Lauren Belfer’s new novel, “And After The Fire”, joins Sunjeev Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways”, Jo Baker’s “A Country Road, A Tree”, and Kelly Kerney’s “Hard Red Spring” as one of the four best novels published to date in 2016. It’s part fiction, part real history; I used to be annoyed by books with these blurry distinctions, but when the research and writing are as splendidly accomplished as Belfer’s, this hybrid form of writing can be completely compelling.  Fiction, at times, can accomplish more than journalism or historical biography, and Belfer’s done just that in her new novel.

Susanna Kessler has just survived a brutal physical assault, which rather abruptly ends her contained, seemingly contented life as a married, upper middle class New Yorker; she runs a Family Foundation, helping to determine where to give large sums of money for a very well heeled New York Jewish family.  Her life’s gone on stall, and she’s full of fear after this assault, when her one remaining family member, an Uncle in Buffalo, dies, and, while going through his personal things, she discovers what appears to be an old J.S. Bach manuscript, which will indeed bring her back to life, while uncovering a great mystery (this part of the novel’s wholly invented by Belfer).  Kessler starts her search by attending a church service (she’s Jewish) at a Manhattan Lutheran Church; she’s looking for a Bach scholar, who’s giving a lecture there that day.   The scholar, of course, once the two have agreed to meet, is dismissive of the manuscript, until he begins to research it: the reader is thus privy to some of the most fascinating methods used by Bach scholars to determine all sorts of things about J.S. Bach’s methodologies, chronologies, texts, and the like.  All Kessler has guessed is that her late uncle found this manuscript during his days in the US Army in Eastern Germany at the end of World War II.  Kessler sets in motion one of the most fascinating mysteries around; the Bach scholar will eventually become her love object, as well, and the two will uncover pieces of German history that are real, making this novel that much more intriguing.  All we need to remember is that Kessler herself, her Bach scholar and the manuscript itself are inventions of the author’s narrative mind, and much of the rest of the book’s a compilation of real history which Belfer has researched and brought alive.

Many of the great Jewish banking families of Europe were in their heydays in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth; Belfer unravels her tale within the very real Itzig family of Prussia; Mr. Itzig was known as “The King’s Jew”. Sara Itzig Levy, around whom much of the novel revolves, is his musical daughter; her father bankrolls the King’s wars–which was the main role of these Jewish banking families, who were completely assimilated into the host countries in which they lived–except that they weren’t allowed to be citizens in them…..a matter of fascinating historical record, Sara Levy is an immensely accomplished pianist and harpsichordist, a student of one of  J.S. Bach’s many sons. She is his finest student, and her Sunday musical salons were attended by the highest circles of Christian and Jewish nobility/aristocracy of the era.  She is given, as a wedding gift, an unknown J.S. Bach manuscript by her teacher William Friedemann Bach; the lyrics reflect the virulent anti-Semitism of Martin Luther, making it a problematic gift and the central metaphor of the novel.  W.F. Bach knows that Sara Levy will understand the great paradox of the gift, as it represents the highest possible achievements of Prussian (German) music/philosophy, but also has the seeds within it of the awful anti-Semitism that begins to rear its ugly head at an historically accurate salon at the Levy mansion: great music and great evil are twinned in this gift, making it, indeed, a symbol of the greatest of paradoxes within German history and the German national character. During the long reign of Sara I. Levy as a great hostess/doyenne of the musical salon, anti-Semitism is relatively quiescent, though descendants of Levy’s will convert to Christianity, believing that conversion will make their lives easier.

Belfer’s descriptions of Sara Levy’s house, furniture, art, architecture, parks/gardens, what we’d now call “lifestyle”, is rendered with elegance and sensitivity by author Belfer.  Each generation of this Itzig-Levy family has musical prodigies within it; Felix and Fanny Mendelsohn are two of her direct heirs, and the lives of these upper class German Jews seems a fairy tale in this period of Prussian stability (and how Proustian it all seems!).  One fascinating fact from the Levy history/archives: the childless Sara Levy becomes a patroness of the then new Orphanage for Jewish Children in Berlin, where she pays for the educations of countless children; if you read Jim Shepherd’s historically accurate novel The Flight of Aron, one of 2015’s best novels, you’ll encounter the true ending of the orphanage, when the remaining children are carted off to Auschwitz).  The interweaving of the heyday of German Jewish cultural largesse with the changing mores of Lutheran Germany is one of this novel’s great strengths. And generations following Sara Levy’s will each have to determine what to do with this Bach manuscript; each is told to keep it hidden.

In one of the great denouements in recent fiction, Susanna Kessler, herself a descendant of Holocaust survivors, will go to a conference in Germany with her Bach scholar/new lover, and they will find who last had the manuscript, if not how it left the Levy family (about which the author speculates, of course, as the manuscript’s not real). And there will be other scholars who begin to guess that something rare’s afoot; that one of them is a smug old fox from Yale makes the novel occasionally deliciously funny as Belfer gets into the inner workings of academia, auction houses and the like.  Kessler’s own visit to German is haunting; when she’s in Weimar in Eastern Germany, even in restaurants, she’s aware of being stared at because she is Jewish: Belfer spares no sensibilities on the lingering anti-Semitism just under the surface (which is very real all through Europe, again, now).  Anyone interested in reading about the heyday of the Jewish cultural elite, and the real lives of Fanny and Felix Mendelsohn and the anti-Semitism they faced from followers of Wagner–Belfer traces much of this to the writings of Martin Luther, accurately—and in understanding early origins of anti-Semitism will be riveted by this novel.  Belfer’s oblique references to The Holocaust make its shadow that much longer; she has long wondered why nothing about it was mentioned in her home growing up (but she will find thousands of photographs of dead relatives in the basement of the Buffalo house where her uncle lived near the end of this novel).  I suspect that this novel was incredibly difficult to write; it’s difficult even to review it as so many narrative pieces need to be put coherently together.  Her writing’s rather on the understated side; it contains no histrionics.  The novel’s sweep is epic, the plot devices clever and credible: Lauren Belfer is determined to try her hand at some understanding of the greatness and the nadir of German culture through its history and its music, in particular, and she succeeds with a kind of soaring determination, as the novel’s pieces come together, and Susanna Kessler heals herself through these journeys through her own past and parts of  the real historical record.  “And After The Fire” is a near masterpiece, raising some of the most important questions about the best and the worst within the human psyche, of the German character, of the paradoxes of Bach’s music.  They heyday of the Levy family represents the highest achievements of European cultural history, but, alas, the seeds of its downfall also is waiting to ruin it all.  Kessler’s examination of the German mind is, at heart, the core of this brilliant novel, and I hope this novel finds a very wide audience.

–Daniel Brown

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