Luiz Schwarcz Writes About Depression But Refuses to Interpret It

As a boy in São Paulo, the writer and publisher Luiz Schwarcz was too shy to play soccer or stickball with the kids in his neighborhood. Instead, he would swipe candies from his parents’ stash and toss them into the games from his balcony, then “hide behind the curtain and watch as the children turned toward the heavens, trying to understand how it was that chocolates were falling miraculously from the sky.” His brief autobiography “The Absent Moon: A Memoir of a Short Childhood and a Long Depression,” translated from Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker, is suffused by the same muted yearning that drove its author to drop candy from his balcony decades ago. It is restrained and full of explicit omissions, and yet it offers astounding emotional clarity. Schwarcz evidently sees his project—or his responsibility—as a double one: to share but not interpret the profound suffering he’s faced in his lifetime with depression and bipolar disorder; and to tell, again without interpretation, what he can of the family story that underlies both his struggles with mental illness and his instinct, or compulsion, toward silence.

Schwarcz is the son of a Holocaust survivor. His father, André (or, in his Hungarian youth, András), grew up in Budapest, the only son of a religious family. In the turbulent months preceding the Nazi occupation of Hungary, André and his father, Lajos, attempted to banish a group of Fascist militiamen from the area around their home, which Lajos had clandestinely turned into a “makeshift synagogue.” When the Nazis took power, father and son were immediately deported. Lajos was imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen and died shortly after the Allies liberated the camp. André escaped to join Hungary’s partisan resistance after Lajos shoved him from the train taking them to the camp, ordering, “Run, son, run.”

Schwarcz relays this story, which he heard from his father only once, in fragments that are laden with quiet emotion, but devoid of analysis. He refuses to extrapolate from the story of his family’s survival. Instead, he tells it plainly, juxtaposing it with memories from his childhood and adolescence in the sometimes-insular Jewish community of São Paulo. “The Absent Moon” moves from Jewish summer camps to community centers, from high school to university; it touches on Schwarcz’s time as a militant leftist in the early nineteen-seventies, during Brazil’s twenty-one-year military dictatorship, a political commitment that seems to have ceded space to a lifelong obsession with literature. Schwarcz and his wife, the historian Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, co-founded the influential literary press Companhia das Letras, which he consciously and explicitly omits from his memoir as much as he can. It appears only in the context of his adult battle with depression, which gradually reveals itself to be the book’s central subject.

“The Absent Moon” often feels like a war story, albeit one with no victor. Schwarcz takes pains to show that he has not vanquished his depression. However, it is clear that he has created space between it and his sense of self. In fact, this gap generates one of “The Absent Moon” ’s key tensions. Schwarcz not only understands that he inherited the shame André felt about escaping without Lajos, but holds it close, as an heirloom of sorts. (On several occasions, he expresses his dislike of metaphors and other forms of symbolic language, yet he cannot help investing his grandfather’s heavy wool tallis, which he wears on the High Holy Days despite Brazil’s heat, with significant symbolic weight.) Still, he resists ascribing his depression even in part to that shame, or to the atmosphere of guilt and grief in which he grew up. Early in the book, he writes, “As I try to reconstitute the prehistory of my disease, I find myself thinking about my constant anguish as a child. It was a time permeated by fear and silence. However, these feelings came out of nowhere.” It’s a difficult claim to trust, particularly when he describes his first memory of true terror, which accompanied a revelation: “I would be unable to secure my father’s happiness, and yet I was entirely aware that doing so would always be the most important mission of my life.”

Schwarcz’s refusal to interpret or draw conclusions about his father’s feelings, or his father’s story, means that André’s sorrow is not the most important topic in “The Absent Moon.” Neither are Schwarcz’s lifelong efforts to please him, or to learn the details of his time in the resistance that he never shared. Compared with books like Art Spiegelman’s furious, agonized “Maus I” and “Maus II,” which never stop wrestling with the lingering, traumatic memory of the camps, Schwarcz’s memoir sometimes seems to hardly belong to the world of Holocaust literature. Certainly it breaks the mold of books written by survivors’ children, and that of books written in the twenty-first century about the Holocaust. Increasingly, such texts treat concentration camps as settings rather than realities. Schwarcz resists this impulse, and any impulse to imagine what his father and grandfather experienced during the war. He is committed to relaying what his father lived through not as parable, inspiration, or metaphor, but simply as stark, awful fact.

He approaches his depression and bipolar disorder the same way. Perhaps as a result, his writing is strikingly devoid of compassion for his past self. “The Absent Moon” is painful not only because of its content but also because of the disjunction between the reader’s empathy for Schwarcz and his frequent inability to show himself kindness. He writes about his illnesses and their effects, which have ranged from obsessive, manic work habits and a tendency to create conflict in his early professional years to intense anxiety and self-harm in middle age, in prose marked by a clarity that comes from total, rigorous precision. In a passage on his obsessive record collecting, Schwarcz writes, “I was in search of the sublime, the most perfect form of expression to be found among all the concertos, sonatas, and symphonies . . . I set out to acquire several copies of works I already had by the boatload, in an attempt to discover which version was closest to perfection.” His sentences read as if he had gone through a variation on this process with each one, eradicating not only literary clutter but the clutter of mercy.

