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Politics, private lives in Nazi Europe

The Border, by Elaine Feinstein. New York: St. Martin's/Marek. 113 pp. $10.95. In a small town in the Pyrenees in 1940, Walter Benjamin, fleeing the Nazis, took his own life after being turned back at the Spanish border. One of the most brilliant and imaginative critics of the century, Benjamin continues to exercise a powerful fascination. Although he appears but briefly in its pages, his presence pervades this concentrated, exquisitely wrought novel by British poet, novelist, and translator Elaine Feinstein. Her book displays a poet's brevity, a novelist's sense of character, and a translator's sensitivity to the state of being on the threshold, made palpable here in the sudden homelessness of the novel's principal characters.

Hans and Inge Wendler are Viennese intellectuals of Jewish or partly Jewish descent. He is a poet, she a physicist. Their story, told in diaries, letters, interviews, and poems, begins in 1938. Inge, acutely sensitive to the Nazi menace, has sent their son to America. Hans, fearing the loss of his poetic power, screens out signs of danger, his heart and mind absorbed by his new love for an idealistic Communist girl.

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The exigencies of the political situation are superimposed on the private tensions between husband and wife, poet and physicist, romantic and realist. But the contrasts are not always predictably schematic. To wait or to act? In the chaos that comes with the dissolution of all normal expectations, the previously ineffectual Hans becomes the guiding force. At one point he is inspired by a chance meeting with Walter Benjamin. Later, Benjamin's suicide will also have an incalculable effect on the Wendlers.

The imprecise, wavering uncertainties and the unsteady but abiding love that characterize the Wendlers' relationship are portrayed with precision, restraint, and conviction. ``The Border'' fulfills the highest function of the art of fiction in illuminating the incalculable.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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