The Shawl

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The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis

The hero of David Bezmozgis’s first book, Natasha (2004), a slim collection of short stories, was a young Latvian Jewish immigrant growing up in 1980s Toronto.  Bezmozgis’s precise prose, inflected with a twice-removed shtetl comedy, played in the same keys as Malamud and Babel, though his subject was born well into the rock and roll era.  Some could read his book as part of the hipster canon, but it maintained in style and substance an Old World sensibility.  His new book, a humane, honest first novel, The Free World, starts a couple of years before the opening pages of Natasha, to tell a more expansive tale from one of the more recent and less commemorated Jewish migrations.  In 1978, three generations of the Krasansky family leave Riga to find themselves in Rome, which serves here as a kind of hot, stifling refugee purgatory.  They scramble to make life bearable while searching for passage to a new home somewhere in the West.  Their own recent pasts in the Soviet state are hardly past. Samuil, the patriarch, is a die-hard communist who has left the Party in disgrace.  His son Alec is a sexually-frustrated child of the Khrushchev thaw.

Bezmozgis’s own family migrated from Riga to Toronto when he was six.  He’s 38 now and still lives in Toronto, with his wife and two young daughters.  We met at the Fair Grounds Coffee Shop in Iowa City on May 2, where he was representing Canada on a PEN World Voices Festival Tour.  It was the second time we had spoken – I had interviewed him about Natasha in 2006 – though the first time we met in person.  The following is a pared-down version of our conversation.

The Millions: In reading your portraits of Riga in the ’70s and Rome in the ’70s, I felt I was reading portraits painted in similar colors.  Maybe it’s because we always imagine things very internally.  We may be here in Iowa City but your voice may not be all that different when you describe your time here from when you describe your time in Riga, Italy or Toronto.

David Bezmozgis I think, more than that, it’s a tonal thing. Which is to say that the tone of life for Alec, let’s say, or Karl, [his brother] and [his wife] Polina…weren’t that dark or depressing [in Riga]. They were young…It was the most Westernized part of the Soviet Union. They went to coffee houses. They could go to the theater. And that was actually part of what I hoped to convey in the book, which is that certain preconceptions about how drab and gray the Soviet Union was in the ’70s aren’t exactly true.  Particularly for people who were young and educated, life wasn’t that dismal. And I think by the time they get to Rome, they’re still the same people.

TM: Samuil’s past is so unrelentingly grim to me, from the 1920s to World War II. But there is a kind of humanity that is always pulling you through. He and his family are caught between Stalin and Hitler, and there’s really no place where they can go.

DB: Right, but they don’t consider themselves caught between Stalin and Hitler.

TM: But that’s part of the terror of the moment. They don’t realize what’s involved with Stalin, which leads Samuil to betray his cousin.  He’s part of a system that he doesn’t quite recognize as being pretty awful.

DB: True, but…for somebody like Samuil, Stalin is salvation. And even though there is that betrayal of his cousin, it’s not so much Stalin, it’s communism. Stalin didn’t force him to do it. It’s this revolutionary idea [that goes] back to Lenin. He’s caught between the tsar.  He’s caught between capitalism. Even before Hitler, before fascism, these are proletariats. These are words that we don’t use anymore…He finds that he suffers from the system, the capitalist system.

TM: But isn’t he forced into a constant rationalization?

DB: I think that it’s only rationalization if you don’t believe in it. When you talk about people who truly believe in God, and they encounter atheists, they don’t think of God from the perspective of the atheists.  They think of God from their perspective.  So I think that for Samuil, it’s not like he has in his mind some dissident mentality that he’s constantly arguing with.  He has a different mentality, that every now and then he feels incursions into, but I think, for him, he’s not quite as conflicted as you and I would think he should be.

TM: So he’s constantly worshipping a god that he doesn’t realize has failed that everyone around him realizes has.

DB: Not everyone, but a lot.  He still believes it is the better alternative. He truly believes it…

He believes he deserved to be kicked out of the party.  Had he disciplined his children better, had he been a better father to them, in the true ideological sense, they wouldn’t have betrayed him.  He feels himself to be implicated.

TM: So, to extend the metaphor, he becomes the Christian who must believe he is going to hell, otherwise his entire system of belief falls down upon him.

DB: Right, as with any orthodox believer. You don’t pick and choose from your religion.  You understand that these are the tenets of the faith.  And you don’t pick and choose what is convenient to you.

TM: So he’s a Dostoevskyan character, except he isn’t wrestling with a fundamentalist conception of God. He’s wrestling with a fundamentalist conception of communist ideology.

DB: I suppose. I wasn’t thinking in those terms. I was thinking in real terms of what I knew people of that generation to be like…I found a book, mostly transcripts, of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Trial, Stalin’s trial, the secret trial.  There was this man named Solomon Lozovsky.  He said, This is illegal what you’re doing to me. You have proven nothing. I am a good communist. Despite what you’re saying, you are the ones who are the criminals here. You are the ones who are distorting communism. I am the one who stands for the communist ideal. And if I am mistaken, kill me. If I am not mistaken, after you’ve killed me, rehabilitate me.

He cares about his legacy in ideological terms.  He would accept death as a revolutionary.  The way he approaches it is that death is not a problem for the individual. He’s part of a larger, historical and political force. If you’re going to kill me as an individual, kill me if I’m wrong.  But if you discover later that you’re mistaken, you have to rehabilitate me.

TM: People forget that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn actually has a sense of humor. There’s a touch of humor that pokes through Cancer Ward. There’s a touch of humor that pokes through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as well. The characters are in this awful, bleak, cannibalistic atmosphere and they’re telling jokes about it. Alec and his brother Karl’s generation reminded me more of the characters in Milan Kundera’s The Joke. That’s a book filled with low-key humor. So were you thinking of this humor tradition of writers from communist countries when you sat down to write this book. I ask this because when we talked five years ago, you spoke of a tradition of Jewish humor that you were drinking from when you wrote the stories in Natasha. I was curious if you were looking at this other tradition when you were writing The Free World.

DB: I think, first of all, I’m the same writer. So writers have sensibilities and points-of-view. And I think I’m the writer that I am because of where I come from.  So I’d be surprised if the tone of any of my work was ever greatly different than Natasha or anything else.  It’s a worldview.  It’s a way of looking at the world.  And as far as being part of a tradition, of bringing Jewish humor into the work, it’s there because it reflects the experience of the people I know.  And it’s there because that’s the nature of Soviet life and Soviet Jewish life.  So it ends up in the book, inevitably.

I think the parts of Solzhenitsyn that are funny aren’t there because he artificially introduced them. They’re there because he’s trying to authentically replicate what life was like. And I’m trying to do the same.

As far as Kundera and that generation of people, like Alec and Karl, who came of age in the Khrushchev thaw, this communism thing is a joke by then. You couldn’t take it seriously, unless you were some kind of robot. And so if you can’t take it seriously, but you’re forced to live under it, you have no choice but to deride it, to make fun of it. Because they’re not stupid. So what are they supposed to do? They can’t leave. They can’t protest. So you live. You wink here. You nudge there. You make a joke there. Because it’s bizarre.

You know there’s humor in the Samuil [flashback scenes which cover the pogroms, the inter-war period and World War II], between him and his brother.  Because it’s true. Jews are funny. Because they’ve been forced to be funny. Because when you’re powerless and you can’t change anything and you’re not stupid, you have to make light of it in order to go on.

TM: So it’s a coincidence that you have taken on a tone similar to these other writers?

DB: It’s a coincidence, I guess. It has something to do with each individual sensibility. Kundera is not the same writer as Solzhenitsyn. Some people are funnier than others. So it has something to do with my own sensibility, my own peculiar humor, which is different than other writers’ humor. You can think of other Soviet writers and you can think of other post-Soviet writers. Gary Shteyngart writes differently. So it has something to do with how you’re wired. But it also has something to do with the world you’re writing about.

TM: There’s an anxiety a lot of writers feel about writing about the Holocaust. “What right do I have to say anything about the Holocaust?” Or “What right do I have to say anything about Stalinism?” I interviewed Cynthia Ozick years ago and despite the fact that she is the author of The Shawl she didn’t feel anyone who was not a survivor should use the Holocaust in a work of fiction. Because there is still so much that has been recorded that we still haven’t read yet. And, her argument went, we should be sitting down and reading these records or any kind of testimony that exists. That’s what we should be spending our time doing, not trying to weave stories or entertainments out of the history of the Holocaust. This was her claim. Did you have any of those anxieties or concerns when you sat down to write The Free World?

DB: Only to the extent that when there was actual violence, and there isn’t a lot of firsthand violence in the book.  There is one incident when Samuil’s father and grandfather are killed. If you’re not a firsthand witness to these things then to write a firsthand account of how it happens…I think I would say I share Cynthia Ozick’s concerns about that.  That’s why there isn’t a lot of violence in the book. But there’s a lot of the events that lead up to those moments and the events that follow on the heels of those moments. So [I do the scene] when Samuil and his brother want their mother to leave to evacuate Riga. But I certainly don’t do the scene which they can’t see of how their mother, their aunt, their uncle [and] their cousins are murdered by the Nazis because they’re gone by then.

