Generations

John Sutherland

  • The Survivors by Elaine Feinstein
    Hutchinson, 316 pp, £7.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 09 145850 1
  • Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss
    Cape, 361 pp, £6.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 224 01843 4
  • The Great Fire of London by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 169 pp, £7.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 241 10704 0
  • A Loss of Heart by Robert McCrum
    Hamish Hamilton, 282 pp, £7.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 241 10705 9

The survivors are two Jewish families, the Katzes and the Gordons, fled from Odessa and settled in pre-First World War Liverpool. Within their ethnic class and shared past they are markedly different. The Gordons are adaptable and individualistic – sharp even against each other. The Katzes are a warmer, happier, less steady family. The Gordon gifted son makes himself a leading London publisher, wilfully disowning his origins. The Katz gifted son is a lame duck, unable to leave home. Benjy, the youngest Katz, has artistic talent, but he buries it for the service of the family. No Gordon would so waste himself.

We follow the first generation and their children through war and slump. The Gordon fortunes rise; the Katzes have a rougher ride. The families intermarry and the offspring of the union, Diana, harmonises their clash. She goes to Cambridge (no longer the son’s prerogative), takes a first-class degree and is poised, as the novel ends in the 1960s, for complex fulfilments which the reader must guess at.

Family sagas have been the thing in popular fiction for a few years past. The fashion seems to have taken off in the American bicentennial year and had a terrific boost from the Roots mania. In spring last year no less than five of W.H. Smith’s ‘top ten’ titles were in the genre. Feinstein has clearly drawn from its current vitality, although she might prefer comparison with Mann and Lawrence rather than Howard Fast and Alex Haley. But whatever their literary elevation, these sagas tend to conform to the same narrative movement. At the beginning there is solidarity, togetherness, a spirit of one for all. Then younger members make their break, rebelling or deviating. The larger self of the family falls apart. Eventually, a point is reached where the youngest glimpses, as from Pisgah, the possibility of a fully individual life. Wild horses gallop, stars are apostrophised.

It’s never a straightforward journey, these novels aver. The two brightest spirits of the Gordon second generation, Francis and Dorothy, break loose, but only to wither in absolute loneliness. Having got to the top of the slippery pole of English publishing, Francis is last seen alone in his hospital room suddenly aware that his career has been built on the Faustian contract of worldly success in return for denied Jewishness:

It came to him clearly for the first time what he had taken against in Betty’s daughter. Diana looked Jewish in a way none of the Gordon family had ever done. He was ashamed at the thought. It left him cold, heartless and isolated.

Dorothy, the only child her harsh father ever loved, broke away in the First World War to turn into a nurse. Disowned by her family, she denies her urge for wife and motherhood to turn into a frigidly self-sufficient administrator.

Diana recapitulates these family trials and errors in her early adult life. For a while she is arrested in a condition of aloneness, ‘a huntress; and if not chaste, cold’. But finally she advances, solving the paradoxes of polarisation and connection. She will, she determines, have ‘children and poetry’, and Jewish identity too, we understand. It is, to borrow Lawrence’s metaphor, the farthest reach of the wave. Put another way, Diana demonstrates that no less than with the gentlemen of the Victorian age, you need three generations to make a truly free woman.

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