Hercule Poirot: The question is, can Hercule Poirot possibly by wrong?
Mrs. Lorrimer: No one can always be right.
Hercule Poirot: But I am! Always I am right. It is so invariable it startles me. And now it looks very much as though I may be wrong, and that upsets me. But I should not be upset, because I am right. I must be right because I am never wrong.
With A Possibility of Violence, the certainty of a great discussion (accompanied by some brief detective digressions)
On Tuesday, the Usual Suspects enjoyed an exceptionally bracing discussion. D.A. Mishani’s A Possibility of Violence lent itself to analysis on many levels. In fact, the very issue of its Israeli setting and Hebrew language authorship got us going in a variety of different directions.
This title being Pauline’s choice, she gave us some very interesting background on contemporary Israel in general and the Israeli police in particular. It seems that until recently this force was given scant respect by the public. This was partly due to the fact that a majority of its members are drawn from the Sephardic or the Mizrachi communities. This prompted a need for clarification of those terms, along with the term Ashkenazi, for those who were not familiar with them. (Useful elucidation can be found on the site My Jewish Learning.)
Dror Mishani was working on a doctoral dissertation at Cambridge when he met his wife, who was teaching there. Somehow the dissertation never got written. But The Missing File, first entry in the Inspector Avraham Avraham series, did. (Our book, A Possibility of Violence, is second.) Both titles have been well received by critics and readers alike – with good reason, most (but not all) of us thought. Mishani, a lifelong lover of crime fiction, is on the Humanities faculty of the University of Tel Aviv.
In this interview with Lidia Jean Kott of NPR, Mishani explains among other points why there’s such a paucity of Israeli mystery writers.
Our discussion was so lively and wide ranging, it took some doing to get us focused on the novel. Pauline had prepared discussion questions for us. With one of them, we were asked whether A Possibility of Violence was more plot driven or character driven? Or was it both? I can’t recall what was concluded by the group, but for myself, I believe it was both, and that was one of the novel’s primary strengths.
The story begins with the discovery of an unattended suitcase left outside a day care facility. A man named Chaim Sara has a son enrolled there. In addition, he has an older son in grammar school. There is a mystery about the Sara family: the children’s mother, Chaim’s wife Jenny, a Philippine national, is not living with them. Chaim claims that she has gone back to her native country to attend to her sick father. But something about his story does not ring true.
An aside at this point: people had difficulty pronouncing the name ‘Chaim.’ The guttural sound at the beginning was the main problem. There is no equivalent for it in English. Later, I recalled that in the past, that sound was rendered as the letter ‘h,’ rather than ‘ch.’ I was also thinking that if the speaker has any familiarity with the French, German, or Russian languages, he or she has a better chance of being able to produce that guttural.
At any rate, here’s a little YouTube snippet to help out:
(He sounds rather tragic, don’t you think?)
The depiction of Chaim Sara, we agreed, is one of this novel’s most impressive achievements. One cannot help but care about him and feel anxiety about his fate. At the same time, the reader yearns to penetrate his secret. And all this time, his fierce devotion to his sons is bodied forth as the most basic aspect of his existence.
This fact makes it all the vexing that Avi – Avraham Avraham – catches hold of the wrong end of the stick where Chaim is concerned and simply won’t let go until he’s forced to. But there’s a reason for this, and it has to do with a previous case as set forth in The Missing File, the first book in the series. It’s a reason, but it does not excuse Avi’s wrongheadedness. Some in the group understandably disliked him for it and douted his abilities as a detective. We did agree that he is made in the mold of the doubting policeman, who lacks complete confidence in himself. In addition, he is deeply anxious concerning an uncertain element in his personal life: his love for Marianka, a police detective in Belgium. Will this relationship achieve the fruition he so earnestly desires?
This is one of my favorite from among Pauline’s excellent discussion questions: “Is it more satisfying to read about such a flawed investigator or do you prefer a more competent detective such as Montalbano, Brunetti, Maigret, Poirot, etc.?” She then adds: “None of these examples seems to suffer from self-doubt.”
That was enjoyable concept to kick around for a while! (I couldn’t help suggesting that Reg Wexford be added to the list.) A post I did in 2007 entitled The fictional British policeman, in all his (or her) vulnerable glory may be of interest in this context.
Upon second thought, I think there’s something of a continuum here. At one end of the spectrum, the Crown Prince of Rectitude has got to be Hercule Poirot. Here is but one instance of many, from Cards on the Table:
Hercule Poirot: The question is, can Hercule Poirot possibly by wrong?
Maigret does proceed with a slow and quiet assurance that rarely admits of a major gaffe. Brunetti and Wexford, I think, are somewhat more tentative in their intuitions and actions. All three possess the distinct advantage of having supportive and empathetic spouses. (I’m not sufficiently well read in the Montalbano books to comment one way or the other.)
Well, this is a bit of a digression, but the discussion itself was filled with them. (At one point, Frances spoke of the pleasure she derives from these “beside the point” yet provocative meanderings.)
In an interview in Krimi-Couch, an online German mystery magazine, Mishani states:
I’m not trying to write a page-turner, I’m trying to write literature, using the detective genre. So for me, a literary crime novel is a novel about crime, but not only about crime (it is also about society, about language, about literature, about the genre itself etc …)
Pauline shared this quote with us, and then asked us to comment on whether we thought Mishani had achieved this goal in A Possibility of Violence. Naturally the question arose as to what criteria we would apply in this instance. How was the quality of the writing and, by implication, the translation? Were larger themes bodied forth in the narrative? Did the author manage to advance the story according to the maxim, Show, Don’t Tell? Were the motivations of the main characters credible? Was the psychology of the main characters set forth in a believable way? Did the logistics of the plot make sense?
I’m not sure whether we reached a consensus. Some of us had been hoping that more of the sights and sounds of Israel would be featured in the book. On the other hand, the writing was generally praised. It was felt by most, if not quite all of us, that the characters were consistent, believable, and – most important – interesting. Frank was especially impressed by how Mishani generated suspense consistently throughout the novel. He did this through the characters’ distinct personalities, particularly that of Chaim Sara. (Of late, Frank’s writerly perspective has added greatly to our discussions.)
Pauline provided us with the names of some other authors who take as their subject Israel or Palestine. (There are others, but they’ve not yet been translated into English):
Matt Beynon Rees
Before the meeting, she had sent us a link to an article called Reading Israel. Also, it turns out that the Washington DC Jewish Community Center is hosting a Jewish Literary Festival from the 18th to the 28th. Some of the participating writers are David Bezmozgis, Etgar Keret, Laura Vapnyar, and Michael Pollan.
Pauline has a friend who has met Dror Mishani. She asked her friend to e-mail him and ask when his next Avraham Avraham novel will be available for English speakers to read. He responded that it should be out in a few months and that he’s currently reviewing the translation. The book’s title is The Man Who Wanted To Know. As for us, we’re the book group that wants to know! I think most of us plan to read it when it becomes available.
Pauline’s friend also found out that Mishani is currently in the U.S. teaching at the University of Massachusetts until January, at which time he will probably be relieved to be departing New England’s notorious winter for the warmer climes of the Middle East. He expressed himself happy and willing to talk to our group if we’re close by. Louise immediately suggested a field trip!
We agreed that this series would be great for television. We’ve now got detectives from Sweden, Italy, France, and doubtless other countries on the small screen. Come on, Israel! This could be your moment.
I have no doubt that I’ve omitted plenty and possibly made some errors. Therefore: corrections, questions, comments, and clarifications are all welcome, either here on WordPress or via Facebook.
Lately, there’s been so much in the news that’s appalling and heartbreaking; I wanted to offer two items as harbingers, however small, of hope.
Second: a while back, in Chicago, my son Ben and I were watching my granddaughter Etta at soccer practice:
Meanwhile, Ben had struck up a conversation with another Dad. When he realized he hadn’t introduced himself, he did so, with an extended hand:
Hi, I’m Ben.
The other extended his hand also, smiled, and responded:
Hi, I’m Mohamed.