[I]t’s true what Cynthia Ozick says about the Holocaust. What North Americans know of as the Holocaust is what happened in Poland and parts West.  They have a far more vague understanding – if any understanding at all – of what happened east of Poland.  So in that respect, I didn’t feel I was participating in some kind of redundancy. But rather, that I was rendering for primarily a Western audience stuff that is not that well known from the Soviet Union, though certainly better known now after the collapse of the Soviet state, as it was quite hidden even during the Soviet period.

TM: You are essentially saying that you are writing about the events that lead up to the fact, and then the experience, the memory, the trauma of what passed. I have my traumas. You have your traumas. Everyone has his traumas. But most of us do not have an experience on the level of the Holocaust. So when you try to get inside the head of Samuil – the way the synapses of his mind move between the past and the present – do you, as a novelist, find yourself grafting your own experience of what it’s like when bad memories from 30 years ago hit you at a completely different time and place in a strange way?

DB: Inevitably. You can’t think but with your own mind. But because I did so much research and read the autobiographies and the testimonials and the court transcripts of people of that generation, I also understood the difference to some degree of how those people thought when they crossed certain experiences. And so it was a combination of, yes, there is something universal about experiencing trauma. Then there’s also something contextual ideologically. You’re socialized in a certain way. You’re politicized in a way. You think differently. So it was a combination of those two things. So a reader would be able to identify mostly how Samuil feels, how he experiences loss, and even happiness. And also at the same time I think [he would] be struck by the places where his mentality diverges from what you and I would consider as typical or conventional ways of thinking and processing these things.  There’s a revolutionary mentality which we don’t have, because most people in North America aren’t wedded to a revolutionary ideal. They’re wedded to their family or themselves.

TM: Did you grow to love Latvia more as you wrote this book?

DB: I don’t think I grew to love Latvia more.

TM: Did you develop any kind of affection for it?

DB: I developed a deeper sense of melancholy about what history had wrought. My family’s roots go back multiple generations. I guess the feeling is that I regret what happened to Latvia. I regret where the country is now. I regret that there’s effectively very little Jewish communal life there. And it just seems sad to me…

My grandfather spoke Yiddish and he lived in a certain type of Latvia where he was raised in a traditional Jewish way. My parents no longer spoke Yiddish though they understood it. They spoke Russian. And their culture was Soviet culture.  And here I am now where my language is English. And my experience is a Western capitalist experience. And I think it’s sad. I think it’s unnatural when I look at Americans who have been living here for 150 years, 200 years.

We’re in Iowa now. “My great-grandmother’s house was here in Iowa. I have continued to live in this house or somewhere nearby. If you want to read great-grandma’s letters, well they’re written in the same language you speak now.” Culturally, the frame of reference is basically the same. You believe in the same god she believed in. But it’s not my case. The language my grandfather expressed himself most intimately in is a language I don’t speak. The language my parents expressed themselves most intimately in is a language my children won’t speak. So when you look back over generations it’s this alienation from generation to generation to generation. For my daughters – I have two of them now – my grandparents will seem so alien to them, which is so sad to me. And even my parents will seem alien to them, which is equally sad to me.

Are You, Or Have You Ever Been, a Jewish Writer?

In the fall of 2005, when my first novel came out, I was invited to speak to the Jewish Book Council, a group of representatives of Jewish community centers and synagogues from across the country.  I was one of about 25 writers who were to stand before them that afternoon, in the first of two or three sessions they’d hold.

We were all sorts of Jewish writers, corralled into a giant hall—a handwriting analyst who had written about the signatures of celebrity Jews, a young woman who had gone to China to teach English but had ended up starring in a soap opera there, and Ira Katznelson, the great Columbia University historian, who that year had written a book about racial inequality in 20th Century America.

We were called up, one after another, and allotted two minutes each.  They sat in front of us, mostly late-middle aged, mostly female, presumably Jewish, all of them with reading glasses and notebooks—the scariest possible bar mitzvah crowd, deciding whom to invite to speak to their particular audiences, in San Diego or Palm Springs or Shaker Heights.  I was given an orange tag, not a red one, which meant I had to leave before hors d’oeuvres got served, and since my last name begins with B, I went early in the program.

