Arnon Grunberg



On writers and witnesses – Gornick in NYRB:

‘In 1925 a girl named Marina was born in Riga, the capital city of Latvia, to a Jewish Latvian father and a Protestant Italian mother. Ten years later the parents underwent an acrimonious divorce and the mother took Marina and her sister back to Italy. The girls were raised by their maternal grandmother in an Alpine village not far from Turin, because their mother, a schoolteacher with no taste for family life, preferred to find work far from home, just as she had been doing in Latvia. Marina’s father, meanwhile, remained in Riga, where he, along with tens of thousands of other Latvian Jews, was rounded up in late 1941 after the Germans invaded. Within the year, he was murdered.
Jarre always remembered the city of her birth as a place where “our pediatrician was German; our driver Polish; the cook Latvian; the sleigh drivers Russian; the man who beat the carpets Latvian; my teacher German; Mamma’s lawyer Latvian.” A place of exchange, that is: “How many foreigners we were, sitting under the lamp in the never-ending winter, welcomed in our beautiful city, which thus belonged to no one.”’


‘In her mid-twenties Jarre married and settled with her husband in Turin. In the fullness of time, she gave birth to four children, taught high school French, and worked relentlessly to become a literary figure in good standing in her adoptive country—which she did. Yet she never stopped seeing herself as an immigrant writer always uncertain that her Italian was measuring up. When she died in 2016, she left behind more than a dozen published works—novels, memoirs, short story collections—many of which are concentrated on questions of cultural identity. To date, none of Jarre’s fiction has been published in English, but within the past two years her two memoirs—Distant Fathers and Return to Latvia—have been brought to us by the distinguished translator Ann Goldstein.
These books are written in associative rather than narrative prose, mingling indiscriminately the observations of Jarre as she is at the time of writing (in her sixties and seventies) with the storytelling recollections of the child and young woman she once was. As such, they provide the reader with a sympathetic persona who comes most alive through an internal monologue of almost novelistic proportion.’


‘Sexually, the union was a distressing failure; out of that failure, others, even more consequential, emerged. The emotional rift between Jarre and her husband grew exponentially. Nonetheless they stayed together for more than forty years, neither partner providing the other with comfort, yet neither quite giving up on the other. For a short time, after they had been married a good ten years, they seemed to rediscover the promise that marked their early years together. Suddenly they were making love again. (It was during this period that their fourth child was conceived.) Ultimately, however, the renewed attraction ran its course and the marriage was back to square one: It had seemed to us we were setting out toward a physical understanding that had till then been lacking in our union….
In reality I continued to be ignorant and alienated regarding the practice of sex; my husband contributed to this, and, not much more expert than I was, had, with a certain ill will toward the hostile female body, fueled my sense of guilt for my coldness…. So—without realizing it—I got used to compensating for that failure of ours with the other riches of my life….
I was an elegant pregnant woman.
As it turned out, Jarre loved having children, and it is with her three sons and her daughter that she takes her measure of whether she has sufficiently survived her childhood to pass for a normal person capable of normal intimacy. Not, she concludes, a raving success. In one sense, she thinks, she has “escaped the snares of a rather wild upbringing,” but in another that wild upbringing still (here comes an extraordinary phrase) “runs around on its own and passes itself off as me.” By which she means that to this day she remains a stranger to herself. It is with her daughter that Jarre has tried the hardest to bond, and she worries daily about losing the connection she is never certain they have actually forged. The fallout from those early years is ever with her, making her suspect that perhaps she does not and never will have the emotional wherewithal to achieve, with anyone, the salvation of ordinary relations. Perhaps it is only with writing that she will ever pull it all together.’


‘Italy certainly had its share of physical despair during World War II, but the quotidian reality—when the fighting was far away and daily existence allowed to occupy one’s immediate attention—was such that Jarre could write with striking equanimity in Distant Fathers: I was fifteen when, on June 10th [1940], I went out to the square to listen to Mussolini’s speech; I was twenty when I saw the Germans leave Torre Pellice. What are usually called the best years of one’s life are for me contained between those dates. The war and the partisan struggle were part of my days not unlike the smell of the winter air and the sound of barking dogs on dark November evenings.
But that Jewish father of hers poses an intractable problem. Over all the years since the war, she tells us, as she has repeatedly been questioned about her relatives in Latvia (her father’s entire family perished along with him), she has had to puzzle out another, more inconvenient reality. She was ten years old when she left Riga. In the intervening years her father has become a distant memory and, living in northern Italy, where she has never been punished for being a Jew, the Holocaust has had no visceral reality for her. So, in an odd way, until she was quite old she felt as though she had no real right to mourn.’


‘She learns that the Nazis were welcomed in Latvia, then under Soviet occupation, as liberators: “The German troops…entered a jubilant Riga, decked with Latvian flags; from the windows, open wide to the sun, came the notes of the national anthem.” It wasn’t just that the Latvians hated the Soviets, it was that many were themselves fascists.
She begins devouring wartime testimonials—“The second evacuation began on Monday, December 8, 1941,” she learns from Max Kaufmann in The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia—and can’t stop reading Holocaust histories, especially the ones relating to Latvia. From the Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg she learns that “the Latvians were represented as heavily as any nation in the destruction of the Jews.” A cousin speculates, as though in corroboration of Hilberg’s estimate, that “if the Latvians hadn’t offered their services as executioners, the situation wouldn’t have become so terrible.” Jarre realizes that in fact there is little the Latvians could have done for their Jewish fellow citizens under the German occupation…. But that terrible zeal to obey, that brutality, how to forget that? And the complicit denial afterward?… It is precisely that denial that has consumed the memory no differently from the pyres that consumed the bodies.
She thinks about her father, moving inexorably toward his death on November 30, 1941. She wonders exactly how far in advance of that date he must have realized what was coming.’


‘Somewhere in If This Is a Man, Levi wrote that the first time a man looked at another man and saw “a thing,” the situation would end in holocaust. After that, his entire body of work was written to put flesh on the skeleton of that sentence, to make you, the reader, feel its meaning on your skin. That was the motivation not of Levi the witness but of Levi the writer. It was the writer in him who was calling the shots; the writer who wanted—needed—to understand for himself exactly what his experience in Auschwitz had meant; how it had shaped the man who was writing the book we were reading. In short, because Levi the writer dominated when Levi the witness sat down to compose a memoir, the testimony of the witness was made significant.
Jarre’s trip to Latvia in 1999 showed her how easily she would have been exterminated in her childhood had she remained in Riga, not just because of the Nazi invasion but, more importantly, because her Latvian compatriots would have taken a willing hand in cutting her life short. It is with this fatal lack of fellow feeling at the heart of the culture into which she was born that Jarre wants her readers to be pricked, penetrated, nailed. Well and good. The problem isn’t what she wants; the problem is she doesn’t want it enough.’

Read the article here.

Two names came to my mind while reading this essay.

Natalia Ginzburg, the Jewishness, the war, the struggle with love, the Italians.

And the artist Boris Lurie who wrote with insight and bitterness about his youth in Riga. (I wrote an essay about Lurie and his work on the occasion of an exposition in The Hague. Readers who know Dutch can reqd it here.)

The question when a witness becomes a writer is a delicate one. I would say for example that Filip Müller’s memoir about his years as a member of the Sonderkommando is literature.

Insufficient intent is quite a charge, especially given the history that is at stake here.

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