Books: New York-Beverly Hills-Paris
Foreign Bodies: A Novel
by Cynthia Ozick. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 255 pp. $26)
Until now, many avid readers of Cynthia Ozick’s fiction have settled on The Shawl (Vintage) as her master work, even though it does not have the amplitude of a chef-d’oeuvre. There is ample reason, however, to consider her new novel, Foreign Bodies, a full-bodied heir to her earlier masterpiece.
Ozick—perhaps mindful that her own Hebrew name is Shoshana (“rose” or “lily”)—favors botanically named female characters. But there are not only flowers in her latest novel; there is also a bird. Indeed, the central character of the novel is Beatrice Nightingale (née Nachtigall), around whom the other characters flit and fly.
Although Bea herself is not an artist, music, literature and painting play a significant role. Bea is a middle-aged high school teacher of English in New York who introduces Shakespeare to her refractory students. In addition, years ago Bea had been married to Leo Coopersmith, a would-be composer of the “great American symphony,” who left her for Beverly Hills to become a successful composer of incidental music for Hollywood films.
Then there is Margaret Breckenridge—the high-society wife of Bea’s upwardly striving brother, Marvin Nachtigall—confined to a sanitarium, where she has perhaps taken up therapeutic painting. By the end of the novel, Bea’s students show that they “get” Macbeth and King Lear and we learn that Leo has redeemed himself by composing a symphony of reconciliation, The Nightingale’s Thorn.
The year is 1952, and the thorn in Leo’s symphony is only one of many “foreign bodies” in the novel. Postwar Paris, where much of the book takes place, is buzzing with literary-minded American expatriates seeking to sip espresso with Sartre at the Deux Magots. But Paris is also pullulating with another type of foreign body: the refugees and displaced persons of the recent European Jewish cataclysm, who have been transplanted into the French organism.
Into this buzzing beehive of Paris comes the Nachtigall family. It seems that Marvin’s son, Julian, a young man with writerly pretensions, has come to Europe to take part in the literary turmoil of Paris where, thanks to the ministrations of Lili—a survivor of the cataclysm, whom he marries—he moves from idle frivolity to theological gravitas. Marvin, an imperious man to say the least, wants his wayward son back, and dispatches his sister to Paris to fetch Julian.
Lili (shoshana by another name) is the most important, interesting and intricate of the novel’s characters. Unlike Julian, she has a job, as a counselor at the Centre des Émigrés, a sort of out-placement bureau located in an area known to the Jews as Le Pletzl.
The novel abounds in literary allusions. The job of this center, founded by a baron descended from the Jewish side of Marcel Proust’s family, is, as Ozick characterizes it, to clear the foreign bodies of the Jews out of France. Israel is perhaps a desired destination, implies Ozick, by citing a verse from a poem by Goethe found in Theodor Herzl’s novel Old-New Land. The novel’s literary antecedents can also be seen in the character of one Dr. Montalbano, a charlatan healer whose tactics resemble those of a “rabbinic” character plucked by Ozick from Bernard Malamud’s “The Silver Crown” and inserted into her own story, “Usurpation.”
Foreign Bodies deals with issues of Jewish history and identity. It is also firmly, if obliquely, situated within Jewish textual tradition, including a redemptive prophetic dream of finding one’s place in one’s own land—and not as a foreign body.
Now that Ozick has taken us, in this richly rewarding novel, to Los Angeles and Paris, it is perhaps time for her to favor her avid readers with a novel set in the East, where the heart is. A shoshana by the name of Cynthia Ozick (read our profile here) certainly has one of these chefs-d’oeuvre in her rose garden. —Joseph Lowin
Joseph Lowin, Ph.D., is the author of Cynthia Ozick, a book in Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Lowin’s biographical essay on Ozick is available online at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org.
by Edith Pearlman. (Lookout Books, 375 pp. $18.95)
On her Web site, Edith Pearlman refers to the short-story form as “narrative at its most confiding.” A sense of intimacy informs this remarkable collection of 34 stories, many of which have been published in literary magazines and earned awards, including the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize. Pearlman has been included in the Best American Short Stories anthology and was recently awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for her body of work. Binocular Vision and its garland of acclaim—it was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award—are bringing her talents to the attention of new readers.
Pearlman’s characters are women and men looking back on rich lives, ingénues looking toward the future and wanderers finding their way in the web of history. Several stories take place in a displaced persons camp; others are set in Maine, Central America, Hungary, czarist Russia and a fictional Boston suburb named Golophin. Pearlman’s range is expansive; plots are marked by exchanges of confidence, surprising twists and courage in the face of life itself. In “Capers,” an aging couple engages in petty shoplifting to rekindle passion; the story ends in a moment of subtle heartbreak. In “Self-Reliance,” the narrative of an ailing woman’s final day unfolds with delicacy and walloping emotion.
