In Review: January 27, 1999

Jews and Christians in Germany

Michael Blumenthal *56 explores a rich, 400-year-old connection

The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, A Personal Exploration
W. Michael Blumenthal *56
Counterpoint, $27.50

For most of his life, W. Michael Blumenthal *56 thought little about the centuries that his Jewish ancestors spent in Germany. Blumenthal and his family fled the Nazis, first settling in China, then after eight years of stateless limbo, immigrated in 1947 to America, where Blumenthal ultimately became both a corporate titan and U.S. secretary of the treasury. But his family's years in Shanghai, combined with the shocking details of the Nazis' Final Solution, were enough to wipe out any affinity they'd once had for Germany, their native land.

As Blumenthal aged, however, he discovered that "there were too many unanswered questions, not merely about my own family and their ancestors, but about that entire group of German Jews into which I was born. What had gone on between German Christians and Jews? Why had there been such a promising beginning, so much hope and so much accomplishment -- and so terrible an end?"

His thoughtful and nuanced answers are detailed in The Invisible Wall, a deftly written book that is at once a multigenerational family memoir and a sweeping historical epic. To frame the tale, Blumenthal focuses on six of his ancestors, most of whom became economically successful but all of whom struggled, to one degree or another, with the "invisible wall" that separated them from the rest of German society. Though Blumenthal's ancestors labored restlessly to establish a German identity as well as a Jewish one, their efforts were largely in vain.

A crucial theme in Blumenthal's book is that Jews in Germany were always treated as separate in one way or another -- geographically, linguistically, legally. That distance from the social mainstream benefited a small but significant proportion of Jews who short-circuited the system and rose economically in a way most non-Jews could not. But that very same separateness also made Jews stand out, thus ensuring that they would be first to be attacked in hard times. What is striking -- and sad -- is how often the Jewish community as a whole was punished for the indiscretions of individual Jews.

A second critical theme is the distinction drawn between one's deeds and one's ancestry. This arose most clearly with patriotic German Jews: They often fought bravely for their country in war, but too often found that their countrymen placed more importance on their ethnicity than on their medals for valor. This insight provides tantalizing clues as to why Germany became such fertile soil for the Nazis' ideas of biological determinism and Jewish inferiority.

Third and last, Blumenthal illustrates the profound self-conflict felt by German Jews. The dilemma is best personified by Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, a self-taught intellectual (and Blumenthal ancestor, 1771-1833) who tolerated antisemitic comments by German aristocrats as long as they continued to attend her literary salons. Like Rahel, German Jews for centuries -- right up until the Holocaust -- felt warmly toward Germany despite its odious restrictions, hassles and "Jew taxes." Yet despite this intense desire to be German, surprisingly few gave in and converted to Christianity.

Naturally, Blumenthal's book is imperfect. While it's structure benefits from focusing on just six ancestors, their unusual affluence and intellectual tastes risks making the study somewhat skewed. In addition, one wishes the author had written more about the history of German Jews in America, including the author's own experiences.

Still, Blumenthal deserves immense credit for the way he has envisioned his book. He provides a near-perfect balance between the stories of individuals and the vast, historical backdrops upon which they were played out. Blumenthal could have stuck to writing an exploration solely of Jewish history, but instead he has produced an excellent primer on four centuries of German and European history. In so doing, he demonstrates -- profoundly -- that the dual histories of the Jews and of Europe are so deeply intertwined that it is simply impossible to separate them.

-- Louis Jacobson '92

Louis Jacobson, a staff correspondent for National Journal magazine, also writes for the Forward, a New York City-based Jewish newspaper.

Life in the '20s

A posthumous novel by a literary lion

The Higher Jazz
by Edmund Wilson '16,
edited by Neale Reinitz,
University of Iowa Press, $34.95

When Edmund Wilson '16 died in 1972, he left among his papers the beginning of a novel, written in the early 1940s on 207 pages of lined yellow legal sheets. This disconnected narrative, actually a series of separate vignettes, covers 18 months in the life of a successful New York salesman and his wife, culminating a few weeks after the stock market crash of 1929.

The manuscript, which surfaced among the Wilson collection in the Beinecke Library at Yale, was apparently completed to Wilson's satisfaction but never revised. Neale Reinitz, the book's editor and a professor emeritus of English at Colorado College, reproduced the text from holograph manuscripts and made only minor changes in spelling and the structuring of paragraphs. He also named each chapter and took the title of the book from a Wilson essay on contemporary music.

