What Am I, Really?
by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated from the German by Philip Boehm
Published June 2021
The Man Who Lived Underground
by Richard Wright
Library of America / Penguin Australia
Published July 2021
What happens when a man, a person, is declared a non-person, a citizen a non-citizen, for no other reason than his genetic ancestry: the shape of his nose, or the colour of his skin. And when a man is stripped of all that makes him a man, when his daily reality takes on a surreal unreality, and the logic by which he once lived – the economic and societal logic, the moral logic, the logic of connection and belief – upends him into an abyss way beyond all meaning, what then remains of a man?
This, broadly speaking, is the question asked by these two extraordinary novels, both written eighty years ago – hence the ‘man’ unapologetically a man – but not published, or published in full, until 2021. And what makes them so remarkable is that while they were written at a time of highly charged crisis – both politically, and personally for their authors – their urgency still speaks to us as readers of our own charged times. For as well as the stripping of a person, the reduction of a man to ‘a swear-word on two legs’, the question that cannot be avoided is what about the rest of us? What does such stripping say about the polity, the social and political order, that encompasses us all?
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, a young German exile, wrote Der Reisende – translated here as The Passenger – in four short weeks after news of Kristallnacht reached him in November 1938. He had managed to get out of Germany after the Nuremburg Race Laws were passed, and even then, in 1935, with his passport stamped with a red J, it was not an easy escape. By the time of Kristallnahct and the arrests and pogroms that followed, he was in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne, a move made possible by the proceeds of his first novel, published under a pen name in Sweden in 1937. He was 23 years old, of Jewish ancestry, though raised as a Protestant, exiled from his country of birth, and writing with the rage of youth and the urgency of that ominous and terrible moment. An early, incomplete version of Der Reisende was published in England in 1939, also under a pen name. Translated as The Traveller, it was barely noticed – despite (or perhaps because of) its prescience of all that was to come in Germany. And Boschwitz, too, would sink without trace – including literally when the troopship he was on was torpedoed in October 1942.
Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, now considered among the best of his fiction, was written in a few short months between July 1941 and the spring of 1942. In December 1941 Pearl Harbour was bombed and the US joined the war in Europe and the Pacific. Though the war is incidental to the stripping of his character’s being as a man, a person, its savage – ‘unpatriotic’ – critique of America’s systematic degradation of its Black population, could have been a factor in its rejection by both his agent and his publisher. This despite the success and huge sales of Native Son published just two years earlier, in 1940. So complete was the rejection that only a section of The Man Who Lived Underground was published – as a short story –and not until after Wright’s death. It is only now available beyond his archive, published in full in this elegant, timely, Library of America edition.
Ulrich Boschwitz’s The Passenger begins in Berlin on a November evening in 1938, with Otto Silbermann seeing his friend Becker off on a train to Hamburg. Becker, who’d fought in the Great War with him, a friend of many years, once the manager of Silbermann’s business and now a partner, is on his way to make a deal to save the business. At the station bar, the service is slow, held up by a waiter who has had to deal with a passenger complaining of being seated opposite a Jew. The passenger wasn’t Jewish, the apologetic waiter assures them, but how much easier it would be if Jews had to wear a yellow band on their arms so that this sort of thing didn’t have to happen. A prescient moment, right at the start the novel – the infamous yellow stars were not decreed until the end of the following year – and a shudder of fear for Sibermann. Back at the building where he lives, he has another deal to finalise with another friend, this time for the sale of his apartment, and as he walks through the lobby and up the ‘plush red runner’ on the stairs, the fear is visceral. Five years into the Nazi regime, he’d thought he’d become accustomed to the ‘sensation’ that his life was ‘only half real’, but at least for him, as a wealthy business man with an Aryan wife, and with a nose that didn’t look Jewish, people still talked to him on those stairs, and in the hotels where he met colleagues and fellow businessmen. But that night he could feel the loathing and the blame ramp up. He had already been ‘officially degraded’ with no rights, and that night he sensed that for him the ‘public debasement’ was about to begin. ‘I’m something different because I’m a Jew. And who did I used to be? No – who am I? What am I, really? A swear word on two legs….’
