Wednesday, May 04, 2011

When I Lived in Modern Times

The British novelist Linda Grant is in the States today to tout her new novel We Had It So Good, but with her royal-wedding tweets still chirping in my ears (see here and here and here and here and here and here), I returned to the novel that first caused me to fall in love with the sound of her voice. When I Lived in Modern Times (London: Granta, 2000) was Grant’s second novel (she has now written five). It won the Orange Prize in 2001 for the best work of fiction by a woman, which is the only reason that it came to my attention. I was teaching my annual course on the contemporary novel at Texas A&M University. Every year I would assign the previous year’s award winners. The reading list for spring semester 2002 included Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Pulitzer Prize), Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin (Man Booker Prize), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (James Tait Black Memorial Prize), Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (Governor General’s Award), Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (Whitbread Prize), and Philip Roth’s Human Stain (PEN/Faulkner Award). I later included three of those titles on my roll of the decade’s best English-language fiction, but my favorite was When I Lived in Modern Times.

Grant’s subject is the “great transformation” that occurs in the months after the end of the Second World War—“the world itself,” she writes, “was metamorphosing into something else. . . .” Evelyn Sert, the twenty-year-old daughter of a single Jewish mother—her grandparents emigrated to Great Britain from Latvia—decides to journey to British Mandate Palestine. She is filled with the spirit of Zionism (“Only the birth of our own country can avenge the death of six million,” she cries. “That’s the resurrection”). But the truth is that her mother’s death leaves her feeling even more homeless than before:

Inside my head the kings and queens of England were stacked like pancakes in chronological order going back to the Wars of the Roses but no one I was related to had ever set foot on English soil until forty-five years ago. What could an immigrant child be, except an impersonator? I felt like a double agent, a fifth columnist. And I knew that as long as I lived in this country it would always be the same. I walked among them and they thought they knew me, but they understood nothing at all. It was me that understood, the spy in their midst.Perhaps if she had been a third-generation Jew in America, where everyone feels like a double agent—these days, even the WASP’s—Evelyn might not have felt so out of place. But she knows better. “I was a Jewish child in a country where, unlike America, there was no contribution I could make to the forging of the national identity,” she sighs. “It was fixed already, centuries ago.”

And so to Palestine. Evelyn enters the country illegally, lying to a customs agent that she is a Christian tourist, not a Jewish settler. Her surname is “odd” because her father was from “the Outer Hebrides.” At the Jewish Agency, Evelyn is less successful at passing herself off as something she is not. She has come to build the new Jewish state, she announces; but she has neither military nor agricultural experience; nor has she studied engineering, nor architecture. She is not totally useless, she protests. She is a hairdresser! She gets a laugh and is packed off to a kibbutz.

On the kibbutz she is introduced to sex and hard labor, but she remains a city girl at heart. She misses the chaos of urban life. After a few weeks she leaves for the “white city” of Tel Aviv—“a new Berlin,” as a German Jew later says to her, “a city for the masses and for the intellectuals, where we would build a modern life for ourselves.” Evelyn arrives on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a demobilized British soldier, a native-born Jerusalemite named Levi Aharoni. “But since your Hebrew isn’t so good, and we’re going to be talking in English,” he says, “you can call me Johnny.” He joined the British army to fight fascism, but now that the British have become the enemy of Jewish immigration, Johnny has joined the Irgun, the military wing of the Revionist Zionist movement.

Before she learns this much about him, Evelyn becomes Johnny’s lover. In the mean time, she finds an apartment and a job as a hairdresser, introducing the wives of British colonial officers to the newest styles. Recognized by one of them as the Christian tourist who came over with her on the same boat, Evelyn dyes her hair blonde and takes on a new identity. She becomes Priscilla Jones, married to a soldier posted to Tiberias. As a British policeman complains to her about Palestine, “It’s the worst bloody place for getting people’s identities straight.” Johnny sees her value as a “spy in their midst,” and manufactures a false passport in the name of Priscilla Jones. Information that she passes on enables the Irgun to kidnap a British official.

Thus she enters “the dark center of our struggle against the colonial masters.” The Irgun bombs the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. And Evelyn is whisked to safety underground before the British can arrest her. Johnny is not so lucky. Implicated in the deaths of twenty, he is arrested and quickly convicted and sentenced to death—one of the olei hagardom to be hanged under British rule. Evelyn is suddenly not so excited to be “moving through history.” As the British begin to withdraw from Palestine, she realizes that “Priscilla Jones would have to be folded up and put away,” but with the arrest of Johnny, she realizes that she has no clear and distinct Palestinian individuality either. “The British imperial identity was disintegrating in front of us, the new Jewish one was being born,” she says, “but I was nameless and invisible and my little ego couldn’t bear it.”

Just days before Johnny’s arrest, she had resolved:Whatever happened, I would never leave Palestine, this strange, violent, mixed-up place where things were not always pleasant, indeed rarely so. Where people’s manners were bad and they spoke roughly, but to the point. Where everyone came from somewhere else and everyone had a story to tell and these stories were not always inspiring or lovely. Where life was chaotic, because that is what life is. Where the past was murky and tragic and the future had to be grasped by the throat. Where Europe ended and the East began and people tried to live inside that particular, crazy contradiction.But in the end, she is unable to do so. Evelyn is swept up in the British counter-exodus and borne back to the country of her birth. She leaves Palestine just as the Jews are taking command of their own history and their own political fate. She understands what is happening, even if the British evacuees do not: “They’ve been Jews for absolutely centuries,” one says to her, “and most of that has been spent in exile, one way or another. Why do they want to change their tune now?”

There is perhaps no better book for explaining why—and for recreating the terror and exhilaration of the British Mandate’s final days—than Linda Grant’s brilliant and absorbing When I Lived in Modern Times.


Shelley said...

How did I not know you're a Texan?

D. G. Myers said...


My four kids are Texans. For twenty years I was an interloper in Texas—an Orthodox Jew who lived without benefit of barbecue. I’ve only been gone nine months now, and I miss the hell out of the place. None of my exes live in Texas, but I left my heart there.