German Jew

Michael Irwin

  • The Missing Years by Walter Laqueur
    Weidenfeld, 281 pp, £5.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77707 6
  • Jack be nimble by Nigel Williams
    Secker, 213 pp, £5.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 436 57155 2
  • Identity Papers by Anthony Cronin
    Co-op Books, 194 pp, £4.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 905441 23 0
  • Narrow Rooms by James Purdy
    Black Sheep Books, 185 pp, £5.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 906538 60 2
  • Six Moral Tales by Eric Rohmer, translated by Sabine d’Estrée
    Lorrimer, 252 pp, £4.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 85647 075 9

The Missing Years attempts to show what it was like to be a Jew in Germany during the first 45 years of this century. Dr Richard Lasson, the narrator, traces his own career from front-line service in the First World War, through the mounting uncertainties and perils of the Twenties and Thirties to desperately precarious survival in Berlin during the Second World War. Walter Laqueur is Director of the Institute of Contemporary History, and effectively The Missing Years, his first novel, is history masquerading as fiction masquerading as autobiography. The fictional impulse seems slight: Dr Lasson, scarcely individualised, is less a protagonist than a spectator. The writing is often colourless: ‘A1l this time our life was hanging by a thread’; ‘I felt drawn as if by a magnet to the young lady at my side.’ But the narrative is pretty continuously absorbing for what it tells us about everyday life in Hitler’s Germany and, in particular, about the predicament, the reactions and the motivation of the doomed Jewish community. The value of the book lies in the information that it assembles: about the popular songs of the period, say, or the range of the Messerschmidt, or the bombing of the zoo, or the number of Jews living in Berlin. Perhaps the quasi-fictional mode is the most effective means of linking and mobilising such data. In its aims and method The Missing Years is very reminiscent of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, and it has something of the density and verisimilitude of that work. But Defoe’s handling of anecdote and descriptive detail agitates the imagination as Dr Lasson’s rather flat story-telling does not.

Nigel Williams, who won the Somerset Maugham Award for Fiction in 1978, has produced a second novel, which shows plenty of talent but is rather a mess. Its hero, Jack Warliss, a writer of sorts, invents a series of aliases for himself as he struggles to find his true nature and to adjust his relationships as between the revolutionary Annie, the poet Lucy and a large Yugoslav named Nelly. These shifts of identity seem to have been intended to provide the mainspring for the plot, but the spring unwinds itself within forty pages and the author has to activate his story with a series of random blows or kicks. Jack be nimble is often quite funny, but not nearly as often as it tries to be. The first half of the novel, especially, is a hailstorm of facetiousness: the characters have comical names, speak in comical brands of jargon, vomit, throw food, tread in baby shit. Catching a bus or taking a bath becomes a comic turn. The best of Nigel Williams’s humour deserves to have more space, more context, in which to reverberate.

At the close of the novel there is a disconcerting attempt to modulate into seriousness. By now Jack is sharing a house with all three women, his own son by one of them, and three male friends. He does find himself, love prevails, another baby is born and we are asked to believe that this bunch of loonies is ‘an elected group, sustained by the delicate balance of affections’. But preposterously though it lurches, Jack be nimble is a likeable work: Nigel Williams is a welcome addition to that small group of novelists who can more or less be guaranteed to make the reader laugh aloud.

Identity Papers is both a more various and a more restrained work of comedy. Set in Dublin in the mid-1960s, it concerns the doings of a down-at-heel middle-aged artist styled ‘the Baron’. In his adolescence he discovered an old chest belonging to his grandfather, a noted forger and dealer in pornography. Among the contents were letters from various notabilities, including James Joyce and Parnell. Thirty years later, long after disowning his foster-parents and losing track of the box, he speaks of the letters to the librarian of the Celtic Library and is offered a substantial sum for them. Desperate for money he forges them, from memory. The fraud is discovered and he is about to stand trial. His one chance seems to lie with the recovery of the box which would enable him to offer the original documents in place of the forgeries.

This is a piece of plotting that encroaches intriguingly on real events and promises some vivid action and some entertaining explanations. Unfortunately the novel does not fully live up to its excellent beginnings. The explanations greatly exceed the action in volume and complexity. Anthony Cronin has left himself so much expository work to do that the narrative tends to lose itself in conversation. The plot forks and dwindles, and the overall contours of the story are those of a ragged old parsnip. But if the plotting flags, the humour and the verbal energy do not. Identity Papers is embellished with some pleasant passages of fantasy and plenty of engaging and enlightening conversation about such large themes as Ireland, sex and guilt. This is a vigorous and cheerful novel.

No one is likely to charge Narrow Rooms with cheerfulness. It tells of the interlocked loves of four young men in an isolated district of West Virginia. Gareth, Brian, Roy and Sidney variously slap, punch, bite, kick, whip, rape, slab and spit on each other. In a final flurry of activity Sidney nails Roy to a barn door, and exhumes Brian, whom he has shot some years previously, to be a posthumous witness of the scene. Such is the strength of feeling of these passionate lads. There are hints that these doings are sacramental, or something: but the violent images are so plainly there to be relished in their own right that their figurative potential, such as it is, hardly seems worth bothering about.

Eric Rohmer is of course well-known as a film director, but apparently he prefers to sketch out his work in literary form as a first stage. His Six Moral Tales preceded the films that we associate with their titles, which include ‘Claire’s Knee’, ‘My Night at Maud’s’ and ‘Love in the Afternoon’. In a preface he emphasises that the tales ‘must stand on their own as works of fiction’, even though ‘only the act of making the films gave the stories their full meaning.’ He suggests that the stories are called ‘moral’ partly because they lack physical action, but they tend to be moral also in the more conventional sense. In each tale the main character – who in every case but one is also the narrator – must decide whether or not to commit himself to a relationship with a particular girl. Sexual involvement will for one reason or another impinge on other relationships, on a habit of behaviour or belief. Characteristically, two opposed life-styles are put in conflict, and defended in arguments that tend towards the austerity of debate. It is a narrow mode, but Eric Rohmer almost elevates it into a genre. At their richest, the exchanges between his characters involve a stylish and sometimes touching blend of intell actual statement and personal feeling.

But in their purely literary form these tales, as their author concedes, lack a dimension. He attempts no physical description either of his characters or of the environment in which they move. In the completed films the actors literally flesh out the story. A personality, a temperament can be inferred from appearance and gesture. A style of living can be implied in the decor of a room. Here a given character is called ‘a student’ or ‘an engineer’, but his career has no further definition. Faceless as he is, he yet proves attractive to women for unexplained reasons. Because the speakers are thus disembodied their conflicts often seen too thin, too theoretical. Those who think that some of Eric Rohmer’s films decline into attitudinising are likely to have their doubts confirmed by this collection.