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September 7, 2016

Book Notes - Affinity Konar "Mischling"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Affinity Konar's masterfully told and lyrical novel Mischling may be the year's most poignant book.

The Dallas Morning News wrote of the book:

"Drawn from the abundant documentation of the Holocaust, Konar's unbearable but transcendent debut novel imagines the ordeal of Jewish twins at the hands of the jovial sociopath they are asked to call "Uncle Doctor." In its blend of realism and fantasy, cruelty and beauty, the book itself affirms the value of mischling.... Konar's novel is filled with exquisitely crafted phrases...nevertheless, the aesthetic achievement of Mischling cannot redeem the world after Auschwitz. It merely illuminates it, woefully, brilliantly."

In her own words, here is Affinity Konar's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Mischling:

I've always thought of this novel as an oddly silent undertaking because—for the first time in my book-life—it felt inappropriate to listen to music while writing. But there were songs that slipped through the hush, many of them unexpectedly, and often due to a sense of longing or rebellion.

"Zog Nit Keyn Mol" ( Never Say) or "The Jewish Partisan's Song"—Chava Alberstein

In the beginning, I naively tried to listen to Yiddish songs from the ghettos and camps before writing, but the level of grief they presented often flattened my progress. Impossible to listen to such mourning and then type away. "Zog Nit Keyn Mol", which Hirsch Glick—an inmate of the Vilna Ghetto—wrote after being inspired by news of the Warsaw Uprising, was an exception. The fact that it's a resistance song probably made it more manageable emotion-wise than the laments and lullabies. A need to quote the lyrics below inspired the appearance of two characters.

For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive/And our marching steps will thunder: we survive

The song is such a proud and rebellious comfort. It feels like throwing a stone at the sky that's turned its back on people. And then placing another on a grave.

"Simple Twist of Fate"—Bob Dylan

At twelve, I dreaded talking and went to absurd lengths to avoid speech. As a result of this oversized silence, I started playing surrealist word games in my head, obviously not knowing what a word game was. Around this same time, my father introduced me to his record collection, and—it felt like my heart fell out of my body, took a look at the world, crawled back inside, and decided that from then on out, it'd run on riddles and symbols. Dylan songs were the ultimate word games, tactile mini-worlds with masked characters and talking animals and sad eyes. He was my introduction to Rimbaud and the symbolist poets, and a gateway to so many others. My first favorite album was Blood On the Tracks. The title alone! Pure color, violence, mystery. Even though it's romantic, I've always thought that the longing in "Simple Twist of Fate" is so big that it crosses over to other dynamics. I carried the below like a charm in my pocket while writing the book:

People tell me it's a sin /To know and feel too much within/I still believe she was my twin/ but I lost the ring

"Dream Baby Dream"—Suicide

My best friend and I leaned on this one when we were deep in our books. We'd always ask each other how writing was going, and eventually, instead of acknowledging the negatives, we'd send the video of Alan Vega on his knees. Dream Baby Dream was code for: it's not great, but there's always hope? It was plea, encouragement, cure. It has the quality of a meditation. The dream was to write a page, to make a decision, to find the end. And now the dream is to begin it all again.


It feels like a collision between the girlish and the fierce, but then you realize that these elements are one and the same. Grimes sounds like a sylph with five sets of teeth who knows her way around a knife but won't use it unless she has to. And there's the fact that the song was inspired by her sexual assault and its aftermath. It's searing, odd, important: the sound of dealing with fear and finding your way toward a life that's not post-pain, but post-perpetrator. The question of how to continue after trauma was a huge preoccupation while writing the novel. "Oblivion" was answer and anthem.

"Smile"—Judy Garland

Judy was an oft-dropped name in old drafts. I have a thing for performers who make you want to comfort them, even as they're trying to entertain you. And Judy represents the type of character I fixate on—the highly lovable person who is convinced she's anything but. To motivate myself, I'd often think of the twins as grown women, far from the events of 1944. I'd picture them in a living room, watching The Judy Garland Show. Judy would sing this song, and they'd feel like she sang it for them. I had no plans to write such a scene, but envisioning it had a strangely propulsive effect.

"Cosmic Dancer"—T-Rex

My grandparents were show-stopping dancers. I was a great disappointment in this regard; I write to make up for it. If I can't do the splits into my forties like they did, then I'll do my best to make a few words jump on the page. The book doesn't escape my dancing obsession. I was dancing when I was twelve—a claim that could have easily been made by the twins.

"Nazi Punks Fuck Off"—The Dead Kennedys

Maybe too predictable? But there's nothing like a listen when you're doing image searches for concentration camps and find yourself tumbling into a world of hardcore Holocaust deniers on white supremacist hate boards, many of them startlingly young and not the relics of a distant past that we expect them to be. This was a reliable antidote to the nausea and revulsion.

"It's the End of the World"—Girls

There was this evolving equation in the book of: If x happens to one twin, then how can y be possible for the other? So lyrics that wonder how the sun could go on shining when love has been lost felt appropriate. I like the Skeeter Davis original too, but I listened to Girls a lot when I first moved to Los Angeles. They have that surf-soaked feeling, while still tossing an ache to the shore.

"Tonight You Belong To Me"—Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters

I don't know how many times I put on The Jerk after a heavy bout of editing. I'd need to chase down a laugh, and the goofy sweetness of Martin and Peters—or my boyfriend's rendition—always helped. I watched a disproportionate number of comedies and stand-up specials while writing the book. An instructor once told me that good comedy can teach you to write with extreme precision and from unexpected angles; this still applies if you're not writing something humorous, maybe even more so. It was some of the best, most succinct writing advice I'd ever received. So I like to think that watching comedy on an endless loop enabled a different approach to darkness. It didn't lighten it, but it made it less relentless. And just the physical act of laughter is valuable—it clears your lungs and your head, which is always useful for making things feel possible again.

Affinity Konar and Mischling links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Booklist review
Dallas Morning News review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
USA Today review
Washington Post review

Publishers Weekly interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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