NOVEMBER 12, 2019
BORN IN ANTWERP, BELGIUM, in 1926, Oscar Mandel came to the United States with his parents 13 years later. During his long life he has written in a variety of genres and in several languages, but has received little attention from critics.
Little wonder, then, that in the present collection’s epilogue, “Thoughts of a Melancholy Nonagenarian,” Mandel confides that he “will not even be forgotten,” because there will be nothing to forget. No one knows who he is. So he says. And yet, almost as if he couldn’t help it, Mandel exclaims that there is always a possibility: “I could be, I might be, one almost miraculously exceptional instance of a writer destined to endure who has remained, over a long, active life, a blank.” Then, drawing from a well of wry humor, Mandel lists seven reasons for his present status as a “blank.”
1: Bad luck. Publishers go out of business just before his books are scheduled to appear.
2: “Living in remote Los Angeles,” where Mandel taught English at Caltech for 40 years. This seems a little strained. Perhaps he is joking. Many writers have attained fame in Southern California.
3: Weak connections, the failure to make friends with the “right people in the right places.”
4: Too many writers, too many books. “In our times mere unaided quality will easily sink in the flood.”
5: “Dispersal of efforts.” Perhaps he has written in too many literary modes to earn a convenient title, or label, among reviewers: novelist, poet, playwright. This seems possible, but what could he have done? As this collection shows, it’s in his nature to try different forms. He couldn’t have done otherwise. The present volume contains two stories, a play, 20 poems, and six essays.
6: Being out of step with the “culture of our times,” its brutal fiction and slouchy poetry. This may well be so, but again: what could he have done about it?
7: Being “essentially a cheerful writer,” which “snubs our high culture.” Here I object: I’m not sure that Mandel is essentially cheerful.
The upshot of all these bad breaks is that too few have been acquainted with Mandel’s writing to offer it a fair chance of survival. But is there really no hope? Maybe it all goes back to luck. A reader picks up a book — attracted, perhaps, by its cover — and is surprised and pleased by what she finds. She tells a friend, “You should read this,” or even, “You must read this.” This person tells another who tells another and so on. Some critic or professor may even choose to write an article or a dissertation about the book and the other books of the former “blank,” who is thus perpetuated.
Let me play the part of that initial reader. What do I find in Last Pages that might make me want to tell my friend, “Here, you should read this”? To this question there are several answers — as one would expect, given Mandel’s range — but perhaps they can be summed up in two adjectives: witty and grim. The combination of these qualities is reflected in the book’s cover, which pictures a smiling countryman and a human skeleton dancing together.
There is wit even in the melancholy nonagenarian’s epilogue. There is abundant wit in the play, The Fatal French Dentist: A Heart-Rending Tragedy. It is, of course, a comedy. A couple, Bill and Mary Foot, are enjoying a quiet evening together until several other couples, all also named Bill and Mary, begin rushing in and out of the Foot home. These people detest one another, but pretend to be bosom friends, torturing themselves by following the social rules that govern the roles of host and guest. As the play begins, Bill Foot is taking a newspaper quiz called “Are You Socially Acceptable?” He never gets to finish it. And the French dentist, an honored guest, unlike everyone else, never appears. And why is he “fatal”? Make of that little bit of darkness what you will.
The two stories are, respectively, works of historical fiction and fantasy. In the first, “Two Gentlemen of Nantucket: A Romantic Episode of the American Revolution,” the spy Aimée laughs at Loyalists and Patriots alike and looks out only for herself and her daughter. Not the usual stuff of tales of that era, and there is something chilling in it. “Wickedness,” the other story, takes place in and around a supposed medieval castle. Its inhabitants are terrified by an evil unicorn that stabs other creatures with its horn. A comical idea, but piquantly grotesque, too.
Yes, although Mandel describes himself as essentially cheerful, he is not always so. He can be profoundly serious, especially in his poetry, which is masterful. For example:
My Cousin Stella
(shot in Poland in 1944)
I am walking, fed and tranquil, book in hand.
Near a broken wall
a girl lies on the ground
half her face blown out and both her eyes dead open
like two bulbs gone out.
She asks, “Is that the ledger of our blood?”
And I: “It is the tale of Aucassin and Nicolette,
a mild small book
of decent merriment
and songs between
like poppies in a field.”
She says: “Bullets made me what I am,
bullets struck me running in the field.”
