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the jewish husband

21 june 2010

In The Jewish Husband, Lia Levi carefully sets up a happy life for her characters and then methodically grinds it into dust. It's not like this outcome is a total surprise, of course: a Jewish narrator coming of age under Mussolini doesn't have much historical room to maneuver, and it's some small comfort to know from the start that he tells his story from the safety of Tel Aviv in 1967. But there is very little intermediate comfort along the way in a novel where the emotional arc skis straight downhill.

The Jewish Husband recalls other books here and there: the great chronicle of doomed Italian Jewry, Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini; Moravia's Il conformista (and indeed The Jewish Husband is a winner of the Moravia Prize); Philippe Grimbert's Un secret, with its motif of cryptic parentage and shadowy identity during the Holocaust; The History of Love, though The Jewish Husband is infinitely more plausible; and even Lolita, because narrator Dino Carpi, like Humbert Humbert, is a literature professor and son of a hotelier, trying to recapture a vanished love in a first-person narrative.

But there's little postmodern about The Jewish Husband, and that's probably for the best. It is a straightforward, headlong, expertly focussed novel. It asks us to imagine a aged man looking directly at the worst thing that could have happened, and he doesn't flinch in the process.

The Italian original of The Jewish Husband is called L'Albergo della Magnolia, the name of the narrator's father's hotel. Antony Shugaar's translation emphasizes not the narrator's family home but his relation to the Gentile family he marries into. (Gentile in two senses: Dino's wife Sonia is Catholic, and her maiden name is literally Gentile.)

I am often amazed at the great distances that translated titles end up compared to their originals, by the way. A craft that values faithfulness to an original model frequently starts on the title page by wandering leagues away from that model (as anyone who has tried to identify the three volumes of Stieg Larsson's trilogy in various languages can attest). There's always a marketing imperative at work, of course. The Jewish Husband pinpoints an ethnic mix and a family-saga genre, perhaps selling the book more deeply, if not more widely, to American and British readerships. The Magnolia Hotel, to an American at least, sounds more like Fannie Flagg than Giorgio Bassani.

The plot of The Jewish Husband is heart-rendingly direct. To marry Sonia Gentile, Dino doesn't have to actively disavow his Jewishness, but must suppress mention of it. This seems like a fair trade for a while, because as a friend notes, Sonia is like a pearl in the oyster of her aggressively Fascist family, and Dino can't have the gem without its setting. But when racist laws creep across Italy in the 1930s, Dino's initial decision to downplay his identity entails more and more concessions – till finally he must disown everything he values.

As I've said, you get directly from Point A to Point B in The Jewish Husband, and you can see Point B a long way off. But the getting there is well worthwhile. There's something to be said for directness; by the 21st century, lack of complication is positively avant-garde.

Levi, Lia. The Jewish Husband. [L'Albergo della Magnolia, 2001] Trans. Antony Shugaar. New York: Europa, 2009.