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.
And then this: a gift freely given every day. Clouds floating on a sky like water. Fire above, mysteries of home below.
He owed me nothing. I didn’t know him. But he looked at me holding my camera, and he smiled, this city worker with a front tooth missing. His joy infected me, and the colours of the world became brighter.
The beauty is in its ordinariness. We don’t require genius or sacrifice to fulfill life’s purpose, nor do our imperfections prevent it.
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:
I don’t buy it Mr. Andersen. Maybe the mother duck was surprised, overwhelmed, or even envious, but the baby wasn’t ugly, and she lied. We come into the world as beautiful cygnets. Every one of us.
If you’re afraid of shadows, look at them more carefully. Can you see how they reveal another dimension that is not otherwise apparent? New leaves grow in cracks, and shadows are beautiful.
Your job is to love. Everything else is your occupation.
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.