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on 26 February 2016
Fred Wander's fictional reworking of his own experiences in several concentration camps is a beautifully conceived excavation of the past; at once harrowing, vivid, poetic, moving and profoundly meditative. One can only marvel at the human courage and literary control it must have taken to imagine and then to write such a book, later in life, and after so much loss. As a Holocaust survivor testimony, The Seventh Well deserves to be considered alongside those of Primo Levi, Otto Dov Kulka and a handful of others as an essential text of witness.

In a series of short, tightly crafted chapters, each shifting fluidly between locales and across time frames, The Seventh Well charts the author's own education as a young man in circumstances of unimaginable daily fear, exhaustion and brutality. His educators are the astonishing fellow prisoners, adults and children, whose own voices, personalities, stories, wisdom and humanity are retrieved from the oblivion of the distant past. Wander's greatest act of retrieval, his restitution of individuality and personality to those who perished, reminded me indirectly of Serge Klarsfeld's magnificent memorial book of photographic remembrance, French Children of the Holocaust; and of that other astonishing photographer-recorder of lost Jewish lives, Roman Vishniac. But Wander is a "prose-photographer", and his descriptive skills allow momentary access to that nightmare world to vertiginous effect. You will also mourn, as I did, those beautiful comrades in suffering that he describes, and whose rich personalities are elevated to the symbolic. A truly great book.

Michael Hoffman's delightful translation deserves praise for its sensitivity, lucidity and warmth.
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on 22 May 2009
The trusty name of Michael Hofman as translator is good enough to raise my interest. As well as providing excellent translations Hofmann often writes brilliantly helpful afterwords as well, which for a reader like me, who is often approaching the author as a novice, are invaluable. Fred Wander was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and eventually liberated from Buchenwald in 1945 but it wasn't until 25 years later, after the tragic death of his 10 year old daughter, that he sat down to commit his memories to paper and give extraordinary voice to the people he had lost.

Not only is Wander a new author for me but I have read very little 'Holocaust literature'. As an enthusiastic A-Level History student I spent almost a year studying the Nazi era and one of my documentary readers was filled with personal testimony from inmates, guards, and liberators. I found the immediacy of those real accounts electrifying and perhaps because of that have seldom been tempted by the wealth of memoir and fiction inspired by one of the most notorious periods of history. As John points out in his own review there is always a problem of preconception and twinned with that the question of how to respond. I'll never forget going to watch Schindler's List at the massive Empire cinema in Leicester Square and the shock of being rendered speechless along with the rest of the full audience as we filed out after it had finished. What is one supposed to say after that? We had been brutally silenced by becoming witnesses, a feeling I was reminded of when Wander describes the silent compliance of his comrades when they were ordered to board the transports to certain death.

Although this is described as a novel it still contains that immediacy of non-fictive testimony. Wanders begins with a chapter called How To Tell A Story, where he learns from Mendel the camp's master storyteller what is important when recreating for others. Wander's stories are in part so successful because they don't follow a linear timeline but instead are grouped thematically with chapters like Faces and Bread.

'To eat bread, all you need is a little slab of fresh wood. You can find wood like that pretty much anywhere. Wood stands for forest, clearing, underbrush. It signifies house, shelter comfort. All that's lost. Put it on the ground, on a pallet, on your knee, and you have a clean table. It signals to you that you're home, where you live. And now the bread: divide it up into three thick slices, break the slices into cubes. Chew each cube long and thoroughly. Taste the grain in it, the rain, the storm. Let the taste of the sun dissolve on your tongue.'

What this means is that as you read through the book characters that had died earlier will come back into the narrative, which can leave you with the feeling of having lost them twice. There are even times when a character will be referred to as 'a dead man' whilst he still lives, capturing the man whose spirit has already left, his body soon to follow. Up until the last few pages you are struck by the fact that of course almost everyone died, these are the important words of a survivor.

As you can see above the other aspect which makes his stories work so well is the quality of the writing. In a comparatively short book there is a great variety of style. The ritual of camp life means that there are several moments where the language takes on a religious tone. There are clear biblical references as when Tadeusz Moll, a youngster with a rebellious streak, is placed at the stake with other delinquents to stand perpetually through the night as a punishment. Only one of them is tied, the others have the freedom to attempt escape but of course none of them do. Moll stands there and finds himself thinking of Jesus, the Jew who preached love, and as his body suffers from the cold and exposure the language extends into something rapturous as he realizes the miracle of life.

There are moments of poetry and even of comedy too. From starving inmates comes the perverse comedy of food when a sketch is performed; a waiter and diner in a restaurant the onlookers left helpless by the ordering of increasingly extravagant food. Those moments which risk being too beautiful are often brought into relief by the cold snap of reality. The night that is underscored by the operatic singing of Antonio leads to the morning when he is found dead. Again that reminder that this is a testament to those that didn't make it. The storyteller gives voice to those that cannot speak.

