Saturday, January 30, 2010

Two books that you absolutely should read...

...unless you suffer from an unfortunate and deep-seated aversion to memoirs, especially memoirs that (unlike political memoirs) are actually written by the person who claims to be writing them.

Sophie Williams, Escape into Danger: A World War II Memoir (New York: Mir Collection, 2009).

Georg von Trapp [yes, the Sound of Music captain], To the Last Salute: Memories of an Austrian U-Boat Commander, translated and with an introduction by Elizabeth M. Campbell [Georg's and Maria's granddaughter] (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

We begin with Ms. Williams.

I received this book as a gift from a co-worker of mine, who told me, "My friend has published a book and you have to read it." I thanked her for it and took it with me when I went out for lunch alone that day, figuring I'd read a few pages. A hundred and fifty pages later, having already missed one business meeting and being in severe danger of missing a second, I forced myself, with a mighty effort of will, to close the book and go back to work. I spent the rest of the afternoon failing miserably to get anything done, while wondering (in the middle of conversations nominally about software configuration) whether young Sophie had wound up with Aleksandr or Guido or Otto or none of the above, and how long it was going to take her to figure out that Herr Mannheim had hell's own crush on her, and, most of all, whether Sophie's mom and Tetya Valya and even (ludicrous as it seems) Sophie herself -- were they going to survive? Now, obviously, Sophie survives, because she wrote the book. But her retelling is so vivid, and the book so successfully transports the reader back into the world of Sophie's youth, that your imagination doesn't trust what the cold logic of your intellect is telling you. Sophie is so clearly in danger, that your imagination cannot accept that she is safe.

Sophie's is one of the all-time great stories, one of those true stories that no fictional writer could ever sell convincingly because some life goes beyond what art can imitate. It would be grossly irresponsible for me to fill this review with spoilers; but that very greatly limits what I can say, for the story itself is moving and thrilling and tense and emotionally complex. And there isn't much to say about the style, because Williams employs the perfect style for such a story: a simple, unpretentious, never-mannered diction that simply tells her story and stays out of the way. For this story you don't want a Nabokov or a Poe; you want a Hemingway. I have no idea whether Williams could have filled her book with stylistic beauties and flourishes that would stop you in your tracks and make you say, "Oh, I have to remember that phrase; it's perfect." I know only two things: (a) she doesn't, and (b) if she had, it would have been disastrous. The last thing this epic tale needs, is a style that constantly distracts you from the story Williams is telling by calling attention to the way in which Williams is telling it. Whether Williams chose the simple style deliberately, or whether she knows no other way to tell a story, is irrelevant: it is exactly the right style for this story.

Williams takes you back to the world of a teenaged Ukrainian Jewish girl caught in Ukraine's national nightmare of Nazi occupation -- yet the world Williams takes you back to, is not a nightmare world. Looking back sixty years later, with the wisdom of eighty years in her pocket, Williams manages to recreate for the reader the usually clueless but always charming teenager who was too busy falling in and out of love and friendship -- too busy living -- to be always dwelling on the Damoclean sword looming over her days. (Not, I hasten to say, that she never felt horror or fear. But the things that make life worth living...well, with death all around her, life kept breaking in.)

For example, Williams-as-narrator understands, and allows us to see, that Herr Mannheim could hardly decide whether he wanted to adopt Sophie or make her his mistress; his manner vacillates between the jealousy of a lover and the protectiveness of a father, and he clearly loved her passionately in both senses simultaneously. But Sophie had no clue; and his behavior is carefully painted through young Sophie's eyes -- we see as with double vision both how Sophie is interpreting his actions (for they are described from her teenaged perspective) and what his actions really mean (for we, the readers, are no longer teenagers ourselves). This is no mean feat for a first-time author writing in her fifth language.

In the end, however, I think it's the characters that most capture the reader's imagination and heart. Sophie's charm clearly had much to do with her ready acceptance of the people around her; slotting people into pre-existing classifications was not her nature as a teenager and is not her nature sixty years later as a narrator. As a consequence, she could see the individuals where other people would have seen labels; and her characters are both sharply and clearly drawn, and unlike any other characters you are likely to have met in literature. Williams makes clear the reasons that her father's first marriage was a disastrous failure and his second a lifelong success, for example, simply by setting down two conversations fifty pages apart: one in which her mother pours out her bitterness over her father's infidelities, and one in which her stepmother "Tetya Valya" tells, with immensely good-natured satisfaction, of having once temporarily thwarted them:
"...We are happy together. And this," [Tetya Valya] added with emphasis, "despite his occasional trespasses."

"His what? Trespassing means unlawful crossing of Soviet borders." I was perplexed and intrigued at the same time.

Tetya Valya laughed. "Your papa is no angel, that's what I meant. He has, or rather had a little black book where he kept addresses of the women he could visit while in Moscow. I found that book and obliterated certain entries. When my lovable Misha returned from his subsequent trip to the capital, the first thing he did when he stepped off the train was brandish his fist at me, saying with a grin, 'You spoiled my trip!' That's your papa." She shook her head with a little smile.
It takes a moment for Sophie to adjust; but only a moment, for she is no moralizer: her father was who her father was, her mother was who her mother was, Tetya Valya was who Tetya Valya was -- and Sophie loved them all.

To take another example: the most noble and honest and honorable and admirable character in the book, by far, is the Nazi senior officer Herr Mannheim. Is it possible that Herr Mannheim was responsible for atrocities that Sophie never knew of? I suppose so, though it is difficult to think so given his treatment of young Sophie and what we later learn of his family life, and certainly Williams gives us no reason to think that he was personally involved in such horrors as Babi Yar. What is clear, though, is that in all her own dealings with him, Sophie found him to be kind and gentle and protective and inflexibly honorable, even though Williams (looking back) knows herself to have been headstrong, clueless, and much less generous with her gratitude than he deserved. For the first time, I have read a book that describes in detail a Nazi officer, and have come away saying simply, "I wish I could have known that man."

A postscript to the review: I finished the book that first night, and came back to Marina the next day saying simply, "I have to meet this woman -- is there any way you can arrange for us to have lunch?" Lunch was duly arranged, and I have rarely spent a more enjoyable hour. Williams is in her mid-eighties now, but the lively charm that beguiled half the men she met still has all its force, and you are unlikely to meet anybody who more fully incarnates the phrase "joie de vivre." The world is a nicer place because Williams is in it; and how delightful to know that she has left behind this breathtaking and charming memoir to live on long after her friends lose her -- which God grant is not for many years yet.

I was going to follow that review up with a review of To the Last Salute, which is very similar to Escape into Danger in so many ways as to make them almost a two-volume compare-and-contrast gift set. But I think this post is long enough as it stands; and my kids are awake. So I'll come back later and talk about Captain von Trapp.


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