Short Stories from Europe
by Irving Feldman
Beasts And Men. By Pierre Gascar. Atlantic-Little, Brown. 249 pp. $3.50.
The Marked One. By Jacob Picard. The Jewish Publication Society of America. 267 pp. $3.00.
The Bound Man. By Ilse Aichinger. Noonday Press. 100 pp. $2.75.
These three collections of European short stories are concerned in differing ways with one of the key problems of our time: the need for, and the absence of, genuine community. This is a new theme for fiction. Typically, novels and stories have always dealt with the vicissitudes or development of a hero, the interplay of interest, the relations between men as they take form in love and friendship or their opposites. Yet none of these, not even friendship, is the peculiar thing that community is: for community is friendship with a public content, the sense’ of a vital and necessary relation to others, the sense that one’s happiness and existence depend on others just as theirs depend on oneself. It is precisely this kind of community that totalitarianism destroyed in Europe. The experience of the concentration camps has shown that there is no relation between people so vital and necessary that terror will not break it down, and that it is possible to reduce a man to the point where no one can help him and he can help no one.
In Beasts and Men Pierre Gascar, a French journalist who served in the French army during the last war and was captured by the Germans, attempts to find a new basis for community in the terrors of the war itself. He is not completely successful, but to my knowledge, only Camus among contemporary European writers has tried to do the same. Jacob Picard, a noted German Jewish writer, tries in The Marked One to establish a communion with the Jewish past; if this seems narrower than Gascar’s effort, it is probably because all the stories in the volume were finished by 1938, when Jewish suffering was still singular, and the full scope of man’s bestialization in Central (and Eastern) Europe still unknown. The stories by the young Austrian Ilse Aichinger collected in The Bound Man, on the other hand, seem inspired by a facile existentialism that takes an oddly comfortable and self-righteous delight in affirming what is called “the tragic vision of life,” the essential aloneness and limitation of man. There seems to exist for Miss Aichinger only the possibility of the most tenuous of communities: men bound together by the affirmation of their common aloneness. Unable to reach one another, they yet may reach the same philosophy.
The material in Gascar’s Beasts and Men was originally published in two separate volumes in France, both of which received the Prix Concourt. One of the two, “The Season of the Dead,” is a short novel about a French prisoner of war who witnesses the execution of Jews by the Nazis; it is a really remarkable work hardly equaled in the fiction of the last decade. The other section also deals with the themes of dehumanization and community in a series of symbolic stories about animals and their human masters. The animal stories are done with power and conviction, though they are perhaps less impressive in their grasp of the subject than “The Season of the Dead.”
Gascar’s art lies in conception and form; when he attempts fine turns of language, he often becomes clumsy and obvious. Moreover, he tends to lean too much on pseudophilosophical staffs like Fate, Life, Death; yet it is a rare author who handles such ponderous abstractions and does not collapse under them: Gascar doesn’t, mainly because they are never merely abstract to him. His Fate is really the prisoner’s helpless waiting to be murdered by his guards; his Death is not anything so amiably fulfilling as what Miss Aichinger calls “the end,” it is the stench and decay of the corpses of what had once been human beings; his Life is the thrust and awkwardness of animals and, above all, the rage of hunger and the flowing of blood.
Gascar’s world is haunted by the twin specters of hunger and guilt, a world where all are either guards or prisoners bound to each other by a secret complicity. It is the world of the concentration camp. In one sense, the beasts in the animal stories reflect the dehumanization of their masters, who do indeed exist at a level where notions like Fate and Death have a concrete reality. But from another point of view, they are totemic, flourishing with the decline of their guards, declining with their ascendancy. They are not mere enemies, for the humans are bound to them by a community of hunger and savagery. Of love, too, at times. But this latter, Gascar seems to say, depends upon breaking down the barriers of impersonality and anonymity—the victim must be named; only then can the murderer fully assume guilt, and the murder itself become sacrificial. The crucial act in “The House of Blood,” for example, is the half-mad butcher’s naming of the animals he is about to slaughter.
