Four Events ($11.57)

Over the past week:

  1. The 80 or so people in the audience today at Epiphany Church were treated to a wonderful solo piano concert by Jocelyn Swigger, currently an associate professor at Gettysburg College.  She played 15 Chopin etudes, starting with the later “Nouvelle Etudes” and finishing with the 12 etudes in Opus 25.  Not only did she play remarkably well, but before she started Opus 25, she gave a capsule rundown of each of the pieces, explaining why they were named “Aeolian Harp”, “The Bees”, “The Horseman”, etc., and demonstrating the main themes of each.  So it was a learning experience as well as a teaching experience, and Swigger (called in her short bio a “musical omnivore” who plays old, new, classical, jazz and rock piano and is now teaching herself the ukulele) excelled at both.
  2. Sunday night, we went to the final performance of Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” at Theater J.  Extraordinary (and very demanding and technically difficult) acting by Eric Hissom and Thomas Keegan.  The play won a major award in 2013, but I must say that, although I appreciated the complexity of the dialogue between the two, role-shifting actors, I must admit to not really caring for the play. 100 minutes (10-15 too many?) of very intense interaction between the playwright (one of the actors portrays O’Brien) and war photographer Paul Watson, the story is a true one, based on the actual relationship of the two as O’Brien decided to write a play about Watson.  But apparently the only play he could write about him was a play about wanting to write the play.  It did leave me unsatisfied.
  3. Yesterday lunchtime, I was at the Mary Pickford Theater of the Library of Congress to hear a program based on the accomplishments of Jacob Riis, New York based Danish-American journalist and social reformer of the late 19th century. The accomplished presenter was Barbara Yochelson, art historian and author of a recent book on Riis, a coffee table book which looked very enticing. Riis was a journalist, who for years had the night time police beat in New York and got to know impoverished New York as few middle class residents could have.  He wanted to tell the story of the immigrants and decided that one way to do this was use photography.  He was not a professional photographer – he never worked in a dark room – and he used the photography of others as well as his own, but is considered by some as the pioneer founder of documentary, journalistic photography.  After over twenty years as a reporter, he became a popular lecturer, and he had time to write 13 books, a couple of which were best sellers. Half of her lecture was given to Riis himself and half to the process of putting together not only the book but a major exhibit at the LOC through the summer (which I did not have a chance to see, as it is in a different building), which was equally interesting.
  4. Last Thursday, we saw, in preview, “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Shakespeare Theatre.  A entertaining, but somewhat different version, with contemporary music, an all-male cast, and more comedic elements than usual.  But Kate herself (himself) was less shrewish than I am used to – this had to be intentional.  The play is still being modified before its official opening – it was running over 3 hours.  We will see what they finally do with it.

Read Four More by Philip Roth (Now at 17, with about 13 to go)

I now have read 17 books by Philip Roth over the past several months.  The one that strikes me as the most interesting today is “The Plot Against America” – Roth’s alternative history about Roosevelt’s loss of his third presidential campaign in 1940, where the winning Republican was none other than Charles Lindbergh, hero of the first solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis and leader of the America First movement which pledged to keep the United States out of the Second World War.  So you had a figure admired by many as not an adventurer, but a hero, who had been a victim of the kidnapping and murder of his young son, and who had been outspoken in his praise of Hitlerian Germany.  The public characters are all real historical personalities (the private characters are not); the story is pure fiction.

Throughout the country, Lindbergh’s charisma and program to concentrate on American prosperity, keeping its youth safe from the dangers of war, are very appealing.  Presumably, to every group (although African Americans do not play a role in the book)…….with one exception.  The Jews.  The Jews (or the majority of them) rightly fear Lindbergh’s friendship with the Nazis will only lead to problems, perhaps serious problems, for themselves.  Many of them are immigrants from Europe, and have relatives in Europe, including in Germany.  They see what is happening there and how Europe has turned against them (the Final Solution is not yet even contemplated, of course), and they fear that America is turning against them as well.

Is it a good book or a bad book?  I’m not sure.  It’s engaging, well written, a bit silly, and quite farfetched.

