There’s not a whole lot you can hold against a man like Josip Brik. With fluctuating regularity he would attend a few lectures, get his hair cut, eat a sandwich at the campus bistro so everyone could see he was there, and at the end of the day he would always saunter into the offices of The Sleepwalker, Journal of Hitler Studies, Since 1991, set up by, among others, Josip Brik. – Tell me honestly, Friso, are you my Dauphin or my Robespierre?
His presence required that you immediately drop everything you were doing and focus your full attention on him like a stadium floodlight. For me, as editor in chief of The Sleepwalker, he was an inexhaustible gold mine, unfailingly submitting a five-thousand-word essay every two months on any topic you cared to name. My office was on the ground floor, and its doors gave onto a courtyard. Whenever he dropped in I would throw them open and improvise a sidewalk café in the form of two wrought-iron chairs and an occasional table. He would always start the conversation himself, talking about his sandwich, about the Yankees, who’d had an amazing summer, about the Obamas, of whom the same could not, alas, be said. I would twiddle the knobs of my magnificent espresso machine, with its built-in grinder and foamer, while he did terrifyingly good imitations—he nailed the gestures as well as the voices—ranging from Hugo Chávez fulminating about the U.S. to the fluty Oxbridge indignation of Emma Watson, whom he’d just seen in the latest Harry Potter franchise. “We could all have been killed, Harry—or worse, expelled!” He’d ask after Pip, inquire about my health, want to know what he could contribute to The Sleepwalker, whether I’d seen any interesting films, and then the conversation would gradually start moving inexorably toward something that needed to happen, a small request, varying from looking after two schnauzers for a weekend to, in this case, going to Chile for a month.
– I’ve been to Chile and while I was there I met a man called Hitler, and you know, Friso, I think there might be a nice article in it for you.
He always reserved places for Pippa and me in the front row of his evening lectures, which he gave once or twice a month to packed auditoria. Whether he was talking about Freud or about Hitlerian Revenge Plays (a genre I suspected him of making up), however often he stood in front of an audience, he always seemed nervous, with patches of sweat blooming under his armpits like gunshot wounds. Physically he resembled Jabba the Hutt, 250 pounds of condemned meat, his head, his eyes, his arms, his hands were large, his belly and shoulders colossal, there was enough cotton in his shirt for a duvet cover. I exaggerate. The minuscule microphone on the lectern only reached up to his nipple, making him bend over, which interfered with his breathing, so that he talked even more wheezily than usual.
(His speech, or speech defects, were the subject of speculation: he spoke rapidly, shlishing inconsistently, in some Czech-Polish-Yiddish accent you just couldn’t pin down—he’d been born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, but since the age of eight had lived in Brooklyn, Chicago, Groningen, and Paris respectively; in theory the accent had no right to exist.)
Josip Legilimens Brik. April 2, 1955. Middle child, two brothers, two sisters. His surname was actually written with an acute accent: Brík, but somewhere in the mid-nineties he’d dropped that to make it easier for publishers, journalists, and Americans in general. Professors mostly couldn’t stand him; their PhD students, by contrast, were crazy about him. Together with the late Jack Gladney, he was one of the founders of Hitler studies, but he had many more strings to his bow: qualified psychoanalyst, Lacanian, secretary of the Anti-Derridian League, late Marxist, slightly-more-than-occasional TV host. His most popular and hated work was a comparative study of Robespierre and Hitler entitled The Red Machine, or Why Things Cost Money (2005), whose underlying theme was that the West has been lulled into such a torpor it can’t carry out the social and cultural changes it knows to be necessary. We want revolutions without revolutions. Wars without victims, racing cars without accidents, beer without alcohol, Coca-Cola without sugar, coffee without caffeine—the degeneration of the free market on all psychological levels. We want to have as much as possible for the lowest possible price and will therefore be helpless when new Robespierres or Hitlers arise.
Technically he’d been exempted from teaching duties, he could do whatever he wanted, but his lectures were faithfully attended by a hard-core group of students, youngsters who hung on his every word, something the university bragged about in its brochures—that its flourishing intellectual climate transcended “mere contact hours,” an impressive spin on the fact that their most famous teacher did not teach. He himself had an unshakable confidence in his influence and liked to tell how the father of a student had once come up to him and said: “If you turn my kid Commie, I’ll sue you!” He roared with laughter at that kind of thing in his own delightful way, his head thrown back as if he was gargling with mouthwash. His whole body shook in sympathy.
My girlfriend, Pip (God bless her), had given rise to one of the most popular Brik anecdotes on the campus. One day, when he was holding forth on Oedipus and sex in the films of Hitchcock, she’d stood up and asked the legendary question of whether he himself still had sex, whereupon he’d fired back the even more legendary reply:
– Sex? No. Never. It’s far too cognitive a pursuit.
So there we were, sitting on the wrought-iron chairs outside my office. There was something sharp and heavy in the September air, a harbinger of the first chill since spring. Brik, absorbed in spooning out the last remnants of foam, was trying not to look me in the eye. Anyway. Chile.
– This Mr. Hitler makes murals. Great big paintings with a socialist theme.
I didn’t say anything.
