Raymond Federman is one of those authors whose personal story is equally as fascinating as anything most writers come up with. It’s so interesting that Federman uses it as the basic of most of his own writing, with one caveat: Federman insists that he cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality. So, this Federman who is the hero of all the novels … is he the real Federman, an embellished Federman, based on Federman, Federman-like, what Federman wishes Federman was, just a horny French Jew who tells a lot of stories?
The reality is that Raymond Federman grew up in Paris as a very recognizable Jew (he calls attention to his nose constantly) until the Nazis marched into Paris and he was initially hidden and eventually smuggled to the relative safety of Vichy France. His family—mother, father, and two sisters—stayed behind and went to their deaths in the Nazi camps. Raymond, of course, did not know the fate of his family and expected to be reunited with them in Paris after the end of the conflict.
Federman’s novel, Return To Manure, tells the story of his three years working on a farm in the south of France.
There are an awful lot of them. There really are huge numbers of dead. Seven million Jews have been exterminated—transported in cattle cars, the gassed in specially built gas chambers, then burned in specially built ovens. In Paris, people don’t talk about the Jews yet. Their infants were handed over to female officials responsible for the strangling of Jewish babies and experts in the art of killing by applying pressure on the carotid arteries. They smile and say it’s painless. This new face of death that has been discovered in Germany—organized, rationalized—produces bewilderment before it arouses indignation. You’re amazed. How can anyone still be a German? You look for parallels elsewhere and in other times, but there aren’t any.
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth is a big book but fairly easy reading. It is about an immigrant family in New York around the turn of the last century. It focuses on the young son but the mother, father, and extended family are also important in reflecting the period and the Jewish heritage. I enjoyed reading Call It Sleep so much I searched around the State Library System and found a copy of Roth’s much later work, Mercy of a Rude Stream.
My pleasant experience reading this novel was strange for two reasons: first, the dialogue was just what you’d expect from immigrant persons with little education tossed into the strange melting pot of America, and New York in particular, and second, this was a direct narrative without many of the rudimentary nuances of modernism. My usual fare is more involved with multi-layered narratives, time-skipping, bodily fluids, lack of punctuation, and willing dispensation of belief … but Roth made the traditional novel work for me. (There were small elements of stream-of-consciousness and similar narrative techniques but I saw them as inherent in the narrative and not chosen for their literariness).