The best novel of the 20th century was written as an argument against the ruling French literary critic, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. He held that a writer’s life was the key to his or her literary work and that the life and letters must be parsed along with the work. Marcel Proust disagreed: “Sainte-Beuve’s work adds nothing to our understanding of a writer,” he famously declared in 1909. “He ignores what should be obvious to anyone upon reflection, that a book is produced by a different person than the one whom we see in his daily life with his strength and weaknesses as a man.” Then Proust wrote his novel to demonstrate his point.
We have come to side with Proust against Sainte-Beuve because the exquisite literary architecture of his novel does not need the scaffolding of the writer’s life to be discerned and enjoyed as a work of art. And yet only Proust in all his particularity could and did write À la recherche du temps perdu.
I am beginning this review of Werner Sollors’s challenging book about Germany in the years 1945 to 1948 with these reflections because, contrary to Proust’s claim, the key to The Temptation of Despair is the author’s life. It is possible, of course, to read this elegantly written and subtly argued book—in which the author carries his immense learning lightly and displays his broad cultural literacy with unobtrusive grace—without knowing anything about him. But once you know that Sollors was born in Silesia in 1943, came to America with his 1975 Berlin University doctorate on Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) in his pocket, and subsequently built an eminent career at Columbia and Harvard as an innovative, fair-minded scholar of America’s multiethnic literature, you begin to see that The Temptation of Despair is, sub rosa, an extraordinary autobiography. In his examination of the social and cultural forces evolving out of the chaos of Germany’s Stunde Null (zero hour) in April 1945, the author looks back on the culture in which his earliest childhood was embedded. And he does so from the vantage point of a lifetime spent in America’s freedom, thinking about the fates of Jews and African Americans.
Sollors’s portrait of 1945-48 Germany, like Proust’s portrait of Paris, is filtered through a sophisticated mind shaped for decades by forces antithetical to those at work on the minds of his subjects. As a consequence, Sollors’s book is not a portrait of the unsavory German reality between 1945 and 1948 (just as Recherche is not a portrait of Paris between 1871 and 1916) but the portrait of an Americanized mind in motion trying to retrieve a lost time. It is the intensity, subtlety, and suppleness of that mind that makes The Temptation of Despair a great book.
The title refers to acedia, a state of emotional and spiritual apathy induced by insight into the gravity of one’s sins. Acedia is a torpor induced by despair so intense that one loses even the will to kill oneself. It’s one of the most lethal of the Seven Deadly Sins because it indicates that the sinner has given up on God’s grace. Acedia is what a noble and literary mind would imagine Germans fell prey to once they saw the photos of Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald.
But the evidence Sollors is forced to present is one of indifference to the crimes committed by Germans during the war and a lack of introspection about how those at home might have been culpable. The writers Erich Kästner and Ursula von Kardorff doctored their diaries after the war to reduce the blow to their egos. Kästner, in particular, “strengthened passages that emphasize the shared guilt of the Allies and complain about the suffering of the German population.” But Sollors did find a diary entry by a simple soldier, a prisoner of war in Scotland, who was tempted to give way to despair when he saw the images from the camps: “The gates of the underworld are opening up,” noted Wolfgang Soergel on May 8, 1945. “There can be no forgetting.”
It was, indeed, a world of unimaginable horrors that a civilized world was forced to confront as the survivors came out of the camps and the corpses lay in piles not of dozens but of hundreds—about 13,000 corpses in Bergen--Belsen alone. The images George Rodger shot there for Life had to be retouched (clothing the naked bodies) to be publishable in America. Sollors’s analysis of a single image—a young boy running along a curved road lined with bodies in Bergen-Belsen—is one of the highlights of this book, in part because Sollors undercuts the idiocies of American academics who have “interpreted” this image. One of them wrote: “The child’s face becomes the escape route for an unsayability that seeps into the visual image and contests any narrative articulation of what the camera captures, a world where death and life are virtually indistinguishable.” What nonsense!
The 7-year-old boy in the picture is not a German boy avoiding death but a Jewish boy all too familiar with it: He is very much alive and the bodies next to him are quite dead. Sollors goes on to unravel the stunning story of the boy, Sieg Maandag, the son of a Dutch diamond merchant who was deported with his family by way of Westerbork to Bergen-Belsen and managed to survive there (parentless) with his sister.
It is with gratification that the reader next encounters Martha Gellhorn’s response to seeing Dachau that spring, full of outrage and self-recrimination: “We are not entirely guiltless, we the Allies, because it took us twelve years to open the gates of Dachau.” Three years later, in 1948, she published her novel Point of No Return, in which she worked out her desire for revenge by having her protagonist—an American Jew serving in the U.S. Army and arriving, like Gellhorn, in Dachau—drive his jeep into a group of pink-faced laughing Germans. But in reality, there was no revenge: “At home we hardly ever talked about the war,” Sieg Maandag explained. “We had had enough of it.” If one looks at the works printed for survivors in the German displaced persons camps, they are prayer books, psalms, Hasidic works. Proust remarked at the end of Swann’s Way that facts and faith are very far apart.
Sollors’s work covers liberation narratives, novels, photography, film, the experience of black GIs in Germany, and legal theory. He inserts short autobiographical vignettes but makes no evaluative comments. He works by offering contrasts, such as the fates of the legal scholars Karl Loewenstein and Carl Schmitt. And sometimes a claim articulated in one chapter, such as the desire for revenge, is put to rest in another section (Jews went on with their lives). Among the many high points is Sollors’s reading of the anonymous diary A Woman in Berlin, which describes the Red Army as an occupying force and one of its preferred tools of subjugation: rape—about two million overall, some 100,000 in Berlin alone. Sollors shows that the sophisticated literary features of the diary and its self-control enhance its effectiveness and make it a classic about the experience of trauma. What he does not say, but has the reader think, is that this is, indeed, an account of a punishment. The anonymous narrator never complains.
Inevitably, there is a chapter about Germany in ruins and Germans suffering from bombings. The question was raised by the Swiss writer Max Frisch in 1946: Should there be some kind of mercy for the Germans? More important is Frisch’s insight into the Germans’ postwar indifference to the suffering they had caused: “Deadly misery, one’s own, narrows my consciousness to one point,” wrote Frisch. “It turns out to be inhuman to expect of a human being to see beyond his own ruins.” Sollors’s trajectory—out of the ruins of Germany toward a thoughtful, gimmick-free academic career that has taken note of the suffering of Jews, African Americans, and other minorities—shows that it is possible to grow and see beyond one’s own ruin.
Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.