Tags: natasha solomons


Upstairs, Downstairs

If you want to get published, write a story about a country house, preferably a decaying one. If you can bring in the Second World War, so much the better. I’ve just read two such. One is so bad it was in constant danger of being flung across the room in disgust (shocking editing, misplaced sentiment). The kindest thing is to say nothing about it. The other is just as good as I’d hoped and it’s The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons. I enjoyed her first book, Mr Rosenblum’s List but this is better.

Elise Landau is the daughter of cultured, assimilated Jews living in Vienna; her mother Anna an opera singer, her father Julian a writer. Whatever it may say on the book cover, she is not ‘a bright young thing’, just a bourgeoise, used to living in comfort with a loving family. After the Anschluss her parents make plans. Elise’s married sister is to go to California, where her husband has been offered a university post. Anna and Julian are headed for America too, when their visa comes through. Elise will go to England as a domestic servant. One day they will all meet up in New York.

Elise’s quirky job application has caught the eye of Mr Rivers, a Dorset squire, and so Elise, with her poor English and even worse domestic skills, finds herself at Tyneford. This is based on the real Tyneham, now a ghost village, which you can read about here and here. At first she is desperately homesick for the cocoon of Vienna (that kindly old Vienna you find in Eva Ibbotson’s books). Gradually she gets used to her new life in an English country manor house and even falls in love. But that visa never comes through and she thinks constantly of her parents and sister.

If you’ve followed the links, you know what became of Tyneham/Tyneford. That loss is a metaphor for all the other losses: of home, family and love. The book is one long ache of loss yet manages to be sad without being entirely depressing. The Dorset countryside and coast is lovingly and accurately described, an extra bonus for me. I read on because I wanted to know what happened but at the same time didn’t want to finish. It’s impossible not to want things to turn out well for Elise and she does make a new life, very different from the future she may have imagined when she was a young girl. What makes this especially poignant is that many of her generation are still alive; they might be the parents of Jewish girls I knew at school, people who were born German or Austrian and brought up their daughters to be English.

There’s a little promotional video on Amazon. It makes Elise look like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, IMO, but there you go.

Mr Rosenblum’s List

I seem to be reading a lot lately about immigrants, exiles and Jewish people. I’ve already posted about The Education of Hyman Kaplan. While searching in vain for How to be an Alien by George Mikes, which I thought would fit well with my other current reading, I found The Return of Hyman Kaplan, which I’d forgotten I had. So I’m reading that and also Our Street by Gilda O’Neill, an account of East End life during the Second World War. I very much enjoyed her My East End but this one is less successful IMO and I’ll write about it when it’s finished.

Now for Mr Rosenblum’s List by Natasha Solomons. As so often, I’m at odds with the blurb writers. ‘Hilarious’; ‘very funny’, they say. Amusing and terribly sad, I say. Jack Rosenblum leaves Germany in 1937 with his wife Sadie and baby daughter Elizabeth. Not all the family is so lucky. While Sadie constantly looks back and cannot rid herself of the sadness of loss, Jack is incurably optimistic and sets about becoming an English gentleman. This isn’t easy when you’re five foot three, with a ‘Kraut’ name and a schnoz but Jack is a very determined man. He quickly makes a lot of money manufacturing carpets and sets about spending it on becoming as English as possible. Working his way through the List, he decides that playing golf will lead to true integration but as a Jew he can’t get into any clubs, all of which are mysteriously full up when he applies for membership. What can you do? He decides to build his own golf course.

Without a word to his long-suffering wife, he sells their London house right over her head and buys a ramshackle cottage in Dorset with sixty acres of land which could hardly be less suitable for a golf course. This dogged determination to achieve a goal against all the odds is bound to remind one of Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I have to say that Torday’s book is better but that doesn’t make this one any less enjoyable. The rest of the story is set in Dorset (an added charm for me, of course) in the early 1950s and tells of Jack’s struggle to build a course in time for the Coronation. After initial suspicions, the locals make ‘Mr Rose-in-Bloom’ one of them. He works like a slave, in spite of sadness over his wife’s refusal to cheer up and the Englishness of his daughter. It’s what he wanted, a beautiful English daughter, but even he is disappointed when she changes her name.

The trials of building the course are heart-breaking at times, as is an accident to Sadie which shows Jack how much he really loves her. Any more would be a spoiler. I did enjoy the book, particularly the lyrical descriptions of rural Dorset, which the author knows well. It’s really about two vanished pasts: what poor Sadie calls before and an English country way of life which has also pretty well disappeared. If I have a criticism it is that the mixture of sad fact (Jews driven out of Germany; Helpful Information and Guidance for Every Refugee and what that meant) and the story of one man and his crazed mission doesn't quite meld. I’d still put it down as a life-enhancing book.