I remember thinking immediately, This is one of the (many) reasons that I, granddaughter of immigrants. love this country.
A post on Agatha Christie, in which I examine a vexed and vexing question and come to a (sort of) conclusion
Earlier this month, on the 15th to be exact, The Irish Times published a feature with this provocative title: Agatha Christie: genius or hack? Crime writers pass judgment and pick favourites. The ostensible occasion is the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, but probably, any excuse to write about ‘the Queen of Crime’ will suffice. Among the authors who contributed to this worthy enterprise are Val McDermott, Sophie Hannah, Linwood Barclay, Laura Wilson, Dror Mishani, and Joseph Finder. Several indicated that it was their youthful reading in the Christie oeuvre that was part of the reason that they themselves entered the field of crime writing.
One person who is emphatically not of this viewpoint is John Banville. Here’s the first paragraph of his comments:
When I was a boy, back around the close of the Stone Age, I was an avid reader of the novels of Agatha Christie. Nowadays I am with Edmund Wilson, the title of whose 1945 New Yorker essay, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, expresses my feelings exactly. I say ‘novels’, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time.
“Ashen sense of futility and wasted time”? That’s a pretty harsh judgment, I think. For my part, when I finish a Christie book or story, I usually think, Well, that was a pleasant interlude – or sentiments to that effect. True, I’m not ordinarily raised to a state of exaltation – but neither am I cast down as Banville apparently is.
At any rate, John Banville has been taken to task for these sour sentiments by Xavier Lechard on his excellent blog Up at the Villa Rose. See “A Neanderthalian view of Christie.”
Meanwhile this past Thursday, the blogger at The Passing Tramp (I believe this is Curtis Evans’s blog) posted a compilation of top twenty Christie books from thirty-one lists. (He also appends a list from The World’s Favorite Christie.) There’s more Christie lore to be found on The Passing Tramp.
And Then There Were None repeatedly appears as readers’ favorite Christie novel. Some years ago, when I finally got around to reading this book, I was already a confirmed Christie fan. With regard to this particular title, I’d been forewarned that it contained some offensive material. Nevertheless, I was stopped in my tracks when, early on, I came upon a tossed off sentence containing a disparaging reference to a particular ethnic group – mine, as it happens.
Reading on, I encountered more of this sort of thing, including the repugnant “n” word, freely used. (It’s worth recalling that this novel has gone through several title changes before acquiring the one presently in common usage. You can find comprehensive coverage of the book’s publication history in the Wikipedia entry, but please be advised: once there, you’ll be confronted by the original, obectionable – at least, to present day eyes – cover image.)
The question arises as to what attitude one is to adopt with regard to these offensive expressions. It’s certainly understandable that a reader might think, “This is intolerable’ and set the volume aside. Or you can cope with your annoyance by remembering the historical context and soldier on, forgiving to an extent but not forgetting.
In her biography of Agatha Christie, published in 1990, Gillian Gill states:
A kind of jingoistic, knee-jerk anti-Semitism colors the presentation of Jewish characters in many of her early novels, and Christie reveals herself to be as unreflective and conventional as the majority of her compatriots.
Then several pages later, on the same subject:
Christie’s anti-Semitism had always been of the stupidly unthinking rather than the deliberately vicious kind. As her circle of acquaintances widened and she grew to understand what Nazism really meant for Jewish people, Christie abandoned her knee-jerk anti-Semitism. What is more, even at her most thoughtless and prejudiced, Christie saw Jews as different, alien, and un-English, rather than as depraved or dangerous–people one does not know rather than people one fears.
Whether the above elucidation can be taken as exculpatory or not depends on the individual reader.
In the years immediately following the Second World War, Dodd Mead, Christie’s American publisher, began to receive objections from the reading public to the anti-Semitic comments found in her books. Christie’s literary agents then provided assurances that such denigration would not appear in future publications. In addition, Dodd Mead was given permission to delete those that were present in existing texts.
I can only assume that later versions of the novels in question – the ones that were ‘scrubbed’ by Dodd Mead – were reissued in their original form. My copy of And Then There Were None was published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks in May 2001.
