Living the Dream by Lauren Berry

 

The book describes the lives of Emma and Clementine, two young women in their twenties, living and working in contemporary London, and struggling to achieve their dreams of success in one or another field of writing, but meanwhile struggling to stay afloat in jobs they dislike. A great deal of booze is consumed along the way, there are affairs and one-night stands, pregnancy scares, and friendships that sometimes descend into quarrels. The book ends with the grand wedding of a third friend, but we are not treated to a supposedly satisfying conclusion where everyone finds ‘the one.’ That, I suppose, is the new feminist approach at work.

The writing flows smoothly and is pretty bog-standard journalistic or feature article writing as found in the mid-level press in the UK, i.e., not over-intellectual but grammatically correct on the whole, with the occasional well-crafted and insightful phrase to alleviate the monotony. The book constitutes an easy read, appropriate for the beach or a holiday, and does not make undue intellectual demands on the reader. I personally found the booze culture difficult to understand, with the characters shifting almost perpetually between states of being drunk, vomiting, or hung over. I suppose that just as violence was an integral part of the childhood environment described in Elena Ferrante’s books about Naples, drinking alcohol in order to numb the senses is an integral part of contemporary life in England. I find that to be a very sad state of affairs, I must confess.

Expletives abound throughout the book, and that also seems to be pretty much par for the course for contemporary feminist writing. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I suppose that’s the new normal for this kind of ‘literature.’

The end takes the reader slightly by surprise, as one of the two main characters finally leaves her stultifying job and finds herself on course for the creative career to which she has been aspiring. BEWARE, SPOILER! She sits down to write, and the heading she puts on her screen is the title of the book we have just been reading. That is certainly a nice way to end a book.

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An Exercise Fiend? Me?

The thought that I might be an exercise fiend hit me as I was walking along the promenade that skirts the Dead Sea and then continues, quite scenically, along the road to the hotels there. The route has been planted with shrubs, bushes and palm trees, with benches at strategic points so that one can rest and contemplate the serene scene. While taking a few days off from our hectic retirement schedule, hubby and I took ourselves off to one of the hotels along the Dead Sea for a few days of pampering and over-eating. So at least a couple of hours of exercise each day were called for to ease the conscience.

However, when I’m at home I exercise regularly for about an hour almost every morning in my basement, where we have a treadmill and various items of exercise equipment, and of course a TV to alleviate the concomitant boredom.

If only Miss Lawrence, my former gym teacher at Brondesbury and Kilburn High School for Girls, could see me now, I sometimes think. I was her least favourite pupil, whom she regarded (with some justification) as a habitual shirker. To hear her enunciate my name with the attendant consummate sense of dissatisfaction, would invariable send shivers down my teenage spine. Short in stature, I was inept at getting the netball into the net or performing one or another of the exercises that were customarily inflicted on teenage girls in those far-off days, and perhaps still are.

The solution to my seemingly unending antipathy for sports and gym at school was to claim that I had forgotten to bring my gym-clothes to school that day. This was an excellent ploy on days when we girls marched in twos, crocodile-style, to the nearby games field where my classmates happily jumped and ran to put the ball in the net or bash their hockey-stick against one another’s. No team sport ever appealed to me, and the failure to have brought my gym-gear along meant that I was ‘condemned’ to walk around the sports field for the hour or two while the others jumped and ran in the cold London air. Luckily for me, my friend Diana was of the same inclination as I, and so we spent many happy hours talking and walking around the playing field while the others got all hot and sweaty on the netball court.

But somehow when I reached my forties (was it my mid-life crisis?) I began to exercise, having spent most of my first forty years sitting with a book or at a desk to read, write or type. I started off at a class run by a charismatic trainer who tailored the exercises he gave us to his assessment of our capabilities. Attending his private gym once a week was all I could manage at first. But then I started going there twice a week, before setting off for work. Later I was able to exercise in the gym that was established at my place of work. After retiring I decided to continue going there, but gradually found myself preferring to exercise at home. I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to keep it up, and now go downstairs to my private ‘gym’ six days a week.

