian literature would regain its independence and its freedom from that system of cultural power, that system against which it is fighting a losing battle because it forms a part of it, that is to say it is compromised. The greater part of the contemporary literary world (a large part, but not the entirety) gave itself blindly over to this system in newly capitalist Hungary, and it itself venerates the laws propagated by this system as something irrevocable, although these laws are anything but irrevocable. Who made artists believe that art can be practiced only “successfully?” Who made them believe that for a book to reach its goal and its readers, the “taste-makers” are absolutely necessary? How could they have allowed the critics, the editors, the owners of the chain bookshops, and so on, to have so much power? And who made them believe that they are truly artists? It is one huge mistake, and by this I mean not only in Hungary but in all of European literary life, and it is not that I feel any personal affront, I am adequately insulated – the situation is far graver than that. Artists have come to believe that they too, just like other people, need money and fame, money and fame for everyday life, moreover for being able to live a bourgeois lifestyle; and that these two repugnant things are seen as necessary for everything is not only tragic but ridiculous as well. What kind of artist or writer lives like that? Who is going to believe even a single line that he writes? What kind of esteem can the art of our age garner for itself after even one such bout of deal-making? No, the artist’s needs are few: let there be something for him to eat and a place to live, and then every day he should circumambulate the city, the country, like the mendicant monks of old. Nothing whatever can be more important for him than his own personal dignity, and this is exactly what he loses forever after the very first deal-making transaction. (p. 30)
And finally, a quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Sátántangó (Film and Novel) as Faulknerian Reverie”:
As someone who grew up in northwestern Alabama and spent the first sixteen years of my life there (1943-1959), I have treasured Light in August, which I first read shortly after I left for a New England boarding school, as the novel that best captures the quasi-totalitarian climate of that culture, especially in relation to race. Undoubtedly one of the reasons why Sátántangó, which I first encountered as a film seventeen years before I could read the novel in English translation but after having intermittently read portions of Joëlle Dufeuilly’s 1993 French translation, Tango de Satan, reminded me of Faulkner’s masterpiece was its own implicit depiction (and implicit moral indictment) of another totalitarian climate. Even though this is not clearly not addressed as directly as Faulkner addresses racism in Light in August, it seems no less clear that Tarr and Krasznahorkai recognize and understand this climate with comparable depth, not to mention sorrow and outrage, and regard it no less metaphysically as a blight on humanity. So, whether it’s willed or not, Sátántangó deserves to be regarded in both its forms as one of the great narratives about Stalinism and its alienating effects upon individuals and a collective – including, one should stress, the lingering effects of that Stalinism on a capitalist society. (p. 128)
I still have over half of this bound-volume issue to read, but hopefully these quotes will make a few readers here curious enough to investigate Krasznahorkai’s writings. He is one of the more important writers of the past quarter-century, I believe.
Interesting article about changes in perspective when switching from male-centric to female-centric reading
October 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
While I do read some SF/F, it no longer is my primary literary genre. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to look through my current 2013 reading list and reviews and see what patterns that I notice. First off, I see that I am slightly ahead of my 2013 goal in regards to percent of books (co-)written or (co-)edited by women. I established the modest goal of 33% because I knew there would be several difficulties that I would run into when reading in other European languages and also when re-reading a couple of books/series that I usually plan on reading every 1-3 years (for example, 20 books alone are various translations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, plus so far another 16 are various translations of Andrzej Sapkowski’s seven book Geralt/Witcher series, with another 19 to follow in the next 1-2 months), so having read 105 books so far by women out of 298 total is a positive, albeit modest, achievement. If I were to break it down by 2013 releases, I suspect it would be nearly 50/50.
