The Golem (2007)

Jack Ross: To Terezín (2007)

The Golem

1 – Heteronyms
When I am thinking about a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz
– Imre Kertesz (Reuters, 2002).

Michael Chabon: Summerland (2003)

On the copyright page of my paperback edition of Michael Chabon’s novel Summerland, published by Fourth Estate (London) in 2003, appear the following words:
The right of Jonathan Franzen to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. (Chabon, 2003, p. ii).

Jonathan Franzen? But isn’t the book by Michael Chabon? Maybe they collaborated on it. Perhaps one is a pseudonym (the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa referred to his various literary personae as “heteronyms”) for the other. In that case, which is which? More to the point – which one is real?

Michael Chabon, a consultation of various blurbs and internet sites informs me, was born in 1963 in Washington D.C. He grew up in Columbia, Maryland – according to the blurb for Kavalier and Klay (Chabon, 2001) – or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – according to the blurb for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Chabon, 1988).

In any case, he now lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. He is the author of four novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), a novella, The Final Solution (2004), two collections of short stories, a “serial novel,” Gentlemen of the Road, appearing at present in the New York Times magazine, and the novel The Jewish Policeman’s Union, promised for May 1, 2007 (Michael Chabon, 2007).

Jonathan Franzen, by contrast, was born “near Chicago” in August 1959. He grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, but now lives in New York City. He is the author of three novels, including the National Book Award-winning The Corrections (2001), a collection of essays, How to Be Alone (2002), and – most recently – an autobiography, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (2006) (Franzen, 2007).

Let’s make a little chart:

1959Jonathan Franzen born (Chicago)
1963Michael Chabon born (Washington, DC)
1987The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
1987-92abortive work on Fountain City
1988The Twenty-Seventh City
1992A Model World and Other Stories
1992Strong Motion
1995-2001working on The Corrections
1995Wonder Boys
1999Werewolves in Their Youth: Stories
2000The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
2001The Corrections
2002How to Be Alone
2003(ed.) McSweeney’s Treasury of Thrilling Tales
2004(ed.) The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist
2004The Final Solution
2006The Discomfort Zone
2007Gentlemen of the Road (15-part serial novel)
2007The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

There’s nothing actually impossible to reconcile here. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that relaxed (Jewish) family-man Michael Chabon acts as the mask for tortured (WASP) loner Jonathan Franzen, then we can see at once that Chabon’s alleged traumatic battle with his abortive second novel Fountain City – “Where Mysteries had been a kind of Drake’s voyage, a wild jaunt in a trim ship to make marvelous discoveries and conduct raucous pirate raids on the great ports of American literature, Fountain City was more like the journey of Lewis and Clark, a long, often dismal tramp through a vast terrain, in pursuit of a grand but fundamentally mistaken prize. Mosquitoes, sweltering heat, grave doubts, flawed maps – and, in my case, no Pacific Ocean at the end” (Chabon, 1995) – coincides with Franzen’s own fictional debut. Similarly, while the latter spent seven years grappling with the intricacies of The Corrections, the former was dashing off two novels and a collection of short stories.

The suspiciously long gestation periods in both author’s careers are thus neatly plugged by the conjecture that they are one and the same person. As Chabon remarks in Wonder Boys, his novel about an author obsessed with an unfinishably vast master-work:
Motivation, inspiration were not the problem: on the contrary I was always cheerful and workmanlike at the typewriter and had never suffered from what’s called writer’s block; I didn’t believe in it.

The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming … it stood, as of that morning, at two thousand six hundred and eleven pages, each of them revised and rewritten half a dozen times. (Chabon, 2000, pp. 11-12).

Like Stephen King’s “Richard Bachman,” like Evan Hunter’s “Ed McBain,” like Ruth Rendell’s “Barbara Vine,” Jonathan Franzen appears to have constructed an alter-ego to draw off the flak, to divert attention from himself, above all (perhaps) to justify his inexhaustible creative fecundity. “Mr Difficult” (the title of a new essay added to the 2003 paperback edition of How to Be Alone) may well be, at the same time, America’s sweetheart: “nominated by The New Yorker as one of twenty writers for the 21st Century,” according to the blurb for Wonder Boys (Chabon, 2000).[1]

It’s as if Mark Twain and Henry James turned out to have been the same person all along.

2 – Matchboxes

Golem stories are all hard telling.
– Gustav Meyrink (Meyrink, 1972, p. 43).

