- Two more Philip Roth books, relatively recent ones. The first that I read, “Nemesis” (2010), is the story of a Jewish teenager in Newark caught up in terrible times. It’s the mid-1940s, and a war is raging in Europe. One of his closest friends has already been killed in battle. He is not there because of poor eyesight, and is left at home where, just out of school, he has a job running a summer playground. But in 1944 in Newark, there was another problem – polio. Polio strikes several children at the playground – one dies. He quits his job and takes over the water instructor role at a summer camp in the Poconos. Polio strikes there as well; even he comes down with it, a bad case that affects his limbs and even more so the arc of his life. The second book deals with a somewhat later period. “Indignation” (2008) takes place in the 1950s, during the Korean War. Again,, the central character is a young man from Newark who leaves his local college after the first year to escape his overbearing butcher father and see more of the world. He winds up as one of the few Jews in a small Ohio school, where he finds the academics easy, getting along with his classmates sometimes difficult, and where he picks the wrong girl to get involved with. The school has a mandatory chapel attendance requirement. He learns he can pay someone to attend in his place and sign him in, which he does. But he is caught, and expelled, and winds up in Korea, where he is killed…….after which he writes his book. I found both of these books engaging and recommend them.
- I read Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (2014), about the end of life, written by the well published physician/author. It’s a beautifully written book, and talks about the dangers and tragedies of over treatment when patients would often prefer much less. Death can be eased in many cases, by letting natural events take their course (except for palliative, pain management care) and, in fact, in many instances, the overly aggressive treatment not only fails and causes unnecessary agony, but actually shortens the life it was meant to extend. No easy answers, as sometimes the treatment works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But hospice care, and other environments where the patient is able to assert some control and where suffering is mitigated – this is what seems to work best.
- Fernande Leboucher’s “Incredible Mission” (1969) is the amazing story of a French Capuchin priest, Father Marie-Benoit, who – first in Marseilles and then in Rome – becomes the coordinator of a series of largely successful attempts to hide Jews from the Nazis, giving them false passport documents, identification papers, food rationing cards and more. He helps some escape from prison camps in France (including the author’s husband, who is eventually caught again and sent to Auschwitz), and helps hundreds, perhaps thousands, hide in Rome during the Nazi roundup there. His willingness to do this, and the large networks he creates to help prepare the paperwork, and hide the hunted, is indeed extraordinary. He died in 1990 at 94. A book hard to find, but much worth while reading.
Trapped in the house. Six inches of snow have fallen. Freezing rain is expected over night. So naturally, I am thinking about baseball. And thinking about continuing on my 2016 project to read through Philip Roth’s works.
There has been a lot of fiction written about baseball, and it is not uncommon to find lists of the “best baseball books”. One book that seems never to be on the list is Philip Roth’s “Great American Novel”, his sixth novel, published in 1973. Why is this?
To quote Roth himself, one reason might be as set forth in the book’s epilogue, as a letter provided to the author by a prospective publisher after reading the yet unpublished book:
“I find what I have read of your novel thoroughly objectionable. It is a vicious and sadistic book of the most detestable sort, and your treatment of blacks, Jews, and women, not to mention the physically and mentally handicapped, is offensive in the extreme; in a word, sick.”
That may all be true, but it is also a very clever and enjoyable book, and an extremely unique one. And it’s a baseball book. And “The Great American Novel”.
It’s the story of the demise of the Port Ruppert Mundys, and the entire Patriot League, the third professional baseball league (not including the Negro League, which also plays a role in the book), which dissolved in the mid-1940s and has been wiped out of the history books, the public records of all sorts, and even the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Dissolved as a result of Communist infiltration designed to destroy baseball, and therefore capitalism, in America. (OK, I gave no spoiler alert.) That’s why you have never heard of the PL.
While there were eight teams in the league, the book, after giving the history of the league when it was at least the equal of the others and perhaps the first among equals, when the likes of Luke Gofannon and Gil Gamesh (before his lifetime suspension) were still playing, “The Great American Novel” focuses on one team – the Ruppert Mundys, the team that arranged to lease its stadium to the United States government for military training purposes, thus being transposed into a road-only team, playing all its games in the stadiums of others. And, until being shown the secrets of winning, lost virtually every game.
