“Minotaur” – by Benjamin Tammuz

In ancient mythology, the Minotaur was part man, part bull, condemned to live in a labyrinth, and fed children for sustenance. “Minotaur” is also the name of  what is perhaps Israeli author Benjamin Tammuz’ best known novel.  Tammuz was a Russian born, Palestinian bred Israeli who was an artist as well as an author, and a cultural journalist for Haaretz.  He died in 1988.

I picked up the book by chance – it was short, I could buy it for 50 cents at the book store, and I had a couple of hours to kill before my next commitment.  I expected little, but got much more.

This is a novel about obsessive love.  Well, not really, it’s about obsession.  Period.  Alexander Abramov is an Israeli intelligence agent, who spends the majority of his time in Europe, doing who knows what (actually, no one knows, because he’s an Israeli intelligence operative).  You don’t really learn this until the last third or so of the book.  All you know is that there is a man who spends time in London but doesn’t live in England, and who by chance got on a bus one day, and saw the girl of his dreams.  She was about 17, and he was in his early 40s.  He finds out who she is and where she lives, and begins a sporadic correspondence with her, expressing his love, but telling her that they cannot meet (without telling her why).  The correspondence goes on for years and years.  And it’s a two way correspondence; she is intrigued and, for some reason, neither upset nor scared.

She becomes engaged and is about to get married when her fiance dies in a one car crash.  She asks her mysterious suitor “tell me, did you have a hand in the death of G.R.?”  Years later, when she is a lecturer in Spanish at a university in Kent, she meets an intriguing foreigner, older than she, with a strange accent. Nikos. Can this be him?

No, she realizes, but they become an item, and Nikos’ obsession with her is as strong as is Alex’s.  And, it turns out (of course) that twelve years earlier, Alex and Nikos had a run in with each other.  And at least Alex remembers.  Should Alex do away with Nikos (as he thought about doing away with G.R., or perhaps as he actually did)?

Oh, yes, Alex does have a wife and several children back in Israel – he knows that if he decides to leave his family for a woman 25 years his junior in England, he will be fired from the intelligence service.  He also knows that his enemies have identified him and that if he goes to Europe without being disguised, he will be targeted.

What to do……..

Finely written, nice character developments, not quite realistic, but it certainly carries you right along.  Is there a moral to this story?  I couldn’t find one.  Anywhere.  Is Alex the Minotaur?  I guess so – he certainly has created a labyrinth with no exit – even if the labyrinth exists only in his mind.

Regarding Isaac Babel and Robert Rosenstone and Truth (sort of) and Fiction (sort of ).

There are a lot of biographies out there.  Some are good, some are tedious, some are inaccurate.  But most fit a standard patterns.  A chronological examination of the life of the subject.

I have read some books that challenge this pattern, starting with the fascinating Quest for Corvo, written by A.J.A. Symons in the 1930s.  It’s the biographer of a (now) little known English author, the man who called himself Baron Corvo, but it’s not a straight chronological biography.  Yes, it tells Corvo’s story, but more than that it tells the tale of how Symons went about developing the information required to write the biography of the author.  And quite a quest it was.  And there were others.

But Robert A. Rosenstone’s King of Odessa was a first for me.  The subject of the book is  Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel.  And the book is termed a novel.  But I am not sure that is correct.

Babel was born in Odessa in 1894, and made his name after the 1917 revolution with his short stories of Odessa and of the Russian Civil War.  He was one of the most well known Russian author of his day.

Of course, his day was not a pleasant one, and in 1940, he was arrested, tortured, accused of being a Trotsky-ite, tried and murdered.  He was only 46.

While Babel lived in Moscow, he yearned for his home town of Odessa and was able to spend about six months there in 1936.  He went there for the weather, for treatment for his asthma, for quiet time to write, and to spend some time with film director Sergei Eisenstein working on what became an unsuccessful social realism short (Bezhin Meadow, the story of a young boy whose kulak father was cheating his collective farm, and who informed on him, leading his father to kill him – if you can believe that).

What Babel did day to day during these months is not really known, but Rosenstone (who teaches as Cal Tech of all places) imagines that he wrote a memoir, and this book is that memoir.

