Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
“Nabokov once said ‘I divide literature into two categories, the books I wish I had written and the books I have written,’” Umberto Eco once wrote in the pages of The Paris Review. “In the former category I would put books by Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Paul Auster.”
To which I must say: “Amen,” although I have to say that I would add Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Mordecai Richler to the list.
Eco’s remarks help us understand why Paul Auster - novelist, poet, screenwriter, and cultural observer - is best described as a writer’s writer. His books are sometimes to be found on best-seller lists, but they are even more often cited and praised by other writers of distinction. Auster is always accessible and readable, but he is also a superb literary stylist, an author who is capable of extracting poetry from the hard facts of life, no matter how sad or sordid they may be.
The latest example of Auster’s genius is “Sunset Park” (A Frances Coady Book/Henry Holt: $25.00), a novel that was written in and about the elevator-drop economy of 2008. And yet, like all of his work, humankind rather than the Dow-Jones average is the measure of all things in the world according to Auster.
“The human body is strange and flawed and unpredictable,” muses one of the characters in “Sunset Park.” “The human body has many secrets, and it does not divulge them to anyone, except those who have learned to wait. The human body cannot exist with other human bodies.”
The book opens on a mysterious young man named Miles Heller whose job is “trashing out” abandoned homes in Florida. “Each house is a story of failure,” writes Auster, “and he has taken it upon himself to document the last, lingering traces of those scattered lives in order to prove that the vanished families were once here, that the ghosts of people he will never see and never know are still present in the discarded things strewn about their empty houses.”
Precisely the same description can be applied to Auster’s narrative technique in “Sunset Park.” As the author’s eye wanders across the urban landscape of contemporary America — a publishing house in Greenwich Village, a band of squatters in Brooklyn, an aging actress in California exile who aspires to return to the New York stage — Auster is gathering the fragments of a shattered family and assembling them into a rich biographical mosaic.
The moment that best captures what Auster has achieved in “Sunset Park” is when Miles Heller, who has returned to New York until his under-aged girlfriend in Florida reaches the age of 18, walks into the Hospital for Broken Things. It’s a repair shop that Bing Nathan, one of his cronies, operates from a storefront in Park Slope, a place where “battered artifact[s] from the antique industries of a half a century ago” — typewriters, fountain pens, record players, wind-up toys and gumball machines — can be put back into working order. Bing offers Miles a job, but we are shown that the offer is driven by his own urgent needs and passions.
“He knows that Miles is only half a person,” explains Auster, “that his life has been sundered and will never be fully repaired, but the half of Miles that remains is more compelling to him than two of anyone else.”
The novel itself, we realize, is a Hospital for Broken Things. With the practiced hand of a master storyteller, he draws us into the lives of the characters he has imagined, and he allows us to glimpse their hurts and longings, their aspirations and frustrations, their sins and secret good deeds. Above all, Auster holds out the hope that broken men and women, too, can be repaired.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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October 19, 2010 | 9:59 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
On my bookshelf is a cherished copy of “Foundations of Modern Art” by the French artist and theorist Amédée Ozenfant, a book that my stepfather, Elmer Heller, brought back from Israel after spending several years at Kibbutz Hatzor in the early 1950s. And on the flyleaf of the book is a old-fashioned green label that identifies the bookstore where he purchased it more than a half-century ago: “Steimatzky’s Jerusalem – Tel Aviv – Haifa.”
That label was very much on my mind when Ann and I visited the flagship store in the Steimatzky chain in the elegant Mamilla Mall near the Jaffa Gate last week. The store occupies a refurbished structure of Jerusalem stone where Herzl stayed during a visit to Palestine in 1898, and I went there in search of books by Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, whom I was to interview while in Israel, but we also came away with a bag full of souvenirs for our grandson. As it turned out, the books I needed were in stock at the Steimatzky’s branch at Yad Vashem, where Prof. Bauer’s office is located, and I picked them up after we had spent four hours in the superbly designed and deeply moving galleries of the museum.
All of these associations attest to the long history, deep roots and pervasive presence of Israel’s largest bookstore chain, which was founded in 1925 and now boasts some 160 locations across the country. From what we saw, business is booming at Steimatzky, something that cannot be said about very many bookstores here in the United States. Of course, it’s fitting that the homeland of the “People of the Book” is able to sustain a vigorous book trade, and I am sure that the throngs of visitors from America are helping to make it so.
