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March 27, 2009

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PAGE 14A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 27, 2009 By Wesley Yang Jersey City, N.J. (NEXT- BOOKI--In 1938. a few months after the Anschluss absorbed Austria into the Third Reich. Paul Wittgen- stein, "his face white with horror," entered a room oc- cupied by his eldest sister. Hermine, and disclosed to her: "We count as Jews!" Paulwas a highly decorated veteran of the Great War and a musi- cal celebrity in Vienna. His brother Ludwigwas aphiloso- pher regarded by a growing cult of brilliant young men in England as a god. The Wittgensteins had been, for three generations, a family of practicing Roman Catholics, yet the baptismal certificates of their grand- parents disclosed that three out of four of them were Jews before conversion. This Classi- fied them. in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws goverq- ing racial purity of the Nazi state, as Jews. The designation stripped them of the right to vote and to hold key jobs in the press; politics, law. the civil service, and the arts. and subjected them to a series of petty prohibitions (such as the right to sit on a park bench) that were "intended to make life in the Reich so disagree- able for the Austrian Jew that he would leave the country of his own volition." asAlexander Waugh puts it in his new book. "The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War." It also placed Paul himself, the father of two bastard children of an unmarried German woman, in violation of the infamous Section 2 of the Nuremberg Law for Protection of German Blood and German Honor forbid- ding extramarital intercourse bet~veen Jews and Germans. It had not occurred to the Wittgensteins, erstwhile possessors of one of the larg- est fortunes in Europe, that anyone would try to perse- cute them, least of all for an identity they had long ago disclaimed. The latter third of Waugh's book is taken up with an account of the bureau- cratic and legal maneuvers by which the Wittgensteins sought to evade the fate of European Jewryby means of all the considerable resources at their disposal. Their legal hope, such as it was. rested on the claim that one of their grandparents had. in fact, been the bastard child of a gentile nobleman. In the end. they secured their freedom only by releasing the bulk of their fortune to the Nazi state. The story underscores the macabre fact that even the wealthiest, best-connected, and most patriotic Austri- ans those who. like the Wittgensteins. had literally sacrificed both life and limb in the service Of Austria--were not exempted from the cruel" exactions of the Third Reich. Italso underscores the equally macabre fact that, in the end, such people were usually able to buy their way out of perse- cution, at the cost of millions of pounds of gold. The Nazi episode effected the final splitbetween the sur- viving Wittgenstein siblings and scattered what remained of their vast fortune. It was a fortune that had taken a single lifetime tobuild. Waugh devotes a chapter to the rise of its progenitor, Karl Wittgenstein, who went from "rebellious American barman to multimillionaire Austrian steel magnate" in 33 years. During that time Karl had risen from salaried engineer at an ironworks to the owner or principal shareholder in the Austro-Hungarian empire's largest iron. steel, mining, munitions, and financial companies. In 1898. he retired at the age of 51 and turned to a life of cultivated leisure. He was the most successful of a family of 11 that included "judges, soldiers, doctors. scientists, patrons of the arts and government administra- tors-all of them prominent." He had fathered nine chil- dren of his own. some of whom were notable for their gifts, some of whom were notable for their beauty, and he amassed "magnificent and valuable collections of furni- ture. art. porcelain, and auto- graph musical manuscripts." His happiness was at its height. But the Wittgenstein industrial fortune took a single lifetime to dissipate. Waugh devotes much of the book to the madness, waste, expropriation and misfortune that afflicted Karl's heirs. In 1902, his eldest son, Hans, disappeared in Amer- ica, an apparent suicide. In 1904. his next eldest son, Rudy, emptied a vial of po- tassium cyanide into a glass and drank it. Karl forbade his family to mention the names of either of his lostsons, driven "not by a lack of feeling on his part, but by a surfeit of it." Waugh goes on to observe that "the effect of his censor- ship created an atmosphere of unbearable tension in the home. causing a split between the Wittgenstein children and their parents that time would never heal." Wesley Yang has written about books and culture for the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer and n+l. Reprinted from, a new read on Jewish culture. On the Hochreit, summer 1920. Wittgenstein is seated between his sister tIelene Salzer andhis friend, Arvid Sjogren. 4 By Robert Leiter Jewish Exponent PHILADELPHIA For someone like myself who came of age reading the great works of the 2Oth- century modernists writ- ers like Gertrude Stein. James Joyce. T.S. Eliot and Marcel Proust--the highly ubiquitous postmodern- ist movement, which was spawned by the excesses and political shenanigans of the 1960s. has generally been an irritant to me. Whether it's Aridy Warhol's soup cans or deconstructionist literary theory, which dominated academia for the past 30 years, postmodernism has either indulged in a dead- pan jokiness aimed at the concept of art as a serious endeavor or has directed an implicit, humorless critique at all language as base and empty, mere signs without meaning. Postmodernism, at least as it was wielded in the academy (and I use the word wielded purposely, since the theory was utilized as a political weapon), gave rise to the culture wars that have raged over the last three decades, and that continue to rear their ugly headwhen- ever certain groups of people feel their worldviews being threatened. And yet. of all the writers I've gotten to know and truly admire over the course of the last zeveral ~years or ,~o1 Roberto Bolafio---a tried-and-true post- modernist--has struck me not only as an exciting presence, but perhaps one of the most profound artists of the second half of the 20th century. I have admired a number of his books, but the work that won me over completely is his "Nazi Literature in the Americas." Published recently by New Directions, it is post- modernist in temper and execution, a work of fiction whose premise, at least in bald outline, would normally have set my teeth on edge; but, in B01afi0's hands, I found it to be masterfully executed. In addition, the book is wildly