But I can see that I’ll have to go back a bit in time to explain this sudden interest in Summerland and the other works of Messrs Chabon and Franzen.

While collecting various bits-and-pieces of local ephemera to bring back as presents from the Czech Republic (as one tends to do in exotic places), I came across a display-case full of Golem matchboxes. There were also Kafka T-shirts, Prague Castle tea-towels, Charles Bridge coasters, Metamorphosis mugs, but I won’t bother you with those. (Funnily enough, I was actually looking for pieces of Jaroslav Hašek – Good Soldier Švejk – memorabilia, but that’s another story …)

The Golem matchbox defeated me. Its jaunty, kitschy absurdity seemed pleasingly at variance with the heavy-handedness of so much of the official culture I’d run into there: ostentatiously “post-modern” plastic statues of President Havel with a bra and suspenders, automobiles made out of toilet-rolls, pictures of scruffy losers participating in happenings … all the stuff that would have seemed so daring in the days of Yoko Ono. I bought it. It wasn’t expensive.

What’s more, I had the perfect recipient in mind: my friend Sarah Shieff of Waikato University, who makes a speciality of Golem lore (one of her more daring conjectures is the relationship between the Golem of Jewish legend and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gollum, that cringing, treacherous, slimy little sneak … (but see further Shieff, 2006)).

Sarah seemed inordinately pleased to get the matchbox (if I’d known just how pleased she’d be, I might also have presented her with the set of Golem playing cards which had been given away to another friend). It looked like a fairly paltry offering to me, but she repaid it by lending me two things: one a rather blurry dub of the German expressionist film The Golem; the other a copy of Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

The film proved to be a bit of a disappointment. I’d heard it was a classic, but it was actually long, static and boring (though the Golem himself has a kind of loony zest about him). Predictably, I discovered later that there are in fact two films: the 1915 Der Golem, dir. Henrik Galeen and Paul Wegener, based loosely on Gustav Meyrink’s novel, and a 1920 “prequel” entitled Der Golem, wie er in der Welt kam [The Golem: how he came into the world], dir. Karl Boese and Paul Wegener (Internet movie database, 2005). Both are generally entitled The Golem in English, but the first – fabulously rare – is set in the present day, while the second – described by one critic as more impressionist than expressionist – takes place in 16th-century Prague. They’re often confused with one another. It was the second one that Sarah lent me.

Chabon’s book, by contrast, was a revelation. I started to read it the evening I got it out of a tepid sense of duty to my hosts, but was immediately glommed. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the picaresque tale of the intertwining lives of two cousins, American-born Sam Clay (Samuel Louis Klayman), and his Czech cousin Josef Kavalier, set in the 1940s and 50s, spanning two continents, a host of minor characters etc. etc. Your typical Pulitzer-prize winning pap, in other words. What made it stand out, for me, was the author’s obsessive interest in Golden Age American comics (his heroes first create, then make a living writing and drawing the adventures of a costumed super-hero called “The Escapist”[2]). That, and the marvellous opening sequence where Josef, a trained escape-artist, makes his exit from Nazi-occupied Prague in the same crate which is being used to ship the original Golem to safety in the Baltic states … Well, you’ll have to try it yourself to see what sets it apart from other sprawling epics of the same ilk.

As I read on, I began to realise just how much this Michael Chabon had been dogging me. His first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, had usurped a title which I very much wanted to use for my own unpublished (and probably unpublishable) first novel. The Mysteries of Auckland, my anticipated homage to the world of Eugène Sue, had to give way to the Borgesian Keep Reading as the Day Declines

Then there was Wonder Boys, one of my all-time favourite American films. I hadn’t made the connection, hadn’t even realised the film was based on a novel, let alone one by Michael Chabon. This saga of Michael Douglas’s Lost Weekend on an American college campus seemed to me at the time (2000-2001, around the turn of the millennium) to have rolled every cliché about hard-bitten American writers into one pleasing package. They all used typewriters rather than computers, they were all drunk or stoned almost all the time, everyone admired them and hung on their every word, and they always got the girl … In short, however hungover, down-and-out, stubbly or ill-dressed they might be, they were the epitome of cool. What more can you ask for in a fantasy?

Then, hunting through a second-hand shop for a copy of Kavalier and Clay (having had, reluctantly, to return Sarah’s copy), I came across Chabon’s Summerland, a curious amalgam of Harry Potter and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which uses the metaphor of baseball to motivate its juvenile hero and heroine’s journey-of-self-discovery. And that, of course, was the coincidence which alerted me to the Jonathan Franzen connection.

