Friday, January 2, 2015

Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy

Of the 16 books I have read published by Persephone Books, my favorite is Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, and I appreciate Oscar Wilde's appraisal of it: "Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic."

I am afraid Mr. Wilde has made this review superfluous, but ....

Amy Levy (1861-1889) was the first Jewish woman to attend Cambridge University and wrote verse, essays, and three novels. Born into a moderately wealthy Anglo-Jewish family who prized education for both its sons and daughters, Levy was decidedly an outsider, not simply to the rest of British society by virtue of being a Jewish woman, but also to her own people. Her slender novel, Reuben Sachs, was criticized as being anti-Semitic for its portrayal of wealthy Jewish family life and its drive for both financial security and political power. It is hard for me to see how this is anti-Semitic, since such drives are prevalent in most households of accumulated wealth.

The critiques against Levy for her portrayal of the family of Reuben Sachs and that of his beloved cousin, Judith Quixano, to my mind are wrong in arguing that this is a specifically Jewish issue and also in overlooking the depth of love that Levy summons up in portraying the extended Sachs family and its social gatherings.

We are instantly made aware of the "depth of feeling" we must navigate in Ms. Levy's novel by its very beginning:

"Chapter One

"This is my beloved Son.

"Reuben Sachs was the pride of his family."

Unfortunately for Reuben and for his poorly situated cousin Judith, his destiny as the "pride of the family" collides with their quiet, but long-sustained, deep, and unspoken love for one another.

I got no sense from the book that Ms. Levy is out to blame the "Jewish family" for their predicament or its emphasis on worldly goods, since it stays strictly within the bounds of the obsession with financial security and success we have read about in plenty of novels of gentile families.

In a lean 147 pages, Ms. Levy tells her story, leaving us with a sense of regret and poignancy that cannot be forgotten, as, we are sure, it was not forgotten by either Reuben or Judith. Every gesture and expression and word of her characters stand in service to her disciplined telling of the story, with the result that her main characters seem to us totally real, and we feel that we have been where they were and thought what they thought and felt what they felt.

Ms. Levy was unable to withstand
the broad contradictions of her own life, as already as a Jewess she was an outsider to much of British society, as an intellectual and highly truthful Jewess she was a double outsider to the gentile society; and because of her truthfulness was rejected by her own people. She was homeless.

Despite her continuing contributions to the Jewish Chronicle on Jewish life, her bouts with depression deepened, and the deterioration of her  hearing contributed to her isolation. At the age of 28 she committed suicide in her parents' home through carbon monoxide poisoning. Oscar Wilde praised her gifts in an obituary for Women's World.


Sharon said...

Hey Linda - Thanks for this thoughtful review. Just thought I'd point out that it was at the age of 28, not in 1928, that she ended her short life.
Please keep these essays coming!
Best regards,
Sharon Mullins

Linda said...

Thanks, Sharon. I made the correction. Everyone needs an editor!