John Hersey’s The Wall is not a great book.
At 632 pages it is interminably long. There is not much plot to hold the reader. The structure of the book is complicated using a fictional diary kept by Warsaw Ghetto archivist Noach Levinson, incorporating imagined interviews, flashbacks, bracketed observations by a fictional unidentified editor, and created fragments of conversation. The characters are barely fleshed out, and the writing is wooden and dull. There is no poetry in The Wall.
But, The Wall is a remarkable book for the date of its publication. It was first published in 1950, which means Hersey must have begun writing his novel soon after the end of the Second World War, long before most of the world had woken up to and endlessly begun documenting the horrors of Nazi atrocities throughout World War II.
In The Wall John Hersey sought to imagine life in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland from November 1939, just after the German invasion of Poland, to the Jewish Ghetto uprising in May 1943 which resulted in the destruction of the Ghetto and the death of almost all its remaining inhabitants. Hersey’s research was epic. It made it possible for him to imagine Ghetto life in a way that makes this novel a worthwhile, if plodding, read for anyone interested in the horrors visited upon so much of the population of Europe by Nazi hegemony.
Despite this somewhat negative assessment of the novel, there is a reward awaiting the reader who perseveres to the end.
On page 623, Hersey imagines a conversation on May 10, 1943 between Noach Levinson and the widower Dolek Berson. Levinson asks Berson about his growing affection for Rachel Apt who has emerged as a hero of Jewish resistance. Levinson asks Berson,
What do you find to like in Rachel?
Berson’s description of those qualities he sees in Rachel, give a simple but powerful vision of what we might to be as human beings:
Well, she seems to me very natural. When I ask her a question and she answers me, I don’t have to stop and think, Now, why did she say that?
She is kindhearted in this natural way, too: there seems to be no self-interest in her generosity. She is very attentive and eager to learn. ….
She is modest and fearless, and she can make people work and fight.
Best of all she is responsive. I think responsiveness is the most pleasing quality one can have. 623
Hersey wants the reader to see Rachel as an uncomplicated, straightforward person. She has no hidden agendas, no complicated sub-texts. It is not necessary to second guess every word she utters wondering whether there is more going on than seems to be intended on the surface. With Rachel, what you see is what you get. The inner and outer life of this young woman are congruent.
It is not exactly a New Year’s resolution, but it’s not a bad vision:
- be who you are
- do not be unnecessarily complicated
- be kind
- be generous – generosity is such an under-rated virtue
- pay attention to what is going on
- be modest – modesty does not mean thinking badly about yourself, but being honest and realistic
- be fearless – there is nothing to be afraid of… there really isn’t
- be responsive – so much effort goes into being proactive, making things happen. But the world would be a better place if we spent more time and effort paying attention to the reality of what is and responding to that reality rather than trying to make things happen that we feel would be good for someone else
God bless you in this coming year.
No matter what story is unfolding in our lives, may we all seek to be just a little more honestly and truly human in this coming year.