August 18, 2011
Jiří Weil: Life with a Star
Jiří Weil is one of those authors who defies logic and reason. By that I mean that anyone who has read him seems to rate him very highly indeed (now I do too); but few of his books are translated into English, and those that are slip in and out of print. Information about him is so patchy that I have been unable to be absolutely sure exactly when this book was first published. I was spurred into reading this longtime resident of my shelves by the recent reissue of Weil’s ‘other’ novel Mendelssohn is on the Roof. Curiously, the introduction by Philip Roth to this 2002 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Life with a Star is exactly the same as that in Daunt Books’ reissue of Mendelssohn. More curiously, it doesn’t really work as an introduction to either novel, spending only a paragraph on each, and reads as though it was cut from a longer piece by Roth, or simply that he lost interest halfway through.
Life with a Star (1948-49, tr. 1989 by Rita Klimova with Roslyn Schloss) is unlike any Holocaust novel I’ve read. Saying so may be as much offputting as enticing: there must be a part of every reader which thinks, What more can I learn, can I want to know, about this most famous of enormities? Yet this really is something special, partly because it could almost be as good a novel even with the Holocaust removed. How to explain what I mean by that? I could say that, because the book never uses the words ‘German’ or ‘Jew’, it could be considered to have wider application, to be an allegory for difference and oppression. But no, it really is of its time and place: Prague around 1940 as Nazis take control of the city. Instead, it has something to do with the narrative voice and the richness of the central character, his delusions and quirks. He has a story and a style which is winning even without – frankly – the reader feeling pity or fear for him.
The narrator and central character is Josef Roubicek. Or does the centre of the book lie elsewhere? “Ruzena,” he begins his story, addressing his lover, and she infiltrates the pages like a watermark, appearing in the last line too. Her presence serves more than one purpose. Josef (does referring to a character by his forename indicate empathy in the reader?) is telling Ruzena what’s happening to him so that he can tell us. Talking to himself might sever that empathy, or shake the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Ruzena also gives us an insight into Josef’s character before he became defined by his reductive status as a Jew in a city under Nazi rule. In fact what we discover is that Ruzena is not, as the intensity of his passion would have us believe, his wife or lifelong lover, but another man’s wife, and with whom Josef had only a brief fling before they parted. He tells the reader this, but doesn’t seem to believe it himself: he longs for Ruzena and expects to be with her presently. He is perhaps delusional, though a better way of putting it might be that in his current circumstances, any hope to cling to is better than none. Indeed, it might be humour of a sort that Josef’s greatest gripe against the Nazis is that they have caused his lover to flee and left him alone.
Not that Josef doesn’t have plenty of other reasonable gripes against the regime. The real time of the novel details the progressive restrictions placed on ‘us’ by ‘them’. “They kept thinking up new laws and regulations for us. Maybe it was fear that made them so diligent, but I couldn’t understand their fear, because there were so few of us, and, after all, we hadn’t defended ourselves.” Already at the beginning of the book, Josef has “burned even the bed and the wardrobe … because I have no coal and because I didn’t want to give them anything.” There is an cruel comedy to some of his difficulties: he is not allowed to buy meat, only blood (“I could make a soup out of it; at least it was a little like meat”). But he is also not allowed to shop in the morning, and the butcher is sold out of blood by lunchtime. He is forced to relinquish almost everything he owns (“a messenger came from the Community with orders that I hand over any musical instruments or typewriters”), even when everything has already gone. “They continued to want things of me and I didn’t have anything.” He also endures a series of meetings with officials, summonsed to offices across town (when he is no longer permitted to ride the streetcar), which for the purposes of skirting reviewerly cliché I shall refer to as Kafkaish. His meetings with family and sympathetic figures in the city don’t go much better. Once, when Josef is visiting an old classmate, Pavel, two nameless people come to the door and begin examining the room:
They didn’t say a word. They didn’t look at us; they pretended not to see us at all. [...] They only looked at the objects in the room. They calculated loudly between them the quality and sturdiness of various objects; they discussed how they would move the furniture around. We were already dead. They had come to claim their inheritance.
Running through the account the present day are Josef’s memories of the past, largely involving Ruzena, from their first encounter (“She didn’t look like a married woman; she had very lively eyes”) to their parting. The other love of his life is his cat, Tomas, who must remain a secret (“Don’t you know we’re not allowed to have domestic animals?” asks his uncle). Now that Ruzena is gone, Tomas provides Josef with companionship – and with a figure to whom to relate events, for the benefit of the reader.
Josef is surprised when other people don’t comply with the laws “they” impose on people like him. (“I have orders to be home by eight o’clock.” “Well, if you’re concerned about these stupid orders.”) Their uncrushed spirits are tackled by the authorities with the introduction of the star to be worn by all Jews. (“Wear it on the left side, directly on your heart, not any higher or lower. There are very strict regulations about this.”) This produces the expected effect when Josef next goes out in public.
I saw people looking at me. At first it seemed as though my shoelaces must be untied or that there was something wrong with my clothes. In some way I had upset the everyday, accepted order of things. I was a sort of blot that didn’t belong in the picture of the street… I was no longer one of them.
When Josef loses his job in a bank and ends up working in a cemetery, this provides some of the most piercing insights into the psychology of life with a star. Josef becomes unpopular among his new colleagues for objecting to their stories of others being caught and transported. “They felt better when they considered themselves victims, who with the passing of each day had escaped danger once more; they felt better when they decided they had no choice.” The aim of the authorities is simple, as Josef tells his cat. “Happiness does exist. It’s just now that they’re trying to convince us that it doesn’t and that it never did.” Even he is susceptible to forgetting about the “bright colours” of his old life. One man points out, desperately, that the whole planet Earth was going to die anyway, so what does it matter? “That won’t help us,” another retorts. “Even if everyone dies, we will be the first.”
The humour gets blacker still. Unlike other deaths after transportation, suicides are “rewarded with death notices.” One failed suicide frets that he will be prosecuted for using too much gas when he stuck his head in the oven. “I went over my quota.” As Josef works at the cemetery, he notes that those on burial detail “bragged about their closeness to death because they had to brag about something.” Work in the cemetery gives people a sense of purpose, even if it is based on the cruellest of all feelings, hope. It provides them too with a reminder of what normal life was like, with the camaraderie of the workplace. This too can be cruel even while it consoles. Josef through the rest of the book will have surprising turns of luck – and some unsurprising ones. At some level, acceptance of one’s fate can never take place while it is based on a false premise, that some lives are worth more than others. “We would never have admitted that our lives were worthless, because they were our lives, our unique and unrepeatable lives.”