Reviewed by Simon
Have you ever had the experience of starting a novel and, before you’ve got to the end of the second page, you are so bowled away by the writing that you already know that you’ve found one of the best books you’ll read that year? It happens to me very seldom – Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude did the sane thing – but it certainly happened with Emanuel Litvinoff’s 1958 novel The Lost Europeans, reprinted as part of a beautiful new series by Apollo.
Here’s that first paragraph, which also sets the scene for the novel: Martin Stone is a Jewish German returning to Berlin for the first time since he was evacuated before the beginning of the war:
Coming back was worse, much worse, than Martin Stone had anticipated. When he got into the boat train at Liverpool Street, with English newspapers and periodicals stuffed under his arm, the usual drizzle falling from the grimy London sky, he’d told himself this was just a business trip: he wasn’t going to feel anything about it; it would probably bore him. And of course, it did – right down to the coast, across the English Channel to the Hook, and during the long, monotonous journey through the damp, flat countryside of Holland. The border crept up on them so unobtrusively he hadn’t noticed it until a German policeman came into the train compartment and asked for passports. Half dozing, he felt in his pocket for his wallet. Then he became aware of the official’s hard, grey, searching eyes subjecting him to a professional scrutiny from under the hooded peak of his cap. His carefully sustained indifference crumpled at once. So they still look at a Jew like that, he thought with a sudden flood of hatred.
Isn’t that searing? Litvinoff uses words so precisely and beautifully that I could read him writing about anything. As it happens, though, there is plenty going on in this novel too – and it is a perspective on a time that, as Michael Schmidt says in his introduction, has often been forgotten: the Germany between the end of the Second World War and the 1960s. Litvinoff doesn’t just tell us about the awkwardnesses and injustices, but shows us characters who must deal with these in conversations and memories.
There are two central characters, one of whom is Martin. Why has he come back? On the surface, it is to reclaim money owed to his father as part of legal process to offer compensation or restitution to Jewish people. I had no idea this existed so widely, and would love to read more about it; Litvinoff includes excellent scenes between Martin and the lawyer in charge of his case. The lawyer wasn’t a Nazi and doesn’t feel personal guilt, but also wants to make amends on behalf of his nation; he cannot see why Martin rebuffs him. I think these words that I jotted down might come in a different scene, but they are the backbone to much of the novel:
There were eighty million Germans, each with his own degree of guilt. To condemn them collectively or to probe each individual one encountered was to succumb to paranoia. The only way to preserve one’s sanity was to cultivate indifference.
The nuances of the ways in which both men are feeling are described so perfectly. Because, deeper than money, what has brought Martin back is a fierce, angry curiosity.
Only hatred of Germany sustained him, hatred of all he had once loved immoderately. Germany was a passion to which he had been more wedded than to his wealth, his wife, his children. By hating Germany he had committed his own kind of suicide.
Things become more complicated, and touching to a degree, when Martin meets Katrin in East Germany, a young woman who has been damaged by her own horrors. Their story is too brittle to be called a romance, but it – like everything – is judged brilliantly by the author, and lends depth to the narrative rather than a distraction.
Martin Stone is the initial driving force of The Lost Europeans, but equally focal is Hugo Krantz – only the lengthening size of this review will prevent me dwelling on him for as long. Martin and Hugo do meet at the beginning and end of the novel, but their experiences are largely separate.
Hugo’s quest is simpler than Martin’s, on the surface at least; Hugo is desperately trying to find the man he loved who betrayed him. Time and again, we flash back to a horrifying event where Hugo was tortured by the Gestapo – and, the moment that Hugo returns to over and over, when one man urinated onto his face. The whole event is only shown in these flashes, as though they were streaking into Hugo’s mind then repressed as too painful; Litvinoff gives an object lesson in the narrative power of giving glimpses of horror rather than dwelling macabrely on those events.
Hugo doesn’t know if Putzi is alive, or what his name is now, or how to find him. Like Martin, he is on a mission that may be hopeless and isn’t even properly defined in his mind – because the end of the journey cannot be a solution. The lost Europeans of the title refers not only to those who were murdered in their millions, but the survivors – wandering, not knowing where to go, or being able to recognise the Germany they find in those journeys.
We have all read at least something about the horrors and the staggering scale of the Holocaust, but it always has fresh ability to shock. Litvinoff encapsulates the dark evil and futility and multi-generation-destroying nature of it in one stunning paragraph:
In the end, there was nothing you could do about it. If you were born a Jew in Europe you carried death inside you from the cradle. You were destined to die at the same time as your grandfather. Were you as strong as a young bull, you would live no longer than the tubercular, the cancerous, the cretinous. Your horoscope might predict good or ill fortune, journeys by water, news of a friend, strange meetings. What did it matter? Individual destiny was overruled, and stamped in invisible letters across the configurations of the planets were the words: Cancelled – Jew.
And the amazing thing about The Lost Europeans is the vitality it brings to the most appalling event of the 20th century which, even by the 1950s, must have been described in thousands of ways. By focusing on the aftermath, through two excellently drawn characters, Litvinoff gives a perspective that still feels unique, and tells stories that have not been sufficiently told. More importantly – because this is a novel, not a history book – he does it with exceptional writing and extraordinary style. We’re not halfway yet, but I think this might be my book of 2016.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Emanuel Litvinoff, The Lost Europeans (Apollo, 2016). 978-1784970819, 295pp., paperback.
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