There is a lot of biographical information in Rosenstone/Babel’s writing – his early life, his relationship with his mother and sister living in Brussels and his wife and daughter living in Paris, as well as his affairs with Yevgenia Yezhova (who had the misfortune of marrying Nikolai Yezhov, who became chair of the NKVD (which turned into the KGB) and with Nina Pirozhkova, a Moscow subway civil engineer with whom he had a child and lived as common law spouses.  You learn of his relationship with a number of well known Russian intellectuals, his relationship with his Jewish upbringing, and his friendship and working relationship with Eisenstein.  There is a tremendous amount in this book that is biographic and presumably accurate.

But this is a “fake memoir”, so it is filled with some not quite factual additions, largely with the introduction of Nadja Kamenskaya, an actress from Kazakhstan, with whom Babel has still another affair, and one which threatens his relationships with his other women, and who is (surprise, surprise) quite a femme fatale, playing a number of roles all at once in the hope of furthering her stagnant career, whose agenda does not come clear until late in the script.  But even if this memoir was not “fake”, if in fact it had been written by Babel himself, who knows, Nadja might have been included.  For Babel always made it clear that he was a story teller, that his tales were always tweaked here and there, that fiction and reality could be mixed.

A year or two ago, I read a biography of another Soviet era Jewish writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, Tangled Loyalties by Joshua Rubenstein.  A fine biography it is, and a story of another intriguing author, this one a man who lived through the Stalinist purges, and was allowed to travel outside of the USSR.  It was a straight, detailed book, and I remember a fair amount about what it said about Ehrenburg.  But my guess is, from reading Rosenstone’s make believe memoir, I am going to remember just as much about Babel.  And this is why I question this book as a novel.  For me, it’s a biography (with a little stuff thrown in, just to make it interesting, and a bit intriguing).

Scriabin, Chopin, Prokofiev, and Felix Blumenfeld?

If you want to make your audience happy and receive a standing ovation (and if you are a concert pianist), let me suggest that you finish (or start) your program with Prokofiev’s Toccata, Op. 11. This is what Cha Park did at the Church of the Epiphany, and it sure did the trick.  Pulsating, unstoppable rhythm, like when your leg starts tapping in overdrive and you can’t stop it.  She did a marvelous job.

This followed three Chopin Etudes – each of which is quite familiar to me.  She explained how Chopin had changed the concept of an etude. No longer was it to be just a “study” to improve your techniques.  Now it was to be a musical piece in its own right, which just happened to benefit your playing as a naked etude would.  The first etude (no. 3) she described as “very hard to play” – yes, that’s the way it looked.  The second (no. 5) was written in G minor, and she said that there was only one white note in the entire piece.  The third, sounding an awful lot like one of his waltzes, was no. 12.

Park started the concert with two pieces written for the left hand alone.  I recognized neither of them.  The first was by a Russian composer named Felix Blumenfeld, with whom I was totally unfamiliar.  I can’t say that I cared for it – there was a lot of sound, and a lot of notes – in fact it didn’t sound like it was just one hand playing – more like piano for four hands at times.  The second was by Scriabin, which I enjoyed more.  What was interesting here is Park’s relating that Scriabin suffered from synesthesia (look it up) which had the effect of his seeing each musical tone as a different color, giving an additional element to his music – clearly something to think about.

I had heard Cha Park last year at Epiphany.  Just as good then.

Peter Bergen’s “Manhunt: the Ten Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad”.

Peter Bergen’s 2012 book about the search for Osama bin Laden, “Manhunt”, is a fairly fast read.  It is only 260 pages long, but looks lengthier because it as 75 pages of notes, plus an extensive bibliography, interview list, and index.  I recommend it.

Here is what stands out to me:

1.  Al-Qaeda, at the time of 9/11 was no fly-by-night outfit (pardon the pun).  From the book (page 55):  “The pre-9/11 al-Qaeda was quite bureaucratic, with its various committees for media outreach, military planning, business affairs, and even farming; its top down CEO; the salaries it paid many of its members; the comprehensive training it provided its recruits; and the detailed application forms that were required to attend its training camps. The group’s bylaws, which ran to thirty-two pages in an English translation, covered annual budgets, salaries, medical benefits, policies for al-Qaeda members with disabilities, grounds for dismissal from the group, and vacation allowances.”

2.  Once bin-Laden fled Tora Bora and holed up in Abbottabad, this changed, and al-Qaeda became less top down and more decentralized.  There was no way bin Laden could micro-manage from his hiding place (his only contact was through courier, as he was afraid that any electronic communication could be tracked), although he tried his best.

