How do you sleep at night?


In trying unsparingly to show everything, to break not only the taboo surrounding Austria’s complicity in the Amstetten horror but also the taboo on representing perpetrators relishing their monstrous crimes, Claustria resembles less the Anglophone middlebrow novel and more another recent epic French novel that dives with pornographic gusto into the violent German historical subconscious, munching the scenery as it goes: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2006). While Claustria hasn’t yet found much favour outside its native France, The Kindly Ones was showered with praise worldwide, as well as winning the Prix Goncourt, and creating its own amount of scandal in the German press too. Like Claustria, it is also ostentatiously well-researched, sensationalist and intimate with the grotesque inner life of the perpetrator. Littell’s fictional protagonist, Max Aue, describes his excesses of violence during the genocide of European Jewry with as much gusto as he describes his endless incestuous fantasies about his sister, so much so that we begin to suspect that this hyper-realism may, in fact, be nothing but a parody of authenticity, a giant, grand-guignol sneer at the pious literary belief that mass murder can be personified, pathologised or psychologised at all. It might be stretching a point to call Claustria groundbreaking metafiction, and the tawdry tortures in Amstetten, horrific though they are, are hardly of the same historical gravity as the Nazi crimes in central Europe. Although Jauffret cannot be accused of anything like irony, he is all too aware of the Freudian temptations of the Fritzl case. His narrator warns that the cellar is in constant danger of becoming a cheap psychoanalytical metaphor, and yet he cannot resist the temptation of that metaphor, just as he cannot resist the temptation to make Fritzl a metaphorical Hitler, Amstetten a metaphorical Nazi Austria, Roman a metaphorical baby Jesus, even to make Fritzl, with his mania for property speculation and shoddy extensions to his home, a metaphor for the economic hubris and crash of 2008. He does not stop at showing us Fritzl’s inner life, but must also reveal the inner life of the victims, Anneliese’s relatives, the Amstetten bystanders, Angelika’s complicit teachers, the police investigators, everyone. Over-fraught with meaning, Claustria collapses into kitsch, despite or more probably because of its careful research, wealth of stomach-churning details and grandiose literary ambition

I was invited to a dinner with the head of the AHRC last week, and was asked to give a brief summary of my AHRC project. He listened thoughtfully, and then asked, ‘And can you sleep at night?’

It’s an interesting question, because it’s double-sided. In context, I was being asked whether my dreams were haunted by the horrors I read about, and truthfully, they are. But the question ‘how do you sleep at night?’ generally implies a guilty conscience. How can I sleep at night, preying on literature that preys on genocide for my living? It’s not an easy question, and not one that I am sure that I can answer. But central to all of the texts I am reading – ‘Holocaust testimonials’, in Doróta Glowacka’s words – is the belief that bearing witness in literature does have a function, both an aesthetic and an ethical function, and by studying these texts, I am honouring that belief. And as a passionate reader, I do share that faith in the power of literature, no matter what its subject. There is no such thing as an immoral book; books are well written or badly written. That is all.

Or so I thought until I started reading a novel about the Fritzl case. And then, suddenly, all the moralising issues raised about Holocaust literature arose in my mind anew. Could it be moral to intrude into such grotesque horrors? Didn’t the victims deserve some privacy? Wasn’t the author exploiting the sufferings of others in an egotistical bid to show off his literary virtuosity? Why would I read such a book, if I detested it, but if I enjoyed it, was I not irredeemably corrupt?

My answer above still stands. But I am less convinced that I am right, this time. You can read my essay review on austrianresearchuk for more answers, and some bonus thoughts on Elfriede Jelinek, Emma Donaghue and Jonathan Littell:

Claustria reviewed: Enjoy your Cellar

2 thoughts on “How do you sleep at night?

  1. I think that you can also justify your work by the unfortunate fact that some of these racist issues are being exacerbated by the current recessions and re-emergence of crude nationalisms. I have been reading Joseph Roth, mostly unfortunately in translation, and some of his observations in both his novels and reportage seem to increase awareness of current threats.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I would love to agree with you, though it seems grandiose to claim that my academic scholarship can contribute to combatting racism. But you are right, a moral imperative lies behind what I do, and I’m trying to ensure that it makes a difference not only in that I am attending the testimony, but also bringing it to a wider audience – and contextualising it for them.
      Joseph Roth is a very wise man, particularly in Juden auf Wanderschaft; much of what he says about the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the rise of ethnic nationalism does seem very instructive.

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