Monday, February 01, 2010

The Road Wrongly Travelled

As I've got older, its got harder not to dwell in (and upon) darkness. This is partly a function of ageing itself, and what increasing age brings with it: a decline in physical and mental capacity; family illnesses and family deaths; your peer group's struggle with parents in decline; and the way that your abstract, intellectual understanding of the certainty of death becomes a much more pressing and concrete concern. And you realise that the fantasies you had of escape and happy endings are in fact merely delusions that you've held on to for too long, way past their usefulness.

The novel I've been working on intermittently for the best part of six years is one such fantasy, a fantasy whose smoke-wispy nature was finally dispersed this morning as I crawled along the motorway to work, with plenty of time to turn over in my mind the novel and its place in my mental landscape. (Six years is an underestimate: the first imagery dates from when I was doing my M.Sc. at Oxford, which would be...1998; the latest incarnation of the novel is derived from those early inklings.)

I can't remember what the novel was called back then, but for the past few years it's been called Broken, an allusion to the 'broken' nature of the world after the Holocaust - or rather, and less pretentiously, to my perception of the world after I found out about the Holocaust: a world of hopelessness, unreason, pessimism and darkness.

At some stage, the formlessness of the early imagery coalesced into something more organised: a 'bottom-up', sometimes almost Dickensian panorama (in the sense of the number of characters and the intertwining of their lives) of the roots and progress of the Holocaust: from persecution, misappropriation and legal victimisation at home, through radicalisation and mass-shootings in Poland and beyond, and on to the industrialisation of death at Belzec, Chelmo and Sobibor. The story would then trace the post-war period, with a kind of twist, in that the genocide was carried out by a former colonial power (the Netherlands), and the difference that they, unlike Germany, won their war in the east and thus achieved European dominance after the war. The post-war sections are about memory, national stories/myths, the gradual uncovering of the past and the discovery of the hollowness of the myths, and victors' justice. A kind of alternative world that distances you from the actuality of the Nazi genocide while trying to explore how such developments could come to seem 'normal' in a modern industrial society of immense cultural breadth and depth...Bach, Beethoven, Goethe etc etc.

And so the novel grew and grew, and I read book after book about victims, perpetrators, bystanders, the second world war context, and the structures and systems of death, gradually realising that, although no one person could hope to master the literature, I was looking for some kind of answers: trying to understand for myself how individuals could come to believe what they did, and do what they did; trying to understand how, if you know only the milieu and values of the society that dominated your upbringing, such cultural normality would seem only natural to you - unquestionable.

Gradually, too, I came to see that my interest was bordering on the obsessive: how it was that the deeper I studied, and the more fractal that knowledge became, the more I realised I need to find out: more books, more documentary films. And always the search for connections, for understanding, for answers; and the awareness of how, in focusing on the mentality and everyday life of the 'ordinary men' who perpetrated the genocide in Germany/The Netherlands, in Lithuania, in Estonia, in Poland and in Russia, I might somehow be devaluing the victims; and then rebuilding the balance by trying to give the victims their proper say: their roundedness, richness and individuality. And accreting hundreds upon hundreds of pages of writing and additional notes, and struggling to shape it.

At some stage, this novel came to occupy a dominant place in my creative world: the variety of characters and scenes had established themselves in my mind as an alternative universe, one that was always waiting to be re-animated and re-illuminated whenever I turned away from the everyday and thought about my writing: I was always gathering material and interpreting things in the light of what it might mean in the Broken world. Whenever I caught a glimpse of a bit of archaic trackside infrastructure while travelling by train, I'd try and think of a way in which such details could make the imagined history more vivid; when watching historical documentaries my ears would be open, listening for a telling phrase or a nuance that would highlight an attitude or bit of received wisdom that had guided someone; in studying other historical periods, I'd always be looking for markers of race, prejudice and the structural/cultural incorporation of beliefs about racial superiority, hierarchy and entitlement; and in every landscape I'd see a potential setting - a forest killing site, or a holding warehouse, or a brick embankment that lined the approach to a camp.

And lately I have realised that this preoccupation has become a prism; a lens through which I've been filtering everything, great tracts of experience and reading subordinated to the logic and structure of this novel. It's not healthy, it's not right, and it has to stop. I have to stop seeing the world through this ashy grey lens, where everything ends up in death and meaninglessness. And I have no right to delve into the lives and suffering of other people...there's something immoral about using this material to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity. Which is why I have now junked this big piece of work. I can't write this book, and I no longer want to, as it is in danger of becoming dangerously obsessional and gloomy. But, at the same time, I haven't wanted to give it up, because it has been so central intellectually and creatively for so long, and because I have invested so much time and energy in it.

Ultimately, though, I have to recognise that this road has been a mistaken one, and I need to step off it or find another road. This one leads only to despair.

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