When I finished reading Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles I wanted something similar to read. Comedy is hard to find in literature because it is either horribly awkward, falls flat or is only found in genre fiction – the latter of which I have no issue with, but comedy in real life scenarios can work very well. I was very lucky then when Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander fell through my door as it easily fits the bill.
In the same vein as Car of Wooden Floors, Hope is a farcical comedy, though that’s probably where the similarity ends. This isn’t a “literary” novel, but it could be seen as contemporary fiction. The sentences are clipped and simple, often brusque. Auslander uses his writing much like a stand-up comedian, feeding you several longer sentences and then delivering the punch line in a small handful of words.
This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, but it is certainly not for the faint hearted or easily offended. When judging the book on its blurb you may think the book is about a man who moves into the country and is fearful as an arsonist attacks farmhouses in the area similar to his own. However it is really about a Jewish man called Solomon Kugel whose life is ruled by anxiety and while he is certainly scared of the arsonist, he is more worried when he finds Anne Frank living in his attic.
We are all mankind a story, collectively and individually, and Kugel didn’t want his individual story to end in an ellipsis. A period, sure, if you’re lucky. An exclamation mark, okay. A question mark, probably; that seemed the punctuation all stories, collectively and individually, should end with after all. Not an ellipsis, though. Anything but an ellipsis.”
His life is plagued by the holocaust; his mother never stops talking about how she survived Auschwitz and the Nazis, even though she was never in Germany. Kugel just wants a normal happy life for his family, but his mother is clinging on to life and now he has a real holocaust survivor hiding in his attic while she writes the follow up from her famous diary.
In this novel Anne Frank is a decrepit old lady who is bitter that her publisher told her to pretend to be dead in order to shift more copies of the diary. Anne has become twisted with old age and has been hiding her entire life feeding off of animals that get stuck in the attic and defecating into the heating ducts. This is an Anne Frank who departs from her first conversation with Kugel by saying “Blow me”. As I said, not for the easily offended.
While the novel is entirely funny, there is a serious undertone throughout. Auslander explores how a fear of death and anxiety rules our lives. Kugel is terribly anxious about everything and his mind is forever spinning with thoughts about how to protect himself and his family from the inevitable. This is a man who actually keeps a notepad in which he records varying attempts at his final words as he doesn’t want to look an idiot on his deathbed.
Stan Laurel, on his deathbed: I’d rather be skiing. Do you ski, Mr Laurel? The nurse asked. No, he said, but I’d rather be doing that than this. The chaplain said to Chaplin: May the Lord have mercy on your soul? Said Chaplin to the chaplain: Why not? It belongs to him.”
Kugel is already ruining his own life with mindless thoughts and now he refuses to kick out Anne Frank. He wonders how it would look if a Jew kicked out Anne Frank. His life is similar to the great farce characters as it skyrockets from bad to worse. The ending in particular is a stroke of genius on Auslanders part and fits the whole story wonderfully.
Kugel is taunted by his mother throughout the entire novel and she has to be the best character. This is a woman whose life was so good growing up that she was riddled with guilt and now pretends that her and her entire family passed through the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. She raised Kugel to fear everything by particularly being dragged off to Bergen-Belsen or a similar camp. Even now she doesn’t stop taunting Kugel as she is told that she will soon die but clings on to life with more gusto than ever.
Shalom Auslander hits the reader over the head with comedy but each “joke” has a message within. It may be a play on healthy eating or it may be how we live in fear of something that comes to all of humanity. Yes, it is offensive but there is always a place for comedy such as this. There are often hard-hitting moments designed to shock but thankfully Auslander softens them with lighter humour too.
Why did children always draw the sun smiling? He wondered. It’s a giant ball of fire, kids. It’s rage and fury. Whatever it’s doing, it isn’t fucking smiling”
Hope: A Tragedy is exactly that – a tragedy. It isn’t a sunny happy story about how wonderful life is, but you will walk away from it thinking about how you look at your own life. The novel is full of wonderful characters, messages about our society and ridiculous amounts of humour. Auslander is an incredibly clever author and this is a book to gobble up… as long as you don’t take holocaust jokes too seriously.
Published by Picador. This book was kindly sent by the publisher.