I am not Jewish. Not anti-Jew or anti-Semitic. Wouldn’t go as far as to say, ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ but I have known a few, some of them I liked and some of them I didn’t but I am fairly certain, looking back on my life that if I didn’t like them, it wasn’t because they were Jewish.
By coincidence, which I just noticed today, the last three books I have read have either been about Jews or written by Jews. The first of these, which I blogged about back in October, was The Loneliness of Survival by Diana Finley. It’s about Diana’s mum who was Jewish; brought up in pre-war Vienna, escaped to Palestine in the nineteen-thirties, lost her mother, grandmother and her husband when they were shipped off to Auschwitz then married an English officer in Palestine. She found herself in Berlin in 1945. I haven’t got anything fresh to say about it. As I think I tried to say at the time it is well written but Diana has taken what could have been an extraordinary, gritty romantic drama and turned it instead into a slushy romantic drama.
For the last six weeks, I have been reading Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, which is a collection of about forty short stories set in and around Boston, covering the period from the end of the Second World War up to the present. The preface to the book is full of quotable quotes; here is one:
‘Precise and exquisite . . . a book of wonder’ – Samantha Ellis, Jewish Chronicle’I couldn’t agree more.
I really loved this book and savoured every line; there is hardly a word out of place. I know it is completely stupid to quote a paragraph out of context, but I swooned at this:
[The couple are both in their early fifties and have been meeting for lunch every Thursday for about two years. Both are happily married. Finally, they arrange lunch at the Orlando Hotel.]
She said it again. ‘You don’t have to. Dear.’
‘I cannot,’ he told her.
She probably could have talked him into it. ‘I’ve put on my diaphragm,’ she could have said, and he would have understood that by that act she had already betrayed her marriage. Or she could have allowed her eyes to fill with chagrined tears. Or her enthusiasm, her delight might have carried him along. But she didn’t use those wiles.
It just says everything about everything in sixty words.
The reviews generally are all positive but the person who passed it on to me didn’t really like it and never finished it. She found its ‘Jewishness’ grating and indeed it is grating at times. Some reviewers on Amazon make the same point but wrap it up in different language. I didn’t have any problem with it; the writing is so overwhelmingly wonderful that she could be writing in runic script and I would still love it.
And now I have just finished the un-put-downable The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, first published in 1997 but recently [October] re-published in an English translation, from the French.
This is what it is about:
Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris Soir dated December 31 1941, a headline on page three caught my eye:
Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, height 1.55m, oval-shaped face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports jacket, maroon pullover, navy-blue skirt and hat, brown gym shoes. Address all information to M and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.
I had long been familar with the area around the Boulevard Ornano. As a child, I would accompany my mother to the Saint-Ouen flea markets. We would get off the bus either at the Porte de Clignancourt or, occasionally, outside the 18th arrondissement Town Hall. Always, it was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
So, he decides to make enquiries and spends the next ten years trying to find out what happened to Dora. It takes him four years just to find her birth certificate.
It is an incredible, brilliantly written account of Paris under the German occupation of 1941-1942. Where you didn’t exist if you didn’t have the right papers and if you didn’t have the right papers and you were Jewish, you became . . . ‘Missing, a young girl’.
I haven’t read a novel or a book about the Holocaust for thirty years, not since The Portage to San Cristobel of AH [George Steiner]. That book told me anything and everything I might ever want to know about the destruction of European culture by Nazi Germany; violinists, pianists, artists and thinkers, scientists and teachers all swept up into cattle trucks and disposed of. But this account of Dora, living hand to mouth without the right papers in streets and squares that not only still exist but were the familiar daily traverse of the author, conveys like nothing else I have read what oppression must feel like. Like living in a minefield.