Jacob Paul is a former actor, a VCFA graduate, and a ferocious mountain climber. His first novel Sarah/Sara was one of Poets & Writers top five first fictions in 2010. Excerpts from his second novel, A Song of Ilan, won the Utah Writers’ Contest in 2008 and the Richard Scowcroft Prize in 2007. Herewith we offer a jubilant and thoughtful appreciation of David Grossman’s See Under: Love wherein Jacob mulls over, among other things, the strangeness of just sitting down and writing about a book you love. After reading this brief essay you’ll wish that more people would take the time and do the same. (Photo of David Grossman via Wikipedia.)
There are several different impulses that make me want to write about a book. Rarely, though – unless the catalyst is a review copy in the mail – is my impulse to just write about how rad a book is – in fact, doing so – unless the catalyst is a review copy in the mail – seems faintly ridiculous. Nonetheless, after reading David Grossman’s See Under: Love, my compulsion to translate adulation into typed language overwhelmed me. My good friend Scott had told me that Grossman had written the book for me, and I’m fairly sure he’s right, even though I was maybe fifteen when the book was published, which by the way, is the wrong age to read See Under: Love. I read it right after I finished writing (I think it’s finished anyway: time and publishers will tell) a novel about the inaccessibility of the Holocaust, and the consequent impossibility of writing about it. Grossman’s book accomplishes everything I wish I could do in mine (including making the argument that postmodernism actually is the Holocaust, not a response to it). It’s tempting to say all the things the book is: a series of experiments, a constant repetition of the same story told in different forms, an anti-postmodernism, an exercise in horror that advocates for love and ends with a prayer that is an encyclopedic entry under ‘payer,’ the most beautiful book I’ve recently (or in memory) read…Or to say how it makes me feel: like the argument for creating beauty is not in conflict with a Platonic striving to be closer to the truth, this after a decades of calling bullshit at sentimentalizing or redemptive accounts of the Holocaust, of which See Under: Love is neither.
But I ought to begin more mundanely, with a synopsis: The novel is really big, 458 oversize (for paperback) pages with words seemingly occupying every corner (I know, this is what all pages do, but it just seems like there are more words on these pages than usual). The book is broken into four experiments. To the extent that they contain a linear chronology, it’s of Shlomo, the Momik of the first section’s title, a child of Holocaust survivors who grows up in a Tel Aviv neighborhood of survivors. In the first section, Momik is a nine-year-old kid whose parents won’t discuss the Holocaust, though it looms everywhere. The section’s action begins with the return of Momik’s great-uncle, who Momik calls Grandfather Anshil, a man so broken by the camps that he is very nearly catatonic, certainly incapable of caring for himself. Anshil is the author of a once-popular children’s book series about The Children of the Heart, a band of heroes who celebrate diversity (in the band’s ethnic composition) and battle injustice. Momik comes to believe that Anshil has told a last, lost story to the commandant of the camp in which he was interred, a Herr Neigel. In Grandfather Anshil, for whose care he is responsible, Momik sees an opportunity to learn the nature of the Holocaust, which he thinks is a beast (and calls, The Beast) that haunts his parents and neighborhood. To do so, he researches the Holocaust at his local library, interrogates his neighbors, and ultimately assembles a museum of horrors in his apartment building’s basement to which, in the section’s finale, he brings Anshil and the several other utterly broken survivors from his neighborhood. When they realize what Momik has assembled, they begin keening and wailing. Momik recognizes his mistake, and recognizes “with all his nine-and-a-half-year-old alter kopf intelligence that it was too late now”(86).
This move, to attempt to compose, to attempt to learn the last story of a victim is repeated in milieu ways in each section, but by the time these stories are told, it is always already too late to reverse the mistake of thinking they might be told. In our desire, as readers, to hear these stories, we become as guilty as Momik, who grows up into the writer Shlomo – whose attempts to write about the Holocaust constitute the subsequent three experiment – who tries wrestle a last story first out of Bruno Schultz, an actual writer whose death in-ghetto-by-Nazi is tragic and absurd even by Holocaust standards, and then from Anshil himself; we become as guilty because we fall in love with the language and sentiment and action in each of the experiments, and somehow, that’s as morally problematic, as tainting, as Anshil’s realization that Herr Neigel is his last great audience, and that he needs that audience, wants it, even though it has killed his wife and child, kills thousands of Jews every day. In a way, we’re guilty of wanting life and beauty, and the novel makes us feel that guilt by allowing us to experience both beauty and lust for life, for continuance despite the Holocaust – something even the most heartless of the Nazi characters Staukeh, Neigel’s second-in-command, refuses to do, consistently trying to kill himself after the war, even though he has no remorse for his actions.
See Under: Love is one of those books that one constantly wants to quote to ones lovers and friends, either because it is beautiful, or because it seems to answer some other question that arises in conversation. But every section I try to quote ends up causing me to start reading, in the interest of context, further and further back until I find myself starting with the first two sentences:
It was like this: A few months after Grandma Henny was buried in her grave, Momik got a new grandfather. This grandfather arrived in the Hebrew month of Shebat in the year 5317 of the Creation, which is 1959 by the other calendar, not through the special radio program Greetings from New Immigrants which Momik had to listen to every day at lunch between 1:20 and 1:30, keeping his ear open in case they called out one of the names on the list Papa wrote down for him on a piece of paper; no, Grandfather arrived in a blue Mogen David ambulance that pulled up in front of Bella Marcus’s café-grocery store in the middle of a rainstorm, and this big fat man, dark but like us, not a shvartzer, stepped out and asked Bella if she knew anyone around her called Neuman, and Bella got sacred and wiped her hands on her apron and said, Yes, yes, did something happen, God forbid?
And in that second sentence is everything anyone ever need know about the world of Holocaust survivors, right down to the vague racism imbedded in the use of the term ‘shvartzer.’ And since it’s inappropriate to read several hundred pages to a friend (or lover) so that she (or he) might hear, properly, one special section, I hope all of you will allow me not to have to, because you’ll run out, right now, and buy and read this book pronto, so that you will have already read the preceding words, and we can sit and marvel at them together, guiltily.
— Jacob Paul
Poets & Writers counted Jacob Paul’s debut novel, Sarah/Sara, as one of the 2010’s top five first fictions. His writing has also appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, Massachusetts Review, Western Humanities Review and Green Mountains Review.