What makes this all so powerful and painful is that neither Henny nor the reader can ever quite be sure about who had done exactly what during the Nazi era. Her former fiancé sent her an appalling letter that Seth savages for its “unfailing wrong-footedness”, “larded with mock-punctilious, frigid qualifications and bristling with a dozen different kinds of psychological obtuseness”. Yet some friends, keen to gain sympathy and perhaps financial help from Henny, seem to have embellished their own war record while subtly denigrating other people’s. This section alone makes the book a superb exploration of what Seth describes as “morality under pressure”.
More than once, Seth worries that he has betrayed them, by making their private lives public; she especially might have disapproved. But his motives are generous, and the breadth of the canvas is ample justification. “Some there be,” runs a passage in Ecclesiasticus, “which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been.” Henny and Shanti had no children. But they did have an author for a great-nephew. And his Two Lives is a stay against their oblivion.
The Independent cruelly summarises Two Lives thus: “the dark past of the suburban dentist”. Seth’s uncle, Shantih, lost an arm in World War II but set up practice in London as a one-armed dentist all the same, after marrying Henny, whose family died in Hitler’s concentration camps. The couple were surrogate parents to the adolescent Seth, who began to consider writing about their lives at his mother’s suggestion.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the family story would have been little more than interesting. Seth, with his beautifully simple prose, creates a truly unforgettable double portrait. He zooms in on tiny details, then broadens his focus to include Nazi Germany, India and Israel, with all the great events of the 20th century. It is also a meditation on love, courage and friendship, on betrayal through opportunism and moral cowardice, on identity, exile and alienation, on the dehumanisation of racism, and on those acts of spontaneous generosity which are all that is left to maintain faith in humanity.
Seth describes this book as “history writ little” and as an attempt, in its insistence on the private worth of two publicly insignificant individuals, to defy “group hatred”. Written as an act of love and duty, it is a testament to his modesty and familial affection, but it will perplex his literary admirers.
This is a story of proven love. It makes little splash – no more than a murmur – a story too of prolonged endurance quietly borne. And yet it is full of moments that strike, and strokes that tell, weaving together, in the words of its main protagonists (taken from letters and conversations), stoical hope and quiet, poignant, lingering courage.