To be Frank

Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander, Picador, RRP£16.99, 292 pages

Shalom Auslander has a lot of nerve – or chutzpah, as he might prefer to call it. His comic memoir Foreskin’s Lament (2007) documented his experience of being “raised like a veal in the orthodox Jewish town of Monsey, New York”. Now, for his first novel, he’s come up with an outrageously iconoclastic conceit.

The novel’s main character is Solomon Kugel, a Jewish salesman who specialises in “composting equipment” – a job he loathes. Approaching 40, he lives in a farmhouse with his wife and sickly son. His mother shares their home; supposedly dying, she revels in the myth that she survived the concentration camps – though in fact the closest she’s ever been to conflict is pushing and shoving at the autumn sales.

Already Solomon sounds like a character straight out of Woody Allen, and that’s before history pungently catches up with him. One night he hears a scrabbling coming from the attic. He suspects that it must be rodents or perhaps an arsonist hiding in the eaves – his morose thinking tends towards paranoia. But on investigation the noise is caused by an old woman who has been living there in squalor. And not just any old woman: this is Anne Frank.

The most celebrated diarist of the 20th century isn’t exactly a benign presence; Auslander imagines her in wickedly irreverent terms. She’s narcissistic, foul-smelling and bitchy. She growls and throws bottles. Yet even if she’s out of touch with a lot of everyday niceties, she seems well-informed about her success. “Thirty-two million copies,” she yells, using her bestselling track record to justify the efforts she has poured into her new book, a novel she hopes will put her diaries in the shade.

At first Solomon is unconvinced by her explanation of who she is. “I know Anne Frank died in Auschwitz,” he reflects. “And I know that she died along with many others, some of whom were my relatives. And I know that making light of that, by claiming to be Anne Frank, not only is not funny and abhorrent but it also insults the memory of millions of victims of Nazi brutality.” His uninvited guest fixes him with a menacing yellow eye: “It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass.”

Anne’s squatting in the roof has an unhappy symbolism: she is the burden of history weighing down on Solomon. Even putting this to one side, he can’t help reflecting that, “While there’s never a good time to find Anne Frank in your attic, this was a particularly bad time.” The Kugels have just moved to the countryside from Brooklyn and in a community defined by its blandness (the “birthplace of nothing”) they are guaranteed to be the objects of nosy curiosity.

His relationship with the woman in the attic harms his marriage. It also exacerbates his morbid obsessions. He repeatedly jots down ideas about what his last words might be. He spars with his brother-in-law, Pinkus Stephenor, a fully paid-up optimist whose arguments bear a hardly coincidental resemblance to those of the Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.

Solomon’s analyst – and he must have an analyst, as surely as mice must have cats to chase them – tells him that hopefulness is a sort of madness. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because of misplaced confidence; the other side won’t be better, and in any case he will probably be run over trying to get there. “We’re all in quicksand,” the analyst says. “Up to our eyeballs, from the moment we’re born.” According to this view, all suffering is the result of optimism.

Mired in neuroses, Solomon believes he is doomed to compete forever in what he calls a “Misery Olympics”. He wants a “lemon-scented” life but there is no household cleaning product capable of masking the aroma of the past with all its indignities and atrocities. On the Fourth of July, he sees an image of the Twin Towers and the accompanying instruction “Never forget”. “What’s the harm in forgetting?” he asks.

Anne Frank’s unexpected longevity prompts other unsettling questions. Should we care about the story she wants to tell? Given how much has been invested in the legend of her death, can the fact of her being alive be appreciated or even accepted? Do we maybe prefer martyrs to survivors?

Auslander’s method is to dwell on the unpalatable. He fearlessly pursues a course of maximum provocativeness. The result is a comic novel of the most caustic kind. It mocks the solemnity with which Jews regard the Holocaust. It’s an assault on the very idea of good taste, treating piety as something toxic.

At the outset this is dazzling. Yet the novel seems a succession of smart sketches rather than a sustained, authentic narrative. Anne and Solomon aside, the characters are wispily drawn. While the jokes are often inspired, the splenetic acts of transgression become repetitive. Auslander purveys an intelligent line in wounded existentialism, but the virtuosity of his performance is exhausting.

Henry Hitchings is author of ‘The Language Wars: A Proper History of English’ (John Murray)

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