The school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.
The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately – long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births. Continue reading
It’s amazing how many North Londoners have taken me aside in a furtive, conspiratorial kind of manner, in order to ask me for the truth. ‘Go on,’ a new acquaintance might urge, within moments of our meeting, ‘you can tell me. Who is it based on? Who are they really? I won’t tell anyone.’ Many people share the conviction that fiction must draw its cast members, if not its story lines, from the writer’s own life, and that conviction seems to be redoubled when the fiction in question takes place in a specific, familiar world. I grew up in Golders Green, a small Jewish suburb in North London, and my novel The Innocents is set nearby, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable.
The truth, however, is less scandalous. My fiction is just that – fiction – as are my characters. I have lived in north-west London for almost my whole life, during which I have had more than three decades to make a fond, if sometimes exasperated study of its nuances, its climate, its residents. North London and I are old, old friends. And so Adam and Rachel are truly based on no one in particular, because each is based on a hundred people – just as they are formed, like any character in fiction, from who-knows-what preoccupations dredged from the murky bottom of my psyche. Rather than simply to create portraits of people one knows in real life, the fantastic joy and liberation of writing is to spend time in the company of the new people one has invented, and to discover what will happen to them.
Francesca Segal’s novel The Innocents is now available.
I would never have set out to recast a classic, Pulitzer-winning American novel– it seemed the height of chutzpah. But once the idea took up residence in my mind it proved impossible to dislodge. I was living in New York when I read it – far away from the Jewish community in north-west London in which I have lived for most of my life. And, reading a novel set in 1870’s haute New York society, I felt such an unexpected, urgent, vivid sense of recognition that I could no longer imagine writing another word until I had written this. The trappings were different but the social concerns, the pressures, the closeness and longevity of friendships, the judgement, the parochialism, and the paramount importance of What Everybody Thinks – it was just the same. Golden Age New York to Golders Green. The central dilemmas remain essential and unresolved.
Wharton’s novel provided a vehicle; a means to explore certain questions that intrigued me. What is it that makes a good marriage? Is it friendship and common interest, or is it passion? Is romantic love the cornerstone of a happy life? Are there other loves – parental, familial, communal – that can be equally fulfilling, or do they remain hollow without a driving passion for one soul beside you? I have heard both cases put with eloquence and conviction, and I wanted to examine these, amongst other ideas. I would never presume to tell a reader how to interpret my novel – I adore the conflicting emails I’ve had from readers – equally impassioned messages of either joy or outrage on discovering the choice that Adam ultimately makes between Rachel and Ellie; between safety and freedom; between family and passion.
You can join Francesca Segal and Jewish Book Council on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation.
“For years I could not read Kafka. I would get to the bottom of the first page of The Castle and my brain would seize. Then something clicked inside me and I became obsessed with him. I believe reading Kafka to be a deeply personal experience. You can accept what others tell you Kafka means or you can interpret him for yourself. His enigmatic work lends itself to almost infinite interpretation.”
So too does Yellin’s marvelous story. In the opening paragraph, her narrator announces her intention to throw her past – including her Jewishness – onto the heap of forgotten things so she can start anew. She moves to the English countryside where the Bronte sisters lived — and where she tell us there are no other Jews. She hires a builder to renovate an ancient cottage and encounters, but never speaks to, a mysterious old man the villagers in her new home call Mr. Kafka. Meanwhile she becomes obsessed with the real Kafka, and especially with his relationship to Judaism. The narrator reads from her Introduction to Kafka:
“More than any other writer, Kafka describes the predicament of the secular alienated Jew. Yet his work, so personal on one level, remains anonymously universal. He has no Jewish axe to grind. Nowhere in any of his fictions does Kafka mention the words Jewish, or Jew.”
She finds this remarkable and resolves to determine whether it is true. But when she goes to the village library to begin her search, she gets a surprise. Its copy of The Trial has “a forest of date-stamps, repeated and regular, going back years.” The Castle has also been in heavy circulation. This suggests to her that there is a “profound need for Kafka in Bronteland.” Or is it just one borrower, obsessively checking the books out? Perhaps the local “Mr. Kafka?”
What does all of this mean? Is the mysterious old man really Franz Kafka, somehow miraculously transported from Prague to Yorkshire? And where does this obsession with Kafka’s problematic relationship to Judaism come from, if the narrator is really intent on leaving her past behind? Yellin presents the reader with puzzle pieces but does not insist on a final arrangement. What is clear, however is that the past refuses to stay forgotten. It is everywhere in this story, suffusing the present. It has settled in a dark corner of the local pub and pokes through the plaster ceiling of the narrator’s cottage. Even as she tries to begin her new life, the narrator “rattles the cans of the past behind me willy-nilly.”
- James Patrick Kelly