I bought this book about three years ago in the lovely Persephone bookshop in London, and for some reason have only now got around to reading it. As a rule I love Persephone books and am keen to read more of them. I hadn’t heard anything about Amy Levy, or Reuben Sachs, when I found the book in the shop, but gave it a go based on the blurb and the first page. It is what I would describe as a quite gentle society novel about a young man and his extended family – and as the preface by Julia Neuberger points out, it is also about being Jewish, in London, at the end of the nineteenth century. Levy was Jewish and, has Neuberger explains, had somewhat mixed feelings about this, and was acutely aware of the snobbishness and hierarchy that she observed in the London community. This is shown throughout the novel in the differing opinions of the Jewish characters, and their approach to life in ‘the Community’.
While Reuben and the character of Judith Quixano are at the centre of the book, their extended families move around them throughout, organising dinners and parties, and having conversations that seem light-hearted but often underlie more serious issues. Each is given a general standpoint, a perspective from which to comment on their shared life and that of their Community. I have to admit that if I hadn’t read the preface first I’m not sure I would have been aware of the more nuanced social commentary throughout Reuben Sachs, so casually is it thrown into the dialogue. I did, however, appreciate Levy’s gentle sarcasm and irony in this novel, and her wit plays a great role in showing the reader the ridiculousness of some of her lesser characters, such as the Jewish convert Bertie Harrison-Lee. He holds a unique position among the characters of the novel and is seen as something of a curiosity, and a person about whom almost everyone feels the need to make a comment. He becomes a friend of Reuben and in that way ingratiates himself to the five intertwining families who make up the cast.
And now to the character of Reuben himself: the novel starts with a sweeping introduction, telling us about his success in school and his early life, and the fact that bad health had taken him abroad for some time just before the start of the novel and he has now returned. We also learn that he is a lawyer with political aspirations; but beyond that, even in moments where free indirect speech allows us a glimpse into his mind, I did not feel that I got to know Reuben Sachs. He is a well-drawn character in that we see him from the viewpoints others and one can get a good overall impression, but I did not feel that his personality and character were really explored and developed all that much. Aside from his love for Judith we do not see much of his emotions. I feel like we see more of the emotions of even one of the lesser characters, Judith’s cousin Leo, than we do of Reuben’s.
Judith meanwhile is much more open to the reader. We spend a few scenes alone with her and go through various emotions and feelings, towards several different people and her own position in life. She is a ward of the Leunigers, her cousins, and her unusual social position is well explored – the Quixanos are higher up in the hierarchy of the Community, being Sephardic Jews, but they have fallen on hard times and are forced to send Judith to live with her more ordinary cousins. Personally I found Judith to the most interesting and well-rounded character in the novel, and I liked her a lot. She seems to see the faint ridiculousness of the Leunigers more than anyone else, with their obsessive materialism and dislike of books. We also see Reuben through her eyes quite often, which helps to round out his character – a little.
At only 148 pages Reuben Sachs is quite a quick and unchallenging read, but I very much enjoyed it. It is ultimately a very pleasant book with pleasing social scenes and family drama, as well as an underlying love story, and the politics of the Jewish Community peppered throughout. It is a novel that deserves to be preserved by Persephone Books and to be discovered by a new readership. I think I shall have to go and read more of Amy Levy’s work.
Originally published in 1888; I read the 2007 Persephone Books edition (pictured above).