Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Review: Memoirs of an Anti-Semite
I admit that part of the reason Memoirs of an Anti-Semite appealed to me was because I thought it would raise my library cred and make me seem erudite and worldly and classy. It has all the criteria I look for in a "brainy book." An interesting title. An original premise. An eloquent voice. Memorable characters. Symbolism. It is definitely a library cred book. And, had I understood any of it, I would feel really smart right now.
Have you ever read a book and felt wildly, completely lost? The kind of lost where you are frantically reading, hoping comprehension will dawn, but it does not? That is how this book felt for me. I must admit that I am not as intelligent a reader as I sometimes like to believe.
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is a novel in "five psychologically fraught episodes" that meander through the narrator's life, starting just after WWI and ending in 1980. The narrator is from what used to be the Ottoman Empire but is now part of Austria. Each episode of the book centers around the narrator's relationship with someone Jewish or with the idea of "Jewishness." The narrator isn't a Nazi, but his casual comments about Jews and how different they are and how their "true nature" comes out make clear that he is anti-Semitic.
I appreciated that the author wrote these stories from the perspective of a "normal person." The narrator is part of the faded gentry. You can see him become more nationalistic as he grows, and more set in his ways. Perhaps if the people around him had been different, or a few things had gone the other way, he would not have grown into the person he became. But... those were the people and experiences he had in his life. This book explored, subversively, just how Nazism could take hold to the extent it did. How? Because most people were too busy doing other things to notice just how much control the government had over their lives and thoughts. By the time the narrator woke up to the environment around him, he was so inured to it that he didn't find it extreme or frightening.
My favorite chapter was the third one, which was originally published on its own in The New Yorker. It's called Troth and it follows the narrator through a deep friendship with a Jewish neighbor in the 1930s. He offers to marry this neighbor to save her from the Nazis, even as he makes clear he despises her religion and thinks her below him. Thus, we have the sticky and very dangerous situation of believing religion and class are intertwined. And yet, things come full circle. After the war, when the narrator is destitute and poor in the ruin that is Germany, his Jewish friend and her circle give him help in England, where they have gone and thrived.
Just like Archie Bunker of All in the Family fame, the narrator of this story was "conventionally" racist and bigoted so that a discussion about important themes could ensue. I love that premise- taking hate, turning it on its head, and exploiting it to teach tolerance. And because I love the premise so much, I expended a lot of effort in reading this book. What do you do when you feel so strongly positive about a book's message, but just cannot get past the opaque language? Well, if you're me, you stubbornly refuse to give up and continue slogging in the quicksand.
What can I say? That I recommend this book to really, really literarily intelligent people? Or that I think it's worth the trouble? I am happy I made it through to the end, though I admit to a strong feeling of not having got as much out of it as I was supposed to. It was difficult to read such dense internal monologue, though the parts I did understand were so, so good!
This review is part of the Spotlight Series tour for NYRB Classics! See the full schedule here.