The Little Book
by Selden Edwards
Published by Dutton
416 pages, 2008
The Not So Little Book
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
It all started with Hitler. Or maybe Kafka. Or maybe both. Though not at the same time.
It was 1975, and young Selden Edwards was in graduate school. He had an idea about a contemporary guy -- a rock and roll star and a former baseball hero -- who wakes up one morning in Vienna. No explanations, he just wakes up there. In 1897. And the guy realizes early on that at this time, Hitler’s just a kid -- so if he can bring himself to kill the kid, the history of the world will change. Lives will be saved. Everyone will be saved.
Well, not everyone. What about the kids who would never be born -- kids whose parents would meet because there was a war? Because there was a Hitler?
And suddenly, Edwards had a central conflict -- and the core of a novel.
Well, 33 years later that book has finally reached bookstores, and it’s cause for celebration -- because it may well be the read of the year. Edwards’ hero is still the same guy: Wheeler Burden, former college baseball star, former rock and roller, and he still wakes up in 1897 Vienna. Young Hitler is still there, too, although his role much reduced. Instead, there’s Freud, Mahler and Wheeler’s own father, who’s somehow ended up in Vienna at the same moment, though he’s about 20 years younger than Wheeler is now.
Confused? Don’t worry. Want to know why all this is happening? Forget why. Like Kafka’s hero who wakes up a bug, for Burden the burden isn’t finding out why. Instead, the burden is finding a way to exist, to make a life for himself (literally, at first; figuratively, later).
But let’s back up. Who is Selden Edwards, and why did it take 30 years to write this novel? “I intended to publish a book over 30 years ago,” he recently told me, “and I’m so glad the manuscript wasn’t accepted back then because it was very light and nowhere near the story it is today. I wrote the first draft when I was a graduate student in 1975, and I wrote it for an independent study project in the spring of my year at Stanford. I sent that around a little bit, and it got rejected -- and I don’t have the thickest skin in the world when it comes to rejection letters. They made me feel pretty bad. So I put it away and moved on to some other projects.”
Like becoming a headmaster, like building a life for himself, like getting as far away from The Little Book as he could. But it kept returning to him, even nagging him. Edwards told me he didn’t make a single note about the book in all those years, but that it would appear to him like a hologram, like a movie -- and he would succumb to its call. “I wrote on holidays and vacations and free days and stuff,” he said. “I always wrote. I mean, every time we ever went on a vacation, my kids remember me pecking away on a typewriter.” Every five or six years, he’d have another go, only to see his thin skin tested yet again.
But in time -- a lot of time, as it turned out -- things came together the way they needed to. The Hitler story fell into the background, and other figures came to the fore: Freud, Mahler, Mark Twain, even certain members of the Burden family (Spoilers? Jamais!). And the result is a novel of ideas that is itself built on a wonderful, rich idea. Much more elegant than going into one’s own past, The Little Book is more about going into our collective past, reaching a genuine foundational moment where so much of the world, the future, would be determined.
For Edwards, Vienna 1897 was such a place. The politics, the economics, the music, the subversive and fearless study about what makes people tick: so much of where we are today can be seen in its infancy at that particular moment. “It’s sort of funny,” Edwards admitted to me. “Killing Hitler was like the event in the beginning, and it just slipped farther and farther into the background.”
That’s not to say Hitler’s war slipped into the background. Indeed, one of the book’s planks is the war --because of what it forced to (and allowed to) happen. People were thrown together in a way they wouldn’t have been, without the war; of course there was terrible, life-altering suffering, but at the same time men met the women who would become their wives; they had children who otherwise would not have been born. Hated though it was, the war frames much of this book, and Wheeler himself comes to understand that quickly enough. The war brought his parents together, so killing Hitler, he sees, won’t do much good other than to wipe Wheeler Burden from the map. And what good would that do him ... or us?
But hold on. As truly fascinating as stories of this book’s making may be, they are dwarfed by the book itself. It is not only well-written -- it is a brilliant reconstruction of a time few of us know, and it is populated both by historical figures and fictional characters we cannot get enough of. Edwards draws them with equal enthusiasm and equal skill. He tosses them together in his historical salad, and the taste is unforgettable. Edwards manages the larger story like an author who’s written a dozen novels -- confidently, even expertly -- but he also dots the story with set-pieces that bring his characters to life: their own histories, or at least the moments that defined them. There’s nothing out of place here, nothing that makes you wonder if you’ve picked up the wrong book. It all works, and it reminded me of the best work of Pat Conroy and John Irving.
Above all that, though, I found two things remarkable. One was the way Edwards treats anti-Semitism. He creates Jewish characters, of course; not doing so would be to ignore so much of Vienna’s culture at that time. But he doesn’t stop there; he puts Jews at every level of his tale: Wheeler Burden interacts with significant Jews of the period and is himself half-Jewish -- and it becomes apparent that that fact is crucial to the book’s innermost machinery.
Even more impressive, he makes readers understand the dark power of anti-Semitism long before Hitler came on the scene; the implication, not so subtle, is that Hitler didn’t build the fire but fanned its flames hot enough to incinerate a culture. And not a sub-culture, but an entire culture -- reducing, as Edwards says, the Jewish population of Vienna from 400,000 to 130.
The other quite remarkable thing is Edwards’ portrayal of women. As much as this is the story of Wheeler Burden, it is also (and perhaps more so) the stories of his mother and his grandmother. This is something else Edwards has in common with Conroy and Irving, as their readers will recognize. To call these women powerful is to understate their importance to the book’s hero and to the book itself. They are essential elements; without them, there would be no Little Book. Edwards’ magic, though, isn’t only that he draws these women so expertly; it’s that he mines every character’s masculinity and femininity, allowing us to see these multifaceted people from every angle. They’re not always perfect people, to be sure, but they are perfect characters.
I could go on and on, but my deconstruction would never do it justice. The Little Book isn’t the kind of novel that can be boiled down to a review of just a few paragraphs; it’s probably the kind of book that should be reread, even studied. Its modest name aside, it was a massive undertaking, and it is a massively detailed and imagined tale in which massive ideas shape the world of several indelible people and -- indeed -- the whole world. It is little only in its presumptions, and that of course makes it larger than life.
To miss reading it would be to risk missing one of the great reading pleasures you are likely to have. | September 2008
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.