– Lots of workers, farmers, children, Indians. Bright colors, red and yellow. Terrible art, in my view, very unaesthetic, but no less interesting for that.
I still didn’t say anything. He fidgeted, looking at his hands, his nails, his feet, shoe size 41 at a guess, so small that the toes scarcely peeped out of his trouser legs and I sometimes wondered how he kept that huge upper body in balance.
– I’ve spoken to this Mr. Hitler and he’s willing to cooperate on an article. There are a lot more Hitlers in Chile, he said. You could stay at the local university, I know some people there and . . .
Here I interrupted him, calmly:
– But, and this is something we’ve talked about before, won’t it end up being the kind of article whose only amusement value consists of using the name “Hitler” in trivial, day-to-day situations? “Hitler awaited us in the doorway of his home, with its stylish Scandinavian interior.” “ ‘Would you like tea or coffee?’ asked Hitler.”—The joke’s getting tired. The joke is tired.
He shook his head:
– It would be about living with history. Friso, your name is the most direct, most personal history you have—will ever have.
– Hitler’s father changed his name.
– Herr Alois Schicklgruber.
– Stalin wasn’t really called Stalin, Trotsky wasn’t really called Trotsky.
– Lev Davidovich Bronstein.
– Michael Keaton changed his name. Do you know what his real name is? Michael Douglas.
– And Heydrich changed the spelling of his name to make it more Aryan.
– Yesh. Hitler’s sister Paula—she changed her name after the war.
– To “Wolf.” Clearly a mark of homage.
– There you go: the very masks we select reveal the depths of our souls.
His voice grew low and honeyed, almost theatrical:
– Here we have a man who, far into the twenty-first century, is still signing his larger-than-life paintings with his own name. No initials. His own name, in full, in the corner, clearly legible: “Hitler.” This man isn’t frightened of history—or has completely disconnected from it. That’s our theme, there’s the story!
I smiled back at his smile.
– You know what’s good? To have a son. Yesh. It’s your only chance to undo damage, have a counterlife. It’s as if you get to rename yourself, to do a restart: Yourself 2.0. I’ll give you three guesses what this Hitler’s father’s first name was. You got it: Hitler.
– Oh, by the way, Pippa sends her love, I said, and conjured a plastic-wrap-covered bowl out of my desk, containing a dozen homemade shortbread cookies. Brik polished them off in two bites, and when, after a while, no less a person than Dean Chilton put in an appearance, he offered him the last biscuit as if he were Justin of Nassau handing over the keys of the city of Breda to the Spanish general Spinola.
– Gentlemen, gentlemen, Chilton greeted us, grasping Brik’s hand with his long fingers, and holding it slightly longer than necessary.
Walter Chilton was a few years older than Brik and had a great fondness for him—a feeling that was reciprocated.
If he was (as many at the faculty suspected) the type of man who preferred the company of dogs to humans, then Brik was the exception. He laughed at everything Brik said, and sat, perpetually entertained, drumming his fingertips together when he spoke (“Just like Mr. Burns in The Simpsons,” Brik had once remarked).
– What are you two chuckling about? he asked.
– Nazis, I said.
That raised a hearty laugh. Chilton had a narrow head and a thin smile. He came from one of those old families whose roots might or might not stretch back to the Mayflower, the type of New England aristocracy that regarded making a career as rather vulgar, and whenever I saw him walk past my office, in the kind of tweed suit favored by the cartoon bear Sir Oliver B. Bumble, he looked as though he, too, was astonished to find himself here.
– I was taught by a man who once shot two Nazis with a single bullet, Chilton remarked in a blasé tone.
Brik and I fell silent.
– Seriously. At Remagen. They were running down a little street, side by side. He told me that at my graduation party. They didn’t just exist in movies, you know.
I laughed, but Chilton’s repertoire didn’t include cozy chitchat. With a wave of the arm more common to professional bouncers, he summoned Brik out of his chair—he was to come along on some PR mission or other. Brik turned around one last time:–Chile, Friso. Think about it.
We were friends. I’d sat next to him on intercontinental flights, driven across the Alps with him in tiny rental cars, gone with him to visit his mother on her eighty-fifth birthday. As far as I knew he didn’t possess a tie. I might not have provided him with an intellectual sounding board—he had a coterie of philosophers and other thinkers for that—but I was the first to read his texts, and if I thought something was vague or careless, he took it seriously. I wasn’t an academic; my talent lay in reshaping paragraphs, improving punctuation. The depth of my affection for him took quite a while to hit me. It was after I’d moved to the States at his suggestion and had been living there for about six months. One cold winter’s morning we were walking across the campus, when he seemed to stumble. After his second or third slipped disc he’d suffered damage to his left foot, a kind of neurological crossed wiring that made his foot hit the ground oddly at unpredictable moments. It sounded like a hoofbeat or a mousetrap snapping shut—suddenly his foot would move faster than his calf, clack!, making it seem as if he’d twisted his ankle.
I’d immediately grabbed him, one hand under his arm-pit and the other on his shoulder. It was all right, he wasn’t really falling—but I had him in my arms and was suddenly struck by how good that felt, his body, his physical humanity—the fact that he existed, as a being in the world.