"A Memory of War" by Frederick Busch

A troubled psychiatrist sleeps with a young patient, obsesses about his wife and his best friend, and ponders the secret buried in his parents' past.

Published January 17, 2003 11:02PM (EST)

"You're haunted, Nella," says Dr. Alex Lescziak, psychoanalyst, to his young, anguished patient. "We need to try to lay the ghost." Dr. Lesciak aims to accomplish this in more ways than one; he is also Nella's lover. Her ghost is her mother, a concentration camp survivor who committed suicide, and in some ways her father, who is still alive but doesn't love her. The desperate Alex cannot resist Nella, despite the fact that he's violating his professional code, and perhaps more horribly, despite the fact that as her psychoanalyst, and an older man, he knows he's exploiting Nella's vulnerability.

The even larger, more destructive problem is that, as with much of the advice Alex offers his patients, he's also referring to his own ghosts, alive and dead. The specters who bedevil the rest of Frederick Busch's "A Memory of War" include: Alex's parents, Sylvia and Januscz, Polish Jews who also escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to England's Lake District; his wife, Liz, with whom he can no longer communicate; a German prisoner named Otto, with whom Sylvia had an affair during the war. The more sessions he has with his patients, the more Alex thinks about himself, his mind often fracturing into multiple memories and thoughts in the middle of an appointment.

Alex learns about Otto from a self-important new patient, William Kessler, who claims to be Alex's long-lost half-brother, son of Sylvia and Otto. William, a scholar, is also chasing ghosts: the Holocaust revisionism he touts is an obvious attempt to reclaim the dead German father he never knew. Alex doesn't believe that William is his brother. During their first session, Alex obsesses over a news event (the book takes place in 1985): "The President was leaving for Germany to visit the graves of the SS. That was the actor who played their President, and that was the history -- an untruth in every syllable, every serif, every space between each word -- that he was writing for his citizens."

Reagan's presidency, and particularly that scandalous visit, serve as the backdrop to "A Memory of War," a novel of startling psychological intensity that explores the rewriting of history, or the imagining of it. (Alex, it turns out, is almost as guilty of untruths as the Gipper.) If the novel sounds overwhelmingly complex, that's not far off. "A Memory of War" jumps back and forth among the inner lives of many characters (I haven't even covered them all) and the effect can be jarring at first. It's to Busch's credit that he's able to turn his kaleidoscope with such graceful, tantalizing precision; as Alex's search for morsels of truth turns obsessive, Busch's snapshots become addictive.

That's addictive in the most literal sense -- "A Memory of War" is a painful and irresistible book. Reading Busch's relentless and insightful portrayals of jealousy, lust, despair and loneliness feels almost masochistic. That's partly because the self-punishing Alex replays memories designed to revive as much pain as possible.

He imagines the doomed affair between Sylvia and Otto and every scene is tinged with impending loss, if not inevitable death. He obsesses over an affair he believes his wife is carrying on with his best friend, Teddy: "He smelled sunlight, he thought, still seeing Liz's face and Teddy's naked shoulder, What did sunlight smell like? Like the absence forever of Liz, he thought. Like Liz's sweat absorbed by Teddy's flesh. Alex thought: This must be what you feel like when they tell you that the cancer is everywhere inside you, and untreatable." When they aren't detailing the depths of human agony, most of these passages are filled to the brim with the sort of unbridled passion that probably happens once or twice in a lifetime. Alex experiences such pleasure with the doomed Nella, until she disappears.

All of these relationships that twist and tangle like lovers' limbs are illusory -- many of the characters believe they're escaping pain and finding liberty in their newfound love. To Sylvia, Otto represents freedom, from the bondage of war and from her husband. But, eventually, as many of Busch's characters come to realize, love is also bondage. As Sylvia says of her love for Otto, "I am sentenced to be free."

What really happened between Sylvia and Otto, and Sylvia and Januscz, is the heart of Busch's mystery. It's Sylvia's secrets that kept her in bed with "headaches" throughout Alex's childhood. His withdrawn mother affected his emotional life much more than his father's lessons from the Holocaust ("And if they take you away -- then you are a Jew"). It's not until Alex breaks free from his paranoid delusions that he can understand how much his mother suffered and how he's allowed that legacy of suffering to destroy him and those he loves.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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