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That “happy families are all alike” line is rubbish – just consider Ian Buruma's memoir of his grandparents

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War is a personal story of two German-Jewish émigrés as they make a life in England.

It is one of the measures of Tolstoy’s greatness that he has had us all repeating the first line of Anna Karenina – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – as if this statement were both insightful and true. It is certainly striking and suits his purpose as a novelist, whose first job is to get the reader’s attention. If proof were needed, however, that this happy-families-being-alike stuff is rubbish, then turn to Ian Buruma’s moving memoir of his maternal grandparents, Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger.

They called each other “Bun” and “Win” in the decades upon decades of correspondence discovered in the attic of their son John Schlesinger (the film director who won an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy, and Buruma’s uncle). Why so much correspondence between a married couple? The plainest answer is that they met in 1915, at a musical soirée in north London, and were soon separated by the Great War and, a couple of decades later, by another. They were separated even after the First World War by their families, who believed that they were not old enough to know their own minds. They were not allowed to wed until 1925.

But from the beginning to the end – they were married for six decades – they were devoted to each other. “I am sitting in one now deserted & rather shambly room, with memories of your dear self still haunting it,” runs a typical letter from husband to wife, written in 1942, as Bernard is about to be shipped out of England. As a doctor, he had a relatively safe war – but at the time neither knew that he would not be killed, and one of the most striking things about the book is the way in which the letters convey the fear and uncertainty of those years:

Oh the partings. A dark cloud passed over the sun as your train steamed out this morning. I fear it may stay below the horizon for some considerable time for that is my rather gloomy vista whenever you are away from me . . .

Yet the dark cloud that hovers over this book is not merely one of separation. For, although Buruma’s book – part memoir, part biography, part history – begins with memories of Christmas festivities with Bun and Win that were as English as English could be, the Schlesingers were German-Jewish émigrés: Buruma’s great-grandparents were born in Germany. So the book becomes a meditation on identity and the complex place (though rarely acknowledged, either inwardly or outwardly) that such a family occupied in England. One of Buruma’s friends, taken to meet Bun and Win in the 1970s, remarks that his grandparents “were the most English people he had ever met”. Their home – a vicarage in Berkshire next to a mid-Victorian Gothic church – “was like something out of Agatha Christie”.

Buruma shows, with love and care, the forging of this identity, the balancing act required. One of the most fascinating aspects of the conversation between Bun and Win (reading their letters really is like overhearing a conversation) is the way in which they distance themselves from the people they call “45s”. To be “45” was to be overtly Jewish – less assimilated than the Schlesingers. (Buruma has no idea where this term came from: New Statesman readers, can you help?)

Yet they did not ignore what was going on in the world around them. Kristallnacht, starting on 9 November 1938, was the spur for many families in Britain to try to get people out of Germany; but the Schlesingers had begun planning to take in 12 young refugees months before that awful night, and helped raise them to adulthood. The widow of the rabbi who was called in to care for the children’s spiritual welfare says simply of the Schlesingers: “They were angels.”

Both at the beginning and at the end of this lovely book, its author wonders if he is doing the right thing in exposing his grandparents’ lives to us. They were people who believed in propriety: Win took care to burn her father’s letters. “I hope they would have forgiven me for making them public,” he writes. I feel sure that they would.

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War by Ian Buruma is published by Atlantic Books (305pp, £18.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.