A masterpiece of literary memory—a powerful exploration of the intersections of family, history, and memory
"One evening in May 1948, my mother went to a party in New York with her first husband and left it with her second, my father." So begins the passionate and stormy union of Mikhail Kamenetzki, aka Ugo Stille, one of Italy's most celebrated journalists, and Elizabeth Bogert, a beautiful and charming young woman from the Midwest.
The Force of Things follows two families across the twentieth century—one starting in czarist Russia, the other starting in the American Midwest—and takes them across revolution, war, fascism, and racial persecution, until they collide at mid-century. Their immediate attraction and tumultuous marriage is part of a much larger story: the mass migration of Jews from fascist-dominated Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. It is a micro-story of that moment of cross-pollination that reshaped much of American culture and society. Theirs was an uneasy marriage between Europe and America, between Jew and WASP; their differences were a key to their bond yet a source of constant strife.
Alexander Stille's The Force of Things is a powerful, beautifully written work with the intimacy of a memoir, the pace and readability of a novel, and the historical sweep and documentary precision of nonfiction writing at its best. It is a portrait of people who are buffeted about by large historical events, who try to escape their origins but find themselves in the grip of the force of things.
Digging up the ghosts and skeletons hiding in family closets can be exhilarating, repulsive, amusing, or terrifying, and reading memoirs of a family unless it's ours can be just as exhilarating or terrifying or uninteresting. What is it about this family that resembles our own? What lessons can we learn from this memoir? Stille's sometimes charming, sometimes tedious memoir traces the story of his star-crossed, storm-tossed parents who lived and loved against the backdrop of the migration of Jews from fascist-dominated Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and a cultural life in postwar America that included moving among New York intellectuals such as Dwight McDonald, Alfred Kazin, and Philip Roth. Some of his relatives are notable characters; his Aunt Lally, for example, is "something of a Holy Fool out of a Russian novel, a person almost free of guile or malice." An inveterate hoarder, Lally's apartment contains mountains of documents that eventually help Stille discover elements of his father's personality and his father's passion for detail. Like an improbable Romeo and Juliet, Stille's father, the celebrated Italian journalist Mikhail Kamenetzki, and his mother, the Midwestern beauty Elizabeth Bogert, meet when she "goes to a party in New York with her first husband and leaves it with her second" (Stille's father). Stille's often moving, though overlong, memoir records one couple's struggles and uncertainties in the midst of uncertain times.