Mod­ern novel dressed in old clothes

The Jewish Chronicle - - Books -

LEA GOLDBERG was born in Konigs­berg, East Prus­sia, in 1911 and stud­ied in Ger­many be­fore flee­ing to Pales­tine in 1935, where she lived un­til her un­timely death in 1970. Al­though best known as a poet and aca­demic, teach­ing at the He­brew Univer­sity, she also wrote sev­eral prose works. Best known is her novel, And This Is The Light, first pub­lished in He­brew in 1946, and now trans­lated in this hand­some edi­tion by Toby Press, with a help­ful in­tro­duc­tion and crit­i­cal es­say by Nili Scharf Gold.

The story takes place over a few months in 1931. Nora Krieger has been study­ing in Ger­many and comes home for a long sum­mer hol­i­day in her na­tive Lithua­nia. While there, two things emerge.Firstly,we­re­alise­howfrag­ileshe is, haunted by mem­o­ries of her fa­ther’s mad­ness and how much she wants to break away from the re­stric­tions of her re­spectable Jewish fam­ily. Sec­ond, she meets an old friend of her fa­ther’s, who has re­turned from many years in Amer­ica and she falls in love with him.

Her de­sire to break free and find a new life and her love for Al­bert Arin start to over­lap. This may sound like an old-fash­ioned, sim­ple, per­haps rather dull story of its time, Jane Austen goes to pre-war Lithua­nia — and, in­deed, the plot isn’t ter­ri­bly in­ter­est­ing. How­ever, the book is fas­ci­nat­ing.

The writ­ing is any­thing but con­ven­tional and it is ter­rific. Goldberg’s old-fash­ioned, ro­man­tic story is told in a very mod­ern way, mov­ing back and forth in time, full of frag­ments of mem­ory that erupt into the present.

Nora, the hero­ine, is sym­pa­thetic, thought­ful and se­ri­ous, an in­ter­est­ing mix of Ib­sen’s Nora, from A Doll’s House — af­ter whom she was named — and Freud’s Dora (there are in­ter­est­ing par­al­lels be­tween the two young women).

But Nora’s world is a long way from fin-de-siè­cle Vi­enna. It is a shab­bier, more gen­teel, pro­vin­cial place. She longs to es­cape, for a kind of ex­cite­ment. More se­ri­ously, she is liv­ing at a dark, fright­en­ing time. Some read­ers may won­der why a novel about Jews in pre-war Lithua­nia, writ­ten in post-war Pales­tine, should be so silent about the Holo­caust. That is a strength, not a weak­ness, of Goldberg’s novel. She deftly in­vokes a sense of men­ace, through quiet but telling ref­er­ences to the loom­ing world cri­sis, to lo­cal pogroms and the rise of Nazism.

It is sub­tly done; there is a grow­ing sense of a fear­ful world clos­ing in on Goldberg’s Jewish char­ac­ters. They may not be aware of what’s hap­pen­ing around them but read­ers, both in 1946 and to­day, would not miss the clues.

De­spite the ref­er­ences to nerves and hys­te­ria, swastikas and pogroms, the novel is no mu­seum piece. Its re­flec­tions on re­la­tion­ships and death are elec­tri­fy­ing, as timely as any novel you will read this year and a pow­er­ful in­tro­duc­tion to one of Is­rael’s most in­ter­est­ing writers. David Her­man is the JC’s chief fic­tion re­viewer

‘Mu­ral, Nice, France, 2004’, from A World Ob­served 1940-2010 Pho­to­graphs by Dorothy Bohm (Philip Wil­son, £14.95) now ex­hibit­ing at the Sains­bury Cen­tre for Vis­ual Arts, Nor­wich

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