As she attempts to trace the increasingly portentous-seeming name in her grandfather’s WWI journal chronicling his time digging trenches in France, the narrator of Forgotten Night is haunted by the absence of Jewish life in the villages she travels through, by the desolation of the scattered traces remaining. As it turns out, a pogrom in his native village led the narrator’s grandfather, still a boy, to flee Romania in 1907. In Rotterdam, waiting to board a ship, he met another boy, older by three years: the very Brissac he mentions in his journals, whose widow becomes a kind of emblem for the narrator’s quest to retrieve history in the hope of finding a lost identity.
The narrator of Forgotten Night experiences the suppression of the memory of Jewish life in the villages she visits as a physical weight; a flash of menace occasionally charges the air. With every Rue des Juifs she searches out, with every local claiming that Jews haven’t lived in their village for over 500 years, a sense of danger gathers around her. Increasingly, seemingly innocent details reveal their sinister side: a Bowler hat playfully used in a lighting fixture, once outlawed in Nazi Germany, is emblematic of the pre-war trope of the Jewish businessman. A complete stranger recognizes her as a Jew; he is proud of his ability to identify her, he congratulates himself on his skill. Another stranger, herself Jewish, offers her friendly advice and warns her not to reveal her family origins “around here.”
Forgotten Night also speaks to the absence of language in the narrator’s family. Now, on her journey, the suppression of history seems to be finding its way to the surface in the narrator’s mind and the increasingly labile nature of her perception. The book’s title echoes this: “Was it what I had imagined? What I had thought? The nightmares of my youth. [. . .] The forgotten night.”
Midway in the book, the narrator finds herself in a kind of medieval outdoor village festival that turns surreal. At first, it’s unclear whether what the narrator is experiencing is in her imagination or is actually happening. Men in black bowler hats and combat boots, standing in military formation; drummers; figures in masks with deformed features; effigies of what are apparently hook-nosed Jews with sacks of money at their feet: the spectacle is horrifyingly plausible—and this seems to be the point—but grows more and more grotesque. A mysterious acquaintance tells her: “Once you put on the mask you no longer need to hide.” All at once, witches drop a young girl into a scalding cauldron, the mob lets loose, mayhem ensues, and the suppressed ghost of Nazism emerges in all its murderous force.
I spoke with Rebecca Goodman about her striking new novel, Forgotten Night, out now with Spuyten Duyvil. The interview was conducted via email.
A.S.: The narrator of Forgotten Night seems unable to locate herself in the present tense, in the here and now. Again and again, she is overtaken by the extremity of the moment, the conjunction of past and present; she is often unsure if she has experienced something or merely imagined it. The language revolves around questions of remembering and forgetting: “If I existed in this moment the past would not haunt me.” At another point, the narrator asks herself: “When you forget, do you enter the past or present? Do you leave behind you the memory of existence?”
Can you talk a bit about the sense of layered time so pervasive in Forgotten Night?
R.G.: In every moment, we live in the past—the present—our sense of the future—dream—desire—fear—the desire to and the inability to capture the present. Reality is elusive. So in this book, there are moments in time that are elusive in nature—elusive and incomprehensible.
The writing of the book actually began with the quote you highlight: “When you forget, do you enter the past or the present? Do you leave behind you the memory of existence?”
When I wrote that line, I had been thinking about the mythical River Lethe—where the recently deceased, drinking from the river, would lose all memory of their past existence. For me, it began with an image of a woman drinking from the river. But what did the narrator need to forget? Why? What haunted her? What memories did she need to hold on to?
This led me to explore the narrator’s past—those personal, cultural, historical events in her history, her family’s history, in world history that both created and challenged her sense of self. In trying to find herself, she loses herself in the conflation of past and present. The fragments and lost histories of the Jews in the villages she visits contribute to her inability to represent any fixed moment. This further clouds her own family’s history—and her attempts to understand it.
This leads the narrator down a path on which she has to confront not just discrete moments in history but interconnected moments of unknowing, of attempts to decipher unthinkable violence. I’m not sure how we can perceive/understand our personal/cultural histories without considering how time shifts and confuses and—often—unfortunately—challenges our memory, allowing us to forget those histories we need to remember.
A.S.: Forgotten Night explores some of the less easily articulated aspects of visiting the sites of large-scale persecution and annihilation; the magnitude of the tragedy and atrocity is such that certain questions can only be approached obliquely. In writing the book, did you find yourself shrinking back from your subject matter, unable to approach it in words? How did you conceive your narrative project, or did it arise in the making?
R.G.: I did find it difficult to write about this subject matter. The magnitude of the tragedy and atrocity is overwhelming. There were moments in the book that I had difficulty describing. Those moments of violence that I didn’t want to approach. I had to find ways to address the violence that the narrator encounters or believes she encounters. Or believes she has lived through in her past, in memory or dream, the unspeakable violence of her grandfather’s experience in WWI or the lingering doubt about her grandfather’s connection—and, therefore, her connection to victims of the Holocaust. I didn’t want to go down the path of participating in writing violence—as I think that description in language, in image can often amplify violence in culture. Yet I had no choice. Looking back, I see how I approached that violence gradually, incrementally, building up to the more graphic scenes, beginning with moments of small, daily, inadvertent violence. The tragic atrocities come not so much by choice; they happen. I couldn’t address what haunted me otherwise. Following the scenes of violence, the last part of the book portrays not so much an alternative as it does a vision. Einstein said that war is the worst possible use of human energy. I was searching for a response to that. What, then, is the best possible use of human energy?
