In 1964, Edgar Hilsenrath’s first novel, Night, was published by the Kindler Verlag in Germany. That things ever got that far is something of a miracle. The boss at Kindler, Herr Kindler himself, was afraid the novel might elicit inappropriate reactions from the German public, so he decided to write an afterword in which he explained that this was a “hard and unsentimental book”. That an afterword like that could preclude inappropriate reactions seems a singularly remarkable idea to me.
Still afraid that Night would elicit the wrong reactions from the German public, however, Kindler went on to insist that the author write a foreword in which he claimed that the novel was autobiographical. Later Hilsenrath would state that it was not an autobiographical novel at all, and the foreword was scrapped from subsequent editions.
Yet even then, the fear that this book would provoke inappropriate responses from the German public was not allayed. Kindler sent the book to a number of critics, asking them to tell the publishing house whether they believed that Night might "fuel anti-Semitic tendencies”.
Mr. B. Graubard of the Jewish community in Bavaria wrote back to say that “the Jews in this book elicit no pity, rather the complete opposite”. Moses Lustig, from a Jewish newspaper in Munich, felt that the book was “unreal”. According to him it did nothing to fuel anti-Semitic tendencies, but he was offended by the portrayal of sexuality in Night. Ernest Landau, head of publicity at Kindler, reported to his boss that “the Jewish press is unanimous in its rejection of Night”. Every writer hopes that his book will elicit reactions. But what are inappropriate reactions? Are they to be precluded? And if so, how?
A writer manipulates. For that matter, a crying child probably manipulates as well. And a commercial for detergent is intended to do nothing else. There are subtle and less subtle means of manipulation. And, most importantly, not all manipulation has the same objective. A crying child is probably trying for attention, the commercial tries to sell as much detergent as possible. A novelist tries to make his readers believe something, and experience something. It is good to note here that a sentence in a novel is not there simply because the writer felt like writing that sentence, or because things really happened that way. It is there because the writer feels that this one particular sentence is the most effective one to make the reader feel precisely, and experience precisely, that which he hopes the reader will feel and experience. That a writer can be mistaken, that he often is mistaken, and that the effect may not be the same for everyone, goes without saying.
A novel may seem naive; in other words, it may seem that the writer has given no thought to creating an effect, but that is probably an illusion. It remains possible, of course, that an effect has been achieved accidentally. On the whole, however, I doubt the naivete of most written words, and not only those in novels. By naivete I mean then that the writer is completely oblivious to the effect his words might have.
The chance that the spoken word is naive is somewhat greater. Even if only because, for most people, speaking is a more spontaneous activity than writing. But even then: someone who says “My, you’re looking good today,” will, in 99 percent of all cases, be aware of the effect his words might have. And anyone hoping to obtain a woman’s favors will seldom or never begin a conversation with: “My, don’t you look wrung-out today, you fishwife.” People who enjoy being addressed as “fishwife” belong to a tiny minority. Not only writers therefore, but most people in general are fairly well aware of the effects their words might have.
My admiration goes out to Alfred Hitchcock, whose ambition was to play his audience like a church organ, and who succeeded in doing so almost down to the second.
Of course, manipulation can be used to evil ends. A crowd can be incited and manipulated into plundering and torching a village. But that in itself does not make manipulation a negative thing. A soupspoon can be used to gouge out an eye. That does not make the spoon a culpable object.
Even for a Hitchcock, there is no guaranteed manipulation. Take the following example: a young man smokes a marijuana cigarette, watches the film The Man Who Knew Too Much, and bursts out in gales of laughter at the very moment when the suspense should have strangled him. Does this prove that Hitchcock is a comedian? No. Are these gales of laughter proof that Hitchcock has failed? No. Is Hitchcock responsible for this outburst? If you ask me: no.
There are, in other words, any number of factors over which even the most skillful writer or director has no control. And as much as I would love to have total control over my readers, as much as I would love my words to be a web from which there can be no hope of escape, as much as I dream of playing my readers the way a puppeteer plays his marionettes, I realize that this is impossible. And I would not rule out that, should I ever gain complete control over my readers, I would lose my interest in writing and take up ping-pong instead.
By now I hope it is clear that a writer is not by definition responsible for inappropriate reactions his book might elicit.
Night is set in a ghetto. The inhabitants of this ghetto (Jews, probably, although we are never told that in so many words) do everything in their power to survive. They steal, trade sex for bread and a place to sleep, knock gold teeth out of the mouths of the dead and dying, they allow the sick to waste away, and waste away themselves. That the novel fuels anti-Semitic tendencies must be emphatically denied, and not simply because Hilsenrath himself happened to be a Jew and actually spent some time in a ghetto. A novelist cannot be expected, for the sake of a little Aufklärung, to crowd his book with kindly, benign and sympathetic Jews who, when given the opportunity, also play violin on the roof.
In the long run, Kindler printed only 1,250 copies of Night. Two years later, the book appeared in translation at Doubleday in America and sold 500,000 copies. The American people were apparently considered less suggestible than the Germans.
Those who believed that the Germans were likely to be swayed by Night were respectable people, with good intentions, operating in the service of a good cause: combating anti-Semitism in Germany.
The danger involved in claiming that people may be unduly swayed by a book, or that a book may have side-effects that should be precluded, is illustrated by the following example: A judge in the state of Oklahoma recently ruled that the movie The Tin Drum, after the book of the same name by Günter Grass, is child pornography. Anyone in Oklahoma found in possession of a videotape of that film can be arrested and prosecuted. Just to be clear: this is not a hypothetical example. This is real. The law that made this verdict possible was passed to help ban child pornography from Oklahoma and the United States. Which, as far as I can see, is a reasonably noble objective.
