Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: Farewell Leicester Square, by Betty Miller

Pages: 309
Original date of publication: 1941
My copy: 2010
How I acquired my copy: Persephone shop, September 2011

Persephone is famous for publishing out-of-print, lesser-known classics, but there’s a sub-theme to their list as well: they reprint a number of Jewish authors (Marghanita Laski, Amy Levy, for example). Farewell Leicester Square is the only one of Betty Miller’s novels that touches on the Jewish experience in England. This story focuses on a man named Alec Berman, who manages to rise to fame in the film industry (the opening scene of the novel is centered on the premiere of one of his films, Farewell Leicester Square) and marry a non-Jew.

From the way I saw the book described, I though that this was going to be a straightforward and pretty typical story. But Betty Miller turns it around a bit, by making the anti-Semite Alec himself. He’s so aware of his background as a Jew and not wanting people to mention it that he almost becomes a bit self-hating of his Jewishness He even tries to stamp out his childhood in Brighton in order to become more English and is denigrating of his brother’s wife and children. It’s because of this awareness, which pervades the whole tone of the book, which eventually brings about Alec’s downfall. The relationship between Alec and his wife Catherine is tough to read; it’s not clear if there really was a lot of love between them, or if each of them loves what the other represents. I think they both jump into the relationship without considering the implications.

The plot and pacing of the novel are, as the introduction to the novel, set out a bit like a film, with flashbacks and the like to indicate the passage of time (it’s not done so well, however; there are huge gaps that made me want to know what happened in between Alec’s apprenticeship and the film premiere). It’s an incredibly brave novel for Betty Miller to have written, especially at that time period.

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