According to Malcolm J. Turnbull, in Victims or Villains:
Although “foreigners” continued to be targeted by the writer from time to time, most strikingly, the household of international eccentrics in Hickory Dickory Dock, with one minor exception Jews ceased to figure negatively in Christie’s work from that time on.
(The exception being referred to appears in They Came to Baghdad, which was published in 1951.)
Agatha Christie wrote an autobiography, the composition of which took place over period of years, roughly from 1950 to 1965. It did not, however, reach the public until after her death in 1976. (It was actually first published in November 1977.) In it, Christie describes her experiences accompanying her husband, the distinguished archaeologist Max Mallowan, on his various “digs” in the Middle East. In the early 1930s, they became acquainted with Dr. Julius Jordan, the German Director of Antiquities in Baghdad.
Dr. Jordan invited the couple to be his guests, along with others, for tea at his house. He entertained them by playing works by Beethoven on the piano. What followed is best told in Christie’s own words:
He had a fine head, and I thought, looking at him, what a splendid man he was. He had seemed always gentle and considerate. Then there was mention by someone, quite casually, of Jews. His face changed; changed in an extraordinary way that I had never noticed on anyone’s face before.
He said: “You do not understand. Our Jews are perhaps different from yours. They are a danger. They should be exterminated. Nothing else will really do but that.”
I stared at him unbelievingly. He meant it. It was the first time I had come across any hint of what was to come later from Germany. People who had travelled there, were, I suppose, already realising it at that time, but for ordinary people in 1932 and 1933, there was a complete lack of fore-knowledge.
She reflects further:
On that day as we sat in Dr. Jordan’s sitting-room and he played the piano, I saw my first Nazi – and I discovered later that his wife was an even fiercer Nazi than he was. They had a duty to perform there: not only be Director of Antiquities or even to work for their country, but also to spy on their own German ambassador.
And finally, this concluding sentence:
There are things in life that make one truly sad when one can make oneself believe them.
End of subject.
I was born into a Jewish family. My parents were first generation Americans, their parents – my grandparents – having emigrated to this country from the Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire, in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Ours was not an especially religious household. But we lived in a primarily Jewish city – Miami Beach, Florida, in the 1950s and 1690s. Ethnically we were thoroughly Jewish. Matzoh brei, gefilte fish, kasha varnishkes, temple on the High Holy Days. It was all there.
For me, the practice of the religion and its attendant rituals has largely fallen away. But I am still Jewish, oh yes, to the soles of my feet I am. I’ve been fortunate in experiencing very little in the way of overt anti-Semitism. But I can tell you, on the one or two occasions when I have, it is felt like the proverbial blow to the solar plexus.
Any instance of anti-Semitic expression makes me both angry and sad. I hate any and all expressions of ethnic and racial bias, but of course, one feels it most keenly when it’s one’s own group that is targeted. So how do I feel about the presence of such material in the works of Agatha Christie?
I wish it were not there. I find it frustrating, offensive, dispiriting. And yet…Do I close the book? Do I stop reading? No. I come back to Gillian Gill’s adjectives: ‘knee-jerk,’ ‘unreflective.’ I accept that description of Agatha Christie’s negative portrayal of certain of her Jewish characters. I wish she’d been more reflective. But she was not. At least, not in the early years of her authorial career.
I am speaking as one who continues to read and enjoy the works of this extraordinarily gifted writer of crime fiction. She was not perfect, but then neither am I. I wish I could have known her. I cherish fond memories of visiting her home, in company of the remarkably Christie scholar John Curran.
More on the novels and stories in posts to come. I welcome comments on the above.
Gillian Gill has more to say on this subject in her Christie biography. As for Malcolm J. Turnbull’s book, its full title is Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction. It was published by Bowling Green State University Press in 1998. Several years ago, I read a reference to it and ordered it immediately. I then placed it in among my mystery collections and forgot about it. Writing this post served as a reminder that I do in fact own it.
