Sunday, 14 February 2010

Mysterious Meetings

I'm a big fan of "genre fiction", thrillers in particular. Like a lot of active readers, I simply find most contemporary "literary" fiction anaemic and dull, pedestrian in its pace and stunted in its range of reference. And, worse than that, and most surprising, most of it is terribly badly written. At least, in those respects that I value. I love, for example, the idiomatic vigour achieved by writers who feel an obligation to make their dialogue crackle. Where else can you find characters who say things like, "Oh, a long time, since God's dog was a puppy" (Lee Child), or, "Most people are so dumb they need printed instructions to pound sand down a rathole" (George V. Higgins) ? Not in most of the Booker Prize shortlist, that's for sure.

Of course, the main objection to genre fiction is that "life is not like that". To which the best response is, "What, you mean, it's not composed of words, 300 pages long, and bound between illustrated covers? I guess you're right. But fiction is exactly like that." There's something oddly adolescent about a concern, regarding any artform, that it does not accurately reflect life. Well, duh. I refer you (once more) to the post containing my favourite Picasso anecdote.

That understood, however, it is very pleasing when real life does approach the condition of a thriller. I came across an example recently, following up some references to the Lithuanian/French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (OK, I don't just read thrillers). It appears Levinas -- having spent WW2 interned as a prisoner of war -- had a post-war meeting with a mysterious character, known only as "Monsieur Chouchani", which deeply influenced his thinking. I have lifted this account from the Wikipedia article:
In 1945 Levinas closest friend, Dr. Henri Nerson a Jewish obstetrician, told him about an outstanding and quite bizarre individual he came to know during the years of the War in the area of Vichy. The man was so unusual that even his real name was not known. He used to be called Chouchani but this was more of a nickname than his true one. His external appearance was quite unpleasant, some say even repugnant. However, according to Nerson his knowledge was phenomenal. Nerson, who was known for his sober way to apprehend people and situations, was clearly in a state of excitement as if he would have become an adept of some sect. He strongly recommended to Levinas to meet Chouchani, but for two years Levinas refused. After all Levinas was quite suspicious as to what this "clochard" looking man could contribute to him. Finally in 1947 Levinas agreed to meet Chouchani. We know very little about the meeting itself. But there exists a myth. The myth suggests that they met for an entire night, and in the morning Levinas said to Nerson as he was about to leave: "I can not tell what he knows, all I can say is that all that I know, he knows". Be the accuracy of this myth as it may, one fact remains undisputable. From then on, Levinas became interested in the study of Talmud to a point where most of his free time, he would devote to studying it.
What a cracking setup for an upmarket thriller, eh? I wonder what Levinas' weapon of choice would be? Probably something small but elegant, and easily concealed -- a switchblade, or a spring-loaded cosh? And how much punishment could he take in the cellar of the wicked Nazi Dr. Heidegger? Just imagine the potential for a truly surprising (and philosophically challenging) "reveal" towards the end.

An even more intriguing mysterious meeting, though, is the one between the aforesaid Heidegger (philosopher-king of existentialism and Nazi academic careerist) and the Romanian, German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan, who spent the war in forced labour camps and whose family was exterminated by the Nazis and their Romanian collaborators. Celan is notorious for the obscurity of his poems, the most famous of which, "Todesfuge" (Death Fugue), has nonetheless become an anthology piece, and is regarded as perhaps the definitive artistic response to the Holocaust. Heidegger is also known for the difficulty of his writings, but has become even more notorious in recent times (and, to some, discredited as a philosopher) following the revelation of his Nazi Party membership and persecution of Jewish colleagues subsequent to his appointment as Rector of Freiburg University in 1933.

Accounts vary about the meeting between the two. If you're not familiar with the protagonists, then its poignancy and mystery may elude you. It took place in 1967 at Heidegger's secluded Black Forest mountain chalet in Todtnauberg, but no-one knows what actually happened there. Celan wrote a typically elliptical poem about the occasion, "Todtnauberg", which gives little away.

It is known that Celan was an admirer of Heidegger's philosophical work, but was baffled by Heidegger's post-war failure to account for his actions during the Nazi period. It is also know that Heidegger admired Celan's poetry, and that the encounter was at his invitation, following a lecture by Celan at Freiburg. Imagine: a Jewish holocaust survivor, a world-class poet writing in the language of his oppressors, meets in secret a first-order academic existentialist philosopher, who had been a Nazi and remained in Germany throughout the war, as an approved university administrator who gave some philosophical underpinning to National Socialist ideas. You can bet they didn't talk about football. Some think Celan had expected to receive some sort of apology from the philosopher, but was disappointed. Some think Heidegger had expected to be lionized by the poet, but was also disappointed.

A bit of a damp squib, then; or, perhaps, a last hope extinguished. But this is where thrillers differ usefully from life, and from the typical literary novel. What Celan should have done, of course, once he had disarmed Heidegger, was to handcuff him to a radiator. Then sprinkle the petrol he had discovered in an outhouse during his previous night's reconnaissance all over the chalet. Then threaten to set fire to the place unless he got a crystal-clear, uncharacteristically unambiguous written statement of apology ("And none of that cryptic Dasein shit, matey"). And then maybe set fire to the place, anyway.

A far more satisfying ending, perhaps. But, as the critics of genre fiction say, life is not like that. In real life, it was Celan who committed suicide three years later in 1970, aged 50, and Heidegger who died of natural causes at the age of 87 in 1976.

1 comment:

Martin H. said...

It's an odd and somewhat short-sighted view, some people have, that authors of 'genre fiction' do not draw on 'real' life for the "idiomatic vigour" that injects spirit into their work. The fact is, truth is often stranger than fiction. Just a shame that some readers allow themselves to become a stranger to it.

Nice post.