Genius & Anxiety. How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 by NORMAN LEBRECHT, Oneworld, 2019, 442 pages.
This book is a joy. Concise, vivid, well-written, in clear antithesis to banality, it is a fine journey throughout most eventful century of modern history viewed in original detail. It also vividly portrays many outstanding personalities in thoughtful and penetrating way.
Anyone who is aware with Norman Lebrecht’s name would not be surprised on the quality of his new book. Norman is the author of Why Mahler? ( 2010), in my view, the best book on cultural history in decades.
Lebrecht who is writing currently his fourth novel, did impress public and film industry professionals with his first one, The Song of Names ( 2002). It took quite a span of time to materialise on the screen, but the story on two Jewish boys, music and Holocaust had been premiered recently at the film festivals in Toronto and London and is due to be released in the end of December in the USA and later on in Europe. The film is directed by Francois Girard, the author of unforgettable The Red Violin (1998) and many other interesting music-connected creations, with Tim Roth and Clive Owen starring there.
Being one of the most prominent music critics and writers in the UK, Lebrecht is deservingly well-known to anyone who reads on music.
Lebrecht’s style in his books is distinctive. In the same pattern as Benjamin Balint ( see my review on his Kafka’s Last Trial here) possesses a rare ability of a powerful Jewish mind to be richly laconic, to see and to address the things most essential, without losing anything important. His prose is concentrated, and he maintains steady rhythm throughout his narrative. It is a hard work, as any practising writer knows. I was not surprised to hear from Norman that he ‘had the introduction ( to the book) to be re-written at least 100 times until I was satisfied with it’.
Reading Lebrecht’s prose in Genius and Anxiety, one not only enjoys the wealth of interesting facts and people, but is also delighted to be treated with many of his aphoristic pearls:”Mendelssohn might have ceased to be a Jew, but he can never compose like a goy”; “Freud, had he known these ( Karl Marx on his mother-IR) letters, would have had an Oedipus field day”; “can anyone but Brod imagine Franz Kafka in khaki shorts, laying bricks on a Tel Aviv housing estate or ( Kafka’s preferred option) carrying a tray as a waiter in a seaside cafe? Like so much else in Kafka, the self-image is simply surreal”, and many more delights of the kind.
The Book of One’s Life
Reading the Lebrecht’s mental journey throughout the formatting century between middle XIX and middle XX century, one can see that the author was writing this book in his head for decades. He was raised in Jewish family with impressive German and French Jewish lineage in London, was studying in Israel, first at yeshiva, then being graduated from Bar-Ilan University, and also had been working as a journalist in Israel before returning to Britain in the early 1970s and devoting himself more to the world of music of which he is undisputed master.
Analysing the cosmos of people and events within the time-frame of a century between 1847 and 1947, Lebrecht was interested to re-examine the roles, motivations, and outcome of the deeds of as many as fifty five extraordinary people who indeed enriched and in many cases changed the course of modern history.
The selection of his heroes by the author is rather refreshing. I was relieved not to find another sketch on Ben-Gurion in the new book on Jewish history – and justly so, having Tom Segev’s recent volume, A State At Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion ( 2019); or another entree on Hannah Arendt. I have had my question on absence of Chagall in the new book, and respect the author’s comment to me that in his view, ‘Modigliani was really formatting one among the Jewish artists in the early 20th century’.
Genius & Anxiety is retrospective analysis peppered with findings and new material from such serious archives as National Library of Israel, the Library of the US Congress, Bletchley Park Collection, and many others. It uses many of Lebrecht’s own new translations of important documents, such as suicide note of Stefan Zweig that certainly brings a new sense into the tragic death of the great writer.
The writer’s command of many languages, his fluent German, French, Yiddish and Hebrew added to his native English makes his understanding of many cultures and people in the book organic which is quite valuable in the book on history.
Reading Genius & Anxiety, I had the impression that Lebrecht is sharing with his readers certain form of a self-dialogue, pondering on the role of many outstanding figures who happened to be Jews in shaping the world.
This interesting and well-written book demonstrates fresh approach in several aspects: subtle inter-connections of people that led to many significant developments; motivation which was not obvious in many instances; enrooted Jewishness, sometimes subconsciously so, which have had an unexpected or overseen impact. To a certain extent, Lebrecht’s book is also a vivid psychological study of Jewishness in the century started from the first congress of the Communist League in London and finished by the establishing of the state of Israel.
By bringing ‘Anxiety’ as an equal half of the book’s title, Lebrecht catches the eye of a reader at once. He gives the author’s remark on his choice in the introduction to the book. Knowing perfectly well on slightly negative undertone of the term ‘anxiety’ in common perception, Lebrecht emphasises the objectivity of anxiety as of a distinctive if not organic feature of Jewish character, and sees the dynamism and efficiency in this feature instead.
