April 27, 2009
By coincidence (?), I have recently read a series of novels that all deal in one way or another with identity in general through stories of World War II or being Jewish or both. Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is an extraordinary story of a young man who is seduced as a teenager by a woman who later became a guard in a concentration camp and is tried for her part in atrocities after the war. She ends up taking the blame for others rather than admitting that she is illiterate. The question of how judgment, compassion, understanding and sympathy all go together are front and center in the soy. But there is also the ineffectiveness in life that plagues that young man through his formative experiences with the woman. His identity is formed or malformed from a young age and the rest of his life is pent in the orbit if not the thrall of the woman.
Tobias Wolff wrote The Old School in which the main character is one of a circle of literary types at a New England boarding school in the 60s. He is trying on identities, roles and the like when we discover that he is Jewish and feels like an outsider some of the time. In the end he starts writing his own story but even that is lifted from someone else and he is expelled for plagiarism. Later in life he finds out how he was not alone in living what amounted to a lie and being trapped in an identity shaped through formative experiences.
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum is a difficult story of remembrance and forgetting in which a professor of German History has a hard time in life precisely because her mother did not tell her the truth of her origins. She was the child of a Jewish doctor later killed in one of the camps after which her mother became the mistress of a German Officer before being liberated by the Americans and marrying her Minnesotan rescuer. I’ve not finished this novel as yet and so don’t know whether or how she will learn the truth about herself. What I do know is that her life is pretty messed up and she really doesn’t have a clue as to why. She is among other things carrying great guilt for being, as she assumes, the child of a German Officer and concentration camp guard.
I don’t have a grand theory of identity from these stories, merely the observation that becoming who we were created to be is a lifelong task and is bound up with personal history. I have liked Jose Ortega y Gasset’s saying from Meditations on Quixote since I first read it: “I am myself plus my circumstance.”