The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper
Elliot Perlman
Faber & Faber, 576pp, £14.99

It's rare to find a book as bafflingly unaware of the basic etiquette between author and reader as The Street Sweeper. One of the functions
of the novelist is to facilitate an introduction to their characters. Whether this is minimal, brusque, fond or lavish depends on temperament and tone.

Yet if you don't trust that your reader has, by page 140, grasped that Adam Zignelik is a young, untenured history professor at Columbia University, as he was when first encountered on page 19; or that his friend Charles is the first African American chair of the history department; or that Charles's wife is called Michelle; if you are still repeating these and other basic facts not only in every scene but also in consecutive paragraphs, then you have gravely misunderstood the point of fiction.

History, however, depends upon repetition. Without obsessive reiteration, the past ceases to exist. This isn't just Elliot Perlman's preferred technique; it's his grand theme. Zignelik, son of a prominent civil rights lawyer, accidentally discovers a forgotten cache of recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors made just after the end of the Second World War. Meanwhile, Michelle's cousin Lamont Williams, a recently released convict, has taken a probationary job as a janitor at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre. There, he is befriended by an elderly man who turns out not only to have survived Auschwitz but to have been involved in the Sonderkommando revolt, the Jewish uprising that succeeded in blowing up one of the crematoria. These two storylines, both based on real events, gradually converge in the kind of stage-managed, everything-is-connected mode of history popularised by Dan Brown.

There are other similarities. Perlman, a former lawyer, tends towards the didactic. One might think that with two paid-up professors among the cast, he could channel this by way of lectures ("'And what of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?' Adam Zignelik asked his 'What is history?' class rhetorically"). But no. The narrator still likes to chime in, filling any possible gaps with a Polyfilla of footnotes and addendums. It's hard to work out the purpose of
lines such as these:

So, notwithstanding his admiration for Barbara Tuchman, this aspect of her life was unknown to him and therefore incapable of inspiring him to take a chance and have a child with Diana irrespective of what was to happen to him professionally. Armed with this ignorance, he stood, almost 40, with the key in the front door of his apartment.

From whose point of view does this arise? Could information be conveyed more crudely?

There's no doubt, clumsiness aside, that this is a deeply well-intentioned and well-researched work. It has a bibliography - unusual in a novel - and a list of interviewees. It graphically depicts not only Auschwitz but also the atrocities of 20th-century racism in America. It includes little-known aspects of history, among them the role of black troops in the liberation of concentration camps and the alliance between African Americans and Jews in the formation of the civil rights movement (though the repeated description of someone as a "honey-skinned woman" makes one wonder how thorough this consciousness-raising was). But it also takes liberties with the past in ways that, well-meaning or not, are profoundly problematic.

The testimonies that Zignelik discovers were recorded by Henry Border, a Jewish psychologist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who abandoned his wife, Rosa Rabinowicz, in pre-war Poland for infidelity. Later, in a crescendo of coincidences, she's revealed to be one of the women tortured and executed for smuggling the gunpowder used in the Sonderkommando uprising.

Both these characters are based on real people. Rosa is a saccharine version of the extraordinary Roza Robota, who was - though you wouldn't know it from this account - a committed activist before the war. Border is based on David Boder, the oral history pioneer, who wrote I Did Not Interview the Dead, based on his work in displaced persons camps. They weren't married, don't seem to have known each other personally and weren't motivated, or in Boder's case compromised, by the romantic entanglements presented here.

In a novel less obsessed with the importance of passing on testimony, this might not matter. When there are whole conversations dedicated to correcting the pronunciation of Polish place names, however, this sort of mangling of the historical record cannot possibly go unexamined. If you are describing people who, at great personal risk, recorded the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz, sometimes burying these archives beneath feet of earth in the hope that someone would find them and understand what happened, then you cannot whimsically play with real lives simply for the sake of providing narrative momentum, particularly when the insistence on continually recapitulating even minor plot details serves as a dragging counterweight.

In this climate, it seems more than superficially ironic that the phrase the novel revolves around, derived from Rabinowicz's final words, should be: "Tell everyone what happened here." For what it's worth, the real Roza is said to have shouted, "Be Strong!" or, "Be strong and have courage!" as she was taken to the gallows. Nonetheless, the fictional version is sound advice, both for the historian and the novelist. One only wishes that Perlman had taken it to heart and not just repeated it, over and over and over again.

Olivia Laing's "To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface" is published by Canongate (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide