"I don't think it's possible to write a really interesting or good book without the Holocaust being in it. Even if you're not Jewish, you're a Jewish writer. If it doesn't enter your consciousness, you're not a serious artist."
So said novelist Leslie Epstein, author most recently of "The Eighth Wonder of the World" in a phone interview from his office at Boston University, where he chairs the creative writing department.
Epstein, father of Boston Red Sox wunderkind general manager Theo Epstein, is also the son and nephew of Philip and Julius Epstein, the famed Golden Age screenwriting tandem behind "Casablanca," "Four Daughters" and other Warner Bros. classics. Leslie Epstein grew up in Pacific Palisades observing Christmas, yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, his secular upbringing, he has returned to Judaism. At the age of 68, he just became a bar mitzvah with the Lubavitcher Jews at his alma mater, Yale University, after giving a talk at the Chai Society -- not to be confused with the Bing Crosby film, "High Society," Epstein says.
His current novel, "Eighth Wonder," actually has some of the mirth of that Bing Crosby film, even though it takes place primarily in fascist Italy at the time of the Holocaust. This is not the first occasion in which Epstein has grappled with the Shoah in his prose. "King of the Jews," his most famous book, examined the ethical quandaries of the leader of a Jewish ghetto in Poland, a man who rationalizes his actions by telling himself that, for every 10 Jews he sends to the concentration camps, he saves 100.
"King of the Jews," which came out in 1979, attracted much controversy because, Epstein says, it bore traces of Hannah Arendt and "exposed the dirty linen" of Jews; it also had an "irreverent tone," most clearly evidenced when the unnamed narrator addresses the readers as "ladies and gentlemen," as if he is an impresario at a circus or, Epstein suggests, a host at a nightclub.
While the humor of "King of the Jews" was at times camouflaged and muted by the deeply depressing nature of the book, there is no concealing the hilarity of "Eighth Wonder."
In this latest book, Epstein's 10th work of fiction, he presents Il Duce as a buffoon, inflating his chest in a "pneumatic trick"; requiring a woman every eight hours; intoning in front of large crowds in the third person and in all capital letters; and ending every other word with a suffixed "a" when speaking more intimately, so that he sounds like a cross between Chico Marx's stock immigrant and a character out of Jimmy Breslin's "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."
Epstein has created another splendid comic villain in Amos Prince, an anti-Semitic architect, based on Ezra Pound, whose penchant for malapropisms and bad puns leads him to refer to Mussolini as "Douche," "Dolce," and "Mauso-lini," to give a few examples.
But Prince can turn off his antic disposition when he seeks the commission to build a mile-high monument, the titular eighth wonder of the world, to commemorate Italy's victory over Ethiopia: "Our monument is literally just such a clock, a gigantic sundial, with the tower as the gnomon and all of Rome as the face."
Although in this book Epstein commingles fictional characters with historical ones, as E.L. Doctorow does, Epstein's key influence appears to be Proust. Like Prince, the architect's protégé, protagonist Max Shabilian, has a split voice, stammering in his old age, yet communicating eloquently in his interior monologue, a Proustian stream of consciousness that Epstein uses not only in Max's narration but also in Prince's spiral notebook entries. In one characteristic passage, Max attempts to recapture the past, "Memories! You think you've strangled them, lopped off the hundred heads; but they lurk, they linger, until you understand they're the ones strangling you. Philomene. Katya. Shemi. Judit. Yes, those words, too."
Those names haunt us as they haunt Max, whose stuttering, we assume, has to do with his conduct during the war.
What better way to write about a searing subject like the Holocaust than by invoking Proust!
In the late 1990s, Epstein began reading two pages of the French author every night.
"It's deeply refreshing to encounter a noble mind at the end of the day," he says. Epstein maintained that regimen for a number of years until, in December of 2000, he received a phone call that his mother had suffered a heart attack. He returned to Los Angeles from Boston. His mother seemed fine when he visited her at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center but several days later she endured a second heart attack and died. Three days after that, his uncle Julie, a father figure to him, also died.
Three years ago, at a book signing for "San Remo Drive," a "novel from memory" about Epstein's childhood in Pacific Palisades, he remarked on how this doubling of the deaths reinforced his recollection and brought him to many earlier memories, such as his first memory of being with his mother in MacArthur Park in a rowboat. Several years later, he said, he was in another rowboat, this time with a man who was his mother's suitor and whom he feared would kill him. The "erotic charge" in both memories and their doubling rendered them indelible and led Epstein to explore them imaginatively in his art.
"Eighth Wonder" also features much doubling. The book begins with an extended set piece of the victory parade to celebrate Mussolini's triumph over Ethiopia's Lion of Judah, which recalls the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, which occurred on the anniversary to the day of the Babylonian destruction of the first temple. This chapter is followed by Prince's first notebook entry, written on the 25th anniversary to the day of his return to Italy.
All of this doubling highlights a theme in Epstein's work of history as a wheel constantly repeating itself. In both "King of the Jews" and "Eighth Wonder," he broaches the debate of free will vs. destiny.
"It bedevils me," he says. "When an artist feels this tension, he does his best work."
If that is true, then perhaps Epstein felt a heightened tension in writing about Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia and reputed descendant of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In what may be the most luminous passage in "Eighth Wonder," Epstein writes, "What struck the milling masses ... were his eyes, a strip of black iris, a strip of ivory, and the way they stared as fixedly as those in a stone statue of Jupiter to where the great arch rose like a guillotine at the end of the Via Sacra."
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