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  • A Modernist in Exile: The International Reception of H.G. Adler (1910–1988) ed. by Lynn L. Wolff
  • Traci S. O’Brien
A Modernist in Exile: The International Reception of H.G. Adler (1910–1988).
Edited by Lynn L. Wolff. Cambridge: MHRA, 2019. 278 pages + 7b/w images. £75,00/$99.00/€85,00 hardcover, £9,99/$12.50/€12,50 paperback.

This volume dedicated to H.G. Adler will prove edifying to seasoned scholars and newcomers alike. It contains fifteen essays from a 2016 conference, which brought [End Page 747] together a wide range of Adler scholars. Several themes recur, such as: Adler’s modernist aesthetic and his exile, his stated mission to document his experiences (before Holocaust Studies was an established field), his literary/scholarly focus when writing about those experiences, his disagreements with Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, and his publication difficulties, as well as the wealth of still-unpublished material (letters, essays, novels, short stories) awaiting scholarly attention in archives.

The volume is divided into four sections of varying lengths. The first situates Adler “within the context of the Holocaust and Holocaust studies” (1) and is, at 28 pages, the shortest. Editor Lynn Wolff efficiently introduces the volume as the first to respond to Adler’s new international acclaim. This first chapter not only provides a coherent framework for the individual contributions, it also cleverly uses an unpublished essay by Adler to contextualize the themes of this collection in Adler’s views on language. The section continues with two short essays. Christopher Browning asks interesting questions: first, why Adler did not become as prominent as some others “despite his two weighty contributions” to Holocaust historiography (23) and, second, whether Adler reflected this neglect in his autobiographical “Shoah Trilogy” (22). This ambitious program, however, could not be fully developed in Browning’s short essay. Peter Pulzer’s piece promises to compare Adler with Primo Levi as a memoirist, alike in their “learning process” in the camps (25) and loyalty to their Enlightenment heritage (29). However, Pulzer complicates his stated purpose by introducing three poets of the twentieth century in order to conclude that the “arts are the greatest imaginable antidote to barbarism” (30), a claim in need of development.

Part II examines questions of Adler’s “modernism in/and exile” (33). Anthony Grenville analyzes an unpublished essay from 1949, “England: Eindrücke eines Ahnungslosen,” written shortly after Adler’s arrival in London. Grenville traces Adler’s dialectical synthesis of opposites—such as individualism/conformity and freedom/voluntary submission—used to elucidate a “social order under which freedom and individual dignity could flourish intact” (39). Grenville’s essay is followed by Peter Filkins’s engaging investigation of Adler as a “displaced modernist” (48). He uses Adler’s understanding of his own writing (and of Arnold Schoenberg’s musical modernism) to explore the transcendent possibilities of language in Adler’s fiction. Filkins expertly explores not “what” but “how” the novels mean (50). Kristin Gwyer finds a productive metaphor in “Grenzgängertum” and identifies Adler as a “transborder” traveler between “Enlightenment epistemology and modernist representation” (62). Gwyer intends to blur an additional boundary: between Adler the scholarly writer of Theresienstadt and Adler the author of modernist novels. The continuities of place and theme that exist throughout Adler’s work justify this approach. However, Gwyer may overstate her own theme of nullifying distinctions, as she calls upon an additional, all-encompassing metaphor, apeiron, that “denotes an indeterminate state of predifferentiation” (66). Likely inflating this term’s importance at the expense of Adler’s ethical concerns, she asserts “the subject matter [of Adler’s works] becomes the breakdown of their own structures” (71).

The third section presents “individual studies of Adler’s literary works” (79), which Katrin Kohl begins with her analysis of Adler’s “poetry in exile” (81). She puts Adler’s poetic “dialogue with past and present” (81) within the context of Adler’s poetics. First, Kohl mines Adler’s essays to explicate his connection to his poetic forbears—and the reasons he chose to continue writing in German after the Shoah. [End Page 748] The essay’s second half is dedicated to a smart close reading of...