Significantly, the very last purchase we made before leaving Israel was at the Steimatzky branch in Ben Gurion International Airport, where Ann stocked up on reading material for the flight back home. It was there that I saw, for the first and only time during our stay in Israel, an offering of magazines that feature photographs of nude women, all of which were sealed in plastic sleeves as a gesture of modesty in what is, after all, the Holy Land. Still, it was a far cry from the Kotel, where Ann donned a shawl before entering the women’s section to place a prayer between the stones.
When I spotted the magazine display at Steimatzky’s airport location, the thought occurred to me that the very first photograph of a nude woman I ever saw as a young boy was in the pages of “Foundations of Modern Art,” which may explain why the book is such a memorable keepsake of my childhood. But the label on the flyleaf also left a deep impression on my youthful imagination, and that’s why shopping at Steimatzky was as much of a pilgrimage for me as our visit to the Western Wall.
August 19, 2010 | 1:34 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
A novel, according to Stendahl (who is actually quoting Saint-Réal), is “a mirror carried along a highway — that is, a reflection of everything that’s happens to catch the eye of the novelist. But sometimes, as in “In Eight Days: A Journey Toward an Open Heart” by Lawrence Liebling (Silent River Press: $14.95), the mirror is turned inwards.
A car crash sets the story in motion, and the victim is haunted by his memory of a spectral woman whose voice he hears a moment before the accident. The mystery only deepens when a strange book is retrieved from the wreckage, “The Diary of Every Man.” He is afflicted by dreams and visions, and he feels estranged from his wife and family. “I felt separated,” says Jonathan West, “like everyone was babbling in a language that I alone didn’t speak.”
West embarks upon a spiritual journey, guided by the author of “The Diary of Every Man,” who turns out to be a rabbi of ancient times named Arya Ben Eliazer. At precisely this point in the story, the book morphs into something quite different from a conventional novel — Liebling is describing a purely interior process by which his fictional character seeks to penetrate the mysteries of the universe.
The writings of Rabbi Ben Eliazer, which are presented in chapter-length extracts, are much more like Tony Robbins than Hillel or Shammai. “Looking back at it now,” the rabbi writes, “it still astonishes me how life can change so completely from the way it was before.” His theology is simple enough: “What does God want from us?” “To love…to love life…to love God…to love each other…to love yourself.” But it’s mind-blowing to Jonathan West: “I had to put the book down and catch my breath.”
By the end of the eight-day meditation that Liebling describes at length and in great detail, Jonathan West has achieved the wisdom that eludes the rest of us — but it’s expressed in terms that would not sound out of place in any gathering of New Age seekers. “Down through the ages, anger, resentment, and revenge have traveled a well-worn path inside the collective mind of humanity,” says another one of the spectral voices that West hears. “Yet it needn’t be. There is another road, far less traveled, which leads to a land that abounds with new awareness.”
To Liebling’s credit, he allows Jonathan’s wife to express the skepticism that some readers are likely to feel. “Jonathan — earth to Jonathan — come in Jonathan,” cracks Karen. And the author is perfectly earnest about what he offers up in the pages “In Eight Days,” which cannot be said about various other novelists who have achieved best-sellerdom by trafficking in phony spirituality and fake history.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and he can be reached at email@example.com.
June 20, 2010 | 3:08 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
A story I’ve told more than once over the years begins with a bedtime reading project that I undertook when my son was five years old. I chose the Book of Genesis as our text, and I used a Jewish translation derived from the King James Version in an effort to acquaint him with one of the foundational texts of Western civilization. When I bumped into the first of many shocking passages to be found in the Bible — the story of the naked and drunken Noah — I did what rabbis, priests and ministers have been doing for a couple of thousand years, that is, I censored the Holy Writ.
Adam caught the momentary pause before I moved on to safer stuff, and his little voice peeped out from under the covers: “Daddy, what are you leaving out?”
I am proud to say that my project was apparently successful because that perceptive young boy, Adam Kirsch, is today a gifted author, poet and literary critic. But my high regard for the KJV is also validated by the latest book from Robert Alter, “Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” (Princeton University Press; $19.95). Alter focuses on what he calls the “American biblicizing impulse” and traces it through the fabric of American literature, ranging from Melville to Hemingway and Faulkner and all the way down to Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) and Cormac McCarthy (“The Road”).
