Shalom Auslander’s first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, reminds us that the world is a horrible, sad place, but luckily it’s damn funny, too.
Nothing says the Holocaust like Anne Frank’s diary.
On July 18, 1945, after his return to Amsterdam from Auschwitz, Otto Frank received an answer to his newspaper advertisement from two sisters who had seen his daughters die in Bergen-Belsen. The grief-stricken Otto couldn’t even inform his family for three days. However, he did recover his second daughter’s notebook, and as he read it he was astonished by “the depths of her thoughts and feelings,” in particular how she “had occupied her mind with the problem of Jewish suffering over the centuries.” In 1947, he excerpted the writing for publication, and the result, The Diary of a Young Girl, came to exemplify the Holocaust’s cruelty, and gave a human face to the tragedy of six million murdered people. The book has appeared in 60 languages and sold over 32 million copies. As the decades passed, the diary became standard reading for schoolchildren, and, like all successful and long-lived books, became a cliché.
In a way, you might say, Anne Frank never died.
In Hope: A Tragedy, Shalom Auslander has a lot of serious joking to do about exactly that problem, and his debut novel follows the troubled life of Solomon Kugel, a contemporary Jewish man who discovers Anne Frank living in his attic. This decaying old trespasser might be a liar, but she does have a serial number tattooed on her arm, and she demands shelter and supplies so she can finish the novel she’s been writing. Not knowing what to do, Kugel decides to indulge her, fraught with worry over what people will say if they discover he kicked Anne Frank out on the street. To complicate things, Kugel’s mother keeps pretending that she survived the Holocaust, too; his wife, Bree, is losing patience with their finances; and an arsonist is burning down farmhouses in their county. And so, as the novel progresses, Auslander’s Anne Frankenstein simply takes her place as the latest star in Solomon Kugel’s lifelong constellation of guilt, anxiety, and misery.
An existential page-turner ensues as Kugel tries to understand life, memory, history, and happiness, sometimes all at once. He collects the dying words of famous people, obsessing over his own to-be-determined last words. He buys groceries—lettuce, oranges, apples, packages of sliced turkey—and puts them in the garden so his elderly mother will think she’s got a green thumb. The book’s humor derives, in large part, from the absurdity of Kugel’s situation, and from the never-ending parade of cartoonish characters that torment him. This includes, among others, Professor Jove, Kugel’s psychiatrist, who lectures about the dangers of hope, hence the book’s title. Hopeful people, he tells Kugel, are the most dangerous, and, like Kugel himself, they’re also the most disappointed by our world. “Hitler,” Professor Jove says, “was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years. That’s why he was the biggest monster. … Full of hope, the Führer was. … I tell you this with absolute certainty: every morning, Adolf Hitler woke up, made himself a cup of coffee, and asked himself how to make the world a better place.”
Gradually Auslander’s puns, zingers, and punchlines coalesce around the idea of striking out to a land with no history, no self-reproach, and no shadows of past genocide. Auslander’s humor also manifests as pointed criticism and sharp bitterness hidden inside terrific jokes. Certain parts might even offend sensitive readers, and, like some of the best comedians working today, maybe Auslander’s counting on it. Truth-telling, after all, is a time-honored tradition of clowning.
He isn’t the first to jest that Anne Frank survived the Holocaust, but no other writer has portrayed her as a belligerent, egomaniacal zombie-novelist. His caricature of Jewish victimhood, too, exemplified by Kugel’s masochistic mother, provides uproarious but potentially offensive subject matter. For example, when his mother takes him to visit Sachsenhausen, a little-known concentration camp—“They don’t want us to see the real death camps,” she complains, always the victim—Kugel messes up the trip because his gluten allergy keeps him confined to the bathroom with diarrhea. They take touristy photographs at the crematorium, looking appropriately somber, but it isn’t enough suffering for his mother. “You ruined the whole concentration camp for me, you know that?” she tells Kugel. “You ruined the whole damn camp.”
As Kugel observes, judges, argues with, and circumvents those around him, he clashes with characters that use the Final Solution to emotionally manipulate others. Not that he’s frigid, or that he doesn’t recognize the Holocaust for the tragedy it was. Quite the opposite: Kugel is constantly attempting to understand the enormousness of the catastrophe. In understanding, he hopes to move beyond it. Kugel’s hope, what Professor Jove would diagnose as his great failing, is for a place with no history, a place where he won’t be forced to try and comprehend the Holocaust in the abstract, to measure himself against those who survived it. But in any case, Kugel refuses to excuse his behavior with a refrain that paralyzes critics using its echo of unimaginable grief: “I’m sorry. Ever since the war. Those bastards. Still they torture us.”
Although Auslander has packed plenty of complex ideas between the covers, he’s managed to do so in a way that allows for a hugely entertaining read. Not all novelists can make you chuckle while exploring the aftermath of genocide, but Auslander has that extraordinary gift, and talent like that is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, you might say, it’s something to celebrate.