Friday, June 9, 2017

"Narrative Desire": Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost





I said I wasn’t going to do another “Back to the Past Holocaust Book” blogpost, because it’s getting too predictable.  But this one is so monumental, so compelling, so filled with narrative desire, I decided I would go ahead anyway.  (And besides, it is my blog. . . .)

The term “narrative desire” comes from Peter Brook’s Reading for the Plot in which he presents a theory of reading narrative that is analogous to enacting sexual desire.  While reading a really compelling novel, for example, one is drawn in—wanting to go forward to see what happens, but delaying as much as possible to keep the pleasure alive.  But the pleasure is only possible because of the assurance that there will be an end.  (Most of his examples are long novels, but it works, as I will suggest, for other kinds of stories as well.)  So narrative desire is a pleasurable process where one goes forward—propelled along a path towards a promised pleasurable end, a climax as it were.  (Oversimplification but moving on. . . .)

The Lost:  The Search for Six of the Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn is a long (654 pages), complex history/memoir/reflection-on-storytelling that created in me an extreme instance of narrative desire.  The book famously begins with Mendelsohn explaining that there was a time when he was young boy who could enter certain rooms and the inhabitants would immediately begin to cry.  The people in these rooms were elderly Jewish relatives in Miami Beach who would, while crying, exclaim “He looks just like Schmiel.” 

Schmiel (Samuel) Jager was the brother of Mendelsohn’s maternal grandfather Abraham Jaeger,  and for much of his childhood Mendelsohn only knew that Schmiel and his wife and their “four beautiful daughters” had been "killed by the Nazis."  As Mendelsohn grew up, he became more interested in the history of his family, particularly the stories told by his grandfather.  Abraham and his siblings were born in what was then Bolechow Poland.  He and all of his siblings, except Schmiel, eventually landed in the US or Israel.  Thus Schmiel (who had immigrated to the US in 1912 only to return to Bolechow the next year to build up the family business) and his wife and daughters were the only ones of Abraham’s immediate family to die in the Holocaust—and the only ones for whom most of the salient life and death details were missing.  Mendelsohn always wanted to know more about them:  who were the daughters, what was the family like, where did they die, when did they die. About 20 years after his grandfather’s death, Mendelsohn embarks on a series of journeys to try to find out who these six people were--to rescue them from anonyimity (lost not only in their deaths but also in any memories or remnants of their lives).  Like other books in the genre, then, The Lost tells two narratives:  the story of the quest to discover, and the story of the lives that are discovered.

I am not going to rehearse the details of the two compelling narratives Mendelsohn creates.  The book has been well reviewed and there’s lots on-line about it. And if you find this kind of thing interesting, then this, I say, is the book for you.  It is larger in its scope, complexity, and ambition than the many other historical quest books I have been recently reading (only some of which I have written about on the blog.).  And it will probably be the last for a while, because I cannot imagine another one compelling me as strongly as this one did.  Instead, I want to write briefly about how Mendelsohn creates “narrative desire.”  How he writes a book that is at once about something as big as the Holocaust and at the same time as intimate as the fate of one family, and in the process pulls the reader into this long and complicated story that makes one read as quickly as possible (because it’s so good) but also as slowly as possible (so that it will last as long as possible): narrative desire.

The structure of The Lost is quite complex, and Mendelsohn spends a lot of time writing about how he has chosen to tell his stories.  At the beginning, he describes his grandfather’s stories as “vast circling loops, so that each incident, each character. . . had its own mini-history, a story within a story, a narrative inside a narrative, so that the story he told was not (as he once explained it to me) like dominoes, one thing happening just after the other, but instead like a set of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, so that each event turned out to contain another, which contained another, and so forth” (39).  This looping narrative he associates with the Greeks, Homer and Herodotus, as opposed, for instance, to Genesis which tells its story in a  “straightforwardly chronological, this-happened-then-this happened way” (41).  Mendelsohn preferred the looping Greek-like storytelling and became a classicist, specializing in Greek tragedy.  However, he also had a (desultory) education in the Bible, particularly the first five parashah (weekly readings) of Genesis (Creation, Cain and Abel, Noah, the wanderings of Abraham, and the appearance of God to Abraham demanding the sacrifice of his son Isaac) while he was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah--a study he returned to years later.