Kenneth Anderson’s comment on the Oklahoma verdict in the Times Literary Supplement seems quite relevant in this regard: “In order to play with power in public life, the right-wing fundamentalists have placed children on a higher plane than their own God. And precisely because they realize that children are a God to non-believers, they have made a public appeal to the well-being of those children in a way they could not to God Himself.” Substitute Jews, Negroes, women or their husbands for the word “children” in the above sentence and you will see how important it is that God’s throne in this world remain vacant.
Hilsenrath had to wait until the late 1970s for his work to once again be published in his native Germany. Although Hilsenrath lived for a time in Israel, and for much longer in New York, he had always continued to write in German. So perhaps the German people had somehow become ripe for Hilsenrath, or perhaps his critics had somehow changed their minds.
Der Nazi & der Friseur (The Nazi & The Barber) appeared in 1977. A novel about a Nazi, a mass murderer, who assumes the identity of one of his victims after the war and moves to Israel to escape prosecution. He has, among other things, shot down thousands of Jews, and in the course of doing so he has taken up the habit of smoking. With admirable empathy, Hilsenrath makes clear that shooting large numbers of people can be a trial in itself; that it can, in fact, induce serious stress.
When the war is over, the Nazi comes to the conclusion that the Jews have won, and he decides to become a Jew himself. Because the Nazi looks quite Jewish (he has brown eyes and a hooked nose) and has always had a Jewish boyfriend, he has no trouble passing himself off as a Jew. He moves to Palestine, marries, and opens a barbershop in Tel Aviv. He forges friendships with many of his former victims, who never discover his true identity. After all, he speaks German just like them, and he has also learned Yiddish, he observes the Jewish holidays, tells Jewish jokes and thinks back with a certain nostalgia on the old Germany. He is, in short, the very model of a German Jew. And, at a certain point, he seems to forget he was ever a Nazi.
Der Nazi & der Friseur is more startling than Night. Hilsenrath’s novel Bronskys Geständnis (Bronsky’s Confession) is funnier than Night. Jossel Wassermanns Heimkehr (Jossel Wassermann’s Return) is sweeter and more melancholy. Das Märchen vom letzten Gedanken (The Fairy-Tale of Final Thoughts) is more expertly constructed. And Ruben Jablonski is more accessible. But Hilsenrath’s best novel remains Night.
The protagonist in Night is a man by the name of Ranek. A man with a hat. A young man, most probably, but even that is not completely certain. What else do we know about Ranek and the ghetto where he lives? That he is looking for food and a place to sleep. That he would like to sleep with a woman, but that he is impotent. That a dead person means a vacant berth. That he steals and lies. That he occasionally trades a place to sleep in return for sex, but - because he is impotent - actually in return for warmth. That as soon as his brother dies, Ranek knocks a gold tooth out the corpse’s mouth, to keep anyone else from stealing it. But because the only tool he has is a hammer, he has no recourse but to smash his brother’s face. That he lusts after his brother’s wife. That a fancy pair of lace panties costs a few weeks’ rations. That a typhoid epidemic is raging.
Wherein lies the power of Night?
First of all, in everything Hilsenrath has left out of it. A considerable portion of this 446-page novel deals with people in search of a place to sleep, in search of things they can trade for food, in search of a table on which to perform an abortion.
None of this becomes tedious, however, because Hilsenrath makes clear that there are no other activities to be performed, that all other activity means death. And also because Ranek’s fantasy and ingenuity seem endless. When all appears hopeless, Ranek nevertheless comes up with a way to find food or a place to sleep. Until he, too, wastes away with typhoid.
The people in Night have no history to speak of. In fact, they have no history at all. And no time for reflection either. They are, and they must survive, or not. There is not a single Nazi in the entire book, only prisoners.
Primo Levi once wrote: “The graffiti you see on occasion: ‘Factory = Lager’, ‘School = Lager’, that I find repugnant: it is simply not true. Nevertheless, and that is the secondary reaction, they can serve as a metaphor. In If this is a man, I myself wrote that the camp was a mirror of the situation outside, but then a distorted one. The fact, for example, that a hierarchy automatically and inevitably arises among victims is something to which not enough thought has been given; the fact that everywhere there are prisoners who advance over the backs of their fellow prisoners.” In Night, Hilsenrath does not show us the things human beings are capable of; we already know about that. He shows us the deftness with which the Nazis manipulated their prisoners, and how deftly those prisoners manipulated each other, and that even the half-dead can be manipulated. Hilsenrath shows us that the better you are at manipulation, the greater your chances of survival. Although you do need a bit of luck. Even the master-manipulator Ranek cannot outwit typhoid.
Edgar Hilsenrath not only continued to write in German, but he finally went back to live in Germany. “‘Ranek was afraid to stand up,’” Hilsenrath writes. “‘I remember that. He sat there very quietly, and only his hands moved at all. His hands stroked your hair, Debora. Again and again they stroked it. And then I said to myself: Debora is happy. And I was a bit surprised, you understand. But then I said to myself: happiness exists here with us, too. There is still the happiness of the benumbed who find a warm blanket. And the happiness of the hungry who find bread. And the happiness of the lonely who find love.’ “The old woman said nothing more then, although there were many things she would have liked to say, if only to kill time…”