The Herring and the Saxophone (Le Hareng et le saxophone), a hybrid work by Sylvie Weil, is listed as a novel, yet just as in Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the narrator’s voice carries the author’s own name. It’s written in the first person, but the narrator doesn’t fully introduce herself until chapter 5. An autobiographical work centered on family more than self—if the two can be separated. Not Weil’s own family, but her in-laws, generations of them, down to the little boy Ricky, who would one day grow up to be Eric, Sylvie’s husband.
“The Cadillac,” recounting a family gathering to celebrate a bar mitzvah, is the first chapter of this family saga that skips back and forth through time and space, without the vast arc of an epic narrative. One moment, we’re in early nineteenth century Ukraine; then, it’s 1980 and we’re in the Bronx. The stories are at once iconic and idiosyncratic: fleeing the Russian pogroms, petitioning to acquire an anglicized name in the New World, only to see the magistrate restore its Jewish flavor, giving us a glimpse of America’s limited religious tolerance. Chapters are like the snapshots occasionally referenced by Weil, and reading the novel is like flipping back and forth through the pages of a photo album: we point at familiar