One final word on And Then There Were None. My recollection of the novel – apart from what was discussed above – is that it consisted of an elaborately contrived plot with virtually no attention paid to character development or mood. I admit I’m puzzled by its great popularity.
In the upper left hand corner is a snapshot taken in 1936 of Emmy von Ephrussi and her grandsons, Victor and Constant de Waal.
In the upper right is seen a detail of the ceiling in the study of Palais Ephrussi, in Vienna.
In the lower left, Emmy von Ephrussi as a young woman out dancing.
In the lower right, German tanks in Vienna, March 14, 1938.
This is what happened.
The rise of the Ephrussi, a Jewish family, began in Odessa.
Odessa was a city within the Pale of Settlement, the area on the western borders of imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. It was famous for its rabbinical schools and synagogues, rich in literature and music, a magnet for the impoverished Jewish shtetls of Galicia. It was also a city that doubled its population of Jews and Greeks and Russians every decade, a polyglot city full of speculation and traders, the docks full of intrigues and spies, a city on the make.
The family business, masterminded by Charles Joachim Ephrussi, centered on the exporting of wheat grown in the fertile fields of the Ukraine. The venture proved so prosperous that wealth began to accumulate. Seeking an environment more congenial to their enterprise, the Ephrussi moved their business to Vienna.
Some of the Ephrussi siblings preferred to live in Paris. It is there that this story really begins: the story of how the collection comprising 264 netsuke was amassed by Charles Ephrussi. Author Edmund de Waal sums it up succinctly: “It is a very big collection of very small objects.” One of those objects is the hare with amber eyes. .
Charles Ephrussi was an aesthete par excellence. In collecting netsuke, he was following the new fad for all things Japanese: “Japanese things – lacquers, netsuke, prints – conjure a picture of a place where sensations are always new, where art pours out of daily life, where everything exisis in a dream of endless beautiful flow.” Charles also collected the works of Impressionist painters. Indeed, he knew Renoir, Gustav Moreau, and others. He also knew many writers of the period; at certain points, Proust floats dreamily into this somewhat magical narrative.
What periodically brings the magic crashing to Earth is the inescapable undercurrent of anti-Semitism. The very presence of Charles at the city’s fashionable salons is repugnant to writer and taste maker Edmond de Goncourt, who complains that those venues have become “infested with Jews and Jewesses.” L’Affaire Dreyfus, which broke out in 1894, served to make matters worse.
At the beginning of the new century, Charles sent his netsuke collection and the vitrine in which they were displayed to his cousin Viktor in Vienna as a wedding present.
Charles Ephrussi appears in Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party. He is the gentleman in the top hat, toward the rear of the painting:
Charles lived near and knew another prosperous art-loving Jewish family, that of Nissim de Camondo. Their home has been preserved as a museum of decorative arts. Click here to access the museum’s website (in French) and learn more about the family.
Like his father, Charles Ephrussi possessed a weak heart. He was in his mid fifties when he died. The year was 1905.
As we have seen, the netsuke have already been relocated to Vienna. Since Edmund de Waal’s stated purpose in writing this book is to trace the progress of that collection, the setting of the narrative now shifts to that city.
Fin de siecle Vienna was a famously fascinating place, filled with artists, musicians, and writers, with a cafe society that was the envy of the rest of the world. It was also a city with a burgeoning Jewish population. Jews of Vienna had achieved a prominence only dreamed of in former times:
Vienna was a city, said Jakob Wassermann at the turn of the century, where “all public life was dominated by the Jews. The banks. The press, the theatre, literature, social organisations, all lay in the hands of the Jews…I was amazed at the host of Jewish physicians, attorneys, clubmen, snobs, dandies, proletarians, actors, newspapermen and poets.” In fact, 71 per cent of financiers were Jewish, 65 per cent of lawyers were Jewish, 59 per cent of doctors were Jewish, and half of Vienna’s journalists were Jewish.
Among the stars of this new Jewish aristocracy were the banker Viktor von Ephrussi and his beautiful young wife Emmy. Life flowed along in the Palais Ephrussi on the renowned Ringstrasse. There were balls and dinner parties, elegant clothes and jewelry, a fine library assembled by Viktor, and beautiful works of art.
