Monday 12 April 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Melnitz, Charles Lewinsky (2006), trans. Shaun Whiteside (2015)

I’m cheating a little with this one. My Neo-Victorian Voices series typically covers books written in the twenty-first century, and set in the nineteenth. Charles Lewisnky’s Melnitz, first published in German in 2006, starts in the 1870s, but covers the fortunes of the Swiss Jewish Meijer family until the Second World War. Still, I couldn’t not tell you about this wonderful novel!

I love a good multigenerational family saga (Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing (2020) and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017) were recent favourites). But it can be hard to connect with so many characters across multiple generations. Lewinsky does a great job of characterising his cast with a few deft brushstrokes, painting them as individuals forced to make painfully human choices amidst shifting political tides and the ever-lurking threat of anti-Semitism. 

To read this novel is to live with the burden of history. We know what will happen next as the Meijers cannot. Where to live? Under which nationality? And with whom? These are life or death decisions. The drama of Melnitz isn’t comprised of twists we don’t see coming. As readers, we’re watching a train thundering towards the family, and unable to tell them to get off the tracks. 

I loved the broad definition of family the novel embraces. Not all of the characters are linked by blood or marriage, or even religion—the Christian baptism of one character is a momentous event in the course of the novel. But a shared cultural inheritance, stories, and memories, as well as the experience of being othered within Switzerland and beyond, bind those we follow together. 

Some of the standout moments for me included the depiction of Arthur’s sexuality, the evolution of the relationship between stepsisters Chanele and Mimi, and the sort-of friendship between Hillel and his Frontist classmate at the agricultural college. 

Coming to this novel, I knew little about the lives of Jewish people in Switzerland in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, depictions of the country in the WWII period often focus on Switzerland as a dream destination, the symbol of freedom and safety, appearing through the Alps. I’m so happy I read this book and will be recommending it to anyone who’ll listen. If you enjoy novels filled with humour and pathos, which bring to life histories you haven’t heard before, you’ll love this book.

What novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now, and the paperback will be released on June 22nd! Want to stay in touch? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter below.

Get updates on my novel - Bronte's Mistress

* indicates required

No comments:

Post a Comment