The Passenger is the brutal story of that public debasement as Silbermann escapes through the servants’ entrance at the back of the building when Nazi brown-shirts come bursting through the front door of the apartment. At the hotels he knows, his accustomed places of retreat, some waiters won’t meet his eye, others are apologetic, they’re sure he understands that they must ask him to leave. Heil Hitler. The cheap hotels where other Jews are staying aren’t safe, and over that one night, 9 November 1938, Otto Silbermann is plunged into an existential nightmare of constant movement, riding the trains, criss-crossing Germany, a surreal journey that upends everything he has ever known, and believed, and thought himself to be. And on those trains the once-ordinary and the desperate collide, as Silbermann sits in the same carriages as passengers who are simply travelling from one city to another. On the first train, he plays chess with a man wearing a party badge, who takes him to be nothing more than another travelling German – Heil Hitler, punctuates the narrative, like the beat of a drum. Should he let the Nazi win, should he play with him at all, but how can he not without raising suspicion? And if he does play, why should he give in? Why is he ashamed? He wins, one game after another, all the way to Hamburg. It’s a tense journey, but by the end the Nazi’s humiliation and fury is stitched with reluctant admiration. Not a bad man, Silberman thinks, even though he is a party member; maybe this is a moment of madness, that’s all, a temporary psychosis. A misplaced hope that fades on the next train, and the next, with the next random encounter that goes nowhere, just as Silbermann is going nowhere. Conversations about Jews, as if nothing that was happening was questionable; the recognition between those who were Jews; the address of a man in Dortmund who can get him across the border, but has been arrested by the time Silbermann gets there; a night in a rented-out maid’s room, terrible dreams, and he’s back on the train, back to the surreal, daytime nightmare, to Aachen this time, where a young Communist who’s been in a concentration camp drives him to the border with Belgium. A sniff of freedom, walking through the trees, until he’s stopped by Belgian guards and sent back to Germany. Back to the trains. He’d travelled further on the express train made of three chairs that they rode on as children, at least then there was the imagining of anywhere, everywhere. Now it was a senseless, dangerous nowhere.
A woman on another train becomes flirtatious, she has no problem with Jews; why doesn’t he leave, change his name, get another passport, that’s what she’d do, or else she’d resist and keep on living her life. Easy to say when you don’t have that red J stamped in your passport, when the borders aren’t closed to those who do, when anyway it was illegal to leave, even if you had money. Especially if you had money. As it was, he’d left it all too late, selling the business, the apartment, and now the friends he’d thought he could trust were screwing him out of the meagre deals he’d been reduced to. All they were doing, they said, was taking advantage as he’d taken advantage, now it was their turn, he’d had his, nothing more to it than that. ‘Everyone exploits their advantage’; it’s how things have always worked. Besides he was a Jew; he mightn’t look it, but he was. ‘“I’ve always known you were a low-down shyster,”’ Becker says, the one who’d fought with him back in the last war, the one he’d trusted with the money to make the deal in Hamburg, and now was cleaning him out. ‘Nowadays one is murdered by economics.’
‘You’re putting us in jeopardy’, his brother-in-law says, when Silbermann rings to speak to his wife. ‘You’re putting me in jeopardy’, he finds himself saying to a Jewish friend who looks very Jewish, that nose – so many references to noses, had Boschwitz been reading Gogol as well as Kafka? There were far too many Jews on the trains, it made it unsafe for all of them, for him, Silbermann, with his non-Jewish nose and his brief-case full of money.
In Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, ‘the swear word on two legs’ is Fred Daniels, a pious, church-going young man whose wife is nearing the end of her first pregnancy. Fred Daniels finishes work one Saturday afternoon, his hands blistered from mowing the large lawns, not that he’s complaining, Mrs Wooten always pays him fairly. He checks the notes, counting them carefully, and as he turns towards the bus line two blocks away – we’re still on page one – he’s caught in the spotlight from a police car. Come here, boy. The questioning begins there on the street, and although one of the policemen says he’s clean, another says he’ll do. So they arrest him, and force a confession from him for the murder of the rich white couple who live in the large house next to Mr and Mrs Wooten. No, Sir, Fred Daniels says, again and again. He’s innocent – and Richard Wright leaves us in no doubt about that. Ask Mrs Wooten. Sir. Ask Reverent Davis. Sir. He is a church-going man, a responsible man, a hard-working man. ‘I ain’t never killed nobody. Nobody. I swear you all got me wrong, mister.’ The chair is kicked out from under him, he is hung upside down from the ceiling until he can no longer see. The District Attorney hands him the paper and he signs, still insisting he’s innocent. They said they’d take him home if he signed. He needs to see his wife, Rachel; how can he live without her, she’s about to have their baby. If he sees her, this bad dream, this crazy nightmare, will end; he’ll awaken and ‘marvel at how real the dream had seemed’.
Like Otto Silbermann, Fred Daniels manages to escape – in a deft series of moves by Richard Wright – when the police take him to see Rachel – ‘then no one can say we mistreated him’ – the baby comes, a rush to the hospital as rain starts, water gushing down the street, lifting up a man-hole lid. Fred Daniels sees the chance, the only chance, and goes down into the sewer, the smell, the slime, the darkness, the sudden drop into the next level of swirling water. Losing his balance, he catches hold of the roof, hauls himself up; how easily he could be swept away, tumble to his death. Slowly, he gets a sense of this alien landscape, the pipes that run along the roof, the pipes he can haul himself up on, he has just a few matches, some of them are wet, but enough if he’s careful to light a small flare, see the way forward, away from the pulsing sewer. He finds a dry cave, a crowbar that’s been left there. Dry. Quiet. Time stops, and in that darkness, he knows his life has been ‘split in two’.
And then he hears sounds, voices, how can there be voices down here in this under-land where no one lives. He hauls himself up onto the pipes above the cave, the voices seem to be coming from somewhere near, there’s a slit in the wall, it’s made of bricks, a crack he can see through, into a basement church full of men and women singing, just as he’d sung at Reverend Davis’s church. There’s nothing comforting about it. Even that has been upended, gone in sewage. What sense is there to what they are doing? When they leave the church, he starts prising out the bricks, using the crowbar, making a hole just large enough to crawl through. As he lets himself into the basement world, moving through the sewers, prising out bricks through one wall, then another, he enters a realm that is neither up-side nor down, the world where workers work, and money is made, but not by those who shovel the coal into the furnaces. Little by little Fred Daniels explores this sub-world beneath the up-world. A cinema, a funeral morgue, a room where they cut the carcasses for a butcher shop. A store room for radios, the safe of a real-estate business, he sees a man open the safe, he works out the combination, and watches the man put wads of notes up his sleeve. Underground basements adjacent to the sewers, a segue between his down-world and the up-world where workers work for the businesses that make the money. He finds food, a lunchbox, a room for stored fruit; he finds water faucets, he washes his hands, he drinks the water, he washes the coal from his face, the coal boxes he lands in as he digs out more bricks, he finds a tool box, the task becomes easier.
He gets into the basement of a jewellers’ shop, diamonds and rings, the night-watchman is fast asleep, his gun on the floor beside him. He takes handfuls of jewels back through the sewers to the cave that’s lit with a light, pulled in from another basement. He takes hundred-dollar bills from the safe beneath the real estate business, and he pastes them to the wall, hanging the rings and the watches among them, scattering the diamonds on the floor, where they glimmer in the soft dirt, stars in the night of his cave. Not because he’s a thief, there’s no way he can use them, but because, suddenly, from this low-down, under vantage point, the world where once he’d lived reveals itself.
