Commentary Magazine


The Fertile Plain, by Esther Salaman

Memory Uncorrupted
by Dan Jacobson
The Fertile Plain. By Esther Salaman. The Hogarth Press. London. 344 pp. 15s.

The Fertile Plain is the record of the life of a girl who has among her earliest memories the sight of a revolutionary fleeing past her window:

“I can see her now: she ran as if the top of her body wanted to leave the legs behind. Then came a thin woman, and she ducked her head. And now I saw that the men who were running after them were hurling large stones at them, and I knew why they were afraid. . . .

“A stout young man was running along the side of the road; his Russian shirt was blown out, as if the wind had got inside and could not get out. . . .

“‘A student. Oh God, his glasses are coming off!’ mother cried out behind me.”

What strikes one immediately is the simplicity and directness of the eye of the author: the truth of this writing is the vividness with which things are seen. But the virtues of the book are of a piece—the modesty of the total intention seems inseparable from that directness of sight; if the tone rarely falters, if it is rare that shyness or embarrassment comes between the author and what she has to report, one feels that this is because of the balance in her mind between the kind of book she is capable of writing and the kind she wants to write.

The narrator of the book grows up in Russia between the revolution of 1905 and that of 1917. Russia we know here from what the narrator sees out of the window of her house, from what she meets on the roads on the way to school and what she overhears her parents talking about, through her relations with the girls, Gentile and Jewish, at the Gymnasium she attends, through the friendships and disagreements with the neighbors—one of whom, for example, shields the family during a pogrom, another of whom believes that the Jews are guilty of ritual murder. The family environment is of course even more closely observed, particularly the older generation-parents, grandparents, even uncles and aunts.

Not the least remarkable thing about the book is the fact that though the narrator is continuously engaged in recording the faith and the religious observances of her elders—and though we see the narrator steadily growing away from that faith—Mrs. Salaman nevertheless presents the way of life of the older generation without intruding upon it any of that weighted comment which we have almost come to expect in descriptions of this kind. Nowadays the danger of such an intrusion being ironic or sarcastic is less than it once was; the danger now—as any attentive reader of the Jewish periodicals can hardly fail to have noticed—is almost invariably that of excessive insistence by the author on the value of what is being presented, whether this insistence comes in the form of nostalgia, outright propaganda, or a wry I-know-it’s-irrational-but-all-the-same kind of approach, which assures us simultaneously both of the author’s sophistication and of his purity of heart.

In the present case, however, one feels with relief that the description of the preparations for Passover, of the women sitting on the floor bewailing the destruction of the Temple, of Zalmonka reciting the Book of Esther to the women while the men are at synagogue, even of the curses and benedictions which the narrator’s mother uses so freely—these, simply, are what other Jewish writers are forever merely talking about. Mrs. Salaman is too busy showing it to us to talk about it; and she lets us draw our own conclusions about what she has shown. Not that she abdicates from her task of evaluating what she presents, but the evaluation is in the action itself, not outside it as covert or overt exhortation. We are shown a people whose day-to-day lives are inextricably and unquestioningly involved with religion, ritual, and seasonal observance; if the description of this life makes a demand upon us to reconsider our own dispersed and largely secular culture, it does so by its own virtue, and not because of any special inflections or asides or tones of voice on the part of the author.

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The life led by the family is far from idyllic; in Russia between 1905 and 1917 it could hardly be anything else. The outside world presses heavily on the family group—in hostility, in the threat of pogroms, in accusations of ritual murder, in children merely hissing “Judas” over the fence every other day. But to the narrator the outside world is attractive too. There is the reading group of Gentiles and Jews who gather to discuss the works of Tolstoy and Turgenev and Andreyev; there are the glimpses she has of the lives of her Gentile schoolfellows, which seem so much richer and freer than her own. (Her father rages because her brother, aged about twelve, secretly keeps a pair of doves. “Next thing,” the father shouts in horror, “it will be billiards!”) But what is less rich in some ways seems to her fuller in others; what is a source of insecurity in the outside world is within itself the source of security: the girl is tugged both ways. And even within the devoted family group itself there are strains and anxieties: the narrator’s father is a victim of ulcers, alternately timid and choleric; the mother irritates the narrator with her lack of education; the grandmother, the narrator learns, does not give her love equally to all the members of the family. A younger sister dies, the grandfather dies, toward the end—causing the most grief—the grandmother dies.

All this is given to us simply and unsentimentally, and so too is a sense of what it is like to grow up—to learn more, to see more, to experience the bewilderment at the responsibilities toward the self and others that growing up involves.

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But The Fertile Plain is not by any means an unhappy book. The narrator is grateful for what life offered to her—she liked school, and loved some of her teachers; she liked listening to her grandmother’s stories; she read; she enjoyed the decorum of the religious festivals, the friendships with girls at her school. These are all taken at their full value, without hindsights, comments of superiority from the pressent, or unchecked nostalgia, or regret, or anything else unnecessary to the re-creation of things as they were.

An impressive example of this scrupulousness is the last chapter, which tells what happened in 1917 when the news of the revolution came to the town. It is quite unlike anything one might expect. Crowds walked in the streets, bands played, processions marched aimlessly about, the clergy came out in their robes and blessed the crowds and the revolution, everyone was casually and absurdly happy. In a previous chapter we are told in relation to the later adventures of one character, “By then we were in the thick of a terrible civil war. Alexander’s parents had been killed in a pogrom and only people like mother continued to say ‘unheard of’. . . . Everything by then was unheard of.” That is almost the only sentence in the book which tells us of what was to happen as a result of the revolution which was celebrated that afternoon; but neither that nor anything else is permitted to despoil the memory of the afternoon. Because the narrator is unashamed of the happiness she shared with everyone else, she can recall it in its fulness, and it is from this that the chapter derives its especial poignance.

Mrs. Salaman has approached the English language from the outside—in the short extracts given above the reader can possibly feel as un-English the rhythms of the language, the way the words are put together. They are not the less effective for being that. Again and again even the reader who knows the Russian masters only in translation cannot but be reminded that it must have been from Tolstoy and Turgenev and Chekhov that Mrs. Salaman learned how to write. It is the measure of The Fertile Plain that in its modest way it does succeed in putting itself into a literary relationship with these writers, and that from them it can claim to be decently, legitimately descended.

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