3.  Bin Laden was obsessed with more attacks on the West and especially on the United States.  The various al-Qaeda cells throughout the Middle East often attacked other competitive Islamic groups, something that bin Laden felt not appropriate or priority.

4.  It took such a long time to locate bin Laden in Abbottabad in part because he really was hiding in plain sight, in a fairly large city, in an exposed villa (built for him), in a location where Pakistan had a strong military presence, and in a place considered relatively safe and peaceful, where there were always a significant number of foreigners present.

5.  Bin Laden apparently did not leave his compound for six years.  He lived on the third floor of the main house with his youngest wife, with the only windows overlooking a closed courtyard.  His only outdoor exercise was walking in the courtyard in circles under a canopy where he could not be seen.  Two of his other wives, and some of his younger children, lived in the first two floors.  His courier (and his wife, family and brother’s family) lived in a separate house within the compound.

6.  It was never 100% clear that bin Laden was living in this house.  Some intelligence people thought it was 90% certain, while others thought it no more than 50% or 60% certain, so the decision to attack the house was a tough one.

7.  There were several ways to approach the house.  A personal attack (which is what was used, with Navy SEAL Team 6), a drone attack, a bombing attack, a larger military operation.  There were advantages and disadvantages to each, and each had its proponents.  President Obama had to make the decision as to whether to try to kill bin Laden (capturing was viewed as very problematic) and how to do it.

8.  The political aspects were as difficult, or perhaps more difficult, than the physical aspects.  Should the Pakistani government or military be told what was going on?  Should they participate?  If not, how would this be handled?

The book tells the story well – how bin Laden lived in Tora Bora and in Abbottabad, how the SEALS and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) trained and operated, how the decision to attack was made (it’s not easy being President), and how the attack was carried out.  Well worth reading.

Moll Flanders – A Lot of Fun and I’m Glad It Turns Out All Right.

Daniel Defoe led a long and varied life.  Born in London in 1660 to a family of religious dissenters, he lived through the plague years and the Great Fire, before entering business. He became at first financially successful, but his involvement in politics, when he became allied with Queen Mary and King William, and engaged in espionage activity, which unfortunately adversely affected his French trading business. He fell into debt, was arrested and imprisoned, but was released and was soon back in business.

He started writing in the 1690s, not long after William and Mary’s ascension to the crown, and his focus was on political and social advocacy, not fiction.  After William died in 1702, and Queen Anne took the throne, Defoe wound up in trouble because of his nonconformist religion and Anne’s devotion to the Anglican church.  He continued to publish against Anne’s attempt to close down religious opposition, but he was identified and arrested for sedition.  He was convicted, put in the public pillory for three days and then sent to Newgate Prison.  He was released under promise of serving the government, which he did, but eventually again apparently cleverly acting as a double agent in writing his political tracts.

At the same time, he acted as a journalist, one of the first to cover day to day activities and began to write fiction.  And of course it is his fiction that he is today best known for.  Yet what is interesting is that, although his writing career lasted over 50 years, he wrote fiction over only five years, from 1719 to 1724.  During this time, he wrote several novels, including Robinson Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flanders and Roxana.

I just finished reading “The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders”, a picaresque story of, yes the fortunes and misfortunes of Moll Flanders (OK, that wasn’t her real name).

Moll Flanders is a very clever woman.  Abandoned at a young age when her mother is taken to prison, she was taken in by a woman of some means, first as a sort of servant, but as time went by more and more like a family member, largely because of her charm and intelligence.  Her mistress had two sons – she was friendly to both, but clearly favored the younger and she him.  They talked marriage (and willingness to forgo family objection, which might not have been too strong in any event) and were ready to expose their secret, when the older brother expresses his love and asks her hand in marriage.  She goes to her “fiance” and asks what she should do, and he surprisingly tells her to accept his brother’s proposal, as he is the older.  We will always be together and friends, he tells her.  And, heartbroken, she accepts her proposal of a man to whom she is indifferent, and marries him, only to see him die nine years later (and to see the younger brother married to someone else).

On her own, she meets another man and enters into what seems to be a happy marriage and she eventually agrees to go with him to his plantation in the new colony of Virginia, where his mother is living.  Enjoying her life in the New World, she gets along very well with her mother-in-law until she asks her how she wound up in the colonies.  When she hears the story, she realizes that her mother in law is her mother, and her husband her brother.  And, knowing this is a secret she must keep, things go downhill from there.

