What we do for love is a theme constantly explored through art and literature. Lia Levi's remarkable novel, The Jewish Husband, explores love in a most memorable way – showing the worst and best of sacrifice and self-denial in the name of love. Set in the turmoil of 1930's Fascist Rome, it's a dramatic story, told in an unusual way.
Dino Carpi's parents own a small, beautiful hotel, Albergo della Magnolia, in Rome. Here, on New Year's Eve, Dino comes to the aid of a young woman who has fallen and broken her leg while dancing in the ballroom. Seeing her lying on the floor, hurt and vulnerable, he is immediately smitten.
Dino transforms the event into a fairy-tale scene, with him as rescuer and Sonia as a mythical beauty awaiting her prince. Indeed, the reader is constantly seduced into a world of magical buildings, Romeo and Juliet separations and fairy-tale descriptions. (“In her luminescent grey and silver evening gown she looked like a mermaid caught in a net, struggling for survival.”)
But Dino is no prince. He's an unambitious scholar, devoted to Pindar, lacking the motivation to take the exams to allow him to move up to teaching high school students. And he is Jewish. Sonia's family is Catholic, her father an important banker and well-connected supporter of Mussolini.
These obvious impediments to marriage only heighten the theatrics of Dino's yearnings (“I wanted Sonia, whatever the cost.”) A solution is offered (or ordered) by Sonia's father, Giuseppe Gentile (yes, Dino is marrying into a family named Gentile). He suggests that the couple have a Pauline marriage, whereby the non-Catholic partner promises to raise future children in the Catholic faith. But Sonia's father demands even more: that Dino reveal to no one in their circle that he is Jewish, and moreover that their future children also remain ignorant of their father's Jewish background. Dino agrees.
After all, he argues to his cousin, Reuben (names matter in this novel), he, Dino, is only a “twice-a-year” Jew (Yom Kippur and Passover) while Sonia's family is defined by their Catholicism. “It was understandable that of the two of us, the one with less at stake would be willing to yield.”
The novel's simplistic fairy-tale approach starkly reveals the horror of Dino's acquiescence. The author, Lia Levy, makes her feelings clear: There is no worse betrayal than that of oneself. Romantic love is no excuse, unless one is living a fairy tale. The author also makes it obvious that Dino's life, first cushioned by his childhood hotel existence and then by the wealth and romance of the Gentile family, can't hide the inevitability of his Jewishness.
After the initial light touch of the opening of the novel, the story turns to harrowing reality as the Fascist regime imposes its restrictions on the Jews of Rome. This leads to a perfect contradiction – one last act of self-denial, one last heroic abnegation for love, and in this act Dino Carpi retrieves what he has lost.
Following his final painful decision, he flees to Israel, taking his parents with him. Here he becomes David Katz and rebuilds himself, as a man and as a Jew, initially living on a kibbutz, then as a soldier celebrating the triumph of the Six-Day war and finally, once again as a teacher. Yom Kippur features prominently in the novel, so it is no surprise that the end of the story brings us to themes of atonement.
The Jewish Husband is written in a confessional epistolary form. It is directed at an unnamed recipient, but the reader soon suspects who that might be. Here, in the writing of this “letter” and in his devotion to Israel, Dino finds redemption. The narrative itself is an act of atonement.
The Jewish Husband won the Moravia Prize for fiction and is beautifully translated from the Italian by Antony Shugar. It is a deceptively complex novel: a meditation on love and its folly, a glimpse at personal lives within the inexorability of history, a study of identity and sacrifice, and a satisfying tale of redemption.
by Cynthia Good