Wilson's intention was to write a massive, threevolume fictional study of America in the 1920s under the title The Story of the Three Wishes. Each section would describe a different aspect of life in the U.S., with an emphasis on the social and political ills of the period following World War I. In 1939 he sent a proposal to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's and received an advance of $3,000.

For a number of reasons, Wilson never completed the project. For one thing, the early 1940s were among the busiest years of his life. He was finishing To the Finland Station and The Wound and the Bow, and he was filling in for Malcolm Cowley as book editor of The New Republic. He was also editing F. Scott Fitzgerald '17's The Last Tycoon and bringing together the articles that became The CrackUp, his account of Fitzgerald's final years.

The Higher Jazz is a brief roman-à-clef with specific references to notable New Yorkers who made up Wilson's circle of literary and musical friends. With the help of Reinitz's copious notes, it is interesting to spot Dorothy Parker, pictured as the brittle Kay Burke, as well as Robert Benchley, Cole Porter, Texas Guinan, Charles Ives, and George Gershwin.

The narrator, Fritz Dietrich, combines the easy sophistication of Fitzgerald with the expensive tastes and distinguished ancestry of Gerald Murphy. His wife, Caroline Stokes, is a fair approximation of Zelda Fitzgerald, with Sarah Murphy not far in the background and Wilson's second wife, Margaret Canby, a model for Caroline's physical characteristics.

The final effect of the novel is sketchy, which suggests that while Wilson was serious in beginning his narrative of life in the '20s, he was uncertain where to go with it. But as a companion piece to I Thought of Daisy and Memoirs of Hecate County, the novels published in his lifetime, The Higher Jazz fills in a side of Wilson never before realized or appreciated. It is well worth attending to, not so much as a novel as a social document, and it is essential for anyone interested in Wilson as a major literary figure of the period.

-- Don Harrell

Money business

Strategies for holding on to your assets

Staying Wealthy: Strategies for Protecting Your Assets
Brian H.Breuel '66
Bloomberg Press, $21.95

As the title implies, this isn't a book meant to compete with the hordes of titles out there about creating wealth or investing wisely. It assumes that the reader already has a goodly pile of assets.

Breuel organizes his book by "problem" topic, looking at eight areas that threaten wealth: estate planning problems; business succession; investment difficulties; outliving one's assets; family dilemmas such as divorce, extended illness, and financing education; risks of potential liability and loss; charitable giving issues; and issues confronting the super-wealthy, those worth $20 million or more. Case studies exemplify each problem, and for them Breuel suggests alternative strategies.

Breuel's writing is crisp and focused, and bullet points and references to other sections of the book help unite the material. Flow charts, tables, and graphs are crisp, too, and show up well even though green is the only accent color used -- proof that publishers don't need four-color extravaganzas to present graphics effectively.

The jacket notes say that Breuel has variously owned his own pension design and administration company, run a fee-based planning firm, been a senior executive with a life insurer, and worked for a national brokerage firm. He draws ably from all those disciplines in devising his varied strategies, making Staying Wealthy a valuable read for those with plenty of valuables.

-- Jeff Marshall '71

Oddballs on the loose

Director Ethan Coen '79 publishes fiction

Gates of Eden
Ethan Coen '79
Weisbach Morrow, $24

Filmmaking and fiction don't mix well: that's the consensus in creative writing programs, where screenwriters and novelists enroll in separate workshops, and in Hollywood, which famously crushed writers like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald '17. So Gates of Eden, a collection of short stories penned by filmmaker Ethan Coen '79 (one half of the Coen brothers team, best known for their quirky crime films like Fargo and Blood Simple) comes as a surprise. The stories in this collection are entertaining and clever, featuring witty dialogue that is spot-on.

Fans of Coen brothers' films will recognize familiar elements. Several stories are set in the cold Minnesota landscape featured in Fargo. Nearly every story revolves around a murder or other violent act, often involving an unlikely person: a college grad finds himself on a mafia hit list; a sensitive Torah student kills his father. And, like the films, these stories are filled with bizarre situations and humor. In "Cosa Minapolidan" an ineffectual criminal struggles to organize crime in Minneapolis. A hilarious episode in "A Fever in the Blood" has a deaf private investigator trying to communicate with a blind client who can't type.