Why did they lose? Well, not having a home was obviously not good for morale, but it was also true that, with the majority of the team’s players now fighting for their country in World War II, the roster left a lot to be desired. Roth carefully describes the regular starting line up. One of my favorites was Mike Rama, the left fielder (reminding me, unfortunately of a young Bryce Harper, perhaps):
“Batting fifth and playing left field, No. 13, MIKE RAMA. RAMA.
“Even before the Mundys had to play day in and day out on the other fellow’s terrain, Mike “the Ghost” Rama (TL, BL, 6’1″, 183 lbs.) had his troubees with the outside wall. Just so long as there was one of them behind him, whether it was in Mundy Park on the the road, sooner or later, the Ghost went crashing up against it in do-or-die pursuit of a well-tagged ball. In ’41, his rookie year, he had on five different occasions to be removed on a stretcher from the field in Port Ruppert. The fans, of course, were deeply moved by the brilliant youngster so dedicate to victory as to be utterly heedless of his own welfare. It rent their hearts to hear the konk resound throughout the ball park when Mike’s head made contact with the stadium wall — was he dead this time? and, damn it, had he dropped the ball? But miraculously neither was the case. The umpire who rushed to the outfield to call the play (before calling the hospital) invariably found the baseball lodged snugly in the pocket of the unconscious left fielder’s glove. “Out”, he would shout, and without irony, for he was describing only the status of the batter….”
What turns the Mundys from losers to winners. For one thing, it’s sprinkling some Jewish Wheaties on their breakfast cereal (don’t ask). For another, it seems to be wresting control of the team from the black janitor, who makes all decisions in the absence of the owners, who seem to spend all their time in Mexico. Then, it is instruction on hatred – how to hate your opponents so deeply that winning is the only choice. This is the heart of Communist tactics. But reading it, and thinking about today’s real politics, it sometimes strikes much too close to home.
This book is a farce, written by an old sportswriter (now living in a nursing home), the only man to remember the Patriots League and the Mundys (if in fact he does). Nothing in it is real; nothing in it is conceivable. But, putting aside the lack of political correctness (speaking of things that strike home about today’s political scene), the book is very clever and very funny. It was, of course, written by a young(ish) Philip Roth.
And it is a baseball book. And deserves to be on the list of best baseball books. And – unless you are turned off by being continually offended by one thing or another – it is highly recommended.
The Shakespeare Theatre perfectly paired Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Critic” (1779) with Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound” (1968). Not only are they both focused on the rarefied world of theater critics, but it seems to me that Stoppard was not unfamiliar with Sheridan when he wrote “Inspector Hound”.
I watched the two one-acts at the Shakespeare Theatre today and, although my view was limited by the oversized giant seated in front of me, I enjoyed both. They are equally clever and are being performed equally well. Unfortunately, the show closes after tomorrow’s performances.
So what is the role of a theater critic? Two possible roles were depicted two hundred years ago by Sheridan. There are those critics who go to the theater not for entertainment but to find fault and build there own reputations. And there are critics who go to praise everything and everyone in order to be accepted by the broader theater community, whether or not they are being paid to make their points.
Presumably neither of these form the majority of the critic community, who look to educate the audience and, at the same time, to promote theater going and theater acceptance. And this balance is not always easy. You can find fault with a play, yet want people to see it, to become familiar with the playwright, the cast members, the theater. It’s not an easy task.
Putting this aside – what about “Critic” and “Inspector Hound”? Both are clever, and Sheridan’s humor works fine today. Two critics who like to find fault meet with a critic who praises everything and gets well paid for the task. They learn that the mercenary critic has written his own play, and it is being rehearsed at the Drury Lane Theater, owned of course by one Richard Brindsley Sheridan. It is not to be performed there, it is just being rehearsed there, and Sheridan has never seen the play. The author is convinced that Sheridan is going to be at his theater the next day and they invite themselves to see the rehearsal. They go to the theater, and keep advising the playwright as they look at the play to make change after change in a manner that they say will please Mr. Sheridan. It is very funny, especially when performed by a talented cast, and set in a theater with the resources to create just the right background and scenery.
