Little known in America, H.G. Adler is becoming one of the towering figures of modernist literature, and deservedly so. The third novel of his Holocaust trilogy, The Wall, was recently published in America. The reviewers who have written about this novel can only be said to be awestruck by it, and I’ve joined the ranks of Adler admirers. I’ve not read the first two, The Journey and Panorama, but The Wall clearly can stand on its own.
Adler himself was a survivor of two different concentration camps, and The Wall is probably partially autobiographical. Because Adler does not dwell on the specific experiences that he had in the camps, he presents his protagonist, Arthur Landau, as simply a survivor of the camps and of World War II, lending a deliberate ambiguity to what he survived (which may have been addressed in the previous two novels). The Wall may be the finest novel of this type ever written, because Adler lets us into Landau’s mind, and makes us privy to his thought processes. Thus, although we know that he has lost both of his parents and his young wife in the camps, the lack of certainty surrounding their deaths, even the lack of absolute proof, haunts and obsesses him (I hesitate to use the word “closure” for what Landau experiences, because that word seems to come from the lexicon of American psychobabble), as if such monumental loss could be rectified by seeing a grave marker.
Like many other survivors of World War II, Landau returns to the city of his youth, which I take to be Prague, where he has no idea where to go or for whom to look. He wanders to a shopping area, where his father once owned and ran a haberdashery store, which he finds boarded up and empty of goods. But in the neighboring store, he recognizes a family from before the war who sell fruit at an adjacent small shop, and where the wife of the owner recognizes him. The theme of whether he does or does not really exist may be the dominant theme of the novel, and Adler makes us aware of the nature of bottomless despair and permanent melancholia (the word depression just doesn’t cut it). Landau also was sent to the camps at around age 13, and returns at 18, so he is physically a different person. He is soon picked up by two people his own age who have survived the war differently, but who house and befriend him. The act of talking is inordinately difficult for him, for obvious reasons. Determined to leave this city which he equates only with death, he will emigrate, as did Adler, to London, which is only referred to in the novel as “the metropolis”.
But before he departs, he finds work in a museum, in what is becoming a Socialist country, which collects paintings, silver, linens, and other valuables not worthy of being stolen by the Nazis, but which will become the basis of a kind of sociological museum of a now vanished people, European Jews. Those who might come and claim their own property are rejected out of hand. A former temple has been converted by the Nazis into a series of miniature dioramas, each showing aspects of Jewish life and culture, now that there are virtually no Jews. These surreal inventions on Adler’s part are strokes of genius, and enable us to have glimmers into the mind of what Adler calls “the conquerors”, as well as those who have survived the war. The victims, the survivors, are in the way, an embarrassment.
While in Prague, Landau is led to meet a former business acquaintance of his father’s, and his parents’ former housekeeper, laundress, and other household staff, each of whom has been lovingly saving and hiding valuables brought by either of his parents for safekeeping before they were deported. Landau is too numb from the war to fully appreciate these extreme acts of kindness, and as he visits each of these people, his natural tendency is to want to flee. H.G. Adler is one of the greatest psychologists in all of literature, and it would have been fascinating to have a review of The Wall by Sigmund Freud, another survivor of a sort, who believed that novelists are the greatest natural psychologists of any living humans.
When his friends accompany him to the train which will take him to “the metropolis”, Landau’s terror of ticket takers, conductors, border guards and the like are given full sway, and it is essential to understand that Landau’s mind will veer into pure fantasy all through the novel; these fantasies represent a bubbling self-consciousness, and unresolved terror. He can barely board the train: this novel is full of insights of this type, one more brilliantly written than the next, and they constitute the novel’s true genius.
Met by a cadre of friends from his past, at a train station in London which also terrifies him, Landau begins his long journey into finding a profession and trying to make a living. Adler has him meet a variety of specialists in sociology, as Landau wants to write a scholarly book about the Sociology of Oppressed Peoples, partly from his own experiences, and partly from research he did before the war, as a student. No one is as savage to him as these “civilized academics”, who invite him to a variety of parties, partly because he is like a zoo animal on display. But they tire of his novelty quickly, and also seem to resent his actual survival, which hits a core in all of them, as a form of shame and guilt. Of course, no one actually helps him, and this lengthy section of the novel is often hilarious and bitingly sarcastic; the humor helps the reader from experiences of such intensity, the comic relief is essential for us, which Adler obviously knew. But at one of these parties, he meets a woman, whom he later pursues for a dinner date, and she has lost her entire family to the war/camps, as well. These two people, Arthur and Joanna, who do mirror Adler and his second wife, fall in love over dinner, and marry shortly thereafter, making this very brief courtship one of the great love scenes in all of literature: it’s astonishing. Joanna basically saves Arthur, both form external enemies, and from his internal demons, and in bearing him two children some form of existential hope is revived in Arthur, prickly though he remains. They form one of those bonds, a kind of us versus the world thing, which sustains them both, while Joanna manages to hid Arthur’s dark periods from their children.
The culminating scene of the novel is better read then described, but just when you think that Adler couldn’t possibly come up with a grand absurdity, he does. Landau/Adler has created a psychological wall between him and the world, The Wall of the title, and only Joanna understands what the wall is, and why he needs it: it represents a point in consciousness and memory behind which he must not go. Fascinatingly, the final pages of the novel are a kind of letter to his children, reminding them of what a great gift life itself is, so, in the end, Adler/Landau believes in redemption, which is the least likely ending that we expect.
Adler’s trilogy about the Holocaust, which is called The Shoah in Israel, and possibly among Jewish survivors worldwide, has frequently been compared with Franz Kafka and James Joyce. I sense some Thomas Mann in his writing, as well, but the point is that H.G. Adler must be perceived as one of modernism’s most accomplished writers. He writes flawless prose, with an ease that astonishes, so that even his flights of fancy make complete sense to the reader, and his journey through life, although filled with hatred and extinction, in the end somehow produced one of the great writers of the twentieth century. This novel is an essential read for any intelligent person, and is one of the great masterpieces that I will have read in my long lifetime.