‘Nebech! Forgive Lebedov!’ So muttered my father as he read the 8 month sentence just given to Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce, who only a few days ago were jailed over the point swapping scandal. Such references are common for my old man steeped, as he is, in Jewish culture and academia. Nebech is a Yiddish word roughly translated as fool or pathetic person. Lebedov, I later found out, is a character in The Children at the Gate, an obscure novel written by an American Jewish writer called Edward Wallant.
Published in 1964, the story revolves around the meeting of two characters. Angelo, a nineteenth year old rational sceptic who rejects his Christian background, is confronted by the mad prophesying of an old Jewish mystic named Sammy who is working as an ‘orderly’ in a New York hospital. Sammy’s mad view of the world is pushed to the limits when he embarks on a crusade to forgive Lebedov, a decrepit Russian hospital worker who is found guilty of molesting a child.
My old man – who certainly doesn’t forgive Lebedov, no matter how fictional the character – nonetheless saw the significance of the novel in relation to the Chris Huhne affair. On the face of it, the two are total opposites: Chris Huhne is no child molester for starters, in fact he didn’t physically hurt anyone, and Wallant was an American-Jew writing in a post-war world far removed from the 21st century.
But determined to understand my Dad’s mutterings, I went and read Wallant’s The Children at the Gate and found not only a beautifully written and deeply moving story but, much to my surprise, some interesting lessons relevant to the Huhne affair.
This sorry episode has been so well covered that it barely needs an introduction: Huhne, while a Member of the European Parliament, swapped speeding points with his then wife, Vicky Pryce, in March 2003, to avoid any negative press as he ran for a seat in the House of Commons. All was well until the press exposed Huhne’s affair with his PR advisor, Caria Trimingham in June 2010. After 26 years of marriage and three children, Huhne left his wife for Trimingham, leaving Pryce heartbroken and desirous for revenge. She revealed the point-swapping episode to the press, ensnaring herself and her family in a bitter ordeal which ended in jail time for herself and Huhne. Family secrets were revealed, family feuds were exposed and two promising careers were shattered.
The media have had a field day with the story. The Daily Mail painted Huhne as ‘a sneering public school trot’; The Daily Telegraph honed-in on Pryce for ‘how difficult she was prepared to make life for Mr. Huhne’; and all papers revealed the painful and angry texts Huhne’s youngest son, Peter, sent his Dad as he feared his mother would go to jail. The examples are too numerous to cite but, but I think it is the image of a camera shoved into Huhne’s face which encapsulates the voyeurism, vilification and objectification of this man and the whole sorry episode.
But how does an obscure post-war novel written by an American-Jew inform a 21st century political and personal scandal? The central meaning of the novel, shown in Sammy’s dialogue with Angelo, is the starting point:
‘No, you see, I want to do something,’ Sammy said in a half whisper. ‘Always there’s been something making me like crazy. I get like a huge, huge…thing, a thing I can’t catch hold of. It makes me cry inside. I feel like making some stupendous joke because I can’t think of any other way. I look at you and I want to do something terrible to you, something that will keep you grinning like you do.’
His voice became clearer and higher… Suddenly he grinned. ‘No, but you know what I’d like them to do?’ He paused for a moment. ‘I’d like them to forgive Lebedov.’
Angelo jerked his head from the window. ‘Whatta you want to do?’ he cried. ‘Make the whole fucken world over?’
‘Yeah. Yeah, boychick, that’s what I had in mind,’ Sammy said with menacing softness.
Sammy embarks on a mad crusade to get people to forgive and love Lebedov, which ultimately leads to Sammy’s agonising death, reminiscent of Christian martyrdom in the novel. But it is the reasons behind Sammy’s drive to seek forgiveness for Lebedov that a new way of looking at the Huhne-Pryce tragedy is revealed.
