Diary of the Fall
By Michel Laub
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Other Press, 2011
225 pages, $20.00
Reviewed by Nidhi Pugalia
Put simply, Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall is the story of a Jewish man struggling with the still-abounding ripples of the Holocaust. To stop there, however, would be to deeply discredit Laub’s moving portrayal of three generations of men fighting to find purpose in a life constantly threatened by the insidious “nonviability of human experience at all times and in all places.” In Diary of the Fall, Laub gifts his readers with an unashamed front-row seat to his heart and mind. All he asks in return is that we read with the same strength and openness with which he writes.
Much like his forefathers, Laub compiles life into a series of lists, distilling the most important moments of his and their history into short, moving paragraphs. These lists are grouped into sections devoted, purportedly, to single individuals (himself, his father, his grandfather), creating an illusion of separation. In actuality, no one section stands alone. Themes of fatherhood, religion, regret, and suppression weave in and out to create a many-layered picture – albeit one that is near impossible to visualize till the end.
Each of the moments or thoughts Laub shares either leads to or derives from the most pivotal point in his own life: a painful fall he could have prevented at the birthday party of abused classmate João, one of the only non-Jews in his divisive Jewish school. Laub masterfully pockets his book within that moment of youthful cruelty, one that would haunt him for the rest of his life. As we read, João still hovers in the air, is about to fall, is still a second from being broken. We become participants. Using a spare, aloof style to share these acutely intimate scenes, Laub objectively exposes and forgives the self-destructive, often-monstrous underside of human existence. We feel just as strongly the shame and discomfort Laub feels, like a sore in our hearts that continues to throb no matter how hard we try to find peace. We seek atonement just as desperately.
While Laub’s chosen style enhances the profundity within the text, it does also have the unfortunate effect of alienating the reader who isn’t expecting an elaborate, esoteric form of connect-the-dots. Laub’s list-form form admittedly drags: it can be confusing and frustrating to follow him as he backtracks, re-evaluates and psychoanalyzes the many repercussions of one instance in time – all as if he isn’t writing to an audience largely unaware of the people and places he describes. Laub writes almost with a disinterest of keeping his readers engaged. The same sober quality that makes his work powerful also, unfortunately, often makes the story clinical rather than emotionally arresting.
Still, the reader who pushes through will find that the pieces of existence Laub shares do fit together. After all, Laub writes about life the way we internalize it: as a series of threads rooted and born, sometimes inexplicably, from moments that hold power over our lives, no matter the length of time dividing our present from that past. He puzzle pieces together his existence, searching in the shared and separate histories of his father, his grandfather, and himself to understand the ultimate questions of human existence – who am I? why am I here? who will I become?
Diary of the Fall reads like a heart breaking and often profound meditation on what it means to be alive. The style can be daunting, and the meaning behind it baffling – but it’s imperative that you pull through. Keep reading. In the end, Laub discovers the medium between how the world should be and how things really were to successfully and purposefully find his foothold in the present – how things are. The last few pages are as much a culmination of plot as they are the pinnacle of his existence, and as he shares his own personal nirvana, you just might find your own.