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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Federman's SHHH, 3rd post

Federman's prose is relaxed and conversation; it goes down easily. He manages to describe heartbreaking vignettes in such a way that we readers are not overcome emotionally. In part, he does this by unflinchingly describing his emotions. For instance, when he as a young boy, before he was interested in girls, was shown how to masturbate by a young woman in his apartment building, there is no sense of violation on his part because, apparently, there was none. He was just happy to be masturbating.

Federman describes this way of discussing masturbation, along with other topics, honesty. This may seem like a strange word coming from Federman, from a writer so suspicious of verisimilitude, but I don't think he is contradicting himself. Rather, he is being honest to memory, not so much to historical fact. And the two are different. (However, at other times in the book,  he describes things as historical, such as the cockroaches and mice and lice they share their apartment and hair with as the "historical" facts of life in 1930's proletarian Paris.) What carries us through this fascinating book is this fidelity to memory. The book moves associatively, from one memory to another, jumping around in time, describing events even Federman cannot remember how old he was when they happened. (The fourth part of this series will deal, in part, with the problematic of memory in this book.)

He describes his childhood as chaotic. His father was a tuberculor chronic gambler, his mother a long-suffering house cleaner for rich people, and his Uncle Leon a tailor always trying to get him to come into his shop to do menial chores such as picking up pins from the floor. And then his cousin Salomon, whose hand-me-downs he received, and who treated him with real disrespect. Federman does not describe his sisters, Sarah and Jaqueline, very much at all.

While Leon and his family escaped, Federman's didn't, and whatever their foibles, especially the father's, none of course deserved what they had coming to them from the Nazis. There is almost an innocence in the way that he relates these vignettes.

I have come to wonder how how he has created this relaxed, associative prose at the sentence level. On page 176 he is describing the little birds who came to the apartment window. He thinks they were sparrows.

"I wanted so much to be able to fly like them. Maybe that's why years later in America, I volunteered for the paratroopers during the Korean war. Just to be in the sky. But that's another story.

"I would have liked to have been a bird. Except that in the winter, when it was very cold outside and it snowed, I could imagine how the poor birds were suffering."

This may seem sentimental to some, but to me it's not. The desire to fly comes at a time in the book when Jewish kids were basically forced to remain in their homes by the German occupiers. So there is a double association between the birds and the paratroopers: one is the explicit statement about flying, the second is a military association. When he is actually flying, he is doing the fighting, not being passively holed up in an apartment.

But Federman chooses to cut off this association. The question then becomes why he chooses to bring it up in the first place. Why not cut it out? Apparently, Federman wants to highlight the pruning process that he is applying to his memories. He begins a new story, perhaps even teasing us with it a little, only to shrug and say, "But that's another story." It's a little silly, kind of conversational, and all Federman.

So, the association carefully packed away, Federman returns to thinking about how he would have liked to fly. But he cannot leave it so simple: he also remembers how when he was a boy he imagined the birds suffering. This is a perfectly formed sentence: he delays the man clasue as long as possible, thereby getting all the necessary information in before introducing it. The delay also creates the necessary drama.

This example is one of the smooth, conversational, associative moves that makes this book go down so smoothly. Somehow, Federman makes this representation of a difficult life, that ended in tragedy for most involved, sing in a terrifically accessible manner.

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