A 23-year-old did not write this book! / Ayelet Waldman
“Half the Kingdom,” by Lore Segal, Melville House, 176 pages, $19.25
I am a compulsive reader. Reading is my only interest. I do not listen to music or fly fish. I do not knit or practice yoga. Periodically I will take a walk or go to an exercise class, but only because I fear that if I lead the entirely sedentary life my lone hobby demands, I will die of a catastrophic heart attack at age 50.
To satisfy my three-to-four-hour-a-day writing habit, I take books out of the library. I buy them at my local bookstore. I order them online. They even, gloriously, arrive at my house unbidden, because I’m a novelist, and in the United States, publishers inundate every novelist with even a modicum of success with their soon-to-be-published books, in the hopes that she will take notice and provide a blurb, a review, or even just a tweet.
Because I read so much, I have always assumed that I’ve at least heard of every American novelist, and with many others who are translated into English. Perhaps I miss the odd science-fiction book, or murder mystery, but I am certainly familiar with the work of every moderately established writer of literary fiction, even if I haven’t read his or work. Or so I thought.
Not long ago, an advance reading copy of a novel called “Half the Kingdom” arrived at my door. Over my morning cup of Earl Grey, I somewhat lackadaisically opened it. My expectations were not high. I’d never heard of this “Lore,” and the publisher was not one of the major houses. I assumed the novelist was yet another young graduate of an MFA program. And then I read the first two sentences:
The doctors, nurses, and patients in the overcrowded, too-brightly lit Emergency Room turned toward the commotion. It was the very old woman, thrashing about with her improbable strength and agility. “You do not,” she shouted, “you do not tell me to relax. I will not relax.”
Two hours later, as I turned the last page (it’s a short book and I’m a fast reader), I lay back, stunned. The novel was masterful. Concise and incisive. The prose assured and confident. The subject matter complex, transcendent of genre. Mordant and wise, and terribly sad without being maudlin. There was no way this book was written by a 23-year-old.
A quick Google search revealed the depth of my ignorance and my hubris in imagining I knew anything at all about who really matters in contemporary American fiction.
Lore Segal is not 23. She is 86 years old. Her previous book of connected stories, “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Within a week I had not only read that book, but two others, “Her First American,” and “Other People’s Houses.” How could it be that I had missed the work of Lore Segal until now? I felt like those two novels were written for me!
I had, for the previous three years, been immersed in the writing of a novel called “Love & Treasure,” which takes place against the backdrop of the Holocaust. When one dares to engage in this very dangerous of activities, Theodor Adorno’s (somewhat mistranslated) warning echoes: “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.”
From the moment I began to consider the topic, I became fearful of falling into exploitation, into awful Holocaust kitsch. You know the type: the smiling clown at Bergen Belsen, the sweet-faced Nazi child pushing apples through the fence to the similarly adorable tiny Jew.
In my desperation to avoid that kind of criminal schmaltz, I read everything, books and articles that made me furious (those apples) and works of genius like W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz,” a novel about the Holocaust that never spends a moment in a camp or cattle car or even very many moments during the years of the war. And yet I had missed Lore Segal’s “Other People’s Houses” (1964), which tells the story of a girl whose life Segal based on her own.
A child of the Kindertransport, Segal managed at age 11, through a tireless campaign of letter-writing, to facilitate her parents’ escape from Vienna and immigration to England. Her father was eventually (and ludicrously) interned as a German speaker on the Isle of Man, and died only days before the war’s end. Lore and her mother immigrated to the United States, with a three-year layover in the Dominican Republic.
“Other People’s Houses,” a novel as memoir (or perhaps a memoir as novel) tells this story. It’s about displacement and loss, about the dissolution and recreation of identity. It takes its place alongside the work of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel as one of the great creative works of the Holocaust.
Everyone should read Lore Segal. Perhaps everyone has. I certainly hope so. I hope I am the only ignoramus who waited so long to receive the blessing of her astonishing gifts.
Ayelet Waldman, an essayist and fiction writer, is author of 12 novels, seven of them in her “Mommy Track Mysteries” series. Her most recent book is “Love and Treasure,” published by Alfred A. Knopf.
The American Dream gone bad / Jan-Philipp Sendker
“In the Course of Human Events,” by Mike Harvkey, Soft Skull Press, 240 pages, $24
In his powerful debut novel, the American novelist Mike Harvkey takes the reader to a rarely visited place: the universe of right-wing, racist extremists in the United States of America.
It is a world novelists usually don’t dare to touch. It is dark, lonely and scary, filled with anger and hatred.
Clyde Twitty, Harvkey’s main character, is in his early 20s, and drifts directionlessly through his life in Strasburg, a small town in the American Midwest. Strasburg is a place battered and bruised by the economic crisis: The houses are rotten, the yards full of junk, stores are empty, in their windows nothing but big “for rent” signs. A place that nurtures hate, violence and paranoia.
Since Clyde lost his job three years ago he has almost become a stranger to work. His savings are gone, he cashed out of his retirement. He lives with his mom in a small house that is falling apart. She hasn’t had a steady job for years, mother and son have not been able to pay the mortgage for a while – not to mention health, life, car insurance. There is none of it.
For Clyde there is not much hope, no prospect of finding decent work apart from his part-time job at Walmart, which pays minimum wage. All this has beaten him down in ways he didn’t even know. Even his best friend has left town, looking for a brighter future.
Little Strasburg is more than the product of the imagination of a gifted writer: It is a town far too familiar in many parts of the United States. A town where the American dream has turned into a nightmare.
