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Lauren Belfer’s third novel is almost unimaginably gutsy

We didn’t see this coming. 
Lauren Belfer’s “City of Light,” was the best book ever written about the City of Buffalo. It was marked by a truly incandescent version of Buffalo when the city was the very essence of turn-of-the-century modernity.
 It was also a fierce portrait of America’s version of the class system. The novel’s center was a fictional version of the Buffalo Seminary, from which Belfer graduated. But its delvings into the doings of Buffalo’s upper class – those whose names still adorn our streets and public buildings – were beyond brazen. They had the chutzpah of an Occupy movement sympathizer with those protesting the realities of life among the 1-percenters.
 Her second novel “A Fierce Radiance” was a best-selling disappointment about the advent of penicillin in America. Research swamped almost everything else about the book.

“And After the Fire” (Harper, 451 pages, $26.95) is a bold and hugely ambitious novel with the transfixing appeal of a best-seller. But it represents the chutzpah that lay beyond chutzpah. It is about a subject infinitely greater than one progressive city’s upper-class. It is about nothing less than the toxic anti-Semitism that lay at the very center of Western history, from blood libels to pogroms to the Nazi Holocaust and beyond.

Belfer has the extraordinary temerity to imagine that the manuscript of a “lost cantata” of Johann Sebastian Bach is found in the piano bench of a World War II veteran after his death. It was to him at first an almost overlooked souvenir from a German home whose Jewish occupants had either quickly fled the Holocaust or had been incinerated in it.

When there is time for the appropriator to look at what the souvenir musical manuscripts are, he discovers a cultural horror capable of shaking the foundations of Western culture. In this fictional “lost cantata” of Bach – the man often thought the greatest Western composer – there is unmistakable anti-Semitism in the recitatives which regret Christians not killing Jews and urging listeners to “burn their synagogues– and bury everything that doesn’t burn.”

Jews in Europe and America have grown up since the Nazis with an understanding that in the realities of Western culture, anti-Semitism has been pervasive for centuries. It is infinitely more difficult to find a defender of Jews among great artists, painters and musicians (George Eliot, for instance) than it is to find a virulent anti-Semite (for which see Degas, Wagner, Ezra Pound, and to a lesser extent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. )

What makes its way into Belfer’s fictional Bach cantata seems, to the novel’s heroine, a version of one of Western civilization’s most hate-filled documents, Martin Luther’s 16th century treatise “On the Jews and their Lies,” which recommended burning down “their synagogues” and confiscating all their books.

What makes Belfer’s novel so bold and radical is that Bach is usually seen by devotees of classical music as a kind of holy center of all Western art, a composer of music so transcendent that it bypasses the vileness and calamities of human reality and makes as many claims on the divine as any human activity can.

It is so large and seismic in its implications that I’m not sure Belfer weighed the immensity of the premise. To the degree that there are questionable passages in actual extant Bach cantatas is nothing compared to what she invents here.

The 400-page story about this manuscript is a brilliantly researched and plausible provenance for this vehemently unholy fictional masterpiece of great music and appalling text. We follow it as the book proceeds through the possession of Bach’s oldest son Wilhelm Friedmann Bach, his harpsichord-playing pupil, the family of Felix Mendelssohn and his younger sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and finally the family that abandoned the manuscript in a German house as the area is “liberated” by American soldiers, one of whom keeps it for 40 years in the piano bench of his Buffalo home on a one-block street between Forest and Bird.

The novel keeps returning to Buffalo as a setting with an allegiance from Belfer that can’t help but capture Buffalonians. But the novel’s mind and heart in the two main stories are about this central strain of bigotry, prejudice and worse that has marked Western history from its beginnings.

Belfer has two heroines. One is that adored 19th century pupil of Wilhelm Friedmann Bach to whom he trusts the manuscript when he knows his days are numbered. The other is the 21st century niece of that American soldier who neutralized Bach’s explosive cultural bombshell by hiding it for 40 years in a Delaware District piano bench.

So what must be understood about the author of “And After the Fire” is not only the loyalty she continues to exhibit to her hometown but the boldness and lack of fear with which she tackles one of the most incendiary of themes.

Nor is anti-Semitism all. Sexist injustice is another subject she steers toward in dead reckoning. One of her two heroines frequently expresses disgust with the very real fact that Felix Mendelssohn, during most of his sister Fanny’s lifetime, had the power to prohibit her from publishing her music and, in fact, took credit for some of her work.

The ending of the book is so clever that, in one sense, it is enormously satisfying. But it is also larger in implication I think than Belfer knows.

Her husband, Michael Marissen, is a music scholar steeped in Baroque music. By her admission, he was an enormous help to her in this book. But I think an earthquake discovery like this in the work of Bach would cause vastly more devastation than even Belfer’s semi-apocalyptic imagination could conceive.

A Bach cantata like the one she invented would rearrange the cultural ecology of Western civilization itself.

At the very least.

An extraordinary third novel, nevertheless, by a native daughter of the city whose talent is now even beyond the admiration of those of us so impressed by “City of Light.”
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Lauren Belfer to make several appearances in WNY:
• 5:30 p.m. May 16, Larkin Square, 726 Seneca St.
• 6 p.m. May 17, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Clarence Mall, 4401 Transit Road
• 6 p.m. May 18, City of Tonawanda Public Library, 333 Main St.
• 7:30 p.m. June 7, Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo, Benderson Building,
2640 North Forest Road, Amherst

email: jsimon@buffnews.com