The “Inspector Hound” is different. Two critics come to see a play. The play presumably is akin to the famous “The Mousetrap”. A murder in a secluded house. Who was killed and which of the guests did it? We watch the play (within a play) and listen to the banter of the critics in the audience. We learn that one of the critics has been seen with the play’s youngest female character. They begin to communicate directly, and the critic wanders out of his seat down to the stage. The play within the play does a rewind. Virtually, the same script is repeated, with the critics playing two of the main characters and the two actors winding up as critics in the audience. It is very clever.
So, we have two playwrights making fun of critics. That’s fair. The rest of the time, it’s the critics making fun of the playwrights. I enjoyed myself
I really enjoyed “Mama Mia”, the Broadway musical, the story (as I recall) of an enterprising mother who ran an inn on a Greek island, and whose daughter was about to be married. She wanted to make sure her daughter’s father came to the wedding, but she really never knew who the father was. There were three possibilities, living on other sides of the world, who were possibilities. They were all invited. They all came. And everyone had fun. (How could they not, since everything they did was accompanied by ABBA songs?)
Last night we watched a 2006 Danish film, “After the Wedding”, on the recommendation of a friend. The fact is that the film was very well reviewed, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. While the premise was not quite the same as that of “Mama Mia”, there were similarities. A wealthy Danish businessman has a fatal illness, which he keeps to himself. He is married, has two children of his own, and his wife has an older daughter from a previous relationship. This girl, Anna, does not know who her father was. But Jorgen, her step father, does. Jacob, the father, his wife’s ex-flame and also a Dane, runs an orphanage for poor children in a poor community in India. Jorgen finds out where Jacob is, and invites him to Denmark until the pretense that he is looking for worthwhile causes to donate considerable amounts of money to, and this orphanage has been recommended to him. Jacob travels to Denmark, meets Jorgen, learns that Jorgen’s daughter is about to be married, is invited to the wedding, discovers that Jorgen’s wife is his old girl friend, and puts two and two together, realizing he is the father of the bride.
So far, OK, not a bad plot line. But where “Mama Mia” takes uncertain parenthood and turns it into an uplifting farce, “After the Wedding” has its dour and volatile characters embroiled in one or another awful situation, bringing the viewer down, down, down. At least that was our reaction.
So if a friend ever suggests you see “After the Wedding”, take my advice. Watch “Mama Mia”.
Here is my first collection of random facts that just one day might come in handy (all from reading the Feb 4 issue of Washington Jewish Week)
- The Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel 91-0. Sounds good, right? But apparently there were 9 Democratic members of the House who left the chamber to avoid voting. What’s that all about?
- How many individuals have been proclaimed as Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem? Apparently, it is 25,600. Not a small number.
- Some of you may have seen the remarkable film made about Sir Nicholas Winton, the British businessman who organized kindertransports from Prague to bring Jewish children to England just before the start of World War II. How many people alive today are descendants of those young Jewish survivors? Over 6,000.
- Many military families living in the United States suffer from “food insecurity” and rely on food banks to obtain enough food to feed their families.
- There’s an active Jewish community of about 8,000 in the majority Muslim Russian city of Kazan. Its size and its development as a community is due the success and popularity of a Klezmer band founded there in 1987.
- When the Washington Post published a chart entitled “A Visual Guide to 75 Years of Major Refugee Crises Around the World” (in December), it omitted any mention of the approximately 800,000 Jewish refugees from Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, of whom the majority settled in Israel.
- A group of 71 British physician members of the World Medical Association suggested that the Association kick the Israel Medical Association out of the organization, making collaboration between Israeli medical institutions and other medical institutions impossible. After stirring up some controversy, the proposal is apparently going nowhere. All part of the BDS movement.
- In 1942, the Struma, a ship carrying about 800 to Palestine and flailing in the Black Sea was sunk by a Russian torpedo. Of the 800, there was apparently only one survivor, a Romanian Jew named David Stoliar. He recently passed away at 91. He lived in Bend, Oregon, of all places (an area best known today for the Bundy occupation).
What happens when your wife has knee replacement surgery? You spend a lot of time at home, especially in the evenings, and you get to watch more television than you normally would.
One of the things we watched was the 10-part Norwegian series, “Occupied”, streamed on Netflix, and recommend it highly to you. (We have for years watched “Homeland”, and thought this series in many ways as good, and in some ways more sophisticated.)
I am not going to give away the plot lines, but from the premise, you can see the complexities that can arise.
The time is sort of an alternative now, or maybe not too far in the future. The world is somewhat different from the one we know, but the setting is contemporary. And the locale is, of course, Norway.
Norway. Progressive, prosperous, independent Norway. The prime minister is a member of a green party, determined to end the world’s dominance on fossil fuels, and to turn the primary source of energy to a fuel based on the element thorium (A real possibility, see http://www.energyfromthorium.com). To prod the world along, Norway shuts down its oil and natural gas production facilities, much to the dismay of the European Union (In “Occupied”, Norway is not a member of the EU – in the real world, that is also the case.) The EU and Russia try to pressure Norway to reverse its position, but the Norwegian government is on a long term mission to save the world, so it refuses. The Russians come in on an emergency basis and take over the Norwegian fossil fuel facilities under threat of war. If there is one thing the Norwegian government wants to avoid (other than fossil fuel production and climate change), it is war and wartime casualties. The Norwegians sign an agreement with the EU and Russia to permit Russia to operate the facilities until their output is equal to what it was before the takeover, at which time the Russians are to leave. The United States has become an isolationist country (even pulling out of NATO), so plays no role in the dispute. Oil and gas production increases…….but the Russians never leave.
I find this a unique and compelling premise, but what is most interesting is what happens to happy Norwegian society when faced with this “occupation”. There are those who feel the most important thing is to get along with the Russians, presumably so they will leave. There are those who form the “Free Norway” (“Fritt Norge”) movement to sabotage the Russians and show that Norway, small as it is in population, cannot be pushed around. There are Russians equally stubborn. There are people playing both sides. There are those getting rich off the occupation. There are vicious intra-family disputes. There is incidence after incidence of unexpected consequences. Ambiguity is everywhere. The country, prosperous and beautiful as it is, gets torn apart.
This is a story of how quickly society, the best of societies, can unravel, and how difficult it can be to put it back together. Many lessons to be learned – including the very important lesson that you just never know what is going to happen next.
The first episode was shown in Norway in October 2015, so I assume it ended around Christmas. The show, the product of a joint Swedish-Norwegian production team, has apparently been a big hit in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. Its reviews are strong. Only one country seems to find fault with the series – and that of course is Russia. Russia’s embassy in Oslo called the show “destructive and dangerous”, saying in was creating the specter of a threat where no threat existed, that it was aimed at recreating the Cold War, and that it showed Russia as an aggressive power.
Presumably the show will return for a second season next fall (no details of a second season have been given, although the show’s spokesmen have said it is coming back). We will see how Russia is treated next year – whether the objections from their neighbor on the northern frontier have any effect in changing the direction of the plot lines. My vision is that the Russian objections will lead to counter-statements from elements in Norway, which will lead to more words from Russian sources, etc., etc., and that we will find a parallel dispute between the two countries and the two populations – one in “Occupied”, the other in the “real world”.
As a run-up to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy on May 29, 2017, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has sent out an RFP (here, a Request for Plays) to the general population. The plays are to be at the most 500 words (about 4 minutes from curtain up to curtain down) and are to reflect the legacy of a particular sentence of JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Of course, I went right into action and scribbled off a first draft of a “tiny play” (my draft was actually a bit under 400 words). Submissions are due February 19, but I don’t think I am going to actually submit because my play is not celebratory, it is dark. Dark, dark…..and that’s probably not what they have in mind.