These tales are marked by a mastery of compression. The nuances of a character’s life are conveyed brilliantly in a few pages, similar to what one finds in the work of Alice Munro and John Updike. Characters are portrayed in multiple dimensions; their pasts inform and color the present.
In “Elder Jinks,” a character muses, “When he at last noticed the figure in the yellow sweater, he was cast back to an afternoon in Paris when that same glowing color had been produced by sun refracted through stained glass, and the lips of his companion had parted as she listened to winds and strings send music aloft.”
Another example of exquisite characterization is evident in this passage from “Purim Night,” which takes place in a displaced persons camp:
“Ida ran a hand through her hair. It was as dense and dark as it had been 10 years earlier, when she was captured, separated from the husband now known to be dead, oh Shmuel, and forced to work in a munitions factory. Not labor camp, not escape from labor camp, not the death in her arms of her best friend, oh Luba, not recapture, not liberation; not going unwashed for weeks, not living on berries in the woods, not the disappearance of her menses for almost a year and their violent return; not influenza lice odors suppurations; not the discovery in the forest of an infant’s remains, a baby buried shallowly, dug up by animals: not the one rape and the many beatings—nothing had conquered the springiness of her hair. Her hair betrayed her expectance of happiness. And where would she find this happiness? Ah, b’eretz, in the Land….”
Pearlman has been called a writer’s writer, yet her elegant work deserves an audience beyond the literati.
There is so much pleasure in these stories; Binocular Vision is a sterling collection that invites readers to rediscover the rewards of fine short stories, with their subtle magic and quiet beauty. —Amy Gottlieb
Amy Gottlieb is a writer living in New York.
by Evan Fallenberg. (HarperCollins, 256 pp. $14.99 paper)
Author-translator Evan Fallenberg’s second novel, When We Danced on Water, delivers the same lovely prose that delighted readers in his debut work, Light Fell (Soho Press). His new focus is a luminous evocation of the themes in the story of Ruth and Boaz and of the regenerative power of art.
The two main characters are Vivi, a woman who dabbles in various art forms, and Teo, a dancer and choreographer. Teo, now in his eighties, has danced for George Balanchine and owns his own dance company. In her early forties, Vivi is a waitress at a Tel Aviv coffee bar and lives with a roommate who has abandoned his religious past, just as she has.
While working as a waitress, she meets Teo, whose dance studio is near the coffee bar. Teo’s credo is excellence; he tells Vivi that he has never done anything mediocre until old age brought him down. He looks down on the waitress because he sees her as lacking commitment.
He gives her this advice about art:
|“[It involves] seriousness of purpose. Things only matter in life because we invest meaning in them. Does the world really need another ballet? No. That is, until you create that ballet and cause the world to realize that it was actually lacking something that only this ballet can provide. But that cannot happen until you convince yourself that what you are doing is good and necessary.”
Over the course of the novel, Teo and Vivi share their stories. Teo had gone to Germany to perform with the Royal Danish Ballet in 1939 and survived the war in harrowing circumstances there.
Vivi also spent time in Germany, going there with a German boyfriend she had met during her Army service.
Until now, both have avoided discussing the complex aspects of their lives as well as their unfulfilled desires. Vivi creates an installation piece about Teo’s life, a project she uses to coax him into telling her his story, giving him a chance to see his past anew.
Fallenberg’s novel traverses much territory. Geographically, it travels from Tel Aviv to Ein Gedi, Berlin, Copenhagen and Warsaw; artistically, it includes descriptions of ballet, Nazi-looted art and modern installation art.
Fallenberg, head of the world’s only Jewish-themed creative writing program, at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, has written a worthy successor to Light Fell. —Beth Kissileff
by Lucette Lagnado. (HarperCollins, 402 pp. $25.99)
Lucette Lagnado’s extraordinary gifts were clearly evident in her first book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (Ecco), which won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In it, she tells the story of Leon, her larger-than-life father who strolled the streets of Cairo with bravado and rakish charm. All this abruptly stopped, however, when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and anti-Semitism forced her family to flee. The Arrogant Years concentrates on Lucette (or “LouLou” as she was called), her mother, Edith, and the large divide between the splendor of Old World Egypt and hardscrabble America.
