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I discovered ‘When I Lived in Modern Times’ by Linda Grant, when I was browsing randomly in the bookstore sometime back. When I read the summary of the story at the back, I couldn’t resist it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.   

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

It is April 1946. Evelyn Sert, 20 years old, a hairdresser from Soho, sails for Palestine, where Jewish refugees and idealists are gathering from across Europe to start a new life in a brand new country.

In the glittering cosmopolitan Bauhaus city of Tel Aviv, anything seems possible – the new self, the new Jew, the new woman are all feasible. Evelyn, adept at disguises, dyes her hair and reinvents herself. Immersed in a world of fiery idealism, she falls in love with the passionate Johnny and finds herself at the heart of a very dangerous game.

 

 
What I think  
 
 ‘When I Lived in Modern Times’ is set in Israel / Palestine of the late 1940s, just before the British leave Palestine and Israel becomes a new country. Linda Grant’s description of Tel Aviv of that time is quite beautiful and transports the reader to a different time and place. She also evokes the complex atmosphere of those times, when the world was in the cusp of major changes, when big ideas were doing the rounds and the future was uncertain but seemed to be filled with promise. I don’t know a lot about Israeli / Jewish history, beyond what I have read in the Bible and what I have read sometimes in the newspapers (and typically these days it is about the Israeli government harassing the Palestinians), and so it was fascinating to read in this book about that period in history leading up to the founding of modern Israel. Grant portrays the complex situation so beautifully – the interesting relationship between the British and the Arabs and the Jews, the relationship between the Jews who came from Eastern Europe and others, the German Jews who were more German than Jewish, the Jews who had come from the former Soviet Union and who lived in the kibbutz and who had socialist ideals, Evelyn Sert, the heroine, who feels that she has multiple identities (she feels English some times and Jewish at other times), people like Johnny who are fighting for a free Jewish homeland and British expats of that time, who are obsessed with their dogs and gardens but who don’t seem to have many convictions (one of them says ‘I’m just here with a box of rules and my job is to get people to obey them. I don’t make the rules. I don’t care about them one way or another. I’m not a passionate man. I don’t take sides. I’ve never seen a side worth taking’) and who are overseeing the end of the empire. 

I loved the portrayal of the heroine Evelyn Sert. In some ways it is her coming-of-age story, of the idealism which is prevalent in the atmosphere during those times and how individuals get sucked into it in unlikely ways and how things when they pan out look very different from one’s dreams and vision. The ending of the book was sad in some ways, because it felt like the end of a dream and one couldn’t help wondering how things might have been. Evelyn encapsulates this when she says this towards the end of the book :

If there is a story, there is going to be an ending and another thing life has taught me is that not many of them are about people who lived happily ever after. 

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Mystery of the Orient

      I walked through the town to the office of the Jewish Agency, got lost and found myself in an Arab market. It was strange beyond belief. The air smelled of things I didn’t know or understand. Eventually I would be able to recognise the difference between cardamom and cumin to know that the round, flat things were bread and that the bulbous, purple objects were vegetables with the name aubergine. I had never seen a lime, let alone a prickly pear. Palm trees, removed from the artistic impressions of them in paintings, were smaller and browner than I expected and didn’t have coconut hanging from them, but dates.

      In the balmy, delicious air, with a light sweat which would soon become a second skin, I felt my centre dissolve. The things I seemed to have always known (like a popular song you can’t remember hearing for the first time) were useless : how to judge whether or not to heed an air-raid warning; how to increase one’s allowance of chocolate; where to obtain black-market stockings. I was going to find out that what I needed to know was how to distinguish whether something was eligible; how to avoid dengue fever; and how to work out who was an Arab and who was a  when surprisingly they sometimes looked much the same if you saw them walking the streets of the cities in a suit or a summer dress.

The beautiful note

      He had heard a saxophone on the radio and wanted more than anything else to play one himself, though he wasn’t sure what it might look like. The kibbutz council agreed that if any member ever came across a saxophone and secured it for the general good of the whole community Gadi would have first priority in learning to make music from it. But no one had the slightest idea if there was such a thing in the whole of Palestine. Not, they thought, even in the palm-court orchestra that played in the ballrooms of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. If a saxophone was to be found it was bound to be in the possession of an American who was unlikely to part with it for anything other than a hefty price.

      And this was Gadi’s sorrow, at twenty, to have heard a sound that resonated somewhere inside him and for it to live only in his head, growing less clear, more invented, as the memory of it receded.

Memories

“We find it harder and harder to regain the rapture we once felt. There are memories I have of my childhood and youth in Russia, from before the time of the revolution, which I keep safe in a strongroom of my mind, because I fear that if I think about them too much I will wear them out. I have memories of our earliest years in Palestine which have eroded and become not the thing itself, but only a memory of a memory. Sometimes, all recapture is the mood I was in the last time I went into that portion of the past, or the place where I was, and what comes is the sound of the waves on the lake, or the road into the hills, or a cafe in Tiberias, where I was sitting with a glass of tea and a pastry…

Who is a Jew?

      Talking to Leah was like looking through a sheet of glass. Everything was crystal clear and I was exhilarated. She was the new kind of woman herself, the kind who thought with her brains, not her womb; who took no notice of hair styles but wanted more than a life of rural servitude; who sized people up and recognised them for what they were; who knew what she wanted and how to get it; who did not live through men.

