Modern novel dressed in old clothes
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