Moll Flanders has several other equally improbable romantic adventures (one where she believes her future husband is wealthy, and he believes she is, only to find out too late that each has been misled – both by a third party, their matchmaker) , but when she approaches 50, she realizes that her days as a wife and mother are behind her, and she finds herself alone and in need of sustenance.  So, with the help of a series of friends, she becomes a professional – a very clever and successful thief, and has a series of a different sort of adventures.

Things look down more than they look up, but don’t despair.  Everything turns out for the best.

Defoe’s novel are very early examples of the genre.  And his style of telling tale after tale after tale reminds one of, say, Voltaire’s Candide, or even John Barth’s The Sotweed Factor.  And Defoe is a very good story teller.  The book is written in the first person, and in a very readable style.  Moll Flanders, for all her problems and her eventual decision to join the underworld is very sympathetic.  She’s sympathetic in part because her world seems so real, in fact quite contemporary, not at all as you might imagine it almost 400 years ago.  The only differences (other than the obvious lack of smart phones et al) lies in the position of women and the treatment of debtors and criminals.  Women’s rights are limited, of course, as is their ability to earn a living.  But when you are as sharp and crafty as Moll Flanders and her various friends are, these limitations are hurdles, but not stumbling blocks.  Debtors go to prison, and prison in the 17th century is no fun, and often you are there a long, long time (if you ever get out).  Going to jail for criminal activity is worse.  You may linger forever before your trial comes up.  When it does, there seems to be little chance anyone will listen to you.  And the list of crimes for which capital punishment is dealt is a large one.  Of course, if you have money………

I picked up this book as a diversion – glad I did.  A relaxing read.  And very entertaining.

Just Read Lore Segal’s “Her First American” – Recommended

Lore Segal (then Groszmann) was born in Vienna in 1928.  After the 1938 Anschluss with Hitler’s Germany, she was put on the first Kindertransport and spent the next ten years in England, completing university there.  After a stay in the Dominican Republic, she and her mother were able to move to the United States (her father had died shortly before the end of the war).  They lived in an apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.  Her mother died at 100.

Segal has written a variety of books.  Her best known are perhaps “Other People’s Houses” and the childen’s book “Tell Me a Mitzi”.  I just read “Her First American”, published in 1985.   I assume that both “Other People’s Houses” (life of Austrian Jewish refugees in England) and “Her First American” (life of an Austrian Jewish refugee in American) have an autobiographical base.  How close they were to Segal’s true experiences, I am not sure.

Our heroine, Ilka Weissnix, a woman in her early 20s, has just arrived in New York from Europe. It’s the early 1950s. Her English is very poor, and she is overwhelmed by the big city and all it contains.  Upon being told that New York is not really America, she is given the money by her cousin to take a bus trip across the country.  She wants to find out as much about America as she can.

By chance, in a small, nothing town in Nevada (or was it Utah?), between trains, she drops into a bar (or is it a restaurant) to pass the time, and she meets Carter Bayoux, an African American in his mid-40s, who is clearly a unique specimen.  They meet again in New York and begin a year long affair.  Carter, who is in some ways more central to the book than Ilka, is an intellectual (a writer and teacher), a friend of the rich and famous (and a veritable name dropper), a man of many affairs and marriages, a person of meager finances and, perhaps most crucially, an alcoholic.  He introduces Ilka to America, to be sure, and to many other things, sometimes treating her well, and other times not.  Ilka, with her basic English and malapropisms, and Carter make, of course, an unlikely duo – funnier than either happy or sad, and the book becomes a humorous, picaresque coming of age and coming to America tale, sensitive on both accounts.

Ilka, like Segal, lives with her mother in Washington Heights, Carter is apparently based on an actual friend of the writer (perhaps not the same kind of friend), and Ilka’s early New York job experiences parallel those of Segal.  But of course there are differences.  When she came to the United States, Segal was a bit older than Ilka, and had the linguistic benefit of having lived for a decade in Britain.

Carter comes across as someone who, for a variety of reasons but especially his addiction, will come to a bad ending.  Ilka, on the other hand, seems to absorb America like a sponge.  You know she will be all right.  An amusing book, “Her First American” will keep you turning the pages, and while you do, you will learn a little about America, and about those people who find it a little harder to just fit in.

