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Her Own Holocaust : ANNA, ANN, ANNIE, By Thomas Trebitsch Parker (Dutton: $21; 325 pp.)

July 25, 1993|Kate Braverman | Braverman is a poet, novelist and short story writer. She teaches creative writing in the UCLA Extension writing program

We first encounter Anna Moser as a 10-year-old in 1927 Vienna. Her parents are studied bohemians and completely assimilated Jews. Her father is an established science-fiction writer. Her mother is a narcissistic modern dancer. They live in an upper-class milieu of opera, theater and music recitals, ice skating on the lake and Oma, the loving grandmother, always baking. So why isn't this girl smiling?

The Vienna section of this novel is filled with a fine writing that captures, in particular, the physicality of sound. When Anna is singled out as a potential piano prodigy, her mother "fixes on Anna's physical well-being, particularly her hands. From the finest shops in the city, Mama brings expensive soaps, creams and emollients." Still, this opening third of the novel is somehow slow and mannered, cloyingly familiar. There are moments when scenes are rendered with the high resolution detail of old black-and-white photographs. But the interiors are missing, the psychological dimension, the areas of motivation and ambiguity. I felt I was trapped with distant relatives who kept opening one album after another, forcing me to view banal scenes from the lives of strangers.

Why does this little girl feel perpetually neglected? Why does the reader see the Linden trees beyond the curtains with more emotion and detail than they do this Anna? One smells flour and butter from Grandmother's perpetual cakes, one senses the textures of this soon-to-be-obliterated world, but somehow Anna, as an entity, is missing.

When Anna, already oddly indifferent to her musical talent, recklessly abandons her incipient career to move to London, change her name to Ann and become a domestic, the reader is perplexed. The suggestion is that Anna, now Ann, is in the throes of an unrecognized infatuation with a schoolgirl friend whom she blindly follows. When this girl commits suicide, Ann returns to Vienna just in time to be raped by a Nazi. Fortunately, a young doctor, Peter Hartmann, offers to marry her and they immediately escape to America.

Once in New York, Ann proves callously indifferent to her husband. She betrays him effortlessly, marries David, a man she met in a delicatessen, has a child and begins drinking. David and Ann can't seem to muster a room temperature IQ between them. They spend the war avoiding it, particularly anything about the holocaust, a subject they manage to remain in denial about. This husband eventually deserts her for another woman, leaving Ann in a '50s New Jersey suburb of chain-smoking women who start drinking in the afternoon. Ann is somewhere behind the smoke and the Cointreau she has developed an affection for, but as always, she remains incomprehensible, out of focus. The settings change, husbands and continents, but the protagonist is never quite there.

Into this limbo comes an uncouth gangster politician, Jake Weigel, a violent and vulgar brute. He calls her Annie and at last, this woman finds a dialect in which she is fluent. It is in this final section, in this alcoholic, sadomasochistic relationship that this book begins to spark and sizzle.

One understands, finally, why one never quite saw Anna. She was, from birth, the invisible woman. When her mother, a death camp survivor says, "You were such an unhappy child. It was your temperament," the reader recognizes that as a truth. Anna was a woman who could not possess her life, could not recognize or seize its possibilities and in that defect, this book is fascinating.

It is unfortunate that this central absence is not the core of this novel. I wished author Thomas Trebitsch Parker had begun not with a generic Vienna, but rather decades later, as we see a woman inevitably drawn to her own destruction. We might have been spared certain plot devices annoying as a bad sound track, like chapters with subtitles highlighting beatings and impending war and the flashing of dates, as if the reader needed these bold face explanations.

In fact, Parker's explanations all seem contrived, the lesbian subtext, the Nazi rape, the narcissist mother, the parents' divorce. The central conceit that personality can be explained or changed by the spelling of a name is somehow infantile. There is an uncoalesced sense to this novel. One can feel it in the unfortunate and awkward title. One wonders if the writer felt he had to prove, by the assembly of evidence, what a good little girl this woman once was for the reader to sympathize with her self-immolation.

That seems an error of artistic thought, a miscalculation of the reader's intelligence and good will. The truth is that this woman is her own holocaust and she doesn't need the weight of history to justify her drive to the flame. We believe her craving for absolution through excess and destruction. When Parker gets out of his own, largely unnecessary agenda, as he does in the final quarter of this novel, when he lets Annie and Jake breathe their unique venomous pathology, their dialogue becomes a remarkable sordid poetry, an obscenity of the blackest order. This is the beacon monsters find. This is the frequency of murder. And there is nothing generic in the grain of their complex hatred. The reader recognizes he is in the presence of the unraveling of sin and the punch is stunning.

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