      ‘But despite everything you say,’ I told her, ‘I still want to be a Jew in a Jewish land.’

      ‘What do you think a Jew is? Am I a Jew, for example?’

      ‘Of course.’

      ‘How? I have no religion, just the same as you. The British call us Jews to distinguish us from the Arabs but when teh British are gone, then who will we be? It is always other people who define what a Jew is…’

The Secret Fragrance

I looked at the hand as it held mine. It was a man’s hand. The palm was dry. Under the smell of palm oil another scent was coming through, of petrol and cheap soap, and it mingled together into the scent of something that no cosmetics company had ever captured in a bottle, what we used to call back then, sex appeal.

Understanding

Our eyes met. Sometimes a flash of complicity is established between two people, and you don’t know why. Connections get made below the level of what you can understand. I understand it now. Looking at Johnny was like looking at myself in the mirror. Each of us existed as a reflecting surface.

How the Messiah will preach today

      Cakes seemed to be the principal sustenance of the inhabitants of Tel Aviv and Netanya. The cafes sold many kinds: gateaux with cream, like the Belgians made in Soho; tortes from Vienna made with glazes of apricot jam; cheesecakes from Poland and Russia; and tiny syrupy, flaky things, decorated with small green nuts. All these you could have at any time of the day or night in Tel Aviv and it was said that if the Messiah was ever to return to the Holy Land he would have to go to the cafes to deliver his message to the people.

Violinists and Pianists

‘You know what they used to say ten years ago? Anyone who arrived off the boat without a violin case was presumed to be a pianist’.

Paints of different types

With paint, what you saw on your palette and dipped your brush into would be much the same colour on the surface to which you applied it. Not so with hair dye, for hair is a living substance (emerging from teh part of ourselves which is closest to the brain) so the principles of hairdressing were those of uncertainty and experimentation based, if one had it, on a sound chemical knowledge of the structure of the hair and what affected its disposition – to be straight or curly, pale or dark, thick or thin.

Dreams and the Subconscious

      ‘Didn’t you have dreams when you were a child?’

      ‘No, never. Listen, I exhaust myself during the day. I go to bed, I’m unconscious until I get up. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. This dream you tell me you just had, why should I envy you for that? I’m glad I don’t have to deal with such chaos every night.’

      ‘But dreams are messages from our subconscious.’

      ‘I don’t believe in the subconscious. I’ve heard of it, but I don’t believe in it. It’s neurotic, the product of a mind that sed and conflicted and doesn’t see things as they should be. You give me a problem and I can solve it. I don’t think there is any problem so big that I’m not capable of finding a solution if I apply my brain. I don’t worry about it, I don’t have anxiety, I don’t brood. It’s like repairing the Norton. Everything is straightforward if you know how the machine was built. Everything has a structure which is visible to the naked eye and logical. In Eretz Israel, so help me God, there will be no head doctors.’

Isaiah and Tolstoy

      ‘Oh that, we’ve all got one. It’s a biblical quotation,’ she said.

      ‘Read it to me.’

      ‘It says, Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee, hide thyself, as if it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast. Very comforting, I’m sure.’

      Blum looked at his. ‘It’s taken from the prophet Isaiah,’ he told us.

      ‘I had no idea you were religious, Blum,’ Mrs Linz said.

      ‘I am not. But I read Isaiah from time to time. He is full of gloom and despair and baleful warnings to the Jewish people. He suits our age. I prefer him to Tolstoy.’

      ‘Barbarian,’ said Mrs Linz. ‘Read Thomas Mann and Musil. Dare to be modern, Blum.’

To be used

      ‘You used me?’

      ‘Darling, isn’t it better to be used than to be of no use to anyone?’

      I could make no answer to this.

Decisions and Hindsight

      With hindsight it always seems easy to do the right thing, but we were trying to decide something in those days that people don’t often get a chance to have a say in and it was this : would we be a free nation after two thousand years of wandering or would we always be a subject race? Would we be ghetto Jews or new Jews? You know, when you face a decision like that, you have to think very, very carefully. The chance might not come again for another two thousand years. You have to be very sure. But you do have to decide, you can’t avoid that.

Happy Marriages

(Warning : This passage has some spoilers. So please be forewarned).

      As marriages go, mine turned out to be a successful one and only those who have never married themselves would ask if it were happy or unhappy. It was an accommodation, a partnership. It was a life not a love affair and there is a difference. Love affairs belong to the young or to those who don’t have a life, or not a proper one, at any rate. Leo and I had a life. But all those years, after I had been turned back on the brink of the great homecoming, mine was a heart in exile, a heart that is thwarted. The only consolation I can draw from this is the thought that perhaps the heart that has loved and suffered is the only one worth having, and Leo told me once of a talmudic saying, that there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.

Final Thoughts  
 
‘When I Lived in Modern Times’ won the Orange Prize in 2000, and I can see why. My review is extremely inadequate and doesn’t do justice to this wonderful book. It is one of my favourite books of the year till now, and I hope to read this book again, atleast my favourite passages, which are too many and which are there in every page. Linda Grant is a wonderful new discovery for me and I can’t wait to read other books by her. Recommended.

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