funny; best of all, the humor, though often black in hue, is not applied at the expense of its characters (if one can call them that). There is the req- uisite ironic self-referencing that is a necessary staple of such works, but Bolafio uses the technique with a deftness few have rivaled. Born in 1953 in Santiago, Chile, Bola 0 lived in Mexico. Paris and Spain, and died young, at age 50, leaving behind, despite his brief time on earth, a substantial fictional legacy. His various works have been aFlacarin6 in English at a slow and steady pace over the last decade or so. thanks to the dedication of New Directions. though the two volumes considered to be his major achievements "The Savage Detectives" and "2666"--someh0w got into the hands of Farrar Straus and Giroux. These are definitely his longest works, and that may be why they have gotten an overabundance of atten- tion. (Critics love girth, just for the sake of it; somehow, it seems to be a verification of the genius they attribute to a writer.) But I would say that the books New Directions has published and, it seems, plans to continue to publish aresomewhat more acces- sible-they are definitely slimmer, at the very least. And they also tellyou as much an extensive bibliography). The "problem"--Jf that's the word you'd apply here--is that all of these people, no matter the accumulation of facts Bolafio presents us with, are completely imaginary. A deadpan eertaint~ There is no plot, of course. to any of this. The irony and the humor come from how these various life stories, laid out with a commendable deadpan certainty, rub up against one another and set off sparks and resonances. The book one can't really call it a novel or a short-story collection (the only thing it resembles closely is Jorge Luis Borges'"AUnlversal History of Infamy" or, perhaps, in some of the scholarly detailing, "Pale Fire" by Vladimir Nabo- kov) makes use of all sorts of literary conventions, all in the service of h bogus reality. But even though these people are imaginary, Bolafio clearly knows his recent his- tory and lets the echoes ring, sometimes making you think that you are at fault for not be- ter how unpleasant the ideas they espouse. The effort may be couched in deadpan lan- guage- and that-is what often gives rise to the humor--but we bring that insight to these words. Bolafio never varies in hi~ raft~m~tnshi]~1 and his constancy toward his n vel- ists, poets and pamphleteers never wavers. ~ even de- scribes their triumphs with awe and their defeats with an undeniable pathos. Wherever you look in "Nazi Literature in the Americas." you find evidence of the per- vasiveness of his premise and how carefully he has worked it out, to say nothing.of the inventiveness he applies to it all. The book's 14 sections have each been given a wick- edly entertaining title; for example, you can check out the almost obligatory P0btes Maudits or the Wandering susceptible to the allure of force and yearning f0r dell. cate, perishable things. His earliest literary endeavors are indebted to the Beat esthetic, to judge from his first book of poems, Macon Night (1961), ~ubliahed in his hometown. in the short-lived City in Flames series. The texts are preceded by long dedications to Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corse. Kerouac. Snyder and Ferlinghetti. O'Bannon didn't know these poets personally tat the time, he hadn't left his home state of Georgia), but he maintained a profuse and enthusiastic correspondence with at least three of them. "The following year he hitchhiked to New York City, where he met Ginsberg, and a black poet at a hotel in the Village. They talked, drank and recited poems. Then Ginsberg and the black guy Women of Letters. Or you suggested they make love.At could take your pick between first O'Bannon didn't under-, the Forerunners and Figures stand. When one of the poets of the Anti-Enlightenment, started to undress him and or spend a period of time with the other began to stroke him, Two Germans at the End of the terribletruth dawned. For about Bolafio as you need to ingconversantwiththesepeo- the Earth. Then there are know, and may just give you the practice necessary to scale his more massiveworks, if you feel so inclined. In my view, there is no better place to start the Bo- lafio journey than with Nazi Literature in the Americas. Thosewho have no experience with reading such unusual fare may find the originality of this book a bit off-putting. But the premise simple at least in one sense. Bolafio hascompiledan encyclopedia of right-wing writers who flourished throughout the North and South American continents. And the book is structured like any standard encyclopedia. It is made up of brief biographies of the major players, dates and composi- tions all in p.lace (there is also a few seconds he didn't know pie and their creations, even the entertaining and Fabu- what to do. Then he punched if their Hitlerian politics are lous Schiaffino Boys as well them away and left. 'I would deplorable. This simulationof as the Many Masks of Max have beaten them to death,' the real is one of thewriter's Mirebalais. he was to say later, 'but I felt finest accomplishments, and Whatissoconvincingaboutsorry for them.' it keeps you slightly off kilter the text is that, not only does "In spite of the blows he had throughout the entire reading experience. In setting up his imaginary compendium, Bolafio is also getting back at his enemies in a very political way. A dedicated man of the left he has not made his"adversaries" his fictional characters--look absurd; nor has he dealtwiththem through caricature or satire. In fact, he takes the writers portrayed in "Naz! Literature in the Americas" quite seri- ously for the simple reason that to make this endeavor work,.readers must never fail to see their "reality," no mat- Bolafio create detail-packed received, Ginsberg included and even heart-rending biog- four of O'Dannon's poems in raphiesforhisdamnablecrea- a Beat anthology, which was tures, but he places them into published a year later in New completely comprehensible and recognizable landscapes, most of them literary andwith more than just a whiff of his- tory about them. One of the most entertain- ing entries, for example, is for Jim 0'Bannon, who is one of the two North American Poets included and whose dates are Macon 1940-Los Angeles 1996. Bolafio tells us that"Jim O'Bannon, poet and football player, was equally York," One of the great strokes of genius in the work is the Epilogue for Monsters, a cata- loguing of secondary charac- ters and literary hangers-on who have as much juice and physical reality as the ma- jor players in this wickedly entertaining and evocative masterwork. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Exponent,