E.M. Forster calls it the echo chamber. No writer exists in a void – we share an echo chamber with writers who have gone before us: trod the same ground, left behind their footprints. We follow, we cross, we deviate. Writing my debut novel Testament (riverrun, July 2018), I was intensely aware of the depth of those footprints, from Primo Levi to Imre Kertész, Michael Chabon to Anne Michaels.
Testament is about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family. The novel stretches from 1944 in Hungary to the present day, taking in London, Berlin, Budapest, and Belgrade, then and now. Testament explores how we inherit trauma, how we survive survival, and how the past ruptures into the present. In writing Testament, the train tracks and rivers I walked along became overlaid by history, as did my understanding of these themes, shaped by writers who explored them first. At points, the echo chamber scared me. Other times, it intimidated me. Sometimes, it saved me.
I spent six years writing Testament, searching through archives in Budapest and London, following the trail of death marches across Hungary, exploring the almost-abandoned streets of Theresienstadt. I read a lot, from witness testimonies to works of history, fiction to critical texts. I remember early on making my way through Sue Vice’s Holocaust Fiction (2000), which incisively unpicks the approaches and controversies surrounding millennial Holocaust literature. My list of “things not to do” soon spread over several pages. This wasn’t the fault of the book, which is excellent, but my own fear, then aged twenty two and stepping into a subject which, perhaps uniquely, is more often than not called incommunicable and incomprehensible: beyond human language.
But the echo chamber was there to support me, too. The Holocaust began to fill my waking and sleeping moments, until I felt saturated with its stories and imagery. A fault line had opened in my mind, dragging everyday innocent things into its void. I was reassured by Art Spiegelman’s Auto-phobia (2007), a sketchbook the graphic novelist undertook to ‘shake this Fear of Drawing’, which gripped him after the publication of Maus. One sketch particularly stood out for me: a beautiful stove, doors open, fire sparking to life. Next to in, in Spiegelman’s crabbed capitals: ‘it sure ain’t the cremo at Auschwitz… I love our stove!’ This was how I felt. My mind struggled to retrieve what was once beautiful from a disturbing associative language.
The audio guide to Mauthausen used to tell visitors to the former concentration camp: ‘This will not be the whole truth. If we told you the whole truth, you would go mad.’ I believe them. In a bid not to go mad, I held on to a line of Anne Michaels, in her novel Fugitive Pieces (1996): ‘Two wars, which are both the rotten part of the fruit that can’t be cut away and the fruit; that there’s nothing a man will not do to another; nothing a man will not do for another.’ I pictured, for some reason, a pear leaning on its bulbous stomach, a black sore denting green skin otherwise so perfect, it might be specially chosen for a still life. I cupped that pear, tended and treasured it.
The novelist Romain Gary tells us: ‘as long we do not recognise that inhumanity is a human thing, we will linger in a pious lie.’To claim the Holocaust lies beyond language is to separate it from human understanding, as if it did not belong entirely to human beings. Whenever I worried that trying to put the realities of the Holocaust into words lay beyond me, I returned to Primo Levi. If This is a Man is the most powerful book I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t his first memoir I read and re-read. It was The Drowned and the Saved (1986), his final essay collection.
In one essay, Levi recalls attending a meeting with ‘certain well-mannered functionaries of the Bayer Company’. Saying goodbye, Levi tells them, ‘Jetzt hauen wir ab.’ The businessmen stare at him, appalled. It was as if he’d said, ‘Now let’s get the hell out of here.’ He ‘explained to them that I had not learnt German in school but rather in a Lager called Auschwitz’.
Language frames how we perceive and engage with reality. My language changed. I became immersed in the words, sites and images of the Holocaust – in the same way the poet Charles Reznikoff assembled court records to make up his long poem, ‘Holocaust’ (1975), in which words such as ‘trucks’ and ‘entertainment’ possess new meanings. Levi looked at humanity through the lens of the language he’d learnt in Auschwitz. His commitment then to humanity, in all its possibility – terrible and compassionate – astounds and reassures me.
Whenever I read E.M. Forster’s description of the echo chamber, I am reminded of that other meaning the word ‘chamber’ took on in the mid part of the twentieth century, and I shiver. But despite that, I am forever honoured by the company in my echo chamber, however unworthy of it I may sometimes feel. Mine is an echo chamber filled with writers who have gone to the edge of humanity. Some return. Some don’t. Some can’t.