Writing the Rest: Luiz Schwarcz’s Absent Moon – Michigan Quarterly Review
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Writing the Rest: Luiz Schwarcz’s Absent Moon

Luis Schwarcz begins his memoir atop a ski-slope, breathless with sudden anxiety at the descent before him. He’s not a novice skier, the trail is familiar, and the weather is clear, yet the fear grips him all the same. The scene never resolves. There is no triumph waiting—he remains forever suspended at the peak. For Schwarcz, depression, anxiety, are terminal conditions, not so simply overcome.

The Absent Moon lives up to its subtitle: A Memoir of a Short Childhood and a Long Depression. Though he grew up privileged in Sao Paolo, Schwarcz learned early that his role in the family was to satisfy the sadness of his father’s life. This task, reiterated again and again, is impossible. His father, André, is wracked with survivor’s guilt. Schwarcz’ grandfather and namesake, Lajos, pushed André off the train they were on bound for Bergen-Belsen and told him to run. Though this familial origin story remained opaque to Schwarcz for years, the effects were inescapable. Every night André would toss and turn in bed, kicking the baseboard in an arrhythmic attempt to outrun the guilt.

For much of the memoir, this darkness looms off-stage. Schwarcz writes at length about his boyhood in Brazil, listening to the Beatles and Beethoven, playing soccer and putzing around his maternal grandfather’s printing business. The childhood evoked is one of generalities. The details lean more comprehensive than compelling, stacked atop each other in rapid succession, with little in-scene narration. The menu at the local sports club, the TV shows most often on rotation, feel recalled more for the storyteller’s posterity than for the texture offered the reader. There are occasional lemon-bright moments: 

These lucid memories offer relief from the litany of anecdotes that mimic an elder relative’s reminiscences without the specific endearment of their being told by your elder relative. Family members and friends appear once, say little, and disappear again. 

The memoir moves quickly, bouncing from event to event, traversing years at a time with a meandering myopia that aches to cover absolutely everything. Moments of import are often siloed into single paragraphs. After the war father André testifies in defense of a Nazi collaborator who had protected him during the occupation. André was then jailed himself as a collaborator; his sister barely secures his release. This trenchant action lasts less than a page. Sure, the reader can intuit the outcome—André survives—but the event garners no authorial reflection. In contrast, twenty-plus pages of this slim memoir circle the author’s high school soccer career.

More than once the author’s favorite writers are invoked: Camus, Sebald, and others who “make the most of what is left unsaid.” Schwarcz’s life is filled with silences: his father’s trauma, his grandfather’s murder. These silences are impossible to fill—much as his father’s sadness was impossible to slake. The rest of Schwarcz’ life, however, he lived, and so many of the self-imposed silences here beg further questions. Incidents illustrating any pattern are compressed to mere lists, leaving indistinct impressions. It seems that the memoir itself is caught at the top of that ski-slope, afraid to descend too deep into scrutiny of the past. 

This reticence clashes with obvious observations that occur so frequently that I thought they might be jokes. Shortly after describing that fateful moment between father and son on the Bergen-Belsen express, Schwarcz writes: “Psychiatrists understand traumas to be one of the most common causes of depression, regardless of a person’s genetic predisposition. This must have been André’s case.”

The memoir does not seem to trust its readers to remember what is important, despite the book’s brevity. After being hospitalized for a severe manic episode, Schwarcz developed anxious sleep behaviors, “I would violently beat my feet against the bed, just like my father.” The sleepless father is one of the book’s distinct central images. A moment like this might benefit from the restraint Schwarcz exhibits elsewhere.

Schwarcz is not without the ability to arrest attention in moments of quiet epiphany. After lingering on memories of the soccer pitch, Schwarcz describes his mother’s many miscarriages. It’s a particularly somber moment even amidst the rest of the book’s grim subject, and only after it’s clear Schwarcz will forever be an only child, his parents reveal they wanted “an entire soccer team of kids.”

Despite his insistence that depression is never funny, Schwarcz does inject some levity. Deprecating his hotheaded political adolescence he writes, “I acted as if the sun and sea were counterrevolutionary.” Friday dinners at his father’s house, “were an act of martyrdom for the entire family.”

If I sound critical, I don’t compare to Schwarcz’s own stark assessment of his writing. He describes several aborted novels from whose carrion he eventually raised an admirable short story. This passage holds the memoir’s greatest moment of reward for following along its many desultory paths. He enumerates those novels’ shared weaknesses: “Once again, it was a tale whose principal offense was too many subplots, and a faux erudition, typical of editors. It lacked a cohesive chain of events, and the characters clearly resented their lack of complexity.”

There are gripping stories struggling beneath The Absent Moon’s attempt to make everything else equally interesting. Schwarcz once asked Rubem Fonseca for help executing one of his novels. It’s an excellent story, Schwarcz insisted. The renowned Brazilian short story writer responded, “The excellent story is the easy part. The tough part is writing the rest.”

Carl Lavigne is from Georgia, Vermont. His work appears in Joyland, LitHub, Hunger Mountain, and more.

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