After Henry Roth, after Isaac Bashevis Singer, after Saul Bellow, after Philip Roth, after Grace Paley, after Mordecai Richler, after Cynthia Ozick, after countless other writers secular and religious, socialist and conservative, Zionist and assimilationist, subversively funny and sombrely nostalgic, is there really anything new to be said about the Jewish immigrant experience? Quite a lot, in fact, as David Bezmozgis proves with his impressive debut novel, the follow-up to his much-celebrated 2004 collection, Natasha and Other Stories.
Born in Latvia in 1973, Bezmozgis is the child of that isolated fragment of the Jewish diaspora that has arguably received the least literary attention: the Soviet Jews, who had a shadowy life under Communism and became the centre of an immense global liberation struggle from the 1960s until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Thanks to a hard-hitting protest campaign, more than two million Soviet Jews were allowed to flee the USSR and resettle all over the world. Some went to Israel, but many others found new homes in faraway cities such as Sydney, New York, London, and, in the case of the Bezmozgis clan, Toronto.
Unlike earlier waves of Jewish immigrants, Soviet Jews weren’t shtetl peasants who ended up in inner city tenements. They were mostly urban to start with, and many landed in scattered suburbs. What made Natasha so fresh was the way it captured a new and freaky suburban immigrant gestalt: the oddness of people speaking the language of Tolstoy in the land of Mel Lastman.
Memory is the great muse of modern Jewish fiction. Like his distinguished predecessors, Bezmozgis’s deepest impulse is to recreate “the world of our fathers” (to use the resonant phrase of critic and historian Irving Howe). In The Free World, Bezmozgis’s nostalgia for the Jewish past finds narrative focus in a pregnant moment in time: the summer and fall of 1978, when the Krasnanskys, a Latvian Jewish family, find themselves stranded in Rome. Although they’ve escaped the Soviet Union, the Krasnanskys don’t know where they’ll be allowed to resettle. Like the earlier heroes of Kafka or Bellow, they are caught in bureaucratic limbo, and uncertain of their future.
This interminable sojourn is made worse by domestic tensions both personal and ideological. Samuil, ostensibly the patriarch, is an old-school Communist unwillingly dragged to the West by his two anti-Soviet sons. Karl, the eldest, has Zionist predilections, while younger brother Alec is an apolitical skirt chaser – though none of the Krasnansky men is perfectly faithful. We learn about the family’s complicated and troubled history through flashbacks dating back to the Russian Revolution.
Immigration, in Bezmozgis’s rendering, isn’t just the story of fleeing tyranny for freedom. Leaving your native land is a tough personal journey with an immense psychic cost. As the narrator of the novel sardonically notes, many unhappy couples “remained together just long enough to get to the free world – whose freedom they’d defined in no small measure as freedom from each other.”
Still shy of his fortieth birthday, Bezmozgis is a remarkably polished and proficient writer whose sentences are neatly trimmed and sharply focused. In the fine tradition of the modern short story, he has a keen eye for epiphanies. As befits his career as an occasional filmmaker, he conveys character by action and dialogue rather than internal reflection.
But the analogy with cinema also points to some of Bezmozgis’s limitations: there is something calculated and cold about his fiction. Bellow and Richler invested their prose with emotional partisanship and an almost visceral responsiveness to the sensual world. Bezmozgis, by contrast, seems like an old-fashioned documentary filmmaker, eager to record the movements of his characters but careful not to become involved in their lives.
This emotional distance is most notable in the portrayal of Samuil, a troublingly static character: his main personality trait is his rigid ideological adherence to Communism. He remains unchanged, allowing himself only the smallest doubts about Marxism. This fixity of character is implausible and, more importantly, makes Samuil uninteresting.
Bezmozgis’s background as a short story writer is in evidence in The Free World, and not always in a positive light. The book often feels less like a novel than a collection of anecdotes stitched together. Almost all these stories are worth reading, but the book as a whole lacks momentum. It’s not until the final third that the plot kicks in, with the unfolding consequences of a particularly ill-advised love affair.
But whatever flaws The Free World has, Bezmozgis is unquestionably one of the star writers of his generation. He not only grapples with an important modern story, he does so with undeniable authenticity and intelligence.