Review: Felicity Plunketton Belinda Castles

The archeology of memory: Hannah and Emil

In John Banville’s novel The Sea (2005), the narrator Max Morden speaks mockingly of ‘memory’s prodigious memory’. In The Sea, and throughout Banville’s work, the question recurs: what can we make of memory, and how do we create narratives from its multifarious skeins? How do we illuminate the past, which can feel, as Morden observes, as though it ‘beats inside … like a second heart’? As well as being prodigious, memory is evasive and unreliable. What is remembered and preserved exists in tension with what is forgotten or occluded, the former often patched and smoothed to conceal these elisions.

Belinda Castles’ Hannah and Emil is prefaced by the story of Flora, a newly-pregnant Sydneysider. Flora receives a parcel containing a bequest in the form of her grandmother Hannah’s battered suitcase. It is filled with objects and a ‘mess of loose, crumpled papers, photographs’. The contents literalise Freud’s archeological metaphors for memory, which imagine explorers arriving in unfamiliar regions to discover and interpret the remnants of buildings, columns and inscriptions, or the imprints of traumatic experience cleared away, layer by layer, like excavation.

Flora finds herself extracting known and mysterious objects from this suitcase of memories. One of these, a miniature globe, bears unknown initials, but rests in her hand as though familiar in some deeper way. Paul Auster writes in his memoir The Invention of Solitude (1982) about a similar moment, sifting through the possessions of his deceased father: ‘the objects of a dead man … are there and yet not there: tangible ghosts, condemned to survive in a world they no longer belong to.’ While Flora has a momentary sense that the objects in the suitcase ‘give off a light of their own, and a heat’, it is their silence she responds to, and the invitation it creates: ‘Any life in them was a life she imagined.’

Hannah has been a translator and describes translation as ‘a form of writing. You are making something quite new.’ Flora’s most profound inheritance is this capacity for translation. The novel is framed as her inscription of objects, memories and written materials into narrative. At the end of the novel, Hannah imagines addressing her then-one-year-old granddaughter, presumably Flora, and giving her ‘half a story, the half that is mine to give’. In this daydream, she tells the child: ‘Of the rest, make what you will’. Castles’ acknowledgements suggest a further framing. The novel is based on her grandparents’ story. She is the same age as Flora, so that the imagined scene between Hannah and her granddaughter enacts a fantasy in which the older woman gives the child and writer permission to create a story from what is remembered.

Flora recedes from the novel after the preface, and only reappears in this imagined transaction dramatising Hannah’s bequest. After the preface, Castles interleaves the stories of her grandparents. Hannah’s is a first person recollection; Emil is depicted from beyond in a third person narrative. This places the narratives slightly at odds, which enriches their interplay, suggesting the variance of shared memories. Castles’ framing of the novel in Flora’s present peels away key elements that would provide suspense in a more conventional version of these woven stories. From Flora, we know that Hannah and Emil become a couple and produce children. We know, in broad terms, that they survive their wartime experiences. This shifts the focus from the facts of their story to its telling and to the operations of memory and writing: how Flora imagines or translates her grandparents’ lives, and how the objects that remain of them might be both mute and eloquent in turn.

In Castles’ exploration of memory’s landscapes, water recurs as a symbol of dissolution and learning. As a young child, Emil is carried away by the currents of a river, believing he can swim because he has observed others swimming. Swept along, faster than his friend can run along the bank, he exults in the powers of belief and speed. Hannah, later, watches herself in a mirror of water before she is pushed into it by her brothers, ‘tumbling, flailing sideways into the cold water in an inelegant, stinging crash’. While these twin images are suggestive of the ways that events beyond them will direct their lives, they also evoke moments of childhood and adolescent joy. Hannah thinks of years ‘tipped into the dark sea, irretrievable’. From this time of stress and exhaustion, she remembers only ‘bits and bobs clinging to the slippery deck’.

These images suggest Castles’ capacity to use the figurative – rather than the facts of plot progression – to power her novel. She is interested in various form of shattering and breaking that reveal what a person contains. Hannah, as a nascent writer, dreams that ‘the nib of [her] pen would break open the skin of the world’. Emil, attacked as he protests against the rise of fascism, thinks: ‘The inside of a man was wet and glittering, dark.’ He notices the universality of ‘what comes out of men when they [are] opened’. Later, his experiences push him into enclosure, even within his marriage to Hannah.

Hannah is ‘stout-hearted, indefatigable’. She is energetic and precocious, rewarded by her father for her academic successes, and anxious to become an adult. She glimpses her neighbour, a writer, working at her desk in the evenings. The idea of becoming ‘a woman typing by lamplight’ lodges in her imagination, like the writing woman observed by some of the children in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931). Yet when Hannah’s neighbour gives her the desk, she can only imagine mobility in literal ways, desperate as she is to be ‘out in the world’ and ‘on her way’. It is this restlessness that takes her, eventually, to Germany.

