Vacation Reading No. 2: “And This is the Light” by Lea Goldberg (10 cents)

Lea Goldberg (1911-1970) was an important Israeli poet about whom I know little and knew nothing.  She was born in Koenigsberg (on the Baltic, now in Russia and called Kaliningrad, formerly in Prussia), grew up in Kovno (former capital of Lithuania, now called Kaunas), and lived the last twenty years of her adult life in Israel.  She set out early to become a Hebrew language poet and succeeded, and her work is well known in Israel.  Less well known, perhaps, is her one novel, published in Hebrew in 1946, and translated and published in English in 2011 under the title, “And This is the Light”.  I was given a copy of the book, and read it on the plane to DC from Seattle.

I will assume that the translation, by Barbara Harshav, is a good one.  The book is known to be one of the first “modern” Hebrew language novels, by a Jewish author who, although she did move to Israel, never considered herself a Zionist.  And, indeed the novel, set in Lithuania in 1931, could not be considered an Israeli novel.  Although written in Hebrew, the novel is European to its core.  It apparently also was not stylistically like previous Hebrew language writing, with its semi-stream of consciousness format, and is viewed as being one of the first modern Hebrew novels.

Would I recommend it?  Sure, although not to the extent I recommended “Cutting for Stone”.  “And This is the Light” is someone quirky, certainly not fun, although appealing.  It is a short book, barely making 200 pages.

Nora is a young woman, about 20, from Kaunas but going to the university in Berlin, who is taking a train home on a school break.  She is clearly not a happy person.  Her father was arrested and imprisoned after the World War on suspicion of being a communist, although he apparently was totally apolitical.  At first, it would appear that his mental and emotional problems (he spent a considerable amount of time in a sanitarium) were caused by his incarceration and torture, although it turns out that his condition has other, deeper causes, including heredity, as there is a significant amount of mental illness in the family.  As she learns this, Nora (named after Ibsen’s lead character in “A Doll’s House”) begins to worry about her own sanity, about how she will turn out (don’t we all?).

Her mother and father are divorced.  She stays with her mother and avoids her father.  She is not a ‘popular’ girl; she believes herself unattractive.  She is generally a sad sack.  She seems to want to hide and keep her identity hidden (she is very embarrassed about her father) a smuch as possible.

She meets a man, Albert Arin.  Not a boy friend or sexual partner, although she seems to wish it and imagine it.  The man is her parents’ age, an old friend of theirs who years ago emigrated to America, to California, where all assumed he had become a big success.  What he is doing back in Kaunas is never quite clear, but there he is and rumors abound.  He takes a liking to Nora, spends much time with her, gives her fatherly advice.  It is almost as if he is a projection of her father, but a real one, not an imaginary friend. Her romantic aspirations mix with her memories and her uncertainties.  We get to read her thoughts, although the book is written in the third person, not the first.

Then one day, she sees Albert with Helen, a beautiful, suave, sophisticated woman – something the opposite of how Nora perceives herself.  She confronts him politely.  He explains that Helen is a friend of his daughter’s, that she is with the American consulate in Kaunas, and that they have no relationship.  She believes him.  But he is lying (or if not lying, the relationship changes), so she is wrong.

Then, one day, Albert vanishes.  No one knows where he is.  Nora even gets a letter from Albert’s daughter in California, hoping that Nora (whom her father has mentioned to her) knows where he is or what happened to him.

Albert is gone, presumably for good.  And it is time for Nora to return to Berlin.  She has a final meeting with her father, and her friends and mother say good-bye.  She gets on the same train that began the book, only going in the opposite direction.

I enjoyed the author’s style.  I couldn’t find anyone in the book that I particularly liked.  While not foreseeing the Holocaust, of course, there is a feeling that Europe is in trouble, that something big is underway. It is in this sad environment, that sad Nora tries to chart her adult life and come to grip with her limitations and fears.  There is no sign that she succeeds.

The picture of life in Kaunas (fairly limited in this large city) in 1931 is an interesting one, and the book is worth reading for this alone.  As to the plot, it seems that there is a bit (perhaps only a bit) of memoir included.  Goldberg did grow up in Kaunas, she did have very low personal self esteem and thought of herself as  a wall flower, she did study in Germany, her father was accused of being a Bolshevik after the war and was arrested and then suffered from mental illness.  But Albert Arin is a totally fictional character, and many of the events pictured in novel never occurred.  But it is not a plot drawn from thin air.  The air was very thick, indeed.

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