Farewell Leicester Square by Betty Miller

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.

34 comments

  1. I wonder if Miller was thinking about the Korda family (one of whom was named Alexander) when she wrote this book. They were Hungarian (I believe) immigrants who rose to run much of Britain’s film industry in the 1930s & 40s. I’m not sure if they were Jewish. Certainly the American film industry at the same time was headed by either first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants of east European ancestry. (There’s a great non-fiction book by Neil Gabler called AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN, about the Jews who built the early film industry in American.)

    And Rachel, I must quibble with you about your use of the words “racist” and “racism” in your review. I believe “anti-semitic” and “anti-semitism” would be more accurate terms because Alec is judged based on his Jewish religion and not on his skin color. I realize that it’s a minor semantic point when judging anyone based on factors that have nothing to do with their character or worth causes lasting damage to both the judged and the judge, but I do believe it would be more accurate.

    1. Thanks for that info Deb – I am sure she probably did use them as inspiration. she also went and visited a film set so her descriptions are very accurate, I’m sure!

      I never really know how to classify discrimination and it is difficult to find a word that everyone is happy with. In this instance I chose racism rather than anti semitism because Betty Miller describes Jewish people as a race rather than a religious group, and so I personally feel that racism is an appropriate term for describing discrimination towards Alec. Also, anti-semitic implies being discriminated against purely for being Jewish, and I don’t think the discrimination Alec experiences is only due to him being Jewish – it’s also because he looks ‘foreign’ and has a different cultural background and will therefore never be considered British that is the main issue. Those who discriminate against him would have discriminated against anyone who wasn’t British, in my opinion. Does that make sense?!

  2. I forgot that Michael Korda, a grandson of the Korda family, wrote a book called CHARMED LIVES about the Korda family and the early days of the British film industry. It might be an interesting companion to Miller’s book.

  3. I’ve had this for years (it has my favourite Persephone endpaper, incidentally) but have heard mixed things about it, and it’s never found its way to the top of my Persephone tbr yet – but you do make it sound very interesting indeed…

    1. Yes the endpapers are gorgeous!!

      It’s never massively caught my eye either, and I can see why it’s not hugely popular because it’s not really the usual Persephone territory. It is very well written and really quite fascinating but it didn’t quite hit the spot for me. I’d still recommend you giving it a go though!

  4. This was already on my Persephone wishlist – and I love the sound of it. I am about to sit down to write my review of A Family Roundabout – which I finished yesterday – it is always such a treat to read a Persephone book isn’t it?

    1. Great! Oh, Family Roundabout was wonderful…I so enjoyed that. It is a treat indeed – even if I don’t LOVE it, I will still have enjoyed reading it and learned something, which isn’t something that I always find elsewhere!

  5. This book sounds fascinating and also well-written. I look forward to experiencing Betty Miller’s descriptions of society, the theater and film industry and more! I am surprised the author was so young when she wrote it considering the insight and understaning she has anout being Jewish and dealing with discrimination. I never really thought much about anti-semitism until I met my husband who is Jewish. As a NYer in the 20th/21st century, he hasn’t experienced much discrimination but his grandparents have many stories about being discriminated against or treated badly because they’re Jewish.

    I feel bad for Alec that he’s almost paranoid about antisemiticism and sees and feels it everywhere. It’s an interesting viewpoint especially considering he’s in a career where being Jewish isn’t a problem.

    I really enjoyed your fantastic review. I’ve listed this book high on my Persephone tbr list.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the review, Amy! I think it’s disgusting that Jewish people have been treated so badly over the generations. When I lived in New York I found it really refreshing how accepting everyone is and I don’t think it’s the same in London which is very upsetting.

      Yes – Miller does raise the question of whether Alec IS being over-sensitive and whether his feeling of inferiority is more self imposed than anything else. It’s an interesting question.

      I hope you manage to read it soon!

  6. When I can afford Persephone books, I’m determined to read this one. The thirties with that feeling of approaching war, the frightening anti-semitic scenes in Germany, as well as the blind unthinking actions in our own country, have always fascinated me.

    Have you read Anita Brookner’s Latecomers, Rachel? A wonderfully moving story about the same theme: how two Jewish refugees and their British-born children deal with the whole question of race, racism and anti-semitism in different ways.

    You’ve really done justice to this book (written at age 25 – that’s fantastic, reminds me of Rebecca West’s early achievements) so thank you for your inspiring post.

    1. I think you’d really enjoy this, Chrissy. It’s not perfect but it raises a lot of interesting questions and is really quite unique amongst the Persephone catalogue.

      No I haven’t! I haven’t read any Brookner at all. I need to get around to that so thank you for the recommendation.🙂

      Thank you! I am actually very jealous that Betty Miller managed to write this so young! What a talent!

  7. This book has been on my ‘to be read’ book for ages now. After reading your excellent review of it, I’m even more determined and keen to find a copy of it and get stuck in. After that, I’ll also be on the look out for ‘A Family Roundabout’ and, thanks to Chrissy’s praise of it, ‘Latecomers,’ as well. So many brilliant books and authors out there to discover and enjoy, but so little time! Thanks for another wonderful post, Rachel. As always, your reviews are fair, balanced, enthusiastic and – to echo Chrissy’s sentiments – very inspiring.

    1. I hope you can manage to get a copy soon, June! It really is very good, as is Family Roundabout. I think Family Roundabout was actually one of the first Persephones I read so it’s probably time for a re-read!

      Thank you June, how kind you are!🙂

  8. One of the many annoying features of my local library’s buying policy is that they don’t seem to register the existence of Persephone and so far this hasn’t found its way onto my list of books that I have to afford for myself. However, I’m going to have to review that, I think if only to make up my own mind about the question of racist or anti-Semitic. I can see both points of view.

    1. Alex you need to get the library to order you in some Persephones! This is definitely a thought provoking book and one to get your teeth into!

  9. Oh my gosh. As it happens, I’m half Jewish, my mother’s family comes from a line of fourteen generations of rabbis in Lithuania, who emigrated to New York around 1880 (how I often wish they’d emigrated to London, grin). Although my maternal grandparents used to warn me that I might encounter anti-Semitism, as they had in their youth, I never did growing up in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, not even once (it’s a very Jewish city!). And I’ve spent my adult life working in the equally Jewish movie business. Yet the only place I’ve ever felt uncomfortable, as a Jewish person, has been in England, yes the England I so adore, but where I’ve been shocked on a number of occasions. Not that what I met with was actual anti-Semitism, per se, but assumptions from people who had not grown up knowing many Jews at all, and, despite being high academics in Oxford and Cambridge, came out with some startling things. One distinguished professor said to me that it would really have been better for England if Germany had won the war “in some ways” (it was obvious in context what he meant), and another continually referred to me as a “Jewess” and assumed various stereotypes about me without having a clue. I practice no religion, my father was of English descent, and I’m used to not thinking about myself as representing some group any more than English people might make assumptions about what county you grew up in (well, wait…I’ve seen that done!) In conversations with a beloved friend in Oxford, I found he thought nothing of referring to Jews in negative ways, and when I objected, then say “Oh but you’re not like them, dear.” Told that he didn’t know anything about Jewish people, he was genuinely puzzled, since there was a Jewish guy in a band he’d had as a teenager. Well, I could go on, but I wanted to tell you that your using the terms from the novel, referring to Jews as a separate race, and the inference that a Jewis person is “not white,” made my heart go into my stomach with the same feelings I’ve felt in England before. I don’t say this as a criticism, as nobody can be better intentioned or less racist than you, of course, and perhaps it is reverse-racist of me to be horrified by the language usage. But that’s what it did to me, hit me in the subconscious I guess, because over here the usual way of thinking is that anti-semitism is against one’s religion rather than race (or possibly a coded attack on the policies of Israel, which is another subject). See what a hornet’s nest! But it’s interesting, isn’t it, to consider these things openly? It also brings up the subject of the famous American hypersensitivity to all race terminology, which I didn’t know until this minute that I shared. Imagine implying criticism of kind, open minded, curious and seeking Rachel, for using old-fashioned language from a book! But it all just welled up in me, unbidden, which shows that even those who believe themselves free of the baggage of stereotypes and detritus of prejudice – may not be so completely!

    1. Diana, thank you for telling me about your experiences and I am so sorry to have caused you offence. That certainly wasn’t my intention and I am horrified that I have caused those unpleasant memories to resurface, and also that you have experienced such unkindness and ignorance when you have been in England. That’s really awful and I am so sorry. Regarding racism and anti-semitism and the distinction between them, in school I was certainly taught that to be Jewish is to be part of a race (ethnicity is maybe a better word? I’m afraid I don’t really know the difference) as well as a religion, and I haven’t really ever thought that by saying so or believing so I was being offensive. Having googled it I see that there is a lot of confused and mixed thinking and no one seems to have a definitive answer; I did notice that actually the US Supreme Court ruled that Judaism was a race in the 80’s so I suppose it’s a matter that’s long had blurred lines and been open to debate due to the quite unique nature of Judaism having such strongly ethnographic origins compared to other religions. I certainly meant no offence by using the word race and I’m very sorry if I did – it looks like I need to brush up on my knowledge and understanding in this area and once again I apologise.

      1. Just another thought as well – I don’t think British people have as much of an awareness of ‘race terminology’ as you call it as Americans do – none of my British readers commented on my usage of race rather than anti semitism, just Americans, which is intriguing. I wonder why that is. Perhaps because we are less of a ‘melting pot’ as a country and don’t really have to confront the issue of race/ethnicity/religion as much. I certainly do feel very ignorant now!