This is where Hofmann's translation is so skilful, the idiomatic speech comes through so clearly that you gain a really vivid portrait of each character. Those small details which can make a character live in your memory are preserved making it all the more affecting when they are taken away, each death still coming as a surprise in spite of the inevitability. I could happily quote passage after passage, Wander has created a fiction which genuinely illuminates the facts, his experience washed by the water of the seventh well which in Rabbi Loew's words '...will cleanse you, and you will become transparent, like a well yourself, made ready for future generations, so that they will climb from the darkness, with a pure and a clear eye, and a light heart.' The years he spent not writing the book have also lent a perspective to the writing which makes it more accessible to those who aren't Jewish. As well as asking himself what keeps a man alive he is witness to what happens when that fight is lost, reflected in the face of a Ukranian peasant.

'Everything falls away from such a face. Everything studied and habitual drops from it, like a husk. And what remains? I watched the transformation, I had previously only seen this spiritualization in the dead. A strange luster suddenly lies on the face, and you can't recognize even your own friend anymore. You've never seen so much accumulated earnestness and dignity and purpose in him. How was he able to hide it from you before? Before then you realize: a man's face is thousands of years old. The few years of his own life have fallen from it, everything weak and unfulfilled. What's left behind is the face of his fathers and mothers. The expression of the vast effort to be human.'
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on 26 June 2014
I think perhaps there is nothing that I could possibly say about this book to let you know that it is a worthwhile narrative except to quote some passages:

"On this road, where once Polish armies had ridden against the Turks, there were now Jewish tailors, grocers, and doctors, lying like dummies in strange contortions, only a moment ago they had been moving."

"they got undressed, hung their clothes neatly on numbered hooks, and then went in, to bathe, as they were told. Behind them the iron gates were shut. The gas was switched on ..."

"Whoever collapsed didn't have to work, but he got no bread either. Whoever got no bread was dead the next day."

"When one's will broke and the reflex snapped, the struggle was over. The man then wanted only to die. And there was nothing easier than that."
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..but it has NOT 'taken almost four decades' (back cover) to be translated - unless a version published in the DDR (former East Germany) didn't count? Marc Linder's (subsumed under Hofmann's, as is Amazon's alas too familiar wont; my star rating perforce combines the two) appeared in 1976, a scant two years after the German original, Wander's seventh work. Linder's 'East German English' inflections, demotic vigour and plangent, almost magic realist cadences are vastly more evocative of doomed Yiddishkayt than Hofmann's buttoned-up (but sloppily structured) Anglo version. And my evidence?

He doesn't get about much any more, the old man, his bones are kaput [Linder]; He's not long for this world anyway, the old man, his bones are all crocked [Hofmann]
He died a senseless, undignified death. I don't want to talk about it. Forgotten are his verses.. [Linder]; He died a senseless and undignified death, let me pass over it in silence. His poems are forgotten.. [Hofmann]
But he is withdrawn, he marvels at the sublime face of the dead, and an ice crystal, he breathes the fragrance of pristine woods and searches, searches for the forgotten traces of beauty in his life [Linder]; But inside him he is alive, he is astonished by the noble expression on the face of a dead man, or the beauty of a crystal of ice. He fills his nostrils with the smell of the woods, and looks about him, looks for the vanished traces &c [Linder taking 36 words to Hofmann's hobbling 53]
You can say that I have lived like an idiot and was a snob, a damn snob. Good, I'll say you're right! But I have lived. And how! [Linder]; You can tell me I lived like a fool, that I was a snob, a bloody stuck-up snob. All right, I tell you, you're right. But I was alive. Deeply alive.. [Hofmann] 'I tell you'? Shades of Kenneth More or worse in 50s rep
They didn't get fat [Linder]; They didn't put on the weight [Hofmann, the guy who'll never say 'the doctors' when he can say 'the medical profession' and for whom the perfectly-respectible-in-two-languages wunderkind becomes 'boy genius'. Second rule of translation: never change needlessly. For first rule, see Addendum below]

I appreciate that these excerpts alone from the first ten pages, mainly (more below) may not in themselves make their case. Trust me, there are times when gentility is not enough. If you should happen on a Seven Seas version, grab it. Linder's also done versions of Bobrowski and who knows what else. Five stars each to Linder and Wander, nul points to the home team. It's because I value Hofmann so much - as poet, critic and 'our German' - that it pains me to see him diverted down pedestrian ways his heart is plainly not in. I'm not saying he doesn't admire the original - why should he not? - I'm talking about the work of transmutation, the blood, toil, tears and sweat. Sometimes the starving translator in the garret is a better bet. Oh, I forgot, they have to be accomplished linguists. Well, ditching grammar schools and replacing 'O' levels by GCSEs certainly put paid to that, didn't it? But they're still out there, the quiet heroes - Martin Chalmers for Serpent's Tail and others, or the towering figures of America's Samuel P Willcocks (Seagull's ambitious German List) and Ulster's Shaun Whiteside, who both translate from four languages!

