Afterword: on translating The Seventh Well

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Fred Wander called his recollections Das gute LebenThe Good Life — good not in either of its narrow senses of virtuous or epicurean, but rich, full, kindly, generous.  Its alternate title is Von der Fröhlichkeit im Schrecken — something like ‘remaining cheerful in the midst of horror. ’ He was born in Vienna in 1917,  and died there almost ninety years later,  in 2006. The horror was, if one may so put it,  in the midst of the cheerfulness. Between 1939 and 1945,  he was an inmate of twenty different Nazi camps in France, Germany, and Poland.  

As Das gute Leben relates, he did plenty of things besides  merely — merely — survive. He was born into a Jewish working-class family in Vienna; his father, an itinerant salesman, was often away, and, too much for his mother to manage, the young Fred grew up largely on the street. He left school at fourteen, kept himself by casual labour in Austria and, later, in Holland and France, was a vagrant, an autodidact. He was often hungry. As he beautifully puts it, he had an ‘ahasverisches Selbstver ständnis’ — he was, by instinct and conviction, a wandering Jew. After 1945, he returned to Vienna, as a self-taught photographer and reporter. In 1955, he took up an invitation to study at the newly created Literaturinstitut in Leipzig, in East Germany, where he lived with his second wife, Maxie Wander, and wrote books, including illustrated travel books and reportage (most notably about Corsica and the south of France, for which he felt a lifelong attachment). In 1983,  following Maxie’s death in 1977, he went to live in Vienna again, with a third wife, Susanne.

It won’t come as a surprise to readers of The Seventh Well that Wander keeps a rigid sense of proportion about his life; childhood, youth, and camps are all over by about page 100 of a 400-page memoir. It is part of the man’s unassumingness, but also part of his philosophy of life, and of survival too, to keep things within limits, not to grumble or curse.  His cheery stoicism here reminds me of Joseph Brodsky, who ends his fortieth birthday poem, May 24, 1980:

What shall I say about my life?

That it’s long and abhors transparence.

Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelet, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx, only gratitude will be gushing from it. 

The camps don’t even come over as the very worst thing Wander was put through: his own portion of suffering always seems tolerable to him; what happens to others is always worse, the deaths of  friends and comrades in the camps,  but also Maxie’s death from cancer in 1977,  and most especially the death of their daughter,  Kitty, at the age of ten, suffocated and crushed in a landslide while playing on a building site outside their house in East Berlin.

The Seventh Well is dedicated to the memory of Kitty, and it is her loss and the sight perhaps of her body bringing to mind all the many, many dead bodies Wander saw in his youth, that stung him, twenty-three years after the end of the war,  to make his heroic effort to give them back their existence and their power of speech. The first body in particular, that of the Polish boy Yossl — frozen between life and a death no one is willing to credit — is perhaps the most nearly explicit memento to Kitty.

No doubt, publication in the Communist East at the height of the Cold War did much to stifle the book’s impact in the West; far from being, as one might have hoped, immune to such things, Holocaust literature has always been exaggeratedly and dismayingly susceptible to swings of fashion and timing. Primo Levi’s is only the most famous instance of such accidents of reception and translation — the silence greeting Se questo è un uomo on its first appearance in 1947 (prompting the author’s fifteen-year silence) matched only by the clamour attending Survival in Auschwitz (the same book in its American form and title) in the 1960s and 1970s. In the case of Fred Wander, it was the republication of Der siebente Brunnenin 2005 by the Göttingen publisher Wallstein Verlag, with an afterword by Ruth Klüger, that promised to get the book some of the attention it deserves.

Wander resists the temptation — if it ever was a temptation — to be exhaustive, to say everything, even about his own experience. ‘Six million murdered Jews!’ he writes in Das gute Leben. ‘It’s not possible to say anything about so many millions of dead. But three or four individuals, it might be possible to tell a story about!’ Therefore, even in his recollection, he tells highlights, he excerpts, he suggests a paradigm, like a mapmaker he represents to scale; and, in The Seventh Well, a novel, he fashions, and — from true ingredients — he invents. It seems to me that — the outstanding example would be Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table — the welter of extreme and unbearable content demands an exceptional awareness and use of form to master it, in Wander’s case the crystalline, episodic chapters relating individual destinies, but also such essay or prose poem subjects as ‘Bread’ or ‘Faces.’ Though it’s a complicated book ranging backwards and forwards, taking in different locations and different journeys and telling many different stories (it doesn’t observe the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action), there remains something admirably pared down about it. It consists, you might say — and again, this is not Aristotelian — of a middle and an end. It is a modestly brief account of the crisis of his experience in captivity, but even as it begins, Wander takes it away from passivity and suffering; instead he wants to learn how to tell a story, from the master storyteller Mendel Teichmann, the first of, his many tutors in The Seventh Well.

The book has a subtle but undeniable activist streak and implication. What, in different hands, might have been a protocol of hardiness, victimization and chance becomes, amazingly, a sort of Entwicklungsroman, a tale of personal development and learning. (Maxim Gorky, had he written The Seventh Well, might have called it My Universities.) In his writing, Wander displays the same measure of obduracy he displayed in the camps: a persistent desire to differentiate, to see and understand. The shutting down of curiosity and, vitally of gratitude, would have been the end, in either case. In Das gute Leben, Wander recalls a crucial and oft-repeated lesson: ‘“A man, if he is alive at all, lives by the words and pictures in his head,” I can still hear Vladimir Krumholz saying. He lies buried in Buchenwald.’ But the lesson is not invalidated by that; it remains true that a man dies as much from within as from external agencies.