“Selma” (the Film), Selma (the History) – How Close Are They?

It was a strange talk today at the Library of Congress’ Mary Pickford Theater.  The speaker was recently retired University of Delaware history professor Gary May, author of the 2014 book “Bending Towards Justice: the Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy”, the story of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The announced topic was “Selma, the Voting Rights Act and Reel History”, and I admit to not knowing exactly what that meant.

May is a good speaker and he said that his talk today was going to be different from the many others he had given on his book, that it was to be more personal.  It turned out that the talk was not on the book (which has been very well reviewed) at all, but rather on “Selma”, the film.  And, yes, it was personal.

It turns out that May, who taught at Delaware for about 30 years, did teach a course on American history and film (or something very much like that).  This struck me both as an interesting topic, but also one guaranteed to dumb down American history for a bunch of students whose background in American history was based on watching movies and not reading books.  I think I was right.

May started by talking about how history is distorted in the cinema and how this is something he finds very disturbing.  He says that he understands that movie makers have artistic freedom, but he also thinks that there is a whole generation of film watchers who get their information from film.  He mentioned the more obvious earlier films, from “Birth of a Nation” (“the heroes were the Ku Klux Klan”), to “Gone With the Wind” (it romanticized the South), to “Mississippi Burning”, which made the white FBI agents the heroes of a film about the murders of the three freedom riders in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Of course, he could have talked about many more historical films, including Oliver Stone’s “JFK”, Ron Howard’s “Frost and Nixon”, and the recent award winning “The Imitation Game”, about code breaking during World War II and the role of Alan Turing.

I share his discomfort with historical distortions, as many of my friends and family know, not only in film, but on the stage.  So I am very sympathetic to May’s problems with the film “Selma”.  And, of course, May is not the only historian to find problems with Selma.  Many prominent American historians, as well as several former governmental officials in the administration of Lyndon Johnson, found fault with the film.  Most of these criticisms dealt with the movie’s portrayal of Johnson as being quite negative regarding a voting rights bill, and having Johnson conspire with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to inform Coretta King about her husband’s sexual indiscretions (something that no responsible historian thinks happened).

But Gary May had a different set of criticisms.  He maintains that American films have generally under appreciated the role that African Americans played in the civil rights movement.  But “Selma” did not understate the role of African Americans, at least didn’t understate the role of known African American movement activists.  In fact, one could say that, by diminishing the role of Johnson and other government officials, it magnified their roles.  But he claims that, in concentrating on the actions of Martin Louis King, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young and others, the film ignored the crucial earlier role played by local civil rights leaders – particularly the black school teachers who marched together to the Registrar’s office, demanding the right to register to vote and prepared to go to jail if necessary, and the role of the black high school students who marched together with placards saying things like “Let our parents vote!” and who were attacked and beaten by the police.  These, he maintained, were the real heroes of Selma.

May’s personal involvement started when he learned that the film was to be made, and he sent copies of his book (perhaps before publication) to the director, Ava DuVernay, with whom he spoke several times.  He had expressed what he believed was important in telling the story and said that DuVernay understood the points he was making, and seemed to “get it”.  He faults himself for not suggesting to her that she should have a historian (he admits he wished he could have met Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey) associated with the film, to read the script and ensure historical accuracy. But he didn’t; nor did anyone else, apparently.

Before the film was released, May was invited to a private showing in New York.  He went certain that he would like the film, and was “shocked” at what he saw, that the true heroes of Selma were ignored, and that the few locals who were in the film were given short shrift.  The audience at the showing was composed primarily of film professionals, and the film was apparently very well received.  May left the theater without trying to speak with the director.

He was contacted by the production company’s PR representative to get his reaction after the film was released; he responded with a lengthy email and received no acknowledgement from his correspondent.  He wrote a critical review which was published by The Daily Beast, and received an email from DuVernay expressing her surprise at his reaction and at his review.  He said that he wrote her a well considered response, and again never heard anything.

May ended his talk with some comments about the recently released film DVD, which has some extra features on it, including a director’s statement that perhaps she did not get the facts as accurately as she could have, and a teacher’s guide which appears to make a distinction between “facts” and “truth” in making an historic film. He (and I) have no idea what this really means.  He thought that perhaps the DVD will sell well, and that the film will be watched on Netflix and elsewhere, and that enough of the story is accurate that its spread and accessibility will override its flaws.  We will see.

