Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Saints in love

I just read a funny novel about a Holocaust survivor and a neo-Nazi. Now, usually neither surviving the Holocaust nor being a neo-Nazi is funny, but Francine Prose, the author of “A Changed Man,” has created two people who are not merely representative of their respective categories, but are also engaging. They want to do good, but are not disinterested do-gooders. Prose shows us that saintliness can’t be separated from self-interest.
Of the two characters, Meyer Maslow, the Holocaust survivor, is the more obviously saintly. Having escaped death as a Jew in World War II Europe, he now heads the World Brotherhood Watch Foundation in Manhattan. This foundation works to save victims of human rights violations and, in so doing, to encourage the world to fight such violations. Maslow feels himself God’s agent on earth and knows what God expects of him, which is self-giving. The trouble is that Maslow has a foundation to maintain and publicize, and this requires that he raise money on the benefit circuit in New York. Raising money means that he always has to be concerned about his success in attracting favorable publicity and, as a result, money. It’s hard to be a saint sucking up to publicists and potential donors.
Enter Vincent Nolan, the neo-Nazi member of ARM, or the Aryan Resistance Movement, who, having read about Maslow’s organization, decides to go to Maslow and tell him, ''I want to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me,'' and, in the process, reform himself. So, Nolan also feels the stirrings of something like saintliness. Never mind that to get to the foundation, he steals the Chevy pickup of his cousin and fellow ARM member, along with his drug stash and $1500. It’s all for a higher calling.
Once at the foundation’s office, he is handed over to Bonnie Kalen, Maslow’s assistant and chief acolyte, who is devoted to him and his cause beyond reason.
Bonnie introduces Nolan to Maslow, who sees Nolan as an answer to his prayers to find a way to sell out a big upcoming benefit for the support of the foundation’s work. Nolan, the changed man, will demonstrate that the work of the foundation can change people for the better “one person at a time.” All Bonnie has to do is all the work.
Maslow suggests that Bonnie take Nolan into her modest house in the suburbs, where she is raising her two sons after her divorce. All Bonnie has to do, in her devotion to Maslow, is to hope that the neo-Nazi won’t slaughter her and her children in the comfort of her own home.
Of course, what happens is not slaughter but love. Living uneasily with Nolan, Bonnie and her kids begin to accept him, depend on him, and to love him. He in turn finds himself a possible home and family. What Prose is saying is that disinterested saintliness doesn’t accomplish much. Rather, mountains are moved by strong emotions. In the case of the Holocaust, hate and anger wreaked havoc on millions. With Bonnie and Nolan on a much smaller scale, the strong emotion of love is the motive for helpful acts and mended lives.
So, maybe the moral of Prose’s novel is that if you want to do good and be saintly, fall in love first.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad this is a novel. In real life it might turn out rather differently. Beware of Saints! They all have something to sell, namely THEIR vision. The more saintly, the more cautious one should be. For myself, I prefer to avoid propaganda and would rather figure it out for myself without any examples (good or bad) that I was supposed to follow.