Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2020

Max, by Alex Miller

Max, by Alex Miller, is the poignant account of the author’s quest to discover the truth about a man who thought his life was futile.  It is, as the blurb says:

An astonishing, moving tribute to Alex’s friend, Max Blatt, that is at once a meditation on memory itself, on friendship and a reminder to the reader that history belongs to humanity

Max Blatt was the husband of Ruth Blatt, who was a friend of my mother’s.  She went to Ruth for private lessons in German, but she never mentioned Max, and now I know why.  Max was a solitary man, who would have absented himself when my mother arrived for her lessons.  I also know now that Ruth was the breadwinner in the family because decades after WW2, Max suffered from poor health as a result of torture at the hands of the Germans. He had been a member of a German Resistance group, and they had tortured him for weeks.

The book begins with Miller’s surprising admission that he did not go to the funeral of this dear friend.  At the time of Max’s death back in 1981, Miller was teaching and working in theatre, and he was ashamed to admit that he had failed to live up to Max’s belief in his future as an author.  Rather than admit to his three failed attempts at novels, Miller stayed out of the way of his best friend and confidante, and two years went by before Ruth rang to tell him that Max had died.  She was hurt by Miller’s absence at the funeral, and by his failure to explain himself.  Guilt has obviously gnawed away at him ever since.

Decades passed, but when the opportunity to visit Berlin arose, it became a catalyst for the quest to find out about the parts of Max’s life that had never been revealed, concealed within a deep silence that he broke only rarely.  He wanted to write about Max, a man who was very important to him, but he did not want to write fiction, he wanted to write the truth of his life.  In this context, it’s impossible to forget the novelised version of Ruth Blatt’s life, fictionalised as Ruth Becker in Anna Funder’s All That I Am…

The sections of this book are named as Fragments rather than chapters, and in Fragment 14, he has this to say:

[Max’s] story is a scatter of such broken shards.  That is its nature.  Almost its central truth.  It is a ruined house.  Liked the bombed-out houses of my childhood after the war.  The pieces were violently blown apart, many of them ground to dust.  To fill in the gaps with the imagination, as if all the pieces could still be located by imagining them, to write as if nothing of value was lost, and lost forever, would be to deny the tragedy of his story.  It would be to miss the truth of his times, when many of the most beautiful things were lost, and truth itself was lost.  Some things can never be retrieved. (p.145)

But there are different kinds of truth:

It is my belief that shared family myths are important and have a way of persisting and nurturing us despite what might come to seem to us in later life to be their lack of objective truth. […] Something called objective truth is not always achievable, and informed speculation […] remains critical to the historian’s ability to present us with an understanding of the subject. Often our shared family myths, which arise from this informed speculation, embody a private, even a poetic truth for us that can never be found in the official prose of government documents and scholarly articles. Our emotional investment in the results of our research can never carry the same quality of intimacy for us as that carried in stories we received from our parents during our childhood years.  (p.170)

And so, as fragments of Max’s life and the fate of his family are discovered, most of it through unexpected chance encounters, and much of it still unclear, Miller comes to believe that there is a moral imperative in the kind of truth-telling that he wants to do in homage to his friend:

The uncertainty surrounding all these undocumented events has naturally created an array of plausible possibilities.  Some aspect of each of these accounts may be true, but no one is clear about exactly what happened.  Family mythologies are critical to all of us and without doubt contain a sense of our own private truth.  It is this sense of the truth—in this case, the fact that they were all murdered by the Nazis at a time of terror, confusion and chaos—that remains beyond dispute.  Their dreams were lost. Their lives were torn apart in the most brutal way.  The impossibility of ever piecing together the precise facts with any certainty from such an event is itself a sacred testimony to the shattered nature of their lives.  To invent from these scattered shards a detailed account might be to create an entertaining fiction, but it would be a betrayal of the murdered ones and their more terrible truth. And it is this terrible truth that must be remembered, or there can be no justice for them in our remembering. (p.175)

These assertions about truth and imagination in stories of the Holocaust bring to mind the different ways in which life stories can be told.  Guided by Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust (1999), I have read and reviewed many memoirs and factual accounts of the Holocaust by survivors but I’ve also read creative non-fiction.  Writing teacher Mairi Neil in her review of Ros Collins’ Rosa, Memories with Licence (which is not a Holocaust story but rather an exploration of Jewish identity) talked about the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased. Sue at Whispering Gums, reviewing the same book, discussed how writing at a distance in the third person enables an author to guess about relationships, and quotes this excerpt from the introduction:

Rosa is much more personal [than her previous family history book, Solly’s girl] – and freely written – and I have taken liberties with the truth. Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say. Memories with licence.

It does, as Sue says, ring true.  It is, it seems to me, the kind of poetic truth that Miller thinks is important. As is Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt. As I said in my review,

…his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, he also faced the question of an unknowable past, and he has also, as an act of defiance and homage, refused to let that past fade away.  Instead, Presser has used as a literary device the ancient Jewish golem, a clay creature magically brought to life with words – so that his grandparents’ lives can be told.

