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.”