Review: There's No Home
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Serving scribe: Baron in uniform
By Alexander Baron
Sort of Books, £7.99
Alec Baron was one of the outstanding Jewish writers of the post-war period and, thanks to a group of small publishers, we have been re-introduced to his best novels. His two great subjects were the Second World War and London and There's No Home is the second in his war trilogy.
It is, however, a war novel with a twist. Set during the British invasion of Sicily in 1943, in which Baron served, it doesn't feature a single battle or combat scene. Instead, it is about an interlude in the fighting, as British soldiers pause between the Sicilian campaign and the invasion of Italy.
The novel focuses on the relations between the British soldiers and the local women with whom they become increasingly involved. In particular, it describes the affair between Sergeant Craddock and Graziella - a local, young mother whose husband has disappeared.
Baron had a rare gift for creating characters, bringing to life a disparate group of soldiers until you feel you know the whole of Eight Platoon.
There is the vicious thug, Broom; the cheery Jobling brothers; Craddock, the only one who takes the trouble to learn Italian; and Captain Rumbold. What they have in common is their desire for Sicilian women, a cruelly dismissive way of thinking of the local population, and the speed with which they forget their wives and families at home. Hence the title.
Sicily becomes a code for what men do when they are far from home - so far from home that it has ceased to exist. The Sicilian women offer an alternative form of domesticity until they move on to the next campaign.
Graziella and the other women, of course, see it very differently. They see themselves as centre-stage, not as one short scene in a long and often tragic play. This increasingly gives the novel its tension, the pull between the soldier's life and two kinds of domesticity: one close at hand, the other far away.
There is one striking absence in the novel, first published in 1950. It contains not a single reference to Jews, antisemitism or the Holocaust. On one occasion, Captain Rumbold tells a fellow officer that he is actually called Goldberg but otherwise there is complete silence about Jews and what happened to them in the Second World War.
Does this reflect a larger silence, widespread in post-war British culture, or is this a more personal decision by Baron, keen to make himself a more mainstream, English writer (he had already changed his name from Bernstein)?
It is a fascinating glimpse into Baron's career and into the larger culture. In a superb essay, John L Williams calls Baron, "the great British novelist of the Second World War". Perhaps he is right to wonder whether Waugh and Manning are better known because of their emphasis on officers, whereas Baron's always interested in the infantryman.
This is a powerful and moving novel, immensely readable, and we should be grateful to Sort of Books.