September 11, 2003
I had planned to spend my summer in Hollywood. I had teed up on my reading list "Maneater" by Gigi Levangie Grazer, "Action!" by Robert Cort and "San Remo Drive" by Leslie Epstein. But, as Primo Levi used to say, life proved otherwise.
I had high hopes for "Maneater." I like Grazier's scripts and, as the wife of producer Brian Grazer, she is uniquely poised to see and hear a lot of dish. However, the accumulation of sordid details overwhelmed me. It was like being at an extravagant buffet where you keep tasting to find the best bits but end the evening with a stomachache. It put me off my reading plan. It turns out that one swallow of "Maneater" does a summer make.
Instead, I found myself one evening at Villa Aurora, a mansion in the Pacific Palisades. In the 1940s, German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger lived there, and his home became a salon for émigré intellectuals. Today it is home to a foundation devoted to bringing European intellectuals to Los Angeles.
I was the guest of the Getty Museum's own resident European intellectual and newly minted noble, Sir Kenneth ("Just call me Ken") Robinson. Ken, the Getty's education Guru, is very funny and very charming, but the evening, devoted to translation, was painfully boring. So much so that we both fled and consoled ourselves with burgers at Father's Office -- so the evening wasn't a total loss. Also we did manage a quick tour of Feuchtwanger's private library. The names on the bindings -- Stefan Sweig, Herman Broch, Arthur Schnitzler -- belonged to another era. But they reminded me that not every novel need explain (and feel like) a Brazilian bikini wax.
So I found myself returning to Central Europe for my summer reading. I had not been there in a long, long time. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away called high school, I got hooked on German novels. I read all of Hermann Hesse, from "Siddhartha" (very high school hippie), to the dark "Steppenwolf" and ending up at the esoteric "The Glass Bead Game." It was only a short few years later that I was scaling that literary Everest, Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain." I got so in so deep I developed a psychosomatic fever. Soon after I left the Germans for the Russians. Goodbye Hans Castorp, hello Prince Mishkin! As I said, it was a long time ago.
So this summer, whether by chance or intent, the three best novels I read were all from the other side of the Atlantic, all from Mitteleuropa: "Crabwalk" by Gunter Grass, "Embers" by Sandor Marai and "Azarel" by Karoly Pap.
"Embers" might well be the best novel I've read this year. Little happens -- yet the novel is about all that is important in life. An old man living in an ancestral castle deep in the Carpathian forest receives a dinner visit from the best friend of his youth, who left his home without explanation 41 years ago -- after which the old general never spoke to his wife again. Was there a betrayal? Will a duel ensue? Will all be explained? That is what keeps you turning the pages. (Fellow producers, hold on: It's already been optioned and will star Sean Connery and Winona Ryder.) Marai was born in Hungary in 1900, but arrived in the United States after the Holocaust. He lived for many years in San Diego where he died in 1989 -- a suicide.
"Crabwalk" explores German guilt in three successive generations surrounding the sinking of a German ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, by the Russians, a true event with a greater civilian toll than the sinking of the Titanic. Nobel prize-winning Grass' deftness as a novelist allows him to "crabwalk" sideways in time and plot to discuss the Holocaust, neo-Nazi revisionists, Stalin and German reunification. It is a masterful work that raises important questions while providing a gripping drama that surprises to the end.
Finally, "Azarel" is a lost classic recently translated and published in English by Steerforth Press. Originally published in Budapest in 1937, "Azarel" tells the story of a young child who not only rebels against his family -- modern Orthodox Hungarian Jews -- but also against God. At the time, "Azarel" was regarded as controversial for several reasons: Literary writers, even those who were Jewish, never wrote about Jewish matters. Pap did so, but in a Hungarian understandable to Jew and non-Jew alike. Second, he didn't write about Jews in Hungarian society, rather he revealed the inner dramas of the observant community. Finally, he cast a critical eye on the believers and the hypocrisy of those who observed but didn't believe. Pap ominously predicted that Hungarian Jews would disappear in a pyre of their own making. This did not endear him to the Hungarian Jewish community.
In 1944, Pap was arrested for being a Jew and sent to Buchenwald. There, his fellow inmates offered to smuggle him out so he could write about the camp. He refused. In 1945 he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen where he died.
"Azarel" is a tough read. The sentences are terse, the writing dense. Pages do not fly by. I had to take a break halfway in. But it is the intensity of Pap's emotion and his powers of observation that make "Azarel" a literary masterwork that feels contemporary -- as if Daphne Merkin and Allegra Goodman had rewritten Harold Brodkey.
My summer in Mitteleuropa was, to quote The Grateful Dead, "a long strange trip." But like all good vacations, my summer reading took me to places I'd never been, taught me things I never knew and gave me pleasures I never expected. All that without ever leaving home.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.