From talking with friends I realize that I’m not alone in this concern (I don’t want to call it an obsession, though it may well be). One friend is very involved with her yoga classes (three times a week) and regales me with the wonders of headstands and other similar contortions. Another is an ardent devotee of water aerobics (three times a week), while yet another swears by the ancient oriental practice of Chi-Kong, whatever that may be. Yet another swears by Zumba, the noisiest, sweatiest form of exercise I have ever encountered. There’s no accounting for tastes.

But you get the picture, don’t you? Here is a random cross-section of middle-aged (or even older) ladies who are all displaying admirable concern about their bodies. All those I’m thinking of are well over sixty (seventy, even in some cases), look good, are not overweight and seem to have all – or most – of their mental faculties intact.

When I think about the elderly aunts and acquaintances of my childhood my mental picture is of stout ladies whose appearance was less than appealing. Their faces were lined and tired, and this was definitely not from overwork, as most were from relatively comfortable backgrounds, though many of them had been widowed at a relatively early age.

These days we are inundated with data and information about how to stay healthy, what to eat, how important it is to exercise regularly and to take care of our bodies. I suppose all that propaganda must have got through to me, as it apparently has to others of my generation. And so, unlike our mothers and grandmothers, we are almost as concerned about our physical health and appearance as we were when we were teenagers, and are even prepared now to do something about it.

 

Election Fever: a Not Impartial View

 

Israel is due to hold a general election on April 9th, and polls are indicating that there might be a chance that Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud will not be forming the next government. I’ll probably be annoying a few readers by saying that it’s high time that Israel saw a change of government from the right-wing groups that have been running the country for more than a decade. For the first time in ages it looks as if a new centrist concatenation of politicians and former military commanders has a chance of unseating the cabal that has been running the country for far too long. Other polls show that this optimistic view may have been unfounded, however. We’ll have to wait until the actual election day (or night) to find out.

Each day fresh opinion polls upset the apple-cart, giving us new figures and ratios over which to puzzle out what any future coalition might look like. Over forty parties have registered to stand for election, and Israel’s proportional representation system of elections means that however the Knesset is formed it will always be necessary to set up combinations of parties in order to be able to gain a majority in the House. This means that all manner of fringe groups will be able to serve in the government, demanding positions of power involving budgets, appointments and various favours. This has created the stranglehold that the ultra-orthodox have managed to obtain in their alliance with the Likud, leading to the severe misallocation of funds, neglect of the national health system and the unequal burden of taxation and military service that is rampant in Israel today.

Bibi is under threat of legal proceedings for bribery and corruption and, like a cornered animal, he retaliates by lashing out at anyone and everyone he considers a threat to his continued control of power. So he has attacked the Attorney-General, the media, and above all the only party, the newly-formed ‘Blue and White,’ that seems to stand a chance of toppling him. Anyone holding views which in any normal country would be considered a legitimate political stance, namely, being on the left, is maligned by Bibi and his followers as a traitor. The people at the head of Blue and White are condemned on those grounds as well as being accused of having the nefarious intent of ‘overthrowing the government.’ But what could be more legitimate than having that as their aim?

Then, of course, there are the Arabs. They make up over twenty-percent of Israel’s population, are represented in the Knesset and have the right to vote. In the last general election Bibi wielded their perfectly legitimate participation in the election as a threat to Israel’s democracy, using it as his trump card in getting Likud voters to go and vote. This time, too, he is using the Arab vote as a weapon with which to threaten Israel’s electorate. What Bibi’s intentions are with regard to the Arab population, both within Israel and in the Territories, are unclear, though the fact that he has allied the Likud with the extremist ‘Power to Israel’ party of followers of Meir Kahane, who advocated the forcible expulsion of the Arabs, does not bode well for Israel’s democratic tradition.