Money, its power and its surreal glitter, is at the heart of both these novels – and of both Silbermann’s and Fred Daniels’ reversals of understanding as they are plunged into their surreal nether-worlds. Surrealism and money. Both Boschwitz and Wright were writing at a time when Surrealism was a powerful literary influence, and in Paris where Boschwitz had moved in 1937, prominent Surrealists were in a noisy and fractious quasi-alliance – and dispute – with the communists and socialists. Richard Wright was a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPSU), and considered Breton’s Surrealists ‘Paris crazies’. ‘Surrealism, as an end in itself, has no value that interests me,’ he wrote. ‘It is only when the device is used to communicate that it interests me.’ As a means of communication, he uses it brilliantly, the accumulation of realist detail – the lunch box, the crow bar, the pipes running along the ceiling – that render the underground world vivid and believable. None of the disjointed scenes Fred Daniels encounters have meaning in themselves; their meaning lies in ‘the totality of all these symbols and images put together’, and how they play on the dark landscape of Fred Daniels’ mind. Wright’s surrealism is in the service of an allegory in the communication of a Marxist revelation.
For Boschwitz, too, it is the same technique, the same surrealism, that renders Silbermann’s crazed world of nowhere travel so believable. The familiar carriages and platforms, corridors and windows, people with their suitcases and newspapers, once so familiar, become a landscape of senseless, dangerous, impossibility. Kafka is palpable in the descent of Silbermann from those plush stairs where he has lived as ‘subject’, to the despised ‘object’ of a swear-word.
Some reviews have questioned Boschwitz’s characterisation of Silbermann as the money-dealing Jew; he might not have a Jewish nose, but he meets that other stereotype. The counter-argument is that Silbermann is effective as a character precisely because he undercuts the stereotype by so thoroughly being the stereotype: a paradox that has little to do with his ancestry, and everything to do with the bourgeois society into which he was born. It is not just Silbermann for whom money is ‘everything’. Yes, he has taken advantage of his wealth, he’s a deal-maker, he’s paid his taxes, or some of them, enough for his conscience to be clear; he’s no fraudster, and he’s been fair, or fair enough, to those business colleagues he’d thought were his friends. He is a good bourgeois German, and that’s how he sees himself, even in his humiliation. ‘He was born a middle-class citizen and will die a middle-class citizen. Perhaps one on the run, but a proper citizen none the less.’ And that is why his no-where journey bites. The bourgeois logic he once so thoroughly embodied becomes a cruel illogic, a savage indictment of the system, the culture in which Silverman had taken such pride. And in that surreal reversal, we cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that the degradation of the Jews was not a ‘passing psychosis’, but fertile ground for the drum-beat of all those Heil Hitlers.
While we know little of Boschwitz’s affiliations, it is suggestive, and certainly interesting, that in all Silbermann’s desperate journeying, the only person to give him meaningful assistance is Franz, the young Communist who drives him close to the border and then leads him through the forest to Belgium. His fiancée, who’d encountered Silbermann on the train, had organised it, and persuaded Franz to take the risk. It’d give them the thousand marks they needed to marry. ‘If someone had told me I’d be risking my neck for a bourgeois…’ He barely believes it himself. It is the only point in the novel when we leave the consciousness of Silbermann, and the narrative shifts briefly to the view point to Franz. The dilemma for him is not so much – or not only – the risk, as the morality of taking that money, that Jewish bourgeois money; his anti-Semitism isn’t much better than anyone else’s, although in the case of Silbermann it is as much about his bourgeois status and his money, that powerful myth, and excuse. Though Franz takes the money, he will not take more for guiding him the last mile to the border instead of leaving him where he stops the car. ‘I’ll take the money for risking my boss’s car, but not for risking my neck!’
As for the passengers on the train, once his compatriots, and the once-friends who fleece him, Silbermann comes to the realisation that ‘it suits them to degrade us’, and the worst of it is that if we get anything wrong, the slightest human flaw, it just goes to prove our inhumanity, prove that we deserve our degradation. ‘No one resists. They all cringe and say: we have no choice, but the truth is they’re happy to go along because there’s something in it for them.’ And then this: ‘Perhaps they’ll carefully undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged.’ Boschwitz wrote this chilling sentence three years before the extermination camps of the ‘final solution’ were put into official operation.
