Expecting More, Getting Lesser

There is nothing more disappointing for a critic than to look forward with anticipation to reading a book — especially one with an intriguing concept by an admired writer — only to find that it falls far short of expectations. Such has been the case with Room for Doubt by Wendy Lesser, founder and editor of the adventurous, California-based literary quarterly The Threepenny Review.

Room for Doubt, recently published by Pantheon, is the eighth of the books she's written in between her editing duties, following such nonfiction titles as Pictures at an Execution, His Other Half and A Director Calls, as well as the novel The Pagoda in the Garden. This new book is divided into three parts: Out of Berlin, On Not Writing About David Hume and Difficult Friends — and in the simplest sense, those subjects define the content of the book.

It was on this simplest level that I was most intrigued. What compelling topics. What did they have to do with one another? How was she going to tie them together?

The opening pages of each section managed to hold my interest — while suggesting that greater things were in store — but eventually, the narrative momentum broke down, and the point of each extended essay was lost.

In the end, nothing added up; worse, Lesser appeared uninterested in weaving the strands into some sort of pattern.

Not that it was apparent at the start that the author had any overarching structure in mind for these three, seemingly disparate pieces. She offered no introductory comments, no ruminations for a reader to latch on to. After a page of acknowledgements, we were suddenly on our way to Berlin.

But for any Jew born in the immediate post World War II period, the sentiments sounded in the opening paragraph were immediately recognizable: "I expected to go a lifetime without ever setting foot in Germany," wrote the author. "When I first began traveling to Europe as a college student, it was Ireland, Britain, Holland, France and Italy that I ended up visiting — neither wholly by chance nor wholly by choice, but in that drifty, in-between way college students do things. Afterwards, when I was living in England for two years, it would have been easy enough to go to Germany, but I didn't. And then, as I grew into my 30s and 40s, this coincidence hardened into a resolve. 'I have never been to Germany' became one of the totemic sentences of my identity, like 'I have never been to a professional ball game' or 'I have never been sky-diving.' And never will, these sentences implied."

As Lesser soon admitted, going to Germany was far different than attending a pro-ball game or sky-diving. What stopped Lesser from going to sports events was fear of crowds and boredom; with jumping out of a plane, it was just plain fear. On the issue of Germany, though an element of fear was mixed in, the motivation was far more complicated than in the other examples she cited.

"It partook of moral distaste and historical allegiance," she wrote. "It stemmed from a notion that Jews do not visit Germany, and broadened out to include all morally upright people in its scope. I found myself unduly shocked when friends of mine reported that they had enjoyed their trips to Germany. 'Shocked' is perhaps not the right word: I found it incomprehensible that one could have a good time there. And since pleasure (though sometimes a very abstruse pleasure, of a sort that other people might call work) is what fuels my travel decisions, I couldn't imagine ever wanting to go to Germany."

Lesser acknowledged that her Jewishness — while having had something to do with her attitude — was not adequate to explain it all. She admitted to not being much of a Jew, having been born into a family of determined secularists whose "religious disbelief" stretched back a number of generations. She grew up celebrating Christmas and going to school on Jewish holidays, as did most of her California Jewish schoolmates.

And though she was born seven years after the Fuhrer's death, Hitler played a significant part in her childhood. In her household, he was a stand-in for the devil, though much more potent a symbol than Lucifer since the Fuhrer's works were undeniable. The young Lesser was never allowed to forget — like many another young Jewish person raised in the 1950s — that Hitler would have come after even her secular tuches if he had gotten that far in his grand plans.

Lesser's family was not the kind that boycotted all German products. They drove Volkswagen Bugs, and they owned a recording of The Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya at the helm. According to the author, "the strange thing is that when German things did seep into our household, I always faintly imagined they were Jewish. It was not until I was well into adulthood, for instance, that I realized Bertolt Brecht was not a Jew."

All of this information makes for what seems the perfect introduction to a deep discussion of ambivalence, of the difficulty of deciding to go to a place like Germany and then, once there, what a Jew must struggle with before a modicum of ease can occur. But what Lesser did, in the next paragraph, was note that when she arrived in Berlin, she was astounded at how "deeply Jewish" the culture remained. There was no discomfort, no struggle. She eased into the terrain, and from the outset, it provided a clean fit.

'A Homeland I've Never Known'

"The real oddity lies in the number of things about the city that still feel Jewish: for instance, its passion for concert-hall performances — for art and culture in any of their manifestations, really; or its insistence on punctuality; or the blunt, practical manner of its inhabitants. Arriving in Berlin, I felt in some strange way as if I were coming to a homeland I'd never known about, a place where people shared all my personal quirks. My love of order, my brusque aggressiveness, my linear mode of thought, my insistence on constantly distinguishing better from worse, all blended in with the surrounding culture rather than marking me off as a weirdo, as they had in California."

Lesser then took to task those visitors to Berlin — and not only the Jews — who had what she called "an unhealthy desire to wallow in the recent history of extermination." People told her that she must not miss this or that monument, but she found them distasteful whenever she forced herself to visit them. Rather, she much preferred describing the symphonic and operatic performances that she attended, which made her into the music lover she never expected to be.

Lesser was hardly wrong to designate the considerable pleasure to be had in Berlin. If there's anywhere in Europe where you can have a splendid time — and where you can understand why the Jews loved it so — it's Berlin. But there is always much more to the experience that Lesser merely sidesteps.

The same was true of the other two sections of her book. She noted that she went to Berlin to write a book about British philosopher David Hume, and how she never got around to it. Still, she managed to catalogue her reasons for avoiding the task, and in doing so, provided enough biographical material and critical analysis about Hume to make up a small biography — which seemed to defeat the whole point of her essay.

Toward the end of the Hume piece there came a sense that she might just pull everything together in the last section, and that it would be about difficulties — difficult cities, difficult subjects, difficult people — and that this theme would be clarified in her discussion of her strained relationship with writer Leonard Michaels, and why that nearly impossible friendship somehow managed to last. But the synthesis never transpired, and the final section ended up being far too personal to convey much to anyone who happened to be outside the circle of that difficult relationship.

In the end, a book that seemed headed for enlightenment wound up being far more opaque than anyone could have imagined.



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