Still, the very fact that he is able to pay sustained attention to his own pain rather than his father’s—to break the expectation of deference to the parental and communal past—is, perhaps, a form of compassion. It certainly reads like a liberation, not just from the form of the next-generation Holocaust memoir but also from the assumption, so common in autobiographical writing, that memory should create meaning. For Schwarcz, depression is, like the horrors his father endured, one of life’s stark and awful facts. It holds no intrinsic meaning, and is worthy of literary attention only so that others can know more of the truth.

Schwarcz was not always opposed to interpreting or imagining his family’s story. In fact, he writes at the memoir’s end that he had not intended to write the book at all, and could do so only by committing to making it first and foremost about his childhood and illness, and only “in a certain sense about an endless search, connected to my father, that I [have] sought to transform into literary works on numerous occasions.” He is referring here to some of the stories in his 2005 collection, “Discourse on Some Blades of Grass”; and to his failed efforts to write a novel, which he mentions with wry sadness, once expressing gratitude for the ability to “make light of those poor characters I once thought to create”; and to his 1999 children’s book, “My Life as a Goalie,” in which he turned what he knew of André’s time as a partisan into a heroic tale that involved a character based on his father collaborating with the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to get Hungarian Jews out of the Nazis’ clutches. When André read the book, he told Schwarcz it was “the best thing that had ever happened to him.” But Schwarcz has not only transformed his father’s story into literature by writing. His “numerous occasions” could easily refer not just to his own works but to the books he has published, a handful of which focus on inherited Holocaust trauma like his own.

Companhia das Letras is not a Jewish publisher, and does not have any special focus on Jewish books. It launched, in 1986, with four titles (one was Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”), a hundred forty thousand dollars in seed money, and an office in the back room of Schwarcz’s maternal grandfather’s printing company, Cromocart, where Schwarcz, as a child, sometimes helped stamp the halos onto images of saints. On founding Companhia das Letras, he resolved not only to be editorially exacting, but to give the press a “unique visual identity, an expression of respect for the work of its authors.” Schwarcz explains that he has chosen not to write about the speed and completeness of his professional success because his mental health was at one of its nadirs during the company’s first years—but his strategy undeniably worked. Besides, he and his team had great taste. Schwarcz has released books by several of Brazil’s most famous singers, notably the musician and leftist activist Caetano Veloso; he’s published international luminaries like James Baldwin, Roberto Bolaño, Alice Munro, and Philip Roth; and many of the Brazilian writers being translated into English now, including Daniel Galera, Geovani Martins, and Michel Laub, publish with Companhia das Letras in Brazil. He writes in “The Absent Moon” that his “favorite writers never narrate in excess,” a preference that even Anglophone readers could perhaps have guessed at without being told: Galera and Laub write prose that’s almost as pared-back as Schwarcz’s, and the gaps and breaks in Martins’s stories are the utter opposite of literary excess.

Laub’s fiction offers a special, if oblique, insight into “The Absent Moon.” He is, like Schwarcz, the descendant of a Holocaust survivor. His grandfather lived through Auschwitz, which he rarely spoke of, instead devoting much of his life to writing resolutely cheery diaries. Laub draws on those diaries in his autobiographical novel “Diary of the Fall” (2011), translated by Margaret Jull Costa, which opens, “My grandfather didn’t like to talk about the past, which is not so very surprising given . . . the fact that he was a Jew.” “Diary of the Fall” explores the isolation and bafflement of understanding one’s religion as a source of trauma and threat, not comfort; its unnamed protagonist cannot understand how to participate in Jewish community or bear the burden of his grandfather’s memories while not “feeling as if any of that experience were truly [his].” Many books by survivors’ children and grandchildren seek to present Jewish history and community after the Holocaust as somehow both interrupted and continuous. Laub and Schwarcz resist, and, in so doing, can be read as the start of a community of their own.

Still, by the end of “The Absent Moon,” Schwarcz has in large part resigned himself to silence. Much of the memoir’s final section is devoted to a string of severe breakdowns he suffered beginning at the time “My Life as a Goalie” came out, which threatened not only his professional and familial stability but his life. Medication and therapy have been vital for him, but so has accepting that he will never succeed in his “endless search” to understand his father’s story—or, for that matter, his own. “The Absent Moon” ’s rigor is, ultimately, not just a stylistic choice, but an emotional and ethical one. Schwarcz writes with some pride of no longer “resort[ing] to fictions to fill my father’s silence. I share my silence with those who wish to know the stories that belong to Lajos, András, and me.” In so doing, he acknowledges the confusion and disorientation inherent to reckoning with historical pain and horror, while also transcending the comforting but—to him—false notion that his depression could be fully explained or understood. Certainly “The Absent Moon” offers its readers little comfort. It seems very possible that Schwarcz does not intend it to move his readers, either. If that is the case, it is his only failure. “The Absent Moon” is, for all its restraint, a profoundly emotional book, and a brave one. Reading it is a reminder—for critics, memoirists, and everyone else—that interpretation isn’t always the right thing to do. ♦

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