Alter’s literary output is itself faintly miraculous. He wrote himself into the canon with “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” first published in book form in 1981, but he continues to produce new and provocative work as a critic, translator, and scholar. His latest book is yet another example of his stock in trade as a public intellectual — the reading of the ancient text of the Bible in fresh and illuminating ways.
In “Pen of Iron,” for example, he points out that “the language of the Old Testament in its 1611 English version continued to suffuse the culture even when the fervid faith in Scripture as revelation had begun to fade.” And he argues that the biblical habit of mind is more than just a matter of high-sounding rhetoric. “[T]his language articulates a set of values, or perhaps one should say, a set of demands, and a way of imagining man, God and history, with which we must wrestle,” writes Alter in summing up the insights of Edmund Wilson.
To be sure, the examples diminish in number as Alter works his way forward in time. “The decline of the role of the King James Version in American culture has taken place more or less simultaneously with a general erosion of a sense of literary language,” he concedes. “Obviously, there are still people in the culture, including young people, who have a rich and subtle sense of language, but they are an embattled minority in a society where tone-deafness to style is increasingly prevalent.”
“Pen of Iron” is a work of lofty literary scholarship, and Alter is addressing a readership that already speaks his language and is ready to receive his wisdom. Indeed, the book is based on a series of lectures that Alter delivered at Princeton University in 2008. But it is also true to say that he is not unlike a biblical prophet, speaking truth to the power of the popular culture and exhorting us to be better and more discerning readers.
The title of Alter’s book refers to a passage in Jeremiah: “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond.” (Jer. 17:1) Fittingly, “Pen of Iron” is something of a lament for the passing of “a culture pervaded by Scripture where . . . the active memories of ordinary people are stocked with many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of phrases and verses from the canonical text.” But, like the author of the first jeremiad, he holds out the hope of redemption.
“The essential point for the history of our literature is that the resonant language and the arresting vision of the canonical text, however oldentime they may be, continue to ring in our cultural memory,” Alter concludes. “We may break them apart or turn them around, but they are tools we still use on occasion to construct the world around us.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible,” is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 29, 2010 | 11:20 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
The title of Bill Morgan’s compelling and beguiling new book, “The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation” (Free Press: $28.00, 293 pps.), is inspired by a footnote from Allen Ginsberg’s epoch-making poem, “Howl.”
“The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!”
In that single line, we are able to glimpse what made Ginsberg and the Beats such a powerful force in the remaking of American popular culture. “The Beats of the forties and fifties were the catalysts who precipitated the more widespread social rebellion of the sixties and seventies,” writes Morgan. “The period of upheaval that we call ‘the sixties’ might well have taken place without the Beat Generation, but it would have certainly had a different flavor and moved at a different pace.”
Although Morgan describes the experiences of a generation, “The Typewriter Is Holy” can also be approached as a strikingly intimate biography of Ginsberg. “I would compare the story of the Beats to a freight train, with Allen Ginsberg as the locomotive that pulled the others along like so many boxcars,” writes Morgan. “The history of the Beat Generation is really the story of this one man’s desire to gather a circle of friends around him, people he loved and who could love him.”
Morgan, a college student during the 60s, came to know and work with Ginsberg and virtually all of the other Beats except Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. He represented Ginsberg in the sale of his papers to Stanford University for a cool million, and thereafter “Allen introduced me as a ‘genius’ of bibliography.”
So Morgan is able to see the Beats as human beings as well as iconic poets, a fact that helps to explain why his book is so lively and so chatty. “The Typewriter Is Holy” is clearly based on a mastery of the available scholarship, but it is also enlivened by Morgan’s fascination with the flesh-and-blood exploits of the men and women he writes about. So we are allowed to see ardent seductions (both heterosexual and homosexual), backroom abortions, dabbling in drugs, suicide attempts, and even a murder, all of which help to explain what we read in the poems they left behind.
Thus, for example, Morgan recreates the night of October 17, 1954, when Ginsberg took peyote for the first time and happened to glimpse the Sir Francis Drake Hotel through an open window. “In the San Francisco fog that shrouded the building, he saw the hotel begin to glow with the monstrous face of Moloch, the Phoenician god that was described in the Old Testament as a child-eating demon,” writes Morgan. “It was a horrible, terrifying vision, but one that gave Ginsberg a new insight into the greed of man, and the vision lingered in Allen’s brain long enough for him to write down a detailed description. Those notes would be become the basis for ‘Howl.’”
