At this time of looking back and looking ahead, we’d like to point to some titles published over this past year that have been overlooked and are worthy of attention. Many relate to exile and memory, and one novel even speaks of a black market in memory.
George Prochnik’s excellent biography, “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World” (Other Press) is an intimate look at the Viennese Jewish writer’s life and career, as seen through his experience of exile and displacement. In 1934, Zweig left Vienna, where he had been a true cosmopolitan, a wealthy and complicated humanist as well as a celebrated and serious writer — the most widely translated living author — who enjoyed connecting others in the literary and intellectual forefront of the day. Among his friends were Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse and Arturo Toscanini.
Always perfectly dressed, Zweig wrote his novels, short stories and biographies in violet ink. While he is still widely read in Europe, his works had fallen into obscurity in English, although now he is becoming more widely known again.
Prochnik, who has written several previous books and taught literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, laces his own family’s story of exile through his understanding of Zweig, all impressively researched. Prochnik’s father’s family escaped from Austria in 1938.
For Zweig, as Prochnik explains, exile wasn’t a static condition but, rather, a process. Regaining freedom didn’t end his challenges. A “restless wandering Jew,” he had sojourns in London and Ossining, New York, among other places, and then a small Brazilian town in the hills above Rio de Janeiro, where he and his wife lived simply, far from Europe, “away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts friends, conversation.” He described the lush landscape as having been “translated from the Austrian into a tropical language.” There, in 1942, he killed himself; both he and his wife took lethal doses of poison. Much admired in the town of Petropolis, he was given their version of a state funeral, with a rabbi granted special dispensation to deliver blessings in the town’s Catholic cemetery.
In his autobiography, Zweig wrote, “My todays and each of my yesterdays, my rises and falls, are so diverse that I sometimes feel as if I had lived not one, but several existences.” The recent acclaimed film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is inspired by Zweig’s stories.
Another author who hasn’t received the acclaim he deserved in his lifetime is H.G. Adler. His novel, “The Wall” (Random House), translated into English for the first time by Peter Filkins, is the third book in a trilogy about the Shoah that he began in 1948. The novels are based on his own experience during the Holocaust and afterwards. Like Zweig, Adler’s life was a story of exile. Born in Prague, he survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and other concentration camps, and later moved to London. His first wife was murdered in Auschwitz.
Adler is the author of 26 books, among them works of fiction, philosophy, sociology and poetry. “The Wall” — an epic novel of more than 600 pages — which he considered his crowning achievement as a novelist, was published posthumously in German, after his death in 1988. As Filkins explains in an introduction, the struggle to remain alive to the present, rather than weighted down by the past, is at the heart of the novel.
“The Wall” is an unforgettable portrait of a survivor who returns to his hometown after the war, learns the tragic fate of his family and leaves his homeland for good, later trying to publish studies of the war. When he meets the woman who becomes his second wife, the novel takes on qualities of a life story, mixing stream-of-conscious elements with memories, dreams and nightmares. The plot is nonlinear, and Adler’s writing has been compared to James Joyce.
Filkins, a translator, poet and professor of languages and literature at Bard College of Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., and an acclaimed translator and poet, first came across H.G. Adler’s work in 2001 and was immediately captivated by the writing. He notes that the wall of the title represents the past. The main character realizes, “I don’t belong to human society. I and the wall, we are alone, we belong together; there is nothing else that I belong to.”
Howard Jacobson is widely read in his native England; his latest book, “J” (Hogarth) was shortlisted by the Man Booker Prize, and his novel, “The Finkler Question,” did win the prize in 2010. Yet the 72-year-old author is not yet well known in the U.S. “J” is a serious novel after a number of more comic works; it’s a dystopian love story set in an invented world, after a catastrophe referred to as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” The middle word in the name of this newspaper is not mentioned, although there are many allusions. Here, the past exists so that it may be forgotten — history books are hard to come by, and libraries “put gentle obstacles in the way of research.” Here, there’s a black market in memory. The letter J is crossed out whenever it appears in reference to Kevern Cohen’s father, who put two fingers in front of his lips as if to stifle the sound.
In “My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), French journalist Anne Sinclair pieces together the life story of her grandfather, the art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who founded an important Parisian gallery. In 1940, he fled France to escape the Nazis, saving his family but abandoning his great collection of art. Sinclair found a box of his correspondence, with letters from Picasso, Matisse and others, and creates a captivating and elegantly written story of art provenance and exile.
“But Today is Different” by Sarah Stern (Resource Publications) is a collection of 60 eloquent poems. The volume is dedicated to the memory of the poet’s mother, and many of the poems evoke presence and memory, loss and death, elevating ordinary moments into holiness and beauty.
Ronna Wineberg’s “On Bittersweet Place” (Relegation Books) is a familiar story told with new rhythms. A first novel, this is an immigrant tale of a young Russian Jew who flees Ukraine with her family as a 10-year old and grows up in Chicago in the jazz age 1920s. The writing is compelling, the story universal. Wineberg is the founding fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review.
The title of Zachary Katz’s debut novel “Century Village” (CreateSpace) refers to a condominium community in Pompano Beach Florida, and Katz gets many of the details of retirement life just right, as he spins a story about a vanishing wife.
A New York City story, “The Book of Zev” by Marilyn Ida Horowitz (Koehlerbooks) is a lively dark comedy and mystery featuring an earnest dropout from religious life who becomes a taxi driver (the title character, Zev), and a divorced kosher chef named Sarah who is angry at God and favors yoga and red wine. These two get entwined in an international terrorist plot and with each other. The author, who teaches screenwriting at NYU, creates characters on the borders of Jewish life with uncommon abilities to predict the future, all the while grappling with questions of faith and purpose.
For Civil War buffs, fans of American Jewish history and naval history and readers of historical fiction, “Commodore Levy: A Novel of Early America in the Age of Sail” by Irving Litvig (Texas Tech University Press) is an intriguing novel based on the life of Uriah Phillips Levy, who rose to the highest rank in the pre-Civil War U.S. Navy. The book is published posthumously; Litvag completed the book shortly before his death in 2005.
“A Life Not With Standing” by Chava Willig Levy (CreateSpace) is a memoir that explores, with warmth and intimacy, the experience of growing up with polio. Willig has lived with roadblocks physical and societal, but she has maintained deep faith, good humor, a poetic sensibility and strong determination. Her love of family is pervasive, as she is strengthened by the support of those close to her, and her gift is to share her strength and insight. The author is an editor, advocate and motivational speaker on issues related to disability as well as music, parenthood and Judaism. Full disclosure: My name appears in this book, for introducing the author to her husband.