I’m not sure I learned a lot from this talk (except that I did not know much about the earlier local protests in Selma), and I am glad I am not the only person concerned generally with historical accuracy, but I thought that the “personal” aspects of his talk, while it provided an unusual perspective, were not very important in the scheme of things, particularly for this LOC audience.  I found it a little self-centered and made me a bit uncomfortable.

A few other things.  May said that the budget for this film was $20 million, and that it grossed about $50 million domestically, which he said was not an outstanding return.  Overseas, he said, the gross was only about $14 million – perhaps this shows that the Selma story is too foreign for foreigners to appreciate, something interesting in itself. He also said that a film was being planned which would star Woody Harrelson in a biopic about Lyndon Johnson.  Perhaps this one will get it right.

Let’s Talk about “Scum” – another Singer book

Having read “Shosha” and come out of it with mixed feelings, I noted “Scum” on our shelves and thought I’d give another Isaac Bashevis Singer book a whirl.  “Shosha” is a book written mid-career, while “Scum”, published in 1991, was one of the Nobel Prize winner’s last books.

Both are set in Warsaw, and I think my choice was somewhat influenced by a conversation I had with a friend who had recently visited the Polish capital and was telling me how the decision had been made to rebuild the city after World War II to look as close as possible to the pre-war city.  “Shosha”, I knew, and “Scum”, I learned are topographic novels – Singer often leads you block by block, square by square, sometimes building by building through the city.

“Shosha” was largely set in immediate pre-war Warsaw, the 1930s.  A prominent location is the Bristol Hotel, described as a luxury hotel and the choice of American real estate mogul Sam Dreiman and his actress-companion, Betty Slonim.  I asked my friend if he saw the Bristol on his trip, and if it still existed.  He had not seen it, and did not know if was still (or again) in operation.

I think Googled the Bristol and found that it is still there, and still elegant.  I also saw that construction began in 1899 and the hotel opened in 1901.  I also learned that the German occupiers took over the hotel after the invasion of Poland, but that the hotel was not bombed and survived the war, unlike the major part of the city of Warsaw.

I wasn’t surprised when I read that the focal character of “Scum”, Poland native, Argentinian resident Max Barabender, stayed at the Bristol.  “Scum” is set in the year 1906, thirty years earlier than “Shosha”.  But something else did surprise me (and I know I am being picky).  Max Barabender had left Warsaw 23 years earlier (that would be 1883), when he was 24, yet he remembered the Bristol Hotel, and its reputation for luxury from those days.  An anachronism, right in the heart of “Scum”.

OK, let’s put that aside.  What about “Scum”.  Hit, or no hit?

In 1991, Isaac Singer was 88 years old.  And he wrote this book about 47 year old Barabender, traveling to Warsaw to regain his youthful ardor and cure his impotence, by finding willing women.  And willing women, he did indeed find.  There was the 19 year old daughter of a poverty stricken rabbi, there was the mistress of an aging underworld figure, there was the young servant girl who just wanted out of her straits, there was the over the hill wife of the baker.

So, how does he do it?  (Well, of course, so many of Singer’s characters seem to have this sexual magnitism.)  Well, he does it first by propositioning almost everyone he meets, and not only verbally but through what today would be closer to “date rape”, through physical pressure.  But none of the women seem to really mind, even those who fight back, to it knowing that they will give in eventually (eventually being in about five minutes).  No, Singer’s women are not very believable.

Max has a wife in Buenos Aires.  She lost all interest in physical, and emotional, contact after their teenage son, and only child, suddenly died, and eventually she sent her husband off to Warsaw with her blessings.  Once in Warsaw, Max tells everyone that his wife has died, that he is a wealthy widower looking for companionship.  He asks for the hand of the rabbi’s daughter, he tells the gangster’s wife that he will become her partner is encouraging Jewish girls to leave Warsaw for Argentina (without telling them that, upon arrival, they will be sent to a brothel), she tells the servant girl that he will travel with her anywhere she wants.

So is this just a silly story by an over-the-hill author, or is it a tale amplifying the existential condition of the typical middle aged male?  I vote for the former.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Shosha” – a book of some interest.

