My new book. ‘All Quiet on the Midwestern Plains,’

 

So, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. My new book is out. Hooray! So far it’s only available as an ebook, but the paperback version is in the pipeline and will be available soon, I hope.

It’s taken about two years to write, which is almost twice as long as each of my previous four books have taken, partly due to its length and partly to its complexity. Of course, there is also my own dithering about what to say and how to say it, about how far to go with the various strands of the narrative — how evil to make the bad character, how far to embroil the hero in the various machinations, and to what extent to involve the themes of Jews, Israelis, sex and anti-Semitism.

Yes, all those themes and more are in the book, along with a whole bunch of other ideas and situations that cropped up in the course of writing.  Essentially, the book is based on my own experience of living in Nebraska for a year back in the 1980s, when my OH was employed at a university there. This involved uprooting our family from its environment and moving to a totally different culture and set of experiences.

At the time we had three children of varying ages, but in the book these have been whittled down to teenage twins who have a really hard time in the new place. They make their feelings known in no uncertain terms, both at home and at school. I found myself laughing and crying at some of the events they encountered and their reactions, whether real or imagined. 

The wife of the chief protagonist who has docilely followed her man as he goes ahead with forging his career finds the climate and stultifying atmosphere of the Midwest a bit too much to bear and derives consolation in attending an evening art class. This leads to her having an affair with the art teacher. Of course, this part is complete fiction, and no such situation arose in real life. In fact, it was then that I attended a creative writing course, run by a very nice lady writer, and started to write seriously. For that I will be eternally grateful for the chance to take that break out from the routine of life in Israel.

The people of Nebraska were almost invariably warm and welcoming, though this cannot be said for the climate, which has its own role to play in the novel. However, the American Nazi Party happened to have its headquarters in the area, and this manifested itself primarily in letters and items in the local paper, though there were indications that more ominous developments could arise. Fortunately these never came to fruition. Current events in the USA indicate that these trends have not abated and may even be growing in strength.

Thus, my novel is a mixture of fact and fiction, and it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. What I earnestly hope is that I have created an interesting story with believable characters and a plot that will keep the reader laughing and crying and eager to find out what happens next.

The Kindle ebook is available on Amazon for only $2.99. so please do go ahead and buy a copy, and better still — write a nice review on Amazon.

 

 

 

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‘Adieu Volodia’ by Simone Signoret

The name of the author, the actress Simone Signoret, caught my eye and I bought this book for 50 cents (521 pages, hardback) last summer while browsing the stalls at a village brocante, a kind of flea-market in rural France where the locals bring out the items they wish to sell.

On opening the book (published in French by France Loisirs, Paris. 1985) and starting to read I was stunned to find that I was reading the saga of two families of Polish Jews who emigrated to Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, and so before too long I was engrossed in the account of the lives of the Guttman and Roginski families, their struggle to find their feet and make a living, their relations with one another and with the other residents of their building and their delight a few years later on obtaining their naturalization papers as French citizens. Of course, I had to struggle with the French language, and found myself referring quite often to my dictionary, but I could not tear myself away from the chronicle of their daily lives and the characters they encountered along the way.

Knowing Simone Signoret’s career as a film and theatre actress, I suppose it is no coincidence that as the story develops some of the characters find themselves involved to a greater or lesser extent with the French film industry, whether as seamstresses or furriers, as well as with political developments in the country. The history of Europe has a role to play in this inter-war period, together with memories of pogroms in the families’s countries of origin, of relatives lost and property destroyed. As the children of the families and their neighbours grow and develop we know that the clock of history is ticking, that the period of the Second World War and the German occupation of France is approaching and that the characters with whom we have become involved will have to face a period of darkness and danger.

Simone Signoret describes the individuals with a theatre-director’s eye, or perhaps it’s a cinematic eye, but it is also an ear and a nose, for her accounts of scenes, people, situations and incidents are always lively and convincing. The lives of people are always played out against the backdrop of world events, and it is with admirable skill that Signoret succeeds in combining the two threads.

This is less a novel about Jews than about people who are doing their best to fit in with the wider society, find their place and provide their children with the education that will equip them to function as adults, not knowing what lies ahead.The characters do not celebrate their Judaism or observe any traditions, but simply seek to find their place in the world and in modern-day Paris. The eponymous Volodia makes only a small appearance in the book, but he symbolizes the world that has been left behind and the tragic fate of the Jews there that has always been in evidence. Occasional references to conversations that take place in Yiddish are the only other acknowledgement of the characters’ place of origin.

