cover image The Rosendorf Quartet

The Rosendorf Quartet

Nathan Shaham. Grove/Atlantic, $19.95 (357pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1234-7

Israeli writer and dramatist Shaham uses a string quartet of German Jewish refugees playing in the Palestine of 1936-1938 as the vehicle for ruminations on Zionism and the creation of a uniquely Israeli culture, the nature of exile and the potentially destructive power of sex. Each of the four musicians ``authors'' a chapter in which a dark personal secret is revealed. The final chapter takes the form of a journal kept by Egon Lowenthal, a novelist who has befriended them. Too intimately involved with their emotional crises, he is ultimately unable to formulate a novel from this material (a failure which the author does not invest with adequate resonance). When the narrative concerns itself with the internal workings of the nascent musical group, it is moving and funny. The contrast between the two violinists--handsome and accomplished Kurt Rosendorf, for whom music is everything, and Konrad Friedman, a homely man of lesser musical talents, but the only Zionist in the group--makes for compelling reading. Unfortunately, when the focus shifts to violist Eva Staubenfeld, the fulcrum of the group's sexual tensions; or to the rather unpleasant cellist, Bernard Litovsky; or to Lowenthal, the tale descends into melodrama at the same time that it becomes an occasionally hectoring novel of ideas. Shaham, director of Israel's Sifriat Poalim publishing house, received the Bialik Prize for this work. (Aug.)