The Spectre of Spielberg

  • Searching for Schindler
    by Thomas Keneally,
    Sceptre, 2008, 312pp.

Which would you rather read, The Great Gatsby or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s day-by-day account of the whisky he drank and the cigarettes he smoked while writing it? La Comédie humaine or a list of the cups of coffee Balzac downed, between midnight and sunrise, while putting all of those words down on paper? Barchester Towers or Trollope’s fond recollections of the time he spent in composition (“wake up at 5:30, write until 8:30, leave for the post office, go home. Next day: wake up at 5:30, write until 8:30, leave for the post office, go home…”)
Descriptions of the process by which novelists come to create their works are invariably far less interesting than the works themselves. And that, unfortunately, also proves to be the case with Schindler’s Ark, the book which became the movie, Schindler’s List, and which has now inspired the memoir, Searching for Schindler. In this not entirely necessary work of non-fiction, the Australian novelist, Thomas Keneally, recounts, in breathless detail, the amazing coincidence (an encounter in a Beverly Hills leather-goods shop) which led him to the Schindler story; the travels around the world (to Israel, Poland, Germany) during which he put together the manuscript; the various legal and publishing squabbles which preceded the book’s publication; and, of course, the serendipitous set of circumstances which led the director, Steven Spielberg, to make the film which made Keneally famous.
Very occasionally, stories like this one do make good books. I am thinking, for instance, of the American philosopher Daniel Mendelson’s book The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million, which was an account, superficially similar to Keneally’s, of how the writer travelled the world in order to discover the fate of some relatives of his who died in the Holocaust. It too was a story of coincidences and serendipity, but along the way he pondered bigger questions, from family secrets and relations between brothers to the mystery of what motivated the Germans to murder children.

Searching for Schindler isn’t exactly in that league. There are flashes of literary interest: Keneally’s description of Poldek, the Beverly Hills leather goods salesman who led him to the Schindler story, is very compelling, for example, though repetitive. But there is a heavy dose of the banal, as well as a sense of self-satisfaction unforgivable in a writer whose fortune was made telling a story filled with so much death and human cruelty. To put it bluntly, the book contains too many sentences like these:

“I was a little bemused to find out, though, that I would need to wear black tie for the Booker evening at the Guildhall. But Moss Bros, the traditional London outfitters, were very kind and exacting in that regard.”

Or, even worse:

“A new edition of Schindler’s Ark made an appearance and, happily for the Keneallys, it became a habitual presence on the New York Times Book Review paperback bestseller list in its far from cheap trade-paperback edition.”
Haunting this book is, of course, the spectre of Spielberg, without whose interest and attention Keneally’s book, though it did indeed win the Booker Prize, would not have become an international sensation. Indeed the second half of Searching for Schindler is in fact an account of Waiting for Steven, since Spielberg, after buying the rights to the book, waited for the better part of a decade before actually making the film. Keneally and Poldek suffer through every interim Spielberg production — Jurassic Park, The Color Purple — while Keneally tries, and fails, to write the script, and then tries, and fails, to get Spielberg to name his film Schindler’s Ark, like his book, instead of Schindler’s List, as the director preferred.

Missing from the text is a deeper consideration of the significance of Schindler’s List, the movie which probably still remains the most important source of public knowledge about the Holocaust, despite — or perhaps because of — its unusually happy ending. Keneally dwells at several points during this tale on the ambiguity of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi who saved Jews but made money out of them while doing so. That ambiguity seems to have been part of what he found appealing about the story. But Spielberg’s Oskar was far less nuanced than the real man, and Spielberg’s script more maudlin and sentimental than the true story. Perhaps the director could not, in the end, avoid the clichés of Hollywood — and, once touched by them, perhaps Keneally couldn’t either.