Everyone Has Their Reasons
Author: Joseph Matthews
Publisher: PM Press
Release date: Oct 1, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction / WW2
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
Even though you may not know too much about WW2, I assume you have heard about Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated deadly attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria on 9–10 November 1938. But you may ignore that it is said to have been organized as a response to the shooting of Ernst vom Rath, a Nazi diplomat in France, by a Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan. In Everyone Has Their Reasons, Herschel himself writes letters about his life and about what led to his act. This is a unique historical novel, in form and content.
The book opens on Oct 15, 1940. Herschel writes letters to his lawyer, the fictional Herr Rosenhaus (though one of Herschel’s real lawyers does appear in name later on in the narrative). The latter has encouraged him to talk about his life and the events that led to his act, in order to prepare for his trial. The epistolary genre allows the book to work at two levels in times:
1. you first have Herschel writing these letters between October 1940 and January 1945 (when in its turn Berlin was bombarded by the allies), in between visits by his lawyer.
The letters function also as a unique way for the prisoner to at least talk to someone. And he usually writes as he would talk, using a simple conversation style where he himself addresses questions to his reader and answers him, and you follow his flow of thoughts.
Write as you talk. Just let yourself talk, but on paper.
The style is mostly made of short compact sentences (see excerpt below) that right away gave me the feeling the book had been translated from the French, as this style is most common in contemporary French authors (though yes, there are exceptions, the most noticeable being Zone, by Mathias Énard, the whole book being one single sentence…).
I double checked, it was NOT a book in translation! It was written in English, but the author is fluent in French and it was his purpose to give a French flair to his book. He brilliantly succeeded in that!
There are even jokes and plays on words that only a fluent French speaker would be able to introduce, for instance between crétin/chrétien (page 13), terroir français/French terror (p.90).
At this level of narration, we follow Herschel’s daily life in prison and concentration camps (in special units, separated from other prisoners).
One day, Herschel suffers a bout of typhus and his feverish condition reflects in his writing, a masterful passage (pages 255-6)
2. Then the other level is what Herschel tells Rosenhaus about his life before prison. It is a very smart way of telling readers about that period of time.
The writing is striking and quite powerful.
Herschel’s Jewish family was Polish but emigrated to Hannover, Germany, where Herschel was born.
There are lots of elements on Jewish traditions – he even fasts in jail to atone for his crime, and some Yiddish is used.
When he was 15, Herschel was sent to his uncle’s and aunt’s in Paris. So through his words, the readers witness the new laws and decrees as the young man experienced them in France and also Germany (where his family was still living) against non-Aryans, and the increase of his worry for his relatives, as conditions deteriorate for them, besides his own loneliness and difficulties at finding money enough to stay away from starvation, to find work, and first of all to fight with the authorities and insane administration rules for paperwork to be able to stay legally in France.
Through his hardships and those of his friends (people from all kinds of walks, including those fleeing fascist Spain), you see the amazing resourcefulness one had to come up with to survive in Paris, and how to keep a low profile.
There are also lighter passages, for example on hats in Paris (p.118) and bals musette. And fascinating details on 1937 Paris Exposition Universelle as well as its Foire.
Do you know those, Maître, the Paris baguettes? So narrow, with a hard crust. And when you open them up, pure white. And full of air. Sort of like Parisians.
There is a ton of information on social upheavals, with le Front Populaire, the consequence of large stores on small tailors, the development of syndicats (trade unions), their strikes, and the emergence of Communism.
And in Summer 1938 the first Nazi bombs started to fall on Paris… Herschel is our eye witness, also for the crazy Exode (page 426 and after) of people fleeing south where they hoped to find shelter away from danger.
The alternation between the two levels of narration is very well done and kept me turning the pages.
The book treated also so well the build up of despair and anger in Herschel, at the world and the circumstances around him.
There are also many passages offering a reflection on life in general.
You see, there is nothing here but the walls. The hours are enormous. So I have come to depend entirely on remembering, and have developed the habit of letting myself recall as much as will come. Wherever it takes me, Which allows what has been to take the place of what is.
Just the opposite of life outside. With its endless forgetting. Have you ever realized? Of feelings, especially –embarrassment, unhappiness, fear. The daily renewness of waking up and having forgotten how something truly felt. Which allows everyone to keep going. Unless a time arrives when you are unable to forget. A madness, I would say.
