Becker, Jurek (Vol. 19)
Becker, Jurek 1937–
Becker, a Polish novelist, dramatist, and screenwriter, spent much of his childhood in a Warsaw ghetto and later in a concentration camp during World War II. These experiences provide the background of Jacob the Liar, which he has written both as a novel and a screenplay. In his preface to Jacob the Liar, Melvin Kornfield called Becker a "worthy descendant" to Sholem Aleichem. To prevent his novel Sleepless Days from being censored, Becker recently moved from East to West Germany. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
[Der Boxer] is the fascinating account of one man's ill-fated struggle to come to terms with his past.
The fictional story of Aron Blank, a Jew who survived ghetto and concentration camp, is recorded in fictional interviews with a fictional chronicler. Ironically, it is precisely this contrived set of circumstances which ultimately lends credibility to Becker's novel. Italicized words and phrases in the chronicle appear to represent Aron's own choice of language. Verbal exchanges between Aron and the writer regularly disrupt and yet complement the narrative. Aron's stated purpose is erzählen (to narrate), not erklären (to interpret or explain), and the reader learns a great deal about Aron's character from these interspersed conversations. At one point, for example, Aron advises the chronicler that his story cannot be presented objectively and that he should go and describe a soccer match, if objectivity is what he is after. Aron is not presenting a history of the postwar years, he insists, but rather his story. There are times when Aron is reluctant to continue with the project, and in one instance progress is halted for six months because Aron has suffered a near-fatal heart attack. At another point the writer calls off a session because he is not in a working mood; he even considers burning his notes. This method of presentation is nothing completely new … but it works especially well for Becker,...
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The "sleepless days" of Jurek Becker's [Schlaflose Tage (Sleepless Days)] are experienced by a thirty-six-year-old East German schoolteacher, Karl Simrock, who suddenly wakes up to the fact that his life is slipping by all too conventionally. He kicks over the traces, withdraws from his marriage, loses his job and ends up, not unhappily, as a baker's roundsman.
This behaviour cannot, however, be dismissed simply as a premature onset of the male menopause, for the story makes it clear that the cause of Simrock's unrest lies in the social and political environment of the German Democratic Republic. For too long he has had his thoughts and attitudes handed down from above, accepting the role imposed on him by the state as a passive purveyor of the Party line. Not only has this turned him into a bad teacher, concerned to shield his pupils from doubt and critical questioning, but it has also stifled his own personal development.
His actions are both a protest against a system whose highest virtue is conformity and also an attempt to discover his own identity. He is therefore firmly in that ever-lengthening line of East German literary characters from Christa Wolf's Christa T. onwards, who, while being fundamentally in sympathy with the GDR's Marxist basis, are deeply disturbed by some of its dehumanizing manifestations.
But Schlaflose Tage is no crusading tract. Its laconic style reflects...
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"Sleepless Days" evokes the daily grind of an authoritarian society: the psychic drabness of it all, the draining political rituals, the disenchantments. Compact and sturdy, it is a beautifully made fiction. Yet the realism of its portraiture and the composure of its form are sharply complicated by a tone of hovering anxiety, as if somewhere in the background lurked the ghost of Kafka. (p. 7)
It would be interesting to know whether Mr. Becker began this novel with a clearly worked-out idea or came to the idea only through the process of writing it…. Mr. Becker may … have made art into an avenue to knowledge, finding out what he is "like at the moment." In any case, his book tells us what it is like to live in the airless world of authoritarianism, the costs of obedience, the possibilities of resistance. (p. 46)
Irving Howe, "The Cost of Obedience," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1979, pp. 7, 46.
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[In Sleepless Days Simrock makes changes in his life that] could be part of the story of many an Englishman; the latter half of the novel, however, depicts suffering of a more particularly Eastern European nature. Antonia [Simrock's lover]—in an unexpected and therefore profoundly shocking scene—attempts an escape to the West, is discovered, tried and imprisoned. And back in his teaching post Simrock tries to convey to his pupils something of his own new found credo of honesty-to-self only to land himself in severe trouble with parents, colleagues and bureaucratic authority. But never does Becker's presentation of Simrock's difficulties decline into mere protest against the East German set-up. The human heart, the recurring image throughout the novel, is his subject….
The central character of the novel is more preoccupied with metaphysical and ethical matters than are the protagonists of most English novels…. [Sleepless Days] is a deeply impressive book, the work of an obvious master….
Paul Binding, "UnEnglish," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2541, November 30, 1979, p. 865.∗
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Some months ago, reviewing Arno Schmidt's The Egghead Republic, I asked rhetorically: which is the more bleakly unfunny, German humorous writing or German serious writing? Sleepless Days provides some evidence to suggest that it is the former. It is intensely, almost paralysingly, serious but includes a few deliberate jests. These are not, however, the reason why the work is funnier than The Egghead Republic since they, like the gags in Schmidt's book, are painfully laboured. No, it is the unconscious humour which occasionally disperses the pall of metaphysical gloom and provides the reader with a chuckle or two….
Jurek Becker's short novel is dedicated to exposing the dangers of dehumanisation but a critic can't help wondering if the style might not be more harmful than the message is benign. (p. 24)
Simrock's revolt [against his life-style] has been so meek as to make it impossible to credit him with a heroic role. Instead the reader remains merely depressed by the robot nature of the society that can just be discerned through the ponderous narrative. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Solzhenitsyn worked because it was concrete. The reader could feel the cold and smell the sour odours of the camp. One span in the life of Simrock fails because it obscures behind a wall of idealism the life it pretends to depict. (p. 25)
Paul Ableman, "Sad...
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Sleepless Days is a pleasingly exact title for Jurek Becker's fine, grave, funny novel …: it catches precisely the hero's comical, incurable unease in a world run by 'those who looked upon happiness as something for which the time was not yet ripe.' It's a novel which, while describing an unsatisfactory, even ludicrous state of mind with brilliant particularity, firmly and quietly establishes its political attitude. So, Becker had to leave East Germany in order to publish the book: and it's that kind of decision to which his hero Simrock uncertainly advances….
The novel vacillates wittily between Simrock's dogged battles with mental lethargy, and his confused involuntary actions. There are superb comic scenes where he seems hardly to know what he's doing. But gradually, Simrock's comic uncertainty is seen to be a form of heroism…. The novel's admirable and precisely conveyed discovery is that heroism partakes of dubiousness, uncertainty, qualms: the buffoon-philosopher's resolutions must compromise themselves if they are to be true: 'To sum up: to endeavour to be sincere. Not just at times when sincerity is permitted, but always. Or almost always, or as often as possible. As often as one's strength allows.'
Hermione Lee, "A Flutter of Premonition," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9825, December 16, 1979, p. 39.∗...
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