The Labour party, which once dominated the elections, has been steadily losing support to Likud and today is expected to barely scrape into the Knesset. Although its aims and message have remained unchanged, and its candidates are experienced and accomplished parliamentarians, the fact that it does not have a charismatic leader means that it is unable to attract votes as it once did. This is a tragedy for those of us who still believe in its ideals and remember the seminal role it played in establishing the State of Israel and creating its democratic institutions. The seductive tones of right-wing rhetoric seem to have drowned out what I believe to be the voice of reason.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 It is with a mixture of relief, admiration and sadness that I come to the end of the fourth book in the author’s series of novels about contemporary life in Naples, and Italy in general. This last volume is long, intense, full of emotion – some might say too full of too much emotion – and takes the reader on a veritable roller-coaster of events. The narrative focuses primarily on the personal – the loves, betrayals, jealousies of the main characters—as well as those of the many incidental characters. But it also refers to the general, political and social situation in Italy as a whole. All this sometimes leaves the reader catching her breath, or gasping in surprise, at the wealth of detail, intensity of intimate emotions, and intellectual honesty with which every scene is depicted.

In addition, the writer (and presumably also the translator, Ann Goldstein) writes in an admirably articulate way. This could, if one were critical, be condemned as overly wordy, and ‘succinct’ is not a word that comes to mind in describing this and the other three books in the series, but the wordiness builds up to create an intensely detailed account of the lives, loves and loathings of the myriad characters who people the world we are drawn into when reading this book. Not all the characters are equally likeable, and many, if not most, of them are flawed in one way or another, but that only adds to the sense of reality and identification that the reader experiences.

To describe the plot would make it seem banal. The main characters fall in love, get married, have children, betray – and are betrayed by – their partners and friends, almost ad infinitum. The vagaries, quirks and foibles of both adults and children are described in great detail, with insights that will raise an echo in many readers’ minds as well as occasionally causing eyebrows to be raised in surprise, shock and even dismay. The detailed accounts of pregnancy and delivery, of infancy and childhood, relations between siblings and between parents and their offspring are often startling in their brutal honesty, sometimes tender to the point of being cloying, but always ring true to form. It is, of course, the relationships between the adult characters that are the main crux of the book.The tragedy hinted at in the book’s title is as devastating and all-consuming as anything I’ve ever read, and one cannot help identifying with the mother whose child is lost, even though she is not always portrayed sympathetically.

Underlying the various individual lives are the social and political currents and events that churn through twentieth-century Italy as a whole, so that the book’s focus moves away from the tiny neighbourhood in Naples where the first books are set to a much wider canvas. Here, too, emotions are rampant and nothing that takes place, whether locally or nationally, is irrelevant to the torrent of events, emotions and ideas that pour out of this book.

But above all, at least for this particular reader, the author’s honesty and openness about the dilemmas and decisions confronting her as a writer had a particular impact. Very few writers are prepared to share with their readers the vortex of mutually contradictory considerations involved in writing about individuals and societies or to face up to the reactions, and often opprobrium, that her writing arouses in those nearest and dearest to her.

So, from many points of view, this book succeeds in creating a credible world peopled by living, breathing individuals with whom the reader can identify and in whose lives we can share. That, after all, is the purpose of fiction, and in this Elena Ferrante has undoubtedly succeeded beyond all expectations.

Music: The Path to Progress

Not long ago I was privileged to attend a concert in a private home given by young musicians who are students at Jerusalem’s Hassadna Music Conservatory. Together with the rest of the audience, I was greatly impressed by their professional standard and aplomb. Some of the musicians were of Ethiopian background and displayed admirable technical skill and musicality, performing complex works – both classical and jazz – for a variety of instruments, playing  individually and in small ensembles.

The Hassadna Music Conservatory was founded in 1973 in the belief that all children are entitled to benefit from being able to enjoy music, and that the way to help children from deprived and underprivileged backgrounds to advance is through music,. The idea was to make musical education available to all children, irrespective of their physical or mental ability, socio-economic level, ethnicity or religious affiliation.

