In the late 1970s, four young American students arrived at Cambridge. Bill Buford and Don Guttenplan went on to become two leading literary journalists; Ric Burns is now one of America’s outstanding TV documentary makers; and Jonathan Levi became one of the best Jewish American writers of recent years.
The strangest thing about Levi’s first novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, is that it was published in the US in 1992 but has only just appeared here in this paperback edition following the warm reception for his recent book, Septimania.
The 25-year wait is strange is because A Guide for the Perplexed is a clever, ambitious and super-smart novel.
The story moves between two female narrators: Holland and Hanni. Holland is the younger, while Hanni was born in the 1920s, spent the war in Berlin and has now come to Spain, looking for some ancient letters. Both have a curious relationship with Ben, a mysterious figure. If Charlie from Charlie’s Angels was a travel agent, he would be Ben.
The novel is literary, full of references to texts, maps and letters. Hanni is in search of the Esau Letter, “a letter, a history, a deathbed testament”, written by Eliyahu ben Moshe Halevy to his son, Eliphaz, in 1506. The title is lifted from another key character in the book, the Jewish thinker, Maimonides — the Rambam. It is also a travel guide written by Ben.
Levi’s book constantly moves back and forward in time. Hanni and Holland reflect on their lives, their families, past lovers and extraordinary escapades. Past moments keep erupting into the present: stories of the relations of Jews, Muslims and Christians in early modern Spain or the near past, New York in the 1930s, wartime Berlin, or Franco’s Spain.
What is most engaging about the novel is its range. It moves from Spinoza and Dante to Prufrock, Bette Davis and Mischa Elman. At one point, Hanni comes across an old Spanish bordello. There’s a guest book in which she finds names including Hemingway, Picasso, Goya and Pope Alexander IV. You can see why critics have compared Levi with Cynthia Ozick and John Barth.
A Guide for the Perplexed is constantly on the move, as befits a novel about a travel agent (or two if you include Hanni’s father).
One of the best passages in the book comes when Hanni describes accompanying a Jewish violinist (the novel is full of violinists) from Berlin — where he has attempted to assassinate Hitler — to the French-Spanish border and then back across Europe to Berlin just as the war is ending.
The journey features a suicide, a rape scene, childbirth and much, much more.
Above all, Levi is a superb storyteller. The novel is full of narrators, bursting to tell their stories: Jews from 16th-century Cordoba, the story of the daughter of Maimonides, and, of course, the Wandering Jew. These are gripping, fantastic stories, full of life and energy. The New York Times Book Review called it “A fable of fantastical lushness.” If anything, this undersells it.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer
A Guide to the Perplexed is published by Duckworth (£8.99)