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Max by Alex Miller review – a compelling and tender story of one man’s hidden history

Elmer

Oct. 29, 2020

A lex Miller is now considered one of Australia’s finest novelists – he’s won the Miles Franklin twice. But he was only a young man, newly arrived in Australia from the UK, when he met Max Blatt, a German Jewish intellectual, former communist and member of the resistance against the Nazis. The importance of their friendship cannot be overstated: it was Max who nurtured Miller’s desire to become a writer, and who was, privately, one of Miller’s greatest supporters.
Miller’s new book, Max, is a material and public testament to the great and diverse value of Blatt’s friendship. It also marks an interesting new development in Miller’s writing – prose that has always been an absolute pleasure to read – as a compelling and tender story of one man’s hidden history.
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Reading Max, one feels surrounded by the deep personal resonance of Miller’s recollections of a figure as sympathetic as he is mysterious. We come to know Blatt as the young Miller knew him, in the early 1960s. In a formative event for their friendship, Blatt lent Miller his copy of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, “a token then of his extraordinary leap of faith that one day I would be the serious novelist I dreamed of becoming”. While Miller always considered his friend a fellow émigré, Blatt saw himself as an exile. His confession to Miller that his life was futile, that he was a failure, remained largely unexplained.
Some 30 years after Blatt’s death, Miller is left to ponder the great gifts of their friendship. To his great regret they had fallen out of touch towards the end Blatt’s life, and Miller had not attended his friend’s funeral. He’s haunted by the many unknowns in Blatt’s past. He wants to know more, to understand the mystery and silence that surrounded a private history.
All Miller has is a basic outline: Blatt was tortured by the Gestapo and fled Europe (to China and then Australia). His loved ones were murdered by the Nazis. The specifics of Max’s childhood, or the possibility of surviving family members, seem obscured by the wreckage of history.
We follow Miller as he begins researching in the museums and archives of Melbourne and Berlin. He travels to Poland, to Blatt’s former home in Breslau/Wrocław, and finally to Israel, to visit the living members of the Blatt family, and to uncover a new network of shared memory and friendship.
Miller’s writing in Max is most striking as he weaves recurring words and phrases into the fabric of the journey. “Silence” is like a leitmotif that takes on a multitude of different meanings and resonances: the silence of the unspoken past, of a landscape, of two friends in conversation, of siblings in shared grief. Like many survivors of massive traumatic events like the Holocaust , Blatt’s silence covers the profound difficulty, almost impossibility, of ever speaking about the past. The immensity of sadness and shame is too great to be voiced. For Blatt, the guilt that lies hidden in his silence is the fact that, while the majority of his family were killed in Nazi-controlled Europe, he escaped.
For a writer who has so often imagined the experience of being a newcomer to a place – for example, the “Central Queensland” novels, like Journey to the Stone Country, are stories of discovery – Max is the most personal and vulnerable of Miller’s books. While he captures the excitement of the family historian uncovering a new fact about their ancestor, each new piece of information also opens up a series of difficult questions. Who was Max’s first wife, Hanna? How did she die? How could Max have left behind his parents, family and young wife?
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While a network of people all over the globe help Miller in his search, the road back into Blatt’s history is at times a difficult one. Miller describes the process of thinking “critically” of his friend. Considering Max’s possible motives in remaining silent about his past, Miller relates how “it felt traitorous of me to think of stepping beyond that boundary which I’d honoured for most of my life”. Such is the sanctity of his memory of Max. The book begins with an epitaph from the Austrian writer Joseph Roth: “the shard outlives the pot”. This notion of incompleteness pervades Miller’s sense of how he must piece together the treasured fragments of memory he holds. That we can never know the “full story” is simply the reality of lives destroyed and rebuilt after the horrors of the Holocaust.
The encounters Miller has with the people that help him on his journey give Max an uncommon emotional depth. Blatt’s niece Liat tells Miller how, since her own husband’s death, she had not been to their favourite restaurant. Miller’s search brings her a profound sense of healing: “Max said you would come,” she tells Miller. In many ways the meeting with family gives a sense of peace and unity to Blatt’s fragmented story. Miller relates how “This group of friends who had arrived in my life – they were real and whole while Max would remain our common link, a broken vessel, the most precious parts of his life scattered among the ruins of the terrible past.”
Miller’s book is a moving and masterfully written testament to the power of friendship.
• Max by Alex Miller is out now through Allen and Unwin
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