I can see the Lebrecht’s point in this. Anxiety as behavioural Jewish feature can be enrooted in our genes, perhaps. And it acts as a yeast for our talents to burst out under any circumstances and at any time, would it be creation of that revolutionary, ingenious E=mc2 equation purely out of work of a brain, that unique brain of Einstein, the result of a thought experiment, or inventing a motor car by Siegfried Marcus back in 1888 before anyone else did it, or sharing with the rest of mankind the cosmos of loneliness and the essence of existence of every human being, every single one, by Kafka.
Tapestry of Life
Lebrecht has created his book as a tapestry of places, events and people, thus weaving in geography, politics, social life, education, music, literature, arts, accenting it with psychology, thoughts, questions, ideas, reflections, and sometimes simply beats of human heart. Or its stops, as in the cases of Felix Mendelssohn and his sister, or Stephan Zweig.
Instead of trying to make yet another replica of a abridge overview of modern Jewish history, Lebrecht goes for what he knows well, and feels authentically. The outcome is personal and independent narrative in which its subjectivity become an attraction.
Geographically, Lebrecht takes his readers in the Western European centres of Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, London, Paris, Strasbourg, Geneva, Central European Prague and Budapest; there is a lot of New York and some other American places, like Cleveland and Hollywood; there are interesting glimpses on Cairo and Baghdad; and there are Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, of course.
Pointedly, Lebrecht ends his historical survey with establishing the state of Israel. Even so, in many instances throughout the book, the events, reminisces, or even the author’s thoughts that occurs to him in Israel are acting as a contrapunctus to all his narrative, to flow of his thoughts. The feeling of Jerusalem, as I call it, is unmistaken in Norman Lebrecht’s book which deals with people some of whom died a hundred years before Hatikvah has become our national anthem. To me, it is meaningful expression of the silver thread which never was torn off.
The author is determined to contain his emotions and he does it customarily well. The best of British culture expresses itself elegantly from the pages of this book.
But Norman Lebrecht’s feelings towards Austria during Anschluss are palpable. I understand the author completely. It happens to me as well when I am writing on the same period in many places of Europe. What has happened to one’s own family gets into our subconsciousness and commands our expressions. Memory lives in heart and is indestructible.
I always believed that every single story of every single family affected by Holocaust must to be written on. A word for a deed, so to say. And it is humanity, not only Jewish race, that the Nazis and all who did participate in the Shoah and all those who has agreed to it and all the others who closed their eyes as well, were determined to annihilate. It was premeditated attack on humanity, not on Sarahs and Isaacs as they marked all Jews in their passports in Germany at the time.
Every time when I am hearing the Israel Symphony Orchestra playing, I know precisely what those evils in human disguise aimed to annihilate. Astonishingly, 80 years on, it seems to be alarmingly actual to remember that in all its chilling detail. Norman Lebrecht comes to that in his book, as well.
In his journey through quite eventful hundred years between mid-XIX and mid-XX centuries, Norman Lebrecht turns his eye to the things unusual and interesting, the things forgotten, and the things left unaddressed or being misunderstood before. The inner motivation of hardly explicable suicide of Stefan Zweig amidst his both physical and financial safety comes as very worthy episode in the book; the same as brilliant discovery of a Jewish woman Eliza Davis, the wife of solicitor, who has become a focused and persistent correspondent with Charles Dickens and has achieved serious result defending the honour of Jewish people. Of the same category is a great story about semi-forgotten German ship-owner Albert Ballin, his role in the massive Jewish emigration to the USA in the early 20th century, and as an aside story, quite plausible theory on the origin of ‘hamburger’ as a name of a popular fast-food meal.
We are reading on another sadly forgotten person, Emanuel Deutsch who not only was a genius on Hebrew manuscripts, but has become a prototype for George Elliot’s formatting Daniel Deronda novel. We are enjoying a dizzy story behind Bizet’s Carmen and admiring the outstanding deeds of Sarah Bernhardt during the Great War and her brave stand during the Dreyfus Affair.
We are engaged in the adventures of one of the most probable prototypes of Indiana Jones ( Norman Lebrecht who did seen the film which I absolutely admire, cannot verify my suggestion on that), and founder of the United Synagogue of America, incredible Solomon Schechter in Egypt and his giant contributions to mankind in decrypting some of the original cornerstones of our civilisation there, in the work which has left unfinished, sadly.
There is also important, interesting and dramatic story unfold behind the scenes of the Balfour Declaration which is a must for anyone who is interested in the history of Israel, the Middle East and Britain.
