The Jewish Husband

August 25th, 2009 by EVENTS

The Jewish Husband by Lia Levi; trans by Anthony Shugaar

In a 1921 letter to his friend Max Brod, Franz Kafka compared the position of the Jewish writer writing in German to the distressed position of an animal. “With their posterior legs they were still glued to their father’s Jewishness and with their waving anterior legs, they found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration.” It is certainly that despair, that suspension between ethnic Otherness and impossible assimilation, that inspired Lia Levi’s 2001 novel, The Jewish Husband, recently translated into English by Anthony Shugaar.

In Ms. Levi’s novel, the unfortunate individual who embodies that despair is Dino Carpi, the scion of a relatively well-off family of Italian-Jewish hoteliers in Mussolini’s Italy. Dino considers himself to be a Jew only “twice a year,” and, at best, a “disapprovant” of the Fascist regime, for whom “nothing or almost nothing that Mussolini and his acolytes were doing met with my approval, if nothing else in terms of taste and intelligence, but my disapproval did not pass the threshold of commitment and action.” As a result, when Dino falls in love with the beautiful Sonia Gentile, the fact that she is the daughter of a devout Catholic and Fascist family makes no difference to him, even when their marriage is allowed only on the condition that he agrees to forever keep his Jewish origins a secret. Dino’s desire to marry Sonia – who never becomes more than a wisp of a character – seems based less on Sonia herself then a stubborn insistence that love ought to conquer all, a philosophical experiment akin to Raskolnikov’s murder. “Passion is what brings us closest to God, and it’s what persuades even the greatest doubters that God exists,” Dino argues, trying to explain his willingness to sacrifice his identity for his love.

But the reader is well aware that, particularly at that time and place, Dino’s assimilationist experiment is doomed. It is clear to Dino as soon as he sits down to dinner with the Gentile family:

There I sat, like a boarding school student who felt a moral obligation to construct a sense of homesickness; there I sat imagining myself back at Aunt Esterina’s dinner table…No one eating dinner at Aunt Esterina’s house would ever need to ask: ‘Who are you talking about?’ Every character who appeared in a conversation had certainly already been abundantly introduced, presented, described, and discussed in every aspect of his or her appearance and personality during those long dinners. What did these comparisons of extended families have to do with my present situation, especially in connection with events that never meant much of anything to me?…I have no other explanation except for the hypothesis of an attempted sabotage by my increasingly quarrelsome subconscious.

Like Kafka’s Jewish writer, Dino is never able to shake his Jewish identity. He returns to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, without knowing quite why. He inexplicably, unnecessarily registers himself as a Jew under the new Fascist race laws, simply because he “didn’t want to lie.” And he is never fully accepted by the Gentile family, who treat him with a cold politeness generally accorded to an unwelcome guest. As the situation for Jews in Fascist Italy becomes more and more dangerous, Dino’s precarious position in limbo between two identities becomes less and less tenable, leading to a tragedy that is all too predictable.

The Jewish Husband is not without its flaws. The novel runs out of gas near the end, and a twist in the last third of the novel comes off as a bit ham-fisted, a bit melodramatic. It also occasionally falls victim to that typical Continental weakness for overheated, Sturm-und-Drang proclamations: “A tragedy becomes an even greater tragedy when life manages to strike down a winner, an inherently victorious soul.” Also, the theme of Jews struggling with the issue of assimilation is not one that would be in any way new or unfamiliar to an American audience.

Yet The Jewish Husband has a new perspective on the well-worn issue of assimilation; the perspective of the Jews of Italy, home of the original ghettoes. The Jewish Husband is ultimately less a novel about Jews or the Holocaust and more a novel about ghettoization and the costs of separateness, whether it is the forced separation of one ethnic group from another or the voluntary separation of one’s self from one’s society. It is a novel about the tragic collision of individual idealism and the realities of a cruel world which has no place for it. At one point, Dino accuses Sonia’s eccentric cousin Gherardo of being a “sentimentalist.” In response, Gherardo laughs. “Who can say? Human degradation knows no limits.” A sentiment which Kafka and his Jewish writer surely would have understood.

Reviewed by Dylan Suher

The Jewish Husband by Lia Levi; trans by Anthony Shugaar
Europa Editions, 2009
Paper, 176pp, $15.00
ISBN-10: 1933372931

Posted in Reviews

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