In April 1946, Evelyn Sert, a 20-year-old East End London hairdresser, sets out for Palestine. “This is my story”, she writes, “Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story.” Evelyn’s story in Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times
is no less complicated than that of any other displaced European Jew in the post-war years–separated from her family and searching for some kind of reliable identity for herself in an inhospitable new land. In shining modern Bauhaus-influenced Tel Aviv she finds that she is more English than Israeli and she becomes Priscilla Jones, a peroxided English girl with an absent policeman husband. She is at her most “real”, it seems, when pretending, revelling in her ability to be entirely accepted among the English women whose hair she cuts and curls. Beyond their petty and casually anti-semitic circle, by contrast, she struggles with Hebrew, the heat, the unfamiliar food and alien, exotic way of life.But in Palestine the English are the enemy and Evelyn is drawn into a world of shifting identities, lies and secrets by her passionate Zionist boyfriend Johnny. Even then, she is never quite sure which side she is on, or where she belongs.
Linda Grant writes with quiet assurance and a strong sense of purpose. Her Tel Aviv is a city of contradictions and of hope. Her heroine is a fully believable figure, a chameleon character of a kind readily recognisable to those of us who grew up as part of the seismic displacement of peoples that accompanied World War Two, as also, probably, to anyone who has been caught up in the more recent exoduses from Bosnia, Kosova and Albania. —Lisa Jardine
I fell in love with the city of Tel Aviv two years ago and as I was looking at its dilapidated Bauhaus buildings, I knew that I would write a novel set there. Unlike Jerusalem, nothing was holy. I saw Tel Aviv as a metaphor for the dreams of its founders: not only the Zionists but other idealists, such as socialists, feminists and lovers of modern art and architecture who fled to Tel Aviv in the 1930s. There was a saying at the time, “I didn’t come here from conviction, I came here from Germany” and it was the lives of these people that initially fascinated me.To this day, the Israelis are still prone to being lukewarm about the British, their former colonial masters under the Mandate that lasted from 1917 to 1948. This created a paradox for me, being both British and Jewish. I wanted to write about national identity, about a character who is more familiar with the customs of the hated oppressors yet feels herself to have the enemy within her. There was a belief then, that it was possible to do away with the past and in the years immediately after the War it’s understandable that the Jews were dead set on turning their face to the future and away from the nightmare of the past. They embraced modernism in all its forms. The people of Tel Aviv lived in a city that, founded in 1909, was younger than many of its inhabitants. They thought that they could re-engineer human identity to rid it of its neuroses and of the encrusted customs of centuries of European life.
I spent a lot of time imagining myself living then, without the benefit of hindsight. I knew that I would have embraced their ideas passionately. We have no choice but to live through the portion of history that is allotted to us and from the vantage point of someone born years after the events I describe in this book, I feel envy and compassion. Envy for people who lived in times when they had a wholehearted certainty about the future and believed they knew the route that would take them there. And compassion because they could not see what I do: the wars that would follow, the brand new architecture stained and peeling, the socialism abandoned. But still when I walk the streets of Tel Aviv, a place that was once called the White City, I look up and I see the ghosts of modernity going about their eager business.