Book Notes: Harry Kemelman’s Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

This is the first in a series of mystery novels about Rabbi David Small. The mystery in this first novel in the series is nothing special. I knew who the murderer was 3 seconds after the murderer’s first appearance. But the rabbi is priceless.

The novel was written in the 1960s when there seems to have been a hope to create a way of being Jewish that lay between the Hasidic lifestyle and the completely irreligious marching-with-the-BLM and wailing-at-faculty-meetings-about-the-importance-of-pronouns lifestyle. Kemelman’s rabbi is trying to create that midway option but even in the 1960s it seems to be too late. The congregation doesn’t want rabbinical wisdom. It wants to discard every marker of Jewishness and just fit in. It’s interesting to read the novel now that we know how the story ends.

Quite a few paragraphs from the novel sound like they have been lifted straight from Rod Dreher’s blog. American Christianity is right now experiencing what American Judaism went through 60 years ago. If Kemelman’s novel is to teach us anything, it’s that Dreher is right to worry. People need to feel that their lives have a transcendent aspect. Once you erase religion from their lives, they start trying to wrench transcendence from places that aren’t suited for that purpose. The result is always ugly.

As I always say, the people who stop believing in the Savior become the Savior. And that’s very scary.

Book Notes: Lidia Falcón’s The Children of Those Who Lost

What happens when your side loses the biggest political conflict of your country’s history? What do you do if the winners establish an authoritarian regime where you aren’t allowed to express your beliefs, read your books, or teach your values to your children? Do you conform and watch your children be brainwashed with the lies that deny everything you hold dear? Or do you resist, knowing that you are dooming your kids to being pariahs in their own country?

Lidia Falcón’s family was on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War. The men of the family were killed or exiled, but Lidia’s grandmother, mother, and aunt made heroic efforts to raise Lidia in the spirit of resistance to the stultifying, anti-intellectual, and repressive environment of the dictatorship. And yes, the words “resistance” and “fascism” have been emptied of all meaning in English but this was was actual resistance to real fascism.

Lidia is now in her eighties. She fought against the dictatorship and later became a writer and a politician in the democratic Spain. Today, she’s waging a battle for true feminism and against the gender dogma of the radical left. Lidia’s conclusion is that, even in the most oppressive regime, you should definitely raise your children to know the truth and uphold the values of true liberalism. She’s very grateful to her family for not allowing the dictatorship to conquer her young brain.

The story is far more complicated than that, though. Lidia’s aunt and cousins had to leave the country and go into exile. Her mother, whom Lidia loved with great intensity, committed suicide because she couldn’t bear seeing her daughter jailed by the dictatorship.

There are no easy answers in this book, which is what makes it great. If there are any fellow Hispanists reading this post, I highly recommend this book for college courses on the postwar Spain. It’s so much better than Carmen Martín Gaite’s work. You truly get a feeling of the misery, the horror, the hunger, and the idiocy of the postwar years from Falcón’s writing. Compared to Falcón, Martín Gaite is so bourgeois, and I hate this word but I don’t know how else to put it. Falcón writes about people who celebrated a boiled potato as a great feast, not about the idiotic chicas topolino and their inane concerns.

Falcón also hates Carmen Laforet’s writing and simply eviscerates all of the literary idols of the 1940s. It’s so good. Highly, highly, highly recommend the book.

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

Klara spent hours today drawing while I read Borges.

She draws or paints or makes collages for hours each day. This photo is from the midpoint of today’s artistic process. By the end, the whole floor was covered in pictures.

Book Notes: Hans Fallada’s Iron Gustav

Hans Fallada is a German writer who wrote about Germany in the first half of the twentieth century better than any other author I read. His novels about World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Germany are devastating. You can almost physically feel the darkness gathering from one novel to another and then culminating in the horror of Nazism.

I always thought Fallada believed that the source of Germany’s darkness was the defeat in WWI. This is a conventional approach which positions the humiliating reparations and the subsequent economic collapse as the reason for the rise of Nazism.

Iron Gustav, however, makes it clear that this wasn’t what Fallada believed at all. The whole point of the novel is that the darkness was already there before WWI started. Fallada locates the root of the problem in German culture. The novel was written in 1937, and Fallada was in Germany at the time, so obviously he couldn’t explain in great detail exactly what he meant by all this. But it’s completely clear from the novel that he sees in pre-war Germany a fixation on death and destruction that later culminated in Nazism.

I read the preface after finishing the novel, so it’s only when I completed the reading that I found out what the publication history was and why the novel seemed so disjointed and deficient. It turns out that Goebbels supposedly asked Fallada to add some bits about the rise of Nazism to the novel. Fallada seemed to have been reluctant but he ended up doing it. Two of the main characters ended up joining the Nazi party.

For a reason I will never be able to fathom, the publishers of the edition I was reading – the only complete edition of the novel in English, supposedly – decided to edit out the parts about Nazism. This left the novel disjointed and often incomprehensible. It’s obvious from the logic of the text – and from our knowledge of history – that these characters were going to join the Nazis. We know for a fact that somebody joined the Nazis. Nazis were real. There’s nothing unsavory in portraying the rise of Nazism and letting readers know that there were Germans who became Nazis.

Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi leadership’s hated what Fallada ended up writing about their party and prevented the book from being sold. So it’s not like Iron Gustav was glorifying Nazism. Be that as it may, I don’t understand the decision posthumously to edit a novel because you don’t like how it came to exist. I would have preferred to read the complete novel. The way writers do their work in totalitarian societies is fascinating.

I’m upset by this because my German is rudimentary and I’ll never be able to read the actual text of the novel.

Folding Laundry

Another group of people I don’t understand are those who fold their laundry in their laundry rooms.

Granted, I’m no specialist on laundry folding. I only discovered the idea of folding laundry after my thirtieth birthday and the concept of a laundry room after turning 35.

Still, unless your laundry room is palatial, why would you want to spend any time in it? It’s lonely and there’s nothing to do. Or do people stick TVs in there?

I love folding and do it in my bedroom while chatting with Klara or watching TV.