Charmed Lives

Patrick Parrinder

  • Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew: An Italian Story by Dan Vittorio Segre
    Peter Halban, 273 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 1 870015 00 2
  • To the Land of the Reeds by Aharon Appelfeld, translated by Jeffrey Green
    Weidenfeld, 148 pp, £9.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 297 78972 4
  • Enchantment by Daphne Merkin
    Hamish Hamilton, 288 pp, £10.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 241 12113 2
  • Ernesto by Umberto Saba, translated by Mark Thompson
    Carcanet, 166 pp, £9.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 85635 559 3

The English title of Dan Vittorio Segre’s Storia di un Ebreo Fortunato, Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, has complex resonances. If, as Frank Kermode has recently remarked in this paper, memoirs and confessions are still to some extent separate genres, then it may be said that a conviction of his own good fortune is the distinguishing mark of the memoirist. The memoirs of famous sportsmen, actors and television personalities seem constantly to be saying: ‘Look what a fortunate person I am!’ There are primitive and more or less magical reasons for the perennial popularity of such books. What we hope to get from their authors is a kind of secular blessing, a vicarious laying on of hands. In writing down their charmed lives they themselves are casting a spell, and offering us a share of their good fortune. Lady Luck is the presiding deity of such narratives.

But when the memoirist is a European Jew, who survived the Second World War largely as a result of his solitary and reckless decision to abandon his family and country and emigrate to Palestine at the age of 16, then luck and good fortune are seen in their more sardonic aspects. Perhaps because of a similar streak of romantic unworldliness, and certainly because each story is briefly set in Bari in 1944-5, I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s Guy Crouchback in reading the Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew. Unconditional Surrender, the last of the Sword of Honour trilogy, ends with Crouchback’s brother-in-law Arthur Box-Bender noting not unresentfully that ‘things have turned out very conveniently for Guy.’ The same note of unexpectedness compounded of irony, farce and a tinge of shame is present in Segre’s rich and consummately-narrated ‘Italian story’.

What could be more farcical than that Segre, a dedicated Zionist, an Israeli diplomat and a professor of politics, should have begun his political life as a member of the Italian Fascist Youth? Or that his first public speech, delivered on a propaganda cruise to New York which became the target of Jewish anti-Fascist demonstrators, should have been devoted to the historical role of Il Duce? Or that, while his departure from Italy after the anti-Jewish legislation of July 1938 was brought about with the connivance of the Fascist authorities, he would return to the country six years later as an officer of the Palestine Regiment of the British Army? In his book-length studies of Israel and Zionism, Segre has commented on the present-day Israeli ‘crisis of identity’. In his memoir, an acute series of personal identity-crises are shown as being confronted and satisfactorily resolved. Despite many historical ironies, and despite his Israeli citizenship and continuing residence in Jerusalem, this is quite unambiguously an Italian story.

Although his father lost his money in the great crash of 1929, Segre’s boyhood as a Piedmontese landowner’s son was for the most part tranquil and privileged. His family gave Mussolini the same instinctive support that their forebears had given to Cavour and Garibaldi. Life under the Fascist regime was, the author wryly remarks, ‘the only normal existence I ever knew’. The underlying tensions caused by his father’s financial losses and his mother’s gradual estrangement from her husband are barely hinted at. From his upbringing the young Segre seems to have derived an almost Wordsworthian natural piety. He writes with unstinting affection of his father and his father’s possessions, some of which he still carefully preserves. In this book he recreates the landscape and figures of pre-war Piedmont with equal care. The disappearance of this world and nearly all that it stood for is brought home by his reflections on the Jewish cemetery in Turin, a city where ‘a community of dead Jews has within one century replaced a community of living ones.’ Segre laments that there is little time left for the rituals of burial in contemporary society (shades of ‘Hades’ and Leopold Bloom), and records his own pleasure and sense of privilege at visiting the family mausoleum, where his own marble tombstone has been awaiting him for more than a century. On another occasion, he visits his uncle’s grave in the company of that grandee’s former cook. The cook produces a small jam-jar of rum, which he slowly pours over the marble slab: ‘Commander, this zabaglione is made exactly as you liked it,’ he murmurs.

Growing up in these feudal surroundings, Segre was nevertheless endowed with sufficient foresight to imagine the world of the Holocaust and to take action to escape from that world. For all his intensive discussion of pre-war Italian politics and of his family’s political views, his sudden and unshakable decision to leave for Palestine is by far the most mysterious episode in the story he tells. We are left to speculate about what far-sighted and desperate element in his make-up allowed him to take it. That is the absent centre of these memoirs. Two other incidents – a brush with death at the age of six when his father accidentally discharged a pistol in his direction, and a moment of prudent cowardice which greatly dented his self-esteem as a soldier – may well be related to it; the same is true of some unconscious currents in his emotional life, which he presents but makes little attempt to analyse.

A year or two after his arrival in Palestine, Segre falls passionately in love with a German Jewess. She treats him coldly and cruelly, but it is a long time before he realises the physical and pyschic damage she has sustained after being brutally raped by the Nazis. The book ends with the achievement of a happier sexual relationship in which, once again, the tender and brutal sides of human nature are sharply juxtaposed. There is nothing accidental about these relationships. As narrated, they have a morality function which would seem more at home in a novel than in the untidiness of actual experience. Equally striking, when we consider the dominant role played by his father and other male relatives in the story, is Segre’s comparative silence about his mother and sister. His mother’s rather chilling reaction to his departure for Palestine was, we are told, to convert to Christianity. She and his sister survived the war by taking shelter in a convent. (His father, loyally protected by the Piedmontese villagers, survived by leaving his home and posing as a half-crazed itinerant peddler.) When he comes back in 1945 it is his father, not his mother, whom Segre seeks out.

The delicate balance that is struck between reticence in some matters and explicitness in others is part of the magic of this marvellous memoir. Segre reveals profound self-awareness, and hints at recesses of his personality which elude the kind of articulation provided by the writing of memoirs. As a professional political scientist, the explicit object of his self-analysis is, naturally enough, to understand his Italian Jewish identity in political terms. We see how, as a Zionist, he finds himself compelled by his beliefs and by the logic of war to join the British Army, and then to engage in mild acts of subversion once he has joined. What is more, we see this from our own world in which the militaristic, self-confident trajectory of the Israeli state has led to the growth of a ‘parallel and opposite Palestinian Arab “Zionism” ’. His account of kibbutz life in the late Thirties is followed by a brilliant series of chapters evoking the conflict of ideologies and nationalities in Jerusalem under the British Mandate. From these experiences, one would guess, came his eventual need to reaffirm his Italian identity, since he admits to having felt, ‘probably earlier than others, in exile in the motherland to which I had chosen to return’. His attitude towards that ‘motherland’, the State of Israel, is one of admirable critical detachment; beneath that is another perhaps unconscious yet deeply revealing feature. From the moment of arrival in Palestine he seems to have felt little but coldness, distrust and suspicion toward the individual Arabs and Arab communities he encountered. To many readers, including myself, this must seem as strange as it is potentially tragic. Nevertheless, like much else in Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, it is clearly and courageously authentic.

This distinguished book has a structure as rigorously cut and shaped as any novel. The book begins and ends with the author’s profound contentment as he returns to Italy and his childhood home in 1945: a happiness mingled with thoughts of death, with the paradoxes of nationality, and with his need for domestic and sexual fulfilment. Each of the intermediate episodes is self-contained, and yet the whole is beautifully interwoven. Segre’s good fortune, which many a novelist would envy, consists in the end in his power to mould his diverse experiences into a deeply satisfying symbol of modern life triumphing over the forces of adversity. Even where so many were hideously defeated, we may rejoice over one who survived and who has celebrated his luck in such captivating fashion.

Aharon Appelfeld’s biography, as summarised on the dust-jacket of his new novel, indicates a tale of survival in circumstances far more terrible than any that Segre was called upon to suffer. Born in 1932 near the Soviet-Rumanian border, he now lives in Jerusalem and writes in Hebrew. To the Land of the Reeds, like his earlier novels, transmutes the destruction of the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe into the material of legend and folk-tale. A mother and her son set out eastwards from Vienna in 1938, driven by a compulsion to revisit their ancestral home in the farthest recesses of the old Hapsburg Empire. Soon they have embarked on an immemorial journey by horse and cart across an apparently endless pastoral landscape. Time slows down to the point where even a few miles can take weeks or even months to cover. The journey is punctuated by the wayside inns at which, Don Quixote-like, they put up after each day’s journey. With eloquent simplicity Appelfeld evokes the experiences of these archetypal travellers, whose high hopes gradually deteriorate into nightmare. The Jewish villagers and innkeepers who once welcomed them turn out to be living in fear for their lives, while the pastoral landscape degenerates into a no man’s land of starving fugitives and abandoned ruins. This is the ‘land of the reeds’ of the title, though there are no reeds, only the uprooted population whom we see at the end, broken reeds waiting numbly for the cattle-trucks in which they are to be deported.

To the extent that it is a Holocaust novel, Appelfeld’s haunting and stylised fable does not purport to say anything new. It is a story that has been told before, and that surely cannot be told too often. But To the Land of the Reeds filters the persecution and deportation of the Jews through two quite ordinary and more universal forms of narrative, the journey homeward and the growth of alienation between a mother and her son. Toni, the mother, is obsessed with the need to atone for her immoral life and for her desertion of her parents and her native community. Rudi, the half-Jewish son rapidly approaching adulthood, is confusedly trying to discover both his own identity and the secret of escaping from his mother’s influence. It is, of course, too late to go home, and too late for either the mother or the son to identify with anything but the impending catastrophe.