Some of Coen's stories are written in dialogue and audio cues. Others are monologues narrated by oddball characters. In the title story, a chauvinist inspector from the California Weights and Measures Department describes how he fell in love with a seemingly submissive woman only to discover he'd been set up. The richest stories in Gates of Eden, however, involve a different kind of violent landscape. Stories like "The Boys" and "The Old Country" explore the violence and terror that come with growing up. After a disappointing camping trip in "The Boys," a father contemplates his sons' futures: "His anger swelled at a world he was certain would make losers of both of them, the one a suck-ass, the other a mute. Why should disappointment be propagated through another generation, a cruel snap traveling down an endless rope?" In "The Old Country" an energetic boy's spirit is ruined after his parents punish him for insulting a rabbi. In all, Coen's stories are rich and vivid. Hopefully this filmmaker will keep on writing fiction.

-- Tamsin Todd '92

A bug's life

Thoughts on having sold a million copies of The Metamorphosis

Sometime in 1997, the millionth copy of my translation of Kafka's short novel The Metamorphosis was sold. The date coincides with the 25th anniversary of its first publication, in 1972. I hope my work has served dear Franz's memory; certainly it has helped to spawn a hundred or more worthy articles on the fate of the salesman Gregor Samsa, who, "one morning, as he awoke from unsettling dreams, found himself transformed into a monstrous vermin." I've read most of these essays and found them all good: I think writing about Kafka improves everyone's style.

I first came across The Metamorphosis in high school, as a result of some remarkable events that took place in our household, in Brooklyn, in the 1940s. My older brother, Noel, who today is a physicist at Cal Tech, came down with a cold and sore throat that grew critical and was diagnosed as rheumatic fever. In those days, before antibiotics, bed-rest of about a year was the prescribed therapy. So Noel lay in bed and was visited by his high school chemistry teacher, who would come each week and bring Noel homework and, seeing that he was ready to move along, assign extra work. Noel did brilliantly, whereupon his teacher declared to my father that my brother should not attend Brooklyn College after graduation, which would have been in the cards; rather, he was "Columbia College material."

So Noel went up to Columbia and became the first in the family to read The Metamorphosis. And then he just brought it home one day in a Modern Library edition for me, thinking, no doubt, that it would not do me any harm to add Kafka to the Lafayette High School reading list that consisted of Emperor Jones, a much abridged Macbeth, and Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag.

I remember liking the first pages of the story, which describe vividly Gregor Samsa's transformation into a kind of malodorous beetle but did not like very much, or understand very well, the pages that describe his obscure decline. I was quite disappointed with myself but felt an unjustified relief when I read Kafka's own reflections on the story. The end was "unreadable," he wrote: it could have been much better, he thought, judging from the book's "sweet" pages. Kafka never criticized the beginning, and he leads us to think that he was quite satisfied with his inspiration, only that a series of calamitous family distractions got in the way of his intention to develop from the opening image the endlessly subtle structures it contains.

In the 1950s, it became my turn to attend Columbia College, where I learned some German; I then served in the Army near Heidelberg, where I learned some more. After graduate school at Cornell, where I got my Ph.D. in comparative literature in a program that had been established by the National Defense Education Act, I was now ready to start teaching in the German department at Princeton.

Like many beginners in the humanities, I was asked to precept in Albert Sonnenfeld's hugely popular course on masterpieces of modern European short fiction. Among these were Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Tolstoy's magnificent The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, which describes the slow, fatal decline of a high official, a judge, who had never given a thought to his mortality. I set about writing a comparative essay on the two stories and learned, to my fascinated incredulity, that Kafka had been inspired to write his Metamorphosis on reading The Death of Ivan Ilyitch.

At this moment a wonderful coincidence occurred: a friend, Allen Mandelbaum, became editor of a series of classics at Bantam Books, and knowing that I could read German, he asked me to translate Metamorphosis. I was required to persuade the senior editors at Bantam that I could do the job, and I remember somewhat unnerving them by suggesting that as a speaker of Brooklynese, I had the lowdown on Kafka's Prague German and, furthermore, like Gregor Samsa, my father had been a traveling salesman in his youth. I proposed to give the story a local flavor, translating it into what the poet Hölderlin calls the right "foreign, analogous material." The editors were alarmed, but Allen Mandelbaum reminded them that he was there to vet any inappropriateness of tone -- and, in the end, only one such locution survives: When Gregor fails to emerge from his room for work, his sister knocks on his bedroom door, saying, in German, something that the previous translators, the Muirs, translate as, "Gregor, open the door, do," but that, according to my lights, was not the tone in which the Samsas spoke to one another. "Gregor, open up," I managed to smuggle in, "I'm pleading with you." Now that's Prague German.

