My grandfather, Harry Levin, read Sanine in Russia before he immigrated to the U.S. My mother said it was his favorite book, and she looked for it for years.
My brother eventually found a copy for her. So I wasn’t surprised when I discovered it on my bookshelf. What floored me was the inscription on the first page.
“To Ruth?” My mother-in-law?
How likely is that? I mean, it’s not like War and Peace or The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam (of which we have two identical copies, one from each mother).
So I finally sat down and read it. I was totally engrossed, due in part to the story and maybe more to the ties across time. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Well, sort of thinking. Mostly not knowing what to think. It’s such a different style of novel from modern ones. There is a story line, but mostly the characters debate existential questions: convention versus nature, autonomy versus intimacy, men versus women.
Sanine scorns accepted social rules, saying what he thinks and taking what he wants. There’s something noble in this at times, but he leaves disaster in his wake: deflowered women, despairing men, and a lot of suicide.
I wonder what my grandfather made of all this.
By the way, his real name was Gershon and his brother, Herschel. But when they came through Ellis Island, both were translated as Harry!