Love and Treasure
By Ayelet Waldman
Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95
A historical novel, the Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács argued, should reach only as far backwards as the era of the author’s grandparents. That is because novelists build not balanced panoramas, but rather individual portraits. Real human beings are unrealistic, because they are improbably idiosyncratic. Only contact with witnesses gives writers the thick detail they need to make the zany plausible. As Holocaust survivors die, this problem becomes acute for its would-be literary chroniclers. In 2004, a little over a million survivors were living, and that number has steadily dwindled. Witnesses are particularly crucial in the case of the Holocaust, artistic representations of which have often seemed suspect; the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once denounced Holocaust art as turning “the Passion of Passions… into the vanity of an author.” Survivors not only feed the writer’s imagination but also morally authorize it.
This dilemma may also explain the title of “Love and Treasure,” Ayelet Waldman’s new novel, which tells its Holocaust story via precious trinkets. The novel follows an enameled pendant necklace backwards in time, from contemporary New York to pre-World War I Budapest. In between, the necklace travels on the Hungarian Gold Train, a real-life Nazi stash of plundered Jewish property shipped from Budapest to Berlin. On the way, the train’s contents were seized by Americans; they were rarely returned to their owners. The pendant does heavy literary lifting for Waldman, binding the novel’s stories and giving them a patina of historicity. Here, unique works of art and rare luxury goods serve to encode specificity and authenticity. And since gold matures better than flesh, watches and paintings can be drafted to substitute, however unsatisfactorily, for survivors.
The result is an archeological novel, whose several sections are built around the mysterious pendant. Natalie, a New York lawyer whose marriage has recently imploded, is charged to return the pendant by her dying grandfather, Jack Wiseman. Jack, a retired classics professor, purloined it in his youth from the Gold Train, which he had been guarding as an American Army officer in the wake of World War II. But unlike the thieving Americans soldiers he commands and his unscrupulous superiors, Jack is not motivated by greed. The pendant is his only memento of Ilona Jakab, a beautiful and stormy camp survivor whom he loved.
Jack’s international romance offers Natalie an escape from her sordid divorce, and transports her, as it did her grandfather, from assimilated America into the drama and debts of Jewish history. This is an old plot, and intentionally or not, Jack Wiseman is a rewriting of Philip Roth’s Nathan Marx, a similarly erudite and indifferently Jewish officer who is torn, near the end of World War II, between Jewish and American loyalties. Due to his involvement in a Zionist smuggling expedition, at times Jack can also resemble Bruce Sutherland, the lukewarm quasi-Jewish soldier in Leon Uris’s “Exodus.” In all these plots, the American (or, in “Exodus,” nominally British) Jewish naif takes a European grand tour, experiencing his people’s sorrows and losing his innocence of history.
“Love and Treasure” nestles this plot among several others, all breezily engaging but not all convincing. In the present, Natalie turns to Amitai Shasho, a cynical Israeli art dealer. A Simon Wiesenthal with a profit motive, Amitai specializes in the lucrative business of restoring artwork with dubious Holocaust histories to its rightful owners. Amitai is conveniently searching for an expressionist painting involving a peacock-headed woman (the pendant is also shaped like that bird), and even more conveniently, he too is divorced, world-weary, and seeking renewal. Amitai and Natalie fit together like the handcrafted gears of the priceless watches on the Gold Train — which is to say, completely mechanically. A romance of clichés (“How could she know that he always felt most comfortable among the uncomfortable, most at home among the homeless?”) unfolds, told in Waldman’s clunky idiom (“Though Amitai was not vain about his good looks, neither was he averse to taking advantage of the power conferred by them”).
The book’s weakest section is its last, which presents the pendant’s early history in 1913 Budapest via a psychoanalyst who — this passes for irony — takes an unhealthy, prurient interest in his patient, Nina S. Nina, who has been sent to analysis by her bourgeois Jewish parents to exorcise her of feminism, encourage a proper marriage and rid her of radical associates. These last include a suffragist dwarf, whose improbable friendship with Nina, shattered by history, is remembered only through the convenient relic of the pendant. Needless to say, the ersatz Freud fails in his cure, and his narrative voice fails as well. Waldman’s historical research is barely buried. No one pauses mid-reminiscence to note, for instance, the percentage of Jews among prewar, Hungarian psychoanalysts. But the author’s contempt for the doctor is even closer to the surface. A creepy, assimilated European Jew self-satisfied with a world about to collapse, he can be beaten with all the clubs of hindsight.
Hindsight often threatens to ruin historical novels, and the danger increases when the author crosses the “grandparent gap.” We easily condescend to the mute. I have further misgivings about the novel’s marriage of historical tragedy to contemporary romance. Even in non-Jewish grand tour novels, like Henry James’s classics, the American ingénue is supposed to leave Europe chastened and deepened by tragedy, not happily married. All the more so when genocide is involved.
There is vague indecency in juxtaposing the death camps with Amitai’s luxury hotel, replete with “the most beautiful swimming pool he had ever had the privilege of enjoying.” Assimilated to the novel’s easy pleasures, Waldman’s pendant glitters and cracks like a tourist’s souvenir.
Raphael Magarik studies English and Jewish literature at the University of California, Berkeley.