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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


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The Diary of
Dawid Sierakowiak

edited by Alan Adelson,
translated by Kamil Turowski.
Oxford, 288 pages, $27.50.

Dawid Sierakowiak was fifteen years old in the summer of 1939, when he had a fine time mountain climbing at a Zionist youth camp. Within a few months Dawid and his family were confined in the Lodz ghetto, the status of his school was confused (much to his distress, for he was an avid student and ranked at the top of his class), and he was writing in his diary that "the prices of meat and lard are becoming more and more unreal. . . . It does not matter to us anyway, since we would not have enough money for these products even if they cost their regular prewar price." It was the beginning of the combination of financial strangulation and slow starvation by which the Nazis reduced the Jews of Lodz to enfeebled slaves before shipping them off to death camps. Dawid's five surviving notebooks provide a precise record of the horror. He recorded rumors, prices, diseases, deportations, and deaths. He scrounged up tutoring jobs for which he was paid in pfennigs or, in one case, very poor soup. As an enthusiastic young Communist, he noted and resented the better conditions available to the managerial class surrounding the Nazi puppet who controlled the ghetto. He reported no acts of heroism and very few of generosity. His own father took to stealing from the family's inadequate food supply. Hunger and the search for work are constant themes, but through all the misery Dawid maintained his interest in public affairs and his intellectual ambitions. In March of 1943 he was offered a job (presumably unpaid) "translating one of Lenin's books from Yiddish to Polish," and "took it willingly." In April, despite the promise of life-sustaining work in a bakery, he admitted to "beginning to fall into melancholy." He died in August, officially of tuberculosis. The death certificate survives. Dawid's diaries are a terrifying record, all the more so because of the observant intelligence that persisted through life in a man-made hell. Mr. Adelson's notes are thorough and often indispensable for understanding what the diarist had no reason to explain.



Dinner
With Persephone

by Patricia Storace.
Pantheon, 416 pages,
$25.00.

Ms. Storace's account of a year spent in Greece combines past and present, legend and fact, direct reportage and subtle reflection, in an unusual and delightful whole. Her book goes well beyond the travel genre in penetrating a country balancing resentfully between Europe and Asia, where the ghost of Alexander the Great is entangled with the "Macedonia question," the rules laid down by the European Union threaten to produce "a situation in which Greeks can't afford to live in Greece," and the inhabitants of modern buildings regularly consult dream books. This is a splendid book about a wonderfully varied and ambivalent country that does not deserve its self-invented joke: Every country has a cross to bear -- England has weather, Greece has Greeks.



Raw Creation:
Outsider Art and
Beyond

by John Maizels .
Phaidon, 240 pages, $69.95.

By the mid nineteenth century doctors who were developing humane treatment of the insane had begun to take an interest in the artwork of their patients. Their initial objective was to achieve a better understanding for therapeutic purposes, but the inescapable power of some of the productions led to appreciation and collection. Books were written, and one such fell into the hands of the artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), who, already fascinated by Dada and surrealism, became an enthusiastic advocate of art derived directly from the unconscious mind -- "works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture," in which "the spirit has free rein once again." Dubuffet called such works Art Brut, and extended the term to include any work that was untrammeled by conventional training or orthodox academic standards. Mr. Maizels calls it Outsider Art, and his book presents a dazzling display of the strange, the disturbing, and the unique. Outsider artists belong to no schools, follow no fashions, submit to no influences, and invent their own techniques. Their only discernible common characteristic is a superb indifference to anything but their own vision. Mr. Maizels's factual text is accompanied by quotations that are often as amazing as the works they purport to explain. One may not enjoy every item reproduced in this book, but visual excitement and intellectual provocation are abundant.



Difficulties of a
Bridegroom

by Ted Hughes .
Picador, 159 pages, $20.00.

Mr. Hughes, the poet laureate of England, prefaces his collection of short stories with an explanation of their origins and the years in which they were written. The satirical fantasy "O'Kelly's Angel," for example, was composed when "the troubles of Northern Ireland were dormant." It could not decently be written today. Other stories are related in various ways to Mr. Hughes's poetry, but familiarity with that poetry is not necessary for the reader to follow the patterns of eeriness and endurance that connect the tales. Those connections are loose and not necessarily advantageous.



Remembering
Anna O.: A Century
of Mystification

by Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen.
Routledge, 125 pages,
$14.95.

The case of Anna O., a young woman whose hysterical symptoms disappeared once she recalled and described the traumatic incident that caused them, figures large in the Freudian psychiatric method. Both Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Anna's doctor, vouched for the spectacular cure. Mr. Borch-Jacobsen, after ploughing through "the labyrinth of archives, purloined letters, gossip, and rumor known as Freud studies," maintains that the case is a myth and offers persuasive evidence in support of his heresy. His book is an entertaining exercise in irreverent detection, regardless of one's position on Freud.


To the Hilt

by Dick Francis .
Putnam, 320 pages, $24.95.

Alexander Kinloch, the narrator of Mr. Francis's latest thriller, is a chronically disheveled artist who asks only to be left unmolested on a Scottish mountain with his paints and his bagpipes. He is, however, the nephew of an earl, and although the family castle is being mismanaged by the state and no Kinloch has swung a claymore for centuries, the ancestral spirit survives. When Alexander is beset by thugs, a brewery, and dubiously legal shenanigans with a horse, he responds as to the fiery cross. The tale starts with a bang and ends with a crash, both highly satisfactory.


A World Lost

by Wendell Berry.
Counterpoint, 160 pages,
$20.00.

Mr. Berry's middle-aged narrator recalls the semi-rural paradise of his childhood, shattered by a murder that haunted his family forever after. The novel is a portrayal, at once delicate and acute, of unpretentiously fine people coping with a very bad business. Mr. Berry writes elegantly, effortlessly balancing tragedy and a quiet, sly humor.


My Other Life

by Paul Theroux.
Houghton Mifflin, 456 pages,
$24.95.

Mr. Theroux has developed the what-if? fantasy of another life into a novel about exactly that -- his own imaginary life as a wandering literary man with a sideline in teaching and a talent for the inadvertent collection of Potiphar's wives. The episodic tale begins in an African leper colony and ends with a box of "personal effects," and it is interesting, sometimes acid, reading all the way.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1996; Brief Reviews; Volume 278, No. 5; pages 120-122.

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