“And After The Fire” by Lauren Belfer has a historical component to the mystery. The settings alternate between Berlin in the late 1700s to mid-1800s, and 2010 in New York and Germany. Readers follow the dual storylines: the rape of the Jewish people by an anti-Semitic Bach composition and the literal rape of the main character Susana in the present day.
Belfer formulated the idea after taking a course about Bach.
“Some of his music had a lashing out against the Jews,” she said. “The idea came to me as I thought about the Nazis stealing masterpieces of art: ‘what if I had found a manuscript stolen during the war?’ As I did the research I was introduced to people I never heard of including the real-life Sara. I knew I had to write about her and this propelled two narratives, one in the present with Susana, and the other in the past with Sara.”
The plot begins with Susana Kessler struggling to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When her Uncle Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden Bach manuscript. Determined to return it to its rightful owner she enlists the help of Dan, a Bach musical expert who is not Jewish. Because his Lutheran faith is rocked by a personal loss he forms a kinship with Susana who is also questioning her beliefs about mankind in the wake of the Holocaust.
Readers will be taken on a journey with the characters as they try to solve the mystery behind this lost cantata of Bach that has unmistakable anti-Semitism in the recitatives. This is where Belfer introduces Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician in the 1800s, who receives an unsettling gift from her teacher, Bach’s son. This work’s disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come. Both Susana and Sara face the same dilemma, what should be done with a music manuscript, which has been carefully concealed from the world since 1783. If revealed it could bring danger upon the Jewish culture.
According to Belfer, “the context of the music is relevant. Critics say that the aesthetic beauty is all that counts and composers’ personal thoughts should not be considered. I don’t buy that. I don’t think these anti-Jewish beliefs came out of nowhere. I also touch in the book how the Lutheran religion has in its Bible that ‘Jews should go to hell,’ and there is Martin Luther’s book that is extremely anti-Semitic. These feelings were simmering for hundreds of years. I was surprised when I learned through my research how Lutherans did not disavow these anti-Jewish thoughts until the 1990s. Bach chose the lyrics from several poets that worked with him, and they lashed out at Jews in very contemptuous ways. He was an ordained Minister of Music responsible for choosing the Librettos for the Church pieces; although the piece in the book is fictional.”
Composers Felix and Fanny’s Mendelssohns’ great aunt is Sara. It is with these characters that the author explores the treatment of women during the 1800s. 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.
Belfer noted, “The music of Fanny Mendelssohn was depressed for so many years. People are now beginning to rediscover it. To this day I just cannot figure out what was going through Fanny’s mind, refusing to publish her works. Some have said that during the time period she lived society would have disavowed the family. Yet, it seems to me because her husband, mother, and great aunt strongly encouraged her to publish her music those excuses could not be true. I doubt they would have encouraged her if it were going to destroy their position in society. Right before she died she did get the courage and finally published her works.”
But the core of the story has the manuscript seeming like a secondary character. Through it readers learn historical facts about Germany, how music can affect people’s views, and what should be done with such a piece of work.
“And After The Fire” is a brilliant novel. It intertwines history and music with likeable characters, both real-life and created. It transports the reader to a world seldom visited, with a mystery that keeps the pages turning.