3 – How to be Alone

In his various entities he created his own epics.
– Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (Vance, 1997, p. 286).

So what of Jonathan Franzen? What’s his part in this equation? When I say that he’s the man who dissed Oprah Winfrey – or, rather, the man who had his novel unselected for Oprah Winfrey’s bookclub – I imagine you’ll remember what I’m talking about.

His website (Jonathan Franzen, 2001) still provides links to a lengthy debate on the subject:
Jonathan Franzen stands accused of insufficient Oprah gratitude. And since his infamous banishment from the Winfrey polis on Oct. 12 [2001], that sin, in turn, has dilated into nearly every character flaw imaginable—he’s arrogant, elitist, hypocritical, snobbish, and flat-out stupid. Such, at any rate, has been the verdict of nearly every commentator since the curiously inert affaire Oprah has exercised the literary world and its wags. …

But what, exactly, has he said? He’s ambivalent, that’s all. In an interview with the Portland Oregonian, he did utter the fateful characterization of himself as a writer “solidly in the high art literary tradition.” … Likewise, his other infamous pronouncement, on the Powell’s bookstore Web site, bespeaks less foppish disdain for the besotted taste of the masses than simple bewilderment. Yes, he said that Oprah has “picked enough shmaltzy one-dimensional [novels] that even I cringe.” But he also rushed to remind his interviewer that “I think she’s really smart and fighting the good fight. And she’s an easy target.”
[Chris Lehmann, Posting Thursday Nov 1, 2001]

and so on …
Newsweek quoted a literary agent as saying, “Most of the people I hear talking about all this now refer to Franzen along the lines of ‘that pompous prick.’ ” Another agent, quoted in the New York Observer, called him an “ungrateful bastard.” What publishing person in his right mind would get on the wrong side of Oprah, when she has the power to make your career with a single phone call?

And any writer who defends Franzen in this fight does so at the risk of ruining his own chances of ever scoring that cash cow. Why else would Rick Moody and Harold Bloom tell the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick that it was hypocritical to object to Winfrey’s logo?
[Eliza Truitt, Posting Thursday Nov 1, 2001]

It isn’t that Franzen actually refused Oprah Winfrey the right to “select” The Corrections for her book-club; the problem is that she “disinvited” him after hearing some of his negative comments about 1/ her irritating logo, and 2/ the quality of some of the earlier selections. As a result, he became America’s pre-eminent example of an élitist literary snob.

That damning central accusation informs most of Franzen’s essay collection How to be Alone. Am I or am I not a snob? Is it or is it not possible to write “well” – or to the best of one’s ability – and “accessibly” at the same time?

In some of the essays he comes across as the worse kind of hypocritical fencesitter: “To the man-in-the-street who, I’m sorry to say, / Is a keen observer of life, / The word intellectual suggests right away / A man who’s untrue to his wife” (Auden, 1991, p. 298). “Sifting the Ashes,” for example, where he begins by pointing out all the myriad evils of smoking, and then justifies the fact that he still smokes by suggesting how nobly the act “[inhales] contradiction and [breathes] out ambivalence.” (Franzen, 2003, p. 168). Yeah right.

In others we come, I suspect, a little closer to the heart of his dilemma. In “Mr. Difficult,” for example, he points out to a correspondent who described him as “a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole” that “Even as an adult, I consider myself a slattern of a reader”:
I have started (in many cases, more than once) Moby-Dick, The Man Without Qualities, Mason & Dixon, Don Quixote, Remembrance of Things Past, Doctor Faustus, Naked Lunch, The Golden Bowl, and The Golden Notebook without coming anywhere near finishing them. (Franzen, 2003, p. 241).

Just plain folks, in other words – not one of those fancy-pantses who actually get to the end of “high art literary” novels … He proceeds to damn with faint praise the career of William Gaddis, author of The Recognitions, which Franzen did once succeed in reading by dint of taking ten days off from his own work. Gaddis, the “Mr. Difficult” of the title, was – in Franzen’s view at any rate – a genuinely snobby, élitist ass-hole who wrote genuinely difficult books. By contrast, despite his admitted use of “fancy words … like “diurnality” and “antipodes” [and] phrases like “electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces” (Franzzen, 2003, p. 238), the author of The Corrections is a positive W. C. Fields!

