Weep Not For The Dead. By Michel Matveev. 297 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50.
After thousands of years the Jews are still wandering across the face of the earth. Their migrations in tribes, in groups, in families, or individually have supplied hundreds of historians and poets with the material for songs and tales. The reasons for the migrations are always the sameâ€”long years of persecutions and terror, and then flight. But in detail the stories are always new and always painful. Michel Matveev is the latest to turn with new inspiration to the old, old theme. His book, although it is personal insofar as it recounts the flight of himself and his family before the wave of post-war pogroms in Russia, has been raised above a journalistic report by the power of his imagination and the depth of his feeling for his race. Indeed, in some passages, it achieves the lofty tone of an epic.
“Weep Not For the Dead” opens in the midst of a pogrom. There is a shot. Michel, the young singer who hitherto has dreamed only of his art, feels chill menace in the air. Now he smiles uneasily. He knows it might be his own home they are firing into. But he has lived with fear too long for it to turn to panic now. The murder, the raping, the looting have not fed on momentary frenzy and mad hate; this pogrom has been developed quietly, carefully, “prepared psychologically beforehand to kill people already half dead with fear.”
It is only the young who still have the courage to flee, so Matveev and his young wife escape to Egypt, where they raise money by their profession of singing. They feel uneasy about the rest of their family, hearing as they do about continued unrest in Russia; they go to Rumaniaâ€”oh, sad decisionâ€”from which point they plan to smuggle out Matveev’s mother, brother and sister-in-law.
There they fall foul of the Sigourantza, the Rumanian secret police. They learn that all escaped Jews are considered Bolsheviki in Rumania. They learn that the various relief committees are bogged down in red tape. They learn that their fate is in the hands of the police, who to a man are skilled extortioners or sadistic torturers. The family travels from commissar to commissar, from office to office. Sometimes they are merely made to wait hours and then dismissed. At other times they are clapped into jail with hardened criminals, without a charge or even a muttered reason. And all this just to get their passports in order so that they might leave the country! Finally an extortioner specifically accuses them of being Bolsheviks, and even their Jewish friends shun them. It is then that they learn the true horror of torture in Rumania. The facts can be found in the book, and they are harrowing; here I will spare the reader.
Amidst all their sufferings, the Jews still think, still feel, still want to live. For this, as much as for anything else, they are hated by the torturers, who prefer to see their victims wilt in resignation. It is a wise old peasant who says, “It is a pity that Jews can’t kill; for people who cannot kill can’t live among people who do.”
When at last freedom is granted to the Matveevs, they sail for Palestine. But they cannot land because an Arab uprising is under way. No other country will accept them, and so they are fated to cruise for months from port to port in the Mediterranean, first on one ship, then on another, sometimes in coal bunkers, more often shelterless on the open deck, rarely with enough food to eatâ€”until some country will receive them, or the Arab uprising #eas#s. It is finally in Marseilles that they are permitted to land. In France they begin to build a new, if not altogether happy life for themselves. They are still too broken, too dazed, to slip easily into the grooves of contentment.
“Weep Not for the Dead” is a powerful document. Although the situations and incidents with which it deals are now matters of history, they are typical phenomena of those crises in Jewish life of which we dare not yet hope to have seen the last. This book should be required reading for those of us who think that we can ease our consciences and the burdens of our persecuted brothers in other lands by the mere donation of money.
“Pylon,” by William Faulkner, will be one of the most important novels of this publishing season. For the first time Faulkner proves himself able to handle a theme not based on violence or the psychopathology of sex. He still clings to his oddities of style and to his queer, tormented intensity. But he has written a grand, and exciting book. It tells the story of Roger Shumann, a barnstorming air-race pilot who has come to a Southern city for the cash-prize races marking the opening of a new airport. With amazing, relentless inevitability Faulkner spins a web of circumstance around Shumann which drags him to his deathâ€”death in a plane plunging earthward at 400 miles an hour.
I think that only Faulkner among American writers could so intensely impart to the reader the sensations of speed and tension, the daring dives around the pylons which mark the bounds of the race-course, or the mad first drop of a jumper before his ‘chute opens. Now that Faulkner has emerged from the underworld of the subconscious, we may expect great things of him. “Pylon” is a strong step upward.
There is one brief passage in this book, however, which will justly outrage readers. Mr. Faulkner, who has been so articulate in his denunciations of race prejudice and discrimination against the Negro, has, consciously or unconsciously, drawn a portrait of the pompous, grasping airport promoter, Col. Feinman, which condemns him chiefly because he is a Jew. I have no idea what was in Mr. Faulkner’s mind when he wrote these pages, but their sneering, vicious implications have no place in the work of a great creative imagination, which, as a premise, must see justly and clearly. And Mr. Faulkner will not easily escape the implications by repeating the platitude that there are rogues, too, among Jews.