This is a rather under-read Persephone; I received it as a present and didn’t really know what it was about, and presumed it must be something to do with WWII. I was wrong, and much surprised to read the opening chapter, which describes a 1930s London film premiere in exquisite detail. The arrival of the cars, the swish of silk and furs, the rising of the curtain, the hubbub of excited voices, the popping and flashing of camera bulbs; Miller writes it all as if we could see it on a big screen before us. The film being premiered is ‘Farewell Leicester Square’, directed by Alexander Berman. The following chapter takes us back to Alexander’s (known throughout the novel as Alec) youth in Brighton, living in a rundown house with his parents and siblings and harbouring those intense and secretive dreams that characterise the emotive heights of adolescence.
The Bermans are Jewish, and this Jewish identity pervades everything they do. Alec’s father is overbearing and difficult, with ‘the characteristics of the English Victorian father…and the Lithuanian-born Jewish patriarch’; a successful businessman, he never fails to remind his children of how hard he has worked for them since coming over from Lithuania in his teens with nothing but the clothes on his back. Alec’s mother is a soft, passive presence: ‘she was very short-sighted: perhaps because the radius of her interests was utterly narrowed down to the confines of home’ – she lives for nothing but to make life comfortable for her family. Jewish traditions are upheld religiously; the big meals on Fridays, readings from the Torah, the wearing of a kippah. Alec and his brother Sydney help out in their father’s tobacco shop, and Alec’s father has no doubt that they will continue to do so once they have left school. Life is all rather stiflingly mapped out, hemmed in by traditions and expectations, with no accounting for individuality.
Alec has bigger dreams than this, however; he is in love with the movies, and longs to go and work in a studio. He buys film magazines with his pocket money and goes to the cinema whenever he can; his father ridicules this habit and makes it clear to Alec that pursuing a career in the film industry is not an option. However, Alec is gutsy and determined; he writes to every studio he can find an address for. After plenty of crushing rejections, he finally gets an invite to see Richard Nicolls, head of a London film studio. Alec goes to his home, and is intimidated by the big old English house, and by the cool, studied glare of Richard’s children, Basil and Catherine. For the first time Alec is made aware of his outsider status; he is a Jew, with no right to belong in England; Basil and Catherine possess the land they walk upon with an unthinking arrogance that demonstrates clearly to Alec how vulnerable, how alien he will always be, even in the country of his birth. Thankfully the movie industry is not bothered by race, and Richard Nicolls gives Alec his first chance. However, Alec will never forget what his encounter with Basil and Catherine has shown him about the inherent anti-semitism in British society, and this will prove to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Alec becomes a highly successful film director, making his fortune. He marries and has a child, and lives in a beautiful London home. He has everything that most people consider to be the trappings of a successful and happy life, but Alec is never truly content. Constantly seeing prejudice wherever he goes, constantly feeling insecure and inferior, constantly afraid that he will one day be forced to leave the country he loves so dearly, he is never at ease with anyone. His wife doesn’t understand his feelings, and he is estranged from his family since he left to pursue his dream as a teenager. Apparently surrounded by love and accolades, Alec is actually very alone, and his desire to be accepted and anger that he never truly will be slowly and sadly tarnishes everything he has worked for.
Miller was 25 when she wrote this, and this is absolutely remarkable considering the degree of insight she has into the mindset of a grown man struggling with his place in the world and the effects of being an outsider in a society that is unthinkingly racist. Some of Alec’s thoughts and feelings are temptingly easy to dismiss as paranoid or oversensitive, but Miller challenges this by showing how racism is everywhere; subtle, insidious, unthinking. It is in the sneer of Alec’s brother in law on hearing of his proposed marriage to his sister, in the careless, unthinking, casually racist remarks made by Alec’s friends, in the stereotyped depictions of Jewish life, in the hurried apology of someone who says ‘but of course, you’re not like the rest of them, Alec…’. It is the white elephant in Alec’s marriage; Alec’s wife says she doesn’t care about his Jewishness, but her almost self congratulatory praise of her own lack of racism is racist in and of itself. Alec’s race is something he is never allowed to forget, and this is something Alec’s British friends and wife can never understand or appreciate. This was hugely thought provoking for me, as someone who has never had to think about my race or my nationality or how I fit in. That in itself is really quite horrific to think about.
Farewell Leicester Square is an intriguing novel. Aside from her sensitive exploration of race, Miller’s use of language is exquisite. The structure of the book, with its disjointed scenes that fade out into ellipses at the end of chapters, flashbacks and non linear chapters is cleverly done to echo Alec’s profession as a film maker. She is superb at describing the often stifling atmosphere of home for a teenager who doesn’t feel understood or supported, and the beginning of the novel is rather Dickensian in its portrayal of Alec’s plucky determination to make something of himself. I loved the evocative description of the 1930s film industry, and the range of ‘characters’ who peopled it, and Miller is also very good at looking at the nature of family, and how complicated and fraught familial relationships can be. However, I often felt like there was too much going on, and overall the novel felt a little messy. This is essentially a novel about identity and the growth of a boy into a man; while Alec’s role as a film director and the exploration of the fledgling film industry is undoubtedly fascinating, it feels extraneous and confusing. I think that this would be a better and more impactful novel if Alec’s relationship with his family, with his wife, and with himself had been the only focus. Despite this slightly muddled nature, however, it is still a daring and thought provoking novel in many ways, and it is beautifully and perceptively written with flashes of real artistic brilliance and some wonderful observations. It’s not your typical Persephone, but it’s definitely well worth a read. I know it’s going to stay with me for quite some time.