In “Meet me in St Louis,” Franzen chronicles in embarrassing detail the lengths he actually went to in order to placate Oprah’s Book Club before the final débâcle of the “disinvitation.” He allows himself to be poked, prodded and packaged by a film crew until the reader positively longs for him to grow a backbone and tell them to back off. No dice. The ghastly travesty continues. His excuse is that he’s the kind of person “who instantly acquires a Texas accent in Texas”:
When I talk to admirers of Winfrey, I’ll experience of a glow of gratitude and good will and agree that it’s wonderful to see television expanding the audience for books. When I talk to detractors of Winfrey, I’ll experience the bodily discomfort I felt when [during the filming] we were turning my father’s oak tree into schmaltz, and I’ll complain about the Book Club logo. (Franzen, 2003, p. 300).

As a result, “my sense of dividedness will only deepen.”

It’s easy to make fun of this beginners’ treatise on Alienation for Beginners: “How to sound like a tormented intellectual in fifteen easy lessons.” One has to remind oneself constantly that this was a real dispute, with serious repercussions. The inherent absurdity of jumped-up talk-show host Oprah Winfrey as arbiter of American letters (with the apparent endorsement of such luminaries as Harold Bloom) should not obscure the difficulty of Franzen’s task. He’s forced to explain the inevitable trahison des clercs: the tendency of all writers to bite the hand that feeds them, to an audience of Dr. Phil watchers. He doesn’t make a very good job of it, but who would?

Without the Chabon connection, one might be tempted to write off Jonathan Franzen as one more victim of the increasing impossibility of communication between high culture and low culture. How can the Blooms and Franzens speak meaningfully to (let alone for) the people who attend Monster Truck rallies? Franzen’s alter-ego, however, his Golem, Michael Chabon, can chatter on about baseball and comics to the manner born. His dividedness has deepened, all right – for a moment there, in 2001, as the Twin Towers fell and L’Affaire Oprah ground on, it must have threatened to swallow him up.

Then came the National Book Award, and – above all – the Pulitzer Prize.

4 – The Original
One person is the whole world
– Rabbi Hillel

Gustav Meyrink: The Golem (1916)

But why do I refer to Chabon as Franzen’s Golem? Who, or what, is the Golem? It is, to begin with, one of the central metaphors in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

There’s a lot to be said on the subject, and very little consensus, it seems to me, but I’ll begin by quoting an encyclopaedia entry about it:
Golem, in Jewish legend, an image or form that is given life through a magical formula. A golem frequently took the form of a robot, or automaton. The word means “embryo”, or anything that is not fully developed. In the Hebrew Bible (see Psalms 139:16) and in the Talmud, the term refers to an unformed substance. Its present meaning developed during the Middle Ages, when legends arose of wise men who could instil life in effigies by the use of a charm. The creatures could be used to carry out their creators’ commands and were later conceived of as offering special protection to Jews. The best-known of the golem stories concerned Rabbi Juda Löw of Prague, who was said to have created a golem that he used as his servant but was forced to destroy it when it became unruly. Der Golem (1916) by Gustav Meyrink takes the legend of the golem as its theme. (Microsoft Encarta, 2003).

The Golem, in other words, is a kind of mystical Frankenstein’s monster, always liable to turn on its creator.
The Golem had no inclinations, either good or bad. Whatever action he performed he did under compulsion and out of fear lest he should be turned again into dust and reduced to naught once more … nothing would stop him in the execution of anything that he had undertaken. (Rappoport, 1937).

Rabbi Löw (allegedly) had to remove the “tablet on which he had written the Ineffable Name from under the Golem’s tongue,” every Friday, “as he was afraid lest the Sabbath should make the Golem immortal.” On one occasion he forgot this duty, and as a result it ran amok.

There are many other versions of the legend. In the 1920 silent film, the Golem saves the Emperor Rudolf from a grisly death, thus persuading him to rescind his decree to banish all the Jews from Prague. All the commentators do agree on one thing, however – the creature was designed to protect the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe from accusations of ritual murder and bloodshed. Where opinions differ is on how well it fulfilled this task.

Gustav Meyrink takes a rather different slant. For him the Golem is a kind of psychic doppelgänger. On the few occasions it actually manifests itself in his strange, elliptical prose fantasia, it has the narrator’s own face, for:
as that same Golem stiffened into clay the instant that mysterious phase was removed from its lips, so must, I thought, these humans dwindle to soulless entities so soon as was extinguished within them some slightest spark of an idea, some species of dumb striving, however irrelevant, already deteriorated with most of them, from the look of it, into a mere aimless sloth (Meyrink, 1972, p. 26).

