Off the Shelf: Reviewing the Past

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley

L. P. Hartley’s statement came to mind after reading Cynthia Ozick’s short novel “Antiquities” (Alfred A. Knopf) and Edmund De Waal’s musings in “Letters to Camondo” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Both authors review a past very different from contemporary times. Each work also seeks to understand and make peace with events that were out of the characters/author’s control. 

Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, the narrator of Ozick’s novel, is writing his memoirs about his time at the Temple Academy for Boys. The boarding school, which Petrie attended as a child, closed 34 years before the opening date of his memoir, April 1949. The school building currently serves as a home for the last seven surviving trustees, of whom Petrie is one. All are retired and most have little to fill their days. Although Petrie is only supposed to record a few memories of his schooldays, he reviews a good portion of his life, including some fateful events that took place at the school.

Part of the memoir tells of Petrie’s current life at the school, and the childish behavior of his fellow trustees. But his main focus is one school friendship, one that made him an outcast. To fully understand why, Petrie explains that even when Jews were allowed to be students, they were never fully accepted. The narrator’s casual antisemitism shows when he talks about these students, or makes it clear that while, as an adult, he has eaten lunch with a former Jewish student from his class, their families could never meet and socialize. 

But it was one special Jewish student, one who stood out because he didn’t try to fit in with the Jews or the Christians, whom Petrie befriended: Ben-Zion Elefantin. Elefantin is far better read in English literature than Petrie, but his history is hard to ascertain. Petrie becomes attached to this unusual student, but finds it difficult to understand someone whose ideas and behavior are so different from his own. 

“Antiquities” is extremely well-done, although the underlying tone of the work is melancholy. Petrie’s memoir forces him to look more closely at his life and review his successes and failures. But his introspection does not allow him to see beyond his class: this allows readers to create their own fuller portrait of the man. Petrie and “Antiquities” offer a view of a long gone world that still resonates today.

While”Antiquities” is pure fiction, “Letters to Camondo” is a hybrid work of imagination and history. De Waal writes letters to the late Count Moise de Camondo, who lived close to de Waal’s ancestors in Paris. The author’s tone is casual as if he is speaking to a friend, discussing favorite topics – particularly Camondo’s collection of paintings, art objects and furniture. The house that Camondo lived in is in a section of Paris that came to be known as the nouveau riche Jewish section – something that was not meant as a compliment. The house was left to France after Camondo’s death: it was dedicated to the memory of his son, who died in World War I.

De Waal, who is not Jewish, notes the prejudice that the Jewish Camondo faced, even though he notes that Camondo considered himself as much, if not more, French than he is Jewish. The author quotes those who did not feel the same, who believed the Jews are upstarts and social climbers with no taste. De Waal visited the Camondo museum and looked in its archives, marveling at the records the family kept and tracing the marriages of children and friends. The author asks questions that no one can answer, although his catalogue of events offers enough detail for readers to fill in some blanks.

Camondo died before World War II and was spared learning what happened to his family and friends, although de Waal clearly and succinctly lists what occurred once the Nazis conquered France. His matter-of-fact tone almost belies the horror, although the blunt, unemotional tone is very effective in showing how the family could not escape its fate. The author also speaks of his own family, those who were Jewish, and how he has reacted as the older generation has passed away.

“Letters to Camondo” brims with nostalgia and of betrayal: nostalgia for a lost world filled with beauty and the betrayal of those who believed in the French idea of equality, but who were excluded due to their religion. It is beautifully written, although readers should be aware that it contains architectural terms with which they may not be familiar. There are French phrases and sentences that are not translated, although Internet translation sites made those easier to understand. The work also contains photos of people, objects and houses, which are not labeled on the page, but rather in a list of illustrations found at the end of the book. This odd, unusual work will leave readers pondering not only the questions de Waal posited, but many of their own.