Early on, Lucette identifies with Emma Peel of The Avengers show on television. Emma Peel is as fearless as she is self-assured, and so is Lucette—in her “arrogant years,” that is. Possibilities are endless, and Lucette is invincible. Given Lagnado’s ability to remember small details about her family’s life in Cairo, where her mother worked as a librarian to a pasha’s wife or the way that synagogue politics shaped immigrant life in Brooklyn, it is small wonder that, after college, Lucette became an investigative reporter, eventually working for the Wall Street Journal.
Most of all, however, the young Lucette was a rebel. At the Shield of Young David synagogue, favored by the Levantine community in Brooklyn, she hatches a plan to move her chair, inch-by-stealthy-inch, until she is sitting among the men. As the first instance of her rebellious streak, Lucette sees that “dividers” are both unnatural and just plain wrong. Dressed in a fashionable blazer (not quite Emma Peel’s leather garb, but still…) Lucette is living what F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night calls the “great arrogant years in the life of a pretty girl.”
Later, when a teenager, a bout with cancer abruptly ends her arrogant years. She gradually recovers and makes her way through college, but is never quite the same.
As a child, she wanted nothing more than to leave the women’s section of the synagogue behind. As an adult, she would like nothing better than to return to its protective fold: The large outer world that once seemed so attractive was more than matched by the world at the end of her nose: “Our closed-off area was every bit as rich and vivid as the universe beyond it.”
In her sharply etched coming-of-age memoir, Lucette trades “arrogance” for understanding and romantic impatience for the larger rhythms of Jewish wisdom. She may have begun her long journey as a stranger in a strange land, but what she comes to realize is the odd in the familiar and the familiar in the odd. Only writers of the first order—like Lagnado—can make this insight work in the shape and ring of their sentences.
by Michael G. Kesler. (Eloquent Books, 233 pp. $26)
Michael G. Kesler begins his story, Shards of War, in his hometown of Dubno, Ukraine, which for 400 years had one of the most important Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. It was also made famous as the birthplace of the charismatic 18th-century preacher Jacob Kranz, better known as the Dubner Maggid.
Of the 12,000 Jews in the city, almost all were systematically murdered by the Germans. At the war’s end only 300 were left, including those, like Kesler and his sister, Luba, who returned from Asiatic Russia such as Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan—where Jews who trekked eastward found refuge.
As they moved into Russia, the Germans had a two-pronged war: subdue and conquer the Russians and kill the Jews. The Germans’ mission was made much easier because they were helped by the anti-Russian and anti-Semitic Ukrainians, many of whom were Volksdeutch, ethnic Germans. In fact, as soon as the Germans entered Dubno the local Ukrainians began murdering Jews and looting their property.
In this riveting tale of remembrance, Kesler traces his flight from his family’s home just after the German surprise attack on Russia in late June 1941. The Germans’ swift advance prompts the parents of the 16-year-old Michael and his 19-year-old sister to urge them to flee eastward.
During their peregrinations, they find hospitality with fellow Jews, and suffer the fear and hunger of the siege of Stalingrad, from which they manage to escape. They sneak on trains, learning to jump on just as the train is leaving, and eventually arrive to the safety of Uzbekistan. Here, Kesler first works as a veterinary’s assistant and later as a weaver; both he and Luba even manage to learn the Uzbek language.
Among the adventurous tales in this book is the following: Michael is arrested for taking some planks to heat his freezing room and is accused of conspiring with others. But, luckily, Luba finds a Jewish lawyer. Michael testifies that he and his sister, a teacher, were promised wood to heat their room, which was never given; that the planks did not belong to anyone but were in a pile outside. The sympathetic judge gives Michael a six-month suspended sentence.
Stories like this—with dramatic content, fine dialogue and crisp characterization—are paradigmatic of the belletristic qualities of Shards of War. Although we know the outcomes of first-person survivor stories, this account keeps us in suspense, given the twists and turns in the sibling’s lives until they get to Uzbekistan, where—far from Moscow—the severity of the Communist system is diluted.
The closeness of Michael and Luba is one of the glories of Shards of War, and it reflects what we have seen in other accounts of survival: When there is another person to share the burden, offer encouragement, advice and hope, the chances for survival are greater.
Indeed, love shines through the book. Even after the war in a displaced persons camp, Kesler still writes imaginary letters to his “Dear Tatte,” telling him what he plans to do and what he has accomplished.