We are all lifeless Golems, the author implies, unless we are engaged in the quest for transcendence. The novel ends with a vision of the perfect alchemical union of man and woman, accomplished under the twin sign of Isis and Osiris: “a hermaphrodite in two halves, the right female, the left male … its golden head is in the form of a hare. The ears of it stand up high and close together, giving the semblance of two pages of an open book.” (Meyrink, 1972, p. 287).

That book, presumably, is the book IBBUR, repeatedly invoked in the text, a kind of super-Kabbalistic ritual volume, written in Hebrew, and containing a whole variety of mumbo-jumbo fin-de-siècle secrets of the universe. In another sense, it is perhaps Meyrink’s own book, a runaway success in the feverish, super-charged psychical atmosphere of First World War Austria.

Michael Chabon has another, even more ingenious take on the Golem. When the young Czech artist Josef Kavalier, early in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is asked to draw his own idea of a comic-book Superman for a prospective publisher, he produces a sketch of a “tall, brawny man … [with] four Hebrew characters etched into his forehead.”
“Is that the Golem?” said Anapol. “My new Superman is the Golem?”

“I didn’t – the conceit is new to me,” Joe said, his English stiffening up on him. “… To me , this Superman is … maybe … only an American Golem.” He looked for support to Sammy. “Is that right?”

“Huh?” said Sammy, struggling to conceal his dismay. “Yeah, sure, but Joe .. the Golem is … well … Jewish.” (Chabon, 2001, pp. 85-86).

The name of the original Golem, Rabbi Löw’s bond-servant, was Joseph. Sam has Americanised his surname from “Klayman” (Clay-man) to Clay. The symbiotic relationship of the two cousins – their friendship and artistic collaboration– culminates in love for the same woman, Rosa Luxemburg Saks (named for the leader of the abortive Spartacist revolution in post-war Germany), and in a child, Tommy, fathered by Josef but brought up by Sam.

Which is the original and which the copy?

Neither, one is forced to conclude. And both.

5 – Europe after the Rains
We finance your future, not your past
– Trustbank TV Ad

Terezín, or Theresienstadt, was built as an Austrian garrison-town in the late eighteenth century. The whole area was surrounded by deep ditches and immense earth and brick fortifications. The smaller, satellite redoubt outside the main walls came, over time, to be employed as a prison. During the First World War, Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was incarcerated in it. He died there of influenza in 1918.

After the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Terezín was turned into a concentration camp. It was actually used as a marshalling point for the death-camps further east, but the Nazis went to great lengths to persuade foreign observers, especially the International Red Cross, that it was a kind of idyllic spa-town: hence the lying propaganda film (directed by Kurt Gerron) about the so-called “Paradise Ghetto.”
Of the 140,000 people who were interned at Terezín, 33,000 died and 87,000 were transported to Nazi death camps elsewhere. Of those, 15,000 were children. Only … 132 children lived. (Fields, 2005).

The concentration camp command made little or no attempt to combat the various epidemics that broke out periodically in the overcrowded ghetto, but conditions there were generally more tolerable than in the other camps. There was a lively cultural life, including lectures, concerts and even hand-copied magazines, and the children were able to continue their education in makeshift schools. Thousands of their drawings and poems still survive, and can be seen on display in the Terezín Memorial museum in the centre of the town.

The small fortress became an SS prison, and was used for recalcitrant prisoners (including the poet and resistance leader Robert Desnos) from all over Europe. Brutal executions and torture were commonplace. Many of the cells and dormitories still remain in their original condition.

In August 2002, during the unprecedented floods that inundated much of the Czech republic, including the centre of Prague, the Elbe overflowed its banks and drowned the lower floors of the Terezín Memorial museum. The damage was even worse in the small fortress, which was almost entirely under water. An concerted international effort has, however, succeeded in restoring most of the exhibits.

6 – Nine Great Reasons to Visit Prague
Kidnapped by communism for 40 years, [Prague has] opened its gates to a flood of happy-go-lucky tourists?
– Kris Dando, “Nine Great Reasons to Visit Prague” (Dando, 2005).

Recent visitor Kris Dando’s nine “reasons” are arranged under the following headings:
  1. Getting Around

    “One of the features of Prague is that it is compact and simple to find your way around.”

