Writers do not often attempt the epistolary form, and the reasons seem obvious: All action happens at a temporal distance, summary narration often seems unavoidable, and—depending on the audience for whom the epistles are written—exposition can sound forced. Imagine, for a moment, an epistolary novel written in the form of diary entries. What kind of exposition can the author provide believably? What does the hypothetical audience—the narrator him/herself—not already know?
Saving Mozart, Raphaël Jerusalmy’s first novel (translated for Europa Editions by Howard Curtis), pairs the diary dilemma with another one: How to write about the World War II and the Holocaust—subjects at once unfathomable and, as evidenced each year by Oscar-fodder like The Reader and The Book Thief, somewhat overexposed? Of course, the shared pool of knowledge about the Holocaust and its literature is massive (in particular, another diary about the Holocaust likely comes to mind). But Jerusalmy has written a tidy, focused novel that avoids many clichés.
The fictional diary here belongs to Otto J. Steiner, beginning in the summer of 1939 and ending one year later. Steiner is a former music critic and current tuberculosis patient dying in a sanitarium in Salzburg, Germany, which was—according to Jerusalmy—“a mecca for Nazi cultural life and a symbol of the influence of the Reich.” Each summer brings the music festival, Festspiele, which refashions Germanic composers for propaganda purposes. When Steiner—who is secretly Jewish and fears discovery—is asked to write program notes for the 1940 Festspiele, he sets in motion a plan to undermine the Third Reich’s cultural project.
We know little about Steiner’s history. He feels no strong connection to his Jewish heritage, and he has a son who lives in America, but I can recall few other details of his past. His diary entries are mostly experiential, not philosophical. We know how he feels about potatoes and cod. We know whether his weeks are good or bad. We know how he distrusts Dr. Müller, who may or may not have recently informed on a Jewish patient.
Steiner can only discuss what happens in his very limited sphere. History weighs on this book, yes, as it weighs on all literature that focuses on this period, but it’s a weight the reader brings: Steiner isn’t interested in what Nazism will do to the world, but only in what it will do to Mozart at the 1940 Festspiele. As he becomes more invested in his heritage, Steiner opens up in his diaries—and, eventually, in letters written to his son. His movement from indifference to activism is a smart one, and it allows Jerusalmy to reveal Steiner’s back-story gradually. After all, Steiner begins the novel as a cipher to himself, and as he comes to better understand his own history, so does the reader.
While this novel certainly evokes The Diary of Anne Frank, it also evokes Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (and, to a lesser extent, Aharon Appelfeld’s Baddenheim 1939); thus, it’s tempting—if a little reductive—to view Jerusalmy’s sanitarium as a microcosm of German society at the time. When writing about the bodies of the dead being taken out on gurneys, Steiner is indifferent, desensitized: “Usually I don’t take any notice. It’s not like at the beginning.” Eventually, the toll of the war leads to the decision to house wounded German soldiers in the Sanitarium; Steiner “never imagined the war would be on such a scale.” This novel’s weak moments are the ones that engage most directly with history—in particular, a long and ill-advised sequence where Steiner meets Hitler and winds up holding his cap; there’s interesting irony here, but it breaks the claustrophobia that Jerusalmy has so carefully built.
The strength of Saving Mozart is its focus on one man’s limited experience of horror. This is Steiner’s novel, and he’s a man awakening to his own passion and responsibility to the world around him. At the center of Steiner’s experience is music, and how it keeps him and others alive. (Here, I think even of Steiner’s dying roommate, who can only breathe when he opens his mouth to sing.) By the end of Saving Mozart, Steiner has returned to chronicling the mundane facts of his dwindling days, alone in his knowledge that his actions, however small, have managed to transcend mass tragedy, if even for only one night.