The conception of the novel began with forgetting. But going further—at some point, I began to see the book as those moments when the narrator struggles with her desire to forget comingled with her urgent need to remember. There are the incidents in the bar with the photographer—and then the moment when a stranger—at the same bar—warns the narrator that it might be dangerous to reveal herself as a Jew. These kinds of events did happen in my life when I was young, living in Europe. I was, perhaps, a bit naïve and perhaps a bit more open to interactions with strangers. I wasn’t sure if I or they were being paranoid. But I did listen to them. I was frightened by those comments. And then, more incidents occurred later in life when I traveled with my husband in France. These interactions with strangers have stayed with me and haunted me, compelling me to pursue those events and develop them. So the answer would have to be both. I conceived of the project in terms of images arising from feelings, but the book came to be only in the act of writing. I agree with Robbe-Grillet: “Why would I write something if I knew where it was going?”
A.S.: When a native language is no longer passed down from grandparent to parent and to the child, the sensual memory contained in the language is lost. Can you speak about the larger ramifications of severed memory transmission in Forgotten Night?
R.G.: The book begins with language raining down on the narrator, the narrator’s attempt to capture this language and understand it—from early childhood on. The narrator—an American—lost in a culture she doesn’t understand—in languages she doesn’t understand—tries to hold on to those fragments of language that are significant to her.
Joseph, the grandfather in the novel—who speaks both Yiddish and Romanian—abandons Yiddish when he leaves Europe and arrives in America. So many Jewish immigrants at the time did this in an attempt to assimilate. In fact, in my family, on both sides, the grandparents and great-grandparents, refused to speak Yiddish to their children. So, those immigrants—like Joseph—didn’t pass down the language to their children. Their “native” or “first language” was slowly lost and forgotten by the next generations. I imagined that, in the meeting between the Romanian Joseph—loosely based on my grandfather—and Brissac, from a different location, in the French Ashkenazi valley, they would find a connection in Yiddish, their common language.
But further, I set the first part of the novel in Alsace, where historically shifting borders and, with that, different language groups, French and German, for example, have come into conflict with each other.
What does it mean to have a native language?
Current scholarship points to Yiddish as developing out of Old German, then taking a different route than did contemporary German. Along the way, Yiddish adopted vocabulary and structure from Hebrew or Polish or Romanian, etc. Not being a linguist, I do find it intriguing that Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet. Can we see Yiddish as a language attempting to survive, refusing to die, and at the same time as a language struggling to live in the present? Yiddish and the flavors of Yiddish are emblematic, in a dynamic way, of Forgotten Night’s struggle with the need to forget—the need to create—in order to arrive in the moment, as well as the danger of forgetting, wherein the value and values of the past are lost. This is the universal struggle of our lives. It becomes amplified when genocide—or attempted genocide—erases linguistic links to an entire cultural past. It is ironic, then, that Hebrew was re-born and Yiddish survives, pervasively in America and Israel (New York & Jerusalem), while the largest European Yiddish cultural center is in Paris. Zarphatic, a medieval literary Judeo-French language, is thought to have been an influence on Yiddish. Yiddish, in turn, has long had a presence in France. While all languages evolve from a deep linguistic structure, and, above all, express that universal structure, each language develops and embodies its own assumptions. Language is consciousness.
I love your term “sensual language” as it speaks to those qualities in language—the nuance in language that one feels but often can’t define. So, what happens when that sense of “sensual language” is lost?
A.S.: If the hope at the heart of the project of retrieving a forgotten history is to stave off a similar fate, you seem to be saying that we are nonetheless damned to repetition and the disintegration of memory, that we’re powerless to prevent the loss of identity the disconnection with our history brings about. We’re left with the trauma passed down from generation to generation, which is encased in wordlessness; with the bodily language of that trauma. How does the narrator’s instinct lead her in her search?
R.G.: What potential do we have? This is certainly a core question of the novel. One the narrator seeks to answer. Perhaps, in the end, the narrator is left balanced among those forces of hope/hopelessness, saved/damned, loss/renewal. I need to let the writing speak for itself. So, I can’t interpret that. The narrator has certain experiences—the book is a description of experiences open to interpretation.
The narrator is left “wordless.” She can’t find a language with which to commit to anything beyond the ambiguity of her experiences.
How does that language, wordless, relate to the body? In the first part of the novel, the narrator begins to feel a gradual loss of self—or erasure—of her body. That, again, came about in the act of writing. The loss is gradual. In a moment of crisis towards the end of the first part, following the parade that becomes a vision of Kristallnacht, the narrator’s personal boundaries, at the very least, are violated, causing a transformation—and ultimately a loss of all ability to speak or write. She looks at herself in the mirror, repeatedly trying to convey her experience in language.