    It’s interesting to recognize – and not recognize – your own experiences in getting to know a new place when reading about it afterwards. My main memory of the trams is the strange whistling clangour they made gliding past the windows of my room late at night (they can’t have stopped running till the early hours, if at all).

    As for the metro, what struck me about it was the steepness of the escalators angling their way down deep under the earth. On one occasion one of them seized up, forcing all of us to climb back to the surface. Louts riding in the opposite direction hooted and jeered to see so many elderly, heavily-laden ladies and gentlemen struggling wearily up the precipitous incline.

  2. Cuisine

    “The food is overall pretty bland and basic, involving uninspiring meats like sausage and dumplings and the vegetables are pretty scarce. Cabbage is very popular.”

    The food is a bit on the heavy side. The beer, however, is excellent, and cheaper than any other beverage (including water). As a result, I put on a lot of weight while I was there. Almost every pub seemed to offer cheap, reliable food all through the day.

    It was, however, rather appalling to see so many prosperous-looking Czechs sitting proudly in McDonalds or KFC, scarfing down gourmet Big Macs and chicken nuggets.

  3. Guided Tours

    “We had a diverse mix of people: singles and couples, Germans, Aussies, Brits and an obnoxious cabbie from San Francisco.”

    I didn’t go on any tours while I was there, preferring to walk around on my own. Perhaps my most interesting encounter was with a pair of young Japanese at the foot of the castle, vainly trying to make sense of a truncated tourist map. They asked me for directions in German. Having ascertained that they spoke no English, I was forced to admit that I, too, was a stranger (Ich bin auch Ausländer) in town …

  4. Castles, castles, castles

    “With a magnificent cliff-top outlook, a 1000-year-old history going back to a simple walled-in compound in the 9th century, and a breathtaking scale that qualifies it as the biggest ancient castle in the world, Prague Castle is the indisputable centrepiece of the Czech capital.”

    It’s actually more like a small town than your normal image of a castle. Wandering through it, I began to understand what Kafka (who lived for a time in Golden Lane, a little cul-de-sac running down the side of the walls) had in mind when he wrote, in Der Schloss, of an immense administrative labyrinth unreachable by any but the elect.

  5. Take A River Cruise

    “The price included a few free drinks and buffet dinner but sitting on the boat’s top deck, gazing at Prague by night was worth the admission alone.”

    I didn’t do this, either, even though a river cruise is usually my favourite thing to do in a new place. Perhaps the city streets were just too fascinating. Perhaps (it was Midwinter) the waters of the Vltava / Moldau looked just too cold and grey.

  6. Prague Memorials

    “Small prayer papers covered with small stones and coins adorn many tombstones [in the Old Jewish Cemetery]. One of the most adorned is that of 16th century scholar Rabbi Low about whom many legends are told, most notably that he created the ‘Golem’, a servant made of mud who later went on a destructive rampage and had to be destroyed.”

  7. Museums

    “Objects from 153 Jewish communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia were brought to Prague by the Nazis in 1942, to be used in a planned ‘museum of an extinct people’ after their extermination programme was complete.”

  8. A Bit Of Entertainment

    “I wasn’t too sure I’d enjoy it but was it was good wholesome fun: two princes fighting over the same girl, duels, wrath of the Gods, soaring violins – I forgot I was watching string-led puppets after a while!”

    I missed the puppet theatre – though a good impression of it is given by Jan Švankmajer’s 1994 feature-film Faust – but we did go to the Opera, the Ballet, and the Black Light Theatre, where objects float about the stage as if by magic. One of the pieces there was about a love affair between a taxi driver and a mermaid, unable to settle on whether to live under water or in the world above.

  9. The Countryside

    “Undoubtedly the highlight (well, for me anyway) was the cemetery at Sedlic [sic], just a few minutes out of Kutna Hora. Macabre is an understatement - the place has an ossuary, a huge building filled with the bones of over 40,000 people. Yes, bones.”

    “More than a tad creepy,” Kris Dando calls it. Again, I was alerted to its existence by one of Jan Švankmajer’s films, the ten-minute short “Kostnice” (1970). “You can smell the death,” as one commentator remarks (Internet movie database, 2005).

7 – Feet of Clay
The real question about Auschwitz is, not why did it happen, but why doesn’t it happen more often?
– Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters

But maybe you knew all this already. Maybe I’m the last person on earth to whom this is news. I haven’t actually seen any references to the Franzen-Chabon double-act anywhere, but that doesn’t prove anything.