Der Reisende was a prescient warning, and urgent. Yet when it was translated, and published in England in 1939 under the pen name John Grane, it too went nowhere. England was notoriously resistant to Surrealism (despite the best efforts of Herbert Read and Anthony Penrose). Was it that? Or resistance to facing up the reality of Nazism, and the prospect of war? We do not know. The book did no better in US, where it was published in 1940.
When the war began, Boschwitz, who’d managed to get to England in 1939, was detained on the Isle of Man as an ‘enemy alien’ in another surreal reversal that rounded up all German citizens, including those who’d been given asylum as legitimate refugees. From England he was shipped to Australia and another internment camp before being shipped back to serve in the British army. Another nonsensical journey. During those years of internment he rewrote much of Der Reisende, and sent a hundred pages of the revised manuscript to his mother in England, care of another ‘enemy alien’ returning to serve in the Allied forces. Fortunately, he also posted letters telling her what he was doing with the book, for the manuscript never reached her. And Boschwitz himself was drowned when the troop-ship taking three hundred men back to England was torpedoed by a German submarine. It was October 1942, and the manuscript of another novel sank with him. It was by chance that the German editor and publisher Peter Graf learned of the existence of Der Reisende in 2015, and worked on the editing of the first and only text – that was clearly not edited at the time – through the lens of those letters. It is a back-story he recounts in an afterword to the edition that was first published in Germany in 2018, and as The Passenger in 2021. It has been translated into nine languages, applauded not only for its historical significance, but for its currency in our own toxic present.
Six months before Ulrich Boschwitz drowned in the Atlantic, Richard Wright finished The Man Who Lived Underground, only to have it rejected both by his agent and his publisher. This despite the success, and sales, of Native Son in 1940. For all that has been written about Wright, and all that he wrote himself, little is known of the reasons that were given. How much did the war have to do with it? Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941, while Wright was mid-manuscript and living in Brooklyn. When Fred Daniels tunes into the radio he took from the basement radio shop, he listens to the news of bombed cities and torpedoed ships. When he makes one of his few sorties into the up-world, the city is being bombed; search lights, sirens, more chaos. Wright got that wrong, though it was not an entirely surreal proposition in 1942. More significantly, we know that Wright left the CPUS over its rush to support a war it had opposed during the Hitler-Stalin pact – and in doing so, to back-track on race politics in its insistence that all working-class people, Black included, should join up, and do their patriotic duty. Patriotic duty? For those, like Fred Daniels, who can be so easily degraded and accused because ‘he is already condemned’ by those for whom he is ‘already beyond the pale of the just and honest and decent’? Was that the problem? The Man Who Lived Underground’s un-patriot truth?
Published with The Man Who Lived Underground is the essay ‘Memories of my Grandmother’, where Wright writes of the novel he regarded as one of his best. Fellow writers of colour had criticised Native Son for allowing his character Bigger Thomas to become a raping and murdering ‘monster’. It was the novel in which he had pushed naturalism to an extreme in the creation of a man driven to and further reduced by – every step of his monstrousness. Even Wright’s friend and ally James Baldwin was equivocal, rejecting Wright’s use of a white lawyer in bringing Bigger Thomas to the realisation, on the night before his execution, that he was not born a monster, but had been made one during a life of denigration. His crime was the consequence of the larger state and societal crime. ‘In so far as the American public creates a monster,’ Baldwin said in a Paris Review interview, ‘they are not about to recognise it. You create a monster and destroy it. It is part of the American way of life.’ But for all that, he reserved ‘the utmost respect for Richard, especially in the light of his allegorical posthumous work.’ He doesn’t name The Man Who Lived Underground, and wouldn’t have read more of it than the truncated, eviscerated short story that was plied from it. With the entire first section removed – the arrest, the forced confession, Rachel and the pregnancy – Fred Daniels is reduced to a sewer-dweller. The allegory is dismantled. The surreal is downgraded, and Fred Daniels is rendered merely monstrous.