      2. Oh, no no no, nothing in the world for you to apologize for Rachel, you mustn’t! You’re not responsible for the muddle that race terminology is in both our countries, and I wasn’t offended in the slightest, nobody could be. Yes, that’s what I was saying – Americans seem to have more over-sensitivity to race terminology than in the UK, sometimes to the point of satirizable absurdity. Judaism is a strange case, with its unique history, world wide diaspora, the Holocaust and so on; but whatever the Supreme Court ruling, European Jews are Caucasians. Oddly, in the U.S. we would consider people from the Indian subcontinent to be Caucasian too, white, but I gather Indians are called blacks in the UK. And that leads us to the “what is race?” question. Are a Basque, a French Canadian, a Serb, an Ashkenazy – all separate races, or ethnicities? Does that mean the same thing? A lot to learn. I guess my point is that the terminology and usage that are natural in the UK will hit a sensitive spot with Americans, and so often American usage sounds barbaric to the English. It’s a cliche, but sometimes the only way to put it is that we are indeed two countries divided by the same language…

  10. P.S. To clarify, of course I mean that the one not entirely free of the residue of prejudice, is me, not you!

  11. This is a really interesting review. I’ve just finished reading Laurent Binet’s ‘HHhH’ about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, which is of course on one level a book a million miles away from ‘Farewell Leicster Square’ and yet they have that common theme of tackling the issue of race. The Heydrich book of course looks at racial hatred on a horrifying, grotesque, and institutional basis and yet your post is a timely reminder that anti-Semitism was an issue in 1930’s England and wasn’t unique to the Germany of Heydrich and his fellow madmen.

  12. First, I want to say that your writing reminds me of the long-ago days when we subscribed to the New York Times, and read the Book Review faithfully. You go into the best detail, telling the reader what a book is about and giving the real flavor of it, without letting out too much of the story. It’s a gift, Rachel. You are really good. I always come away from your blog knowing that I either will or will not read the book, based on your observations and thoughts.
    This is one I won’t read. Too sad for me. But this whole prejudice discussion has been so interesting to read. Yeah, I think the worst is the condescension when someone says ‘oh, but not you’ after saying some nasty little dig at a group of people. Because I read a lot of older books, I see how it was just plain okay to be anti-semitic. Even in my youth, it was not even blinked at to refuse membership to any group a club wanted to exclude. Now that ‘okayness’ extends to one’s sexual orientation. The subtle and not-so-subtle slurs that come out of people’s mouths just floor me.

    1. Oh Nan, what a wonderful compliment, thank you! I can’t believe I’m being compared to the New York Times!! Thank you so much!!

      Yes – the prejudice issue is fascinating, and awful that this continues today, just in other forms. It does shock me that people’s sexual orientation now seems fair ground to discriminate upon – as if it’s ok to deny things to people based on their perfectly legitimate life decisions that don’t harm anyone else. I hope that we will grow to become more enlightened as a society as we progress but somehow I doubt it!

      1. Sexual orientation isn’t a life decision. You don’t choose or decide on whether you are attracted to girls or boys. You just are. (Here I pop up again with the American social issues semantic over-sensitivity!) But whether an adolescent finds he is attracted to the opposite sex, or to the same sex, there’s nothing legitimate or illegitimate, harmful or unharmful about it. It just is.

      2. I can’t win, Diana!😉 I didn’t mean it like that….! Of course I know it’s not a decision in that way…I just meant that people seem to think it’s ok to judge other people on how they live their lives. It seems I haven’t learned anything about sensitive wording!

      3. Thanks for being good natured, Rachel – I’ve got a gay son so it’s kneejerk automatic for me to leap on the slightest unintended semantic! Ignore me. Loved your post by the way, it reminded me of the time I slept in the Black Bull b&b in midwinter and was so cold I used my raincoat for a blanket and got pneumonia. Delicate California flower not used to the lung-damp Haworth air!

  13. We went in the Persephone shop yesterday and I brought this book on the strength of your review.
    Also found in the shop a lovely postcard showing the original dust wrapper illustration for Greenery Street, that postcard now nestles inside my Persephone copy of the book.
    My own experience of race discrimination was growing up with a German surname, which led to lots of name calling in school playgrounds, that was in 1960s England. WW2 cast a long shadow.

    1. I am so pleased to hear that Geraldine! I really hope you’ll enjoy it! I love that Greenery Street postcard as well!🙂

      How awful Geraldine, I’m sorry you had to experience that.

      1. I have now read Farewell Leicester Square and so glad that I purchased a copy. It’s one to re-read so will be a keeper for me. Thanks for the review which led to the purchase.
        When ever one of your reviews has inspired me to read something, it’s always been a good choice.

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