In Forgotten Night’s second section, the festival—an art form (a performance piece? A theatre piece?) that expresses human passion without turning violent, responds to the trauma. The festival actualizes the movement of the body that creates art and connection. The narrator’s instinct is played out in that festival. Her instinct led her there. One could ask, “Why is the narrator instinctually drawn to search for Madame Brissac?” and answer, “She is drawn to search for Madame Brissac in order to arrive and witness and participate in the festival.” I didn’t plan that, schematically. Rather, I wrote it, instinctually. I arrived at it.
I wouldn’t say we are damned to a loss of identity or to disconnection. We’re in crisis; we have opportunities. What forces will prevail? In 1920, Yeats writes: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” We are seeking, personally and culturally.
A.S.: As you layer memory and hallucination with reality, you also speak to the rise of the right across Europe. As the danger of fascism reemerges, do you feel that antisemitism is still a primary force, even as right-wing parties in Europe channel populist anger to other marginalized groups, particularly refugees?
R.G.: The energy of hatred is destructive, no matter at whom it is directed. It causes immense suffering. Arising from suffering, seeking an outlet, it is directed at some perceived “other,” some group distinct enough to be so identifiable, be that Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ+, Romani, et alia. In the first few pages of Forgotten Night, I write, “What action repairs the expanse of breath—a moment and time—breathless beneath the exposure to other.” So, yes, antisemitism is still a force, as is hatred of any group, any “other.”
A.S.: The narrator is uncertain in her search, unable to say what she wants or doesn’t want; she gives in, against her better judgment, to the various men who approach her—curiously, these are always artists. She accompanies them on walks, is wary of confiding but does so nonetheless, hoping to find out something, to get closer to the truth of her search. How does the narrator’s unstable sense of personal boundaries and loss of self reflect the book’s themes?
R.G.: The narrator abandons her sense of self to live in that negative space where new questions, new experiences, new knowledge might evolve. The artists in the book are attracted to the potential of her openness. She is drawn to the potential of their artistic expression. The potential involved in artistic awareness can turn destructive or constructive. Early in the novel, language loses its cohesion. Letters, adjectives, nouns rain down on the narrator. Language has lost its sense of self. The artists in the book each work in the language of their medium. For them, as for the narrator, those languages fall apart. The shaping of art begins.
The intensity of the narrator’s connection to these artists pushes her to explore both the destructive and the constructive expression of human life, forcing her to discover the language within herself that will enable her to create an artistic vision. In both cases, the artists are men. These connections can also lead her into a territory where she is vulnerable, where she lacks an adequate response to their strong visions of art. She seeks a language that reflects the artistic expression of a woman.
A.S.: There is a current of suppressed eroticism in Forgotten Night; the mystery of a night with an acquaintance named Luca, which the narrator is unable to remember, remains unsolved. Yet she senses it, as a presence between them, a thing unsaid. If Eros is the force that propels creativity, her own erotic being seems stymied: she no longer has access to its source. She is unable to write; the most she can do is list individual words, draw connecting arrows between them. How does this disconnection to Eros relate to the paralyzing force of absence she experiences, the palpable weight of erasure from history?
R.G.: How might the narrator come to know Eros, the life force? She encounters, it seems, only destructive forces: aggression, as with Luca; antisemitism; anti-homosexuality; war; violence; absence. Forces that express the opposite of Eros, an opposition to Eros, a repression of Eros, of creativity.
Yet, in confronting this very real world, the narrator draws connecting arrows between individual words. One could say these are the arrows of Eros, that the erotic connection begins in Forgotten Night with the erotic attraction, insuppressible, of word to word.
The forces of the anti-erotic will not disappear, or, once known, they cannot be forgotten. They will be with us. But, in the second part of the book, on the island of refuge, Eros is very much the celebrated force of the creative, of connection realized, of love.
Eros flourishes in the water and passes through the narrator as she gives in to it, floating in the sea. To fulfill the Eros of writing, the narrator must first become the Eros of the written. In that ambivalent moment, she begins to write.
A.S.: As the narrator speaks with Brissac’s granddaughter, one feels the writer’s desire to create meaning merging with the seeker’s quest to establish verifiable facts, to untangle the mystery surrounding the few fragments she has to go by. One gets the sense that the writer is seeking closure, and that an imagined history will be enough to fill the gaps of the unspeakable loss. Is this, in part, a subtext of Forgotten Night: that the act of writing itself is a regenerative act that has the power to reconfigure the past?
R.G.: The narrator does seek answers, closure. Speaking with Madame Brissac’s daughter, she finds the following:
And now, you have been searching for my mother. And, instead, you’ve found me.
And you see that I don’t understand.
That may read like non-closure, but one that’s embraced with the affirmative “Yes.”
We are ever engaged in reconfiguring the past in a perpetual movement into the present. Writing can be a form of regeneration. But not a form of forgetting. Writing is an engagement in the present, which can infuse the past with creative energy. In the same conversation, Madame Brissac’s daughter says:
I don’t know anymore—why it’s important to know where we’ve come from, to understand that in the context of who we are.