The Seventh Well is the struggle to maintain an inner life. It is a work about absorption. If Wander is to exist at all, he exists with reference to, and by virtue of, what he can learn. ‘No man is an island, sufficient unto himself,’ says John Donne; it might have been Wander’s motto. (The books of Primo Levi discover and follow exactly the same principle.) Even the survival of a single man is a collaborative enterprise. And his collaborators, his witting or unwitting helpers, his preceptors, they in turn continue to exist in him, even if they perished. In its serial structure,  The Seventh Well has something of those grand old foundationist works like Dante’s Inferno or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The narrator at the centre meets people, falls under their sway, older, wiser, more vehement and more distinct. He describes them, gives back the monologizing Dantesque tumble of their speech, and then — like Krumholz above, or like the many, many dead here, Teichmann, or Pechmann, or the farmer Meir Bernstein or the singer Antonio or the nurse Karel or the child prodigy and sleepy rebel Tadeusz Moll, or the unnamed smiling bearded Jew in the children’s ward at the end — they die. But it is a redeemed, memorial-ized, collected death, death robbed of some of its anonymity and purposelessness and brutality. The Wander character at the heart of the book identifies himself, establishes himself and, you might say, grows by listening — to Teichmann, to Chukran, to Pepe, to Moll. Then, when he has listened enough, he speaks, telling his own story of incarceration in the camp of Rivesaltes near Perpignan in the southwest of France — the fires, the dancing, the rats, the fragrance of lavender and thyme — where he remembers first having heard the name Auschwitz. Then, once he has spoken, he learns in silence and delirium from the silent children around him, from what they do, from who they are. And at that point he begins to believe in a future again.

There is a strangely beautiful French term,  univers concentrationnaire — I don’t know who coined it. Primo Levi uses it — the ‘world of the camps,’ one would say in English. In The Seventh Well, Fred Wander evokes and describes this univers concentrationnaire, while all the time insisting, by memory, by faith and by listening to the accounts of others, that there is also a real world outside the camps. Granted, the camps are a law unto themselves, a deformed closed system, but they are not finally a separate or substitute world. More a microcosm of the real world, by synecdoche, by pars pro toto. In Das gute Leben he puts it like this:

Basically the same rules and conditions obtained in the camps as in the world beyond the barbed wire — which is to say power and violence,  opportunism and corruption — only in an exaggerated, distorted form.
But there is another side to this as well, which is hardly ever mentioned, but which seems even more crucial to me: the fact that you could observe — if you had eyes to see — how a few of us struggled to keep alive our true and actual selves, our self-respect, our human bearing, some vestige of our human dignity.

While at no stage blinding himself to the realities of the camps — the cruelty, the cold, the disease, the degradation — Wander retains an eerily sharp awareness of what one might call the persistences and the intrusions of the greater,  truer world outside: such things as memories, talents, stories, beliefs, and hopes. There are physical things such as prayer shawls, photographs, scraps of letters,  ingeniously made tools and shoes, but more powerful are the immaterial things.

In the oddest, most heroic way, these most physical of settings — Auschwitz,  Buchenwald,  Crawinkel — are relegated to a shadow-world,  and what really defines existence are such shadowy things as words and stories.  Even in his monochrome,  death-bounded circumstances, where all are reduced to wretchedness and anonymity, he registers age, class, character, nationality, religion,  and language. He becomes aware (surely for the first time) of the many types of Jews — not types, of course, but individuals — and in addition to the Jews, of the politicals, the gypsies, the sexually deviant. Inmates vie for airtime for their stories — like ‘de Groot’ and ‘Chukran’. The faithful are celebrating Passover in the wash-barracks, and Wander hears Baudelaire and Lear, he is taken on phantom nocturnal tours of the Louvre, he experiences renditions of grand opera, he attends learned debates on Flaubert and Stendhal, he can smell the air in cities where he has never been. He becomes acquainted with Jewish mysticism, with the arguments of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the doctrinaire patience of Communists. A grain of wheat in a piece of bread unfolds for Wander into landscape and climate, the slab of wood off which the bread is eaten — in itself, an earnest parody of something liturgical — comes to stand for all forests everywhere. He becomes a connoisseur (like the soldiers in the trenches of the First World War) of sunrises and sunsets, he is even able to take some pleasure in the monstrous paramilitary airs and graces of some of the camp elders and the Prominenten.

The severe and harrowing depletion, harshness, reduction, brutality — concentration, even — is replenished. In Wander’s account and, one may hazard, his experience, the camp became an unreal world in which the ‘unrealities,’ or the subversive ‘lesser’ or ‘inconsequential’ realities, not only gave value and consolation, but helped in the determined effort to turn this world upside down, so that monochrome became colour, a board (in the hands of Pechmann) became a jazz ensemble,  meals and women and family were conjured out of thin air, barked orders in German were greeted with rebel songs and profanities in Spanish, where two starving prisoners put on an impromptu dumbshow sketch of a man ordering a meal in a restaurant. And the common name for all these things? If one may venture to say such a thing, the indestructibility of the human spirit.

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