My thought is that Kennedy’s familiar quote must be looked at in context. Certainly, there are things we want our country to provide for us – one thing we all agree on, for example, is the national defense. And what about “what you can do for your country”? First, we don’t all want the same things to be done for the country. If someone wants to work to regulate reproductive rights, to build a wall on the Mexican border, or to round up illegal residents, it is clear that others would strongly object. So all of this depends on what your vision of your country is – there are some people I would love to see doing something for their country. But that sure doesn’t go for everyone.
So, I began to think about people whose vision of a country differ from mine. And how John Kennedy’s words can inspire them, as well as me, to participate in the political world. With this in mind (and I wonder what you think), here is what I put together yesterday morning:
“Ask What You Can Do For Your Country……”
[A young man (say he’s 24) and a young woman (say she’s 22) sit on a bench, talking. They are obviously attracted to each other.]
He: Boy, this is really inspiring. I’ve never really looked at this speech before. “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you”. That about says it all. I’ve been here now for five years. Never concentrated much on American history. But I am beginning to understand it here more and more.
She: Yeah, I guess that’s why JFK is remembered so well. That, and his head of hair. And I guess he tried. But that guy shot him. And killed him. So maybe he didn’t get much of a chance to do anything for his country.
He: Of course he did. He died for his country. Like you tell me that Jesus died for your sins.
She: That’s not quite the same, is it? It was God who decided that Jesus would die for us. But it was just some Communist moron who shot Kennedy. You don’t think that God ordered Kennedy to be killed, do you?
He: Well, sure I do. That’s how history works. We aren’t free agents, are we? Of course, we are being directed from above. Directed, and ordered, to do certain things to bring about the salvation of the world. Don’t you know that?
She: Not really. But you are right that Kennedy’s speech is inspiring. And today’s politicians. God, I wish that they more like him. “Make America great again” doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? I don’t think “Break up Wall Street” does either. But maybe someone will come along. We should give them a chance, I guess. That’s why I’m excited about going to the rally this afternoon.
He: And I’m glad you decided to come with me. It’s always a big help, you know, to go with a pretty girl. We can get much closer to the front and can see better. Everyone will let you through. They’d just ignore me if I was alone. I wouldn’t be able to see anything.
And I am looking forward to hearing them. In just a few years, I realize that this is quite a country. Freedom that I wouldn’t have elsewhere. Open elections, free speech, the right to join crowds, the Second Amendment.
She: What does the Second Amendment have to do with this?
He: You’ll see.
Having just written part of this post and watching it disappear without reason, I am perturbed and unwilling to start from scratch – so I will abbreviate the listing of the books I have read over the past month –
- “117 Days – An Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law” by Ruth First (1963), anti-apartheid activist. Worth reading.
- “Married to a Bedouin” by Marguerite van Geldermalsen (2006), a New Zealander married to a man from Petra, the book recounting their lives from 1978 to 1985, a time when Petra’s Arab population were still living in the caves looking over the city, before they were relocated to close-by towns. Very worth while reading.
- “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin (2014), a pleasant, harmless novel about a bookseller in a small community on a Massachusetts island, who finds a toddler in his store, with a note from her mother (who later that day commits suicide) and decides to keep her. Easy reading.
- “The Peddler’s Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi” by Edward Cohen (1999), the story of a young man’s life in Jackson MS. Everyone has a story, and this one is no more interesting than most. Probably not worth your time.
- “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2000). I have decided to read a lot of Roth this year – this is the second after “Letting Go”. The story of a “Jewish” professor who isn’t really Jewish at a New England college who gets in trouble by making a “racist” remark that really wasn’t racist. The book is a bit too long, perhaps, but contains a sampling of Roth’s fine writing and has a intriguing story line. I previously have seen the film made from this book, and can only say that the character Faunia in the book sure didn’t remind me of Nicole Kidman. Worth reading.
- “Everyman” by Philip Roth (2006). One of his shorter books, the story of a New Jersey jeweler that starts with his funeral and reaches back through the various mistakes of his life. I really liked this one, although there were a few scenes I could have done without, and especially liked the structure. I think the structure of a novel is one of Roth’s special gifts. Definitely worth reading.
