An in­no­cent ex­per­i­ment

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

TO AC­KNOWL­EDGE that an­tisemitism was in keep­ing with Edith Whar­ton’s gen­er­a­tion (this year sees the 150th an­niver­sary of her birth) is not to dis­miss or ex­cuse it. There have al­ways been oth­ers who have man­aged not to hold such views how­ever preva­lent among their peers. She was a writer whose bril­liance lay in her foren­sic anal­y­sis and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of her own, New York, haut so­ci­ety. Yet, on the sub­ject of the Jews, she was re­mark­ably united with those she satirised.

Si­mon Rosedale, the blond and oleagi­nous Jew in The House of Mirth, is fre­quently cited as an ex­am­ple of her views but his role is more com­plex than that of a mere vil­lain; there are mo­ments when it seems as if he might be Lily Bart’s saviour in her strug­gle. In any case, one need not mag­nify ex­am­ples to make the point. Whar­ton’s let­ters and pri­vate writ­ing do well enough. She wrote with loathing about “Yids”, among other colour­ful eth­nic slurs.

At the end of her life, as Hermione Lee re­ports in her im­pres­sive bi­og­ra­phy, Whar­ton was still ro­bustly declar­ing that she “hated the Jews”. De­spite it all, I ad­mire Edith Whar­ton as a writer — and be­cause these ex­pres­sions of dis­taste were pre-holo­caust; be­cause her satire is ex­quis­ite, and be­cause she was long dead be­fore I was born I want to for­give and un­der­stand, if not ex­cuse her.

Not that such for­give­ness or un­der­stand­ing would have been mu­tu­ally ex­tended. I have no doubt that she would have de­tested my forth­com­ing, first novel, The In­no­cents — a re­cast­ing of Whar­ton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-win­ning novel, The Age of In­no­cence, set in con­tem­po­rary Jewish north-west London.

I had never imag­ined I’d write a novel set quite so close to home, ge­o­graph­i­cally or cul­tur­ally, nor had I ever dreamed I might dare to ap­pro­pri­ate a beloved Amer­i­can clas­sic as the scaf­fold­ing be­neath it. But af­ter I read The Age of In­no­cence, sev­eral years ago, I could no longer imag­ine do­ing any­thing else. New­land Archer — pompous, con­ven­tional, and yet strug­gling against a so­ci­ety that of­fers great se­cu­rity and com­fort even as it sti­fles him — could have been al­most any nice Jewish boy I grew up with.

I recog­nised that world. The cen­tral dilemma is vivid, ur­gent and rel­e­vant, not only to my own, semi-sec­u­lar com­mu­nity of Tem­ple For­tune but to any­one who is part of any com­mu­nity — Mus­lim, Hindu, or sim­ply liv­ing in a ru­ral vil­lage any­where, any time. But what I recog­nised was what I knew and the com­edy of those worlds. I will just have to bear Edith’s dis­ap­proval. Francesca Se­gal’s novel ‘The In­no­cents’ (Chatto & Win­dus, £14.99) will be re­viewed in next week’s JC

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