H. G. Adler; Peter Filkins, trans.
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
Writ­ten in 1948, first pub­lished in Ger­man in 1968, Adler’s mas­ter­piece is now avail­able in Eng­lish. Based on the author’s life, this mod­ernist clas­sic uses the con­ceit of the panora­ma, in this case a series of mag­ni­fied pic­tures from around the world viewed through a peep-hole, to intro­duce his protagonist’s par­tic­u­lar psy­chol­o­gy as well as the struc­tur­al tech­nique of this icon­o­clas­tic nov­el. In ten uncon­nect­ed prose tableaux, sig­nif­i­cant slices of Josef Kramer’s life are set before the read­er. Adler’s tech­nique ampli­fies Josef s uncan­ny dual­i­ty of self-aware­ness, just as one wit­ness­ing the mag­net­ic panora­ma may project him­self from mere spec­ta­tor to a fig­ure in a scene and back again.

Styl­is­ti­cal­ly, Adler’s exper­i­ment employs a ver­sion of stream-of-con­scious­ness: long, com­plex, wind­ing sen­tences that pile up claus­es and phras­es as if echo­ing the process­es of per­cep­tion and con­tem­pla­tion. The tech­nique address­es while it imi­tates Josef Kramer’s per­son­al­i­ty and states of mind. Tech­ni­cal­ly a third per­son nar­ra­tion, the final effect is of Josef some­how voic­ing the nar­ra­tive, at once inside and out­side of him­self.

Born into Prague’s Ger­man-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in 1910, Adler cap­tures the trans­for­ma­tion of his home­land from a region in the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire through World War I to its inde­pen­dent state­hood (in 1918) and then to its sub­or­di­na­tion under Nazi Ger­many. Josef Kramer’s life and vision of him­self are impact­ed by these tran­si­tions, as Adler details his surrogate’s fam­i­ly, school­ing, young adult­hood, ear­ly occu­pa­tions, impress­ment into forced labor, and impris­on­ment in con­cen­tra­tion-exter­mi­na­tion camps. Josef, like his cre­ator, ends up an exile in Eng­land, rumi­nat­ing upon his expe­ri­ences.

At once real­is­tic and impres­sion­is­tic, night­mar­ish and rich­ly satir­i­cal, Adler’s ear­li­est nov­el probes the vacu­ity of intel­lec­tu­al pre­ten­tious­ness, the absur­di­ty of bureau­cra­cy, the insa­tia­bil­i­ty of ego, and the means and mean­ing of sur­vival. After­word, intro­duc­tion, translator’s note.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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