Book Review: ‘Focus’

Focus on Anti-Semitism

‘Focus’, by Arthur Miller (Ace Books, 2s. 6d.)

(‘Focus’) is that brilliant playwright’s first and only essay in the novel form. As with all his work, it is an impassioned tirade against a social evil – in this case, race prejudice.

Although the novel is ostensibly concerned with anti-semitism, the moral is clearly intended to apply to all forms of racial intolerance, as where the victim of anti-semitic bullying refuses to help a Puerto Rican woman who screams for help in the night. “She could take care of herself because she was used to this sort of treatment Puerto Ricans were, he knew.”

Its principal character is Lawrence Newman, a less-than-ordinary middle-aged American who looks like a Jew, though he isn’t one, and is ill-treated for it. Weak, conventional and wife-ridden, he has, however, a tiny spark of dignity and character; the story is of the development of this spark.

It leads from Newman’s own persecution, to his talks with the victimized Jewish shopkeeper, down to the time when he finds himself side by side with Jews, fighting off thugs who are intent on beating them up. At this moment he throws off his fears and prejudices; he is able to ignore his wife’s pleas to knuckle under, and at least to recognise his kinship with his fellow humans, Jew and gentile, black and white.

The story is told in a compelling and convincing manner, and although one feels the burning indignation of the Jew writing about the wrongs suffered by Jewry, the style never lapses into crudity, over-statement, or tub-thumping. The reader, too, feels indignation building up within him as Newman is subjected to one cruel indignity after another.

If this is an accurate picture of anti-semitism in American, and there is no reason to doubt that it is, then we have a long way to go before society finally eradicates the festering sores of race-hatred, along with its other problems.

Miller vividly portrays the poverty of thought and lack of understanding of those who would blame their poverty and drab lives on a racial minority, and seek to defend their “way of life” by anti-social acts. He clearly indicates that it is not they who are to blame, but rather the nature of the society which throws up these antagonisms and produces the racketeers and demagogues who foster race hatred to serve their own ends. This is not to say that Miller appreciates the revolutionary nature of the social change required to solve this problem, along with all other social problems.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing to find, among the flood of paper-backed detective stories, travelogues and war adventures, a book of this kind which deals in a serious way with a serious problem, and at the same time provides an absorbing story of real people in a situation which we can recognise as being true.

A. W. I. 

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