Whether or not Jonathan Franzen actually is Michael Chabon (and there are an appalling number of doubles, masks, deceptive resemblances, and completely counterfeit pasts in the latter’s books – one reason why I read him as the carbon-copy and Franzen as the fons et origo), the question remains why it should mean so much to me to demonstrate the fact.

The Summerland copyright page is, after all, my only smoking gun – all the other evidence is completely circumstantial. It could be a mistake, a mere misprint. Franzen would have to have been very busy indeed to create two thriving literary careers in the time it normally takes to jump-start one.

On the one hand, of course, I’m fascinated by literary impostures and doubles, by the way in which they can release a kind of energy unavailable to the everyday self.

I’ve created a fair number of pseudonyms and alter egos myself – or, rather, found myself writing in someone else’s voice. Lorraine West, author of Everything a Teenage Girl Should Know (2004) and Wendy Nu, co-author of The Britney Suite (2001) are two who have made it between covers, but there are, I’m afraid, various others still lurking in the back issues of small magazines.

“Every woman adores a fascist,” said Sylvia Plath (with doubtful veracity) in “Daddy” (Plath, 1974, p. 55). Every writer adores the double. It stands for so much! It can act as the voice of conscience (Poe’s “William Wilson”), dramatise the split psyche (Gogol’s “The Nose”), or simply point to the crucial disjunction between the worldly and the artistic selves (Henry James’s “The Private Life”).

On the other hand, there’s the Golem itself – that brute lump of clay brought to life by a few scrawled hieroglyphics.

The Golem, as we’ve seen above, can be seen as a type of the superman – a projection of our own idealised strengths and aspirations. But it also dramatises our Jekyll-and-Hyde duality – the masks we use to reveal a hidden self.

I’ve already talked about Jonathan Franzen’s attempts, in How to be Alone, to explain (indeed, embody) the “treason of clerks,” their general untrustworthiness and tendency to be members of the awkward squad. Why do they always seem to satirise their patrons (Oprah) and speak up for their foes (William Gass)?

Where is that betrayal more apparent than in my response to Terezín?

Even before I saw the place – Terezín, Theresienstadt, whatever you want to call it – I knew I had to write about it. I knew I had to write about it the moment I saw that it would be difficult to get there – that there was a resistance to overcome. “Press on the pressure point because it hurts,” is what I wrote about it. Press on the pressure point because it hurts. No matter who it hurts. In a sense it’s easier if it’s only oneself.

The Holocaust is such a simple morality tale to those of us born so long after the war, so far away from its physical legacy. It’s so easy to paint the protagonists in black and white, Oskar Schindlers and Josef Mengeles, oppressors and victims.
Everything’s more complicated when you’re on the spot, in the New Europe, that constantly-expanding superstate which swallowed up (took in?) the Czech republic just a couple of months before my arrival, surpassing the wildest dreams of the Holy Roman Empire.

I knew, of course, that the real story of the Terezín ghetto was far beyond my powers. I had no right to tell it – no angle of engagement with it beyond normal human sympathy with the suffering that went on there. Watching Prisoner of Paradise (2002), the Oscar-nominated documentary about Kurt Gerron, the infamous director of the Theresienstadt propaganda film, had given me some idea of the facts about the “model ghetto” before I left New Zealand. Reading the book I have not seen a butterfly around here (1993), available in numerous languages from the Jewish museum in Prague, made me aware of the heart-wrenching character of the site itself.

It was difficult to get there, though – it did turn into a quest – and that made me suspect there must be something behind this apparent reluctance to face up to the past. There was something there needing to be examined. For my own satisfaction, if for no other reason. “Nothing if not curious,” that’s my motto. Nosey, some people would call it.

The Māori politician John Tamihere landed himself in the doghouse in mid-2005 for suggesting that enough has already been said and written about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. He claims that it’s time to move on, that dwelling on past injustices tends to foster a “victim” mentality. I can see his point, but I don’t really agree. I wouldn’t necessarily accuse Tamihere of this, but I suspect that it’s generally those who’ve done well out of the past who are most eager to forget it.

Nevertheless, I think he speaks very strongly for our collective will to forget. It seems to be almost a biological necessity in the aftermath of tragedy to hide and lick your wounds and turn your thoughts elsewhere. It’s no coincidence that “war literature” tends to appear either during a war or twenty years afterwards. The books that came out a year or two after the First and Second World Wars were mostly ignored or damned with faint praise.

