Sunday, September 16, 2007

Two Haunting Diaries. . .

This blog may be a bit quiet over the next two weeks - I'm heading to Europe for a vacation. First stop is Amsterdam. I've never been and one of the places I'll be heading to is the Anne Frank Museum. In preparation, I recently re-read her diaries which I hadn't looked at since I was a kid (and I'm fairly sure I read the censored version back then). It's an odd but satisfying experience to come back to a work after decades; I was struck anew by the maturity of Anne's voice and her continual optomism and complete conviction that she would be someday be a writer. I'll also be making a literary pilgrimage to 6 Gabriel Metsustraat, to look at the former home of Etty Hillesum. Her diaries and letters were reprinted a few years ago by one of my favourite publishers - Persephone Books - as An Interuupted Life: The Diaries And Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43. Etty was 27 when the diary begins, and she's almost a grown up version of Anne Frank. Reading the two back to back was uncanny at times. They both shared similar dreams of becoming a writer, were preoccupied with exploring their sexuality, the role of women in their societies, and questioning personal ideas of God, and both maintained an unflagging confidence in the essential goodness of humanity, even in the extraordinarily desperate times they were living in. Etty ended up working in Westerbork, the Dutch interim camp where the Jews (including the Frank family) were temporarily kept before being sent to the concentration camps, and her letters describing the conditions are strikingly powerful. She died in Auschwitz in November, 1943. Her writing is mesmerizing and not just as an historical record. This is from the opening entry:

"So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love. I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection, and yet it remains a mere trifle, set apart from what is truly essential, and deep inside me something is still locked away. " Quite a beginning isn't it?

Later on near the end of her diary, she writes: "I have the feeling that my life is not yet finished, that it is not yet a rounded whole. A book, and what a book, in which I have got stuck half-way. I would so much like to read on." I started crying when I read that sentence.
If you are not familiar with Persephone Books, they are perhaps the most beautifully packaged imprint in the world and I've yet to read one of their titles that I didn't enjoy. All their books are trade paper, with dust jackets in a uniform silvery grey with a small cream coloured label for the title and author. The paper is also a beautiful and weighty creamy white and feels wonderful to touch. But it's really their endpapers that are stunning as they are always a reproduction of a fabric that was either from the period in which the book was written or set in. A bookmark with the design is included with each book. For Etty's diaries, Persephone chose a Bauhaus fabric manufactured by a Dutch company and designed by Otti Berger who also died in Auschwitz. Though it was no doubt created for a very different purpose, its evocation of barbed wire gives me the chills.

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