Review: Melnitz


By Charles Lewinsky (Trans: Shaun Whiteside)
Atlantic Books, £17.99

Charles Lewinsky is a prolific, Jewish writer from Switzerland with almost 20 novels, 15 plays and a number of TV series to his name. His novel, Melnitz, is his first work to be translated into English. It is a huge, historical, family saga about the Meijers, a Jewish family in Switzerland.

It starts in 1871 and ends with the Second World War. Solomon Meijer, a cattle dealer, and his family live in Endingen, a small village near the German border.

It is a significant choice: Endingen was one of a few villages in which Swiss Jews were allowed to settle. Old buildings in Endingen have two doors - one for Jews and one for Christians, because Christians and Jews were not allowed to live in the same house. As the novel starts, Swiss Jews still live under some of the centuries-old restrictions.

One night in 1871, the Meijers have just had dinner when there is a hammering at the door. A stranger appears, speaking Yiddish, wearing military uniform, his head heavily bandaged. He is Janki, a cousin who had moved to Paris, served in the Franco-Prussian war and has come to settle with his relatives in Endingen. He unwraps the bloodied bandage, which contains a small treasure in stolen coins.

A strength is its handling of Swiss antisemitism

These help him start a small business and he marries Solomon's adopted daughter, Chanele, with whom he moves to Baden.

Solomon's other daughter, Mimi, marries a young man called Pinchas and they move to Zurich to open a kosher butcher's.

The novel progresses at 20 year-intervals, taking the story of the Meijers from one generation to another, against the larger historical background of central European Jewry.

One of its strengths is the way Lewinsky handles Swiss antisemitism. This brings us to the mysterious Uncle Melnitz, a sort of ghost who appears whenever the Meijers encounter antisemitism. "You think you're safe now," says Melnitz. "But there is no safety."

Fans will compare Melnitz with Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns or Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga. Like these, it is a sprawling family epic of late-19th-century and early-20th-century middle-class life told with a realist's eye for detail. Critics, however, may feel it is more like Herman Wouk's The Winds of War: plenty of romance and lots of history with a capital H, resorting to melodrama whenever the action begins to flag. In attempting to pack in all of Jewish life in Central Europe, Lewinsky unfortunately spreads his material a little too thinly.

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