Addendum (taking us just over half way!)
Hofmann sometimes bests Linder (my amended amazon.com review cites further instances) eg 'we shouldn't care' for Linder's 'it is indifferent to us' and the following 24 words (Linder, hitting a bad patch, takes thirty), but Linder generally employs the muscular term where he can - lackey or wangle where Hofmann has helper and extort - and Hofmann the stuffy, upholstered one. Where Linder has 'the oldest one, who carries about parts of a bible hidden on his body and is constantly quoting from it'; Hofmann plumps for 'concealed about his person' and 'incessantly'. Which do you prefer, 'Bovary can't hold a candle to her' or 'Bovary's a dwarfish figure by comparison'? 'Mumbling invocations like a medicine man' or 'muttering inaudible spells like a shaman'? Who sounds the more natural and convincing native English speaker? Hofmann moved here when he was four. He offers 'The mountain seemed to ring with a vast industry. The name Buchenwald lodged in our bones like a fever' for Linder's 'The mountain teemed with activity. The word Buchenwald was like a fever in our bones.' Is it complacency in his own bilingualism or simple laziness that causes him to write 'A demonstration against barbarism? Who can know' (no question mark) where Linder says 'Who would understand it?' Who can know, indeed - but this has all the makings of a rushed job. Can one have 'a light, barbarous sleep'? (Linder: 'a restless, wild sleep'.) A barbarous translation, now that's something else..

'Linder has, as a complete sentence, 'Rikje and he'. This is correct American usage. In England 'I' generally wins over 'me' in such a context, due to cookie-monster-induced paranoia, though both are permissable, but 'they' or 'we' would sound frankly absurd. So what does Hofmann go for? The excruciating and absurd 'Rikje and himself', a construction heard only by public speakers ('it's not about me' - except it is) and semi-educated broadcasters. AND THEN, amid the white bread, Hofmann socks us with the faux backwoodsism 'snuck up' (Linder has 'crept up'; the cute, hokey facétie hadn't yet insinuated itself into the wordpool) and the macho 'hunker' where Linder has crouch; I'd have gone with squat. These jarring Americanisms - 'gotten drunk on words' (Linder has 'reveled in words'); 'a boggy prostate' - feel like Norton inserts to pep up a bland mid-Atlantic text (Linder has no need of pepping up) yet I suspect the spelling in this Granta edition has been anglicized. Why? Ach, this misbegotten hybrid! (Hofmann is of course now America-based.) Linder's miserable louse becomes a flea-flicker. First rule of translation: please God let it sound like something someone might actually say! Linder can expand where necessary for the sense ('..as if with a divine presentiment' vs Hofmann's opaque '..sensing illumination') but above all he can soar: 'The sky, pale as a lily, above us, here and there like stars a light on the slopes' against Hofmann's limping 'Lily-white was the sky above, lights dotted about the slopes like occasional stars'.

Then there's the question of Yiddish. Hofmann excises longer passages but expects us to know (or guess) what bonkes, reboyne-sheloylem, Hert mikh oys, meshumed, khaver and yontev mean. Meshugge! Linder gives us all the Yiddish dans le texte as Wander intends with English tactfully as footnote or appendix. Hofmann's approach as translator is both heavy-handed and over-cautious. He can get it right - "We'll soon kill that little porker for you", of a Muselman's boil, where Linder has "We'll slaughter the pig all right!" and 'weakling' (but the term Muselman was not then widely known) - and Linder himself is not without quirks, besides omitting some Baudelaire on page 38 as well as 'the wagon was a game' on page 41 (Hofmann p40) and 'and not be cold' on page 49 (Linder and Hofmann) - unless Hofmann has added all these? - and preferring 'mate' for 'comrade' (presumably too exclusively communist by this stage), but as in all great translations these add to the effect. Bottom line, with Linder we're there
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on 30 August 2011
This is one of the most life-affirmimg books I have ever read. Unspeakably dreadful though his experiences are, he demonstates in his reaction to these things the ultimate triumph of life over death. The people he meets in the camps bear testimony to the resilience of Jewish hope and its capacity to bear all things. If you don't understand why all religious traditions value hope this book will make it clear.
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