Whether a life should be judged by its highest moments of its lowest? The best a person has done? Or the worst? But here is the other part — How to decide which is which?
The end of the book shows how he was even deprived of the truth, with the authorities drawing all kinds of conclusions from his letters.
There’s a big twist coming at the very end of the book. This element of Herschel’s story is controversial, not all historians agree with the version the author of this book decided to adopt. It could actually make perfect sense and partly explain the constant delaying of the trial.
This is not a short book, and the content could be heavy, but the way it is treated here makes it totally bearable. Even suspenseful, as you wait with Herschel for his elusive trial…
Helped by materials collected by “two Herschel devotees” who had been investigating his case for years, Matthews has done an amazing job at finding Herschel’s voice, at filling in the many gaps in his story, and at recreating what his experiences would have been through his daily life in Hannover, in Paris, in French and Nazi jails, as well as in the French countryside.
The only thing that didn’t really work for me was the title. Maybe the author/publisher tried to get close to the French saying “à chacun ses raisons”? Well, it does not seem to work in English for me, it feels awkward. Something simple as The Reasons Why would have been far better, plus in keeping with the short sentences used in the book itself.
EN DEUX MOTS :
Incroyable roman historique sur Herschel Grynszpan, sur sa famille, son adolescence, sur les conditions qui ont pu l’amener au meurtre d’un diplomate Nazi, ainsi que sur son temps en prison ensuite. L’occasion de décrire de façon extrêmement vivante les conditions de vie en Europe dans les années 1937-1945. Écriture dense et tendue, parfaite pour ce regard unique sur la vie d’un ado de son temps.
VERDICT: Powerful and unique rendition on life in Europe in the years 1935-1945 through vivid letters from Herschel Grynszpan to his lawyer, as he awaits his trial for killing a Nazi diplomat in Paris. A long book that will reward readers interested in this page of European history as well as inventive writing.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
On November 7, 1938, a small, slight seventeen-year-old Polish-German Jew named Herschel Grynszpan entered the German embassy in Paris and shot dead a consular official. Three days later, in supposed response, Jews across Germany were beaten, imprisoned, and killed, their homes, shops, and synagogues smashed and burned—Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
Based on the historical record and told through his “letters” from German prisons, the novel begins in 1936, when fifteen-year-old Herschel flees Germany. Penniless and alone, he makes it to Paris where he lives hand-to-mouth, his shadow existence mixing him with the starving and the wealthy, with hustlers, radicals, and seamy sides of Paris nightlife.
In 1938, the French state rejects refugee status for Herschel and orders him out of the country. With nowhere to go, and now sought by the police, he slips underground in immigrant east Paris.
Soon after, the Nazis round up all Polish Jews in Germany—including Herschel’s family—and dump them on the Poland border. Herschel’s response is to shoot the German official, then wait calmly for the French police.
June 1940, Herschel is still in prison awaiting trial when the Nazi army nears Paris. He is evacuated south to another jail but escapes into the countryside amid the chaos of millions of French fleeing the invasion. After an incredible month alone on the road, Herschel seeks protection at a prison in the far south of France. Two weeks later the French state hands him to the Gestapo.
The Nazis plan a big show trial, inviting the world press to Berlin for the spectacle, to demonstrate through Herschel that Jews had provoked the war. Except that Herschel throws a last-minute wrench in the plans, bringing the Nazi propaganda machine to a grinding halt. Hitler himself postpones the trial and orders that no decision be made about Herschel’s fate until the Führer personally gives an order—one way or another. [provided by the publisher]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in Boston and raised there and in California,
Joseph Matthews was for a number of years
a criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco,
engaging in the criminal/political cases
of anti–Vietnam War activists
and Mission District barrio residents,
defending prisoners during the California prison rebellions of the 1970s,
serving as a public defender,
and teaching at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley.
He spent considerable time in Greece in the 1970s and 1980s,
where his novel Shades of Resistance (1996) is set during the period of the military junta there.
His other previous books are the short story collection The Lawyer Who Blew Up His Desk (1998)
and the political analysis Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War
(2005, with Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, and Michael Watts).