I have – and, you know, maybe this comes as no surprise – been thinking a lot about literature since I moved to Washington. (Last night, because I couldn’t sleep, I bought Mary Oliver’s House of Light, which is – as you already know – a mesmerizing, short book of poetry. I mean: I reached / my hands in that most human of gestures – / to find, to see, to hold / whatever it is that’s there and Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled – to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world and:
I would like to bring you here.)
But, the point:
I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum today which – even hours later – is an experience I’m still attempting to process. It is – it was – an intense, humbling, and incomprehensible exhibit, one that, perhaps, should only be met with silent reflection and nothing more.
That said. That said. I was introduced to Nathan Englander (his work first, then him) while living in Iowa: we – us students – read his story The Tumblers over and over again. (I encountered it, I think, in at least four classes.) And it’s a great – one of his best, I think – but it’s a different story that I consistently revisit: The Twenty-Seventh Man. (And I’ve thought about it, and I’m ready to commit: of every short story I’ve ever read, the Twenty-Seventh Man is my favorite.) It’s a story based on the Night of the Murdered Poets, in which thirteen Jews and writers were murdered in Moscow during the war. Englander’s story describes an accident, really: in it, Stalin orders for the capture (and eventual murder) of twenty-six Yiddish writers. A clerical error leads to the arrest of a man – the twenty seventh man – named Pinchas – not a writer at all, but a fan of literature. And that’s all I’ll tell you.
Here’s the whole point, though: as I walked through the exhibit, I kept thinking of Englander, and Englander’s words. And when I got back to my apartment, I downloaded For the Relief of Unbearable Urges on my phone (because the physical book is back in Madison, somewhere), and read The Twenty-Seventh Man twice. Literature reconnects me, and helps me make sense of – and digest, and comprehend – things.
I want you to read the whole story. But, for now, my favorite passage:
It was not yet dawn and Zunser was already dressed, sitting with a cup of tea. The agents begged him to stand up on his own, one of them trying the name Zunser and the other pleading with Melman.
“I will neither resist nor help. The responsibility must rest fully upon your conscience.”
“We have orders,” they said.
“I did not say you were without orders. I said that you have to bear the responsibility.”
They first tried lifting him by his arms, but Zunser was too delicate for the maneuver. Then one grabbed his ankles while the other clasped his chest. Zunser’s head lolled back. The agents were afraid of killing him, an option they had been warned against. They put him on the floor and the larger of the two scooped him up, cradling the old man like a child.
Zunser begged a moment’s pause as they passed a portrait of his deceased wife. He fancied the picture had a new moroseness to it, as if the sepia-toned eyes might well up and shed a tear. “No matter, Katya. Life ended for me on the day of your death; everything since has been but nostalgia.” The agent shifted the weight of the romantic in his arms and headed out the door.
(One last thing: if I were to gather and list and share all of my favorite sentences, those last two – “‘Life ended for me on the day of your death; everything since has been but nostalgia.’ The agent shifted the weight of the romantic in his arms and headed out the door.” – would be at the top of said list.
So would this, for the record, from You Shall Know Our Velocity!, by Dave Eggers: So he’d slept with too many people, including the bride’s sister Sheila, soft-shouldered and romantic – and it hadn’t ended well, and Hand, being Hand, had forgotten it all, the connection between Sheila and the bride and it was so awkward, that wedding, so clumsy and wrong.
Soft-shouldered and romantic. Soft-shouldered and romantic.