J and The Betrayers are both novels about antisemitism and social violence, both powerful. And yet who would talk about them in the same breath, one a dystopia, the other hyper-realism?
The authors, Howard Jacobson (J) and David Bezmozgis, are a generation and an ocean apart though united by their Queen, Jacobson being British and Bezmozgis Canadian. Jacobson was born in the early 40s, Bezmozgis is in his early 40s. Jacobson was born in the shadow of the holocaust and his writing is haunted by it, Bezmozgis by Soviet antisemitism and the dissidence of the 1970s. Both books are, really, about the experiences of their fathers, though J is set in a near future dystopia, and The Betrayers in the prescient present.
J is brilliant in the first half, Jacobson at his darkest, most hilarious, sardonic, cutting, echoing holocaust deniers in his reference to (all caps) “What happened if it happened.” In
Britain an unnamed country, another holocaust an unnamed social terror has resulted in an outwardly pleasant and free society, which is in reality highly controlled yet constantly erupting in casual extreme personal violence. The best of this novel is the brilliant portrayal of what is said and unsaid, the surface and secrets, the repetition of history. The thesis about antisemitism’s necessary social function as a channel for aggression dominates the second half. I wasn’t persuaded by that (if it was even meant seriously), but the responses of the main characters did: I had the same reaction when I visited Auschwitz.
I was walking around the tarry smelling field where the crematoria used to be, possessed by two conflicting thoughts: that I wanted to make many Jewish babies; that I wanted to disappear along with all Jews and end this for once and for all.
In The Betrayers, an Israeli politician on the cusp between middle and old age arrives in the Crimea with his much younger lover. There he encounters his past as a Soviet dissident and the elderly Russian Jew who denounced him, leading to his imprisonment in the gulag 40 years earlier. The main character, Baruch Kotler, has political views antithetical to mine, but that didn’t stop me from weeping at the novel’s end. This is Bezmozgis’ second novel, and he is a fine writer, competent in the best sense, digging deep into human complexity, frailty, and need with compassion and beautiful language.
The Betrayers was written before the recent crisis in the Crimea, but anticipates it: Ukrainian, Russian, Jew, Tatar, the region is rife with alliances and conflicts that go back centuries. Betrayal, personal and political, is the titular theme, but there is so much more to the story: it’s about love, survival, principle, the past haunting the present, and in that shares a common territory with J. Specifically and richly, it’s about the Soviet Union cum Russia, while J is about Britain, but the books are so penetrating because the stories are also universal.
These are both books I need to own in paper.
I’ve periodically wrestled with my identity as a writer: am I a Jewish writer, or just a writer, or do my other life experiences dominate? As an abuse survivor, as an urban Canadian, as a vegetarian (yes, I do eat granola), as mother in a multi-racial family, someone who doesn’t go to synagogue anymore but talks to God, as a shamanic healer with reiki hands?
I don’t know. But there is this: if I can stand alongside these two writers, then I am in good company.
I had the privilege of talking about cancer screening with a dozen women who have a history of child abuse. This is what I learned:
Depending on perspective, it is an author’s dream – or nightmare: Margaret Atwood will never know what readers think of the piece of fiction she is currently working on, because the unpublished, unread manuscript from the Man Booker prize-winning novelist will be locked away for the next 100 years.
Trees planted in a forest outside Oslo will provide the paper for books written currently but unrevealed until the trees mature in a century when the books will be published. Read the whole story at the link above.
This story made me smile: the optimism of it, the creativity (designed by an award winning Scottish artist, Katie Paterson), the international cooperation, and the choice of an eminent Canadian author to kick it off!
Three cheers for paper books and long-term thinking!
The powerful memoir of a German infantry soldier during WW2, A Stranger to Myself was written in 1944 a few months before the author died, drawn from his detailed journals written at the Front. Because of that, it has an immediacy that other books, with their post-war hindsight, lack. This isn’t a who-what-when of battles, but the profound emotional and spiritual impact of war on a young man on the ground, speaking to the experience of the unspeakable. German war memoirs are far fewer than those of the allies. Even this one wasn’t published until a few years ago: Reese’s mother was unable to find a publisher during her lifetime. I am very glad for ebooks in this case: I wouldn’t be able to find it in paper. But I was able to download it and in a weekend, I’d finished it. I am still thinking about it.
On a beautiful day recently, A and I walked for 4 hours. At Sunnyside Beach, where in another time people danced to the music of big bands in the Palais Royale, I saw a swan. I learned that this is an aggressive and invasive species, unlike the native swans with their black beaks who appear in my dreams. But still, the swan has always meant sanctuary to me, and grace, and I felt graced by its presence.
This is a memoir about life as an immigrant child from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, a subject that I’ve become very interested in because of this memoir. I rated this a four (though I am against ratings really) because the first part, about Shteyngart’s childhood, is fantastic. Had it stayed that way, I would be raving about it, had it not been that good, I wouldn’t bother adding it to my books.
The writing about his childhood is hilarious, biting, vivid. I was really struck by how little was different in the Soviet Union, by way of material life, in the 1970s from 1930s Poland (my parents’ memories). His parents even treated his asthma with cupping (in Yiddish bankes): heating small glass vessels to create a vacuum which are then put on the ailing person’s back, thereby sucking up the skin to suck up the vapours or something. My grandmother was a specialist in “laying bankes” in the pre-ww2 years.
The next part of the story, his years of being stoned and drunk in high school and university were pages I got through for the sake of the first part, and because even there his writing was good enough to keep me going, even if I was disappointed that as I went there was just more of the same.
The last part of the memoir covers his return to Russia with his parents, and that felt to me inhibited and truncated, abruptly so. His parents are still alive, and I had the feeling that there was a lot more to say, and that if he were to write his memoirs when he was older, it would be more satisfying to read, both because of maturity and freedom.
He was on the jury of the Giller Prize, the year that Web of Angels wasn’t listed, and, oddly enough, reading this memoir was a relief. I could see why my novel wouldn’t be his cup of tea. Too bad The Singing Fire wasn’t up in 2012–I think that would have been more in his line. But after all this time, the sting has gone out of it thanks to Little Failure. So for that alone, it should get four stars!
A book people seem to love or hate. I did laugh out loud. It’s a tall tale, not my favorite genre usually: the hundred year old man runs away from an old age home, has adventures, tells the story of his life, which is the story of the 20th century and his unlikely encounters with presidents and dictators. But I was thoroughly entertained and amused by both the front and back stories. It was a great romp. A sort of Swedish Candide. I keep recommending it to people who may or may not thank me for that.
Part of my project for 2014 is to pay attention to the day. Every morning I jot down in a notebook the time of sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, the phase of the moon, and the weather, not the forecast, but the feel of the day: cold, windy, warming, drizzle or snow. The weather has been noteworthy and attention grabbing in my part of the world. First the glittering ice storm that knocked out power in hundreds of thousands of homes, and then bouts of extreme cold. Today there is sun and it’s warming up. I may be able to shed one of my layers. Is that symbolic?
I thought that climate change would end winter. Instead it ricochets from one season to another. Everything at hyper-speed, plants, animals, viruses on the move. We’re riding the rapids. Hang on!
I heard cardinals singing this morning. They know the days are getting longer.
One minute longer than yesterday.
It’s very cold but I’m grateful for the sun.
Sending warm thoughts to everyone still waiting for power and to all those working so hard to restore it.