The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, tr. Adriana Hunter

Title:  The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author:  Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator:  Adriana Hunter
Publisher:  Other Press
ISBN:  978 159051707 9

The Travels of Daniel AscherThe Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer.  According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies.  The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words:  the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.

Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris.  He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène.  Her relationship to Daniel is complicated.  Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish.    Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her.  At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels.  And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.

Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her  own devices.

That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background  of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.

Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel.  The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish.  A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable.  Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted.  Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history.  With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin.  Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning.  This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.

As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous.  My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.

The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition.  Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting.  Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher.  Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”.  Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.

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Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Self help books don’t usually fall under the BookSexy umbrella.  Occasionally, though, I recognize that a little guidance can be helpful.   Which is why Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (so much more than a self-help book) has had a place on my nightstand for the last 10 years.

Frankl was sent, with his wife and parents, to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in 1942.  He was liberated from Türkheim (near Dachau) in 1945.  A psychiatrist before the war, he survived his time in the camps attempting to treat fellow prisoners and mentally re-writing the manuscript that was taken from him on his imprisonment, incorporating his camp experiences into it.   The result has since been dubbed the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”:  Logotherapy.

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives.  This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.  There are some authors who contend that meaning and values are “nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations.”  But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” now would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.”  Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!

What does this mean?  Frankl had discovered that those prisoners who had meaning in their life were more likely to survive their time in the concentration camps.   The key lay in finding  something in the future to live for – be it their next meal, a reunion with family, a task to be completed or, in his case, a manuscript to publish.  Without this will to meaning, the prisoner often gave up and death was almost inevitable.  (Of course, the difficulty often lay in pin-pointing what gave meaning to each individual).

Man’s Search for Meaning is divided into two parts . Part One: Experiences in a Concentration Camp is Frankl relating his personal story, while at the same time analyzing the dynamics of the camp and its’ impact on those within.  Frankl explores the three stages of a prisoner’s life – transport & arrival into the camp, daily camp life, and liberation & re-entrance into the world.  This exploration is not limited to the inmates, but extends to include guards, Capos, even the SS Commander in charge.  Parenthesis mine.

It was found after the liberation – only the camp doctor, a prisoner himself, had known of it previously – the (the commander of the camp) had paid no small sum of money from his own pocket in order to purchase medicines for his prisoners from the nearest market town.  But the senior camp warden, a prisoner himself, was harder than any of the SS Guards.  He beat the other prisoners at every slightest opportunity…

It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing.  Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.  The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils.

Frankl writes of his experiences and observations in a deadpan prose style.  His ability to analyze what must have been the darkest period of his life, and to do so without judgment, bitterness or bias is extraordinary.  In the Preface he states that Man’s Search for Meaning “is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multiple of small torments… Most events described here did not take place in the large and famous camps, but in the small ones where most of the real extermination took place.”   After reading his account it’s difficult to see the distinguishing line between the small torments and the great horrors…  but Frankl is not interested in that.  For him the Concentration Camp has become a set a circumstances.  His interest is in how man  reacts and rises above those circumstances.  (In later interviews he would discuss the freedom of choice and how it relates to our response to situation which are out of our control).  Yet despite his ability to remain detached in setting down this portion of his life, there are still moments of poignancy that creep in (more startling in their scarcity).

… there was a sort of self-selecting process going on the whole time among all of the prisoners.  On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of friends, in order to save themselves.  We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know:  the best of us did not return.

Books about the Holocaust often have a voyeuristic quality that distresses me,  as do true crime books and documentaries on the lives of serial killers.  It seems wrong to focus that kind of morbid (since how can it really be anything else?) curiosity on actual horrors, versus those created for t.v. on shows like Criminal Minds & CSI (which I find a bit creepy as well).   Man’s Search for Meaning is a fascinating story, dealing with the horrors and atrocities of the WWII Holocaust, but it is a story that is told within a greater context.  Frankl has attempted to apply what he has learned to the world outside of a Concentration Camp in order to address what he described as man’s existential dilemma.

The second part of Man’s Search for Meaning is called  Logotherapy in a Nutshell. The title is pretty much self explanatory.  When asked by reporters how he felt about the book selling millions of copies, Frankl stated that he sees it as “an expression of the misery of our time:  if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning of life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”   Here he discusses how modern man has focused too much on happiness, when he should be focusing on the meaning in his life.   Similar to Kennedy’s famous quote “Ask not what your country can do for you…”, Frankl would point out that the question was not what you expected from life… but what does life expect of you?  Happiness is a result, not a reason.

This portion of the book is a bit more technical, dealing with neurosis and motivations and what can seem to some like so much psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo that has long since passed out of fashion.  But it also contains a great deal of common sense.  The reader who can approach Logotherapy with an open mind, perhaps as lessons from a man who has gleaned some wisdom out of his life experiences, will be rewarded.  Not least by the realization that Viktor Frankl was a compassionate man, who made the choice to use his suffering to find a way to help others.