The Literature of Dread

A miserable memory. The year, I think, was 1970. I was six, maybe seven. My father was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, stationed in Paris, and I attended a French primary school.

The French school system at the time was the same old-fashioned authoritarian institution that had inspired defiant works of art like The 400 Blows and Zero de Conduite. French schools were still rigidly centralized — it was said that the Minister of National Education could look at his watch at any hour of the school day and know what lesson was being taught in every classroom in the country. The system allowed corporal punishment even for trivial infractions.

Punishment in our school was administered in a sadistically protracted manner: the misbehaving pupil, rather than being disciplined right away by the teacher, was placed in the hall, just outside the doorway of the classroom. The principal made his rounds of the corridors several times an hour and spanked every child he found cowering in the doorways.

One day the teacher put me in the hall for doodling in my notebook instead of copying the lesson plan. The punishment was painful — four sharp blows on the bottom with a stiff open palm. Grimmer still was the humiliation of being returned to the classroom with a faceful of hot tears to endure the silent jeering of classmates and the teacher’s triumphant smugness. But worst of all was the anticipation. The school occupied a big, imposing old building, and if a lot of children misbehaved that period and you found yourself at the far end of the principal’s circuit, it could take him quite a while to reach you. The corridors were wide and curving, the floors were uncarpeted and the ceilings were high; you could hear the principal’s heavy footsteps long before you saw him. I remember trying to make myself invisible by flattening my body against the doorway and praying, though our family was not religious, to be spared.

This experience was my introduction to the psychology of dread, which I think of as not just as extreme, paralyzing fear, but fear of the imminent, of the inevitable. As when an animal is first caught in a trap, in the state of dread, the body and the mind are immobilized and wildly active at the same time.

The apprentice writer receives a great deal of instruction in the ways of suspense: he is taught to delay his climactic points, to put switchbacks, twists, and false bottoms in the plot; possibly, like Brian De Palma or Shirley Jackson, to save the greatest shock for the very end. Plotted on a graph, the well-made suspenseful work of fiction or film might look like a series of progressively higher peaks.

Suspense is a pleasurable emotion, dependent on convention. As Hitchcock put it:

Some people are talking about baseball — they don’t know it but there’s a bomb under the table. The conversation has suddenly become charged. The bomb must never go off…you’ve deprived the audience of release: a foot touches the bomb, out the window it goes, just in time.

Other artists break this convention and there is a large body count, but, almost always, someone is spared. And it is our nature that we always identify with living characters; just as in our dreams, we can never really die.

But dread negates suspense. There is no pleasurable uncertainty — no escape — because the outcome is foreknown. The work which is based not on suspense but on dread, if plotted on a graph would look like a steadily rising straight line ending in a preordained point. Or it might resemble something else — a piece of music like Ravel’s Bolero — a reiteration of the same melody but progressively louder, more intense, more emphatic.

The great imminent, inevitable experience in life is, of course, death. ‘Most things never happen; this one will,’ wrote Philip Larkin, the poet laureate of dread.

In fiction or dramatic art, dread often makes itself felt in the form of dramatic irony, where we know something the characters don’t. In Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex, dramatic irony confirms, with heavy regret, that those who defy the gods are destined for a dire end. In fiction, comics, and movies based on fundamentalist religion, dramatic irony shows us that the characters who have not accepted fundamentalist tenets are hellfire bait, though they are of course unaware of it.

In Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, Badenheim 1939, dramatic irony becomes something more complex.

The title tells us that we are in a spa in the German-speaking world on the eve of the Second World War. Ten pages in, we know that this is a resort town for the Jewish middle class and that its occupants pay little attention to the approaching conflict. The faceless functionaries of the Sanitation Department mysteriously show up, register all persons of Jewish ancestry, and encourage them to emigrate to Poland. The residents of Badenheim, rather than making preparations to flee, marvel at the Sanitation Department’s efficiency and professionalism. In other words, within a few chapters, we know, as the book’s characters do not, that they are doomed.

The characters are, as most of us would be, too caught up in their own worries and status anxieties to notice the greater danger lurking. They resist moving to Poland not because it would mean extinction but because Poland is associated with low-status Ostjuden — Eastern European Jews.

Badenheim 1939 is, like almost all narratives written by Holocaust survivors, a deeply unconsoling work. Unlike, say, the film of Schindler’s List (about which one critic remarked that only Steven Spielberg could make a feel-good movie about the Holocaust), there is no redemptive moral, no triumph of the human spirit.

There is also no depiction of brutality, or even of the camps themselves. When this novel was published in 1980, renderings of the camps had reached a critical mass, and every writer who described them risked producing a kind of Holocaust pornography. So there are no camps, but there is also no afterwards from which we might draw perspective or consolation. There is only the increasingly airless and fantastical atmosphere in the mountain town, and the persistent denial and illusioned optimism of the residents. At the very end of the book, when they are on a train to the camps, one of characters remarks hopefully, “If the coaches are so dirty, it must mean we have not so far to go.”

By not giving us the worst, in other words, Appelfeld lets us imagine the worst.

Badenheim 1939 is in its tightly controlled way, a very angry work, but Appelfeld uses dramatic irony to an empathetic end: because we know the ultimate fate of Badenheim’s residents before they do, we keenly feel the dread –we suffer, as much as readers who are removed, safe and comfortable can be said to suffer — before the characters do.

I can think of no other work of art, even King Lear, in which the feeling of dread is so viscerally persistent. Reading Badenheim 1939 corresponds to Andrew Solomon’s evocation of the paralyzing anxiety of a major depression:

If you trip or slip, there is a moment, before your hand shoots out to break your fall, when you feel the earth rushing up at you and you cannot help yourself — a passing, fraction-of-a-second horror.[It’s like that] hour after hour.

Here, the fate of the residents of Badenheim is the earth rushing up at you hour after hour, the about-to-happen, that imminent terrible event.

* * *

John Broening’s Column Note.

— John Broening is a chef and writer based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, Gastronomica, Edible Front Range, and the Denver Post, for whom he writes a weekly column about food.

Photo: A still from The 400 Blows.

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