Lebrecht’s few pages on the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the cataclysm which did change the world in the XX century to the most substantial degree, can be recommended as an ultimate explanation of the character of that formatting event. The author did get the essence of that phenomenon with surgeon precision. Except the history of Stalin’s persecution and entire GULAG history in the USSR and the detailed story of the Second World War with regard to the Soviet Union, the gist of the character of the Soviet regime has been told by Lebrecht in his new book absolutely correctly. Having been teaching the Russia’s modern history at universities, I can recommend these few pages as a very good introduction to the theme to a general public and especially to students.
And then, there is a striking episode in description by Lebrecht of the moment of the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander III ,with simple notice on how the best of the Russian tsars after being mortally attacked has been left to lay bleeding on the snow in St Petersburg alone, with everyone from his entourage disappearing, and with just two of young soldiers trying to help the Tsar, plus one of the terrorists who took pity on badly wounded Alexander and tried to help the soldiers to relocate him, with a bomb still kept under his shoulder. I know for sure that this part of the assassination had not been taught according to what had really happen in Russian schools. It is about the time, perhaps.
Among the most interesting stories in the book is the one of making immortal Casablanca film which still is on the height of human effort in cinema despite it has been made back in 1942. Another remarkable episode is the unfinished story on saving by the Sixth Lubavitch Rebbe Schneerson by German officers acting on Admiral Canaris’ order and spiriting him, his family and closest circle out of the occupied Warsaw in December 1939 in a real-life thriller. The story is unfinished because after 70 years of silence, in 2009 Chabad did apply to Yad Vashem with request to honour the saviours of the Sixth Rebbe with the official status of the Righteous Among the Nations. There is no decision on that matter as yet, and I do not envy Yad Vashem on this one .
Elegancy of the author’s thinking in interconnecting many of his personages is both engaging and rewarding. He follows the circumstances of real life in it, naturally, but it does take a special ability of a person to seeing life in this way and to narrate it with Lebrecht’s trade-marked laconism and clarity.
From gloomy after failure of Carmen premiere ( and what was the reason of that failure? The reader will find a fascinating explanation of it in the book) Bizet we get to his much younger Jewish wife Genevieve, the daughter of the famous composer Halevy; Genevieve is having a special relationships with son of sensational in his time Alkan and possibly George Sand; she raises her and late Bizet’s son who happened to be a close friend of the youth whom he introduces to his mother; the youth starts to spends all his time with that magnetic woman, that youth being nobody else but Marcel Proust.
We are reading on paradoxical interconnection and relationships between two distant relatives, Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx.
We are deeply enjoying brilliant portraits of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein written by Lebrecht with outstanding knowledge, understanding and admirable intellectual honesty.
In general, anything regarding music in this book of Norman Lebrecht is, as in all his other books, simply superb.
The fine understanding of human nature is both pre-requisite and achievement for anyone who studies and writes on Jewish history. Norman Lebrecht demonstrates in his new book his ability to get to the bottom of the personalities whom he is writing about. He did feel the sense of drama that unfolded in the lives of his personages as if it was something happening to someone close to him if not him himself.
His understanding of utterly sad dramatic life story of Max Brod is deep and sympathetic. His warmth toward prematurely died great Jewish poet Leah Goldberg is deeply touching.
Lebrecht shows us the drama of Michael Curtis born Mano Kaminez who despite the smashing success of Casablanca was so deeply unhappy in Hollywood, and who did desire so desperately to see Danube river again, and to find himself, somehow, in Budapest, even just for once, before his life would end. The man who did create White Christmas for Americans that has become the one of the most important tools in building their identity, and the iconic cultural path for millions world-wide, did dream on his Budapest streets and air and melodies till the end of his life.
The author also related to his readers serious drama of Leo Szilard, another Hungarian Jew, the one who discovered the primary principal leading to the creation of a nuclear bomb, and who did not know how to live with it ever after.
Lebrecht deals bravery and thoughtfully with just awful circumstances of Nobel laureate Fritz Haber who led himself that far in his effort to assimilate in the Kaiser Germany that not only he has become the father of the lethal gas used by Germany in the mayor military crime in Ypre in May 1915, but the scientists from his lab in his institute went with the work further on – and we know what they had came up with by the time of the next world war, when Haber himself was thrown away from his institute that he led for decades.
The author also analyses the processes, by doing it through the people which is the most graphic way to see the impact of our aspirations and mistakes. “Ever since Moses Mendelssohn broke bread with Christians, Reformers have pushes hard to ‘modernise’ Judaism, while traditionalists have held ever harder to arcane practices” , observes Lebrecht. His sharp and laconic analyses of the processes in that formatting century between 1847 and 1947 covers many core subjects.
