Untitled: A Review

Joshua Cohen


The following is reprinted in full from one of our more respected publications, with their express permission.
The writing of this new history was not a writing: the slow, wintry process was surely more of an amassing. It’s freezing in here — the pages are up against the radiator, and so I’ve turned off the heat, wouldn’t want to burn myself alive. Doubtless the estimably anonymous author — no, nameless binder or compiler — didn’t just go at a whim and at once to his or her local stationers and purchase a ream and two and three and more, much more, O God much more! whole forests worth… and then glue or sew them all up together between two covers without pagination, introduction, appendixes, indexes or notes or tables or anything at all. Without words, punctuation, characters. No, each piece of paper he/she I won’t rule out saved and arranged, patched together from scraps and bleached and ordered precisely — I’m speculating here — meant and means something, or not. Hard labor for a reason, slaving, or for no reason at all? and whose hard labor? Each face of each piece of paper holds something, is imprinted, scarred, somehow. Or not. And it might mean something or it might not that all of these six million (6,000,000) plus pages (an estimation, an educated guess) are blank. Pure, virgin white, like the snow around Auschwitz. Six million-plus pages might as well be greater than or equal to the palest infinity.

All of which is to write that in intent and execution this history without a title, this Untitled by Anonymous, is the best record of, and commentary on, the Holocaust this reviewer has yet encountered, the best in or out of print produced by, and in, the last half-century. Just as noble laureate Elie Wiesel filled the need for a new word (holocaust: complete consumption by fire) for a new horror (the Holocaust), this anonymous author — if this massive thing even has an author — has found the only way to write about the event, the idea. Or not.

The word is sacred, words strung together are not… this author didn’t have the luxury of naming, of creating, of defining, merely of observing. So, what does it mean? Nothing, possibly. And what does it have to teach? Nothing, maybe… But it is not mawkish. It is not patronizing. It’s not insulting. So, the skeptical reader — (and the good reader is a skeptical reader) — will think to ask, to challenge: Well, then, what is it?

It’s an obviously enormous volume, very heavy, weighing-in at 136 kilos on my bathroom scale. In some editions, the (leather) cover is black and blank and its pages are white and blank. In other editions, this coloring scheme is reversed (white blank cover, black blank pages)… I know because I imagine. But it is not a diary. This is not Anne being Frank. If anything, it is an anti-diary, the opposite of selfish thoughts. The blankness actually discourages writing, the pages resist filling. Neither is it pornography. The book is free and it’s sold nowhere. Mine was sent to me from the unnamed publisher, direct (the postage should’ve bankrupted someone), in plain wrapping without a return address (and the postmark is badly blurred) or enclosed supplementary materials. My doorbell rang, and three uniformed men, whose faces I can’t recall, as huge as they were unknown to me, moved some furniture around, hauled the package into my dining room, unloaded it, put the box in my living room, refusing my questions and a tip. So how, that reader, my reader, my voice, thinks to ask… my voice echoes in the box, in the living room, the box where I’ve moved my writing table and chair, echoes something terrible… how does this reviewer know that it’s about the Holocaust?

I know. I review books. These books were sent to me in the mail, in papers I reused to wrap herring and tulip bulbs. (This one was sent to me, I’m sure, unrequested.) About reviewing books, the occupation, my occupation… it suits me: it’s a firstborn thing to do, to pronounce judgment, and I have primogeniture: I’m an only-born. My father wrote books, he wrote a book. We never slay our fathers.

I was born in Amsterdam, city of Spinoza, but some three centuries too late for him, in a century eternally late for any ethica, anything ordine geometrico demonstrata. My parents were from Poland — anglicized Kline, formerly Klein — father from Warsaw, mother from Lublin. My father truly was from Warsaw. My mother claimed Lublin, but she was born in some mudpit on the Ukrainian border she never named for me. My father, name of Józef, not Yosef or Yossi, if you knew of him (doubtful) you would have to know from his źlepowtarza ludzie of 1936 (the illiterate people, typography intentional), the first and last of his finished novels — a book I’ve never been able to finish for emotional, not linguistic, reasons. From a poor year in Amsterdam, we went to New Amsterdam, New York. Then we left New York, after three freezing months (the box seemingly larger than the building we were dying in, I write on a flap, then on a length of loose tape), after letters to variously placed uncles, for America. Where and when my father stopped writing books and started writing about them. Because he had nothing left to write. And I have never had anything to write at all, ever, except… Because what did anything mean about this: he and my mother had married in the Warsaw Ghetto and the next week were trained to Auschwitz. They survived how they survived. After Auschwitz, they robbed their way to a dead relation in Kraków and then to Amsterdam, refusing to disembark at all through Germany.

Then I was born. My mother was fertile in that year after Auschwitz and infertile for eighteen years in America… here in my freezing womb. My father began his foreshortened memoirs in that year after Auschwitz and couldn’t finish them for twenty-one years in America. My mother at least had me. My father had nothing. I’ve decided that my father’s page is what I’ve counted out — over one full month and one sleepless night — and numbered in pencil in the upper right imaginary margin as page 3,894,764. (And I have not gone insane… this process of enumeration was the opposite of insanity, was meditative, ennobling… like prayer.) Page three-million-eight-hundred-ninety-four-thousand-seven-hundred-sixty-four is my father’s page because of a printer’s error there: a small, almost invisible dark dot is to be found to the page’s lower left, very near where the binding was. It’s an impurity, an imperfection, a blemish on the fattened heifer that is this book. (Another impurity or imperfection, as impurities and imperfections are never alone: the glue is very bad, and I broke the binding of my review copy within six to eight weeks of receiving it, as I reached page number five-million-nine-hundred-something — standing in slippers last night on the first page, tugging at the cover, to shut it, get rid of it — scattering countless pages out of order, all over my dining room floor, pages the size of my floor. I must ask the mailman where this came from, this book which is my life, this book I don’t know whether to read or not read right to left or left to right… and I’ve never even met the mailman, just leave him his season’s greetings tips in an envelope. Or ask the trashman, pay him to haul it out to the curb… And I do not question: I write only now, cancelled lectures, have stopped speaking.)

And for these very defects, and for millions of other reasons, Untitled (better referred to in silence), requiring an entire shelf unto itself, is the incredible zenith (in the sense of termination) of the literature of and about the Holocaust. It reads, or doesn’t read, like a Tadeusz Borowski story shorn of plot, characters and dialogue, like one of Mendelssohn’s wordless songs… and sometimes, yes, even with this monklike vow of silence, I sing, inside the box, my cell, sing to an opening of empty wall, empty except for my father’s portrait… echoes making me mad, but I can’t stop… It was written somewhere, not here, not on my box’s ceiling, that the one-hundredth name of God, the word in the beginning, is God, or at least an attribute of Him, and that this name, this word, is unknowable. Almost as if it had never existed. This book is my father’s work, my father’s final testament, his ethical will. This is anyone and everyone’s book (drop by sometime and pick it up, please), or no one’s book and it means everything, holds the light of the entire world like the facets of an infinite gemstone… the white pages are blinding, but I’ll never burn it, no, never, must not, it would consume itself and nothingness cannot be consumed… Its substance is Spinoza’s substance, holding in sheer attributes and modes all that was and all that will be, and it means nothing. I sit on it, the book, high, high up, to eat my cold breakfast, herring, off the top of my mother’s old wardrobe (refrigerator moved upstairs to my bedroom), the wardrobe the only other thing that fits in my dining room anymore… eating in silence except for my chewing like a cow. This review shouldn’t exist, now or ever. Untitled in an all-parchment edition (cover and pages) is scheduled for release next spring.

Postscript, Winter: This reviewer has just learned through the mail that Untitled is Volume II of a two volume work.