on The Life of Objects, a novel by Susanna Moore (Knopf)
Last May I attended a “discussion” at Harvard between the pseudo-historian Erik Larson and Marvin Kalb. Larson had published In the Garden of Beasts in 2011, a non-fiction work about William Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his daughter Martha who had affairs with several prominent Third Reich figures including the first head of the Gestapo. Sex-With-Nazis is the book’s draw, and Larson knows it, having found and plundered Martha’s diary. Ka-ching! The rest of the book is padded with chestnuts (eg., his American sensibilities shocked, the mild-mannered ambassador wires home cables warning about anti-Semitism, etc.). In the Garden of Beasts chases its payday by exploiting a rutted narrative and meeting low expectations. The event was sponsored by and raised funds for the United States Holocaust Museum.
Larson’s non-fiction lounges among the stacks of sentimentalized, inert novels set in Europe during the 1930’s and 40’s, written supposedly to help us remember and to deepen the dimensions of acknowledgement -- but actually devised to banish reality, package and sell consolation, and reflect credit on the writer. If a novel purports to hold a mirror up to what we already think we see and know, then either the novel or the world is unnecessary.
The action in Susanna Moore’s seventh novel, The Life of Objects, begins in 1938 – as recalled by narrator Beatrice Palmer. Living with unaffectionate, Irish Protestant parents in Ballycara, County Mayo, seventeen year-old Beatrice was presented with an opportunity to travel abroad and work for Felix and Dorothea Metzenberg in their Berlin mansion. Felix’s father “had built all of the railroads in South America.” The Metzenberg’s house “was the meeting place for the most fascinating men and women in Europe” and Felix had invested in a vast collection of art, antiques, and jewelry. But soon, the Metzenbergs were forced to vacate their city residence, transporting themselves and much of their treasure to a country estate at Löwendorf, a village situated about 40 kilometers southwest of Berlin. Beatrice describes the pace of life, her duties and those of the staff, the habits of the Metzenbergs, and the incursion of wartime news and events. Each chapter covers a year. By the final chapter, 1945, an entire world has collapsed.
Stated as such, this may not sound like the makings of unique literature or a compelling vision of the period. But The Life of Objects engrosses by way of an artfully managed modesty of voice and a lace-maker’s eye for simple pattern made complex by repetition and variation -- the restrained and recognizable obsessions of the story-teller’s psyche and the rhythm of her testimony.
Those rhythms are managed by Moore’s control of syntax. Beatrice’s memories suggest events that have been weighed for a long time, but not analyzed into categories of meaning. At Löwendorf, Felix Metzenberg welcomes a Herr Elias, a Jew, into his household as secretary. Apparently Felix had rescued him from Berlin. The passage below typifies both Beatrice’s narrative limitations and her interests:
“Herr Elias came to the table as Kreck [the Metzenberg’s man-servant] poured the soup into bowls with a silver ladle. Dorothea sat next to me. Her hands were shaking and she put them in her lap. I thought about the fineness of suggestion, and the way that truth can be conveyed by a stray gesture, or even a sound. Of course, hints tend to contain too much, at least for me, but I managed to calm myself.”
Beatrice’s perceptions are not exceptionally nuanced or lyrical -- but Moore endows her with a verbal aura of understated comprehension. Moore styles Beatrice as one who lavishes attention on the plenitude of surfaces without ever lapsing into gratuitous description. The novel’s mounting tension results from the disparity between “the fineness of suggestion” and the rough degrading of the Metzenberg’s and Europe’s situation.
Moore is also determined to make it difficult for us to perform snap judgments on the affluent Metzenbergs, even while she introduces the familiar violent acts of the Reich. Her purpose is not to make morality relative (Beatrice’s values are clear enough) but to suggest the ways in which we sustain our lives in the face of extreme turmoil. Some acts are heroic, others trivial. The younger Beatrice, a maker of fine lacy things, had dreamed of riches. (In Felix’s library, she comes across a line from Rilke – “Poverty is a great radiance from within” – causing her to put aside the book.) The Metzenbergs owned such things. Hermann Göering stole such things.
“I found myself wondering,” Beatrice says in “1943,” if a life devoted to achieving perfection might not be somewhat trying. I’d learned to distinguish one thing from another (I knew that her chairs were Louis Seize), but the compulsion to limit the world to the exquisite seemed an increasingly meaningless affectation (as opposed to my affectation of courage).”
There is much distinguishing one thing from another in The Life of Objects, an intermittent noticing and listing of objects and treasures, foods and wines, clothing and accessories. Yes, Moore has done her research. But again, the content of detail is so integrated within the simple but sonorous pace of the language that it never reads as obtrusive.
Beatrice's habits of mind may not be analytical, but she doesn't fail to register the hints that cut across the grain of her sensibilities. Nevertheless, it is her prodigious memory for the “life of objects” – transformed, moved, preserved, ruined – that animates her story. Consider this passage at mid-novel after a bombing raid by the british:
“After hours of combing the ruins with a garden rake, Roeder [Dorothea’s lady-servant] found a jewelry case with a bracelet and earrings that Felix had given Dorothea on their tenth wedding anniversary. Felix found a trunk with more jewels embedded in the lining, some melted gold coins, and several first editions – Ernest Hemingway and the Fables of La Fontaine – as well as a rolled-up Picasso that a friend had asked Felix to hide and that Felix had forgotten. I found a small metal casket with an ivory chess set and a drawing in brown ink of a nude woman and a peacock. That first day we found earthenware kegs of Kirschwasser, four large iron kettles, the concentric rings of the Schinkel chandelier, andirons, boot scrapers, a zinc bathtub, a steel trunk containing the baroness’s Christmas ornaments, the metal spines of shoe trees, two large cured hams (they smelled delicious), and ceramic jars of pickled herring. When I showed Dorothea the drawing I’d found, she looked at it for a moment and said, “My father gave it to me for my seventeenth birthday. You must have it now.” Before I could refuse, she turned to help drag pieces of a shattered urn onto the scorched lawn.”
Between 1945 and 1950, as many as 14 million German-speaking civilians were thrown out of their countries of citizenship – Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and so forth. They were deposited among the ruined cities of the destroyed and occupied Reich. At least 500,000 people, mainly women and children under 16, died from starvation, disease, criminal acts, and execution. Although this situation is depicted in miniature by Moore, her project is not to tell history by other means. She is intent on more subtly suggesting what John Berger finds in emigration and displacement, “undoing the very meaning of the world and, at its most extreme, abandoning oneself to the unreal which is the absurd.”
When Beatrice says, in reflection, “I knew the war had given me a life,” she acknowledges that the undoing she had witnessed – the undoing of objects, of people – had taught her as much about the absurd as about humanity (they may never be finally separated). Susanna Moore’s exhilarating artistry in The Life of Objects works in the service of the reader’s initiation into the startling texture of struggles and depravities that did not end with the fall of Berlin.
[Published September 18, 2012. 240 pages, $25.00 hardcover]
For well-researched and well-told non-fiction about life during the Reich and its aftermath, I recommend Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years, Frederic Tubach’s German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler’s Third Reich, Oliver Lubrich’s Travels in the Reich, 1933-1945: Foreign Authors Report from Germany, and the riveting, anonymously authored A Woman in Berlin.