The History of History

Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ first novel, The History of History, is about a young woman, Margaret Taub, driven mad by the act of reading. “Stories themselves,” Ms. Hattemer-Higgins writes, “were the hell that threatened to swallow her up whenever she came into contact with meaning, and meaning was the hell that threatened to swallow her up whenever she heard any story.” There are other things–a failed relationship with a despicable married professor, a surprise pregnancy, a deceased father, an absent mother–but all this constitutes a lapse of consciousness. The details of Margaret’s madness are largely a secret to her, and to the reader, for much of the novel. There are several years missing from her memory. She is an American, a graduate student of history and a walking tour guide in Berlin, most days forced to recount the vicissitudes of that city’s past to American tourists. The gaps in her memories are filled in with the specters of Nazi Germany. The SS officers and Holocaust victims from the pages of history books she reads and scrutinizes each day come to her as apparitions.

The History of History, then, is a story about the story having gone missing. The novel is an aestheticized portrait of a moribund mind that enacts the very thing it describes. As with the mind of a madman, we never know quite where we are until the end. The deferred conclusion–or really, beginning–of the story is worth the effort of arriving, but on the way there we are delivered a stunning portrait of a person sinking deeper into insanity. Ms. Hattemer-Higgins’ stylized prose rests somewhere between waking and sleep. She has a unique command of metaphor–“the world seemed to be smoking its grandfather’s pipe”–but can also sum up decades of Berlin’s history with a single, detached phrase: “in those loose, cool summery years after the end of Communism and before the beginning of true capital; a society breathing out at the end of state control but not yet fighting toward wealth, light-headed, perhaps slightly flaccid and all-embracing, a slacker student of the new,” and here again is that strange sense of comparison, “like Margaret herself.” Reading her writing reminds me why I like to spend certain days buried inside the pages of a book, thinking someone else’s thoughts for a change, mad as they may be.

We are guided through the story by Dr. Gudrun Arabscheilis, Margaret’s gynecologist-cum-psychoanalyst, the book’s Tiresias (and uncoincidentally blind as a bat). Arabscheilis offers the novel’s rare moments of objective insight, periodically telling us what is going on inside Margaret’s mind, though she does so under the guise of dark comic relief, bordering on campy horror. “If you imbibe an expression,” she tells a confused Margaret, a speculum still inside of her patient’s body, “whether it be symphony, poem, or skyscraper–whose creator has endowed it by intention or accident with perfect pregnancy, you will attain perfect consciousness.” Later, to explain why the figures of Nazi Germany are invading Margaret’s conscious life, she throws a knife at her head, just missing her target. “What is the difference between having a knife thrown at your head and reading a story about having a knife thrown at your head?” she says. “If you read some scrap of history you are doing nothing but replaying your own life, only in heavy makeup.” Reading, Arabscheilis is telling us, is the meaning of the book’s awkward title: the history of history of passing things down, allowing the past to mingle with the real life of the present.

And so Margaret’s reading of history constitutes a return of the repressed, not her own painful buried memories, but those of Berlin. Magda Goebbels, the wife of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who killed her six children and committed suicide as the Red Army invaded Berlin, comes to Margaret in the form of a bird. She carries Margaret on her wings into the shell of Hitler’s bunker. Margaret thinks, “It seemed safe enough to ride on such a massive bird.” On the other side of the mirror, Regina Strauss, a Jewish woman who kills her family for ostensibly different reasons, plays a game of hearts with Margaret. Regina narrates all the possible reasons for her family’s communal suicide, leaving Margaret to wonder if Magda and Regina, two women on opposite sides of history, are really so different. “Was it possible,” Margaret says, “for an entire society to be variously psychotic all at once?” These visions overtake Margaret until she cannot tell hallucination from fact. On her walking tours, the buildings of Berlin appear to be made of stinking flesh.

This rationalization of insanity mixed with the peculiar distortion of the quotidian raises a series of questions. What is real? How is it all connected? What happened to produce in Margaret such thoughts? The meaning is less in the answers–that would make Ms. Hattemer-Higgins’ novel a work of realism and it is far from that–than in the asking. Nothing is as it seems, and that is the point. Margaret “aestheticizes unbearable memory,” as Arabscheilis says, intertwining her life with the lives of others, making everything into fiction. Margaret can no more wrap her head around Magda Goebbels killing her children as she can her married lover’s quick retreat after he has impregnated her. This is not to say she equates her suffering with the horrors of Nazi Germany, but merely that neither seem to have a place in reality. We turn to the story when the thing itself is too massive to even consider.

For Freud, who coined the term unheimliche (literally, “not-homely”) to reckon with those moments of life that feel more like fiction, this concept struck him when he saw the Acropolis for the first time near the end of his life: “So it really is true,” he said of the ruins. “Just as we learnt at school!” Berlin, with Hitler’s bunker sinking ever deeper into the earth as the years go on, the city quite literally repressing its memory, is Margaret’s Acropolis. The carnage of genocide jutting out at every street corner, she earns her keep rattling off stories that she recalls automatically, explaining away history as if by rote: Jews turning in their furs and wool to the Gestapo in darkest winter; healthy men given lethal injections so their flesh could be stripped away and the skeletons sold to universities desiring “perfect specimens”; families killing themselves all at once because death is less frightening than any alternative. “All this was true,” Ms. Hattemer-Higgins writes, like a distant voice invading a nightmare, coming to wake us up and failing. Margaret thinks, “There are magnitudes of suffering that cannot be held in the mind.”

The canon of contemporary Holocaust literature is often self-consciously linked to the act of writing. This is the way a young writer, whose experience with this tragedy comes from stories and histories, can gain some kind of authority on the subject. Think of Jonathan Safran Foer appearing as a character–“the hero”–in Everything Is Illuminated, editing the narrator’s account of the fictional Foer’s trip to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. More recently, Nicole Krauss’ Great House focused on the loaded symbol of a writing desk passed down through generations of Jewish families like a relative’s story of surviving a concentration camp. Writing, one character scoffs, makes you “the hero of your own existence.”

By, essentially, flipping this idea on its head and focusing on the reading of history rather than the continuous writing of it, Ms. Hattemer-Higgins strips away Mr. Foer’s layers of paratextual narration and Ms. Krauss’ poetic symbolism. Those writers strived for beauty as a way of coping with horror. The History of History calls our attention to the ugliness of it all. Writing has dethroned kings. Readers, of course, were necessary for this to work, but no one has ever been called a hero for reading aft
er the fact.

What I mean is there is no gaining authority on such a subject. It is chaos. Certain stretches of life are too painful to seem real. “It felt just like a movie,” you say. “It was a nightmare.” Time passes and you smile, but for now you are running in place and the monster is gaining on you and you simply cannot wake up.

mmiller@observer.com

The History of History