Lauren Goldenberg (vice chair of Board of Directors, JC Council member): Do you want to read about two expat American Jewish lesbians who were (likely) allowed to stay in their home in the French countryside during World War II because of their close friendship with an antisemitic Vichy official? If so, great—read Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, by Janet Malcolm. The above detail is only one of many that makes Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas so fascinating to read about.
Kathleen Peratis (co-chair, Board of Directors): I recommend Fear and Other Stories by Chana Blankshteyn, which was recently found and translated from the Yiddish by Anita Norich. The collection of nine stories was first published in Vilna in 1939, a few weeks before the author’s death in her late 70s, of natural causes, just weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland. It’s a page turner—I read every story last week on a long flight, and they are riveting.
Blankshteyn adhered to the beliefs of the Folkspartey (Yiddish People’s Party), founded in the wake of the pogroms following the 1905 Russian Revolution, and then to Paoley Tsiyon, committed to socialist ideals and to building a national polity in Palestine. Most of the stories are set in Vilna and its Eastern European Jewish milieu, though others take us further west.
Political but not polemical, character-driven and with absorbing plots, Blankshteyn is a superb storyteller. Her Protagonists struggle to find their place in the world. “The Incident,” in which no one has a name, begins: “This morning, control of the city once again changed hands. One set of occupiers retreated, another took over, but it didn’t make much of an impression. People were used to such changes. In a few days, the steel helmets would surely return.” In “Director Vulman,” thuggish German occupiers hover over the action. The (rare) male protagonist, who regards neither his wife nor his mistress as his equal, is brilliantly sketched.
One of the longest stories, at 25 pages, is “The First Hand,” the tale of a “homeless deserted child” in Paris. Andree, at 15, is placed by the orphanage director in a luxury women’s clothing business as a messenger. Andree works “from morning ‘til night,” and rises through the ranks. She astutely observes that many of the rich clientele seem forlorn: “Things aren’t always happy even among the rich.” She is jealous of the rich American customers not for their money but for their “independence, their calm confidence, their relationship with men, their open almost comradely cool flirtation, so different from what she has known.” Her encounters with men—including one who might have married her if she had a dowry, and another who turns out to be married with a pregnant wife—convince her, at least for a while, that “love was not for her. She had other things to do.” The “other thing,” in this story as in most of the others, is Work, her “only sovereign.”
A feminist, socialist, and activist, Blankshteyn is an artist who deserves the praise this new translation should bring her, 80 years after her death.
Abraham Riesman (member, Board of Directors): I’ve recently fallen in love. The object of my affection died just shy of two millennia ago. He was born Yosef ben Matityahu, but posterity recalls him as Flavius Josephus—or, more commonly, just Josephus. He was the first Jewish journalist.
“He wanted his whole body to be an eye, and nothing but an eye.” So speaks the narrator of the 1932 novel Josephus: A Historical Romance. Penned by German–Jewish novelist and antifascist pundit Lion Feuchtwanger, the book is among the finest pieces of historical fiction that I’ve ever read. I stumbled upon a reprint from the 1970s in the wonderful Judaica section of Chicago’s Ravenswood Used Books earlier this month. I knew a little about Josephus and was vaguely curious to know more, and the cover was gorgeous, so I snagged it. Then I devoured it. I feel like a changed man.
Josephus was born into a family of aristocratic priests in Jerusalem and became a priest himself, then a commander of anti-Roman forces, then a traitor to the Roman side, and finally a writer who chronicled the war for a mass audience in his landmark book, The Jewish War. The novel follows Joseph (as Feuchtwanger calls him) while he traverses Rome, Alexandria, and Judea during the run-up to and execution of the First Roman-Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. It’s so vividly imagined! And the prose is delicious! The issues at hand are, of course, deeply relevant. In a time of apocalypse, is it more ethical to be an activist or a chronicler? Can a Jew remain a Jew and also be a citizen of the world? What is justified in a struggle against imperial occupation? What does Jewish sovereignty (and its loss) mean for Jewish civilization? And so on.
That’s not even getting into Feuchtwanger himself—a fascinating gent, but I’m hoping to write a more substantial piece about him at some point, so I’ll stay mum for now. I’ll leave you with this passage, from the section on the sack of the Holy City: “It was as though a torturing impulse drove Joseph to the place where the horrors of the siege were to be seen at their worst. He had been sent here to be the eye that should witness all these horrors. It was easy to be shocked by them. To stand still and contemplate them because one must was far harder.”
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Every book has its time. Sometimes it takes weeks to get to, sometimes months, sometimes years, and sometimes decades. Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague is a book I’ve owned since I first saw Greed—the classic silent film Erich von Stroheim drew from it—in 1970 at the newly opened Anthology Film Archives. The final 15 minutes or so of Greed have remained etched in my memory, and a recent viewing confirmed my memory of it as one of the handful of great American films. This return to the film—which was famously faithful to its source material, to the point where it’s been said that Stroheim filmed every paragraph of the book (which explains why its original uncut length was over eight hours)—finally gave me the impetus to read its source.
Norris, who died at 32 of a ruptured appendix, was one of the purest American exponents of naturalism, the literary school of which Émile Zola was the absolute master. An unflinching and brutal gaze, focusing on human degradation and degeneration in their many forms, is at the heart of naturalism. For Zola, this often involved the intersection of lust and violence. McTeague is a naturalist in the American mode, which means that sex is at best hinted at. Physical lust is replaced in McTeague and in Norris’s other works by lust for the eternal American object of desire: money.
Greed, the title given the film by Stroheim’s co-scenarist, is a better title than McTeague, for though McTeague (he is never given a first name, called instead by the nicknames “Mac” or “Doc,” since he’s a dentist) is the central character, it is greed that is the motor of the book’s action. Every other emotion in the book—love, friendship, filial devotion—is twisted and perverted by the hunger for wealth and the mad desire to protect it as if it were a living thing under threat.
McTeague has risen from a carboy in a mine, the child of a drunken abusive father, to modest success as a dentist in San Francisco, the pre-earthquake life and physiognomy of which feature prominently in the book. Innocent of any sexual urge, he is smitten with the beautiful Trina Sieppe, whom he woos and wins and who wins $5,000 in a lottery. Her love for her money—which she loves physically, to the point of sleeping naked upon the coins that constitute the sum—feeds into an avarice that is more sexual than her relationship with her husband.
Norris’ portrait of the degeneration of everyone in McTeague through their avidity for gain ends in Death Valley in a stunning tour de force of fiction writing: McTeague, having murdered his wife for her money, has been captured by his former rival for her affections. Both of them pay for their greed in a locale whose name can be applied to our entire country.