I kiss the crust of blood
then the lady spoke saying
I am Nicolette your dearest
returned from distant lands to
“Howl the world sick
womb howl throat howl howl!”
And nothing else
save, shock on shock, there, where she fell,
a shameless wheat pushing against the crow.
This jarring text, composed by a man of 92 years, speaks for itself. I would urge this upon anyone who is able to read. It should survive the poet. It will, if I have anything to say about it. Other poems among the 20 are of the same caliber.
A play, stories, poems — all touched upon. There remain the six essays. Their common element, as I see it, is Mandel’s insistence that language should always be based on the report of the senses. Thus, in the essay “Concerning Imbecility,” he describes language as by its nature “the carrier of information verifiable by eyes, ears, touch, and smell” — in short, of what is happening out there. The titular “imbecility” is the notion that language is so innately “ambiguous” and “muddled” that it can’t carry anything. Here he has the poststructuralists in mind. Elsewhere he points to an even more consequential — indeed, fatal — error.
The error is inherent in the infinitive “to be,” “a mischief-maker if ever words made mischief in the world.” It often leads us to mistake the permanent (e.g., “I am a human”) with the impermanent (e.g., “I am angry”). This has happened in the case of the European Jews, as he explains in the disturbing “To Be or Not to Be a Jew.” And this you should read, although you may not enjoy the experience.
In his distant Belgian youth, Mandel relates, he found the Judaism of his parents oppressive and ritual-bound; it’s apparent from this essay that he has never changed his mind. Therefore he asserts, “I choose not to be a Jew.” He can say this and have it mean something because he “recognize[s] no innate and ineradicable Jewishness in [him]self,” or in anyone else. To say that a man born of Jewish parents remains a Jew despite any choice he may make about his identity is to confuse the permanent with the impermanent. It is, moreover, a relatively recent confusion. Europe’s history contains legions of Jews who converted; the former Jews of Spain are one example given by Mandel, who seems unimpressed by the fact that they were forced to turn Christian.
In the past, then, the word “Jew” did not refer to a permanent condition. One could “unjew” oneself, or another could do it for you, whether you liked it or not. But in recent times, it has been different: once a Jew always a Jew. This is something, says Mandel, that today’s Jews themselves mistakenly believe, because they “cannot bear to see the roster of their community depleted.” This is a serious error, but “what is singularly terrifying is the fact that Nazi and Jewish fanaticism joined hands across the mass grave to agree that a person’s Jewishness is ‘in the blood.’” This would strike most people as outrageous. But did the European Jews do anything to bring that horror down upon themselves?
They did. They insisted on being Jews. That is Mandel’s answer. He is most aroused by the fatal error of the 19th century’s enlightened Jews, the Rothschild class. They were well housed and clad, well educated and socially adept, but they chose to remain Jews nonetheless, claiming kinship with the less accomplished members of their “race.” Did this signify to the racists that a Jew is always a Jew, no matter how he lives and acts? Mandel thinks so. I think so.
Then, in a kind of thought experiment, Mandel asks us to imagine that all the Jews had converted in the fourth century under Constantine the Great, merging thereafter with the gentile population of Europe. No Jews, no Holocaust. Yes — but is it not remarkable that Jews have survived so much horror? I hope Mandel thinks so, but he doesn’t say. Clearly he is no supporter of Israel, where he sees “too many corpses, too much misery.”
And what of the Jews’ contribution to civilization? Now imagine what our world would be like if all the Jewish scientists and artists had never lived. That this would be a grievous loss, no one could doubt. Certainly Mandel does not. In fact, if anything, he overstates, postulating an “astonishing flood of the products of the Jewish mind and hand without which world history since the age of Napoleon is hard to imagine.” This passionate, important essay (which bears no trace of the “cheerful” writer of the epilogue) reaches its highest pitch with the following questions: “If I abolish the gas chambers, will you let me baptize the Jews of the Roman Empire? Let the Jewish contribution to our culture be as magnificent as you choose it to be, are you willing to pay the ghastly price?” Mandel is not.
A former professor of English, Jake Fuchs has written scholarly books, short fiction, two satiric mysteries (Death of a Dad: The Nursery School Murders  and Death of a Prof: The Nursery School Murders II ), a send-up of academe (Welcome, Scholar ), and the semi-autobiographical novel Conrad in Beverly Hills (2010).