Dan Jacobson Heshel's Kingdom.
Northwestern University Press,
243 pages, $24.95

In 1919, at the age of fifty-three, Heshel Melamed, the rabbi of the shtetl of Varniai and a Lithuanian Jew of great faith and will, died suddenly of heart failure, leaving his wife and nine children penniless and helpless. It was the kindest thing he ever did for them, says his grandson, Dan Jacobson— but for none of the grotesque reasons one usually says such things. Heshel’s dying was kind because the history of this century has been murderously cruel. Had the good rabbi lived, he and his family would, in all certainty, have stayed on in Varniai, and so they would have perished, as did the rest of their shtetl, in the summer of 1941, victims of the Nazis and their Lithuanian accomplices. But Heshel died—and in doing so he gave the gift of life: the family soon relocated to Kimberley, a mining town in South Africa, the New Land then for tens of thousands of European Jews. There Heshel’s children, safe from Hitler, married and prospered, giving him twelve grandchildren, twenty-six great-grandchildren, and, to date, ten great-great-grandchildren, living today in England, Israel, and the United States.

“On one side of the ocean, death. On the other, life. The gulf between those swallowed by the catastrophe in Europe and those who escaped it is unbridgeable,” writes Jacobson. “A commensurate gulf yawns between the catastrophe itself and the words I have to use in speaking of it.” Heshel’s Kingdom is one writer’s attempt to span such gulfs, to open his imagination to the horror of the Holocaust, and to begin to pay his debt to those who have gone before him. It is, above all, an attempt to build an intimate imaginative bridge between two human mysteries, between the unknown, unknowable grandfather and whatever may yet exist of him—his personality, his states of mind, his habits of perception—in the grandson’s own imperfectly knowable self.

There is mastery—a certainty of technique, tone, and structure—in Jacobson’s account of his journey in search of Heshel and his world. It begins in a meditation on the few personal effects the rabbi left behind—his glasses, his address book, and a formal photographic portrait in which the author seems able to meet his steady yet vulnerable gaze. It deepens in interviews with Heshel’s children—Jacobson’s mother, his uncles and aunts—and in bits of autobiography and historical research. It broadens immeasurably—and becomes almost unbearably immediate—in a record of the author’s trip to present-day Lithuania. In Vilnius, Jacobson tours the Jewish Museum, where official Nazi documents relating to “the solution to the Jewish problem” are displayed alongside photographs of unspeakable atrocities, and where the curators speak softly, through an interpreter, to silent busloads of German visitors. On the outskirts of Kaunus, at the Nazi prison camp known as Fort IX, Jacobson walks the three-acre field that was once the mass grave of 30,000 Jews, whose corpses, in late 1943, were exhumed and then, in an attempt to erase the very fact of them, cremated; “naturally the Nazis employed squads of Jews for the task, all of whom were shot” —and their bodies burned—“after the job was finished.” At last he comes to Varniai, where he searches, in vain, for Heshel’s grave, in what, until 1941, had been the Jewish cemetery there.

“How I would have felt if I had found his stone … is something I cannot guess at,” Jacobson writes. “I do know, though, that my failure to do so did not dishearten or disappoint me. On the contrary. I had come close enough to it, and to him. He was where he belonged, hidden among the remains of the people who for centuries had preceded him and of those who had followed him: the last to have been allowed to take their place alongside him, in named, individual graves. He himself had accompanied many of the families of the dead to this spot, and had led the last prayers for them there.”

In the end Jacobson is content to let Heshel go, to allow him to rest in peace in his rightful kingdom, “that region where shadows give way to unchanging darkness.” He does not come very much closer to understanding his grandfather, or even himself or the horrors of this sad century. What he does do, and brilliantly, is pay Heshel the honor of this act of compassionate remembrance—of naming his grave, as it were. “His life and his death (together!) were indispensable to my existence,” Jacobson writes. Now Jacobson, through writing this book, has made himself indispensable to Heshel’s.

Ian Hamilton A Gift Imprisoned:
The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold.
Basic Books, 241 pages, $24

Who was the poet Matthew Arnold, the true poet who wrote “Dover Beach,” “The Buried Life,” and the lyrics addressed to Marguerite, masterpieces that, in Ian Hamilton’s words, “gave haunting public voice to private failures of belief,” that recognized “the whole, godless indirection of the age but … refused to offer any balm”? Who was this Victorian harbinger of modernism, who, like his hero Empedocles, “sees things as they are—the world as it is,” and who, in his best poems, speaks to the disorder of that world with an immediacy unrivalled by any of his contemporaries? And why, after writing these poems, did he turn away from describing things-as-they-are and begin to prescribe the ideal things-that-should-be? Why did he, in his later verse, become something false—“a pedagogic neo-classicist,” a writer of “the kind of large-scale, objective, architectonic verse-constructions which he himself had no real gift for,” grandiose epics that defied the despairing confusions of the age with “a chin-forward missionary striving”? And why, at last, in middle age, did he abandon poetry altogether for “purposeful” critical prose?

It is one of the great literary puzzles, a glove thrown down to the critic, the biographer, and the cultural historian. Ian Hamilton, happily, is all three, and also, when the situation demands one, a wit. He has written, with concision and insight and an attractive dry humor, an important revaluation of Arnold’s poetry. It is also an investigation into the sources of Arnold’s maddening ambivalence toward all that we find most valuable in his verse.

As a creative artist, Hamilton argues, Matthew Arnold’s great handicap was that he was born Matthew Arnold, the eldest son of the most celebrated headmaster in England. As any reader of Tom Brown’s Schooldays knows, Thomas Arnold’s Rugby was the wheel on which England’s future leaders were shaped by the hand of a fond, demanding tyrant, a man whom Tom Brown would recall as striving, “with all his heart and soul and strength, … against all that was mean and unmanly and unrighteous in our little world.” In short, a man of great energy and always-purposeful activity, with few doubts about the good that he was doing his boys and, through them, his God and his country. How could young Matt dare disappoint such a father? How, in the light of the old man’s achievement, could his own “private failures of belief” be seen as anything but a shameful weakness, and his giving voice to them anything but mean, unmanly, unrighteous, and ultimately destructive?

The Master of Rugby died in 1842, when Matthew was twenty-four. For the next twenty years, Arnold tried to live the poetic life. At last he repudiated it, in 1868, when he turned forty-six—his father’s age at his death. “As Arnold came to see things,” writes Hamilton, “an all-out commitment to his art woud have involved ‘an actual tearing of oneself to pieces.’ It might also have involved some other kinds of damage —to people, to principles, to his ingrained sense of social purpose”: damage, especially, to the legacy of his father.

“And would it have been worth it after all?” Hamilton is tortured by this last question. When he reads “Dover Beach,” that “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” he hears is the sound of Arnold’s withdrawing his poetical gift from the world. It’s his achievement in this book to make us hear it, too.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 10, on page 88
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