What would you do if you discovered a lost masterpiece that revealed the artist’s extreme prejudice? Or survived a war only to find yourself participating in political violence?
Ethical dilemmas and twists and turns of Jewish history are at the core of two new novels by Lauren Belfer and Stewart O’Nan.
Belfer’s sprawling novel And After the Fire spans two continents and several centuries and concerns a fictional music manuscript. It opens as an American soldier in Weimar grabs some sheet music to take home as a souvenir. After his death decades later, his niece, Susanna Kessler, discovers a cryptic note and what appears to be an unknown Bach cantata: one with lyrics influenced by an anti-Semitic sermon. Susanna must weigh the pros and cons of publicizing a work whose contents, by any standard, are offensive. Her epic search for the manuscript’s original owners leads her from New York’s rare book libraries to present-day Germany. She also encounters two historians who vie for the manuscript—as well as her romantic attentions.
Susanna’s journey is interspersed with the history of the manuscript itself. Originally a gift from Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedrich to his most talented pupil, Sara Itzig Levy, the cantata remained in the Levy family’s hands over many turbulent decades. Though the manuscript is a fiction, Levy is not: The daughter of a prominent Jewish banker, she was the aunt of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn and at the forefront of salon culture during the Enlightenment.
And After the Fire is sprinkled with other real-life historical figures, and Belfer is adept at revealing the complex politics and sentiments, including the religious biases, of 18th-century Europe. The important questions Belfer poses regarding the ethical complexities of art are engrossing, though her characters never come fully to life.
Stewart O’Nan’s gripping City of Secrets is also a moral thriller, but on a much different scale. It is tightly focused in time and place; the action takes place over the winter of 1946 and follows a handful of post-World War II refugees fighting for the creation of Israel against both Arab attack and Britain’s mandates. Recalling the novels of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, City of Secrets has a taut, noir-like flavor. Like O’Nan’s earlier novels, it features a displaced hero who, despite everything, still believes his life has purpose.
City of Secrets follows Brand, a Latvian whose mechanical skills allowed him to survive the death camps, though he lost everything else. Brand slipped easily into Jerusalem, his new identity and job provided by the Jewish underground. Spending his days as a taxi driver taking tourists to religious sites, he remains loyal to the members of his Haganah cell, accepting missions that grow ever more dangerous under the cell’s elusive leader, Asher. By the time Brand realizes what’s at stake, it is almost too late.
These compelling stories use history as a lens to examine issues that are still with us today.
This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.