Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Zametkin Hobson

Have you read Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Zametkin Hobson No? Well, you should read it! Everyone should read it! Once upon a time, lots of people did - it spent five months at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List after it published in 1947 - but it has since fallen out of favor. I'd never heard of it until a friend picked it for our book club's February selection, spurring probably the best discussion we've ever had.

The novel's current lack of visibility might be due in part to its Amazon blurb: The plot of GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT concerns the experiences of a young Gentile writer who poses as a Jew in order to secure material on anti-Semitism for a series of magazine articles. A thesis novel concerning the social and economic aspects of anti-Semitism in American life.

No, really, it's good! I wrote all over my copy of the book, and then typed up my notes. And, yet, it was fun.

It's a quick read, easy, but not shallow (except a little right at the end). And it's non-threatening, too, for a book with such a point. The main character is an ally (not prone to some of the major prejudices of his day) which casts the reader into the same role and allows us to hear hard truths and appreciate them while thinking ourselves exempt or hidden.

This is one of those books that has stuck with me and I find myself using some of its figures of speech in my everyday life weeks after completing the read. Flick, tap.

The novel is about a California-based widower and writer who gets a job with a major weekly magazine in New York City and relocates his family. The first people he meets are his new editor - who gives him the assignment of writing a series on antisemitism - and the editor's niece - who inspired the idea for the assignment and becomes the love interest/second main character. The writer gets the idea that in order to write convincingly and interestingly about antisemitism, he must experience it first-hand. So he introduces himself to everyone he meets as a Jew and undergoes a rapid transformation.

The novel deals not only with antisemitism but also with other forms of prejudice, including racism and sexism. I especially enjoyed some of the nascent feminism, as the author gently drew us along with contemporary lines like, "I'm having people over tonight. A couple of girls and people." How great is that? The role of women's work in the running of a household provides an interesting background, as do the the characters' remarks about "womanish softness" of thought and "a vague resentment that it's a man's world."

But the parts that really stuck with me were about antisemitism and are equally relevant today, with our own various -isms. Prejudice comes in little "flicks" and "taps." “Rarely was the circumstance so arranged that you could fight back.” "They gave you at once the wound and the burden of proper behavior toward it.” There's a lot of discussion about “the complacence of essentially decent people about prejudice” and the question of whether it's gauche or required to make a scene and speak out against prejudice whenever you encounter it (even if it's at a formal dinner party with an important client).

All this unfolds as part of a love story between the writer and his editor's niece. She inspired the assignment and is passionately antisemitic . . . but perhaps she
has a different understanding of what antisemitism is and means and how best to respond. What brought the couple together eventually drives a wedge between them.

If you read - or have read - this one, please let me know; I'd love to discuss it with you! And if it doesn't sound like something you're willing to read, the novel inspired a movie by the same name, starring Gregory Peck.

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@Barrie Summy

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for visiting, you are a kindred spirit!
    I'm glad there are others who make notes in the margins! That's what led to my wee essay, plus senior moments when I forget what I thought important the day before!!!!
    I love books. I love reading in the sun, on a bench, flipping pages.
    Cheers from Cottage Country!

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