I have been lucky in stumbling (and I do mean stumbling) on a number of memoirs over the past few years, each of which has been written by a talented writer who has lived an interesting life. The most recent is Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk’s “Life on Sandpaper”, which I recommend very highly.
This is not a well known book. It was published in Hebrew in 2003, and then in English translation in 2011, as a soft cover book (not issued in English in hard cover) but apparently not widely circulated. And I am not sure why.
Kaniuk was born in Palestine in 1930 and died in Israel in 2013. He has been widely read in Israel. He fought as a 17 year old in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, where he was injured. He then went to Paris to study art (he started his professional life as a painter), but soon left Paris and came to the United States, where he lived for about a decade, mostly in New York. During this time, he gave up painting, and decided he was going to be a writer. From looking on-line at some of his paintings, I think he probably made a good choice.
There are two things about this book. One is that it is written with extraordinary style and humor (does this mean that some of what he says has been changed to create a better story – perhaps, but who cares?). The other is that Kaniuk was one of those Zelig-like figures who, without really trying, seemed to know and befriend (and be befriended by) everyone (and I mean every one).
“Life on Sandpaper” covers his time in the United States, basically (although he does not give a lot of specific dates) from 1949-1960, or to put it another way, primarily during the 1950s. Through virtually all of this time, he lived in New York, and when in New York he lived in or around Greenwich Village. This was Greenwich Village before it became an upscale neighborhood, when it was the home of New York’s large bohemian, literary, musical, and artistic community.
And Kaniuk became a part of the inner circle of both New York City artists and New York City musicians, mainly jazz musicians. He became a very close friend of Charlie Parker, for example, and Billie Holiday. And all the others. And he was with them in good times and in bad times. So, if you are interested in the New York jazz scene of the 50s, this is your book. Similarly, he was a part of the inner circle of every well known painter working in New York in the 1950s, and retells incident after incident involving them.
Then, of course, there were his impoverished Israeli friends, all in their 20s and trying to figure things out, including those with whom he opened Greenwich Village’s first basement falafel shop with a loan from a man who turned out to be a Chicago gangster. (“We invited Pete Seeger from the Weavers who played and sang. Harry Belafonte sang. Hordes of Israelis hungry for hummus, tahini and falafel came, they brought the Tel Aviv Falafel King, who was visiting America and they waited to to hear what he’d say and he pronounced it good.”)
After going through a large number of young women in New York City, it was at the falafel shop that he met Miranda Baker, a Christian women ten years younger than he (which meant at the time she was 17), tall, thin and elegant, and the daughter of a family which held a place in the most ethereal rungs of American society. And how he convinced her family that it was OK that their daughter was marrying a failed Israeli painter/future writer/current falafel shop owner/ Jewish atheist even though she was only 17 (or 18 when the date of the wedding was set). Now you know that such a marriage wouldn’t last right? Well, it did – it lasted until Kaniuk’s death in 2013, and it lasted not in New York, but in Israel, where the young couple at the first daughter (they had two) moved in 1960. (After their first daughter was born, Kaniuk and his in-laws went out for a drink: “Then Miranda’s father, the new grandfather, asked me what we were going to call her. I said Chamoutal. Her mother asked if I’d consulted my wife. I said I told her. She asked me to repeat the name and I did: Chamoutal. They had another couple of J&Bs without water or ice and began to try to pronounce their first granddaughter’s name. The new grandfather said, Jamoutal? And his wife said, no, Bobby, not Jamoutal, Camoutal. And he, Gamoutal? She tried very hard, Amoutal? I tried again Cha-mou-tal. They said it was a lovely name, Jamoutach, and said it again, Jamoutal, they tried, their mouths open, their lips searching for the correct angle. I looked at them in despair and said, Aya.”)
The difference between living in New York and Tel Aviv struck Kaniuk after he, Miranda and Aya went back to Israel. (“In the evening a friend who had visited us in New York took us to Cafe California on Frishman Street. There were all kinds of artists and poets there, it was noisy, there was cigarette smoke, shouting, a huge table to the right, and there were people there who remembered and shouted Shalom, and a man I didn’t know got up, smiled at me and saidhe was Yossl Bergner. I knew the name, he was a goo painter and he asked if I was Yoram Kaniuk and I said yes, and he said in Yiddish accented English: I’ve read your book. In English. A very bad book. I looked at him for a long moment and understood that I had come home.”) So the book ends.
Find it and read it.
The book is 400+ pages long, but has no chapters; it is one narrative, and sometimes the paragraphs stretch over pages and pages. Normally, this would make something difficult and frustrating to read, but not here. It flows, and flows and flows.