Tag Archives: Eva Hoffman

Bookword in Poland

Last week I was in Poland, spending four days in and around Krakow. I came, with a friend, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the biggest of the concentration and extermination camps built in occupied Poland by the Third Reich.

Everything about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is difficult. Friends questioned my motives. I dreaded the visit. What did I hope to achieve by looking at the place where so many people were murdered?

Birkenau Gate

Can fiction help us understand the Holocaust?

I prefer my reading about the Holocaust to be non-fiction. I prepared for my visit by reading A Train in Winter (see below), and I had some knowledge from my history studies. Our guide around Auschwitz kept saying. ‘imagine if you …, imagine how it would be …’ as we passed photographs of the Selection, of new arrivals and we gazed on mountains of suitcases (all labelled with names), shoes, eyeglasses, hair, and household objects. I did not want to imagine any more. I wanted to ask historians’ questions: How did it happen? Who could have stopped it? What prevented people stopping the creation of the camps? What does it mean to be part of an enterprise that murders so many people? And so on.

I wasn’t expecting any answers but a different way to experience the questions.


I know we need heroes, like Schindler, because heroes give us hope. But we need more than heroes.

I know we need more than imagining walking a mile in those shoes.

We need to understand how we can continue to work against this capacity of humans to murder on such a scale. The Holocaust happened in the decade before my birth. There have been/are other such horrors: Cambodia, Rwanda, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, continuing struggles against white supremacists in the US, the re-emergence of the far right in the German election. It is likely there will be more. It is likely that the struggle will never be over.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

This is the stunning story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) but it is also an endlessly depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. What is omitted in this account of the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943 is any detail of the fate of their menfolk, friends, and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

It must have been a hard task to research and then write about so much death and cruelty. I felt defeated by it, wretched that humans can behave so badly.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Vintage 374 pp

See also Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead in my post on Bookword in the Cevennes.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada


I think it is almost impossible to write an authentic novel about the Holocaust. This partly because a concentration camp, the tattoo on the wrist, is a trope that prevents critique, let alone criticism and limits the reader’s responses. I felt this way about this novel.

The Auschwitz Violin is a short novel which aims to show the power of music to save the spirit in the darkest of times. Daniel is a violin maker (a luthier) in one of Auschwitz’s satellite camps. Although registered as a carpenter he finds himself used by the Commandant in a bet to make a violin. This endeavour saves him and his friend the violinist Bronislaw from death.

It was contrived and unevenly framed. I found myself asking can the sweetness of a violin cut through the dreadfulness of the camp? The tension arises from whether the violin can be made in time and be of a adequate quality under such conditions. But tension is undermined by the reader’s knowledge that it already had been made. And by the knowledge that so many in Auschwitz did not have the luthier’s skills to save them. It felt very much in the tradition of the Holocaust novels of the ‘80s.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada, first published in 1994, and in English in 2010. Corsair. 128pp. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennant

Other books about Auschwitz It quickly became clear that there should be a monument to Steven Spielberg in Krakow, as the film Schindler’s List is so appreciated here and much referred to by our city guide. My mutterings that it was based on a novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982), impressed no one. Perhaps people deal better with the savagery of the Holocaust when it is mediated through films and/or novels. Did they feel better for a hero?

And to a lesser extent the same happened with Sophie’s Choice, also a film, this time based on the novel by William Styron (1979).

Here are some books relating to Auschwitz by those who there, without novelists or film directors.

I still think about If this is a man by Primo Levi.

An important book that I read some years ago is Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).

And a book that explores subsequent generations’ experiences of the Holocaust is After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2005).

Lovely bookish things in Krakow

To finish on an easier note the city of Krakow provided several bookish delights.

We had a delicious lunch in the bookshop Bona. Delicious lunch and books …

And, according to our guide and the plaque, the first European bookshop was opened in the square.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Travel with Books, Travelling with books

Music in Novels

I am passionate about both books and music. It’s hard to find music (classical) in novels, partly because it not easy to communicate what music does in words. Here are five novelists who have used music in different ways.

String Quartet by Buyerlerdeqalardim  via Wikimedia Commons

String Quartet by Buyerlerdeqalardim via Wikimedia Commons

E.M. Forster A Room With A View and Howard’s End

126 Howards EndEM Forster knew his Beethoven and in A Room With A View Lucy crashes through a Beethoven piano sonata revealing her romantic but unformed sensibilities. I’ve done that too! Lucy’s playing style provokes this prophetic observation by Mr Beebe:

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’ (36)

Beethoven is there again in Howard’s End. Helen attends a concert at the Queen’s Hall.

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fraulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is ‘echt Deutsch’; or like Fraulein Mosebach’s young man, who can remember nothing but Fraulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. (p45)

There is gentle humour in this passage as well as skill. The sentence that begins ‘Whether you are like Mrs Munt …’ is very long, has great rhythm, near-repetitions and at the same time takes us into the characters of several people through their responses to the music. Margaret’s response is contrasted to Helen’s who sees heroes and shipwrecks. When I was much younger I used to listen to music as Helen does. Forster is saying something about Helen’s naivety. In the Adagio she hears goblins and a trio of elephants, and then comes the final movement. We are following Helen’s perspective now:

Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for a second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the guts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to it conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things. (p47)

A theme of the novel is the contrast between Margaret’s down-to-earth realism, and Helen’s more emotional impulses.

Rose Tremain Music & Silence

126 Music SilenceThis is a historical novel, set in the Danish Court of King Christian IV in the 17th century. Peter Claire is a lutenist employed in the king’s small orchestra, who must endure the most bizarre and harsh conditions, playing in a cellar amongst wine and chickens. It is some time since I read this novel but I clearly remember that the king believed that the function of music was to bolster a sense of order. I am tempted to reread it now I have picked it up again.

Vikram Seth An Equal Music

126 Equal MusThis novel tries to capture what is like to make music, in this case in a string quartet. At its heart is a love story, boy violinist meets girl pianist. We learn a great deal about rehearsing and performing in the quartet. I have the CD that complements the novel, containing the pieces to which it refers. What does it mean if the sound track is available alongside the novel? That the words cannot do the work of the music?

Reviews concluded that it is a flawed but interesting novel. See for example the review by Nicholas Christopher in the New York Times.

A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons

A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons

Eva Hoffman Illuminations: a novel

The story, both vivid and frightening, follows a concert pianist, Isabel, who is very passionate and focused on her art and the meaning she makes from the nineteenth century canon, especially Schubert. On tour in Europe she meet Anzor, who is a mysterious Chechnyan. He is passionate too, but about the damage to the codes of conduct and honour of his people. The story turns violent. Isabel observes that we need to pay attention to the ‘unfinished provisional prose of life’, not cut ourselves off in music (however beautiful) or in violent nationalism. This novel questions the meaning of the creation of beauty and the forces of violence and passion.

Steven Galloway The Cellist of Sarajevo

126 CellistThe cellist was a real person, Vedran Smailovic who played Albinoni’s Adagio for 22 days in honour of each of the victims killed on 27th May 1992 by a bomb at a bread queue during the siege of Sarajevo. The Adagio is a poignant piece of music, even if it is almost certainly not written by Albinoni. The novel The Cellist of Sarajevo is not about either the music or the cellist. The music stands for humanity in a dehumanised situation, crystallised by the cellist’s courageous act. Asserting humanity in the face of the destruction and moral decline of war is the theme of this novel.

While music is not a common theme in fiction, fiction certainly appears in music, notably in opera. The novels of Walter Scott are a frequent a source, and Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias was the inspiration for Verdi’s La Traviata, to notice just two examples.

Do fiction and music mix well? What do you think?


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews