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Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. 292 pp. $26.95.
On a basic level, Hope: A Tragedy centers on a relatively simple plot: Solomon Kugel, a kind of Jewish everyman, a “begin-againer, starterer-anew” (p. 21), his wife, Bree, and son, Jonah, move to an older farmhouse in upstate New York in an attempt to start over. They choose the small farming town of Stockton, precisely because it is a place that “was famous for nothing,” and the village takes pride in the fact of its “non-history,” using it as a selling point to attract urban families like the Kugels who want to escape the burden of the past (p. 12). And yet, as Kugel soon discovers, the past is inescapable, particularly, the novel seems to argue, for Jews.
At a deeper level then, Auslander’s first novel is a darkly humorous meditation on life, death, and the (de)merits of suffering; on the relative values of pessimism, optimism, and reason; and ultimately, on the weight of history, the “tragedy” of hoping for a better future, and finding a way to live with life in the present. “Heaven,” Kugel thinks, “is a place with no memory, no history, no past; sure, some warm memories would be sacrificed along with the bad, but all in all, an improvement. A step in the right directionless” (p. 195). Caught between fear and hope, Kugel sees knowledge as a burden that condemns mankind, and American Jews in particular, to a kind of living death: with knowledge (but no direct experience) of past suffering, Kugel can only expect the worst, and his obsession with death manifests itself in a collection of real and imagined last words of famous people as well as his perpetual list-making, as he keeps a running catalogue of his own pithy experiments with eulogistic one-liners along with a humorously short list of items needed in case of disaster (p. 260).
What becomes clear for Kugel is that his attempt to escape history is impossible, because history—and more specifically a history of Jewish suffering—is not just found in the abstract words disseminated in the books he compulsively reads about the Holocaust, but rather it is embodied, living, and deeply personal. For Sol Kugel, the past is embodied in two women: his ailing mother, who comes to live with him, much to his wife’s dismay, and the most-implausible of Holocaust survivors, Anne Frank, who has been camping out in the attic of the farmhouse for the past twenty years, working on her novel. Both women are monstrous examples of historical revisionism, but in very different ways. Kugel’s mother, despite being born after WWII and having a relatively happy childhood, claims to be a Holocaust survivor. Every morning she performs her own idea of what such suffering entails by waking up screaming, and her idea of a vacation is taking her children to death camps, only to be angrily disappointed when the buildings that housed the gas chambers are no longer visible and available for trauma tourists to pass through. She worries that her grandson will have no memory of his family’s past, so she sets about creating scrapbooks for him. But unfortunately, the photos she collects from extended family members “told a very different story from the one she remembered, or wanted to tell, or wanted Jonah to be told” (pp. 105–06). Paradoxically unhappy with the relatively happy narrative of her American Jewish upbringing, Kugel’s mother seeks to rewrite her family’s past by including images of Kristallnacht, Buchenwald, and Dachau. For her, the only Jewish history worth remembering is one of suffering.
Anne Frank, on the other hand, is monstrous in form, her body twisted and bedraggled from years existing as a literal example of the living dead. She is burdened by the knowledge that readers—as the publisher of her diary informs her—“want a martyr, they want to know that we’ve hit bottom. That it gets better, because it can’t get worse” (p. 60). Optimism, the novel argues, and its trusty sidekick, Hope, rely upon such tragedy. In such a world there is only room for Anne Frank as symbol of suffering, not for Anne Frank as survivor. In his seemingly irreverent incorporation of Anne Frank, Auslander actually provides the reader with an extended examination on the nature of survival and the legacy and commodification of Jewish trauma. At one point, Kugel thinks about the axiom of “Never forget,” and the way it has been recently re-articulated in the context of 9/11. “Why not forget?” Kugel asks (p. 222). “If you don’t learn from the past, said someone, you are condemned to repeat it. But what if the only thing we learn from the past is that we are condemned to repeat it regardless?” (p. 223). A list of human tragedies appears throughout the novel—along with the Holocaust we see mentions of the Armenian genocide, American slavery, the war in Bosnia, 9/11, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cambodia, Rwanda, etc.—that seems to underscore Kugel’s notion that knowledge of past atrocities only serves to remind people how to kill one another in newly inventive ways. Indeed, any attempt to escape such historical burdens, via im/migration (raising the specter of the Wandering Jew) only underscores the ultimate futility of such movements. When Kugel approaches Messerschmidt, Sr., the man who sold him the house, to ask him about its attic denizen, the man responds by providing Kugel with his own family’s history as German immigrants. “Nothing changes,” he says (p. 152). All one can do is attempt to rewrite the past, and his deepest desire is to retreat from the world, to “hide away in their attic, rewriting my life story and waiting for the end” (p. 156).
Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy is an intensely ambitious work that successfully uses humor as a means of grappling with questions of how we define and understand Jewish identity and history and whether we can survive the cycle of hope and fear that we call living.