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Friday, July 2, 2010

SHHH (starcherone books) by Raymond Federman, Pt. 1

This was Raymond Federman's last book. While there is a temptation to write a review that is also a sort of elegy, especially given that the book is to a great degree autobiographical, I will leave the elegies to those who knew Raymond Federman better than I.  Here and in a couple subsequent entries I will focus on the writing.

I am about a third of the way through the book so far, and here is what I am noticing.

The book begins with autobiography, by telling how Federman escaped the Nazi purges in France. He did so because his mother pushed him into the closet when the French collaborators came for the family and said, "Chut," French for "Shh." His family then when on to die in the camps.

Federman  pours his heart out in existential anguish: why did my mother pick me and not my older sister? Then, at least for nonreaders of Federman, he makes a startling turn. He says, to himself, not so serious, Federman . This all happens within the space of eight pages

This is serious, indeed. Here is a man confessing the most harrowing moment of his life, one that few of us will ever come close to experiencing, only to question the way he tells it. Is he saying that even at our most emotionally vulnerable we wear a mask, even at  13  years old, completely alone, completely silence?

But isn't the French collaborators' violence a bottom-line reality? People behave in certain ways because of the threat of violence. Or, does the Nazi story, with its masks, masques, and dramas make the violence occur? In other words, was Nazi power rooted in violence or in propaganda?

The answer is probably both, depending on the situation. But each was necessary. This means that violence alone could not do it.

Could it fairly be said that the collaborators' came to the Federman house in part because of propaganda, because of stories, because of a presentation of 'reality'? If so, wouldn't any presentation of 'reality' be suspect, even that of a little boy, who stayed in a closet as the police marched his family away?

When Federman breaks into the story and questions how he is telling it, he creates a dialogue with himself. One side of his persona asks why he has allowed himself to slide so far from his usual literary fare. The second voice often answers that risking realism is the price of writing the story of childhood, "one is always on the edge of the precipice of sentimentality that makes you crumble into whining realism" (9). 

But Federman decides to "go on anyway" (9). I take it that Federman feels impelled to tell this story just as he is suspicious of stories that claim too much authority for themselves. How will this work itself out?


  1. I'm reminded of a line in Gerda Weissmann Klein's book "All But My Life", survival is both an exalted privilege and a painful burden.

  2. Thanks, Jill. Couldn't be more right on.