February 2009

The long journey
by Dara Mandle

A review of The Journey by H. G. Adler.

H. G. Adler wanted to be a writer, but history intervened. He was born in 1910 in Prague. In 1942 he was deported with his wife to Theresienstadt, the camp that acted as a way-station for Central European Jews. Before his liberation in 1945, Adler was imprisoned in several other camps, including Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Despite having lost eighteen family members, including his parents, his wife, and her family, Adler, near death, returned to Prague. He emigrated to London in 1947, where he was finally able to build up a life as a freelance writer. In 1950, in a period of ferocious intensity, he wrote Eine Reise, now translated by Peter Filkins as The Journey.

Adler wrote in isolation, and even in his lifetime he was never an easy writer with a large audience. Members of the “Prague school,” the tradition of Kafka to whom Adler was indebted, were gone. In the years immediately following the war, Germans did not want to read about the horrors of the camps, the ostensible subject of Adler’s book. Many publishers rejected Eine Reise. Elias and Veza Canetti, to whom the book was dedicated, admired the manuscript, as did Heinrich Böll. Still, the famous German publisher Peter Suhrkamp vowed that the book would never see the light of day while he was alive. Sure enough, it wasn’t until a year after Suhrkamp died in 1961 that Eine Reise found a home at a small German publisher.

When the translator Peter Filkins unearthed Eine Reise in a small bookshop near Harvard, he was amazed at his discovery. Here was someone writing in German, a Jewish survivor of the death camps, who had forged an innovative way to discuss the Holocaust and yet remained unknown in the United States. Filkins could not put the book down. He resolved to translate it. Its publication by Random House marks the first time any of Adler’s six works of fiction have been brought into English. The translation of The Journey is a publishing-world event for other reasons as well. As Filkins notes in his Introduction, “the number of novels published by Jews who had direct experience of the camps and lived to write fiction about them in German comes to a grand total of four.”

Given its uneven publishing history in Germany, the decision by Random House to publish the English translation is a pleasant surprise. That the revered German writer W. G. Sebald admired Adler’s work mitigated the publisher’s doubts. Before his death in a car crash in 2001, Sebald, a generation younger than Adler, made his career out of writing about the Holocaust. Adler’s thousand-page volume Theresienstadt 1941–1945, the book for which he is best known, is a study that describes in exhaustive detail the structure and organization of the camp. Peter Filkins realized that Sebald had featured Adler’s study in the climax of his highly acclaimed novel Austerlitz and that this connection would create a built-in audience for The Journey.

Filkins has delivered an accomplished translation. A professor at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and an award-winning translator of Ingeborg Bachmann’s poetry, Filkins here tackles a complex prose style that, in his own words, employs “montage in jumbling its sense of time and place” and blends “philosophical speech with poetic imagery, [and] pointed political insights with oblique imagist renderings.” Filkins does especially good work with this “philosophical speech,” which he makes haunting and direct.

Though Adler was clearly writing about the death camps, he refused to use the words “Jews” and “Nazis.” As his son Jeremy Adler notes in his Afterword to the English edition, “It was the very polarization of such groups that led into the abyss.” Instead, in The Journey, H. G. Adler calls Jews “the forbidden.” In a moving passage at the book’s start, Filkins translates:

We are all forbidden because we are not what we wished to become, and we are not what we wished to become because we’ve been turned into something unwanted.

This circular logic underscores the pernicious absurdity of the Nazis’ Final Solution.

The Journey displays Adler’s inventive, challenging style. The saga centers on the Lustigs (based on his wife, Gertrud’s, family), whom we infer to be a Jewish family imprisoned by the Nazis. We meet the patriarch Leopold Lustig, a doctor, his wife Caroline, and her sister Ida Schwarz. We also get to know Zerlina and Paul, Caroline and Leo’s grown children. All perish but for Paul. Instead of writing in his own voice, the author became the brother of his wife, Gertrud-Zerlina. She was murdered in Auschwitz when she “chose to join her mother on ‘the bad side,’” as Adler’s son writes in his Afterword.

In telling his story, Adler omits the kind of markers that help readers gain purchase in a tale. We encounter no chapters. The third-person narrator does not signal to the reader when a scene or speaker changes. The characters’ voices blend together. The effect of these narrative subversions is discomfort. And that is precisely their point. Adler suffered through the most unspeakable atrocities known to man. Our own disorientation as readers resonates with the chaos of the Shoah.

The appeal of Adler’s novel depends on your tolerance for experimentation. If you are a fan of Kafka’s terrifying fables or of W. G. Sebald’s oblique storytelling, The Journey will be an important addition to your bookshelf. And you will be in luck—Random House has just commissioned Peter Filkins to translate another of Adler’s books. (Before his death in London in 1988, he penned twenty-six.) Next up: Panorama, Adler’s first novel, written in 1948 and not published in Germany until twenty years later. It is now forty years past that date, and H. G. Adler is finally getting his due.