But wait a minute!  It is 2016 and Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. And Philip Roth writes this book again – only this time, his characters are not Jews, they are Muslims.  And President Trump does come up with a way to eliminate further Muslim immigration, and he investigates existing Muslim families, and Muslims begin to be socially isolated and lose employment opportunities, and there are arrests made, and militia groups crop up that take things into their own hands and, countering them, Muslims begin to form their own groups and riots occur, and the government begins to determine that Muslims are out to overthrow the U.S. government and retaliates by more arrests and deportations, and Muslim nations worldwide respond (as only they can) and the U.S. can get no OPEC oil, and our citizens abroad begin to be arrested, and Europe (under increasing Muslim influence) begins to oppose the U.S. on many fronts, and on and on.  He could write a great book (hey, hold on, why don’t I write it?)

All of a sudden, “The Plot Against America” seems a little less farfetched.  Perhaps this is a book we should all be reading now.

OK, three more.  “Sabbath’s Theater” won a National Book Award for Roth, but I am not sure why.  It seems, in fact, that Roth’s award winning books are not his best (in my opinion, at least); I am not sure what this says.  Mickey Sabbath is a former puppeteer who falls out of love with his wife, more or less, and into love, more or less, with the wife of a Yugoslavian innkeeper.  He doesn’t work, he is broke, he loses his mental marbles, he takes advantage of an old successful show business buddy after the death of a mutual friend, he winds up in a mental institution where he finds a new girlfriend (the relationship is not to last), he meets his crazy 100 year old cousin, and he engages in all sorts of obscene, offensive, and illogical acts.  This is a book I would just as well forget.

Moving on:

I had read “The Counterlife” several years ago in a class and was very impressed.  I read it again, and my mind has not changed.  As in so many of his novels, it is the structure that intrigues me more than anything else.  Nathan Zuckerman is back in “The Counterlife” (he played no part in the two books  mentioned above).  Nathan and his brother Henry.  The book is divided into five parts.  In the first part, Nathan’s brother has died as a result of failed cardiac surgery, and Nathan is left to clean up Henry’s mess.  In the second part, Henry does not die, but survives the surgery, and determines, upon recovery, to leave everything behind (wife, children, medical practice, etc.) and move to a kibbutz in the south of Israel where he will start from scratch and become an authentic Jew, again leaving Nathan with a mess.

The third part is like an intermezzo.  Nathan is flying back to London (where he lives) from meeting with his brother on the kibbutz.  He runs into a young man he knew before from New Jersey, who is on the plane disguised as a religious Jew, but in fact intending to blow up the plane (to bring about the renaissance of the Jewish people – don’t ask).  His plot is foiled, and he is arrested by security officials on the plane.  Unfortunately, the officials decide that Nathan is his co-conspirator, and he two is arrested and roughed up.  And things get worse from there.

Part four is a reversal of the first two parts.  It is Nathan who needs the surgery and who dies as a result of it.  And it is Henry left to clean up the mess.  (An interesting mess, since Henry is having an affair with his assistant, and he knows that Nathan the writer must have written about it, and that he has to destroy the material before his wife finds out about it, and he does by destroying what, in fact, are the first two parts of “The Counterlife”).

And naturally, in the fifth part, Nathan is fine, living with his new English wife in London.  They are both ready for the rest of their happy lives, but of course, this does not happen, as Nathan begins to be convinced that his wife is really an anti-Semite and, by the time he gets through with her, she is.  Oy.

A great book.

Finally, I read “The Humbling”, a short book, which I liked quite a bit (but which does not seem to have been particularly well reviewed).  It’s about an aging actor (about 65), who all of a sudden has a psychological breakdown because he can no longer imagine himself in any role.  He puts himself into a psychiatric facility for about a month, leaving no longer a danger to himself, but still unable to work or act.  He wife has walked out on him, but he meets a woman 25 years his junior (the daughter of old theater friends) and they start their own affair – she has spent the last 17 years in a lesbian relationship but decides she wants to try men.  They fall in love, he is saved, she decides that, in fact, she really is a lesbian, and he is lost.  For good.  Again, I liked it.

