by Hans von Trotha
translated by Elisabeth Lauffer
New Vessel Press, 2022
Reviewed by Nicole Yurcaba
In October 1943, the Vatican dispatches an envoy to the home of Ludwig Pollak and his family in order to bring the Pollaks to safety within the papal confines. However, Pollak shows the envoy he is in no hurry to leave his home and accept the Vatican’s offer of refuge. Instead, Pollak stalls his visitor, who sits and listens as Pollak recounts his life stories: studying archaeology as a young man in Prague; his passion for Rome and Goethe; his rise as a renowned antiquities dealer to financial and political greats like J.P. Morgan and the Austro-Hungarian emperor after the academic world barred him because he was Jewish. Pollak’s most impressive act, however, is his discovery of the missing arm from the sculpture of Laocoon. In Pollak’s Arm, readers find a stunning yet heartbreaking story, of resilience in barbarism’s face.
Pollak’s Arm, with its celebration of the art and antiquarian worlds, is Keatsian. From the novel’s beginning, Pollak takes readers by the hand and the imagination and brings them into his world. After all, “Not knowing how a journey will end,” states Pollak, “is no reason not to take it.” Pollak fills his discourses to his patient, yet worried, visitor, with the same philosophical engagement Keats poured into “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” If the speaker of Keats’s poem had aged and survived antisemitism, he very well could have been Pollak, who many times throughout the novel pauses to reflect on the brevity of youth: “How badly we need our guardian angels after all…If only we’d known it back then, but we hadn’t needed them yet. Or so we thought. Youth invites such thinking.” Pollak’s thoughts parallel those of the speaker in Keats’s “Urn,” who approaches the Grecian urn he studies with reverence as he recognizes the urn’s power to freeze a young piper’s moments in time for future generations’ enjoyment and contemplation.
Nonetheless, it’s not just Pollak’s poetic personal discourses that wax Keatsian and leave readers longing for their next view of some hallowed sculpture or piece for Antiquity. It’s also his lifelong dedication to art and his implicit philosophy that in art, humanity finds beauty, and therefore, it finds truth. Pollak frequently makes brief statements such as “Every memory has its own truth; otherwise it wouldn’t exist.” Pollak’s commentaries and artistic philosophies remind readers of the final two lines of Keats’s infamous “Urn:” “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”
Like Keats’s “Urn,” Pollak’s discourses assert to readers the importance of solace. While Keats’s speaker doesn’t outright tell readers the importance of silence and stillness and how art creates a transient space in which humans can find these, he does rely on the repetition of words like “quietness” and “silence” and phrases such as “slow-time,” “will silent be,” and “not a soul to tell.” While Pollak doesn’t rely on Keats, he does draw philosophical elements from Goethe: “Solace is found in true grandeur, not in ideas, which orbit around that which is grand but possess no real grandeur of its own.” He, like the speaker in Keats’s poem, knows that humans cannot achieve “quiet grandeur” until death, when the complexities of human existence cease.
Similarly to the “Sylvan historian” in Keats’s poem, which sets the tone for the urn and its stories, Pollak, too, is a character of stories. As Pollak argues against accepting the Vatican’s offer of refuge, he relies on storytelling, perhaps a coping mechanism, perhaps as an educational means. He tells the envoy “The stories we tell are all that remain in the end, you know. Stories and art. It’s how life goes on. It’s what we leave for those who come after.” Pollak’s statement bears a striking similarity to the Keats’s speaker’s philosophy regarding the Grecian urn: “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe.” Eventually, Pollak explains a more conventional note—how stories inform and shape the truth: “After all, there is often another story, different than the one we tell because it’s the one we were told and that is told and retold until eventually someone writes it down and others copy it—this, too, repeated ad infinitum—until this story is all that remains. It becomes the truth.” Pollak recognizes “One must give a personal account…Particularly when the end is imminent. One must ensure that memory remains, so that others might remember when you no longer can.” These sentiments echo the importance the speaker of Keats’s poem places not only the Grecian urn, but more significantly, the etchings on the urn.
By the end of Pollak’s Arm, readers have not only experienced the brief, penultimate hours of Ludwig Pollak, but through Hans von Trotha’s writing, they have entered a transient space, much like Keats’s Grecian urn. In this space, they can contemplate the barbarism . Pollak’s Arm is an emotional experience, one that challenges readers’ understandings of what it means to be human. Perhaps just as significantly, the novel encourages readers to not forget the art and literature of the past, but to instead embrace it and live with it in an environment where it can ultimately become a part of themselves.