Book Review: Echoes of the past – part two

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Secrets: the parts of our lives that greatly affect our behavior, but which we often don’t share even with those closest to us. This is particularly true of people who either are ashamed of their behavior or who feel guilty that they survived when others did not. This thought underlies the three novels in this review, which look at the effect of World War II not only on those who lived through the war years, but their descendants.
“Paris in the Present Tense”
Some novels start out well, but never fulfil their initial promise. Others leave readers feeling cold at first, but then develop into amazing works of literature. This latter statement describes how I felt when reading Mark Helprin’s “Paris in the Present Tense” (The Overlook Press). The notes I wrote while reading the first 100 or so pages mention its complex prose and difficult, philosophical discussions of music and art. By the end of the book, I remarked on how this literary work has turned into a breathtaking page turner, while never sacrificing its beautiful prose or philosophical analysis.
The main character of “Paris in the Present Tense” is Jules Lacour, a 74-year-old cellist who ekes out a living as a music teacher. His professional life is not a success: he’s unable to perform in public and his musical compositions are considered out of date. Jules mourns the fact that he was the only member of his family to survive the Nazis. Adding to his grief are his years fighting for France in Algeria and the recent loss of his wife. These and other events continue to haunt him, even as the decades pass. Yet, his love of music and family enables him to find joy in his life, although he worries about his young, very ill grandson. He would also like to help his daughter and son-in-law escape from an increasingly antisemitic France. When an opportunity to earn enough money to do so turns into disaster, Jules’ life takes an unexpected turn.
While Jules is a wonderful, opinionated character who dominates the novel, Helprin spins tales of others who help Jules plot his dangerous course. Even these minor characters feel three-dimensional, as though it’s as important to understand their motivation as it is to understand that of Jules. Helprin also writes about the joys of music in a way that portrays why Jules is satisfied with what others would call an unsuccessful career. The prose captures beautifully how Jules hears music everywhere, even in mundane sounds most people ignore.
While readers may debate whether Jules’ actions are moral, I found myself rooting for him, even as I questioned his judgment. The novel’s ending was incredibly moving – managing to be sad and joyous at the same time.
“The Lost Letter”
Two different plots converge in Jill Cantor’s excellent novel “The Lost Letter” (Riverhead Books). In 1989, the Jewish first person narrator, Katie Nelson, struggles to find a moment of joy in her life. Not only does her husband want a divorce, but she has to clean out her father’s house now that he’s been placed in a nursing home for those with dementia. After taking his stamp collection to be appraised, the appraiser becomes intrigued by an unusual stamp attached to an envelope that was never mailed. Wanting to know more about the stamp and its unknown maker, Katie and the appraiser together search for answers to this mysterious puzzle.
Alternating chapters of the novel, which take place in Austria in the late 1930s, offer the third-person narrative of Kristoff, an orphan who’s an apprentice to Jewish stamp engraver Frederick Faber. Although Faber’s last Christian apprentice left because he no longer wanted to work for someone Jewish, Kristoff loves the Faber family and feels at home with their Jewish practice. It’s the oldest daughter, though, who makes the greatest impression on him, although she wants nothing to do with someone who might betray them. When Germany annexes Austria and the persecution of Jews begins, Kristoff must decide if it’s possible to keep faith with the first family to make him feel he belongs.
Readers know that the two stories must somehow overlap, but Cantor’s plot offers several surprises and many interesting twists and turns. What makes the novel work is the loving manner in which she portrays her characters, and the convincing way she ties the narratives together. “The Lost Letter” is a beautifully done, moving novel about the power of love.
“Winter Kept Us Warm”
Anne Raeff’s “Winter Kept Us Warm” (Counterpoint) is yet another novel showing how the past reverberates through several lives. The work begins a few years after 9/11, when an aging and ailing Isaac surprises Ulli at the hotel she owns in Morocco almost 40 years after their last meeting. The two originally met just after the end of World War II when the German Ulli first saw two American G.I.s. – Jewish Isaac and Christian Leo – in a bar in Berlin. How the three lives became intertwined is slowly revealed over the course of the novel.
While a great deal of the novel focuses on defining the connections between the characters (including the link between Isaac’s daughters and Ulli), the author also reveals each characters’ distinct personalities and the secrets they hold close. For example, Isaac’s temperament is partly formed by his early history, which includes memories of when he and his parents were stateless and passportless Russian refugees waiting for a visa to the United States. Although Isaac is eager to leave the army once the war is over, he re-enlists in order to act as an interpreter for displaced persons in Europe. Isaac and Leo are already friends before they reach Berlin, but that relationship is greatly affected by their relationship with Ulli.
It’s difficult to discuss the plot without revealing the many secrets and connections that form the basis of the story. The true beauty of “Winter Kept Us Warm” is the author’s ability to make one care about what happened to Ulli, Isaac and Leo. Readers should note the novel focuses on our inability to protect those we love, making it less than cheerful reading, but this moving tale also shows how one’s losses can be balanced by the joy of love and friendship.