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Bookslut: "Fascism is about the individual and the government's attempt to control her or him..."

Date: Sep 24 2009

Fascism is about the individual and the government's attempt to control her or him, but it's also about crowds -- military parades, hordes of brown shirts, the masses coaxed and directed in service of the state, minority groups afraid of what may lie ahead. It is strange, then, that Lia Levi's novel The Jewish Husband is cognizant of, but removed from, the realities of 1930s fascist Italy, yet lays claim to its lessons.

The Jewish Husband is about Dino Carpi, a young classics teacher living in Rome with his family, who run a moderately upscale hotel. Dino and his parents are Jewish, a fact that, when the novel opens in 1930, seems inconsequential, as Dino tells the reader that he only feels Jewish a couple times a year, on major holidays. But when Dino falls in love with Sonia Gentile (that is her last name), who belongs to a family of upper class, devout Catholics, his religious background becomes a problem. He agrees to a painful compromise with Sonia's father, Giuseppe Gentile, in which he agrees to suppress all traces of his Jewish background in order to marry Sonia. He will also raise their children Catholic. It's not what Dino -- or his rather accommodating parents -- would prefer, but it seems to be an acceptable deal to make for love.

The novel is written in the form of letters from Dino to an unknown recipient. Except for Dino's occasional references to the epistolary form or to his style of narration, this is a largely straightforward, realist book. We know from the beginning that Dino and his parents survived the war, but that at some point they ended up in Israel. There, Dino joins a kibbutz, works in the fields, and later becomes a teacher once again, living in an apartment near the sea. It is from this position, alone, mournful, reflective, that he writes letters to someone from his past.

Dino does not feel strongly political, unlike his cousin Ruben, an outspoken, passionate man, but the young teacher is aware of what's going on throughout his country and of Mussolini's growing relationship with Hitler. Bothered by those "who cheered the Fascists on," he counts himself among those who "managed to glimpse the invisible and insidious web that seemed to be slowly covering our everyday lives, while a faint haze of the ridiculous descended over everything, a ridiculous that gradually turned into something grotesque." Unknown to Dino, the grotesque also lives within him, in the unnatural compromise he accepts, a deal that causes Ruben, for a time, to turn away from his cousin who has abandoned his Judaism. (The scene in which Ruben, with a mix of restrained anger and pity, confronts Dino is one of the novel's best -- understated, dramatic, tension-filled.)

Unfortunately for this book, Dino remains self-absorbed for too long, practically up until the moment he decides to flee Italy. He is an honest man, if somewhat immature, content to be in love, to devote himself to teaching and to his translations of the ancient Greek lyric poet Pindar. Dino is also a decent character -- though not as interesting as Ruben or Sonia's sister Lorenza, who, unlike Sonia, is strong enough to defy her family. But besides some powerful exchanges with Ruben and Gherardo, the well-drawn bon vivant cousin of the Gentile family, Dino is frustratingly reclusive. He really doesn't do much. He mostly shuttles back and forth between his family's hotel and the Gentiles' posh Via Borgelli apartment. He attends dinners, walks around, and considers his love for Sonia or, later, how he misses his family. In one scene, after Italy adopts oppressive race laws, he is blocked from his job and told he is no longer welcome at the school. But that is one of the few windows we are offered into a fascistic country spinning towards all-out war. Instead, all of the interesting insights and activities seem to belong to others and are only alluded to or mentioned briefly.

Dino's parents quickly place the hotel in control of their non-Jewish maitre d'; Gherardo bounds around Italy in fast cars, overseeing his affairs and purchasing high-priced art; Ruben and Lorenza become involved in a clandestine anti-fascist group, while Giuseppe Gentile, Lorenza and Sonia's father, appears to have powerful fascist connections; Dino's father takes in strange characters who seem to be refugees from other parts of Europe, shambling, quiet figures, confined to the shadows. Subtlety is a virtue, but some of these anecdotes should be expanded into larger set pieces that would allow Levi, a writer of obvious skill and with a deft command of her characters' emotions, to more deeply explore the changes wracking Italy.

It is fine for an author to cast her protagonist as a quiet, naïve, and rather hermetic man, but when Dino writes that there is a "sense of the abyss that looms threateningly over my story," it can also be read to mean that we've heard this story of the dissimulated Jew before. We know about that looming abyss (which, whether Dino realizes it or not, represents self-betrayal) and we know how the story ends. It is by ignoring her opportunities to expand on this archetype that this capable writer has confined herself to a corner of a much larger tableau.

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