A review of In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud by Simon van der Heym

There’s something plodding about some of the recounting of Eric’s business transactions—and yet they’re valuable: I understood his business and his mind better after knowing his management concerns: though he had made mistakes as a husband and father, mistakes involving lack of communication or tenderness, Eric is a moral man. It’s also interesting to read of a character that is a wealthy person and who is still worried, honestly, humbly, about money.
Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud
By Simon van der Heym
Ivy House Publishing Group
Raleigh, North Carolina; 2004
ISBN 1-57197-420-2

In Search of a Brilliant White Cloud, by Simon van der Heym, might have been titled The Dutch Holocaust Survivor as Businessman, Husband, and Father, and if changes were possible, it could have used certainly more attention from a careful editor, and yet, despite its roughness, it has an undeniable power, so much that I find myself wondering if the book has autobiographical roots. Never mind—that’s not my business. What is my concern is the story, which begins in Holland, and goes through Belgium, France, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, and South America, as it describes the life of Eric, the son of a factory-owner, who himself becomes a factory-owner, as well as a husband and father.

As I noted, some of the writing is crude, and that’s clear from the beginning. Eric is a Jewish boy in Holland with his family, which does not actually practice Judaism, when, during the twentieth-century’s second world war, Germany invades and a Dutch soldier asks for brief refuge in their home: the narrator writes that when Eric’s mother sees the soldier “the intense expression of fear on her face could not hide her graceful features” (page 3). Well, when does fear hide a person’s features? Distort, yes; hide, no. The Dutch soldier gains refuge, despite the initial fear he inspires; and the family’s fortune begins to change in Holland under Nazi rule. Somewhere the narrator uses the word foreboding when he seems to mean foreshadowing, and later he uses has assigned when he seems to mean had assigned, that is spelled thay, and made is typed instead of make (pages 23, 52, 99). More importantly, and impressively, the threat of the Germans, who harass Jews, confiscate their property, and separate them from their fellow citizens, is nearly too vivid. It is admirable—and even necessary, though it’s a necessity that is not always honored in other accounts of the Jewish holocaust—that we are shown resistance fighters in various countries, but that is partly marred by having a traitor to the resistance be so obvious. (I dislike this kind of obviousness in art, yet I’ve recently met people whose vileness could be read on their faces and in their manners; and compelled to be in their company for too long I saw daily confirmation of that initial impression in their acts.) The family escapes Holland with money and jewels, but during their travel Eric’s mother’s attempt to bring comfort when he has a troubled stomach causes them to be separated from the rest of the family after a train continues onward without them. When the family is reconciled, they move through European countries, including France, to stay in Switzerland for a time, before returning to Holland after the war.

The details of actions in the text often include psychological explanations, and can seem old-fashion, though they are not implausible. As he gets older Eric thinks about the fact that he does not particularly love his parents, partly due to their “ingredients,” their somewhat distant natures (115). He’s lucky enough to fall in love with a girl he had met in childhood, when they are both older, Julia, the daughter of the Dutch soldier who had arrived at his house in the beginning of the book—and the soldier later became a resistance fighter who gave Eric’s family help during their escape—and the young woman seems very compatible with Eric, enviably compatible, but when Eric is drafted into mandatory Dutch military service, Eric tells Julia not to wait for him, a chivalrous mistake.

Eric’s family moves to New York after the war. Eric becomes a hairstylist, almost on a whim, and becomes committed to the profession and then a success, with his own salon. Eric settles in Canada, in Toronto. When he marries a rather dependent and weak woman, Mildred, it is a foolish mistake, one he maintains for about sixteen years, producing children, before an acrimonious divorce. Eric buys a women’s clothing factory, and marries a more independent woman, Peggy, but the relationship does not last. An increasingly capable and serious businessman, Eric visits Panama, and an obscure tribe, after thinking of expanding his company and employing South American labor and creativity, but that does not quite work out. In Canada, Eric marries a fabric designer and student, Jane, one of his employees, and fathers a child somewhat late in life, while his eldest daughter makes him a grandfather.

Some of the dialogue in the book by now is too pro forma—uninflected, lacking nuance, though it is intelligent; and some of that I appreciate because of its coherence and logic, its clarity (an intellectual rather than aesthetic preference of mine). Some of the descriptions, for instance, of airplane passengers, who previously seemed mannered while in flight, but, upon landing, suddenly become pushing and shoving, are nice touches. Some of the book’s transitions are quick, as when Eric plans to buy an apartment in one paragraph and in the next has done so. There’s something plodding about some of the recounting of Eric’s business transactions—and yet they’re valuable: I understood his business and his mind better after knowing his management concerns: though he had made mistakes as a husband and father, mistakes involving lack of communication or tenderness, Eric is a moral man. It’s also interesting to read of a character that is a wealthy person and who is still worried, honestly, humbly, about money.

Eric works hard, but his social life improves as he develops his wealth and grows older; and his hobbies become boating and yachting. His friend John plays practical jokes on him—John pretends the glass of water John holds is vodka and spills it on Eric (Eric gets back at him by putting a For Sale sign on John’s boat, and watching the interested buyers line up). I’m not sure I understand adult men who play such jokes on each other, though here it is slightly amusing—and it seems almost like a kind of sexless male flirtation. Eric’s relationship with his friend John is more cordial than with Eric’s son David, a chiropractor who begins to work in sales in Eric’s factory, working quite well, though David refuses to make a commitment to the company, to Eric’s frustration; and when David becomes engaged to a woman, Brenda, who wants to move from Toronto to California, Eric’s not pleased with David or Brenda.

Eric goes on a long yacht trip, which takes him through America, where he encounters rudeness and greed, civility and generosity. Eric has various financial upsets—including being sued by an employee who wants to get paid for a job she is no longer willing to do. He is sued also after a yachting accident, one he’s not responsible for, but he accepts, after some bitterness, learning from victories and losses. Textual confusion: Eric resigns from the yachting club after he is told one of the members encouraged the second legal suit against him (246), then he doesn’t seem to have resigned when he’s congratulated on his help with a yachting club event (298), and then his resignation is mentioned again (304). Eric, aged, and feeling tired, frustrated, but hopeful, retires from his business, remaining a consultant but moving with his wife Jane and young daughter Jamie to Florida.

One day after not feeling well, Eric visits a doctor, who gives him a diagnosis of cancer. Eric thinks consciously about divine purpose and self-determination before making a round of doctors’ offices. He is irritated by doctors, as he had been by lawyers—arrogant, often incompetent professionals—but luckily he goes to one health center that is both cheery and helpful, featuring a Doctor Hanks (343) or Henks (344). Eric is also sustained, admirably, movingly, by his wife Jane. On a day when he feels particularly restless and tired, he goes to bed but has trouble getting to sleep, and he sees or imagines he sees a white light, a benevolent cloud, that makes him feel good. When Eric learns that his company hasn’t been doing well since he left, his wife Jane, who had been acting as a fabric designer still, takes the company over, with Eric’s approval and advice, to restore it—and Eric learns to be more patient, seeing the importance of accepting his strengths and weaknesses, his wholeness, and the myriad ways of life, which must be not merely accepted but loved.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama; and his work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, The City Sun, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on IdentityTheory.com, as did his essay on the inner life and social world in James Baldwin’s work—and The Compulsive Reader published Garrett’s essay on Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room on its web site as well as some of his other book and film reviews.