Does the estranged form of a novel like this succeed in giving it a significance independent of the precise historical events to which it alludes? This is hard to say. If it does, the metaphor of a reckless and doomed return home to the ‘motherland’ ought to be applicable to modern Zionism as well as to the pre-war condition of Eastern Europe. But, like so much in this terse and sometimes lyrical story, Rudi’s self-destructive frustration and anger and Toni’s restless determination seem as enigmatic as they are inevitable. The single-mindedness of the narrative discourages speculation as to its possible meanings. Like Toni’s familiar grumbling refrain, ‘A person is not an insect’, everything in To the Land of the Reeds points to one end, which is extermination. The beauty and pathos of the final sequence, in which Rudi gives in to his destiny and voluntarily joins the other deportees quietly waiting at the railway station, invokes one of the appalling paradoxes of Holocaust literature. Here the persecution and defeat of the body are seen as stages in the renunciation of self and the purification of the spirit. By stopping short of its terminal horrors, Appelfeld renders a journey which ends at the gas chambers in the form of an austere and resigned pilgrim’s progress.

To the Land of the Reeds is built around a journey with its illusion of progress: Daphne Merkin’s first novel, Enchantment, has the obsessively circular and cyclical quality of a bad dream. The story is little more than an accumulation of episodes in which Hannah Lehmann, a contemporary New Yorker in her mid-twenties, picks away at the scars left by her unhappy childhood in a large, wealthy and strictly Orthodox Jewish family. If families, according to Hannah, are like locked trunks, this particular trunk and its contents are relentlessly scrutinised from the inside. Enchantment is a memorable portrait of narcissistic self-hatred, in which the author’s wit and powers of invention succeed in maintaining the interest and pace of a narrowly confessional and therapeutic narrative.

This is very clearly a confession, not a memoir. Hannah unfolds the story of her childhood in much the same way as she must be supposed to have done for the many psychiatrists she has consulted. Her incessant complaint that she was starved of affection by her parents is doubtless to some extent justified. Her brothers and sisters do little to dispute Hannah’s version of their dreadful upbringing – they are simply bored with it. People with unhappy childhoods usually get over them, her sister Lily points out. Now that she is an adult, as one of the psychiatrists tells her, the problems reside within her and it no longer makes sense to refer them to an external cause. But none of this can release her from her treadmill of obsession with the past and psychic self-punishment.

Daphne Merkin is rightly unapologetic about the financial comfort and social privilege that underpin Hannah’s situation. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine such a self-absorbed narrative emerging from many novelists of an earlier generation. A subtle feature of Enchantment is its use of a sustained though highly indirect and discreet mode of allusion to recent Jewish history. Hannah reflects, in the mode of qui s’excuse s’accuse, that she and her contemporaries have ‘no Hitler to wake us out of our dreams of self’. She is bored by Jewish history lessons, unresponsive during her visits to grandparents in Israel, and capable of indulging in casual terrorist fantasies. More serious are the stereotypes she would like to impose on her mother and father. The unloving father becomes a Shylock figure, her tough-minded mother a Jewish Nazi. For all her lucidity, Hannah does not begin to achieve the objectivity and compassion needed to view her parents as the victims, not the agents, of historical oppression. Their lives, as we piece them together from the scattered hints that she lets fall, must have been very much harsher than anything within the range of Hannah’s experiences. She is all too ready to pass judgment on her parents but, imprisoned by her own self-projection as the Sleeping Beauty, she cannot learn to forgive their inadequacies. Here Daphne Merkin, an elegant writer with an acid cutting-edge, has created an all-too-believable heroine.

Finally, an unfinished novel by the Triestine poet Umberto Saba (1883-1958). Written and then abandoned in the mid-Fifties, Ernesto consists of a series of brief episodes deftly outlining a young boy’s sexual awakening. There is a thin line between fiction and autobiography here, since (as Mark Thompson points out in his ample afterword and notes) it seems certain that Saba viewed his story as a ‘secret book’ giving vent to his – presumably suppressed – homosexual leanings. Like Forster’s Maurice, Ernesto was read aloud to a few close friends during the author’s lifetime. Ernesto’s naivety, his love of music, his sense of mischief and ability to draw back before he really gets hurt, are all most affectingly portrayed. ‘If the reader does not already agree that Ernesto was an idiot, he soon will,’ remarks Saba as he unravels his hero’s confused and impulsive feelings. However, the nostalgia in which this narrative is bathed is tempered by occasional expressions of recoil and even disgust. The time is 1899, but Saba cannot resist interrupting his account of the pranks that Ernesto plays on his Jewish employer with the reminder that this same fanatical pro-German Signor Wilder will one day, at the age of 80, be sent to the gas chambers. Towards the end, having sketched out the chain of good fortune which will lead to Ernesto’s discovery of his vocation as a poet, Saba intervenes to declare: ‘Unfortunately the author is too old, too weary and too embittered to feel able to write those pages.’ Unfinished, this book remains uneasily poised between the self-punishing confession and the self-celebrating memoir. Either might have emerged as the dominant mode. But it is our share of Saba’s posthumous good luck (if there is such a thing) that this enchanting fragment is now available in English.