Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.
Some of us prefer not to dwell on the past, while there are others who emphatically choose to dwell in it. How we relate to our history and its reverberations colors our lives. Two eagerly awaited, and unconventionally written, new books look backward and offer powerful insights.
Released just prior to her 93rd birthday, “Antiquities” is Cynthia Ozick’s first work of fiction in more than a decade. Set in 1949, the novella is in the words of retired attorney Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, who now resides at the long-closed elite boarding school of his boyhood in New York’s Westchester County. The decaying property of the Temple Academy for Boys has been converted into apartments for the school’s seven remaining trustees, along with the staff that tends to them.
The trustees have been charged with writing memoirs of their schooldays to add to the institution’s recorded history. As Lloyd composes his own submission, he becomes particularly fixated on the memory of a former classmate, Ben-Zion Elefantin. Indeed, he proclaims that the only loves of his life were his former secretary and Ben-Zion.
Lloyd believes that this friendship with a Jew “tainted” him within the school’s culture, and many decades later, he is still treated as an outsider by his fellow elderly trustees. (Lest we admire Lloyd for violating the social codes of the upper crust, it should be noted that he repeatedly demonstrates that he is hardly free of the casual antisemitism of his station.)
Ben-Zion’s added allure emerges from his background. Born in Egypt, he confides to Lloyd that he is a descendant of the ancient Jewish settlement on the island of Elephantine in the Nile. Ben-Zion’s Egyptian origin assumes special importance for Lloyd, as Lloyd’s father had long ago joined an archaeological expedition in Egypt, and the small objects with which he returned are Lloyd’s most prized possessions.
The novella’s archaeological theme is reflected in Lloyd’s acknowledgment that in writing his memoir, “it is as if I must excavate, as in a desert, what lies far below and has no wish to emerge.” And there is much room for skepticism concerning his findings.
When Lloyd asks, “Where now is Ben-Zion Elefantin, did he in fact exist?” we as readers — involved in our own archaeological undertaking — understand that we are not to assume that any of what we are beholding is factual. It is in her painstaking construction of Lloyd’s unreliable and discombobulated narrative that Ozick’s extraordinary craft is so apparent.
In his bestselling 2010 nonfiction book “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal immersed himself in the tragic history of his ancestral Ephrussi family. In his latest work, “Letters to Camondo,” he returns to the same territory. At its center is the Constantinople-born banker and art collector Count Moïse de Camondo, who lived just down the block from the Ephrussis in Paris.
The Camondo and Ephrussi families both arrived in France in 1869, and both built elegant mansions on the newly created Rue de Monceau. They and their wealthy Jewish neighbors embraced a future in “secular, republican, tolerant, civilised Paris” that would soon be tested by the heightened antisemitism that accompanied the Dreyfus affair.
De Waal’s richly illustrated book takes the form of 58 brief letters written in the present day to the long-deceased Moïse de Camondo, featuring a wide range of deeply felt reflections on the home, its ornate furnishings and works of art, and its archive of the family’s papers.
Following Moïse’s death in 1935, the mansion was bequeathed to serve as a museum, named in honor of Moïse’s only son, Nissim, who had been expected to succeed his father in heading the family’s business but was killed in action in World War I.
However, de Waal reminds us that the “perfectly curated ending” in this gesture is illusory, for the great gifts bestowed by illustrious Jews to France did little to secure their status as citizens. Their journey from opulence to annihilation was quick, as represented by the deportation of Moïse’s daughter Béatrice and her entire family to Auschwitz, where the Camondo line was forever extinguished.
In the 52nd letter, de Waal writes chillingly: “You didn’t see it coming. You didn’t understand the fragility of this stuff, this vast building with its endless rooms of possessions and collections, the portraits and emblems … How could you not leave? How you could sit in Vienna and not know that your life was built on this delicate hope, this slow and steady becoming the person you wanted to be, this bet on assimilation.”
Without warning, de Waal has, at this point, momentarily shifted to addressing his great-grandfather, the banker Viktor Ephrussi, who, with his wife recently dead by suicide and his mansion and belongings in the hands of the Nazis, arrived in England from Vienna as a stateless refugee with little more than a suitcase. The moment evidences how strongly de Waal identifies with the Camondos’ story, so close to his own family’s.
These two very different books, with one set in a crumbling edifice headed for oblivion and the other in a perfectly preserved mansion that “stays the same” across time, speak to each other in compelling ways: about assimilation and its limitations, and about the experience of immersing oneself in personal history that evades our grasp with the passage of time.
As Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie notes, “Nothing lasts, not even memory when the one who remembers is gone.”
“Antiquities” by Cynthia Ozick (192 pages, Knopf)
“Letters to Camondo” by Edmund de Waal (192 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)