Author: Lauren Belfer
Author: Lauren Belfer
What would you do if a relative of yours bequeathed to you a full-length, complete autograph composing score of a previously unknown Leipzig church cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach that incorporated anti-Semitic content? And what if the Meisterwerk belonged to a Jewish family who were murdered during the holocaust?
The initiating event in Lauren Belfer's recent novel, And After the Fire takes place in May 1945 when Corporal Henry Sachs discovers a folder containing several pages of sheet music hidden in a piano bench in an abandoned home once owned by prosperous Jews in Weimar, Germany. The home was located not very far from the Buchenwald concentration camp. At the same time Sachs and his buddy Pete Galinsky had been rummaging through the home, a young woman appears pointing a gun at them, shoots at Sach's army buddy Galinsky and wounds him. Sachs immediately responds killing the young woman with his rifle and the two hurriedly escape from the home with the folder of music in hand.
After the war, Sachs settles in Buffalo, New York and for the next sixty-five years never stops wondering about the girl he shot and the sheet music he brought back to the USA with him. Sachs commits suicide and after his death, while cleaning out her uncle's home, his niece, Susanna Kessler discovers a manila envelope about the size of a large-format magazine with a letter-sized envelope taped to it with the inscription For Susanna in her uncle's handwriting. Inside the small envelope Susanna finds a note wherein her uncle Henry explains how he found a Meisterwerk by J.S Bach.
From this point onward Belfer uses the discovery of the music manuscript as an effective framing device for her novel that is a combination of fact mixed with fiction that is intricately plotted and skillfully assembled particularly the lives of the principal characters.
Although, as Belfer mentions in her historical notes and sources that the lost cantata may be fictional it nonetheless is plausible in every detail and its quotations from the writings of Martin Luther are actual. Some of the characters are in fact historical figures notably Sara Itzig Levy and her husband Samuel Salomon Levy, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Wilhelm Hensel, Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and their family and friends, as is Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.
The narrative shifts back and forth through time and place from the age of Enlightenment and the Romantic era to the twenty-first century. We learn about Sara Levy, a brilliant harpsichordist who was the sole Berlin student of the son of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Levy had made her mark on Berlin's cultural life through her musical salon, which endured over fifty years. We also learn about Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel the sister Felix Mendelssohn and how he had suppressed her musical ambitions.
As for Susanna, Belfer creates a young woman who was unfortunately raped, divorced, and is the executive director of a non-profit foundation based in New York City. Her principal task is coordinating grants of ten million dollars a year aimed at helping children. We journey with her in her quest to find the truth about the lost cantata and how did it fall into the hands of Jews in the twentieth century. Incidentally, the story also involves a romantic liaison between Susanna and someone who likewise is very interested in her findings.
Belfer cleverly weaves together many themes in this novel including significant ethical and sociological issues which is all the more reason why it is a compelling read that will surely provoke the reader to many heated discussions.