September 28, 2020
ART

Out of Focus: On Helena Janeczek’s “The Girl with the Leica”

HELENA JANECZEK’S NOVEL La ragazza con la Leica (2017) was awarded the most prestigious Italian literary award, the Premio Strega. Translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published in 2019, The Girl with the Leica focuses on a fascinating subject: the life and death of Gerda Taro, the German Jewish photographer who reported on the Spanish Civil War and is thought to be the first female photojournalist to have died as a result of injuries sustained on the front line. Unfortunately, Janeczek has written the story in a style so uninviting that most of it is lost on the reader.
Gerda Taro was the pseudonym of Gerta Pohorylle. Born in 1910 in Stuttgart, Germany, she came from a family of Polish Jews who had moved to the southwest of the German Empire. Educated in public and private schools, including a boarding academy in Switzerland, fluent in several European languages and engaged to a rich merchant, Pohorylle had a life of peace and prosperity in front of her.
Or she would have had, had it not been the Germany of the 1930s. Fascism was rising and Jews, including her family, were being persecuted. Pohorylle was not only appalled but also motivated by these events, seeking out the company of young left-wing intellectuals and becoming an antifascist activist. After an arrest and brief imprisonment, she fled to Paris. There she led the life of the bohème, fell in love with a Hungarian Jewish photojournalist named André Friedmann, and picked up a camera herself. This last decision started her brilliant career — and all too soon brought about her end.
Janeczek, born in 1964, herself comes from a Polish Jewish family and was brought up in Germany, a country she left at 19 — not for Paris, like Pohorylle, but for Italy. It is in Italian that she has made her name as a writer. In The Girl with the Leica, she splits her personal fascination with the young woman into three characters, whom we meet years after Pohorylle’s untimely death, as they remember their mutual friend. Two of them are Pohorylle’s German Jewish lovers, Willy and Georg, and one is her friend and roommate from Parisian days, Ruth. The book is divided into three parts, each dedicated to the protagonist’s story as seen through the eyes of one of these figures.
Pohorylle and Friedmann became a power couple of photojournalism. As part of their plan to conquer the field, they invented stage names: Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. For some time they both signed their names Robert Capa. At other times they signed together: Capa&Taro. This is why it is now thought that some photos attributed to Capa were really Taro’s. In any case, both of them believed that newspapers would be much more keen to buy photographs from individuals bearing mysterious international names than from those signaling European Jewishness. Capa even pretended he was American.
In 1936, the couple set off for Spain to document the Civil War. The resulting photographs would turn Capa into one of the most important war photojournalists in the world. Taro became quite a celebrity too. In Paris, she was praised by French intellectuals such as Paul Nizan and Louis Aragon, who printed her photos in the communist newspaper Ce soir. On the Spanish front, she hung out with Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, as well as some military men. In July 1937, in pursuit of footage of the Battle of Brunete and traveling with the Soviet Union–supported Spanish Republican Army, everything ended abruptly. She was run over by a Republican tank and died the next day, aged 26.
She never lived to find out how history would turn the beliefs of her communist friends sour. Among Taro’s acquaintances mentioned by Janeczek, and probably present during her accident, was “Walter,” a Polish general of the Red Army whose real name was Karol Świerczewski, who also ended up being featured in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). In communist Poland (1945–’89), propaganda would portray Świerczewski as a hero — for the wider public, he became a symbol of Soviet oppression.
Immersing the reader in the intellectual climate of that time and place is arguably The Girl with the Leica’s most praiseworthy ambition. While telling the story of an interesting woman, Janeczek makes the reader consider the attraction many on the left in the western half of Europe felt for communism. We are reminded of the roots of their soft spot for the Soviet Union: they fought alongside Soviet agents against a common fascist enemy. There is actually a theory — spread, among others, by Willy Brandt, who met Taro in Spain — that, unwilling to follow Joseph Stalin’s propaganda in her reporting, she was on Moscow’s hit list, and that her death was no accident at all. In any case, her last photographs, the ones that documented the great defeat of Stalin’s strategists at Brunete, were never found.