However, there are some interesting trends within those reads. When I limit “SF/F” to that published by publishers who solely publish SF/F, there is quite an imbalance toward male writers. Things improve if I shift consideration toward “speculative fiction,” but near-gender parity does not occur until I start reading realist fictions or other literatures that do not fall easily into a realist/speculative divide. An anecdotal observation: I attended two days of the 2013 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville almost two weeks ago. I went to seven signing sessions and five readings (two I missed due to traffic/session closed due to C-SPAN filming) during those two days: 3 readings by men, 2 by women; 4 signings by men, 3 by women. The books/readings were very different, as 2 were histories, 1 was a non-fiction on possible future developments, 1 was a graphic novel, 1 was a twist on a family history/tragedy, 1 was a short story collection involving Southern/Appalachian life, and the last was a fantastical take on early 20th century immigration. You might be able to guess the genders of the writers based on the categories, but the likelihood of wrong guesses is great, I should note.
When I looked at my 2013 reviews, I noticed some disparities as well. I have reviewed 44 books/stories to date. Of course, 20 were of women writers/historians alone, 23 were of male authors, and 1 was a three-book review in which both male and female editors’ anthologies were reviewed. But when I looked at those reviews by those works that would readily be identified as “SF/F genre,” out of 16 works, 4 were by women, 11 by men, and the 1 split. This perhaps is more telling of me as a reader of SF/F fiction (or at least what I have reviewed to date) than anything else, although the disparity could mean several things.
It certainly is true that I read fewer women writers in SF/F than any other genre. Some of it is due to lack of interest in certain subgenres that I have sampled in the past and didn’t like for prose and/or thematic reasons. Much of it, however, is likely due to relative ignorance or a lesser tendency to re-read women SF/F writers than their male counterparts. Do I regret this? Perhaps a little, but beyond being willing to read certain writers who write stories that interest me, I suspect part of the disparity may simply be that I find more interesting tales written by women in other genres/non-fiction than within closely-defined SF/F (if I were to count Southern Gothic within “genre” fiction, my review count would be almost exactly 50/50). But then again, it’s all a matter of being willing to look, no?
So I suppose is the a longer way of saying that I read more women writers in other genres but that perhaps I should be more willing to consider SF/F tales penned by women. So maybe read more Caitlín Kiernan, Jamaica Kincaid, Karen Joy Fowler, Angélica Gorodischer, Catherynne M. Valente, and others of their talent level (caveat: I’ve read several works of these writers, but not everything by them)? Feel free to suggest works, whether within or without the constricted SF/F genre definition and I may look into it.
Oh, and as an aside, Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz is an uneven work, but with enough flashes of talent that one should read it and wonder at just how her reputation was ruined by her husband and others. After all, some of F. Scott’s more famous lines, at least those spoken by his female characters, were lifted from his wife’s diary entries…
October 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In Holocaust studies, one type of perpetrator, fashioned after Adolf Eichmann and others who organized deportations of Jews from Berlin headquarters, is the male bureaucratic killer, or desk murderer. He commits genocide through giving or passing along written orders; thus his pen or typewriter keys become his weapon. This type of modern genocidaire assumes that the paper, like its administrator, remains clean and bloodless. The desk murderer does his official duty. He convinces himself as he orders the deaths of tens of thousands that he has remained decent, civilized, and even innocent of the crime. What about the women who staffed those offices, the female assistants whose agile fingers pressed the keys on the typewriters, and whose clean hands distributed the orders to kill? (pp. 98-99)
Nearly seventy years after the last death camps were liberated, the mechanics of the Endlösung still trouble readers and historians alike. Who was involved or at least complicit in the genocide of Jews and other undesirable ethno-social groups? To what extent, if any, were these mass killings planned? Did the Holocaust arise from a Sonderweg, or “special path,” that the Germans followed as a response to industrialization and modernity done at a faster pace than those of Western Europe? Is the Shoah the horrific consequence of the earlier Ostland neo-colonial view of “space and race”? How does one reconcile the machinery of the gas chambers and desk murderers with images of street violence in the occupied East, as mobs of Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians beat tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Jews, often to death?
To this litany of questions has recently been added another: what roles did women play in the Holocaust? For decades, outside of a few memorable cases such as that of the infamous “Bitch of Buchenwald,” Ilse Koch, not much attention has been paid to the roles that women played in carrying out the so-called “Final Solution.” In landmark studies such as Christopher Browning’s 1993 book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solutionin Poland, the “ground level” focus has almost invariably been on men. Soldiers, Einsatzgruppen, functionaries, and guards, these were the main perpetrators of the killings at their most intimate, face-to-face, level. But who did the paperwork processing, the nursing, and other tasks both domestic and industrial alike that were a vital component of the concentration camp social societies? Who helped tend the vast farms on which several thousand Jews and other concentration camp prisoners were forced to work as slaves to supply food for the German armies? Yet women have often taken a back seat to men in discussions of the Holocaust.
In her National Book Award-nominated history, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower begins to explore the matter of those women (mostly) behind the scenes whose actions (or non-actions) aided and abetted genocide. Utilizing an impressive number of interviews that she conducted with the now-elderly women who were the farmers, the secretaries, and in some cases the murderesses, Lower has pieced together a history that promises to be a significant study. Yet that word, “promises,” is a damning one, as Hitler’s Furies fails to become the authoritative or landmark book that it could have become. It hints at matters, yet does not place them adequately within the framework of current historiographical discussion, leaving the work in that nebulous halfway house between being an oral history of those who were reticent at best to talk of their past lives and a study that places these women and their actions within a larger conceptualization of the Holocaust and its origins and characteristics.
Lower begins her book by introducing several issues that she intends to address. Among these are institutional power (ranging from direct corporate-style hierarchies to less indirect ones such as the terminology employed in the Third Reich regarding cultures and nations and their degrees of worthiness) and its ability to shape women into the roles desired of them. Yet, as Lower argues, these women were not passive objects to be set in place but instead were in many cases active agents who themselves engaged in atrocities (and not always then just to please their male companions). This, however, does not mean that the women such as Erna Petri or Liselotte Meier, to name two of the women Lower discusses at length, display a great deal of independence in their actions. No, their actions, whether they be shooting Jewish fugitives on Petri’s manor or Meier’s torturing of those rounded up as the German army advanced eastward, are placed within the context of what their male lover/husband did: Petri following the lead of her abusive husband and Meier that of her officer boyfriend. While Lower does a good job fleshing out the personalities she discusses, there curiously is a relative lack of discussion of motives beyond the coercive factors of society and ideology. It is as though Petri, Meier, and the others discussed in the book had lives, dreams, and ambitions of their own, but when it comes to the flashpoint of their roles in the Holocaust, those divergent characteristics fade suddenly into the backdrop of those caught up in the competing whirlwinds of loyalty to male-centric power structures and a sadistic joy in inflicting suffering. More could have been done to discuss this, but Lower’s explanation late in the book felt inadequate in that she relies too heavily on Theodor Adorno’s work on authoritarian personality to explain these women’s actions. While certainly there is something to Adorno’s view, it does little to account for the complexities of the actions undertaken during this time by both men and women (ranging from outright sedition down through implicit resistance to complicity and then ultimately a surpassing of the authority’s desires, as if by doing so, the perpetrator could assert her own stamp on matters); there is much more to the matter.
Of greater interest, yet barely fleshed out, is the idea that neo-colonialist attitudes toward the East and its denizens might explain the actions of Petri and her compatriots:
Petri’s testimony is rare. There are few wartime and postwar records of ordinary German women expounding on their views of Jews and the Holocaust. More common was a colonist discourse about how stupid, dirty, and lazy “the locals” were, referring to Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, or veiled references to the dark terrain infested with “Bolsheviks,” “criminals,” and “partisans,” or to the infantilized native who is clever but inferior, and thus dispensable. (p. 156)
This is where I suspect more and more studies of the Holocaust will go, away from focusing strictly on the mechanics of the Final Solution and toward a broader cultural analysis of the times and in particular the World War I era of Ostland and how the Ostland’s governmental practices, so reminiscent of late 19th century European neo-colonialism in Africa and Asia, helped shape German attitudes toward Ostland and its natives in a much more insidious fashion than the Nazi ideology on “space” and “race.” Yet despite there being hints of this colonialist attitude in many of the women Lower profiles, she does not give as much credence to this as perhaps she should have.