The introduction to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1978 novel “Shusha” is a puzzle:

“This novel does not represent the Jews of Poland in the pre-Hitler years by any means.  It is a story of a few unique characters in unique circumstances.”

What is he saying?  Why is he saying this?

Is he saying that the book does not represent ALL the Jews of Poland?  That goes without saying.  Is he saying that the characters in this book are not meant to represent any particular Jews who lived in Warsaw in the 1930s?  There are certainly clearer ways to say this?  Is he saying that the novel was not represent ANY Jews in pre-Hitler Poland?  Every novel is “a story of a few unique characters in unique circumstances”; this is almost a definition of a novel.  So what gives here?

I don’t know.  But I did read “Shosha” , a book that has been hanging around the house in multiple copies forever, earlier this week and, while I don’t think it’s the most engaging story around, I do think it has some value.  But in fact that value depends upon its accuracy in “representing the Jews of Poland in the pre-Hitler years”.  Otherwise, why write it?

Singer sure spends a lot of time describing the Jews of Poland, or at least of Warsaw, where the novel is set.  He talks about three distinct kinds of Jews:  the poor, and often very religious, Jews who live in and around Krochmalna Street, an area which he portrays as a sort of Warsavian Lower East Side.  There are the intellectual Jews, also impoverished, but living in various neighborhoods of the city, who hang around the Writers Club.  And there are the rich and assimilated Jews, some of whom now live abroad in America, but who return now and then for personal and business reasons.

The story line is a bit odd.  The central character is not really Shosha – in my mind she plays a supporting role – but Aaron, a would be writer who grew up in the Krochmalna neighborhood, but who moved out and now is one of Warsaw’s young intellectuals, writing for local publications and dreaming of doing something big.  Shosha was his neighbor and best friend until she moved away at age 7; he does not see her for twenty years, and those twenty years have not been good to her.  Shosha suffers from some malady (ala Oskar in Gunter Grass’ “The Tin Drum”) where she stopped growing physically and mentally, and has never reached puberty.

Aaron is, among other things, a ladies man (although the description of him and his older companion and mentor Morris, also quite a rake, makes this seem less that possible), and he has recently broke up with Communist girlfriend Dora, who wants him to move to Moscow with her, and has started affairs with his landlord’s maid, the non-Jewish Tekla, with Celia, the outgoing wife of mild, meek Haiml,and  with Warsaw born American Yiddish theater actress Betty Slonim, mistress and muse of the wealthy, married, old and not well Sam Dreiman, American real estate mogul.  But he marries Shosha.

Why he marries Shosha is a mystery and source of frustration to all of Aaron’s friends, as it is to me. She  doesn’t really have a role in the story.  She could have been a rag doll for what she adds to the story line.  “What?  Aaron is marrying a rag doll and bringing her everywhere with him? Why did he do that?  She’s not even alive.”  These words could be said about Shosha.

Putting Shosha to the side, a lot does happen, mainly surrounding Aaron’s relationship with Betty and Sam.  Sam hires Aaron to write a play for Betty to star in, to take Warsaw by storm.  Aaron writes and writes, but never succeeds (he has a lot of interference from Sam, Betty and each of the prospective actors, each of whom want their roles amplified and changed).  Finally, in a fit of exasperation, Sam pulls the plug.

I guess it’s a coming of age story.  The poverty ridden lost writer becomes found through a series of lucky connections, cannot quite adjust to becoming a man of substance and prospective fame, reaches to his past for some sort of security, finds success illusive, and retreats to his adolescent shyness.

Although much of the book foreshadows Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the story line ends before the war begins, except for an epilogue where the now American Aaron visits the now Israeli Haiml – everyone else has perished, some as Holocaust victims, some of natural causes and at least one of suicide.  Shosha had died as they were evacuated from the ghetto.

But the book, it seems to me, was about the pre-Hitler era Polish Jews, and about Warsaw, its neighborhoods, its streets, its synagogues, its hotels, its clubs, its Jewish theater.  Don’t let that introduction fool you.

Holocaust Memoirs: What to Make of Martin Gray’s “For Those I Loved”

No matter how young you are, nor how long you are going to live, you could probably read a different Holocaust memoir every day and never run out of books.  And you would be fascinated by each of them.