Now, forty years later, the institution is firmly established and has trained numbers of leading Israeli musicians. After many years of being housed in accommodation that was not always best suited to its task, the Conservatory is currently in the process of building its own dedicated structure. Since its inception the institution has employed first-rate musicians as its teaching staff, enabling youngsters from diverse backgrounds to benefit from an education that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

While I was preparing material for this article my cleaner, who is of Ethiopian origin, noticed the page with a picture of some of the pupils on my desk. He pointed to an Ethiopian youngster holding an oboe and said: “I know him. He’s the son of a friend of mine. He travels all over the world now.” Just one more illustration of the connection between the different groups living in Jerusalem and the Conservatory’s contribution to this.

The Conservatory now numbers 700 pupils aged from three to eighteen, representing the full range of Jerusalem’s religious, national and economic diversity. The staff comprises one hundred professionals, some of them born in Israel, others immigrants from various countries. They include concert artists, chamber musicians, established composers and members of Israel’s leading orchestras. Together they provide the careful guidance necessary to bring out the best in the gifted students, enabling them to achieve excellence and international acclaim.

In the framework of its pre-music track, the Conservatory undertakes an outreach programme for children in kindergarten and elementary school, seeking to expose very young children to the fundamentals of music – rhythmic movement, dance, singing and improvisation – as well as enabling them to experiment with a variety of instruments. The Conservatory has also introduced a programme called ‘Bridges of Light’ which offers youngsters with disabilities or special needs a course of study that is adapted to their abilities. All these children learn piano, and some also learn voice, as well as participating in activities with the rest of the students. The project has won national and international renown as one of the most successful programmes for children with special needs.

In fact, the Shalva Choir, consisting of children with special needs, was a leading contender for inclusion as Israel’s entry for the forthcoming Eurovision contest, to be held in Tel-Aviv, but eventually withdrew as some of its members are observant Jews and could not perform on Shabbat.

Many of Hassadna’s students have won prizes in Israeli and international competitions, and have been awarded scholarships to continue with their musical studies. Several have received the status of ‘Distinguished Musician’ from the IDF, enabling them to pursue their muical education while undertaking military service. The Conservatory’s orchestral ensembles have performed at music festivals in the USA and throughout Europe, winning prizes at several of them.

(This article first appeared in the March edition of the AJR Journal)

Two Colleges in Galilee

An acquaintance connected with the UK’s UIJA (United Israel Jewish Appeal) suggested that I write an article about the Western Galilee College for the AJR Journal (Association of Jewish Refugees), for which I write a monthly column entitled ‘Letter from Israel.’ The college, situated just outside the ancient city of Acre (Akko) in the north of Israel, was happy to set up a meeting for me with members of the administration and some of the students involved in special outreach projects, and so on a sunny winter’s day my OH and I set out on the two-hour drive to the north, passing emerald-green fields, pastures and hills that had benefited from this year’s bountiful rains.

After our meeting in Akko our personal inclination took us across the verdant countryside to another college, the Kinneret Academic College, which is situated in eastern Galilee and is where our grandson Gil is currently studying for his B.Sc. in Energy Engineering. After trying courses in Civil Engineering at other institutions, Gil settled for the innovative degree course in Energy Engineering that has recently been established at the Kinneret Academic College.

Gil had arranged an interview with the President of the college, Professor Shimon Gepstein, who has retired from his post as Professor of Biology at the Haifa Technion. The Kinneret college is certainly worthy of an article of its own, and I hope that in the not-too-distant future I’ll be able to write a report that does that institution justice.

In our meeting Professor Gepstein told us that many of the academic staff at the college are in fact retired academics from other institutions, and in this day and age it is important to find useful employment for people who are experts in their field and are eager to impart knowledge to the younger generation of students.

It was thrilling to be shown around the campus by Gil, and especially to visit its magnificent library (listed as one of the ten most beautiful buildings in Israel). It would be hard to find a setting more enchanting than the vista overlooking the Lake of Galilee. The college library, which was inaugurated in 2010, is built with windows that set off the view to perfection while letting in the light that irradiates the building’s open, wood-lined interior. Sponge mattresses have been placed along one interior wall on some of the wide wooden steps inside the building that go up to the top level, enabling students to take a rest when studying gets too much for them. If only I’d had something like that when I was at university! The ultra-modern library contains many thousands of volumes as well as an array of computers providing access to virtually all the academic research being conducted anywhere in the world.

