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Written in 1945 Focus was Arthur Miller's first novel and one of the first books to directly confront American anti Semitism It remains as chilling and incisive today as it was at the time of its controversial debut As World War II draws to a close anti Semitism is alive and well in Brooklyn New York Here Newman an American of English descent floats through a world of multiethnic neighborhoods indifferent to the racism around him That is until he begins wearing glasses that render him Jewish in the eyes of others making him the target of anti Semitic persecution As he and his wife find friendship and support from a Jewish immigrant Newman slowly begins to understand the racial hatreds that surround him A strong sincere book bursting with indignation The New York Times Book Review

10 thoughts on “Focus

  1. says:

    A chilling study into the rise of anti Semitism during the closing stages of the second world war that centres on Mr Newman a personnel manager living with his mother who on a regular basis witnesses the abuse of his neighbours and locals who are of different race and culture but chooses to turn a blind eye and just get on with his life But after he starts wearing glasses he is mistaken for a Jew and persecuted so begins internally to uestion what drives ordinary people to act this way and how can the problem be overcomeMiller is such a better Playwright than a novelist and in generally it shows dealing with a difficult subject matter he handles well but there are so many other pieces of literature out there that do a better job regarding the pre and post war struggles Challenging and truthful but ultimately doesn't really hit you so much on an emotional level

  2. says:

    I had already seen and enjoyed a number of plays written by Arthur Miller when I came across a copy of “ Focus” I opened it thinking that it would be another of his plays but was surprised to find that it is a full length novel It was first published during the Second World War in 1945 My copy Penguin Modern Classics edition 1986 contained an interesting introduction that Miller wrote over 40 years later containing his explanation of Anti SemitismThe hero Lawrence Newman lives in a row of houses in the Borough of ueens in New York State Every working day he takes the subway into Manhattan where he works in a large company supervising a typing pool One evening he enters the subway carriage as usual and spots a man whose appearance convinces him that he is looking at a Jew At that moment his neighbour Fred spots him and taps him on the shoulder Very soon Fred begins telling Newman within earshot of the passenger who Newman suspects is a Jew how it was time to ‘clean up’ the neighbourhood in which they lived Newman is puzzled but Fred uickly explains that he means that the Jews should be scared off beginning with Mr Finkelstein who runs a newsagent shop at the corner of their street Lawrence learns that this can be achieved with the help of the ‘Christian Front’ an actual not a fictional anti Semitic organisation which flourished in the USA in the 1940s One evening Newman picks up a new pair of spectacles from his optician and takes them home In the seclusion of his bathroom he tries them on begins to see things clearly and then notices his face To his horror he discovers that he now looks like a Jew He sees his face and thinks that it is his idea of a Jewish face Even when his elderly mother first sees him in his glasses she says “Why you look almost like a Jew” This is only the beginning of his troubles for everywhere he goes he senses that people are guessing that he is a Jew and then causing difficulties for him The he tries to dislike Jews the that people around him including the Christian Front rowdies consider him to be JewishIs there really such thing as a Jewish appearance? Even a neo Nazi website Der Stuermer is uncertain about this It says “ White gentiles should hopefully be able to recognize Jewish people based upon their physical appearance but granted this is not always possible” my underlining I don’t think that there is a typical Jewish appearance This only exists in the mind of anti Semites I would challenge anyone to accurately pick out the Jews from a group of Arabs and Jewish Israelis wearing Western clothing However Newman who has anti Semitic leanings and as we learn can produce his baptismal certificate thinks that he looks like a Jew as do his neighbours and work colleaguesThis feeling that he is unjustifiably regarded as a Jew poisons his enjoyment of life and almost wrecks his first serious love affair Newman reminded me of Christmas an important character in William Faulkner’s Light in August published in 1931 Christmas a young man who believes as do all the other characters in the story that he has some Negro ancestry does not look like a Negro but is treated as one with tragic conseuences Both Miller and Faulkner in their novels have successfully made use of this fear of feeling that you are or might be someone that you inwardly despiseIn summary I heartily recommend Miller’s well constructed novel It is as gripping and dramatic as his better known plays and you don’t need to sit in an uncomfortable theatre seat to enjoy itPS I am looking forward to comparing this book with Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Hobson

