November 16, 2018

Gwen Edelman reappears with ‘Train to Warsaw’

Author Gwen Edelman remains shrouded in mystery.  In an age of relentless author promotion she has chosen to remain “virtually” invisible.  She has no website or Wikipedia page, and it is almost impossible to find out the sketchiest details of her personal biography.  I was able to find only one small paragraph she wrote about her frustration working as an editor and then literary agent for many years before suddenly quitting and moving to Tuscany to write her first novel.  “War Story” was the result and it received stellar reviews everywhere almost 15 years ago.  This slim haunting novel probed the lingering effects of the Holocaust on the psyche of a 60-year-old survivor who was now living in New York with a much younger woman, the child of Holocaust survivors who refused to ever speak to her about it.  After the striking success of this first book, Ms. Edelman disappeared from view and has now resurfaced with a second work, “The Train to Warsaw” (Grove Press), another slim novel that also addresses the lasting toxicity of the Holocaust for Jews.

I confess that not knowing anything at all about Gwen Edelman feels strange to me.  Unlike other critics who feel their attention must exclusively focus on the work at hand, my fascination has always lain elsewhere.  I am drawn to the wondrous ways an author’s work reflects their deepest self.  I am always looking for clues that shed light on the author and his prose; particularly in the seductive terrain that seems to combine the two.  One only has to think about the wizardry of W.G. Sebald who seems to magically be able to fuse reality and fiction, presence and absence, autobiography and fantasy, and transparency and secrecy onto a single page.  But with Ms. Edelman, I do not have that luxury.  She is a blank slate.  I have her two slim novels in front of me.  They will have to do. 

Her first novel “War Story” tells us about Joseph Kruger’s miraculous escape from the Nazis decades ago.  As a young man, he fled to Amsterdam where he was able to secure papers to get to the United States.  He never saw his parents again.  His new and much younger girlfriend Kitty is naïve and in awe of him.  They meet in a New York City bookstore and begin an intense affair.  In-between feverish lovemaking sessions, Joseph, an accomplished writer, tells her the stories of his earlier life.  At first she is mesmerized by his flurry of words believing that she finally has access to the world her parents kept from her, but she soon grows tired of his tirades and has difficulty listening to him.  She begs him to stop saying she is sick of it and he snaps at her cruelly saying “You’re tired of the war.  You.  Born after it was all over?   How tired do you think I am?”

Their relationship begins to deteriorate under the weight of his emotional baggage.  When she comments that he looks arrogant in a photograph on one of his book jackets he shouts that the “Nazis thought the way to recognize a Jew is by the size of his nose.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s all in the eyes.  You had only to look at the fearful cringing look in the eyes of the Jews and you knew what was what.  But, he went on, his voice rising, I was cleverer than that.  For months, I stood in front of the bathroom window, willing my eyes to look confident, even contemptuous.  No more Jewish eyes.”  There is a clever emptiness about much of this rhetoric.  Instead of feeling sorry for Joseph, or even curious about him, we feel defeated, as if we are watching a re-run of sorts.  Edelman’s work often seems to be little more than a messy collage of Jewish horror stories that we have all been weaned on; filled with self-loathing and false sentimentality.  Joseph becomes less real to us and more of an archetype of a “survivor” we have met countless times before; even the strange behavior traits are familiar to us; the hoarding of food and the sloppy grooming.  And the dark apartment where the blinds are always drawn.  Joseph’s monologues have a mock intimacy and a mock intensity that feign authenticity.  It isn’t enough. 

Edelman’s new book, “The Train to Warsaw,” focuses on a long married couple who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto forty years earlier.  The husband, Jascha, a celebrated writer, has been asked by a Writer’s Group in Poland to come and give a reading.  The couple have been living for decades in London, but they still feel ill at ease there, as they do everywhere; the concept of “home” and homeland” is a charged one.  His wife, Lilka, wants to return to Warsaw and is nostalgic about some of the places she went in her early childhood with her parents before the Nazi assault.  The couple has kept secrets from one another that this trip will unravel threatening the balance of their long negotiated truce. 

The trouble starts almost immediately.  When Lilka begs him to take her to a certain park she recalls, he yells “You won’t find your way back.  God knows why we’re going, he added, Didn’t we have enough?”  But in gentler moments he confides to her that he knows she wants him to be able to share more but he simply can’t.  Lilka shares with him a recurring dream she has where she sees her father in front of the ghetto wall telling her to follow him and reaching out his hand for her.  Jascha confesses that he also dreams frequently about those years, particularly about the thirst and the hunger.  She turns to him and expresses her relief that they are with one another since “Who else could we live with if not each other….Who else would understand?”  We sense Edelman herself is struggling with the difficulty of having her characters attempt to express the horrific experiences they have endured; and that words, words themselves, seem inadequate to the task. 

In this new work, Edelman falls prey to some of the same difficulties that are apparent in her earlier novel.  She is a good storyteller and has an ear for the subtle shifts in power that go on between couples all the time that are imperceptible to everyone that surrounds them; sometimes even the couple themselves.  But we remain emotionally distant from her characters; as distant as they are from one another. 

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.