Fictionalising the lives of survivors to dramatise them, is a different matter.  I am appalled by authors milking the Holocaust to write romanticised filmic bestsellers, yet I think there can be a place for a new generation of authors to write about aspects of the Holocaust with respect, sensitivity and authenticity.  A Boy in Winter by German author Rachel Seiffert is a good example of a novel which explores the ways in which ordinary people grapple with what’s right and wrong when they are caught up in the tide of events. Her Booker nominated debut The Dark Room, was a powerful trio of novellas that tackled the moral responsibility of ordinary Germans under the Third Reich. But these novels, and others like them, are not based on real lives, except in the way that all novels are all based on composites of real lives.

That these musings of mine were triggered by Miller’s story of his friend are just a taste of the riches of this book.   The most sobering aspect of it is that, thanks to the world wide web and our interconnected world, Miller was able to learn the fate of Max’s parents and siblings.  Max could not save them, and he died without ever knowing what had happened to them.

Author: Alex Miller
Title: Max
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760878160, pbk., 262 pages including two sets of colour photo inserts, Acknowledgements, Sources and Notes. RRP $29.99
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Available from Fishpond: Max, direct from Allen & Unwin, or your local indie bookshop.

 


Responses

  1. That must be interesting, to have a personal connection like that to a book, I’m pleased when the suburbs in a novel are familiar. I haven’t read Miller, or any of the books you mention – though I must get on to the Clendinnen, as you said yesterday. It seems Miller has found a sensitive way to approach a difficult subject, as in his lines: To invent from these scattered shards a detailed account might be to create an entertaining fiction, but it would be a betrayal of the murdered ones and their more terrible truth.

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    • LOL Bill, it is a rather weak connection… I never met Ruth Blatt though my mother spoke highly of her.

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  2. It’s on my to read list; I love Alex Miller’s writing.
    Your comments about truth and imagination remind me of your review in April of ‘The Unsung Family Hero’ – “It’s not a memoir, and it’s not a history and it’s not a conventional biography: it’s an engrossing adventure story framed by the real-life occupation of Holland by the Nazis”.

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    • Yes, I thought of that one too, and so many others. We need a new word for them… I dislike the expression creative non-fiction, it’s an oxymoron.
      BTW by coincidence this popped up in my Twitter feed today: ‘It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth’ Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian. I think this is especially true in totalitarian countries: I’ve read Chinese and Soviet fiction that has scraped past the censor to tell a ‘poetic truth’ about what’s going on…
      Which reminds me, I must read The Silence of the Sea, which was an underground novel published in France during WW2…

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  3. Interesting story. I agree re: remarks about milking the holocaust. I only read non fiction about the holocaust as I can’t bear fiction about such horrible events by people who weren’t there. (BTW…..I am picking up my copy Monday in town of Flanagan’s latest book. He spent the morning today signing copies of it for people at Town Hall. I think it’s too jmportant to not read.)

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    • I listened to Flanagan on RN’s Conversations, about how and why he wrote it. I would so love to meet him in person… I would have been pushing my way to the front of the queue at the book signing! (In a ladylike way, of course…)

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  4. Thanks for the link Lisa, and for the discussion about “truth”. Interesting that a novelist thinks he couldn’t convey the truth of his life via fiction, but I do understand why, in this case. He has something specific he wants to do.

    Also, although he’s writing non-fiction, you can see the novelist in the writing. How beautiful it is.

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  5. BTW I also love his perspective on family truths: “It is my belief that shared family myths are important and have a way of persisting and nurturing us despite what might come to seem to us in later life to be their lack of objective truth”.

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  6. LOL I think it depends. People generally don’t mind having convict ancestors these days, but they’re not usually so keen to have disreputable ancestors from more recent times. Miller himself goes through a bit of a crisis when it occurs to him that this man who was his hero, might have been evasive about his past because he did something morally wrong.

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  7. I’ve just chased up Allen & Unwin about this as I was expecting a review copy weeks ago but it appears to be lost in the post. If Miller’s non- fiction is as anywhere as truthful and insightful as his fiction, I will be in for a treat. I have only skimmed your review and will come back to it when I’ve actually read the book.

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    • I’ve just checked, I received mine on September 15th, so if they sent yours out at about the same time, then yours is well overdue.
      I look forward to seeing what you think of it:)

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      • I requested a copy on 16 AUGUST and i’ve just been told I was the first one to request it 😊but it has definitely been lost in post so a new one has been promised. I’m still waiting for the new Flanagan to arrive. It was supposed to come last week but never turned up 🤷🏻‍♀️

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        • Ouch, that sounds a bit ominous.
          But LOL someone’s records are not quite right at A&U because I’ve just checked my One Note records, and I emailed my request for Max on August 11th…
          Maybe something to do with them working from home, or working part time and not being at the desk every day?

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  8. […] Max, by Alex Miller […]

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