Friday, May 27, 2011

Quiet Americans

I took a break from Clarissa last weekend to read my friend Erika Dreifus’s debut collection of short stories, Quiet Americans. It’s a lovely collection of loosely interconnected stories about American Jews and their European roots.

Erika is a historian by training, and you can feel that in the assurance of her voice, her attention to details, the way that every character, every story feels rooted in a precise time and place. The opening story, about a Jewish pediatrician who counted among his patients a child of a top-ranking Nazi is wonderfully tense. The scene in which the doctor is summoned to the Nazi’s office and advised, strongly, to leave Germany is cinematic and haunting. The fact that the doctor heeds the advice, a welcome happy ending.

But all the characters in the book are haunted. Most of these stories are about American Jews with German roots who just barely got out in time (or are the children and grandchildren of those men and women). The survivor’s guilt, the sense of the duty to remember, to protect, to insure that a Holocaust doesn’t happen again, is palpable throughout. These are stories that convey one of the key strains in our culture. For me, they worked best when there is tension within that burden, as in the witty and effervescent last story about a man who becomes obsessed with tracing his own family tree. Less successful, for me, were stories about the 1972 Munich Olympics or the sorry episode of Amiri Baraka’s lost tenure as poet laureate of New Jersey for his nutty, anti-Semitic musings about the root causes of 9/11. Those stories keep alive a grief and a grievance that’s fully justified: I shudder in horror at the thought of those slaughtered athletes and in shame at the way a great poet can fall prey to crackpot ideas. Still, in political fiction, I want more subtlety, an acknowledgment of the real pain that leads people to become violent or even just to believe in conspiracies.

Unqualifiedly wonderful is a story where Erika works a different vein, channeling Isaac Babel or Isaac Bashevis Singer in “Matrilineal Descent,” a moving fable about two sisters in a village in Germany, one plain and hardworking, the other pretty and delicate, and the baker whom they both love.  

Best of all, as others have said, is the title story, “Quiet Americans, or How to Be a Good Guest.” There, the duty to witness battles with a character’s natural reserve richly and powerfully. I approached this story, its title so evocative of Louis Begley or Graham Greene, with some trepidation, fearing it would be a paean to “The Greatest Generation.” Instead, the quiet American is “you,” a young grad student born in the 60s or 70s, visiting Germany for the first time. As she listens to a young tour guide noting, again and again, buildings that were destroyed in the war, never mentioning the lives lost, never acknowledging the Holocaust, the young quiet American grows increasingly frustrated with rage. But what to say? How to interrupt the tour? It’s a wonderful dilemma and the solution is just terrific.

It reminded me of a tour I took, years ago, of a stately home outside Charleston. The tour guide said that the family had taken a “hiatus” to England during the years 1862-1866. Why, asked my friend, also a historian, did the family choose to leave the South during just those years exactly? Hmmm?

In any case, I can highly recommend Erika’s collection. Each story is a gem on its own and, together, they paint a portrait of the enduring European roots of many American Jews, both of the Holocaust and of the culture that the Holocaust tried, but failed, to fully destroy. They are also beautifully written, crafted with care, with a sure voice that has many registers. A great debut.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Leslie Stephen, Catskills Comic

Last week, I read (Woolf’s father) Leslie Stephen’s essay on Clarissa as part of my ongoing quest to figure out the relationship between Richardson’s novel and Woolf’s. I found some wonderful stuff, including Stephen’s surprising (to me) wit. In fact, if you were to look over my reading notes, you might mistake them for some weird brand of literary stand-up. I give you some of my favorites:

On Richardson’s moralizing
“indefinite twaddle of a superior kind” (83)

More on Richardson’s moralizing
“he has succeeded in thoroughly forcing upon our minds, by incessant hammering, the impression which he desire to produce” (116)

On a priggish male character
“He is one of those solemn beings who can’t shave themselves without implicitly asserting a great moral principle” (103)

On Richardson’s gift with women characters
“Richardson’s sympathy with women gives a remarkable power to his work. Nothing is more rare than to find a great novelist who can satisfactorily describe the opposite sex” (82)

[pause. Wait for it.]

“Unluckily, his conspicuous faults result from the same cause. His moral prosings savour of the endless gossip over a dish of chocolate in which his heroines delight” (83)

On Pamela
“distinctly the words of his works—of which it is enough to say at present that it succeeds in being neither moral nor in amusing” (86)

On the thoroughness of his novels
“We get the same sort of elaborate familiarity with every aspect of affairs that we should receive from reading a blue-book full of some prolix diplomatic correspondence” (91)

And, the best one: On reading Clarissa
“readers…may find the prolixity less intolerable than might be expected” (94)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sweetheart, I feel the same about you…

“I do not know that I am happiest when alone; but this I am sure of, what I am never long in the society of her I love without a yearning for the company of my lamp and my utterly confused and tumbled-over library.”—Lord Byron, from More’s Life, quoted in Leslie Stephen’s Hours in a Library

If, like me, you love quotations about books and libraries, you’ll find a treasure trove in Stephen’s ten-page album of quotations, which opens his collection of literary essays.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Incomparable Max (Beerbohm) on the BL

Searching for a quote on tweeds, I re-read the wonderful “Enoch Soames” (1919) last week. It’s still a great story. Here’s a taste of the dialogue:
--The reading room?
--Of the British Museum. I go there every day.
--You do? I’ve only been there once. I’m afraid I found it rather a depressing place. It—it seemed to sap one’s vitality.
--It does. That’s why I go there.