I first came across this book at Vishy’s Blog and when I saw Granta 2011 edition of the book sitting on the featured library shelf, I borrowed it without second thought.
Set in Israel April 1946 – then British-controlled Palestine – just after the Second World War, the novel follows a young Englishwoman Evelyn Sert, 20, a hairdresser from Soho, London, sails for Palestine, where Jewish refugees and idealists are gathering from across Europe to start a new life in a brand new country. Her mother had escaped the heritage of her Latvian Jewish parents in the noise and sleaze of London’s Soho, and Evelyn leaves the drabness of postwar London for the bright new city of Tel Aviv. A chance to reinvent herself, Evelyn took it to the extreme and dyed her hair blonde and mingle amongst the British soldier’s wives as a hairdresser. All these encouraged by a bloke she met, a freedom fighter (Irgun terrorist) named Johnny, or Efraim, or Levi, whatever, a man who assumes many identities to fool the British.
I am made to believe that Grant specialises in the question of displacement and sense of belonging in most of her protagonist. In this novel, she captured the feeling of being an alien spot-on. Similar to Evelyn, the feeling of not belonging to Tel Aviv nor in London, poise her to be a spy in Tel Aviv….
The tender part of the novel for me was the love affair between Evelyn and Johnny represents the genuine amidst the deception.
Deceit and conspiracy is not the main focus of this novel, the political ideology, the character of Tel Aviv and the feeling of being a new arrival in the “White City” are. This is the most eloquent voice of the Jewish diaspora I have read and the fact that it is a historical fiction set in the pre-formation of the Jewish state enhance it.
On not belonging….
What could an immigrant child be, except an impersonator? I felt like a double agent, a fifth columnist. I knew that as long as I lived in this country it would always be exactly the same. I walked among them and they thought they knew me, but they understood nothing at all. It was me that understood, the spy in their midst. – page 28
How to bring socialist ideas to these people? I used to ask myself this, but obviously it’s a hopeless case.’ He said. ‘We forced the peasants in Russia into the 20th century but we have no power to force the Arabs and they are a thousand times more primitive than the Russian peasantry. All their alliances are based not on the proper opposition between left and right but blood ties and age-old feuds, pride, shame. They have no unions or clubs or real political parties, no contemporary ideologies even in their most debased form. The masses are apathetic until roused to hysteria and then they collapse again into lethargy. They’re stuff of mobs not political organisations.’ – Meier page 46
Looking at him, I was reminded of those pages in the book that discussed the cubist portraits of Picasso. By showing the human face as a series of disjointed planes and angles, Picasso had demonstrated that who or what a person was depended entirely on your point of view. The new way of looking at things, apparently, reflected the relativity of Einsteinian science and of the age we lived in which lacked a single, unifying truth or belief but saw life as fragmented and discontinuous. And this, perhaps, was the difference between Johnny and me, for he merely wore a mask which deliberately set out to deceive, behind which he clearly knew who he was, while I seem to contain several selves and each of these seemed to me as valid as the next.
Whatever happened, I would l never leave Palestine, this strange, violent, mixed-up place where manners were bad and they spoke roughly, but to the point. Where and these stories were not always inspiring or lovely. Where life was chaotic, because that is what life is. Where the past was murky and tragic and the future had to be grasped by the throat. Where Europe ended and the East began and people tried to live inside that particular, crazy contradiction. – page 221
On Marriage and Love Affairs….
As marriages go, mine turned out to be a successful one and only those who have never married themselves would ask if it were happy or unhappy. It was an accommodation, a partnership. It was a life not a love affair and there is a difference. Love affairs belong to the young or to those who don’t have a life, or not a proper one, at any rate. Leo and I had a life. But all those years, after I had been turned back on the brink of the great homecoming, mine was a heart in exile, a heart that is thwarted. The only consolation I can draw from this is the thought that perhaps the heart that has loved and suffered is the only one worth having, and Leo told me once of a Talmudic saying, that there is nothing so whole as a broken heart. – page 255
Historical fiction, political fiction, a fictional memoir, whatever it may be, this novel is one that appeals to my heart and intellect. Although I don’t always agree with the political views of the novel it may be one of my favourite book of the year. In Linda Grant, I may have found my favourite author but I’ll have to read a few more of her books to confirm that. I judge my 5 stars read by asking myself this question every time I finished a book: “Do I want to go out and buy the book and re-read this book?” and Yes is the answer for “When I lived in Modern Times”.
Click here to read Linda Grant’s interview.
It is said that the dialogue with British officials and their wives that contains the near-verbatim quotes from a historical book. Similarly, Grant was said to plagiarises her own journalism for some of the characters – Johnny is based, ironically, on an actual person she interviewed in the city – and builds the story up from the kind of well-observed detail every journalist is desperate to accumulate. – is that plagiarism? To read more, click here.
Another one for Middle Eastern Reading Challenge.
Paperback. Publisher: Granta 2011 (originally published in 2000); Length: 260 pages ; Setting: 50’s Palestine / Israel. Source: Reading Battle Library Loot. Finished reading at: 21 May 2010.
Vishy’s Blog (Where I first heard about the book, where it is full of beautiful excerpts)
My review is extremely inadequate and doesn’t do justice to this wonderful book. It is one of my favourite books of the year till now, and I hope to read this book again, at least my favourite passages, which are too many and which are there in every page. Linda Grant is a wonderful new discovery for me and I can’t wait to read other books by her. Recommended.
Laura@Musing : This book would be interesting to those wishing to learn more about the birth of Israel, and it puts today’s events in historical context. However, I was hoping for a more character-driven novel and in that respect I was disappointed.
D. G. Myers @ A Common place blog: “They’ve been Jews for absolutely centuries,” one says to her, “and most of that has been spent in exile, one way or another. Why do they want to change their tune now?” There is perhaps no better book for explaining why—and for recreating the terror and exhilaration of the British Mandate’s final days—than Linda Grant’s brilliant and absorbing When I Lived in Modern Times.
About the writer
Linda Grant was born in the English city of Liverpool to a family of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants.
n 1985 Grant returned to Britain and became a journalist, working for The Guardian and eventually wrote her own column for eighteen months. She published her first book, a non-fiction work, Sexing the Millennium: A Political History of the Sexual Revolution in 1993. She wrote a personal memoir of her mother’s fight with vascular dementia called Remind Me Who I Am, Again.
Her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize. Her fiction draws heavily on her Jewish background, family history, and the history of Liverpool. She has developed a special interest in the state of Isreal.
In 2006, she was named a winner of the Lettre Ulysses Award for reportage.
The Clothes on Their Backs was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and won the South Bank Show award in the Literature category.
When I Lived in Modern Times, win over Zadie Smith’s much-touted White Teeth in 2000. The extent to which Grant actually plagiarized dialogue from another book, American academic A.J. Sherman’s Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-1948, is a matter of opinion, but those opinions are vociferous, and say a lot about the creation of historical fiction.