The Wall: A Novel
The Wall: A Novel by H.G. Adler. Translated by Peter Filkins. (Random House, 656 pp.)
In the world of author H.G. Adler, Prague, his birthplace, is “over there” and London, where he made his home after 1947, is “the metropolis.” Jews are not mentioned. Germans and their unspeakable behavior? The same.
Yet The Wall, Adler’s semiautobiographical evisceration of the human condition after experiencing two concentration camps, is a compelling indictment of “the conquerors,” as he calls them, and those who survived the war. In dense stream of consciousness—with no breaks for chapters—Adler’s protagonist, Arthur Landau, a middle-class sociologist, returns home in search of his lost life only to confront a formidable psychological wall between himself and the world.
“His existence,” Landau says of himself, “shot through with despair, is nothing but an open wound. He broods a great deal, and in his peculiar thoughts, he develops his own path forward on which he cannot recommend that anyone travel along with him.”
An intense nonstop tour-de-force that unfolds in Landau’s mind, The Wall is reminiscent of James Joyce’s Ulysses in structure. But it is Kafka-esque in its mesmerizing tales of guilt, survival, retribution, resilience, friendship and love. At times difficult and troubling, at times annoying, even ponderous, The Wall can also be extraordinarily beautiful.
In understanding Adler’s book, it is helpful to know about the author. Adler, who died in 1988, published 26 books of fiction, poetry, philosophy and history. In her review of The Wall in The New York Times, writer Cynthia Ozick compared him to Kafka, “a Jew steeped culturally in German within a society vigorously Czech.”
Following the German takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1941, Adler and his family were dispatched to Theresienstadt, where they remained for two and a half years, and in 1944 they were sent by freight car to Auschwitz. His wife, a physician, and her mother were gassed. His parents and 16 relatives met the same fate.
After the war, Adler returned to Prague, then under tight Soviet control. In 1947, he made his way to London, where he completed a sociological study of Theresienstadt that remains the standard historical reference to this day. The Wall was first published in German in 1989, after two previous Holocaust-themed novels by Adler; the trilogy covers a 50-year span, starting in 1910.
In The Wall, the fictional Landau is living “in the metropolis” with Johanna, his second wife, and their two children. He is laboring over an immense work, The Sociology of Oppressed People. “Misery is my business, but not my pleasure,”
For a period, Landau works in a museum, cataloging victims’ stolen art work and other possessions. Eventually he seeks out an earlier wave of refugees from “over there,” who are well-established in business in their new land. They rally around Landau at first but fail to fulfill their promises. The scholars make fun of his ideas. Those in business offer insignificant jobs. “Unfortunately,” Landau says, “I was too late. The time for refugees was past; they had all attached themselves to something or someone, and there was nothing left for foreigners. I soon appreciated that there was one too many people in the world and that was me. I simply couldn’t be allowed to exist.”
If Landau is challenging us to wonder why life is worth living after a human has endured hopelessness, trauma and regret, then perhaps Adler was echoing Samuel Beckett, who disdained suicide or death for life in all its complexities, unfairnesses and inscrutable happenings (“I can’t go on…I must go on.”)
In Landau’s mind, fantasy mixes with reality and reality with panic, and the story unfolds spasmodically. He is bitter against those who avoided deportation and feels they do not understand his suffering. Survivor guilt? Alienation?
The Wall is not an easy book, but it raises so many provocative questions it begs discussion.