It is Jay Smalls, a charismatic martial artist, who finally gives Clyde’s life a purpose. He has a small group of students, whom he teaches not just karate but mostly right-wing ideology. Jay Smalls exerts an intense magnetic pull over this young group. Under his brutal instruction, Clyde drifts away from his family and few friends, as he has to endure a series of increasingly frightening tests, unable to see how he is being manipulated by a born leader, who reshapes his students one after another into blind followers.
After a few grueling months, Clyde has changed into a fearless warrior, his desperate but aimless anger directed now at two targets: minorities and the government.
Harvkey writes in detail about the brutal nature of hate, the disturbing ways of radicalization, and the overwhelming power of the experience of being believed in, finally, for the first time in your life. It is this feeling of having someone believe in you, seeing your potential, or at least claiming to do so, that breaks down every barrier Clyde might have had. We follow him step by step on his long and painful transformation from a lost soul, a mild-mannered young man looking for direction, into a fanatic believer in white-supremacist propaganda.
Harvkey, a Midwestener himself, has a very precise ear. His dialogues are sharp and authentic, his straightforward prose is perfect for describing the harsh and unforgiving world of Clyde Twitty. It is a broken part of America, neither hip nor sexy, little examined in literature and even less understood.
Clyde is not a young man you would want to spend much time with, but he stays with you far longer than you would expect. Even long after you close this book, you can’t help but keep thinking about him.
Such is the power of a good novel.
Jan-Philipp Sendker was the U.S. correspondent of the German magazine Stern from 1990 to 1995, and its Asian correspondent from 1995 until 1999. He is the author of the novels “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats” and “The Well-Tempered Heart,” both published in the U.S. by Other Press.
Why are Jews still wandering? / Jake Wallis Simons
“Neuland,” by Eshkol Nevo (translated from the Hebrew by Sandra Silverston), Chatto & Windus, 624 pages, £17
Eshkol Nevo and I have only met once, at Jewish Book Week in London earlier this year. But we quickly became firm friends. The reason was simple: I had bothered to read his book before interviewing him.
Apparently, the last time he had spoken in public, the interviewer had neglected to read “Neuland,” and the event was a disaster. This must have been a great shame for the audience. But it seems to me that the interviewer was the biggest loser; she had missed out on a moving, important and deeply provocative tale.
“Neuland” is concerned with the central idea that although the Jews have achieved a homeland, their wandering continues. All around us is evidence of this: Several far-flung parts of the world are swamped with backpacking Israelis, and an increasing number are choosing to live outside their home country permanently (Germany is seeing higher numbers of immigrant Israelis than ever before).
For Jews living outside Israel, this has a unique – and rather dissonant – resonance. What does this say about the idea of Israel to which we cling? Is it failing? Has it failed? Is our dreamy vision of a Jewish homeland being undermined by the people charged with making it a reality? Are we guilty of being profoundly, hopelessly naïve?
When I told my mother about “Neuland,” for example, she quickly became uncomfortable. Within a couple of minutes, she had closed her ears completely. She accused the novel of being “anti-Israel,” and went off to make a kugel.
Although I try to be more objective, I can relate to this. As soon as the topic of Israel comes up in conversation in Britain, I too find myself limbering up for a fight. It takes some effort to suppress this instinct to over-react whenever the I-word comes up.
To Manny Peleg, the war-damaged quasi-prophet whose vision lies at the heart of “Neuland,” the matter is clear. Israel, he believes, has betrayed the ideals of togetherness, compassion and moral dignity on which it was founded; the only way to heal these wounds is to set up an alternative Jewish state in microcosm, functioning in accordance with Herzl’s original dream.
Whether you agree with his arguments or not, it is vital to recognize that this position – and indeed the novel itself – is ultimately intended as an expression of support for the Jewish homeland. Unlike a worrying number of people outside Israel, Peleg would never dream of questioning the principle that Israel has a right to exist. His dissent is based on a desire to improve the state, not to undermine it.
Jews living in Britain today have to cope with a very different political climate. The natural assumption that Israel is essentially a decent idea, and that its existence is not predicated upon a fundamental injustice, is far from ubiquitous. Indeed, so woeful is the general level of education when it comes to the Middle East that (I suspect) a sizeable portion of the British public believes that a State of Palestine existed in 1948, and that it was invaded by Jewish colonialists driving tanks.
Meanwhile, the argument that “criticizing Israel does not mean I am anti-Semitic” is too often used as a fig-leaf for base prejudice; the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is gaining ground; and the specter of anti-Semitism is far from exorcised.
(A friend of mine who is a British diplomat tells me that a senior member of the Foreign Office was suspended for allegedly shouting “Bloody Israelis! Bloody Jews!” when watching the news on a television at a gym.)
Perhaps this partially explains why many Diaspora Jews are tempted to close their ears to any critical approach toward Israel. Without it, an important anchor will be lost. And it is why “Neuland” is so interesting when read outside Israel, and why it is so important.
Israelis may be leaving their country in droves. But although it is commonplace for them to disagree about the direction of their country’s future, it is rare for them to doubt the moral basis of its existence. And when fatal criticism comes from the outside, it is easier to disregard.
Diaspora Jews can learn from this. We may never go so far as to doubt our support for Israel, but it is easy to feel beleaguered when the Jewish state is attacked so often and so publicly.
But, ironically perhaps, reinforcing our belief in Israel’s right to exist as a free and legitimate country – and cultivating pride in that belief – can allow us to open our ears to Eshkol’s question: Why, if the dream of a Jewish homeland has become a reality, do so many Israelis continue to wander?
Jake Wallis Simons is a features writer at the London Sunday Telegraph. He is the author of “The English German Girl” and, most recently, “Jam,” both published in the UK by Polygon.