The struggle to be English
A Jewish heritage does battle with a British sensibility
If your father was a third-generation Jerusalemite and your mother the daughter of a Polish immigrant, yet you were born in the Yorkshire moors and spent your formative years in the very heart of Brontë territory, what would you be when you grew up?
You might just turn out to be an author of deft touch and unique flavor, one whose Jewish roots converge with exposure to the Western canon of "Great Books" to create a dreamy literary landscape all your own. At least, that's what happened in the case of Tamar Yellin.
Yellin, the author of Kafka in Brontëland, a slender volume of 13 short stories, is not a newcomer to the literary scene. In addition to publishing short stories in a variety of venues, she is also the author of "The Genizah at the House of Shepher," a critically acclaimed novel that intertwines a family's troubled history with the discovery of a mysterious handwritten volume of the Bible.
If it sounds unusual, it is. So are the shorter pieces. Yellin has a style all her own, but her work is full of tender homage to a lifetime of reading and a passion for the great works of Western lit.
Here, the result is a cluster of stories that sharply evoke the smell of a Jewish grandmother's pantry, but are also jampacked with loving references not only to the Brontës but also to sources as diverse as Tennessee Williams, Daphne Du Maurier, Djuna Barnes, Manzoni's "I Promessi Sposi," and Homer.
The first story in the book ("Return to Zion") is about a Jewish father (named Odysseus), planning all manner of exotic voyages to the Promised Land (Zion) as he toils in an English furniture factory, while his wife (Penelope, of course) entertains would-be suitors in the kitchen.
Another ("The Other Mr. Perella") tells of a Jew of "exquisite Englishness" who lives in England without family. He contacts the narrator's family because they have a similar last name. In his loneliness he forges an odd bond with them. (In one not particularly successful effort at kinship, he presses a copy of "The Charterhouse of Parma" on the narrator.)
The title story (the second in the collection) tells of a young Jew who grew up in England with equal passion for both the Brontës and Kafka.
The more successful stories in the book all play on a form of yearning for belonging and loyalty - even as characters struggle to know where loyalty ought to lie.
A daughter with an English father and a Jewish mother asks, "Am I a Frank or a Finkel? ... Can't we dispense with father or mother?" A Jewish son is made to choose between a gentile girlfriend and his family. An English father, separated from his Italian wife and child, thinks that, "a husband and wife should be their own country ... one should not abandon the other." And yet they remain apart.
But questions about identity are not the only source of tension in these stories. Most also smolder with a kind of intense interiority. These are characters that live inside - inside their homes, their books, their heads.
Yet the indoor scenes are suffocating rather than cozy. In "Dr. Stein," a child taken on a Sunday visit sits in a musty parlor and experiences feelings of death and futility. In "Mrs. Rubin and her Daughter" (a story which seems an intriguing cross between "The Glass Menagerie" and "The Garden of the Finzi-Contini") a strong-willed mother keeps her shy adult daughter by her side in an overgrown mansion and garden while she seeks for a proper suitor for her.
At the same time, the stories are enlivened by a jolly energy and eccentricity, often with a distinctly English flavor. "There would be no plant stall that year at the Blue and White Bazaar. Mrs. Rubin was dead, that vivacious lady," begins the story of the matron and her daughter.
In "Dr. Stein," the doctor's wife "brought us cold cups of tea in dusty china cups embellished with the months of the year. She always took February."
Some of the stories focus more on the individual's struggle to balance an interior world with the exterior world. The most successful of the works (a few of the later stories ring clunky and hollow) are those that hew to Yellin's central theme. "It must have been a lonely feeling," she writes in "Uncle Oswald," "like being washed up on an island after a huge shipwreck; and the island was England, of course."
These stories speak of love for that island - even as they desperately chart a plan for escape.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments on the book section to Marjorie Kehe.