Elements of Stille
Alexander Stille never stopped investigating his parents, as shown by his new memoir about his World War II heritage
Few people could read their parents’ love letters with equanimity, much less listen, as Stille did, to their own mother’s uncensored recollections of her early sex life and miserable marriage. There is a certain journalistic detachment at work here, but also considerable emotional courage. Stille has the confidence to write about his parents as flawed human beings, with a minimum of blame or recrimination.
He also has the historical imagination to evoke their very different backgrounds with equal vividness. Inevitably, it is the Kamenetzki side of the family that dominates The Force of Things. As Jewish refugees from fascism, they offer a direct connection to the most momentous events of the 20th century. The young Michele, Stille explains, fell in at his university with a group of left-wing anti-fascist intellectuals, including his best friend, a poet named Giaime Pintor. Pintor would end up being killed while fighting as a partisan in 1943, leaving behind a letter explaining his motives that became a classic document in modern Italian history. The pseudonym Ugo Stille, we learn, was originally shared by Pintor and Kamenetzki, for their alternating contributions to a newspaper column; in adopting the name, Stille’s father paid lifelong tribute to his martyred friend.
But the Kamenetzki legacy also took on less heroic forms, which Stille writes about unblushingly. His father, he recalls, was an incorrigible collector of newspapers, unable to throw anything away and furious if anything was moved. But his father’s sister, known as Lally, was a hoarder on a psychopathic scale. One of the book’s best set-pieces involves Stille’s horrified discovery that his aunt had filled her apartment from wall to wall with archeological layers of trash, leaving almost no room to move. To him, the connection between his aunt’s hoarding and her refugee childhood is plain:
This mess was the expression of a world of darkness, despair, and irrational pain, the fearful holding on to everything as a bulwark against everything that was lost. It was … the detritus of a family, the first wave of stateless citizens who had crossed the major tragedies of twentieth-century Europe: the Bolshevik revolution, the Fascist revolution, the racial laws, World War Two. This apartment was its terminus, the storage depot at the end of the line.
The symbolism is all too perfect when Stille’s mother takes charge of cleaning the apartment, bringing her American love of order and cleanliness to bear on the European Jewish past. Yet though he has a tendency to cast his parents as symbolic opposites—light and dark, New World and Old—Stille also makes clear that the Bogert family was no paradise either. We learn that his mother’s father, the law professor, was a poor orphan who made his way into the middle class thanks to an iron self-discipline that left lasting marks on his character. He seems to have disliked his oldest child, Elizabeth, and even suspected that he might not be her real father. Then, when she was a teenager, Elizabeth recalls her father being inappropriately sexual with her—in particular, one occasion when he asked her to dance and she discovered that he had an erection. Stille traces much of his mother’s sexual impulsiveness and need for male attention to this troubled father-daughter relationship.
At the end of The Force of Things, Stille includes a “coda” in which he relates a nightmare he had when completing the book. He dreamed that “a dead body turned up unexpectedly in my hotel room. ‘I didn’t kill this person,’ I thought, ‘but everyone will think I did.’ ” The dream interprets itself: Putting your family in a book, Stille feels on some primal level, is akin to murdering them. He acknowledges that there is some truth to this charge: “The writer is taking something that belongs to several people, appropriating it for himself, and turning it into something that inevitably feels alien and wrong to those who have lived some of those events, but from inside another skin.” But there is no other way that memoir can be written; and as The Force of Things shows, the best memoirs transcend solipsism to become genuine histories of unknown lives.
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