The Origin of Violence

In writerly circles, there’s a lot of emphasis these days on the old narrative chestnut of show vs. tell, with conventional wisdom declaring that show is good whereas tell is not. I confess this rather annoys me, as both show and tell are necessary in books because they do different things. Telling is appropriate for the moments that do not pass in human interaction, and it is essential for the invisible and intangible parts of life, most obviously those that are psychological. Telling is necessary for fantasy, recollection, testimony, analysis, philosophy, contemplation, reflection, and of course description. Without them, you have the kind of book that is highly prevalent at the moment – the social, action-based story. What, though, of the book that is based on telling? Several of the books I’ve read this week have been oriented towards telling and they express the child’s eye view, the perspective of the obsessive loner, the evocation of the past or future, the acts of creative imagination. And this book, Fabrice Humbert’s The Origin of Violence, focuses on third generation testimony of the Holocaust, by means of the quest of a grandchild to understand the problems in his family by finding out what happened to his grandfather in Buchenwald.

Now, I said to myself I would not get caught up with any more Holocaust narratives. I find them very difficult to read, and having taught them for a while, feel I have done my bit. But this novel had such an intriguing premise (and also won the French Orange Prize) that I had to give it a go. The story begins with the young man, (our narrator) a teacher on a school trip to the old site of the concentration camp in Weimar, noticing a photograph taken in 1941 of a prisoner whose resemblance to his own father is striking. The photograph haunts him. His father is an aloof man, who shuns the gatherings of their large, bourgeois clan and evades personal questions. Our narrator feels a kind of darkness inside him for which he cannot account, other than to understand it as a phantom legacy, a passing down of unspoken, untestified violence from previous generations. He starts to investigate the photograph and finds that the man in the photo is called David Wagner and that he was on the receiving end of the malicious behaviour of the camp doctor, dying in 1942. And then it isn’t long before he finds out that David Wagner’s story is intimately linked to his own family.

The first half of this book is pretty amazing. Fabrice Humbert writes the concentation camp scenes in a kind of cold, white fury, searing through the sheer awfulness with a tight, focussed narrative. Even though I don’t like Holocaust literature, this was the best part of the novel. As the revelations about the narrator’s family come thick and fast, gathering momentum until we reach the long, intense section in which the story of David Wagner’s imprisonment is told, the narrative is wholly compelling. After such a brilliant first half, the second was inevitably going to struggle to match up, but again I liked the premise. Armed with his inconvenient truths, the narrator returns to his life in the present, determined to tackle his father. But the new knowledge alters his perspective, and for a while he is obsessed with evil and violence, finding all around contemporary crimes and misdemeanours in which the fingerprints of Holocaust-like violence are visible. French literature has always had a close association with philosophy and again I found these sections to be brilliant. What doesn’t work so well is the new relationship he forges with a young German woman, whose grandfather was one of the Nazi generals. And although this has promise, as a storyline it fizzles out in the end, overtaken by the more significant drama of the narrator’s relationship to his family.

At the heart of the novel is a radical premise: that memory is for the dead, and forgetting is for the living; that we need to forget in order to live. Given that this is a story about memory, or if not memory, the necessity of fierce acts of imaginative recreation, there is an urgent paradox operating the various parts of the narrative. What should we do about the Holocaust at this historical distance, when its long shadow reaches down through subsequent generations and continues to inhabit the shameful things that man can do to man? Can we remember in our community, but forget as individuals who need to move forward with lightness and grace? This is a sensitive and penetrating novel, with outstanding moments and a courageous perspective. I will be very interested to read his second novel now.


13 thoughts on “The Origin of Violence

  1. Another fascinating piece. It really has been a wonderful week in The Reading Room. Though I’d never wish for you to be away, last week’s absence has had its compensations! I thought your defence of ‘telling’ was marvelously comprehensive here. I’ll have to ponder the duality of memory and forgetting some more. I think the past needs to inform the present, not hold it captive. But how to do this in the midst of such catastrophes is beyond me. Rather than an either-or relationship, I’d tend toward the communal/individual balance you suggest. And I just love “move forward with lightness and grace”. – Ever since I read Marilynne Robinson, whenever I read ‘grace’ it does funny things to me. It’s a transcendant word! – Anyway, thanks again Sherpa Litlove for helping to me to climb these heights.

    • Oh thank you, Lokesh! My feeling is that it has been too many French books for the majority of my usual readers, so I am mightily relived if you’ve been enjoying the posts. I think we almost need another verb, one perched precariously between remembering and forgetting, where events are put in deep storage or memorialised elsewhere, even outside in the world. I am also a huge fan of ‘grace’ of all kinds, and just try not to over use it. And as for helping you, ah, you’re not heavy, you’re my blog brother. 🙂

  2. I too get frustrated with the “show, don’t tell” chestnut. I can see its usefulness for reminding writers not to rely on telling and to be sure to do some showing, but like so much useful advice, it’s best used as a guideline, rather than a rule.

    • Hurray! I’m so glad it’s not just me. Fiction does not benefit from rules, on the whole (unless they are grammatical ones). Much better to think in terms of guideliines.

  3. I am now catching up with your posts as this week has been extremely busy–and I love all your posts for French reading week. This book seems interesting so I might check it out. I recently have become very interestedin both fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust for whatever reason. Not only am I interested in Germany’s role, but I also am interested in the implications of the Holocaust for countries like Hungary and Poland. (PS I also saw your review of The Mandarins. I have a copy in English and am most interested in reading it.)

    • Ooh Ali, there is so much Holocaust stuff out there, I don’t know where to begin. I’ll be very interested to hear about what you decide to read in the end. And DO try The Mandarins – it is a very accessible, readable and engaging novel! I’d love to know what you make of it.

  4. Those are interesting and complex questions–and I think it’s especially with those, that telling is at its best. I’m reading “Beware of Pity” by Stephen Zweig right now and it’s a good example of that.

  5. Balance is key. It can be very tiring to read a novel which does only show. Only tell wouldn’t be good. I always felt it was an advice for genre writers. In genre the showing part is more important. if you apllied it to literary novels a lot of excellent literature would land in the bin.
    You know interested in war stories but I don’t pick up Holocaust stories easily. I’m looking forward to read Applefeld as he seesm to be technically so superior that it is more about other things than the Holocaust. You made parts of this novel sound brilliant but I think I will not pick it up soon.

  6. What a lovely review. This novel seems to be proof that there is always something new to be said about a subject that seems to have been exhausted. It is interesting that in our actual interaction with other human beings what we mostly do is tell, and not show.

  7. I’m also a bit wary of Holocaust literature, especially since in my work I get to deal with a fair degree of trauma. I have to prepare a talk on ‘Trauma and Loss’ and I checked what I already had on my computer and one of the items was a review you did on Patrick McGrath’s Trauma. I find that the poets and novelists do a better job than the psychologists. As for this book, I really like your review. A good balance between show and tell sounds completely logical but I was tend to assume that show is better.

  8. I’ve had this book on my TBR list since it came out in French – and I’d really like to read it, especially now after seeing your thoughts on it.

    What you say here, “Given that this is a story about memory, or if not memory, the necessity of fierce acts of imaginative recreation, there is an urgent paradox operating the various parts of the narrative,” is really interesting to me. Makes me think of Jorge Semprun’s L’Ecriture ou la Vie – so I’d be curious to hear you write about the two books together.

    I’ll try to get to this book sooner than later, so I can come back and discuss!

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