I also agreed to supply some explanatory material, and with the usual timidity and ambition of the beginner, I undertook to read every word that had ever been written about The Metamorphosis in at least the major European languages. As a result it was a year or two before I'd completed my longhand summaries of the more than 100 chapters and articles I'd collected, which I then had to type up (no computers then), with commentaries on each, and then determine them to be right or wrong and extract cogent information from them for a set of notes and decide which of these pieces I wanted to translate and abridge for the "Critics" section of the edition; and then I finally presented some of the results of my scholarship to the editors at the Bantam office for their approval, unprepared for their expressions of shock and dismay. This was to be a trade book; time and space were limited. I was told in no uncertain terms to cut out (almost) everything and to produce a preface posthaste: the project was long overdue. So I did, contemplating the ruin of my hopes and of a great deal of effort -- though, fortunately, much of it was later salvaged for another book.

The experience of publishing The Metamorphosis has not been without its practical side. Professor Robert Fagles, the translator of Homer and Aeschylus, also had a volume of his Oresteia in the Bantam series. One day, chatting, we spoke of our translations -- and of our royalties. My royalties were trifling -- I'd paid very little attention to the details of the contract I'd originally signed, because I was passionate about the job and eager to produce a work of interest to a community of scholars and readers -- but it did appear that I'd signed on to terms that were hardly favorable. So, in my naiveté, I wrote a letter to the vice-president of Bantam Books, using the phrase "unequal treaty." As an assistant professor with the commination "publish or perish" engraved on my forehead, I had not felt free to quibble about terms with a publisher who had offered a virtual guarantee of publication. The vice-president of Bantam Books replied, with a fairness and generosity that took my breath away, "You know, you're right. So here are nicer terms, and we'll make them retroactive a bit." That experience led me to believe that if you have demands on bureaucracy, forget byzantine strategy and simply write the vice-president at his or her address and state your position in human terms. As often as not, you'll get a fair-minded reply. Such a strategy actually occurs to Gregor Samsa, but unfortunately it helped him very little.

-- Stanley Corngold

Stanley Corngold is a professor of German and comparative literature.

Web Sightings: Eye on the Earth

Conservation and economic policy can work in tandem to preserve the environment while also bettering the lives of people, particularly those in ecologically fragile areas. Two Websites deal with these issues, from different, but complementary, perspectives:

New york's Rainforest Alliance (RA) works for the conservation of tropical forests. Its colorful Website provides plenty of information about the threats to and the reasons for preserving these forests. Colorful and to the point, the Website offers viewers several ways to get involved. Particularly effective is the way in which the site's presentation of its environmental programs is organized -- a problem, solution, and results format. Communications Associate Sophia Perez '89 is the media contact, connecting reporters to RA staff on topics from fish aqua-culture to indigenous peoples and intellectual property rights. My only gripe about the site: RA should annotate some of the site's assertions, such as, "In 1987, researchers found a tree compound from the Malaysian rainforest that was 100% effective against the HIV-1 virus. Sadly, they were never able to find that tree again." Who says so?

The third world foundation in Washington, D.C., forms partnerships with like-minded organizations to bring new technology and a scientific approach to such third-world problems as disease, overpopulation, sustainable development, and enviromental degradation. Carl Widell '67 is the foundation's CFO. The Website does an excellent job of communicating the foundation's origins and goals. Viewers can join an online ecology forum. Besides its basic mission, the most interesting aspect of TWF is its links to third-world scientific organizations (although some of their pages haven't been updated in four years). The online ecology discussion is a useful feature.

-- Van Wallach '80

Books received

Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market in the Former Soviet Union and Europe, by Rensselaer W. Lee III '59 (St. Martin's, $26.95) -- A look at illegal trade in nuclear materials in the Newly Independent States and Europe and at the threats to international security and stability. Lee is associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The Environmental Crusaders: Confronting Disaster and Mobilizing Community, by Penina Migdal Glazer and Myron Peretz Glazer *65 (Penn State, $50) -- A survey of grassroots environmentalism in Israel, the former Czechoslovakia, and the U.S., featuring profiles of key citizen activists. Myron Glazer is a professor of sociology at Smith.

Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity, 1945-46, edited by Omar Pound and Robert Spoo *86 (Oxford, $35) -- Previously unpublished letters and documents record the poet's postwar incarceration and indictment for treason, as well as the genesis of his "Pisan Canto." Spoo is an associate professor of English at the University of Tulsa.

Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity, by U.C. Knoepflmacher *61 (Chicago, $35) -- An exploration of the 19th-century debate about the nature of childhood. Knoepflmacher is a professor of English.