Having people

‘He has no people. You can’t trust a person like that,’ says Betty Draper’s father to her husband Don in the hit TV series Mad Men.

And Betty Draper’s father has got a point. Don Draper is the archetypal self-made man. He has come from nothing and shedding his family along the way – he has turned his back on his people. And no you can’t trust him; Don has a series of affairs while telling his wife that he is completely faithful to her, and never mind about his kids.

People without people have usually run away from something, some secret. And, because of this secret, we can’t really trust them.

People trust people who come from ‘normal’, stable families, who live in suburbia, who can come round for dinner parties, who go and stay with their parents over Spring Break. It’s the 1950s suburban American dream.

People who have people deserve trust.

But this is only true for the dominant society. For immigrants, the opposite is the case.

I’m reading the most astonishingly brilliant book at the moment. It really is one of the best books I’ve ever ever read. The Hare with Amber Eyes, by potter Edmund de Waal, tells his family’s story through his inheritance of a set of netsuke – small decorative Japanese objects. (The Guardian gave it a particularly good review which is here, if you’re interested.)

The netsuke first came into de Waal’s family when his ancestor Charles Ephrussi bought them at the end of the nineteenth century. Charles Ephrussi was an extraordinarily wealthy Jew, who lived in Paris. The son of a grain merchant from Odessa, he was an art historian, a great patron of the arts, and a collector. He was friends with Renoir, Manet and Proust to name just a few … There’s a famous story (nicked by Proust) about when Charles gave Manet too much money for a painting of a bunch of asparagus. Manet then sent Charles a painting of a single asparagus stem, with a note to say that one was missing from his bunch.

In this magnificent yet humble book, it is clear that Charles is trying his utmost to integrate himself into Parisian society. He has a salon, attends salons, is friends with all the aristocracy as well as all the artists. All his money is being used to try to fit in. But he is never fully trusted by society – because of his people.

When Ephrussi buys some Moreau, Renoir is disgusted with this ‘Jew Art’. He wrote, of Moreau, ‘It was clever of him to take in the Jews, to have thought of painting with gold colours … Even Ephrussi fell for it’.

De Waal sifts through the anti-Semitic writing of the time, alighting in particular on Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic owed nothing to the State. In de Waal’s paraphrase:

Charles and his brothers, Russian citizens from Odessa and Vienna and God knows where, looked after themselves – whilst leaching the life-blood of France by speculating with real French money … The Ephrussi family certainly thought they belonged in Paris. Drumont certainly thought not.

So here, for the Jews, it isn’t that you can’t trust a person with no people; it is that you can’t trust a person with people. They are loyal to their people rather than to the State.

The dilemma resonates. How would I describe myself, English or Jewish? I’d say Jewish first. And I’m only ‘Jew-ish’ in the Woody Allen sense – I never had a Batmitzvah, I was asked to leave Jewish Sunday school at a very early age (eating bacon-flavoured crisps in Synagogue didn’t go down too well), and I have far more friends who aren’t Jewish than who are. I only go to Synagogue once a year or so, and can only speak about ten words of Hebrew or Yiddish. (And most of them are words like ‘schmuck’ and ‘schlep’ that everyone knows anyway.)

Perhaps I’m more aware of being Jewish than being British, or English, because of the vague anti-Semitism that lurks close to the surface even in London’s multi-cultural world. Certainly, if I’m with foreign people and they say something disparaging about the English, I start getting quite defensively English about it. I suppose if people are going to say nasty things about Jews, it’s going to make me feel quite defensively Jewish.

But where do I stand as a reader?

When I studied English Literature at university, there was something distancing me from a large part of the course. It is a remarkably rich tradition, and a privilege to live in its country, to speak its language, but it was hard to feel excited about Anglo Saxon and Chaucer, and even the Brontes and Austen (you know how I hate Austen), when it felt like a heritage to which I was only really pretending. While all these women were trussed up and prancing around drawing rooms, or taking turns in their grounds, my ancestors were digging up turnips in Lithuania.

And then there is the discomfort of the anti-Semitism which infiltrates a great deal of the canon. Shakespeare is an astonishingly good playwright. Phenomenal. His language still can’t be matched. But what about Shylock? What about the fact that one of his major plays is hideously anti-Semitic?

Yes, it was different then is the old excuse, but still … it hurts to think that all this marvellous English playwright thought of us Jews was that we were determined to get our ‘pound of flesh’.

And then you meet Dickens’ Fagin, called ‘the Jew’ over 250 times in Oliver Twist, who is ‘disgusting’ to look at, a horrid criminal, who brings children into lives of crime in exchange for a roof over their heads. Incidentally, Dickens subsequently made friends with some Jews and proceeded to de-Jew Fagin in later editions of Oliver Twist, and tried to make up for his anti-Semitic stereotyping by placing a few good Jews in Our Mutual Friend. But, frankly, the damage was done. In fact, my cousin wasn’t allowed to be Fagin in his school play because they were nervous of being accused of type-casting.

Well, you can imagine what a special moment it was when I came across Eliot’s Daniel Deronda early on at university. Yes, I’d read Middlemarch – hasn’t everyone? – and yes, I thought it was good – doesn’t everyone? – but I felt that Dorothea Brooke and her life in the Midlands was part of this English tradition to which I felt like a bit of a pretender.

But Daniel Deronda is my perfect book. It is where the English tradition meets the Jews. And, even better, the English are satirised and the Jews come out on top! No Fagins, no Shylocks, but the wise and spiritual Mordecai, Mirah and … well if you read it you’ll find out that someone else pretty central to the book is Jewish too. Of course Daniel Deronda is more drawn towards the mysterious, exotic singer Mirah, than the fickle gentility of Gwendolen Harleth.

Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, Daniel Deronda – Eliot’s last novel – has always met with a mixed critical reception. Everyone prefers Middlemarch. When it was published, there was great consternation at her turning her attention to ‘the Jewish problem’. And perhaps some of the criticism is justified. The Jewish characters aren’t so sharply drawn – they are symbolic, standing for Jewish ideas of inheritance, Zionism and community, rather than existing as strong individual characters.

But for me, this will always be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It made me see that there was a way of being both English and Jewish, of bringing together the two sides of my life without having to be polarised between them. I could read about Jews without having to read a horrific Holocaust survival memoir or an almost-as-horrific Philip Roth. A phenomenal mistress of the English language managed to write about the Jews, in a positive light, while also writing about contemporary society. It can be done. If only it were done as well, more often.

And if only there weren’t still mistrust of a person who has her own people.

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One Response to “Having people”

  1. Heroes « EmilyBooks Says:

    […] Edmund de Waal, a potter and the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I’ve banged on about here and here […]

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