The reader is spared lurid accounts of atrocities and brutality, and the description of the way Jewish residents of Paris are persuaded to accompany the French police to an unknown destination is presented with sensitivity and delicacy. By a quirk of fate (or of the author) the characters to whom we have become attached are spared the destiny of so many of France’s Jews, and we are also given an insight into some of the ways in which the Resistance worked to sabotage the plans of the Nazis, both in Paris and in the countryside.

At the end of the book Simone Signoret gives her own account of the process whereby she wrote the book, providing a fascinating insight into the workings of her mind and the way she tackled her subject-matter and the process of writing. Born in Germany to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, she seems to have been well-situated to describe both societies and the individuals who comprised them. She confesses that although she had always loved to write, as an actress it was considered advisable to present herself as illiterate rather than as a writer. There is no doubt, however, that she is (or rather was, she died in 1985, shortly after the publication of this book) a very talented author.

 

Home Again

 

As ever, returning to Israel after two months of absence is something of a culture shock, particularly when it comes to driving a car. One is reminded with alarm that rules are no longer rules, the word ‘courtesy’ does not exist in the Hebrew language and the overall feeling is that someone out there wants to kill me.

But humour and exaggeration aside, it is enough to get behind the wheel of a car to realise that the overall culture and philosophy of life in Israel is very different from that of rural France. And quite rightly so. What does the French farmer have to contend with other than the vagaries of the climate and the occasional encounter with a neighbour (although anyone who has seen the film ‘Jean de Florette’ might be led to believe otherwise)? Israel, on the other hand, has to fight for its existence, and that mindset seems to spill over into daily life.

But home is where the heart is, and my heart is definitely in Israel. My ‘vacation from my retirement’ was restful and productive, as is generally the case, and I managed to read (and even write) a great deal more than I do when I’m in Israel. I suppose that not having the distraction of television may have something to do with it. I only wish I could manage to avoid the constant barrage of news and information that emanates from my TV set during the normal course of the day when I’m in Israel. My inability to grasp the rapid speech of the news-readers on the radio in France helps in this respect, of course.

The last week of our holiday was spent in London which, as usual, provided all manner of delights. Meeting old friends, and renewing acquaintance with some with whom I’d lost contact, was wonderful, and I still dwell with amazement and joy on the memory of those renewed friendships (which I hope we will manage to maintain). Some old friends found me as a result of my articles in the AJR Journal, for which I’m eternally grateful.

In addition, in London there is the pleasure of attending theatre performances where the actors are trained to project their voices, so that there is no need to use a face microphone, as is the case in Israel. Learning to speak from the stage so that the entire auditorium can hear you is an essential part of an actor’s training in England, and that unfortunately does not seem to be the case in Israel. I find it annoying to be subjected to an artificially-projected voice and that, apart from the inferior standard of most plays in Israel, is why I avoid the theatre here. The standard of music, on the other hand, is as high as anywhere in the world, if not higher, so that serves as some compensation. And so, the two plays we managed to see in London (another great production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘Imperium’ based on the writings of Cicero) were immensely enjoyable.

London seems to have become the polyglot centre of the world. Wherever you go you hear a dozen different (and not always identifiable) languages as you walk around. Oxford Street, the mecca of all shopping expeditions, is awash with people hurrying along in search of the perfect item to bring home in triumph. I joined the throng in eager anticipation of achieving just that objective (only partly fulfilled, I’m afraid).

And of course, the ultimate enjoyment, a pub lunch with the traditional fish and chips, or even bangers and mash, is an experience to be savoured far beyond any of the fine culinary delights on offer in France or even one of the better restaurants in London or elsewhere. Whether the sight – and particularly the sound – of dozens of Londoners watching a football game on the huge TV screens in the pub is so enjoyable is questionable, but there are some delights that have to be endured rather than enjoyed.

And finally, of course, there is always the comfort of ‘a nice cup of tea’ and a piece of cake or a chocolate digestive biscuit as one rests between excursions, museum tours, outings to places of interest or reunions with friends. Little things can also give enormous pleasure.

Yes, London is certainly full of delights, but there’s no denying that coming home to the bosom of one’s family and friends is the greatest delight of them all.

Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag-Montefiore

 

 

This book (published by Penguin, Random House, UK, 2017) gives a detailed account of the days leading up to the German attempt to take Stalingrad in the summer of 1942, doing so by tracing the exploits of a group of former prisoners, taken from the Gulag and given the chance to redeem themselves by becoming a special unit of the Russian army known as Shtrafniki.

Amongst the motley crew of murderers, swindlers and cut-throats, whom the reader learns to know and identify by name, is a Jew and former writer by the name of Benya Golden, whose death sentence for supposedly plotting to assassinate Stalin, has been commuted to a lifetime of hard labour in the Kolyma mines of the Gulag.

As part of the training of the new recruits they are formed into a cavalry troop, assigned horses and weapons, taught to ride and initiated into the niceties of methods of killing the enemy. The endless steppes of Russia form the backdrop to the events that follow as, having completed their training period, the men begin to advance toward the Don River, where Stalingrad is situated. Along the way they clash with enemy troops as well as with splinter-groups of other Russian units who have defected to the German side. Among the armies fighting alongside the Nazis are Italians, Ukrainians and Hungarians, most of whom are also on horseback, although some tanks are also involved. The Italians, recognizable by their feathered caps, display a more humane attitude to the civilian population, and are not as quick to murder and pillage as the other troops. Their army is also equipped with medical personnel and equipment for treating the wounded.

In that terrain and at that stage of the war cavalry was still utilized in combat, providing greater speed and ease of movement than tanks, and it is Golden’s horse, Silver Socks, who comes up trumps and rescues her rider from dangerous situations. Golden himself, who is the book’s main protagonist, manages to survive the various battles, and even to escape pursuit together with the Italian nurse who has tended his wounds, but eventually finds himself alone with two companions from his original troop. After various encounters with murderous Germans, a kind-hearted doctor who appears to be a defector and any number of enemy soldiers, he is invalided out of battle and ends up in a Moscow hospital.

Along the way, displaying considerable knowledge of the Soviet hierarchy and the Russian front, the author provides us with a glimpse into the workings of Stalin’s inner circle, life in the Kremlin, and the machinations which decide the fate of millions of subjects of the USSR. The entire fate of the country rests in the hands of a few powerful men, and it is their jealousies, rivalries and desires which determine which way the dice will fall.

The book ends with a series of surprises that leave the reader somewhat taken aback by the twists and turns, but without a doubt it is a well-written and thoroughly-researched read. The very informative epilogue gives the author’s insights into the process of researching and writing the book, and there is no doubt that it shines a light on a period of Russian and WWII history about which not very much is known.

 

DIY Mania

 

One of the first things we encountered when we came to France was the prevalence of DIY shops. Actually, shops would hardly be the right term, as they’re more something of an emporium. On that first visit Yigal thought he had died and gone to heaven. All there was as far as the eye could see was a vast space, something akin to an airplane hangar, containing what seemed like an infinite array of shelves bearing any kind of tool, equipment or building material you could possibly imagine.

For me, this was completely uninteresting. I grew up in a home where my father was not at all handy, except on the typewriter, and it was my mother who mended fuses and changed light-bulbs, using a neat little tool-kit she had brought with her when she fled Germany in 1939. Whenever something more complicated needed to be done, there was our regular handyman, Mr. Quested, who was called upon to accomplish the task. And this, I thought, was the norm amongst the Jewish population of suburban London. That’s as may be, but in Israel (and possibly elsewhere, too, for all I know) things are different.

Yigal was brought up with a father who was an accomplished carpenter and handyman, and therefore many of those skills were passed on to him, as well as additional ones he acquired as a practical person with a scientific mind. Anything further removed from the inept scholar it would be hard to imagine.

So DIY (bricolage in French) is apparently a very popular occupation among the inhabitants of rural France, whether they be local French people or expats from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands or any other country whose population tends to gravitate towards the relatively inexpensive and often neglected houses of the villages and hamlets in the French countryside. This often means that a great deal of work is required in order to get a house into a state that is fit for human habitation (they are sometimes even converted barns or stables, representing a complete rebuilding project, often requiring professional involvement).

One particular task that Yigal undertook recently was to clear the basement of our house in rural France. It involved getting rid of all kinds of junk that had been deposited there over the years by previous owners, as well as insulating the area and making it water-tight. The fact that it contained a well did not make things any easier, and for this he enrolled the help of a local (English-speaking) friend and handyman.

