By Elizabeth Rosner
Ballantine Books, 224 pages, $22.95.
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‘In retrospect, I can see that I spent much of my childhood waiting for the war,” Eva Hoffman wrote in “After Such Knowledge: Where Memory of the Holocaust Ends and History Begins” (PublicAffairs, 2004), her renowned investigation of the trauma of second-generation Holocaust survivors. “Waiting for it to manifest itself again, to emerge from where it lurked with its violent, ravaging claws.”
Elizabeth Rosner is similarly preoccupied with inherited pain, and in her often lovely, if thinly plotted second novel, “Blue Nude,” she choreographs an encounter between a German painter and an Israeli model, both seared by the legacy of the Holocaust. The painter, a 50-something man named Danzig, is in the middle of a five-year creative dry spell. Once a rising star with the promise of a distinguished career, he has become a recluse, whiling away the time teaching at a San Francisco art institute, waiting for inspiration to strike him once again. Only when Merav, a substitute model, steps into his classroom does he experience the resurgence of his former creative juices. “For the first time in all his years of teaching he barely notices himself talking about bones, about the need to remind them what the body is made of, the mathematics of anatomy, the beauty underneath beauty. He can only see her.”
Danzig is Nachgeborenen — born after the war to assume a lifetime of secondhand guilt. His beloved older sister, Margot, who lived through the traumatic war years, died tragically early. Did this death have anything to do with their violent father, a man who may or may not have been directly implicated in the carrying out of the Final Solution? And does Merav’s powerful presence call forth the memory of Danzig’s sister, whose death was never fully explained to him?
Merav, as may be expected, is Danzig’s Jewish parallel. Growing up in Israel, she is witness to both past and present violence. She loses a person dear to her in a suicide bombing and attempts to escape her sorrow, as well the obligation to kill that is imposed on her by the Israeli army, by exiling herself in the United States and marrying a photographer. She is also haunted by her grandmother’s Holocaust recollections, which tend to focus on the power of beauty. For example, the way a temporary reprieve might be granted to a beautiful Jewish woman while the less attractive were rarely spared. When Merav’s grandmother was a young woman during the war, a young German soldier enamored of her beauty allowed her to live. Merav’s internalization of these tales, as well the memory of her own mother’s dismissive gaze, leads her to a life as an artist’s model. “So, Merav undressed to stand naked in front of strangers, offering herself not only for the interpretive power of their gaze but to remind herself that she existed at all.”
Needless to say, the encounter between Danzig and Merav is meant to be highly charged. His German accent puts Merav immediately on her guard, while Danzig’s fascination goes beyond the sexual (for a change); through the body of Merav and the artistic impulse she calls forth, he may finally succeed in working through some of his own ghosts.
Rosner is a lyricist of lingering grief. Above all, perhaps because she herself is a child of Holocaust survivors, she is interested in how pain trickles down. How does a child absorb the horrific past experiences of the parents? In one beautifully wrought scene, the young Danzig makes a pilgrimage to sketch the bombed-out ruins of an apartment building that is still standing despite demolished outer walls. This same image recurs in the mind of Merav, who is running away from her memories of Israel: “Three years later, all the way in America, Merav would still find herself dreaming about walls being torn down, houses collapsing.” For Rosner, the architecture of destruction is physical as well as psychological; the only way to cope with the fact of its presence is to begin again, as per the advice Danzig frequently offers his art students.
Rosner is a poet as well as a novelist, so her expertise with the mellifluous possibilities of language comes as no surprise. Her talents were especially well served in her ambitious first novel, “The Speed of Light” (first published in 2001 by Ballantine). The story portrayed the intersection of three lives and two different genocides in a consideration of the roles that science, music and human connection play in how we cope with suffering. “Blue Nude,” however, lacks that first novel’s taut interplay of ideas; instead, it relies on the beauty of the language to enrich a less substantial premise. In short, the language is forced to carry the novel.
And it succeeds in many places. There are countless sections that are heartbreakingly written. When Merav thinks about the bombing that took away her beloved, she wonders, “Will the sound of that explosion last longer in her head than any other music?” At other times, however, the writing is vague and less incisive: “She seems present inside her body, even as he senses she could be departing from it, or entirely absent.” Still other revelations verge on cliché. “The enemy was not out there, it was inside all of them,” Danzig’s disillusioned sister comes to realize after the war.
Still, there is much to admire in the questions that this novel raises. “The facts of death were so ubiquitous that they seemed both to precede and supersede the facts of life,” Hoffman wrote. In Rosner’s novel, life shines forth out of deathly memories, but it is up to the individual to gaze within himself or herself, to begin again.
Irina Reyn’s anthology, “Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State,” is forthcoming from Touchstone.