Sammy reminds us of the need to love: ‘you gotta take your skin off, you gotta love so much that you go insane.’ Sammy constantly stresses the power and importance of love, no matter how mad or painful it might be. This emotion did, after all, underpin the whole Huhne scandal: he left his wife because he loved another and she loved him; Pryce acted in revenge because of love betrayed; and the love she had with her youngest son and his anger at Huhne was shown and challenged as a result.
Love, for Sammy, is an underlying principal, which – no matter how agonizing and insane – is always needed as the antidote to a mechanical, ugly world. For Sammy, love is closely tied to forgiveness:
‘Come on, folks,’ cried Sammy. ‘Come on, say you forgive him, because I love you, love you, love you. …Oy Vay, what a way. I forgive Lebedov. I forgive you.’
Sammy is true to his words. He writes a petition to get people to forgive Lebedov, an act that gets Sammy beaten to a pulp, and he even admits to molesting the young child before the real culprit confesses. This is all madness but Sammy, nonetheless, raises the importance of love and forgiveness because, ultimately, he sees the common humanity in all people:
‘People just don’t realise,’ Sammy said in a musing voice. ‘I mean, go look at them talking, in palaces and laboratories and buildings. They get deeper and deeper in with their words, but they don’t know. They got big cars, but they forget that they’re so soft and frail that one teeny bump from their cars and they’re nothing. They spend billions on fancy clothes, but underneath they’re naked and only worth ninety-eight cents. They hide the earth from theirselves with steel and formica so they can forget that they’re going to be buried in dirt. …No, but they got to remember Lebedov. He’s a human—that’s all there should be. There shouldn’t be anything but people on this earth.’
We might disagree with this sentiment – people commit actions and they should be held responsible – but Sammy does show that beneath the exterior of people shrouded in ‘fancy clothes’ (or titles like MP and Government Minister) there is the ‘frail,’ ‘naked’ individual. This aspect of Huhne, as just another weak human being, has been overlooked as the media paint him as a power figure fallen from grace, an example of hubris and nemesis, an ambitious career-minded being who got rich in the city, entered the highest echelons of government then royally fucked up.
Sammy challenges these inhumane narratives through his romantic cry for love and forgiveness. Our modern feelings might find this all outdated, wacky and naive but, at the least, it does remind us that beneath the media coverage Huhne, Pryce, Trimingham and their family are all just human beings to whom we should have sympathy.
And Sammy, though mad, is not naive. He knows that people will always want a scapegoat, a vent for their outrage. As Simon Jenkins wrote for The Guardian, the media coverage of the Huhne affair is ‘sickening,’ as an array of articles read into the episode as an example of patriarchal domination, a corrupt political establishment, a misguided judicial system, amongst a host of other things. A scandal always signifies more than an event and Sammy knew this as he tried to take all pain:
‘Come on, come on, forget your tsoris, Sammy is here. Kvetch out your pain into the sterling bedpans, I’ll relieve you. You’ll just think of these magical bedpans and I’ll comfort you. … Because I love you all, you hear? Nothing turns my stomach. I’ll kiss your gallstones, your ulcers, your cancers, your bleeding piles—and they’ll all disappear! It’s all psychosomatic anyhow and I’m the miracle man!’
Sammy, who sees the need for a scapegoat and villain, tries to envelop all human guilt and agony. We might be sickened at the thought of Sammy’s call to forgive a child molester – no matter how ‘ill’ Lebedov was – but in the context of the Huhne affair, Sammy reveals some important things.
He reminds us of the power and importance of love and forgiveness; how we are all human, how we all fuck-up; and in this, how we are all equal. He offers a point of redemption for the fallen and vilified, countering our tendencies to relish public hangings and sobering the media outcry against Huhne and Pryce. In all this, he forwards a spiritual, possibly hard to grasp message: as human beings ‘we all have to hold hands in all this darkness.’ As such, my old man’s mumblings – ‘Nebech! Forgive Lebedov!’ – seem to have a point.