With all these dramas and paradoxes, all these uneasy paths and turmoiled lives, what has distilled after the book’s reading to me is the author’s love. The love of deep Jewish person towards many of those tormented souls. His portrait of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld is poignant and tangible, and it brings that rare man so very close to us, doing much deserved justice and deepening memory on hat unique person.
Lebrecht’s love is not blind. As understated as it is, it is the love of essentially Jewish soul towards the other essentially Jewish souls. This kind of love produces dignified, enduring and memorable warmth for which I salute to Norman.
Past History, Worries Today
I was wondering on how the author would bring his reader to our life today having being left him on the November day in 1947, relating in detail that highly-charged emotionally voting at the United Nation on establishing the State of Israel. He did it simply and impressively. He jumped with us, his readers, into a sunny morning in Tel Aviv in 2019 and took us for a walk to his favourite book-store there. The last chapter of the book is just two pages. And it is not an Epilogue, not an Afterword, as many authors would do. It is a full chapter, just a short one. A perfect bridge, in my reading, from that November day 72 years ago to our present day.
Being a bookish person, I just love the end of the book: “The book remains our hope and our salvation. It may contain an idea on one has thought of before. A flash of genius. I world unimagined. A word remade”. Not only did I identify with every word of it, it gave me joy, the same that a meeting with a dear friend does. And it also gave me hope, the most required vitamin in our life.
But there is also another bridge from the time covered in the book to our day. Both the author and I would wish very much that there would be no reason for that. But our wish was not granted. Lebrecht shares with us in his Introduction: “Like most post-Holocaust western Jews, I long believed that anti-Semitism belonged to the past”. And then, given his reasoning to that assumption, he comes to the conclusion: “Over the past five years ( from 2014 onward – IR), while writing this book, I have been forced to recognise that this assumption is false.”
For my part, I had been always more sceptical on the subject than Norman told us he was, but I completely identify with his high concern on the facts of our daily life today which he characterises absolutely correctly: “Animosity towards Jews for no reason except that they are Jews has become a tool of our times”. It is a fact of life, of our present reality , and such fact is as absurd and abnormal as it real. A new Kafka is on his or her way, perhaps.
After his intense and masterly narrative in this rich book packed with facts, characters, discoveries, paradoxes, at the end of his journey through the amazing century between 1847 and 1947, walking on the streets of Tel-Aviv in 2019, Lebrecht is coming back to the worries of the day with which he started his book. “The sense of otherness is back. Jews, we are told, are different. We have no sense of irony, a divided loyalty ( referring to notorious statement of the leader of the British Labour party Jeremy Corbyn made in 2019 – IR). The Jewish Question reopens’.
I find this pulsating worry emphasised by the term that has become notorious, largely thanks to Karl Marx, from 1844 onward, absolutely justified. These worries – and the facts of daily life in every country in Europe, in the USA, Canada, Australia, Latin America, South Africa and everywhere else – has changed our life as we knew it. It is alarming to read a good book on historical events and personalities with a distinct understanding that it all is so weirdly actual.
That feeling is very similar to the feeling of a viewer at the premier of Roman Polanski’s last film An Officer and A Spy ( J’Accuse in French cinemas).
The film is on Dreyfus Affair. Isn’t it slightly weird that the author of Pianist who usually measures the degree of actuality of his works very well, decided to release his big historical drama on the events dating back 125 year, now? Unfortunately, it is not. Because the film shows in slow detail the circumstances which led to irrational, hysterical , violent mass hatred towards honest and decent person who was guilty of being a Jew.
That mass hatred overwhelmed a huge country. We saw similar in its origin hatred in the country bordering France in forty years, two generations after the Dreyfus Affair. That hatred had been transformed into the most horrible crime in history and claimed at least six million Jewish lives, possibly more, in determined and focused genocide.
Now, 70 years later, three generations on, we are seeing ugly anti-Semitic grimaces all over the world daily, in a motto which accelerates nastily.
Was Norman Lebrecht thinking that his book on the impact of many extraordinary Jewish people, their talent and aspirations on the world’s history in the 19th and 20th century would become quite actual food for thought in the context of the dramatically risen anti-Semitism today? Yes he did.
I dare to think that it also has become an extra-motivation for Lebrecht who was collecting the material for this book for 30 years, as he told me recently.
In my view, every book of Norman Lebrecht is a creation. In the case of Genius & Anxiety, it is creation of his personal reflection on Jewish destiny in its historical perspective.
Like Jewish destiny itself, Lebrecht’s analysis is multi-dimensional, complex, and rich in substance. Importantly, it expresses the presence of strong anti-despair gene in it. Just like in our Jewish DNA.
Thank you for engaging and loving reading, Norman.