Four children of Emmy and Viktor lived to adulthood. The were Elisabeth, Gisela, Ignace, and Rudolf. Elisabeth was Edmund de Waal’s grandmother. More about her presently.
You would think that all this wealth and success would presage a dawning of freedom and acceptance for the Jewish population of this most cosmopolitan of cities. You would think this. But you would be wrong:
The flavour of Viennese anti-Semitism was different from Parisian anti-Semitism. In both places it happened both overtly and covertly. But in Vienna you could expect to have your hat knocked off your head on the Ringstrasse for looking Jewish (Schnitzler’s Ehrenberg in The Way into the Open, Freud’s father in The Interpretation of Dreams), be abused as a dirty Jew for opening a window in a train carriage (Freud), be snubbed at a meeting of a charity committee (Emilie Ephrussi), have yout lectures at the unniversity interrupted by cries of ‘Juden hinaus!’ – ‘Jews out!’ – until every Jewish student had pickedd up his books and left.
Somehow the Jews of Vienna were able to prosper and to enjoy life despite these repulsive gestures. But as we all know, that state of affairs changed drastically in 1938. Edmund de Waal describes in pitiless detail what was done to the Ephrussi family as Nazi fervor gripped the city. Everything they held dear was taken from them and desecrated or destroyed – or if valuable, sold to the highest gentile bidder.
Besides the confiscation of all their worldly goods, the purpose of this unprovoked cruelty was to humiliate persons of Jewish heritage to the greatest degree possible – to reduce them, in other words, to a stereotype of themselves:
They are beaten, of course; but they are also forbidden to shave or wash so that they look even more degenerate. This is because it is important to address the old affront of Jews not looking like Jews. This process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch-chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble to hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping you back to your essential character – wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back.
Viktor, Emmy, and young Rudolf would surely have perished had it not been for Elisabeth. She was living elsewhere at the time that this Hell on Earth was being visited on her family in Vienna. In an act of tremendous courage, she traveled to the eye of the storm and rescued them. (Elisabeth was a person of singular achievement. The first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Vienna, she was also a poet and carried on a lively correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke.)
At this point, I’d like to inject a personal note. This section of the book was extremely difficult for me to read. At first, I felt exasperated with the Ephrussi family: Viktor, wrapped about in his financial dealings, Emmy pampered by maids, making endless social rounds, both of them indulging in intermittent love affairs. Their complacency, and Emmy’s apparent frivolity, made me want to scream: Wake up! A cataclysm is heading straight for you. But soon I stopped blaming the victims. I felt instead a towering sadness for them. This in turn led to feelings of extreme anger and – I was surprised by this – a desire for revenge. This last was exacerbated by de Waal’s statement that at the war’s end, there was a general amnesty in Austria. No one was held accountable.
I looked into my own heart, and I realized something: I could run from my roots, but I could not hide. Once again, they had found me out; they were pointing a finger at me and reminding me: This is your legacy, too.
The Palais Ephrussi currently houses shops and is the headquarters of Casinos Austria.
I have here provided only the cursory outline of a complex story. I finished this book several months ago. It has no index – I think it should have – nor is there a “look inside the book” option for this title on Amazon. This has made fact checking very difficult. I apologize for any errors I may have made as a result.
Despite the excruciating parts of this book, I urge you to read it. As you have no doubt already gathered, Edmund de Waal, a potter and ceramics professor, writes beautifully. Early in my reading of The Hare with Amber Eyes, I looked up his Wikipedia entry and was surprised to find him described as “the son of Rev. Dr. Victor de Waal, a Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.” But how on Earth…? The British subtitle of this book is “A Hidden Inheritance.” Hidden no more, once you’ve read the story of this family.
And finally, against all odds, the netsuke made their way to Edmund de Waal in England. The story of how this happened stands as a tribute to one person’s determination to do the right thing in a world gone mad. Each of these tiny objects was a talisman. They kept faith with their owners, and their owners kept faith with them.
Here is Edmund de Waal: