"On Reading Inga Clendinnen's Reading the Holocaust" by Mathias B. Freese

Freese is the author of The i Tetralogy and Down to a Sunless Sea.  Visit his site.


© 2009 Mathias B. Freese


I think I know, rather, I believe, how my writing mind works, which really means I know shit about it. In any case it goes like this: sink into books about the Holocaust or just this one and let it all percolate and seep through my unconscious filters until it fills up the aquifer. I had read Clendinnen's book several years back and included a few terms into The i Tetralogy and returned to it for a second read. An Australian historian whose books mostly deal with the Aztec experience in the Americas, for her own reasons she began to study the Holocaust and in so doing brought an "outsider's" (her own words) take to the leviathan which is Shoah. She is rigorous when she examines ideas, like a garlic press getting at the clove. And does not humor fools, calling Bruno Bettelheim "fatuous" in one instance, which he was. She honors Gitta Sereny who did remarkable interviews with Albert Speer and SS Unterscharfuhrer Franz Suchomel. Her bibliography is expansive, acute and recommendations for further reading very apt.


Presently I am sweating out the final selection of short stories for my new book on the Holocaust, "Working Through the Holocaust," with its analytic allusion to the therapeutic process. Again I am wrestling with issues, trying like a fool to get at the "why." A telling comment about that is in the off-hand comment by an Auschwitz guard to a prisoner when asked about an ugly incident in the camp: "Here there is no why." I accept that, but I plow ahead trying to get at the victim's mindset, although I have had the experience of imagining seeing things through the eyes of the killers. Clendinnen argues well that we need to understand both. At length she writes of Primo Levi and others who have explored profoundly the victim's experience, very well indeed; what has nourished and nurtured me while my book exists in the deserts of mind and matter, an isolate stuck on a stylite, is that on unconscious levels I was emboldened to work through the eyes of the murderer. (Goddam it! my fellow writers, trust your gut.) And Clendinnen makes her case that Nazis were not aliens, but variants of each of us. Again it is rewarding, alone with my own book, on my mental lap, in my own time, that I have struggled with this. And so in my new stories I try to see it both ways, the victim, and the victimizer. I seek no why. When I was a history major I enjoyed and relished reading the bibliographical essays of major historians who gave us the sources of their themes or motifs and generously commented on the idiosyncrasies of their fellow colleagues; often the essay at the back was better than the book itself. I mention this because it is my belief it is in the accrual of detail, in the miniscule accretion of detail that we come upon insight and substance. Clendinnen's book is such an example.


And so for a book I hope to have out in late spring, I am assiduously going line after line, tightening up sentences, providing intricate detail, using my own garlic press to get the most out of the fewest words possible, for as I strop my stories like a razor, I become sharper about what it is I need to attain or  say. Style is me, who I am, so I just go about my business in sentence-making, using images, which I tend to favor very much, to make my prosecutor's case. I must share with you the joy or personal pleasure to have one's own manuscript before one's eyes - the collection of detail, thought and image. And my task is to "simply" order the stories so that the reader is taken in, massaged and then amazed or struck dumb by my intellectual tinker toys, my orientation and prejudices. I sit before the manuscript and revise and revise and revise; at last I will it to end. I give it to Jane who hopefully I will marry this weekend and she uses her acute eye to excise my often tendency to reiterate and perseverate all in a sentence. I think my need to say things three different ways is probably my own arrogance that the reader will not get it unless I write it three different ways or it is my own sense of not being heard or being underestimated. In any case she takes the lawn mower to it and my vanity about words has relatively eased so I can take it. Wasn't it the editor, I forgot his name (Gordon Lish?), who made James Carver the writer he is; he pruned the hell out of his works and now his heirs are barking unfair. Perplexing, is it not? However, each of us needs an editor for our own living, other than death who is the grim and final editor.



Perhaps we should consider perennially revising our existence, less is more, says the cliche; but I favor that common scold, Thoreau: "Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!" I sit with a text of stories trying to imagine what it is to be the victim and several stories of what it is to be the victimizer. At times I go into surreal fantasies as my attempt to say indirectly but very concretely the unheard scream I feel. In my legerdemain I write of golems, a retarded child destined to be gassed, a doomed cantor in love, survivors, Holocaust deniers, lovers of quirky Nazi memorabilia, cannibalism, an interview with a camp "doctor," and Jane's personal delight, an interview with the nondescript Eva Braun who revels in Hitler's defecating on her firm abs. I take risks. Whenever I take a risk, I give up that internal censor that mottles and brutalizes our very safe and corseted lives.


At this juncture let me say that a new version of The i Tetralogy is at the printer. New cover, the first few pages with commentary about the book by bloggers, reviewers and the like and internal tweaking here and there. The book stands as it is. If you want a free book for teaching purposes or the Holocaust is of significance to you, you can reach at And since I will be e-mailing hundreds informing them of the book's availability, if you have a suggestion and e-mail address of a librarian, scholar, college instructor, or rabbi, let me know -- that would be a kindness.


I will be spending our honeymoon at CityCenter in Vegas -- the Aria: New York in the desert.








All work is copyrighted property of Mathias B. Freese.







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