If Anne Frank Lived Upstate

Shalom Auslander’s New Novel Takes on Jewish Symbols

By Mark Oppenheimer

Published January 09, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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Hope: A Tragedy
By Shalom Auslander
Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $26.95

As sophisticated, politically unpredictable and stylistically diverse as our community of Jewish writers is, it can seem as if the best of them, when they reach for Jewish content, still take down the Holocaust from the shelf. This generalization holds true across generations: grandees, like Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth; middle-agers, like the ingenious Michael Chabon; carpoolers, like Jonathan Safran Foer, Dara Horn and Nicole Krauss. It is by no means universally true, not of everything those writers have written or of Jewishly minded writers generally. David Bezmozgis, Steve Stern and Tova Mirvis, for example, do not find the Holocaust particularly useful for their fiction. But Nathan Englander’s forthcoming book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” addresses the unspoken phenomenon that, to a great extent, in Jewish literature, Anne Frank is forever the woman in the attic.

Shalom Auslander: Upstate New York provides him no escape.
franco vogt
Shalom Auslander: Upstate New York provides him no escape.

In Shalom Auslander’s first novel, “Hope: A Tragedy,” Anne Frank is literally the woman in the attic. We might have seen this coming from Auslander, whose memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament”; book of short stories, “Beware of God,” and droll radio pieces on “This American Life” add up to the most embittered yet hilarious indictment of American Judaism from anyone in his generation. Auslander has publicly said that he has read very little Roth, but in an obvious way he is our younger, less prolific Roth.

In those earlier works, Auslander writes or speaks, through fiction or personal recollection, about the Orthodox world in which he was raised. Because that world is anchored in religious observance, he had far less contact than most American Jews with what we might call Holocaust religiosity. His people were worshiping God, not Anne Frank. Holocaust remembrance and Israel bonds were not important in the Monsey, N.Y., of Auslander’s childhood; daily minyan was. But Auslander’s major theme is still the burden of the Jewish past, the fealty every generation of Jews is expected to pay — in blood, skin and money — to its ancestors, and of that burden there is no better symbol than the little Dutch girl.

In previous Auslander works, the pathogen is religion; in “Hope,” Auslander shows that secular Jewish life is every bit as toxic. Solomon Kugel, our depressive hero, enjoys thinking about what famous people said on their deathbeds and what he might say on his. Like the real Auslander, Kugel does not like his mother very much; but while the real Auslander never has to return to his upstate New York town, Kugel’s mother has moved into the upstate New York farmhouse that Kugel has bought for himself, his wife and their young son. Kugel and his wife, Bree, expect Mother to die soon, but for the time being, she is not cooperating.

Mother has settled in, and she now has a comfortable residence in which to indulge her fantasies of having been in the camps.

“Mother screamed every morning,” Auslander writes. “She had done so ever since reading that this was common behavior among survivors of the Holocaust…. The only item she had unpacked was her gilt-framed, three-foot tall by two-foot wide photograph of the famous Harvard attorney Alan Dershowitz, which she hung, as she always had, on the wall above her bed.”


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