Thursday, November 16, 2006

Daniel Mendelson's The Lost

When I first started to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, I felt incredibly frustrated. It wandered all over the place. No sooner would Mendelsohn start a riff on the history of his grandfather, who emigrated from a small town called Bolechow in Eastern Europe to the U.S., then he would digress into another topic. And as soon as I was comfortably ensconced in that subject, Mendelsohn would switch gears again. It was all fits and starts. There was no forward momentum.

But gradually I began to see what Mendelsohn was doing, and I now recognize its brilliance. The Lost tells the story of Mendelsohn’s great-uncle Schmiel Jager, who, who along with his wife and four daughters, was killed by the Nazis during World War II. Mendelsohn grew up on Long Island hearing about Schmiel’s death, but no one in the family knew the particulars. So he set out on a quest to find out the details, a search that led him not only to the Ukraine, Scandinavia, Australia, and Israel, but to ask larger questions about the nature of good and evil, death and survival. How does one come to terms with the Holocaust, which killed so many? By focusing on the sheer numbers killed, or on the details of a handful who lost their lives?

A central figure in “The Lost,” is Mendelsohn’s grandfather who used to spin yarns about the olden days for his grandson, "in vast circling loops, so that each incident, each character...has its own mini-history, a story within a story." These were stories told in a particular, circular fashion, where forward narrative was interrupted for history and explanation.

It is this pattern that Mendelsohn recreates in his book with his fits-and-starts. Many critics have lauded this circular storytelling, with roots in the Odyssey and the Bible. As Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote in The Nation, “The Lost calls to mind a typesetter's drawer full of parentheses: a deposit of endings and beginnings.”

But I was struck by something different: Mendelsohn’s writing style also recreates a journey, that of genealogical research. For anyone who has ever tried to find out about the lives and homes of long-dead relatives, you know the search comes in tiny, parallel, increments. You find out one small detail and it may be the only information you know for months on end. Then you discover another little clue, information so incidental it seems unimportant, yet it propels your knowledge forward. It takes dozens of those sideways movements to gain a clearer picture of a life.

The Lost is Mendelsohn’s description of this back and forth research. Sometimes you can’t believe he is writing this mundane stuff. He spends pages of trying to discover if one relative was pregnant when she died, and was it by her Polish, non-Jewish lover? One survivor described that cousin as “easy.” Did that mean she had loose morals – as suggested by her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or did it refer to her fun-loving temperament? Alternatively, he spends time trying to figure out whether another great uncle emigrated to Israel because his wife was an ardent Zionist or because he was shamed into leaving by his community for selling non-kosher beef. Mendelsohn’s explorations of these topics inch along, and at times the book feels like a view into the efforts of an amateur historian.

Part way through the book, though, I realized Mendelsohn was doing this deliberately. He replicates the rhythm of genealogical research – the back and forth, sideways to sideways, mundane to mundane. Yet, like genealogical research, the accumulation of tiny facts in the book makes a bigger whole – and in the case of The Lost, a fabulous, moving account of wrestling with family history.

By moving along so slowly, and in a circular fashion, Mendelsohn makes the reader care about his particular family, and by extension to what was lost by the Nazi’s actions. This book is not a catalogue of grim catastrophe, although Mendelsohn does include ample description of the Nazi Aktions that killed most of the Jews of Bolechow. It is an accumulation of details, of decisions made spontaneously or not, that led some to live and others to die. By focusing on the small, Mendelsohn helps the reader see the vast.


Beverly said...

Have you read Nicole Krauss' A History of Love? A terrific book that is constructed in a somewhat similar way and follows the same themes in fiction rather than non.

I check in on your blog from time to time and I've noticed you haven't written much in your blog for a month. I hope that means it's been a productive month.


Gergiron said...

it is actually "A la Recherche du Temps Perdue" thematically as well as stylistically.
Let me know when your book comes out