It is ironic that Steven Spielberg, who loves to tell children's stories, shares responsibility for the recent reconsideration of two of the most difficult events of our era. His treatment of the Holocaust in Schindler's List
, and of the American war effort in Saving Private Ryan
, succeeded in returning these subjects to everyday examination. Many of the essays in Kenneth Sherman's recent collection, Void & Voice
, are concerned with the way literature and film have dramatically influenced our view of modern events. Sherman's interest is often focused on writers who found themselves at the centre of momentous events, and struggled to come to terms with these in their fiction and poetry. But he is also interested in how an artist like Spielberg, who has, like most of us, no immediate experience of historical calamity, comes to terms with it in his work. Sherman's view of the relationship between art and history is refreshingly non-dogmatic. He is not interested in proscribing certain kinds of response to catastrophe, but in investigating the different strategies these responses can take.
In "Schindler's List: Reel History", Sherman points to the way that photographs and news reels provide much of the material by which we "know the Holocaust . . . . Despite the historical revisionists and Holocaust deniers, there is no doubt that these images have become a permanent part of our psychic landscape." He argues that the key accomplishment of Schindler's List is its marriage of documentary techniques with those of the more stylized film noir and German expressionism. It is this marriage of history and artistic form which, Sherman argues, signals Spielberg's liberation "from the constraints of commercialism and juvenility."
Void & Voice includes meditations on the relationship between art and history in the work of Primo Levi, Czeslaw Milosz, Rupert Brooke, and H.G. Wells. In these pieces, without doing so explicitly, Sherman examines the legacy of European literature for postwar North American readers. Though his collection sets these essays apart from the ones that address Canadian literature directly, the reader senses that Sherman is most interested in uncovering the links between our world and the vanished character of prewar Europe.
Such connections are most affectingly examined in the personal essays included in Void & Voice. Two of these-"The Tailor Shop" and "Silver Braids"-are evocative portraits of Toronto Jewish life, and of the complicated, at times difficult lives led by Sherman's immigrant ancestors. "The Tailor Shop" is a loving commemoration of a family business, the kind of European-style custom tailor shop that is largely extinct, replaced by the racks of ready-made jackets at Eatons and The Gap. I lived around the corner from Sherman Custom Tailors for a few years, and even did a bit of business with Sherman's father, wondering, every time I passed the store's nondescript site on Toronto's College Street, how the business could possibly stay afloat. "The Tailor Shop" leaves the reader with the lyrical (and rather melancholy) notion that in its later years, Sherman Custom Tailors was in the business of memories, not of tailoring; everything about the place proves redolent of past worlds-Canadian and European-which are called to life by the iconic image of the shop's proprietor as he spends an afternoon sitting "at the large order desk playing solitaire." Here, the author's skills as a poet allow him to create a vivid and concrete image that brings home the import of his memoir.
An equally evocative piece is Sherman's travelogue recounting the trip he made to Poland to visit the hometowns of his ancestors, as well as the city of the dead the Germans constructed at Auschwitz. In this essay Sherman is most revealing about the nature of what he calls his "psychic map", his way of viewing both history and its legacy through the prism of art: "As for myself, I have always found ruins more moving than buildings that are intact. The Wailing Wall, for instance, would not be half as powerful a symbol if its other three walls were still standing."
In the preface to Void & Voice Sherman mentions that the "commercial nature of publishing today has lessened the chances of an author finding a home for the sort of non-academic literary essay I have been writing." It is true that the small audience for literary journalism in Canada can make the kind of essays Sherman writes seem superfluous and lost to the wind. A volume like Void &Voice gives his thoughtful, searching work a second life.
Norman Ravvin's recent books are a story collection, Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish, and a volume of essays entitled A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory.