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THE REVISIONIST.\o7 By Helen Schulman (Crown: 246 pp., $23)\f7

October 11, 1998|MERLE RUBIN | Merle Rubin is a writer and critic who writes frequently for Book Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor

It is something of a paradox that in the immediate aftermath of World War II only a a handful of novelists tackled the subject of the Holocaust, whereas in recent years we've seen many works of fiction concerned with this cataclysm and its ongoing consequences. The hero of Helen Schulman's novel, "The Revisionist," Dr. David Hershleder, is the son of a woman who managed to escape just in time. Like so many others, she could not bear talking about those horrors. Yet later she became quietly obsessed with the outrageous claims of revisionist historians bent on denying that the Holocaust ever happened. Eventually she took her own life.

Her son, now about to turn 40, is a neuropathologist at Bellevue Hospital in New York. A confirmed workaholic, Hershleder is grateful that his job primarily involves research, for he has difficulty dealing with live patients. Hershleder's inability to share his feelings has also taken its toll on his marriage. His Gentile wife, Itty, complains he is no longer emotionally available to her. Hershleder doesn't quite see her point: "Sure, he'd slept-walked through much of their marriage . . . [but] there was no brutality to his indifference, just a myopic self-preoccupation; he was a scientist after all. He was supposed to be this way. So what, she felt 'overlooked,' 'untouched,' 'ignored'. . .That's what happens to married couples."

What Schulman's novel suggests, however, is that Hershleder's emotional inaccessibility has its roots in his problematic relationship with his mother. His chilly detachment is a reaction to her emotional vulnerability. Thus when his frustrated wife insists that he move out, Hershleder--as if in belated compensation for neglecting his mother--throws himself into a project to find out more about a revisionist historian whose views underwent a sea-change.

Jacques LeClerc, a Frenchman who'd doubted the truth of allegations about the extermination camps, decided to do his own investigation. LeClerc's meticulous research led him to conclude that the mass murders had in fact taken place. Hershleder senses a kindred spirit: someone capable of being swayed by facts, someone capable of changing his mind and his life--a revisionist in the best sense of the word. His project to meet LeClerc is a posthumous tribute to his mother and a search for a role model in the art of self-correction.

Setting off on his quixotic mission, Hershleder tracks down an old college friend who translated LeClerc's work into English. A bizarre incident nearly turns their reunion into disaster. But eventually, our hero, his college chum and a third friend all head for Paris, where Hershleder finally gets to meet LeClerc. Their long conversation is in some ways anti-climactic. But by now, Hershleder no longer needs a role model. His experiences along the way to this meeting have had a cumulative effect: In the course of his quest, he has gained self-knowledge and with it the possibility of changing himself for the better.

In Hershleder, Schulman gives us the kind of hero we might expect to meet in a novel by Saul Bellow: an acrid, emotionally armored, yet deeply conflicted man becoming frayed at the edges. But in some ways these qualities seem less connected with his being the son of a Holocaust survivor than with his being a certain kind of New York man. Schulman, a novelist and short story writer who teaches at Columbia University in New York, ably conveys the gritty, harsh quality of life in that particular big city, its decaying neighborhoods, nerve-racking commutes and endemic rudeness. She also shows us the world as it might appear to her protagonist, a practicing pathologist. Hershleder is accustomed to seeing the darker side, yet he--and his creator--manage to locate a vein of hope and humanity that may allow him to break through his emotional impasse.

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