Both Gary Shteyngart and Keith Gessen were born in Soviet-era Russia, and during the Cold War moved with their families to the United States, even as each grew up to train his ironic, if not sardonic, gaze on the land of their birth as well as his adoptive home.
Shteyngart is a master at pinpointing society’s absurdities and turning up the dial on them just enough to transform them into lacerating satire. In “Lake Success” (Random House), looking at contemporary America, little exaggeration was required to portray a civilization in free fall.
His protagonist, Barry Cohen, is a billionaire hedge-fund trader whose marriage is on the rocks (in part because of his inability to come to terms with his son’s autism diagnosis) and whose professional activities are being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. His response is to flee New York and head to the hinterland on a Greyhound bus. He is, as a reviewer in The Guardian put it, “a master of the universe adrift in the country he helped take to the cleaners.”
Gessen’s far-more-sympathetic lead character in “A Terrible Country” (Viking), Andrei Kaplan, is a modest and thoughtful Russian-born academic living in New York a decade ago. He takes leave of the city by plane, heading to Moscow to help care for his ailing grandmother. Once there he notices all the brutality and corruption we would expect him to encounter. But he also finds himself engaged intellectually, socially and politically. As the reader is apt to be.
Readers nowadays are savvy enough to understand that the condition implicit in the title of Dara Horn’s latest novel, “Eternal Life” (W.W. Norton), is more a curse than a promise. What will likely surprise them is the character whom her story burdens with immortality: A Jewish woman from Second Temple-period Jerusalem two millennia ago who, in order to save her sick child from death, makes a deal with God by which she agrees to endure never-ending life. Or, to be more precise, to begin life anew over and over again. Now, it is the 21st century and an 84-year-old Rachel thinks she has a possibility of dying for real. Before she goes, though, she wants to get her middle-aged son out of the basement where he has taken up residence. Horn has been praised for seasoning her profundity with considerable humor.
An English translation of Giorgio Bassani’s “The Novel of Ferrara” (translated by Jamie McKendrick; W.W. Norton) has been a long time coming. Its individual parts – four novels and two cycles of short stories – were originally published in Italian between 1956 and 1974, but were reworked by the author and reissued in a single volume in that language in 1980.
Together, they tell the story of the northern Italian city of Ferrara's Jewish community in the 20th century – a story whose tragic climax came in 1943 with the murder of 183 of the city’s 400 Jews. Though Bassani himself was one of the 400, he escaped death as a Jew after being arrested and imprisoned as a partisan, dying only in 2000 at age 84.
One of the novellas making up this book is 1962's “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” which may be more familiar to readers from its 1970 screen adaptation directed by Vittorio de Sica. Its heartbreaking story depicts the stealthful manner in which the Italian racial laws and the German Final Solution crept up on Ferrara’s unsuspecting Jews. (In a happy footnote, this city with a history extending back 2,500 years, and a Jewish community dating to the Middle Ages, last year became the home of Italy’s new National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah.)
Another book originally published decades years ago but available only now in English is Romain Gary’s “The Kites” (translated from French by Miranda Richmond Mouillot; New Directions). “The Kites” is Gary’s final novel – it originally appeared in 1980, the same year that the author born Roman Kacew in 1914 in Lithuania killed himself – and captures his slightly absurd gallantry, his humor and compassion, and his love of all things French.
At its center are a boy narrator, Ludo, and his uncle, the kite-maker Ambrose Fleury, who is also the postman of their Norman village when the Germans occupy it in 1940. Both uncle and nephew naturally become part of the resistance (Ambrose is arrested and sent to Buchenwald, from which he improbably returns unharmed), and both maintain an unspoiled modesty even as they perform acts of great courage.
New Directions has also republished in English Gary’s 1960 memoir “Promise at Dawn,” which can be read more as novel than as autobiography since the writer was notoriously unreliable in recounting his own history. This is ironic, considering that his actual life read like fiction: Raised in penury by a single mother after his father abandoned them, he came to France at age 14 and served as a fighter pilot for the Free French in World War II. He was a best-selling novelist and screenwriter, a French diplomat, and he married a tragic American movie star (Jean Seberg), before taking his own life following a pleasant lunch with his publisher.
This is a good opportunity to discover or rediscover a writer who keeps going in and out of favor, depending on the Zeitgeist.
For four decades Meg Wolitzer has been writing novels of gentle social satire, whose focus on female characters and day-to-day life has gotten them pegged as "women’s fiction." With 2013's “The Interestings,” which portrayed a group of friends – both men and women! –from their first meeting at summer camp into their early decades of adulthood, she began to reach a well-deserved wider audience. Hopefully, the title of her newest, “The Female Persuasion” (Riverhead), won’t drive away open-minded male readers. But since it focuses on the politics and power dynamics of contemporary feminism, perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath.
