The Wall: A Novel
“the effort of reading The Wall will enlarge our understanding [of the Holocaust and its aftermath].”
If it is indeed possible to write poetry—or fiction—after Auschwitz, then perhaps such fiction should be like The Wall: difficult, complex, troubling, annoying, fascinating, often ponderous, sometimes touching, and amazingly insightful in multiple ways.
Caveat to the reader: This novel has no chapters, no sections, and only six space breaks in 618 pages. (There is a helpful list of characters and a short summary of the “principal events,” by page numbers, at the back.)
Essentially, this book—the last in a trilogy about the Holocaust, albeit with different protagonists in each—is a beautifully crafted stream of consciousness of the life, fantasies, and thoughts of Arthur Landau, a middle-aged sociologist who is obviously a Holocaust survivor from either Germany or Austria, although the Holocaust, his native land, and his religion are never explicitly named. Most of the streams flow in and out of about 15 key scenes stretching over some dozen years after World War II (which is also never explicitly cited).
Once the reader gets acclimated to the structure, a coherent plot emerges, and the transitions by and large are seamlessly threaded.
The story—though not the novel—begins when Landau returns to his native city after the war. He has survived unmentioned atrocities, but his parents and his wife, Franziska, were killed.
For a while Landau works in a museum, cataloguing victims’ stolen artwork and other possessions. Eventually, Landau contacts some old acquaintances who had escaped “out there” (presumably England) before the war, in hopes that they can help him obtain a scarce emigration visa.
But England is no haven for a sensitive, tormented refugee. Partly because of his own social awkwardness, passivity, and vanity, and partly because of his supposed friends’ selfishness and obtuseness, Landau flubs one job opportunity after another. He subsists only thanks to the dedication and meager earnings of his much younger and better acclimated wife, Johanna.
Author H. G. Adler—himself a survivor of the Theresienstadt and Auschwitz concentration camps, who died in 1988—has been justifiably compared to Kafka and Joyce in his 26 books. He burrows deep into the discomfort of both survivors and their would-be saviors, beyond the usual cliches. To give just two examples:
“Even as Landau sits at home in London, his two children at school and Johanna busy with housework, he imagines a specter taunting him: ‘Do you mean to deceive me with your little family idyll? You stupid swindler! . . . I let you get away in order to feed upon your powerlessness.’”
Meanwhile, Inge Bergmann, one of his supposed old friends, “could barely stand that I had survived the war, while her own loved ones had been killed.”
As a haunting evocation of the Holocaust and an exercise in writing craft, The Wall is indeed remarkable. But as a novel, it has a crucial flaw: Landau’s prissy personality, especially his refusal of all assistance and his fetish about writing his “Sociology of Oppressed People” (an erudite opus with shades of Edward Casaubon’s supposed epic “Key to All Mythologies” in Middlemarch).
Of course survivors of horrible tragedies are not required to be humbly grateful for help. Nor can they be expected to fit quickly into “normal life.” One of the metaphorical walls to which the title refers is the wall Landau feels between himself and the rest of humanity.
As Landau himself describes his own complicated nature: “His existence, shot through with despair, is nothing but an open wound. . . . He broods a great deal, and in his peculiar thoughts he develops his own path forward on which he cannot recommend that anyone travel along with him. . . . Yet he is grateful, perhaps, and that he has said already. He also does not easily forget.”
But it strains credibility that a person with the visceral determination to survive the Holocaust, as Landau did—whose “will to be is inexhaustible,” as Landau says to himself—would turn down a job writing PR for an acquaintance’s wallpaper company because it is intellectually beneath him, even though he has no money, no other prospects, and a wife and child to support.
Adler’s attitude toward this behavior is not clear. Does he intend the reader to see Landau as a pompous fool or some sort of ethical hero? Or is this all to be excused as the torment of a survivor of unimaginable horrors?
The novel was first published in German in 1989 and has just been translated into English by Peter Filkins, who also translated the rest of the trilogy. Despite his experience, Filkins stumbles into many awkward phrasings. It is jarring to see the intellectual Landau repeatedly use the Yiddish vernacular “schlep” or a 21st century, American term like “snarky.”
Adler took on a huge task in trying to convey the painful panorama of the Holocaust’s aftermath, and he did not make the task any easier on his readers. But the effort of reading The Wall will enlarge our understanding.