The sources included in the endnotes is impressive. Although I haven’t kept up with the literature since late 1997, there are a wealth of studies on the issues of women in the Third Reich and roles of women in the Holocaust that appear to be promising reads. Yet within the body of her study, Lower rarely mentions any of these other historians and their contributions to the field. Perhaps this is due to Hitler’s Furies being marketed more to a general audience than toward an academic one, but ultimately this leads to the sense that Lower’s narrative is detached too much from the debates that historians have had on this subject over the past six decades. While it may be understandable that Lower wants to avoid the old Intentionalist/Functionalist debate regarding the level of intent that the decision-makers had in beginning the Final Solution, the book suffers because there is insufficient grounding of her arguments within the context of larger discussions of the Holocaust’s beginning, mechanics, and how its perpetrators justified their actions. Even the women involved seem at times acting within a narrative vacuum; there is not enough explanation to cover their myriad actions.
Yet despite these serious issues that I have with Hitler’s Furies, it is a book that at the very least presents vividly-described actresses and whose discussions at least point the way to possible future paths of exploration within the field. It is a flawed work, but for non-historian readers curious about the time period, it certainly is a work that will appeal to them. For many historians of the period, however, Lower’s work may be frustrating in the sense that it seems that with just more focus on placing her work within the context of current historiography, her work could have been as important as those of Ian Kershaw and Browning in discussing the mindsets of those involved in the Shoah. The arguments on complicity and the forms in which it took here will continue to rage on.
October 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’ll list the languages in the captions, then briefly state whether or not I was able to understand the dialogue without the help of another edition/dictionary.
|Serbian and French editions|
I now know enough Serbian as to be able to understand the gist of the chapters. The French I understood probably 80-90% of the sentences without needing any assistance.
|Most recent English translation and Spanish edition|
Both of these I understood completely with no need of any assistance (I would hope so for my native and second languages!).
|German and Italian editions|
I’m rusty with my German, so I probably only got about 50-60% comprehension unaided. The Italian was better, at around the same rate as the French, maybe slightly higher.
|Latin and Irish Gaelic editions|
I had two years of college Latin and I understood almost all of it without assistance. The Irish, however, I could only understand a few words here and there and I depended upon other editions to read it.
|Hindi and Hungarian editions|
I only received the Hindi translation today, but considering that I don’t even know the alphabet yet, I will need a lot of study before I can compare it to other editions. I only know a few words in Hungarian, so I read this one while alternating sentences with other editions.
|Catalan and Portuguese editions|
I needed no assistance in understanding either of these translations.
I learned a few words while comparing this to another translation, but by itself, no comprehension at all.
I knew a few words in Quechua, but that was about it. Read in tandem with another translation.
Very surprisingly, I understood about 10-20% of what I was reading, but I still needed lots of assistance.
Just as surprising was my realization that I understood over a quarter of what I read before I compared it to another translation.
Unlike other Romance language editions, I needed some help in understanding it, but I did understand about 40-50% of the passages unaided.
Out of the Slavic languages I read, Polish was by far the hardest for me. Full assistance needed.
The Venetian translation is so close in places to standard Italian that I had little difficulty in understanding it unaided.
The Czech translation was surprisingly easy for me; I understood almost as much as the Serbian and I hadn’t ever really looked at that language!
|Brazilian Portuguese edition|
I found the Brazilian Portuguese edition to be easier than the Portuguese one, plus it seemed to be more faithful to the original French.
I’m still awaiting my copy, but I know I’ll need assistance, as while I know most of the Perso-Arabic alphabet, there’s a lot more to learn before I could even hope to do comparisons of words with other translations.