Author: Richard Alther
“Siegfried Follies” is a take off on the well-known1920’s burlesque entitled “Ziegfield Follies”. It is the journey of two boys – blond, blue eyed Franz, and “J” -the dark haired, dark eyed boy that he rescues. Franz is a Hitler youth, orphaned, with only a memory of foster parents. He is working in a German birthing home in Munich, as the bombs are falling. “J” has no memories of family to sustain him – he does not even know his own name. The initial “J” is carved into his arm, and he was tossed out of a train along with an old violin.
Franz and “J” escape the birthing home during the bombing, and make a place for themselves in the bombed out city. Franz has the brains and the courage to gt them what they need to survive. “J” is the intellectual. As they both grow stronger, and better able to deal with life, they both fall prey to feelings of guilt. For Franz, it is the thought that he should have done more to help the Jews. For “J”, it is dealing with the feelings of being the only survivor in his family.
“J” is headed for college, funded by money that Franz has earned. But he makes a U-turn, and heads to a kibbutz in Israel, where he serves in the military, and then becomes part of a farming commune. He meets a woman that he wants to spend his life with, but she returns to a man that she was formerly engaged to. “J” heads off to the United States, to seek his fortune there as a Hebrew story-teller and puppeteer.
At the same time that “J” heads for Israel, Franz heads for the United States. He is determined to be the very best at what he does, and works his way up through the Holsum company hierarchy. He marries, has a family and a house in the suburbs.
Both men spend their lives trying to make sense of their history, of being orphaned, and of the bond that they have forged between them. It will be many years before they meet again, in the United States. Not so insignificantly, the “old violin” that was tossed out of the train with “J” turned out to be a Stradivarius – a very elite, expensive instrument. “J” has it auctioned off, and donates the proceeds. This is part of his past – a past that he remembers only in bits and pieces.
“Siegfried Follies” covers a thirty-year period in the lives of Franz and “J”. Neither man is perfect – both have shadows and fears that they need to face. Both deal with their lives in the way that they think is best at the time. The ending is a bit of a shocker – the men begin life as boys together, apart from others, dependent on each other. As the story closes, they are two men together, apart from others due to a very twisted fate.
Why is this book relevant today? We are seeing a reappearance of ethnic hatred in current times, through the skin-heads and neo-Nazis in Europe, the incidents of Islamic fears in the United States, and the trials Israel is facing. It is important to note that Alther was raised as a Lutheran of German-American heritage in a New York suburb that experienced significant anti-Semitic sentiment. It is, above all, our personal experiences that provide the material for our understanding of the world around us. Alther is also a painter that has exhibited his art in Montreal, London, Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, Florida and throughout New England.
© October 2010 Bonnie Cehovet