Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Farewell Leicester Square

Betty Miller’s novel about being Jewish in London in the 1930s is far, far better than I expected. I set out to read a book of considerable historical interest, a worthy book. I found, instead, a really expert novel, written by a very young Betty Miller (in her mid-twenties) centering on Alec Berman, a Jewish man from Brighton who longs to work in film, becomes a celebrated director and marries the daughter of his mentor.

Throughout, the novel offers astute glimpses of all kinds of casual moments of wounding anti-Semitism: the wife’s friend, also a schiksa, comments that the son’s name, David, is inevitable, combining, as it does, Jewishness with fashion; Alec and his old friend Lew Solomon walk through Trafalgar Square to hear a newsboy touting the only “non-Jewish controlled paper” in the city; Alec’s brother-in-law, refined and repressed, withdraws from his sister’s life when she marries a Jew; there is even an offstage playground fight. These scenes, scattered across this 300-page novel, offer a kind of taxonomy of what it might have been like to live as a successful Jew in London during the years of Hitler’s rise to power. (Hitler himself is in the background throughout, his voice on the radio.)

This was Miller’s third novel but Victor Gollancz, the usually wonderful progressive English Jewish publisher refused to publish it in 1935; it eventually was printed in 1941: at that point, sadly, Miller’s exposition of the effects of casual, domestic anti-Semitism and the strains of a “mixed” marriage had been eclipsed by the events of WWII. I put “mixed” in quotations because one of the novel’s strengths is that both Alec and his wife are self-consciously rueful about the oddity of that term; Catharine muses that al marriages are “mixed,” that any marriage brings together strangers. Still, it’s not hard to see why, in 1935, a Jewish publisher would have hesitated to publish such an honest account of how far most non-Jewish English people had to come to overcome their prejudices.

Then, there is all the interest of the film industry itself. There is verisimilitude in the possibility of a Jew’s rise to power, respect and prominence in British film: many English Jews did work in film. The opening scene, of Alec and his lover, Hetty, a movie star, riding in a car through traffic to a premier is wonderfully done. And the second chapter, flashing back to his boyhood ache to get out of Brighton and work in film is fantastically right about adolescent desire and the ways that the movies attract (or used to attract) that kind of longing for something glamorous, something apart from the claustrophobia of home.

Miller’s writing is wonderful and she is at home with all kinds of scenes: she gets the mood of a boy smoking and staring off to sea right and then, pages later, she gets right the feeling of a new mother getting up from a dinner party to nurse her baby. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that moved among classes, cultures, genders with such grace.

As I guess you can hear, I’m a little gobsmacked by this book: so much better than I had any reason to guess.

4 comments:

Erika D. said...

Thanks so much for this post, Anne. I have added the book to my tbr list.

Carlo said...

I read a very similar book when I was in London but this one was written by the great writer Sildenafil who taught me some incredible techniques to write.

Elliott Broidy said...

Fantastic.

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