Jewish saint, martyr, and representative of the 6 million dead, Anne Frank has been consecrated as the stand-in for all the Jewish men, women, and above all, children, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Through her diary, and its theatrical and cinematic adaptations, Frank has become a kind of spokeswoman, offering the briefest of glimpses into the terror, dislocation, and prolonged agony of the campaign to hunt down the Jews of Europe and transport them to their deaths. The temptation to pull Anne Frank from her pedestal has to be only too tempting for satirists and would-be provocateurs. Following in the footsteps of Philip Roth, who made Anne a refugee and would-be author in “The Ghost Writer,’’ Shalom Auslander has crafted an Anne Frank whom no one would confuse for a martyr or a saint.
Solomon Kugel - the name, right out of a Woody Allen short story, immediately setting the tone for Shalom Auslander’s grimly comic first novel - his wife Bree, and their toddler son, Jonah, are upstate refugees from the cacophony of New York City. They discover that a foul-mouthed, elderly Anne Frank is residing in their attic, vomiting into their air ducts, demanding daily matzoh delivery, and stubbornly intent on finishing the novel she has been working on since secretly surviving Bergen-Belsen.
They are also joined - perhaps plagued might be a better word - by Solomon’s mother, a wannabe Holocaust survivor tragically born too late to taste the bread of affliction.
HOPE: A Tragedy
The Kugels are haunted by these two elderly women on the brink of death, tormented by their links - real and otherwise - to the demons of history. Kugel spends his sleepless nights in his newly purchased home listening to “the farts, the grunts, the gasps, the coughs; the nightly performances of the Judeo-Misery Orchestra, a distressing cacophony of oy-veys, gevalts, and Gott in himmels.’’ The Holocaust is their house guest, and Solomon cannot evict it without imagining the consequences: “Jew Drops Dime on Holocaust Survivor,’’ reads one headline.
Auslander is a humorist whose best comic effects emerge from skirting the boundaries of the outrageous, and “Hope’’ places Kugel in the position of looking to expel a Jewish saint from his attic (metaphor alert!). “How difficult could it be to get an elderly Holocaust survivor out of your house?’’ he wonders. “He’d play Wagner. He’d get a German shepherd. When the UPS man had gone, he’d tell her it had been a man from the Gestapo, asking a lot of questions. A lot of questions.’’
At times, Auslander presses a bit too hard on the symbolism pedal. “Down there, thought Kugel, all was sunshine and beauty and life and possibility; and yet here he stood in this attic, in darkness and suffocating gloom, surrounded by misery and death.’’ Kugel finds himself compiling shopping lists for a future Holocaust while measuring his virtue as a father by the extent he can protect the next generation from what Auslander sees as crippling never-forget disease: “Kugel decided then and there that he would die a happy man, that he would consider his meager life a success, if in years to come, somewhere, someday, someone kicked in Jonah’s door and Jonah was surprised. Shocked. Amazed. Let him be utterly bewildered.’’
Auslander’s last book, the comic memoir “Foreskin’s Lament,’’ followed the tangled path of his escape from the confining strictures of an Orthodox Jewish upbringing to a happier, if still, God-haunted, life in upstate New York. “Hope’’ craftily draws on his own experiences as detailed in “Foreskin,’’ while serving as a variant take on the same essential melody. Kugel, unlike Auslander himself, is unable to remove the tendrils that tie him helplessly to “a Misery Olympics he didn’t want to compete in.’’ He dreams, fruitlessly, of a cleaning product that will clear the cobwebs of guilt from his family, “If only there was a Miracle-Away for the past. A Forever-Gone for brutalities, atrocities, indignities great and small. A lemon-scented life, that was what he wanted; for Jonah, for Bree, for Mother, for Anne.’’
The ornery Anne is, perversely, the mouthpiece for Auslander’s ode to forgetting. While Kugel’s mother devotes herself to remembrance, Anne is the voice of blunt honesty: “I think never forgetting the Holocaust is not the same thing as never shutting up about it. I’d like to scratch Abraham Foxman’s eyes out.’’ If “Hope’’ is never quite as shocking as Auslander might hope it to be, it is also relentlessly entertaining, a deliberately crude assault decrying Shoah business as usual.
Auslander’s style is staccato, fighting off Jewish miserabilism with his own off-brand variety of existential comedy. Humor is the only salve for the existential despair of Jewish history, the avalanche of suffering that threatens to suffocate those it honors and those honoring it. “You put locks on your doors. You put bars on the windows,’’ Kugel notes. “You put gates around your house. The doctor phones: It’s cancer, he says.’’ Auslander is, famously, a pessimist; in “Foreskin’’ he imagined the God he no longer believed in striking his pregnant wife dead as punishment for his faithlessness. “Hope’’ is a deliberate retreat from “Foreskin,’’ with Kugel an authorial stand-in not yet able to snip the apron strings that bind him to a family, a faith, and a people.
Hope may be the most tragic emotion of all, but we go on building our homes, pretending the survivors hunched in our attic are stray mice, or malfunctioning boilers. Auslander gives the last word to a real-estate agent, who summons the ghost of Samuel Beckett for this domestic “Waiting for Godot’’: “You can’t go on renovating, she said with a sigh, you go on renovating.’’
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.