- “The Ghost Writer” by Philip Roth (1979). The first of the nine Zuckerman books, this one introducing the young writer/alter ego, who is invited by well known Jewish writer E.I. Lonoff, to spend some time with him and his wife at his secluded home in the Massachusetts Berkshires, finding that idols are not always ideal. Very worth reading.
- “The Director” by David Ignatius (2014), a contemporary thriller about the CIA and related American intelligence agencies that turns out not to be too thrilling, in part because it was for me too complicated. Too many agencies, too many players doing too many things. And a very complicated rationale for all the havoc which was created. I’d skip this one, if I were you. (But maybe you’d feel differently?)
Since the last posting, I have read:
- Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of Seven Gables”, this one a re-read from years ago. Parts of it seemed a little stiff this time, but the good parts are worth the slow parts. An evocative picture of a New England town in the 1850s, with flashbacks that go more than 150 years into the past of the Pyncheon family. Ah, the Pyncheons, down on their luck, their fortune dissipated. Who remains? Gloomy old maid Hepzibah, her ailing brother Clifford just released from prison, their young, sprightly and innocent cousin Phoebe, visiting from the country, and cousin Jaffrey, the “Judge” and only successful member of the family. They suffer from a curse (perhaps), and live out their lives in fear or a repetition of evil doings, and of course their fears come true, but with a surprisingly happy ending.
- Celia Sandys’ “Churchill: Wanted Dead or Alive”, the story of Sir Winston’s time in South Africa during the Boer War, including his prison capture and somewhat amazing escape. Charisma and guts win out. Sandys, of course, is Churchill’s granddaughter. Her prose is not the best (also not the worst), but the insight that she obtained talking to the children and grandchildren of so many of those who interacted with Churchill in South Africa adds an extraordinary dimension to the story.
- Anita Shreve’s “The Weight of Water”, a novel which takes an historical event (the murder of two women on barren islands off the coast of Maine in the 19th century, and interposes a contemporary story of a photographer with an assignment to photograph the island for an article on the murder. I have seen the film, which I enjoyed, and found the book to be at least as good, but (to my memory) not quite the same. The photographer travels with her husband, her husband’s brother, her husband’s brother’s current girl friend, and the photographer’s young teenage daughter. But in the film…..where was the daughter? Did I just forget her? (I don’t think so.)
- Philip Roth’s “Letting Go”, his second book after “Goodbye, Columbus” and first full length (and then some) novel. Not quite a coming of age story (his protagonists are in their late 20s and full members of society), but yet still a coming of age story. Two college instructors at the University of Chicago, both Jewish, one from the mid-west, married to a young woman who converted to Judaism, and the other, a a New Yorker, unmarried, with a strange relationship to his widowed dentist father, and a series of involvements with strange, strange women. Doesn’t sound promising? In fact, I found it very appealing. To my surprise.
- “Egypt: the Elusive Arab Spring” by Wafik Moustafa, an Egyptian-born British doctor who still gets involved in Egyptian politics. A liberal who has not lost hope, but who provides a very readable and credible explanation of 20th century Egypt, King Farouk, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, the Moslem Brotherhood, the British, Israel, and all the rest. The book is hard to find, published by a small British Press (Gilgamesh), not published here.
- Richard Cote’s “Theodosia: Theodosia Burr Alston – Portrait of a Prodigy”, supposedly the story of Aaron Burr’s daughter, carefully taught by her father as if “she was a boy”, who married a southern planter, had a child who died young, was ill most of her adult life, and was lost at sea, still in her 30s, off the American coast during a storm. But the book is as much a biography of Burr himself, the Burr who was Washington’s aide, Jefferson’s vice president and creator of a conspiracy to take the Louisiana Purchase and more out of the United States. What a strange life was his; was a sad one was hers.
- “An Interesting Career: the Life and Work of Luther Giddings (1823-1884), this one by one of my college roommates, John Eric Fredland, and published privately in Annapolis. Farmer, lawyer, soldier and more – all before he died at 60. Very influential in Annapolis. And as an extra in this short book, Eric gives quite a bit of information as to Maryland politics in the 1850s. Who knew?
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.