Marc Chagall, Jacob’s Dream
When the Chips are Down
Stoddard Martin reviews a timely tome
NINE LOVE LETTERS, by Gerald Jacobs. Quartet Books, £20
We are living through a neo-expressionistic, intolerant era. Famous lines come to mind: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The resentful go ranting, provoking ill-judged rejoinders; the ante is upped, and clunky apparatchiks are called in to assess who has indulged in hate-speech. Amidst sound and fury, where are the quieter voices, the humane ones, belonging to those who begin and end by trying to understand?
Gerald Jacobs is not a loud-speaking writer. His sentences are never calculated for show. He spins out a narrative calmly and justly, in a reasonable voice. His tale is about Jewish experience, but not with special pleading or without exposing foibles of the tribe. Nine Love Letters is no exercize in us vs them; it is a novel about people in their un-public lives, the way they have navigated historical noxiousness, the difficulties they have in simply living.
The ordinariness of Jacobs’s characters is at the base of their virtues, yet neither they nor their lives are truly ordinary. How could they be when one of the two families, eventually united in marriage comes from Baghdad at the time of the Farhud and the other, now reduced to one, from Budapest at the time of exportations to Auschwitz? These epic disasters provide a precisely painted-in background, but they are not what Jacobs trains our eye on.
The Harouns have been Iraqi merchants for generations, a colourful clan loving their weddings feasts and happy in the open life of the Middle Eastern street, until events persuade the prescient among them to emigrate to north London. In this more enclosed and grey world, they are enterprising enough to make their way in the import-export business, dealing in carpets. Meanwhile, Anna Weisz, child of a prominent physician in mittel Europa, has survived the fate of the rest of her prosperous, cultured family to come to Surrey with the English officer, Roderick Vane, who liberated her from Bergen-Belsen and marries her shortly after. In the Home Counties she encounters veiled bigotry, but a determination to get on propels her to a successful interior design trade, and she confines her traumas of the past to private memory.
Advancing out of the 1930s and ‘40s, we arrive at the heart of Jacobs’ tale – two children of these refugees, Eli Haroun an aspirant poet in rebellion against family expectations, and Belinda Vane a clever public school girl on track to become a blue-stocking at Cambridge. Something mysterious is out of balance in each, and they find themselves for a spell in a psychiatric home called The Elms. Discovering symmetry in their dislocation and aspirations, they fall in love. The Harouns wish their son to make a good Iraqi Jewish or at least Jewish marriage and recoil from a prospect of him taking up with a gentile English girl. Meanwhile, because Anna Weisz Vane has spent years saying nothing about her own background, no one – not even Belinda – realizes that Belinda is matrilineally Jewish.
Wanting to protect her daughter from falling into a life recalling her own miseries, Anna at first mirrors the Harouns’ resistance to the lovers’ relationship. Gradually, however, she sees that they genuinely care for one another and so reveals her origins. On the basis of this, Eli gets his parents’ approval and goes to a rabbi to acquire permission to marry, only to be told that having been in Auschwitz is no proof of Jewishness – gypsies, Polish Catholics and others were there; documentation is needed. This leads to perhaps the best scene in the book: Anna strides with dignity into the pedantic man’s office, exposes the brand on her arm and brandishes a carefully preserved letter from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration confirming the deaths of her parents, their names and identities.
It is a climax to the novel but by no means its end. Nine Love Letters is a Bildungsroman in the Buddenbrooks tradition, and we are invited to see how younger generations develop. Eli and Belinda rent a flat in Chalk Farm and eat at the Pizza House in Goodge Street. They take jobs and have children, and the elder Harouns help them to buy a larger flat in Muswell Hill. They live through the Wilson years and into the 1970s; familial ties remain – traditional Iraqi Jewish dinners are described deliciously – but the lesser traumas of a safe north London life of the day-before-yesterday are not escaped. Eli returns to poetry, then depression; Belinda keeps communicating with her former therapist; the marriage develops predictable tensions, and then… That life goes on is the point in a collective Bildungsroman of this type, and of tradition. Family, community, tribe – little Hanno Buddenbrook may have ingested his father’s melancholia and descended into an early grave, but others continue.
That is what we are left with: to observe the continuum, recalling the great generations – the happy ones, the troubled ones, the ones whose troubles are oddly nameless. We would be without imagination if we did not measure one against another, saying (if even only in private) this one was strong, that one weak; they were toughened by turmoil, we went soft out of privilege. A fine intelligence watches the cycles without giving way to noisy calls to ‘make [whatever] great again’. Decadence and regeneration are part of the process but need not be dealt with via a kind of passionate intensity that causes the centre not to hold. If the best lack all conviction, they would do well to heed quieter, humane voices that speak only after listening and act only after having done the diligence of trying to understand.
STODDARD MARTIN is an author and critic. His latest book is Monstrous Century, Starhaven, 2016