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April 2014
Norman Mailer in Synagogue
The best writer of his generation addresses the pews.

Seeing Shlomo
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Where There's Smoke
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Learning to Pray
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Outsider Art
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Dave van Ronk
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My Father's Blessing
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Visiting Rose
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The Crushing Sadness of the Road Not Taken
The meaning of your experience may come years later.

In "modern times," it seems to have become pandemic for people's life paths to be hidden from them, as if instead of purposefully sailing toward a destination, they drift down a river, waiting to find out where they'll next dock - or get beached. So many people now wind up living in places, working at jobs, subscribing to philosophies they would never have believed would one day constitute the garments of their lives - and then some of them cast themselves loose yet again, go back on the river, looking for the next mooring.

It sounds like Tom and Huck in what is not coincidentally one of the key novelistic models of "modern times." (Lowbrow culture has compressed the philosophy into a bumper sticker's infallible wisdom: Life is what happens to you while you're looking the other way.)

Either way you state it, there you are - it's your life, and not necessarily a bad one, yet it's something of both a wonder and a sadness to you, because even though you know you chose it, you still can't quite figure out how you got there.

Something like that happens to the central character in Linda Grant's novel When I Lived in Modern Times. In 1947, Evelyn Sert, a young British Jew, sails to Palestine in order to - well, it's not completely clear just why. Because she's been brought up as a Zionist, because she's 21 years old and on her own, because she thinks she'll find it interesting, because she wants to see what happens next. It's no wonder that the narrative meanders along without exactly stating where it's taking us. This is partly a story about unclear identity and lack of plans.

Evelyn grew up with her mother, mistress to a Jewish businessman whose "second family" they became. To get to Palestine at a time when the British authorities are keeping Jews out, she pretends to be a Christian pilgrim. Once in Palestine, a Jew again, she goes to a kibbutz, where she learns first-hand about hard work and free love, which together constitute the kibbutz ideology for building the "new Jew" in a utopian society.

When she gets bored with that, she settles in Tel Aviv. With the Jews in her building, she gossips and discusses Zionism; with a circle of British acquaintances, who know her as a Christian surnamed Jones, she reminisces about England and discusses literature. These Brits are all genteel anti-Semites ("It would be a lovely country if there were completely different people in it"), and she knows them as her enemies, yet she often finds them more sympathetic than the sharp Jews in her apartment building who so vigilantly look after their own interests and ideologies.

As the daughter in a "second family" (and maybe as a Diaspora Jew, as well), leading a double life feels almost natural to Evelyn. In Tel Aviv, she falls in love with Johnny, a British-born Palestinian Jew who served in the British army and is now an Irgun operative. He provides her with a passport bearing her other name, just in case, and she passes him information about her British acquaintances, which the Irgun uses for kidnapping one of them.

When one of Evelyn's British friends, a police inspector, begins to suspect her, Johnny moves her into hiding outside the city, then disappears. She discovers that she is pregnant by him and, soon after, she reads in the newspaper that he has been arrested and sentenced to death by the British. Lost and adrift, she makes her way back to Tel Aviv to "watch for myself the collapse of the British Empire."

Among the British troops pulling out, the police inspector, who by now knows Evelyn's whole story, sees her and forces her - or she lets herself be forced - into his car, to be taken to the airport and flown back to Britain. In England, she meets by chance and, taking care of herself at last, very calculatedly seduces and marries a protective, solid German Jew.

And that's the novel, up to the last 20 pages. It's always readable and interesting, but not that interesting, really. The characters are well drawn but perhaps a bit broad. Our vague-headed heroine remains distant from and not too savvy about the great historical events that are molding her life. Despite its competence, one feels surprised that this novel, the author's second, won Britain's prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction. (Grant, well known in Britain as a journalist, is also the author of "Remind Me Who I Am, Again," an account of her mother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease.)

But then comes the end. Most novels get worse toward their finale, as authors struggle to tie ends together and often, despite themselves, thin out their writing just to get the damn thing done. But "Modern Times" moves along an opposite current, and manages something in its last pages that vivifies and justifies all that has come before.

Fifty years later, an elderly widow, Evelyn returns to Tel Aviv, the "white city," to find it soiled and ugly now, an "eyesore" with hotels blocking the sea view. She has had a successful marriage and two children, the older of whom - Johnny's child - died in boyhood. Overall, she judges her life a success - "a life not a love affair;" a partnership - even though "all those years, after I had been turned back on the brink of the great homecoming, mine was a heart in exile, a heart that is thwarted." Though she claims to be satisfied, she emanates a crushing sadness of missed opportunities, of the more passionate road not taken.

Johnny, she learns, lives somewhere in the city, too - married, his heroism forgotten in a new era that doesn't want to think about "the dirty work," bewildered by the ordinary fate that has befallen him, and of course lost to her forever, a lifetime away. A neighbor who has survived from the old days explains to Evelyn that the "white city" is so dirty now because the "tenant-protection law" left landlords with no money to maintain their buildings. "It was a correct idea," she instructs her, "but it had consequences which we did not foresee."

Her remark may be the author's caption, 50 years later, to the Zionist enterprise as a whole, as well as to her heroine's life or to the life of anyone who drifts until seizing, or falling into, a path. In the end, an entire life's story, composed of many small and apparently random events, becomes immutable and clear - and then, at last, we can comprehend both its lonely courage and its tragedy.

First published in The Jerusalem Report, April 23, 2001.

First published in The Jerusalem Report, April 23, 2001.

 
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