If you decided to do this, undoubtedly one of the books you would choose early on would be “For Those I Loved” by Martin Gray, originally published in French in 1971.  And there’s a good reason for this.  The book tells an extraordinarily dramatic story (with, as it turns out, a positive ending).  Gray tells of being born and raised in Warsaw in an assimilating Jewish family.  His childhood is ideal and well funded, but everything changes when the Germans enter the city and the Jews are confined to an overcrowded ghetto.

But young Martin (he was then Mietek) was not one to simply await his fate.  Even as a young teenager, he figured out how to leave and enter the ghetto, how to work with gentiles on the outside, and how to become a ghetto smuggler, bringing merchandise into the ghetto from the outside which he sold at an extraordinary profit, enough to help his family and his friends, and his friends outside the ghetto, and to pay off a series of Polish ghetto border guards at the same time.

Eventually, the gig was up, and he (along with all his family members, but his father, and his girl friend) were rounded up, and put on a transport for Treblinka, the death camp used primarily to be the killing ground for Jews from northern Poland, including Warsaw.  At Treblinka, everyone but Martin were sent to their deaths, but Martin (how old was he, now, 16?) was put in a work crew were he stayed for some time, learning the Nazi mind, looking to save himself at all costs.  Eventually he was put on a detail in the “lower camp”, where he was one of a group who took the bodies from the gas chambers and got rid of them.  He recognized that his position was one that could be highly criticized, but if he didn’t do it, someone else would, and he would be dead.

He realized that if he could get on a work detail that took the clothes of the dead and moved them to outgoing trains, he might be able to escape on one of those trains, and that’s exactly what he did.  We then follow him through the Polish countryside as he portrays himself as a regular Polish peasant and, at the same time, trying to warn the Jews in those towns where the ghettos still stood what their future would bring.

We see him work his way back to Warsaw, back to the ghetto, where he hopes to help those who remain behind, including his father.  He helps get ready for what became the ghetto uprising, re-connecting with some of his gentile contacts and smuggling arms into the ghetto (using the sewers as his means of ingress and egress), he fights the Germans as the uprising begins and the Nazis move in, and he sees his father killed in the fight.

But he survives, escapes the ghetto, joins the Partisans and participates in the march of the Soviet Army to Berlin.  He’s in Berlin where the war ends, gets into a DP camp, and fairly quickly gets to New York, where his grandmother, and his uncle, live.

Once in America, he is the same determined kid (he is still under 20), takes odd jobs, works in the Catskill resorts, becomes a pedlar in the apartments buildings of the Bronx and in Lakewood NJ (this was illegal), meets an antique dealer and realizes that antiques may be his fortune.  Everyone in America wants things from Europe, and he still has contacts there, so he begins to travel back and forth, to buy low and sell high.  When German antiques become scarce, he finds a company that makes replicas (largely china, I think) and pawns them off in America as originals.

Then he meets the girl of his dreams, they eventually “retire” to southern France in the house of their dreams and have four beautiful children.  But the good times do not last, and in 1970 a wildfire takes his house, his wife and all four of his young children.  And, as part of his recovery, he writes this book.  Quite a life.

It turns out that his life is not over.  Forty four years after “To Those I Loved” is published, Gray continues to live, now in Brussels with his second wife at age 93.  What he has done with his time is a bit of a mystery to me, but only a small part of the big mystery that is Martin Gray.

And this is where I get very confused.

The question is:  how true is Gray’s memoir?  He has supporters who say that every word is true.  He has opponents (both serious scholars and Holocaust deniers) who say that no one could have lived the life of Martin Gray during the years of World War II, that he would have been both a Superman and a Zelig – always at the fulcrum of history, often at the point of inevitable death, and continually surviving.  And there are those who have tried to research book, who question the timing of various events, who have spoken to others present at the events who have no recollection of Martin Gray (under any name).  Yet there are those who know Gray well, or who have interviewed him for various publications, and who swear to his truthfulness.

Usually where there is some question raised about the veracity of a memoir (think James Frye or Benjamin Wilkomirski – Google them), truth or falsity, or a combination of both, is fairly easy to conclude.  But not so in connection with Martin Gray.  Thus, my confusion.  I don’t know if this memoir is 100% accurate, or a piece of fiction.

In one sense, it makes little difference.  The book describes important things – ghettos, uprisings, transports, non-Jewish Poland, Treblinka, and so forth.  In another sense, of course it is crucial.  And not knowing is very disturbing.

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