The Invisible Wall
What initially made publication of The Invisible Wall the object of international awe was the advanced age of its author, ninety-six, and the claim that this was his first book. In fact, as Harry Bernstein admitted to interviewers who sought him out in the retirement community in Brick, New Jersey, where he lived alone, he had over the decades written twenty to thirty novels, but none had found a publisher. The Smile could be said to have been published in 1981, but only in the most technical sense of the term; the novel’s publisher went out of business shortly after copies were printed, and they were never distributed. So, in his tenth decade, Bernsteinlike Virginia Hamilton Adair, who published her first book of poems, Ants on the Melon (1996), at eighty-threerepresented an extraordinarily late literary debut. The book was written, Bernstein stated, as a kind of therapy to enable him to cope with the death of his wife, Ruby, after sixty-seven years of marriage. However, readers soon discovered that The Invisible Wall merited attention not merely because of the senescence of its novice author. More than just a literary novelty, it is a dramatic evocation of Bernstein’s harrowing childhood. Recalling objects, events, and conversations from ninety years earlier, he demonstrates a vivid memory, a powerful imagination, and a confident command of language.
The memoir begins in 1914, when Harry (called “’arry” by everyone in his English neighborhood) is four, and it concludes eight years later, when he and most of his family leave for America. It is set on a drab street in a Lancashire mill town; though unnamed in the book, Stockport is the town, near Manchester, in northern England, where Bernstein spent the first dozen years of his life. Though it has been compared with Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir of an impoverished Irish childhood, the book is Dickensian in its focus on growing up poor in a grimy industrial English town and in its cast of memorable characters.
The Invisible Wall derives its title from the psychological barrier that divides the street where Harry lives. On one side live the Jews, including Harry and his family; Harry is the youngest of three boys and two girls. Across the street live the Gentiles. Most of the Jewish men work in nearby tailoring shops, and most of the Christian men have jobs in the cotton mills. Although Gentiles and Jews suffer alike from stifling poverty, deep-seated animosities separate the two groups. On the other side of the street, Jews are openly maligned as avaricious Christ-killers, and every day, traveling to and from school, Harry and his siblings run a gauntlet of thuggish “batsemas” (local slang for anti-Semites). Beyond using Christians as “fire goys,” to turn off ovens on the Sabbath, when their religion forbids Jews to do it themselves, Harry’s family and others on their side of the street try, in turn, to have as little as possible to do with their Christian neighbors.
The Invisible Wall begins with a vibrant auditory memorythe early morning symphony of wooden clogs clattering on cobblestones as the Christian men march off to work in the mills. Anxious to secure a finer fate for her youngest child, who has to share a bed with his two older brothers, Harry’s mother desperately tries to get him leather shoes, a prerequisite for enrollment in a better school. However, her nasty, sullen husband, who squanders his wages on drinking and gambling, refuses to allot her enough money for shoes, and the headmaster, who zealously limits the number of Jews admitted into his school, rejects Harry for wearing clogs. For all her resourcefulness (to supplement the meager household budget, she gleans imperfect produce to sell in a makeshift shop) and devotion, Harry’s mother is trapped in poverty and a loveless marriage. What sustains her over the years is hope that relatives abroad with whom shethough illiterate, using her youngest son as scribe and readercorresponds will send the family steamship tickets to America. Though Harry provides some explanation for his father’s surliness, in the harshness of his...
(The entire section is 1706 words.)