Any mention of a basement (cave in French) in rural France brings to my mind the image of Jews being hidden there during the period of German occupation. In order for anyone to stay there for any period of time they would have had to endure very difficult conditions of cold and damp, not to mention privation, hunger and very uncomfortable accommodation.

That, however, is not the reason for the project of bringing the basement into a more habitable state, but rather to stop the dampness there from rising into the walls of the house. This required purchasing various items of insulating and draining material, and hence the errand that brought us to the biggest, most well-stocked DIY emporium of them all, Brico-Depot, in the nearby town.

On entering its portals one is confronted by an even more enormous array of shelves laden with all the items and equipment mentioned above, as well as many more. It is a haven for professionals and amateurs alike. I personally found it all quite intimidating, but it seemed to me that I was the only one to experience this. All around me I could see serious people, mostly men but also some women, clad in work clothes, wheeling huge trolleys loaded up with planks, sanitary equipment, plywood panels, and anything else that would serve in constructing, repairing or installing any and every part of any building anywhere. Luckily, there was a set of wicker garden furniture on display, so I could sit there and enjoy myself while Yigal roamed the shelves hunting for the items needed.

I presume that such emporia are to be found in Britain and the USA, too, but I have never been in any of them. All I can say is that my encounter with the world of DIY in France has left a deep and lasting impression on my mind, and I think my one visit has been enough to last me for the rest of my life.

 

The Angel of Charleston

The Angel of Charleston; Grace Higgens, Housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group

by Stewart MacKay,Published by The British Library, London, 2013

As a long-time aficionado of all things Bloomsbury, and the so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ of writers and artists in particular, I couldn’t resist buying this biography of the person who became the mainstay of the household in Charleston, the Sussex country home of Vanessa Bell, her children, Julian, Quentin and Angelica, her husband Clive Bell, and her live-in companion and fellow-artist, Duncan Grant.

Born Grace Germany to a Norfolk farming family, Grace entered domestic service at the age of sixteen as housemaid to Vanessa Bell at her home in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, moving with the family to their country house at Charleston as well as travelling with them to the south of France on holiday.

Grace was a pretty girl with a great sense of fun but little formal education. She had learned how to cook and look after a house as the eldest of seven children, and her role in the Bell household gradually evolved from that of housemaid to that of nanny to the children and later housekeeper. It was Duncan Grant who dubbed her ‘the angel of Charleston,’ presumably for her skills in the spheres to which she was appointed.

Vanessa Bell’s painting of Grace wearing an apron and standing at the kitchen table, in the throes of preparing a meal adorns the cover of the book. Her face and figure radiate a sense of calm and of being intent on her purpose, while the root vegetables on the table in front of her indicate the kind of meal that is being prepared. Vanessa gave the painting the title ‘The Kitchen.’

The book is based on the diary Grace kept for some of the time she was at Charleston, which became the family’s permanent home during and after the Second World War, having served as a weekend and holiday retreat beforehand. She also accompanied the family on some of their visits to the south of France, and in her diary she describes her impressions of the local town (Cassis) and its population. This was in the late 1920s and early 1930s, before Cassis became a fashionable resort for the rich and famous, and it is interesting to read her views that “The women here grow beards and moustaches and go bald… The Frenchwomen wash at stone wash places and always with cold water, and instead of soap they mostly use the ash of wood, after it had been burnt… That the women have to carry the things and not the men when out walking with them… That the women sit mostly just outside their houses to sew, in summer and winter… That women carry their parcels on their heads…”

It would seem that there have been quite a few changes in the way of life of people in the French countryside since then. While Grace was in France she received lessons in French, together with Julian, from a local teacher, and this enabled her to buy provisions for the household and talk to the local population.

There seems to have been a sense of camaraderie among the various members of the domestic staff of the Charleston household as well as with those of the households of Vanessa’s sister, Virginia Woolf, and of Maynard Keynes, both of whom lived nearby. Grace and others would sometimes spend an evening at the local pub, the Barley Mow, where they encountered local farming folk with many of whom they were on friendly terms.

It is interesting to note that, in contrast to common practice in England at the time, when Grace got married she continued to live and work at Charleston, together with her husband, Walter Higgens. Walter was employed for a while there as a gardener, but eventually found work elsewhere.

The diary entries are interspersed with comments from the editor of this little book (only 150 pages, with many illustrations), as well as with information gleaned from interviews with surviving friends and members of the family. Through them all Grace comes across as a person who was warm and caring, someone who kept the household going through thick and thin, and a figure who could carry off a relationship with her employers that was friendly but not intimate, respectful but not remote, and who loved and was loved by each and every one of them.

It’s Here Again!

It’s that time of the year again. Over the summer weekends every self-respecting village and town in central France holds its annual fete or saint’s day, meaning that bowls competitions are held, food and drink is served for a minimum fee and both local people and ‘outsiders’ can set up stalls for the annual flea-market sale of sundry goods, bric-a-brac and anything that’s surplus to requirements.

The flea-market, or ‘brocante,’ is the place to be on a balmy summer morning, when people of all ages, shapes and sizes turn out to inspect one another’s wares, possibly even to buy a trinket or ancient copper pot and to enjoy socializing with neighbours from near and far.

The brocante is everyone’s chance to bring out the contents of their basement or attic (some brocantes are also called ‘attic-emptier’), set up a stall and get rid of the porcelain service they inherited from their grandparents, the toys and clothes that their children have outgrown, old books, records and tools, and even the jewellery that dear grandmamma left them.

I really enjoy strolling along the rows of stalls, inspecting the goods on sale and exchanging a friendly greeting with the people manning (or rather womanning) the stalls. Sometimes one sees beautiful dinner- or tea-services, antique cutlery and interesting paintings. And it can be almost painful to see the linen tablecloths and serviettes upon which a young woman once embroidered her initials, as was the custom before marriage in former times.

I have seen ornate soup tureens that I would dearly have loved to buy, but really have no good use for. And of course there are also cups without saucers, saucers without cups, teapots without lids, pots, pans and ancient metal implements whose purpose is not always clear.

One of the items that caught my eye one Sunday morning was a large metal stand consisting of dozens of arms and hooks. When I asked the stall-owner what it was for he told me it was for drying wine bottles. Now, who has to dry dozens of wine bottles all in one go? This is not a grape-growing area, so I can only presume that the former owners used to consume a great deal of wine. I was later informed that such objects were taken by the early Dadaist artists and presented as ‘a fountain,’ revolutionizing modern art by the introduction of the concept of ‘ready-made.’

Every once in a while I have come across items that are both beautiful and serviceable. And so my tea-service has benefited from two cups with matching saucers that are almost an exact fit with mine. In addition, four handsome mugs matching my breakfast dishes and large enough to accommodate a generous cup of tea also now grace my table of a morning.

Arts and crafts aficionados can also occasionally find something to their liking, and I know several artistic types who use the opportunity to earn a few extra pennies by selling their home-made embroidered tablecloths, crocheted mats and even delicate items of clothing. Of course, there are also those talented individuals who make necklaces, bracelets, earrings and other trinkets which can be very attractive.

As long as I don’t have enough things I regard as discardable I am relieved of the onerous task of standing behind a stall for several hours, and am happy to leave the work to others. But perhaps one day my children and/or grandchildren will be doing that with all the ‘stuff’ I’ve accumulated over the years. Sorry, folks!

Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K.Scott Moncrieff; Soldier, Spy and Translator

The book was written by Jean Findlay, a distant relative of the subject, and was published by Chatto and Windus in 2014

As a former translator and great admirer of the works of Proust, both in the original French (a bit of a struggle for me) and in their delightful English version, I could not resist ordering this book from the Bibliophile company that offers hundreds of books at reduced prices.

My expectations were not dashed, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this well-written account of the unusual character and life of Charles Kenneth Scott Moncreiff (CKSM, or CK as he was known to his friends), from his beginnings as the scion of a somewhat eccentric Scottish family to his later life as an itinerant intellectual, literary luminary and intelligence gatherer in Italy.

His mother, to whom he was very attached, was something of a society beauty but also an artist and a professional writer, publishing essays, articles and stories in a variety of journals and newspapers. His father was a lawyer, eventually becoming a judge, so that his employment in various capacities meant that the family had to move several times in CKSM’s childhood and youth, though always remaining in some part of Scotland.

Much of the book describes CKSM’s education, first in a Scottish private school and then at Winchester public school, having been awarded a scholarship. There he developed his love for poetry and literature in general, made lifelong friendships, and presumably developed the homosexuality that formed an integral part of his adult life. Having failed to get into Cambridge, he went up to Edinburgh university, first graduating in law in order to satisfy his parents, and then following his own inclination by studying literature.

Born in 1889, Charles belonged to the generation of young men who fought in the First World War. Having been an enthusiastic member of the cadets, he became an officer in a regiment of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, and spent the war years fighting in France interspersed with periods of being sent home to recover from the disease known as Trench Fever, which afflicted him at various periods throughout his life. He relished the life of the soldier, displaying fearless fighting spirit and loyalty to his men, but eventually suffered a serious wound to his right leg that left him disabled for the rest of his life and caused him to endure several bouts of hospitalization for surgery in an attempt to save the leg from amputation. During the war, and possibly as a result of his experiences in it, he converted to Catholicism.

Inevitably, he was affected by the death in war of many of his friends and fellow-soldiers, particularly that of the poet Wilfred Owen, whom he admired tremendously and to whom he was particularly devoted. In civilian life he held positions in London in the War Office and in the offices of The Times, which was owned at the time by Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth).

Before the war CKSM had translated the ancient texts of Beowulf and Chanson de Roland, and it was while he was working at The Times that he began translating the first volume of Proust’s epic novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. His method consisted of reading a sentence, then translating it viva voce to a friend, and subsequently writing it down. To this particular translator this seems an impossible undertaking, but this was CKSM’s preferred modus operandi, and seems to have worked exceedingly well, as his translations of all the volumes that comprise the novel, as well as those of many other authors (Pirandello, Balzac, Stendhal, inter alia), are acclaimed as works of great beauty and profound understanding.

He spent most of his later life in Italy, living in a succession of rented rooms in Pisa, Venice, Rome, to name but a few, while undertaking intelligence work for Britain and also entertaining a wide assortment of literary figures from England and elsewhere. He also worked simultaneously as a literary critic, writing for various London journals, as well as conducting an extensive correspondence with many of his friends and colleagues.

He died in Rome in 1930, aged only forty, after being diagnosed with stomach cancer just eight weeks earlier, but having lived almost twice as long as those friends who had been killed in the war. He seems to have managed to enjoy his somewhat diversified life-style while at the same time working hard, combating disability, maintaining a wide range of relationships, and sending money to help support the families of his two older brothers who had died before him.

The Lady and the Unicorn

The region of France around the town of Limoges has been known since mediaeval times for its weavers, and the art of tapestry-making once flourished there for many generations, passing down from father to son. Today the towns of Aubusson and Felletin are no longer famous for that particular speciality, though remnants of those ancient times are still to be found there in the form of museums and studios. Shops in Aubusson’s main street still display coloured wools of all kinds in their windows for the benefit of the many local hobbyists.

In the castle perched atop the steep precipice overlooking the Creuse river in the nearby town of Boussac one may take a guided tour of the building and sense something of the mediaeval atmosphere that once prevailed there. The grand dining hall, where lavish meals were once served to hundreds of revelers, now stands empty, and the guide is quick to point out that this part of the castle was destroyed by the British in the fourteenth century (whereupon this British visitor felt obliged to apologise). A fascinating book describing the tapestries recently came into my hands, providing with me with an insight into these beautiful works of art.

One of the rooms in the castle, where much of the original furniture may still be found, was occupied by the French writer, George Sand (Aurore Dudevant) in the 1830s. In her novel, Jeanne, she describes the castle and the surrounding countryside, also mentioning the impressive set of tapestries entitled ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ that adorned the walls at that time. In later years, as the devastation wrought by time, rats and mould threatened to cause irreparable damage to the tapestries, they were purchased for the French nation and hung, after extensive restoration, in the Cluny Museum in Paris. One or two reproductions may still be seen in the castle, but not the originals.

The early history of the six remaining tapestries (there may once have been more), is not absolutely clear. What is known is that they were produced in France for one of the members of the nobility on the basis of designs made by a mediaeval master. In fact, the production of the tapestries required the skills of an artist or artists who could produce the basic design, those who could transfer it onto a cartoon, or basis for the weaver, and extremely skilful weavers who were masters of the intricate art of producing the finished tapestry.

The six huge tapestries, each one different but depicting similar principal figures – a lady, her maidservant, a lion and a unicorn – also show a myriad of smaller animals, as well as birds and flowers of various kinds and sizes in a wealth of colours, covering each tapestry in abundant detail that is both fascinating and a delight to the eye. Contemporary scholars have concluded that each tapestry concerns one of the five senses, smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, while the last one bears the inscription ‘Mon seul desir,’ which could mean either ‘My one desire’ or ‘Only my will.’ Whether this refers to some concept of romantic love or is a philosophical pronouncement is still an open question. It has been suggested that the tapestries were commissioned for the wedding or betrothal of the son and daughter of two noble families, but no records have been found to verify this assumption.

The lion and the unicorn are well-known heraldic figures, and are even to be found in the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, though no association with England is known. The production of the tapestries in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries connects the traditions of the mediaeval and renaissance periods of art. Be that as it may, the tapestries themselves are works of great beauty and interest, and make a visit to the Cluny Museum a must for my next visit to Paris.

 

Subservience, Suffering and Sex,

Doing His Will (Osah Kirtzono)

by Esti Weinstein

Published in Hebrew by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir, 2016

The poor woman who wrote this book (she eventually committed suicide) was born into a specific sect – tantamount to a cult – of ultra-orthodox Judaism known as the Gur Hassidim.

As a child and teenager the author accepted the rules, regulations and restrictions (and there were many restrictions) required by the sect. As disciples of the principal rabbi of the sect, the Gur Rabbi, both men and women were subject to strict rules regarding dress, food, prayer, family life and even sex. The key word in all aspects of life was subservience: men were subservient to the rabbi, who was considered the principal purveyor of the word of God, and women were subservient to men – to their father before marriage, and to their husband subsequently.

The author, who seems to have total recall when it comes to recollecting every conversation she had throughout her childhood and every thought that passed through her head, describes all this in almost painful detail, which can become rather tedious after a while. This applies in particular to her imagined conversations with God, whom she appears to have regarded as her best friend. Reciting the appropriate prayers at the appointed times also occupied a prominent place in her life.

The account of her upbringing and home life reveals a spirited youngster who toes the line dictated by the society she grows up in, a line that seems intentionally designed to cramp any individual thought or idea, focusing on preparing girls for marriage and parenthood as soon as they reach the age of sixteen or seventeen, and keeping them protected from and ignorant of life in the wider world outside the sect.

Thus, from an early age the heroine’s thoughts are focused primarily on the search her parents undertake to find her a suitable husband, the  process of considering and being considered by fitting suitors, and her joy at having been found acceptable by the scion of a respectable family. The ‘courtship’ process involved meetings between the two sets of parents, a single meeting between the two candidates, and a period of separation lasting several months while preparations for the wedding went ahead.

Naturally, the main concern of the seventeen-year-old was the fabric and design of her wedding dress, and also the triumph of getting married before her best friend. The actual wedding ceremony was long and arduous, with strict separation between male and female guests, and the inevitable disappointment in bed on the first night.

Nevertheless, the young couple must have overcome their initial shyness, as well as the various constraints imposed by the sect on the nature and frequency of intercourse (no expressions of love or displays of intimacy allowed), as they managed to have eight children in the next fourteen years. Sex is a duty to be undertaken solely in order to fulfill the commandment ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ This took its toll on the author’s body, and after seeing a non-orthodox friend in a swimming suit she felt impelled to undergo surgery to have her breasts enlarged.

Although her husband said he loved and admired her just as she was and did his best to make her happy, the heroine gradually found herself consumed by revulsion at his appearance and physical attentions. Notwithstanding, she did her best to fulfill her marital duty and succumb to his nightly demands. At some stage the couple embarked on visits to hotel spas for massages. These at first were separate, but then together, and this started a train of events that culminated in the husband initiating and encouraging his wife to experience treatment by a male masseur, leading eventually to erotic experiences, which the husband witnessed and apparently enjoyed.

Consumed by guilt and disgust the heroine felt she had lost her faith in her religion, and even her relationship with God. Disillusioned and disgusted by the hypocrisy of the other members of her sect-cum-cult she made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide, eventually left her husband, and as a result was prevented from seeing her children. Finally she sank into utter despair and depression, so that her last suicide attempt succeeded.

Her tragic story featured in Israel’s media for a while, but was soon pushed aside by other subjects. It is doubtful whether any lessons were learned from this sorry saga, either by the community which spewed her out or by the wider, secular society. But at least this book, which she must have written over a considerable period of time, constitutes her revenge from beyond the grave.