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Seven Days at the Silbersteins - Etienne LeRoux

”We are not alone,” said Jock Silberstein. “Every day we understand more and more our collective share in the fate of humanity. Solitude is the longing, the pain inherent in contemplating the false image of the individual that is vanishing piecemeal with our new understanding.”

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On a lush estate called Welgevonden in South Africa we are treated to seven days of preparation for the marriage/merging of two rich families: the Silbersteins and the Van Eedens. Salome and Henry have never met and Henry soon finds himself at a disadvantage trying to determine who is his intended among a covey of lovely dark eyed girls. The estate is brimming with people with more people arriving each day seemingly creating more barriers between Henry and his quest to actually meet the lovely Salome. The parties at night are rather wild affairs with masks and themes that encourage carnal behavior. During the day Henry’s future father-in-law takes him on tours of the estate and shares his thoughts about philosophies, religion, and sex. 

”We are a combination of faces and we understand the futility of getting to know anything about the complex patterns. The true self is total, part of the anonymous multitude. Each of us is simply a conduit carrying the stream of accumulated knowledge. It’s an oppressive thought. We no longer have any single image of any sort at all.”

Okay could somebody pass me my Jungian lexicon and something heavy to put in my lap so I don’t just float away.

Your search for Salome is doomed to failure.

Obviously Jock is talking about his daughter’s true self. We hide things from people and ourselves. Predilections that you would think you should know about a significant other sometimes take decades to reveal themselves or possibly they don’t come to light until after that person has died. I know for a fact that I present different versions of myself to different people because in some ways I am a different person when I am with different people. Friends create alternative connections that open up sometimes remote aspects of my personality. The versions are not that dissimilar more like a Duchamp painting of myself descending a staircase that reassembles when I reach the bottom. 

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On page two I knew I was going to like this novel. I read the following line and my brain was resonating like a tuning fork. 

An ornamental keyhole plate with a leaf motif gleamed in the late afternoon sun on the front door. “It looks like a womb,” said J.J. He lifted the heavy dragon-shaped knocker and rapped with the appropriate firmness: Not, on the one hand, too boisterous nor, on the other, too unassuming--as befitted a man of standing who had been initiated since childhood in the civilized musicality of announcing himself. 

J.J. is Henry’s uncle and he is, as it turns out, quite enamored with the slender and fragile beauty of Mrs. Silberstein. On one of Jock’s excursions he reveals a secret to Henry in a rather cavalier fashion when they visit Mrs. Dreyer. Nobody, as more is revealed, is innocent. 

”Alone in the room, caressed into half-sleep by the sunlight, enfolded in the arms of an ornate armchair, his doze was interrupted every so often by Mrs. Dreyer bringing in, first, a tray with cups, then a plate of marie biscuits, then small plates and teaspoons and forks. Each time her dress was a little more disordered: the blouse looser and hastily buttoned, the shirt patterned with fresh creases, the bow in her fair fluttering with every movement and finally, not there at all. The more disheveled, the more cheerful she looked: a little bundle that like a cotton husk, unrolled in the joyful wind.”

Jock was “helping” Mrs. Dreyer in the kitchen. Mrs. Dreyer is the polar opposite of Mrs. Silberstein. She is rounder with a lush full figure, not beautiful, but she exudes desire and passion that gives Jock what he is missing in his marriage. 

”There is so much that you must learn in a very short time,” sighed Jock. “Or, to put it this way: there are so many things you will have to learn and unlearn. All those things that protect you now. Your ignorance, your innocence, for instance. You simply can’t go through life as you are. Life isn’t that simple.”

Etienne Leroux was accused of immorality. Maybe to some people it is immoral to question the established order. ”Every regulation has its original reason. The more complex the system, the more difficult it is to determine the exact reason for each regulation. Regulations eventually become dogmas, truths about which there can be no further argument.” 

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Etienne Leroux working the beard and the dark sunglasses.

I had never heard of Leroux until I read Paul Theroux’s bookLast Train to Zona Verde in which he mentioned how tragic it is that this great writer from South Africa wasn’t read anymore. As usual with a Paul Theroux book I came away with an embarrassing (because I’ve never heard of them) list of writers to read. The venerable Graham Greene also respected Leroux’s writing. ”His audience will be the audience that only a good writer can merit, an audience which assembles slowly in ones and twos ... the rumour spreads that here an addition will be found to the literature of our time.” So that is what I’m doing with this review. I’m spreading a rumor that Leroux is really, really good. Pass it on. 

No such farm as Welgevonden exists. all the characters are imaginary. The events are improbable