Gil had also arranged for us to stay overnight in the guest house of Kibbutz Degania Bet, one of the first kibbutzim to be established in Israel, and we were accommodated in a comfortable room that was as spacious and well-equipped as any fancy hotel anywhere in the world. For dinner we had booked a table at the kibbutz restaurant named 1910 (the year the kibbutz was founded). Contrary to traditional kibbutz communal dining, this was a very elegant establishment with a menu based largely on the most exquisite Italian cuisine. For Gil and me it was a culinary delight, although my OH had difficulties finding a meal without cheese or cream that met his dietary requirements.

The time we spent with Gil was extremely enjoyable, including the nice things said to us about him by some of his colleagues and associates in the kibbutz and the college, where he works on a part-time basis.

As we drove home we felt elated at the thought that Gil is about to embark on a career in a field that is at the forefront of one the most pressing concerns of our modern world, one that is assuming ever-increasing importance. As the world finally wakes up to the fact that the subject of energy is one that will continue to preoccupy humankind in order to guarantee our future and that of our planet, it is becoming increasingly important to apply our minds and capabilities to overcoming the problems we are facing. I salute the Kinneret Academic College for focusing on one of the most crucial topics of our time.

 

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

 

The third of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels gives us a picture of Elena the chief protagonist as a mature – or almost mature – adult, who has completed her studies and graduated from the college in Pisa where she was awarded a scholarship that enabled her to study. She has a relationship with Pietro Airota, a brilliant young academic and the son of a distinguished scholar in Milan, and becomes engaged to him. Upon completing her studies Elena feels impelled to sit down and write, and the novel she produces in a short space of time is passed on to a publisher by her future mother-in-law, Adele, is published and achieves considerable success.

Defying her family’s traditions and wishes, the couple have a small wedding with only a civil ceremony, but Elena is surprised to find that Pietro’s parents have organized a grand reception in their home in Milan. However, the encounter between Pietro and Elena’s family in Naples goes well, and despite Elena’s misgivings they all seem to take a liking to one another.

Throughout the book, Elena is haunted by memories of her erstwhile relationship with Lina, a.k.a. Lila, her friend, and on impulse she goes to track her down in the modest apartment where she is living with her childhood admirer, Enzo, and her son from her failed marriage to Stefano Caracci. Lila, once the darling of the neighbourhood where the two girls grew up, is now employed in a sausage factory, where she is obliged to do menial work that is detrimental to her health and is exposed to sexual harassment by other workers and her boss.

Meanwhile Elena settles down to the comfortable life of a bourgeois housewife and mother married to an up-and-coming albeit boring academic. She goes on book tours and is surprised to find Nino, the young man whom she once idolized, speaking in her favour her at one of those meetings. Nino is now a respected academic, but is also periphelly involved in the political opposition that was ravaging Italy at the time. Elena finds herself drawn into the political and feminist movement, although remains aloof from activism. She does, however, write newspaper articles on the subject. She finds out that Lila is also drawn into quasi-revolutionary activity and gets into trouble with the authorities for writing a leaflet about conditions in the sausage factory.

As the years pass Elena is concerned with looking after her two little girls but feels frustrated at not being able to settle down to writing. She begins to interest herself in feminist matters, and eventually produces a booklet on the subject. Lila and Enzo have become computer programmers, and move back to the neighbourhood in Naples where they grew up, but are now prosperous. Altogether, as in the previous books in the series, there is too much agonizing, anguish and angst for my taste.

Elena grows increasingly dissatisfied with her life, and is overjoyed when Pietro brings Nino home for dinner one evening. One thing leads to another, of course, and Elena and Nino end up sleeping together, discovering that they have always really loved one another. Ultimately, Elena leaves her husband for Nino, and goes with him to attend a conference in Nanterre, France.

And that is where volume no. 3 ends. Let’s hope that the fourth and final volume ties all the ends together neatly and brings everything to a happy conclusion (though I doubt it).

