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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The worst story opening ever written?

This passage (I believe submitted to Francine Prose at a summer writing workshop) is possibly the worst story opening ever written: "Mornings came early at Auschwitz, but Marcus didn't mind - Marcus loved mornings!" Well, in some weird way it's a great opening, as, ever since I heard it, I've wondered what the second sentence could possibly be. But seriously if you can't see what's wrong with this opening you shouldn't be reading this blog (or writing stories); you could write a whole book about what's wrong with that opening, which I won't do (let sleeping dogs lie ... ), but in a way H.G. Adler's The Journey is that book. I posted on The Journey yesterday, noting that it was a very difficult book, and today I have to bow out and admit, too difficult for me. As any reader of this blog knows, I do not shy away from challenging fiction and I am no great fan of saccharine, palliative, fiction, nor do I demand happy endings and upbeat humor. Adler's novel is a historical piece about the expulsion of Jews from Nazi occupied lands and transported to camps, and it's written (in German, first published 1962 in England, translated into English about 4 years ago; Adler died in England in 1988) in a bizarre mix of third and second person narration, with the scenes of the deportation and camp arrival (as far as I got - about 25 percent into the novel) told in a mix of vivid detail, the German obsession with order and record-keeping, horror kept within bounds (the deported or many of them at least maintain a weird faith that this deportation is only temporary, a necessary inconvenience; that the soldiers will certainly help them and the Nazis will take good care of the possessions they'd left behind), and sometimes obscurities and clouded vision, so that we as readers experience the disorientation of the journey much as the deported did. That said, what the novel lacks is any sense of character portrayal of development; we somewhat follow the members of the Lustig family, but none is distinctive in any way and the fade in and out of the narrative. There's a reason, sadly, why Adler's fiction is read only rarely, at least compared with the great Holocaust literature of Levi, Wiesel, et al., and I believe it's because their fiction is character-based: we need a person we can see, recognize, and understand to somehow guide us through this horror and devastation. I'm not saying that we need a morning-loving Marcus, but we need some principle - a protagonist or narrator - to give a human proportion and perspective to the mass of otherwise impenetrable material.

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