Now in his eighties, Kesler had a successful career in the United States after earning a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Both he and Luba raised families and enjoy what, alas, their parents never got to see—thriving grandchildren. —Curt Leviant
Curt Leviant’s most recent novel is A Novel of Klass (Livingston).
by Alvin Rosenfeld. (Indiana University Press, 310 pp. $29.95)
In The End of the Holocaust, Alvin Rosenfeld, Jewish studies professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, warns that Holocaust memory is beset by cultural pressures that challenge its place as the paramount event of both European and Jewish history. Although Holocaust denial threatens to undermine the record of Nazi Germany’s criminal legacy, Rosenfeld persuasively argues that other forces are inadvertently as dangerous. He critically examines the works of survivors Jean Amery, Imre Kertész, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel—all had expressed distress that the memories of the Nazi genocide would be diminished or forgotten.
His book assesses how the proliferation of novels, films, television programs, museums and public commemorations have perversely lessened the Holocaust’s meaning and denigrated its memory. Rosenfeld notes that despite the scholarly work of historians such as Raul Hilberg and Yehuda Bauer, most people gained their knowledge of the Shoah from such films as NBC’s 1978 docudrama Holocaust and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The future, he says, points to Holocaust awareness being gleaned from novelists, filmmakers, playwrights and Web sites. And historical memory in popular culture—whose purpose is to entertain—will continue to distort, if not trivialize, the reality of the Holocaust.
In some ways, he writes, the manner in which filmmakers and historians relate the Holocaust can be seen as “rival enterprises, and the contest between them regarded as a struggle between antithetical drives and ambitions.”
The author also addresses the growing phenomenon of Israelis being labeled as Nazis, guilty of genocidal crimes against Palestinian Arabs. This tendency, he says, is not reserved only by Israel’s enemies in the Middle East, but increasingly is given voice by Israel’s detractors in Europe and the United States, especially on college campuses.
Add to that a tendency to universalize the Holocaust: For example, the mission of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s museum in Los Angeles is to both inform visitors about racism and social prejudice in America and to represent what the museum calls “the ultimate example of man’s inhumanity to man—the Holocaust.”
These are noble aims, he says, but insists that placing the Holocaust within an American framework, with the struggle for black civil rights so prominent, the museum “relativizes the catastrophe brought on by Nazism in a radical way.”
Rosenfeld ruefully concludes that the response to the Holocaust was not supposed to turn in this direction. Rather, the phrase “Never Again” was widely adopted to ensure that the irrefutable evidence of the Nazi atrocities might help to safeguard against its being repeated. However, with the progressive dilution, distortion and denial of the Shoah, the hope that the memory of the six million dead would serve as a bulwark against a return of anti-Semitism has given way to, he notes, “a sense of futility…. [F]ar from being residual, anti-Semitism has become resurgent in Europe…. [Repeated] evocations of the Holocaust, instead of acting to retard hostility to Jews, have been used as an incitement against them.” —Jack Fischel
edited by Gareth Sirotnik. (Gefen Books, 167 pp. $35)
Lilian Broca’s 10-part mosaic series on the biblical Esther says a great deal about the award-winning artist, her influences and philosophy. To begin with, living as a Jew in Communist Romania, where she was born after World War II, helped her understand Esther’s need to hide her identity in Ahasuerus’s palace. Her depiction of a transformed dark-eyed, dark-haired Esther—from obedient girl to confident and courageous woman—reveals a feminist sensibility in a world where women have little power. The style of her mosaics reflects the post-Byzantine and Orthodox Romanian of her native land as well as the Western European Renaissance forms she studied. But Broca’s images of clothing, jewelry, throne and couches aim to duplicate authentic Persian style.
Broca, who now lives in Canada, brings out richness of expression and depth of character through an array of colors and contrasts in the mosaics—deep reds, royal blue, emerald green, white and black—and the overall beauty of Italian glass and gold leaf that make these works dazzle. The portraits tell Esther’s story, from her isolation in the palace to Haman Leading Mordechai on the Royal Horse, Queen Esther Holding Evidence of Haman’s Guilt and, finally, Esther Revealing Her True Identity. The book’s nearly 70 images include sketches and photos of works in progress.
Aside from the beauty of Broca’s art, the oversize book includes an essay by Sheila Campbell—archaeologist, art historian and curator—that compares Broca’s interpretation of Esther with those of Rembrandt van Rijn and Baroque woman artist Artemisia Gentileschi; “Beneath the Mask: Fragments from an Estr Scroll,” a prose-poem by rabbi-scholar Yosef Wosk that envisions the elderly queen’s reflections on the challenges in her life; and a calligraphied Hebrew text of the Scroll of Esther with a Jewish Publication Society translation. All this and a preface by artist Judy Chicago, who describes the Queen Esther mosaics and their hidden symbolism as “visual midrash.” They are works to admire and to study. —Zelda Shluker