- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
“I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people,” Herman Rosenblat is quoted as saying in yesterday’s New York Times. Rosenblat is the author of a memoir called Angel at the Fence that was to have appeared this coming February but now won’t be published at all, for the recently routine reason that he has admitted to having made up significant parts of his supposedly true story.
If the upshot of the improvements on fact that James Frey introduced into his own memoir were to make the author seem tougher, harder, and more sadistically vandalized by fate than he had been, Rosenblat’s inventions, as they have been reported, seem designed to soften the cruel facts of the world through unlikely fictions passed off as life. As described in the Times, Rosenblat
said he first met his wife while he was a child imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and she, disguised as a Christian farm girl, tossed apples over the camp’s fence to him. He said they met again on a blind date 12 years after the end of war in Coney Island and married. The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.
Rosenblat is indeed a survivor of Buchenwald, where he was taken as a child. There was, however, no such meeting. The story of the apples has been proven a pure invention, a cobbling together of improbabilities and clichés. Kenneth Waltzer, director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, uncovered the hoax:
In his research of maps drawn by ex-prisoners, Dr. Waltzer learned that the section of Schlieben where Mr. Rosenblat was housed had fences facing other sections of the camp and only one fence—on the south—facing the outside world. That fence was adjacent to the camp’s SS barracks and the SS men there would have been able to spot a boy regularly speaking to a girl on the other side of the fence, Dr. Waltzer said. Moreover, the fence was electrified and civilians outside the camp were forbidden to walk along the road that bordered the fence.
This might remind us of that obscene farce about which I wrote recently, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Not a memoir, but an offensive fiction, one that trafficked in the improbability of a Jewish boy in Auschwitz playing chess against a non-Jewish child who sits across from him, undiscovered, at the fence of the death camp. As I wrote at the time:
That the novel in question might justify such sleight of hand as a means by which a child might first imagine the unimaginable is exemplary of the most condescending and corrupt ideas of what fiction is. Fiction is not meant to make difficult facts less disturbing. Rather, as David Foster Wallace said in an interview, fiction is more properly meant to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” An idea like the one that animates Boyne’s novel can only comfort the comfortable.
Taking Rosenblat at his word that he “wanted to bring happiness to people,” one is given to ask of oneself if we as adults are indeed comforted by fairy tales. Of course we are. The apple is an old feature of tales of good and evil, whether your holy books are Old Testaments or animated treacle. This latest obscenity is obviously pathetic, but does allow us to ask once again just what we expect of memoir. Facts? I hope not. Memoir is always fiction, always falsification, always distorted and compromised by our muddled brains and hearts.
That, after all, can be what makes a memoir interesting–if an author is honest enough to embrace that undependability. A memoir that traffics in its own certainty can only be rude, crude, abject. The question then, is only one of the degree. Today’s news is pretty crude.
More from Wyatt Mason:
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD in 2011 for “furtive movements”:
The faces of Lego people were growing angrier.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature