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A Memory of War by Frederick Busch
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A Memory of War

by Frederick Busch

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I feel slightly guilty only giving "A Memory of War" four stars. Frederick Busch is a wonderful writer. I was disappointed by this book, but I think that is due to my faulty expectations. I selected it because I was intrigued by the plot and I enjoy literary historical fiction. The central concept is simple and compelling. Alex Lescziak is a New York psychoanalyst whose parents escaped from Poland and lived in England during World War II. One day a new patient reveals himself to be Alex's half brother, William Kessler. William's father Otto was a German prisoner of war who had an affair with Alex's mother Sylvia in England, while Alex was a toddler. There are two sub-plots. One revolves around Alex's wife, Liz,who he suspects is having an affair with his best friend, and the other involves one of his patients, Nella, with whom he is having an affair. She is suicidal and now missing.

I was expecting two narrative streams, one following events in the present (1985) and one actually telling the story of Sylvia and Otto. In fact, the reader experiences all of the characters through Alex's consciousness. We know the characters only through Alex's imagination. I really disliked this while I was reading the book. However, after finishing it, I find myself still thinking about Alex and all of the other characters. It turns out that I was able to accept the book on its own terms afterall. Busch convinced me that his was the "true" story, regardless of the facts. On one level it bothers me that the book offers a single perspective -- probably because I expected something different -- but it is strangely satifying anyway. ( )
  krbrancolini | Mar 24, 2011 |
I guess my tags here say it all: holocaust, Auschwitz, Jews, family relationships, psychotherapy, adultery, World War II (and passing references to WWI too), and Vietnam. The fact is, there's so much stuff in this densely complex novel that I often found myself going back to reread parts that I hadn't paid enough attention to the first time through. Because here is a novel so richly researched and imagined that it will stay in your mind for a long time after you put the book down. A Memory of War encompasses two wars - WWII, which precipitated the flight and immigration of the parents of the protagonist, Dr Alex Lescziak, a middle-aged clinical psychologist in NYC; and Vietnam, represented by one of his patients, a brutal, duplicitous and damaged Transit Authority cop, who served in SE Asia.

Lescziak is perhaps one of the most intricately imagined anti-heroes in recent modern fiction. Perhaps suffering from career-related burnout, he has entered into an unethical and adulterous affair with a disturbed woman patient young enough to be his daughter. And yet he still loves his wife of twenty-some years, although he fantasizes (imagines?) that she is carrying on an affair with his best friend, a psychiatrist. Another patient key to the whole novel is William Kessler, a man who claims to be Lescziak's half-brother, the result of an affair between Alex's mother and a German POW in England's Lake District during the last year of the war, when the Lescziaks were refugee workers there.

Alex is torn by Kessler's tale, but believes him enough to research his stories at the NYC Public Library, where he apparently finds enough to richly imagine in near-pornographic detail his mother's affair with the German, how she must have felt and how it all might have happened. The details of England and the drab, sordid living conditions of the refugee workers there are so vivid that you can almost feel the fog and taste the awful food and smell the community bathrooms where the Lescziaks lived in squalor there.

But better there than in the death camps where so many Jews ended up. Auschwitz III shows up here too, as Alex's mother, Sylvia, imagines the possible fate of her lover, Otto Kessler, after he escapes and disappears.

The scenes of sexual betrayal and seduction here are many and richly detailed. There is Alex's wife, Liz, and her imagined (or are they real?) trysts with Teddy Levenson, Alex's best friend. Alex's own affair with his probably irreparably damaged patient, Nella, whose mother was a suicide. Sylvia Lescziak's desperate and sad liaison with the German, Otto. All of these sexual connections are rendered in graphic yet somehow beautiful prose.

This is a story that is hard to describe, because it is so richly imagined and beautifully rendered in exquisitely precise language. I have read several of Fred Busch's books now and A Memory of War is perhaps the most complex and meticulously researched of them all. It is not an easy book to read; it demands much of a reader. Which makes me wonder how it did, commercially. Probably not well. Which is a tragedy. What a craftsman Fred Busch was. A Memory of War is proof of that - a literary treasure. ( )
  TimBazzett | Aug 9, 2010 |
There are books we (if I may be so bold as to speak for others) end up liking in spite of ourselves or early doubts. There are also books that don't live up to the promise of their early pages. And then there are books that manage to be both. Like this one.

I wish I could say I didn't like it, but I did. Not all of it, but enough of it. Busch is a tough writer and this is a tough book to read, being one long stream of consciousness. The prose is a bit dense, though not all that much happens. Things are repeated, all from Alex's point of view. Alex is a shrink, obsessed with a patient (Nella) and with the presumed affair his wife (Liz) is having with his best friend (Teddy). Things are stirred up when the patient disappears and a stranger (William) tells him they are half-brothers by way of a shared mother. Alex, the Jewish son of Polish immigrants, is disturbed by this German apologist for the Holocaust.

Alex ruminates about facts. In clear "physician, heal thyself" tradition, he has caused as much or more harm to his patients as he's helped them. His mind wanders during therapy sessions, to other people, other times. We see his parents, and his mother's presumed lover through his eyes. We see his wife and his friend through his eyes. Ultimately, we have only his word for most of it.

What we know, or can reasonably think we know, is that Alex has had an affair with Nella, that Nella has disappeared and might be suicidal, that William is convinced that he and Alex share a mother, that Alex's parents spent part of World War II in England when Alex was a toddler and that German prisoners were held neaarby, that Alex's marriage to Liz is at a crisis point, that Teddy is concerned for him. Anything more are seemingly the bits of data Alex uses to fill the gaps in his knowledge, the assumptions and presumptions and possibly guesswork as he researches England during the war years and mines his memories about his parents and their relationship with each other and with him.

Busch makes a point (there's an interview with him and book discussion group talking points at the back of the book) that war (World War II for Alex's parents, Vietnam for one of his patients) that "War is the largest public convulsion we know. It cannot be ignored. It invades every aspect of the lives of citizens whose nation is at war or is a battleground." Yet oddly, Alex, the character who seems most dysfunctional, didn't experience war directly.

There are some awesome, evocative passages in this book. There are also pages of repitious rumination, awkward phrasings that my mind stumbled over and that lulled me into a stupor with their almost singsong rhythms. But bottom line, the book wasn't compelling for me. I kept reading out of curiosity to learn what if anything Alex would learn about himself and the "facts" he had to deal with. I can't quite say this is a book not worth reading, nor can I recommend it without reservation. I enjoyed his The Night Inspector and found that one difficult to read. This is tougher for the stream of consciousness that did suit the subject. Perhaps as I get older, I prefer books to be more straight-forward. And this is one of the few times I am simply ambivalent about a book. ( )
  ShellyS | Aug 13, 2009 |
I haven't actually yet finished this book, but it is what I am currently reading upon joining the librarything. Interesting, in light of the shooting at the Holocaust museum in DC yesterday. It seems nothing much really changes.
  pjolley | Jun 11, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393049787, Hardcover)

"A multilayered love story that affirms Frederick Busch's reputation as a writer of "sublimely dark work of almost unbearable beauty" (Wall Street Journal).

Psychologist Alexander Lescziak savors a life of quiet sophistication on Manhattan's Upper West Side, turning a blind eye to the past of his Polish émigré parents. Then a new patient declares that he is the doctor's half-brother, the product of a union between Lescziak's Jewish mother and a German prisoner of war. The confrontation jolts Lescziak out of his complacency: suddenly, his failing marriage, his wife's infatuation with his best friend, and the disappearance of his young lover and suicidal patient, Nella, close in on him. Lescziak escapes into the recesses of his imagination, where his mother's affair with the German prisoner comes to life in precise, gorgeous detail. The novel unfolds into a romance set in England's Lake District in wartime, as Busch shows how our past presses on the present.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:17 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Psychologist Alexander Lescziak savors a life of quiet sophistication on Manhattan's Upper West Side, turning a blind eye to the past of his Polish emigre parents. Then a new patient declares that he is the doctor's half-brother, the product of a union between Lescziak's Jewish mother and a German prisoner-of-war. The confrontation jolts Lescziak out of his complacency: suddenly, his failing marriage, his wife's infatuation with his best friend, and the disappearance of his young lover and suicidal patient, Nella, close in on him. Lescziak escapes into the recesses of his imagination, where his mother's affair with the German prisoner comes to life in precise, gorgeous detail. As the novel unfolds into a romance set in England's Lake District in wartime, Frederick Busch reveals how the past presses in upon the present."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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