CHICAGO, August 28, 2014 − Lucy Beckett may be a retired English literature professor, but she definitely doesn’t write like one. Fresh off of her success with “Postcard from a Volcano,” Beckett has crafted another work of engaging historical fiction sure to capture the admiration of fans of the genre.
What is contained within her latest novel is an incredibly lucid and engaging piece of writing, somehow encapsulating a lesson in history, philosophy, art, and theology with the most palpable of human tragedies and all told in Beckett’s fluid prose.
The work begins when a young novelist comes in to contact with an elderly bookseller named Joseph Halpern. After years of silence, Halpern is finally ready to speak about his past, and what unfolds is an explosive and heartbreaking story that follows Halpern from the ravages of war-torn Europe to his final peaceful and dusty end in England.
What sets Beckett apart as an author is the deep scholarship and awareness that lies behind her “script.” In this case, the gut-wrenching personal story of Halpern is merely a microcosm of a large-scale tragedy – both Jewish and gentile – that is generally unknown outside of eastern Europe.
Halpern grows up a Jew in the Polish city of Wilno, which, after the war is forcibly repatriated to Lithuania as Vilno, or today’s Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital and largest city.
Lithuanian peasants are complicit in the murder of Jews by Soviet intent, something the west is unwilling to acknowledge in their rush to embrace their new ally “Uncle” Joe Stalin.
Halpern represents that most tragic of 20th century victims: a survivor of the Holocaust, left with no city or country or culture to return to. He is adrift in a wider culture eager to move past the tragedy of the war and unwilling to hear how complicit the victors were in another vast tide of human misery and loss.
If the western allies eventually defeated Hitler’s great evil, they enabled Stalin to commit even greater atrocities. If they ridiculed Hitler in their press reports, they lauded the man who proved to be an even greater mass-murderer in the East.
Beckett’s prose not only makes us weep for the fictional character of Halpern, but also gives us an easily palatable yet moving and informative history of the bloody shifting borders and displaced populations of post-WWII Eastern Europe as well as the countless slaughtered souls. Their blood soaked the soil of central and eastern Europe and still haunts that region today. Beckett’s unfolding of this grim tale is both gentle but searing, and one leaves both moved and informed.
For previous readers of Beckett’s novels, the name “Halpern” may sound familiar. He is indeed a relation to the Halperns from “Postcard from a Volcano,” and Beckett provides her readers with a brief but meaningful connection to the previous story, as the tragedy that was presaged in “Postcard” is told in retrospect in “The Leaves Are Falling.”
The reader is perhaps left feeling a bit like Halpern’s children or the other Brits around him who either do not wish to hear his story, cannot comprehend it, or do not wish to cut into the hustle and bustle of modern life by revisiting an old tragedy from the seemingly distant past.
Perhaps Professor Beckett, given her clear reverence for the most beautiful works of the western canon, might appreciate the following comparison:
Several years ago, an incredible film by James Kent was released. His “Holocaust: A music memorial film from Auschwitz” (2005) married carefully chosen musical selections with modern views of Auschwitz.
In this film, American composer Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” was performed on the platform upon which Jews arrived by the thousands to face their fate. A portion of Górecki’s iconic “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” was sung in the very chilly barracks where prisoners fought to survive.
In this film’s final scene, violinist Maxim Venegerov performs a solo work for violin by J.S. Bach. He begins in the very gas chambers of Auschwitz, and we hear Bach’s music reverberate off of those modern wailing walls. Venegerov walks slowly through the building, outside, and down the path, playing Bach’s masterpiece all the while. The final scene of the film observes Venegerov leave the walls of the camp behind him and walking outside as he and Bach’s perfect harmonies fade away into the distance.
The point of Kent’s film, it seems, is to redeem, at least in part, the terrible tragedy of both the war and the Holocaust by providing as a counterpoint some of the most beautiful music ever written.
Like Kent’s film, Lucy Beckett’s “The Leaves Are Falling” is another emergence of incredible lyrical beauty out of the greatest tragedy, and deserves to be held in similar esteem. In a world of cynical and rudderless modern literature, Ignatius has published another modern classic worthy of the name. Not all of the most important facts of the Second World War have been fully told, and Becket’s book marries beauty to necessary justice.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
“The Leaves are Falling,” by Lucy Beckett. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014. 314 pp. ISBN 978-1-58617-894-9. Available in hardcover or Kindle editions.
Kent’s film, “Holocaust: A music memorial film from Auschwitz,” may be purchased through the Auschwitz website, with proceeds going toward the maintenance of this singularly important cultural landmark.