Usually I do pretty well in front of audience, but this time I blew it.  Did I mention, when I got to the podium, that I had published a previous book of stories, or that the stories had won some big awards?  Did I say that one of the awards I’d won had been Jewish?  No.  I told them I lived in Brooklyn, and I mumbled something about how my novel had been a labor of love, and how I hoped they would love it too, if they read it.  Then I wandered past my seat (the only writer not to return to his seat), and went to the back where the wine glasses were (nobody else had touched a wine glass), and in full view of the ladies, downed a plastic glass of cheap Chablis.

Still, I got a couple of gigs.

Even now, a good half of the paid readings I get invited to are sponsored by Jewish organizations. In fact, Jewish readers took interest in me even before they had read me.  When my first story was published in Zoetrope, there was an item about it in the Jewish Daily Forward, in their Walter Winchel-esque “Knickerbocker” gossip column, “Gabriel Brownstein has published a story.” —the assumption being (I guess) that their readers were rooting for a guy with my name.  Even non-Jews take interest in me as a Jew.  About 90% of the time I get book reviews assigned, the authors of the books are Jewish.  I’m not complaining—those books have been good—but had my father dropped the second syllable of his last name, no way would you see my by-line on an article about Singer or Roth.

“Are you a Jewish writer?”

That’s the big question—the question every Jewish writer gets asked when he stands before a Jewish crowd.   It’s a question about allegiance, I guess, about identity—and because the answer is so obvious  (my last name is Brownstein, I’m sitting in a synagogue basement, hawking a book) it feels a little bit needling, posed with a raised eyebrow, and the eyebrow I imagine is my late Great Aunt Henya’s, drawn in an orange pencil to match her permanent’s rinse.

I’ve worked out different replies.  The rim shot: “No, I’m a Korean gynocologist.”  Or “Yeh, yeh,” with the flap of the hand (Yiddish being the only language where a double positive is a negative).  But the fact is inescapable: Were I to convert to Catholicism and to renounce the pen for dentistry, that would only make me a more interesting Jewish writer.

As a kid, I’ll admit it, I thought of them like an all-star team, The American Jews—Saul “The Sultan of Swat” Bellow roaming right, Bern “the Iron Horse” Malamud at first, Grace “Pee-Wee” Paley, the slick-fielding shortstop, and in center my hero, Phil “The Jersey Clipper” Roth.  All I wanted, maybe starting at about fifteen, was to be a utility infielder on that squad, maybe a pinch runner, but certainly to wear the uniform.  And that uniform was never the long black coat and yarmulke.  Alexander Portnoy wanted to be “just a center fielder,” not a Jewish center fielder.  None of my heroes took the field with a big YIDDLE on their chest, or played for the home team. And that’s what drew me to them—their ambiguity, their irony, the same things, it turns out, Cleanth Brooks liked about literature.

My team by now has won so many championships that their influence is pervasive.  Everyone wants to wear the cap.  It’s not just Updike with his Beck books.  Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, acknowledged his debt to Bellow and Roth.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is over-populated with brilliant, superreal Jewish caricatures—the assimilated Larchmont housewife, the downtown hippy, the neo-con sage—Franzen (not a Jew) even has a Jewish identity rediscovery subplot.  Some of my favorite recent Jewish short stories have been by non-Jews, like Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise,“ about a New York painter’s colonoscopy, or Anthony Doerr’s beautiful requiem for a dying Holocaust survivor, “Afterworld.”

Not long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote an interesting article in the Nation about the state of contemporary Jewish letters.  He noted that the Jewish subcultures that spawned the great Jewish-American writers of the midcentury are all gone, and that it’s no longer possible to be a Jewish-American writer as Bellow and Roth and Malamud and Paley were, moving from the margin toward the center while embracing both.  The Jewish writers of my generation whose subject is most overtly Jewish—Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nathan Englander—tend to write historical fiction, and they seem not to be following the madcap assimilationist comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint but more the elegiac lyricism of Cynthia Ozick, as in The Shawl—a search for something lost, a search for authenticity.  But that search for authenticity is not what I love.

