March 9, 2009

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well

Posted in Hofmann Michael, Wander Fred at 8:00 am by John Self

Just the other day I remarked on how unusual it is to read a new book that is both important and exciting. And then two come along at once. Strictly speaking, Fred Wander’s The Seventh Well is only ‘new to us’ – it was published in (East) Germany in 1971, where apparently it sank like a stone. Republished in 2005, a year before Wander’s death, it has found a deserved audience and been translated into English by the redoubtable Michael Hofmann, who once again has provided an essential afterword. It is the best new book I have read so far this year.

The cover image shows clearly enough that this is a new (‘to us’) entry in that vast body of work, Holocaust literature. This in itself presents certain problems of preconception. I want to like the book because it is a book on an important subject by a good man. But also, it deserves a harsher eye because of its important subject, to justify its addition to the literature. Hofmann in his afterword observes that “the welter of extreme and unbearable content demands an exceptional awareness and use of form to master it.”

The form which Wander adopts is, first, fiction so heavily informed by memory that the distinction seems to dissolve. He wrote the book a quarter of a century after his liberation from Auschwitz, following the death of his daughter. Second, it contains individual episodes, linked but distinct, drawing together the lives of Jews before the war and their existence in the concentration camps.

“Did you know my Zikmund?” I heard a Jew ask the man in the next bunk to him. “No, you didn’t know my Zikmund, because he was not himself when he came with me to the camp. Because he lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore…”

Lyricism, savagely inappropriate to the camp setting, risks artificially romanticising the prisoners’ former lives. But Wander knows restraint (as that 25 year period, holding his breath and his thoughts, showed). He only rarely resorts to expressions of high emotion, and even then, there is a certain reserve.

Something in him is driven to yell out: I am human! I have known respect! he wants to cry out. I was loved, I had a home, a wife and children, friends. I have performed kindnesses and not asked for reward. I have seen marvellous things, I know the smell of old cities. I could have done anything, achieved everything, and if I didn’t do or achieve, then it was only because I didn’t know, I couldn’t sense…

Here, as elsewhere, Wander’s task is to tell the stories of his (or his narrator’s) fellow prisoners: the first episode, ‘How to Tell a Story’, uses as inspiration Mendel, an inmate who regarded the camp guards “not with hate or accusation, but with curiosity. What is driving this man, those eyes wanted to know.” His other question is, What keeps a man alive? This, inevitably, is balanced by unavoidable details of how a man can die in the concentration camps. “Now they just pushed the victims over the edge.” Or: “Open wagons stuffed full of men, bent double with cold. Only when they die do they stretch out in something resembling dignity.” Or:

When Yossl keeled over at his work in the lumberyard, and the sentries shovelled snow over him as a joke, and the little heap of snow stirred and a small hand emerged from it, and they went on chucking snow over him and laughing and smoking cigarettes, and when we dragged him back to the camp that evening, then Yossl was still not yet dead. He was frozen stiff and his face was as pale as marble, and they stood around him at night in the barracks … and they talked to him, cajoled him and flattered him and screamed at him: “Yossl, listen, you must live, Yossl, don’t go, your mother is waiting, your father is waiting, Yossl, stay with us, keep us company…” And they stroked him and kissed him and rubbed his body with cloths and with snow, they wrapped him in blankets, and they sat him up on the table like a doll, he didn’t keel over, he was frozen stiff, but he wasn’t yet dead. He was frozen, but deep within him there was still a little ember of life, and they stoked it with their affectionate words, with their prayers and their charms, crying and weeping the while: “Yossl, stay!”

Here, then, we have the sort of book which I just want to retype here more or less in full. It does, effortlessly, do justice to its subject matter, which is not the Holocaust generally or the concentration camps specifically. It is what the Jews in the camps spent their existence exhibiting, and which the Nazis in the camps utterly failed to fulfil: what Wander calls “the expression of the vast effort to be human.”

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11 Comments »

  1. nico said,

    I didn’t know about this book, it will be an interesting prospect. I agree with you in your views about ‘Holocaust Literature’, its dangers and complexities. You chose interesting quotes. Have you read Ruth Kluger’s ‘Still Alive’? Your post made me remind that memoir (in my opinion at the level of Primo Levi’s works).

  2. Trevor said,

    Seems I’m reading “Holocaust Literature” all the time now, most of it good thanks to others who weed out the not-so-good ones. Thanks for doing a lot of that for me, John!

  3. John Self said,

    Yes Trevor, it seemed for a while that every new Penguin Modern Classic was Holocaust related – Begley’s Wartime Lies, Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, Wiesel’s Night, Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Weil’s Life with a Star, Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, and so on. But what can one say? They deserve to be read.

    Nico, I haven’t read Kluger’s Still Alive; I must look it out. Incidentally, you may be interested to know that Cynthia Ozick rates The Seventh Well highly.

    EDIT: Nico, as far as I can tell Ruth Kluger’s book is published in the UK under the title Landscapes of Memory.

  4. Isabel said,

    I know a Holocaust survivor and he has a strong will to live and survive. Not even staying in a flooded home and waiting for rescue during the Katrina made him want to die.

    I must read this novel/memoir.

  5. Simon S said,

    This sounds like a wonderful book (if you can call a book with such subject matter wondeful?) and I am off to look it up on amazon right now. Great review.

  6. nico said,

    Yes John, ‘Still Alive..’ was the name they gave it in the US. You are right in what you say about this ‘type’ of writing, but there are so many worth reading. I insist in Kluger’s memoir. It’s really something else (and I echo Isabel’s comment): Today she teaches at Berkeley (and also writes poetry).

  7. John Self said,

    OK OK, nico, I’m trying not to buy any new books but I’ll keep an eye out for it (after I’ve read The Land of Green Plums perhaps!).

    Thanks for the comments Isabel and Simon – and welcome to my blog, Simon!

  8. John Self said,

    The Seventh Well has won the Wingate Prize for fiction and non-fiction on Jewish themes. The Jewish Quarterly, which runs the prize, hasn’t updated its website at time of writing, but you can read the egregious Julie Burchill’s account of the judging process here.

  9. [...] Fred Wander: The Seventh Well The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  ”He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.” [...]

  10. leroyhunter said,

    I read this review a good while ago, and that first quote you chose stayed with me. Finally got around to reading The Seventh Well this week John, and I just wanted to echo your comments about the book, the writing, the translation and Hofmann’s input. It’s a superb book, thanks for highlighting it.

    Interesting to see the memoir / fiction question surfacing here as well. Have you looked into Wander’s biography?

  11. John Self said,

    Glad you liked it, leroyhunter. I haven’t looked into Wander’s biography, and the connection with Galgut’s memory/fiction exploration hadn’t occurred to me – largely because I’d almost forgotten about this book in the 18 months since I read it. So thanks for bringing it back to mind!


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