Last May, I attended a riveting discussion among Daniel Mendelsohn, Andre Aciman, and Louis Begley on literature and exile and Jewish identity at downtown's new Museum of Jewish Heritage. Perhaps the high point of the talk was when Mendelsohn, a skilled moderator, asked Begley if he felt any responsibility in his writing to depict the Polish world he'd left behind, just after WWII, and which had been lost.
Begley replied, in some apparent confusion, "But that world is exactly as I left it. I can go back and visit, so why would I need to restore it?"
Remember we're at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and we're talking about Nazi-occupied Poland. Grumbling from the audience, loud shifting in seats.
Ever the able host, Mendelsohn responds, "But Louis, we're talking 3 million Jews. Obviously there has been loss."
I suppose Begley agreed, but what he seemed to be saying was, "I'm Polish before I'm Jewish, and Poland remains." I scorned his apparent self-hatred, but I could also relate. I have sort of adopted German culture as my own, and at times I've wanted to think being an intellectual comes before being Jewish. But I've found that studying German art and literature without the atrocities represents a painful masking of my religious identity.
How much can art really do? And in the face of actual historical events, how solid are one's cultural and intellectual affiliations?
In Begley's first book, Wartime Lies, which I finally read this week, the narrator comes across as an aesthete, a lover of literature who seems to have faith, which the author himself might share, that the SS couldn't destroy the Polish high culture he loved.
I respect his conviction but I wonder if Begley's extreme reserve didn't suppress a deeper reservoir of emotion and conflict.