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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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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