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Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts Hardcover – August 4, 2015
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“This fine book contains moments of emotion so pure that in the end, we too fall in love with the writer’s past.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Caroline] Heller plunges us lovingly and convincingly into [a] lost world.”—The Boston Globe
“Caroline Heller writes with both honesty and delicacy. I was particularly enthralled by her finely drawn portrait of prewar Central Europe: a lost world whose memories are inestimably valuable and fiercely beautiful but which, without accounts like this, would fade forever.”—Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
“Reading Claudius is much more than a work of riveting personal history. It is a feat of passionate, radical integrity. Caroline Heller has wedded the greatest level of care in her scholarship to an even deeper form of search: that in which imagination becomes not only an act of love but an instrument of truth.”—Leah Hager Cohen, author of No Book but the World and The Grief of Others
“A deeply felt and deeply thought memoir, it manages to unearth a whole lost world with aching tenderness and regret.”—Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait Inside My Head
About the Author
Caroline Heller is the director of the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Educational Studies at Lesley University, where she is also a professor in the graduate school of education. She lives in Boston with her family.
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Top customer reviews
I have read a lot about the Holocaust and WWII, but never have I had such a clear and intimate look at the life and culture of the pre-war intellectual communities such as this one in Prague. This cafe/salon society included a rich gathering of musicians, philosophers, writers, physicians and artists. Heller brings this period, and her parents circle in particular, into sharp focus. I can taste the chocolate cake slices, smell the strong coffees, hear the poetry readings and the late night philosophical discussions that search for meaning in an orderless world. I can see the young lovers as they swim in a nearby lake on a hot Sunday afternoon, and feel their tension as news and events from beyond their cloistered world begin to intrude.
As "A Memoir in Two Parts", the book also includes Heller's own intimate story as the daughter of Holocaust survivors coming of age in suburban Chicago in the 1950's and 60's. Besides being a wonderful book to read (I couldn't put it down), Reading Claudius is an important book that captures a moment in history that is now gone, but that we must not forget.
This profoundly beautiful book arose from such understanding and is suffused with the grace it confers. More than a biography, “Reading Claudius” is a daughter’s devoir to beloved parents who were born and came of age in a world destroyed forever by Nazi Socialism and the Soviet Socialism that followed, yet who were not themselves destroyed, but lived to see their children freed from the dark burdens they’d been forced to bear. In Caroline and Thomas Heller, they must have seen the people they would have been had the course of their lives not been interrupted by cataclysm.
Heller chose not to tell her parents’ and her Uncle Eric Heller’s story as a simple historical narrative, stitching together the numerous letters, diaries, and other written documents in her own voice. Instead, she uses the historian’s most life-giving tool, the imagination, to recreate the daily texture of their lives, to capture the feel of “life being lived.” She quotes Claire Messud to explain that choice. “At the heart of things,” Messud writes, “whatever the ideas and ideologies, the violations and violence, the peculiarities of culture – always at the heart are ordinary people, and there is just life being lived: tables and bread and toilets and scissors and cigarettes and kisses.” Unable to know her parents’ and uncle’s world in its fullness, she says, she used her imagination to give the historian’s data life, to create an representation of the world in which these people lived.
That artistic decision profoundly affects the book that emerged. First, it gives the reader an intimate, sensuous view of world of Central Europe and Prague, in particular, in the years leading up to World War II. We taste the sumptuous plumb cakes and rich chocolates Liese loves. The aroma of the coffees in the cafes where university students gathered drifts into our rooms. With centuries of Czechs, we stand and watch the procession of the twelve hand-carved wooden apostles emerge from the little door beneath the clock tower of Stare Mesto exactly one minute before every hour. The early evening light flickers on the waters beneath the bridge on the River Charles. We hear the almost desperate tension in Erich Heller’s voice as he tries to persuade a café gathering of students, artists, and young intellectuals that “the word is all,” that even in the face of Hitlerian Germany, the great literature of the Western World is important and will have effect. Our chests tighten as letters arrive from Germany bearing the censor’s seal, as one-by-one students depart for Belgium, England, and other places still free of German domination. Our hearts stop when Paul, at home with his mother, hears the stormtroopers bang on the door to the family home in the middle of the night.
I have read many books about this period in history, for my American mind has sought to understand its young people’s faith in the human intellect at a time when unbridled intellect was systematically destroying the texts and ideas, the music and art that animated their lives, not to mention the class of people identified with intellectual endeavors. Why, I’ve wondered, would these bright, cultivated young people see in another construct of pure intellect, communist socialism, an alternative and remedy to Nazi socialism? What was it like to live in a world so cloistered from the outside world, one where students read and discussed philosophy, poetry, and ideas with a gusto reserved for the things that matter most? What was it like to be young and Jewish in Europe in a time where Jews were marked for destruction, especially when one's Jewishness was largely cultural, not religious? “Reading Claudius” opened that world to me as nothing else I’ve ever read.
