Posted by: Corri van de Stege | February 11, 2014

EL Doctorow – The Book of Daniel

In 2011 I read and wrote a short review of Doctorow’s Homer and Langley  (18th May 2011) .This is quite an extraordinary story about two brothers who end up living together in a great mansion of a house in New York, that slowly but certainly falls apart around them. One of them, Homer, becomes blind when still a teenager and the older brother, Langley comes back from the First World War in Europe with gassed lungs.  They are orphaned in 1918 when their parents die in a flu epidemic and continue to live in the house left them.  It is funny and serious, sad and exhilarating, at times unbelievable, but all through a very enjoyable read.

51cOmf0IELL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX342_SY445_CR,0,0,342,445_SH20_OU02_The Book of Daniel is a much earlier book by Doctorow and was first published in 1971.  I read this in the Modern Classics Penguin format, which has a foreword by Jonathan Freedland. This, Freedland says, is not just a book about an America gripped by the cold war in which Paul and Rochelle Isaacson see around them danger and injustice, unlike the America Saul Bellow’s ‘the Adventures of Augie March’ which tries to capture an exhilarating post-war America ‘bursting with possibilities’. Not only is The Book of Daniel an un-American novel about a different kind of America it is also a novel about the changing face of dissent in the United States, comparing the gentle and subordinated dissent of the Isaacson with that of the anarchistic dissent of their son Daniel in the Vietnam protest area of the sixties.

Paul and Rochelle Isaacson are the counterparts of the Rosenbergs: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union in 1953 (they were accused of passing atomic secrets).  In the book, Paul and Rochelle have a son called Daniel and a daughter Susan, both of whom are involved in the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era.  They have been adopted by Bob Lewin an assistant professor of law and his kindly wife Lise who provide them with the kind of middle class life that might help them forget completely who they are and where they come from, it is so very comfortable. However, Susan remains troubled and at the start of the book, Memorial Day 1967, has been picked up by police after a suicide attempt and been taken to a secure hospital, and is waiting for her parents and Daniel to come and get her out.

Daniel’s protest is that of a left-wing anarchist and the damage done to both of them is shown by their behaviour, which is often self-destructive. For example, despite his love for his wife Phyllis and their baby son, Daniel will behave callously towards her, drive carelessly and nearly kills them. In addition, Daniel’s sense of crisis and fragmentation is reflected in the way Doctorow uses the narrative voice, which changes from the first person to the third.

To fully appreciate the literary style of this book I will need to read it again (and again); the story of the Isaacson as conveyed by Daniel is harrowing whilst at the same time you get the real sense of a vanished era of Jewish immigrants who want to make a better world for their children and grandchildren, and of their approach to political protest which is non-wavering in their continued obeying of the law and behaving decently and appropriately, as opposed to the 60’s anarchism of protest and irreverence to authority.

It is difficult to do justice to the very many themes in this book that is divided into four parts, books 1-4: Memorial Day, Halloween, Starfish and Christmas. Some of these themes touch closely on my own current writing and I’ll give some quotes that indicate the depth and variety of these themes, ranging from god to politics and rebellion.

In Book 1, Daniel (or Doctorow) contemplates the nature and function of God (p.12 ff) which narrowly reflects my own experience of a very Calvinistic (now presumably no longer practiced in the same way?) upbringing – although of course the Isaacson’s are Jewish: ‘Actually, that’s what God does in the bible – like the little girl says, he gets people. He takes care of them. He lays on this monumental justice. Oh the curse, the admonition; the plaques, the scattering, the ruinations, the striplings dead, the renderings unto and the tearings asunder. The flood. The fires. It is interesting to note that God as a character in the Bible seems always concerned with the idea of his recognition by mankind. He is constantly declaring His Authority, with rewards for those who recognize it and punishment for those who don’t.

Anyone who has read up on post-second world war history will recognise the following about behaviour after the war / a war (p.28ff) and this may form some kind of insight into what happened during the McCarthy era:

Unfortunately, the necessary emotional fever for fighting a war cannot be turned off like a water faucet. Enemies must continue to be found. The heart and mind cannot be demobilized as quickly as the platoon. On the contrary, like a fiery furnace at white heat, it takes a considerable time to cool.

Daniel expresses skepticism about the real motives for post-war politics as expounded by America (p.290):

The Truman doctrine will not be announced as a policy of providing military security for the foreign governments who accept our investments, but as a means of protecting freedom loving nations from communism.

The Marshall Plan will be advertised not as a way of ensuring markets abroad for American goods but as a means of helping the countries of Europe recover from the war. Russia had the effrontery not to collapse. We are faced with an international atheistic communist conspiracy of satanic dimension. Which side are you on? Russia moves into Rumania, Bulgaria, East Germany. Russia rolls over Czechoslovakia. Here is NATO. Here is the Berlin Blockade. And behold, it has come to pass, just the kind of world we said it was –

The book of Daniel is about the gentleness of the Isaacson parents, their almost fatalistic walk into the electric chair, which is in sharp contrast with the agonizing later protest and grief by their two children; and the damage done to them.

I think this is an amazingly well written book and  recommend it if you are looking for something to read that has a bite to it.

Next, I’ll get hold of Andrew’s Brain by the same author,  which was published last January.

 

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