WHEN SIX MILLION JEWS burned in the ovens of Naz: concentration camps during World War II, they left their ancestors and fellow survivors with a nightmarish and burdensome legacy--guilt. However irrational the assumption, many Jews who emerged from the death camps cannot help wondering just how they managed to survive. The unfortunate result is a generation of survivors so immersed in self-reproach and misery that they torture themselves and their loved ones.
With holocaust literature continually flooding the market and literally forming a genre of its own, great attention has been paid to the phenomenon of survivor's guilt. Elie Weisel gave the issue moving treatment in his widely acclaimed novel Night, and most recently, William Styron examined the trauma of a mother forced to determine the fate of her children in Sophie's Choice. It should come as no surprise therefore that as a Jewish initiate into the world of fiction, Sheila Levin attempts to join the ranks of the guilt-ridden with her first novel, Simple Truths.
Levin makes a noble and marginally successful attempt to deal with a somewhat hackneyed subject in a unique and sensitive manner. Instead of focusing on the survivors themselves and their inability to go on living, Simple Truths explores the plight of the descendants of holocaust survivors and how the legacy of guilt destroys their lives as well. Susan Warner, the novel's protagonist, is the daughter of two concentration camp survivors. Her father escaped death by working as a camp physician, a fact which Susan's mother, an embittered and vengeful woman, takes pleasure in tormenting him with. Neither of Susan's parents are able to release themselves from their world of guilt, and both wind up committing suicide.
The result, to no one's surprise, is a guilty and suicidal Susan, who spends the majority of the novel dwelling on her inability to transcend her parents' misery and contemplating her own destruction. Unfortunately, Susan reverts to the all too common methods of alcohol and hedonistic fantasies, and when these fail her, she attempts unsuccessfully to end her own life. Susan is miraculously, and somewhat unrealistically, saved from an overdose by her ex-husband, but it is a contrived redemption. Too many sob stories, too much booze, and too many trite lines about guilt and the meaning of life at the wrong time make the novel seem more like a sappy tear-jerker than a poignant analysis of a tormented woman. Unfortunately, the portrait of Susan is less vivid. While the majority of the novel is devoted to supposed introspection on Susan's part, most of the lines provide little insight into Susan herself. How Susan's problems with men, for example, relate to her parents' past never becomes clear. As a result, the novel appears more like a series of tangent plots thrown inadvertently together than a unified, coherent work.
Perhaps the greatest failing of Simple Truths, though, is that it falls short of what it purports to be. Its cover describes the novel as the story of a woman who manages to expiate her past through her work with Soviet Jews. Yet Russian Jews receive little if any treatment in the novel. With the exception of intermittent copies of correspondence between Susan and Leonid Rabinowitz, a radical Russian violinist being persecuted by the Soviet government, the relationship between Susan and Leonid--a crucial relationship in Susan's transcendence--is left undeveloped. Susan ends the narrative by imagining "what it will be like to walk into Leonid's apartment," but unfortunately she leaves the novel appearing almost anticlimatic.
THE NOVEL does have its moments. Its portrayal of Susan's mother is a particularly bright spot. Susan's mother becomes so overwhelmed with bitterness that at one point she actually accuses her husband of aiding the Nazis in sexual experiments. The stories appear to be fabrications, but they provide the novel with moving examples of a character who ironically performs greater injustice to the memory of the dead by refusing to go on with her own life.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of all occurs at the end of the novel when Susan stops immersing herself in self-pity and recognizes that her problems are no lesser or greater than the rest of the world's. Ironically, Levin seems to succeed most when she quits writing for effect and allows the characters to speak for themselves.
Simple Truths suffers from all the predictable flaws of a first novel. The story is fragmented, the insights are a bit cliched, and the real plot--the relationship between Susan and Leonid--remains hidden. Yet the story does show potential. Sheila Levin would fare better in her next novel if she ceased indulging her characters in self-righteousness and let the reader discover the novel's simple truths for himself.