“The Female Persuasion” follows Greer Kadetsky – who’s unsure of herself in manner but not in her values – from her encounters with an obnoxious male groper during freshman year at college to her recruitment into and rise through the ranks of 21st-century, fourth-wave feminism.
Her journey exposes her to disappointments and disillusionment, some of them at the hands of her role model and mentor, feminist icon Faith Frank – but these of course are the things that character is built on.
Leading any list of notable nonfiction books – Jewish or not – must be Ronen Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First” (Random House), a massive and extravagantly well-sourced history of the use of the tool of assassination by Israel’s intelligence services.
Bergman, a reporter for both Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth and The New York Times, begins his story with Hashomer, a Jewish defense organization in pre-state Palestine, and pursues it to what are assumed to be Israel’s multipronged attacks on Iran’s program to acquire nuclear weapons – which included the ingenious but chilling murders of a variety of engineers who were involved in the efforts.
Bergman’s investigative skills are nothing short of remarkable, and he clearly has ways of making the most unlikely people talk. As a consequence, one’s mouth is often agape with amazement, even shock, while reading this book.
If “Rise and Kill First” shows what happens – mostly for good, but sometimes not – when Jews possess both sovereignty and the power of force, two other nonfiction books look at the devastation Jews have suffered, and the occasional misplaced blame for their suffering, when they have been unable to defend themselves. (Actually, this was one of the books I did manage to read this year; you can read my review here.)
“Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History,” by Steven J. Zipperstein (Liveright), may well be the first scholarly book to look at the anti-Semitic event that, prior to the Holocaust, most shocked Jews internationally and energized them to action. The 1903 massacre of 49 Jews in Kishinev, in czarist Russia (today Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova), was not the first pogrom nor the last. But news coverage of the event – including photographs of the victims – allowed knowledge of it to spread globally and almost immediately.
A short time after the pre-Easter killings, which were accompanied by an estimated 600 acts of rape of Jewish women, the poet Haim Nahman Bialik visited Kishinev, following which he wrote his Hebrew poem “In the City of Slaughter.” In it, he condemned the Jewish men of the city for their supposed helplessness and cowardice in the face of the atrocities. In fact, writes Zipperstein, he found evidence that the Jews did fight back – not that it helped much.
Creating a refuge for themselves in their ancestral homeland was one suggested Jewish response to pogroms. But the international human-rights movement was also in large part a Jewish creation. The history of that movement, and the ongoing tension between it and Zionism, is the subject of James Loeffler’s “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century” (Yale).
Loeffler, a history professor at the University of Virginia, examines the important role that Jews – well-known figures like Raphael Lemkin, and less well-known ones like Hersch Lauterpacht (a Cambridge expert on international law) and Peter Benenson (a convert to Catholicism and founder of Amnesty International) – played in developing the principles of universal human rights.
In the decades following World War I, the hope existed for such rights to be guaranteed within individual nation-states by way of so-called “minority treaties,” which were to be assured by the League of Nations – and we know how that worked out. Most, though not all, of the activists were also supporters of the Zionist idea. Lauterpacht, for example, wrote an early draft of Israel’s Declaration of Independence as well as a version of the International Bill of Human Rights. Today, one can’t help but ask who can be relied upon to ensure that the lofty values of human rights are enforced, and to be grateful that Jews’ safety no longer needs to be guaranteed by a third party – even as one ponders whether it needs to be secured at the expense of another people.
Alice Shalvi has finally written her memoir – and not a moment too soon: The Israeli educator, feminist pioneer and spiritual nomad turned 92 earlier this year. Born into privilege in Germany in 1926, Alice Margulies moved with her Orthodox family to England in 1934. However, raised on Zionism, she came to Israel in 1949 and never left. Since then, her impact on Israeli society has been widespread, even if she is known mainly among Anglos.
In 1975, she “temporarily” took over the running of the Pelech School for ultra-Orthodox girls in Jerusalem, and over the next 15 years turned it into a progressive institution where religious girls could study the same subjects as boys at religious schools – for example, Talmud – and whose graduates were expected to go on to military or national service.
Shalvi was also a founder in 1984 of the Israel Women’s Network, which helped effect substantial changes to Israeli society, taught English at both the Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University, and after entering her 80s became rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which is affiliated with the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary of America – a decisive step for a woman raised in Orthodox Judaism.
In “Never a Native” (Halban Publishers), Shalvi recounts her long and productive life while revealing insecurities, self-doubts and missteps that have dogged her along the way. Just in case anyone was inclined to think it all came easy to her.