Off the Shelf: The narrator is a novel

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some reviews are more difficult to write than others. Take, for example, “The Pages” by Hugo Hamilton (Alfred A. Knopf): Although I loved the novel, which is filled with beautiful prose and wonderful descriptions, I knew it was not for everyone. First, the narrator is a book: a first edition of Joseph Roth’s novel “The Rebellion” (published in 1924) tells the story from its limited point of view. Second, it features books that talk to each other, a terrific idea in my mind, but one that will not appeal to all readers. Third, although there is ultimately an interesting plot, some people will complain that nothing happens for chapters at a time. But that didn’t disturb me because I was so impressed with Hamilton’s prose and insights into human nature.

The particular physical version of “The Rebellion” narrating the story managed to survive the 1933 Nazi book burning. David Gluckman, a Jewish professor of German literature, gave the book to a non-Jewish student who hid the copy at great risk. It then passed to the student’s son, who lived Germany, but left for the U.S. after the Berlin Wall fell. On his deathbed, he gave the copy to his daughter, Lena, telling her to “look after this book like a little brother.” Lena, an artist, decides to visit Germany for two reasons: to seek inspiration for her next series of artwork and to learn if the map drawn by Gluckman on one of the blank pages at the back of the book has any meaning. 

The novel’s narrative moves backward and forward through time. Readers learn about Joseph Roth’s life, his marital problems and work as a journalist, in addition to the plot of “The Rebellion,” which tells the story of a soldier who lost a leg during World War I. Other sections focus on the Nazi uprising in Germany, the problems Muslim immigrants face in contemporary Germany and Lena’s adventures on her trip, including visiting family who offer her more details about her grandfather’s life during World War II. Two specific plot directions arise, both of which are realized at the end of the novel (to be more specific would ruin what surprises do occur), if not exactly the way I expected. The novel ultimately portrays the way prejudice and hatred never die, but rather just takes different forms.

However, what made me feel I was in the hands of a master writer from the opening pages of the novel was its prose. It’s difficult to offer sections out of context, but a few examples will give readers an idea of why the book spoke to me:

  • A description of a cell phone: “How can a book compete with such an intelligent piece of equipment? It contains her whole life. All her private details, her photographs, her passwords, her intimate messages. It knows her mind and shapes her decisions. It does everything that a book used to. It behaves like an unfinished novel, constantly in progress, guessing her worst fears and her wildest dreams.”
  • When explaining the book burning in 1933: “Many of the books burned alive that night had something to do with the war [World War I]. Books that refused to glorify death. Non-heroic accounts of men with missing limbs and severed spines and lung trouble. Men with half faces. Berlin was full of shivering men sitting in rooms with their families unable to make sense of them. All those descriptions of casualties were to be taken out of public domain because they were deemed bad for morale and they put people off war, encouraging a poor attitude toward death and suffering.”
  • The books in a library speaking to each other once the humans in the house were asleep: “The library is awake. The books are quietly talking among themselves while the house is still silent. A low hum of voices, like a swirling cloud of pollen, hoping to take part in newly invented ecologies. Einstein compared the attempt to understand the universe to a child walking into a library. How can you figure out all the books at once? It’s like getting your head around the idea of God, or the concept of infinity – impossible to grasp that entire constellation.”

I found “The Pages” a brilliant, if imperfect, work. At times, it seemed directionless – as if it was trying to cover too much material and lost its momentum – but I’m glad I kept reading. That’s because parts of its final chapters left me breathless and amazed at the wisdom they offered.