Thursday, January 02, 2014

Reading group: The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow

It was the beginning of December when we discussed this 1971 novel, recommended by Mark, and I've been so preoccupied in the meantime, not simply with Christmas, but with furious writing, that at this moment all I remember of the discussion is that the five of us present agreed that we had found the book wonderful, if not mind-blowing.

The book is based on the real-life case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who in 1953 were the first Americans to be executed for spying, accused of passing the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. Doctorow creates their fictional counterparts, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, replacing their two orphaned sons with a fictional son and daughter, Daniel and Susan Lewin. The book is related by Daniel who, some fifteen years later, against the background of the Vietnam war and sixties leftwing protest, is seeking to understand the circumstances of the death of his parents and their earlier leftwing politics, and trying to deal with the personal emotional legacy: Susan's current emotional disintegration and his own destructive tendencies and inability to cherish his wife and child.

Although the book does allow for some doubt, its general thrust - motored by Daniel's perspective - is towards a notion of the Isaacsons' innocence. After its publication papers would emerge indicating that Joshua Rosenberg, at least, had been involved in spying, but we all agreed that this made no difference to the impact of the book (see, some of what we said is coming back to me!) since it concentrates on the human cost in terms of the effect on the children and on the barbarism of a system that would impose the death penalty without proper evidence, thus giving the lie to claims of American rationality and political freedom. It is the human dimension of the situation with which Doctorow is concerned, and Ann noted that the flaws and complexity of Daniel's character deepen rather than detract from this, and we all agreed. Similarly, Doctorow shows the Isaacsons as complex: politically passionate but poor and thus less than autonomous, their leftwing politics conservative, Paul politically naive with a blind faith in the justice of the American system.

The thing that really struck and impressed me about the book (apart from the stunning prose) was Doctorow's brilliant device for portraying Daniel's divided sense of self - a constant shifting between first and third person, as well as self-conscious commentary on the difficulties and traps of telling the tale.  Mark agreed, noting that Doctorow does these things so well that he never once loses you, the reader, and we all agreed that on the contrary, we found the effect extremely moving. We all found the whole book moving: several people picked out the scene in which Rochelle is called in for questioning never to return, a picture of her departing figure from the viewpoint of her watching son, which is repeated in the way it would clearly be re-run in his memory.
She was wearing her black coat that was almost down to her ankles in the fashion of that day. She had let the hem down to make it longer. She was wearing her blue dress with the white high-necked collar. She wore her tiny wrist-watch that my father gave her before they were married. She was wearing on the back of her head a little black hat she called a pillbox.
She was last seen in her black cloth coat with the hem let down and a black pillbox hat. My mother was last seen with her tiny watch on her wrist, a fine thin wrist with a prominent wristbone and lovely thin blue veins. She left behind a clean house, and in the icebox a peanut butter sandwich and an apple for lunch. In the afternoon I had my milk and cookies. And she never came home.
My mother left me in her long, black coat, and although she never wore hats, she wore a hat that day, also black, and almost invisible in her thick, curly black hair.
Trevor said that one aspect of the novel he didn't like so much was the insertion of sections outlining American foreign policy of the fifties, which he didn't find very novelistic. Mark pointed out that at the time of the publication of the novel, little was known about it, so it had been a necessary contextualisation. I said that in fact it's acceptable from a novelistic point of view, as these sections form part of Daniel's researches and the doctoral thesis he is writing.

It was, however, a minor grouse on Trevor's part, but some weeks later, at our reading group Christmas dinner, two members who hadn't been present at the meeting, Doug and Clare, said that these sections had put them right off the book, which they had found altogether too much of a history lesson - much to the amazement of the rest of us, who had been frankly wowed.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
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