Book review: Diary Of The Fall by Michael Laub and Margaret Jull Costa

 

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The Independent Culture

Diary of the Fall focuses on three events: the narrator’s grandfather’s experience of Auschwitz, the narrator’s father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and the injury of the narrator’s 13-year-old non-Jewish classmate during his bar mitzvah, when instead of catching him during a game of “the bumps”, his peers let him fall to the ground. All three events are related from varying vantage points, via filters of additional information and context, in prose as clear and reflective as a cool drink on a hot day, in a trajectory not linear but circular and meditative. This movement of return is central to the novel’s message: the propensity of humans to re-enact trauma, becoming victim or persecutor at various times and places, whether they want to or not.

Diary is a novel about stories – the narrator’s grandfather’s encyclopaedic notebook (a tragically dissociated account of “the world as it should be”), the narrator’s father’s stories of anti-Semitism and “attempts to convince [him] [they] were still in the Germany of 1937” (an account of “the world as it is”), and the narrator’s own “stories” that prevent him, till his 40th year, from facing what he is and becoming sober. But he does become sober, and “the non-viability of human experience at all times and in all places” is to an extent averted. He chooses finally to view the past as of “no importance compared to what I am and will be” and is determined that his unborn son, to whom the book is a letter, will “start … from zero”.

The prison of the past cannot be escaped however, until the narrator refutes the central story of the book: that the fall of his classmate Joao was an accident. His deep desire to discover where the causes of things lie, the reason for “the way my father dealt with the subject of Judaism and the concentration camps”, the reason for the fight he and his father had when he evinced a desire to study at a non-Jewish school with Joao, the reasons for teenage development – how, at a certain age, the course of someone’s future can be changed in “just the way you turn your head …” – and the effect certain information has on a person are compelling. Disclosures about characters are made in segments entitled: “A few things I know about my father” / “grandfather” / “self”, “A few more things I know about my father” / “grandfather” / “self”, so they become lenses through which the reader is able to see these causes in action.

Diary of the Fall justifies delving into the Holocaust again because in order to talk about himself the narrator must talk about his father, and in order to talk about his father he must talk about his grandfather. It is built up incrementally and solidly and  results in our sympathetic engagement. While not concluding anything new the novel succeeds in talking about the horror of horrors because of the illuminating prism through which it is rendered, and because of its compassion, intelligence and respect.

Grace McCleen’s novel The Professor of Poetry is published in paperback by Sceptre, £8.99

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