For the reader who knows the Beats only obliquely or not at all — and even for readers who may still recall the thrill of reading “Howl” for the first time — “The Typewriter Is Holy” takes us beyond the printed pages of poetry and brings us face to face with the troubled geniuses who created a kind of counter-literature.
There’s a small irony at work in the title of Morgan’s book. “The Ginsberg family was Jewish in name only,” he insists, “and both of Allen’s parents were fully agnostic.” Yet it is also true that Ginsberg’s Jewishness rings out in his poetry — not only in “Kaddish,” a poem nearly as famous as “Howl,” but even in the footnote that provides the title of Morgan’s book, an allusion to a line from the Book of Isaiah that is sung in every synagogue: “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh — Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”
According to the life of Allen Ginsberg as told by Bill Morgan, the same thing can be said of Ginsberg himself, a man whose poetic sensibilities fill the world in which his fellow poets continue to live and work.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com
May 22, 2010 | 9:52 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Recently I’ve been poring over my collection of guidebooks in anticipation of our upcoming trip to Israel. I’ve got the latest Fodor’s, but I am also paging through a yellowing copy of a guide that was first published in Israel in 1956. As a bookmark, I am using a postcard that was mailed from the King David Hotel to our family home in Culver City only a few years after statehood.
Unique among my travel resources, however, is “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide” by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (Jewish Lights Publishing: $18.95, 243 pps.). More than a mere guidebook, however, it must be described as nothing less than a guide for the perplexed tourist to Israel.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land is an ancient tradition, of course, but not much in fashion in Jewish circles nowadays. “Secularism runs so deep that we often reduce spiritual moments to mere lessons in history,” complains Rabbi Hoffman. “We are good at history, good at aesthetics, not so good at the life of the spirit.”
So Rabbi Hoffman offers his book as a corrective: “A Companion for the Modern Pilgrim” is its unapologetic subtitle. “[T]ourism is the wrong word for what Jews do when they go to Israel.”
The book begins with readings, meditations, and prayers that are offered as spiritual exercises to prepare the reader for travel to Israel. Once on the ground in Eretz Yisrael, he encourages us to deepen our experience by focusing on the religious significance of the places we visit: “For tourists, the world is made of ‘sights’; for pilgrims, it consists of ‘sites,’” he explains. “A ‘sight’ is only to be seen, whereas a ‘site’ retains its existence even if no one ever sees it.”
Rabbi Hoffman is unafraid of sentimentality and always seeks out the spiritual dimension of travel in Israel. He offers a collection of prayerful “acknowledgments” to be recited or sung at various places around Israel, including one that is “to be said, perhaps, in the fields of a kibbutz” — “Dress me, good mother, in a robe of many colors,” goes the poem “Toil” by Abraham Shlonsky. “Lead me at dawn to work.”
Many guidebooks offer advice on the best places to find an exceptional falafel stand or a fine meal, but “Israel: A Spiritual Guide” is less concerned with what or where we eat in Israel than with achieving the proper kavannah — spiritual consciousness and intention — when we “[share] a meal of thanksgiving and celebration on sacred soil.”
Only rarely does the harsh reality of the here and now penetrate the pages of “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide.” For example, Rabbi Hoffman prescribes a ritual to be observed at “the sites where the Bible says our Matriarchs and Patriarchs are buried.” But he acknowledgers that there are risks in visiting Hebron and Bethlehem: “Political considerations may make such a visit physically dangerous,” he cautions, although he also holds out the hope that “a secure and lasting peace will open Hebron and Bethlehem to Jewish pilgrimage.” To which we should say: “Amen!”
Perhaps the most appealing quality of Rabbi Hoffman’s book is the fact that it is not a one-way experience — he provides blank pages where the reader can enter his or her own reflections and experiences, thus turning “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide” into a travel journal to be cherished over a lifetime and handed down, like my 1956 guidebook, as a family treasure.
(For the sake of full disclosure, I am obliged — and proud — to say that, over the years, I have consulted with Jewish Lights Publishing, the publisher of “Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide,” on business matters unrelated to this book.)
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of 13 books, including “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 17, 2010 | 1:26 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
With the publication of “Hopes and Prospects” by Noam Chomsky (Haymarket Books: $16, 328 pps.), America’s most challenging public intellectual offers a fresh warning against what he has long seen as “a growing deterioration in the functioning of our democratic institutions” and the threat that it poses both at home and abroad.