 

 

Three More by Philip Roth

I continue to weave through Philip Roth’s books.  On my last Roth post, I said I was in the middle of “My Life as a Man”, which featured an earlier version of Roth’s continual character Nathan Zuckerman.  In “My Life as a Man”, Zuckerman is a central fictional character in the writings of an author named Peter Tarnopol (who is of course as much as alter ego of Tarnopol as Tarnopol (and the future Zuckerman) is of Roth.  It was as if Roth was still searching for the Nathan Zuckerman who was somewhere inside him and felt he needed one more degree of separation than he did. I did enjoy “My Life as a Man”, a very funny book about a man in a very serious and depressing predicament.  As usual, Roth has an interesting structure.  The first part of the book is composed of two stories about Nathan Zuckerman.  The second part is about Peter Tarnopol, starting with the reactions of some of those two whom he has sent drafts of the first two stories.  Poor Peter, trying to be honest and write, trapped in a terrible marriage by a woman who deceived him by buying a urine sample from a woman in a rest room so that she could fake a positive pregnancy test, and then of course there is his current beautiful, rich and a bit crazy girl friend, and of course again how can I forget his psychiatrist, who is not all Tarnopol thought (or wished) he was.

I then switched gears and went back to “Goodbye, Columbus”, Roth’s first book and one which I read in the early 1960s.  Well, I will say that his book about this wealthy and sexually open Radcliffe girl had a different reaction on the 2016 retired me, than it did on the member of the Harvard class of 1964, but I still enjoyed it.  It’s an interesting story about a young man from lower middle class Newark who meets the girl of his dreams, and finds out that she isn’t.  The Roth character (Neil, in the book) is not yet a writer and not yet Zuckerman, but of course he is the same guy once again.  “Goodbye, Columbus” is quite short, a novella, not a novel, and the book (which did win a National Book award for the then twenty something author) is completed by five short stories.  None of the stories are bad, some better than others, and the best a story that takes place stateside in the army, “Defender of the Faith”, a story which I think really nails it (although what “it” is, I am not sure).  “Defender of the Faith” is about a Jewish sergeant, just back from Korea, and the only three Jewish trainees under him. The other story that I remembered for 50 years had to do with an orthodox yeshiva moving into an upscale suburban neighborhood and its effect on the man selected to lead the opposition. Then there’s the young day school boy who takes the rabbi’s biblical teachings a bit too literally, the frustrated suburbanite who surprisingly finds himself in the middle of an affair with the lady across the street, and the young toughie who is sent to the suburban high school as an experiment and turns out to be…..a toughie.

Next came “American Pastoral”.  This is the book that one Roth a Pulitzer Prize.  Yes, Zuckerman is there, and he plays a big role, but as a narrator and chronicler, not as a an active character.  The main protagonist is “Swede” (and no, he isn’t Swedish), the perfect, all-American Jewish boy, a legend at his high school, and the idolized big brother of Zuckerman’s brilliant but nerdy high school friend.  Zuckerman and his friend reconnect at their 45th high school reunion, and he learns about what has happened to the Swede over the years.  He did not become a professional athlete, he did not become a successful cardiologist like his brother, but rather he took over his father’s business in Newark, married a beautiful gentile woman with her own share of hangups, and was set to live the all-American suburban life.  But then there was his daughter – violently opinionated, grossly independent, a left winger to the corps, who wanted to do nothing other than protest man’s stupidity and inhumanity, and to stop that damned Vietnam War.  All of that may be OK to a degree, but Merry could not keep to degrees, and she went all out.  Runny away to New York when she should have been in high school, bombing a local post office (killing one prominent citizen) as a means of protest, and then disappearing.  For years and years.  Until she turned up, living in a flop house in the most dangerous part of Newark, working under an assumed name, still involved in her leftist activities.  Swede finds her and the confrontation is not pretty. He learns that she was involved in other violence – that more people have been killed.  He can not save her; he can not turn her in. She is beyond redemption.  He is beyond loss.  It is left to Zuckerman to tell her story.

Finally, perhaps along the same lines, I read “I Married a Communist”.  This time, Zuckerman starts as a Newark high school student, with a favorite English teacher, who has a brother who’s a communist.  Nathan meets Ira (the teacher is Murray) when he is in high school and becomes his acolyte. His own parents seem to have little to offer him; Ira seems to have it all.  But after several years, they grow apart, Nathan proceeds through his University of Chicago education and becomes a writer.  The same writer, by the way, we have seen in other books.  He is living, in his 50s, in his cabin in the Berkshires (just down the road, you may recall, where Lonoff lived in “The Human Stain” and others) and he hasn’t seen Ira in a long time.  Does not know what happened to him – the defender of the working class who could never subordinate his need to save the world (not too different from poor Merry, perhaps) to his personal life.  Suffering for this, of course, are his wives and girls, especially the beautiful secretly Jewish actress who becomes his wife and who is torn between her own needs, Ira’s needs, and those of her harp playing daughter.  Three more neurotic people you will never find in one book.

How does Nathan learn about Ira’s fate?  He runs into teacher Murray (just turned 90) who shows up at the small college not far from Nathan’s cabin to take a short summer course.  And they spend time reminiscing about Ira.  So much so that Nathan never really learns what Murray’s life has been like.  But that, they agree, will await the next visit.  A visit that never occurs.

Well, I’ve now read about 40 percent of Roth.  Starting “Sabbath’s Theater” tonight.  No idea what that’s about. But it was his second National Book Award winner.

 

A Short But Notable Dream (3 cents)

I either volunteered to, or was required to, write two papers on archeological findings in a certain area for the Vice President.  I wrote the first one, dealing with digs that occurred over 100 years ago. But I never got around to the second paper and decided I would just tell the Vice President that the archeologists went to the same places and found more things. I was told I would have to tell the Vice President in person. I did. The Vice President was George Washington.  Yes, that George Washington.

Before I Forget (Two More Dreams) (12 cents)

Probably not worth passing along – but at the time they seemed profound.  Two dreams, with a similarly mechanical theme, but different emphases.

  1. There were machines that looked like parking meters, but seemed to function more like ATMs.  They were owned by the government and were all in one area, perhaps in a park.  I am not sure actually if people went there to get money, but I knew that they each had a significant amount of paper money in them.  I learned that the government was going to outlaw them, or at least phase them out of existence.  I also had figured out how to get into them and retrieve the money, which I decided to do in the dead of night, because – as I figured it – if they stopped using these machines, the money would just go to waste anyway.  So, operating by myself, I broke into the machines and took piles of new bills, in large denominations, hiding them where I was sure no one would find them.  But then I began to worry that I had perhaps committed a crime – that it didn’t matter that money would otherwise be wasted, so I decided, before it was discovered that the money was missing, that I should return the money to the machines.  Which, the next night, I did.  But then my worrying increased.  What if someone had seen me?  Either at the machines or at my hiding place.  How did I know that no one knew that the funds were taken and returned?  Weren’t my fingerprints all over the bills?  And so forth.  I knew that this would haunt me the rest of my life and, if it was discovered what I did, my life would be ruined, and the fact that I returned the money would be meaningless.

2.  In the garage of the apartment building (or condo) where I lived (in fact I live in a house), they had put parking meters, and ones very expensive to use, at each parking space.  It would now cost $12 per day to park in the garage that I already had a right to use and already paid the landlord (or the condo association) for, only this would go to the government.  In my dream, I calculated that this would amount to over $4000 per year per space ($8000 for two spaces) – and I knew that most people in the building could not afford this.  I thought that there would be widespread protests, that the government might fall, …… and then what?

Dreams (28 cents)

My wife tells me I should write down my dreams.  This is because they are so weird, and she assumes that this is why I am weird.  Or is it the other way around?  At any rate, here are a couple from the last few nights.

  1.  The Case of the Invisible Woman.  I am sitting on the floor, there are perhaps 30 of us, and we are listening to someone who is sitting on a chair in front of us talking about something.  Next to me is a woman I know (not that I really know, and not that I have any idea who she is).  We talk.  Then the Invisible Woman comes up and sits next to me.  The Invisible Woman is a friend of mine, whom no one can see or hear but for me.   She and I have a lot to talk about but I don’t want to leave out the woman with whom I have been talking (by the way, the Invisible Woman and the woman next to me look very much the same; they might be clones of either other – if you can have double, reverse cloning – probably not).  So I ask the Invisible Woman if she can make herself visible to the woman next to me, but only for as long as we are sitting there.  She readily agrees, and suddenly out of absolutely nowhere and nothing, a woman appears to the woman sitting next to me.  She looks at her with a look of quizzical amazement, and falls unconscious.
  2. The Case of the Trip to India.  I want to go to India on a trip with my wife.  I remember that there was an Indian woman who used to work in my office building who left and became a travel agent.  I go into her office expecting to find someone small and bare bones, but instead a find a bustling office with maybe 20 people sitting at desks, presumably all travel agents, helping customers.  I am escorted to one of them – an attractive young Indian woman. I explain what I am looking for.  She seems uncertain, but after some mumbling goes into her desk and gives me a colorful brochure.  Colorful but not intelligible.  A jumble.  Eventually I see it is an advertisement for trips to Brindia – trips that start in India and end in Britain.  Not what I want.  The woman apologizes, and it occurs to me that maybe she doesn’t know how to arrange trips to India.  “Do you do something else here?”, I ask.  She gives me a “wouldn’t you like to know” look, just as I see four men in strange military uniforms (khaki with a lot of deep red trim in unexpected places) walk through the agency from the front door to a door in back.  I look at my saleswoman, who now gives me a “don’t even think about asking” look.  The woman apologizes again and asks me to follow her.  She leads me to another desk.  We both sit down.  There are four fairly small, but complex, jigsaw puzzles on the desk.  She breaks all four into their small pieces, and mixes them together in a big basket.  She then scoops a few large handfuls of basmati rice into the mixed up puzzle pieces.  She hands me the filled basket and says “Come back when you finish putting together these puzzles.  Perhaps then I will treat you with somewhat more respect.”

More Philip Roth (25 cents)

I continue my Philip Roth marathon.  I have now read “The Ghost Writer”, “The Anatomy Lesson”, “The Human Stain”, “Letting Go”, “Our Gang”, “The Great American Novel”, “Exit Ghost” and “Everyman”.  That’s about 25 percent of what he has published.  (I have read several of the other books years back, but plan on re-reading them this year.)

The most recent three books are “Our Gang”, “The Anatomy Lesson” and “Exit Ghost”.  I am now reading “My Life as a Man” – I should finish that one shortly.

Roth’s books can be categorized as those featuring Nathan Zuckerman as a main character and those that don’t.  “My Life as a Man” features Zuckerman, but it’s an early book and its Zuckerman seems a different person than the Zuckerman found in his Zuckerman books, so it’s hard to know how to characterize that one.  The Nathan Zuckerman in “My Life as a Man” is a fictional character who is the main character in two stories written by fictional Peter Tarnopol in a book written by Philip Roth.  He is the doppelganger, perhaps, of Peter Tarnopol the way the other Nathan Zuckerman would be the doppelganger, equally perhaps, of the real Philip Roth.  Understand?

“Our Gang”, on the other hand, has nothing to do with any Nathan Zuckerman.  It is a satire of President Richard Nixon and was published when Nixon was in the second year of his to-be abbreviated second term.  In 1971. Just as “The Great American Novel” was a satire of that great American sport – baseball.  But while I felt that “The Great American Novel” was an outstanding book, it seems to me that “Our Gang” is an outstanding failure.  Enough said. No reason for anyone else to read it.

I didn’t think that “The Anatomy Lesson” was much better, but I really liked “Exit Ghost”.  Both are true Zuckerman books, featuring the real fictional Nathan Zuckerman.

Now the first Zuckerman book was “The Ghost Writer” – I liked that one a lot, as well. We meet Nathan just out of school, enamored of the writing of the hardly known older Jewish novelist (fictional) E. I. Lonoff, gets the opportunity to visit the writer at his isolated house in the Berkshires.  He meets Lonoff, Lonoff’s wife, and an alluring young woman in her 20s who appears to be helping Lonoff sort his papers.  Zuckerman becomes witness to more than he expected as the overnight visit ends when Lonoff’s wife abandons him in a snow storm to young Amy Bellette, who is obviously more than a helper.

Zuckerman is to become a writer of some note, author of “Carnovsky”, in Roth’s second Zuckerman novel, “Zuckerman Unbound”.  I have not read this one yet.  Methodical, I am not. I have read, however, “The Anatomy Lesson”, which finds Zuckerman at 40 (he was 23 in “The Ghost Writer”), living in New York City, suffering from a debilitating condition (extreme, paralytic back and joint pains, among other things) that no doctor and no psychiatrist knows how to treat.  He is living in an isolated situation (he might as well be in the Berkshires) except for the three different women who minister to him (all in the same way, of course – this is Philip Roth)  and who each have their own serious problems (not the same problems, of course – this is Philip Roth).  Taking the bull by the horns, Zuckerman decides to change his life, stop writing, and go to medical school  back at his University of Chicago alma mater.  Not that he is at all prepared in any way to attend medical school, but he is determined, so he flies to Chicago to look up an old classmate and now physician and start his medical training.  Of course, he can’t follow through, but he diverts himself on the plane when he starts talking to his seat mate, takes a fake identity (the name being that of an editor who has written a scathing review of something he has written) and under this editor’s name, informs his seat mate that he is a major pornographer and club owner and goes into the details of his business life.  Both the illness and the false identification were a bit too much for me.

My next Zuckerman novel was “The Human Stain”, where Zuckerman, like Lonoff before him, is living a fairly isolated existence in the Berkshires, and becomes involved in the affairs of an older Jewish professor, writer and former dean of a nearby college, who it turns out isn’t really Jewish and who (rather than Zuckerman) is the central character of the book.  So, it was sort of a divertimento, although an interesting one (like several of Roth’s books, this one had been made into a film which I had seen and enjoyed).

The final book of the life of Nathan Zuckerman is “Exit Ghost”, which I found perhaps the most appealing of them all.  Zuckerman has returned from the Berkshires to New York City (in fact, he went for a doctor’s appointment, but decided to stay, at the spur of the moment agreeing to trade his mountain home for a New York apartment for a year).  Two women are featured – one Jamie, the wife of the young couple who live in the New York apartment, the other being Lonoff’s formerly 27 year old mistress Amy, now dying of brain cancer.  Zuckerman is 70; Amy is 74.  There is also two other men – one is Jamie’s husband, and the other Jamie’s old boyfriend, Kliman, who happens to be a writer as well who wants to write the life story of the now forgotten Lonoff, something that neither Amy nor Zuckerman wants to see happen.  Especially as Kliman believes he has uncovered a deep, dark, incriminating secret about Lonoff’s life that is probably untrue (and instead the product of a writer’s imagination), but which would be the linchpin on which Kliman would base his biography.

So that’s where I am now.  After I finish “My Life as a Man” (again based on Tarnopol, not Zuckerman), I have two more books to read, neither of which involve either Zuckerman or Tarnopol.  “American Pastoral” and then “Sabbath’s Theater”.  Each pretty long.  I have no idea what they are about.  But when I finish those, I will try to find “Zuckerman Unbound”.  And go on from there.

Aferim (13 cents)

Aferim is a Romanian film that has achieved a critic rating of 190 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and high Metacritic and Imdb ratings. “Wow”, you say.

Well let me tell you, it is one of the most painful, hardest to sit through movies I have ever seen. Period. No equivocation.

Romania 1834. Nasty noble families, miserable gypsy slaves, satanic priests, unscrupulous traders, and a bounty hunter and his son chasing an escaped slave and returning him to his owner. Why did the slave run away on the first place? Because the noble’s unattractive wife  “seduced” him. And what was his punishment? All I will tell you is that his days as a sexual predator or predatee are over.

Black and white.  No musical score. Continual unnecessary violence of the worst kind. Unkind to gypsies. Gratuitous remarks about Jews, who don’t even figure into the story line.

I give it four yucks.

“Shakespeare, Life of an Icon” at the Folger Shakespeare Library until March 27. See it if you can!

I have been to a number of exhibits at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill over the years, and while I have found each of them interesting, I have also found their details easy to forget.  Usually, you see some old manuscripts, often early Shakespearean folios, or you see manuscripts by his contemporaries, or later books or documents related to his work.  The current exhibit, “Shakespeare, Life of an Icon” is different.  It is absolutely fascinating and I highly recommend it.

William Shakespeare died in 1616, 400 years ago.  Many special events are scheduled worldwide this year to mark this date – this exhibit is one of them.

It’s not that it’s a big exhibit.  It runs the one long hallway between the east and west entrances to the building.  The thrust of the exhibit is to display Shakespeare as he was a living man in the  late 16th and early 17th centuries, both as he saw himself and as others saw him.

There is not much around to show how Shakespeare viewed his own life, but much of what remains is here on display.  Deeds to properties, for example, both his homes and the Blackfriar Theater, in which he invested.  Baptism records, a letter from the man who was to become his son-in-law, his will.

More interesting are items related to his work.  There are contemporary diaries whose entries include thoughts on plays seen by the writers, there is an eye witness account of the fire that destroyed the original Globe Theater.  There are not only early version s of his plays, but there are both contemporary manuscripts and books in which Shakespeare is mentioned, or in which he is quoted.  There are satires making fun of his relationship with Ben Jonson, his rival and close friend.  There is Ben Jonson’s handwritten appreciation of Shakespeare written after Shakespeare’s death.  There items discussing the legitimacy of the coat of arms granted the Shakespeare family.

So much, and like in many small but perfect exhibits, each single item is as interesting as the last one.

Yoram Kaniuk One More Time – this time his tale of Aunt Shlomzion the Great. Who knew?

I think the first time I ever hear of Yoram Kaniuk, the Israeli writer, is when Theater J, a couple of years ago, did a staged reading of an adaptation of his book 1948, dealing with the memories of soldiers who had fought the Israeli War of Independence, suffered greatly doing so (some not coming back alive), and to some extent wondering if it was worthwhile.  Kaniuk himself was in the war as a 17 year old, and was injured.  It was a very powerful production.

Then later, I came across and read “Life on Sandpapaer”, Kaniuk’s memoir of the ten years he spent in the United States in the 1950s (see my post titled “The Pleasure of Reading Interesting Memoirs”, December 30, 2015), a fascinating and wonderfully written (if undoubtedly somewhat exaggerated) tale of a would-be artist turned would-be writer, flailing among the musicians and artists of Greenwich Village and Harlem 60 years ago.  Kaniuk after he recovered from his war wound, went to Paris to study art, but left fairly quickly to come to New York, where he lived for a decade, finally marrying an American blue-blood.  An unlikely pairing, to say the least, that only lasted until his death in 2013.

And then just last week, I stumbled across another of Kaniuk’s books, with the unfortunate title of “The Story of Aunt Shlomzion the Great”.  It’s a short novel, it got off to what I thought was a disappointing and slow start, I was ready to abandon it, and then it really took off.  It’s only because I had read “Life on Sandpaper” that I realized that this book two, like “Sandpaper” and like “1948” must have been based, however loosely, on his own experience.

For one thing, the strange name Shlomzion (a contraction of what would be in English “Peace of Zion”) was the actual name of an Israelite queen from the first century b.c.e.  She was apparently successful and peace loving.  Not named in the biblical text, I guess, but referred to in numerous places in the Talmud and in the writings of Josephus.  Her name adorns several streets in Israeli cities “Shlomzion Malka” – Queen Shlomzion.

She has nothing to do with the title character of the book, who is simply the aunt of the first person teller of the tale.  And she’s not a normal aunt.  Seventy sex years old when the tale is being told, very wealthy with her wealth hidden so that no one knows where it is or how much it is, and the most beautiful woman in the world, who has lost none of her beauty or allure as she has aged.  She is also controlling, unpleasant, unable to keep up decent relations with anyone, and demanding.  She is living out her dying days, although she is still healthy, in a hospital suite, for which she pays a handsome sum every month.

You learn about her, and her intellectual but emasculated husband Nehemiah, who has recently died, and even more so about her imperious father Adonsky, the unremembered builder of most of Tel Aviv, and her meek mother, Miriam, the descendant of a very important Hebron family.  Adonsky has made a fortune building, but his financial climb started when he began to acquire and sell grave site, especially on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in the late 19th century.  But Adonsky is not a Zionist in the normal sense of the world, although he is quite a seer and realized that a Jewish state would be created at this place and bring with it great demand for houses and grave sites.  And to him, the grave sites were the most important – God did not bring the Jews to the promised land to live there in peace; He brought them to die there where they would be closer to His home at the time of the resurrection.  And the Hebron family got involved in the mysterious Ben-Amram, the man who became the emissary of Hebron to the world, who traveled the world continually, and who perhaps ran away with the treasure of the Hebron Jewish community with which he had been entrusted.

And you learn of the one son of Shlomzon and Nehemiah – the boy whose name was fought over for 18 months between father and mother, 18 months during which they neither lived together nor spoke with each other, and during which poor Nehemiah never saw his son.  But his son showed them!  No one could live with a mother like Shlomzion – so he packed himself off to America, changed his name to (of all things) Arty, married (of all things) a Japanese woman (you can imagine how that went over) and who came with his family to Israel to visit his ailing mother.  They came, he, his wife and their young twins, for a three week stay.  They went back to Chicago after two days.

The lives of Shlomzion and members of her family, past and present, tell quite a tale, and once I got through those first “what the hell is going on?” chapters, kept me captivated until the end.

How much of this is true?  Did Kaniuk have an aunt on whom he based Shlomzion the Great?  I would bet he did.  Who else would have visited this tale teller, the young man who has left Israel to be a starving art student in Paris?  And who else would that art student have been but Yoram Kaniuk himself?