It should be an exasperating book. It switches back and forth between first and third person for no discernible reason. The writing is wordy and thick with cliches like "mere boy," "dire consequences" and "hare-brained scheme." And the author attempts to deflect critics by opening with a literary party at which he describes and dismisses his own faults.
And yet . . . those who read Walter Laqueur's first novel, "The Missing Years," know that he is right. The style is in fact pedestrian, the story meandering. But one kept reading, more and more deeply absorbed, and at the end one wished the man would keep on with his story of a German Jew who contrives to live through World War II in the heart of Berlin.
Well, this is the sequel, following Dr. Richard Lasson from devastated postwar Germany to America, and also taking up the story of his son Peter, who settles in Israel, sketching the bafflement, depression, resignation and hope that a sophisticated European must have for America's era of televised presidents.
Particularly fascinating is Laqueur's analysis of what is happening to his adopted country: Every professional historian must yearn for the chance to publish as fiction those insights that dance just beyond the reach of scholarship.
"Would America endure?" the hero speculates at the very end. "Sometimes it still seemed to him that he and his friends were making mountains out of molehills . . . America, as he knew, was a country of short-lived fads and fashions; this one too might be over in a few years
. . . And yet, more and more frequently had he been struck of late by the signs of decline, the deterioration of the quality of life, to use that overworked phrase: the charlatanisms in the intellectual market-place, the lack of discrimination in the arts and the media, the wave of madness that seemed to engulf public life."
The apolitical Lasson encounters socialism and communism in various forms, not only in Germany but in the salons of the Manhattan intelligentsia. fHe debates morality, after a fashion, which his Berkeley granddaughter, freaked out on heroin and anarchy. He even has a wonderfully improbable your-money-or-your-life discussion with a holdup man ("I'm thinking! I'm thinking!" as Jack Benny would say). These are interesting, not so much for their content as for the attitudes revealed, the attitudes of the education, liberal, pre-war Western European (that is, we may infer, civilized) person confronted with the world of today.
But it goes beyond that. In a sense, the book's theme is the ways in which people of wildly different backgrounds and expectations see each other and how far they adapt and how far they don't. An extraordinary passage tells of Peter's adventures as he tries to smuggle a shipload of DPs -- displaced persons, the euphemism for survivors of the general European holocaust -- into Palestine. Peter is astonished at the energy and independence of these people, and especially at their wonderful variety:
"Most had been in concentration camps, some had jumped from the trains which were to take them to the gas chambers, some had been partisans in the forests of Eastern Europe, some had lived as 'Aryans' with false papers, some had been in hiding in the most unlikely places . . . Some were very clever and some exceedingly stupid; there were nice, kind and friendly people among them and some whom they both found insufferable. Among these were the professional grumblers: the food had been better in Auschwitz, and accommodation preferable in Maidanek . . ."
It is the reality of all these kinds of human beings and their intersecting lives that gives the book its enduring interest.
Perhaps the most moving human connection is the alliance between the doctor, whose beloved wife has died just as the war ended, and a young German officer's widow who comes to live in his house as a nurse. Laqueur manages to convince us most of the time that his slightly stiff and old-fashioned prose is simply the prose of the courtly Dr. Lasson, and nowhere does it work better than in this brief account of the slow, shy and gentle love affair between the two lonely people.
"I looked at Thea lying in the grass. She had taken off her pullover and used it as a pillow; she looked very lovely, even younger than her years. I looked at her and kissed her on the spur of the moment. How can we account for our actions? For better or worse we cannot; a minute earlier I could have sworn that I would never touch her. Not that I had not wanted to, but the obstacles seemed too great, the distance between us, guilt feelings on my part and perhaps also on hers, the presence of the child. Then within a few seconds all this had disappeared and I held her in my arms. She did not stir as I kissed her, she did not open her eyes and we did not speak."
Surely this is the probe of a dignified and sometimes pompous middle-aged gentleman writing for strangers about a very private event. Whether it is the voice of the fictional Dr. Lasson or is just the way Laqueur writes, it is charming. And charm is a rare treasure in these gaudy times.