Hannah’s English upbringing is loving and free, albeit haunted by the family’s occluded Jewishness; Emil’s experience is darkened by Germany’s political violence. His father is politically engaged, fighting on behalf of workers, and Emil, who is only able to attend school after his friend gives him shoes his family cannot afford, is immediately singled out by a bullying teacher, paraded as ‘a socialist boy from a socialist family’. The teacher tells his class that ‘they are not like us’, words Emil will face throughout his life and which suggest a burgeoning xenophobia. As Nazism begins to surge through Germany, Emil’s resistance has violent consequences.

The novel’s title promises to unite its protagonists, and each narrative sweep brings their meeting closer. Once they meet, though, and experience the charge and force of connection – ‘a little shock, travelling instantly through my entire body. A recognition that we were somehow of the same kind’ – Castles skips forward several years to depict the couple living in England. When Hannah and Emil meet, Emil is unhappily married to Ava, with whom he has a son, Hans. Castles avoids the complications of this triangle at this stage, bringing them into focus later, when Emil urges Hannah to bring Ava and Hans to England where he hopes to save them from the worst of the war. In avoiding the clichés of the romance narrative’s triangle, Castles is able to look closely at the ambiguous dynamics in their relationships. Hannah’s sense of justice and her love for Emil make her generously inclined towards Ava.

The cover of Hannah and Emil, with its stock image of a laughing couple, does not do justice to the novel’s psychological depth. Given the illness and trauma Emil experiences, the carefree image does not match the couple evoked in its pages. Castles celebrates Hannah’s sturdiness and lack of vanity, but the cover’s glamorous woman suggests something more conventional. This relates to a trend in publishing to market ‘women’s novels’ – and I would imagine this one was pitched in that direction – as relatively frothy. This, of course, forgets the fact that a majority of all fiction titles – including those by men – are read by women, not to mention the multifarious tastes of women readers. Arguably the ideal reader, to extrapolate from Virginia Woolf’s thesis about the androgyny of the writerly mind, enjoys an openness, a readerly androgyny.

The Australian’s literary editor Stephen Romei has commented on the packaging of John Banville’s Ancient Light (2012) and Ian McEwan’s, Sweet Tooth (2012) in similar terms, suggesting that ‘they wouldn’t look out of place alongside Fifty Shades of Grey’ (2011). Ancient Light’s cover image is remarkably similar to that of Hannah and Emil, depicting a similar kind of embrace at a similar moment in history, as though this kind of rapturous half-waltzing stance were typical of the era. I wonder whether this representation of wartime romance is itself a way of forgetting war’s realities; I wonder, too, about the effects of such a cover on a novel’s critical reception, short-listings and awards. The Australian edition of Anna Funder’s All That I Am (2011), a novel to which Castles’ is likely to be compared, avoids such packaging. Funder’s success is evidence that a novel can enjoy wide appeal and be taken seriously.

Any such rapturous embrace Hannah and Emil enjoy comes after struggle, illness and violence. A number of paradoxes exacerbate Emil’s suffering; other chance occurrences ameliorate them. In England, as a refugee fearing reprisals for his resistance to Nazism, he is interned as an alien when the war begins. He is assumed by many to be a Nazi sympathiser or spy. Later, he is disappointed when he narrowly misses catching the Arandora Star to Canada. That boat sinks, and Emil finds himself on board the Dunera, bound for Australia, something the passengers only discover when a compass shows that they are heading south, not west. The Dunera contained as many Nazis as Jewish refugees, along with Italian Prisoners of War, many of whom were also Nazi sympathisers. Castles depicts the appalling conditions on board and Emil’s ensuing illness. When Hannah follows her lover to Hay where he is interred, she is only allowed to see him weekly, under the supervision of Australian soldiers. Although the couple is eventually reunited, by this time Emil, despite his resilience, is grey and drained.

Hannah and Emil is concerned with what Marianne Hirsh has called postmemory. Hirsh has probed and redefined the term since coining it while writing about Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize-winning pair of graphic novels, Maus (1991). It refers to the effects of traumatic experience on subsequent generations of survivors and to the idea of collective remembering, the idea that memories may somehow be transmitted from generation to generation.

Historiographic metafiction, to use Linda Hutcheon’s term, combines the precision of fact with the imaginings of fiction. One variety explores the elisions, imaginings and freight of postmemory. In Castles’ case, the inheritance appears to be less of trauma than a story fascinating for its silences. At several points in the novel, these silences create spaces in the writing. In Hannah’s later journals gaps appear as she begins to lose her words. Flora wonders: ‘Did she write faster against the spreading gaps?’ Perhaps this is another part of Flora’s inheritance, inventing a narrative as silences encroach on facts. In another instance, a letter from Emil to Hannah has been ambivalently censored. In a long passage almost entirely blacked-out, the censor, has left three words: ‘fondness, missing, empty’. This tender gesture by the censor preserves the heart of Emil’s message of love, even as it destroys its details.

Castles’ novel, like the censor’s gesture, attempts to recuperate a lost narrative. Writing about New York’s past, James Atlas has suggested that history ‘is a series of random events organised in a seemingly sensible order. We experience it as chronology, with ourselves at the end point … a culmination of events that leads to the very moment in which we happen to live.’ Castles’ novel re-imagines the particular series of random events that have lead to her contemplation of the occlusions and connections receding before her.