After Auschwitz: A Love Story
After Auschwitz: A Love Story by Brenda Webster. (Wings Press, 160 pp. $16.95)
Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist and theoretician, believed that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Brenda Webster, whose previous novels and translations give witness to both her narrative skill and her poetic consciousness, challenges that assertion in her new novel, courageously named After Auschwitz. The title, one speculates, might have been chosen in ironic deference to Adorno’s sad and defeatist statement. There is nothing barbaric in this tender tale of an extraordinary and loving relationship between Renzo, an aged filmmaker tenaciously fighting the onset of dementia, and his wife, Hannah, a child survivor of Auschwitz, whom he once abandoned and has now returned. Hannah is both his caregiver and lover.
Set in Rome, with the eternal city itself a poetically portrayed persona, the story is narrated by Renzo, who is unsparing of both truth and tragedy. He is the inheritor of Hannah’s personal and literal legacy. She has told him of “the neighbors who watched indifferently…as the Nazis…drove us like cattle going to market, beating us with sticks,” of the horrific experiences she and her sister, Leah, endured in the camp, and of the agonizing death march on which they trudged barefoot through wintry Poland. Her graphic descriptions are seared into his memory, fragile as it has become.
Renzo, a non-Jew, chronicles his efforts to encourage Hannah to work on her successful novels, stressing her obligation to write as a witness to history. She shares that obligation with her close friend Primo Levi, who is a spectral presence in their lives, a man whose suicide she saw as a betrayal because he was “to set an example for the rest of them, the survivors.” And Hannah fulfills the mandate to relate the past, writing tirelessly even as she submits herself to Renzo’s needs and to his increasing irrationality.
And Renzo does not spare himself, recording his abandonment of Hannah for a mistress and his pitiable plea for her return as he recognizes the dangers of his mental decline. Addicted to memory, frightened by the clearly recognizable symptoms of its decline, he confuses Alzheimer’s with Auschwitz, seeing himself as a prisoner of his own deteriorating brain.
The book’s pain is offset by Webster’s compassion for her characters, her evocation of both the joys of life and the darkening days of old age and, above all, the acknowledgment that “after Auschwitz” there can be the golden glory of Rome.
In this novel, Webster asserts yet another Adorno dictum: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.” She has expressed that right and denied the barbarians their triumph. —Gloria Goldreich