  3. says:

    This was a very powerful novel Despite its short length Miller here has written a very thought provoking and enlightening story that of a man in 1940s New York swept up in the dark and increasing undercurrent of anti semitism which was at that time growing like a cancer among some people Despite the book being written than seventy years ago it still seems very relevant and important in the face of current anti Islamic rhetoric and the struggles of other minorities to gain civil rights in the many years since the book’s publicationOn top of this you have some beautifully powerful characterisation in the establishment and description of the central protagonist uirky and witty as it is My only gripe was that the book did tiptoe towards the boundary of heavy handedness at times almost as if there was a level of contrivedness in how things panned out I couldn’t escape the feeling of studying ‘important’ books like this at school had I been able to ignore these and just read the book as a novel I may have rated it higher

  4. says:

    Just who is the main character in Arthur Miller's Focus? Is is Mr Newman or Mr Finklestein? Only if the reader makes Mr Finklestein the main character can you actually see that Arthur Miller thought anti Semitism to be wrong I humbly feel that the real focus of Focus is the persecution of Mr Finklestein for nothing than being Jewish I want to call it shocking how anti Semitic almost the whole cast of characters even Mr Newman are but the real truth is that I know that religious racial and ethnic persecution still exist even in our America today so I can't even feign some surprise in it Arthur Miller is correct in his assessment of the racism and in his indictment of the anti Semitism that existed in the forefront of his time It is true that the amount of and brutality of the hate crimes in the novel are hard to read about They are so hard to read through that the hate crimes could leave a reader so disgusted by those events that they could easily miss the entire point of this novel

  5. says:

    Man this book opened my eyes to a piece of American history I had no idea happened A short sighted man a gentile avoids wearing glasses because they accentuate those features of his that bring to mind the stereotypical face of a jew A dangerous image at a time when America is going through a nasty phase of anti semitism looking to blame the jews for all their problems; the economy the war the perceived decline in their neighbourhoods When his eyesight gets so poor it noticably affects his work his boss insists on him wearing specs and then his troubles really begin These new specactles are so powerful even his surname begins to look jewish Then if things didn't seem bad enough he falls in love and marries another gentile who looks a bit jewish too Oi vayThere's a perfect twist at the end A good book a great lesson it made me think about my own prejudices unconscious or otherwise

  6. says:

    When first published in 1945 Focus was one of the few pieces of fiction that explicitly shined a light on the very real rise of Anti Semitism and bigotry on American shores even while American troops were fighting fascist regimes overseas Bigotry can rear its pernicious head in any community at any time; this was Arthur Miller’s point That said I would argue that Focus serves a greater role as a historical document than it does as a relevant narrative for the modern era Overall Miller treats the concept that “racism is bad” as this a jaw dropping revelation which in a present context is patronizingly insulting In this day and age saying that Anti Semitism is bad is obvious not a bombshell illumination This is compounded by the fact that Anti Semitism is still alive and thriving in the United States occurring in scale from casual micro aggressions to outright assault in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting of 2018 Further I would argue that Miller is a far better playwright than he is a novelist The loud and overly simplistic Focus lacks the nuance and affect of better work like The Crucible So if you are a fan of Miller’s work this one may fall out of focus for you this is a dad pun my father insisted I include in this review sorry If you want to read about early works denouncing Anti Semitism then Focus is a document with historical merit Otherwise I’d say skip it for something impactful like Elie Wiesel’s Night Rating 25 stars

  7. says:

    Who knew Arthur Miller wrote novels? Certainly not me before reading Focus It is very clear when reading this novel that Miller is also a playwright The style is incredibly cinematic; the narrator hangs over characters and seamlessly drops in and out of their lives the action in this book is dramatic and I think that its psychological dimension would be enhanced if performed There is without a doubt a blurring of styles in Focus which makes it so readable and also so thought provoking Arthur Miller is most famously a great playwright but this work has also shown him to be a great novelist Conceptually the story was very clever Focus is about a man Lawrence Newman who without glasses passes as a normal American man however when instructed by his boss to get his eyes tested he ends up needing a pair of spectacles which completely transform his appearance The glasses accentuate all of his features and lead his image to resonate with that of a Jewish man The title is therefore a play on the idea that wearing glasses changes his whole perspective on the world as his previous antisemitic views are abandoned once he finds himself on the receiving end of the hate Focus is a moral tale because Lawrence ends up developing sympathy for the Jews and feels like he’s “setting down a great weight” when he lets a police officer believe he’s a Jew in the final chapter rather than protesting as he would have done before I don’t know if Lawrence was a Jew all along His views at the beginning were very extreme so it would seem a bit bizarre to do a full 180 on this even if glasses made him unrecognisable Lawrence goes on to lose his job marry a woman he first thought was a Jew and face a life of hate in his neighbourhood As a modern reader it left me thinking what’s the point? Which is touched upon by Lawrence at the end where he says he’d like a lighting bolt to hit Earth and get rid of all the groups we divide ourselves with I always associate antisemitism with the extremes of the holocaust where perhaps the “we’re all human” argument has pertinence but it is still very much applicable hereThe novel is strangely poetic the descriptions of setting especially the 40 days of hot weather at the beginning of chapter 16 were particularly stunning There is something rather masculine about this novel which again I find rather futile The uestion of male pride is central to the narrative and motivates what Lawrence and also Finkelstein the Jewish shopkeeper do and do not do It is this same concept which makes Miller’s exploration of character so psychological as the men are driven by primal instincts to remain leader of the pack but the great irony is the “packs” are what call for the assertion of dominance and so the whole thing is a vicious circle I didn’t like Lawrence’s relationship with Gertrude his wife The whole thing was really unconvincing She seemed to be lying about not being Jewish too and their circular conversations about Lawrence having to do something about the situation got rather boring and in most instances didn’t serve any other purpose other than showing someone relied on Lawrence to protect them I’ll give it 3 stars because although it was good it was a bit preachy in places and the subliminal promotion of a world with no cultural groups probably wouldn’t ever solve the problem The mixing of styles was also a bit disorientating at times but the pace and ideas were fantastic

  8. says:

    Apparently Arthur Miller writes novels as well as he writes plays A gripping novelIn the final pages of the novel a city wrought with hate is described perfectly a city of mad peopleThe city and the millions upon millions hiving all over it and they were going mad He saw it so clearly that it was hardly alarming for what he understood he no longer feared They were going mad People were in asylums for being afraid that the sky would fall and here were millions walking around as insane as anyone could be who feared the shape of a human face

  9. says:

    I came across this novel in a used bookstore and thought the premise sounded fascinating especially since I've been a fan of Miller's dramatic works The story follows Lawrence Newman after he awakes in the middle of the night to hearing a screaming woman being assaulted But since the woman is a minority he largely seems to pay it no mind The bachelor enjoys a home in a white Christian neighborhood and works in New York City and is largely successful until his eyesight gets the best of him and he's forced to get glasses His glasses as he feared make him appear Jewish in the race obsessed world of the World War II 1940s What follows is Lawrence's demise as those around him increasingly suspect him to be a Jew and he becomes subjected to the same cruel realities that he perpetuated just months before Miller's tale is a classic tale of what it's like to live in another man's shoes but also well layered with reflection by Lawrence as he comes to weigh the meaning behind the white supremacist view and how easily it insinuates itself into the minds of the privileged Originally published in 1945 there is so much about this book that resonates with the world today that it could have easily been written as today with only slight adjustments

  10. says:

    This is a really fantastic and true to life novel and also the only novel Arthur Miller ever wrote It tells the story of time in American history flooded with anti semitism and too close to our own time to feel like the racism is fully behind us Newman a man living in post World War II Brooklyn holds the same level of anti semitism that is brewing in the neighborhoods around him He has gone about apathetic to his ignornant bigoting until his eyesight forces him to get glasses that cause him to appear uncannily Jewish Suddenly he experiences a world of restrictions and gentlemen's agreements that leave him alienated and wondering what it is exactly he and so much of America are really intolerant about Though Miller was predominantly a playwright this novel proves that his talents went beyond scripts and drama Focus is a really engaging and unsettling read that unfortunately strikes a cord today sixty years after it caused an outrage when it was first published