The main deficiency of the beast stories is Gascar’s attribution of a feeling of guilt to the masters. However, in the concentration camps, according to former inmates, it was the prisoners and not their guards who were overwhelmed by guilt—for only the prisoners had a sense of community and yet were unable to save one another. (The least uncomfortable participants in the Nuremberg war crimes trials were the accused.) This belief that the tormentor has the same moral reaction as the tormented is what accounts for the obsessive quality of the beast stories, for their failure to envision an end to hunger and guilt. The victim who becomes the conscience of his tormentor will only be victimized again, even if only by himself.
In “The Season of the Dead,” this deficiency is repaired. The narrator is a French prisoner of war in the Ukraine. The French suffer hunger and deprivation but, crucially, there is no terror in their relations with the Germans; even a kind of mutual military respect is observed. The narrator is caretaker of the graveyard for the French prisoners. Behind this strangely pastoral foreground is developed the story of the Jews of Brodno who, paralyzed with fear and guilt, hopelessly await their end at the hands of the Nazis. It is a terrible story, yet Gascar’s insight and compassion make it art.
There is a certain pathos about the pious and modest tales of Jewish village life during the 19th and early 20th centuries that make up The Marked Ones. Written for the most part after the advent of Hitler but before the outbreak of the war, their purpose—sometimes explicitly stated within the stories themselves—is to inspire the courage to endure persecution. Picard recalls the Jewish survival of past oppression, the values of Jewish life and religion, and the roots of the Jewish community in German soil. But this very looking backward keeps the stories from being anything more than pathetic. Indeed, the apparent failure of the author to understand the Nazi persecution as more than just another pogrom lends a kind of grotesque quaintness to these tales.
Picard does succeed, however, in capturing the narrow, suffocating life of the village; the extraordinary religious saturation of daily routine; the sense of the Messianic singularity of the Jewish nation, and with this a righteousness not unmixed with vanity. There is the morbid hypersensitivity of Jews to the intentions of their Gentile neighbors toward them; there is the community sustained in the Law, and the passivity of those denied civil rights, and there is the will to endure against “the great distrust of the world, which grew out of ignorance of our fathers and of their true character.” So these figures appear: trained in perseverance but not in resistance, stigmatized if not maimed by old tyrannies. This world is not entirely attractive to me, but Jacob Picard writes of it with great understanding, devotion, and sensitivity.
Ilse Aichinger’s collection The Bound Man seems largely a tedious affair, yet the tedium itself is interesting. Her message, written large and obviously throughout, is an existentialist one: that human life is possible only within its limitations, that awareness of this permits one to realize oneself as a human being, while ignorance of it compels murder, or repetition, or aimlessness, or pose—what may, in short, be called states of non-existence. Thus “The Advertisement” tells of figures on a billboard poster who wish to escape from their “absoluteness” and “purity,” much as if the figures in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” desired suddenly to leap back into this world of dying. All this is treated with a rather labored lyricism which portentously and for no good reason animizes everything it touches—whether Nature itself or things in a poster.
Existentialism, especially in its literary form, yearns toward the dramatic. Yet there is no action and no drama in Miss Aichinger’s stories; she is all mise-en-scène, and must resort to expository discourse, as in “Speech Under the Gallows,” or arid allegory, as in the title story, in order to present the dramatic issue of limitation in a world of absolutes. In short, Miss Aichinger appears not to see the human for gazing so long upon what the dust jacket solemnly calls “the human situation.”
Because it attempts to juxtapose the human and the absolute, Miss Aichinger’s fiction demands comparison with that of a great writer by whom she is much influenced, Franz Kafka. We are told that Kafka laughed as he read his stories aloud to his friends. The dogged humanness of his characters, the passionate way they go on with limited means in an absolute situation—this is the source of Kafka’s comedy. And comedy, it seems to me, is the appropriate response to the existentialist vision. Only for the tragic hero, like Othello, does Desdemona become the whole world; but the existentialist “choice” (the recognition and acceptance of human limitation) never means a turning away from the absolute—on the contrary, one continues to recognize the absolute all around. Miss Aichinger, however, tries to force a tragic dignity on the essentially comic existentialist situation, she tries to show that, if we recognize it for what it is, the human situation is good. It seems more vital to show that somehow it is laughable.