German for Travelers : A Novel in 95 Lessons
Norah Labiner's third novel German for Travelers reads a lot more like poetry than prose. Each chapter, which is framed as a lesson, begins with a seemingly disconnected sentence translated into English from German, before jumping to a different time period, country, character, or all three. Though a somewhat dizzying read, German for Travelers is a unique family history told through a gradual unraveling of a long kept family secret. It might also be described as a nonfiction mystery novel—à la Truman Capote—that takes as a starting point Sigmund Freud's famous (and, from a feminist perspective, rather notorious) Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.
The novel’s narrative(s) center on the Leopold/Berlin family who are descendants of a renowned Jewish German psychoanalyst, Franz Apfel. It begins besides Lemon Leopold's pool in her Hollywood mansion, year 2000-something. Lemon is a famous Hollywood actress; her brother Ben a frustrated psychoanalyst. Their cousin, Eliza Berlin is a gloomy romance writer who, unlike Lemon, has had a lot of "rotten luck". Lemon and Eliza, in fact, are opposites in almost every way. If they weren't cousins, they would no doubt never cross paths, but as can only happen with family, the unlikely pair travel together to Berlin to unravel the unsolved case of "Elsa Z"—their great-grandfather's incurable patient.
In some ways, German for Travelers is a critique of Freud's Dora, and perhaps of the limits of psychoanalysis in that, in Elsa's case, the doctor never discovers the obvious (and ruinous, for him) truth about Elsa until it is too late. Elsa is also turned into a somewhat prophet of the approaching Holocaust (although I actually found this aspect of Elsa's character a little hard to swallow). It is successful, I think, in highlighting some of the misogyny and homophobia of Freud's incomplete analysis of Dora—but the novel is too short, and there is too much going on in it, to form a sustained and coherent critique.
It’s Labiner's characters who manage to stay with the reader by the time the book spirals to its end. I found the dark, world-weary romance writer Eliza and her deceased husband Hans two of the most compelling characters in the novel. Hans is portrayed as a haunted, tragic, yet romantic character—though we are never quite sure if we are seeing him through the narrator (who is constantly shifting) or Eliza's point of view. For example:
He lamented: Time is the fire in which we burn. He pronounced: Every man his own football! He railed: I think of Germany at night: the thought keeps me awake till light. Once as he and Eliza rushed through a station to catch a departing train—he made it onto the platform first—and he called out to her: Run, comrade, run; the world is behind you. (Lesson 13)
I was, at first, somewhat frustrated with the chapters given to the Hollywood-dwelling siblings, Lemon and Ben Leopold, but I came to feel that there was a lot of truth to the characterization of these two somewhat superficial personalities who nevertheless are respectively intrigued and haunted by their family's past. Lemon and Ben's parents were (publicly) an image of the sugar-coated all-American family; one, however, that is hiding a few scandalous secrets. Lemon, Ben and Eliza's grandparents were Holocaust survivors who, as is often the case with many Holocaust survivors of that generation, (and in fact survivors of such traumas in general) never seemed to speak about their pasts. Their grandfather, in fact, after the war, is supposed to have lost his mind, and hence rendered voiceless. I found the way the novel touched on the trans-generational effects of trauma, and the effects of the repression of family history, quite touchingly and intelligently portrayed.
My one reserve is that there is so much going on in so few pages that, at its close, it feels somewhat unfinished. It is a part-critique, part-novel, part-history that can barely hold its characters bursting with personality, its references to pop culture and pop psychology, and its weighty themes. However, I also think this is part of the charm of this book: it leaves the reader thinking and, given its digestible size, this might be the kind of book that deserves a repeated reading—or perhaps, given the book's brevity of words, weighty themes, and lingering phrases, it is, as I first suggested, better read as a poem than novel.