Should I be worried? Kugel asked.
You should only worry, said Sergeant Frankel, about the things you can control.
If I could control them, said Kugel, they wouldn’t worry me.
Exactly, said Sergeant Frankel.
I decided to read this due to a colleague’s description of it as a comedy book about death and a Jewish man finding Anne Frank living in his loft; I also read reviews comparing it to Woody Allen and how it perfectly encapsulates “that dread feeling of being alive”. As an part-time sufferer/full-time fan of Allen-esque angst, how could I resist?
Hope: a Tragedy is a strange book. It’s about a Jewish man named Solomon Kugel who moves his family from an urban life to a rural farmhouse in order to start anew. His mother is terminally ill so she moves in with them. Someone is burning down farmhouses similar to the one Kugel and his family live in; this is one of the (many) causes of his worry. He then discovers an elderly, ailing and cranky Anne Frank living in his attic, writing a novel and defecating in the air vents.
And as for the hope? Jove, Kugel’s psychiatrist, believes hope to be the cause of all human misery. There is so much evidence against optimism, yet humans still foolishly remain optimistic, therefore remaining miserable. Hope is irrational. According to Jove, Hitler was an optimist, because he thought he could change the world for the better. And by trying to make the world better, Hitler made it worse. Ergo, an optimist is certainly not a good thing to be. This interestingly twisted philosophy is threaded throughout the book and, indeed, the way in which Kugel interprets the world around him.
The book is a fairly simple structurally, as well as being a super quick read. Although not particularly varied in narrative or tone, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kugel’s angst-ridden inner monologue as he tries to figure out what to do about his mother, Anne Frank, his family, the arsonist and life in general.
This book is definitely outrageous at times, although I didn’t find it quite as shocking or offensive as some people seemed to. It definitely veers towards the satirical, in that there is a purpose to all its statements. As a non-Jew, I think it is very difficult for me to comment on matters of Jewish history and culture (and there were quite a few occasions where I found myself confused by references and had to look up names and other facts), however I feel that the major themes have resonance for everyone. One of the these, as I see it, regards the nature of history and how it impacts on individuals and events in the present and the future. Although we must remember history and learn from it, we must also be aware that it can become a thing in and of itself, with a power over us that we cannot control. For example, Kugel’s mother constantly talks about the Holocaust as though she had been there, when, in fact, she was born afterwards and she has had a relatively comfortable and safe life. The Holocaust rhetoric has, for her, become an overwhelming part of her cultural and personal identity, and she paints herself as a victim at every opportunity. This perpetuation of Jews as victims through generations here seems to be the flipside of remembering the Holocaust in order to prevent its reoccurrence. Could this stance of victim have a negative outcome? This connects with concepts such as self-fulfilling prophecies, cultural stereotypes and human nature itself. (I would be interested to hear other perspectives on this!)
The portrayal of the various neuroses that Kugel suffers about secretly harbouring Anne Frank was very droll, and very cleverly done. There is one exchange in particular, between Kugel and his wife about who they are and are not allowed to secretly house, that was hilarious.
Auslander’s book is hilarious and worried; morbid and full of the joys of life, often simultaneously. There is a very large question-mark about hope and whether one should just be miserable (as Jove urges us to be), but Kugel can’t help but enjoy life sometimes, it seems, almost despite his best efforts.
“It couldn’t be an all-bad world, could it, not with birds who warble and call? Maybe that was the secret – to find the few things that made life just a fraction better, and to focus on those. Bird warbles. Peach fuzz. Puppies barking as if they’re full grown dogs. Nothing great, certainly nothing to justify the rest of it, but enough to keep you going.”