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Ideology vs. individual: a novel of ideas

By Thomas Van (bio - articles - email) | May 29, 2014

One of the tragedies of World War II is that, as much as it was “the good war,” many of its winners never completely understood what they were fighting for. This is true even in an external sense – the British and Americans were simply unaware of much of what was going on in Germany, and, even more so, in Eastern Europe, where so much destruction was wrought by the man Winston Churchill and FDR affectionately called “Uncle Joe.”

More important, though, is that the spiritual and ideological nature of the conflict was never properly understood by most. Indeed (and without making too exaggerated a case), in some ways the Allied and the Axis leaders were not so different. There is, of course, the matter of socialism, which manifested itself not only in Germany and Russia but also in postwar Britain, albeit in different forms. But more disturbingly, Churchill himself was a supporter of eugenics and forced sterilization of certain members of society in order to improve what he called “the British breed.” In 1937, speaking to the Peel Commission on the prospect of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, he had made his racial views clear:

I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.

Perhaps it is not surprising, given this attitude to displacing whole peoples from their homelands, that the Displaced Persons of Eastern Europe and elsewhere did not always have an easy time even in the lands of their Allied saviors, and that their smaller, seemingly less important stories were neglected in favor of the larger, simpler narrative of the heroic victory of Western Civilization against Hitler. But perhaps we can learn more from the stories of the victims than of the soldiers, for the victims of the Nazi and Soviet regimes were faced not just with an enemy whose body must be killed but with a whole system, a godless ideology – a spiritual disease which counted individual human lives as worthless against the master race, the almighty State, the inevitable movement of history.

A Tale of Son and Father

It is with such warring ideologies and the persons caught between them that a new novel published by Ignatius is concerned. The Leaves Are Falling, by British author Lucy Beckett, tells two connected stories: first that of Joseph Halpern, a young Jewish D.P. who arrives in England shortly after the war, and then, going back chronologically, the story of his father Dr. Jacob Halperin, a soldier with the Polish army who is stuck with his fellow officers in a Russian prison camp.

The two stories are situated within a frame narrative in which an elderly Joseph Halpern asks a British writer to tell his and his father’s stories. While not terribly interesting in itself, the frame serves the important function of connecting, in reverse chronological order, the two protagonists’ stories into one long, difficult quest for God.

Joe Halpern’s story, which takes up the bulk of the novel, is mainly concerned with Joe’s effort to make a life for himself in England while trying to come to grips with his traumatic experiences in Europe and with his tenuous Jewish identity. As a boy Joe narrowly avoided being killed by both the Nazis and the Soviets. His mother (a German Jew) and sister were shot by Lithuanians on orders from Germans, his rabbi uncle was taken away by Russians for refusing to stop teaching Judaism, and Joe believes his father too was killed in a massacre conducted by the Soviets.

Vilna, which has belonged at various times to Poland, the Soviet Union, and Lithuania, and has been occupied by the Nazis as well, is no longer the home Joe grew up in, and now it belongs to the same Lithuanians who massacred the Jews they had lived with for centuries. He has no desire to return to Europe or risk living under a Communist regime, but England cannot truly be a home for him either, both because of all-too-common anti-Semitism and because even those English who are kind to him do not know or understand the terrible things that have happened in Eastern Europe.

Over decades, Joe begins to understand the ideological forces – primarily national socialism and communism – which have shaped his life, and slowly grows in understanding as he encounters a variety of people – Zionists, Soviet sympathizers, British chauvinists, and most importantly, a man who knew his father. He also struggles to understand God, to believe that his dead family has not ceased to exist. His desire for God is closely tied to his desire to know more about his father, and indeed, it is only in the story of his father’s life, not his own, that Joe’s quest is resolved.

Dr. Jacob Halperin is a good man, yet he is a secular Jew who has never really confronted the question of God’s existence. But in the Soviet prison camp, he is forced to choose between Communism – that grand historical theory in which countless human lives are deemed insignificant against the prospect of a future earthly paradise – and the value of the individual. Both Jacob Halperin and Joseph Halpern know instinctually that human lives matter, and their only way to justify belief in the value of human life is to be thrown back on the living God.

Novel of ideas or didactic novel?

Ironically, though this is a novel dealing with the value of individuals as against ideologies, we get to know many of the characters not so much by their personalities as by the ideas and narratives they express. While the historical, philosophical and cultural themes in play make The Leaves Are Falling a fascinating book, as a novel it would have benefited from a deeper concretization of its themes in its characters and plot. The constant play of ideas in the book is rarely tedious – because those ideas are interesting and well-expressed – but it is continually kept at the surface in conceptual form, rather than fully embedded at a deeper level in order to pierce the soul through the imagination.

Granted that Joe Halpern and Jacob Halperin are both intellectual, introspective types, so that the novel’s heavy reliance on long conversations and inner monologues about history and philosophy does not seem out of place. But the old maxim “Show, don’t tell” is as applicable to dialogue as it is to exposition. It’s not that the book lacks an engaging plot – rather, the premise is compelling enough that it could have carried the themes without needing the protagonists to tell us what it all means. In fact, even the story’s villains are so thorough in describing their thoughts and motivations that external action is almost rendered unnecessary – the soul of the conflict has already been laid out for us in conceptual terms, which tends to leach the plot’s action of some of its urgency.

Clearly there is a thin line separating the novel of ideas from the didactic novel. The only time this particular novel of ideas descends into vulgar didacticism, however, is in the final conversation between the elderly Joe Halpern and his chronicler, in which we are treated with the author’s views (put in Joe’s mouth) on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the history of Zionism, the influence of American chauvinism on Hitler, and more.

It’s not that these pronouncements are necessarily incorrect, but dumped all together into a deathbed rant, they undermine Joe’s whole journey; I can hardly think of anything more pointless than spending one’s dying moments obsessing over what in the cosmic scheme are historical minutiae! Here God is almost an afterthought to historical propaganda (again, whether it is true propaganda or not). Indeed, it is telling that old Joe manages to talk about the Jews for several pages but only mentions God three times, one of those times somewhat half-heartedly. Rather than returning to the frame narrative, then, it might have been better simply to end the book with his father’s story, which seems to provide a more effective resolution.

For the most part, however, these criticisms merely point out how The Leaves Are Falling could have been a better book. It is far from being a bad one, much less is it dull – I found myself staying up too late to finish a chapter more than once. Beckett has not written a great novel, but she has delivered a thought-provoking take on some of the most interesting subject matter the twentieth century has to offer.

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