Panorama by H. G. Adler, translated by Peter Filkins
The Czech intellectual H. G. Adler is known as a Holocaust writer who, according to Harold Bloom, “redeemed an all-but-impossible genre.” Adler’s autobiographically saturated works of fiction have been called “modernist masterpieces” by The New Yorker, likened to the works of Kafka and Musil, as well as the stream of consciousness techniques employed by Joyce and Woolf. However, unlike their works, Adler’s Panorama is actually readable -- though it is for the most part impenetrable.
The section of Panorama that directly deals with the Holocaust is fewer than 50 pages. Rather than being a work of Holocaust fiction, Panorama is an unfocused, sweeping vision of an entire life. It is about humanity, but from the point of view of an individual, since “the only thing that can be sensibly described is what we each experience alone.” The structure verifies that Adler did not intend the book to be pigeonholed as Holocaust or Jewish literature, as it is divided into ten equally weighted sections of Joseph Kramer’s life, mostly spaced apart in five year intervals. Ultimately, it is a work of art, not history.
In recreating his world, Adler writes with long, twisting and turning sentences, jumping from one topic to the next along the chain of association, like the scattered dreams of someone writhing in their sleep. I found myself becoming mesmerized by the word flow as I sunk deeper into the dizzying march of characters and their idiosyncrasies. Adler gets into the heads of Josef’s employers and mentors, often writing several page long monologues, where we can only imagine Josef on the other end, nodding meekly. There is danger of getting lost in the ever accruing details, as the blurred edges of sharp memories siphon poignancy, producing an elusive narrative. It is hard to identify with Josef; he’s a ghost in the machine.
A “question-box” of a child, Josef relays pieces of adult conversations about World War I and post-war scarcity, voices that run around on “long, dirty spider legs.” He meticulously describes items in his mother’s kitchen, and relates a child’s confusion about being told not to keep secrets but also not to spit out everything he hears. His reality is like the panorama his grandmother takes him to see: “open and beautiful and unattainable,” where little is allowed, barriers are everywhere, and Josef, for the most part, cannot take part in it.
As an adolescent, Josef is sent away to another family in the country for having become “too anxious.” It is a time when the young writer doesn’t like to write because he holds the pencil the wrong way, with “fingers curled around.” He is then sent back to the city to The Box, a disciplined boarding school focused on good breeding and order, a place where Josef spends his time “making imaginary maps of places that don’t exist” to keep from suffocating. His classmates are brutes, and the oppressive school subtly foreshadows the concentration camp to come.
At 18, Josef appears with a fully formed identity. He’s an individualist, highly philosophical yet distrustful of the spiritualist-artists of Prague that surround him, believing that mistrust is “only means of self-protection.” An entire chapter is devoted to the first day of Josef’s first job as a tutor and philosophy student during the Depression, drowning under the presence of his pupil’s overbearing mother, a woman obsessed with Freud and psychoanalysis. At twenty-five, Josef holds a PhD and attempts to get a nominally paying job at The Cultural Center, whose director is trying to reconcile the fascists and Bolsheviks. Since “any ass can get a doctorate,” Josef is reduced to stamping tickets at the Center’s theater (where he brushes shoulders with Thomas Mann).
At 30, Josef labors to build an unnecessary railroad in a work camp. Here, over three hundred pages into the novel, the word Jew is used for the first time. Hitler is first referenced, but only as “he.” Adler masterfully recreates the atmosphere, writing that “hardly anything is known at all during this time, everything kept simmering behind a secret veil, though it must be something quite horrible.”
It is at age 35 when Josef is brought to Langenstein Camp, a place “where fear lives” and where “laws have lost their meaning.” In the camp chapter, Adler’s prose elevates to phenomenal eloquence, describing the “nadir of inhumanity” as a poet would describe the cosmos. Amidst the most disgusting event of history, with “chaos churning the people into a teeming brew,” Josef lives a pure life and relinquished, a life that “feeds on memories alone,” surviving only on hopes and dreams, after being “robbed of the justification for existence.” The panorama is now narrow and closed in. Like Adler, Josef takes copious notes throughout his incarceration, in order to eventually bear “existence to the lost ones.” The results of the notes Adler took at Buchenwald are his twenty-six books. That’s not to say we should understand Josef’s experience as Adler’s own; the scene where Adler’s wife chose to follow her mother to the gas chamber, among other personal tragic experiences, is conspicuously absent from the novel.
Five years after the war ends, the lost ones have become the forgotten ones. Josef is safely in England, where Adler lived the rest of his life, though never felt at home. This final section is dominated by rumination; Josef’s mind is plagued by memories, yet he cannot penetrate them, since “the past in the deepest sense doesn’t exist.” Images can be seen and experienced, but never reached. Josef contemplates the idea of panorama as a conception of man as observer and observed, as subject and object, the panorama as an unsuccessful attempt to dissolve the borders between people; like matter and spirit, we must remain separate from each other. After this idea the panorama becomes reversed, with Josef deciding to present himself to the world for observation, rather than the other way around. The atrocity is embraced, since “everything that happens is the price paid for living in the present.” Josef continues to ascend into philosophical reverie, only to conclude that “philosophy is often refuted by life.”
Panorama is impenetrable because it aims to capture reality, and we cannot wrap our minds around reality. In that sense, the novel is supremely successful. We can strive to understand the tragedies of life, seek to find meaning, attempt to analyze and make some sense of it, but ultimately all we can do is live through it and accept it.
Josef accepts it.
Panorama by H. G. Adler, translated by Peter Filkins