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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in