Friendship

Elena Ferrante’s novels about her childhood in a run-down Naples neighbourhood and her life subsequently focus to a great extent on her friendship with Lina, a.k.a. Lila, the girl who dominated her life as a child and to some extent as an adult, too. The character of Lina is portrayed as a mixture of angel and demon, someone of great intelligence but also with a destructive and vengeful nature. The relationship between the two girls is one of love-hate and mutual fascination.

This led me to give some thought to my own experience of friendship, both as a child and as an adult. In childhood one’s friends play an important role as regards both one’s self-image and one’s sense of confidence. Until I was about ten years old my family lived in an impoverished part of London (which has since been gentrified) and my next-door neighbour was a girl of my own age, Jeannie. What was unusual for those days, soon after WWII, was the fact that she came from a large family and was the third of six siblings. We both spoke English, but she spoke as the local Cockneys did, whereas I spoke what I assume was the English I learned at school and from my parents (and the radio). Her family was Christian and mine was Jewish, and although my parents were refugees from Germany we two little girls were happy to skip rope and play ball together in the street outside our house or in our garden. Jeannie was smart and knew about all kinds of things that were alien to me, but despite the cultural gulf between us we understood one another and enjoyed one another’s company. My world became darker when her family was finally awarded a council house in another part of London and moved away. We visited one another desultorily after that, but the distance made such visits few and far between, and eventually they stopped. It never occurred to us to write to one another, and so over the years we have lost contact.

When I went to grammar school at the age of eleven I found a new friend, Diana, and we were very close throughout the six years of our school career. We came from similar backgrounds, lived just two stops away from one another on the tube (on what was then the Bakerloo line and is now the Jubilee line), and would go to our respective homes together, and then spend hours on the phone to one another. We went to different universities, and when Diana got married at a very young age (almost like Lila in Ferrante’s book) our lives diverged radically. We both moved to Israel later, but to different parts of the country and in different circumstances. When the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967 Diana was in England visiting her family, and decided to remain there. Our lives diverged but we remained in contact through snail mail. It was always a red-letter day for me when an envelope in Diana’s unmistakable handwriting arrived in our letterbox. But life took over, gradually the letters became fewer and eventually stopped. Today we don’t even communicate by email. But when either of us visited the country where the other one was living we would see each other, although the closeness of earlier times was never recaptured. We still remain very fond of one another, however (at least I am of her).

The friends we acquire in adult life tend to assume a less prominent role in one’s consciousness, and although I feel I do have some very good and close women friends with whom I can share the things that concern me, the intimacy of one’s childhood and youth cannot be recaptured. Maybe that’s just an indication that I’m finally growing up, but without those friends I know my life would be impoverished.

 

Jours Parisiens (Parisian Days) by Banine

This book (published [in French] by Gris Banal in 1990) is the sequel to the memoir the author wrote a few years earlier about her childhood and youth in Azerbaijan, and which ends with her flight to Paris and desertion of the husband she was forced to marry while still in her teens. I reviewed her previous book, ‘Jours Caucasiens,’ a few months ago, and it, too, was lent to me by my kind next-door neighbor.

Banine’s delight at finally finding herself in Paris, the city of her dreams, and joy in being reunited with her sisters and father is soon superseded by the need to work in order to support herself. The jewels and precious objects the family had been able to salvage when their wealth was confiscated by the Soviets were all sold off to pay the rent and buy food, so that now each member had to make his or her own way in life.

The author describes the existence of the thousands, if not millions, of refugees from Russia and the Soviet satellites who found refuge in Paris after the Revolution. The detailed analysis of this new diaspora portrays a sad picture of displaced persons forced to leave their home and struggle to make ends meet, after having lived in comfort if not luxury. Many of them had no professional training and were quite unequipped for life in a modern city. Russian night-clubs sprang up throughout Paris, and former members of the Russian military and aristocracy found themselves eking out an existence as dancers, singers, or circus entertainers. The fact that there were some forty thousand Russian taxi-drivers in Paris is testament to the dire situation in which many found themselves. Some of them were former officers and soldiers in the White Army, which had been defeated by the Bolsheviks. Among the latter, I might add on a personal note, was Viktor Savinkov, the man who later met and married my aunt, Ilse van Son, and thus became my uncle. His brother, Boris Savinkov, whom I did not know, was persuaded by the Soviet authorities to return to Russia, and met his death at their hands.

But to return to Banine (who peppers her narrative with expressions of this kind); we find that despite her own sense of not meeting Parisien standards of beauty, she is employed as a mannequin or model by the fashion houses of the city, and is able to support herself on the meagre salary she receives. She describes the other models she encounters, deriding their obsessive concern with money, lovers and sex. Her life consists of a mixture of the luxurious clothes she is required to put on in order to parade before wealthy customers (whom she hates) and the miserable living conditions she is forced to endure.

Her life takes a turn for the better with the arrival in Paris of her cousin, Gulnar, with whom she had played as a child. Gulnar is pretty and vivacious and has a wealthy lover, enabling her to rent a large apartment and bring Banine to live with her. The life of the two young women is dominated by Gulnar’s affairs, the relations with the various young and not-so-young men who appear and disappear, the parties they attend and the night-clubs they frequent. One of Banine’s sisters has married a painter, and so we are given a glimpse into the bohemian life of Paris in the 1920s, many of the artists being themselves Russian emigrés. Gulnar and Banine benefit from the platonic friendship of Jerome, a very knowledgeable young man who instructs them in literature and cultural matters, takes them to the races and introduces them to interesting people, among them the man who eventually becomes Banine’s lover.

The book ends with Gulnar’s marriage to a wealthy American and departure for the USA, leaving Banine lonely and miserable until she decides to find consolation in writing.

 

The Second Generation Syndrome

 Growing up in postwar London I never heard the term ‘Second Generation,’ nor was I aware of it until many years later. In Israel at some point in the 1960s or 1970s there was a discussion, possibly even an argument, as to whether people who had fled Europe before, during or even after the Second World War could be considered Holocaust survivors if they had not actually been incarcerated in a concentration camp. Once that debate was settled, anyone whose life had started somewhere in Europe or Russia (or even North Africa in some cases) and had been obliged to wander as a result of Nazi persecution was officially defined as a Holocaust survivor. Their offspring became known as the Second Generation.

My parents were refugees from Germany, and although they – thankfully – did not experience a concentration camp themselves, their lives were completely disrupted and they experienced terrible personal loss as a result of Nazi persecution. Nonetheless they, like their friends and acquaintances, went on to live active and productive lives, and as a child I was not aware of the dark cloud that must have overshadowed their life. It was not until much later that I learned that both my parents had experienced Kristallnacht, and that my mother would often cry out and  scream in her sleep.

As a child I was very conscious of the fact that my parents spoke English with a foreign accent. Since I must have been a very nasty child, I remembering laughing at them with my sisters for that. In that respect, however, I felt that my parents were no different from most of their friends and associates, many of whom were themselves refugees. Some of their friends’ children were my friends, and we all found it perfectly normal for our parents to speak with a foreign accent. What did bother me as a child, however, was the absence of a grandparent, and I managed to persuade one of my father’s elderly cousins to let me call her ‘Auntie Grannie.’

I went to a Jewish primary school, an all-girls’ grammar school and belonged to a Zionist youth movement. I mixed with young people like myself, some of whose parents were born in England and others who were not, but it never occurred to me to ask about their parents’ origins. It’s true that most of my friends at school and university were Jewish, but I prided myself on also having friends of the non-Jewish persuasion.

When I realised that I was a member of the second generation, namely, that I belonged to a group that I hadn’t known existed, I acquired a new sense of identity, which I gladly accepted. I found that in many ways it defined who I was, and it led me to explore this situation in articles as well as in my first two novels. In fact, by now my awareness of what my parents and that whole generation went through has come to inform much of my thinking and writing. I have even been accused of allowing it to dominate my consciousness excessively. I suppose that there is more than a grain of truth in that, but I am happy to accept it as an intrinsic aspect of my being.