My Czech hosts in Prague must feel something similar. In their case there is the additional injustice that half a century of suffering under Russian occupation is mostly overshadowed, in the eyes of the world, by the events of 1938-44 (don’t forget that the war began a year early in Czechoslovakia, as a result of the betrayal of Munich …). It must seem, to them, the height of bad manners for people to come barging into their country demanding a package tour of the murder sites. “Tourist,” after all, equates pretty closely with “voyeur.”

One local analogy that occurred to me at the time was a foreign visitor to Auckland, eager to see the sights, asking to see Bastion Point first of all (“I hear your police force brutally manhandled a mass of peaceful Māori land protestors there; I’ve always wanted to see the place …”) I imagine that most of us might want to downplay the incident, put it in perspective, explain its larger implications – reroute them to a nice beach like Piha or Wenderholm, basically.

I’ve never been welcomed more heartily, or with more open arms, than by my hosts in the Czech republic. Not only my friends John and Jana, but Jana’s family went out of their way to make me feel at home. Why, then, do I still feel compelled to touch on the sore point – to take a gawk inside Bluebeard’s chamber, brave the forbidden door, the one place they least wanted me to see in the cornucopia of wonders that is Prague?
How can I possibly justify that lack of good manners?

I’m forced back, once again, onto the metaphor of the Golem: the emissary you send out to do your dirty work, that other whom you suppress or deny at your peril. Socrates called it his Daemon. It prompted him to ask all those awkward questions which led to a death sentence for “corrupting youth.” Then it demanded that he stay and take the hemlock rather than fleeing into exile.

It was that same still, small voice that prompted Jonathan Franzen to open his fat mouth and denounce Oprah Winfrey. “There’s something in you that’s like biting on tinfoil” (King, 1990, p. 59), as one of the characters in Stephen King’s The Stand says to the closest thing to an artist in that book.

There’s something in every writer, I’m afraid, that’s like biting on tinfoil: a basic ingratitude, a cold calculation of effect:
The Golem had no inclinations, either good or bad … nothing would stop him in the execution of anything that he had undertaken.

As a human being, I have absolutely no right to sit in judgment on the people who live in or near Terezín or the thousands of other camps lying like unhealed scars on the body of Europe. No right and no inclination. As a writer, though, I have to poke in my nose. If one could feel sure that it really was all in the past, that such things could never recur, then it would be easier to leave it alone.

It’s not all in the past, though. It’s now. In the Czech republic itself (as in many other parts of Europe) the victimisation of the Romany continues (See further Polansky, 1998). That’s one small example. If we continue to conspire to forget the enormities we’ve committed in the past, where’s the incentive to rein ourselves in right now? As the children starve in the Congo and the bodies pile up in Iraq (or Israel/Palestine), we’re in no condition to pat ourselves on the back just yet.

The Golem, to be sure, is a dangerous type of Superman. As a truth-seeking crusader, it has an unfortunate tendency to get distracted, run amok. But maybe that’s why it’s such an appropriate symbol for most of us. The Man of Steel makes a pitilessly rigid, inhuman model to live up to (you’d think even the “world’s policemen” would have noticed that by now). Personally, I agree with Chabon / Franzen: it’s better our heroes should walk on feet of clay.


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Jack Ross: photograph by Jana Hašková (2004)

Jack Ross teaches Academic and Creative writing in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Massey Albany. He is the author of various books of poems, including City of Strange Brunettes (Pohutukawa Press, 1998) and Chantal’s Book (HeadworX, 2002), as well as four works of fiction: Nights with Giordano Bruno (Bumper Books, 2000), Monkey Miss Her Now (Danger Publishing, 2004), Trouble in Mind (Titus, 2005), and The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (Titus, 2006).

He also edited, with Jan Kemp, the spoken-word anthologies Classic NZ Poets & Contemporary NZ Poets in Performance (AUP, 2006 & 2007).



1. The same disparity is maintained in their respective “official” websites. opens onto a chummy set of bio-bibliographical details; leads to nothing but a promotional poster for the 1977 Sitka World’s Fair, and a schedule of upcoming “Chabon dates.”

2. Now the hero of a series of real (albeit pastiche) comics, collected in Michael Chabon Presents (2004): The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist. 2 vols. Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.


To Terezín. Travelogue by Jack Ross, with an Afterword by Martin Edmond. Social and Cultural Studies, 8. ISSN 1175-7132. ii + 90 pp (Auckland: Massey University, 2007): 49-83.

[7182 wds]

Jack Ross: To Terezín (2007)

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