Heller’s decision not to write in her own voice had another and perhaps more important effect on the book. It necessitated the final section of the book, the examination of her own life in relation to her family’s history and her own personal history. She had originally intended the book to be only about her parents’ and her uncle’s lives. “Writing the Prologue and Part II” of the book, she says, “necessitated varieties of self-scrutiny that I hadn’t anticipated having to undertake, transforming Reading Claudius into a more urgently personal undertaking, closer to my own bone . . . In gaining access to the past’s secrets, I gained access to my own.” From “this full, complicated panorama,” she says, “I wrote ‘Reading Claudius’.”
Anyone who has ever written recognizes that’s the way it happens. Through acts of imagination, when lost in the creation of someone else’s life, a writer often comes face-to-face with herself or with something with which she had been wrestling. It is always a surprise. A word or phrase, a slant of light in the imagined landscape---and the writer suddenly discovers things she never understood. That epiphany always animates writing, giving it new life and meaning. Robert Frost put the matter this way: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” For writing is an art of learning, not of simple recording, and the discoveries lift any work to a higher level of art and to broader understanding.
In this case the discovery also gives readers the story of Caroline Heller, the little girl who grew up in the shadows of the remembered world of Prague, whose father’s puffy bluish fingers pointed to his years in Buchenwald and other Nazi camps. Growing up in Riverside, a planned community west of Chicago her parents had chosen because its winding streets reminded them of the streets of Prague, Caroline seems never to have known the happiness and community her mother had enjoyed as a girl in Frankfurt. She wondered why her home was not filled with framed photographs of family like other children’s homes. And when her brother received “The Children’s Homer: The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy,” she was taken by the names of the characters. Resourceful Odsseus of Ithaca, son of Laertes and Anticlea, grandson of Arcesius and Autolyceus; Brave Telemachus of Ithaca, son of Odysseus and Penelope; Faithful Penelope of Sparta, daughter of Icarus and the nymph Periboea – that “everyone had a definite place in the world and parents and forebears to whom they forever belonged, even after they left home” appealed to the three-year-old girl. Even at that age she “felt like some necessary part of [herself] seemed to disappear” whenever she was away from her parents and older brother, especially from her mother, even for a few hours. She would experience this sense of desolation many times in her life, indeed into her university years.
She also felt deeply the obligation to make her mother happy, to make her father proud of her accomplishments. At seven, for instance, at the end of summer swimming lessons, she was one of the top two girls in the group. Before stands packed with parents, the instructor announced that the girl who dived into the water from the deep end of the pool and retrieved a three-pound rubber brick from its bottom would be the year’s champion and would receive a trophy. Suddenly filled with confidence, Caroline soon rose from the water holding the brick above her head and received a loud ovation from the bleachers. She was exhilirated by the physical effort and the victory. She scanned the faces of the parents for her mother and saw her, looking at those to either side of her, “as if seeking confirmation from the mothers sitting around her that this great event had really happened. When she looked at me, her face was awash in tears.” In that moment Caroline experienced “an anguish deeper than anything I had words for. Achingly devoted to her, I did not have it in my power to think, much less say, I am not really this strong. I will not always be able to do this; I will disappoint you. It was the first time I remember wanting to grow back into tininess, into invisibility.”
Most who comment on “Reading Claudius” remark only its author’s vivid depiction of the world of Prague in the years and months before it fell to Germany. But while Heller renders that time brilliantly, she renders the pathos of the lives of children born to that world’s survivors equally brilliantly. Her mother’s arrival in Prague opens the family story, and her parents’ surviving the barbarism of Hitlerian Germany moves it forward. But it is Caroline’s overcoming the sadness and insecurity that haunted her parents' lives and her own youth that resolves the story. I’m not a big fan of California, but my heart swelled at Heller’s discovery of her own powers on its northern shores. The life she subsequently made for herself as a scholar and a person is the true victory of the Heller family story. It is her best gift to her parents. Without their daughter’s story, her parents’ story would be incomplete, their victory questionable, and the book unfinished.
Someone else who commented on the book said leaving it was like leaving “War and Peace.” I had thought the same thing. The first time I read Tolstoy’s novel, at the end I limited myself to two pages a day, so loath was I to leave the world and people whom I’d come to know so well. I felt the same about “Reading Claudius.” The first time I read it, I could not put it aside, but read it at one sitting. Two days later I returned to read it again. More recently, I reread the second part. It is that kind of book, one that enthralls at first and continues to draw one back to its riches.