I recently spoke with Dave Gorin, a book reviewer in South Africa who in April 2018 wrote an insightful (and somewhat critical) review of Australian romance writer Heather Morris’s now-controversial Holocaust novel “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.”
In his book review, Gorin said: ”Very few writers can adequately convey the scale of suffering in the Holocaust, or what it meant to those who survived. Perhaps the most articulate, Auschwitz survivor and author Primo Levi, also warned against searching for redemptive human qualities in the quagmire of hell, because survival is often feral and instinctive, not heroic.”
You can read his full review here.
In a series of recent email chats just the other day with Mr Gorin, asked him if he could say a few more things about his insights into Morris’ novel. He readily agreed, but first he asked me if I could start my subsequent blog post off with this quote below.
It’s an extract from the introduction to a brilliant WW1 non-fiction book by Max Hastings, titled ”Catastrophe.”
”It neatly sums up why — crazy distortions and all — ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ may nevertheless contribute in some way to remembrance and ongoing acknowledgement of past horrors,” Gorin told me. And it’s true, as many commentators have said, despite its many inaccuracies about life in the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz in the 1940s, the very fact the Morris’ book has become a global bestseller, shifting over 1 million copies in a dozen languages, means that an entire new generation of people will have learned some new things about the Holocaust. So the novel has served a purpose, even as if it also served as a literary flop.
Max Hastings was writing here about the complexities of understanding and interpreting history, Gorin told me, quoting from the introduction:
“My generation of students eagerly devoured Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 best-seller ‘August 1914’. It came as a shock, a few years later, to hear an academic historian dismiss her book as ‘hopelessly unscholarly’. It…nonetheless…retains the unembarrassed affection of many admirers, myself included, in whom it contributed significantly to stimulating a passion for the past”.
So, yes, I agree: perhaps Morris’ hot potato of a bestseller was hopelessly unscholarly, while also retaining the glowing affection of its many female admirers, in whom the breezy novel has contributed significantly to stimulating a passion for learning more about the Holocaust.So there is a positive side to this ongoing controversy.
Now back to my email chat with Mr Gorin about the novel and his review back in April.
“When I was reading the novel for my book review in April 2018, I worked out quite quickly that Morris’ interviews with Lali were irrelevant, almost, to the narrative,” Gorin told me. “I mean, whether you call them ‘interviews’ or ‘chats’, someone aged 87-90 cannot possibly recall details, or even time-frames. I don’t mean that unkindly, it’s just the nature of memory, and it’s not especially unique to old people. Memory distorts — we ‘think’ we remember clearly, but it’s our own narrative of the reality we have experienced. And, admittedly in my limited understanding of psychology, the mind copes with traumatic events (especially sustained trauma) by soothing or ‘flexing’ reality. Or, in the case of people with perhaps larger egos, amplifying heroism…although I’m not saying that’s the case here. So, in my view, Morris definitely ‘massaged’ the memory of her star witness, and whether she did that deliberately or naively, only she knows.”
I asked Mr Gorin: “Her book, like any other novel set in the Holocaust, can be flawed. What are the major flaws in your opinion?”
“In general, I think the flaws in many novels which use the Holocaust as a setting — especially, obviously, those set directly within the death-camps — is a distortion of the reality of the time,” Gorin told me. “You can see this so clearly in the first chapter of Morris’s book. It’s not even in what she describes — it’s in the style! I found it cringe-inducing, in the sense that she writes like a Mills and Boon romance author. I had to gulp, and then for the sake of my review, just keep going. I think a novelist has to try to understand the setting she chooses, and when there’s a disconnect, the novel simply can’t work. ”
He added: “More specifically, in this book, she lacks both historical understanding, and the self-awareness, to appreciate the profundity of the setting. In a way — which I think is your perspective, Danny, and that of perhaps her vehement critics — it’s an appalling intrusion to even try to write something without the requisite knowledge and awareness. I am not quite so appalled, in a way I feel it’s important to keep the next generation interested in this part of history, so if the price is a romanticized and sanitized version, well, perhaps that’s better than the Holocaust disappearing from millennials’ and Gen-Z’s radars. Where I do get annoyed is the extent of her self-enrichment, if that’s happening (and I don’t know if it is).”
I then asked if Lali Sokolov’s ”nine lives” in the storyline plot added useful and truthful drama for modern-day readers, so many years after the end of the Holocaust.
Dave replied: ”Yes, these are examples of the ‘fictionalization’ or ‘Hollywood distortion’ of the story which, per above, are either disgusting or sigh-inducing, depending on one’s perspective. Morris would argue that all historical fiction manufactures moments of ‘fantasy’ within the setting, so she’s entitled to imagine a story within the setting.”
I asked Dave about this, too: ”Morris takes the narrative to absurd levels in describing a football match between SS guards and inmates. Sokolov may have told her of matches — there was a soccer field near Crematorium 3 that was used by British POWs imprisoned separately from the main Auschwitz complex but according to the Holocaust experts in Poland and elsewhere matches between inmates and SS guards were impossible. It’s impossible to imagine games between SS guards and the emaciated prisoners they regarded as subhuman and with whom contact was shunned, no?”
Mr Gorin replied: ”I pondered this one a lot. I was gobsmacked at the naivety of that passage in the novel. I spent a fair amount of time Google-ing whether it could possibly have been true. I’ve studied WW2 history a fair bit, and I was aware of football games between prisoner groups, but only POWs. To me, this was the most stupid part of the book, and Morris most clearly laid bare her lack of knowledge and respect for the setting.”
I asked Dave to comment about these observations too, where he wrote in his review: ”A scene where Lali and Gita furtively make love is described in the terms of a romance novel. Their conversations comprise cliched, surreal, Hollywood dialogue.”
I told Dave that from my online observations many (thousands of) female readers wrote very positive and glowing online reviews where said they said they choked up and cried when they read this part of the book, where Morris wrote: “Lale sweeps Gita up into his arms and kisses her.”
Gorin’s response to my question was well put.
“We are left with a narrative shell, an outline of a man’s incredible survival that has the textbook context of Auschwitz but not the intuitive sensibility of its hellfire horrors and torments, nor the complex emotions of those pulled from the brink of the abyss.”
He added: “Ultimately Mrs. Morris should have tried her hand at being a Mills and Boon writer. She would have been good at it. (I don’t know what her screenplays are like, and after reading her novel I have no interest in reading anything else by her.) Per my other answers above, I think I’m a bit more accepting or philosophical about this than you are, Danny. Lying is never morally good…or could it be, if it serves a higher purpose, in this case raising awareness (albeit a distorted one) of the Holocaust? I suppose the Australian editor and publisher saw the prospect of a financial windfall…this is what pisses me off. Some portion of the profits should go to an appropriate charity or Holocaust foundation, morally. But I am too cynical of the ways of the world to expect that.”
My last question that I put to Mr Gorin was this: “You end your book review with this sentence: ‘Unfortunately, this novel goes only skin-deep.’ So then why do you think the novel has become such a global bestseller with 90 percent female readers and only 10 percent male readers?”
Mr Gorin replied: ”Sheer ignorance. The modern world. Social media has dumbed down the literary and cultural environment. Women love an impossible romance. The influence of the royal wedding. Good marketing. Tattoos are now very popular, almost everyone aged 18-35 has one (so the cover title grabbed people!) Take your pick — or all of the above.”