The difference between the Greek and the Hebrew ways of narrating can be partially described by terms from narratology (the study of how narratives are structured): story and discourse.  Story is the events that happened, the order in which they happened and the causal links between them.  Discourse is the way the story is told.  In some texts, like Genesis, story and discourse are structurally aligned, as the events are narrated in chronological and causal order.  In other texts, like Mendelsohn’s grandfather’s tales of his family and the Old Country, story and discourse are often divergent or oddly linked.  Dominoes vs Russian dolls. 

In first reading The Lost, I thought  it was going to be a primarily looping tale (discourse).  It starts several times.  It goes back and forth.  It digresses, regresses.  But as I gradually realized, it also progresses.  It moves not just around and about, but also forward towards a desired end (story).  This progressive movement is signaled by the five sections in which the book is organized, each corresponding to one of the first five parashah of the Torah.  And in fact along with meditations on a variety of subjects—in the distant past, recent past, present—Mendelsohn meditates on the first five sections of Genesis, using them as a skeleton for his own two narratives.  Thus Mendelsohn tells two looping tales that eventually tell us “what happened”: one the narrative of his search to find the truth about what happened to Schmiel and his family, and the other discovered “truth” about what happened to Schmiel and his family.  And it is this combination of moving around (discourse) and moving forward (story), slowing down and speeding up, that created for me narrative desire.

The best way I can explain this is to turn to one literary device that Mendelsohn uses consistently in The Lost: foreshadowing.  Foreshadowing is a kind of “flash forward” which Mendelsohn uses to remind us that there is more to know—a sort of rhetorical prolepsis.  Just when he has found out something that seems to solve at least a part of the mystery of what happened to Schmiel and his family, Mendelsohn will remind us that this is “what we thought then," or “as we so thought then,’ or “it wasn’t until later that we. . . ." In one of the most dramatic examples of foreshadowing, appearing early in the book, Mendelsohn writes of his first trip to interview Jewish people who had lived in Bolechow during World War II, “it was in Australia, when we met with Jack Greene and the four other Bolechower Jews who after the war had chosen to settle on that remote continent, as far as it is geographically possible to get from Poland, that the contours of the story came into focus at last, and we began to get the kind of concrete details that we wanted, the specifics that can transform statistics and dates into a story.  What color the house was, how she held her bag.  And then Australia led to Israel, where we met Reinharz and Heller, and Israel led to Stockholm, where we met Mrs. Freilich, and Stockholm led to Israel again, and Israel led to Denmark, where we met Kulberg, with his remarkable tale ” (182)

In The Lost, foreshadowing is a major constituent of narrative desire.  It reminds us that  the story is not yet "over."  (And indeed, in a way, narrative desire survives the end of the book, as the full history of Schmiel Jager and his family can never be completely known.)  Moreover, foreshadowing has the virtue of reminding us that the Holocaust is a category that is made up the lives and deaths of multiple individual people.  As a category  it defies narrative in many ways because the ending is almost always the same (or some variant of the same).  But the numbing sameness of the Holocaust events can be rescued (partially?) by the specific details of the individuals whose unique stories make it up, details that are consistently foreshadowed in The Lost.    

Narrative desire is built on details, specifics.  Details provide the pleasure and pace of engagement.  They are what allow us into “what happened” in a way statistics cannot.  But they are both powerful and powerless because they are always experienced at several degrees remove.  “[A]s I stood in this most specific of places I knew that I was standing in the place where they had died, where the life that I would never know had gone out of the bodies I had never seen, and precisely because I had never known or seen them I was reminded the more forcefully that they had been specific deaths, and those lives and deaths belonged to them not me” (641).  This, of course, is one of the many ethical dilemmas that must be faced in narrating the Holocaust.  But the search to "rescue" to memory these six—to make them at least to some degree  knowable and identifiable—is not Mendelsohn’s alone.  By writing the book and creating the narrative desire that engages us so powerfully, Mendelssohn lets us as readers, in some sense, participate in the search as well.


#DanielMendelsohn
#TheLost
#NarrativeDesire

2 comments :

Susan Griffin said...

Mendelssohn himself is so interesting and wide-ranging in his thought and other writings that I am not surprised that this is excellent.
Susan

Debra Journet said...

Yes. I now want to read his entire oeuvre!