As well as his views on Surrealism and the Communist Party, in ‘Memories of my Grandmother’, Wright also writes of religion, and the power of the Black churches. The grandmother who had raised him was a devout church-goer, a staunch believer, a stickler for every rule, taking every word so literally it was as if she lived ‘outside of life’even as she raised nine children to survive in the life they could not live anywhere else but inside. The paradox of being outside life, while simultaneously within it, is the paradox of Fred Daniels’ underground life. Again and again he listens to the church on the other side of the wall from his cave. He hears the voice of a woman singing Glad, glad, glad, oh, so glad /I got Jesus in my soul. He listens as another joins in, and another, until all of them are singing. Glad, glad, glad, oh, so glad / I got Jesus in my soul. And as he listens Fred Daniels, for so long a devout member of Reverend Davis’s church, comes to realise the sham, that it was all about shame. ‘Guilt! That was it! Insight became sight and he knew that they thought that they were guilty of something they had not done and they had to die. The song beat on.’
For Fred Daniels, there is a moment of freedom in this revelation, there in his underground cave with the sewage of society swirling past. He understands. Sight through those holes in the bricks has become insight.
But there is no redemption, no lasting escape for Fred Daniels, any more than there can be for Otto Silbermann. Who is there for Silbermann when his once-friends turn on him, when even his brother-in-law closes the door against him? Fred Daniels’ severance from the life he once lived is so complete that even Rachel is swept from his mind, as unimaginable as the ‘brown baby’ he sees in the sewer, snagged there in front of him before it is swept into the rushing water.
For Silbermann, the breaking point comes when he loses his briefcase with the last remnants of the money that made him the man, the citizen, he was. Without it, what was he? What was his life worth? For Fred Daniels, the breaking point comes when he sees the night-watchman accused of stealing the rings and the diamonds that he, Fred Daniels, had hung on the walls of the cave and scattered in the dust of its floor. He sees him interrogated by the same police who had accused him, his face bloodied, his chair knocked out from under him; another innocent man made guilty. And he sees the same thing happening to the man in the radio shop, accused of stealing the radio on which Fred Daniels had heard news of the war. ‘Another sharp rent, in the social cloth that reveals the texture of all the strands out of which our lives are woven.’
In the end, for both Silbermann and Fred Daniels the severed-life becomes as impossible as the life from which they have been severed. When all choice is removed, what remains of a man? What can be made of the only choice, the Existentialist choice that remains, the individual choice to act? Sartre’s Nausea, you’ll recall,was published in 1938. Does Silbermann report the theft of his briefcase? But to whom? To the police? Report the thief to the robber? And let the robber strip him of the last broken remnant of life? When Fred Daniels realises he cannot stay in the underground for ever, can he return to the upper world and speak his new truth? Can he plead the innocence of all who are falsely accused? Can he confront the world with the cruelty of its illogic, of its own degradation?
The existential freedom to act rings hollow for those who have been stripped of all personhood and humanity. And the question we’re left with on reading these two novels all these years later, in our present, is whether we can hear what they are saying. The brilliance of The Man Who Lived Underground is that it could (almost) have been written today, a text for Black Lives Matter. With the push-back of the American Right, the censoring of Black writing and teaching under the rubric of Critical Race Theory, the case for this novel and its importance is not hard to make. ‘We’ve got to shoot his kind,’ one of the police accusing Fred Daniels says right at the end of the novel. ‘They would wreck things.’
As to The Passenger, we might be a long way from the Holocaust, but the novel’s power is that its contemporaneous urgency can also be read as an allegory for all those who are still, now, eighty years later, travelling nowhere, escaping wars and brutal regimes that declare citizens non-citizens, and imprison whole categories of people for no better reason than their ethnicity, some small component of their DNA. An allegory for all those thousands of people in search of protection who are turned back at the borders of liberal democracies, including Australia. When Silbermann is picked up by the Belgium police for crossing the border ‘illegally’, he begs to be allowed to stay. He’s being persecuted, and as they would know, his life was in danger, he has no other option. And their reply before they turn him around and send him back? ‘But everyone can’t just come to Belgium!’
I rest my case.