Webb (Rereading the Nineteenth Century, 2010, etc.) tells the story of his childhood in Slovakia during World War II and of his later entrance into American academia.
In 1943 in the village of Malacky, Slovakia, the young, Jewish author and his family initially avoided the horrors of the Holocaust, as his father was deemed one of the “Jews Necessary to the Economy.” However, the following year, the author’s grandparents were seized by the Nazis, and the rest of the family fled. After the war, they relocated to Quito, Ecuador, and then to Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood. Among the many wonders of American life, the author says that he was fascinated by an X-ray box at a shoe store, used for sizing. His mother wanted him to pass as a Christian, so he attended a Catholic church and actually became a believer (“My poor mother was flabbergasted to find me a prostrate penitent ambitious for salvation”). Later, at Stanford University, he studied literature, and while pursuing graduate work in London in the 1960s, he met and married a fellow anti-war activist, and in the ’70s, he befriended literary superstar Philip Roth. Throughout, there are extensive ruminations on great literary minds, particularly the Czech-born novelists Ivan Klíma and Milan Kundera and the 18th-century English poet Christopher Smart, who was a source of endless inspiration to the author. A pivotal moment in the memoir comes when Webb travels back to Malacky to confront a reviled aunt and learn the true story of his grandparents’ terrible fate. His account of his childhood is full of vivid tales about Slovakia, and he shows how his early life shaped his worldview. The book has an unusual, nonlinear structure that ultimately gives readers a full picture of a life consumed—first, by the early experience of being forced into exile, and later by the literary imagination of great writers. The sections on literature work best during scenes set in London, where Webb interacted personally with writers such as Roth; in other parts, though, the references can be somewhat dense or pedantic.
A meaningful memoir about displacement and the literary imagination that occasionally gets lost in scholarly thought.