Posthumous tales and essays from, as Saul Bellow says, “a born story-spinner” (1922–73).
“Transformations” is the centerpiece novella of this highly autobiographical collection: David Gordon is born to the world when the bombs begin to fall on Poland in 1939. He starts as a soldier, but it’s not long before he winds up in the Warsaw ghetto, working as a teacher. At first, things aren’t so bad here: he discovers books, Conrad especially, and, since he is a young man, he needs to be told that the world hates Jews. Still, David is ambitious and hopes to write a book someday worthy of the many philosophers he is taking in even as the world sinks deeper and deeper into chaos. Eventually, it becomes clear that life as a Jew holds little in the way of a future, so David steals a set of identity papers and becomes Wladyslaw Grabowski, volunteering to work on merchant ships in Germany. The new Grabowski is a hardworking, gambling sailor who occasionally feels guilt over his escape: “How annoying that the ghost of David Gordon, so thoroughly disposed of in far-off Warsaw, was hovering around, reminding him . . . that he was not supposed to survive the war.” But he enters his new life easily enough, whoring his way through Europe and encountering others who have escaped as he has. Grabowski spends the war this way, planning his escape by boat and, meanwhile, purchasing his relationships and denying both his old self and his guilt. Auerbach’s prose has a raw, spare quality that is both the best and worst aspect of the collection—and the subsequent pieces that make up the volume are as much about the writing of “Transformations” as they are new text: “A literary friend of mine offered me a critical evaluation of these images. He told me I’d written a statement, not a story or an essay.”
A picaresque that probably should have been autobiography.