The book also offers flashes of postwar America. This is where Willy, one of Taro’s lovers, immigrated to. We are reminded of Philip Roth–type Jewish neighborhoods, where traditions brought from Europe clash with the pull of American modernity. In another section of the book, there are snapshots of postwar Rome where left-wing intellectuals have to accept the reality of American supremacy. Janeczek mentions the films of Federico Fellini in her depictions of working-class life. Some scenes also bring to mind Norman Lewis’s portrait of Italy after its surrender to the Allies.
Or rather, they would bring to mind Norman Lewis if they were written in a more inviting way. Actually, all the interesting topics mentioned above are present more hypothetically than in reality. The book is written in such a convoluted language that, if we are to make any sense of it, we have to decrypt paragraph after paragraph. Try the following:
Ruth had heard the story of Csiki when Gerda was still around. It would have been too maudlin for André’s tastes if he hadn’t spiked it with a little humor: Weisz-père, who had fallen for Emperor Franz Joseph, but from a horse, in other words he was killed by a Hapsburgian hoof; the firstborn sent to an orphanage, welcomed home again during his Gymnasium years, the mother’s house quickly treated like a hostel, because a certain Bandi Friedmann, hauling Csiki behind him like a trailer, extended the perimeter of the jaunts far beyond the area between Elisabeth Bridge and the school just outside the Jewish quarter.
Why, exactly, was it necessary to drown the wonderful story of Gerda Taro in a language so abstruse? The novelistic decision to have Taro’s life recounted, years later, by three characters who mix in their own stories surely complicates the novel’s structure. But “testimony technique” has been used before in literature, and it need not always make the text impenetrable.
Furthermore, despite all these intricacies of style, the picture of Taro that emerges in the end doesn’t actually strike us with profundity. Unless perhaps I just didn’t get it, though I dare say I wouldn’t be the only one. For example, a lot of space is devoted to how smitten all the men around Taro were. But actually, this attraction hinges on just a few of her rather superficial features: her “perfectly tamed bob à la garçonne, her lips, redefined in red,” as well as her eyes, which “emitted flashes of disdain, intermittent glimmerings that stirred up the green of the depths.” And, of course, let us not forget the legs, which “showed up better in the light coming from the dormers than on Dina Gelbke’s dusty carpets” (whatever that means).
There are also Taro’s courage and her nonchalant poshness, but that seems to be about it. For 300-plus pages written with the level of complexity of a Jacques Derrida explaining the phenomenology of an Emmanuel Levinas to postdoctoral students, this strikes me as hardly sufficient.
What is equally noteworthy is the dialogue: not only strangely wooden, but often also pointless. Take conversations such as this one between two lovers:
“I’m using your aftershave, since you don’t. Do you mind?”
“No, no, go ahead,” he had replied, incredulous, “but I was wondering…”
“You know, I find it really good, otherwise I wouldn’t have got it for you. Who cares if it’s not very feminine…”
“Well, that scent … what do you need it for? You don’t seem to have a beard growing.”
“I should use up my eau de toilette when I go out in that foul air?”
What exactly is this awkward exchange meant to tell us about the characters, apart from the fact that they seem to have landed parts in a soap opera? As usual in such cases, a suspicion arises that The Girl with the Leica’s incomprehensibility is meant to obscure a banality of observation and a lack of anything really new to say.
The last issue that the reader has to face is that the problems might be caused by a bad translation. Sometimes the syntax is so strange, it is as if the translated version were not written in English at all. Did the Italian sentences sound like they were written in Italian? Unfortunately, that isn’t something I can judge, my Italian being a little rusty. At the same time, you don’t have to be Umberto Eco to understand the following excerpts from one Italian reader’s review: “una scrittura volutamente confusa” and “estremamente faticosa la lettura.” If your Italian is even rustier than mine — well, they mean exactly what I just said: that the style of the original is voluntarily confused and the reading experience really tiresome.
Besides, the translator, Ann Goldstein, was responsible for rendering all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and her versions were so enjoyable that one of the books became a New York Times bestseller and all have won a devoted following wherever English is spoken. Would Goldstein suddenly have rendered a well-written book unintelligible? Likely not.
In any case, do look into Gerda Taro and refresh your knowledge of the Spanish Civil War. Both are plenty interesting. But Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica may not be your best source.
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Magdalena Miecznicka is a Polish journalist, critic, playwright, and novelist currently based in London.
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