One measure of his impact on American political culture is the likelihood that many of his readers have forgotten (and some never knew) that he first made his reputation as a pioneering theorist in the field of linguistics. He remains a professor emeritus at MIT, but today Chomsky is best known as a harsh, demanding and unrelenting critic of American policy, foreign and domestic.
So it’s fascinating (and a bit ironic) when Chomsky criticizes President Obama for uttering the following words: “To be a genuine party to peace, the Quartet [United States, EU, Russia, UN] has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel’s right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements.”
When Chomsky parses these words, he argues that Obama is a hypocrite: “[T]he United States and Israel,” he insists, “reject all three conditions for themselves.” But he also writes: “It follows, by Obama’s reasoning, that neither the United States nor Israel is a ‘genuine party to peace.’ But that cannot be. It is not even a phrase in the English language.”
His quibble with the President’s command of the English language, of course, is merely word-play. After all, the meaning of Obama’s words is plain enough. But the fact remains that Chomsky himself is a controversialist, and he often uses language to inflame rather than to enlighten.
Thus, for example, Chomsky charges that Ariel Sharon’s notion of Palestinian statehood was nothing more than “bantustans for Palestinians.” We might profitably debate the moral and strategic assumptions of Sharon’s position, and we might even agree with Chomsky on some points of his critique. But when he uses such provocative language, Chomsky is not seeking to persuade the open-minded reader; rather, he is preaching to the reader who already shares his convictions.
The same resort to inflammatory language can be found throughout “Hopes and Prospects.” Chomsky refuses to dignify the right-wing justices of the Supreme Court as “conservatives” and insists on calling them “reactionaries.” He characterizes “the Mafia doctrine” – that is, the proposition that “the Godfather does not easily tolerate disobedience” – as “an underappreciated principle of international order.” He disdains the bureaucratic euphemism “Multi-National Force” and uses a blunter term to describe the troops on the ground in Iraq: “the U.S. occupying army.” And he argues that the invasion of Iraq would be regarded as a war crime if we applied the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal to ourselves.
“Needless to say, U.S. elite opinion, shared with Western counterparts generally, rejects with virtual unanimity the lofty American values professed at Nuremberg and adopted by Iraqis, indeed regards them as bordering on obscene,” he writes. “All of this provides an instructive illustration of some of the reality that lies behind the famous ‘clash of civilizations.’”
“Hopes and Prospects” is a jeremiad, of course, and the rhetorical fireworks go with the genre. Then, too, Chomsky has read and thought deeply about these issues, and anyone who disagrees with him must be prepared to answer the questions he poses about our history and our destiny as a nation. In that sense, Chomsky stands in the vital American tradition that produced I. F. Stone, Victor Navasky, and Robert Scheer, among other notables. And I do not mean to suggest the Chomsky needs to blunt the edge of the arguments he makes. We need our journalistic Jeremiahs, now more than ever. But I wonder if the reader who would benefit the most from hearing what Chomsky has to say is the same reader whose circuit-breakers will go off when he or she comes across one of Chomsky’s verbal hot wires.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of, most recently, “The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
May 11, 2010 | 9:26 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
The conversation about the Middle East is changing fast nowadays, both in America and around the world, and here’s a unique opportunity to find out why.
Kai Bird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is coming to the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, May 17, 2010, to talk about “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and the Israelis, 1956-1978” (Scribner: $27.00, 384 pps). You can find out more about the event at the website of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.
“Crossing Mandelbaum Gate,” which I previously reviewed here, is unsettling but also wholly fascinating personal memoir that allows us to glimpse the history and politics of the Middle East through the eyes of a young man who grew up, almost literally, on the frontline between Arabs and Israelis.
Bird’s father was an American diplomat whose postings took the family to the Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. But Bird also understands the Jewish perspective, thanks to his Jewish wife and her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. By his upbringing, professional experience and personal affiliations, Bird is uniquely positioned to reframe our view of what is at stake in the conflict that continues to fill the headlines.
Much of what Bird has to say in “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate” is deeply challenging, especially to Jewish readers, and I predict that his conversation at the Central Library with Nicholas Goldberg, editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial pages, will be a lively and provocative event. But I am also confident that more light and than heat will be forthcoming.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of, among other titles, “The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People.”