It’s not that I’m ambivalent about being a Jewish writer, but that the kind of Jewish writer I am is ambivalent. I’m more attuned to the dissonant chord than to mournful harmonies, and reading Ozick—ah, she’s so brilliant, nobody’s smarter—I can get uneasy.  In the Puttermesser Papers, for instance, a character begins riffing on Yiddish, with its only one word for knife: “By us, we got only messer, you follow?  By them they got sword, they got lance, they got halberd . . ..  Look it up in the book, you’ll see halberd, you’ll see cutlass, pike, rapier, foil, ten dozen more.  By us, pike is a fish.”  And it’s feels like a sermon not a story, as if the character is mouthing the author’s beliefs, by us we’re gentle, by them they’re mean, and this for me shades quickly toward Ozick’s politics, the kind of Zionism that brooks no irony or ambiguity, or much sympathy at all for the other guy’s sufferings or cries for justice.

What happens when Jewish fiction becomes identity fiction?  Here we come to the difficult thing at the heart of this essay and the heart of contemporary Jewish-themed fiction, i.e., fiction about the Holocaust.  Here, irony and ambiguity seem out of place:  I may find my ethnicity comic, but Nazis most certainly won’t.  Ozick’s “The Shawl” is not the first piece of fiction by an American-born Jew to re-imagine the horrors of the camps, but it is one of the most influential.   And “The Shawl” is beautifully written, six-pages long and composed as if in a trance.  A mother watches as her child is thrown against the electrified fence of a concentration camp:  “And all at once Magda was swimming through the air.  The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness.  She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and her balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the voices went mad in their growling.”  In direct contradiction of Theodore Adorno’s dictum that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Ozick turns Auschwitz into poetry.

Her writing, in some ways, is the antithesis of the flat-eyed, clear-eyed prose of Primo Levi, whose Survival in Auschwitz chronicles the awful banality of the place, and examines the daily bleakness of mass slaughter with his clinical chemist’s eye. As a writer you can’t help but be struck by Ozick’s audacity, but now, thirty years after “The Shawl,” it’s become habitual. Everybody turns Auschwitz into poetry—serious writers like Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Englander, and less serious writers and film-makers and TV-show producers, all the way down to Holocaust kitsch like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A world-wrenching mind-boggling horror—a set of horrors that no one can wrap their mind around—has become a genre, holocaust fiction.  And like the Jewish comedy that I so love, the field’s open to everybody.  I can hardly go two semesters of creative writing classes (at a Catholic school, natch) without getting a concentration camp story.  And yet when I taught Survival in Auschwitz recently in a graduate literature course, my students didn’t much like the book.  So dry, they said.  So bleak.  It was missing something.  In most Holocaust stories, they said, you got that little ray of sunshine, of redemption—the triumph of the human spirit.

Bellow, of course, didn’t much like being categorized as a Jewish writer.  He was uncomfortable with Isaac Beshevis Singer (“too Jewy”) and joked that he, Malamud, and Roth were the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of American letters.  The great Jewish writers of the 50s saw identity and history as unsteady things.  Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” ends with its hero running from rabbinical studies toward love, and the old matchmaker, Salzman, muttering prayers for the dead.  The viewpoint in Roth’s late great Israel novels—The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—is doubled, two Roths, split identities, the whole concept of authenticity set ablaze.

Perhaps in the work of contemporary historical Jewish novelists we’re seeing a counter-reaction, an attempt to put that fire out and reclaim all that was lost.  Maybe people are done reading about ambivalent Jews.  After all, you can be a Jewish writer these days, a Jonathan Lethem or a Joan Silber, and not really write that much as a Jew at all.  Meanwhile, the very best of the current Jewish writers who write on Jewish themes, Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman, have managed to leap the dichotomy between the old ironists and the new earnestness largely through the sheer force of human comedy.  American-Jewish fiction remains rich in potentialities—infinite numbers of stories to be written about family, history, assimilation, Zionism, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, ideology, and power—no wonder people are still interested.

I went to a conference not too long ago on Asian American writers, and “Are you an Asian American writer?”  the writers were asked.  For me, it was a little trip through the looking glass, and I wondered:  Is this how it goes all over the country?  You invite a panel of writers, troop them up under the fluorescents, and then ask, “For us or against us?”

David Henry Hwang, the playwright, had a good answer.  He said that for years he had resented the categorization, but in time he had come to terms with it.  You have to get categorized, he said, one way or another—Jewish writer, gay writer, women’s writer, sex writer, what have you.  He talked of friends, fine playwrights with unspectacular careers, who had never been categorized, and said, look, that’s why they never took off.  You need to get categorized in order to succeed.

Truth is, these days, any writer who gets any attention should count himself lucky.  A reader, somewhere, from some reason, is thinking of you—that alone should be cause for a happy dance.  So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a Jewish writer.  Invite me to your community center, please!

(Image: Seychelles Island-1, from zeevveez’s photostream)

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