Recently in Blum, Jenna Category

Dissent into madness

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Libertas Schulze-Boysen.jpg
Recently, I've stumbled across books about "good" Germans during WWII.  Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us is about the legacy of a German resistance fighter's silence regarding her war time activities.  Anne Nelson's Red Orchestra (which I haven't read, but which was reviewed recently in The NY Times Book Review) is about a network of people not dissimilar to the protagonist in Those Who Save Us.

I am intrigued and heartened by this interest in the Germans who dissented from Nazism.  The portrayal of WWII as a black-and-white battle of good against evil is one that is both tiresome and troublesome.  It's tiresome because it's not true: among other reasons, Stalin's Russia also fought against Germany, and no one could class Stalin among the forces of good.  It's troublesome because this myth of a "morally clean" war of good against evil has animated the war plans of administrations like W's.

Moreover, the examination of the people who resist (even futilely, perhaps especially those who resist futilely) is revealing of the most interesting aspects of human capacity.  Such people are, by definition, acting within a scope of choice that is severely narrow and punishingly inhumane: as Denis Lehane wrote in a recent review of Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech, "What is the ordinary man to do when his very existence makes him an apparatchik of institutionalized sadism?" 

These people who, existing in regimes that transform daily life into complicity with crimes against humanity, manage to muster the integrity and courage to fight back have so much to teach us.  They have achieved an inspired disconnect from their societies that allows them to act in ways that are, from the perspective of survival, profoundly irrational and yet, from the vantage point of living, are deeply wise. 

The beautiful woman pictured here, Libertas Schulze-Boysen, was beheaded by the Nazis for gathering photographs that documented their atrocities.  Red Orchestra recounts that she died pleading, "Let me keep my young life!"  The poignancy of her words derives from how manifestly she has miscalculated her audience.  I'm no romantic, but I can't help but see a role model in her misguided example.

(Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

Dream sequences: not just for David Lynch

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According to Jonathan Lethem -- and I have to rely on him because I wouldn't know what they teach in writing school -- "the foremost writing-school rules" include proscriptions "against dream sequences," among other common (cliché) literary devices.

Frankly, I was surprised to read this.  Dreams, like falling in love, are a profound experience of the irrational common to all humans.  Banning dreams from literature is like forbidding female characters in novels from crying.  I understand the rationale: the idea (in both cases) is to prevent authors from getting lazy and taking easy routes to conveying information.  But shouldn't the lesson be to be more creative about dream sequences -- and female bawling scenes -- rather than decreeing a literary world absent of quotidian experiences of the irrational?

I was reminded of Lethem's comment after I read a terrific dream sequence in Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us.  (In fairness to Lethem, he mentioned the proscription against dream scenes in the course of praising Roberto Bolaño for violating it.)  In the dream, Trudy, the protagonist, envisions a Santa Claus in the kitchen, making a mess.  When she confronts him, he unbuttons his shirt, showing it to be stuffed with tempting food dishes.  Then he says,

    Come, sit down, he says, and tell me: Have you been a good girl this year?
    No, says Trudy.  No, no, no --
    He cocks his head.  Yes? he says, as if he hasn't heard her.  Good.  Then I will show you a little something.
    He rises from the chair and starts to undo the buttons of these trousers as well.
    Stop it, Trudy shouts.  I don't want to see!
    He parts the cloth and holds it open, standing at attention.  He wears nothing underneath, and his stomach and pubic hair are smeared with dark blood.
    You see, I am not Santa, he says.  I am Saint Nikolaus, and I come whenever I please.

(p. 188.)  That last line, "I am Saint Nikolaus, and I come whenever I please," stayed with me for days, blindsiding me in the shower or shadowing me as I took a walk.  Blum's dream sequence tapped my visceral vein, just as a vivid and disturbing dream would in life.

Provoking a gut response with written stimulus is hard -- maybe the hardest feat in literature.  (The author who does this best, in my opinion, is D.M. Thomas in The White Hotel.  But for sheer frequency, the crown no doubt goes to Stephen King.)  Learning how to transcend the page and worm into the reader's gut is a skill that, so far as I can glean, can't be taught.  One stumbles onto by following one's instinct.  Blum reached it through a dream scene. 

If that diminishes her accomplishment in writing school, I'd suggest skipping the writing school.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Blum, Jenna category.

Blixen, Karen is the previous category.

Bolaño, Roberto is the next category.



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